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Helen Darbishire and Ernest De Selincourt (eds), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 4: Evening Voluntaries; Itinerary Poems of 1833; Poems of Sentiment and Reflection; Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty and Order; Miscellaneous Poems; Inscriptions; Selections From Chaucer; Poems Referring to the Period of Old Age; Epitaphs and Elegiac Pieces; Ode-Intimations of Immortality (Second Edition)

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Editor’s NoteCritical ApparatusEditor’s NoteCritical ApparatusITHE OLD CUMBERLAND BEGGAR

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.

[Composed 1797.—Published 1800.]

  • 1I saw an aged Beggar in my walk;
  • 2And he was seated, by the highway side,
  • 3On a low structure of rude masonry
  • Critical Apparatus4Built 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,
  • Critical Apparatus15He 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.
  • 22  Him 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 for him
  • pg 235Critical Apparatus26The sauntering Horseman throws not with a slack
  • 27And careless hand his alms upon the ground,
  • Critical Apparatus28But 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,
  • Critical Apparatus31Watches the aged Beggar with a look
  • 32Sidelong, and half-reverted. She who tends
  • 33The toll-gate, when in summer at her door
  • 34She turns her wheel, if on the road she sees
  • 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,
  • Critical Apparatus39Shouts 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.
  • 44  He 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,
  • Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus48Instead of common and habitual sight
  • 49Of fields with rural works, of hill and dale,
  • 50And the blue sky, one little span of earth
  • Critical Apparatus51Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day.
  • 52Bow-bent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
  • 53He plies his weary journey; seeing still,
  • Critical Apparatus54And 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
  • pg 23657Impressed on the white road,—in the same line,
  • 58At distance still the same. Poor Traveller!
  • Critical Apparatus59His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet
  • 60Disturb the summer dust; he is so still
  • Critical Apparatus61In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
  • Critical Apparatus62Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
  • 63Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
  • 64The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
  • 65The urchins newly breeched—all pass him by:
  • 66Him even the slow-paced waggon leaves behind.
  • Critical Apparatus67  But 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
  • Critical Apparatus72Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
  • 73A burthen 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
  • Critical Apparatus79Inseparably linked. Then be assured
  • Critical Apparatus80That 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;
  • pg 23784Without 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,
  • Critical Apparatus88This 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
  • 100To 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,
  • Critical Apparatus104Doth find herself insensibly disposed
  • 105To virtue and true goodness. Some there are,
  • 106By their good works exalted, lofty minds,
  • Critical Apparatus107And meditative, authors of delight
  • 108And happiness, which to the end of time
  • Critical Apparatus109Will live, and spread, and kindle: even such minds
  • 110In childhood, from this solitary Being,
  • Critical Apparatus111Or from like wanderer, haply have received
  • 112(A thing more precious far than all that books
  • pg 238113Or the solicitudes of love can do!)
  • 114That first mild touch of sympathy and thought,
  • 115In which they found their kindred with a world
  • 116Where want and sorrow were. The easy man
  • 117Who sits at his own door,—and, like the pear
  • 118That overhangs his head from the green wall,
  • 119Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young,
  • 120The prosperous and unthinking, they who live
  • 121Sheltered, and flourish in a little grove
  • 122Of their own kindred;—all behold in him
  • 123A silent monitor, which on their minds
  • 124Must needs impress a transitory thought
  • 125Of self-congratulation, to the heart
  • 126Of each recalling his peculiar boons,
  • Editor’s Note127His charters and exemptions; and, perchance,
  • Critical Apparatus128Though he to no one give the fortitude
  • 129And circumspection needful to preserve
  • 130His present blessings, and to husband up
  • 131The respite of the season, he, at least,
  • 132And 'tis no vulgar service, makes them felt.
  • Critical Apparatus133  Yet further. ———Many, I believe, there are
  • 134Who live a life of virtuous decency,
  • 135Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel
  • 136No self-reproach; who of the moral law
  • 137Established in the land where they abide
  • 138Are strict observers; and not negligent
  • Critical Apparatus139In acts of love to those with whom they dwell,
  • 140Their kindred, and the children of their blood.
  • 141Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace!
  • 142—But of the poor man ask, the abject poor;
  • Critical Apparatus143Go, and demand of him, if there be here
  • 144In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,
  • 145And these inevitable charities,
  • 146Wherewith to satisfy the human soul?
  • pg 239147No—man is dear to man; the poorest poor
  • 148Long for some moments in a weary life
  • 149When they can know and feel that they have been,
  • 150Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
  • 151Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
  • 152As needed kindness, for this single cause,
  • 153That we have all of us one human heart.
  • 154—Such pleasure is to one kind Being known,
  • 155My neighbour, when with punctual care, each week,
  • Critical Apparatus156Duly as Friday comes, though pressed herself
  • Critical Apparatus157By her own wants, she from her store of meal
  • 158Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip
  • 159Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door
  • 160Returning with exhilarated heart,
  • Critical Apparatus161Sits by her fire, and builds her hope in heaven.
  • 162  Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
  • 163And while in that vast solitude to which
  • Critical Apparatus164The tide of things has borne him, he appears
  • 165To breathe and five but for himself alone,
  • 166Unblamed, uninjured, let him bear about
  • 167The good which the benignant law of Heaven
  • 168Has hung around him: and, while fife is his,
  • 169Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers
  • 170To tender offices and pensive thoughts.
  • 171—Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
  • 172And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
  • 173The freshness of the valleys; let his blood
  • Critical Apparatus174Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
  • 175And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath
  • 176Beat his grey locks against his withered face.
  • 177Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
  • 178Gives the last human interest to his heart.
  • 179May never house, misnamed of industry,
  • 180Make him a captive!—for that pent-up din,
  • pg 240181Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
  • 182Be his the natural silence of old age!
  • 183Let him be free of mountain solitudes;
  • 184And have around him, whether heard or not,
  • 185The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
  • Critical Apparatus186Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
  • 187Been doomed so long to settle upon earth
  • 188That not without some effort they behold
  • 189The countenance of the horizontal sun,
  • 190Rising or setting, let the light at least
  • 191Find a free entrance to their languid orbs,
  • 192And let him, where and when he will, sit down
  • Critical Apparatus193Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank
  • 194Of highway side, and with the little birds
  • 195Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally,
  • 196As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
  • 197So in the eye of Nature let him die!

