The sketch of the Rich Man, made some three or four weeks since, seems to require this companion-piece, and we shall make the attempt, though the subject is far more difficult than the former was.
In the first place, we must state what we mean by a poor man, for it is a term of wide range in its relative applications. A pains-taking artisan, trained to self-denial and a strict adaptation, not of his means to his wants, but of his wants to his means, finds himself rich and grateful, if some unexpected fortune enables him to give his wife a new gown, his children cheap holiday joys, and to his starving neighbor a decent meal; while George IV, when heir apparent to the throne of Great Britain, considered himself driven by the pressure of poverty to become a debtor, a beggar, a swindler, and, by the aid of perjury, the husband of two wives at the same time, neither of whom he treated well. Since poverty is made an excuse for such depravity in conduct, it would be well to mark the limits within which self-control and resistance to temptation may be expected.
When he of the olden time prayers “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” we presume he meant that proportion of means to the average wants of a human being which secures freedom from eating cares, freedom of motion, and a moderate enjoyment of the common blessings offered by earth, air, water, the natural relations, and the subjects for thought which every day presents. We shall certainly not look above this point for our poor man.—A Prince may be poor, if he has means to relieve the sufferings of his subjects, or secure to them needed benefits. Or he may make himself so, just as a well-paid laborer by drinking brings poverty to his roof. So may the Prince, by the mental gin of horse-racing or gambling, grow a beggar. But we shall not consider these cases.
Our subject will be taken between the medium we have spoken of as answer to the wise man’s prayer, and that destitution which we must style infamous, either to the individual or to the society whose vices have caused that stage of poverty in which there is no certainty, and often no probability of work or bread from day to day,—in which cleanliness and all the decencies of life are impossible, and the natural human feelings are turned to gall because the man finds himself on this earth in a far worse situation than the brute. In this stage there is no Ideal, and from its abyss, if the unfortunates look up to Heaven, or the state of things as they ought to be, it is with suffocating gasps which demand relief or death. This degree of poverty is common, as we all know, but we who do not share it have no right to address those who do from our own standard, till we have placed their feet on our own level. Accursed is he who does not long to have this so,—to take out at least the physical Hell from this world! Unblest is he who is not seeking either by thought or act to effect this poor degree of amelioration in the circumstances of his race.
We take the subject of our sketch, then, somewhere between the abjectly poor and those in moderate circumstances. What we have to say may apply to either sex and to any grade in this division of the human family, from the hod-man and washerwoman up to the hard-working, poorly paid lawyer, clerk, schoolmaster or scribe.
The advantages of such a position are many. In the first place, you belong, inevitably, to the active and suffering part of the world. You know the ills that try men’s souls and bodies. You cannot creep into a safe retreat, arrogantly to judge, or heartlessly to forget, the others. They are always before you; you see the path stained by their bleeding feet; stupid and flinty, indeed, must you be, if you can hastily wound or indolently forbear to aid them. Then as to yourself, you know what your resources are; what you can do, what bear; there is small chance for you to escape a well-tempered modesty. Then, again, if you find power in yourself to endure the trial, there is reason and reality in some degree of self-reliance. The moral advantages of such training can scarcely fail to amount to something, and as to the mental, that most important chapter, how the lives of men are fashioned and transferred by the experience of passion and the development of thought presents new sections at every turn, such as the dillettanti’s opera-glasses will never detect,—to say nothing of the exercise of mere faculty, which, though insensible in its daily course, leads to results of immense importance.
But the evils, the disadvantages, the dangers, how many, how imminent! True, indeed, they are so.—There is the early bending of the mind to the production of marketable results, which must hinder all this free play of intelligence and deaden the powers that craved instruction. There is the callousness produced by the sight of more misery than it is possible to relieve; the heart, at first so sensitive, taking refuge in a stolid indifference against the pangs of sympathetic pain, it had not force to bear. There is the perverting influence of uncongenial employments, undertaken without or against choice, continued at unfit hours and seasons, till the man loses his natural relations with summer and winter, day and night, and has no sense more for natural beauty and joy. There is the mean providence, the perpetual caution to guard against ill, instead of the generous freedom of a mind which expects good to ensue from all good actions. There is the sad doubt whether it will do to indulge the kindly impulse, the calculation of dangerous chances and the cost between the loving impulse and its fulfillment. Yes; there is bitter chance of narrowness, meanness and dullness on this path, and it requires great natural force, a wise and large view of life taken at an early age, or fervent trust in God, to evade them.
