OUR OLD HOME
A Series of English Sketches
To Franklin Pierce,
As a Slight Memorial of a College Friendship, prolonged through Manhood, and retaining all its Vitality in our Autumnal Years,
This Volume is inscribed by NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
TO A FRIEND.
I have not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.
I once hoped, indeed, that so slight a volume would not be all that I might write. These and other sketches, with which, in a somewhat rougher form than I have given them here, my journal was copiously filled, were intended for the side-scenes and backgrounds and exterior adornment of a work of fiction of which the plan had imperfectly developed itself in my mind, and into which I ambitiously proposed to convey more of various modes of truth than I could have grasped by a direct effort. Of course, I should not mention this abortive project, only that it has been utterly thrown aside and will never now be accomplished. The Present, the Immediate, the Actual, has proved too potent for me. It takes away not only my scanty faculty, but even my desire for imaginative composition, and leaves me sadly content to scatter a thousand peaceful fantasies upon the hurricane that is sweeping us all along with it, possibly, into a Limbo where our nation and its polity may be as literally the fragments of a shattered dream as my unwritten Romance. But I have far better hopes for our dear country; and for my individual share of the catastrophe, I afflict myself little, or not at all, and shall easily find room for the abortive work on a certain ideal shelf, where are reposited many other shadowy volumes of mine, more in number, and very much superior in quality, to those which I have succeeded in rendering actual.
To return to these poor Sketches; some of my friends have
told me that they evince an asperity of sentiment towards the English people
which I ought not to feel, and which it is highly inexpedient to express. The charge surprises me, because, if it be
true, I have written from a shallower mood than I supposed. I seldom came into personal relations with an
Englishman without beginning to like him, and feeling my favorable impression
wax stronger with the progress of the acquaintance. I never stood in an English
crowd without being conscious of hereditary sympathies. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that an
American is continually thrown upon his national antagonism by some acrid
quality in the moral atmosphere of
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that time has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths,--for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man's loyalty is more steadfast, no man's hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE.
THE WAYSIDE, July 2, 1863.
The Consulate of the United States, in my day, was located
in Washington Buildings (a shabby and smoke-stained edifice of four stories
high, thus illustriously named in honor of our national establishment), at the
lower corner of Brunswick Street, contiguous to the Gorec Arcade, and in the
neighborhood of scone of the oldest docks.
This was by no means a polite or elegant portion of
Any respectable visitor, if he could make up his mind to elbow a passage among these sea-monsters, was admitted into an outer office, where he found more of the same species, explaining their respective wants or grievances to the Vice-Consul and clerks, while their shipmates awaited their turn outside the door. Passing through this exterior court, the stranger was ushered into an inner privacy, where sat the Consul himself, ready to give personal attention to such peculiarly difficult and more important cases as might demand the exercise of (what we will courteously suppose to be) his own higher judicial or administrative sagacity.
It was an apartment of very moderate size, painted in
imitation of oak, and duskily lighted by two windows looking across a by-street
at the rough brick-side of an immense cotton warehouse, a plainer and uglier
structure than ever was built in America.
On the walls of the room hung a large map of the United States (as they
were, twenty years ago, but seem little likely to be, twenty years hence), and
a similar one of Great Britain, with its territory so provokingly compact, that
we may expect it to sink sooner than sunder.
Farther adornments were some rude engravings of our naval victories in
the War of 1812, together with the Tennessee State House, and a
One truly English object was a barometer hanging on the wall, generally indicating one or another degree of disagreeable weather, and so seldom pointing to Fair, that I began to consider that portion of its circle as made superfluously. The deep chimney, with its grate of bituminous coal, was English too, as was also the chill temperature that sometimes called for a fire at midsummer, and the foggy or smoky atmosphere which often, between November and March, compelled me to set the gas aflame at noonday. I am not aware of omitting anything important in the above descriptive inventory, unless it be some book-shelves filled with octavo volumes of the American Statutes, and a good many pigeon-holes stuffed with dusty communications from former Secretaries of State, and other official documents of similar value, constituting part of the archives of the Consulate, which I might have done my successor a favor by flinging into the coal-grate. Yes; there was one other article demanding prominent notice: the consular copy of the New Testament, bound in black morocco, and greasy, I fear, with a daily succession of perjured kisses; at least, I can hardly hope that all the ten thousand oaths, administered by me between two breaths, to all sorts of people and on all manner of worldly business, were reckoned by the swearer as if taken at his soul's peril.
Such, in short, was the dusky and stifled chamber in which I spent wearily a considerable portion of more than four good years of my existence. At first, to be quite frank with the reader, I looked upon it as not altogether fit to be tenanted by the commercial representative of so great and prosperous a country as the United States then were; and I should speedily have transferred my headquarters to airier and loftier apartments, except for the prudent consideration that my government would have left me thus to support its dignity at my own personal expense. Besides, a long line of distinguished predecessors, of whom the latest is now a gallant general under the Union banner, had found the locality good enough for them; it might certainly be tolerated, therefore, by an individual so little ambitious of external magnificence as myself. So I settled quietly down, striking some of my roots into such soil as I could find, adapting myself to circumstances, and with so much success, that, though from first to last I hated the very sight of the little room, I should yet have felt a singular kind of reluctance in changing it for a better.
Hither, in the course of my incumbency, came a great variety
of visitors, principally Americans, but including almost every other
nationality on earth, especially the distressed and downfallen ones like those
As for my countrymen, I grew better acquainted with many of our national characteristics during those four years than in all my preceding life. Whether brought more strikingly out by the contrast with English manners, or that my Yankee friends assumed an extra peculiarity from a sense of defiant patriotism, so it was that their tones, sentiments, and behavior, even their figures and cast of countenance, all seemed chiselled in sharper angles than ever I had imagined them to be at home. It impressed me with an odd idea of having somehow lost the property of my own person, when I occasionally heard one of them speaking of me as "my Consul"! They often came to the Consulate in parties of half a dozen or more, on no business whatever, but merely to subject their public servant to a rigid examination, and see how he was getting on with his duties. These interviews were rather formidable, being characterized by a certain stiffness which I felt to be sufficiently irksome at the moment, though it looks laughable enough in the retrospect. It is my firm belief that these fellow-citizens, possessing a native tendency to organization, generally halted outside of the door to elect a speaker, chairman, or moderator, and thus approached me with all the formalities of a deputation from the American people. After salutations on both sides,--abrupt, awful, and severe on their part, and deprecatory on mine,--and the national ceremony of shaking hands being duly gone through with, the interview proceeded by a series of calm and well-considered questions or remarks from the spokesman (no other of the guests vouchsafing to utter a word), and diplomatic responses from the Consul, who sometimes found the investigation a little more searching than he liked. I flatter myself, however, that, by much practice, I attained considerable skill in this kind of intercourse, the art of which lies in passing off commonplaces for new and valuable truths, and talking trash and emptiness in such a way that a pretty acute auditor might mistake it for something solid. If there be any better method of dealing with such junctures,--when talk is to be created out of nothing, and within the scope of several minds at once, so that you cannot apply yourself to your interlocutor's individuality,--I have not learned it.
Sitting, as it were, in the gateway between the
Among these stray Americans, I met with no other case so
remarkable as that of an old man, who was in the habit of visiting me once in a
few months, and soberly affirmed that he had been wandering about England more
than a quarter of a century (precisely twenty-seven years, I think), and all
the while doing his utmost to get home again.
Herman Melville, in his excellent novel or biography of "Israel
Potter," has an idea somewhat similar to this. The individual now in question was a mild and
patient, but very ragged and pitiable old fellow, shabby beyond description,
lean and hungry-looking, but with a large and somewhat red nose. He made no complaint of his ill-fortune, but
only repeated in a quiet voice, with a pathos of which he was himself evidently
unconscious, "I want to get home to
He appeared to see that he had moved me, but did not attempt
to press his advantage with any new argument, or any varied form of
entreaty. He had but scanty and
scattered thoughts in his gray head, and in the intervals of those, like the
refrain of an old ballad, came in the monotonous burden of his appeal, "If
I could only find myself in
The poor old fellow's story seemed to me almost as worthy of
being chanted in immortal song as that of Odysseus or Evangeline. I took his case into deep consideration, but
dared not incur the moral responsibility of sending him across the sea, at his
age, after so many years of exile, when the very tradition of him had passed
away, to find his friends dead, or forgetful, or irretrievably vanished, and
the whole country become more truly a foreign land to him than England was now,--and
even Ninety-second Street, in the weedlike decay and growth of our localities,
made over anew and grown unrecognizable by his old eyes. That street, so
patiently longed for, had transferred itself to the New Jerusalem, and he must
seek it there, contenting his slow heart, meanwhile, with the smoke-begrimed
thoroughfares of English towns, or the green country lanes and by-paths with
which his wanderings had made him familiar; for doubtless he had a beaten track
and was the "long-remembered beggar" now, with food and a roughly
hospitable greeting ready for him at many a farm-house door, and his choice of
lodging under a score of haystacks. In
I recollect another case, of a more ridiculous order, but
still with a foolish kind of pathos entangled in it, which impresses me now
more forcibly than it did at the moment.
One day, a queer, stupid, good-natured, fat-faced individual came into
my private room, dressed in a sky-blue, cut-away coat and mixed trousers, both
garments worn and shabby, and rather too small for his overgrown bulk. After a little preliminary talk, he turned
out to be a country shopkeeper (from
I never had so satisfactory a perception of a complete booby before in my life; and it caused me to feel kindly towards him, and yet impatient and exasperated on behalf of common-sense, which could not possibly tolerate that such an unimaginable donkey should exist. I laid his absurdity before him in the very plainest terms, but without either exciting his anger or shaking his resolution. "O my dear man," quoth he, with good-natured, placid, simple, and tearful stubbornness, "if you could but enter into my feelings and see the matter from beginning to end as I see it!" To confess the truth, I have since felt that I was hard-hearted to the poor simpleton, and that there was more weight in his remonstrance than I chose to be sensible of, at the time; for, like many men who have been in the habit of making playthings or tools of their imagination and sensibility, I was too rigidly tenacious of what was reasonable in the affairs of real life. And even absurdity has its rights, when, as in this case, it has absorbed a human being's entire nature and purposes. I ought to have transmitted him to Mr. Buchanan, in London, who, being a good-natured old gentleman, and anxious, just then, to gratify the universal Yankee nation, might, for the joke's sake, have got him admittance to the Queen, who had fairly laid herself open to his visit, and has received hundreds of our countrymen on infinitely slighter grounds. But I was inexorable, being turned to flint by the insufferable proximity of a fool, and refused to interfere with his business in any way except to procure him a passage home. I can see his face of mild, ridiculous despair, at this moment, and appreciate, better than I could then, how awfully cruel he must have felt my obduracy to be. For years and years, the idea of an interview with Queen Victoria had haunted his poor foolish mind; and now, when he really stood on English ground, and the palace-door was hanging ajar for him, he was expected to turn brick, a penniless and bamboozled simpleton, merely because an iron-hearted consul refused to lend him thirty shillings (so low had his demand ultimately sunk) to buy a second-class ticket on the rail for London!
He visited the Consulate several times afterwards, subsisting on a pittance that I allowed him in the hope of gradually starving him back to Connecticut, assailing me with the old petition at every opportunity, looking shabbier at every visit, but still thoroughly good-tempered, mildly stubborn, and smiling through his tears, not without a perception of the ludicrousness of his own position. Finally, he disappeared altogether, and whither he had wandered, and whether he ever saw the Queen, or wasted quite away in the endeavor, I never knew; but I remember unfolding the "Times," about that period, with a daily dread of reading an account of a ragged Yankee's attempt to steal into Buckingham Palace, and how he smiled tearfully at his captors and besought them to introduce him to her Majesty. I submit to Mr. Secretary Seward that he ought to make diplomatic remonstrances to the British Ministry, and require them to take such order that the Queen shall not any longer bewilder the wits of our poor compatriots by responding to their epistles and thanking them for their photographs.
One circumstance in the foregoing incident--I mean the
unhappy storekeeper's notion of establishing his claim to an English
estate--was common to a great many other applications, personal or by letter,
with which I was favored by my countrymen.
The cause of this peculiar insanity lies deep in the Anglo-American
heart. After all these bloody wars and
vindictive animosities, we have still an unspeakable yearning towards
Nationally, there has ceased to be any peril of so inauspicious and yet outwardly attractive an amalgamation. But as an individual, the American is often conscious of the deep-rooted sympathies that belong more fitly to times gone by, and feels a blind pathetic tendency to wander back again, which makes itself evident in such wild dreams as I have alluded to above, about English inheritances. A mere coincidence of names (the Yankee one, perhaps, having been assumed by legislative permission), a supposititious pedigree, a silver mug on which an anciently engraved coat-of-arms has been half scrubbed out, a seal with an uncertain crest, an old yellow letter or document in faded ink, the more scantily legible the better,--rubbish of this kind, found in a neglected drawer, has been potent enough to turn the brain of many an honest Republican, especially if assisted by an advertisement for lost heirs, cut out of a British newspaper. There is no estimating or believing, till we come into a position to know it, what foolery lurks latent in the breasts of very sensible people. Remembering such sober extravagances, I should not be at all surprised to find that I am myself guilty of some unsuspected absurdity, that may appear to me the most substantial trait in my character.
I might fill many pages with instances of this diseased
American appetite for English soil. A
respectable-looking woman, well advanced in life, of sour aspect, exceedingly
homely, but decidedly New-Englandish in figure and manners, came to my office
with a great bundle of documents, at the very first glimpse of which I
apprehended something terrible. Nor was I mistaken.
The bundle contained evidences of her indubitable claim to the site on
which Castle Street, the Town Hall, the Exchange, and all the principal
business part of Liverpool have long been situated; and with considerable
peremptoriness, the good lady signified her expectation that I should take
charge of her suit, and prosecute it to judgment; not, however, on the
equitable condition of receiving half the value of the property recovered
(which, in case of complete success, would have made both of us ten or twenty
fold millionaires), but without recompense or reimbursement of legal expenses,
solely as an incident of my official duty.
Another time came two ladies, bearing a letter of emphatic introduction
from his Excellency the Governor of their native State, who testified in most
satisfactory terms to their social respectability. They were claimants of a
great estate in Cheshire, and announced themselves as blood-relatives of Queen
Victoria,--a point, however, which they deemed it expedient to keep in the
background until their territorial rights should be established, apprehending
that the Lord High Chancellor might otherwise be less likely to come to a fair
decision in respect to them, from a probable disinclination to admit new
members into the royal kin. Upon my
honor, I imagine that they had an eye to the possibility of the eventual
succession of one or both of them to the crown of
Another visitor of the same class was a gentleman of refined
manners, handsome figure, and remarkably intellectual aspect. Like many men of an adventurous cast, he had
so quiet a deportment, and such an apparent disinclination to general
sociability, that you would have fancied him moving always along some peaceful
and secluded walk of life. Yet,
literally from his first hour, he had been tossed upon the surges of a most
varied and tumultuous existence, having been born at sea, of American
parentage, but on board of a Spanish vessel, and spending many of the
subsequent years in voyages, travels, and outlandish incidents and
vicissitudes, which, methought, had hardly been paralleled since the days of
Gulliver or De Foe. When his dignified
reserve was overcome, he had the faculty of narrating these adventures with
wonderful eloquence, working up his descriptive sketches with such intuitive
perception of the picturesque points that the whole was thrown forward with a
positively illusive effect, like matters of your own visual experience. In fact, they were so admirably done that I
could never more than half believe them, because the genuine affairs of life
are not apt to transact themselves so artistically. Many of his scenes were laid in the East, and
among those seldom-visited archipelagoes of the Indian Ocean, so that there was
an Oriental fragrance breathing through his talk and
an odor of the
But his best story was about a race of men (if men they were) who seemed so fully to realize Swift's wicked fable of the Yahoos, that my friend was much exercised with psychological speculations whether or no they had any souls. They dwelt in the wilds of Ceylon, like other savage beasts, hairy, and spotted with tufts of fur, filthy, shameless, weaponless (though warlike in their individual bent), tool-less, houseless, language-less, except for a few guttural sounds, hideously dissonant, whereby they held some rudest kind of communication among themselves. They lacked both memory and foresight, and were wholly destitute of government, social institutions, or law or rulership of any description, except the immediate tyranny of the strongest; radically untamable, moreover, save that the people of the country managed to subject a few of the less ferocious and stupid ones to outdoor servitude among their other cattle. They were beastly in almost all their attributes, and that to such a degree that the observer, losing sight of any link betwixt them and manhood, could generally witness their brutalities without greater horror than at those of some disagreeable quadruped in a menagerie. And yet, at times, comparing what were the lowest general traits in his own race with what was highest in these abominable monsters, he found a ghastly similitude that half compelled him to recognize them as human brethren.
After these Gulliverian researches, my agreeable
acquaintance had fallen under the ban of the Dutch government, and had suffered
(this, at least, being matter of fact) nearly two years' imprisonment, with
confiscation of a large amount of property, for which Mr. Belmont, our minister
at the Hague, had just made a peremptory demand of reimbursement and damages.
Meanwhile, since arriving in England on his way to the United States, he had
been providentially led to inquire into the circumstances of his birth on
shipboard, and had discovered that not himself alone, but another baby, had
come into the world during the same voyage of the prolific vessel, and that
there were almost irrefragable reasons for believing that these two children
had been assigned to the wrong mothers. Many reminiscences of his early days
confirmed him in the idea that his nominal parents were aware of the exchange. The family to which he felt authorized to
attribute his lineage was that of a nobleman, in the picture-gallery of whose
country-seat (whence, if I mistake not, our adventurous friend had just
returned) he had discovered a portrait bearing a striking resemblance to himself. As soon as
he should have reported the outrageous action of the Dutch government to
President Pierce and the Secretary of State, and recovered the confiscated
property, he purposed to return to
I had accepted his Oriental fantasies (which, indeed, to do him justice, have been recorded by scientific societies among the genuine phenomena of natural history), not as matters of indubitable credence, but as allowable specimens of an imaginative traveller's vivid coloring and rich embroidery on the coarse texture and dull neutral tints of truth. The English romance was among the latest communications that he intrusted to my private ear; and as soon as I heard the first chapter,--so wonderfully akin to what I might have wrought out of my own head, not unpractised in such figments,--I began to repent having made myself responsible for the future nobleman's passage homeward in the next Collins steamer. Nevertheless, should his English rent-roll fall a little behindhand, his Dutch claim for a hundred thousand dollars was certainly in the hands of our government, and might at least be valuable to the extent of thirty pounds, which I had engaged to pay on his behalf. But I have reason to fear that his Dutch riches turned out to be Dutch gilt, or fairy gold, and his English country-seat a mere castle in the air,--which I exceedingly regret, for he was a delightful companion and a very gentlemanly man.
A Consul, in his position of universal responsibility, the general adviser and helper, sometimes finds himself compelled to assume the guardianship of personages who, in their own sphere, are supposed capable of superintending the highest interests of whole communities. An elderly Irishman, a naturalized citizen, once put the desire and expectation of all our penniless vagabonds into a very suitable phrase, by pathetically entreating me to be a "father to him"; and, simple as I sit scribbling here, I have acted a father's part, not only by scores of such unthrifty old children as himself, but by a progeny of far loftier pretensions. It may be well for persons who are conscious of any radical weakness in their character, any besetting sin, any unlawful propensity, any unhallowed impulse, which (while surrounded with the manifold restraints that protect a man from that treacherous and lifelong enemy, his lower self, in the circle of society where he is at home) they may have succeeded in keeping under the lock and key of strictest propriety,--it may be well for them, before seeking the perilous freedom of a distant land, released from the watchful eyes of neighborhoods and coteries, lightened of that wearisome burden, an immaculate name, and blissfully obscure after years of local prominence,--it may be well for such individuals to know that when they set foot on a foreign shore, the long-imprisoned Evil, scenting a wild license in the unaccustomed atmosphere, is apt to grow riotous in its iron cage. It rattles the rusty barriers with gigantic turbulence, and if there be an infirm joint anywhere in the framework, it breaks madly forth, compressing the mischief of a lifetime into a little space.
A parcel of letters had been accumulating at the Consulate
for two or three weeks, directed to a certain Doctor of Divinity, who had left
The Doctor, however, failed to make his appearance at
dinner-time, or to apologize the next day for his absence; and in the course of
a day or two more, I forgot all about him, concluding that he must have set
forth on his Continental travels, the plan of which he had sketched out at our
interview. But, by and by, I received a
call from the master of the vessel in which he had arrived. He was in some alarm about his passenger,
whose luggage remained on shipboard, but of whom nothing had been heard or seen
since the moment of his departure from the Consulate. We conferred together,
the captain and I, about the expediency of setting the police on the traces (if
any were to be found) of our vanished friend; but it struck me that the good
captain was singularly reticent, and that there was something a little
mysterious in a few points that he hinted at rather than expressed; so that,
scrutinizing the affair carefully, I surmised that the intimacy of life on
shipboard might have taught him more about the reverend gentleman than, for
some reason or other, he deemed it prudent to reveal. At home, in our native country, I would have
looked to the Doctor's personal safety and left his reputation to take care of
itself, knowing that the good fame of a thousand saintly clergymen would amply
dazzle out any lamentable spot on a single brother's character. But in scornful and invidious
Precisely a week after this reverend person's disappearance, there came to my office a tall, middle-aged gentleman in a blue military surtout, braided at the seams, but out at elbows, and as shabby as if the wearer had been bivouacking in it throughout a Crimean campaign. It was buttoned up to the very chin, except where three or four of the buttons were lost; nor was there any glimpse of a white shirt-collar illuminating the rusty black cravat. A grisly mustache was just beginning to roughen the stranger's upper lip. He looked disreputable to the last degree, but still had a ruined air of good society glimmering about him, like a few specks of polish on a swordblade that has lain corroding in a mud-puddle. I took him to be some American marine officer, of dissipated habits, or perhaps a cashiered British major, stumbling into the wrong quarters through the unrectified bewilderment of last night's debauch. He greeted me, however, with polite familiarity, as though we had been previously acquainted; whereupon I drew coldly back (as sensible people naturally do, whether from strangers or former friends, when too evidently at odds with fortune) and requested to know who my visitor might be, and what was his business at the Consulate. "Am I then so changed?" he exclaimed with a vast depth of tragic intonation; and after a little blind and bewildered talk, behold! the truth flashed upon me. It was the Doctor of Divinity! If I had meditated a scene or a coup de theatre, I could not have contrived a more effectual one than by this simple and genuine difficulty of recognition. The poor Divine must have felt that he had lost his personal identity through the misadventures of one little week. And, to say the truth, he did look as if, like Job, on account of his especial sanctity, he had been delivered over to the direst temptations of Satan, and proving weaker than the man of Uz, the Arch Enemy had been empowered to drag him through Tophet, transforming him, in the process, from the most decorous of metropolitan clergymen into the rowdiest and dirtiest of disbanded officers. I never fathomed the mystery of his military costume, but conjectured that a lurking sense of fitness had induced him to exchange his clerical garments for this habit of a sinner; nor can I tell precisely into what pitfall, not more of vice than terrible calamity, he had precipitated himself,--being more than satisfied to know that the outcasts of society can sink no lower than this poor, desecrated wretch had sunk.
The opportunity, I presume, does not often happen to a layman, of administering moral and religious reproof to a Doctor of Divinity; but finding the occasion thrust upon me, and the hereditary Puritan waxing strong in my breast, I deemed it a matter of conscience not to let it pass entirely unimproved. The truth is, I was unspeakably shocked and disgusted. Not, however, that I was then to learn that clergymen are made of the same flesh and blood as other people, and perhaps lack one small safeguard which the rest of us possess, because they are aware of their own peccability, and therefore cannot look up to the clerical class for the proof of the possibility of a pure life on earth, with such reverential confidence as we are prone to do. But I remembered the innocent faith of my boyhood, and the good old silver-headed clergyman, who seemed to me as much a saint then on earth as he is now in heaven, and partly for whose sake, through all these darkening years, I retain a devout, though not intact nor unwavering respect for the entire fraternity. What a hideous wrong, therefore, had the backslider inflicted on his brethren, and still more on me, who much needed whatever fragments of broken reverence (broken, not as concerned religion, but its earthly institutions and professors) it might yet be possible to patch into a sacred image! Should all pulpits and communion-tables have thenceforth a stain upon them, and the guilty one go unrebuked for it? So I spoke to the unhappy man as I never thought myself warranted in speaking to any other mortal, hitting him hard, doing my utmost to find out his vulnerable part, and prick him into the depths of it. And not without more effect than I had dreamed of, or desired!
No doubt, the novelty of the Doctor's reversed position, thus standing up to receive such a fulmination as the clergy have heretofore arrogated the exclusive right of inflicting, might give additional weight and sting to the words which I found utterance for. But there was another reason (which, had I in the least suspected it, would have closed my lips at once) for his feeling morbidly sensitive to the cruel rebuke that I administered. The unfortunate man had come to me, laboring under one of the consequences of his riotous outbreak, in the shape of delirium tremens; he bore a hell within the compass of his own breast, all the torments of which blazed up with tenfold inveteracy when I thus took upon myself the Devil's office of stirring up the red-hot embers. His emotions, as well as the external movement and expression of them by voice, countenance, and gesture, were terribly exaggerated by the tremendous vibration of nerves resulting from the disease. It was the deepest tragedy I ever witnessed. I know sufficiently, from that one experience, how a condemned soul would manifest its agonies; and for the future, if I have anything to do with sinners, I mean to operate upon them through sympathy, and not rebuke. What had I to do with rebuking him? The disease, long latent in his heart, had shown itself in a frightful eruption on the surface of his life. That was all! Is it a thing to scold the sufferer for?
To conclude this wretched story, the poor Doctor of Divinity, having been robbed of all his money in this little airing beyond the limits of propriety, was easily persuaded to give up the intended tour and return to his bereaved flock, who, very probably, were thereafter conscious of an increased unction in his soul-stirring eloquence, without suspecting the awful depths into which their pastor had dived in quest of it. His voice is now silent. I leave it to members of his own profession to decide whether it was better for him thus to sin outright, and so to be let into the miserable secret what manner of man he was, or to have gone through life outwardly unspotted, making the first discovery of his latent evil at the judgment-seat. It has occurred to me that his dire calamity, as both he and I regarded it, might have been the only method by which precisely such a man as himself, and so situated, could be redeemed. He has learned, ere now, how that matter stood.
For a man, with a natural tendency to meddle with other
people's business, there could not possibly be a more congenial sphere than the
Liverpool Consulate. For myself, I had
never been in the habit of feeling that I could sufficiently comprehend any
particular conjunction of circumstances with human character, to justify me in
thrusting in my awkward agency among the intricate and unintelligible machinery
All the matters that I have been treating of, however, were
merely incidental, and quite distinct from the real business of the
office. A great part of the wear and
tear of mind and temper resulted from the bad relations between the seamen and
officers of American ships. Scarcely a
morning passed, but that some sailor came to show the marks of his ill-usage on
shipboard. Often, it was a whole crew of
them, each with his broken head or livid bruise, and all testifying with one
voice to a constant series of savage outrages during the voyage; or, it might
be, they laid an accusation of actual murder, perpetrated by the first or
second officers with many blows of steel-knuckles, a rope's end, or a
marline-spike, or by the captain, in the twinkling of an eye, with a shot of
his pistol. Taking the seamen's view of
the case, you would suppose that the gibbet was hungry for the murderers. Listening to the captain's defence, you would
seem to discover that he and his officers were the humanest of mortals, but
were driven to a wholesome severity by the mutinous conduct of the crew, who,
moreover, had themselves slain their comrade in the drunken riot and confusion
of the first day or two after they were shipped. Looked at judicially, there appeared to be no right side to the matter, nor any right side possible in
so thoroughly vicious a system as that of the American mercantile marine. The Consul could do little, except to take
depositions, hold forth the greasy Testament to be profaned anew with perjured
kisses, and, in a few instances of murder or manslaughter, carry the case
before an English magistrate, who generally decided that the evidence was too
contradictory to authorize the transmission of the accused for trial in
The truth is, that the state of affairs was really very horrible, and could be met by no laws at that time (or I presume now) in existence. I once thought of writing a pamphlet on the subject, but quitted the Consulate before finding time to effect my purpose; and all that phase of my life immediately assumed so dreamlike a consistency that I despaired of making it seem solid or tangible to the public. And now it looks distant and dim, like troubles of a century ago. The origin of the evil lay in the character of the seamen, scarcely any of whom were American, but the offscourings and refuse of all the seaports of the world, such stuff as piracy is made of, together with a considerable intermixture of returning emigrants, and a sprinkling of absolutely kidnapped American citizens. Even with such material, the ships were very inadequately manned. The shipmaster found himself upon the deep, with a vast responsibility of property and human life upon his hands, and no means of salvation except by compelling his inefficient and demoralized crew to heavier exertions than could reasonably be required of the same number of able seamen. By law he had been intrusted with no discretion of judicious punishment, he therefore habitually left the whole matter of discipline to his irresponsible mates, men often of scarcely a superior quality to the crew. Hence ensued a great mass of petty outrages, unjustifiable assaults, shameful indignities, and nameless cruelty, demoralizing alike to the perpetrators and the sufferers; these enormities fell into the ocean between the two countries, and could be punished in neither. Many miserable stories come back upon my memory as I write; wrongs that were immense, but for which nobody could be held responsible, and which, indeed, the closer yon looked into them, the more they lost the aspect of wilful misdoing and assumed that of an inevitable calamity. It was the fault of a system, the misfortune of an individual. Be that as it may, however, there will be no possibility of dealing effectually with these troubles as long as we deem it inconsistent with our national dignity or interests to allow the English courts, under such restrictions as may seem fit, a jurisdiction over offences perpetrated on board our vessels in mid-ocean.
In such a life as this, the American shipmaster develops himself into a man of iron energies, dauntless courage, and inexhaustible resource, at the expense, it must be acknowledged, of some of the higher and gentler traits which might do him excellent service in maintaining his authority. The class has deteriorated of late years on account of the narrower field of selection, owing chiefly to the diminution of that excellent body of respectably educated New England seamen, from the flower of whom the officers used to be recruited. Yet I found them, in many cases, very agreeable and intelligent companions, with less nonsense about them than landsmen usually have, eschewers of fine-spun theories, delighting in square and tangible ideas, but occasionally infested with prejudices that stuck to their brains like barnacles to a ship's bottom. I never could flatter myself that I was a general favorite with them. One or two, perhaps, even now, would scarcely meet me on amicable terms. Endowed universally with a great pertinacity of will, they especially disliked the interference of a consul with their management on shipboard; notwithstanding which I thrust in my very limited authority at every available opening, and did the utmost that lay in my power, though with lamentably small effect, towards enforcing a better kind of discipline. They thought, no doubt (and on plausible grounds enough, but scarcely appreciating just that one little grain of hard New England sense, oddly thrown in among the flimsier composition of the Consul's character), that he, a landsman, a bookman, and, as people said of him, a fanciful recluse, could not possibly understand anything of the difficulties or the necessities of a shipmaster's position. But their cold regards were rather acceptable than otherwise, for it is exceedingly awkward to assume a judicial austerity in the morning towards a man with whom you have been hobnobbing over night.
With the technical details of the business of that great
Consulate (for great it then was, though now, I fear, wofully fallen off, and
perhaps never to be revived in anything like its former extent), I did not much
interfere. They could safely be left to
the treatment of two as faithful, upright, and competent subordinates, both
Englishmen, as ever a man was fortunate enough to meet with, in a line of life
altogether new and strange to him. I had
come over with instructions to supply both their places with Americans, but,
possessing a happy faculty of knowing my own interest and the public's, I quietly
kept hold of them, being little inclined to open the consular doors to a spy of
the State Department or an intriguer for my own office. The venerable Vice-Consul, Mr. Pearce, had
witnessed the successive arrivals of a score of newly appointed Consuls, shadowy
and short-lived dignitaries, and carried his reminiscences back to the epoch of
Consul Maury, who was appointed by
A fair amount of common-sense, some acquaintance with the
United States Statutes, an insight into character, a tact of management, a
general knowledge of the world, and a reasonable but not too inveterately
decided preference for his own will and judgment over those of interested
people,--these natural attributes and moderate acquirements will enable a
consul to perform many of his duties respectably, but not to dispense with a
great variety of other qualifications, only attainable by long experience. Yet, I think, few consuls are so well
accomplished. An appointment of whatever
grade, in the diplomatic or consular service of
One great part of a consul's duty, for example, should consist in building up for himself a recognized position in the society where he resides, so that his local influence might be felt in behalf of his own country, and, so far as they are compatible (as they generally are to the utmost extent), for the interests of both nations. The foreign city should know that it has a permanent inhabitant and a hearty well-wisher in him. There are many conjunctures (and one of them is now upon us) where a long-established, honored, and trusted American citizen, holding a public position under our government in such a town as Liverpool, might go far towards swaying and directing the sympathies of the inhabitants. He might throw his own weight into the balance against mischief makers; he might have set his foot on the first little spark of malignant purpose, which the next wind may blow into a national war. But we wilfully give up all advantages of this kind. The position is totally beyond the attainment of an American; there to-day, bristling all over with the porcupine quills of our Republic, and gone to-morrow, just as he is becoming sensible of the broader and more generous patriotism which might almost amalgamate with that of England, without losing an atom of its native force and flavor. In the changes that appear to await us, and some of which, at least, can hardly fail to be for good, let us hope for a reform in this matter.
For myself, as the gentle reader would spare me the trouble of saying, I was not at all the kind of man to grow into such an ideal Consul as I have here suggested. I never in my life desired to be burdened with public influence. I disliked my office from the first, and never came into any good accordance with it. Its dignity, so far as it had any, was an encumbrance; the attentions it drew upon me (such as invitations to Mayor's banquets and public celebrations of all kinds, where, to my horror, I found myself expected to stand up and speak) were--as I may say without incivility or ingratitude, because there is nothing personal in that sort of hospitality--a bore. The official business was irksome, and often painful. There was nothing pleasant about the whole affair, except the emoluments; and even those, never too bountifully reaped, were diminished by more than half in the second or third year of my incumbency. All this being true, I was quite prepared, in advance of the inauguration of Mr. Buchanan, to send in my resignation. When my successor arrived, I drew the long, delightful breath which first made me thoroughly sensible what an unnatural life I had been leading, and compelled me to admire myself for having battled with it so sturdily. The newcomer proved to be a very genial and agreeable gentleman, an F. F. V., and, as he pleasantly acknowledged, a Southern Fire Eater, --an announcement to which I responded, with similar good-humor and self-complacency, by parading my descent from an ancient line of Massachusetts Puritans. Since our brief acquaintanceship, my fire-eating friend has had ample opportunities to banquet on his favorite diet, hot and hot, in the Confederate service. For myself, as soon as I was out of office, the retrospect began to look unreal. I could scarcely believe that it was I,--that figure whom they called a Consul,--but a sort of Double Ganger, who had been permitted to assume my aspect, under which he went through his shadowy duties with a tolerable show of efficiency, while my real self had lain, as regarded my proper mode of being and acting, in a state of suspended animation.
The same sense of illusion still pursues me. There is some mistake in this matter. I have been writing about another man's consular experiences, with which, through some mysterious medium of transmitted ideas, I find myself intimately acquainted, but in which I cannot possibly have had a personal interest. Is it not a dream altogether? The figure of that poor Doctor of Divinity looks wonderfully lifelike; so do those of the Oriental adventurer with the visionary coronet above his brow, and the moonstruck visitor of the Queen, and the poor old wanderer, seeking his native country through English highways and by-ways for almost thirty years; and so would a hundred others that I might summon up with similar distinctness. But were they more than shadows? Surely, I think not. Nor are these present pages a bit of intrusive autobiography. Let not the reader wrong me by supposing it. I never should have written with half such unreserve, had it been a portion of this life congenial with my nature, which I am living now, instead of a series of incidents and characters entirely apart from my own concerns, and on which the qualities personally proper to me could have had no bearing. Almost the only real incidents, as I see them now, were the visits of a young English friend, a scholar and a literary amateur, between whom and myself there sprung up an affectionate, and, I trust, not transitory regard. He used to come and sit or stand by my fireside, talking vivaciously and eloquently with me about literature and life, his own national characteristics and mine, with such kindly endurance of the many rough republicanisms wherewith I assailed him, and such frank and amiable assertion of all sorts of English prejudices and mistakes, that I understood his countrymen infinitely the better for him, and was almost prepared to love the intensest Englishman of them all, for his sake. It would gratify my cherished remembrance of this dear friend, if I could manage, without offending him, or letting the public know it, to introduce his name upon my page. Bright was the illumination of my dusky little apartment, as often as he made his appearance there!
The English sketches which I have been offering to the
public comprise a few of the more external and therefore more readily
manageable things that I took note of, in many escapes from the imprisonment of
my consular servitude.
In the course of several visits and stays of considerable
length we acquired a homelike feeling towards
The modest abode to which I have alluded forms one of a circular range of pretty, moderate-sized, two-story houses, all built on nearly the same plan, and each provided with its little grass-plot, its flowers, its tufts of box trimmed into globes and other fantastic shapes, and its verdant hedges shutting the house in from the common drive and dividing it from its equally cosey neighbors. Coming out of the door, and taking a turn round the circle of sister-dwellings, it is difficult to find your way back by any distinguishing individuality of your own habitation. In the centre of the Circus is a space fenced in with iron railing, a small play-place and sylvan retreat for the children of the precinct, permeated by brief paths through the fresh English grass, and shadowed by various shrubbery; amid which, if you like, you may fancy yourself in a deep seclusion, though probably the mark of eye-shot from the windows of all the surrounding houses. But, in truth, with regard to the rest of the town and the world at large, all abode here is a genuine seclusion; for the ordinary stream of life does not run through this little, quiet pool, and few or none of the inhabitants seem to be troubled with any business or outside activities. I used to set them down as half-pay officers, dowagers of narrow income, elderly maiden ladies, and other people of respectability, but small account, such as hang on the world's skirts rather than actually belong to it. The quiet of the place was seldom disturbed, except by the grocer and butcher, who came to receive orders, or by the cabs, hackney-coaches, and Bath-chairs, in which the ladies took an infrequent airing, or the livery-steed which the retired captain sometimes bestrode for a morning ride, or by the red-coated postman who went his rounds twice a day to deliver letters, and again in the evening, ringing a hand-bell, to take letters for the mail. In merely mentioning these slight interruptions of its sluggish stillness, I seem to myself to disturb too much the atmosphere of quiet that brooded over the spot; whereas its impression upon me was, that the world had never found the way hither, or had forgotten it, and that the fortunate inhabitants were the only ones who possessed the spell-word of admittance. Nothing could have suited me better, at the time; for I had been holding a position of public servitude, which imposed upon me (among a great many lighter duties) the ponderous necessity of being universally civil and sociable.
Nevertheless, if a man were seeking the bustle of society,
he might find it more readily in
In its present aspect the town is of no great age. In contrast with the antiquity of many places
in its neighborhood, it has a bright, new face, and seems almost to smile even
amid the sombreness of an English autumn. Nevertheless, it is hundreds upon
hundreds of years old, if we reckon up that sleepy lapse of time during which
it existed as a small village of thatched houses, clustered round a priory; and
it would still have been precisely such a rural village, but for a certain Dr.
Jephson, who lived within the memory of man, and who found out the magic well,
and foresaw what fairy wealth might be made to flow from it. A public garden has been laid out along the
margin of the Leam, and called the
The Jephson Garden is very beautiful, like most other English pleasure-grounds; for, aided by their moist climate and not too fervid sun, the landscape-gardeners excel in converting flat or tame surfaces into attractive scenery, chiefly through the skilful arrangement of trees and shrubbery. An Englishman aims at this effect even in the little patches under the windows of a suburban villa, and achieves it on a larger scale in a tract of many acres. The Garden is shadowed with trees of a fine growth, standing alone, or in dusky groves and dense entanglements, pervaded by woodland paths; and emerging from these pleasant glooms, we come upon a breadth of sunshine, where the greensward--so vividly green that it has a kind of lustre in it--is spotted with beds of gemlike flowers. Rustic chairs and benches are scattered about, some of them ponderously fashioned out of the stumps of obtruncated trees, and others more artfully made with intertwining branches, or perhaps an imitation of such frail handiwork in iron. In a central part of the Garden is an archery-ground, where laughing maidens practise at the butts, generally missing their ostensible mark, but, by the mere grace of their action, sending an unseen shaft into some young man's heart. There is space, moreover, within these precincts, for an artificial lake, with a little green island in the midst of it; both lake and island being the haunt of swans, whose aspect and movement in the water are most beautiful and stately,--most infirm, disjointed, and decrepit, when, unadvisedly, they see fit to emerge, and try to walk upon dry land. In the latter case, they look like a breed of uncommonly ill-contrived geese; and I record the matter here for the sake of the moral,--that we should never pass judgment on the merits of any person or thing, unless we behold them in the sphere and circumstances to which they are specially adapted. In still another part of the Garden there is a labyrinthine maze, formed of an intricacy of hedge-bordered walks, involving himself in which, a man might wander for hours inextricably within a circuit of only a few yards. It seemed to me a sad emblem of the mental and moral perplexities in which we sometimes go astray, petty in scope, yet large enough to entangle a lifetime, and bewilder us with a weary movement, but no genuine progress.
The Leam,--the "high complectioned
Leam," as Drayton calls it,--after drowsing across the principal street of
the town beneath a handsome bridge, skirts along the margin of the Garden
without any perceptible flow.
Heretofore I had fancied the
The business portion of the town clusters about the banks of
the Leam, and is naturally densest around the well to which the modern
settlement owes its existence. Here are
the commercial inns, the post-office, the furniture-dealers, the iron-mongers,
and all the heavy and homely establishments that connect themselves even with
the airiest modes of human life; while upward from the river, by a long and
gentle ascent, rises the principal street, which is very bright and cheerful in
its physiognomy, and adorned with shop-fronts almost as splendid as those of
London, though on a diminutive scale.
There are likewise side-streets and cross-streets, many of which are
bordered with the beautiful Warwickshire elm, a most unusual kind of adornment
for an English town; and spacious avenues, wide enough to afford room for
stately groves, with foot-paths running beneath the lofty shade, and rooks
cawing and chattering so high in the tree-tops that their voices get musical
before reaching the earth. The houses
are mostly built in blocks and ranges, in which every separate tenement is a
repetition of its fellow, though the architecture of the different ranges is
sufficiently various. Some of them are
almost palatial in size and sumptuousness of arrangement. Then, on the outskirts of the town, there are
detached villas, enclosed within that separate domain of high stone fence and
embowered shrubbery which an Englishman so loves to build and plant around his
abode, presenting to the public only an iron gate, with a gravelled
carriage-drive winding away towards the half-hidden mansion. Whether in street or suburb,
All these blocks, ranges, and detached villas are adorned
with the finest and most aristocratic manes that I have found anywhere in
To say the truth, I have been holding the pen over my paper, purposing to write a descriptive paragraph or two about the throng on the principal Parade of Leamington, so arranging it as to present a sketch of the British out-of-door aspect on a morning walk of gentility; but I find no personages quite sufficiently distinct and individual in my memory to supply the materials of such a panorama.
