A COMPLAINT OF THE DECAY
OF BEGGARS IN THE METROPOLIS
The all-sweeping besom of societarian
reformation -- your only modern Alcides' club to rid the time
of its abuses -- is uplift with many-handed sway to extirpate
the last fluttering tatters of the bugbear Mendicity from the
metropolis. Scrips, wallets, bags -- staves, dogs, and crutches
-- the whole mendicant fraternity with all their baggage are fast
posting out of the purlieus of this eleventh persecution. From
the crowded crossing, from the corners of streets and turnings
of allies, the parting Genius of Beggary is "with sighing
I do not approve of
this wholesale going to work, this impertinent crusado, or bellum
ad exterminationem, proclaimed against a species. Much good might
be sucked from these Beggars.
They were the oldest
and the honourablest form of pauperism. Their appeals were to
our common nature; less revolting to an ingenuous mind than to
be a suppliant to the particular humours or caprice of any fellow-creature,
or set of fellow-creatures, parochial or societarian. Theirs were
the only rates uninvidious in the levy, ungrudged in the assessment.
There was a dignity
springing from the very depth of their desolation; as to be naked
is to be so much nearer to the being a man, than to go in livery.
The greatest spirits
have felt this in their reverses; and when Dionysius from king
turned schoolmaster, do we feel any thing towards him but contempt?
Could Vandyke have made a picture of him, swaying a ferula for
a sceptre, which would have affected our minds with the same heroic
pity, the same compassionate admiration, with which we regard
his Belisarius begging for an obolum? Would the moral have been
more graceful, more pathetic?
The Blind Beggar in
the legend -- the father of pretty Bessy -- whose story doggrel
rhymes and ale-house signs cannot so degrade nor attenuate, but
that some sparks of a lustrous spirit will shine through the disguisements
-- this noble Earl of Cornwall (as indeed he was) and memorable
sport of fortune, fleeing from the unjust sentence of his liege
lord, stript of all, and seated on the flowering green of Bethnal,
with his more fresh and springing daughter by his side, illumining
his rags and his beggary -- would the child and parent have cut
a better figure, doing the honours of a counter, or expiating
their fallen condition upon the three-foot eminence of some sempstering
In tale or history your
Beggar is ever the just antipode to your King. The poets and romancical
writers (as dear Margaret Newcastle would call them) when they
would most sharply and feelingly paint a reverse of fortune, never
stop till they have brought down their hero in good earnest to
rags and the wallet. The depth of the descent illustrates the
height he falls from. There is no medium which can be presented
to the imagination without offence. There is no breaking the fall.
Lear, thrown from his palace, must divest him of his garments,
till he answer "mere nature;" and Cresseid, fallen from
a prince's love, must extend her pale arms, pale with other whiteness
than of beauty, supplicating lazar alms with bell and clap-dish.
The Lucian wits knew
this very well; and, with a converse policy, when they would express
scorn of greatness without the pity, they show us an Alexander
in the shades cobbling shoes, or a Semiramis getting up foul linen.
How would it sound in
song, that a great monarch had declined his affections upon the
daughter of a baker! yet do we feel the imagination at all violated
when we read the "true ballad," where King Cophetua
wooes the beggar maid?
Pauperism, pauper, poor
man, are expressions of pity, but pity alloyed with contempt.
No one properly contemns a beggar. Poverty is a comparative thing,
and each degree of it is mocked by its "neighbour grice."
Its poor rents and comings-in are soon summed up and told. Its
pretences to property are almost ludicrous. Its pitiful attempts
to save excite a smile. Every scornful companion can weigh his
trifle-bigger purse against it. Poor man reproaches poor man in
the streets with impolitic mention of his condition, his own being
a shade better, while the rich pass by and jeer at both. No rascally
comparative insults a Beggar, or thinks of weighing purses with
him. He is not in the scale of comparison. He is not under the
measure of property. He confessedly hath none, any more than a
dog or a sheep. No one twitteth him with ostentation above his
means. No one accuses him of pride, or upbraideth him with mock
humility. None jostle with him for the wall, or pick quarrels
for precedency. No wealthy neighbour seeketh to eject him from
his tenement. No man sues him. No man goes to law with him. If
I were not the independent gentleman that I am, rather than I
would be a retainer to the great, a led captain, or a poor relation,
I would choose, out of the delicacy and true greatness of my mind,
to be a Beggar.
Rags, which are the
reproach of poverty, are the Beggar's robes, and graceful insignia
of his profession, his tenure, his full dress, the suit in which
he is expected to show himself in public. He is never out of the
fashion, or limpeth awkwardly behind it. He is not required to
put on court mourning. He weareth all colours, fearing none. His
costume hath undergone less change than the quaker's. He is the
only man in the universe who is not obliged to study appearances.
