So much poetry is, on the surface even, about responses and responsibility, that it is possible to understand it as dramatizing its own formal challenges. The two questions that critics assume poets to ask, after all, are: why does this word or choice seem right for the work as a whole (how is it responsible to what it is, and to what it needs and is owed)? why does this work seem right for the world or my conception of the world (how it is responsible to what it is, and to what it needs and is owed)? Both questions are shot through with judgments, about what is, what is needed, and what is owed, and the choices of form and subject in a poem can be taken as responses to either questions, whose reasons can be articulated in terms of what the poet holds world and work to be, to need, and to be owed.
Most mysterious are those works that seem to divide us, that contain competing, but not coordinated, notions of rightness or else competing, but not coordinated, conceptions of the world. Working out what in them seems right and what amiss is often difficult, leading to unsatisfying compromises or undue severity of judgment. The greatest of such works is perhaps Paradise Lost, giving rise as it does to the debates about Milton that in their ferment neither affirm nor deny the poem’s power, but testify to its peculiarity. Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar” is on a much smaller scale another such poem. It’s ambitions, though, are out of proportion to its length. Along with “The Ruined Cottage,” which was never published, it presents a deep confusion or conflict in Wordsworth’s mind just prior to his great decade; and the decade’s breakthrough needs to be seen as finding a more satisfying resolution to the conflict, by differently ordering and conceiving its parts, and also by dissolving the frame of thought in which it arose.
In part, the resolution to the dilemma of “The Old Cumberland Beggar” proceeded by Wordsworth’s deciding (or seeing) that there was no political solution to the ethical problem he say, or, flipped the other way, that the ethical solution could not find expression in available political structures; Wordsworth’s later poetry does not, as James Chandler once argued, turn away from the political, so much as detach the one from the other, treating the ethical as a prior term in a dialectic, in which the ethical and political are dependent on one another; there is no conception of the ethical possible beyond the political, but there is also no rejuvenation of the political possible if the ethical is not reimagined. Wordsworth’s poetry of the great decade, dismayed at political failures, does not find shelter in the ethical, but approaches one wound in the dialect.
The trouble with the poem (linked here) is that it wants to Beggar to serve a public function, even if it is only as an emblem in the poem, an opportunity for the poem to make a public proclamation on his common humanity even as he insists that the Beggar be allowed to preserve his solitary way of life and not be sent to the workhouse. “Deem not this man useless,” it says, arguing against too narrow a utilitarianism that equates work with rationalized economic output; but it also wants to find him useful because he preserves the habitual acts of charitable giving in the life of a village; he is passively and receptively useful, a very Wordsworthian notion, but only in so far as he can retain his agency to beg where he may. The muddle of ideas that will animate the best of Wordsworth’s poetry is apparent here, but the real source of confusion is the publicness of Wordsworth’s voice trying to take up a subject whose very being, Wordsworth half-admits, resists publicness, in so far as it is a realm of political and civic discourse. The beggar is amenable to, and sustains, a good that is organic, traditional, historical even, but that is not, in the same way as the poem itself, public. The crucial lines of the poem are probably:
Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
Gives the last human interest to his heart.
These are characteristic of Wordsworth at his most solemnly mysteriousness, where “last” means “ultimate,” and “foundational,” but also “sole remaining” and where “vital” is “essential” but also “living,” where “anxiousness” qualifies “hope” as much as “vital” qualifies “anxiousness,” and where “reverenced” is more modest and intimate than “revere.”But they also differ from what Wordsworth would later do in that curious imperative, which is addressed to the “Statesmen” he takes as his audience: they are to give reverence not to the beggar per se, but to his hope for charity, since in the fulfillment of that hope by the villages through which he passes, the organic bonds of community are maintained; putting him in a poorhouse or workhouse would disrupt that symbiosis.
The poem has, in the past, tied me (like others) in knots. But now I suspect it is because it conflates two of Wordsworth’s insights, and two of his rhetorical modes that accompany those insights: on the one hand, the affirmation of a common humanity accessible to all, and on the other, the encounter with an essential humanity exposed through endurance and isolation. The latter is common, but not accessible, and in the later poetry, the poetry written only a few years later, the affirmation of common humanity is found from Wordsworth’s introspection, whereas the encounter with solitaries affords the vision of an essential humanity that defies comprehension, and that alienates and disturbs rather than consoles. A figure like Michael is fascinating because he affords Wordsworth a sense of what is common and accessible before fading into isolation in his end.
Wordsworth’s “The Old Cumberland Beggar” is muddled about what is owed to the poem for it to come to a resting place and resolution because it is muddled about what is owed to the beggar for him to come to a resting place with any resolution. The final line of the poem is about just that and it is hard to suppress the tone of callousness in that line, even though Wordsworth would not have intended it there: “So in the Eye of Nature let him die!” But also, evidently, in the eye of poet, and in the eye of the audience for whom the poet would hold up the Beggar as an example; and again we are back to a version of the problem of publicness, or at least the problem of a shared consolation, which Wordsworth would suggest, in the greatest poems like “Resolution and Independence,” with its scrupulously unsettled and unsatisfying satisfaction at its close, cannot be had from those whose lives have been scraped away to bareness. (“Old Man Travelling” is yet another interesting variant; that poem picks up lines from the first stretch of “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” but it does not know what to make of the man, is impressed by him, but does not press much upon him, until the final six lines, variously deleted and revised by Wordsworth, which, when intact, disturb the tranquility of the poet’s gaze, throwing the man into the human experiences of generations and history).
In terms of the questions that I started with, Wordsworth cannot be sure what is owed to the poem because he is not sure what is owed to the world, not as he sees it, and not as the Statesmen or Villagers see it, but as the Beggar experiences it. But rather than make that ignorance and imaginative obscurity the focus of the poem, he admits it only to sidestep it: the Beggar is not, evidently, a political agent, but his experience has political bearing and his own agency is capable of being compromised by politics (Wordsworth rightly sees), and so the poem will address his being as it pertains to a political arena of which he seems unaware. Wordsworth does not stop to ask him, as he will in the later poetry; the decision to stop and ask, be it the Leech Gatherer or the Discharged Soldier makes all the difference, is the only way to write on the most extreme solitary figures. On the one hand, Wordsworth seems to be on strong ground arguing against the utilitarian statesmen; on the other, he accepts the terms of their argument too readily, and falls onto a different conception of utility. But the common weal and common heart of mankind that he would align cannot proceed from the figure of a man who is excluded from an exchange of common words and feelings. That is what is he owed, first, and what the later poems will present.