From Stanton Harcourt we drove — I forget how far — to a point where a boat was waiting for us upon the Thames, or some other stream; for I am ashamed to confess my ignorance of the precise geographical whereabout.
We were, at any rate, some miles above Oxford, and, I should imagine, pretty near one of the sources of England's mighty river.
It was little more than wide enough for the boat, with extended oars, to pass, — shallow, too, and bordered with bulrushes and water-weeds, which, in some places, quite overgrew the surface of the river from bank to bank.
The shores were flat and meadow-like, and sometimes, the boatman told us, are overflowed by the rise of the stream.
The water looked clean and pure, but not particularly transparent, though enough so to show us that the bottom is very much weed-grown; and I was told that the weed is an American production, brought to England with importations of timber, and now threatening to choke up the Thames and other English rivers.
I wonder it does not try its obstructive powers upon the Merrimack, the Connecticut, or the Hudson, — not to speak of the St.Lawrence or the Mississippi!
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 skillfully 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 to 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 London.
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 Oxford, which has converted its precincts into a barnyard.
The gate was under lock and key, so that we could merely look at the outside, and soon resumed our places in the boat.
The Thames, from Folly Bridge.
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 Folly Bridge, at Oxford.
Here we took possession of a spacious barge, with a house in it, and a comfortable dining-room or drawing-room within the house, and a level roof, on which we could sit at ease, or dance if so inclined.
These barges are common at Oxford, — some very splendid ones being owned by the students of the different colleges, or by clubs.
They are drawn by horses, like canal-boats; and a horse being attached to our own barge, he trotted off at a reasonable pace, and we slipped through the water behind him, with a gentle and pleasant motion, which, save for the constant vicissitude of cultivated scenery, was like no motion at all.
It was life without the trouble of living; nothing was ever more quietly agreeable.
In this happy state of mind and body we gazed at Christ Church meadows, as we passed, and at the receding spires and towers of Oxford, and on a good deal of pleasant variety along the banks: young men rowing or fishing; troops of naked boys bathing, as if this were Arcadia, in the simplicity of the Golden Age; country-houses, cottages, water-side inns, all with something fresh about them, as not being sprinkled with the dust of the highway.
We were a large party now; for a number of additional guests had joined us at Folly Bridge, and we comprised poets, novelists, scholars, sculptors, painters, architects, men and women of renown, dear friends, genial, outspoken, open-hearted Englishmen, — all voyaging onward together, like the wise ones of Gotham in a bowl.
I remember not a single annoyance, except, indeed, that a swarm of wasps came aboard of us and alighted on the head of one of our young gentlemen, attracted by the scent of the pomatum which he had been rubbing into his hair.
He was the only victim, and his small trouble the one little flaw in our day's felicity, to put us in mind that we were mortal.
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 Thames which passes by Nuneham Courtney, a fine estate belonging to the Harcourts, and the present residence of the family.
Here we landed, and, climbing a steep slope from the river-side, paused a moment or two to look at an architectural object, called the Carfax, the purport of which I do not well understand.
Thence we proceeded onward, through the loveliest park and woodland scenery I ever saw, and under as beautiful a declining sunshine as heaven ever shed over earth, to the stately mansion-house.
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 be, — 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 England.
It is merely a fair specimen of the better class of country-seats, and has a hundred rivals, and many superiors, in the features of beauty, and expansive, manifold, redundant comfort, which most impressed me.
A moderate man might be content with such a home, — that is all.
And now I take leave of Oxford without even an attempt to describe it, — there being no literary faculty, attainable or conceivable by me, which can avail to put it adequately, or even tolerably, upon paper.
It must remain its own sole expression; and those whose sad fortune it may be never to behold it have no better resource than to dream about gray, weather-stained, ivy-grown edifices, wrought with quaint Gothic ornament, and standing around grassy quadrangles, where cloistered walks have echoed to the quiet footsteps of twenty generations, — lawns and gardens of luxurious repose, shadowed with canopies of foliage, and lit up with sunny glimpses through archways of great boughs, — spires, towers, and turrets, each with its history and legend, — dimly magnificent chapels, with painted windows of rare beauty and brilliantly diversified hues, creating an atmosphere of richest gloom, — vast college halls, high-windowed, oaken-paneled, and hung round with portraits of the men, in every age, whom the university has nurtured to be illustrious, — long vistas of alcoved libraries, where the wisdom and learned folly of all time is shelved, — kitchens (we throw in this feature by way of ballast, and because it would not be English Oxford without its beef and beer), with huge fireplaces, capable of roasting a hundred joints at once, — and cavernous cellars, where rows of piled-up hogsheads seethe and fume with that mighty malt-liquor which is the true milk of Alma Mater: make all these things vivid in your dream, and you will never know nor believe how inadequate is the result to represent even the merest outside of Oxford.