The ups and downs of the world concern him no longer. He alone
continueth in one stay. The price of stock or land affecteth him
not. The fluctuations of agricultural or commercial prosperity
touch him not, or at worst but change his customers. He is not
expected to become bail or surety for any one. No man troubleth
him with questioning his religion or politics. He is the only
free man in the universe.
The Mendicants of this
great city were so many of her sights, her lions. I can no more
spare then, than I could the Cries of London. No comer of a street
is complete without them. They are as indispensable as the Ballad
Singer; and in their picturesque attire as ornamental as the Signs
of old London. They were the standing morals, emblems, mementos,
dial-mottos, the spital sermons, the books for children, the salutary
checks and pauses to the high and rushing tide of greasy citizenry
Upon that poor and broken bankrupt there.
Above all, those old blind Tobits that
used to line the wall of Lincoln's Inn Garden, before modern fastidiousness
had expelled them, casting up their ruined orbs to catch a ray
of pity, and (if possible) of light, with their faithful Dog Guide
at their feet, -- whither are they fled? or into what corners,
blind as themselves, have they been driven, out of the wholesome
air and sun-warmth? immersed between four walls, in what withering
poor-house do they endure the penalty of double darkness, where
the chink of the dropt halfpenny no more consoles their forlorn
bereavement, far from the sound of the cheerful and hope-stirring
tread of the passenger? Where hang their useless staves? and who
will farm their dogs Have the overseers of St. L --- caused them
to be shot? or were they tied up in sacks, and dropt into the
Thames, at the suggestion of B--- , the mild rector of -- -?
Well fare the soul of
unfastidious Vincent Bourne, most classical, and at the same time,
most English, of the Latinists -- who has treated of this human
and quadrupedal alliance, this dog and man friendship, in the
sweetest of his poems, the Epitaphium in Canem, or, Dog's Epitaph.
Reader, peruse it; and say, if customary sights, which could call
up such gentle poetry as this, were of a nature to do more harm
or good to the moral sense of the passengers through the daily
thoroughfares of a vast and busy metropolis.
Pauperis hic iri requiesco Lyciscus,
Dum vixi, tutela vigil columenque senectae,
Dux caeco fidus: nec, me ducente, solebat,
Praetenso hinc atque hinc baculo, per iniqua locorum
Incertam explorare viam; sed fila secutus,
Quae dubios regerent passus, vestigia tuta
Fixit inoffenso gressu; gelidumque sedile
In nudo nactus saxo, qua praetereuntium
Unda frequens confluxit, ibi miserisque tenebras
Lamentis, noctemque oculis ploravit obortam.
Ploravit nec frustra; obolum dedit alter et alter,
Queis corda et mentem indiderat natura benignam.
Ad latus interea jacui sopitus herile,
Vel mediis vigil in somnis; ad herilia jussa
Auresque atque animum arrectus, seu frustula amice
Porrexit sociasque dapes, seu longa diei
Taedia perpessus, reditum sub nocte parabat.
Hi mores, haec vita fuit, dum fata sinebant,
Dum neque languebam morbis, nec inerte senecta;
Quae tandem obrepsit, veterique satellite cascum
Orbavit dominum prisci sed gratia facti
Ne tota intereat, longos deleta per annos,
Exiguum hunc Irus tumulum de cespite fecit,
Etsi inopis, non ingratae, munuscula dextrae;
Carmine signavitque brevi, dominumque canemque
Quod memoret, fidumque canem dominumque benignum.
Poor Irus' faithful wolf-dog here I
That wont to tend my old blind master's steps,
His guide and guard: nor, while my service lasted,
Had he occasion for that staff, with which
He now goes picking out his path in fear
Over the highways and crossings; but would plant,
Safe in the conduct of my friendly string,
A firm foot forward still, till he had reach'd
His poor seat on some stone, nigh where the tide
Of passers by in thickest confluence flow'd:
To whom with loud and passionate laments
From morn to eve his dark estate he wail'd.
Nor wail'd to all in vain: some here and there,
The well-disposed and good, their pennies gave.
I meantime at his feet obsequious slept;
Not all-asleep in sleep, hut heart and ear
Prick'd up at his least motion; to receive
At his kind hand my customary crums,
And common portion in his feast of scraps;
Or when night warn'd us homeward, tired and spent
With our long day and tedious beggary.
These were my manners, this my way of life,
Till age and slow disease me overtook,
And sever'd from my sightless master's side.
But lest the grace of so good deeds should die,
Through tract of years in mute oblivion lost,
This slender tomb of turf hath Irus reared,
Cheap monument of no ungrudging hand,
And with short verse inscribed it, to attest,
In long and lasting union to attest,
The virtues of the Beggar and his Dog.