Oddly enough, the only figure that comes fairly forth to my
mind's eye is that of a dowager, one of hundreds whom I used to marvel at, all
I have heard a good deal of the tenacity with which English ladies retain their personal beauty to a late period of life; but (not to suggest that an American eye needs use and cultivation before it can quite appreciate the charm of English beauty at any age) it strikes me that an English lady of fifty is apt to become a creature less refined and delicate, so far as her physique goes, than anything that we Western people class under the name of woman. She has an awful ponderosity of frame, not pulpy, like the looser development of our few fat women, but massive with solid beef and streaky tallow; so that (though struggling manfully against the idea) you inevitably think of her as made up of steaks and sirloins. When she walks, her advance is elephantine. When she sits down, it is on a great round space of her Maker's footstool, where she looks as if nothing could ever move her. She imposes awe and respect by the muchness of her personality, to such a degree that you probably credit her with far greater moral and intellectual force than she can fairly claim. Her visage is usually grim and stern, seldom positively forbidding, yet calmly terrible, not merely by its breadth and weight of feature, but because it seems to express so much well-founded self-reliance, such acquaintance with the world, its toils, troubles, and dangers, and such sturdy capacity for trampling down a foe. Without anything positively salient, or actively offensive, or, indeed, unjustly formidable to her neighbors, she has the effect of a seventy-four gun-ship in time of peace; for, while you assure yourself that there is no real danger, you cannot help thinking how tremendous would be her onset, if pugnaciously inclined, and how futile the effort to inflict any counter-injury. She certainly looks tenfold--nay, a hundred-fold--better able to take care of herself than our slender-framed and haggard womankind; but I have not found reason to suppose that the English dowager of fifty has actually greater courage, fortitude, and strength of character than our women of similar age, or even a tougher physical endurance than they. Morally, she is strong, I suspect, only in society, and in the common routine of social affairs, and would be found powerless and timid in any exceptional strait that might call for energy outside of the conventionalities amid which she has grown up.
You can meet this figure in the street, and live, and even smile at the recollection. But conceive of her in a ball-room, with the bare, brawny arms that she invariably displays there, and all the other corresponding development, such as is beautiful in the maiden blossom, but a spectacle to howl at in such an over-blown cabbage-rose as this.
Yet, somewhere in this enormous bulk there must be hidden the modest, slender, violet-nature of a girl, whom an alien mass of earthliness has unkindly overgrown; for an English maiden in her teens, though very seldom so pretty as our own damsels, possesses, to say the truth, a certain charm of half-blossom, and delicately folded leaves, and tender womanhood shielded by maidenly reserves, with which, somehow or other, our American girls often fail to adorn themselves during an appreciable moment. It is a pity that the English violet should grow into such an outrageously developed peony as I have attempted to describe. I wonder whether a middle-aged husband ought to be considered as legally married to all the accretions that have overgrown the slenderness of his bride, since he led her to the altar, and which make her so much more than he ever bargained for! Is it not a sounder view of the case, that the matrimonial bond cannot be held to include the three fourths of the wife that had no existence when the ceremony was performed? And as a matter of conscience and good morals, ought not an English married pair to insist upon the celebration of a silver-wedding at the end of twenty-five years, in order to legalize and mutually appropriate that corporeal growth of which both parties have individually come into possession since they were pronounced one flesh?
The chief enjoyment of my several visits to
I remember such a path, the access to which is from Lovers'
Grove, a range of tall old oaks and elms on a high hill-top, whence there is a
Beyond the first row of houses, and hidden from it by a turn of the road, there was another row (or block, as we should call it) of small old cottages, stuck one against another, with their thatched roofs forming a single contiguity. These, I presume, were the habitations of the poorest order of rustic laborers; and the narrow precincts of each cottage, as well as the close neighborhood of the whole, gave the impression of a stifled, unhealthy atmosphere among the occupants. It seemed impossible that there should be a cleanly reserve, a proper self-respect among individuals, or a wholesome unfamiliarity between families where human life was crowded and massed into such intimate communities as these. Nevertheless, not to look beyond the outside, I never saw a prettier rural scene than was presented by this range of contiguous huts. For in front of the whole row was a luxuriant and well-trimmed hawthorn hedge, and belonging to each cottage was a little square of garden-ground, separated from its neighbors by a line of the same verdant fence. The gardens were chockfull, not of esculent vegetables, but of flowers, familiar ones, but very bright-colored, and shrubs of box, some of which were trimmed into artistic shapes; and I remember, before one door, a representation of Warwick Castle, made of oyster-shells. The cottagers evidently loved the little nests in which they dwelt, and did their best to make them beautiful, and succeeded more than tolerably well,--so kindly did nature help their humble efforts with its verdure, flowers, moss, lichens, and the green things that grew out of the thatch. Through some of the open doorways we saw plump children rolling about on the stone floors, and their mothers, by no means very pretty, but as happy-looking as mothers generally are; and while we gazed at these domestic matters, an old woman rushed wildly out of one of the gates, upholding a shovel, on which she clanged and clattered with a key. At first we fancied that she intended an onslaught against ourselves, but soon discovered that a more dangerous enemy was abroad; for the old lady's bees had swarmed, and the air was full of them, whizzing by our heads like bullets.
Not far from these two rows of houses and cottages, a green lane, overshadowed with trees, turned aside from the main road, and tended towards a square, gray tower, the battlements of which were just high enough to be visible above the foliage. Wending our way thitherward, we found the very picture and ideal of a country church and churchyard. The tower seemed to be of Norman architecture, low, massive, and crowned with battlements. The body of the church was of very modest dimensions, and the eaves so low that I could touch them with my walking-stick. We looked into the windows and beheld the dim and quiet interior, a narrow space, but venerable with the consecration of many centuries, and keeping its sanctity as entire and inviolate as that of a vast cathedral. The nave was divided from the side aisles of the church by pointed arches resting on very sturdy pillars: it was good to see how solemnly they held themselves to their age-long task of supporting that lowly roof. There was a small organ, suited in size to the vaulted hollow, which it weekly filled with religious sound. On the opposite wall of the church, between two windows, was a mural tablet of white marble, with an inscription in black letters,--the only such memorial that I could discern, although many dead people doubtless lay beneath the floor, and had paved it with their ancient tombstones, as is customary in old English churches. There were no modern painted windows, flaring with raw colors, nor other gorgeous adornments, such as the present taste for mediaeval restoration often patches upon the decorous simplicity of the gray village-church. It is probably the worshipping-place of no more distinguished a congregation than the farmers and peasantry who inhabit the houses and cottages which I have just described. Had the lord of the manor been one of the parishioners, there would have been an eminent pew near the chancel, walled high about, curtained, and softly cushioned, warmed by a fireplace of its own, and distinguished by hereditary tablets and escutcheons on the enclosed stone pillar.
A well-trodden path led across the churchyard, and the gate
being on the latch, we entered, and walked round among the graves and
monuments. The latter were chiefly
head-stones, none of which were very old, so far as was discoverable by the
dates; some, indeed, in so ancient a cemetery, were disagreeably new, with
inscriptions glittering like sunshine in gold letters. The ground must have been dug over and over
again, innumerable times, until the soil is made up of what was once human
clay, out of which have sprung successive crops of gravestones, that flourish
their allotted time, and disappear, like the weeds and flowers in their briefer
period. The English climate is very
unfavorable to the endurance of memorials in the open air. Twenty years of it suffice to give as much
antiquity of aspect, whether to tombstone or edifice, as a hundred years of our
own drier atmosphere,--so soon do the drizzly rains and constant moisture
corrode the surface of marble or freestone.
Sculptured edges loose their sharpness in a year or two; yellow lichens
overspread a beloved name, and obliterate it while it is yet fresh upon some
survivor's heart. Time gnaws an English
gravestone with wonderful appetite; and when the inscription is quite
illegible, the sexton takes the useless slab away, and perhaps makes a
hearthstone of it, and digs up the unripe bones which it ineffectually tried to
memorialize, and gives the bed to another sleeper. In the
And yet this same ungenial climate, hostile as it generally is to the long remembrance of departed people, has sometimes a lovely way of dealing with the records on certain monuments that lie horizontally in the open air. The rain falls into the deep incisions of the letters, and has scarcely time to be dried away before another shower sprinkles the flat stone again, and replenishes those little reservoirs. The unseen, mysterious seeds of mosses find their way into the lettered furrows, and are made to germinate by the continual moisture and watery sunshine of the English sky; and by and by, in a year, or two years, or many years, behold the complete inscription--
Here Lieth the body,
and all the rest of the tender falsehood--beautifully embossed in raised letters of living green, a bas-relief of velvet moss on the marble slab! It becomes more legible, under the skyey influences, after the world has forgotten the deceased, than when it was fresh from the stone-cutter's hands. It outlives the grief of friends. I first saw an example of this in Bebbington churchyard, in Cheshire, and thought that Nature must needs have had a special tenderness for the person (no noted man, however, in the world's history) so long ago laid beneath that stone, since she took such wonderful pains to "keep his memory green." Perhaps the proverbial phrase just quoted may have had its origin in the natural phenomenon here described.
While we rested ourselves on a horizontal monument, which was elevated just high enough to be a convenient seat, I observed that one of the gravestones lay very close to the church,--so close that the droppings of the eaves would fall upon it. It seemed as if the inmate of that grave had desired to creep under the church-wall. On closer inspection, we found an almost illegible epitaph on the stone, and with difficulty made out this forlorn verse:--
And poorly died,
And no one cried."
It would be hard to compress the story of a cold and luckless life, death, and burial into fewer words, or more impressive ones; at least, we found them impressive, perhaps because we had to re-create the inscription by scraping away the lichens from the faintly traced letters. The grave was on the shady and damp side of the church, endwise towards it, the head-stone being within about three feet of the foundation-wall; so that, unless the poor man was a dwarf, he must have been doubled up to fit him into his final resting-place. No wonder that his epitaph murmured against so poor a burial as this! His name, as well as I could make it out, was Treeo,--John Treeo, I think,--and he died in 1810, at the age of seventy-four. The gravestone is so overgrown with grass and weeds, so covered with unsightly lichens, and so crumbly with time and foul weather, that it is questionable whether anybody will ever be at the trouble of deciphering it again. But there is a quaint and sad kind of enjoyment in defeating (to such slight degree as my pen may do it) the probabilities of oblivion for poor John Treeo, and asking a little sympathy for him, half a century after his death, and making him better and more widely known, at least, than any other slumberer in Lillington churchyard: he having been, as appearances go, the outcast of them all.
You find similar old churches and villages in all the
neighboring country, at the distance of every two or three miles; and I
describe them, not as being rare, but because they are so common and
The church-tower is mossy and much gnawed by time; it has narrow loopholes up and down its front and sides, and an arched window over the low portal, set with small panes of glass, cracked, dim, and irregular, through which a bygone age is peeping out into the daylight. Some of those old, grotesque faces, called gargoyles, are seen on the projections of the architecture. The churchyard is very small, and is encompassed by a gray stone fence that looks as ancient as the church itself. In front of the tower, on the village-green, is a yew-tree of incalculable age, with a vast circumference of trunk, but a very scanty head of foliage; though its boughs still keep some of the vitality which perhaps was in its early prime when the Saxon invaders founded Whitnash. A thousand years is no extraordinary antiquity in the lifetime of a yew. We were pleasantly startled, however, by discovering an exuberance of more youthful life than we had thought possible in so old a tree; for the faces of two children laughed at us out of an opening in the trunk, which had become hollow with long decay. On one side of the yew stood a framework of worm-eaten timber, the use and meaning of which puzzled me exceedingly, till I made it out to be the village-stocks; a public institution that, in its day, had doubtless hampered many a pair of shank-bones, now crumbling in the adjacent churchyard. It is not to be supposed, however, that this old-fashioned mode of punishment is still in vogue among the good people of Whitnash. The vicar of the parish has antiquarian propensities, and had probably dragged the stocks out of some dusty hiding-place, and set them up on their former site as a curiosity.
I disquiet myself in vain with the effort to hit upon some
characteristic feature, or assemblage of features, that shall convey to the
reader the influence of hoar antiquity lingering into the present daylight, as
I so often felt it in these old English scenes.
It is only an American who can feel it; and even he begins to find himself
growing insensible to its effect, after a long residence in
And, after all, what a weary life it must have been for the
old tree! Tedious beyond imagination!
Such, I think, is the final impression on the mind of an American visitor,
when his delight at finding something permanent begins to yield to his Western
love of change, and he becomes sensible of the heavy air of a spot where the
forefathers and foremothers have grown up together, intermarried, and died,
through a long succession of lives, without any intermixture of new elements,
till family features and character are all run in the same inevitable
mould. Life is there fossilized in its
greenest leaf. The man who died
yesterday or ever so long ago walks the village-street to day, and chooses the
same wife that he married a hundred years since, and must be buried again
to-morrow under the same kindred dust that has already covered him half a score
of times. The stone threshold of his
cottage is worn away with his hobnailed footsteps, shuffling over it from the
reign of the first Plantagenet to that of
Nevertheless, while an American willingly accepts growth and
change as the law of his own national and private existence, he has a singular
tenderness for the stone-incrusted institutions of the mother-country. The
reason may be (though I should prefer a more generous explanation) that he recognizes
the tendency of these hardened forms to stiffen her joints and fetter her
ankles, in the race and rivalry of improvement.
I hated to see so much as a twig of ivy wrenched away from an old wall
The article which I am writing has taken its own course, and
occupied itself almost wholly with country churches; whereas I had purposed to
attempt a description of some of the many old towns--Warwick,
Emerging from the by-road, and
entering upon one that crossed it at right angles and led to
Almost always, in visiting such scenes as I have been attempting to describe, I had a singular sense of having been there before. The ivy-grown English churches (even that of Bebbington, the first that I beheld) were quite as familiar to me, when fresh from home, as the old wooden meeting-house in Salem, which used, on wintry Sabbaths, to be the frozen purgatory of my childhood. This was a bewildering, yet very delightful emotion fluttering about me like a faint summer wind, and filling my imagination with a thousand half-remembrances, which looked as vivid as sunshine, at a side-glance, but faded quite away whenever I attempted to grasp and define them. Of course, the explanation of the mystery was, that history, poetry, and fiction, books of travel, and the talk of tourists, had given me pretty accurate preconceptions of the common objects of English scenery, and these, being long ago vivified by a youthful fancy, had insensibly taken their places among the images of things actually seen. Yet the illusion was often so powerful, that I almost doubted whether such airy remembrances might not be a sort of innate idea, the print of a recollection in some ancestral mind, transmitted, with fainter and fainter impress through several descents, to my own. I felt, indeed, like the stalwart progenitor in person, returning to the hereditary haunts after more than two hundred years, and finding the church, the hall, the farm-house, the cottage, hardly changed during his long absence,--the same shady by-paths and hedge-lanes, the same veiled sky, and green lustre of the lawns and fields,--while his own affinities for these things, a little obscured by disuse, were reviving at every step.
An American is not very apt to love the English people, as a
whole, on whatever length of acquaintance.
I fancy that they would value our regard, and even reciprocate it in
their ungracious way, if we could give it to them in spite of all rebuffs; but
they are beset by a curious and inevitable infelicity, which compels them, as
it were, to keep up what they seem to consider a wholesome bitterness of
feeling between themselves and all other nationalities, especially that of
America. They will never confess it;
nevertheless, it is as essential a tonic to them as their bitter ale. Therefore,--and possibly, too, from a similar
narrowness in his own character,--an American seldom feels quite as if he were
at home among the English people. If he do so, he has ceased to be an American. But it requires no long residence to make him
love their island, and appreciate it as thoroughly as they themselves do. For my part, I used to wish that we could
annex it, transferring their thirty millions of inhabitants to some convenient
wilderness in the great West, and putting half or a quarter as many of
ourselves into their places. The change would be beneficial to both
parties. We, in our dry atmosphere, are
getting too nervous, haggard, dyspeptic, extenuated, unsubstantial, theoretic,
and need to be made grosser. John Bull,
on the other hand, has grown bulbous, long-bodied, short-legged, heavy-witted,
material, and, in a word, too intensely English. In a few more centuries he will be the
earthliest creature that ever the earth saw.
Between bright, new Leamington, the growth of the present
century, and rusty
One of these avenues flows out of the midst of the smart
parades and crescents of the former town,--along by hedges and beneath the
shadow of great elms, past stuccoed Elizabethan villas and wayside alehouses,
and through a hamlet of modern aspect,--and runs straight into the principal
thoroughfare of Warwick. The
battlemented turrets of the castle, embowered half-way up in foliage, and the
At this point, however, we will turn back, in order to
follow up the other road from
A ruinous and ivy-grown bridge, that projects from the bank
a little on the hither side of the castle, has the effect of making the scene
appear more entirely apart from the every-day world, for it ends abruptly in
the middle of the stream,--so that, if a cavalcade of the knights and ladies of
romance should issue from the old walls, they could never tread on earthly
ground, any more than we, approaching from the side of modern realism, can
overleap the gulf between our domain and theirs. Yet, if we seek to disenchant ourselves, it
may readily be done. Crossing the bridge
on which we stand, and passing a little farther on, we come to the entrance of
the castle, abutting on the highway, and hospitably open at certain hours to
all curious pilgrims who choose to disburse half a crown or so toward the
support of the earl's domestics. The
sight of that long series of historic rooms, full of such splendors and rarities
as a great English family necessarily gathers about itself, in its hereditary
abode, and in the lapse of ages, is well worth the money, or ten times as much,
if indeed the value of the spectacle could be reckoned in money's-worth. But
after the attendant has hurried you from end to end of the edifice, repeating a
guide-book by rote, and exorcising each successive hall of its poetic glamour
and witchcraft by the mere tone in which he talks about it, you will make the
doleful discovery that Warwick Castle has ceased to be a dream. It is better, methinks, to linger on the
bridge, gazing at Caesar's Tower and Guy's Tower in the dim English sunshine
above, and in the placid
From the bridge over the Avon, the road passes in front of
the castle-gate, and soon enters the principal street of
Old as it looks, all this portion of
The interior of the town wears a less old-fashioned aspect
than the suburbs through which we approach it; and the High Street has shops
with modern plate-glass, and buildings with stuccoed fronts, exhibiting as few
projections to hang a thought or sentiment upon as if an architect of to-day
had planned them. And, indeed, so far as
their surface goes, they are perhaps new enough to stand unabashed in an
American street; but behind these renovated faces, with their monotonous lack
of expression, there is probably the substance of the same old town that wore a
Gothic exterior in the Middle Ages. The
street is an emblem of
When the old edifice, or the antiquated custom or
institution, appears in its pristine form, without any attempt at intermarrying
it with modern fashions, an American cannot but admire the picturesque effect
produced by the sudden cropping up of an apparently dead-and-buried state of
society into the actual present, of which he is himself a part. We need not go far in
The edifice itself dates from a much older period than the
charitable institution of which it is now the home. It was the seat of a religious fraternity far
back in the Middle Ages, and continued so till Henry
VIII. turned all the priesthood of
On the projecting story, over the arched entrance, there is the date, 1571, and several coats-of-arms, either the Earl's or those of his kindred, and immediately above the doorway a stone sculpture of the Bear and Ragged Staff.
Passing through the arch, we find ourselves in a quadrangle,
or enclosed court, such as always formed the central part of a great family
residence in Queen Elizabeth's time, and earlier. There can hardly be a more perfect specimen
of such an establishment than
At my first visit, some of the brethren were seated on the bench outside of the edifice, looking down into the street; but they did not vouchsafe me a word, and seemed so estranged from modern life, so enveloped in antique customs and old-fashioned cloaks, that to converse with them would have been like shouting across the gulf between our age and Queen Elizabeth's. So I passed into the quadrangle, and found it quite solitary, except that a plain and neat old woman happened to be crossing it, with an aspect of business and carefulness that bespoke her a woman of this world, and not merely a shadow of the past. Asking her if I could come in, she answered very readily and civilly that I might, and said that I was free to look about me, hinting a hope, however, that I would not open the private doors of the brotherhood, as some visitors were in the habit of doing. Under her guidance, I went into what was formerly the great hall of the establishment, where King James I. had once been feasted by an Earl of Warwick, as is commemorated by an inscription on the cobwebbed and dingy wall. It is a very spacious and barn-like apartment, with a brick floor, and a vaulted roof, the rafters of which are oaken beams, wonderfully carved, but hardly visible in the duskiness that broods aloft. The hall may have made a splendid appearance, when it was decorated with rich tapestry, and illuminated with chandeliers, cressets, and torches glistening upon silver dishes, where King James sat at supper among his brilliantly dressed nobles; but it has come to base uses in these latter days,--being improved, in Yankee phrase, as a brewery and wash-room, and as a cellar for the brethren's separate allotments of coal.
The old lady here left me to myself, and I returned into the
quadrangle. It was very quiet, very handsome, in its own obsolete style, and
must be an exceedingly comfortable place for the old people to lounge in, when
the inclement winds render it inexpedient to walk abroad. There are shrubs against the wall, on one
side; and on another is a cloistered walk, adorned with stags' heads and
antlers, and running beneath a covered gallery, up to which ascends a
balustraded staircase. In the portion of
the edifice opposite the entrance-arch are the apartments of the Master; and
looking into the window (as the old woman, at no request of mine, had specially
informed me that I might), I saw a low, but vastly comfortable parlor, very
handsomely furnished, and altogether a luxurious place. It had a fireplace with an immense arch, the
antique breadth of which extended almost from wall to wall of the room, though
now fitted up in such a way, that the modern coal-grate looked very diminutive
in the midst. Gazing into this pleasant
interior, it seemed to me, that, among these venerable surroundings, availing
himself of whatever was good in former things, and eking out their imperfection
with the results of modern ingenuity, the Master might lead a not unenviable
life. On the cloistered side of the
quadrangle, where the dark oak panels made the enclosed space dusky, I beheld a
curtained window reddened by a great blaze from within, and heard the bubbling
and squeaking of something--doubtless very nice and succulent--that was being
cooked at the kitchen-fire. I think,
indeed, that a whiff or two of the savory fragrance reached my nostrils; at all
events, the impression grew upon me that Leicester's Hospital is one of the
jolliest old domiciles in
I was about to depart, when another old woman, very plainly
dressed, but fat, comfortable, and with a cheerful twinkle in her eyes, came in
through the arch, and looked curiously at me.
This repeated apparition of the gentle sex (though by no means under its
loveliest guise) had still an agreeable effect in modifying my ideas of an
institution which I had supposed to be of a stern and monastic character. She asked whether I wished to see the
hospital, and said that the porter, whose office it was to attend to visitors,
was dead, and would be buried that very day, so that the whole establishment
could not conveniently be shown me. She
kindly invited me, however, to visit the apartment occupied by her husband and
herself; so I followed her up the antique staircase, along the gallery, and
into a small, oak-panelled parlor, where sat an old man in a long blue garment,
who arose and saluted me with much courtesy.
He seemed a very quiet person, and yet had a look of travel and
adventure, and gray experience, such as I could have fancied in a palmer of
ancient times, who might likewise have worn a similar costume. The little room was carpeted and neatly
furnished; a portrait of its occupant was hanging on the wall; and on a table
were two swords crossed,--one, probably, his own battle-weapon, and the other,
which I drew half out of the scabbard, had an inscription on the blade,
purporting that it had been taken from the field of
The old soldier and his wife both seemed glad of somebody to talk with; but the good woman availed herself of the privilege far more copiously than the veteran himself, insomuch that he felt it expedient to give her an occasional nudge with his elbow in her well-padded ribs. "Don't you be so talkative!" quoth he; and, indeed, he could hardly find space for a word, and quite as little after his admonition as before. Her nimble tongue ran over the whole system of life in the hospital. The brethren, she said, had a yearly stipend (the amount of which she did not mention), and such decent lodgings as I saw, and some other advantages, free; and, instead of being pestered with a great many rules, and made to dine together at a great table, they could manage their little household matters as they liked, buying their own dinners and having them cooked in the general kitchen, and eating them snugly in their own parlors. "And," added she, rightly deeming this the crowning privilege, "with the Master's permission, they can have their wives to take care of them; and no harm comes of it; and what more can an old man desire?" It was evident enough that the good dame found herself in what she considered very rich clover, and, moreover, had plenty of small occupations to keep her from getting rusty and dull; but the veteran impressed me as deriving far less enjoyment from the monotonous ease, without fear of change or hope of improvement, that had followed upon thirty years of peril and vicissitude. I fancied, too, that, while pleased with the novelty of a stranger's visit, he was still a little shy of becoming a spectacle for the stranger's curiosity; for, if he chose to be morbid about the matter, the establishment was but an almshouse, in spite of its old-fashioned magnificence, and his fine blue cloak only a pauper's garment, with a silver badge on it that perhaps galled his shoulder. In truth, the badge and the peculiar garb, though quite in accordance with the manners of the Earl of Leicester's age, are repugnant to modern prejudices, and might fitly and humanely be abolished.
A year or two afterwards I paid another visit to the hospital, and found a new porter established in office, and already capable of talking like a guide-book about the history, antiquities, and present condition of the charity. He informed me that the twelve brethren are selected from among old soldiers of good character, whose other resources must not exceed an income of five pounds; thus excluding all commissioned officers, whose half-pay would of course be more than that amount. They receive from the hospital an annuity of eighty pounds each, besides their apartments, a garment of fine blue cloth, an annual abundance of ale, and a privilege at the kitchen-fire; so that, considering the class from which they are taken, they may well reckon themselves among the fortunate of the earth. Furthermore, they are invested with political rights, acquiring a vote for member of Parliament in virtue either of their income or brotherhood. On the other hand, as regards their personal freedom or conduct, they are subject to a supervision which the Master of the hospital might render extremely annoying, were he so inclined; but the military restraint under which they have spent the active portion of their lives makes it easier for them to endure the domestic discipline here imposed upon their age. The porter bore his testimony (whatever were its value) to their being as contented and happy as such a set of old people could possibly be, and affirmed that they spent much time in burnishing their silver badges, and were as proud of them as a nobleman of his star. These badges, by the by, except one that was stolen and replaced in Queen Anne's time, are the very same that decorated the original twelve brethren.
I have seldom met with a better guide than my friend the porter. He appeared to take a genuine interest in the peculiarities of the establishment, and yet had an existence apart from them, so that he could the better estimate what those peculiarities were. To be sure, his knowledge and observation were confined to external things, but, so far, had a sufficiently extensive scope. He led me up the staircase and exhibited portions of the timber framework of the edifice that are reckoned to be eight or nine hundred years old, and are still neither worm-eaten nor decayed; and traced out what had been a great hall in the days of the Catholic fraternity, though its area is now filled up with the apartments of the twelve brethren; and pointed to ornaments of sculptured oak, done in an ancient religious style of art, but hardly visible amid the vaulted dimness of the roof. Thence we went to the chapel--the Gothic church which I noted several pages back--surmounting the gateway that stretches half across the street. Here the brethren attend daily prayer, and have each a prayer-book of the finest paper, with a fair, large type for their old eyes. The interior of the chapel is very plain, with a picture of no merit for an altar-piece, and a single old pane of painted glass in the great eastern window, representing,--no saint, nor angel, as is customary in such cases,--but that grim sinner, the Earl of Leicester. Nevertheless, amid so many tangible proofs of his human sympathy, one comes to doubt whether the Earl could have been such a hardened reprobate, after all.
We ascended the tower of the chapel, and looked down between
its battlements into the street, a hundred feet below us; while clambering
half-way up were foxglove-flowers, weeds, small shrubs, and tufts of grass,
that had rooted themselves into the roughnesses of the stone foundation. Far around us lay a rich and lovely English
landscape, with many a church-spire and noble country-seat, and several objects
of high historic interest. Edge Hill,
where the Puritans defeated Charles I., is in sight on the edge of the horizon,
and much nearer stands the house where Cromwell lodged on the night before the
battle. Right under our eyes, and half
enveloping the town with its high-shouldering wall, so that all the closely
compacted streets seemed but a precinct of the estate, was the Earl of
Warwick's delightful park, a wide extent of sunny lawns, interspersed with
broad contiguities of forest-shade. Some
of the cedars of Lebanon were there,--a growth of trees in which the
And this historic fact or poetic fiction, whichever it may
be, brings to mind a more indestructible reality than anything else that has
occurred within the present field of our vision; though this includes the scene
of Guy of Warwick's legendary exploits, and some of those of the Round Table,
to say nothing of the Battle of Edge Hill.
For perhaps it was in the landscape now under our eyes that Posthumus
wandered with the King's daughter, the sweet, chaste, faithful, and courageous
Imogen, the tenderest and womanliest woman that Shakespeare ever made immortal
in the world. The silver
The day, though it began brightly, had long been overcast, and the clouds now spat down a few spiteful drops upon us, besides that the east-wind was very chill; so we descended the winding tower-stair, and went next into the garden, one side of which is shut in by almost the only remaining portion of the old city-wall. A part of the garden-ground is devoted to grass and shrubbery, and permeated by gravel-walks, in the centre of one of which is a beautiful stone vase of Egyptian sculpture, that formerly stood on the top of a Nilometer, or graduated pillar for measuring the rise and fall of the river Nile. On the pedestal is a Latin inscription by Dr. Parr, who (his vicarage of Hatton being so close at hand) was probably often the Master's guest, and smoked his interminable pipe along these garden-walks. Of the vegetable-garden, which lies adjacent, the lion's share is appropriated to the Master, and twelve small, separate patches to the individual brethren, who cultivate them at their own judgment and by their own labor; and their beans and cauliflowers have a better flavor, I doubt not, than if they had received them directly from the dead hand of the Earl of Leicester, like the rest of their food. In the farther part of the garden is an arbor for the old men's pleasure and convenience, and I should like well to sit down among them there, and find out what is really the bitter and the sweet of such a sort of life. As for the old gentlemen themselves, they put me queerly in mind of the Salem Custom-House, and the venerable personages whom I found so quietly at anchor there.
The Master's residence, forming one entire side of the quadrangle, fronts on the garden, and wears an aspect at once stately and homely. It can hardly have undergone any perceptible change within three centuries; but the garden, into which its old windows look, has probably put off a great many eccentricities and quaintnesses, in the way of cunningly clipped shrubbery, since the gardener of Queen Elizabeth's reign threw down his rusty shears and took his departure. The present Master's name is Harris; he is a descendant of the founder's family, a gentleman of independent fortune, and a clergyman of the Established Church, as the regulations of the hospital require him to be. I know not what are his official emoluments; but, according to an English precedent, an ancient charitable fund is certain to be held directly for the behoof of those who administer it, and perhaps incidentally, in a moderate way, for the nominal beneficiaries; and, in the case before us, the twelve brethren being so comfortably provided for, the Master is likely to be at least as comfortable as all the twelve together. Yet I ought not, even in a distant land, to fling an idle gibe against a gentleman of whom I really know nothing, except that the people under his charge bear all possible tokens of being tended and cared for as sedulously as if each of them sat by a warm fireside of his own, with a daughter bustling round the hearth to make ready his porridge and his titbits. It is delightful to think of the good life which a suitable man, in the Master's position, has an opportunity to lead,--linked to time-honored customs, welded in with an ancient system, never dreaming of radical change, and bringing all the mellowness and richness of the past down into these railway-days, which do not compel him or his community to move a whit quicker than of yore. Everybody can appreciate the advantages of going ahead; it might be well, sometimes, to think whether there is not a word or two to be said in favor of standing still or going to sleep.
From the garden we went into the kitchen, where the fire was burning hospitably, and diffused a genial warmth far and wide, together with the fragrance of some old English roast-beef, which, I think, must at that moment have been done nearly to a turn. The kitchen is a lofty, spacious, and noble room, partitioned off round the fireplace, by a sort of semicircular oaken screen, or rather, an arrangement of heavy and high-backed settles, with an ever-open entrance between them, on either side of which is the omnipresent image of the Bear and Ragged Staff, three feet high, and excellently carved in oak, now black with time and unctuous kitchen-smoke. The ponderous mantel-piece, likewise of carved oak, towers high towards the dusky ceiling, and extends its mighty breadth to take in a vast area of hearth, the arch of the fireplace being positively so immense that I could compare it to nothing but the city gateway. Above its cavernous opening were crossed two ancient halberds, the weapons, possibly, of soldiers who had fought under Leicester in the Low Countries; and elsewhere on the walls were displayed several muskets, which some of the present inmates of the hospital may have levelled against the French. Another ornament of the mantel-piece was a square of silken needlework or embroidery, faded nearly white, but dimly representing that wearisome Bear and Ragged Staff, which we should hardly look twice at, only that it was wrought by the fair fingers of poor Amy Robsart, and beautifully framed in oak from Kenilworth Castle, at the expense of a Mr. Conner, a countryman of our own. Certainly, no Englishman would be capable of this little bit of enthusiasm. Finally, the kitchen-firelight glistens on a splendid display of copper flagons, all of generous capacity, and one of them about as big as a half-barrel; the smaller vessels contain the customary allowance of ale, and the larger one is filled with that foaming liquor on four festive occasions of the year, and emptied amain by the jolly brotherhood. I should be glad to see them do it; but it would be an exploit fitter for Queen Elizabeth's age than these degenerate times.
The kitchen is the social hall of the twelve brethren. In the daytime, they bring their little
messes to be cooked here, and eat them in their own parlors; but after a
certain hour, the great hearth is cleared and swept, and the old men assemble
round its blaze, each with his tankard and his pipe, and hold high converse
through the evening. If the Master be a
fit man for his office, methinks he will sometimes sit down sociably among
them; for there is an elbow-chair by the fireside which it would not demean his
dignity to fill, since it was occupied by King James at the great festival of
nearly three centuries ago. A sip of the
ale and a whiff of the tobacco-pipe would put him in friendly relations with
his venerable household; and then we can fancy him instructing them by pithy
apothegms and religious texts which were first uttered here by some Catholic
priest and have impregnated the atmosphere ever since. If a joke goes round, it shall be of an elder
coinage than Joe Miller's, as old as Lord Bacon's collection, or as the
jest-book that Master Slender asked for when he lacked small-talk for sweet
Anne Page. No news shall be spoken of
later than the drifting ashore, on the northern coast, of some stern-post or
figure-head, a barnacled fragment of one of the great galleons of the Spanish
Armada. What a tremor would pass through
the antique group, if a damp newspaper should suddenly be spread to dry before
the fire! They would feel as if either
that printed sheet or they themselves must be an unreality. What a mysterious awe, if the shriek of the
railway-train, as it reaches the
Not far from the market-place of
The great attraction of this edifice is the Beauchamp (or,
as the English, who delight in vulgarizing their fine old Norman names, call
it, the Beechum) Chapel, where the Earls of Warwick and their kindred have been
buried, from four hundred years back till within a recent period. It is a
stately and very elaborate chapel, with a large window of ancient painted
glass, as perfectly preserved as any that I remember seeing in
In the centre of the chapel is the magnificent memorial of its founder, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick in the time of Henry VI. On a richly ornamented altar-tomb of gray marble lies the bronze figure of a knight in gilded armor, most admirably executed: for the sculptors of those days had wonderful skill in their own style, and could make so lifelike an image of a warrior, in brass or marble, that, if a trumpet were sounded over his tomb, you would expect him to start up and handle his sword. The Earl whom we now speak of, however, has slept soundly in spite of a more serious disturbance than any blast of a trumpet, unless it were the final one. Some centuries after his death, the floor of the chapel fell down and broke open the stone coffin in which he was buried; and among the fragments appeared the anciently entombed Earl of Warwick, with the color scarcely faded out of his cheeks, his eyes a little sunken, but in other respects looking as natural as if he had died yesterday. But exposure to the atmosphere appeared to begin and finish the long-delayed process of decay in a moment, causing him to vanish like a bubble; so, that, almost before there had been time to wonder at him, there was nothing left of the stalwart Earl save his hair. This sole relic the ladies of Warwick made prize of, and braided it into rings and brooches for their own adornment; and thus, with a chapel and a ponderous tomb built on purpose to protect his remains, this great nobleman could not help being brought untimely to the light of day, nor even keep his lovelocks on his skull after he had so long done with love. There seems to be a fatality that disturbs people in their sepulchres, when they have been over-careful to render them magnificent and impregnable,--as witness the builders of the Pyramids, and Hadrian, Augustus, and the Scipios, and most other personages whose mausoleums have been conspicuous enough to attract the violator; and as for dead men's hair, I have seen a lock of King Edward the Fourth's, of a reddish-brown color, which perhaps was once twisted round the delicate forefinger of Mistress Shore.
The direct lineage of the renowned characters that lie
buried in this splendid chapel has long been extinct. The earldom is now held by the Grevilles,
descendants of the Lord Brooke who was slain in the Parliamentary War; and they
have recently (that is to say, within a century) built a burial-vault on the
other side of the church, calculated (as the sexton assured me, with a nod as
if he were pleased) to afford suitable and respectful accommodation to as many
as fourscore coffins. Thank Heaven, the old man did not call them
"CASKETS"!--a vile modern phrase, which compels a person of sense and
good taste to shrink more disgustfully than ever before from the idea of being
buried at all. But as regards those
eighty coffins, only sixteen have as yet been contributed; and it may be a
question with some minds, not merely whether the Grevilles will hold the
earldom of Warwick until the full number shall be made up, but whether earldoms
and all manner of lordships will not have faded out of England long before
those many generations shall have passed from the castle to the vault. I hope not.
A titled and landed aristocracy, if anywise an evil and an encumbrance,
is so only to the nation which is doomed to bear it on its shoulders; and an
American, whose sole relation to it is to admire its picturesque effect upon
society, ought to be the last man to quarrel with what affords him so much
gratuitous enjoyment. Nevertheless,
If the visitor is inclined to carry away any little memorial
It would be easier to spend a hundred pounds in Mr. Redfern's shop than to keep the money in one's pocket; but, for my part, I contented myself with buying a little old spoon of silver-gilt, and fantastically shaped, and got it at all the more reasonable rate because there happened to be no legend attached to it. I could supply any deficiency of that kind at much less expense than regilding the spoon!
An American tree, however, if it could grow in fair competition with an English one of similar species, would probably be the more picturesque object of the two. The Warwickshire elm has not so beautiful a shape as those that overhang our village street; and as for the redoubtable English oak, there is a certain John Bullism in its figure, a compact rotundity of foliage, a lack of irregular and various outline, that make it look wonderfully like a gigantic cauliflower. Its leaf, too, is much smaller than that of most varieties of American oak; nor do I mean to doubt that the latter, with free leave to grow, reverent care and cultivation, and immunity from the axe, would live out its centuries as sturdily as its English brother, and prove far the nobler and more majestic specimen of a tree at the end of them. Still, however one's Yankee patriotism may struggle against the admission, it must be owned that the trees and other objects of an English landscape take hold of the observer by numberless minute tendrils, as it were, which, look as closely as we choose, we never find in an American scene. The parasitic growth is so luxuriant, that the trunk of the tree, so gray and dry in our climate, is better worth observing than the boughs and foliage; a verdant messiness coats it all over; so that it looks almost as green as the leaves; and often, moreover, the stately stem is clustered about, high upward, with creeping and twining shrubs, the ivy, and sometimes the mistletoe, close-clinging friends, nurtured by the moisture and never too fervid sunshine, and supporting themselves by the old tree's abundant strength. We call it a parasitical vegetation; but, if the phrase imply any reproach, it is unkind to bestow it on this beautiful affection and relationship which exist in England between one order of plants and another: the strong tree being always ready to give support to the trailing shrub, lift it to the sun, and feed it out of its own heart, if it crave such food; and the shrub, on its part, repaying its foster-father with an ample luxuriance of beauty, and adding Corinthian grace to the tree's lofty strength. No bitter winter nips these tender little sympathies, no hot sun burns the life out of them; and therefore they outlast the longevity of the oak, and, if the woodman permitted, would bury it in a green grave, when all is over.
Should there be nothing else along the road to look at, an English hedge might well suffice to occupy the eyes, and, to a depth beyond what he would suppose, the heart of an American. We often set out hedges in our own soil, but might as well set out figs or pineapples and expect to gather fruit of them. Something grows, to be sure, which we choose to call a hedge; but it lacks the dense, luxuriant variety of vegetation that is accumulated into the English original, in which a botanist would find a thousand shrubs and gracious herbs that the hedgemaker never thought of planting there. Among them, growing wild, are many of the kindred blossoms of the very flowers which our pilgrim fathers brought from England, for the sake of their simple beauty and homelike associations, and which we have ever since been cultivating in gardens. There is not a softer trait to be found in the character of those stern men than that they should have been sensible of these flower-roots clinging among the fibres of their rugged hearts, and have felt the necessity of bringing them over sea and making them hereditary in the new land, instead of trusting to what rarer beauty the wilderness might have in store for them.
Or, if the roadside has no hedge, the ugliest stone fence
(such as, in
The English should send us photographs of portions of the trunks of trees, the tangled and various products of a hedge, and a square foot of an old wall. They can hardly send anything else so characteristic. Their artists, especially of the later school, sometimes toil to depict such subjects, but are apt to stiffen the lithe tendrils in the process. The poets succeed better, with Tennyson at their head, and often produce ravishing effects by dint of a tender minuteness of touch, to which the genius of the soil and climate artfully impels them: for, as regards grandeur, there are loftier scenes in many countries than the best that England can show; but, for the picturesqueness of the smallest object that lies under its gentle gloom and sunshine, there is no scenery like it anywhere.
In the foregoing paragraphs I have strayed away to a long
distance from the road to Stratford-on-Avon; for I remember no such stone
fences as I have been speaking of in Warwickshire, nor
The spire of Shakespeare's church--the Church of the Holy
Trinity--begins to show itself among the trees at a little distance from
After wandering through two or three streets, I found my way to Shakespeare's birthplace, which is almost a smaller and humbler house than any description can prepare the visitor to expect; so inevitably does an august inhabitant make his abode palatial to our imaginations, receiving his guests, indeed, in a castle in the air, until we unwisely insist on meeting him among the sordid lanes and alleys of lower earth. The portion of the edifice with which Shakespeare had anything to do is hardly large enough, in the basement, to contain the butcher's stall that one of his descendants kept, and that still remains there, windowless, with the cleaver-cuts in its hacked counter, which projects into the street under a little penthouse-roof, as if waiting for a new occupant.
The upper half of the door was open, and, on my rapping at it, a young person in black made her appearance and admitted me; she was not a menial, but remarkably genteel (an American characteristic) for an English girl, and was probably the daughter of the old gentlewoman who takes care of the house. This lower room has a pavement of gray slabs of stone, which may have been rudely squared when the house was new, but are now all cracked, broken, and disarranged in a most unaccountable way. One does not see how any ordinary usage, for whatever length of time, should have so smashed these heavy stones; it is as if an earthquake had burst up through the floor, which afterwards had been imperfectly trodden down again. The room is whitewashed and very clean, but wofully shabby and dingy, coarsely built, and such as the most poetical imagination would find it difficult to idealize. In the rear of this apartment is the kitchen, a still smaller room, of a similar rude aspect; it has a great, rough fireplace, with space for a large family under the blackened opening of the chimney, and an immense passageway for the smoke, through which Shakespeare may have seen the blue sky by day and the stars glimmering down at him by night. It is now a dreary spot where the long-extinguished embers used to be. A glowing fire, even if it covered only a quarter part of the hearth, might still do much towards making the old kitchen cheerful. But we get a depressing idea of the stifled, poor, sombre kind of life that could have been lived in such a dwelling, where this room seems to have been the gathering-place of the family, with no breadth or scope, no good retirement, but old and young huddling together cheek by jowl. What a hardy plant was Shakespeare's genius, how fatal its development, since it could not be blighted in such an atmosphere! It only brought human nature the closer to him, and put more unctuous earth about his roots.
