Seminar Paper, 2000, 13 Pages
1. The Poor as a Subject of Wordsworth's Poetry
2. The Characterisation of the Leech-gatherer
The Leech-gatherer's Physical Appearance
The Leech-gatherer's Speech and its Contradicting Features
The Leech-gatherer's Inner Life: His Thoughts and Feelings
3. The Characterisation of "The Old Cumberland Beggar"
The Physical Appearance of the Beggar
The Beggar´s Frame of Mind and his Mental Condition
The Beggar's Function in the Village
4. Poverty as only a Background Condition in "Resolution and Independence" and "The Old Cumberland Beggar"
Poor people were a common feature of the contemporary social landscape in Wordsworth's days. In his life time the poet met a lot of people who were in a less fortunate social situation than he. Many of his poems deal with the existence of people who suffer and show the poet's awareness that there are others, such as vagrants and beggars, who face rough living conditions. "The Ruined Cottage," "Alice Fell," "Beggars," "Michael," "The Borderers" - just to name a few - focus on poor people and their experiences.
The two poems which will be examined in the course of this paper also deal with these themes. "Resolution and Independence" is based upon a real incident where Wordsworth, together with his sister, Dorothy, met a leech-gatherer in the countryside. This took place in 1800 according to Dorothy Wordsworth's journal. The poem was composed May-July 1802 and first published in 1807.1
In "The Old Cumberland Beggar," Wordworth describes a member of "The class of Beggars (...) [which] will probably soon be extinct" (W p. 30, Description). The described person is an old and infirm beggar who is dependent upon the charity of his fellow beings. This work was completed in March 17982 and first published in 18003.
The aim of this paper is to examine precisely how these two people, the leech-gatherer in "Resolution and Independence" and the beggar in "The Old Cumberland Beggar", are portrayed in Wordworth's poetry. The questions to be answered concern their physical appearance, their thoughts and their feelings. A question related to the emotional side of their existence would be: Do these two old, poor men show any signs of sadness or self-pity? Neither the leech-gatherer nor "The Old Cumberland Beggar" appears completely isolated in the poems which describe them. They are both set in relation to other people. How is the beggar´s relationship to the villagers? How is the contact between the poet and the leechgatherer? These are questions which need to be answered as well.
The topic "The Poor" comprehends also another issue. How does the author view poverty? Does poverty in these two poems serve only as a background condition? Or does the poverty of both protagonists serve the author as a basis for his social criticism? It is the aim of this paper to find satisfying answers for these questions.
On his solitary walk through the countryside Wordsworth does not remain alone. " I saw a man before me unawares" the poet tells the reader (W p. 127, line 55). Wordsworth's first impression of the leech-gatherer is "his extreme old age" (W p. 128, line 172). "The oldest Man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs" (W p. 127, line 56). Before he has spoken a single word to the mysterious figure in front of him the poet starts to compare what he sees with something which exists in the natural world:
"As a huge Stone is sometimes seen to lie / Couched on the bald top of an eminence; Wonder to all who do the same espy / By what means it could thither come, and whence; / So that it seems a thing endued with sense: Like a Sea-beast crawled forth, which on a shelf / Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself. / Such seemed this man (...)" (W p. 128, lines 64-71)
The simile "as a huge stone" makes "(...) the old man at once a part of the landscape, a natural almost inanimate object (...)" 4 The poetic comparison with a stone ascribes some of the qualities of stones to the old man: they are not affected by the weather, only extreme conditions can cause them to change and they are very robust.
The image of a resting animal may have been used by the poet in order to illustrate the motionlessness of the leech-gatherer. The old man is standing there without any movement even when the poet approaches him. As the poet comes closer, "Motionless as a cloud the Old Man stood" (W p. 128, line 82). He does not move; as if he seems to possess the same calmness as a resting animal.
"But stone and sea-beast in fact suggest that, far from being an animal comfortably based in in its most natural habitat, the leech-gatherer appears as an anomaly in this landscape." 5
This alternate possibility of interpretation is confirmed by Wordsworth's private correspondence. When Wordsworth writes in 1802 to his friend Sara Hutchinson, this feeling of strangeness and surprise regarding the leech-gatherer's existence is still alive: "But Good God! Such a figure, in such a place, . . ." 6
The old man is so deprived of signs of life and motion that he seems to the poet to be "not all alive nor dead, / Nor all asleep" (W p. 128, lines 71-72). In contrast to this depiction is the "fire about his eyes" when the leech-gatherer talks to the poet because this feature gives the old man an air of vitality (W p.128, line 98).
