Wordsworth denounces those who reduce human worth to utility and teaches us that the goodness of being is absolute.
If I, old and dying, mean nothing at all, then let me mean nothing on my own terms. If I am to be swept out of consciousness, then let me ply the broom! But this is no argument. It is a cry of despair.
Such despair is inevitable, if we accept the notion that our humanity depends upon what we can do, rather than upon what we are. For the knees will creak, and the hands tremble, and the mind wander; and, whether for but a moment or for a year, we will be as helpless (though not as beautiful) as a newborn child, that most useless of creatures, who can do nothing but search for nourishment and love.
Then let us not try to fight unmeaning with unmeaning. Let us look again at the special beauty of being human, a beauty that is especially poignant in the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying.
One day the young poet William Wordsworth looked out upon the road and saw a figure from his childhood, a certain old man who trudged along the Cumberland roads, to beg from the villagers in their modest cottages. He stopped at a ledge at the bottom of a steep hill, placed there to help men remount their horses, and, taking his treasures from his bag,
Such is the drama of the old man's day. Wordsworth grants himself a gentle smile at the fellow, who doesn't want to lose any of the bread he eats, but loses a little bit anyway, and who is so harmless that the small and timid birds manage to come within two feet of him, this mysterious creature, this man. We don't know what is going on in the man's mind. Wordsworth doesn't allow himself that sentimentality. Whatever it may be, he is a part of both the natural world and the human village. There is a communion of sorts between him and the sparrows, he the more precious of that breed, and a communion between him and his fellow men.
For people are moved by him. Again, Wordsworth is not appealing to easy sentiment, but to action — the action of human souls. The sauntering horseman does not toss the beggar a coin, but stops, to make sure the alms are lodged safely in the man's hat, and then, upon leaving him, "watches the aged Beggar with a look / Sidelong, and half reverted." The exchange is not financial but human. The woman at the turnpike, when she sees him coming, leaves her booth and lifts up the latch for him to pass. The post-boy, harried with business, shouts to him from behind, but if the old man doesn't hear, the boy slows down his horses and passes him on the roadside, "without a curse / Upon his lips, or anger at his heart."
What good is such a life?
Here Wordsworth turns with a glare at those who reduce "good" to utility, and utility to those economic speckles that can be counted up:
What nuisances, one might ask? The poor, whose souls we kill, while keeping their bodies well fed and at a comfortable distance? The simple, who shatter our dreams of Harvard, and whose habits embarrass us? The dying, who remind us of our mortality? The unborn, for whose little lives we are personally responsible? What good are these? But the goodness of being, the poet affirms, is absolute. All things partake of it, even the meanest creatures that creep on the earth; far more, then, does man, no matter how lowly. We cannot scorn that Beggar, unaccommodated Man, "without offence to God."
For some few, for the sublime and saintly among us, that beggar may bring them their first glimpse into a world of their own kindred amid sorrow and want; so it is that a Mother Teresa, that most unsentimental of women, will say that the poor, when they are loved, give more than they receive.
One thing they give us is the rare chance to break those fetters that can bind us tighter than sin: the fetters of right living. The Poor Woman of Leon Bloy's novel, as she lies dying, will say with a heart filled with gratitude that the only tragedy is not to have been a saint. It is no tragedy to have missed out at a partnership in a law firm, or to have let slip one's "dreams," whatever those fantasies of power and glory may be. Wordsworth puts the point bluntly: what is there in the "cold abstinence from evil deeds" that can "satisfy the human soul"? A man pays his taxes, does not violate the law in any flagrant way, keeps well away from the marches of evil as mapped out by the latest scientists of ethics, votes for the correct candidates, and sends a check now and again to a distant charity. Does that satisfy the human soul? No more, I say, than a speckled ceiling or the drone of a television, or the false paternity of a government, or any other measure that keeps us conveniently apart from one another and from the good creatures with which we share this world.
For we need to love as well as to be loved:
That last line says all that I have been struggling to say here. The medicine for our inhumanity cannot be compounded of inhumanity. We must learn to love again — even to know our neighbors would be a good and toddling beginning. We must learn to love those incomparably useless and precious beings, the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying, because they and we are one.
Anthony Esolen. "One Human Heart: Wordsworth's Old Cumberland Beggar and the Sweetness of Being Human." The Public Discourse (May 30, 2012).
This article is reprinted and republished with the explicit permission of the Withersoon Institute. Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.
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