Thence I was ushered up stairs to the room in which Shakespeare is supposed to have been born: though, if you peep too curiously into the matter, you may find the shadow of an ugly doubt on this, as well as most other points of his mysterious life. It is the chamber over the butcher's shop, and is lighted by one broad window containing a great many small, irregular panes of glass. The floor is made of planks, very rudely hewn, and fitting together with little neatness; the naked beams and rafters, at the sides of the room and overhead, bear the original marks of the builder's broad-axe, with no evidence of an attempt to smooth off the job. Again we have to reconcile ourselves to the smallness of the space enclosed by these illustrious walls,--a circumstance more difficult to accept, as regards places that we have heard, read, thought, and dreamed much about, than any other disenchanting particular of a mistaken ideal. A few paces--perhaps seven or eight--take us from end to end of it. So low it is, that I could easily touch the ceiling, and might have done so without a tiptoe-stretch, had it been a good deal higher; and this humility of the chamber has tempted a vast multitude of people to write their names overhead in pencil. Every inch of the sidewalls, even into the obscurest nooks and corners, is covered with a similar record; all the window-panes, moreover, are scrawled with diamond signatures, among which is said to be that of Walter Scott; but so many persons have sought to immortalize themselves in close vicinity to his name, that I really could not trace him out. Methinks it is strange that people do not strive to forget their forlorn little identities, in such situations, instead of thrusting them forward into the dazzle of a great renown, where, if noticed, they cannot but be deemed impertinent.
This room, and the entire house, so far as I saw it, are
whitewashed and exceedingly clean; nor is there the aged, musty smell with
which old Chester first made me acquainted, and which goes far to cure an
American of his excessive predilection for antique residences. An old lady, who took charge of me up stairs,
had the manners and aspect of a gentlewoman, and talked with somewhat
formidable knowledge and appreciative intelligence about Shakespeare. Arranged on a table and in chairs were
various prints, views of houses and scenes connected with Shakespeare's memory,
together with editions of his works and local publications about his home and
haunts, from the sale of which this respectable lady perhaps realizes a
handsome profit. At any rate, I bought a
good many of them, conceiving that it might be the civillest way of requiting
her for her instructive conversation and the trouble she took in showing me the
house. It cost me a pang (not a
curmudgeonly, but a gentlemanly one) to offer a downright fee to the lady-like
girl who had admitted me; but I swallowed my delicate scruples with some little
difficulty, and she digested hers, so far as I could observe, with no
difficulty at all. In fact, nobody need fear to hold out half a crown to any person with whom
he has occasion to speak a word in
I should consider it unfair to quit Shakespeare's house
without the frank acknowledgment that I was conscious of not the slightest
emotion while viewing it, nor any quickening of the imagination. This has often happened to me in my visits to
memorable places. Whatever pretty and
apposite reflections I may have made upon the subject had either occurred to me
before I ever saw
I feel, as sensibly as the reader can, what horrible impiety it is to remember these things, be they true or false. In either case, they ought to vanish out of sight on the distant ocean-line of the past, leaving a pure, white memory, even as a sail, though perhaps darkened with many stains, looks snowy white on the far horizon. But I draw a moral from these unworthy reminiscences and this embodiment of the poet, as suggested by some of the grimy actualities of his life. It is for the high interests of the world not to insist upon finding out that its greatest men are, in a certain lower sense, very much the same kind of men as the rest of us, and often a little worse; because a common mind cannot properly digest such a discovery, nor ever know the true proportion of the great man's good and evil, nor how small a part of him it was that touched our muddy or dusty earth. Thence comes moral bewilderment, and even intellectual loss, in regard to what is best of him. When Shakespeare invoked a curse on the man who should stir his bones, he perhaps meant the larger share of it for him or them who should pry into his perishing earthliness, the defects or even the merits of the character that he wore in Stratford, when he had left mankind so much to muse upon that was imperishable and divine. Heaven keep me from incurring any part of the anathema in requital for the irreverent sentences above written!
From Shakespeare's house, the next step, of course, is to
visit his burial-place. The appearance
of the church is most venerable and beautiful, standing amid a great green
shadow of lime-trees, above which rises the spire,
while the Gothic battlements and buttresses and vast arched windows are
obscurely seen through the boughs. The
An old man in small-clothes was waiting at the gate; and inquiring whether I wished to go in, he preceded me to the church-porch, and rapped. I could have done it quite as effectually for myself; but it seems, the old people of the neighborhood haunt about the churchyard, in spite of the frowns and remonstrances of the sexton, who grudges them the half-eleemosynary sixpence which they sometimes get from visitors. I was admitted into the church by a respectable-looking and intelligent man in black, the parish-clerk, I suppose, and probably holding a richer incumbency than his vicar, if all the fees which he handles remain in his own pocket. He was already exhibiting the Shakespeare monuments to two or three visitors, and several other parties came in while I was there.
The poet and his family are in possession of what may be
considered the very best burial-places that the church affords. They lie in a row, right across the breadth
of the chancel, the foot of each gravestone being close to the elevated floor
on which the altar stands. Nearest to
the side-wall, beneath Shakespeare's bust, is a slab bearing a Latin inscription
addressed to his wife, and covering her remains; then his own slab, with the
old anathematizing stanza upon it; then that of Thomas Nash, who married his
granddaughter; then that of Dr. Hall, the husband of his daughter Susannah;
and, lastly, Susannah's own.
Shakespeare's is the commonest-looking slab of all, being just such a
The poet's bust is affixed to the northern wall of the
church, the base of it being about a man's height, or rather more, above the
floor of the chancel. The features of
this piece of sculpture are entirely unlike any portrait of Shakespeare that I
have ever seen, and compel me to take down the beautiful, lofty-browed, and
noble picture of him which has hitherto hung in my mental
portrait-gallery. The bust cannot be
said to represent a beautiful face or an eminently noble head; but it clutches
firmly hold of one's sense of reality and insists upon your accepting it, if
not as Shakespeare the poet, yet as the wealthy burgher of
Fifteen or twenty feet behind the row of Shakespeare gravestones is the great east-window of the church, now brilliant with stained glass of recent manufacture. On one side of this window, under a sculptured arch of marble, lies a full-length marble figure of John a' Combe, clad in what I take to be a robe of municipal dignity, and holding its hands devoutly clasped. It is a sturdy English figure, with coarse features, a type of ordinary man whom we smile to see immortalized in the sculpturesque material of poets and heroes; but the prayerful attitude encourages us to believe that the old usurer may not, after all, have had that grim reception in the other world which Shakespeare's squib foreboded for him. By the by, till I grew somewhat familiar with Warwickshire pronunciation, I never understood that the point of those ill-natured lines was a pun. "'Oho!' quoth the Devil, ''t is my John a' Combe'"--that is, "My John has come!"
Close to the poet's bust is a nameless, oblong, cubic tomb, supposed to be that of a clerical dignitary of the fourteenth century. The church has other mural monuments and altar-tombs, one or two of the latter upholding the recumbent figures of knights in armor and their dames, very eminent and worshipful personages in their day, no doubt, but doomed to appear forever intrusive and impertinent within the precincts which Shakespeare has made his own. His renown is tyrannous, and suffers nothing else to be recognized within the scope of its material presence, unless illuminated by some side-ray from himself. The clerk informed me that interments no longer take place in any part of the church. And it is better so; for methinks a person of delicate individuality, curious about his burial-place, and desirous of six feet of earth for himself alone, could never endure to be buried near Shakespeare, but would rise up at midnight and grope his way out of the church-door, rather than sleep in the shadow of so stupendous a memory.
I should hardly have dared to add another to the innumerable descriptions of Stratford-on-Avon, if it had not seemed to me that this would form a fitting framework to some reminiscences of a very remarkable woman. Her labor, while she lived, was of a nature and purpose outwardly irreverent to the name of Shakespeare, yet, by its actual tendency, entitling her to the distinction of being that one of all his worshippers who sought, though she knew it not, to place the richest and stateliest diadem upon his brow. We Americans, at least, in the scanty annals of our literature, cannot afford to forget her high and conscientious exercise of noble faculties, which, indeed, if you look at the matter in one way, evolved only a miserable error, but, more fairly considered, produced a result worth almost what it cost her. Her faith in her own ideas was so genuine, that, erroneous as they were, it transmuted them to gold, or, at all events, interfused a large proportion of that precious and indestructible substance among the waste material from which it can readily be sifted.
The only time I ever saw Miss Bacon was in London, where she
had lodgings in Spring Street, Sussex Gardens, at the house of a grocer, a
portly, middle-aged, civil, and friendly man, who, as well as his wife,
appeared to feel a personal kindness towards their lodger. I was ushered up two (and I rather believe
three) pair of stairs into a parlor somewhat humbly furnished, and told that
Miss Bacon would come soon. There were a
number of books on the table, and, looking into them, I found that every one
had some reference, more or less immediate, to her Shakespearian theory,--a
volume of Raleigh's "History of the World," a volume of Montaigne, a
volume of Lord Bacon's letters, a volume of Shakespeare's plays; and on another
table lay a large roll of manuscript, which I presume to have been a portion of
her work. To be sure, there was a
pocket-Bible among the books, but everything else referred to the one despotic
idea that had got possession of her mind; and as it had engrossed her whole
soul as well as her intellect, I have no doubt that she had established subtile
connections between it and the Bible likewise.
As is apt to be the case with solitary students, Miss Bacon probably
read late and rose late; for I took up Montaigne (it was Hazlitt's translation)
and had been reading his journey to
I had expected (the more shame for me, having no other ground of such expectation than that she was a literary woman) to see a very homely, uncouth, elderly personage, and was quite agreeably disappointed by her aspect. She was rather uncommonly tall, and had a striking and expressive face, dark hair, dark eyes, which shone with an inward light as soon as she began to speak, and by and by a color came into her cheeks and made her look almost young. Not that she really was so; she must have been beyond middle age: and there was no unkindness in coming to that conclusion, because, making allowance for years and ill-health, I could suppose her to have been handsome and exceedingly attractive once. Though wholly estranged from society, there was little or no restraint or embarrassment in her manner: lonely people are generally glad to give utterance to their pent-up ideas, and often bubble over with them as freely as children with their new-found syllables. I cannot tell how it came about, but we immediately found ourselves taking a friendly and familiar tone together, and began to talk as if we had known one another a very long while. A little preliminary correspondence had indeed smoothed the way, and we had a definite topic in the contemplated publication of her book.
She was very communicative about her theory, and would have been much more so had I desired it; but, being conscious within myself of a sturdy unbelief, I deemed it fair and honest rather to repress than draw her out upon the subject. Unquestionably, she was a monomaniac; these overmastering ideas about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, and the deep political philosophy concealed beneath the surface of them, had completely thrown her off her balance; but at the same time they had wonderfully developed her intellect, and made her what she could not otherwise have become. It was a very singular phenomenon: a system of philosophy growing up in thus woman's mind without her volition,--contrary, in fact, to the determined resistance of her volition,--and substituting itself in the place of everything that originally grew there. To have based such a system on fancy, and unconsciously elaborated it for herself, was almost as wonderful as really to have found it in the plays. But, in a certain sense, she did actually find it there. Shakespeare has surface beneath surface, to an immeasurable depth, adapted to the plummet-line of every reader; his works present many phases of truth, each with scope large enough to fill a contemplative mind. Whatever you seek in him you will surely discover, provided you seek truth. There is no exhausting the various interpretation of his symbols; and a thousand years hence, a world of new readers will possess a whole library of new books, as we ourselves do, in these volumes old already. I had half a mind to suggest to Miss Bacon this explanation of her theory, but forbore, because (as I could readily perceive) she had as princely a spirit as Queen Elizabeth herself, and would at once have motioned me from the room.
I had heard, long ago, that she believed that the material
evidences of her dogma as to the authorship, together with the key of the new
philosophy, would be found buried in Shakespeare's grave. Recently, as I understood her, this notion
had been somewhat modified, and was now accurately defined and fully developed
in her mind, with a result of perfect certainty. In Lord Bacon's letters, on which she laid
her finger as she spoke, she had discovered the key and clew to the whole
mystery. There were definite and minute instructions how to find a will and
other documents relating to the conclave of Elizabethan philosophers, which
were concealed (when and by whom she did not inform me) in a hollow space in
the under surface of Shakespeare's gravestone.
Thus the terrible prohibition to remove the stone was accounted
for. The directions, she intimated, went
completely and precisely to the point, obviating all difficulties in the way of
coming at the treasure, and even, if I remember right, were so contrived as to
ward off any troublesome consequences likely to ensue from the interference of
the parish-officers. All that Miss Bacon
now remained in
She communicated all this strange matter in a low, quiet tone; while, on my part, I listened as quietly, and without any expression of dissent. Controversy against a faith so settled would have shut her up at once, and that, too, without in the least weakening her belief in the existence of those treasures of the tomb; and had it been possible to convince her of their intangible nature, I apprehend that there would have been nothing left for the poor enthusiast save to collapse and die. She frankly confessed that she could no longer bear the society of those who did not at least lend a certain sympathy to her views, if not fully share in them; and meeting little sympathy or none, she had now entirely secluded herself from the world. In all these years, she had seen Mrs. Farrar a few times, but had long ago given her up,--Carlyle once or twice, but not of late, although he had received her kindly; Mr. Buchanan, while Minister in England, had once called on her, and General Campbell, our Consul in London, had met her two or three times on business. With these exceptions, which she marked so scrupulously that it was perceptible what epochs they were in the monotonous passage of her days, she had lived in the profoundest solitude. She never walked out; she suffered much from ill-health; and yet, she assured me, she was perfectly happy.
I could well conceive it; for Miss Bacon imagined herself to
have received (what is certainly the greatest boon ever assigned to mortals) a
high mission in the world, with adequate powers for its accomplishment; and
lest even these should prove insufficient, she had faith that special
The interview lasted above an hour, during which she flowed out freely, as to the sole auditor, capable of any degree of intelligent sympathy, whom she had met with in a very long while. Her conversation was remarkably suggestive, alluring forth one's own ideas and fantasies from the shy places where they usually haunt. She was indeed an admirable talker, considering how long she had held her tongue for lack of a listener,--pleasant, sunny and shadowy, often piquant, and giving glimpses of all a woman's various and readily changeable moods and humors; and beneath them all there ran a deep and powerful under-current of earnestness, which did not fail to produce in the listener's mind something like a temporary faith in what she herself believed so fervently. But the streets of London are not favorable to enthusiasms of this kind, nor, in fact, are they likely to flourish anywhere in the English atmosphere; so that, long before reaching Paternoster Row, I felt that it would be a difficult and doubtful matter to advocate the publication of Miss Bacon's book. Nevertheless, it did finally get published.
Months before that happened, however, Miss Bacon had taken
up her residence at Stratford-on-Avon, drawn thither by the magnetism of those
rich secrets which she supposed to have been hidden by Raleigh, or Bacon, or I
know not whom, in Shakespeare's grave, and protected there by a curse, as
pirates used to bury their gold in the guardianship of a fiend. She took a
humble lodging and began to haunt the church like a ghost. But she did not
condescend to any stratagem or underhand attempt to violate the grave, which,
had she been capable of admitting such an idea, might possibly have been
accomplished by the aid of a resurrection-man. As her first step, she made
acquaintance with the clerk, and began to sound him as to the feasibility of
her enterprise and his own willingness to engage in it. The clerk apparently listened with not
unfavorable ears; but, as his situation (which the fees of pilgrims, more
numerous than at any Catholic shrine, render lucrative) would have been
forfeited by any malfeasance in office, he stipulated for liberty to consult
the vicar. Miss Bacon requested to tell
her own story to the reverend gentleman, and seems to have been received by him
with the utmost kindness, and even to have succeeded in making a certain
impression on his mind as to the desirability of the search. As their interview had been under the seal of
secrecy, he asked permission to consult a friend, who, as Miss Bacon either
found out or surmised, was a practitioner of the law. What the legal friend advised she did not
learn; but the negotiation continued, and certainly was never broken off by an
absolute refusal on the vicar's part.
He, perhaps, was kindly temporizing with our poor countrywoman, whom an
Englishman of ordinary mould would have sent to a lunatic asylum at once. I cannot help fancying, however, that her
familiarity with the events of Shakespeare's life, and of his death and burial
(of which she would speak as if she had been present at the edge of the grave),
and all the history, literature, and personalities of the Elizabethan age,
together with the prevailing power of her own belief, and the eloquence with
which she knew how to enforce it, had really gone some little way toward making
a convert of the good clergyman. If so,
I honor him above all the hierarchy of
The affair certainly looked very hopeful. However erroneously, Miss Bacon had understood from the vicar that no obstacles would be interposed to the investigation, and that he himself would sanction it with his presence. It was to take place after nightfall; and all preliminary arrangements being made, the vicar and clerk professed to wait only her word in order to set about lifting the awful stone from the sepulchre. So, at least, Miss Bacon believed; and as her bewilderment was entirely in her own thoughts, and never disturbed her perception or accurate remembrance of external things, I see no reason to doubt it, except it be the tinge of absurdity in the fact. But, in this apparently prosperous state of things, her own convictions began to falter. A doubt stole into her mind whether she might not have mistaken the depository and mode of concealment of those historic treasures; and after once admitting the doubt, she was afraid to hazard the shock of uplifting the stone and finding nothing. She examined the surface of the gravestone, and endeavored, without stirring it, to estimate whether it were of such thickness as to be capable of containing the archives of the Elizabethan club. She went over anew the proofs, the clews, the enigmas, the pregnant sentences, which she had discovered in Bacon's letters and elsewhere, and now was frightened to perceive that they did not point so definitely to Shakespeare's tomb as she had heretofore supposed. There was an unmistakably distinct reference to a tomb, but it might be Bacon's, or Raleigh's, or Spenser's; and instead of the "Old Player," as she profanely called him, it might be either of those three illustrious dead, poet, warrior, or statesman, whose ashes, in Westminster Abbey, or the Tower burial-ground, or wherever they sleep, it was her mission to disturb. It is very possible, moreover, that her acute mind may always have had a lurking and deeply latent distrust of its own fantasies, and that this now became strong enough to restrain her from a decisive step.
But she continued to hover around the church, and seems to have had full freedom of entrance in the daytime, and special license, on one occasion at least, at a late hour of the night. She went thither with a dark-lantern, which could but twinkle like a glow-worm through the volume of obscurity that filled the great dusky edifice. Groping her way up the aisle and towards the chancel, she sat down on the elevated part of the pavement above Shakespeare's grave. If the divine poet really wrote the inscription there, and cared as much about the quiet of his bones as its deprecatory earnestness would imply, it was time for those crumbling relics to bestir themselves under her sacrilegious feet. But they were safe. She made no attempt to disturb them; though, I believe, she looked narrowly into the crevices between Shakespeare's and the two adjacent stones, and in some way satisfied herself that her single strength would suffice to lift the former, in case of need. She threw the feeble ray of her lantern up towards the bust, but could not make it visible beneath the darkness of the vaulted roof. Had she been subject to superstitious terrors, it is impossible to conceive of a situation that could better entitle her to feel them, for, if Shakespeare's ghost would rise at any provocation, it must have shown itself then; but it is my sincere belief, that, if his figure had appeared within the scope of her dark-lantern, in his slashed doublet and gown, and with his eyes bent on her beneath the high, bald forehead, just as we see him in the bust, she would have met him fearlessly and controverted his claims to the authorship of the plays, to his very face. She had taught herself to contemn "Lord Leicester's groom" (it was one of her disdainful epithets for the world's incomparable poet) so thoroughly, that even his disembodied spirit would hardly have found civil treatment at Miss Bacon's hands.
Her vigil, though it appears to have had no definite object, continued far into the night. Several times she heard a low movement in the aisles: a stealthy, dubious footfall prowling about in the darkness, now here, now there, among the pillars and ancient tombs, as if some restless inhabitant of the latter had crept forth to peep at the intruder. By and by the clerk made his appearance, and confessed that he had been watching her ever since she entered the church.
About this time it was that a strange sort of weariness seems to have fallen upon her: her toil was all but done, her great purpose, as she believed, on the very point of accomplishment, when she began to regret that so stupendous a mission had been imposed on the fragility of a woman. Her faith in the new philosophy was as mighty as ever, and so was her confidence in her own adequate development of it, now about to be given to the world; yet she wished, or fancied so, that it might never have been her duty to achieve this unparalleled task, and to stagger feebly forward under her immense burden of responsibility and renown. So far as her personal concern in the matter went, she would gladly have forfeited the reward of her patient study and labor for so many years, her exile from her country and estrangement from her family and friends, her sacrifice of health and all other interests to this one pursuit, if she could only find herself free to dwell in Stratford and be forgotten. She liked the old slumberous town, and awarded the only praise that ever I knew her to bestow on Shakespeare, the individual man, by acknowledging that his taste in a residence was good, and that he knew how to choose a suitable retirement for a person of shy, but genial temperament. And at this point, I cease to possess the means of tracing her vicissitudes of feeling any further. In consequence of some advice which I fancied it my duty to tender, as being the only confidant whom she now had in the world, I fell under Miss Bacon's most severe and passionate displeasure, and was cast off by her in the twinkling of an eye. It was a misfortune to which her friends were always particularly liable; but I think that none of them ever loved, or even respected, her most ingenuous and noble, but likewise most sensitive and tumultuous, character the less for it.
At that time her book was passing through the press. Without prejudice to her literary ability, it
must be allowed that Miss Bacon was wholly unfit to prepare her own work for
publication, because, among many other reasons, she was too thoroughly in
earnest to know what to leave out. Every leaf and line was sacred, for all had
been written under so deep a conviction of truth as to assume, in her eyes, the
aspect of inspiration. A practised book-maker, with entire control of her
materials, would have shaped out a duodecimo volume full of eloquent and
ingenious dissertation,--criticisms which quite take the color and pungency out
of other people's critical remarks on Shakespeare,--philosophic truths which
she imagined herself to have found at the roots of his conceptions, and which
certainly come from no inconsiderable depth somewhere. There was a great amount of rubbish, which
any competent editor would have shovelled out of the way. But Miss Bacon thrust the whole bulk of
inspiration and nonsense into the press in a lump, and there tumbled out a
ponderous octavo volume, which fell with a dead thump at the feet of the
public, and has never been picked up. A
few persons turned over one or two of the leaves, as it lay there, and essayed
to kick the volume deeper into the mud; for they were the hack critics of the
minor periodical press in London, than whom, I suppose, though excellent
fellows in their way, there are no gentlemen in the world less sensible of any
sanctity in a book, or less likely to recognize an author's heart in it, or
more utterly careless about bruising, if they do recognize it. It is their trade. They could not do otherwise. I never thought of blaming them. It was not
for such an Englishman as one of these to get beyond the idea that an assault
was meditated on
The next intelligence that I had of Miss Bacon was by a letter from the mayor of Stratford-on-Avon. He was a medical man, and wrote both in his official and professional character, telling me that an American lady, who had recently published what the mayor called a "Shakespeare book," was afflicted with insanity. In a lucid interval she had referred to me, as a person who had some knowledge of her family and affairs. What she may have suffered before her intellect gave way, we had better not try to imagine. No author had ever hoped so confidently as she; none ever failed more utterly. A superstitious fancy might suggest that the anathema on Shakespeare's tombstone had fallen heavily on her head in requital of even the unaccomplished purpose of disturbing the dust beneath, and that the "Old Player" had kept so quietly in his grave, on the night of her vigil, because he foresaw how soon and terribly he would be avenged. But if that benign spirit takes any care or cognizance of such things now, he has surely requited the injustice that she sought to do him--the high justice that she really did--by a tenderness of love and pity of which only he could be capable. What matters it though she called him by some other name? He had wrought a greater miracle on her than on all the world besides. This bewildered enthusiast had recognized a depth in the man whom she decried, which scholars, critics, and learned societies, devoted to the elucidation of his unrivalled scenes, had never imagined to exist there. She had paid him the loftiest honor that all these ages of renown have been able to accumulate upon his memory. And when, not many months after the outward failure of her lifelong object, she passed into the better world, I know not why we should hesitate to believe that the immortal poet may have met her on the threshold and led her in, reassuring her with friendly and comfortable words, and thanking her (yet with a smile of gentle humor in his eyes at the thought of certain mistaken speculations) for having interpreted him to mankind so well.
I believe that it has been the fate of this remarkable book
never to have had more than a single reader.
I myself am acquainted with it only in insulated chapters and scattered
pages and paragraphs. But, since my
This has been too sad a story. To lighten the recollection of it, I will
think of my stroll homeward past
At a distance of some hundreds of yards from Charlecote
Hall, and almost hidden by the trees between it and the roadside, is an old
brick archway and porter's lodge. In
connection with this entrance there appears to have been a wall and an ancient
moat, the latter of which is still visible, a shallow, grassy scoop along the
base of an embankment of the lawn. About
fifty yards within the gateway stands the house, forming three sides of a
square, with three gables in a row on the front, and on each of the two wings;
and there are several towers and turrets at the angles, together with projecting
windows, antique balconies, and other quaint ornaments suitable to the
half-Gothic taste in which the edifice was built. Over the gateway is the Lucy coat-of-arms,
emblazoned in its proper colors. The
mansion dates from the early days of
It is a most delightful place. All about the house and domain there is a perfection of comfort and domestic taste, an amplitude of convenience, which could have been brought about only by the slow ingenuity and labor of many successive generations, intent upon adding all possible improvement to the home where years gone by and years to come give a sort of permanence to the intangible present. An American is sometimes tempted to fancy that only by this long process can real homes be produced. One man's lifetime is not enough for the accomplishment of such a work of art and nature, almost the greatest merely temporary one that is confided to him; too little, at any rate,--yet perhaps too long when he is discouraged by the idea that he must make his house warm and delightful for a miscellaneous race of successors, of whom the one thing certain is, that his own grandchildren will not be among them. Such repinings as are here suggested, however, come only from the fact, that, bred in English habits of thought, as most of us are, we have not yet modified our instincts to the necessities of our new forms of life. A lodging in a wigwam or under a tent has really as many advantages, when we come to know them, as a home beneath the roof-tree of Charlecote Hall. But, alas! our philosophers have not yet taught us what is best, nor have our poets sung us what is beautifulest, in the kind of life that we must lead; and therefore we still read the old English wisdom, and harp upon the ancient strings. And thence it happens, that, when we look at a time-honored hall, it seems more possible for men who inherit such a home, than for ourselves, to lead noble and graceful lives, quietly doing good and lovely things as their daily work, and achieving deeds of simple greatness when circumstances require them. I sometimes apprehend that our institutions may perish before we shall have discovered the most precious of the possibilities which they involve.
After my first visit to Leamington Spa, I went by an
indirect route to
In the morning, after a mutton-chop and a cup of chiccory in the dusky coffee-room, I went forth and bewildered myself a little while among the crooked streets, in quest of one or two objects that had chiefly attracted me to the spot. The city is of very ancient date, and its name in the old Saxon tongue has a dismal import that would apply well, in these days and forever henceforward, to many an unhappy locality in our native land. Lichfield signifies "The Field of the Dead Bodies,"--an epithet, however, which the town did not assume in remembrance of a battle, but which probably sprung up by a natural process, like a sprig of rue or other funereal weed, out of the graves of two princely brothers, sons of a pagan king of Mercia, who were converted by St. Chad, and afterwards martyred for their Christian faith. Nevertheless, I was but little interested in the legends of the remote antiquity of Lichfield, being drawn thither partly to see its beautiful cathedral, and still more, I believe, because it was the birthplace of Dr. Johnson, with whose sturdy English character I became acquainted, at a very early period of my life, through the good offices of Mr. Boswell. In truth, he seems as familiar to my recollection, and almost as vivid in his personal aspect to my mind's eye, as the kindly figure of my own grandfather. It is only a solitary child,--left much to such wild modes of culture as he chooses for himself while yet ignorant what culture means, standing on tiptoe to pull down books from no very lofty shelf, and then shutting himself up, as it were, between the leaves, going astray through the volume at his own pleasure, and comprehending it rather by his sensibilities and affections than his intellect,--that child is the only student that ever gets the sort of intimacy which I am now thinking of, with a literary personage. I do not remember, indeed, ever caring much about any of the stalwart Doctor's grandiloquent productions, except his two stern and masculine poems, "London," and "The Vanity of Human Wishes"; it was as a man, a talker, and a humorist, that I knew and loved him, appreciating many of his qualities perhaps more thoroughly than I do now, though never seeking to put my instinctive perception of his character into language.
Beyond all question, I might have had a wiser friend than
he. The atmosphere in which alone he
breathed was dense; his awful dread of death showed how much muddy imperfection
was to be cleansed out of him, before he could be capable of spiritual
existence; he meddled only with the surface of life, and never cared to
penetrate further than to ploughshare depth; his very sense and sagacity were
but a one-eyed clear-sightedness. I laughed at him, sometimes, standing beside
his knee. And yet, considering that my
native propensities were towards
The city of Lichfield (only the cathedral-towns are called
In my wanderings about town, I came to an artificial piece of water, called the Minster Pool. It fills the immense cavity in a ledge of rock, whence the building-materials of the cathedral were quarried out a great many centuries ago. I should never have guessed the little lake to be of man's creation, so very pretty and quietly picturesque an object has it grown to be, with its green banks, and the old trees hanging over its glassy surface, in which you may see reflected some of the battlements of the majestic structure that once lay here in unshaped stone. Some little children stood on the edge of the Pool, angling with pin-hooks; and the scene reminded me (though really to be quite fair with the reader, the gist of the analogy has now escaped me) of that mysterious lake in the Arabian Nights, which had once been a palace and a city, and where a fisherman used to pull out the former inhabitants in the guise of enchanted fishes. There is no need of fanciful associations to make the spot interesting. It was in the porch of one of the houses, in the street that runs beside the Minster Pool, that Lord Brooke was slain, in the time of the Parliamentary war, by a shot from the battlements of the cathedral, which was then held by the Royalists as a fortress. The incident is commemorated by an inscription on a stone, inlaid into the wall of the house.
I know not what rank the Cathedral of Lichfield holds among
its sister edifices in
Not that I felt, or was worthy to feel, an unmingled enjoyment in gazing at this wonder. I could not elevate myself to its spiritual height, any more than I could have climbed from the ground to the summit of one of its pinnacles. Ascending but a little way, I continually fell back and lay in a kind of despair, conscious that a flood of uncomprehended beauty was pouring down upon me, of which I could appropriate only the minutest portion. After a hundred years, incalculably as my higher sympathies might be invigorated by so divine an employment, I should still be a gazer from below and at an awful distance, as yet remotely excluded from the interior mystery. But it was something gained, even to have that painful sense of my own limitations, and that half-smothered yearning to soar beyond them. The cathedral showed me how earthly I was, but yet whispered deeply of immortality. After all, this was probably the best lesson that it could bestow, and, taking it as thoroughly as possible home to my heart, I was fain to be content. If the truth must be told, my ill-trained enthusiasm soon flagged, and I began to lose the vision of a spiritual or ideal edifice behind the time-worn and weather-stained front of the actual structure. Whenever that is the case, it is most reverential to look another way; but the mood disposes one to minute investigation, and I took advantage of it to examine the intricate and multitudinous adornment that was lavished on the exterior wall of this great church. Everywhere, there were empty niches where statues had been thrown down, and here and there a statue still lingered in its niche; and over the chief entrance, and extending across the whole breadth of the building, was a row of angels, sainted personages, martyrs, and kings, sculptured in reddish stone. Being much corroded by the moist English atmosphere, during four or five hundred winters that they had stood there, these benign and majestic figures perversely put me in mind of the appearance of a sugar image, after a child has been holding it in his mouth. The venerable infant Time has evidently found them sweet morsels.
Inside of the minster there is a long and lofty nave, transepts of the same height, and side-aisles and chapels, dim nooks of holiness, where in Catholic times the lamps were continually burning before the richly decorated shrines of saints. In the audacity of my ignorance, as I humbly acknowledge it to have been, I criticised this great interior as too much broken into compartments, and shorn of half its rightful impressiveness by the interposition of a screen betwixt the nave and chancel. It did not spread itself in breadth, but ascended to the roof in lofty narrowness. One large body of worshippers might have knelt down in the nave, others in each of the transepts, and smaller ones in the side-aisles, besides an indefinite number of esoteric enthusiasts in the mysterious sanctities beyond the screen. Thus it seemed to typify the exclusiveness of sects rather than the worldwide hospitality of genuine religion. I had imagined a cathedral with a scope more vast. These Gothic aisles, with their groined arches overhead, supported by clustered pillars in long vistas up and down, were venerable and magnificent, but included too much of the twilight of that monkish gloom out of which they grew. It is no matter whether I ever came to a more satisfactory appreciation of this kind of architecture; the only value of my strictures being to show the folly of looking at noble objects in the wrong mood, and the absurdity of a new visitant pretending to hold any opinion whatever on such subjects, instead of surrendering himself to the old builder's influence with childlike simplicity.
A great deal of white marble decorates the old stonework of the aisles, in the shape of altars, obelisks, sarcophagi, and busts. Most of these memorials are commemorative of people locally distinguished, especially the deans and canons of the Cathedral, with their relatives and families; and I found but two monuments of personages whom I had ever heard of,--one being Gilbert Wahnesley and the other Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a literary acquaintance of my boyhood. It was really pleasant to meet her there; for after a friend has lain in the grave far into the second century, she would be unreasonable to require any melancholy emotions in a chance interview at her tombstone. It adds a rich charm to sacred edifices, this time-honored custom of burial in churches, after a few years, at least, when the mortal remains have turned to dust beneath the pavement, and the quaint devices and inscriptions still speak to you above. The statues, that stood or reclined in several recesses of the Cathedral, had a kind of life, and I regarded them with an odd sort of deference, as if they were privileged denizens of the precinct. It was singular, too, how the memorial of the latest buried person, the man whose features went familiar in the streets of Lichfield only yesterday, seemed precisely as much at home here as his mediaeval predecessors. Henceforward he belonged in the Cathedral like one of its original pillars. Methought this impression in my fancy might be the shadow of a spiritual fact. The dying melt into the great multitude of the Departed as quietly as a drop of water into the ocean, and, it may be are conscious of no unfamiliarity with their new circumstances, but immediately become aware of an insufferable strangeness in the world which they have quitted. Death has not taken them away, but brought them home.
The vicissitudes and mischances of sublunary affairs, however, have not ceased to attend upon these marble inhabitants; for I saw the upper fragment of a sculptured lady, in a very old-fashioned garb, the lower half of whom had doubtless been demolished by Cromwell's soldiers when they took the Minster by storm. And there lies the remnant of this devout lady on her slab, ever since the outrage, as for centuries before, with a countenance of divine serenity and her hands clasped in prayer, symbolizing a depth of religious faith which no earthly turmoil or calamity could disturb. Another piece of sculpture (apparently a favorite subject in the Middle Ages, for I have seen several like it in other cathedrals) was a reclining skeleton, as faithfully representing an open-work of bones as could well be expected in a solid block of marble, and at a period, moreover, when the mysteries of the human frame were rather to be guessed at than revealed. Whatever the anatomical defects of his production, the old sculptor had succeeded in making it ghastly beyond measure. How much mischief has been wrought upon us by this invariable gloom of the Gothic imagination; flinging itself like a death-scented pall over our conceptions of the future state, smothering our hopes, hiding our sky, and inducing dismal efforts to raise the harvest of immortality out of what is most opposite to it,--the grave!
The Cathedral service is performed twice every day at ten o'clock and at four. When I first entered, the choristers (young and old, but mostly, I think, boys, with voices inexpressibly sweet and clear, and as fresh as bird-notes) were just winding up their harmonious labors, and soon came thronging through a side-door from the chancel into the nave. They were all dressed in long white robes, and looked like a peculiar order of beings, created on purpose to hover between the roof and pavement of that dim, consecrated edifice, and illuminate it with divine melodies, reposing themselves, meanwhile, on the heavy grandeur of the organ-tones like cherubs on a golden cloud. All at once, however, one of the cherubic multitude pulled off his white gown, thus transforming himself before my very eyes into a commonplace youth of the day, in modern frock-coat and trousers of a decidedly provincial cut. This absurd little incident, I verily believe, had a sinister effect in putting me at odds with the proper influences of the Cathedral, nor could I quite recover a suitable frame of mind during my stay there. But, emerging into the open air, I began to be sensible that I had left a magnificent interior behind me, and I have never quite lost the perception and enjoyment of it in these intervening years.
A large space in the immediate neighborhood of the Cathedral
is called the Close, and comprises beautifully kept lawns and a shadowy walk
bordered by the dwellings of the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the
diocese. All this row of episcopal,
canonical, and clerical residences has an air of the deepest quiet, repose, and
well-protected though not inaccessible seclusion. They seemed capable of including everything
that a saint could desire, and a great many more things than most of us sinners
generally succeed in acquiring. Their
most marked feature is a dignified comfort, looking as if no disturbance or
vulgar intrusiveness could ever cross their thresholds, encroach upon their
ornamented lawns, or straggle into the beautiful gardens that surround them
with flower-beds and rich clumps of shrubbery.
The episcopal palace is a stately mansion of stone, built somewhat in
the Italian style, and bearing on its front the figures 1637, as the date of
its erection. A large edifice of brick,
which, if I remember, stood next to the palace, I took to be the residence of
the second dignitary of the Cathedral; and, in that case, it must have been the
youthful home of Addison, whose father was Dean of Lichfield. I tried to fancy his figure on the delightful
walk that extends in front of those priestly abodes, from which and the
interior lawns it is separated by an open-work iron fence, lined with rich old
shrubbery, and overarched by a minster-aisle of venerable trees. This path is haunted by the shades of famous
personages who have formerly trodden it.
Johnson must have been familiar with it, both as a boy, and in his
subsequent visits to
Seeking for Johnson's birthplace, I found it in St. Mary's
Square, which is not so much a square as the mere widening of a street. The house is tall and thin, of three stories,
with a square front and a roof rising steep and high. On a side-view, the building looks as if it
had been cut in two in the midst, there being no slope of the roof on that
side. A ladder slanted against the wall,
and a painter was giving a livelier line to the plaster. In a corner-room of the basement, where old
Michael Johnson may be supposed to have sold books, is now what we should call
a dry-goods store, or, according to the English phrase, a mercer's and
haberdasher's shop. The house has a
private entrance on a cross-street, the door being accessible by several
much-worn stone steps, which are bordered by an iron balustrade. I set my foot on the steps and laid my hand
on the balustrade, where Johnson's hand and foot must many a time have been,
and ascending to the door, I knocked once, and again, and again, and got no
admittance. Going round to the
shop-entrance, I tried to open it, but found it as fast bolted as the gate of
Of course, it being almost fourscore years since the Doctor laid aside his weary bulk of flesh, together with the ponderous melancholy that had so long weighed him down, the intelligent reader will at once comprehend that he was marble in his substance, and seated in a marble chair, on an elevated stone pedestal. In short, it was a statue, sculptured by Lucas, and placed here in 1838, at the expense of Dr. Law, the reverend chancellor of the diocese.
The figure is colossal (though perhaps not much more so than the mountainous Doctor himself) and looks down upon the spectator from its pedestal of ten or twelve feet high, with a broad and heavy benignity of aspect, very like in feature to Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Johnson, but calmer and sweeter in expression. Several big books are piled up beneath his chair, and, if I mistake not, he holds a volume in his hand, thus blinking forth at the world out of his learned abstraction, owllike, yet benevolent at heart. The statue is immensely massive, a vast ponderosity of stone, not finely spiritualized, nor, indeed, fully humanized, but rather resembling a great stone-bowlder than a man. You must look with the eyes of faith and sympathy, or, possibly, you might lose the human being altogether, and find only a big stone within your mental grasp. On the pedestal are three bas-reliefs. In the first, Johnson is represented as hardly more than a baby, bestriding an old man's shoulders, resting his chin on the bald head which he embraces with his little arms, and listening earnestly to the High-Church eloquence of Dr. Sacheverell. In the second tablet, he is seen riding to school on the shoulders of two of his comrades, while another boy supports him in the rear.
The third bas-relief possesses, to my mind, a great deal of pathos, to which my appreciative faculty is probably the more alive, because I have always been profoundly impressed by the incident here commemorated, and long ago tried to tell it for the behoof of childish readers. It shows Johnson in the market-place of Uttoxeter, doing penance for an act of disobedience to his father, committed fifty years before. He stands bareheaded, a venerable figure, and a countenance extremely sad and woebegone, with the wind and rain driving hard against him, and thus helping to suggest to the spectator the gloom of his inward state. Some market-people and children gaze awe-stricken into his face, and an aged man and woman, with clasped and uplifted hands, seem to be praying for him. These latter personages (whose introduction by the artist is none the less effective, because, in queer proximity, there are some commodities of market-day in the shape of living ducks and dead poultry) I interpreted to represent the spirits of Johnson's father and mother, lending what aid they could to lighten his half-century's burden of remorse.
I had never heard of the above-described piece of sculpture
before; it appears to have no reputation as a work of art, nor am I at all
positive that it deserves any. For me,
however, it did as much as sculpture could, under the circumstances, even if
the artist of the Libyan Sibyl had wrought it, by reviving my interest in the
sturdy old Englishman, and particularly by freshening
my perception of a wonderful beauty and pathetic tenderness in the incident of
the penance. So, the next day, I left
Arriving at the Uttoxeter station, the first objects that I saw, with a green field or two between them and me, were the tower and gray steeple of a church, rising among red-tiled roofs and a few scattered trees. A very short walk takes you from the station up into the town. It had been my previous impression that the market-place of Uttoxeter lay immediately roundabout the church; and, if I remember the narrative aright, Johnson, or Boswell in his behalf, describes his father's book-stall as standing in the market-place, close beside the sacred edifice. It is impossible for me to say what changes may have occurred in the topography of the town, during almost a century and a half since Michael Johnson retired from business, and ninety years, at least, since his son's penance was performed. But the church has now merely a street of ordinary width passing around it, while the market-place, though near at hand, neither forms a part of it nor is really contiguous, nor would its throng and bustle be apt to overflow their boundaries and surge against the churchyard and the old gray tower. Nevertheless, a walk of a minute or two brings a person from the centre of the market-place to the church-door; and Michael Johnson might very conveniently have located his stall and laid out his literary ware in the corner at the tower's base; better there, indeed, than in the busy centre of an agricultural market. But the picturesque arrangement and full impressiveness of the story absolutely require that Johnson shall not have done his penance in a corner, ever so little retired, but shall have been the very nucleus of the crowd,--the midmost man of the market-place,--a central image of Memory and Remorse, contrasting with and overpowering the petty materialism around him. He himself, having the force to throw vitality and truth into what persons differently constituted might reckon a mere external ceremony, and an absurd one, could not have failed to see this necessity. I am resolved, therefore, that the true site of Dr. Johnson's penance was in the middle of the market-place.
That important portion of the town is a rather spacious and irregularly shaped vacuity, surrounded by houses and shops, some of them old, with red-tiled roofs, others wearing a pretence of newness, but probably as old in their inner substance as the rest. The people of Uttoxeter seemed very idle in the warm summer-day, and were scattered in little groups along the sidewalks, leisurely chatting with one another, and often turning about to take a deliberate stare at my humble self; insomuch that I felt as if my genuine sympathy for the illustrious penitent, and my many reflections about him, must have imbued me with some of his own singularity of mien. If their great-grandfathers were such redoubtable starers in the Doctor's day, his penance was no light one. This curiosity indicates a paucity of visitors to the little town, except for market purposes, and I question if Uttoxeter ever saw an American before. The only other thing that greatly impressed me was the abundance of public-houses, one at every step or two Red Lions, White Harts, Bulls' Heads, Mitres, Cross Keys, and I know not what besides. These are probably for the accommodation of the farmers and peasantry of the neighborhood on market-day, and content themselves with a very meagre business on other days of the week. At any rate, I was the only guest in Uttoxeter at the period of my visit, and had but an infinitesimal portion of patronage to distribute among such a multitude of inns. The reader, however, will possibly be scandalized to learn what was the first, and, indeed, the only important affair that I attended to, after coming so far to indulge a solemn and high emotion, and standing now on the very spot where my pious errand should have been consummated. I stepped into one of the rustic hostelries and got my dinner,--bacon and greens, some mutton-chops, juicier and more delectable than all America could serve up at the President's table, and a gooseberry pudding; a sufficient meal for six yeomen, and good enough for a prince, besides a pitcher of foaming ale, the whole at the pitiful small charge of eighteen-pence!