His body is deformed; to be more precise, he is "bent double, feet and head / Coming together in their pilgrimage" (W p. 128, lines 73-74). The poet assumes that this is the result of a former disease or that "A more than human weight" had burdened his shoulders (W p.128, line 77). The crippled shape of the old man's body could also be explained with the "many hardships" which he has gone through and still does, according to his own words (W p. 129, line 109). Thus, the leech-gatherer appears physically to be somebody who suffers severely from the infirmities of old age.
When the old man talks with the poet, his words come "feebly, from a feeble chest" (W p. 129, line 99). But then he continues his stately speech "which the poet describes as being "above the reach / Of ordinary men" (W p.129, lines 102-103). The poet praises the "solemn order" in which the leech-gatherer's "Choice" words are put, as well as their "measured phrase" (W p.129, line 100 and line 102). With awe he notes the old man's "lofty utterance" (W p.129, line 109).
These extraordinary speech patterns reflect that the poet perceives the old man almost as a prophet. The sudden encounter of the leech-gatherer is regarded by the poet as "A leading from above, as something given" (W p.127, line 51). In his imagination, the old man undergoes several transitions. At first he is compared to a stone , then to a sea-beast before he becomes simply an old man, who, in the end, is compared to a cloud. The poet's imagination carries him even further away from reality, with the result that a simple man who talks about "being old and poor" with an "Employment" [which is] "hazardous and wearisome" turns into "a Man from some far region sent" to give him "human strength, and strong admonishment" (W p. 129, lines 107-108; p. 129, lines 118-119).
Based on the way the old man's speech is described, one is inclined to believe the poet that the leech-gatherer is capable of creating this mysterious impression. At the point where the old man has a chance to talk himself in stanza 19, this illusion is destroyed.
"The poetically ´ lofty' style ´ above the reach of ordinary men' is replaced by a prosaic insistence on the all too common fate ´ of being old and poor' (...)" 7
The rather simple terms in which the leech-gatherer expresses himself stand in contradiction to the speech patterns the poet described before.
In his speech, the leech-gatherer gives the poet a realistic account of his situation: he is old, poor, does not have a steady place to live and earns his living with hard work. However, he tells this to the stranger without a word of self-pity or bitterness. The old man does not complain about his hard life; instead, he seems to be at peace. "Moreover the leech-gatherer expresses his contentment ´ with a smile'." 8 He has kept his moral dignity and self-esteem because he can be proud of maintaining himself by "honest" work, thus remaining independent of the help of others (W p. 129, line 112).
While the poet and the leech-gatherer talk, some of the leech-gatherer's emotions can be observed. The old man answers his questions with "pleasure and surprize" (W p.128, line 97). "Chearfully" the leech-gatherer utters something at the end of the poem (W p.130, line 142). This description suggests that the poor man likes speaking with the poet and enjoys the unexpected company which, at least for a little while, takes away his solitude. Talking "with a smile" and "chearfully" he seems to be in good spirits despite his harsh life (W p.129, line 127; p. 130, line 142).
Even if these few described emotions convey only a very superficial impression of the leechgatherer's frame of mind, they show "(...) that the leech-gatherer has not been deprived of humanity despite his extreme old age, his extreme poverty and his extreme aloneness." 9 Apart from these few passages, there is no further reference to the leech-gatherer's inner life in "Resolution and Independence." The old man's thoughts and feelings about his situation remain an enigma, because the poet is not very inquisitive about them. How does it feel for the leech-gatherer to endure poverty, old age and solitude?
This is not the question which the poet contemplates. He is too busy wrestling with "the fear that kills" to bother about somebody else's thoughts and feelings. (W p. 129, line 120) The poet's questions reveal the instability and changeability of his attention towards the old man. Even more superficial is the content of his inquiries, which shows that he has little compassionate interest in the leech-gatherer and his life.
