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Interim Readings > Wordsworth "The Old Cumberland Beggar"

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments The Interim Read for March, 2013 will be Wordsworth's poem The Old Cumberland Beggar. While the poem may seem simple enough on an initial surface read, as you re-read and dig into it, layers of meaning begin to unpack themselves. I do recommend spending more than a few minutes with this work.

It can be found here,
http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww139.html
though this site omits Wordsworth's brief introductory note, which reads: "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 in money, but mostly in provisions."


This site, though a bit less enjoyable to read, does include the introductory note.
http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/jga...


message 2: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 83 comments Just finished it for the first time. On first read, it seems that Wordsworth is trying to demonstrate the value that this old beggar adds to those who help him. I'll read it again in a few days and see if I gain any further insight.


message 3: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "This is the strangest of coincidences! "

Think Skimpole of Bleak House!


message 4: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "His function seems to be to make the people around him feel good about themselves. I don't like that. "

I'm not sure I would go so far as to say that's his function, but it's certainly an aspect of his life.

I am reading Kipling's Kim for another group, and thought inevitably of the comparison between the Cumberland Beggar and the Lama in Kim, who lives by begging food, which people give him in the belief that they are thus acquiring merit.


message 5: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Do you think Wordsworth thinks the beggar is happy? Or if not affirmatively happy, at least content?

I'm unsure of Wordsworth's view of the beggar. He seems rather to focus on the meaning of the beggar to others. Which is an interesting perspective, isn't it, to focus more on his contributions to society than on his own life and feelings?

But it seems to me clear that the beggar gets more than he receives. He receives small handouts of food or, from the horseman riding by, apparently of money. But look at what he gives is to an old woman, herself poor but not homeless:

Such pleasure is to one kind Being known,
My neighbour, when with punctual care, each week
Duly as Friday comes, though pressed herself
By her own wants, she from her store of meal
Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip
Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door
Returning with exhilarated heart,
Sits by her fire, and builds her hope in heaven.

How many of her wealthier neighbors could give her such a gift, or would even consider the possibility of doing so?


message 6: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5030 comments In a short video on Google news this morning, Shasta Darlington, CNN, took the bus traveled by Archbishop Bergoglio to the slums of Buenos Aires to deliver mass in a simple church among these impoverished. Worth looking at in the context of this poem and of the comments here, if it can be found -- these things appear and disappear on our screens.


message 7: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Everyman wrote: "Do you think Wordsworth thinks the beggar is happy? Or if not affirmatively happy, at least content?

I'm unsure of Wordsworth's view of the beggar. He seems rather to focus on the meaning of t..."


I'm really enjoying trying to unpack this. Thanks for picking it for us.

I'm intrigued by the capitalization of Beggar, and Man, and Mendicant, etc. I think all the references to the Beggar are put in capital letters. Maybe I'm exalting form over substance here, and the capitalization may simply denote the subject of the poem. But maybe Wordsworth wants us to think of him in a particularly exalted way? A divine figure of some kind?

I don't think Wordsworth portrays the Beggar as happy or content. I think the opposite is suggested. As others have said, the focus is mostly on the Beggar as serving the rest of us (or most of us--we non-beggars) by representing our capacity to be charitable, which Wordsworth seems to obviously value highly. The tragedy of the Beggar seems to reside more in his inability to be a giver than in his neediness. There is a poignant passage that, for me, suggests the most pitiable aspect of the Beggar's poverty:

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 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.

I'm still playing with the idea of the Beggar's acceptance of hand-outs and gifts as being his profound gift to his givers. So, maybe, he would be content in accepting the importance of serving that role. But I doubt that the Beggar would "know and feel" that he, himself, had been a "dealer-out" of any blessings.


message 8: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "I thought he capitalized to indicate that these were universal concepts. Not this particular beggar but The Beggar. Universal Man, etc."

I like that.


message 9: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments One passage I found particularly powerful was this, at line 67:

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, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth! 'Tis Nature's law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Or 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 linked.