Dr. Johnson would have forgiven me, for nobody had a heartier faith in beef and mutton than himself. And as regards my lack of sentiment in eating my dinner,--it was the wisest thing I had done that day. A sensible man had better not let himself be betrayed into these attempts to realize the things which he has dreamed about, and which, when they cease to be purely ideal in his mind, will have lost the truest of their truth, the loftiest and profoundest part of their power over his sympathies. Facts, as we really find them, whatever poetry they may involve, are covered with a stony excrescence of prose, resembling the crust on a beautiful sea-shell, and they never show their most delicate and divinest colors until we shall have dissolved away their grosser actualities by steeping them long in a powerful menstruum of thought. And seeking to actualize them again, we do but renew the crust. If this were otherwise,--if the moral sublimity of a great fact depended in any degree on its garb of external circumstances, things which change and decay,--it could not itself be immortal and ubiquitous, and only a brief point of time and a little neighborhood would be spiritually nourished by its grandeur and beauty.
Such were a few of the reflections which I mingled with my ale, as I remember to have seen an old quaffer of that excellent liquor stir up his cup with a sprig of some bitter and fragrant herb. Meanwhile I found myself still haunted by a desire to get a definite result out of my visit to Uttoxeter. The hospitable inn was called the Nag's Head, and standing beside the market-place, was as likely as any other to have entertained old Michael Johnson in the days when he used to come hither to sell books. He, perhaps, had dined on bacon and greens, and drunk his ale, and smoked his pipe, in the very room where I now sat, which was a low, ancient room, certainly much older than Queen Anne's time, with a red-brick floor, and a white-washed ceiling, traversed by bare, rough beams, the whole in the rudest fashion, but extremely neat. Neither did it lack ornament, the walls being hung with colored engravings of prize oxen and other pretty prints, and the mantel-piece adorned with earthen-ware figures of shepherdesses in the Arcadian taste of long ago. Michael Johnson's eyes might have rested on that selfsame earthen image, to examine which more closely I had just crossed the brick pavement of the room. And, sitting down again, still as I sipped my ale, I glanced through the open window into the sunny market-place, and wished that I could honestly fix on one spot rather than another, as likely to have been the holy site where Johnson stood to do his penance.
How strange and stupid it is that tradition should not have marked and kept in mind the very place! How shameful (nothing less than that) that there should be no local memorial of this incident, as beautiful and touching a passage as can be cited out of any human life! No inscription of it, almost as sacred as a verse of Scripture on the wall of the church! No statue of the venerable and illustrious penitent in the market-place to throw a wholesome awe over its earthliness, its frauds and petty wrongs of which the benumbed fingers of conscience can make no record, its selfish competition of each man with his brother or his neighbor, its traffic of soul-substance for a little worldly gain! Such a statue, if the piety of the people did not raise it, might almost have been expected to grow up out of the pavement of its own accord on the spot that had been watered by the rain that dripped from Johnson's garments, mingled with his remorseful tears.
Long after my visit to Uttoxeter, I was told that there were individuals in the town who could have shown me the exact, indubitable spot where Johnson performed his penance. I was assured, moreover, that sufficient interest was felt in the subject to have induced certain local discussions as to the expediency of erecting a memorial. With all deference to my polite informant, I surmise that there is a mistake, and decline, without further and precise evidence, giving credit to either of the above statements. The inhabitants know nothing, as a matter of general interest, about the penance, and care nothing for the scene of it. If the clergyman of the parish, for example, had ever heard of it, would he not have used the theme, time and again, wherewith to work tenderly and profoundly on the souls committed to his charge? If parents were familiar with it, would they not teach it to their young ones at the fireside, both to insure reverence to their own gray hairs, and to protect the children from such unavailing regrets as Johnson bore upon his heart for fifty years? If the site were ascertained, would not the pavement thereabouts be worn with reverential footsteps? Would not every town-born child be able to direct the pilgrim thither? While waiting at the station, before my departure, I asked a boy who stood near me,--an intelligent and gentlemanly lad, twelve or thirteen years old, whom I should take to be a clergyman's son,--I asked him if he had ever heard the story of Dr. Johnson, how he stood an hour doing penance near that church, the spire of which rose before us. The boy stared and answered,--
"Were you born in Uttoxeter?"
I inquired if no circumstance such as I had mentioned was known or talked about among the inhabitants.
"No," said the boy; "not that I ever heard of."
Just think of the absurd little town, knowing nothing of the only memorable incident which ever happened within its boundaries since the old Britons built it, this sad and lovely story, which consecrates the spot (for I found it holy to my contemplation, again, as soon as it lay behind me) in the heart of a stranger from three thousand miles over the sea! It but confirms what I have been saying, that sublime and beautiful facts are best understood when etherealized by distance.
We set out at a little past eleven, and made our first stage
At a quarter to two we left
On a railway, I suspect, what little we do see of the country is seen quite amiss, because it was never intended to be looked at from any point of view in that straight line; so that it is like looking at the wrong side of a piece of tapestry. The old highways and foot-paths were as natural as brooks and rivulets, and adapted themselves by an inevitable impulse to the physiognomy of the country; and, furthermore, every object within view of them had some subtile reference to their curves and undulations; but the line of a railway is perfectly artificial, and puts all precedent things at sixes-and-sevens. At any rate, be the cause what it may, there is seldom anything worth seeing within the scope of a railway traveller's eye; and if there were, it requires an alert marksman to take a flying shot at the picturesque.
At one of the stations (it was near a village of ancient
aspect, nestling round a church, on a wide
The train stopped a minute or two, to allow the tickets to
be taken, just before entering the
At the railway-station we found no cab (it being an unknown
This hotel stands in the principal street of
Between seven and eight o'clock (it being still broad
daylight in these long English days) we set out to pay a preliminary visit to
the exterior of the Cathedral. Passing
through the Stone Bow, as the city-gate close by is called, we ascended a
street which grew steeper and narrower as we advanced, till at last it got to
be the steepest street I ever climbed,--so steep that any carriage, if left to
itself, would rattle downward much faster than it could possibly be drawn
up. Being almost the only hill in
And still the street grew steeper and steeper. Certainly, the Bishop and clergy of Lincoln ought not to be fat men, but of very spiritual, saint-like, almost angelic habit, if it be a frequent part of their ecclesiastical duty to climb this hill; for it is a real penance, and was probably performed as such, and groaned over accordingly, in monkish times. Formerly, on the day of his installation, the Bishop used to ascend the hill barefoot, and was doubtless cheered and invigorated by looking upward to the grandeur that was to console him for the humility of his approach. We, likewise, were beckoned onward by glimpses of the Cathedral towers, and, finally, attaining an open square on the summit, we saw an old Gothic gateway to the left hand, and another to the right. The latter had apparently been a part of the exterior defences of the Cathedral, at a time when the edifice was fortified. The west front rose behind. We passed through one of the side-arches of the Gothic portal, and found ourselves in the Cathedral Close, a wide, level space, where the great old Minster has fair room to sit, looking down on the ancient structures that surround it, all of which, in former days, were the habitations of its dignitaries and officers. Some of them are still occupied as such, though others are in too neglected and dilapidated a state to seem worthy of so splendid an establishment. Unless it be Salisbury Close, however (which is incomparably rich as regards the old residences that belong to it), I remember no more comfortably picturesque precincts round any other cathedral. But, in truth, almost every cathedral close, in turn, has seemed to me the loveliest, cosiest, safest, least wind-shaken, most decorous, and most enjoyable shelter that ever the thrift and selfishness of mortal man contrived for himself. How delightful, to combine all this with the service of the temple!
Lincoln Cathedral is built of a yellowish brown-stone, which appears either to have been largely restored, or else does not assume the hoary, crumbly surface that gives such a venerable aspect to most of the ancient churches and castles in England. In many parts, the recent restorations are quite evident; but other, and much the larger portions, can scarcely have been touched for centuries: for there are still the gargoyles, perfect, or with broken noses, as the case may be, but showing that variety and fertility of grotesque extravagance which no modern imitation can effect. There are innumerable niches, too, up the whole height of the towers, above and around the entrance, and all over the walls: most of them empty, but a few containing the lamentable remnants of headless saints and angels. It is singular what a native animosity lives in the human heart against carved images, insomuch that, whether they represent Christian saint or Pagan deity, all unsophisticated men seize the first safe opportunity to knock off their heads! In spite of all dilapidations, however, the effect of the west front of the Cathedral is still exceedingly rich, being covered from massive base to airy summit with the minutest details of sculpture and carving: at least, it was so once; and even now the spiritual impression of its beauty remains so strong, that we have to look twice to see that much of it has been obliterated. I have seen a cherry-stone carved all over by a monk, so minutely that it must have cost him half a lifetime of labor; and this cathedral-front seems to have been elaborated in a monkish spirit, like that cherry-stone. Not that the result is in the least petty, but miraculously grand, and all the more so for the faithful beauty of the smallest details.
An elderly maid, seeing us looking up at the west front,
came to the door of an adjacent house, and called to inquire if we wished to go
into the Cathedral; but as there would have been a dusky twilight beneath its
roof, like the antiquity that has sheltered itself within, we declined for the
present. So we merely walked round the
exterior, and thought it more beautiful than that of
While we stood in the close, at the eastern end of the Minster, the clock chimed the quarters; and then Great Tom, who hangs in the Rood Tower, told us it was eight o'clock, in far the sweetest and mightiest accents that I ever heard from any bell,--slow, and solemn, and allowing the profound reverberations of each stroke to die away before the next one fell. It was still broad daylight in that upper region of the town, and would be so for some time longer; but the evening atmosphere was getting sharp and cool. We therefore descended the steep street,--our younger companion running before us, and gathering such headway that I fully expected him to break his head against some projecting wall.
In the morning we took a fly (an English term for an
exceedingly sluggish vehicle), and drove up to the Minster by a road rather
less steep and abrupt than the one we had previously climbed. We alighted before the west front, and sent
our charioteer in quest of the verger; but, as he was not immediately to be
found, a young girl let us into the nave.
We found it very grand, it is needless to say,
but not so grand, methought, as the vast nave of York Cathedral, especially
beneath the great central tower of the latter.
Unless a writer intends a professedly architectural description, there
is but one set of phrases in which to talk of all the cathedrals in
In the chancel, among the tombs of forgotten bishops and
knights, we saw an immense slab of stone purporting to be the
Originally, it is supposed, all the pillars of this great edifice, and all these magic sculptures, were polished to the utmost degree of lustre; nor is it unreasonable to think that the artists would have taken these further pains, when they had already bestowed so much labor in working out their conceptions to the extremest point. But, at present, the whole interior of the Cathedral is smeared over with a yellowish wash, the very meanest hue imaginable, and for which somebody's soul has a bitter reckoning to undergo.
In the centre of the grassy quadrangle about which the cloisters perambulate is a small, mean brick building, with a locked door. Our guide,--I forgot to say that we had been captured by a verger, in black, and with a white tie, but of a lusty and jolly aspect,--our guide unlocked this door, and disclosed a flight of steps. At the bottom appeared what I should have taken to be a large square of dim, worn, and faded oil-carpeting, which might originally have been painted of a rather gaudy pattern. This was a Roman tessellated pavement, made of small colored bricks, or pieces of burnt clay. It was accidentally discovered here, and has not been meddled with, further than by removing the superincumbent earth and rubbish.
Nothing else occurs to me, just now, to be recorded about the interior of the Cathedral, except that we saw a place where the stone pavement had been worn away by the feet of ancient pilgrims scraping upon it, as they knelt down before a shrine of the Virgin. Leaving the Minster, we now went along a street of more venerable appearance than we had heretofore seen, bordered with houses, the high peaked roofs of which were covered with red earthen tiles. It led us to a Roman arch, which was once the gateway of a fortification, and has been striding across the English street ever since the latter was a faint village-path, and for centuries before. The arch is about four hundred yards from the Cathedral; and it is to be noticed that there are Roman remains in all this neighborhood, some above ground, and doubtless innumerable more beneath it; for, as in ancient Rome itself, an inundation of accumulated soil seems to have swept over what was the surface of that earlier day. The gateway which I am speaking about is probably buried to a third of its height, and perhaps has as perfect a Roman pavement (if sought for at the original depth) as that which runs beneath the Arch of Titus. It is a rude and massive structure, and seems as stalwart now as it could have been two thousand years ago; and though Time has gnawed it externally, he has made what amends he could by crowning its rough and broken summit with grass and weeds, and planting tufts of yellow flowers on the projections up and down the sides.
There are the ruins of a Norman castle, built by the Conqueror, in pretty close proximity to the Cathedral; but the old gateway is obstructed by a modern door of wood, and we were denied admittance because some part of the precincts are used as a prison. We now rambled about on the broad back of the hill, which, besides the Minster and ruined castle, is the site of some stately and queer old houses, and of many mean little hovels. I suspect that all or most of the life of the present day has subsided into the lower town, and that only priests, poor people, and prisoners dwell in these upper regions. In the wide, dry moat, at the base of the castle-wall, are clustered whole colonies of small houses, some of brick, but the larger portion built of old stones which once made part of the Norman keep, or of Roman structures that existed before the Conqueror's castle was ever dreamed about. They are like toadstools that spring up from the mould of a decaying tree. Ugly as they are, they add wonderfully to the picturesqueness of the scene, being quite as valuable, in that respect, as the great, broad, ponderous ruin of the castle-keep, which rose high above our heads, heaving its huge gray mass out of a bank of green foliage and ornamental shrubbery, such as lilacs and other flowering plants, in which its foundations were completely hidden.
After walking quite round the castle, I made an excursion through the Roman gateway, along a pleasant and level road bordered with dwellings of various character. One or two were houses of gentility, with delightful and shadowy lawns before them; many had those high, red-tiled roofs, ascending into acutely pointed gables, which seem to belong to the same epoch as some of the edifices in our own earlier towns; and there were pleasant-looking cottages, very sylvan and rural, with hedges so dense and high, fencing them in, as almost to hide them up to the eaves of their thatched roofs. In front of one of these I saw various images, crosses, and relics of antiquity, among which were fragments of old Catholic tombstones, disposed by way of ornament.
We now went home to the Saracen's Head; and as the weather was very unpropitious, and it sprinkled a little now and then, I would gladly have felt myself released from further thraldom to the Cathedral. But it had taken possession of me, and would not let me be at rest; so at length I found myself compelled to climb the hill again, between daylight and dusk. A mist was now hovering about the upper height of the great central tower, so as to dim and half obliterate its battlements and pinnacles, even while I stood in the close beneath it. It was the most impressive view that I had had. The whole lower part of the structure was seen with perfect distinctness; but at the very summit the mist was so dense as to form an actual cloud, as well defined as ever I saw resting on a mountain-top. Really and literally, here was a "cloud-capt tower."
The entire Cathedral, too, transfigured itself into a richer
beauty and more imposing majesty than ever.
The longer I looked, the better I loved it. Its exterior is certainly far more beautiful
than that of York Minster; and its finer effect is due, I think, to the many
peaks in which the structure ascends, and to the pinnacles which, as it were,
repeat and re-echo them into the sky.
York Cathedral is comparatively square and angular in its general
effect; but in this at
We spent the rest of the day within the sombre precincts of
the Saracen's Head, reading yesterday's "Times," "The Guide-Book
Observing in the Guide-Book that a steamer runs on the river
We bothered a good while about getting through a preliminary lock; nor, when fairly under way, did we ever accomplish, I think, six miles an hour. Constant delays were caused, moreover, by stopping to take up passengers and freight,--not at regular landing-places, but anywhere along the green banks. The scenery was identical with that of the railway, because the latter runs along by the river-side through the whole distance, or nowhere departs from it except to make a short cut across some sinuosity; so that our only advantage lay in the drawling, snail-like slothfulness of our progress, which allowed us time enough and to spare for the objects along the shore. Unfortunately, there was nothing, or next to nothing, to be seen,--the country being one unvaried level over the whole thirty miles of our voyage,--not a hill in sight, either near or far, except that solitary one on the summit of which we had left Lincoln Cathedral. And the Cathedral was our landmark for four hours or more, and at last rather faded out than was hidden by any intervening object.
It would have been a pleasantly lazy day enough, if the
rough and bitter wind had not blown directly in our faces, and chilled us
through, in spite of the sunshine that soon succeeded a sprinkle or two of
rain. These English east-winds, which prevail from February till June, are
greater nuisances than the east-wind of our own Atlantic coast, although they
do not bring mist and storm, as with us, but some of the sunniest weather that
The landscape was tame to the last degree, but had an
English character that was abundantly worth our looking at. A green luxuriance of early grass; old,
high-roofed farm-houses, surrounded by their stone barns and ricks of hay and grain;
ancient villages, with the square, gray tower of a church seen afar over the
level country, amid the cluster of red roofs; here and there a shadowy grove of
venerable trees, surrounding what was perhaps an Elizabethan hall, though it
looked more like the abode of some rich yeoman.
Once, too, we saw the tower of a mediaeval castle, that of Tattershall,
built, by a Cromwell, but whether of the Protector's family I cannot tell. But the gentry do not appear to have settled
multitudinously in this tract of country; nor is it to be wondered at, since a
lover of the picturesque would as soon think of settling in
The only memorable incident of our voyage happened when a mother-duck was leading her little fleet of five ducklings across the river, just as our steamer went swaggering by, stirring the quiet stream into great waves that lashed the banks on either side. I saw the imminence of the catastrophe, and hurried to the stern of the boat to witness its consummation, since I could not possibly avert it. The poor ducklings had uttered their baby-quacks, and striven with all their tiny might to escape; four of them, I believe, were washed aside and thrown off unhurt from the steamer's prow; but the fifth must have gone under the whole length of the keel, and never could have come up alive.
At last, in mid-afternoon, we beheld the tall
In my first ramble about the town, chance led me to the
river-side, at that quarter where the port is situated. Here were long buildings of an old-fashioned
aspect, seemingly warehouses, with windows in the high, steep roofs. The Custom-House found ample accommodation
within an ordinary dwelling-house. Two
or three large schooners were moored along the river's brink, which had here a
stone margin; another large and handsome schooner was evidently just finished,
rigged and equipped for her first voyage; the rudiments of another were on the
stocks, in a shipyard bordering on the river.
Still another, while I was looking on, came up the stream, and lowered
her mainsail, from a foreign voyage. An
old man on the bank hailed her and inquired about her cargo; but the
The next morning we came out in the early sunshine (the sun
must have been shining nearly four hours, however, for it was after eight
o'clock), and strolled about the streets, like people who had a right to be
there. The market-place of
In front of the church, not more than twenty yards off, and with a low brick wall between, flows the river Witham. On the hither bank a fisherman was washing his boat; and another skiff, with her sail lazily half twisted, lay on the opposite strand. The stream at this point is about of such width, that, if the tall tower were to tumble over flat on its face, its top-stone might perhaps reach to the middle of the channel. On the farther shore there is a line of antique-looking houses, with roofs of red tile, and windows opening out of them,--some of these dwellings being so ancient, that the Reverend Mr. Cotton, subsequently our first Boston minister, must have seen them with his own bodily eyes, when he used to issue from the front-portal after service. Indeed, there must be very many houses here, and even some streets, that bear much the aspect that they did when the Puritan divine paced solemnly among them.
In our rambles about town, we went into a bookseller's shop
to inquire if he had any description of
The apartment was hung round with pictures and old
engravings, many of which were extremely rare.
Premising that he was going to show us something very curious, Mr.
Porter went into the next room and returned with a counterpane of fine linen,
elaborately embroidered with silk, which so profusely covered the linen that
the general effect was as if the main texture were silken. It was stained and seemed very old, and had
an ancient fragrance. It was wrought all
over with birds and flowers in a most delicate style of needlework, and among
other devices, more than once repeated, was the cipher, M. S.,--being the
initials of one of the most unhappy names that ever a woman bore. This quilt was embroidered by the hands of Mary
Queen of Scots, during her imprisonment at
Our kind friend kept bringing out one unexpected and wholly unexpectable thing after another, as if he were a magician, and had only to fling a private signal into the air, and some attendant imp would hand forth any strange relic we might choose to ask for. He was especially rich in drawings by the Old Masters, producing two or three, of exquisite delicacy, by Raphael, one by Salvator, a head by Rembrandt, and others, in chalk or pen-and-ink, by Giordano, Benvenuto Cellini, and hands almost as famous; and besides what were shown us, there seemed to be an endless supply of these art-treasures in reserve. On the wall hung a crayon-portrait of Sterne, never engraved, representing him as a rather young man, blooming, and not uncomely; it was the worldly face of a man fond of pleasure, but without that ugly, keen, sarcastic, odd expression that we see in his only engraved portrait. The picture is an original, and must needs be very valuable; and we wish it might be prefixed to some new and worthier biography of a writer whose character the world has always treated with singular harshness, considering how much it owes him. There was likewise a crayon-portrait of Sterne's wife, looking so haughty and unamiable, that the wonder is, not that he ultimately left her, but how he ever contrived to live a week with such an awful woman.
After looking at these, and a great many more things than I
can remember, above stairs, we went down to a parlor, where this wonderful
bookseller opened an old cabinet, containing numberless drawers, and looking
just fit to be the repository of such knick-knacks as were stored up in it. He
appeared to possess more treasures than he himself knew off, or knew where to
find; but, rummaging here and there, he brought forth things new and old:
rose-nobles, Victoria crowns, gold angels, double sovereigns of George IV.,
two-guinea pieces of George II.; a marriage-medal of the first Napoleon, only
forty-five of which were ever struck off, and of which even the British Museum
does not contain a specimen like this, in gold; a brass medal, three or four
inches in diameter, of a Roman emperor; together with buckles, bracelets,
amulets, and I know not what besides.
There was a green silk tassel from the fringe of Queen Mary's bed at
Our hospitable friend now made us drink a glass of wine, as
old and genuine as the curiosities of his cabinet; and while sipping it, we
ungratefully tried to excite his envy, by telling of various things,
interesting to an antiquary and virtuoso, which we had seen in the course of
our travels about
Mr. Porter now accompanied us to the church, but first
leading us to a vacant spot of ground where old John Cotton's vicarage had
stood till a very short time since.
According to our friend's description, it was a humble habitation, of
the cottage order, built of brick, with a thatched roof. The site is now rudely fenced in, and
cultivated as a vegetable garden. In the
right-hand aisle of the church there is an ancient chapel, which, at the time
of our visit, was in process of restoration, and was to be dedicated to Mr.
Cotton, whom these English people consider as the founder of our American
Boston. It would contain a painted
memorial-window, in honor of the old Puritan minister. A festival in commemoration of the event was
to take place in the ensuing July, to which I had myself received an
invitation, but I knew too well the pains and penalties incurred by an invited
guest at public festivals in
After we emerged from the chapel, Mr. Porter approached us with the vicar, to whom he kindly introduced us, and then took his leave. May a stranger's benediction rest upon him! He is a most pleasant man; rather, I imagine, a virtuoso than an antiquary; for he seemed to value the Queen of Otaheite's bag as highly as Queen Mary's embroidered quilt, and to have an omnivorous appetite for everything strange and rare. Would that we could fill up his shelves and drawers (if there are any vacant spaces left) with the choicest trifles that have dropped out of Time's carpet-bag, or give him the carpet-bag itself, to take out what he will!
The vicar looked about thirty years old, a gentleman, evidently assured of his position (as clergymen of the Established Church invariably are), comfortable and well-to-do, a scholar and a Christian, and fit to be a bishop, knowing how to make the most of life without prejudice to the life to come. I was glad to see such a model English priest so suitably accommodated with an old English church. He kindly and courteously did the honors, showing us quite round the interior, giving us all the information that we required, and then leaving us to the quiet enjoyment of what we came to see.
The interior of Saint Botolph's is very fine and satisfactory, as stately, almost, as a cathedral, and has been repaired--so far as repairs were necessary--in a chaste and noble style. The great eastern window is of modern painted glass, but is the richest, mellowest, and tenderest modern window that I have ever seen: the art of painting these glowing transparencies in pristine perfection being one that the world has lost. The vast, clear space of the interior church delighted me. There was no screen,--nothing between the vestibule and the altar to break the long vista; even the organ stood aside,--though it by and by made us aware of its presence by a melodious roar. Around the walls there were old engraved brasses, and a stone coffin, and an alabaster knight of Saint John, and an alabaster lady, each recumbent at full length, as large as life, and in perfect preservation, except for a slight modern touch at the tips of their noses. In the chancel we saw a great deal of oaken work, quaintly and admirably carved, especially about the seats formerly appropriated to the monks, which were so contrived as to tumble down with a tremendous crash, if the occupant happened to fall asleep.
We now essayed to climb into the upper regions. Up we went, winding and still winding round
the circular stairs, till we came to the gallery beneath the stone roof of the
tower, whence we could look down and see the raised Font, and my Talma lying on
one of the steps, and looking about as big as a pocket-handkerchief. Then up again, up, up, up, through a yet
smaller staircase, till we emerged into another stone gallery, above the
jackdaws, and far above the roof beneath which we had before made a halt. Then up another flight, which led us into a
pinnacle of the temple, but not the highest; so, retracing our steps, we took
the right turret this time, and emerged into the loftiest lantern, where we saw
Content, and weary of our elevation, we descended the corkscrew stairs and left the church; the last object that we noticed in the interior being a bird, which appeared to be at home there, and responded with its cheerful notes to the swell of the organ. Pausing on the church-steps, we observed that there were formerly two statues, one on each side of the doorway; the canopies still remaining and the pedestals being about a yard from the ground. Some of Mr. Cotton's Puritan parishioners are probably responsible for the disappearance of these stone saints. This doorway at the base of the tower is now much dilapidated, but must once have been very rich and of a peculiar fashion. It opens its arch through a great square tablet of stone, reared against the front of the tower. On most of the projections, whether on the tower or about the body of the church, there are gargoyles of genuine Gothic grotesqueness,--fiends, beasts, angels, and combinations of all three; and where portions of the edifice are restored, the modern sculptors have tried to imitate these wild fantasies, but with very poor success. Extravagance and absurdity have still their law, and should pay as rigid obedience to it as the primmest things on earth.
In our further rambles about
On the morning of our departure, I looked from the
parlor-window of the Peacock into the market-place, and beheld its irregular
square already well covered with booths, and more in progress of being put up,
by stretching tattered sail-cloth on poles.
It was market-day. The dealers were
arranging their commodities, consisting chiefly of vegetables, the great bulk
of which seemed to be cabbages. Later in
the forenoon there was a much greater variety of merchandise: basket-work, both
for fancy and use; twig-brooms, beehives, oranges, rustic attire; all sorts of
things, in short, that are commonly sold at a rural fair. I heard the lowing of cattle, too, and the
bleating of sheep, and found that there was a market for cows, oxen, and pigs,
in another part of the town. A crowd of
One thing more. They have a Bunker Hill in the vicinity of their town; and (what could hardly be expected of an English community) seem proud to think that their neighborhood has given name to our first and most widely celebrated and best remembered battle-field.
On a fine morning in September we set out on an excursion to Blenheim,--the sculptor and myself being seated on the box of our four-horse carriage, two more of the party in the dicky, and the others less agreeably accommodated inside. We had no coachman, but two postilions in short scarlet jackets and leather breeches with top-boots, each astride of a horse; so that, all the way along, when not otherwise attracted, we had the interesting spectacle of their up-and-down bobbing in the saddle. It was a sunny and beautiful day, a specimen of the perfect English weather, just warm enough for comfort,--indeed, a little too warm, perhaps, in the noontide sun,--yet retaining a mere spice or suspicion of austerity, which made it all the more enjoyable.
The country between
The park-gate of Blenheim stands close to the end of the village
One of the park-keepers, on horseback, rode beside our carriage, pointing out the choice views, and glimpses at the palace, as we drove through the domain. There is a very large artificial lake (to say the truth, it seemed to me fully worthy of being compared with the Welsh lakes, at least, if not with those of Westmoreland), which was created by Capability Brown, and fills the basin that he scooped for it, just as if Nature had poured these broad waters into one of her own valleys. It is a most beautiful object at a distance, and not less so on its immediate banks; for the water is very pure, being supplied by a small river, of the choicest transparency, which was turned thitherward for the purpose. And Blenheim owes not merely this water-scenery, but almost all its other beauties, to the contrivance of man. Its natural features are not striking; but Art has effected such wonderful things that the uninstructed visitor would never guess that nearly the whole scene was but the embodied thought of a human mind. A skilful painter hardly does more for his blank sheet of canvas than the landscape-gardener, the planter, the arranger of trees, has done for the monotonous surface of Blenheim,--making the most of every undulation,--flinging down a hillock, a big lump of earth out of a giant's hand, wherever it was needed,--putting in beauty as often as there was a niche for it,--opening vistas to every point that deserved to be seen, and throwing a veil of impenetrable foliage around what ought to be hidden;--and then, to be sure, the lapse of a century has softened the harsh outline of man's labors, and has given the place back to Nature again with the addition of what consummate science could achieve.
After driving a good way, we came to a battlemented tower
and adjoining house, which used to be the residence of the Ranger of Woodstock
Park, who held charge of the property for the King before the Duke of
Marlborough possessed it. The keeper
opened the door for us, and in the entrance-hall we found various things that
had to do with the chase and woodland sports.
We mounted the staircase, through several stories, up to the top of the
tower, whence there was a view of the spires of Oxford, and of points much
farther off,--very indistinctly seen, however, as is usually the case with the
misty distances of England. Returning to
the ground-floor, we were ushered into the room in which died Wilmot, the
wicked Earl of Rochester, who was Ranger of the Park in Charles II.'s
time. It is a low and bare little room,
with a window in front, and a smaller one behind; and in the contiguous entrance-room
there are the remains of an old bedstead, beneath the canopy of which, perhaps,
Methinks, if such good fortune ever befell a bookish man, I
should choose this lodge for my own residence, with the topmost room of the
tower for a study, and all the seclusion of cultivated wildness beneath to
ramble in. There being no such possibility, we drove on, catching glimpses of
the palace in new points of view, and by and by came to Rosamond's Well. The particular tradition that connects Fair
Rosamond with it is not now in my memory; but if Rosamond ever lived and loved,
and ever had her abode in the maze of
Thence we drove to the Triumphal Pillar which was erected in honor of the Great Duke, and on the summit of which he stands, in a Roman garb, holding a winged figure of Victory in his hand, as an ordinary man might hold a bird. The column is I know not how many feet high, but lofty enough, at any rate, to elevate Marlborough far above the rest of the world, and to be visible a long way off; and it is so placed in reference to other objects, that, wherever the hero wandered about his grounds, and especially as he issued from his mansion, he must inevitably have been reminded of his glory. In truth, until I came to Blenheim, I never had so positive and material an idea of what Fame really is--of what the admiration of his country can do for a successful warrior--as I carry away with me and shall always retain. Unless he had the moral force of a thousand men together, his egotism (beholding himself everywhere, imbuing the entire soil, growing in the woods, rippling and gleaming in the water, and pervading the very air with his greatness) must have been swollen within him like the liver of a Strasburg goose. On the huge tablets inlaid into the pedestal of the column, the entire Act of Parliament, bestowing Blenheim on the Duke of Marlborough and his posterity, is engraved in deep letters, painted black on the marble ground. The pillar stands exactly a mile from the principal front of the palace, in a straight line with the precise centre of its entrance-hall; so that, as already said, it was the Duke's principal object of contemplation.
We now proceeded to the palace-gate, which is a great
pillared archway, of wonderful loftiness and state, giving admittance into a
spacious quadrangle. A stout, elderly,
and rather surly footman in livery appeared at the entrance, and took
possession of whatever canes, umbrellas, and parasols he could get hold of, in
order to claim sixpence on our departure.
This had a somewhat ludicrous effect.
There is much public outcry against the meanness of the present Duke in
his arrangements for the admission of visitors (chiefly, of course, his native
countrymen) to view the magnificent palace which their forefathers bestowed
upon his own. In many cases, it seems
hard that a private abode should be exposed to the intrusion of the public
merely because the proprietor has inherited or created a splendor which
attracts general curiosity; insomuch that his home loses its sanctity and
seclusion for the very reason that it is better than other men's houses. But in the case of Blenheim, the public have
certainly an equitable claim to admission, both because the fame of its first
inhabitant is a national possession, and because the mansion was a national
gift, one of the purposes of which was to be a token of gratitude and glory to
the English people themselves. If a man
chooses to be illustrious, he is very likely to incur some little
inconveniences himself, and entail them on his posterity. Nevertheless, his present Grace of
Marlborough absolutely ignores the public claim above suggested, and (with a
thrift of which even the hero of Blenheim himself did not set the example)
sells tickets admitting six persons at ten shillings; if only one person enters
the gate, he must pay for six; and if there are seven in company, two tickets
are required to admit them. The
attendants, who meet you everywhere in the park and palace, expect fees on
their own private account,--their noble master pocketing the ten
shillings. But, to be sure, the visitor
gets his money's worth, since it buys him the right to speak just as freely of
the Duke of Marlborough as if he were the keeper of the
[The above was written two or three years ago, or more; and
the Duke of that day has since transmitted his coronet to his successor, who,
we understand, has adopted much more liberal arrangements. There is seldom anything to criticise or
complain of, as regards the facility of obtaining admission to interesting
private houses in
Passing through a gateway on the opposite side of the
quadrangle, we had before us the noble classic front of the palace, with its
two projecting wings. We ascended the
lofty steps of the portal, and were admitted into the entrance-hall, the height
of which, from floor to ceiling, is not much less than seventy feet, being the
entire elevation of the edifice. The hall is lighted by windows in the upper
story, and, it being a clear, bright day, was very
radiant with lofty sunshine, amid which a swallow was flitting to and fro. The ceiling was painted by Sir James
Thornhill in some allegorical design (doubtless commemorative of
We were guided through the show-rooms by a very civil
person, who allowed us to take pretty much our own time in looking at the
pictures. The collection is exceedingly
valuable,--many of these works of Art having been presented to the Great Duke
by the crowned heads of
On our passage through this beautiful suite of apartments,
we saw, through the vista of open doorways, a boy of ten or twelve years old coming towards us from the farther rooms. He had on a straw hat, a linen sack that had
certainly been washed and re-washed for a summer or two, and gray trousers a
good deal worn,--a dress, in short, which an American mother in middle station
would have thought too shabby for her darling school-boy's ordinary wear. This urchin's face was rather pale (as those
of English children are apt to be, quite as often as our own), but he had
pleasant eyes, an intelligent look, and an agreeable, boyish manner. It was Lord Sunderland, grandson of the
present Duke, and heir--though not, I think, in the direct line--of the blood
of the great
After passing through the first suite of rooms, we were
conducted through a corresponding suite on the opposite side of the
entrance-hall. These latter apartments
are most richly adorned with tapestries, wrought and presented to the first
Duke by a sisterhood of Flemish nuns; they look like great, glowing pictures,
and completely cover the walls of the rooms.
The designs purport to represent the Duke's battles and sieges; and
everywhere we see the hero himself, as large as life, and as gorgeous in
scarlet and gold as the holy sisters could make him, with a three-cornered hat
and flowing wig, reining in his horse, and extending his leading-staff in the
attitude of command. Next to
One whole wing of the palace is occupied by the library, a
most noble room, with a vast perspective length from end to end. Its atmosphere is brighter and more cheerful
than that of most libraries: a wonderful contrast to the old college-libraries
of Oxford, and perhaps less sombre and suggestive of thoughtfulness than any
large library ought to be, inasmuch as so many studious brains as have left
their deposit on the shelves cannot have conspired without producing a very
serious and ponderous result. Both walls
and ceiling are white, and there are elaborate doorways and fireplaces of white
marble. The floor is of oak, so highly
polished that our feet slipped upon it as if it had been
I remember nothing else in the palace, except the chapel, to which we were conducted last, and where we saw a splendid monument to the first Duke and Duchess, sculptured by Rysbrack, at the cost, it is said, of forty thousand pounds. The design includes the statues of the deceased dignitaries, and various allegorical flourishes, fantasies, and confusions; and beneath sleep the great Duke and his proud wife, their veritable bones and dust, and probably all the Marlboroughs that have since died. It is not quite a comfortable idea, that these mouldy ancestors still inhabit, after their fashion, the house where their successors spend the passing day; but the adulation lavished upon the hero of Blenheim could not have been consummated, unless the palace of his lifetime had become likewise a stately mausoleum over his remains,--and such we felt it all to be, after gazing at his tomb.
The next business was to see the private gardens. An old Scotch under-gardener admitted us and
led the way, and seemed to have a fair prospect of earning the fee all by himself; but by and by another respectable Scotchman made
his appearance and took us in charge, proving to be the head-gardener in
person. He was extremely intelligent and
agreeable, talking both scientifically and lovingly about trees and plants, of
which there is every variety capable of English cultivation. Positively, the
Garden of Eden cannot have been more beautiful than this private
What a good and happy life might be spent in a paradise like this! And yet, at that very moment, the besotted Duke (ah! I have let out a secret which I meant to keep to myself; but the ten shillings must pay for all) was in that very garden (for the guide told us so, and cautioned our young people not to be too uproarious), and, if in a condition for arithmetic, was thinking of nothing nobler than how many ten-shilling tickets had that day been sold. Republican as I am, I should still love to think that noblemen lead noble lives, and that all this stately and beautiful environment may serve to elevate them a little way above the rest of us. If it fail to do so, the disgrace falls equally upon the whole race of mortals as on themselves; because it proves that no more favorable conditions of existence would eradicate our vices and weaknesses. How sad, if this be so! Even a herd of swine, eating the acorns under those magnificent oaks of Blenheim, would be cleanlier and of better habits than ordinary swine.
Well, all that I have written is pitifully meagre, as a description of Blenheim; and I bate to leave it without some more adequate expression of the noble edifice, with its rich domain, all as I saw them in that beautiful sunshine; for, if a day had been chosen out of a hundred years, it could not have been a finer one. But I must give up the attempt; only further remarking that the finest trees here were cedars, of which I saw one--and there may have been many such--immense in girth, and not less than three centuries old. I likewise saw a vast heap of laurel, two hundred feet in circumference, all growing from one root; and the gardener offered to show us another growth of twice that stupendous size. If the Great Duke himself had been buried in that spot, his heroic heart could not have been the seed of a more plentiful crop of laurels.
We now went back to the Black Bear, and sat down to a cold collation, of which we ate abundantly, and drank (in the good old English fashion) a due proportion of various delightful liquors. A stranger in England, in his rambles to various quarters of the country, may learn little in regard to wines (for the ordinary English taste is simple, though sound, in that particular), but he makes acquaintance with more varieties of hop and malt liquor than he previously supposed to exist. I remember a sort of foaming stuff, called hop-champagne, which is very vivacious, and appears to be a hybrid between ale and bottled cider. Another excellent tipple for warm weather is concocted by mixing brown-stout or bitter ale with ginger-beer, the foam of which stirs up the heavier liquor from its depths, forming a compound of singular vivacity and sufficient body. But of all things ever brewed from malt (unless it be the Trinity Ale of Cambridge, which I drank long afterwards, and which Barry Cornwall has celebrated in immortal verse), commend me to the Archdeacon, as the Oxford scholars call it, in honor of the jovial dignitary who first taught these erudite worthies how to brew their favorite nectar. John Barleycorn has given his very heart to this admirable liquor; it is a superior kind of ale, the Prince of Ales, with a richer flavor and a mightier spirit than you can find elsewhere in this weary world. Much have we been strengthened and encouraged by the potent blood of the Archdeacon!
A few days after our excursion to Blenheim, the same party
set forth, in two flies, on a tour to some other places of interest in the
We first drove to the
Soon a woman arrived with the key of the church-door, and we entered the simple old edifice, which has the pavement of lettered tombstones, the sturdy pillars and low arches and other ordinary characteristics of an English country church. One or two pews, probably those of the gentlefolk of the neighborhood, were better furnished than the rest, but all in a modest style. Near the high altar, in the holiest place, there is an oblong, angular, ponderous tomb of blue marble, built against the wall, and surmounted by a carved canopy of the same material; and over the tomb, and beneath the canopy, are two monumental brasses, such as we oftener see inlaid into a church pavement. On these brasses are engraved the figures of a gentleman in armor and a lady in an antique garb, each about a foot high, devoutly kneeling in prayer; and there is a long Latin inscription likewise cut into the enduring brass, bestowing the highest eulogies on the character of Anthony Forster, who, with his virtuous dame, lies buried beneath this tombstone. His is the knightly figure that kneels above; and if Sir Walter Scott ever saw this tomb, he must have had an even greater than common disbelief in laudatory epitaphs, to venture on depicting Anthony Forster in such lines as blacken him in the romance. For my part, I read the inscription in full faith, and believe the poor deceased gentleman to be a much-wronged individual, with good grounds for bringing an action of slander in the courts above.
But the circumstance, lightly as we treat it, has its
serious moral. What nonsense it is, this anxiety, which so worries us, about
our good fame, or our bad fame, after death!
If it were of the slightest real moment, our reputations would have been
We did not remain long in the church, as it contains nothing else of interest; and driving through the village, we passed a pretty large and rather antique-looking inn, bearing the sign of the Bear and Ragged Staff. It could not be so old, however, by at least a hundred years, as Giles Gosling's time; nor is there any other object to remind the visitor of the Elizabethan age, unless it be a few ancient cottages, that are perhaps of still earlier date. Cumnor is not nearly so large a village, nor a place of such mark, as one anticipates from its romantic and legendary fame; but, being still inaccessible by railway, it has retained more of a sylvan character than we often find in English country towns. In this retired neighborhood the road is narrow and bordered with grass, and sometimes interrupted by gates; the hedges grow in unpruned luxuriance; there is not that close-shaven neatness and trimness that characterize the ordinary English landscape. The whole scene conveys the idea of seclusion and remoteness. We met no travellers, whether on foot or otherwise.
I cannot very distinctly trace out this day's
peregrinations; but, after leaving Cumnor a few miles behind us, I think we
came to a ferry over the
We next stopped at Stanton Harcourt, where we were received at the parsonage with a hospitality which we should take delight in describing, if it were allowable to make public acknowledgment of the private and personal kindnesses which we never failed to find ready for our needs. An American in an English house will soon adopt the opinion that the English are the very kindest people on earth, and will retain that idea as long, at least, as he remains on the inner side of the threshold. Their magnetism is of a kind that repels strongly while you keep beyond a certain limit, but attracts as forcibly if you get within the magic line.
It was at this place, if I remember right, that I heard a gentleman ask a friend of mine whether he was the author of "The Red Letter A"; and, after some consideration (for he did not seem to recognize his own book, at first, under this improved title), our countryman responded, doubtfully, that he believed so. The gentleman proceeded to inquire whether our friend had spent much time in America,--evidently thinking that he must have been caught young, and have had a tincture of English breeding, at least, if not birth, to speak the language so tolerably, and appear so much like other people. This insular narrowness is exceedingly queer, and of very frequent occurrence, and is quite as much a characteristic of men of education and culture as of clowns.
Stanton Harcourt is a very curious old place. It was formerly the seat of the ancient family of Harcourt, which now has its principal abode at Nuneham Courtney, a few miles off. The parsonage is a relic of the family mansion, or castle, other portions of which are close at hand; for, across the garden, rise two gray towers, both of them picturesquely venerable, and interesting for more than their antiquity. One of these towers, in its entire capacity, from height to depth, constituted the kitchen of the ancient castle, and is still used for domestic purposes, although it has not, nor ever had, a chimney; or we might rather say, it is itself one vast chimney, with a hearth of thirty feet square, and a flue and aperture of the same size. There are two huge fireplaces within, and the interior walls of the tower are blackened with the smoke that for centuries used to gush forth from them, and climb upward, seeking an exit through some wide air-holes in the comical roof, full seventy feet above. These lofty openings were capable of being so arranged, with reference to the wind, that the cooks are said to have been seldom troubled by the smoke; and here, no doubt, they were accustomed to roast oxen whole, with as little fuss and ado as a modern cook would roast a fowl. The inside of the tower is very dim and sombre (being nothing but rough stone walls, lighted only from the apertures above mentioned), and has still a pungent odor of smoke and soot, the reminiscence of the fires and feasts of generations that have passed away. Methinks the extremest range of domestic economy lies between an American cooking-stove and the ancient kitchen, seventy dizzy feet in height and all one fireplace, of Stanton Harcourt.