"Curiosity as to what the Leech-gatherer himself feels to be is balanced by a compulsion to discover what he can be made to represent in the minds of those who meet him." 10
Obviously the poet's curiosity does not go very far, because the first question he poses the old man refers only to his work. The second question is more general: "How is it that you live (...)" (W p.129, line 126) And again the poet asks, although he already received an answer: "(...) and what is it that you do?" (W p. 129, line 126)
The answers given do not make the poet think about how the leech-gatherer might feel about himself and his situation. Therefore the poem is devoid of a precise description of the leech- gatherer's thoughts and feelings concerning his solitude, his age or his poverty.
The Relationship between the Leech-gatherer and the Poet
The poet and the leech-gatherer do not get involved in any particular activity after they meet. Instead, their relationship manifests itself in the way that they simply speak with each other. Therefore the leech-gatherer´s intercourse with the poet can best be described if one examines what their conversation is about and how it evolves.
One feature of this conversation is that although the poet speaks with the old man, he cannot concentrate on the communication. The inner pull of his fear of "Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills" is too strong (W p.129, line 122). The old man answers the poet's questions but he receives no feedback himself. It is as if they are speaking at cross purposes. The poet is occupied with what the old man is saying but in a way which is very remote from the actual content of the leech-gatherer's speech. While the leech-gatherer endures his hardship quite indifferently and chats relaxedly about his life, the poet imagines him in restless, lonely wandering. This image also demonstrates that the poet uses the poor man as a means to an end, namely to project his own thoughts and feelings onto him without taking his real emotions into account.
Even more ambiguous is the poet's remark at the end of their encounter where he "could have laughed" himself "to scorn, to find / In that decrepit Man so firm a mind" (W p.130, lines 144-145). He adds: " ´ God'said I, ´ be my help and stay secure; / I'll think of the Leech- gatherer on the lonely moor.'" (W p. 130, lines 146-147) What is this supposed to mean? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of "Resolution and Independence." Here the poet sinks from a happy mood full of joy into gloomy despair: "But there may come another day to me, / Solitude, pain of heart and, distress and poverty" (W p. 127, lines 34-35). The leech-gatherer then seems like an embodiment of the poet's fears, and he serves for him as a human example of how much man can endure. At the end of the poem, the poet asks for God's help to keep him aware of the message of this encounter: there are others who live in a less fortunate social situation than he. As a privileged poet, he should not feel sorry for himself, because the burden others carry is heavier.
Another option of understanding the poem's last lines could hint in the direction that:
It is his dignity more than his poverty that impresses Wordsworth; he is very much the poet's superior in the virtues of resolution and independence mentioned in the title, and the poet feels awe and admiration for him, not pity. He is not saying: `Thank God I am not as badly off as he is', but rather hoping that he may bear whatever comes his way with like honour.11
The old man's accomplishment can be seen in his honorable way of being, but his main achievement is that he simply perseveres in his struggle for survival.
There are many physical qualities the speaker draws our attention to in the depiction of the beggar. Right at the beginning of the poem it is mentioned that it is an "aged Beggar" whom he saw (W p. 20, line 1). His age goes hand in hand with being feeble and decrepit. While the old man tries to eat, his "palsied hand" trembles so much that he wastes parts of his food (W p.20, line 16).
"(...) the crumbs in little showers / Fell on the ground" although he was "attempting to prevent the waste" (W p. 20, lines 18-19; p.20, line 17). One can assume that a beggar does not have an abundance of food. Therefore this example of physical helplessnes is especially tragic and moving because it shows how his decrepitness keeps him from taking complete advantage of the little he owns.
The beggar's perception of the world around him is limited due to the deformation of his body. His back is "Bowbent" which has the effect that his ability to see is limited as well (W p. 21, line 52). He has to look down upon the earth, seeing only "some straw, / Some scattered leaf or the traces of other travellers who have taken the same way" (W p. 21, lines 54-55). He is excluded from the vision of "the blue sky" and "one little span of earth / Is all his prospect" (W p.21, lines 50-51). Furthermore, this disability has the effect that he cannot communicate eye to eye with his fellow men. When he wants to look them in the eye, his deformed back makes him look at their feet.
His perception of the world differs as well, in that he may see things the ordinary traveller does not see because the other can look around with his eyes straight forward but the beggar cannot. On the one hand, the beggar may be partially blind, but on the other hand he sees things which are visually out of reach for somebody else.
One can assume that the beggar does not see in the way ordinary people do. Wordsworth describes him as " (...) seeing still, / And never knowing what he sees (...)" (W p.21, lines 53- 54). This line could be interpreted as an indication for a less conscious way of seeing, one which does not have a deliberate focus on something and is not characterised by alertness.
