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One human heart: Wordsworth’s old Cumberland beggar and the sweetness of being human

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By Anthony Esolen
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June 5, 2012 (thePublicDiscourse.com) - I am persuaded that the movement to demand that physicians corrupt themselves at the heart by assisting in the suicides of the superannuated is but a reaction of terror before a perceived inhumanity. We who have become the tools of our tools shudder at the last insult to our human nature, that we should be invaded by all the complicated paraphernalia of delay, to breathe our last in a dull white room, with the pitted panels of the drop-ceiling overhead (reckon up the chaos, O man, and count how many marks there are in one square), while the calls to the nurses come and go, and a television blares out the last few minutes of an inane comedy that was never once touched by youth or mirth or the milk of human kindness.

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,

He sat, and ate his food in solitude:
And ever, scattered from his palsied hand,
That, still attempting to prevent the waste,
Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers
Fell on the ground; and the small mountain birds,
Not venturing yet to peck their destined meal,
Approached within the length of half his staff.

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.”

If the old man cannot earn his keep, can he at least behold with a full heart the beauty of the world around him? If we should insist upon it, then that, too, would reduce him to an object of utility. No, the man is so stooped, his eyes travel the ground at the same slow pace of his walk. He seems, quite literally, to make no mark on the world, as the world seems to make no mark on him:

His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet
Disturb the summer dust; he is so still
In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
Weary of barking at him. 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.

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:

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!

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.”

But there is more. The old man is not only an object of charity. He is a living memorial to that kindness. He endows it with a human face—what no detachedly benign philanthropic system can do; and so connects his benefactors with their own better selves long past, and with one another:

While from door to door,
This old Man creeps, the villagers in him
Behold a record which together binds
Past deeds and offices of charity,
Else unremembered, and so keeps alive
The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,
And that half-wisdom half-experience gives,
Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign
To selfishness and cold oblivious cares.

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:

Man is dear to man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life
When they can know and feel that they have been,
Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
As needed kindness, for this single cause,
That we have all of us one human heart.

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 is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This article reprinted with permission from thePublicDiscourse.com.

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PBS defends decision to air pro-abortion documentary ‘After Tiller’

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By Dustin Siggins

Under pressure for showing the pro-abortion documentary "After Tiller" on Labor Day, PBS' "POV" affiliate has defended the decision in response to an inquiry from LifeSiteNews.

The producers of the film say their goal with the documentary, which tells the stories of four late-term abortion doctors after the killing of infamous late-term abortionist George Tiller, is to "change public perception of third-trimester abortion providers by building a movement dedicated to supporting their right to work with a special focus on maintaining their safety.” 

POV told LifeSiteNews, "We do believe that 'After Tiller' adds another dimension to an issue that is being debated widely." Asked if POV will show a pro-life documentary, the organization said that it "does not have any other films currently scheduled on this issue. POV received almost 1000 film submissions each year through our annual call for entries and we welcome the opportunity to consider films with a range of points of view."

When asked whether POV was concerned about alienating its viewership -- since PBS received millions in federal tax dollars in 2012 and half of Americans identify as pro-life -- POV said, "The filmmakers would like the film to add to the discussion around these issues. Abortion is already a legal procedure."

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"This is an issue that people feel passionately about and will have a passionate response to. We are hopeful that the majority of people can see it for what it is, another lens on a very difficult issue." 

In addition to the documentary, POV has written materials for community leaders and teachers to share. A cursory examination of the 29-page document, which is available publicly, appears to include links to outside sources that defend Roe v. Wade, an examination of the constitutional right to privacy, and "a good explanation of the link between abortion law and the right to privacy," among other information.

Likewise, seven clips recommended for student viewing -- grades 11 and beyond -- include scenes where couples choose abortion because the children are disabled. Another shows pro-life advocates outside a doctor's child's school, and a third is described as showing "why [one of the film's doctors] chose to offer abortion services and includes descriptions of what can happen when abortion is illegal or unavailable, including stories of women who injured themselves when they tried to terminate their own pregnancies and children who were abused because they were unwanted."

Another clip "includes footage of protesters, as well as news coverage of a hearing in the Nebraska State Legislature in which abortion opponents make reference to the idea that a fetus feels pain." The clip's description fails to note that it is a scientifically proven fact that unborn children can feel pain.

The documentary is set to air on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern on Labor Day.

Kirsten Andersen contributed to this article.

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He defended ‘real’ marriage, and then was beheaded for it

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By Pete Baklinski

A Christian man was executed during the night by a high-profile ruler after making an uncompromising defense of real marriage.

The Christian, who was renowned for his holiness, had told the ruler in public that his relationship with his partner was “against the law” of God. The Christian’s words enraged the ruler’s partner who successfully plotted to have him permanently silenced.

John the Baptist was first imprisoned before he was beheaded. The Catholic Church honors him today, August 29, as a martyr and saint.

While John’s death happened a little less than 2,000 years ago, his heroic stance for real marriage is more pertinent today than ever before.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the ruler Herod had ‘married’ his brother’s wife Herodias. When John told Herod with complete frankness, “It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife,” Herodias became “furious” with him to the point of wanting him killed for his intolerance, bullying, and hate-speech.

Herodias found her opportunity to silence John by having her daughter please Herod during a dance at a party. Herod offered the girl anything she wanted. The daughter turned to her mother for advice, and Herodias said to ask for John’s head on a platter.

Those who fight for real marriage today can learn three important lessons from John’s example.