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.
The upper portion of Greenwich (where my last article left me loitering) is a cheerful, comely, old-fashioned town, the peculiarities of which, if there be any, have passed out of my remembrance.
As you descend towards the Thames the streets get meaner, and the shabby and sunken houses, elbowing one another for frontage, bear the signboards of beer-shops and eating-rooms, with especial promises of white-bait and other delicacies in the fishing line.
You observe, also, a frequent announcement of "Tea Gardens" in the rear; although, estimating the capacity of the premises by their external compass, the entire sylvan charm and shadowy seclusion of such blissful resorts must be limited within a small back-yard.
These places of cheap sustenance and recreation depend for support upon the innumerable pleasure-parties who come from London Bridge by steamer, at a fare of a few pence, and who get as enjoyable a meal for a shilling a head as the Ship Hotel would afford a gentleman for a guinea.
The steamers, which are constantly smoking their pipes up and down the Thames, offer much the most agreeable mode of getting to London.
At least, it might be exceedingly agreeable, except for the myriad floating particles of soot from the stove-pipe, and the heavy heat of midsummer sunshine on the unsheltered deck, or the chill, misty air-draught of a cloudy day, and the spiteful little showers of rain that may spatter down upon you at any moment, whatever the promise of the sky; besides which there is some slight inconvenience from the inexhaustible throng of passengers, who scarcely allow you standing-room, nor so much as a breath of unappropriated air, and never a chance to sit down.
If these difficulties, added to the possibility of getting your pocket picked, weigh little with you, the panorama along the shores of the memorable river, and the incidents and shows of passing life upon its bosom, render the trip far preferable to the brief yet tiresome shoot along the railway track.
On one such voyage, a regatta of wherries raced past us, and at once involved every soul on board our steamer in the tremendous excitement of the struggle.
The spectacle was but a moment within our view, and presented nothing more than a few light skiffs, in each of which sat a single rower, bare-armed, and with little apparel, save a shirt and drawers, pale, anxious, with every muscle on the stretch, and plying his oars in such fashion that the boat skimmed along with the aerial celerity of a swallow.
I wondered at myself for so immediately catching an interest in the affair, which seemed to contain no very exalted rivalship of manhood; but, whatever the kind of battle or the prize of victory, it stirs one's sympathy immensely, and is even awful, to behold the rare sight of a man thoroughly in earnest, doing his best, putting forth all there is in him, and staking his very soul (as these rowers appeared willing to do) on the issue of the contest.
It was the seventy-fourth annual regatta of the Free Watermen of Greenwich, and announced itself as under the patronage of the Lord Mayor and other distinguished individuals, at whose expense, I suppose, a prize-boat was offered to the conqueror, and some small amounts of money to the inferior competitors.
The aspect of London along the Thames, below Bridge, as it is called, is by no means so impressive as it ought to be, considering what peculiar advantages are offered for the display of grand and stately architecture by the passage of a river through the midst of a great city.
It seems, indeed, as if the heart of London had been cleft open for the mere purpose of showing how rotten and drearily mean it had become.
The shore is lined with the shabbiest, blackest, and ugliest buildings that can be imagined, decayed warehouses with blind windows, and wharves that look ruinous; insomuch that, had I known nothing more of the world's metropolis, I might have fancied that it had already experienced the downfall which I have heard commercial and financial prophets predict for it, within the century.
And the muddy tide of the Thames, reflecting nothing, and hiding a million of unclean secrets within its breast, — a sort of guilty conscience, as it were, unwholesome with the rivulets of sin that constantly flow into it, — is just the dismal stream to glide by such a city.
The surface, to be sure, displays no lack of activity, being fretted by the passage of a hundred steamers and covered with a good deal of shipping, but mostly of a clumsier build than I had been accustomed to see in the Mersey: a fact which I complacently attributed to the smaller number of American clippers in the Thames, and the less prevalent influence of American example in refining away the broad-bottomed capacity of the old Dutch or English models.
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 Kohinoor 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 London Bridge, he will bethink himself that somewhere thereabout was the marvelous Tunnel, the very existence of which will seem to him as incredible as that of the hanging gardens of Babylon.
But the Thames will long ago have broken through the massive arch, and choked up the corridors with mud and sand and with the large stones of the structure itself, intermixed with skeletons of drowned people, the rusty ironwork of sunken vessels, and the great many such precious and curious things as a river always contrives to hide in its bosom; the entrance will have been obliterated, and its very site forgotten beyond the memory of twenty generations of men, and the whole neighborhood be held a dangerous spot on account of the malaria; insomuch that the traveler will make but a brief and careless inquisition for the traces of the old wonder, and will stake his credit before the public, in some Pacific Monthly of that day, that the story of it is but a myth, though enriched with a spiritual profundity which he will proceed to unfold.