"(...) his gaze is entirely mechanical, no more conscious of the road than the cart-wheels whose track he follows," 11 writes Mary Jacobus, referring to the lines:
"On the ground / His eyes are turned, and, as he moves along, / They move along the ground" (W p. 21, lines 55-57).
With this description, "Wordsworth at once shows us the old man's world and insists that he is unaware of it, at once encourages us to identify with him (...)" 13
The old man has a different perception not only due to his sight. When the postman "Shouts to him from behind" he does not react (W p. 21, line 39). Shouting is noisy and it takes a certain degree of deafness to be able to completely ignore it as the beggar does. The beggar differs from many other people in that "Him even the slow-paced wagon leaves behind" (W p.21, line 66). If he were able to walk at an ordinary pace, and not so slowly, this would not happen. The line, "scarcely do his feet / Disturb the summer dust" does not portray him as a fast walker either and emphasizes again his physical feebleness (W p.21, lines 59-60). The realistic description of the beggar's physical state of decay is a
". . . clever telescoping of physical and mental degeneration." 14 The depiction of the old man's physical condition has been described as "shockingly candid" by Cleanth Brooks and "what is at first sight shocking is the inflexible materialism of the poem's description of old age." 15
The speaker describes the beggar's physical qualities precisely and "(...) concentrates on trivial details which reveal the beggar's individuality." 16 But the beggar´s individuality is devoid of something very human: his own thoughts and feelings.
It becomes quickly apparent to the reader which functions the beggar fulfils in the community. However, there is no evidence that the old man himself is conscious of the positive effects he has upon the villagers. Furthermore, any information regarding how the beggar feels about his fate is not given. Does the beggar feel sad and lonely because "(...) His age has no companion" (W p. 21, line 45)? It is impossible to find an answer because the old man "has no inner life-or none that is apparent to the observer." 17
The author does not give any insight into the beggar's life because throughout the whole poem, the beggar does not say a word. He receives his alms in silence, and the speaker does not report any communication between the beggar and the villagers. Due to his deafness, this may have been a difficult task anyway. Simpson offers another reason for the beggar's silence:
It is appropriate to the description of extreme senility that the beggar does not speak or register any personal responses to those who feed him, but it is also part of a familiar Wordsworthian paradigm that he has no right of response. However insensible he maybe `in himself', it is hard not to suspect (even as it is impossible to prove) that he is not further anaesthetized by the speaker's perspective.18
However, the absence of a description of the beggar's inner life can lead to the conclusion that he has only "a vaguely animate consciousness" 19 without any deep emotions and thoughts worthy of mention.
"But deem not this man useless.-Statesman!" says the speaker before he justifies the beggar's existence during the course of the poem (W p. 21, line 66).
"The statesmen Wordsworth had in mind, as he reminded Elizabeth Fenwick in his 1843 note to the poem, were political economists like Bentham [1748-1832]and Malthus [1766-1834]who were advocating centralization of management over the poor, detention in workhouses and compulsory labour." 20
In "The Old Cumberland Beggar", Wordsworth shows that the beggar is not a useless member of society because he not only takes from others but also gives back far more than he receives. By showing how the beggar is able to give something as well, the speaker proves that his own interpretation of Nature's law is right. He claims that this law states that every being is inseparably linked with good, no matter how it is created, be it "(...) the most vile and brute, / The dullest or most noxious (...)" (W p.22, lines 75-76) The poem emphasizes this view of Nature's law by describing precisely which beneficial effect the beggar's existence has upon the villagers.
The beggar must have been around in the village for quite a long time because the speaker tells the reader: "Him from my childhood have I known" (W p.20, line 22). Without the help of others, the beggar would not have been able to survive. Therefore, "(...) the villagers in him / Behold a record which together binds / Past deeds and offices of charity / Else unremembered, and so keeps alive / The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years (...)" (W p. 22, lines 80-84). The old decrepit man is a living proof of years of charity. His fragile existence depends on the aid of the villagers and keeps them from becoming selfish and cold- hearted.
In addition to this, the people from the village "(...) all behold in him [the beggar] 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 (...)" (W p. 23, lines 114-119).