These dim eyes have
in vain explored for some months past a well-known figure, or
part of the figure, of a man, who used to glide his comely upper
half over the pavements of London, wheeling along with most ingenious
celerity upon a machine of wood; a spectacle to natives, to foreigners,
and to children. He was of a robust make, with a florid sailor-like
complexion, and his head was bare to the storm and sunshine. He
was a natural curiosity, a speculation to the scientific, a prodigy
to the simple. The infant would stare at the mighty man brought
down to his own level. The common cripple would despise his own
pusillanimity, viewing the hale stoutness, and hearty heart, of
this half-limbed giant. Few but must have noticed him; for the
accident, which brought him low, took place during the riots of
1780, and he has been a groundling so long. He seemed earth-born,
an Anteus, and to suck in fresh vigour from the soil which he
neighboured. He was a grand fragment; as good as an Elgin marble.
The nature, which should have recruited his reft legs and thighs,
was not lost, but only retired into his upper parts, and he was
half a Hercules. I heard a tremendous voice thundering and growling,
as before an earthquake, and casting down my eyes, it was this
mandrake reviling a steed that had started at his portentous appearance.
He seemed to want but his just stature to have rent the offending
quadruped in shivers. He was as the man-part of a Centaur, from
which the horse-half had been cloven in some dire Lapithan controversy.
He moved on, as if he could have made shift with yet half of the
body- portion which was left him. The os sublime was not wanting;
and he threw out yet a jolly countenance upon the heavens. Forty-and-two
years had he driven this out of door trade, and now that his hair
is grizzled in the service, but his good spirits no way impaired,
because he is not content to exchange his free air and exercise
for the restraints of a poor-house, he is expiating his contumacy
in one of those houses (ironically christened) of Correction.
Was a daily spectacle
like this to be deemed a nuisance, which called for legal interference
to remove? or not rather a salutary and a touching object, to
the passers-by in a great city? -- Among her shows, her museums,
and supplies for ever-gaping curiosity (and what else but an accumulation
of sights -- endless sights -- is a great city; or for what else
is it desirable?) was there not room for one Lusus (not Naturae,
indeed, but) Accidentium? What if in forty-and-two years' going
about, the man had scraped together enough to give a portion to
his child (as the rumour ran) of a few hundreds -- whom had he
injured ? -- whom had he imposed upon? The contributors had enjoyed
their sight for their pennies. What if after being exposed all
day to the heats, the rains, and the frosts of heaven -- shuffling
his ungainly trunk along in an elaborate and painful motion --
he was enabled to retire at night to enjoy himself at a club of
his fellow cripples over a dish of hot meat and vegetables, as
the charge was gravely brought against him by a clergyman deposing
before a House of Commons' Committee -- was this, or was his truly
paternal consideration, which (if a fact) deserved a statue rather
than a whipping-post, and is inconsistent at least with the exaggeration
of nocturnal orgies which he has been slandered with -- a reason
that he should be deprived of his chosen, harmless, nay edifying,
way of life, and be committed in hoary age for a sturdy vagabond?
There was a Yorick once,
whom it would not have shamed to have sate down at the cripples'
feast, and to have thrown in his benediction, ay, and his mite
too, for a companionable symbol. "Age, thou hast lost thy
Half of these stories
about the prodigious fortunes made by begging are (I verily believe)
misers' calumnies. One was much talked of in the public papers
some time since, and the usual charitable inferences deduced.
A clerk in the Bank was surprised with the announcement of a five
hundred pound legacy left him by a person whose name he was a
stranger to. It seems that in his daily morning walks from Peckham
(or some village thereabouts) where he lived, to his office, it
had been his practice for the last twenty years to drop his halfpenny
duly into the hat of some blind Bartimeus, that sate begging alms
by the way-side in the Borough. The good old beggar recognised
his daily benefactor by the voice only; and, when be died, left
all the amassings of his alms (that [p 120] had been half
a century perhaps in the accumulating) to his old Bank friend.
Was this a story to purse up people's hearts, and pennies, against
giving an aims to the blind ? -- or not rather a beautiful moral
of well-directed charity on the one part, and noble gratitude
upon the other?
I sometimes wish I had
been that Bank clerk.
I seem to remember a poor old grateful kind of
creature, blinking, and looking up with his no eyes in the sun
Is it possible I could have steeled my purse against
Perhaps I had no small change.
Reader, do not be frightened
at the hard words, imposition, imposture -- give, and ask no questions.
Cast thy bread upon the waters. Some have unawares (like this
Bank clerk) entertained angels.
Shut not thy purse-strings
always against painted distress. Act a charity sometimes. When
a poor creature (outwardly and visibly such) comes before thee,
do not stay to inquire whether the "seven small children,"
in whose name he implores thy assistance, have a veritable existence.
Rake not into the bowels of unwelcome truth, to save a halfpenny.
It is good to believe him. If he be not all that he pretendeth,
give, and under a personate father of a family, think (if thou
pleasest) that thou hast relieved an indigent bachelor. When they
come with their counterfeit looks, and mumping tones, think them
players. You pay your money to see a comedian feign these things,
which, concerning these poor people, thou canst not certainly
tell whether they are feigned or not.