"That first mild touch of sympathy and thought": Stoicism in Wordsworth's "Old Cumberland Beggar"

This paper is an attempt to understand Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar” with reference to Stoicism. This poem has always been controversial among Wordsworth scholars with its direct comments on the contemporary poor relief system. Historicist scholars did not like the poem because they found no sign of a genuine sympathy for the poor in Wordsworth’s narration of an old vagrant beggar nor any practicable suggestion for his well-being as a member of the community. Some other scholars, on the other hand, appreciated Wordsworth’s characterization of the old man, particularly the aesthetic quality of the old man’s solitude in nature. Their aestheticism was more or less founded upon the “One-Life philosophy” which Coleridge have supposedly invented and gave to Wordsworth in Quantock Hills in 1797-98. My argument is that “Old Cumberland Beggar” is best understood when it is placed in the context of the Stoicism which Wordsworth was familiar with since his Hawkshead years. The old man’s solitude in Nature, for example, does not imply alienation because he is “stoically” in sympathy with the “mountain birds” with whom he inadvertently shared what he had earned from the village. The village people’s ‘habitual’ charity on the old man does not show any particular emotional attachment to him, which, however, does not necessarily mean that their commitments are self-centered. “That after joy” they have after the charity brings about an implicit awareness that their actions were also “stoically” in sympathy with a principle in nature. Stoicism calls it the “Active Principle” pervading the whole nature by which all the apparently unrelated events in the world are made responsive to the Rationality of Nature. The “first mild touch of sympathy and thought” from the beggar is also instrumental in developing the moral sensibility of many people who have been witnessing the “use” of private charity in the village. The stoic concept of oikeiōsis, the process of “appropriating” to one’s own what is in line with the Natural Rationality, is useful too for explaining the wholesome effect of the beggar upon the people who indirectly committed themselves to the charitable actions. This stoic interpretation helps us to understand both the characterization of the old beggar and the poet’s political polemics more consistently within a single unified interpretative space. The stoic reading of “Old Cumberland Beggar” clearly shows that it is not only the finale of his commitments to the humanitarian poetry of social protest, but also the very beginning of the new poetic spirit that he was due to embody in The Prelude and The Excursion in the following years. 


19세기 영어권 문학 24-1(2020): 27-65


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