Lyrical Ballads, with other poems, by William Wordsworth

The Old Cumberland Beggar

A Description.

The class of Beggars to which the old man here described belongs, will probably soon be extinct. It consisted of poor, and, mostly, old and infirm persons, who confined themselves to a stated round in their neighbourhood, and had certain fixed days, on which, at different houses, they regularly received charity; sometimes in money, but mostly in provisions.

I saw an aged Beggar in my walk,

And he was seated by the highway side

On a low structure of rude masonry

Built at the foot of a huge hill, that they

Who lead their horses down the steep rough road

May thence remount at ease. The aged man

Had placed his staff across the broad smooth stone

That overlays the pile, and from a bag

All white with flour the dole of village dames,

He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one,

And scann’d them with a fix’d and serious look

Of idle computation. In the sun,

Upon the second step of that small pile,

Surrounded by those wild unpeopled hills,

He sate, and eat his food in solitude;

And ever, scatter’d from his palsied hand,

That still attempting to prevent the waste,

Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers

Fell on the ground, and the small mountain birds,

Not venturing yet to peck their destin’d meal,

Approached within the length of half his staff.

Him from my childhood have I known, and then

He was so old, he seems not older now;

He travels on, a solitary man,

So helpless in appearance, that for him

The sauntering horseman-traveller does not throw

With careless hand his alms upon the ground,

But stops, that he may safely lodge the coin

Within the old Man’s hat; nor quits him so,

But still when he has given his horse the rein

Towards the aged Beggar turns a look,

Sidelong and half-reverted. She who tends

The toll-gate, when in summer at her door

She turns her wheel, if on the road she sees

The aged Beggar coming, quits her work,

And lifts the latch for him that he may pass.

The Post-boy when his rattling wheels o’ertake

The aged Beggar, in the woody lane,

Shouts to him from behind, and, if perchance

The old Man does not change his course, the Boy

Turns with less noisy wheels to the road-side,

And passes gently by, without a curse

Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.

He travels on, a solitary Man,

His age has no companion. On the ground

His eyes are turn’d, and, as he moves along,

They move along the ground; and evermore;

Instead of common and habitual sight

Of fields with rural works, of hill and dale,

And the blue sky, one little span of earth

Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,

Bowbent, his eyes for ever on the ground,

He plies his weary journey, seeing still,

And never knowing that he sees, some straw,

Some scatter’d leaf, or marks which, in one track,

The nails of cart or chariot wheel have left

Impress’d on the white road, in the same line,

At distance still the same. Poor Traveller!

His staff trails with him, scarcely do his feet

Disturb the summer dust, he is so still

In look and motion that the cottage curs,

Ere he have pass’d the door, will turn away

Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,

The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,

And urchins newly breech’d all pass him by:

Him even the slow-paced waggon leaves behind.

But deem not this man useless. — Statesmen! ye

Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye

Who have a broom still ready in your hands

To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,

Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate

Your talents, power, and wisdom, deem him not

A burthen of the earth. Tis Nature’s law

That none, the meanest of created things,

Of forms created the most vile and brute,

The dullest or most noxious, should exist

Divorced from good, a spirit and pulse of good,

A life and soul to every mode of being

Inseparably link’d. While thus he creeps

From door to door, the Villagers in him

Behold a record which together binds

Past deeds and offices of charity

Else unremember’d, and so keeps alive

The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,

And that half-wisdom, half-experience gives

Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign

To selfishness and cold oblivious cares.

Among the farms and solitary huts

Hamlets, and thinly-scattered villages,

Where’er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,

The mild necessity of use compels

To acts of love; and habit does the work

Of reason, yet prepares that after joy

Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,

By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursu’d

Doth find itself insensibly dispos’d

To virtue and true goodness. Some there are,

By their good works exalted, lofty minds

And meditative, authors of delight

And happiness, which to the end of time

Will live, and spread, and kindle; minds like these,

In childhood, from this solitary being,

This helpless wanderer, have perchance receiv’d,

(A thing more precious far than all that books

Or the solicitudes of love can do!)

That first mild touch of sympathy and thought,

In which they found their kindred with a world

Where want and sorrow were. The easy man

Who sits at his own door, and like the pear

Which overhangs his head from the green wall,

Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young,

The prosperous and unthinking, they who live

Shelter’d, and flourish in a little grove

Of their own kindred, all behold in him

A silent monitor, which on their minds

Must needs impress a transitory thought

Of self-congratulation, to the heart

Of each recalling his peculiar boons,

His charters and exemptions; and perchance,

Though he to no one give the fortitude

And circumspection needful to preserve

His present blessings, and to husband up

The respite of the season, he, at least,

And ’tis no vulgar service, makes them felt.

Yet further. — Many, I believe, there are

Who live a life of virtuous decency,

Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel

No self-reproach, who of the moral law

Establish’d in the land where they abide

Are strict observers, and not negligent,

Meanwhile, in any tenderness of heart

Or act of love to those with whom they dwell,

Their kindred, and the children of their blood.

Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace!

— But of the poor man ask, the abject poor,

Go and demand of him, if there be here,

In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,

And these inevitable charities,

Wherewith to satisfy the human soul.

No — man is dear to man: the poorest poor

Long for some moments in a weary life

When they can know and feel that they have been

Themselves the fathers and the dealers out

Of some small blessings, have been kind to such

As needed kindness, for this single cause,

That we have all of us one human heart.

— Such pleasure is to one kind Being known

My Neighbour, when with punctual care, each week

Duly as Friday comes, though press’d herself

By her own wants, she from her chest of meal

Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip

Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door

Returning with exhilarated heart,

Sits by her tire and builds her hope in heav’n.

Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!

And while, in that vast solitude to which

The tide of things has led him, he appears

To breathe and live but for himself alone,

Unblam’d, uninjur’d, let him bear about

The good which the benignant law of heaven

Has hung around him, and, while life is his,

Still let him prompt the unletter’d Villagers

To tender offices and pensive thoughts.

Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!

And, long as he can wander, let him breathe

The freshness of the vallies, let his blood

Struggle with frosty air and winter snows,

And let the charter’d wind that sweeps the heath

Beat his grey locks against his wither’d face.

Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness

Gives the last human interest to his heart.

May never House, misnamed of industry,

Make him a captive; for that pent-up din,

Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,

Be his the natural silence of old age.

Let him be free of mountain solitudes,

And have around him, whether heard or nor,

The pleasant melody of woodland birds.

Few are his pleasures; if his eyes, which now

Have been so long familiar with the earth,

No more behold the horizontal sun

Rising or setting, let the light at least

Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.

And let him, where and when he will, sit down

Beneath the trees, or by the grassy bank

Of high-way side, and with the little birds

Share his chance-gather’d meal, and, finally,

As in the eye of Nature he has liv’d,

So in the eye of Nature let him die.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30