The Old Cumberland Beggar

Original Text: 
William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 2nd edn. (London: Longman, 1800). No. 5 Victoria College Library.
2And he was seated, by the highway side,
3On a low structure of rude masonry
4Built at the foot of a huge hill, that they
5Who lead their horses down the steep rough road
6May thence remount at ease. The aged Man
7Had placed his staff across the broad smooth stone
8That overlays the pile; and, from a bag
9All white with flour, the dole of village dames,
10He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one;
11And scanned them with a fixed and serious look
12Of idle computation. In the sun,
13Upon the second step of that small pile,
14Surrounded by those wild, unpeopled hills,
15He sat, and ate his food in solitude:
16And ever, scattered from his palsied hand,
17That, still attempting to prevent the waste,
18Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers
19Fell on the ground; and the small mountain birds
20Not venturing yet to peck their destined meal,
21Approached within the length of half his staff.
22Him from my childhood have I known; and then
23He was so old, he seems not older now;
24He travels on, a solitary Man,
25So helpless in appearance, that from him
26The sauntering Horseman throws not with a slack
27And careless hand his alms upon the ground,
28But stops,--that he may safely lodge the coin
29Within the old Man's hat; nor quits him so,
30But still, when he has given his horse the rein,
31Watches the aged Beggar with a look
32Sidelong, and half-reverted. She who tends
33The toll-gate, when in summer at her door
35The aged Beggar coming, quits her work,
36And lifts the latch for him that he may pass.
37The post-boy, when his rattling wheels o'ertake
38The aged Beggar in the woody lane,
39Shouts to him from behind; and if, thus warned,
40The old Man does not change his course, the boy
41Turns with less noisy wheels to the roadside,
42And passes gently by, without a curse
43Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.
44He travels on, a solitary Man;
45His age has no companion. On the ground
46His eyes are turned, and, as he moves along,
47They move along the ground; and, evermore,
48Instead of common and habitual sight
49Of fields, with rural works, of hill and dale,
50And the blue sky, one little span of earth
51Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,
52Bow-bent, his eyes forever on the ground,
53He plies his weary journey; seeing still,
54And seldom knowing that he sees, some straw,
55Some scattered leaf, or marks which, in one track,
56The nails of cart or chariot-wheel have left
57Impressed on the white road,--in the same line,
58At distance still the same. Poor Traveller!
59His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet
60Disturb the summer dust; he is so still
61In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
62Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
63Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
64The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
65And urchins newly breeched--all pass him by:
66Him even the slow-paced waggon leaves behind.
67But deem not this Man useless.--Statesmen! ye
68Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
69Who have a broom still ready in your hands
70To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
71Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
72Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
73A burden of the earth! 'Tis Nature's law
74That none, the meanest of created things,
75Of forms created the most vile and brute,
76The dullest or most noxious, should exist
77Divorced from good--a spirit and pulse of good,
78A life and soul, to every mode of being
79Inseparably linked. Then be assured
80That least of all can aught--that ever owned
81The heaven-regarding eye and front sublime
82Which man is born to--sink, howe'er depressed,
83So low as to be scorned without a sin;
84Without offence to God cast out of view;
85Like the dry remnant of a garden-flower
86Whose seeds are shed, or as an implement
87Worn out and worthless. While from door to door,
88This old Man creeps, the villagers in him
89Behold a record which together binds
90Past deeds and offices of charity,
91Else unremembered, and so keeps alive
92The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,
93And that half-wisdom half-experience gives,
94Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign
95To selfishness and cold oblivious cares,
96Among the farms and solitary huts,
97Hamlets and thinly-scattered villages,
98Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
99The mild necessity of use compels
100The acts of love; and habit does the work
101Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy
102Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
103By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued,
104Doth find herself insensibly disposed
105To virtue and true goodness.
106                                  Some there are
107By their good works exalted, lofty minds
108And meditative, authors of delight
109And happiness, which to the end of time
110Will live, and spread, and kindle: even such minds
111In childhood, from this solitary Being,
112Or from like wanderer, haply have received
113(A thing more precious far than all that books
114Or the solicitudes of love can do!)
115That first mild touch of sympathy and thought,
116In which they found their kindred with a world
117Where want and sorrow were. The easy man
118Who sits at his own door,--and, like the pear
119That overhangs his head from the green wall,
120Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young,
121The prosperous and unthinking, they who live
122Sheltered, and flourish in a little grove
123Of their own kindred;--all behold in him
124A silent monitor, which on their minds
125Must needs impress a transitory thought
126Of self-congratulation, to the heart
127Of each recalling his peculiar boons,
128His charters and exemptions; and, perchance,
129Though he to no one give the fortitude
130And circumspection needful to preserve
131His present blessings, and to husband up
132The respite of the season, he, at least,
133And 't is no vulgar service, makes them felt.
134Yet further.--Many, I believe, there are
135Who live a life of virtuous decency,
136Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel
137No self-reproach; who of the moral law
138Established in the land where they abide
139Are strict observers; and not negligent
140In acts of love to those with whom they dwell,
141Their kindred, and the children of their blood.
142Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace!
143But of the poor man ask, the abject poor;
144Go, and demand of him, if there be here
145In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,
146And these inevitable charities,
147Wherewith to satisfy the human soul?
148No--man is dear to man; the poorest poor
149Long for some moments in a weary life
150When they can know and feel that they have been,
151Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
152Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
153As needed kindness, for this single cause,
154That we have all of us one human heart.
155--Such pleasure is to one kind Being known,
156My neighbour, when with punctual care, each week
157Duly as Friday comes, though pressed herself
158By her own wants, she from her store of meal
159Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip
160Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door
161Returning with exhilarated heart,
162Sits by her fire, and builds her hope in heaven.
163Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
164And while in that vast solitude to which
165The tide of things has borne him, he appears
166To breathe and live but for himself alone,
167Unblamed, uninjured, let him bear about
168The good which the benignant law of Heaven
169Has hung around him: and, while life is his,
170Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers
171To tender offices and pensive thoughts.
172--Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
173And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
174The freshness of the valleys; let his blood
175Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
177Beat his grey locks against his withered face.
178Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
179Gives the last human interest to his heart.
180May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
181Make him a captive!--for that pent-up din,
182Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
183Be his the natural silence of old age!
184Let him be free of mountain solitudes;
185And have around him, whether heard or not,
186The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
187Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
188Been doomed so long to settle upon earth
189That not without some effort they behold
190The countenance of the horizontal sun,
191Rising or setting, let the light at least
192Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.
193And let him, where and when he will, sit down
194Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank
195Of highway side, and with the little birds
196Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally,
197As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
198So in the eye of Nature let him die!


1] Written in 1798, published in 1800. Wordsworth prefixed the following note to the poem: "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 alms, sometimes of money, but mostly in provisions." He further remarked that as a child he himself had been benefited by such a spectacle." The political economists were about that time beginning their war on mendicity in all its forms, and, by implication if not directly, on almsgiving also." Back to Line
34] wheel. Spinning-wheel. Back to Line
176] chartered wind. The wind that is privileged to blow as it will; cf. Henry V, I.i.48, "the air, a chartered libertine". Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
W. J. Alexander; William Hall Clawson
RPO Edition: 
RP (1912), pp. 102-08; RPO 1997.