Above her state this spirit towers

When I first went to Paris which must have been in the early 1960’s I was shocked to see beggars on the street; shocked because I’d only ever read about beggars in old stories, I’d never actually seen people sitting on the streets with their hands out for money. I’m sure there were beggars, and there were people selling violets they’d picked themselves, and there were other people on hard times trying to get money by singing or dancing, or playing some musical instrument, and maybe we had laws against begging which were strictly enforced.

It’s a sad state of affairs, no worse, an appalling state of affairs, that now there are beggars on the streets, homeless and hopeless… I came across this sonnet by Matthew Arnold… I know very little about him, but this short poem which must have been written before 1867, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, describes a scene not far off what we might see today.


West London

Crouch’d on the pavement close by Belgrave Square
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Pass’d opposite; she touch’d her girl, who hied
Across, and begg’d and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succour, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.


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