These lines could be interpreted to say that the beggar makes others feel how fortunate they are. Furthermore, he gives them a reason to feel good about themselves because they have proved through "acts of love" compassion and virtue (W p. 22, line 92). Thus he helps the village inhabitants to establish some sense of self-esteem.
The opportunity to give is described as especially important for those who are deprived of wealth.
"(...) 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 / Of some small blessings (...) for this single cause / That we have all of us one human heart" (W p. 22, lines140-146).
Only the beggar's extreme destitution gives even the poor the joy of alms-giving. He makes it possible for them to have an "exhilarated heart" when they are charitable despite their poverty and he gives them a reason to dream of salvation in heaven because they have been so benevolent and generous (W p.24, line 53).
The old man's role in society is to enlarge our sensibilities, to arouse `that first mild touch of sympathy and thought' (l.106), and at the same time to heighten our awareness of our own state-to jog the passing horseman into reflection; to remind `the robust and young, / The prosperous and unthinking' (ll. 111-112) of their own well-being; to provide the pleasure of giving to the woman who from `her chest of meal / Takes one unsparing handful' (ll. 150- 151).21
The speaker does not consider that under certain circumstances, this carefully balanced system of material sacrifice and spiritual reward could get out of order. If "the community does not rally round as conscientiously" or if "the number of beggars exceeds the capacities of the villages to give alms" 22 then "The Old Cumberland Beggar" would no longer have such a morally disciplining and rewarding effect upon the villagers.
Furthermore, the poem´s logic is based on the assumption that people "experience the desire to give" and "care for the sense of self-esteem that comes with it." 23 But what about the situation where people have "become so brutalized or corrupted" 24 that they no longer see any value in sharing with others and caring about them? This raises the question of wether the poem's message is still valid today in a society where selfishness is a very common trait.
There is no explicit signal in either poems which shows that the poet feels in any way uneasy when confronted with poverty. Poverty is not the feature of his protagonists which stands in the centre of Wordsworth's interest.
In "Resolution and Independence" this attitude can be seen in that "Wordsworth places less importance on the fact that the leech-gatherer's occupation is a consequence of poverty . . . than on his role as `divine' admonishment (...)" 25
In "The Old Cumberland Beggar" the old man's poverty is only a necessary condition upon which Wordsworth's theory of private charity and its benefits functions. The author remains silent about the possible causes of such poverty. Instead, he praises a situation which by any means cannot be pleasant for the beggar, "whose own wishes are not consulted and must remain opaque." 26
Wordsworth looks from a bystander's view, only from the outside, at the leech-gatherer and the beggar. From this perspective he remains untouched by the real cruelty that poverty imposes upon its victims, and he does not gain any insight into their suffering souls. The complete absence of a description of the thoughts and feelings of the beggar and the superficial depiction of the leech-gatherer's emotions confirm Wordsworth's distance to the poor.
"Wordsworth presents the problems of the poor from the point of view of those who are not poor." 27
This statement seems credible in the light of such observations. The poet uses the beggar and the leech-gatherer as instruments to illustrate his ideas.
Poverty serves here as the necessary background conditon to develop these ideas properly in the "mind's eye" 28 of the poet:
"Unlike the sentimental writer's and Southey and unlike his own earlier self, Wordsworth from 1797-1798 ceases to see others as a social phenomena; They are objects of contemplation, images of apparent alienation which the poet ´ s imagination translates into private emblems of his troubled communion with nature." 29
Wordsworth, William. Oxford Poetry Library: A Selection of his Finest Poems. Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Butler, Marylin. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literatur and its Background 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Drabble, Margaret. Literature in Perspective: Wordsworth. London: Evans Brothers Limited, 1966.
Harrison, Gary. "Wordsworth's `The Old Cumberland Beggar': The Economy of Charity in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain." Criticism 30.1 (1988): 23-42.
Jacobus, Mary. Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
McFarland, Thomas. William Wordsworth: Intensity and Achievment. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Prieri, David B. William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness. London: Methuen, 1982.
Sampson, David. "Wordsworth and the Poor: The Poetry of Survival." Studies in Romanticism 23.1 (1984): 31-59.
Simpson, David. Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement. New York: Methuen, 1987.
1 William Wordsworth, The Oxford Poetry Library: William Wordsworth, ed. Stephan Gill and Duncan Wu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 234-235. All text citations following are reffering to this source unless otherwise specified. Citations include page numbers, line numbers and the abbreviation W standing for Wordsworth.
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