This is the concluding part of Poet-in-Residence's trawl through the poems of the famous Grasmere bard, William Wordsworth. The poetic journey began with the poet's 238th birthday celebration and now ends with his description of his encounter with an old Cumberland beggar. Cumberland was part of the 'English Lake District' which comprised the counties of 'Cumberland & Westmorland' and a small chunk of Lancashire. In bygone childhood days it felt rather exotic and special to enter the romantic and mountainous lands of 'Cumberland & Westmorland'. Nowadays the whole area is simply another English county and is known plainly as Cumbria.
Wordsworth's poem carries an introduction: The class of beggars to which the old man...belongs, will...soon be extinct. It consisted of poor, and, mostly, old and infirm persons, who confined themsleves to a stated round in their neighbourhood, and had certain fixed days, on which, at different houses they...received...money, but mostly...provisions.
The poem is a little too long to feature here in its entirety; but the following extract serves to give a sense of things and a glimpse of bygone times. Doubtless, the well-heeled Wordsworth, never without a guinea in his pocket, would always part with a small coin or two: ... please put a penny in the old man's hat, if you haven't got a penny a ha'penny will do, if you haven't got a ha'penny God bless you!
from The Old Cumberland Beggar
I saw an aged Beggar in my walk,
And he was seated by the highway side
On a low structure of loose 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 scanned them with a fixed 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, scattered 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 destined 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 hands 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 turned, 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 forever on the ground,
He plies his weary journey, seeing still,
And never knowing what he sees, some straw,
Some scattered leaf, or marks which, in one track,
The nails of cart or chariot wheel have left
. . .
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-gathered meal, and, finally,
As in the eye of Nature he has lived
So in the eye of Nature let him die.