Notes Settings


Critical Apparatus
I. the beggar MS. The words A Description added to title 1800–20.
Editor’s Note
p. 234. The Old Cumberland Beggar: "Observed, and with great benefit to my own heart, when I was a child: written at Racedown and Alfoxden in my 28th1 year. The political economists were about that time beginning their war upon mendicity in all its forms, and by implication, if not directly, on Almsgiving also. This heartless process has been carried as far as it can go by the amended poor-law bill, though the inhumanity that prevails in this measure is somewhat disguised by the profession that one of its objects is to throw the poor upon the voluntary donations of their neighbours; that is, if rightly interpreted, to force them into a condition between relief in the Union poor-house, and Alms robbed of their Christian grace and spirit, as being forced rather from the benevolent than given by them; while the avaricious and selfish, and all in fact but the humane and charitable, are at liberty to keep all they possess from their distressed brethren."—I. F.
At least five MSS. of fragments, or the whole, of this poem are extant: (1) a folio sheet with watermark 1795; (2) in the Pierpont Morgan Library at New York, a folio sheet, headed Description of a Beggar; (3) in D. W.'s note-book which also contains the first transcript of Christabel and MS. 2 of Guilt and Sorrow, v. Vol. I, p. 331; (4) in the Alfoxden note-book (v. Prelude, Introd.); (5) in note-book U (v. Prelude, p. xxii). All but No. 2 are in the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere. No. 5 alone has a complete copy of the poem. No. 4 originally contained it, but some of its pages have been cut out.
The title of the poem—"The Old Cumberland Beggar"—shows it to be a recollection of W.'s Cockermouth days.
For the relation of this poem to Animal Tranquillity and Decay v. note to that poem infra, p.447.
Editor’s Note
1 Written 23d in Dora and E. Q.'s copy of I. F.—an obvious error in transcription.
Critical Apparatus
4 Built] Placed MS.
Critical Apparatus
15 sat, and ate 1805: sate, and eat 1800–2
Critical Apparatus
26–7 so 1837: The sauntering horseman-traveller does not throw With MS., 1800–32
Critical Apparatus
28–9 safely…Within ] lodge the copper coin Safe in MS.
Critical Apparatus
31 so 1827: Towards the aged Beggar turns a look, MS., 1800–20
Critical Apparatus
39 thus warned 1827: perchance MS., 1800–20
Critical Apparatus
  • Instead of Nature's fair variety
  • Her ample scope of hill and dale, of clouds
  • And the blue sky, the same short span of earth
Editor’s Note
48–50. (app. crit,) A reminiscence of Paradise Lost, vi. 640–1:
  • For earth hath this variety from Heaven
  • Of pleasure situate in hill and dale.
Critical Apparatus
  • Is all his prospect. When the little birds
  • Flit over him, if their quick shadows strike
  • Across his path he does not lift his head
  • Like one whose thoughts have been unsettled. So
Critical Apparatus
54 seldom 1827: never MS., 1800–20
Critical Apparatus
59 his slow footsteps scarce MS.
Critical Apparatus
  •       … that the miller's dog
  • Is tired of barking at him MS.
Critical Apparatus
61. The cottage curs] "The cottage curs at early pilgrim bark", Beattie, Minstrel, i. 39.
Critical Apparatus
62 has 1837: have MS., 1800–32
Critical Apparatus
  •             … useless. Not perhaps
  • Less useful than the smooth (red) and portly squire
  • Who with his steady coachman, steady steeds
  • All slick and bright with comfortable gloss
  • Doth in his broad glass'd chariot drive along