It is astonishing to see the poor, no less than the rich, the slaves of externals. One would think that, where the rich man once became aware of the worthlessness of the mere trappings of life from the weariness of a spirit that found itself entirely dissatisfied after pomp and self-indulgence, the poor man would learn this a hundred times from the experience how entirely independent of them is all that is intrinsically valuable in our life. But no! The poor man wants dignity, wants elevation of spirit. It is his own servility that forges the fetters that enslave him. Whether he cringe to, or rudely defy, the man in the coach and handsome coat, the cause and effect are the same. He is influenced by a costume and a position. He is not firmly rooted in the truth that, only in so far as outward beauty and grandeur are a representative of the mind of the possessor, can they count for anything at all. Oh poor man! you are poor indeed, if you feel yourself so; poor if you do not feel that a soul born of God, a mind capable of scanning the wondrous works of time and space, and a flexible body for its service, are the essential riches of a man, and all he needs to make him the equal of any other man. You are mean, if the possession of money or other external advantages can make you envy or shrink from a being mean enough to value himself upon such. Stand where you may, oh Man, you cannot be noble and rich, if your brow be not broad and steadfast, if your eye beam not with a consciousness of inward worth, of eternal claims and hopes which such trifles cannot at all effect. A man without this majesty is ridiculous amid the flourish and decorations procured by money, pitiable in the faded habiliments of poverty. But a man who is a man, a woman who is a woman, can never feel lessened or embarrassed because others look ignorantly on such matters. If they regret the want of these temporary means of power, it must be solely because it fetters their motions, deprives them of leisure and desired means of improvement, or of benefitting those they love or pity.
I have heard those possessed of rhetoric and imaginative tendency declare that they should have been outwardly great and inwardly free, victorious poets and heroes, if Fate had allowed them a certain quantity of dollars. I have found it impossible to believe them. In early youth penury may have power to freeze the genial current of the soul and prevent it, during one short life, from becoming sensible of its true vocation and destiny. But if it has become conscious of these, and yet there is not advance in any and all circumstances, no change would avail.
No! our poor man must begin higher. He must, in the first place, really believe there is a God who ruleth, a fact to which few men vitally bear witness, though most are ready to affirm it with the lips.
2d. He must sincerely believe that rank and wealth—
The man’s the gold,
take his stand on his claims as a human being, made in God’s own likeness, urge them when the occasion permits, but, at all times, never be so false to them as to feel put down or injured by the want of mere external advantages.
3d. He must accept his lot, while he is in it. If he can change it for the better, let his energies be exerted to do so. But if he cannot, there is none that will not yield an opening to Eden, to the glories of Zion and even to the subterranean enchantments of our strange estate. There is none that may not be used with nobleness.
Make that and th’ action clean.”
4th. Let him examine the subject enough to be convinced that there is not that vast difference between the employments that is supposed, in the means of expansion and refinement. All depends on the spirit as to the use that is made of an occupation. Mahomet was not a wealthy merchant, and profound philosophers have ripened on the benches, not of the lawyers, but the shoemakers. It did not hurt Milton to be a poor school-master, nor Shakespeare to do the errands of a London play house. Yes, the mind is its own place, and if it will keep that place, all doors will be opened from it. Upon this subject we hope to offer some hints at a future day, in speaking of the different trades, professions and modes of labor.
5th. Let him remember that from no man can the chief wealth be kept. On all men the sun and stars shine; for all the oceans swell and rivers flow. All men may be brothers, lovers, fathers, friends; before all lie the mysteries of birth and death. If these wondrous means of wealth and blessing be likely to remain misused or unused, there are quite as many disadvantages in the way of the man of money as of the man who has none. Few who drain the choicest grape know the ecstacy of bliss and knowledge that follows a full draught of the wine of life. That has mostly been reserved for those on whose thoughts society, as a public, makes but a moderate claim. And if bitterness followed on the joy, if your fountain was frozen after its first gush by the cold winds of the world, yet, moneyless men, ye are least not wholly ignorant of what a human being has force to know. You have not skimmed over surfaces, and been dozing on beds of down during the rare and stealthy visits of Love and the Muses. Remember this, and, looking round on the arrangements of the lottery, see if you did not draw a prize in your turn.
It will be seen that our ideal poor man needs to be religious, wise, dignified and humble, grasping at nothing, claiming all; willing to wait, never willing to give up; servile to none, the servant of all, and esteeming it the glory of a man to serve. The character is rare, but not unattainable. We have, however, found an approach to it more frequent in woman than in man.
Woman, even less than Man, is what she should be, as a whole. She is not that self-centered being, full of profound intuitions, angelic love, and flowing poesy, that she should be. Yet there are circumstances in which the native force and purity of her being teach her how to conquer where the restless impatience of man brings defeat and leaves him crushed and bleeding on the field.
Images rise to mind of calm strength, of gentle wisdom learning from every turn of adverse fate, of youthful tenderness and faith undimmed to the close of life, which redeem humanity and make the heart glow with fresh courage as we write. They are mostly from obscure corners and very private walks; there was nothing shining, nothing of an obvious and sounding heroism to make their conduct doubtful, by tainting their motives with vanity. Unknown they lived, untrumpeted they died. Many hearts were warmed and fed by them, but, perhaps, no mind but our own ever consciously took account of their virtues.
Had Art but the power adequately to tell their simple stories, and to cast upon them the light which, shining through those marked and faded faces, foretold the glories of a second Spring! The tears of holy emotion which fell from those eyes have seemed to us pearls beyond all price, or rather whose price will be paid only when beyond the grave they enter those better spheres in whose faith they felt and acted here.
