The Poor Man by A. E. Coppard, 1923

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by A. E. Coppard, 1923

In the foreword to his Collected Tales, A. E. Coppard argues that the short story, far from being sprung from the same fictional principles as the novel, is "an ancient art originating in the folk tale," far more ancient than printing, and "minister[s] to an apparently inborn and universal desire to hear tales." Indeed the loose, wandering narrative of the tale can be seen in many of his stories. "The Poor Man," collected in The Black Dog, is typical not only in its structure but also in Coppard's creation of setting, use of rural village folk, and loving attention to dialect. It is these very qualities that led Frank O'Connor to praise Coppard for his "uncanny perception of a human's secretiveness and mystery."

Although at first "The Poor Man" seems to be only a collection of random incidents covering four years in the life of Dan Pavey, it is actually one of Coppard's most ironically Hardyesque tales. It treats the insignificant human in the grasp of patterned destiny, in this case brought on in part by the hubris of Pavey, who strives "to be no better than he should be." A 35-year-old man who lives with his mother Meg in Icknield vale, Pavey appears to earn his living by turning chairs in beech wood and by delivering papers in six villages. (Coppard evokes England's rural past with extraordinary deftness through the use of names: Thasper, Cobbs Mill, Kezzal Predy Peter, Buzzzlebury, Trinkel, and Nuncton.) He delights the villagers on his rounds by singing in a fine tenor voice: hymns and anthems early in the week, "modestly secular tunes" by midweek, and "entirely ribald and often a little improper" tunes by the end of the week. His bowler hat and ugly nose distinguish him less, however, than do his poaching game, getting drunk, and collecting bets on horse races from the villagers, activities he is specifically warned against by the Reverend Faudel Scroppe and Mrs. Scroope. Pavey denies involvement, telling his mother, "I do as other folks do, not because I want to, but because I a'nt the pluck to be different…. You never taught me courage, and I wasn't born with any."

One Bonfire Day (Guy Fawkes Day, on November 5), almost as if to challenge Scroope, Pavey brings his five-year-old illegitimate son home with him, and Scroope expels him from the church choir. "Your course of life … reveals not only a social misdemeanor but a religious one—it is a mockery, a mockery of God," he tells Pavey. When Pavey replies that "we can only measure other people by our own scales," the rector responds with a providential tale of an atheist who was deafened and then blinded for his mockery. Within days Pavey is singing a "savage libel" about Scroope in the White Hart. He becomes a chorister in a distant village, not heeding the gap between his actions and the words of the songs he so delights in singing.

At this point in the tale Coppard shows his full mastery of narrative art by inserting a brief, highly symbolic but also highly realistic scene involving Martin, Pavey's son. While playing at Old John's cottage, Martin calls attention to the crooked chimney. John responds, "My chimney's crooked, a'nt it, ah, and I'm crooked too." John's perceived analogy between the line of the chimney and the ethics of a man are related to Pavey's life and his refusal to take responsibility for what he has become. During the next three years Martin and Pavey grow very close, and the father repeatedly warns his son, "Never take pattern by me."

At the end of these three years, just when Martin seems to have brought good luck into the Pavey household, his father is sentenced to hard labor for poaching and for attempting to murder a game-keeper. He is innocent of the latter charge but unable to convince the jury. In one day Pavey has lost his dog, poisoned by bait the gamekeeper had put out, and his freedom. Six months later Martin drowns in a boating accident. When he hears the news, Pavey is dazed and collapses, unable to speak anything other than three lines of a "jig," as though he has suffered a stroke. In his mind these "punishments" have come to him as surely and as inevitably as did deafness and blindness to Scroope's parishioner. One can easily see that Coppard learned much from Thomas Hardy's Life's Little Ironies. Coppard's keen perception of the tragedy of life caused him to value "The Poor Man" highly, and he accorded it the third position in his Collected Tales. His contemporary H. E. Bates was surely correct when he said that stories such as "The Poor Man" are as "sturdy and sound in grain as oak, as delicate and oddly scented as hawthorn."

—David Leon Higdon

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The Poor Man by A. E. Coppard, 1923

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