It's a powerful statement of the value of every human life, not just in human eyes but in Nature's law. This isn't a new idea with Wordsworth, of course: it goes back at least to (and almost certainly before) the Bible, with it's no sparrow falls. It has echoes of Grey's Elegy:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

And reminds of Donne's contention that no man is an island.

Wordsworth, for me, links all of us to the Old Cumberland Beggar, asserting that even the life which is seemingly the least important, the most apparently worthless, has value to nature, to his community, and should have value to and respect from even the powerful statesmen and rulers. It's a powerful affirmation of the value of all human life, reflected through a meditation on one seemingly the least of all.


message 10: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1723 comments I wonder why Wordsworth though such beggars soon would be extinct. Were the Statesmen of his time going to round them up and put them in poorhouses?


message 11: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Roger wrote: "I wonder why Wordsworth though such beggars soon would be extinct. Were the Statesmen of his time going to round them up and put them in poorhouses?"

Great question.

One possible answer, and I'm speculating here, is that he saw the coming of industrialization, of the move into the cities and the consolidation of small farms into larger industrial level farms. These changes were changing the face of English country life, so that perhaps there were no longer the reliable routes a beggar could follow where he could count on a consistent level of sufficient support to live on.

Wasn't this also the same general timeframe in which the classic tramp and hobo of America began to disappear? Or am I confused about the timeframe?


message 12: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "He is the most important because he is in the most need."

Interesting thought. But is he more important than those who, through their efforts and kindness, are both able and willing to fulfill his need?


message 13: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5030 comments Everyman wrote: "Wasn't this also the same general timeframe in which the classic tramp and hobo of America began to disappear?..."

I associate the American hobo with the Depression of the 1930's, but I suspect there are other linkages.


message 14: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments What do people make of the last two lines of the poem?

As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die!

Coleridge once commented in Table Talk that Wordsworth was a Spectator ab extra, that is a writer who had "utter non-sympathy with the subjects" of his poetry.

Do these lines reflect that attitude? That the beggar has served his (Wordsworth's) purpose, and now is being left to die without any further human interaction? Is he suggesting that nobody will care when, where, or how the beggar will die, that it has been sufficient to give him bits of food or money as he came to them, but that no more is required of them?

Or is something else going on?


message 15: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5030 comments Not a response to the post above, but I was reading a bit of Kim this afternoon (probably much too late to participate in a current discussion on another board, but that's a machts nichts here). Anyway, the lama and Kim there reminded me of the beggar here in the function they performed of giving others the opportunity of good deeds towards the indigent.


message 16: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Everyman wrote: "What do people make of the last two lines of the poem?

As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die!

Coleridge once commented in Table Talk that Wordsworth was ..."



Fascinating question. I have been struggling with all of the last section, starting at line 162. At first I thought that Wordsworth was romanticizing the "natural" residence of the homeless beggar, and I wondered if he was being ironic. The beggar's world is not unequivocally positive and romantic: "Let his blood struggle with the frosty air and the winter snows; And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath Beat his grey locks against his weathered face." But, mostly, Wordsworth has him in a natural environment that seems to be preferable to village life/in-door life, e.g.: "let him breathe the freshness of the valleys"; "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!"; and "And have around him, whether heard or not, the pleasant melody of woodland birds."

So, my first take--not attributing to Wordsworth an intention to be ironic--was that he wished for the Beggar a passing from this life in the beauty, peace, and serenity of the natural world in which he lived. But that conflicts with my bias regarding the harshness and pain of poverty and homelessness. So, to not quite fully answer Everyman's last question, I do think something else is going on. I'm leaning toward thinking of the Beggar as a tragic figure, with the message being that we shouldn't romanticize him like the narrative voice does in the last section. The "good" inherent in the Beggar providing a need for our charitable natures to meet somehow doesn't outweigh the tragedy of the life of the Beggar. Maybe I'm extrapolating far afield from the text of the poem, but that is how I'm reacting. I'd welcome any other thoughts and maybe a more direct answer to Everyman's great question.


message 17: by Jonathan (last edited Mar 21, 2013 11:15PM) (new)

Jonathan Moran | 83 comments Everyman wrote: "What do people make of the last two lines of the poem?

