OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt may seem an odd comparison, but the death of the boy, Martin, in Coppard’s story, The Poor Man, reminded me of the scene in Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, where the renegades, having taken over a taverna, throw a loaded pistol to the timid barman, exhorting him to ‘shoot the nigger’!

The scenes are different in every particular, save the one that prompts the recollection: that sense of the awful surprise leading on to catastrophe. As in McCarthy, Coppard pulls his devastating nemesis seemingly out of the air, seemingly without warning or deserving, without hint of its coming. Yet the hints are there throughout the story.

The death of the boy is only the latest, and also the greatest, of the misfortunes that have already struck Dan Pavey, and at their core lies the fact that he is ‘a poor man’, ‘the poor man’ of the title; and once again, as in ‘Weep Not My Wanton’ Coppard uses the distinction between the definite and indefinite articles to make a general comment from a particular instance, or rather, to show a particular instance of the generality.

This story proceeds by steps, each one of which becomes the context for the next. ‘The Poor Man’ is a harsh story told gently. Uncommon today, is the free use of authorial comment. Coppard knows what he thinks, of his characters and their situations, and like Dickens three quarters of a century before, is content to engage us in a one-sided conversation, in which his opinions are made clear. This is not a modern, certainly not a post-modern approach. The author has no problem with being seen at our elbow, pointing out to us what is worth noting in the story, as he tells it.

‘The poor man’ of the title must live, and suffer and die, as the poor man of the story will do. That, Coppard is telling us, is the nature of England. He tells this story over and again in various guises. ‘The Old Venerable’ is another example. The details are different, but the broad brush strokes of the narrative are similar. ‘Felix Tincler’, who is only a child, suffers a similarly remorseless fate in the story named after him. There is a strand of stoicism and acceptance which runs through Coppard, residing not so much in the characters as in the narrator himself. They struggle against their fates, but he records them unflinchingly.

Sometimes he lets us off, as it were, without a death! The Higgler, though on the verge of penury, his cart horse having died, his trade all but dried up, at the end of his story, is yet left with the hope of better times to come. Johnny Flynn’s mother, though never rescued from poverty, at least has the eponymous Cherry Tree to admire at the end of hers. In ‘The Elixir of Youth’ the narrator is given an Irish voice, and tells a tale that is pure fairy story – but it is still the same tale: that poverty will not be escaped, even when a magic potion is found.

The title ‘The Poor Man’ also carries an ambiguity. There is poverty at the heart of the story, but it is not poverty alone, nor perhaps even especially, that the title references. He may be a ‘poor man’ also in that he elicits our compassion. This quality of the title, that it may reflect our reaction to the man is also present in ‘The Old Venerable’. In this story the veneration is most certainly not provided by the young gamekeeper, who murders the eponymous hero’s dog, and thus precipitates his murder of the orphaned pups. The parallel between these two stories, in terms of their harshness and brutal pragmatisms, is quite noticeable. The economic, and hierarchical necessities of life are visited on many Coppard characters, and without remission in most cases. The Higgler, who says of himself throughout his story ‘I’m done and damned’, gets off lightly, when his horse dies, and he ends up pushing a handcart to certain penury, but only by virtue of his chance to become the ‘working bailiff’ of Mary Sadgrove.

 

There is a thread that runs throughout Coppard of what I’m tempted to call fatalism, an acceptance of the fates we must accept because of who we are, of what we are. With The Poor Man, and The Old Venerable, it is the state of rural England that sets the obvious parameters, but behind that is the way people choose to behave, and these are choices, which though allowed by the state of the nation, are not enforced by it. The vicar, in the poor man, did not have to pursue Dan Pavey, any more than the gamekeeper had to drive out the Old Venerable, any more than Dan had to take on the responsibility of the illegitimate child. The world, Coppard seems to say, over and again, is the way it is, because we make it so.

Weep Not My Wanton is in Adam And Eve And Pinch Me (1921)

The Cherry Tree, Elixir of Youth, & Felix Tincler  are in Clorinda Walks in Heaven (1922).

The Poor Man is in The Black Dog (1923)

The Old Venerable is in The Field of Mustard  (1926)

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