3 min read


A meditation on philanthropy
and Worthsworth’s “The Old Cumberland Beggar”


I write this on a Friday afternoon in a blustery but blissfully warm Chicago spring. I snuck out from the office a bit early, desperate to read something impractical for once. By 4pm on Friday, we’ve all had enough of the practicalities section (no offense to the Philanthropy Daily editorial staff).

I settle into a bench in a park not two blocks from my office.

I saw an aged Beggar in my walk;
And he was seated, by the highway side,
On a low structure of rude masonry

No beggars today in Austin Gardens, just overly groomed dogs, though I do see the occasional homeless citizen in this otherwise well-to-do neighborhood. The only beggar is the one in a crumpled-up copy of a Wordsworth poem I’ve managed to extract from the bottom of my briefcase. The Old Cumberland Beggar. And in digging through my belongings I am not unlike him:

He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one;
And scanned them with a fixed and serious look
Of idle computation.

Ah, the beggar. A universal symbol of pity, lowly in status and at the mercy of whatever human kindness he can find. But find it he does.

He travels on, a solitary Man,
So helpless in appearance, that for him
The sauntering Horseman throws not with a slack
And careless hand his alms upon the ground,
But stops,—that he may safely lodge the coin
Within the old Man’s hat; nor quits him so,
But still, when he has given his horse the rein,
Watches the aged Beggar with a look
Sidelong, and half-reverted.

In case that wasn’t explicit enough, Wordsworth has some words for the so-called global philanthropic community, with their garish obsession with professionalized, specialized knowledge, charts and figures and “impact”:

But deem not this Man useless.—Statesmen! Ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth! ‘Tis Nature’s law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Or 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.

Here is a charity quite unlike our logic models, with outcomes unexpected and unmeasurable. And I am afraid it is quite unscalable, because it is human.

Where’er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
The mild necessity of use compels
To acts of love; and habit does the work
Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy
Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued,
Doth find herself insensibly disposed
To virtue and true goodness.

I stare across the expanse of the park, leafless as it is this early in the season, and see a man on a bench with greasy gray hair, sucking down a pop—for its rightful name is pop in the Midwest—like it’s the last nectar he’ll ever taste. Not a beggar by any stretch of the imagination, just a tired man who needs a haircut, enjoying both nature and high fructose corn syrup all at once.

He’ll do for my imagination. I don’t have a glass myself, so I awkwardly raise my laptop to him in acknowledgement.

Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
The freshness of the valleys…

May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
Make him a captive!—for that pent up din,
Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
Be his the natural silence of old age!

I am visited by a dog named Monty. He is the size of a large rat and his owner says his name with a British accent. Unlike the man on the bench across the park, he seems to have had a very recent shave. Poor thing. I would have rather spoken with the man.

Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
Been doomed so long to settle upon earth
That not without some effort they behold
The countenance of the horizontal sun,
Rising or setting, let the light at least
Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.

A local sidewalk activist notified me about something yesterday, rudely interrupting my quest for a sandwich: they are going to destroy this park. Not directly, of course. But there’s already one 21-story luxury apartment up nearby, and another developer has clearance to build a 16-story one right around the corner.

So there will be no morning sun in Austin Gardens, or so the Wordsworthian activist told me. I wonder if the yuppies in their high-rise apartments will ever sit on these benches next to beggars canine and human, or if they will just gaze down on the scene from their glassy heights.

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