As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die!

Coleridge once commented in Table Talk that Wordsworth was ..."


Poetry is not my forte, but I think he is simply saying "as he lived, so he will die." The point being that how the poet has described his life, homeless and almost like a wild animal living among the elements(As in the eye of Nature he has lived), this is how he shall remain until the day that he dies (So in the eye of nature let him die). I don't think we can read the last part of the last line "let him die" as if the narrator is wishing death for him. He is simply making an observation. The only attempt the poet made of slanting the reader's feelings and opinions one way or the other was reasoning out the perceived "worth" of the beggar. I do not think he is otherwise sympathetic or unsympathetic to the old supplicant and his plight. If anything his point is that everything has a purpose to fulfill even a lonely old beggar. You could go so far as to say that since he has found such a wholesome purpose for this man's way of life, he is implying that society could not do without these vagrants, thus approving of their station in life. That is probably a stretch, but a logical conclusion to these arguments.


message 18: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 83 comments Patrice wrote: "I think people are intimidated by poetry. Personal reactions won't always be the same. I just attended another lecture on the Divine Comedy and the last lecturer was there. These two "experts" d..."

I have only recently fiddled with reading any poetry at all, largely influenced by reading classic novels which I love. I have read some Poe, some really old stuff (the Wayfarer, I think it was called), and now this one. It seems that poetry has to be read much slower than typical writing. Is this always the case? It also seems like the poet's goal is to wrap his observations in an enigma so that it is difficult to discern what he is saying. What is the purpose of this? I appreciate the fact that "wording" and "prose" are important in any type of writing. HOW the author or poet says something is just as important as WHAT he is saying (to me, anyways). But, it just seems that most renowned poets purposely try to obfuscate their works. Those of you who are more familiar with the genre, do you find this to be the case?


message 19: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Jonathan wrote: "It seems that poetry has to be read much slower than typical writing. Is this always the case?"

I'm far from being an expert, but I do read a fair amount of poetry (though very little modern poetry -- I tried a course in it on Coursera and got nowhere), but a few casual thoughts:

For much good poetry, particularly lyric poetry, in my opinion, yes, it requires much slower reading than most novels. And almost always rewards multiple readings. Very seldom does a great poem reveal itself on first or even second reading.

In my experience, there is something substantively different about great lyric poetry than about any other kind of writing. In a way it's like looking at great art -- one can glance at the Mona Lisa and just say oh, it's a nice picture of a woman, or one can dig into it, as I have done recently through a Teaching Company course on "Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre" and realize that there is much more there than initially meets the eye. (I have never appreciated great art with nearly the passion I appreciate great poetry.)

Good poetry has multiple levels, emotionally, as Patrice points out, also intellectually, and sometimes even viscerally. But also as Patrice points out, there's no one right way to read it.

I should add that there is some poetry, particularly ballads, which may not have that much depth, though they can be great fun to read over and over. I think, for example, of Paul Revere's Ride,
http://poetry.eserver.org/paul-revere...
or The Charge of the Light Brigade
http://www.bartleby.com/246/386.html
both of which, I think, pretty much reveal their meaning and impact on first reading

But take a poem like Ulysses
http://www.bartleby.com/246/375.html
or Tintern Abbey
http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww138.html
or something as apparently simple as Blake's London
http://www.bartleby.com/71/0213.html
and, for me at least, these poems keep on spiraling deeper into meaning each time I approach them.

Just my own informal views; I also know of very intelligent people who basically shrug their intellectual shoulders at these poems. So be it.


message 20: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Jonathan wrote: "it just seems that most renowned poets purposely try to obfuscate their works. Those of you who are more familiar with the genre, do you find this to be the case? "

I don't find that. But I do know what you mean. Sometimes it seems that way, but if I take the time to work with a poem, I usually find that there are good reasons why the poet compressed his or her thoughts into such a compact format. But not always; there are many quite famous poems that I have never "gotten" and probably never will.


message 21: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Patrice wrote: "I got curious about when Wordsworth was writing. I was wondering if it's just because I'm coming off of so much Rousseau that it seemed to me that the poem could be called "An Ode to Rousseau". W..."