  • (Who (Heaven forbid that he should want his praise)
  • Lives by his [?] and spreads his name abroad.)
Alf. MS.
Critical Apparatus
72 or 1837: and 1800–32
Critical Apparatus
79–88 so 1837:
  •     … linked. While thus he creeps
  • From door to door, the villagers in him
MS., 1800–32
Critical Apparatus
  • Dismantled as he is of limbs to act
  • Almost of sense to feel, by Nature's self
  • Long banish'd from the cares and the concerns
  • Business and reciprocities of life
  • His very name forgotten among those
  • By whom he lives, while thus from house to house
  • He creeps, the villagers behold in him
  • A living record that together ties
Alf. MS.
Critical Apparatus
88. This old man creeps] In the Alfoxden MS. are these lines, unused in the poem, but obviously another draft of the passage given in the app. crit.:
  •                          in this aged wretch
  • Their forlorn brother, banished as he is
  • By nature's self [?] from concerns
  • Business and reciprocities of life.
  • He has no suppliant voice for those who pass
  • No suppliant attitude, he has forgot (survived)
  • His occupation, 'tis enough for him
  • If he receive his dole, and when received
  • Repay [it] with a blessing, on he creeps
Critical Apparatus
104 herself 1832: itself MS., 1800–27
Critical Apparatus
  • And meditative, in which reason falls
  • Like a strong radiance of the setting sun
  • On each minutest feeling of the heart,
  • Illuminates, and to their view brings forth
  • In one harmonious prospect, minds like these
  • In childhood
Alf. MS.
Critical Apparatus
109 so 1827: … minds like these 1800–20: Will spread and grow and kindle; minds like these MS.
Critical Apparatus
111 so 1827: This helpless Wanderer, have perchance received 1800–20; … did … receive MS.
Editor’s Note
127. In MS. 3, after "exemption", we have the lines:
  •                          and blest are they
  • Who by whatever process have been taught
  • To look with holy reverence and with fear
  • Upon this intricate machine of things.
  • They touch not rashly neither in contempt
  • Nor hatred, for to them a voice hath said
  • When ye despise ye know not what ye do.
Critical Apparatus
128 Although to each he may not give the strength MS.
Critical Apparatus
  • Not small the number, I believe, of those
  • Who hear the decalogue of God, and feel
Critical Apparatus
139 so 1827:
  • Meanwhile, in any tenderness of heart
  • Or act of love … live, [dwell 1800–20]
Critical Apparatus
  • If such there be whose virtues have attained
  • This point, demand of him if there be here
  • Wherewith to satisfy the human soul.
  • Oh by the joy which one good human knows
  • My neighbour, when
Critical Apparatus
  •                … albeit poor
  • And scantly fed she from her chest of meal
Critical Apparatus
157 store 1827: chest 1800–20.
Critical Apparatus
161/2 Oh, by that widow's hope I answer No! MS.
Critical Apparatus
164 borne 1827: led MS., 1800–20
Critical Apparatus
174/5 Waste not on him your busy tenderness Alf. MS.
Critical Apparatus
186–9 so 1837:
  •                … if his eyes so long
  • Familiar with the earth almost have looked
  • Their farewell on the horizontal sun MS.
  •                … if his eyes, which now
  • Have been so long familiar with the earth,
  • No more behold etc. 1800–5
  •                …if his eyes have now
  • Been doomed so long to settle on the earth
  • That not without some effort they behold
  • The countenance
etc. as text 1815–32
Critical Apparatus
193 on a 1837: by the 1800–32
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