Now--the place being without a parallel in England, and therefore necessarily beyond the experience of an American--it is somewhat remarkable, that, while we stood gazing at this kitchen, I was haunted and perplexed by an idea that somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before.--The height, the blackness, the dismal void, before my eyes, seemed as familiar as the decorous neatness of my grandmother's kitchen; only my unaccountable memory of the scene was lighted up with an image of lurid fires blazing all round the dim interior circuit of the tower. I had never before had so pertinacious an attack, as I could not but suppose it, of that odd state of mind wherein we fitfully and teasingly remember some previous scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication. Though the explanation of the mystery did not for some time occur to me, I may as well conclude the matter here. In a letter of Pope's, addressed to the Duke of Buckingham, there is an account of Stanton Harcourt (as I now find, although the name is not mentioned), where he resided while translating a part of the "Iliad." It is one of the most admirable pieces of description in the language,--playful and picturesque, with fine touches of humorous pathos,--and conveys as perfect a picture as ever was drawn of a decayed English country-house; and among other rooms, most of which have since crumbled down and disappeared, he dashes off the grim aspect of this kitchen,--which, moreover, he peoples with witches, engaging Satan himself as headcook, who stirs the infernal caldrons that seethe and bubble over the fires. This letter, and others relative to his abode here, were very familiar to my earlier reading, and, remaining still fresh at the bottom of my memory, caused the weird and ghostly sensation that came over one on beholding the real spectacle that had formerly been made so vivid to my imagination.
Our next visit was to the church which stands close by, and is quite as ancient as the remnants of the castle. In a chapel or side-aisle, dedicated to the Harcourts, are found some very interesting family monuments,--and among them, recumbent on a tombstone, the figure of an armed knight of the Lancastrian party, who was slain in the Wars of the Roses. His features, dress, and armor are painted in colors, still wonderfully fresh, and there still blushes the symbol of the Red Rose, denoting the faction for which he fought and died. His head rests on a marble or alabaster helmet; and on the tomb lies the veritable helmet, it is to be presumed, which he wore in battle,--a ponderous iron ease, with the visor complete, and remnants of the gilding that once covered it. The crest is a large peacock, not of metal, but of wood.
Very possibly, this helmet was but an heraldic adornment of his tomb; and, indeed, it seems strange that it has not been stolen before now, especially in Cromwell's time, when knightly tombs were little respected, and when armor was in request. However, it is needless to dispute with the dead knight about the identity of his iron pot, and we may as well allow it to be the very same that so often gave him the headache in his lifetime. Leaning against the wall, at the foot of the tomb, is the shaft of a spear, with a wofully tattered and utterly faded banner appended to it,--the knightly banner beneath which he marshalled his followers in the field. As it was absolutely falling to pieces, I tore off one little bit, no bigger than a finger-nail, and put it into my waistcoat-pocket; but seeking it subsequently, it was not to be found.
On the opposite side of the little chapel, two or three yards from this tomb, is another monument, on which lie, side by side, one of the same knightly race of Harcourts, and his lady. The tradition of the family is, that this knight was the standard-bearer of Henry of Richmond in the Battle of Bosworth Field; and a banner, supposed to be the same that he carried, now droops over his effigy. It is just such a colorless silk rag as the one already described. The knight has the order of the Garter on his knee, and the lady wears it on her left arm, an odd place enough for a garter; but, if worn in its proper locality, it could not be decorously visible. The complete preservation and good condition of these statues, even to the minutest adornment of the sculpture, and their very noses,--the most vulnerable part of a marble man, as of a living one,--are miraculous. Except in Westminster Abbey, among the chapels of the kings, I have seen none so well preserved. Perhaps they owe it to the loyalty of Oxfordshire, diffused throughout its neighborhood by the influence of the University, during the great Civil War and the rule of the Parliament. It speaks well, too, for the upright and kindly character of this old family, that the peasantry, among whom they had lived for ages, did not desecrate their tombs, when it might have been done with impunity.
There are other and more recent memorials of the Harcourts, one of which is the tomb of the last lord, who died about a hundred years ago. His figure, like those of his ancestors, lies on the top of his tomb, clad, not in armor, but in his robes as a peer. The title is now extinct, but the family survives in a younger branch, and still holds this patrimonial estate, though they have long since quitted it as a residence.
We next went to see the ancient fish-ponds appertaining to the mansion, and which used to be of vast dietary importance to the family in Catholic times, and when fish was not otherwise attainable. There are two or three, or more, of these reservoirs, one of which is of very respectable size,--large enough, indeed, to be really a picturesque object, with its grass-green borders, and the trees drooping over it, and the towers of the castle and the church reflected within the weed-grown depths of its smooth mirror. A sweet fragrance, as it were, of ancient time and present quiet and seclusion was breathing all around; the sunshine of to-day had a mellow charm of antiquity in its brightness. These ponds are said still to breed abundance of such fish as love deep and quiet waters; but I saw only some minnows, and one or two snakes, which were lying among the weeds on the top of the water, sunning and bathing themselves at once.
I mentioned that there were two towers remaining of the old castle: the one containing the kitchen we have already visited; the other, still more interesting, is next to be described. It is some seventy feet high, gray and reverend, but in excellent repair, though I could not perceive that anything had been done to renovate it. The basement story was once the family chapel, and is, of course, still a consecrated spot. At one corner of the tower is a circular turret, within which a narrow staircase, with worn steps of stone, winds round and round as it climbs upward, giving access to a chamber on each floor, and finally emerging on the battlemented roof. Ascending this turret-stair, and arriving at the third story, we entered a chamber, not large, though occupying the whole area of the tower, and lighted by a window on each side. It was wainscoted from floor to ceiling with dark oak, and had a little fireplace in one of the corners. The window-panes were small and set in lead. The curiosity of this room is, that it was once the residence of Pope, and that he here wrote a considerable part of the translation of Isomer, and likewise, no doubt, the admirable letters to which I have referred above. The room once contained a record by himself, scratched with a diamond on one of the window-panes (since removed for safe-keeping to Nuneham Courtney, where it was shown me), purporting that he had here finished the fifth book of the "Iliad" on such a day.
A poet has a fragrance about him, such as no other human being is gifted withal; it is indestructible, and clings forevermore to everything that he has touched. I was not impressed, at Blenheim, with any sense that the mighty Duke still haunted the palace that was created for him; but here, after a century and a half, we are still conscious of the presence of that decrepit little figure of Queen Anne's time, although he was merely a casual guest in the old tower, during one or two summer months. However brief the time and slight the connection, his spirit cannot be exorcised so long as the tower stands. In my mind, moreover, Pope, or any other person with an available claim, is right in adhering to the spot, dead or alive; for I never saw a chamber that I should like better to inhabit,--so comfortably small, in such a safe and inaccessible seclusion, and with a varied landscape from each window. One of them looks upon the church, close at hand, and down into the green churchyard, extending almost to the foot of the tower; the others have views wide and far, over a gently undulating tract of country. If desirous of a loftier elevation, about a dozen more steps of the turret-stair will bring the occupant to the summit of the tower,--where Pope used to come, no doubt, in the summer evenings, and peep--poor little shrimp that he was!--through the embrasures of the battlement.
From Stanton Harcourt we drove--I forget how far--to a point
where a boat was waiting for us upon the
It was an open boat, with cushioned seats astern,
comfortably accommodating our party; the day continued sunny and warm, and
perfectly still; the boatman, well trained to his business, managed the oars
skilfully and vigorously; and we went down the stream quite as swiftly as it
was desirable to go, the scene being so pleasant, and the passing hours so
thoroughly agreeable. The river grew a
little wider and deeper, perhaps, as we glided on, but was still an
inconsiderable stream: for it had a good deal more than a hundred miles to
meander through before it should bear fleets on its bosom, and reflect palaces
and towers and Parliament houses and dingy and sordid piles of various
structure, as it rolled two and fro with the tide, dividing London
asunder. Not, in truth, that I ever saw
any edifice whatever reflected in its turbid breast, when the sylvan stream, as
we beheld it now, is swollen into the Thames at
Once, on our voyage, we had to land, while the boatman and
some other persons drew our skiff round some rapids, which we could not
otherwise have passed; another time, the boat went through a lock. We, meanwhile, stepped ashore to examine the
ruins of the old nunnery of Godstowe, where Fair Rosamond secluded herself,
after being separated from her royal lover.
There is a long line of ruinous wall, and a shattered tower at one of
the angles; the whole much ivy-grown,--brimming over, indeed, with clustering
ivy, which is rooted inside of the walls.
The nunnery is now, I believe, held in lease by the city of
At three o'clock or thereabouts (or sooner or later,--for I
took little heed of time, and only wished that these delightful wanderings
might last forever) we reached
Meanwhile a table had been laid in the interior of our
barge, and spread with cold ham, cold fowl, cold pigeon-pie, cold beef, and
other substantial cheer, such as the English love, and Yankees too,--besides
tarts, and cakes, and pears, and plums,--not forgetting, of course, a goodly
provision of port, sherry, and champagne, and bitter ale, which is like mother's
milk to an Englishman, and soon grows equally acceptable to his American
cousin. By the time these matters had
been properly attended to, we had arrived at that part of the
As we here cross a private threshold, it is not allowable to pursue my feeble narrative of this delightful day with the same freedom as heretofore; so, perhaps, I may as well bring it to a close. I may mention, however, that I saw the library, a fine, large apartment, hung round with portraits of eminent literary men, principally of the last century, most of whom were familiar guests of the Harcourts. The house itself is about eighty years old, and is built in the classic style, as if the family had been anxious to diverge as far as possible from the Gothic picturesqueness of their old abode at Stanton Harcourt. The grounds were laid out in part by Capability Brown, and seemed to me even more beautiful than those of Blenheim. Mason the poet, a friend of the house, gave the design of a portion of the garden. Of the whole place I will not be niggardly of my rude Transatlantic praise, but be bold to say that it appeared to me as perfect as anything earthly can he,--utterly and entirely finished, as if the years and generations had done all that the hearts and minds of the successive owners could contrive for a spot they dearly loved. Such homes as Nuneham Courtney are among the splendid results of long hereditary possession; and we Republicans, whose households melt away like new-fallen snow in a spring morning, must content ourselves with our many counterbalancing advantages, for this one, so apparently desirable to the far-projecting selfishness of our nature, we are certain never to attain.
It must not be supposed, nevertheless, that Nuneham Courtney
is one of the great show-places of
And now I take leave of
We feel a genuine reluctance to conclude this article without making our grateful acknowledgments, by name, to a gentleman whose overflowing kindness was the main condition of all our sight-seeings and enjoyments. Delightful as will always be our recollection of Oxford and its neighborhood, we partly suspect that it owes much of its happy coloring to the genial medium through which the objects were presented to us,--to the kindly magic of a hospitality unsurpassed, within our experience, in the quality of making the guest contented with his host, with himself, and everything about him. He has inseparably mingled his image with our remembrance of the Spires of Oxford.
We left Carlisle at a little past eleven, and within the
half-hour were at
Chill as the Scottish summer is reputed to be, we found it
an awfully hot day, not a whit less so than the day before; but we sturdily
adventured through the burning sunshine up into the town, inquiring our way to
the residence of Burns. The street
leading from the station is called
We asked for Burns's dwelling; and a woman pointed across the street to a two-story house, built of stone, and whitewashed, like its neighbors, but perhaps of a little more respectable aspect than most of them, though I hesitate in saying so. It was not a separate structure, but under the same continuous roof with the next. There was an inscription on the door, hearing no reference to Burns, but indicating that the house was now occupied by a ragged or industrial school. On knocking, we were instantly admitted by a servant-girl, who smiled intelligently when we told our errand, and showed us into a low and very plain parlor, not more than twelve or fifteen feet square. A young woman, who seemed to be a teacher in the school, soon appeared, and told us that this had been Burns's usual sitting-room, and that he had written many of his songs here.
She then led us up a narrow staircase into a little bedchamber over the parlor. Connecting with it, there is a very small room, or windowed closet, which Burns used as a study; and the bedchamber itself was the one where he slept in his later lifetime, and in which he died at last. Altogether, it is an exceedingly unsuitable place for a pastoral and rural poet to live or die in,--even more unsatisfactory than Shakespeare's house, which has a certain homely picturesqueness that contrasts favorably with the suburban sordidness of the abode before us. The narrow lane, the paving-stones, and the contiguity of wretched hovels are depressing to remember; and the steam of them (such is our human weakness) might almost make the poet's memory less fragrant.
As already observed, it was an intolerably hot day. After leaving the house, we found our way
into the principal street of the town, which, it may be fair to say, is of very
different aspect from the wretched outskirt above described. Entering a hotel (in which, as a
Coming to St. Michael's Church, we saw a man digging a
grave, and, scrambling out of the hole, he let us into
the churchyard, which was crowded full of monuments. Their general shape and construction are
peculiar to Scotland, being a perpendicular tablet of marble or other stone,
within a framework of the same material, somewhat resembling the frame of a
looking-glass; and, all over the churchyard, those sepulchral memorials rise to
the height of ten, fifteen, or twenty feet, forming quite an imposing
collection of monuments, but inscribed with names of small general
significance. It was easy, indeed, to
ascertain the rank of those who slept below; for in
There was a foot-path through this crowded churchyard, sufficiently well worn to guide us to the grave of Burns; but a woman followed behind us, who, it appeared, kept the key of the mausoleum, and was privileged to show it to strangers. The monument is a sort of Grecian temple, with pilasters and a dome, covering a space of about twenty feet square. It was formerly open to all the inclemencies of the Scotch atmosphere, but is now protected and shut in by large squares of rough glass, each pane being of the size of one whole side of the structure. The woman unlocked the door, and admitted us into the interior. Inlaid into the floor of the mausoleum is the gravestone of Burns,--the very same that was laid over his grave by Jean Armour, before this monument was built. Displayed against the surrounding wall is a marble statue of Burns at the plough, with the Genius of Caledonia summoning the ploughman to turn poet. Methought it was not a very successful piece of work; for the plough was better sculptured than the man, and the man, though heavy and cloddish, was more effective than the goddess. Our guide informed us that an old man of ninety, who knew Burns, certifies this statue to be very like the original.
The bones of the poet, and of Jean Armour, and of some of
their children, lie in the vault over which we stood. Our guide (who was intelligent, in her own
plain way, and very agreeable to talk withal) said that the vault was opened
about three weeks ago, on occasion of the burial of the eldest son of Burns. The poet's bones were disturbed, and the dry
skull, once so brimming over with powerful thought and bright and tender
fantasies, was taken away, and kept for several days by a
We listened readily enough to this paltry gossip, but found that it robbed the poet's memory of some of the reverence that was its due. Indeed, this talk over his grave had very much the same tendency and effect as the home-scene of his life, which we had been visiting just previously. Beholding his poor, mean dwelling and its surroundings, and picturing his outward life and earthly manifestations from these, one does not so much wonder that the people of that day should have failed to recognize all that was admirable and immortal in a disreputable, drunken, shabbily clothed, and shabbily housed man, consorting with associates of damaged character, and, as his only ostensible occupation, gauging the whiskey, which he too often tasted. Siding with Burns, as we needs must, in his plea against the world, let us try to do the world a little justice too. It is far easier to know and honor a poet when his fame has taken shape in the spotlessness of marble than when the actual man comes staggering before you, besmeared with the sordid stains of his daily life. For my part, I chiefly wonder that his recognition dawned so brightly while he was still living. There must have been something very grand in his immediate presence, some strangely impressive characteristic in his natural behavior, to have caused him to seem like a demigod so soon.
As we went back through the churchyard, we saw a spot where nearly four hundred inhabitants of Dumfries were buried during the cholera year; and also some curious old monuments, with raised letters, the inscriptions on which were not sufficiently legible to induce us to puzzle them out; but, I believe, they mark the resting-places of old Covenanters, some of whom were killed by Claverhouse and his fellow-ruffians.
St. Michael's Church is of red freestone, and was built about a hundred years ago, on an old Catholic foundation. Our guide admitted us into it, and showed us, in the porch, a very pretty little marble figure of a child asleep, with a drapery over the lower part, from beneath which appeared its two baby feet. It was truly a sweet little statue; and the woman told us that it represented a child of the sculptor, and that the baby (here still in its marble infancy) had died more than twenty-six years ago. "Many ladies," she said, "especially such as had ever lost a child, had shed tears over it." It was very pleasant to think of the sculptor bestowing the best of his genius and art to re-create his tender child in stone, and to make the representation as soft and sweet as the original; but the conclusion of the story has something that jars with our awakened sensibilities. A gentleman from London had seen the statue, and was so much delighted with it that he bought it of the father-artist, after it had lain above a quarter of a century in the church-porch. So this was not the real, tender image that came out of the father's heart; he had sold that truest one for a hundred guineas, and sculptured this mere copy to replace it. The first figure was entirely naked in its earthly and spiritual innocence. The copy, as I have said above, has a drapery over the lower limbs. But, after all, if we come to the truth of the matter, the sleeping baby may be as fully reposited in the drawing-room of a connoisseur as in a cold and dreary church-porch.
We went into the church, and found it very plain and naked,
without altar-decorations, and having its floor quite covered with unsightly
wooden pews. The woman led us to a pew
cornering on one of the side-aisles, and, telling us that it used to be Burns's
family-pew, showed us his seat, which is in the corner by the aisle. It is so situated, that a sturdy pillar hid
him from the pulpit, and from the minister's eye; "for Robin was no great
friends with the ministers," said she.
This touch--his seat behind the pillar, and Burns himself nodding in
sermon-time, or keenly observant of profane things--brought him before us to
the life. In the corner-seat of the next
pew, right before Burns, and not more than two feet off, sat the young lady on
whom the poet saw that unmentionable parasite which he has immortalized in
song. We were ungenerous enough to ask
the lady's name, but the good woman could not tell it. This was the last thing which we saw in
At the railway-station we spent more than a weary hour,
waiting for the train, which at last came up, and took us to Mauchline. We got into an omnibus, the only conveyance
to be had, and drove about a mile to the village, where we established
ourselves at the Loudoun Hotel, one of the veriest country inns which we have
found in Great Britain. The town of
Almost directly opposite its gate, across the village street, stands Posie Nansie's inn, where the "Jolly
Beggars" congregated. The latter is
a two-story, red-stone, thatched house, looking old, but by no means venerable,
like a drunken patriarch. It has small,
old-fashioned windows, and may well have stood for centuries,--though, seventy
or eighty years ago, when Burns was conversant with it, I should fancy it might
have been something better than a beggars' alehouse. The whole town of
The next forenoon my companion put me to shame by attending church, after vainly exhorting me to do the like; and, it being Sacrament Sunday, and my poor friend being wedged into the farther end of a closely filled pew, he was forced to stay through the preaching of four several sermons, and came back perfectly exhausted and desperate. He was somewhat consoled, however, on finding that he had witnessed a spectacle of Scotch manners identical with that of Burns's "Holy Fair," on the very spot where the poet located that immortal description. By way of further conformance to the customs of the country, we ordered a sheep's head and the broth, and did penance accordingly; and at five o'clock we took a fly, and set out for Burns's farm of Moss Giel.
Moss Giel is not more than a mile from Mauchline, and the
road extends over a high ridge of land, with a view of far hills and green
slopes on either side. Just before we
reached the farm, the driver stopped to point out a hawthorn, growing by the
wayside, which he said was Burns's "Lousie Thorn"; and I devoutly
plucked a branch, although I have really forgotten where or how this
illustrious shrub has been celebrated.
We then turned into a rude gateway, and almost immediately came to the farm-house
of Moss Giel, standing some fifty yards removed from the high-road, behind a
tall hedge of hawthorn, and considerably overshadowed by trees. The house is a whitewashed stone cottage,
like thousands of others in
However, it would not do to be turned back from the very threshold of Robert Burns; and as the women seemed to be merely straggling visitors, and nobody, at all events, had a right to send us away, we went into the back door, and, turning to the right, entered a kitchen. It showed a deplorable lack of housewifely neatness, and in it there were three or four children, one of whom, a girl eight or nine years old, held a baby in her arms. She proved to be the daughter of the people of the house, and gave us what leave she could to look about us. Thence we stepped across the narrow mid-passage of the cottage into the only other apartment below stairs, a sitting-room, where we found a young man eating broad and cheese. He informed us that he did not live there, and had only called in to refresh himself on his way home from church. This room, like the kitchen, was a noticeably poor one, and, besides being all that the cottage had to show for a parlor, it was a sleeping-apartment, having two beds, which might be curtained off, on occasion. The young man allowed us liberty (so far as in him lay) to go up stairs. Up we crept, accordingly; and a few steps brought us to the top of the staircase, over the kitchen, where we found the wretchedest little sleeping-chamber in the world, with a sloping roof under the thatch, and two beds spread upon the bare floor. This, most probably, was Burns's chamber; or, perhaps, it may have been that of his mother's servant-maid; and, in either case, this rude floor, at one time or another, must have creaked beneath the poet's midnight tread. On the opposite side of the passage was the door of another attic-chamber, opening which, I saw a considerable number of cheeses on the floor.
The whole house was pervaded with a frowzy smell, and also a
dunghill odor; and it is not easy to understand how the atmosphere of such a
dwelling can be any more agreeable or salubrious morally than it appeared to be
physically. No virgin, surely, could
keep a holy awe about her while stowed higgledy-piggledy with coarse-natured
rustics into this narrowness and filth.
Such a habitation is calculated to make beasts of men and women; and it
indicates a degree of barbarism which I did not imagine to exist in
The biographers talk of the farm of Moss Giel as being damp and unwholesome; but, I do not see why, outside of the cottage-walls, it should possess so evil a reputation. It occupies a high, broad ridge, enjoying, surely, whatever benefit can come of a breezy site, and sloping far downward before any marshy soil is reached. The high hedge, and the trees that stand beside the cottage, give it a pleasant aspect enough to one who does not know the grimy secrets of the interior; and the summer afternoon was now so bright that I shall remember the scene with a great deal of sunshine over it.
Leaving the cottage, we drove through a field, which the driver told us was that in which Burns turned up the mouse's nest. It is the enclosure nearest to the cottage, and seems now to be a pasture, and a rather remarkably unfertile one. A little farther on, the ground was whitened with an immense number of daisies,--daisies, daisies everywhere; and in answer to my inquiry, the driver said that this was the field where Burns ran his ploughshare over the daisy. If so, the soil seems to have been consecrated to daisies by the song which he bestowed on that first immortal one. I alighted, and plucked a whole handful of these "wee, modest, crimson-tipped flowers," which will be precious to many friends in our own country as coming from Burns's farm, and being of the same race and lineage as that daisy which he turned into an amaranthine flower while seeming to destroy it.
From Moss Giel we drove through a variety of pleasant scenes, some of which were familiar to us by their connection with Burns. We skirted, too, along a portion of the estate of Auchinleck, which still belongs to the Boswell family,--the present possessor being Sir James Boswell [Sir James Boswell is now dead], a grandson of Johnson's friend, and son of the Sir Alexander who was killed in a duel. Our driver spoke of Sir James as a kind, free-hearted man, but addicted to horse-races and similar pastimes, and a little too familiar with the wine-cup; so that poor Bozzy's booziness would appear to have become hereditary in his ancient line. There is no male heir to the estate of Auchinleck. The portion of the lands which we saw is covered with wood and much undermined with rabbit-warrens; nor, though the territory extends over a large number of acres, is the income very considerable.
By and by we came to the spot where Burns saw Miss Alexander, the Lass of Ballochmyle. It was on a bridge, which (or, more probably, a bridge that has succeeded to the old one, and is made of iron) crosses from bank to bank, high in air, over a deep gorge of the road; so that the young lady may have appeared to Burns like a creature between earth and sky, and compounded chiefly of celestial elements. But, in honest truth, the great charm of a woman, in Burns's eyes, was always her womanhood, and not the angelic mixture which other poets find in her.
Our driver pointed out the course taken by the Lass of Ballochmyle, through the shrubbery, to a rock on the banks of the Lugar, where it seems to be the tradition that Burns accosted her. The song implies no such interview. Lovers, of whatever condition, high or low, could desire no lovelier scene in which to breathe their vows: the river flowing over its pebbly bed, sometimes gleaming into the sunshine, sometimes hidden deep in verdure, and here and there eddying at the foot of high and precipitous cliffs. This beautiful estate of Ballochmyle is still held by the family of Alexanders, to whom Burns's song has given renown on cheaper terms than any other set of people ever attained it. How slight the tenure seems! A young lady happened to walk out, one summer afternoon, and crossed the path of a neighboring farmer, who celebrated the little incident in four or five warm, rude, at least, not refined, though rather ambitious,--and somewhat ploughman-like verses. Burns has written hundreds of better things; but henceforth, for centuries, that maiden has free admittance into the dream-land of Beautiful Women, and she and all her race are famous. I should like to know the present head of the family, and ascertain what value, if any, the members of it put upon the celebrity thus won.
We passed through Catrine, known hereabouts as "the
There was a rain-storm during the night, and, in the
morning, the rusty, old, sloping street of Mauchline was glistening with wet,
while frequent showers came spattering down.
The intense heat of many days past was exchanged for a chilly
atmosphere, much more suitable to a stranger's idea of what Scotch temperature
ought to be. We found, after breakfast,
that the first train northward had already gone by, and that we must wait till
nearly two o'clock for the next. I
merely ventured out once, during the forenoon, and took a brief walk through
the village, in which I have left little to describe. Its chief business appears to be the
manufacture of snuff-boxes. There are
perhaps five or six shops, or more, including those licensed to sell only tea
and tobacco; the best of them have the characteristics of village stores in the
Arriving at the railway-station, we found a tall, elderly, comely gentleman walking to and fro and waiting for the train. He proved to be a Mr. Alexander,--it may fairly be presumed the Alexander of Ballochmyle, a blood relation of the lovely lass. Wonderful efficacy of a poet's verse, that could shed a glory from Long Ago on this old gentleman's white hair! These Alexanders, by the by, are not an old family on the Ballochmyle estate; the father of the lass having made a fortune in trade, and established himself as the first landed proprietor of his name in these parts. The original family was named Whitefoord.
Our ride to
I crossed the river by a modern and handsome stone bridge,
and recrossed it, at no great distance, by a venerable structure of four gray
arches, which must have bestridden the stream ever since the early days of
Scottish history. These are the
"Two Briggs of Ayr," whose midnight conversation was overheard by
Burns, while other auditors were aware only of the rush and rumble of the
wintry stream among the arches. The
ancient bridge is steep and narrow, and paved like a street, and defended by a
parapet of red freestone, except at the two ends, where some mean old shops
allow scanty room for the pathway to creep between. Nothing else impressed me hereabouts, unless
I mention, that, during the rain, the women and girls went about the streets of
The next morning wore a lowering aspect, as if it felt
itself destined to be one of many consecutive days of storm. After a good Scotch breakfast, however, of
fresh herrings and eggs, we took a fly, and started at a little past ten for
the banks of the
On a panel, let into the wall in a corner of the room, is a
portrait of Burns, copied from the original picture by Nasmyth. The floor of this apartment is of boards,
which are probably a recent substitute for the ordinary flag-stones of a
peasant's cottage. There is but one
other room pertaining to the genuine birthplace of Robert Burns: it is the
kitchen, into which we now went. It has
a floor of flag-stones, even ruder than those of Shakespeare's house,--though,
perhaps, not so strangely cracked and broken as the latter, over which the hoof
of Satan himself might seem to have been trampling. A new window has been opened through the
wall, towards the road; but on the opposite side is the little original window,
of only four small panes, through which came the first daylight that shone upon
the Scottish poet. At the side of the
room, opposite the fireplace, is a recess, containing a bed, which can be
hidden by curtains. In that humble nook,
of all places in the world,
These two rooms, as I have said, make up the whole sum and substance of Burns's birthplace: for there were no chambers, nor even attics; and the thatched roof formed the only ceiling of kitchen and sitting-room, the height of which was that of the whole house. The cottage, however, is attached to another edifice of the same size and description, as these little habitations often are; and, moreover, a splendid addition has been made to it, since the poet's renown began to draw visitors to the wayside alehouse. The old woman of the house led us through an entry, and showed a vaulted hall, of no vast dimensions, to be sure, but marvellously large and splendid as compared with what might be anticipated from the outward aspect of the cottage. It contained a bust of Burns, and was hung round with pictures and engravings, principally illustrative of his life and poems. In this part of the house, too, there is a parlor, fragrant with tobacco-smoke; and, no doubt, many a noggin of whiskey is here quaffed to the memory of the bard, who professed to draw so much inspiration from that potent liquor.
We bought some engravings of Kirk Alloway, the
The enclosure around the monument is beautifully laid out as an ornamental garden, and abundantly provided with rare flowers and shrubbery, all tended with loving care. The monument stands on an elevated site, and consists of a massive basement-story, three-sided, above which rises a light and elegant Grecian temple,--a mere dome, supported on Corinthian pillars, and open to all the winds. The edifice is beautiful in itself; though I know not what peculiar appropriateness it may have, as the memorial of a Scottish rural poet.
The door of the basement-story stood open; and, entering, we
saw a bust of Burns in a niche, looking keener, more refined, but not so warm and whole-souled as his pictures usually do. I think the likeness cannot be good. In the centre of the room stood a glass case,
in which were reposited the two volumes of the little Pocket Bible that Burns
gave to Highland Mary, when they pledged their troth to one another. It is poorly printed, on coarse paper. A verse of Scripture, referring to the
solemnity and awfulness of vows, is written within the cover of each volume, in
the poet's own hand; and fastened to one of the covers is a lock of Highland
Mary's golden hair. This Bible had been
There is a staircase within the monument, by which we ascended to the top, and had a view of both Briggs of Doon; the scene of Tam O'Shanter's misadventure being close at hand. Descending, we wandered through the enclosed garden, and came to a little building in a corner, on entering which, we found the two statues of Tam and Sutor Wat,--ponderous stone-work enough, yet permeated in a remarkable degree with living warmth and jovial hilarity. From this part of the garden, too, we again beheld the old Brigg of Doon, over which Tam galloped in such imminent and awful peril. It is a beautiful object in the landscape, with one high, graceful arch, ivy-grown, and shadowed all over and around with foliage.
When we had waited a good while, the old gardener came, telling us that he had heard an excellent prayer at laying the corner-stone of the new kirk. He now gave us some roses and sweetbrier, and let us out from his pleasant garden. We immediately hastened to Kirk Alloway, which is within two or three minutes' walk of the monument. A few steps ascend from the roadside, through a gate, into the old graveyard, in the midst of which stands the kirk. The edifice is wholly roofless, but the side-walls and gable-ends are quite entire, though portions of them are evidently modern restorations. Never was there a plainer little church, or one with smaller architectural pretension; no New England meeting-house has more simplicity in its very self, though poetry and fun have clambered and clustered so wildly over Kirk Alloway that it is difficult to see it as it actually exists. By the by, I do not understand why Satan and an assembly of witches should hold their revels within a consecrated precinct; but the weird scene has so established itself in the world's imaginative faith that it must be accepted as an authentic incident, in spite of rule and reason to the contrary. Possibly, some carnal minister, some priest of pious aspect and hidden infidelity, had dispelled the consecration of the holy edifice by his pretence of prayer, and thus made it the resort of unhappy ghosts and sorcerers and devils.
The interior of the kirk, even now, is applied to quite as impertinent a purpose as when Satan and the witches used it as a dancing-hall; for it is divided in the midst by a wall of stone-masonry, and each compartment has been converted into a family burial-place. The name on one of the monuments is Crawfurd; the other bore no inscription. It is impossible not to feel that these good people, whoever they may be, had no business to thrust their prosaic bones into a spot that belongs to the world, and where their presence jars with the emotions, be they sad or gay, which the pilgrim brings thither. They slant us out from our own precincts, too,--from that inalienable possession which Burns bestowed in free gift upon mankind, by taking it from the actual earth and annexing it to the domain of imagination. And here these wretched squatters have lain down to their long sleep, after barring each of the two doorways of the kirk with an iron grate! May their rest be troubled, till they rise and let us in!
Kirk Alloway is inconceivably small, considering how large a
space it fills in our imagination before we see it. I paced its length, outside of the wall, and
found it only seventeen of my paces, and not more than ten of them in breadth. There seem to have been but very few windows,
all of which, if I rightly remember, are now blocked up with mason-work of
stone. One mullioned window, tall and
narrow, in the eastern gable, might have been seen by Tam O'Shanter, blazing
with devilish light, as he approached along the road from
The road from Ayr passes Alloway Kirk, and crosses the
The memory of them, at this moment, affects me like the song of birds, and Burns crooning some verses, simple and wild, in accordance with their native melody.
It was impossible to depart without crossing the very
One of our English summers looks, in the retrospect, as if it had been patched with more frequent sunshine than the sky of England ordinarily affords; but I believe that it may be only a moral effect,--a "light that never was on sea nor land," caused by our having found a particularly delightful abode in the neighborhood of London. In order to enjoy it, however, I was compelled to solve the problem of living in two places at once,--an impossibility which I so far accomplished as to vanish, at frequent intervals, out of men's sight and knowledge on one side of England, and take my place in a circle of familiar faces on the other, so quietly that I seemed to have been there all along. It was the easier to get accustomed to our new residence, because it was not only rich in all the material properties of a home, but had also the home-like atmosphere, the household element, which is of too intangible a character to be let even with the most thoroughly furnished lodging-house. A friend had given us his suburban residence, with all its conveniences, elegances, and snuggeries,--its drawing-rooms and library, still warm and bright with the recollection of the genial presences that we had known there,--its closets, chambers, kitchen, and even its wine-cellar, if we could have availed ourselves of so dear and delicate a trust,--its lawn and cosey garden-nooks, and whatever else makes up the multitudinous idea of an English home,--he had transferred it all to us, pilgrims and dusty wayfarers, that we might rest and take our ease during his summer's absence on the Continent. We had long been dwelling in tents, as it were, and morally shivering by hearths which, heap the bituminous coal upon them as we might, no blaze could render cheerful. I remember, to this day, the dreary feeling with which I sat by our first English fireside, and watched the chill and rainy twilight of an autumn day darkening down upon the garden; while the portrait of the preceding occupant of the house (evidently a most unamiable personage in his lifetime) scowled inhospitably from above the mantel-piece, as if indignant that an American should try to make himself at home there. Possibly it may appease his sulky shade to know that I quitted his abode as much a stranger as I entered it. But mow, at last, we were in a genuine British home, where refined and warm-hearted people had just been living their daily life, and had left us a summer's inheritance of slowly ripened days, such as a stranger's hasty opportunities so seldom permit him to enjoy.
Within so trifling a distance of the central spot of all the world (which, as Americans have at present no centre
of their own, we may allow to be somewhere in the vicinity, we will say, of
Thus, having once fully yielded to its influence, I was in a
manner free of the city, and could approach or keep away from it as I pleased.
Hence it happened, that, living within a quarter of an hour's rush of the
London Bridge Terminus, I was oftener tempted to spend a whole summer-day in
our garden than to seek anything new or old, wonderful or commonplace, beyond
its precincts. It was a delightful
garden, of no great extent, but comprising a good many facilities for repose
and enjoyment, such as arbors and garden-seats, shrubbery, flower-beds,
rose-bushes in a profusion of bloom, pinks, poppies, geraniums, sweet-peas, and
a variety of other scarlet, yellow, blue, and purple blossoms, which I did not
trouble myself to recognize individually, yet had always a vague sense of their
beauty about me. The dim sky of
The garden included that prime feature of English domestic scenery, a lawn. It had been levelled, carefully shorn, and converted into a bowling-green, on which we sometimes essayed to practise the time-honored game of bowls, most unskilfully, yet not without a perception that it involves a very pleasant mixture of exercise and ease, as is the case with most of the old English pastimes. Our little domain was shut in by the house on one side, and in other directions by a hedge-fence and a brick wall, which last was concealed or softened by shrubbery and the impaled fruit-trees already mentioned. Over all the outer region, beyond our immediate precincts, there was an abundance of foliage, tossed aloft from the near or distant trees with which that agreeable suburb is adorned. The effect was wonderfully sylvan and rural, insomuch that we might have fancied ourselves in the depths of a wooded seclusion; only that, at brief intervals, we could hear the galloping sweep of a railway-train passing within a quarter of a mile, and its discordant screech, moderated by a little farther distance, as it reached the Blackheath Station. That harsh, rough sound, seeking me out so inevitably, was the voice of the great world summoning me forth. I know not whether I was the more pained or pleased to be thus constantly put in mind of the neighborhood of London; for, on the one hand, my conscience stung me a little for reading a book, or playing with children in the grass, when there were so many better things for an enlightened traveller to do,--while, at the same time, it gave a deeper delight to my luxurious idleness, to contrast it with the turmoil which I escaped. On the whole, however, I do not repent of a single wasted hour, and only wish that I could have spent twice as many in the same way; for the impression on my memory is, that I was as happy in that hospitable garden as the English summer-day was long.
One chief condition of my enjoyment was the weather.
For each day seemed endless, though never wearisome. As far as your actual experience is concerned, the English summer-day has positively no beginning and no end. When you awake, at any reasonable hour, the sun is already shining through the curtains; you live through unnumbered hours of Sabbath quietude, with a calm variety of incident softly etched upon their tranquil lapse; and at length you become conscious that it is bedtime again, while there is still enough daylight in the sky to make the pages of your book distinctly legible. Night, if there be any such season, hangs down a transparent veil through which the bygone day beholds its successor; or, if not quite true of the latitude of London, it may be soberly affirmed of the more northern parts of the island, that To-morrow is born before its Yesterday is dead. They exist together in the golden twilight, where the decrepit old day dimly discerns the face of the ominous infant; and you, though a more mortal, may simultaneously touch them both with one finger of recollection and another of prophecy. I cared not how long the day might be, nor how many of them. I had earned this repose by a long course of irksome toil and perturbation, and could have been content never to stray out of the limits of that suburban villa and its garden. If I lacked anything beyond, it would have satisfied me well enough to dream about it, instead of struggling for its actual possession. At least, this was the feeling of the moment; although the transitory, flitting, and irresponsible character of my life there was perhaps the most enjoyable element of all, as allowing me much of the comfort of house and home without any sense of their weight upon my back. The nomadic life has great advantages, if we can find tents ready pitched for us at every stage.
So much for the interior of our abode,--a
spot of deepest quiet, within reach of the intensest activity. But, even when we stopped beyond our own
gate, we were not shocked with any immediate presence of the great world. We were dwelling in one of those oases that
have grown up (in comparatively recent years, I believe) on the wide waste of
Blackheath, which otherwise offers a vast extent of unoccupied ground in
singular proximity to the metropolis. As
a general thing, the proprietorship of the soil seems to exist in everybody and
nobody; but exclusive rights have been obtained, here and there, chiefly by men
whose daily concerns link them with
On this great, bare, dreary common I often went astray, as I
afterwards did on the Campagna of Rome, and drew the air (tainted with
While I lived in that neighborhood, the tents of two or
three sets of cricket-players were constantly pitched on Blackheath, and
matches were going forward that seemed to involve the honor and credit of
communities or counties, exciting an interest in everybody but myself, who
cared not what part of
Passing among these holiday people, we come to one of the
There are lovelier parks than this in the neighborhood of London, richer scenes of greensward and cultivated trees; and Kensington, especially, in a summer afternoon, has seemed to me as delightful as any place can or ought to be, in a world which, some time or other, we must quit. But Greenwich, too, is beautiful,--a spot where the art of man has conspired with Nature, as if he and the great mother had taken counsel together how to make a pleasant scene, and the longest liver of the two had faithfully carried out their mutual design. It has, likewise, an additional charm of its own, because, to all appearance, it is the people's property and play-ground in a much more genuine way than the aristocratic resorts in closer vicinity to the metropolis. It affords one of the instances in which the monarch's property is actually the people's, and shows how much more natural is their relation to the sovereign than to the nobility, which pretends to hold the intervening space between the two: for a nobleman makes a paradise only for himself, and fills it with his own pomp and pride; whereas the people are sooner or later the legitimate inheritors of whatever beauty kings and queens create, as now of Greenwich Park. On Sundays, when the sun shone, and even on those grim and sombre days when, if it do not actually rain, the English persist in calling it fine weather, it was too good to see how sturdily the plebeians trod under their own oaks, and what fulness of simple enjoyment they evidently found there. They were the people,--not the populace,--specimens of a class whose Sunday clothes are a distinct kind of garb from their week-day ones; and this, in England, implies wholesome habits of life, daily thrift, and a rank above the lowest. I longed to be acquainted with them, in order to investigate what manner of folks they were, what sort of households they kept, their politics, their religion, their tastes, and whether they were as narrow-minded as their betters. There can be very little doubt of it: an Englishman is English, in whatever rank of life, though no more intensely so, I should imagine, as an artisan or petty shopkeeper, than as a member of Parliament.
The English character, as I conceive it, is by no means a very lofty one; they seem to have a great deal of earth and grimy dust clinging about them, as was probably the case with the stalwart and quarrelsome people who sprouted up out of the soil, after Cadmus had sown the dragon's teeth. And yet, though the individual Englishman is sometimes preternaturally disagreeable, an observer standing aloof has a sense of natural kindness towards them in the lump. They adhere closer to the original simplicity in which mankind was created than we ourselves do; they love, quarrel, laugh, cry, and turn their actual selves inside out, with greater freedom than any class of Americans would consider decorous. It was often so with these holiday folks in Greenwich Park; and, ridiculous as it may sound, I fancy myself to have caught very satisfactory glimpses of Arcadian life among the Cockneys there, hardly beyond the scope of Bow-Bells, picnicking in the grass, uncouthly gambolling on the broad slopes, or straying in motley groups or by single pairs of love-making youths and maidens, along the sun-streaked avenues. Even the omnipresent policemen or park-keepers could not disturb the beatific impression on my mind. One feature, at all events, of the Golden Age was to be seen in the herds of deer that encountered you in the somewhat remoter recesses of the Park, and were readily prevailed upon to nibble a bit of bread out of your hand. But, though no wrong had ever been done them, and no horn had sounded nor hound bayed at the heels of themselves or their antlered progenitors for centuries past, there was still an apprehensiveness lingering in their hearts; so that a slight movement of the hand or a step too near would send a whole squadron of them scampering away, just as a breath scatters the winged seeds of a dandelion.
The aspect of Greenwich Park, with all those festal people
wandering through it, resembled that of the Borghese Gardens under the walls of
Rome, on a Sunday or Saint's day; but, I am not ashamed to say, it a little
disturbed whatever grim ghost of Puritanic strictness might be lingering in the
sombre depths of a New England heart, among severe and sunless remembrances of
the Sabbaths of childhood, and pangs of remorse for ill-gotten lessons in the
catechism, and for erratic fantasies or hardly suppressed laughter in the
middle of long sermons. Occasionally, I
tried to take the long-hoarded sting out of these compunctious smarts by
attending divine service in the open air.