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 usefulness, 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 traveled 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, Cæsar 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 pretense of purifying it from its abuses! Away with him into the tunnel, and let him begin by setting the Thames on fire, if he is able!
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 Hudson or the Potomac, for the convenience of our National Government in times hardly yet gone by.
It would be delightful to clap up all the enemies of our peace and Union in the dark together, and there let them abide, listening to the monotonous roll of the river above their heads, or perhaps in a state of miraculously suspended animation, until, — be it after months, years, or centuries, — when the turmoil shall be all over, the Wrong washed away in blood (since that must needs be the cleansing fluid), and the Right firmly rooted in the soil which that blood will have enriched, they might crawl forth again and catch a single glimpse at their redeemed country, and feel it to be a better land than they deserve, and die!
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 Thames, I found myself in Rotherhithe, a neighborhood not unfamiliar to the readers of old books of maritime adventure.
There being a ferry hard by the mouth of the tunnel, I recrossed the river in the primitive fashion of an open boat, which the conflict of wind and tide, together with the swash and swell of the passing steamers, tossed high and low rather tumultuously.
This inquietude of our frail skiff (which, indeed, bobbed up and down like a cork) so much alarmed an old lady, the only other passenger, that the boatmen essayed to comfort her.
"Never fear, mother!" grumbled one of them; "we'll make the river as smooth as we can for you. We'll get a plane, and plane down the waves!".
The joke may not read very brilliantly; but I make bold to record it as the only specimen that reached my ears of the old, rough water-wit for which the Thames used to be so celebrated.
Passing directly along the line of the sunken tunnel, we landed in Wapping, which I should have presupposed to be the most tarry and pitchy spot on earth, swarming with old salts, and full of warm, bustling, coarse, homely, and cheerful life.
Nevertheless, it turned out to be a cold and torpid neighborhood, mean, shabby, and unpicturesque, both as to its buildings and inhabitants: the latter comprising (so far as was visible to me) not a single unmistakable sailor, though plenty of land-sharks, who get a half-dishonest livelihood by business connected with the sea.
Ale and spirit vaults (as petty drinking-establishments are styled in England, pretending to contain vast cellars full of liquor within the compass of ten feet square above ground) were particularly abundant, together with apples, oranges, and oysters, the stalls of fishmongers and butchers, and slop-shops, where blue jackets and duck trousers swung and capered before the doors.
Everything was on the poorest scale, and the place bore an aspect of unredeemable decay.
From this remote point of London I strolled leisurely towards the heart of the city; while the streets, at first but thinly occupied by man or vehicle, got more and more thronged with foot-passengers, carts, drays, cabs, and the all-pervading and all-accommodating omnibus.
But I lack courage, and feel that I should lack perseverance, as the gentlest reader would lack patience, to undertake a descriptive stroll through London streets; more especially as there would be a volume ready for the printer before we could reach a midway resting-place at Charing Cross.
It will be the easier course to step aboard another passing steamer, and continue our trip up the Thames.
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 hue, bordered with white stone, and having a small turret at each corner of the roof.
This central structure is the White Tower, and the whole circuit of ramparts and inclosed edifices constitutes what is known in English history, and still more widely and impressively in English poetry, as the Tower.
A crowd of river-craft are generally moored in front of it; but if we look sharply at the right moment under the base of the rampart, we may catch a glimpse of an arched water-entrance, half submerged, past which the Thames glides as indifferently as if it were the mouth of a city-kennel.
Nevertheless, it is the Traitor's Gate, a dreary kind of triumphal passage-way (now supposed to be shut up and barred forever), through which a multitude of noble and illustrious personages have entered the Tower and found it a brief resting-place on their way to heaven.
Passing it many times, I never observed that anybody glanced at this shadowy and ominous trap-door, save myself.
It is well that America exists, if it were only that her vagrant children may be impressed and affected by the historical monuments of England in a degree of which the native inhabitants are evidently incapable.
These matters are too familiar, too real, and too hopelessly built in amongst and mixed up with the common objects and affairs of life, to be easily susceptible of imaginative coloring in their minds; and even their poets and romancers feel it a toil, and almost a delusion, to extract poetic material out of what seems embodied poetry itself to an American.
An Englishman cares nothing about the Tower, which to us is a haunted castle in dream-land.
That honest and excellent gentleman, the late Mr.G.P.R.James (whose mechanical ability, one might have supposed, would nourish itself by devouring every old stone of such a structure), once assured me that he had never in his life set eyes upon the Tower, though for years an historic novelist in London.
