A Hand to Those in Need

A Hand to Those in Need

This week’s poem is by Robert W. Service, a British-Canadian writer who is better known for his longer poems, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”.

Let’s do each day a kindly deed,
And stretch a hand to those in need,
Bird, beast or man.

Robert W. Service (1874—1958)

Poem 185. Compassion

A beggar in the street I saw,
Who held a hand like withered claw,
As cold as clay;
But as I had no silver groat
To give, I buttoned up my coat
And turned away.

And then I watched a working wife
Who bore the bitter load of life
With lagging limb;
A penny from her purse she took,
And with sweet pity in her look
Gave it to him.

Anon I spied a shabby dame
Who fed six sparrows as they came
In famished flight;
She was so poor and frail and old,
Yet crumbs of her last crust she doled
With pure delight.

Then sudden in my heart was born
For my sleek self a savage scorn,—
Urge to atone;
So when a starving cur I saw
I bandaged up its bleeding paw
And bought a bone.

For God knows it is good to give;
We may not have so long to live,
So if we can,
Let’s do each day a kindly deed,
And stretch a hand to those in need,
Bird, beast or man.

I found this poem while looking for something on the subject of kindness, an attribute that I have had ample experience of in my life, and especially this week after a positive confirmation of Covid infection. I have had many offers of help and kind thoughts, and I am most grateful.

This poem begins with the narrator spying a beggar in the street and turning away because he has no “silver groat to give” (a groat being a defunct coin: a four penny piece) before being shamed by the pity of a working woman who, though she has less than the narrator, finds a penny for the indigent; later on he is further shamed by the elderly woman who, despite her age and infirmity, gladly feeds the city sparrows (no hint of pigeons).

In a haze of self-loathing, the narrator seeks to atone for his lack of charity by assuaging the hunger of a famished dog and tending to its injured paw. The last stanza is a little moral sermon and suggests that the narrator changed his ways enough to warrant absolution and that he will be more liberal with his coinage in the future.

I like this poem for its message of compassion and charity and for its brief but evocative thumbnail character portraits. We know more about the people the narrator meets than we do about him, really.