EDWARD CARPENTER (1844–1929)

This poem presents aspects of a major provincial industrial city shared by London. Towards Democracy was published in four parts, between 1883 and 1902, and reflects Carpenter’s Whitmanesque sense of ‘cosmic consciousness’ and ‘spiritual democracy’.

Extract from Towards Democracy (1883–1902). Part I (1883).

As I walked restless and despondent through the gloomy city,
And saw the eager unresting to and fro—as of ghosts in some sulphurous Hades—
And saw the crowds of tall chimneys going up, and the pall of smoke covering the sun, covering the earth, lying heavy against the very ground—
And saw the huge refuse-heaps writhing with children picking them over,
And the ghastly half-roofless smoke-blackened houses, and the black river flowing below,—
As I saw these, and as I saw again far away the Capitalist quarter,
With its villa residences and its high-walled gardens and its well-appointed carriages, and its face turned away from the wriggling poverty which made it rich,—
As I saw and remembered its drawing-room airs and affectations and its wheezy pursy Church-going and its gas-reeking heavy-furnished rooms and its scent-bottles and its other abominations—
I shuddered:
For I felt stifled, like one who lies half-conscious—knowing not clearly the shape of the evil—in the grasp of some heavy nightmare.

Then out of the crowd descending towards me came a ragged little boy;
Came—from the background of dirt disengaging itself—an innocent wistful child-face, begrimed like the rest but strangely pale, and pensive before its time.
And, in an instant (it was as if a trumpet had been blown in that place) I saw it all clearly, the lie I saw and the truth, the false dream and the awakening.
For the smoke-blackened walls and the tall chimneys, and the dreary habitations of the poor, and the drearier habitations of the rich, crumbled and conveyed themselves away as if by magic;
And instead, in the backward vista of that face, I saw the joy of free open life under the sun:
The green sun-delighting earth and rolling sea I saw—The free sufficing life—sweet comradeship, few needs and common pleasures—the needless endless burdens all cast aside,
Not as a sentimental vision, but as a fact and a necessity existing, I saw
In the backward vista of that face.

Stronger than all combinations of Capital, wiser than all the Committees representative of Labor, the simple need and hunger of the human heart.
Nothing more is needed.
All the books of political economy ever written, all the proved impossibilities, are of no account.
The smoke-blackened walls and tall chimneys duly crumble and convey themselves away;
The falsehood of a gorged and satiated society curls and shrivels together like a withered leaf,
Before the forces which lie dormant in the pale and wistful face of a little child.

Last modified, 15-Jan-2002 .
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