In “The Old Cumberland Beggar” the speaker, the poet William Wordsworth, has an epiphany in which he discovers the value of an aged beggar he has seen since his childhood. Wordsworth notices a strong connection between the beggar and nature, a blurred connection in which the beggar himself is an extension of nature.
The beggar is a dejected member of society, shunned by most, understood by a few, but the beggar himself has no consciousness of this. In fact the beggar has no sense of consciousness that we are allowed to see, rather he goes through life on apparent instinct, rather than a sense of his free will. Wordsworth says of the beggar:
He travels on, a solitary Man,
His age has no companion. On the ground
His eyes are turned, as he moves along,
They move along the ground; and evermore,
Instead of common and habitual sight
Of fields and rural works, of hill and dale,
And the blue sky, one little span of earth,
Is all his prospect (44-51).
The phrase “They move along the ground” is crucial to understanding the value of the beggar, unaware of his connection to nature, only aware of items he can make use of, his “scraps and fragments.” But in this Wordsworth sees an almost sublime (in Burke’s sense of the word) connection to nature, life at its simplest, and seems to increase his own consciousness in the process of watching the beggar.
’Tis Nature’s law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Of 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… (73-79)
Thus is Wordsworth’s sympathy for the beggar, his value to all of mankind, as another human being deserving of good, not to be passed over. Earlier in the poem Wordsworth remarks to the communities disregard of the beggar, of all who pass him by, the “Boys and girls / The vacant and the busy, maids and youths / And urchins newly breeched all pass him by / Him even the slow-paced wagon leaves behind (63-66).” What resonates throughout the poem is Wordsworth’s profound sense of humanity, his belief in all humans being one and that all benefit from knowing the beggar.
Wordsworth scorns those who would “rid the world of nuisances (70)” and who when looking upon the beggar, congratulate themselves on their own successes. But what is ironic about Wordsworth’s observation of the beggar is that while Wordsworth has an epiphany about the unity of humanity, his thoughts serve only as self-cultivation, and an increase in Wordsworth’s own consciousness. Though this is ironic, it is not detrimental to Wordsworth or the poems meaning at all, rather it is the supreme value of the beggar. Were all who passed him by were to have Wordsworth’s epiphany, their own sense of consciousness would increase, and this is the argument of the poem.
Like “Tintern Abbey,” “The Old Cumberland Beggar” is about observing ones surroundings as an act of self-cultivation. An understanding of the beggar leads to a greater understanding of the self, and this is what Wordsworth strives for.