Thanks for the Rousseau connection and your analysis in post #24, Patrice. I looked at the Bartleby essay you referenced. Given the Rousseau/Romantic movement context for Wordsworth (not meaning to over-simplify or too narrowly categorize him), I'm re-thinking my idea that Wordsworth was being ironic when he painted his word-picture of the Beggar at the end of his life, in Nature, with chirping birds and beautiful natural scenery. Like Patrice suggests, maybe Wordsworth is portraying this man as a "part of nature" who "serves a purpose."

For me, such a reading of the poem would support the Coleridge view of Wordsworth that Everyman mentioned at post #20--that Wordsworth had "utter non-sympathy" for his poetic subjects. The poem portrays the Beggar in a positive way, but seemingly without sufficient sensitivity to, or sympathy for, the harshness of his plight.


message 22: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "The way I would take this poem is that both Wordsworth and Rousseau were living in a really awful time. "

Wordsworth, at least, would disagree with you about that. (Don't know about Rousseau.)

He was a great admirer of the French Revolution, and of it wrote in the Prelude (his great biographical/philosophical poem, which I hope we might read here some day though I know it would be a challenge):

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven! O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights
When most intent on making of herself
A prime enchantress--to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole Earth,
The beauty wore of promise--that which sets
(As at some moments might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of Paradise itself)
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!


message 23: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "I did it!!!! Hooray!
"www.Bartleby.com/221/0501.html"


You did indeed. And the Cambridge History on Bartleby is a fantastic resource I love.


message 24: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1723 comments Everyman wrote: "Patrice wrote: "The way I would take this poem is that both Wordsworth and Rousseau were living in a really awful time. "

Wordsworth, at least, would disagree with you about that. (Don't know abo..."


It sounds to me like he's writing about the 1960s.


message 25: by Mark (new)

Mark Williams | 45 comments Everyman wrote: "Patrice wrote: "The way I would take this poem is that both Wordsworth and Rousseau were living in a really awful time. "

Wordsworth, at least, would disagree with you about that. (Don't know abo..."


Wordsworth sounds like he would have been one fun dude to hang out with. He seemed to find good and exaltation in difficult circumstances and challenging times. A hopeless romantic, he?


message 26: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "Hmmm, I guess it was the best of times for some and the worst of times for others! Sorry, couldn't resist."

It actually was a very intellectually active time. The French Revolution and the American Revolution had brought hope that ordinary people could get out from under the crushing weight of despotic monarchies. Locke, Thomas Paine, and many others were writing political philosophy of great hope.

I've been taking a course through Coursera on The Modern World -- Global History since 1760, and the lecturer (excellent, truly excellent, I highly recommend the course; you can join it free now and try to catch up, or you can see whether it is re-run next year, go to coursera.org) and he talks about the period from 1760-1800 as a time of great hope and vigor, a transition from the traditional world into the beginnings of the modern world. For Europeans (and for Asiatics) it was a very exciting time to be alive, with the commercial revolution, the start of the industrial revolution, the exploration of Africa, the creation of empires, and on and on. James Watt's steam engine in 1781 started to revolutionize manufacture. Intellectually, Dr. Johnson and his circle were holding court in London. Literacy was becoming widespread in Europe. This was the later stages of the Enlightenment.

Not a bad time to be alive!


message 27: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Everyman wrote: "Patrice wrote: "The way I would take this poem is that both Wordsworth and Rousseau were living in a really awful time. "

Wordsworth, at least, would disagree with you about that. (Don't know abo..."


Wordsworth's view of the French Revolution changed to highly negative once he saw what it did.


message 28: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "Aside from the political situation and the reign of terror and all of the horror of that, the cities themselves were not pleasant places to be. "

Granted, by our standards of hygiene, comfort, etc. But many (usually those with money, but isn't it always thus? even today public housing projects can be really nasty) at the time thought the cities were wonderful places to live, and hated to go into the country. Johnson was famous for this, for just one example.

But definitely, there were good and bad aspects of the cities, and one can dwell on either side with complete accuracy.


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