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09 September 2013

The Beggar Lad — dies early —

The Beggar Lad — dies early —
It's Somewhat in the Cold —
And somewhat in the Trudging feet —
And haply, in the World —

The Cruel — smiling — bowing World —
That took its Cambric Way —
Nor heard the timid cry for "Bread" —
"Sweet Lady — Charity" —

Among Redeemed Children
If Trudging feet may stand
The Barefoot time forgotten — so —
The Sleet — the bitter Wind —

The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
Lifted adoring — them —
To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
Did supplicate in vain —

                                                                                   F496 (1862)  J717

Dickinson had books by Charles Dickens and at least one book about William Blake in her personal library. Both authors wrote famous works about poor, starving children. Perhaps Dickinson was reading Oliver Twist or thinking about Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper." I vote for the latter, for there is a hint of Blake's caustic irony in this poem. Well, there is if you look at the poem just right.

On a quick read we see how a "Beggar Lad" dies from cold and exhaustion, ignored by passersby. Dickinson economically conveys a callous upper class with its fine clothing through the phrase "Cambric Way." After death, such beggar children lift their "adoring" hands to Jesus – who reputedly answers the supplications of the poor (those in "Ragged – Coat"). Their earthly suffering, the "Barefoot time" and the "bitter Wind," are forgotten.
       Except that this rather saccharine ending is at odds with previous Dickinson poems that rail against salvation and grace coming too late, or the incomprehensible suffering of children beneath the gaze of a savior who promised to care for them.
Children of wealth showing charity

        In  "Some, too fragile for winter winds" (F91), Dickinson suggests that despite Jesus' assertion in the bible that even sparrows are not forgotten by God and people are even more precious, there are graves full of "children / Early aged, and often cold, / Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father – / Lambs for whom time had not a fold." In F195, "Victory comes late," the poet rather scathingly wonders why God's "Table" is “spread too high” so that we have to “dine on tiptoe” as if God is not a particularly loving father. In addition, what we receive is often too little or else too late. In "He told a homely tale" (F486), Dickinson describes a homeless orphan and implies that it is she who "ransomed it – alive," and that both heaven and earth, both early and heavenly father, had failed the boy.
        With that undercurrent of bitterness against the unfairness of suffering in this world, I'm tempted to read the last two lines of this poem ironically. Perhaps Dickinson means us to consider whether or not ragged-coated children ever do raise their supplicating hands in vain, and she is implying that they certainly do.

I must admit, though, I am reaching a bit with this interpretation. It is likely that Dickinson penned this from sincere sentimentality (common among Victorian authors) – and hope that the next life will be a better one for the suffering children.
   

5 comments:

  1. Thank you. The references to earlier poems by ED are very helpful, as are the citations to Dickens and Blake.

    Blake actually has two poems entitled "The Chimney Sweeper". I agree that they are deeper, darker and more provocative than this poem, which seems to be less ironical than Blake's Chimney Sweeper poem in Songs of Innocence.

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  2. I can see why it might appear that the second or ironic interpretation might appear to be a bit of a stretch, but there might be some additional points that lend support for that view point.

    Additionally, I read that last stanza in two ways-- consider:

    The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
    (the childish hands as dude above--it is also capitalized, ED capitalizes for dude above--requesting penance or form of payment in a Pence)
    Lifted adoring — them —
    (dude above sees his beloved beggar lad, and adoringly wishes to take the beggar lad--this also works with "A homely tale" where the second interpretation of the word "miss" gives the inclining that dude above wants to take the homely back to him).
    To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
    (Dude above takes his hands to the boy with the ragged clothes, but also--there is also a second interpretation of rag. If you think of rag as a verb, then it can be defined as to torment, tease, or scold. So, here, despite the trials the beggar lad suffers, the beggar lad never rags against dude above. He takes his suffering willingly).
    Did supplicate in vain —
    (The coat did not help the boy at all, and he passes away. Or, the gentle pleas of the boy to live are in vain).


    The inverted relationship works equally well

    The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
    (The beggar lad who requested quietly for money for food and a coat)
    Lifted adoring — them —
    (gave up and took his hands--to)
    To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
    (dude above, who never scolded the lad--a bit ironic considering how much the beggar lad suffered; dude above covers the lad. Here, I am making a bit of a leap, but coat could be short for turncoat. She chides the boy for going over to the other side. She metaphorically dies in "Because I did not stop for Death-" but this dude dies for real; she disapproves.)
    Did supplicate in vain —
    (The boy's sweet begging--or supplication to humanity's better side--goes in vain, and the boy goes over to the other side)


    Additionally, it is a bit difficult to see ED to simply get over her initial aversion or bitterness of prating of heaven (We pray - to Heaven). She might be a bit annoyed by me pratting on and on and making the beggar boy a somebody, when she feels kinship in being a nobody with the homely boy and beggar lad, but, personally, I can't see her having no aversion to what she is describing).

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    Replies
    1. As always your delvings turn up interesting ways of reading the poem! Thank you. However, I think in some instances, for example the Ragged Coat / Turncoat suggestions, you may be working too hard. ;)

      I certainly agree that Dickinson *must* have aversion to the situation of the begging children. However, it might be said that if she were truly moved by their plight she might have tried publishing her poems about them.

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  3. The manner in which she inverted the last two lines leaves that drop of doubt in your mind as to whether or not the supplication was in vain. The last line of the poem reads "did supplicate in vain." The poem sure doesn't seem to end on a reassuring note.

    Perhaps the line "To Him whom never Ragged-Coat" could be read alternatively as "to him whom never wore a ragged-coat".

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    1. Re-reading it now, it seems clearer to me that 'Ragged-Coat' is a metonymy for 'beggar children'. So, never did they supplicate him in vain.

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