On a cart outside of the Park-wall (and, if I mistake not, at two or
three corners and secluded spots within the Park itself) a Methodist preacher
uplifts his voice and speedily gathers a congregation, his zeal for whose
religious welfare impels the good man to such earnest vociferation and toilsome
gesture that his perspiring face is quickly in a stew. His inward flame conspires with the too
fervid sun and makes a positive martyr of him, even in the very exercise of his
pious labor; insomuch that he purchases every atom of spiritual increment to
his hearers by loss of his own corporeal solidity, and, should his discourse
last long enough, must finally exhale before their eyes. If I smile at him, be it understood, it is
not in scorn; he performs his sacred office more acceptably than many a
prelate. These wayside services attract
numbers who would not otherwise listen to prayer, sermon, or hymn, from one
year's end to another, and who, for that very reason, are the auditors most
likely to be moved by the preacher's eloquence.
Yonder Greenwich pensioner, too,--in his costume of three-cornered hat,
and old-fashioned, brass-buttoned blue coat with ample skirts, which makes him
look like a contemporary of Admiral Benbow,--that tough old mariner may hear a
word or two which will go nearer his heart than anything that the chaplain of
the Hospital can be expected to deliver.
I always noticed, moreover, that a considerable proportion of the
audience were soldiers, who came hither with a day's leave from
Woolwich,--hardy veterans in aspect, some of whom wore as many as four or five
medals, Crimean or East Indian, on the breasts of their scarlet coats. The miscellaneous congregation listen with
every appearance of heartfelt interest; and, for my own part, I must frankly acknowledge
that I never found it possible to give five minutes' attention to any other
English preaching: so cold and commonplace are the homilies that pass for such,
under the aged roofs of churches. And as
for cathedrals, the sermon is an exceedingly diminutive and unimportant part of
the religious services,--if, indeed, it be considered a part,--among the
pompous ceremonies, the intonations, and the resounding and lofty-voiced
strains of the choristers. The magnificence
of the setting quite dazzles out what we Puritans look upon as the jewel of the
whole affair; for I presume that it was our forefathers, the Dissenters in
The Methodists are probably the first and only Englishmen
who have worshipped in the open air since the ancient Britons listened to the
preaching of the Druids; and it reminded me of that old priesthood, to see
certain memorials of their dusky epoch--not religious, however, but warlike--in
the neighborhood of the spot where the Methodist was holding forth. These were some ancient barrows, beneath or
within which are supposed to be buried the slain of a forgotten or doubtfully
remembered battle, fought on the site of Greenwich Park as long ago as two or
three centuries after the birth of Christ.
Whatever may once have been their height and magnitude, they have now
scarcely more prominence in the actual scene than the battle of which they are
the sole monuments retains in history,--being only a few mounds side by side,
elevated a little above the surface of the ground, ten or twelve feet in
diameter, with a shallow depression in their summits. When one of them was opened, not long since,
no bones, nor armor, nor weapons were discovered, nothing but some small
jewels, and a tuft of hair,--perhaps from the head of a valiant general, who,
dying on the field of his victory, bequeathed this lock, together with his
indestructible fame, to after ages. The
hair and jewels are probably in the
After traversing the Park, we come into the neighborhood of
But their countrymen meant kindly by the old fellows in
assigning them the ancient royal site where
There is a beautiful chapel for the pensioners, in the classic style, over the altar of which hangs a picture by West. I never could look at it long enough to make out its design; for this artist (though it pains me to say it of so respectable a countryman) had a gift of frigidity, a knack of grinding ice into his paint, a power of stupefying the spectator's perceptions and quelling his sympathy, beyond any other limner that ever handled a brush. In spite of many pangs of conscience, I seize this opportunity to wreak a lifelong abhorrence upon the poor, blameless man, for the sake of that dreary picture of Lear, an explosion of frosty fury, that used to be a bugbear to me in the Athenaeum Exhibition. Would fire burn it, I wonder?
The principal thing that they have to show you, at
It is remarkable, however, that the great naval hero of
England--the greatest, therefore, in the world, and of all time--had none of
the stolid characteristics that belong to his class, and cannot fairly be
accepted as their representative man.
Foremost in the roughest of professions, he was as delicately organized
as a woman, and as painfully sensitive as a poet. More than any other Englishman he won the
love and admiration of his country, but won them through the efficacy of
qualities that are not English, or, at all events, were intensified in his case
and made poignant and powerful by something morbid in the man, which put him
otherwise at cross-purposes with life.
He was a man of genius; and genius in an Englishman (not to cite the
good old simile of a pearl in the oyster) is usually a symptom of a lack of
balance in the general making-up of the character; as we may satisfy ourselves
by running over the list of their poets, for example, and observing how many of
them have been sickly or deformed, and how often their lives have been darkened
by insanity. An ordinary Englishman is
the healthiest and wholesomest of human beings; an extraordinary one is almost
always, in one way or another, a sick man.
It was so with Lord Nelson. The
wonderful contrast or relation between his personal qualities, the position
which he held, and the life that he lived, makes him as interesting a personage
as all history has to show; and it is a pity that Southey's biography--so good
in its superficial way, and yet so inadequate as regards any real delineation
of the man--should have taken the subject out of the hands of some writer
endowed with more delicate appreciation and deeper insight than that genuine
Englishman possessed. But Southey
accomplished his own purpose, which, apparently, was to present his hero as a
But the English capacity for hero-worship is full to the
brim with what they are able to comprehend of Lord Nelson's character. Adjoining the Painted Hall is a smaller room,
the walls of which are completely and exclusively adorned with pictures of the
great Admiral's exploits. We see the
frail, ardent man in all the most noted events of his career, from his encounter
with a Polar bear to his death at Trafalgar, quivering here and there about the
room like a blue, lambent flame. No
Briton ever enters that apartment without feeling the beef and ale of his
composition stirred to its depths, and finding himself changed into a Hero for
the notice, however stolid his brain, however tough his heart, however
unexcitable his ordinary mood. To
confess the truth, I myself, though belonging to another parish, have been
deeply sensible to the sublime recollections there aroused, acknowledging that
Nelson expressed his life in a kind of symbolic poetry which I had as much
right to understand as these burly islanders.
Cool and critical observer as I sought to be, I enjoyed their burst of
honest indignation when a visitor (not an American, I am glad to say) thrust
his walking-stick almost into Nelson's face, in one of the pictures, by way of
pointing a remark; and the bystanders immediately glowed like so many hot
coals, and would probably have consumed the offender in their wrath, had he not
effected his retreat. But the most
sacred objects of all are two of Nelson's coats, under separate glass
cases. One is that which he wore at the
The hospital stands close adjacent to the town of Greenwich, which will always retain a kind of festal aspect in my memory, in consequence of my having first become acquainted with it on Easter Monday. Till a few years ago, the first three days of Easter were a carnival season in this old town, during which the idle and disreputable part of London poured itself into the streets like an inundation of the Thames, as unclean as that turbid mixture of the offscourings of the vast city, and overflowing with its grimy pollution whatever rural innocence, if any, might be found in the suburban neighborhood. This festivity was called Greenwich Fair, the final one of which, in an immemorial succession, it was my fortune to behold.
If I had bethought myself of going through the fair with a
note-book and pencil, jotting down all the prominent objects, I doubt not that
the result might have been a sketch of English life quite as characteristic and
worthy of historical preservation as an account of the Roman Carnival. Having neglected to do so, I remember little
more than a confusion of unwashed and shabbily dressed people, intermixed with
some smarter figures, but, on the whole, presenting a mobbish appearance such
as we never see in our own country. It
taught me to understand why Shakespeare, in speaking of a crowd, so often
alludes to its attribute of evil odor.
The common people of
This unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense, being welded
together, as it were, in the street through which we strove to make our
way. On either side were oyster-stands,
stalls of oranges (a very prevalent fruit in
But this was far from being the sole amusement. There were theatrical booths, in front of which were pictorial representations of the scenes to be enacted within; and anon a drummer emerged from one of them, thumping on a terribly lax drum, and followed by the entire dramatis personae, who ranged themselves on a wooden platform in front of the theatre. They were dressed in character, but wofully shabby, with very dingy and wrinkled white tights, threadbare cotton-velvets, crumpled silks, and crushed muslin, and all the gloss and glory gone out of their aspect and attire, seen thus in the broad daylight and after a long series of performances. They sang a song together, and withdrew into the theatre, whither the public were invited to follow them at the inconsiderable cost of a penny a ticket. Before another booth stood a pair of brawny fighting-men, displaying their muscle, and soliciting patronage for an exhibition of the noble British art of pugilism. There were pictures of giants, monsters, and outlandish beasts, most prodigious, to be sure, and worthy of all admiration, unless the artist had gone incomparably beyond his subject. Jugglers proclaimed aloud the miracles which they were prepared to work; and posture-makers dislocated every joint of their bodies and tied their limbs into inextricable knots, wherever they could find space to spread a little square of carpet on the ground. In the midst of the confusion, while everybody was treading on his neighbor's toes, some little boys were very solicitous to brush your boots. These lads, I believe, are a product of modern society,--at least, no older than the time of Gay, who celebrates their origin in his "Trivia"; but in most other respects the scene reminded me of Bunyan's description of Vanity Fair,--nor is it at all improbable that the Pilgrim may have been a merry-maker here, in his wild youth.
It seemed very singular--though, of course, I immediately classified it as an English characteristic--to see a great many portable weighing-machines, the owners of which cried out, continually and amain, "Come, know your weight! Come, come, know your weight to-day! Come, know your weight!" and a multitude of people, mostly large in the girth, were moved by this vociferation to sit down in the machines. I know not whether they valued themselves on their beef, and estimated their standing as members of society at so much a pound; but I shall set it down as a national peculiarity, and a symbol of the prevalence of the earthly over the spiritual element, that Englishmen are wonderfully bent on knowing how solid and physically ponderous they are.
On the whole, having an appetite for the brown bread and the
tripe and sausages of life, as well as for its nicer cates and dainties, I enjoyed
the scene, and was amused at the sight of a gruff old
The most curious amusement that we witnessed here--or anywhere else, indeed--was an ancient and hereditary pastime called "Kissing in the Ring." I shall describe the sport exactly as I saw it, although an English friend assures me that there are certain ceremonies with a handkerchief, which make it much more decorous and graceful. A handkerchief, indeed! There was no such thing in the crowd, except it were the one which they had just filched out of my pocket. It is one of the simplest kinds of games, needing little or no practice to make the player altogether perfect; and the manner of it is this. A ring is formed (in the present case, it was of large circumference and thickly gemmed around with faces, mostly on the broad grin), into the centre of which steps an adventurous youth, and, looking round the circle, selects whatever maiden may most delight his eye. He presents his hand (which she is bound to accept), leads her into the centre, salutes her on the lips, and retires, taking his stand in the expectant circle. The girl, in her turn, throws a favorable regard on some fortunate young man, offers her hand to lead him forth, makes him happy with a maidenly kiss, and withdraws to hide her blushes, if any there be, among the simpering faces in the ring; while the favored swain loses no time in transferring her salute to the prettiest and plumpest among the many mouths that are primming themselves in anticipation. And thus the thing goes on, till all the festive throng are inwreathed and intertwined into an endless and inextricable chain of kisses; though, indeed, it smote me with compassion to reflect that some forlorn pair of lips might be left out, and never know the triumph of a salute, after throwing aside so many delicate reserves for the sake of winning it. If the young men had any chivalry, there was a fair chance to display it by kissing the homeliest damsel in the circle.
To be frank, however, at the first glance, and to my American eye, they looked all homely alike, and the chivalry that I suggest is more than I could have been capable of, at any period of my life. They seemed to be country-lasses, of sturdy and wholesome aspect, with coarse-grained, cabbage-rosy cheeks, and, I am willing to suppose, a stout texture of moral principle, such as would bear a good deal of rough usage without suffering much detriment. But how unlike the trim little damsels of my native land! I desire above all things to be courteous; but, since the plain truth must be told, the soil and climate of England produce feminine beauty as rarely as they do delicate fruit, and though admirable specimens of both are to be met with, they are the hot-house ameliorations of refined society, and apt, moreover, to relapse into the coarseness of the original stock. The men are manlike, but the women are not beautiful, though the female Bull be well enough adapted to the male. To return to the lasses of Greenwich Fair, their charms were few, and their behavior, perhaps, not altogether commendable; and yet it was impossible not to feel a degree of faith in their innocent intentions, with such a half-bashful zest and entire simplicity did they keep up their part of the game. It put the spectator in good-humor to look at them, because there was still something of the old Arcadian life, the secure freedom of the antique age, in their way of surrendering their lips to strangers, as if there were no evil or impurity in the world. As for the young men, they were chiefly specimens of the vulgar sediment of London life, often shabbily genteel, rowdyish, pale, wearing the uubrushed coat, unshifted linen, and unwashed faces of yesterday, as well as the haggardness of last night's jollity in a gin-shop. Gathering their character from these tokens, I wondered whether there were any reasonable prospect of their fair partners returning to their rustic homes with as much innocence (whatever were its amount or quality) as they brought, to Greenwich Fair, in spite of the perilous familiarity established by Kissing in the Ring.
The manifold disorders resulting from the fair, at which a vast city was brought into intimate relations with a comparatively rural district, have at length led to its suppression; this was the very last celebration of it, and brought to a close the broad-mouthed merriment of many hundred years. Thus my poor sketch, faint as its colors are, may acquire some little value in the reader's eyes from the consideration that no observer of the coming time will ever have an opportunity to give a better. I should find it difficult to believe, however, that the queer pastime just described, or any moral mischief to which that and other customs might pave the way, can have led to the overthrow of Greenwich Fair; for it has often seemed to me that Englishmen of station and respectability, unless of a peculiarly philanthropic turn, have neither any faith in the feminine purity of the lower orders of their countrywomen, nor the slightest value for it, allowing its possible existence. The distinction of ranks is so marked, that the English cottage damsel holds a position somewhat analogous to that of the negro girl in our Southern States. Hence cones inevitable detriment to the moral condition of those men themselves, who forget that the humblest woman has a right and a duty to hold herself in the same sanctity as the highest. The subject cannot well be discussed in these pages; but I offer it as a serious conviction, from what I have been able to observe, that the England of to-day is the unscrupulous old England of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, Humphrey Clinker and Roderick Random; and in our refined era, just the same as at that more free-spoken epoch, this singular people has a certain contempt for any fine-strained purity, any special squeamishness, as they consider it, on the part of an ingenuous youth. They appear to look upon it as a suspicious phenomenon in the masculine character.
Nevertheless, I by no means take upon me to affirm that English morality, as regards the phase here alluded to, is really at a lower point than our own. Assuredly, I hope so, because, making a higher pretension, or, at all events, more carefully hiding whatever may be amiss, we are either better than they, or necessarily a great deal worse. It impressed me that their open avowal and recognition of immoralities served to throw the disease to the surface, where it might be more effectually dealt with, and leave a sacred interior not utterly profaned, instead of turning its poison back among the inner vitalities of the character, at the imminent risk of corrupting them all. Be that as it may, these Englishmen are certainly a franker and simpler people than ourselves, from peer to peasant; but if we can take it as compensatory on our part (which I leave to be considered) that they owe those noble and manly qualities to a coarser grain in their nature, and that, with a finer one in ours, we shall ultimately acquire a marble polish of which they are unsusceptible, I believe that this may be the truth.
The upper portion of
The steamers, which are constantly smoking their pipes up
and down the Thames, offer much the most agreeable mode of getting to
The aspect of
About midway between Greenwich and London Bridge, at a rude landing-place on the left bank of the river, the steamer rings its bell and makes a momentary pause in front of a large circular structure, where it may be worth our while to scramble ashore. It indicates the locality of one of those prodigious practical blunders that would supply John Bull with a topic of inexhaustible ridicule, if his cousin Jonathan had committed them, but of which he himself perpetrates ten to our one in the mere wantonness of wealth that lacks better employment. The circular building covers the entrance to the Thames Tunnel, and is surmounted by a dome of glass, so as to throw daylight down into the great depth at which the passage of the river commences. Descending a wearisome succession of staircases, we at last find ourselves, still in the broad noon, standing before a closed door, on opening which we behold the vista of an arched corridor that extends into everlasting midnight. In these days, when glass has been applied to so many new purposes, it is a pity that the architect had not thought of arching portions of his abortive tunnel with immense blocks of the lucid substance, over which the dusky Thames would have flowed like a cloud, making the sub-fluvial avenue only a little gloomier than a street of upper London. At present, it is illuminated at regular intervals by jets of gas, not very brilliantly, yet with lustre enough to show the damp plaster of the ceiling and walls, and the massive stone pavement, the crevices of which are oozy with moisture, not from the incumbent river, but from hidden springs in the earth's deeper heart. There are two parallel corridors, with a wall between, for the separate accommodation of the double throng of foot-passengers, equestrians, and vehicles of all kinds, which was expected to roll and reverberate continually through the Tunnel. Only one of them has ever been opened, and its echoes are but feebly awakened by infrequent footfalls.
Yet there seem to be people who spend their lives here, and who probably blink like owls, when, once or twice a year, perhaps, they happen to climb into the sunshine. All along the corridor, which I believe to be a mile in extent, we see stalls or shops in little alcoves, kept principally by women; they were of a ripe age, I was glad to observe, and certainly robbed England of none of its very moderate supply of feminine loveliness by their deeper than tomb-like interment. As you approach (and they are so accustomed to the dusky gaslight that they read all your characteristics afar off), they assail you with hungry entreaties to buy some of their merchandise, holding forth views of the Tunnel put up in cases of Derbyshire spar, with a magnifying-glass at one end to make the vista more effective. They offer you, besides, cheap jewelry, sunny topazes and resplendent emeralds for sixpence, and diamonds as big as the Kohi-i-noor at a not much heavier cost, together with a multifarious trumpery which has died out of the upper world to reappear in this Tartarean bazaar. That you may fancy yourself still in the realms of the living, they urge you to partake of cakes, candy, ginger-beer, and such small refreshment, more suitable, however, for the shadowy appetite of ghosts than for the sturdy stomachs of Englishmen. The most capacious of the shops contains a dioramic exhibition of cities and scenes in the daylight world, with a dreary glimmer of gas among them all; so that they serve well enough to represent the dim, unsatisfactory remembrances that dead people might be supposed to retain from their past lives, mixing them up with the ghastliness of their unsubstantial state. I dwell the more upon these trifles, and do my best to give them a mockery of importance, because, if these are nothing, then all this elaborate contrivance and mighty piece of work has been wrought in vain. The Englishman has burrowed under the bed of his great river, and set ships of two or three thousand tons a-rolling over his head, only to provide new sites for a few old women to sell cakes and ginger-beer!
Yet the conception was a grand one; and though it has proved
an absolute failure, swallowing an immensity of toil and money, with annual
returns hardly sufficient to keep the pavement free from the ooze of subterranean
springs, yet it needs, I presume, only an expenditure three or four (or, for
aught I know, twenty) times as large, to make the enterprise brilliantly
successful. The descent is so great from
the bank of the river to its surface, and the Tunnel dips so profoundly under
the river's bed, that the approaches on either side must commence a long way
off, in order to render the entrance accessible to horsemen or vehicles; so
that the larger part of the cost of the whole affair should have been expended on
its margins. It has turned out a sublime
piece of folly; and when the New-Zealander of distant ages shall have moralized
sufficiently among the ruins of
Yet it is impossible (for a Yankee, at least) to see so much magnificent ingenuity thrown away, without trying to endow the unfortunate result with some kind of use, fulness, though perhaps widely different from the purpose of its original conception. In former ages, the mile-long corridors, with their numerous alcoves, might have been utilized as a series of dungeons, the fittest of all possible receptacles for prisoners of state. Dethroned monarchs and fallen statesmen would not have needed to remonstrate against a domicile so spacious, so deeply secluded from the world's scorn, and so admirably in accordance with their thenceforward sunless fortunes. An alcove here might have suited Sir Walter Raleigh better than that darksome hiding-place communicating with the great chamber in the Tower, pacing from end to end of which he meditated upon his "History of the World." His track would here have been straight and narrow, indeed, and would therefore have lacked somewhat of the freedom that his intellect demanded; and yet the length to which his footsteps might have travelled forth and retraced themselves would partly have harmonized his physical movement with the grand curves and planetary returns of his thought, through cycles of majestic periods. Having it in his mind to compose the world's history, methinks he could have asked no better retirement than such a cloister as this, insulated from all the seductions of mankind and womankind, deep beneath their mysteries and motives, down into the heart of things, full of personal reminiscences in order to the comprehensive measurement and verification of historic records, seeing into the secrets of human nature,--secrets that daylight never yet revealed to mortal,--but detecting their whole scope and purport with the infallible eyes of unbroken solitude and night. And then the shades of the old mighty men might have risen from their still profounder abodes and joined him in the dim corridor, treading beside him with an antique stateliness of mien, telling him in melancholy tones, grand, but always melancholy, of the greater ideas and purposes which their most renowned performances so imperfectly carried out, that, magnificent successes in the view of all posterity, they were but failures to those who planned them. As Raleigh was a navigator, Noah would have explained to him the peculiarities of construction that made the ark so seaworthy; as Raleigh was a statesman, Moses would have discussed with him the principles of laws and government; as Raleigh was a soldier, Caesar and Hannibal would have held debate in his presence, with this martial student for their umpire; as Raleigh was a poet, David, or whatever most illustrious bard he might call up, would have touched his harp, and made manifest all the true significance of the past by means of song and the subtle intelligences of music.
Meanwhile, I had forgotten that Sir Walter Raleigh's century
knew nothing of gaslight, and that it would require a prodigious and wasteful
expenditure of tallow-candles to illuminate the Tunnel sufficiently to discern
even a ghost. On this account, however,
it would be all the more suitable place of confinement for a metaphysician, to
keep him from bewildering mankind with his shadowy speculations; and, being
shut off from external converse, the dark corridor would help him to make rich
discoveries in those cavernous regions and mysterious by-paths of the
intellect, which he had so long accustomed himself to explore. But how would every successive age rejoice in
so secure a habitation for its reformers, and especially for each best and
wisest man that happened to be then alive!
He seeks to burn up our whole system of society, under pretence of
purifying it from its abuses! Away with
him into the Tunnel, and let him begin by setting the
If not precisely these, yet akin to these were some of the
fantasies that haunted me as I passed under the river: for the place is
suggestive of such idle and irresponsible stuff by its own abortive character,
its lack of whereabout on upper earth, or any solid foundation of realities.
Could I have looked forward a few years, I might have regretted that American
enterprise had not provided a similar tunnel, under the
I was not sorry when the daylight reached me after a much
briefer abode in the nether regions than, I fear, would await the troublesome
personages just hinted at. Emerging on
the Surrey side of the
The next notable group of objects is an assemblage of
ancient walls, battlements, and turrets, out of the midst of which rises
prominently one great square tower, of a grayish line, bordered with white
stone, and having a small turret at each corner of the roof. This central structure is the
Not to spend a whole summer's day upon the voyage, we will
suppose ourselves to have reached
Yonder is Whitefriars, the old rowdy Alsatia, now wearing as
decorous a face as any other portion of London; and, adjoining it, the avenues
and brick squares of the Temple, with that historic garden, close upon the
river-side, and still rich in shrubbery and flowers, where the partisans of
York and Lancaster plucked the fatal roses, and scattered their pale and bloody
petals over so many English battle-fields.
Hard by, we see tine long white front or rear of Somerset House, and,
farther on, rise the two new Houses of Parliament, with a huge unfinished tower
already hiding its imperfect summit in the smoky canopy,--the whole vast and
cumbrous edifice a specimen of the best that modern architecture can effect,
elaborately imitating the masterpieces of those simple ages when men
"builded better than they knew."
Close by it, we have a glimpse of the roof and upper towers of the holy
Abbey; while that gray, ancestral pile on the opposite side of the river is
The steamer terminates its trip at
The chapel consists of a great hall with a vaulted roof, and over the altar is a large painting in fresco, the subject of which I did not trouble myself to make out. More appropriate adornments of the place, dedicated as well to martial reminiscences as religious worship, are the long ranges of dusty and tattered banners that hang from their staves all round the ceiling of the chapel. They are trophies of battles fought and won in every quarter of the world, comprising the captured flags of all the nations with whom the British lion has waged war since James II.'s time,--French, Dutch, East Indian, Prussian, Russian, Chinese, and American,--collected together in this consecrated spot, not to symbolize that there shall be no more discord upon earth, but drooping over the aisle in sullen, though peaceable humiliation. Yes, I said "American" among the rest; for the good old pensioner mistook me for an Englishman, and failed not to point out (and, methought, with an especial emphasis of triumph) some flags that had been taken at Bladensburg and Washington. I fancied, indeed, that they hung a little higher and drooped a little lower than any of their companions in disgrace. It is a comfort, however, that their proud devices are already indistinguishable, or nearly so, owing to dust and tatters and the kind offices of the moths, and that they will soon rot from the banner-staves and be swept out in unrecognized fragments from the chapel-door.
It is a good method of teaching a man how imperfectly cosmopolitan he is, to show him his country's flag occupying a position of dishonor in a foreign land. But, in truth, the whole system of a people crowing over its military triumphs had far better he dispensed with, both on account of the ill-blood that it helps to keep fermenting among the nations, and because it operates as an accumulative inducement to future generations to aim at a kind of glory, the gain of which has generally proved more ruinous than its loss. I heartily wish that every trophy of victory might crumble away, and that every reminiscence or tradition of a hero, from the beginning of the world to this day, could pass out of all men's memories at once and forever. I might feel very differently, to be sure, if we Northerners had anything especially valuable to lose by the fading of those illuminated names.
I gave the pensioner (but I am afraid there may have been a
little affectation in it) a magnificent guerdon of all the silver I had in my
pocket, to requite him for having unintentionally stirred up my patriotic
susceptibilities. He was a meek-looking,
kindly old man, with a humble freedom and affability of manner that made it
pleasant to converse with him. Old
soldiers, I know not why, seem to be more accostable than old sailors. One is apt to hear a growl beneath the
smoothest courtesy of the latter. The
mild veteran, with his peaceful voice, and gentle reverend aspect, told me that
he had fought at a cannon all through the Battle of Waterloo, and escaped
unhurt; he had now been in the hospital four or five years, and was married,
but necessarily underwent a separation from his wife, who lived outside of the
gates. To my inquiry whether his fellow-pensioners
were comfortable and happy, he answered, with great alacrity, "O yes,
sir!" qualifying his evidence, after a moment's consideration, by saying
in an undertone, "There are some people, your Honor knows, who could not
be comfortable anywhere." I did
know it, and fear that the system of
Crossing Battersea Bridge, in the neighborhood of Chelsea, I
remember seeing a distant gleam of the Crystal Palace, glimmering afar in the
afternoon sunshine like an imaginary structure,--an air-castle by chance
descended upon earth, and resting there one instant before it vanished, as we
sometimes see a soap-bubble touch unharmed on the carpet,--a thing of only
momentary visibility and no substance, destined to be overburdened and crushed
down by the first cloud-shadow that might fall upon that spot. Even as I looked, it disappeared. Shall I attempt a picture of this exhalation
of modern ingenuity, or what else shall I try to paint? Everything in
On a Sunday afternoon, I passed through a side-entrance in
the time-blackened wall of a place of worship, and found myself among a
congregation assembled in one of the transepts and the immediately contiguous
portion of the nave. It was a vast old
edifice, spacious enough, within the extent covered by its pillared roof and
overspread by its stone pavement, to accommodate the whole of church-going
The interior of Westminster Abbey (for the reader recognized it, no doubt, the moment we entered) is built of rich brown stone; and the whole of it--the lofty roof, the tall, clustered pillars, and the pointed arches--appears to be in consummate repair. At all points where decay has laid its finger, the structure is clamped with iron or otherwise carefully protected; and being thus watched over,--whether as a place of ancient sanctity, a noble specimen of Gothic art, or an object of national interest and pride,--it may reasonably be expected to survive for as many ages as have passed over it already. It was sweet to feel its venerable quietude, its long-enduring peace, and yet to observe how kindly and even cheerfully it received the sunshine of to-day, which fell from the great windows into the fretted aisles and arches that laid aside somewhat of their aged gloom to welcome it. Sunshine always seems friendly to old abbeys, churches, and castles, kissing them, as it were, with a more affectionate, though still reverential familiarity, than it accords to edifices of later date. A square of golden light lay on the sombre pavement of the nave, afar off, falling through the grand western entrance, the folding leaves of which were wide open, and afforded glimpses of people passing to and fro in the outer world, while we sat dimly enveloped in the solemnity of antique devotion. In the south transept, separated from us by the full breadth of the minster, there were painted glass windows of which the uppermost appeared to be a great orb of many-colored radiance, being, indeed, a cluster of saints and angels whose glorified bodies formed the rays of an aureole emanating from a cross in the midst. These windows are modern, but combine softness with wonderful brilliancy of effect. Through the pillars and arches, I saw that the walls in that distant region of the edifice were almost wholly incrusted with marble, now grown yellow with time, no blank, unlettered slabs, but memorials of such men as their respective generations deemed wisest and bravest. Some of them were commemorated merely by inscriptions on mural tablets, others by sculptured bas-reliefs, others (once famous, but now forgotten generals or admirals, these) by ponderous tombs that aspired towards the roof of the aisle, or partly curtained the immense arch of a window. These mountains of marble were peopled with the sisterhood of Allegory, winged trumpeters, and classic figures in full-bottomed wigs; but it was strange to observe how the old Abbey melted all such absurdities into the breadth of its own grandeur, even magnifying itself by what would elsewhere have been ridiculous. Methinks it is the test of Gothic sublimity to overpower the ridiculous without deigning to hide it; and these grotesque monuments of the last century answer a similar purpose with the grinning faces which, the old architects scattered among their most solemn conceptions.
From these distant wanderings (it was my first visit to Westminster Abbey, and I would gladly have taken it all in at a glance) my eyes came back and began to investigate what was immediately about me in the transept. Close at my elbow was the pedestal of Canning's statue. Next beyond it was a massive tomb, on the spacious tablet of which reposed the full-length figures of a marble lord and lady, whom an inscription announced to be the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle,--the historic Duke of Charles I.'s time, and the fantastic Duchess, traditionally remembered by her poems and plays. She was of a family, as the record on her tomb proudly informed us, of which all the brothers had been valiant and all the sisters virtuous. A recent statue of Sir John Malcolm, the new marble as white as snow, held the next place; and near by was a mural monument and bust of Sir Peter Warren. The round visage of this old British admiral has a certain interest for a New-Englander, because it was by no merit of his own (though he took care to assume it as such), but by the valor and warlike enterprise of our colonial forefathers, especially the stout men of Massachusetts, that he won rank and renown, and a tomb in Westminster Abbey. Lord Mansfield, a huge mass of marble done into the guise of a judicial gown and wig, with a stern face in the midst of the latter, sat on the other side of the transept; and on the pedestal beside him was a figure of Justice, holding forth, instead of the customary grocer's scales, an actual pair of brass steelyards. It is an ancient and classic instrument, undoubtedly; but I had supposed that Portia (when Shylock's pound of flesh was to be weighed) was the only judge that ever really called for it in a court of justice. Pitt and Fox were in the same distinguished company; and John Kemble, in Roman costume, stood not far off, but strangely shorn of the dignity that is said to have enveloped him like a mantle in his lifetime. Perhaps the evanescent majesty of the stage is incompatible with the long endurance of marble and the solemn reality of the tomb; though, on the other hand, almost every illustrious personage here represented has been invested with more or less of stage-trickery by his sculptor. In truth, the artist (unless there be a divine efficacy in his touch, making evident a heretofore hidden dignity in the actual form) feels it--an imperious law to remove his subject as far from the aspect of ordinary life as may be possible without sacrificing every trace of resemblance. The absurd effect of the contrary course is very remarkable in the statue of Mr. Wilberforce, whose actual self, save for the lack of color, I seemed to behold, seated just across the aisle.
This excellent man appears to have sunk into himself in a sitting posture, with a thin leg crossed over his knee, a book in one hand, and a finger of the other under his chin, I believe, or applied to the side of his nose, or to some equally familiar purpose; while his exceedingly homely and wrinkled face, held a little on one side, twinkles at you with the shrewdest complacency, as if he were looking right into your eyes, and twigged something there which you had half a mind to conceal from him. He keeps this look so pertinaciously that you feel it to be insufferably impertinent, and bethink yourself what common ground there may be between yourself and a stone image, enabling you to resent it. I have no doubt that the statue is as like Mr. Wilberforce as one pea to another, and you might fancy, that, at some ordinary moment, when he least expected it, and before he had time to smooth away his knowing complication of wrinkles, he had seen the Gorgon's head, and whitened into marble,--not only his personal self, but his coat and small-clothes, down to a button and the minutest crease of the cloth. The ludicrous result marks the impropriety of bestowing the age-long duration of marble upon small, characteristic individualities, such as might come within the province of waxen imagery. The sculptor should give permanence to the figure of a great man in his mood of broad and grand composure, which would obliterate all mean peculiarities; for, if the original were unaccustomed to such a mood, or if his features were incapable of assuming the guise, it seems questionable whether he could really have been entitled to a marble immortality. In point of fact, however, the English face and form are seldom statuesque, however illustrious the individual.
It ill becomes me, perhaps, to have lapsed into this mood of half-jocose criticism in describing my first visit to Westminster Abbey, a spot which I had dreamed about more reverentially, from my childhood upward, than any other in the world, and which I then beheld, and now look back upon, with profound gratitude to the men who built it, and a kindly interest, I may add, in the humblest personage that has contributed his little all to its impressiveness, by depositing his dust or his memory there. But it is a characteristic of this grand edifice that it permits you to smile as freely under the roof of its central nave as if you stood beneath the yet grander canopy of heaven. Break into laughter, if you feel inclined, provided the vergers do not hear it echoing among the arches. In an ordinary church you would keep your countenance for fear of disturbing the sanctities or proprieties of the place; but you need leave no honest and decorous portion of your human nature outside of these benign and truly hospitable walls. Their mild awfulness will take care of itself. Thus it does no harm to the general impression, when you come to be sensible that many of the monuments are ridiculous, and commemorate a mob of people who are mostly forgotten in their graves, and few of whom ever deserved any better boon from posterity. You acknowledge the force of Sir Godfrey Kneller's objection to being buried in Westminster Abbey, because "they do bury fools there!" Nevertheless, these grotesque carvings of marble, that break out in dingy-white blotches on the old freestone of the interior walls, have come there by as natural a process as might cause mosses and ivy to cluster about the external edifice; for they are the historical and biographical record of each successive age, written with its own hand, and all the truer for the inevitable mistakes, and none the less solemn for the occasional absurdity. Though you entered the Abbey expecting to see the tombs only of the illustrious, you are content at last to read many names, both in literature and history, that have now lost the reverence of mankind, if indeed they ever really possessed it.
Let these men rest in peace. Even if you miss a name or two that you hoped to find there, they may well be spared. It matters little a few more or less, or whether Westminster Abbey contains or lacks any one man's grave, so long as the Centuries, each with the crowd of personages that it deemed memorable, have chosen it as their place of honored sepulture, and laid themselves down under its pavement. The inscriptions and devices on the walls are rich with evidences of the fluctuating tastes, fashions, manners, opinions, prejudices, follies, wisdoms of the past, and thus they combine into a more truthful memorial of their dead times than any individual epitaph-maker ever meant to write.
When the services were over, many of the audience seemed inclined to linger in the nave or wander away among the mysterious aisles; for there is nothing in this world so fascinating as a Gothic minster, which always invites you deeper and deeper into its heart both by vast revelations and shadowy concealments. Through the open-work screen that divides the nave from the chancel and choir, we could discern the gleam of a marvellous window, but were debarred from entrance into that more sacred precinct of the Abbey by the vergers. These vigilant officials (doing their duty all the more strenuously because no fees could be exacted from Sunday visitors) flourished their staves, and drove us towards the grand entrance like a flock of sheep. Lingering through one of the aisles, I happened to look down, and found my foot upon a stone inscribed with this familiar exclamation, "O rare Ben Jonson!" and remembered the story of stout old Ben's burial in that spot, standing upright,--not, I presume, on account of any unseemly reluctance on his part to lie down in the dust, like other men, but because standing-room was all that could reasonably be demanded for a poet among the slumberous notabilities of his age. It made me weary to think of it!--such a prodigious length of time to keep one's feet!--apart from the honor of the thing, it would certainly have been better for Ben to stretch himself at ease in some country churchyard. To this day, however, I fancy that there is a contemptuous alloy mixed up with the admiration which the higher classes of English society profess for their literary men.
Another day--in truth, many other days--I sought out Poets' Corner, and found a sign-board and pointed finger, directing the visitor to it, on the corner house of a little lane leading towards the rear of the Abbey. The entrance is at the southeastern end of the south transept, and it is used, on ordinary occasions, as the only free mode of access to the building. It is no spacious arch, but a small, lowly door, passing through which, and pushing aside an inner screen that partly keeps out an exceedingly chill wind, you find yourself in a dim nook of the Abbey, with the busts of poets gazing at you from the otherwise bare stone-work of the walls. Great poets, too; for Ben Jenson is right behind the door, and Spenser's tablet is next, and Butler's on the same side of the transept, and Milton's (whose bust you know at once by its resemblance to one of his portraits, though older, more wrinkled, and sadder than that) is close by, and a profile-medallion of Gray beneath it. A window high aloft sheds down a dusky daylight on these and many other sculptured marbles, now as yellow as old parchment, that cover the three walls of the nook up to an elevation of about twenty feet above the pavement. It seemed to me that I had always been familiar with the spot. Enjoying a humble intimacy--and how much of my life had else been a dreary solitude!--with many of its inhabitants, I could not feel myself a stranger there. It was delightful to be among them. There was a genial awe, mingled with a sense of kind and friendly presences about me; and I was glad, moreover, at finding so many of them there together, in fit companionship, mutually recognized and duly honored, all reconciled now, whatever distant generations, whatever personal hostility or other miserable impediment, had divided them far asunder while they lived. I have never felt a similar interest in any other tombstones, nor have I ever been deeply moved by the imaginary presence of other famous dead people. A poet's ghost is the only one that survives for his fellow-mortals, after his bones are in the dust,--and be not ghostly, but cherishing many hearts with his own warmth in the chillest atmosphere of life. What other fame is worth aspiring for? Or, let me speak it more boldly, what other long-enduring fame can exist? We neither remember nor care anything for the past, except as the poet has made it intelligibly noble and sublime to our comprehension. The shades of the mighty have no substance; they flit ineffectually about the darkened stage where they performed their momentary parts, save when the poet has thrown his own creative soul into them, and imparted a more vivid life than ever they were able to manifest to mankind while they dwelt in the body. And therefore--though he cunningly disguises himself in their armor, their robes of state, or kingly purple--it is not the statesman, the warrior, or the monarch that survives, but the despised poet, whom they may have fed with their crumbs, and to whom they owe all that they now are or have,--a name!
In the foregoing paragraph I seem to have been betrayed into
a flight above or beyond the customary level that best agrees with me; but it
represents fairly enough the emotions with which I passed from Poets' Corner
into the chapels, which contain the sepulchres of kings and great people. They are magnificent even now, and must have
been inconceivably so when the marble slabs and pillars wore their new polish,
and the statues retained the brilliant colors with which they were originally
painted, and the shrines their rich gilding, of which the sunlight still shows
a glimmer or a streak, though the sunbeam itself looks tarnished with antique
dust. Yet this recondite portion of the
Abbey presents few memorials of personages whom we care to remember. The shrine of Edward the Confessor has a
certain interest, because it was so long held in religious reverence, and
because the very dust that settled upon it was formerly worth gold. The helmet and war-saddle of Henry V., worn
Returning to Poets' Corner, I looked again at the walls, and
wondered how the requisite hospitality can be shown to poets of our own and the
succeeding ages. There is hardly a foot
of space left, although room has lately been found for a bust of Southey and a
full-length statue of
Yet we cannot easily rid ourselves of the notion that those who have bequeathed us the inheritance of an undying song would fain be conscious of its endless reverberations in the hearts of mankind, and would delight, among sublimer enjoyments, to see their names emblazoned in such a treasure-place of great memories as Westminster Abbey. There are some men, at all events,--true and tender poets, moreover, and fully deserving of the honor,--whose spirits, I feel certain, would linger a little while about Poets' Corner for the sake of witnessing their own apotheosis among their kindred. They have had a strong natural yearning, not so much for applause as sympathy, which the cold fortune of their lifetime did but scantily supply; so that this unsatisfied appetite may make itself felt upon sensibilities at once so delicate and retentive, even a step or two beyond the grave. Leigh Hunt, for example, would be pleased, even now, if he could learn that his bust had been reposited in the midst of the old poets whom he admired and loved; though there is hardly a man among the authors of to-day and yesterday whom the judgment of Englishmen would be less likely to place there. He deserves it, however, if not for his verse (the value of which I do not estimate, never having been able to read it), yet for his delightful prose, his unmeasured poetry, the inscrutable happiness of his touch, working soft miracles by a life-process like the growth of grass and flowers. As with all such gentle writers, his page sometimes betrayed a vestige of affectation, but, the next moment, a rich, natural luxuriance overgrew and buried it out of sight. I knew him a little, and (since, Heaven be praised, few English celebrities whom I chanced to meet have enfranchised my pen by their decease, and as I assume no liberties with living men) I will conclude this rambling article by sketching my first interview with Leigh Hunt.
He was then at Hammersmith, occupying a very plain and shabby little house, in a contiguous range of others like it, with no prospect but that of an ugly village street, and certainly nothing to gratify his craving for a tasteful environment, inside or out. A slatternly maid-servant opened the door for us, and he himself stood in the entry, a beautiful and venerable old man, buttoned to the chin in a black dress-coat, tall and slender, with a countenance quietly alive all over, and the gentlest and most naturally courteous manner. He ushered us into his little study, or parlor, or both,--a very forlorn room, with poor paper-hangings and carpet, few books, no pictures that I remember, and an awful lack of upholstery. I touch distinctly upon these external blemishes and this nudity of adornment, not that they would be worth mentioning in a sketch of other remarkable persons, but because Leigh Hunt was born with such a faculty of enjoying all beautiful things that it seemed as if Fortune, did him as much wrong in not supplying them as in withholding a sufficiency of vital breath from ordinary men. All kinds of mild magnificence, tempered by his taste, would have become him well; but he had not the grim dignity that assumes nakedness as the better robe.
I have said that he was a beautiful old man. In truth, I never saw a finer countenance, either as to the mould of features or the expression, nor any that showed the play of feeling so perfectly without the slightest theatrical emphasis. It was like a child's face in this respect. At my first glimpse of him, when he met us in the entry, I discerned that he was old, his long hair being white and his wrinkles many; it was an aged visage, in short, such as I had not at all expected to see, in spite of dates, because his books talk to the reader with the tender vivacity of youth. But when he began to speak, and as he grew more earnest in conversation, I ceased to be sensible of his age; sometimes, indeed, its dusky shadow darkened through the gleam which his sprightly thoughts diffused about his face, but then another flash of youth came out of his eyes and made an illumination again. I never witnessed such a wonderfully illusive transformation, before or since; and, to this day, trusting only to my recollection, I should find it difficult to decide which was his genuine and stable predicament,--youth or age. I have met no Englishman whose manners seemed to me so agreeable, soft, rather than polished, wholly unconventional, the natural growth of a kindly and sensitive disposition without any reference to rule, or else obedient to some rule so subtile that the nicest observer could not detect the application of it.