  1. Those proudly living in ungodly and unnatural relationships — often referred to in today’s sociopolitical sphere as ‘marriage’ — will despise those who tell them what they are doing is wrong. Real marriage defenders must expect opposition to their message from the highest levels.
  2. Despite facing opposition, John was not afraid to defend God’s plan for marriage in the public square, even holding a secular ruler accountable to this plan. John, following the third book of the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:21), held that a man marrying the wife of his brother was an act of “impurity” and therefore abhorrent to God. Real marriage defenders must boldly proclaim today that God is the author of marriage, an institution he created to be a life-long union between one man and one woman from which children arise and in which they are best nurtured. Marriage can be nothing more, nothing less.
  3. John did not compromise on the truth of marriage as revealed by God, even to the point of suffering imprisonment and death for his unpopular position. Real marriage defenders must never compromise on the truth of marriage, even if the government, corporate North America, and the entire secular education system says otherwise. They must learn to recognize the new “Herodias” of today who despises those raising a voice against her lifestyle. They must stand their ground no matter what may come, no matter what the cost.

John the Baptist was not intolerant or a bigot, he simply lived the word of God without compromise, speaking the word of truth when it was needed, knowing that God’s way is always the best way. Were John alive today, he would be at the forefront of the grassroots movement opposing the social and political agenda to remake marriage in the image of man.

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If he were alive today he might speak simple but eloquent words such as, “It is against God’s law for two men or two women to be together as a husband and wife in marriage. Marriage can only be between a man and a woman.” 

He would most likely be hated. He would be ridiculed. He would surely have the human rights tribunals throwing the book at him. But he would be speaking the truth and have God as his ally. 

The time may not be far off when those who defend real marriage, like John, will be presented with the choice of following Caesar or making the ultimate sacrifice. May God grant his faithful the grace to persevere in whatever might come. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

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The Wunderlich family Mike Donnelly / Home School Legal Defence Association
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German homeschoolers regain custody of children, vow to stay and fight for freedom

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

One year to the day since a team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed a homeschooling family’s residence near Darmstadt, Germany, and forcibly removed all four of the family’s children, aged 7 to 14, a state appeals court has returned custody of the children to their parents.

The reason given for the removal was that parents Dirk and Petra Wunderlich continued to homeschool their children in defiance of a German ban on home education.

The children were returned three weeks after being taken, following an international outcry spearheaded by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

However, a lower court imposed the condition on the parents that their children were required to attend state schools in order for them to be released, and took legal custody of the children in order to prevent the family from leaving the country.

In a decision that was still highly critical of the parents and of homeschooling, the appeals court decided that the action of the lower court in putting the children in the custody of the state was “disproportional” and ordered complete custody returned to the parents, according to a statement by the HSLDA.

The Wunderlichs, who began homeschooling again when the court signaled it would rule this way, said they were very pleased with the result, but noted that the court’s harsh words about homeschooling indicated that their battle was far from over.

“We have won custody and we are glad about that,” Dirk said.

“The court said that taking our children away was not proportionate—only because the authorities should apply very high fines and criminal prosecution instead. But this decision upholds the absurd idea that homeschooling is child endangerment and an abuse of parental authority.”

The Wunderlichs are now free to emigrate to another country where homeschooling is legal, if they choose, but they said they intend to remain in Germany and work for educational freedom.

“While we no longer fear that our children will be taken away as long as we are living in Hessen, it can still happen to other people in Germany,” Dirk said. “Now we fear crushing fines up to $75,000 and jail. This should not be tolerated in a civilized country.”

Petra Wunderlich said, "We could not do this without the help of HSLDA,” but cautioned that, “No family can fight the powerful German state—it is too much, too expensive."

"If it were not for HSLDA and their support, I am afraid our children would still be in state custody. We are so grateful and thank all homeschoolers who have helped us by helping HSLDA.”

HSLDA’s Director for Global Outreach, Michael Donnelly, said he welcomed the ruling but was concerned about the court’s troubling language.

“We welcome this ruling that overturns what was an outrageous abuse of judicial power,” he said.

“The lower court decision to take away legal custody of the children essentially imprisoned the Wunderlich family in Germany. But this decision does not go far enough. The court has only grudgingly given back custody and has further signaled to local authorities that they should still go after the Wunderlichs with criminal charges or fines.”

Donnelly pointed out that such behavior in a democratic country is problematic.

“Imprisonment and fines for homeschooling are outside the bounds of what free societies that respect fundamental human rights should tolerate,” he explained.

“Freedom and fundamental human rights norms demand respect for parental decision making in education. Germany’s state and national policies that permit banning home education must be changed.

"Such policies from a leading European democracy not only threaten the rights of tens of thousands of German families but establish a dangerous example that other countries may be tempted to follow,” Donnelly warned.

HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris said that acting on behalf of the Wunderlichs was an important stand for freedom.

“The Wunderlichs are a good and decent family whose basic human rights were violated and are still threatened,” Farris said.

“Their fight is our fight," Farris stressed, "and we will continue to support those who stand against German policy banning homeschooling that violates international legal norms. Free people cannot tolerate such oppression and we will do whatever we can to fight for families like the Wunderlichs both here in the United States and abroad. We must stand up to this kind of persecution where it occurs or we risk seeing own freedom weakened.”

Visit the HSLDA website dedicated to helping the Wunderlich family and other German homeschoolers here.

Contact the German embassy in the U.S. here.

Contact the German embassy in Canada here.

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