In one of the poems out of his “Lyrical Ballads” dating from 1800, William Wordsworth depicts the life and its meaning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”. Using the narrative flow of a lyrical I, the poem accentuates the beggar’s closeness to nature, the emotions he evokes in people and the demand to preserve his freedom. The paramount statement it conveys however is the beggar’s value for other people.
Starting with a portrayal of the beggar’s appearance over the first 21 lines, it moves on to indicate people’s sympathetic attitude towards him. The long middle passage stretching from line 67 to line 154 deals with the worth the beggar possesses and what he gives to society. Its lan- guage is more sophisticated than the beginning and the end of the poem and will also be central for this analysis. Eventually, the poem concludes with the reward which the beggar earns for the social func- tion he fulfils.
The guiding question to be followed throughout this analysis will be in which way Wordsworth implies social criticism in connection with the function of the beggar. The starting point in order to trace all of the as- pects mentioned above will be the poem’s formal structure. Formally, the poem is divided into 7 stanzas amounting to 189 lines. On the one hand, its language is highly narrative and not subdued to any regular rhyme scheme. Most striking on the other hand is, that there are two different levels of language.
From line 1 to line 66, simple language is used, probably in order to al- low an easy access to the poem, but mostly to clarify and allude to the beauty of nature and the old order. In these first lines the beggar, who represents the old order, and his way of life in connection with nature are depicted. Also the way the village people treat him with kindness is described. The language applied in this passage can easily be under- stood by everyone, since it does not differ too much from the language of lowerclass people.
In line 67 the second level of language is introduced, which boasts a much more complex language. It stretches up to line 154. Here the lan- guage applied is more complicated. It is rather similar to the language of more educated people on a higher social footing who are probably adressed here. In this large part there are many enjambements, which make it more difficult to read than the other part in more simple language.
From line 155 up to the end there is a shift to the simple level once again, because it is important for everybody to understand that the old beggar must not be put into workhouses and that this kind of captivity would actually harm him. The middle part with its level of complex lan- guage is embedded into the simple language level and carries the main message of the whole poem.
The lyrical I in this poem is the narrator, unnamed and not described. It has known the beggar since its childhood and describes the beggar’s situation and how the village people deal with him or how they should treat him. It wants the reader to realise that every human being is worth living and should be respected. It shows them how they can learn from the beggar and how everybody can personally benefit from the act of charity. But it also criticizes people who do charitiy work only to save a place in heaven for themselves (Cf. line 154).
The lyrical I wants the reader to become a better person, doing an office of charity and experiencing the special happiness, joy and pleasure this can bring. The act of caring for others makes people feel human, and so it is important that even the very poor should have a chance to feel this: "man is dear to man" (ll.147-153)
Furthermore, also the connotations of the lyrical I are noteworthy. As already mentioned, there are hardly any hints of description of the lyrical I whatsoever. Considering the author’s biography though, it appears plausible to see some sort of identification with Wordsworth himself, who had a personal encounter with a beggar at the time when he was in France during the Revolution. That time has also found its entry into the poem with regard of social criticism.
Social criticism is an important theme of this poem even if Wordsworth refers to it indirectly most of the time. Only at the end of the poem he mentions the workhouses (l. 172) directly. He does so in such a nega- tive way, that it becomes plain for the reader to see the author’s opinion about those institutions. The basic tension of the poem between a life orientation based on security and a life orientation based on liberty reaches its climax in the last stanza, where the two conflicting worldviews directly clash.
The formal structure as well is used in order to convince the reader. There are 31 lines (ll. 155-171, ll. 176-189) in which the lyrical I “fights” for the liberty of the beggar subdivisioned in 6 parts, every single one of them beginning with the request: “let him… “ (ll. 155, 162, 164, 158, 176 and 184). Only in the middle (ll. 172-175) the workhouses and the insti- tutionalized life appear in a way that one gets the impression they are only mentioned to show us our enemy, to let us know whom to fight against. The repetition of “let him…” first of all is a strong, nearly pene- trating emphasis of the beggar’s liberty, but besides that also a direct address to politicians, or humanitarians as we can call them in general, not to interfere with the beggar’s life even if he will possibly be the last person to fight for his own rights. Everything in this final part is written in such a simple language and stressed by such obvious stylistic devices that everybody, even the simple village people Wordsworth observed so much, easily understands his intention.
It is correct that nature does not always resemble a warm and caring “mother”, but still Wordsworth holds the opinion that even the coldest wind or snow (l. 167f.) blows a blessing on the old man’s head. Apart from that he belongs to this environment across all seasons, because he has done so his whole life and so he should have the opportunity to end it there, which Wordsworth points out in a parallelism: “As in the eye of Nature he has liv’d, / So in the eye of Nature let him die” (ll. 188- 189). Here he uses the first line as a reason for his concluding request. It is also true that the beggar is a very old and bow-bent man who is hardly aware of the world surrounding him (l. 179 ff.). His daily life is of a mechanical and nearly subhuman monotony (ll. 51-58) focused on the struggle to survive (l. 10-12). But it is all that which makes the beggar so different from other people who are aware of the beautiful landscape around them, able to look at the hills and valleys and the sun. The beg- gar does not separate himself from the world around him but nearly be- comes one with it which makes him a part of the earth.
From this angle we can see the beggar as a symbolical figure for all beggars and their function. The lyrical I points out that the beggar’s function is to create acts of charity and bind the community together in the knowledge that they all have one human heart (l.147). He’s a moni- tor of them all (l. 114f.) and can thus be seen as a pathetic parody of their own nature and good for the awareness of their own social state. That is another very important argument Wordsworth gives: If the beg- gar will be put off the streets the dialogue between the givers and him, their object of charity will be destroyed and the community will have to miss one important limb.
So on the one hand we can conclude that Wordsworth is against the in- stitutionalization of the beggar because in his eyes his function in socie- ty is too important to be missed. On the other hand he makes an appeal to our human respect for the individual to let the beggar live in freedom. As we implied above, William Wordsworth had met a beggar girl in France during the Revolution. Taking this into consideration, some un- derlying intentions of “The Old Cumberland Beggar” can be linked with the French Revolution’s leitmotif of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité“. These ideas are of course strongly connected with on the one hand social criticism in general and the specific social criticism in this poem.
A revolution always starts with people who are dissatisfied with their situation. They criticize people who decide about what they should do although they can hardly imagine their feelings, wants and needs. It is important for the beggar that he can live his own life in personal lib- erty. “The old man does not change his course“ (l. 40), and he is free to follow his own way of life close to nature and its laws, which can once more be proved by the parallelism at the end of the poem, e.g. : “As in the eye of Nature he has lived, So in the eye of Nature let him die“ (l.188f).