His eyes were dark and very fine, and his delightful voice accompanied their visible language like music. He appeared to be exceedingly appreciative of whatever was passing among those who surrounded him, and especially of the vicissitudes in the consciousness of the person to whom he happened to be addressing himself at the moment. I felt that no effect upon my mind of what he uttered, no emotion, however transitory, in myself, escaped his notice, though not from any positive vigilance on his part, but because his faculty of observation was so penetrative and delicate; and to say the truth, it a little confused me to discern always a ripple on his mobile face, responsive to any slightest breeze that passed over the inner reservoir of my sentiments, and seemed thence to extend to a similar reservoir within himself. On matters of feeling, and within a certain depth, you might spare yourself the trouble of utterance, because he already knew what you wanted to say, and perhaps a little more than you would have spoken. His figure was full of gentle movement, though, somehow, without disturbing its quietude; and as he talked, he kept folding his hands nervously, and betokened in many ways a fine and immediate sensibility, quick to feel pleasure or pain, though scarcely capable, I should imagine, of a passionate experience in either direction. There was not am English trait in him from head to foot, morally, intellectually, or physically. Beef, ale, or stout, brandy or port-wine, entered not at all into his composition. In his earlier life, he appears to have given evidences of courage and sturdy principle, and of a tendency to fling himself into the rough struggle of humanity on the liberal side. It would be taking too much upon myself to affirm that this was merely a projection of his fancy world into the actual, and that he never could have hit a downright blow, and was altogether an unsuitable person to receive one. I beheld him not in his armor, but in his peacefulest robes. Nevertheless, drawing my conclusion merely from what I saw, it would have occurred to me that his main deficiency was a lack of grit. Though anything but a timid man, the combative and defensive elements were not prominently developed in his character, and could have been made available only when he put an unnatural force upon his instincts. It was on this account, and also because of the fineness of his nature generally, that the English appreciated him no better, and left this sweet and delicate poet poor, and with scanty laurels in his declining age.
It was not, I think, from his American blood that Leigh Hunt derived either his amiability or his peaceful inclinations; at least, I do not see how we can reasonably claim the former quality as a national characteristic, though the latter might have been fairly inherited from his ancestors on the mother's side, who were Pennsylvania Quakers. But the kind of excellence that distinguished him--his fineness, subtilty, and grace--was that which the richest cultivation has heretofore tended to develop in the happier examples of American genius, and which (though I say it a little reluctantly) is perhaps what our future intellectual advancement may make general among us. His person, at all events, was thoroughly American, and of the best type, as were likewise his manners; for we are the best as well as the worst mannered people in the world.
Leigh Hunt loved dearly to be praised. That is to say, he desired sympathy as a flower seeks sunshine, and perhaps profited by it as much in the richer depth of coloring that it imparted to his ideas. In response to all that we ventured to express about his writings (and, for my part, I went quite to the extent of my conscience, which was a long way, and there left the matter to a lady and a young girl, who happily were with me), his face shone, and he manifested great delight, with a perfect, and yet delicate, frankness for which I loved him. He could not tell us, he said, the happiness that such appreciation gave him; it always took him by surprise, he remarked, for--perhaps because he cleaned his own boots, and performed other little ordinary offices for himself--he never had been conscious of anything wonderful in his own person. And then he smiled, making himself and all the poor little parlor about him beautiful thereby. It is usually the hardest thing in the world to praise a man to his face; but Leigh Hunt received the incense with such gracious satisfaction (feeling it to be sympathy, not vulgar praise), that the only difficulty was to keep the enthusiasm of the moment within the limit of permanent opinion. A storm had suddenly come up while we were talking; the rain poured, the lightning flashed, and the thunder broke; but I hope, and have great pleasure in believing, that it was a sunny hour for Leigh Hunt. Nevertheless, it was not to my voice that he most favorably inclined his ear, but to those of my companions. Women are the fit ministers at such a shrine.
He must have suffered keenly in his lifetime, and enjoyed keenly, keeping his emotions so much upon the surface as he seemed to do, and convenient for everybody to play upon. Being of a cheerful temperament, happiness had probably the upper hand. His was a light, mildly joyous nature, gentle, graceful, yet seldom attaining to that deepest grace which results from power; for beauty, like woman, its human representative, dallies with the gentle, but yields its consummate favor only to the strong. I imagine that Leigh Bunt may have been more beautiful when I met him, both in person and character, than in his earlier days. As a young man, I could conceive of his being finical in certain moods, but not now, when the gravity of age shed a venerable grace about him. I rejoiced to hear him say that he was favored with most confident and cheering anticipations in respect to a future life; and there were abundant proofs, throughout our interview, of an unrepining spirit, resignation, quiet, relinquishment of the worldly benefits that were denied him, thankful enjoyment of whatever he had to enjoy, and piety, and hope shining onward into the dusk,--all of which gave a reverential cast to the feeling with which we parted from him. I wish that he could have had one full draught of prosperity before he died. As a matter of artistic propriety, it would have been delightful to see him inhabiting a beautiful house of his own, in an Italian climate, with all sorts of elaborate upholstery and minute elegances about him, and a succession of tender and lovely women to praise his sweet poetry from morning to night. I hardly know whether it is my fault, or the effect of a weakness in Leigh Haunt's character, that I should be sensible of a regret of this nature, when, at the same time, I sincerely believe that he has found an infinity of better things in the world whither he has gone.
At our leave-taking he grasped me warmly by both hands, and seemed as much interested in our whole party as if he had known us for years. All this was genuine feeling, a quick, luxuriant growth out of his heart, which was a soil for flower-seeds of rich and rare varieties, not acorns, but a true heart, nevertheless. Several years afterwards I met him for the last time at a London dinner-party, looking sadly broken down by infirmities; and my final recollection of the beautiful old man presents him arm in arm with, nay, if I mistake not, partly embraced and supported by, another beloved and honored poet, whose minstrel-name, since he has a week-day one for his personal occasions, I will venture to speak. It was Barry Cornwall, whose kind introduction had first made me known to Leigh Hunt.
Becoming an inhabitant of a great English town, I often turned aside from the prosperous thoroughfares (where the edifices, the shops, and the bustling crowd differed not so much from scenes with which I was familiar in my own country), and went designedly astray among precincts that reminded me of some of Dickens's grimiest pages. There I caught glimpses of a people and a mode of life that were comparatively new to my observation, a sort of sombre phantasmagoric spectacle, exceedingly undelightful to behold, yet involving a singular interest and even fascination in its ugliness.
Dirt, one would fancy, is plenty enough all over the world,
being the symbolic accompaniment of the foul incrustation which began to settle
over and bedim all earthly things as soon as Eve had bitten the apple; ever
since which hapless epoch, her daughters have chiefly been engaged in a
desperate and unavailing struggle to get rid of it. But the dirt of a poverty-stricken English
street is a monstrosity unknown on our side of the
Gin-shops, or what the English call spirit-vaults, are numerous in the vicinity of these poor streets, and are set off with the magnificence of gilded door-posts, tarnished by contact with the unclean customers who haunt there. Ragged children come thither with old shaving-mugs, or broken-nosed teapots, or ally such makeshift receptacle, to get a little poison or madness for their parents, who deserve no better requital at their hands for having engendered them. Inconceivably sluttish women enter at noonday and stand at the counter among boon-companions of both sexes, stirring up misery and jollity in a bumper together, and quaffing off the mixture with a relish. As for the men, they lounge there continually, drinking till they are drunken,--drinking as long as they have a half-penny left, and then, as it seemed to me, waiting for a sixpenny miracle to be wrought in their pockets so as to enable them to be drunken again. Most of these establishments have a significant advertisement of "Beds," doubtless for the accommodation of their customers in the interval between one intoxication and the next. I never could find it in my heart, however, utterly to condemn these sad revellers, and should certainly wait till I had some better consolation to offer before depriving them of their dram of gin, though death itself were in the glass; for methought their poor souls needed such fiery stimulant to lift them a little way out of the smothering squalor of both their outward and interior life, giving them glimpses and suggestions, even if bewildering ones, of a spiritual existence that limited their present misery. The temperance-reformers unquestionably derive their commission from the Divine Beneficence, but have never been taken fully into its counsels. All may not be lost, though those good men fail.
Pawnbrokers' establishments, distinguished by the mystic symbol of the three golden balls, were conveniently accessible; though what personal property these wretched people could possess, capable of being estimated in silver or copper, so as to afford a basis for a loan, was a problem that still perplexes me. Old clothesmen, likewise, dwelt hard by, and hung out ancient garments to dangle in the wind. There were butchers' shops, too, of a class adapted to the neighborhood, presenting no such generously fattened carcasses as Englishmen love to gaze at in the market, no stupendous halves of mighty beeves, no dead hogs or muttons ornamented with carved bas-reliefs of fat on their ribs and shoulders, in a peculiarly British style of art,--not these, but bits and gobbets of lean meat, selvages snipt off from steaks, tough and stringy morsels, bare bones smitten away from joints by the cleaver, tripe, liver, bullocks' feet, or whatever else was cheapest and divisible into the smallest lots. I am afraid that even such delicacies came to many of their tables hardly oftener than Christmas. In the windows of other little shops you saw half a dozen wizened herrings, some eggs in a basket, looking so dingily antique that your imagination smelt them, fly-speckled biscuits, segments of a hungry cheese, pipes and papers of tobacco. Now and then a sturdy milk-woman passed by with a wooden yoke over her shoulders, supporting a pail on either side, filled with a whitish fluid, the composition of which was water and chalk and the milk of a sickly cow, who gave the best she had, poor thing! but could scarcely make it rich or wholesome, spending her life in some close city-nook and pasturing on strange food. I have seen, once or twice, a donkey coming into one of these streets with panniers full of vegetables, and departing with a return cargo of what looked like rubbish and street-sweepings. No other commerce seemed to exist, except, possibly, a girl might offer you a pair of stockings or a worked collar, or a man whisper something mysterious about wonderfully cheap cigars. And yet I remember seeing female hucksters in those regions, with their wares on the edge of the sidewalk and their own seats right in the carriage-way, pretending to sell half-decayed oranges and apples, toffy, Ormskirk cakes, combs, and cheap jewelry, the coarsest kind of crockery, and little plates of oysters,--knitting patiently all day long, and removing their undiminished stock in trade at nightfall. All indispensable importations from other quarters of the town were on a remarkably diminutive scale: for example, the wealthier inhabitants purchased their coal by the wheelbarrow-load, and the poorer ones by the peck-measure. It was a curious and melancholy spectacle, when an overladen coal-cart happened to pass through the street and drop a handful or two of its burden in the mud, to see half a dozen women and children scrambling for the treasure-trove, like a flock of hens and chickens gobbling up some spilt corn. In this connection I may as well mention a commodity of boiled snails (for such they appeared to me, though probably a marine production) which used to be peddled from door to door, piping hot, as an article of cheap nutriment.
The population of these dismal abodes appeared to consider the sidewalks and middle of the street as their common hall. In a drama of low life, the unity of place might be arranged rigidly according to the classic rule, and the street be the one locality in which every scene and incident should occur. Courtship, quarrels, plot and counterplot, conspiracies for robbery and murder, family difficulties or agreements,--all such matters, I doubt not, are constantly discussed or transacted in this sky-roofed saloon, so regally hung with its sombre canopy of coal-smoke. Whatever the disadvantages of the English climate, the only comfortable or wholesome part of life, for the city poor, must be spent in the open air. The stifled and squalid rooms where they lie down at night, whole families and neighborhoods together, or sulkily elbow one another in the daytime, when a settled rain drives them within doors, are worse horrors than it is worth while (without a practical object in view) to admit into one's imagination. No wonder that they creep forth from the foul mystery of their interiors, stumble down from their garrets, or scramble up out of their cellars, on the upper step of which you may see the grimy housewife, before the shower is ended, letting the raindrops gutter down her visage; while her children (an impish progeny of cavernous recesses below the common sphere of humanity) swarm into the daylight and attain all that they know of personal purification in the nearest mud-puddle. It might almost make a man doubt the existence of his own soul, to observe how Nature has flung these little wretches into the street and left them there, so evidently regarding them as nothing worth, and how all mankind acquiesce in the great mother's estimate of her offspring. For, if they are to have no immortality, what superior claim can I assert for mine? And how difficult to believe that anything so precious as a germ of immortal growth can have been buried under this dirt-heap, plunged into this cesspool of misery and vice! As often as I beheld the scene, it affected me with surprise and loathsome interest, much resembling, though in a far intenser degree, the feeling with which, when a boy, I used to turn over a plank or an old log that had long lain on the damp ground, and found a vivacious multitude of unclean and devilish-looking insects scampering to and fro beneath it. Without an infinite faith, there seemed as much prospect of a blessed futurity for those hideous hugs and many-footed worms as for these brethren of our humanity and co-heirs of all our heavenly inheritance. Ah, what a mystery! Slowly, slowly, as after groping at the bottom of a deep, noisome, stagnant pool, my hope struggles upward to the surface, bearing the half-drowned body of a child along with it, and heaving it aloft for its life, and my own life, and all our lives. Unless these slime-clogged nostrils can be made capable of inhaling celestial air, I know not how the purest and most intellectual of us can reasonably expect ever to taste a breath of it. The whole question of eternity is staked there. If a single one of those helpless little ones be lost, the world is lost!
The women and children greatly preponderate in such places; the men probably wandering abroad in quest of that daily miracle, a dinner and a drink, or perhaps slumbering in the daylight that they may the better follow out their cat-like rambles through the dark. Here are women with young figures, but old, wrinkled, yellow faces, fanned and blear-eyed with the smoke which they cannot spare from their scanty fires,--it being too precious for its warmth to be swallowed by the chimney. Some of them sit on the doorsteps, nursing their unwashed babies at bosoms which we will glance aside from, for the sake of our mothers and all womanhood, because the fairest spectacle is here the foulest. Yet motherhood, in these dark abodes, is strangely identical with what we have all known it to be in the happiest homes. Nothing, as I remember, smote me with more grief and pity (all the more poignant because perplexingly entangled with an inclination to smile) than to hear a gaunt and ragged mother priding herself on the pretty ways of her ragged and skinny infant, just as a young matron might, when she invites her lady friends to admire her plump, white-robed darling in the nursery. Indeed, no womanly characteristic seemed to have altogether perished out of these poor souls. It was the very same creature whose tender torments make the rapture of our young days, whom we love, cherish, and protect, and rely upon in life and death, and whom we delight to see beautify her beauty with rich robes and set it off with jewels, though now fantastically masquerading in a garb of tatters, wholly unfit for her to handle. I recognized her, over and over again, in the groups round a doorstep or in the descent of a cellar, chatting with prodigious earnestness about intangible trifles, laughing for a little jest, sympathizing at almost the same instant with one neighbor's sunshine and another's shadow, wise, simple, sly, and patient, yet easily perturbed, and breaking into small feminine ebullitions of spite, wrath, and jealousy, tornadoes of a moment, such as vary the social atmosphere of her silken-skirted sisters, though smothered into propriety by dint of a well-bred habit. Not that there was an absolute deficiency of good-breeding, even here. It often surprised me to witness a courtesy and deference among these ragged folks, which, having seen it, I did not thoroughly believe in, wondering whence it should have come. I am persuaded, however, that there were laws of intercourse which they never violated,--a code of the cellar, the garret, the common staircase, the doorstep, and the pavement, which perhaps had as deep a foundation in natural fitness as the code of the drawing-room.
Yet again I doubt whether I may not have been uttering folly in the last two sentences, when I reflect how rude and rough these specimens of feminine character generally were. They had a readiness with their hands that reminded me of Molly Seagrim and other heroines in Fielding's novels. For example, I have seen a woman meet a man in the street, and, for no reason perceptible to me, suddenly clutch him by the hair and cuff his ears,--an infliction which he bore with exemplary patience, only snatching the very earliest opportunity to take to his heels. Where a sharp tongue will not serve the purpose, they trust to the sharpness of their finger-nails, or incarnate a whole vocabulary of vituperative words in a resounding slap, or the downright blow of a doubled fist. All English people, I imagine, are influenced in a far greater degree than ourselves by this simple and honest tendency, in cases of disagreement, to batter one another's persons; and whoever has seen a crowd of English ladies (for instance, at the door of the Sistine Chapel, in Holy Week) will be satisfied that their belligerent propensities are kept in abeyance only by a merciless rigor on the part of society. It requires a vast deal of refinement to spiritualize their large physical endowments. Such being the case with the delicate ornaments of the drawing-room, it is the less to be wondered at that women who live mostly in the open air, amid the coarsest kind of companionship and occupation, should carry on the intercourse of life with a freedom unknown to any class of American females, though still, I am resolved to think, compatible with a generous breadth of natural propriety. It shocked me, at first, to see them (of all ages, even elderly, as well as infants that could just toddle across the street alone) going about in the mud and mire, or through the dusky snow and slosh of a severe week in winter, with petticoats high uplifted above bare, red feet and legs; but I was comforted by observing that both shoes and stockings generally reappeared with better weather, having been thriftily kept out of the damp for the convenience of dry feet within doors. Their hardihood was wonderful, and their strength greater than could have been expected from such spare diet as they probably lived upon. I have seen them carrying on their heads great burdens under which they walked as freely as if they were fashionable bonnets; or sometimes the burden was huge enough almost to cover the whole person, looked at from behind,--as in Tuscan villages you may see the girls coming in from the country with great bundles of green twigs upon their backs, so that they resemble locomotive masses of verdure and fragrance. But these poor English women seemed to be laden with rubbish, incongruous and indescribable, such as bones and rags, the sweepings of the house and of the street, a merchandise gathered up from what poverty itself had thrown away, a heap of filthy stuff analogous to Christian's bundle of sin.
Sometimes, though very seldom, I detected a certain gracefulness among the younger women that was altogether new to my observation. It was a charm proper to the lowest class. One girl I particularly remember, in a garb none of the cleanest and nowise smart, and herself exceedingly coarse in all respects, but yet endowed with a sort of witchery, a native charm, a robe of simple beauty and suitable behavior that she was born in and had never been tempted to throw off, because she had really nothing else to put on. Eve herself could not have been more natural. Nothing was affected, nothing imitated; no proper grace was vulgarized by an effort to assume the manners or adornments of another sphere. This kind of beauty, arrayed in a fitness of its own, is probably vanishing out of the world, and will certainly never be found in America, where all the girls, whether daughters of the upper-tendon, the mediocrity, the cottage, or the kennel, aim at one standard of dress and deportment, seldom accomplishing a perfectly triumphant hit or an utterly absurd failure. Those words, "genteel" and "ladylike," are terrible ones and do us infinite mischief, but it is because (at least, I hope so) we are in a transition state, and shall emerge into a higher mode of simplicity than has ever been known to past ages.
In such disastrous circumstances as I have been attempting
to describe, it was beautiful to observe what a mysterious efficacy still
asserted itself in character. A woman,
evidently poor as the poorest of her neighbors, would be knitting or sewing on
the doorstep, just as fifty other women were; but round about her skirts
(though wofully patched) you would be sensible of a certain sphere of decency,
which, it seemed to me, could not have been kept more impregnable in the
cosiest little sitting-room, where the tea-kettle on the hob was humming its
good old song of domestic peace.
Maidenhood had a similar power.
The evil habit that grows upon us in this harsh world makes me faithless
to my own better perceptions; and yet I have seen girls in these wretched
streets, on whose virgin purity, judging merely from their impression on my
instincts as they passed by, I should have deemed it safe, at the moment, to
stake my life. The next moment, however,
as the surrounding flood of moral uncleanness surged over their footsteps, I
would not have staked a spike of thistle-down on the same wager. Yet the miracle was within the scope of
The children, in truth, were the ill-omened blossoms from which another harvest of precisely such dark fruitage as I saw ripened around me was to be produced. Of course you would imagine these to be lumps of crude iniquity, tiny vessels as full as they could hold of naughtiness; nor can I say a great deal to the contrary. Small proof of parental discipline could I discern, save when a mother (drunken, I sincerely hope) snatched her own imp out of a group of pale, half-naked, humor-eaten abortions that were playing and squabbling together in the mud, turned up its tatters, brought down her heavy hand on its poor little tenderest part, and let it go again with a shake. If the child knew what the punishment was for, it was wiser than I pretend to be. It yelled, and went back to its playmates in the mud. Yet let me bear testimony to what was beautiful, and more touching than anything that I ever witnessed in the intercourse of happier children. I allude to the superintendence which some of these small people (too small, one would think, to be sent into the street alone, had there been any other nursery for them) exercised over still smaller ones. Whence they derived such a sense of duty, unless immediately from God, I cannot tell; but it was wonderful to observe the expression of responsibility in their deportment, the anxious fidelity with which they discharged their unfit office, the tender patience with which they linked their less pliable impulses to the wayward footsteps of an infant, and let it guide them whithersoever it liked. In the hollow-cheeked, large-eyed girl of ten, whom I saw giving a cheerless oversight to her baby-brother, I did not so much marvel at it. She had merely come a little earlier than usual to the perception of what was to be her business in life. But I admired the sickly-looking little boy, who did violence to his boyish nature by making himself the servant of his little sister,--she too small to walk, and he too small to take her in his arms,--and therefore working a kind of miracle to transport her from one dirt-heap to another. Beholding such works of love and duty, I took heart again, and deemed it not so impossible, after all, for these neglected children to find a path through the squalor and evil of their circumstances up to the gate of heaven. Perhaps there was this latent good in all of them, though generally they looked brutish, and dull even in their sports; there was little mirth among them, nor even a fully awakened spirit of blackguardism. Yet sometimes, again, I saw, with surprise and a sense as if I had been asleep and dreaming, the bright, intelligent, merry face of a child whose dark eyes gleamed with vivacious expression through the dirt that incrusted its skin, like sunshine struggling through a very dusty window-pane.
In these streets the belted and blue-coated policeman appears seldom in comparison with the frequency of his occurrence in more reputable thoroughfares. I used to think that the inhabitants would have ample time to murder one another, or any stranger, like myself, who might violate the filthy sanctities of the place; before the law could bring up its lumbering assistance. Nevertheless, there is a supervision; nor does the watchfulness of authority permit the populace to be tempted to any outbreak. Once, in a time of dearth I noticed a ballad-singer going through the street hoarsely chanting some discordant strain in a provincial dialect, of which I could only make out that it addressed the sensibilities of the auditors on the score of starvation; but by his side stalked the policeman, offering no interference, but watchful to hear what this rough minstrel said or sang, and silence him, if his effusion threatened to prove too soul-stirring. In my judgment, however, there is little or no danger of that kind: they starve patiently, sicken patiently, die patiently, not through resignation, but a diseased flaccidity of hope. If ever they should do mischief to those above them, it will probably be by the communication of some destructive pestilence; for, so the medical men affirm, they suffer all the ordinary diseases with a degree of virulence elsewhere unknown, and keep among themselves traditionary plagues that have long ceased to afflict more fortunate societies. Charity herself gathers her robe about her to avoid their contact. It would be a dire revenge, indeed, if they were to prove their claims to be reckoned of one blood and nature with the noblest and wealthiest by compelling them to inhale death through the diffusion of their own poverty-poisoned atmosphere.
A true Englishman is a kind man at heart, but has an unconquerable dislike to poverty and beggary. Beggars have heretofore been so strange to an American that he is apt to become their prey, being recognized through his national peculiarities, and beset by them in the streets. The English smile at him, and say that there are ample public arrangements for every pauper's possible need, that street-charity promotes idleness and vice, and that yonder personification of misery on the pavement will lay up a good day's profit, besides supping more luxuriously than the dupe who gives him a shilling. By and by the stranger adopts their theory and begins to practise upon it, much to his own temporary freedom from annoyance, but not entirely without moral detriment or sometimes a too late contrition. Years afterwards, it may be, his memory is still haunted by some vindictive wretch whose cheeks were pale and hunger-pinched, whose rags fluttered in the east-wind, whose right arm was paralyzed and his left leg shrivelled into a mere nerveless stick, but whom he passed by remorselessly because an Englishman chose to say that the fellow's misery looked too perfect, was too artistically got up, to be genuine. Even allowing this to be true (as, a hundred chances to one, it was), it would still have been a clear case of economy to buy him off with a little loose silver, so that his lamentable figure should not limp at the heels of your conscience all over the world. To own the truth, I provided myself with several such imaginary persecutors in England, and recruited their number with at least one sickly-looking wretch whose acquaintance I first made at Assisi, in Italy, and, taking a dislike to something sinister in his aspect, permitted him to beg early and late, and all day long, without getting a single baiocco. At my latest glimpse of him, the villain avenged himself, not by a volley of horrible curses, as any other Italian beggar would, but by taking an expression so grief-stricken, want-wrung, hopeless, and withal resigned, that I could paint his lifelike portrait at this moment. Were I to go over the same ground again, I would listen to no man's theories, but buy the little luxury of beneficence at a cheap rate, instead of doing myself a moral mischief by exuding a stony incrustation over whatever natural sensibility I might possess.
On the other hand, there were some mendicants whose utmost efforts I even now felicitate myself on having withstood. Such was a phenomenon abridged of his lower half, who beset me for two or three years together, and, in spite of his deficiency of locomotive members, had some supernatural method of transporting himself (simultaneously, I believe) to all quarters of the city. He wore a sailor's jacket (possibly, because skirts would have been a superfluity to his figure), and had a remarkably broad-shouldered and muscular frame, surmounted by a large, fresh-colored face, which was full of power and intelligence. His dress and linen were the perfection of neatness. Once a day, at least, wherever I went, I suddenly became aware of this trunk of a man on the path before me, resting on his base, and looking as if he had just sprouted out of the pavement, and would sink into it again and reappear at some other spot the instant you left him behind. The expression of his eye was perfectly respectful, but terribly fixed, holding your own as by fascination, never once winking, never wavering from its point-blank gaze right into your face, till you were completely beyond the range of his battery of one immense rifled cannon. This was his mode of soliciting alms; and he reminded me of the old beggar who appealed so touchingly to the charitable sympathies of Gil Blas, taking aim at him from the roadside with a long-barrelled musket. The intentness and directness of his silent appeal, his close and unrelenting attack upon your individuality, respectful as it seemed, was the very flower of insolence; or, if yon give it a possibly truer interpretation, it was the tyrannical effort of a man endowed with great natural force of character to constrain your reluctant will to his purpose. Apparently, he had staked his salvation upon the ultimate success of a daily struggle between himself and me, the triumph of which would compel me to become a tributary to the hat that lay on the pavement beside him. Man or fiend, however, there was a stubbornness in his intended victim which this massive fragment of a mighty personality had not altogether reckoned upon, and by its aid I was enabled to pass him at my customary pace hundreds of times over, quietly meeting his terribly respectful eye, and allowing him the fair chance which I felt to be his due, to subjugate me, if he really had the strength for it. He never succeeded, but, on the other hand, never gave up the contest; and should I ever walk those streets again, I am certain that the truncated tyrant will sprout up through the pavement and look me fixedly in the eye, and perhaps get the victory.
I should think all the more highly of myself, if I had shown
equal heroism in resisting another class of beggarly depredators, who assailed
me on my weaker side and won an easy spoil.
Such was the sanctimonious clergyman, with his white cravat, who visited
me with a subscription-paper, which he himself had drawn up, in a case of
heart-rending distress;--the respectable and ruined tradesman, going from door
to door, shy and silent in his own person, but accompanied by a sympathizing
friend, who bore testimony to his integrity, and stated the unavoidable misfortunes
that had crushed him down;--or the delicate and prettily dressed lady, who had
been bred in affluence, but was suddenly thrown upon the perilous charities of
the world by the death of an indulgent, but secretly insolvent father, or the
commercial catastrophe and simultaneous suicide of the best of husbands; or the
gifted, but unsuccessful author, appealing to my fraternal sympathies,
generously rejoicing in some small prosperities which he was kind enough to
term my own triumphs in the field of letters, and claiming to have largely
contributed to them by his unbought notices in the public journals.
After making myself as familiar as I decently could with the poor streets, I became curious to see what kind of a home was provided for the inhabitants at the public expense, fearing that it must needs be a most comfortless one, or else their choice (if choice it were) of so miserable a life outside was truly difficult to account for. Accordingly, I visited a great almshouse, and was glad to observe how unexceptionably all the parts of the establishment were carried on, and what an orderly life, full-fed, sufficiently reposeful, and undisturbed by the arbitrary exercise of authority, seemed to be led there. Possibly, indeed, it was that very orderliness, and the cruel necessity of being neat and clean, and even the comfort resulting from these and other Christian-like restraints and regulations, that constituted the principal grievance on the part of the poor, shiftless inmates, accustomed to a lifelong luxury of dirt and harum-scarumness. The wild life of the streets has perhaps as unforgetable a charm, to those who have once thoroughly imbibed it, as the life of the forest or the prairie. But I conceive rather that there must be insuperable difficulties, for the majority of the poor, in the way of getting admittance to the almshouse, than that a merely aesthetic preference for the street would incline the pauper-class to fare scantily and precariously, and expose their raggedness to the rain and snow, when such a hospitable door stood wide open for their entrance. It might be that the roughest and darkest side of the matter was not shown me, there being persons of eminent station and of both sexes in the party which I accompanied; and, of course, a properly trained public functionary would have deemed it a monstrous rudeness, as well as a great shame, to exhibit anything to people of rank that might too painfully shock their sensibilities.
The women's ward was the portion of the establishment which we especially examined. It could not be questioned that they were treated with kindness as well as care. No doubt, as has been already suggested, some of them felt the irksomeness of submission to general rules of orderly behavior, after being accustomed to that perfect freedom from the minor proprieties, at least, which is one of the compensations of absolutely hopeless poverty, or of any circumstances that set us fairly below the decencies of life. I asked the governor of the house whether he met with any difficulty in keeping peace and order among his inmates; and he informed me that his troubles among the women were incomparably greater than with the men. They were freakish, and apt to be quarrelsome, inclined to plague and pester one another in ways that it was impossible to lay hold of, and to thwart his own authority by the like intangible methods. He said this with the utmost good-nature, and quite won my regard by so placidly resigning himself to the inevitable necessity of letting the women throw dust into his eyes. They certainly looked peaceable and sisterly enough, as I saw them, though still it might be faintly perceptible that some of them were consciously playing their parts before the governor and his distinguished visitors.
This governor seemed to me a man thoroughly fit for his position. An American, in an office of similar responsibility, would doubtless be a much superior person, better educated, possessing a far wider range of thought, more naturally acute, with a quicker tact of external observation and a readier faculty of dealing with difficult cases. The women would not succeed in throwing half so much dust into his eyes. Moreover, his black coat, and thin, sallow visage, would make him look like a scholar, and his manners would indefinitely approximate to those of a gentleman. But I cannot help questioning, whether, on the whole, these higher endowments would produce decidedly better results. The Englishman was thoroughly plebeian both in aspect and behavior, a bluff, ruddy-faced, hearty, kindly, yeoman-like personage, with no refinement whatever, nor any superfluous sensibility, but gifted with a native wholesomeness of character which must have been a very beneficial element in the atmosphere of the almshouse. He spoke to his pauper family in loud, good-humored, cheerful tones, and treated them with a healthy freedom that probably caused the forlorn wretches to feel as if they were free and healthy likewise. If he had understood them a little better, he would not have treated them half so wisely. We are apt to make sickly people more morbid, and unfortunate people more miserable, by endeavoring to adapt our deportment to their especial and individual needs. They eagerly accept our well-meant efforts; but it is like returning their own sick breath back upon themselves, to be breathed over and over again, intensifying the inward mischief at every repetition. The sympathy that would really do them good is of a kind that recognizes their sound and healthy parts, and ignores the part affected by disease, which will thrive under the eye of a too close observer like a poisonous weed in the sunshine. My good friend the governor had no tendencies in the latter direction, and abundance of them in the former, and was consequently as wholesome and invigorating as the west-wind with a little spice of the north in it, brightening the dreary visages that encountered us as if he had carried a sunbeam in his hand. He expressed himself by his whole being and personality, and by works more than words, and had the not unusual English merit of knowing what to do much better than how to talk about it.
The women, I imagine, must have felt one imperfection in their state, however comfortable otherwise. They were forbidden, or, at all events, lacked the means, to follow out their natural instinct of adorning themselves; all were dressed in one homely uniform of blue-checked gowns, with such caps upon their heads as English servants wear. Generally, too, they had one dowdy English aspect, and a vulgar type of features so nearly alike that they seemed literally to constitute a sisterhood. We have few of these absolutely unilluminated faces among our native American population, individuals of whom must be singularly unfortunate, if, mixing as we do, no drop of gentle blood has contributed to refine the turbid element, no gleam of hereditary intelligence has lighted up the stolid eyes, which their forefathers brought, from the Old Country. Even in this English almshouse, however, there was at least one person who claimed to be intimately connected with rank and wealth. The governor, after suggesting that this person would probably be gratified by our visit, ushered us into a small parlor, which was furnished a little more like a room in a private dwelling than others that we entered, and had a row of religious books and fashionable novels on the mantel-piece. An old lady sat at a bright coal-fire, reading a romance, and rose to receive us with a certain pomp of manner and elaborate display of ceremonious courtesy, which, in spite of myself, made me inwardly question the genuineness of her aristocratic pretensions. But, at any rate, she looked like a respectable old soul, and was evidently gladdened to the very core of her frost-bitten heart by the awful punctiliousness with which she responded to her gracious and hospitable, though unfamiliar welcome. After a little polite conversation, we retired; and the governor, with a lowered voice and an air of deference, told us that she had been a lady of quality, and had ridden in her own equipage, not many years before, and now lived in continual expectation that some of her rich relatives would drive up in their carriages to take her away. Meanwhile, he added, she was treated with great respect by her fellow-paupers. I could not help thinking, from a few criticisable peculiarities in her talk and manner, that there might have been a mistake on the governor's part, and perhaps a venial exaggeration on the old lady's, concerning her former position in society; but what struck me was the forcible instance of that most prevalent of English vanities, the pretension to aristocratic connection, on one side, and the submission and reverence with which it was accepted by the governor and his household, on the other. Among ourselves, I think, when wealth and eminent position have taken their departure, they seldom leave a pallid ghost behind them,--or, if it sometimes stalks abroad, few recognize it.
We went into several other rooms, at the doors of which, pausing on the outside, we could hear the volubility, and sometimes the wrangling, of the female inhabitants within, but invariably found silence and peace, when we stepped over the threshold. The women were grouped together in their sitting-rooms, sometimes three or four, sometimes a larger number, classified by their spontaneous affinities, I suppose, and all busied, so far as I can remember, with the one occupation of knitting coarse yarn stockings. Hardly any of them, I am sorry to say, had a brisk or cheerful air, though it often stirred them up to a momentary vivacity to be accosted by the governor, and they seemed to like being noticed, however slightly, by the visitors. The happiest person whom I saw there (and, running hastily through my experiences, I hardly recollect to have seen a happier one in my life, if you take a careless flow of spirits as happiness) was an old woman that lay in bed among ten or twelve heavy-looking females, who plied their knitting-work round about her. She laughed, when we entered, and immediately began to talk to us, in a thin, little, spirited quaver, claiming to be more than a century old; and the governor (in whatever way he happened to be cognizant of the fact) confirmed her age to be a hundred and four. Her jauntiness and cackling merriment were really wonderful. It was as if she had got through with all her actual business in life two or three generations ago, and now, freed from every responsibility for herself or others, had only to keep up a mirthful state of mind till the short time, or long time (and, happy as she was, she appeared not to care whether it were long or short), before Death, who had misplaced her name in his list, might remember to take her away. She had gone quite round the circle of human existence, and come back to the play-ground again. And so she had grown to be a kind of miraculous old pet, the plaything of people seventy or eighty years younger than herself, who talked and laughed with her as if she were a child, finding great delight in her wayward and strangely playful responses, into some of which she cunningly conveyed a gibe that caused their ears to tingle a little. She had done getting out of bed in this world, and lay there to be waited upon like a queen or a baby.
In the same room sat a pauper who had once been an actress of considerable repute, but was compelled to give up her profession by a softening of the brain. The disease seemed to have stolen the continuity out of her life, and disturbed an healthy relationship between the thoughts within her and the world without. On our first entrance, she looked cheerfully at us, and showed herself ready to engage in conversation; but suddenly, while we were talking with the century-old crone, the poor actress began to weep, contorting her face with extravagant stage-grimaces, and wringing her hands for some inscrutable sorrow. It might have been a reminiscence of actual calamity in her past life, or, quite as probably, it was but a dramatic woe, beneath which she had staggered and shrieked and wrung her hands with hundreds of repetitions in the sight of crowded theatres, and been as often comforted by thunders of applause. But my idea of the mystery was, that she had a sense of wrong in seeing the aged woman (whose empty vivacity was like the rattling of dry peas in a bladder) chosen as the central object of interest to the visitors, while she herself, who had agitated thousands of hearts with a breath, sat starving for the admiration that was her natural food. I appeal to the whole society of artists of the Beautiful and the Imaginative,--poets, romancers, painters, sculptors, actors,--whether or no this is a grief that may be felt even amid the torpor of a dissolving brain!
We looked into a good many sleeping-chambers, where were rows of beds, mostly calculated for two occupants, and provided with sheets and pillow-cases that resembled sackcloth. It appeared to me that the sense of beauty was insufficiently regarded in all the arrangements of the almshouse; a little cheap luxury for the eye, at least, might do the poor folks a substantial good. But, at all events, there was the beauty of perfect neatness and orderliness, which, being heretofore known to few of them, was perhaps as much as they could well digest in the remnant of their lives. We were invited into the laundry, where a great washing and drying were in process, the whole atmosphere being hot and vaporous with the steam of wet garments and bedclothes. This atmosphere was the pauper-life of the past week or fortnight resolved into a gaseous state, and breathing it, however fastidiously, we were forced to inhale the strange element into our inmost being. Had the Queen been there, I know not how she could have escaped the necessity. What an intimate brotherhood is this in which we dwell, do what we may to put an artificial remoteness between the high creature and the low one! A poor man's breath, borne on the vehicle of tobacco-smoke, floats into a palace-window and reaches the nostrils of a monarch. It is but an example, obvious to the sense, of the innumerable and secret channels by which, at every moment of our lives, the flow and reflux of a common humanity pervade us all. How superficial are the niceties of such as pretend to keep aloof! Let the whole world be cleansed, or not a man or woman of us all can be clean.
By and by we came to the ward where the children were kept, on entering which, we saw, in the first place, several unlovely and unwholesome little people lazily playing together in a court-yard. And here a singular incommodity befell one member of our party. Among the children was a wretched, pale, half-torpid little thing (about six years old, perhaps,--but I know not whether a girl or a boy), with a humor in its eyes and face, which the governor said was the scurvy, and which appeared to bedim its powers of vision, so that it toddled about gropingly, as if in quest of it did not precisely know what. This child--this sickly, wretched, humor-eaten infant, the offspring of unspeakable sin and sorrow, whom it must have required several generations of guilty progenitors to render so pitiable an object as we beheld it--immediately took an unaccountable fancy to the gentleman just hinted at. It prowled about him like a pet kitten, rubbing against his legs, following everywhere at his heels, pulling at his coat-tails, and, at last, exerting all the speed that its poor limbs were capable of, got directly before him and held forth its arms, mutely insisting on being taken up. It said not a word, being perhaps under-witted and incapable of prattle. But it smiled up in his face,--a sort of woful gleam was that smile, through the sickly blotches that covered its features,--and found means to express such a perfect confidence that it was going to be fondled and made much of, that there was no possibility in a human heart of balking its expectation. It was as if God had promised the poor child this favor on behalf of that individual, and he was bound to fulfil the contract, or else no longer call himself a man among men. Nevertheless, it could be no easy thing for him to do, he being a person burdened with more than an Englishman's customary reserve, shy of actual contact with human beings, afflicted with a peculiar distaste for whatever was ugly, and, furthermore, accustomed to that habit of observation from an insulated stand-point which is said (but, I hope, erroneously) to have the tendency of putting ice into the blood.
So I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest, and am seriously of opinion that he did an heroic act, and effected more than he dreamed of towards his final salvation, when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father. To be sure, we all smiled at him, at the time, but doubtless would have acted pretty much the same in a similar stress of circumstances. The child, at any rate, appeared to be satisfied with his behavior; for when he had held it a considerable time, and set it down, it still favored him with its company, keeping fast hold of his forefinger till we reached the confines of the place. And on our return through the court-yard, after visiting another part of the establishment, here again was this same little Wretchedness waiting for its victim, with a smile of joyful, and yet dull recognition about its scabby mouth and in its rheumy eyes. No doubt, the child's mission in reference to our friend was to remind him that he was responsible, in his degree, for all the sufferings and misdemeanors of the world in which he lived, and was not entitled to look upon a particle of its dark calamity as if it were none of his concern: the offspring of a brother's iniquity being his own blood-relation, and the guilt, likewise, a burden on him, unless he expiated it by better deeds.
All the children in this ward seemed to be invalids, and, going up stairs, we found more of them in the same or a worse condition than the little creature just described, with their mothers (or more probably other women, for the infants were mostly foundlings) in attendance as nurses. The matron of the ward, a middle-aged woman, remarkably kind and motherly in aspect, was walking to and fro across the chamber--on that weary journey in which careful mothers and nurses travel so continually and so far, and gain never a step of progress--with an unquiet baby in her arms. She assured us that she enjoyed her occupation, being exceedingly fond of children; and, in fact, the absence of timidity in all the little people was a sufficient proof that they could have had no experience of harsh treatment, though, on the other hand, none of them appeared to be attracted to one individual more than another. In this point they differed widely from the poor child below stairs. They seemed to recognize a universal motherhood in womankind, and cared not which individual might be the mother of the moment. I found their tameness as shocking as did Alexander Selkirk that of the brute subjects of his else solitary kingdom. It was a sort of tame familiarity, a perfect indifference to the approach of strangers, such as I never noticed in other children. I accounted for it partly by their nerveless, unstrung state of body, incapable of the quick thrills of delight and fear which play upon the lively harp-strings of a healthy child's nature, and partly by their woful lack of acquaintance with a private home, and their being therefore destitute of the sweet home-bred shyness, which is like the sanctity of heaven about a mother-petted child. Their condition was like that of chickens hatched in an oven, and growing up without the especial guardianship of a matron hen: both the chicken and the child, methinks, must needs want something that is essential to their respective characters.
In this chamber (which was spacious, containing a large number of beds) there was a clear fire burning on the hearth, as in all the other occupied rooms; and directly in front of the blaze sat a woman holding a baby, which, beyond all reach of comparison, was the most horrible object that ever afflicted my sight. Days afterwards--nay, even now, when I bring it up vividly before my mind's eye--it seemed to lie upon the floor of my heart, polluting my moral being with the sense of something grievously amiss in the entire conditions of humanity. The holiest man could not be otherwise than full of wickedness, the chastest virgin seemed impure, in a world where such a babe was possible. The governor whispered me, apart, that, like nearly all the rest of them, it was the child of unhealthy parents. Ah, yes! There was the mischief. This spectral infant, a hideous mockery of the visible link which Love creates between man and woman, was born of disease and sin. Diseased Sin was its father, and Sinful Disease its mother, and their offspring lay in the woman's arms like a nursing Pestilence, which, could it live and grow up, would make the world a more accursed abode than ever heretofore. Thank Heaven, it could not live! This baby, if we must give it that sweet name, seemed to be three or four months old, but, being such an unthrifty changeling, might have been considerably older. It was all covered with blotches, and preternaturally dark and discolored; it was withered away, quite shrunken and fleshless; it breathed only amid pantings and gaspings, and moaned painfully at every gasp. The only comfort in reference to it was the evident impossibility of its surviving to draw many more of those miserable, moaning breaths; and it would have been infinitely less heart-depressing to see it die, right before my eyes, than to depart and carry it alive in my remembrance, still suffering the incalculable torture of its little life. I can by no means express how horrible this infant was, neither ought I to attempt it. And yet I must add one final touch. Young as the poor little creature was, its pain and misery had endowed it with a premature intelligence, insomuch that its eyes seemed to stare at the bystanders out of their sunken sockets knowingly and appealingly, as if summoning us one and all to witness the deadly wrong of its existence. At least, I so interpreted its look, when it positively met and responded to my own awe-stricken gaze, and therefore I lay the case, as far as I am able, before mankind, on whom God has imposed the necessity to suffer in soul and body till this dark and dreadful wrong be righted.