From this private gallery we will, for the present, bring forward only one picture. That of a Black Nun was wont to fetter the eyes of the visitors in the Royal Galleries of France, and my Sister of Mercy too is of that complexion. The old woman was recommended as a laundress by my friend, who had long prized her. I was immediately struck with the dignity and propriety of her manner. In the depth of winter she brought herself the heavy baskets through the slippery streets, and when I asked why she did not employ some younger person to do what was so entirely disproportioned to her strength, simply said, “she lived alone and could not afford to hire an errand-boy.” “It was hard for her?” “No! she was fortunate in being able to get work at her age, when others could do it better. Her friends were very good to procure it for her.” “Had she a comfortable home?” “Tolerably so; she should not need one long.” “Was that a thought of joy to her?” “Yes; for she hoped to see again the husband and children from whom she had long been separated.”
Thus much in answer to the questions; but at other times the little she said was on general topics. It was not from her that I learnt how “the great idea of Duty had held her upright” through a life of incessant toil, sorrow, and bereavement, and that not only she had remained upright, but that the character had been constantly progressive. Her latest act had een to take home a poor sick girl, who had no home of her own, and could not bear the idea of dying in a hospital, and maintain and nurse her through the last weeks of her life. “Her eye-sight was failing, and she should not be able to work much longer, but then God would provide. Somebody ought to see to the poor motherless girl.”
It was not merely the greatness of the act, for one in such circumstances, but the quiet, matter-of-course way in which it was done, that showed the habitual tone of the mind, and made us feel that life could hardly do more for a human being than to make him or her the somebody that is daily so deeply needed to represent the right,—to do the plain right thing.
“God will provide.” Ay, indeed, it is the poor who feel themselves near to the God of Love.—“Though he slay them, still do they trust him.” “I hope,” said I to a poor apple-woman who had been drawn on to disclose a tale of distress that almost, in the mere hearing, made me weary of life, “I hope I may yet see you in a happier condition.” “With God’s help,” she replied, with a smile that Raphael would have delighted to transfer to the canvas, a Mozart to his strains of angelic sweetness. All her life she had seemed an outcast child, still she leaned upon her Father’s love.
The dignity of a state like this may vary its form in more or less richness and beauty of edtail, but here is the focus of what makes life valuable. It is this spirit which makes Poverty the best servant to the Ideal of Human Nature. I am content with this type, and will only quote, in addition, a ballad I found in a foreign periodical translated from Chamisso, and which forcibly recalled my own laundress as an equally admirable sample of the same class, the Ideal Poor, which we need for our consolation so long as there must be real poverty.
AMONG yon lines her hands have laden.
A laundress with white hair appears,
Alert as many a youthful maiden,
Spite of her five-and-seventy years.
Bravely she won those white hairs, still
Eating the bread hard toil obtained her,
And laboring truly to fulfil
The duties to which God ordained her.
Once she was young and full of gladness,
She loved and hoped, was wooed and won;
Then came the matron’s cares, the sadness
No loving heart on earth may shun.
Three babes she bore her mate; she prayed
Beside his sick-bed; he was taken;
She saw him in the church-yard laid,
Yet kept her faith and hope unshaken.
The task her little ones of feeding
She met unfaltering from that hour;
She taught them thrift and honest breeding,
Her virtues were their worldly dower.
To seek employment, one by one,
Forth with her blessing they departed,
And she was in the world alone,
Alone and old, but still high-hearted.
With frugal forethought, self-denying,
She gathered coin, and flax she bought,
And many a night her spindle plying,
Good store of fine-spun thread she wrought.
The thread was fashioned in the loom;
She brought it home, and calmly seated
To work, with not a thought of gloom,
Her decent grave clothes she completed.
She looks on them with fond elation,
They are her wealth, her treasure rare,
Her age’s pride and consolation,
Hoarded with all a miser’s care.
She dons the sark each Sabbath day,
To hear the Word that faileth never;
Well pleased she lays it then away,
Till she shall sleep in it for ever.
Would that my spirit witness bore me
That, like this woman, I had done
The work my Maker put before me,
Duly from morn till set of sun.
Would that life’s cup had been by me
Quaffed in such wise and happy measure,
And that I too might finally
Look on my shroud with such meek pleasure.
Such are the noble of the earth. They do not repine; they do not chafe, even in the inmost heart.—They feel that, whatever else may be denied or withdrawn, there remains the better part, which cannot be taken from them. This line exactly expresses the woman I knew:
Will any, Poor or Rich, fail to feel that the children of such a parent were rich, when
Will any fail to bow the heart in assent to the aspiration—
That, like this woman, I had done
The work my Maker put before me,
Duly from morn till set of sun?”
May not that suffice to any man’s ambition?*
“The Poor Man—An Ideal Sketch,” New-York Daily Tribune, 25 March 1846, p. 1.