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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 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;                   10
      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 sat, and ate 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,                  20
      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 throws not with a slack
      And 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,                30
      Watches the aged Beggar with 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, thus warned,
      The old man does not change his course, the boy                 40
      Turns with less noisy wheels to the roadside,
      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                      50
      Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,
      Bow-bent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
      He plies his weary journey; seeing still,
      And seldom knowing that he sees, some straw,
      Some scattered leaf, or marks which, in one track,
      The nails of cart or chariot-wheel have left
      Impressed 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                         60
      In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
      Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
      Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
      The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
      And urchins newly breeched--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,                        70
      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. Then be assured
      That least of all can aught--that ever owned                    80
      The heaven-regarding eye and front sublime
      Which man is born to--sink, howe'er depressed,
      So low as to be scorned without a sin;
      Without offence to God cast out of view;
      Like the dry remnant of a garden-flower
      Whose seeds are shed, or as an implement
      Worn out and worthless. While from door to door,
      This old Man creeps, the villagers in him
      Behold a record which together binds
      Past deeds and offices of charity,                              90
      Else unremembered, 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                       100
      Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy
      Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
      By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued,
      Doth find herself insensibly disposed
      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: even such minds
      In childhood, from this solitary Being,                        110
      Or from like wanderer, haply have received
      (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
      That overhangs his head from the green wall,
      Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young,
      The prosperous and unthinking, they who live                   120
      Sheltered, 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                       130
      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
      Established in the land where they abide
      Are strict observers; and not negligent
      In acts of love to those with whom they dwell,
      Their kindred, and the children of their blood.                140
      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                    150
      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 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,                              160
      Sits by her fire, and builds her hope in heaven.
        Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
      And while in that vast solitude to which
      The tide of things has borne him, he appears
      To breathe and live but for himself alone,
      Unblamed, uninjured, 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 unlettered villagers
      To tender offices and pensive thoughts.                        170
      --Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
      And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
      The freshness of the valleys; let his blood
      Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
      And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath
      Beat his grey locks against his withered 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,                     180
      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 not,
      The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
      Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
      Been doomed so long to settle upon earth
      That not without some effort they behold
      The countenance of the horizontal sun,
      Rising or setting, let the light at least                      190
      Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.
      And let him, 'where' and 'when' he will, sit down
      Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank
      Of highway 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!
                                                              1798.


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