Thence we went to the school-rooms, which were underneath the chapel. The pupils, like the children whom we had just seen, were, in large proportion, foundlings. Almost without exception, they looked sickly, with marks of eruptive trouble in their doltish faces, and a general tendency to diseases of the eye. Moreover, the poor little wretches appeared to be uneasy within their skins, and screwed themselves about on the benches in a disagreeably suggestive way, as if they had inherited the evil habits of their parents as an innermost garment of the same texture and material as the shirt of Nessus, and must wear it with unspeakable discomfort as long as they lived. I saw only a single child that looked healthy; and on my pointing him out, the governor informed me that this little boy, the sole exception to the miserable aspect of his school-fellows, was not a foundling, nor properly a work-house child, being born of respectable parentage, and his father one of the officers of the institution. As for the remainder,--the hundred pale abortions to be counted against one rosy-cheeked boy,--what shall we say or do? Depressed by the sight of so much misery, and uninventive of remedies for the evils that force themselves on my perception, I can do little more than recur to the idea already hinted at in the early part of this article, regarding the speedy necessity of a new deluge. So far as these children are concerned, at any rate, it would be a blessing to the human race, which they will contribute to enervate and corrupt,--a greater blessing to themselves, who inherit no patrimony but disease and vice, and in whose souls, if there be a spark of God's life, this seems the only possible mode of keeping it aglow,--if every one of them could be drowned to-night, by their best friends, instead of being put tenderly to bed. This heroic method of treating human maladies, moral and material, is certainly beyond the scope of man's discretionary rights, and probably will not be adopted by Divine Providence until the opportunity of milder reformation shall have been offered us again and again, through a series of future ages.
It may be fair to acknowledge that the humane and excellent governor, as well as other persons better acquainted with the subject than myself, took a less gloomy view of it, though still so dark a one as to involve scanty consolation. They remarked that individuals of the male sex, picked up in the streets and nurtured in the workhouse, sometimes succeed tolerably well in life, because they are taught trades before being turned into the world, and, by dint of immaculate behavior and good luck, are not, unlikely to get employment and earn a livelihood. The case is different with the girls. They can only go to service, and are invariably rejected by families of respectability on account of their origin, and for the better reason of their unfitness to fill satisfactorily even the meanest situations in a well-ordered English household. Their resource is to take service with people only a step or two above the poorest class, with whom they fare scantily, endure harsh treatment, lead shifting and precarious lives, and finally drop into the slough of evil, through which, in their best estate, they do but pick their slimy way on stepping-stones.
From the schools we went to the bake-house, and the brew-house (for such cruelty is not harbored in the heart of a true Englishman as to deny a pauper his daily allowance of beer), and through the kitchens, where we beheld an immense pot over the fire, surging and walloping with some kind of a savory stew that filled it up to its brim. We also visited a tailor's shop, and a shoemaker's shop, in both of which a number of mien, and pale, diminutive apprentices, were at work, diligently enough, though seemingly with small heart in the business. Finally, the governor ushered us into a shed, inside of which was piled up an immense quantity of new coffins. They were of the plainest description, made of pine boards, probably of American growth, not very nicely smoothed by the plane, neither painted nor stained with black, but provided with a loop of rope at either end for the convenience of lifting the rude box and its inmate into the cart that shall carry them to the burial-ground. There, in holes ten feet deep, the paupers are buried one above another, mingling their relics indistinguishably. In another world may they resume their individuality, and find it a happier one than here!
As we departed, a character came under our notice which I
have met with in all almshouses, whether of the city or village, or in
I was once present at the wedding of some poor English
people, and was deeply impressed by the spectacle, though by no means with such
proud and delightful emotions as seem to have affected all
Not very long afterwards, I happened to be passing the same
venerable Cathedral, and heard a clang of joyful bells, and beheld a bridal
party coming down the steps towards a carriage and four horses, with a portly
coachman and two postilions, that waited at the gate. One parson and one service had amalgamated
the wretchedness of a score of paupers; a Bishop and three or four clergymen
had combined their spiritual might to forge the golden links of this other
marriage-bond. The bridegroom's mien had
a sort of careless and kindly English pride; the bride floated along in her
white drapery, a creature, so nice and delicate that it was a luxury to see
her, and a pity that her silk slippers should touch anything so
grimy as the old stones of the churchyard avenue. The crowd of ragged people, who always
cluster to witness what they may of an aristocratic wedding, broke into audible
admiration of the bride's beauty and the bridegroom's manliness, and uttered
prayers and ejaculations (possibly paid for in alms) for the happiness of
both. If the most favorable of earthly
conditions could make them happy, they had every prospect of it. They were
going to live on their abundance in one of those stately and delightful English
homes, such as no other people ever created or inherited, a hall set far and
safe within its own private grounds, and surrounded with venerable trees,
shaven lawns, rich shrubbery, and trimmest pathways, the whole so artfully
contrived and tended that summer rendered it a paradise, and even winter would
hardly disrobe it of its beauty; and all this fair property seemed more
exclusively and inalienably their own, because of its descent through many
forefathers, each of whom had added an improvement or a charm, and thus
transmitted it with a stronger stamp of rightful possession to his heir. And is it possible, after all, that there may
be a flaw in the title-deeds? Is, or is
not, the system wrong that gives one married pair so immense a superfluity of
luxurious home, and shuts out a million others from any home whatever? One day or another, safe as they deem
themselves, and safe as the hereditary temper of the people really tends to
make them, the gentlemen of
It has often perplexed one to imagine how an Englishman will
be able to reconcile himself to any future state of existence from which the
earthly institution of dinner shall he excluded. Even if he fail to take his appetite along
with him (which it seems to me hardly possible to believe, since this endowment
is so essential to his composition), the immortal day must still admit an
interim of two or three hours during which he will be conscious of a slight
distaste, at all events, if not an absolute repugnance, to merely spiritual
nutriment. The idea of dinner has so
imbedded itself among his highest and deepest characteristics, so illuminated
itself with intellect and softened itself with the kindest emotions of his
heart, so linked itself with Church and State, and grown so majestic with long
hereditary customs and ceremonies, that, by taking it utterly away, Death,
instead of putting the final touch to his perfection, would leave him
infinitely less complete than we have already known him. He could not be roundly happy.
Among this people, indeed, so wise in their generation,
dinner has a kind of sanctity quite independent of the dishes that may be set
upon the table; so that, if it be only a mutton-chop, they treat it with due
reverence, and are rewarded with a degree of enjoyment which such reckless
devourers as ourselves do not often find in our richest abundance. It is good to see how staunch they are after
fifty or sixty years of heroic eating, still relying upon their digestive
powers and indulging a vigorous appetite; whereas an American has generally lost
the one and learned to distrust the other long before reaching the earliest
decline of life; and thenceforward he makes little account of his dinner, and
dines at his peril, if at all. I know
not whether my countrymen will allow me to tell them, though I think it
scarcely too much to affirm, that on this side of the water, people never
dine. At any rate, abundantly as Nature
has provided us with most of the material requisites, the highest possible
dinner has never yet been eaten in
It is not to be supposed, however, that the mob of cultivated Englishmen know how to dine in this elevated sense. The unpolishable ruggedness of the national character is still an impediment to them, even in that particular line where they are best qualified to excel. Though often present at good men's feasts, I remember only a single dinner, which, while lamentably conscious that many of its higher excellences were thrown away upon me, I yet could feel to be a perfect work of art. It could not, without unpardonable coarseness, be styled a matter of animal enjoyment, because, out of the very perfection of that lower bliss, there had arisen a dream-like development of spiritual happiness. As in the masterpieces of painting and poetry, there was a something intangible, a final deliciousness that only fluttered about your comprehension, vanishing whenever you tried to detain it, and compelling you to recognize it by faith rather than sense. It seemed as if a diviner set of senses were requisite, and had been partly supplied, for the special fruition of this banquet, and that the guests around the table (only eight in number) were becoming so educated, polished, and softened, by the delicate influences of what they ate and drunk, as to be now a little more than mortal for the nonce. And there was that gentle, delicious sadness, too, which we find in the very summit of our most exquisite enjoyments, and feel it a charm beyond all the gayety through which it keeps breathing its undertone. In the present case, it was worth a heavier sigh, to reflect that such a festal achievement,--the production of so much art, skill, fancy, invention, and perfect taste,--the growth of all the ages, which appeared to have been ripening for this hour, since man first began to eat and to moisten his food with wine,--must lavish its happiness upon so brief a moment, when other beautiful things can be made a joy forever. Yet a dinner like this is no better than we can get, any day, at the rejuvenescent Cornhill Coffee-House, unless the whole man, with soul, intellect, and stomach, is ready to appreciate it, and unless, moreover, there is such a harmony in all the circumstances and accompaniments, and especially such a pitch of well-according minds, that nothing shall jar rudely against the guest's thoroughly awakened sensibilities. The world, and especially our part of it, being the rough, ill-assorted, and tumultuous place we find it, a beefsteak is about as good as any other dinner.
The foregoing reminiscence, however, has drawn me aside from
the main object of my sketch, in which I purposed to give a slight idea of
those public, or partially public banquets, the custom of which so thoroughly
prevails among the English people, that nothing is ever decided upon, in
matters of peace and war, until they have chewed upon it in the shape of roast-beef,
and talked it fully over in their cups.
Nor are these festivities merely occasional, but of stated recurrence in
all considerable municipalities and associated bodies. The most ancient times appear to have been as
familiar with them as the Englishmen of to-day.
In many of the old English towns, you find some stately Gothic hall or
chamber in which the Mayor and other authorities of the place have long held
their sessions; and always, in convenient contiguity, there is a dusky kitchen,
with an immense fireplace where an ox might be roasting at his ease, though the
less gigantic scale of modern cookery may now have permitted the cobwebs to
gather in its chimney. St. Mary's Hall,
In a narrow street, opposite to St. Michael's Church, one of
the three famous spires of Coventry, you behold a mediaeval edifice, in the
basement of which is such a venerable and now deserted kitchen as I have above
alluded to, and, on the same level, a cellar, with low stone pillars and
intersecting arches, like the crypt of a cathedral. Passing up a well-worn staircase, the oaken
balustrade of which is as black as ebony, you enter the fine old hall, some
sixty feet in length, and broad and lofty in proportion. It is lighted by six windows of modern
stained glass, on one side, and by the immense and magnificent arch of another
window at the farther end of the room, its rich and ancient panes constituting
a genuine historical piece, in which are represented some of the kingly
personages of old times, with their heraldic blazonries. Notwithstanding the
colored light thus thrown into the hall, and though it was noonday when I last
saw it, the panelling of black-oak, and some faded tapestry that hung round the
walls, together with the cloudy vault of the roof above, made a gloom, which
the richness only illuminated into more appreciable effect. The tapestry is wrought with figures in the
dress of Henry VI.'s time (which is the date of the hall), and is regarded by
antiquaries as authentic evidence both for the costume of that epoch, and, I
believe, for the actual portraiture of men known in history. They are as colorless as ghosts, however, and
vanish drearily into the old stitch-work of their substance when you try to
make them out. Coats-of-arms were
formerly emblazoned all round the hall, but have been almost rubbed out by
people hanging their overcoats against them or by women with dishclouts and
scrubbing-brushes, obliterating hereditary glories in their blind hostility to
dust and spiders' webs. Full-length portraits of several English kings, Charles II. being the earliest, hang on the walls; and on the dais, or
elevated part of the floor, stands an antique chair of state, which several
royal characters are traditionally said to have occupied while feasting here
with their loyal subjects of
Overhead, supported by a self-sustaining power, without the aid of a single pillar, is the original ceiling of oak, precisely similar in shape to the roof of a barn, with all the beams and rafters plainly to be seen. At the remote height of sixty feet, you hardly discern that they are carved with figures of angels and doubtless many other devices, of which the admirable Gothic art is wasted in the duskiness that has so long been brooding there. Over the entrance of the hall, opposite the great arched window, the party-colored radiance of which glimmers faintly through the interval, is a gallery for minstrels; and a row of ancient suits of armor is suspended from its balustrade. It impresses me, too (for, having gone so far, I would fain leave nothing untouched upon), that I remember, somewhere about these venerable precincts, a picture of the Countess Godiva on horseback, in which the artist has been so niggardly of that illustrious lady's hair, that, if she had no ampler garniture, there was certainly much need for the good people of Coventry to shut their eyes. After all my pains, I fear that I have made but a poor hand at the description, as regards a transference of the scene from my own mind to the reader's. It gave me a most vivid idea of antiquity that had been very little tampered with; insomuch that, if a group of steel-clad knights had come clanking through the doorway, and a bearded and beruffed old figure had handed in a stately dame, rustling in gorgeous robes of a long-forgotten fashion, unveiling a face of beauty somewhat tarnished in the mouldy tomb, yet stepping majestically to the trill of harp and viol from the minstrels' gallery, while the rusty armor responded with a hollow ringing sound beneath,--why, I should have felt that these shadows, once so familiar with the spot, had a better right in St. Mary's Hall than I, a stranger from a far country which has no Past. But the moral of the foregoing description is to show how tenaciously this love of pompous dinners, this reverence for dinner as a sacred institution, has caught hold of the English character; since, from the earliest recognizable period, we find them building their civic banqueting-halls as magnificently as their palaces or cathedrals.
I know not whether the hall just described is now used for
festive purposes, but others of similar antiquity and splendor still are. For example, there is Barber-Surgeons' Hall,
The Mayor's dinner-parties occur as often as once a fortnight, and, inviting his guests by fifty or sixty at a time, his Worship probably assembles at his board most of the eminent citizens and distinguished personages of the town and neighborhood more than once during his year's incumbency, and very much, no doubt, to the promotion of good feeling among individuals of opposite parties and diverse pursuits in life. A miscellaneous party of Englishmen can always find more comfortable ground to meet upon than as many Americans, their differences of opinion being incomparably less radical than ours, and it being the sincerest wish of all their hearts, whether they call themselves Liberals or what not, that nothing in this world shall ever be greatly altered from what it has been and is. Thus there is seldom such a virulence of political hostility that it may not be dissolved in a glass or two of wine, without making the good liquor any more dry or bitter than accords with English taste.
The first dinner of this kind at which I had the honor to be present took place during assize-time, and included among the guests the judges and the prominent members of the bar. Reaching the Town Hall at seven o'clock, I communicated my name to one of several splendidly dressed footmen, and he repeated it to another on the first staircase, by whom it was passed to a third, and thence to a fourth at the door of the reception-room, losing all resemblance to the original sound in the course of these transmissions; so that I had the advantage of making my entrance in the character of a stranger, not only to the whole company, but to myself as well. His Worship, however, kindly recognized me, and put me on speaking-terms with two or three gentlemen, whom I found very affable, and all the more hospitably attentive on the score of my nationality. It is very singular how kind an Englishman will almost invariably be to an individual American, without ever bating a jot of his prejudice against the American character in the lump. My new acquaintances took evident pains to put me at my ease; and, in requital of their good-nature, I soon began to look round at the general company in a critical spirit, making my crude observations apart, and drawing silent inferences, of the correctness of which I should not have been half so well satisfied a year afterwards as at that moment.
There were two judges present, a good many lawyers, and a
few officers of the army in uniform. The
other guests seemed to be principally of the mercantile class, and among them
was a ship-owner from
To make an end of these first impressions, I fancied that not merely the Suffolk bar, but the bar of any inland county in New England, might show a set of thin-visaged men, looking wretchedly worn, sallow, deeply wrinkled across the forehead, and grimly furrowed about the mouth, with whom these heavy-checked English lawyers, slow-paced and fat-witted as they must needs be, would stand very little chance in a professional contest. How that matter might turn out, I am unqualified to decide. But I state these results of my earliest glimpses at Englishmen, not for what they are worth, but because I ultimately gave them up as worth little or nothing. In course of time, I came to the conclusion that Englishmen of all ages are a rather good-looking people, dress in admirable taste from their own point of view, and, under a surface never silken to the touch, have a refinement of manners too thorough and genuine to be thought of as a separate endowment,--that is to say, if the individual himself be a man of station, and has had gentlemen for his father and grandfather. The sturdy Anglo-Saxon nature does not refine itself short of the third generation. The tradesmen, too, and all other classes, have their own proprieties. The only value of my criticisms, therefore, lay in their exemplifying the proneness of a traveller to measure one people by the distinctive characteristics of another,--as English writers invariably measure us, and take upon themselves to be disgusted accordingly, instead of trying to find out some principle of beauty with which we may be in conformity.
In due time we were summoned to the table, and went thither
in no solemn procession, but with a good deal of jostling, thrusting behind, and
scrambling for places when we reached our destination. The legal gentlemen, I suspect, were
responsible for this indecorous zeal, which I never afterwards remarked in a
similar party. The dining-hall was of
noble size, and, like the other rooms of the suite, was gorgeously painted and
gilded and brilliantly illuminated.
There was a splendid table-service, and a noble array of footmen, some
of them in plain clothes, and others wearing the town-livery, richly decorated
with gold-lace, and themselves excellent specimens of
the blooming young manhood of
They drank rather copiously, too, though wisely; for I
observed that they seldom took Hock, and let the
During the dinner, I had a good deal of pleasant
conversation with the gentlemen on either side of me. One of them, a lawyer, expatiated with great
unction on the social standing of the judges.
Representing the dignity and authority of the Crown, they take precedence,
during assize-time, of the highest military men in the kingdom, of the Lord-Lieutenant
of the county, of the Archbishops, of the royal Dukes, and even of the Prince
of Wales. For the nonce, they are the
greatest men in
My companion on the other side was a thick-set, middle-aged man, uncouth in manners, and ugly where none were handsome, with a dark, roughly hewn visage, that looked grim in repose, and secured to hold within itself the machinery of a very terrific frown. He ate with resolute appetite, and let slip few opportunities of imbibing whatever liquids happened to be passing by. I was meditating in what way this grisly featured table-fellow might most safely be accosted, when he turned to me with a surly sort of kindness, and invited me to take a glass of wine. We then began a conversation that abounded, on his part, with sturdy sense, and, somehow or other, brought me closer to him than I had yet stood to an Englishman. I should hardly have taken him to be an educated man, certainly not a scholar of accurate training; and yet he seemed to have all the resources of education and trained intellectual power at command. My fresh Americanism, and watchful observation of English characteristics, appeared either to interest or amuse him, or perhaps both. Under the mollifying influences of abundance of meat and drink, he grew very gracious (not that I ought to use such a phrase to describe his evidently genuine good-will), and by and by expressed a wish for further acquaintance, asking me to call at his rooms in London and inquire for Sergeant Wilkins,--throwing out the name forcibly, as if he had no occasion to be ashamed of it. I remembered Dean Swift's retort to Sergeant Bettesworth on a similar announcement,--"Of what regiment, pray, sir?"--and fancied that the same question might not have been quite amiss, if applied to the rugged individual at my side. But I heard of him subsequently as one of the prominent men at the English bar, a rough customer, and a terribly strong champion in criminal cases; and it caused me more regret than might have been expected, on so slight an acquaintanceship, when, not long afterwards, I saw his death announced in the newspapers. Not rich in attractive qualities, he possessed, I think, the most attractive one of all,--thorough manhood.
After the cloth was removed, a goodly group of decanters were set before the Mayor, who sent them forth on their outward voyage, full freighted with Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Claret, of which excellent liquors, methought, the latter found least acceptance among the guests. When every man had filled his glass, his Worship stood up and proposed a toast. It was, of course, "Our gracious Sovereign," or words to that effect; and immediately a band of musicians, whose preliminary footings and thrummings I had already heard behind me, struck up "God save the Queen," and the whole company rose with one impulse to assist in singing that famous national anthem. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a body of men, or even a single man, under the active influence of the sentiment of Loyalty; for, though we call ourselves loyal to our country and institutions, and prove it by our readiness to shed blood and sacrifice life in their behalf, still the principle is as cold and hard, in an American bosom, as the steel spring that puts in motion a powerful machinery. In the Englishman's system, a force similar to that of our steel spring is generated by the warm throbbings of human hearts. He clothes our bare abstraction in flesh and blood,--at present, in the flesh and blood of a woman,--and manages to combine love, awe, and intellectual reverence, all in one emotion, and to embody his mother, his wife, his children, the whole idea of kindred, in a single person, and make her the representative of his country and its laws. We Americans smile superior, as I did at the Mayor's table; and yet, I fancy, we lose some very agreeable titillations of the heart in consequence of our proud prerogative of caring no more about our President than for a man of straw, or a stuffed scarecrow straddling in a cornfield.
But, to say the truth, the spectacle struck me rather
ludicrously, to see this party of stout middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, in
the fulness of meat and drink, their ample and ruddy faces glistening with
wine, perspiration, and enthusiasm, rumbling out those strange old stanzas from
the very bottom of their hearts and stomachs, which two organs, in the English
interior arrangement, lie closer together than in ours. The song seemed to me the rudest old ditty in
the world; but I could not wonder at its universal acceptance and
indestructible popularity, considering how inimitably it expresses the national
faith and feeling as regards the inevitable righteousness of England, the
Almighty's consequent respect and partiality for that redoubtable little
island, and his presumed readiness to strengthen its defence against the
contumacious wickedness and knavery of all other principalities or
republics. Tennyson himself, though
evidently English to the very last prejudice, could not write half so good a
song for the purpose. Finding that the
entire dinner-table struck in, with voices of every pitch between rolling
thunder and the squeak of a cart-wheel, and that the strain was not of such
delicacy as to be much hurt by the harshest of them, I determined to lend my
own assistance in swelling the triumphant roar.
It seemed but a proper courtesy to the first Lady in the land, whose
guest, in the largest sense, I might consider myself. Accordingly, my first tuneful efforts (and
probably my last, for I purpose not to sing any more, unless it he "Hail
Other toasts followed in honor of the great institutions and interests of the country, and speeches in response to each were made by individuals whom the Mayor designated or the company called for. None of them impressed me with a very high idea of English postprandial oratory. It is inconceivable, indeed, what ragged and shapeless utterances most Englishmen are satisfied to give vent to, without attempting anything like artistic shape, but clapping on a patch here and another there, and ultimately getting out what they want to say, and generally with a result of sufficiently good sense, but in some such disorganized mass as if they had thrown it up rather than spoken it. It seemed to me that this was almost as much by choice as necessity. An Englishman, ambitious of public favor, should not be too smooth. If an orator is glib, his countrymen distrust him. They dislike smartness. The stronger and heavier his thoughts, the better, provided there be an element of commonplace running through them; and any rough, yet never vulgar force of expression, such as would knock an opponent down, if it hit him, only it must not be too personal, is altogether to their taste; but a studied neatness of language, or other such superficial graces, they cannot abide. They do not often permit a man to make himself a fine orator of malice aforethought, that is, unless he be a nobleman (as, for example, Lord Stanley, of the Derby family), who, as an hereditary legislator and necessarily a public speaker, is bound to remedy a poor natural delivery in the best way he can. On the whole, I partly agree with them, and, if I cared for any oratory whatever, should be as likely to applaud theirs as our own. When an English speaker sits down, you feel that you have been listening to a real man, and not to an actor; his sentiments have a wholesome earth-smell in them, though, very likely, this apparent naturalness is as much an art as what we expend in rounding a sentence or elaborating a peroration.
It is one good effect of this inartificial style, that nobody in
While I was thus amiably occupied in criticising my fellow-guests, the Mayor had got up to propose another toast; and listening rather inattentively to the first sentence or two, I soon became sensible of a drift in his Worship's remarks that made me glance apprehensively towards Sergeant Wilkins. "Yes," grumbled that gruff personage, shoving a decanter of Port towards me, "it is your turn next"; and seeing in my face, I suppose, the consternation of a wholly unpractised orator, he kindly added, "It is nothing. A mere acknowledgment will answer the purpose. The less you say, the better they will like it." That being the case, I suggested that perhaps they would like it best if I said nothing at all. But the Sergeant shook his head. Now, on first receiving the Mayor's invitation to dinner, it had occurred to me that I might possibly be brought into my present predicament; but I had dismissed the idea from my mind as too disagreeable to be entertained, and, moreover, as so alien from my disposition and character that Fate surely could not keep such a misfortune in store for me. If nothing else prevented, an earthquake or the crack of doom would certainly interfere before I need rise to speak. Yet here was the Mayor getting on inexorably,--and, indeed, I heartily wished that he might get on and on forever, and of his wordy wanderings find no end.
If the gentle reader, my kindest friend and closest confidant, deigns to desire it, I can impart to him my own experience as a public speaker quite as indifferently as if it concerned another person. Indeed, it does concern another, or a mere spectral phenomenon, for it was not I, in my proper and natural self, that sat there at table or subsequently rose to speak. At the moment, then, if the choice had been offered me whether the Mayor should let off a speech at my head or a pistol, I should unhesitatingly have taken the latter alternative. I had really nothing to say, not an idea in my head, nor, which was a great deal worse, any flowing words or embroidered sentences in which to dress out that empty Nothing, and give it a cunning aspect of intelligence, such as might last the poor vacuity the little time it had to live. But time pressed; the Mayor brought his remarks, affectionately eulogistic of the United States and highly complimentary to their distinguished representative at that table, to a close, amid a vast deal of cheering; and the band struck up "Hail Columbia," I believe, though it might have been "Old Hundred," or "God save the Queen" over again, for anything that I should have known or cared. When the music ceased, there was an intensely disagreeable instant, during which I seemed to rend away and fling off the habit of a lifetime, and rose, still void of ideas, but with preternatural composure, to make a speech. The guests rattled on the table, and cried, "Hear!" most vociferously, as if now, at length, in this foolish and idly garrulous world, had come the long-expected moment when one golden word was to be spoken; and in that imminent crisis, I caught a glimpse of a little bit of an effusion of international sentiment, which it might, and must, and should do to utter.
Well; it was nothing, as the Sergeant had said. What surprised me most, was the sound of my own voice, which I had never before heard at a declamatory pitch, and which impressed me as belonging to some other person, who, and not myself, would be responsible for the speech: a prodigious consolation and encouragement under the circumstances! I went on without the slightest embarrassment, and sat down amid great applause, wholly undeserved by anything that I had spoken, but well won from Englishmen, methought, by the new development of pluck that alone had enabled me to speak at all. "It was handsomely done!" quoth Sergeant Wilkins; and I felt like a recruit who had been for the first time under fire.
I would gladly have ended my oratorical career then and
there forever, but was often placed in a similar or worse position, and
compelled to meet it as I best might; for this was one of the necessities of an
office which I had voluntarily taken on my shoulders, and beneath which I might
be crushed by no moral delinquency on my own part, but could not shirk without
cowardice and shame. My subsequent
fortune was various. Once, though I felt
it to be a kind of imposture, I got a speech by heart, and doubtless it might
have been a very pretty one, only I forgot every syllable at the moment of
need, and had to improvise another as well as I could. I found it a better method to prearrange a
few points in my mind, and trust to the spur of the occasion, and the kind aid
This slight article on the civic banquets of
In the entrance-hall I was received by a body of footmen
dressed in a livery of blue coats and buff breeches, in which they looked wonderfully
like American Revolutionary generals, only bedizened with far more lace and
embroidery than those simple and grand old heroes ever dreamed of wearing. There were likewise two very imposing
figures, whom I should have taken to be military men of rank, being arrayed in
scarlet coats and large silver epaulets; but they turned out to be officers of
the Lord Mayor's household, and were now employed in assigning to the guests
the places which they were respectively to occupy at the dinner-table. Our names (for I had included myself in a
little group of friends) were announced; and ascending the staircase, we met
his Lordship in the doorway of the first reception-room, where, also, we had
the advantage of a presentation to the Lady Mayoress. As this distinguished couple retired into
private life at the termination of their year of office, it is inadmissible to
make any remarks, critical or laudatory, on the manners and bearing of two
personages suddenly emerging from a position of respectable mediocrity into one
of pre-eminent dignity within their own sphere.
Such individuals almost always seem to grow nearly or quite to the full
size of their office. If it were
desirable to write an essay on the latent aptitude of ordinary people for
grandeur, we have an exemplification in our own country, and on a scale
incomparably greater than that of the Mayoralty, though invested with nothing
like the outward magnificence that gilds and embroiders the latter. If I have been correctly informed, the Lord
Mayor's salary is exactly double that of the President of the
There were two reception-rooms, thrown into one by the opening of wide folding-doors; and though in an old style, and not yet so old as to be venerable, they are remarkably handsome apartments, lofty as well as spacious, with carved ceilings and walls, and at either end a splendid fireplace of white marble, ornamented with sculptured wreaths of flowers and foliage. The company were about three hundred, many of them celebrities in politics, war, literature, and science, though I recollect none preeminently distinguished in either department. But it is certainly a pleasant mode of doing honor to men of literature, for example, who deserve well of the public, yet do not often meet it face to face, thus to bring them together under genial auspices, in connection with persons of note in other lines. I know not what may be the Lord Mayor's mode or principle of selecting his guests, nor whether, during his official term, he can proffer his hospitality to every man of noticeable talent in the wide world of London, nor, in fine, whether his Lordship's invitation is much sought for or valued; but it seemed to me that this periodical feast is one of the many sagacious methods which the English have contrived for keeping up a good understanding among different sorts of people. Like most other distinctions of society, however, I presume that the Lord Mayor's card does not often seek out modest merit, but comes at last when the recipient is conscious of the bore, and doubtful about the honor.
One very pleasant characteristic, which I never met with at
any other public or partially public dinner, was the presence of ladies. No doubt, they were principally the wives and
daughters of city magnates; and if we may judge from the many sly allusions in
old plays and satirical poems, the city of
At a given signal we all found our way into an immense room,
called the Egyptian Hall, I know not why, except that the architecture was
classic, and as different as possible from the ponderous style of
The soup, of course, on this occasion, was turtle, of which, in accordance with immemorial custom, each guest was allowed two platefuls, in spite of the otherwise immitigable law of table-decorum. Indeed, judging from the proceedings of the gentlemen near me, I surmised that there was no practical limit, except the appetite of the guests and the capacity of the soup-tureens. Not being fond of this civic dainty, I partook of it but once, and then only in accordance with the wise maxim, always to taste a fruit, a wine, or a celebrated dish, at its indigenous site; and the very fountain-head of turtle-soup, I suppose, is in the Lord Mayor's dinner-pot. It is one of those orthodox customs which people follow for half a century without knowing why, to drink a sip of rum-punch, in a very small tumbler, after the soup. It was excellently well-brewed, and it seemed to me almost worth while to sup the soup for the sake of sipping the punch. The rest of the dinner was catalogued in a bill-of-fare printed on delicate white paper within an arabesque border of green and gold. It looked very good, not only in the English and French names of the numerous dishes, but also in the positive reality of the dishes themselves, which were all set on the table to be carved and distributed by the guests. This ancient and honest method is attended with a good deal of trouble, and a lavish effusion of gravy, yet by no means bestowed or dispensed in vain, because you have thereby the absolute assurance of a banquet actually before your eyes, instead of a shadowy promise in the bill-of-fare, and such meagre fulfilment as a single guest can contrive to get upon his individual plate. I wonder that Englishmen, who are fond of looking at prize-oxen in the shape of butcher's-meat, do not generally better estimate the aesthetic gormandism of devouring the whole dinner with their eyesight, before proceeding to nibble the comparatively few morsels which, after all, the most heroic appetite and widest stomachic capacity of mere mortals can enable even an alderman really to eat. There fell to my lot three delectable things enough, which I take pains to remember, that the reader may not go away wholly unsatisfied from the Barmecide feast to which I have bidden him,--a red mullet, a plate of mushrooms, exquisitely stewed, and part of a ptarmigan, a bird of the same family as the grouse, but feeding high up towards the summit of the Scotch mountains, whence it gets a wild delicacy of flavor very superior to that of the artificially nurtured English game-fowl. All the other dainties have vanished from my memory as completely as those of Prospero's banquet after Ariel had clapped his wings over it. The band played at intervals inspiriting us to new efforts, as did likewise the sparkling wines which the footmen supplied from an inexhaustible cellar, and which the guests quaffed with little apparent reference to the disagreeable fact that there comes a to-morrow morning after every feast. As long as that shall be the case, a prudent man can never have full enjoyment of his dinner.
Nearly opposite to me, on the other side of the table, sat a young lady in white, whom I am sorely tempted to describe, but dare not, because not only the supereminence of her beauty, but its peculiar character, would cause the sketch to be recognized, however rudely it might be drawn. I hardly thought that there existed such a woman outside of a picture-frame, or the covers of a romance: not that I had ever met with her resemblance even there, but, being so distinct and singular an apparition; she seemed likelier to find her sisterhood in poetry and picture than in real life. Let us turn away from her, lest a touch too apt should compel her stately and cold and soft and womanly grace to gleam out upon my page with a strange repulsion and unattainableness in the very spell that made her beautiful. At her side, and familiarly attentive to her, sat a gentleman of whom I remember only a hard outline of the nose and forehead, and such a monstrous portent of a beard that you could discover no symptom of a mouth, except, when he opened it to speak, or to put in a morsel of food. Then, indeed, you suddenly became aware of a cave hidden behind the impervious and darksome shrubbery. There could be no doubt who this gentleman and lady were. Any child would have recognized them at a glance. It was Bluebeard and a new wife (the loveliest of the series, but with already a mysterious gloom overshadowing her fair young brow) travelling in their honeymoon, and dining, among other distinguished strangers, at the Lord Mayor's table.
After an hour or two of valiant achievement with knife and fork came the dessert; and at the point of the festival where finger-glasses are usually introduced, a large silver basin was carried round to the guests, containing rose-water, into which we dipped the ends of our napkins and were conscious of a delightful fragrance, instead of that heavy and weary odor, the hateful ghost of a defunct dinner. This seems to be an ancient custom of the city, not confined to the Lord Mayor's table, but never met with westward of Temple Bar.
During all the feast, in accordance with another ancient custom, the origin or purport of which I do not remember to have heard, there stood a man in armor, with a helmet on his head, behind his Lordship's chair. When the after-dinner wine was placed on the table, still another official personage appeared behind the chair, and proceeded to make a solemn and sonorous proclamation (in which he enumerated the principal guests, comprising three or four noblemen, several baronets, and plenty of generals, members of Parliament, aldermen, and other names of the illustrious, one of which sounded strangely familiar to my ears), ending in some such style as this: "and other gentlemen and ladies, here present, the Lord Mayor drinks to you all in a loving-cup,"--giving a sort, of sentimental twang to the two words,--"and sends it round among you!" And forthwith the loving-cup--several of them, indeed, on each side of the tables--came slowly down with all the antique ceremony.
The fashion of it is thus. The Lord Mayor, standing up and taking the covered cup in both hands, presents it to the guest at his elbow, who likewise rises, and removes the cover for his Lordship to drink, which being successfully accomplished, the guest replaces the cover and receives the cup into his own hands. He then presents it to his next neighbor, that the cover may be again removed for himself to take a draught, after which the third person goes through a similar manoeuvre with a fourth, and he with a fifth, until the whole company find themselves inextricably intertwisted and entangled in one complicated chain of love. When the cup came to my hands, I examined it critically, both inside and out, and perceived it to be an antique and richly ornamented silver goblet, capable of holding about a quart of wine. Considering how much trouble we all expended in getting the cup to our lips, the guests appeared to content themselves with wonderfully moderate potations. In truth, nearly or quite the original quart of wine being still in the goblet, it seemed doubtful whether any of the company had more than barely touched the silver rim before passing it to their neighbors,--a degree of abstinence that might be accounted for by a fastidious repugnance to so many compotators in one cup, or possibly by a disapprobation of the liquor. Being curious to know all about these important matters, with a view of recommending to my countrymen whatever they might usefully adopt, I drank an honest sip from the loving-cup, and had no occasion for another,--ascertaining it to be Claret of a poor original quality, largely mingled with water, and spiced and sweetened. It was good enough, however, for a merely spectral or ceremonial drink, and could never have been intended for any better purpose.
The toasts now began in the customary order, attended with
speeches neither more nor less witty and ingenious than the specimens of
table-eloquence which had heretofore delighted me. As preparatory to each new display, the
herald, or whatever he was, behind the chair of state, gave awful notice that
the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor was about to propose a toast. His Lordship being happily delivered thereof,
together with some accompanying remarks, the band played an appropriate tune,
and the herald again issued proclamation to the effect that such or such a
nobleman, or gentleman, general, dignified clergyman, or what not, was going to
respond to the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor's toast; then, if I mistake not,
there was another prodigious flourish of trumpets and twanging of stringed
instruments; and finally the doomed individual, waiting all this while to be
decapitated, got up and proceeded to make a fool of himself. A bashful young earl tried his maiden oratory
on the good citizens of
The weight and gravity of the speakers, not only on this
occasion, but all similar ones, was what impressed me as most extraordinary,
not to say absurd. Why should people eat
a good dinner, and put their spirits into festive trim with Champagne, and
afterwards mellow themselves into a most enjoyable state of quietude with
copious libations of Sherry and old Port, and then disturb the whole excellent
result by listening to speeches as heavy as an after-dinner nap, and in no
degree so refreshing? If the
Possibly, the foregoing sentiments have taken a spice of acridity from a circumstance that happened about this stage of the feast, and very much interrupted my own further enjoyment of it. Up to this time, my condition had been exceedingly felicitous, both on account of the brilliancy of the scene, and because I was in close proximity with three very pleasant English friends. One of them was a lady, whose honored name my readers would recognize as a household word, if I dared write it; another, a gentleman, likewise well known to them, whose fine taste, kind heart, and genial cultivation are qualities seldom mixed in such happy proportion as in him. The third was the man to whom I owed most in England, the warm benignity of whose nature was never weary of doing me good, who led me to many scenes of life, in town, camp, and country, which I never could have found out for myself, who knew precisely the kind of help a stranger needs, and gave it as freely as if he had not had a thousand more important things to live for. Thus I never felt safer or cosier at anybody's fireside, even my own, than at the dinner-table of the Lord Mayor.
Out of this serene sky came a thunderbolt. His Lordship got up and proceeded to make some very eulogistic remarks upon "the literary and commercial"--I question whether those two adjectives were ever before married by a copulative conjunction, and they certainly would not live together in illicit intercourse, of their own accord--"the literary and commercial attainments of an eminent gentleman there present," and then went on to speak of the relations of blood and interest between Great Britain and the aforesaid eminent gentleman's native country. Those bonds were more intimate than had ever before existed between two great nations, throughout all history, and his Lordship felt assured that that whole honorable company would join him in the expression of a fervent wish that they might be held inviolably sacred, on both sides of the Atlantic, now and forever. Then came the same wearisome old toast, dry and hard to chew upon as a musty sea-biscuit, which had been the text of nearly all the oratory of my public career. The herald sonorously announced that Mr. So-and-so would now respond to his Right Honorable Lordship's toast and speech, the trumpets sounded the customary flourish for the onset, there was a thunderous rumble of anticipatory applause, and finally a deep silence sank upon the festive hall.
All this was a horrid piece of treachery on the Lord Mayor's part, after beguiling me within his lines on a pledge of safe-conduct; and it seemed very strange that he could not let an unobtrusive individual eat his dinner in peace, drink a small sample of the Mansion House wine, and go away grateful at heart for the old English hospitality. If his Lordship had sent me an infusion of ratsbane in the loving-cup, I should have taken it much more kindly at his hands. But I suppose the secret of the matter to have been somewhat as follows.
All England, just then, was in one of those singular fits of
panic excitement (not fear, though as sensitive and tremulous as that emotion),
which, in consequence of the homogeneous character of the people, their intense
patriotism, and their dependence for their ideas in public affairs on other
sources than their own examination and individual thought, are more sudden,
pervasive, and unreasoning than any similar mood of our own public. In truth, I have never seen the American
public in a state at all similar, and believe that we are incapable of it. Our excitements are not impulsive, like
theirs, but, right or wrong, are moral and intellectual. For example, the grand rising of the North,
at the commencement of this war, bore the aspect of impulse and passion only
because it was so universal, and necessarily done in a moment, just as the
quiet and simultaneous getting-up of a thousand people out of their chairs
would cause a tumult that might be mistaken for a storm. We were cool then, and have been cool ever since,
and shall remain cool to the end, which we shall take coolly, whatever it may
be. There is nothing which the English
find it so difficult to understand in us as this characteristic. They imagine us, in our collective capacity,
a kind of wild beast, whose normal condition is savage fury, and are always
looking for the moment when we shall break through the slender barriers of
international law and comity, and compel the reasonable part of the world, with
themselves at the head, to combine for the purpose of putting us into a
stronger cage. At times this
apprehension becomes so powerful (and when one man feels it, a million do),
that it resembles the passage of the wind over a broad field of grain, where
you see the whole crop bending and swaying beneath one impulse, and each
separate stalk tossing with the selfsame disturbance as its myriad
companions. At such periods all
Englishmen talk with a terrible identity of sentiment and expression. You have
the whole country in each man; and not one of them all, if you put him strictly
to the question, can give n reasonable ground for his alarm. There are but two nations in the world--our
own country and
If the English were accustomed to look at the foreign side of any international dispute, they might easily have satisfied themselves that there was very little danger of a war at that particular crisis, from the simple circumstance that their own Government had positively not an inch of honest ground to stand upon, and could not fail to be aware of the fact. Neither could they have met Parliament with any show of a justification for incurring war. It was no such perilous juncture as exists now, when law and right are really controverted on sustainable or plausible grounds, and a naval commander may at any moment fire off the first cannon of a terrible contest. If I remember it correctly, it was a mere diplomatic squabble, in which the British ministers, with the politic generosity which they are in the habit of showing towards their official subordinates, had tried to browbeat us for the purpose of sustaining an ambassador in an indefensible proceeding; and the American Government (for God had not denied us an administration of statesmen then) had retaliated with stanch courage and exquisite skill, putting inevitably a cruel mortification upon their opponents, but indulging them with no pretence whatever for active resentment.
Now the Lord Mayor, like any other Englishman, probably
fancied that War was on the western gale, and was glad to lay hold of even so
insignificant an American as myself, who might be made to harp on the rusty old
strings of national sympathies, identity of blood and interest, and community
of language and literature, and whisper peace where there was no peace, in
however weak an utterance. And possibly
his Lordship thought, in his wisdom, that the good feeling which was sure to be
expressed by a company of well-bred Englishmen, at his august and far-famed
dinner-table, might have an appreciable influence on the grand result. Thus, when the Lord Mayor invited me to his
feast, it was a piece of strategy. He
wanted to induce me to fling myself, like a lesser Curtius, with a larger
object of self-sacrifice, into the chasm of discord between
As soon as the Lord Mayor began to speak, I rapped upon my
mind, and it gave forth a hollow sound, being absolutely empty of appropriate
ideas. I never thought of listening to the speech, because I knew it all
beforehand in twenty repetitions from other lips, and was aware that it would
not offer a single suggestive point. In
this dilemma, I turned to one of my three friends, a gentleman whom I knew to
possess an enviable flow of silver speech, and obtested him, by whatever he
deemed holiest, to give me at least an available thought or two to start with,
and, once afloat, I would trust to my guardian-angel for enabling me to
flounder ashore again. He advised me to
begin with some remarks complimentary to the Lord Mayor, and expressive of the
hereditary reverence in which his office was held,--at least, my friend thought
that there would be no harm in giving his Lordship this little sugar-plum,
whether quite the fact or no,--was held by the descendants of the Puritan
forefathers. Thence, if I liked, getting
flexible with the oil of my own eloquence, I might easily slide off into the
momentous subject of the relations between
Seizing this handful of straw with a death-grip, and bidding my three friends bury me honorably, I got upon my legs to save both countries, or perish in the attempt. The tables roared and thundered at me, and suddenly were silent again. But, as I have never happened to stand in a position of greater dignity and peril, I deem it a stratagem of sage policy here to close these Sketches, leaving myself still erect in so heroic an attitude.