Not to spend a whole summer's day upon the voyage, we will suppose ourselves to have reached London Bridge, and thence to have taken another steamer for a farther passage up the river.
But here the memorable objects succeed each other so rapidly that I can spare but a single sentence even for the great Dome, though I deem it more picturesque, in that dusky atmosphere, than St. Peter's in its clear blue sky.
I must mention, however (since everything connected with royalty is especially interesting to my dear countrymen), that I once saw a large and beautiful barge, splendidly gilded and ornamented, and overspread with a rich covering, lying at the pier nearest to St.Paul's Cathedral; it had the royal banner of Great Britain displayed, besides being decorated with a number of other flags; and many footmen (who are universally the grandest and gaudiest objects to be seen in England at this day, and these were regal ones, in a bright scarlet livery bedizened with gold-lace, and white silk stockings) were in attendance.
I know not what festive or ceremonial occasion may have drawn out this pageant; after all, it might have been merely a city-spectacle, appertaining to the Lord Mayor; but the sight had its value in bringing vividly before me the grand old times when the sovereign and nobles were accustomed to use the Thames as the high street of the metropolis, and join in pompous processions upon it; whereas, the desuetude of such customs nowadays has caused the whole show of river-life to consist in a multitude of smoke-begrimed steamers.
An analogous change has taken place in the streets, where cabs and the omnibus have crowded out a rich variety of vehicles; and thus life gets more monotonous in hue from age to age, and appears to seize every opportunity to strip off a bit of its gold-lace among the wealthier classes, and to make itself decent in the lower ones.
St.Paul's appeared to me unspeakably grand and noble, and the more so from the throng and bustle continually going on around its base, without in the least disturbing the sublime repose of its great dome, and, indeed, of all its massive height and breadth.
Other edifices may crowd close to its foundation, and people may tramp as they like about it; but still the great cathedral is as quiet and serene as if it stood in the middle of Salisbury Plain.
There cannot be anything else in its way so good in the world as just this effect of St.Paul's in the very heart and densest tumult of London.
I do not know whether the church is built of marble, or of whatever other white or nearly white material; but in the time that it has been standing there, it has grown black with the smoke of ages, through which there are, nevertheless, gleams of white, that make a most picturesque impression on the whole.
It is much better than staring white; the edifice would not be nearly so grand without this drapery of black.
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 the 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 Lambeth Palace, a venerable group of halls and turrets, chiefly built of brick, but with at least one large tower of stone.
In our course, we have passed beneath half a dozen bridges, and, emerging out of the black heart of London, shall soon reach a cleanly suburb, where old Father Thames, if I remember, begins to put on an aspect of unpolluted innocence.
And now we look back upon the mass of innumerable roofs, out of which rise steeples, towers, columns, and the great crowning Dome, — look back, in short, upon that mystery of the world's proudest city, amid which a man so longs and loves to be; not, perhaps, because it contains much that is positively admirable and enjoyable, but because, at all events, the world has nothing better.
The cream of external life is there; and whatever merely intellectual or material good we fail to find perfect in London, we may as well content ourselves to seek that unattainable thing no farther on this earth.
After coming out of the Abbey, we looked at the two Houses of Parliament, directly across the way, — an immense structure, and certainly most splendid, built of a beautiful warm-colored stone.
The building has a very elaborate finish, and delighted me at first; but by and by I began to be sensible of a weariness in the effect, a lack of variety in the plan and ornament, a deficiency of invention; so that instead of being more and more interested the longer one looks, as is the case with an old Gothic edifice, and continually reading deeper into it, one finds that one has seen all in seeing a little piece, and that the magnificent palace has nothing better to show one or to do for one.
It is wonderful how the old weather-stained and smoke-blackened Abbey shames down this brand-newness; not that the Parliament Houses are not fine objects to look at, too.
It stands immediately on the bank of the river, not far above the bridge.
We merely walked round it, and saw only an old stone tower or two, partially renewed with brick, and a high connecting wall, within which appeared gables and other portions of the palace, all of an ancient plan and venerable aspect, though evidently much patched up and restored in the course of the many ages since its foundation.
The steamer terminates its trip at Chelsea, an old town endowed with a prodigious number of pothouses, and some famous gardens, called the Cremorne, for public amusement.
The most noticeable thing, however, is Chelsea Hospital, which, like that of Greenwich, was founded, I believe, by Charles II.
(whose bronze statue, in the guise of an old Roman, stands in the centre of the quadrangle), and appropriated as a home for aged and infirm soldiers of the British army.
The edifices are of three stories, with windows in the high roofs, and are built of dark, sombre brick, with stone edgings and facings.
The effect is by no means that of grandeur (which is somewhat disagreeably an attribute of Greenwich Hospital), but a quiet and venerable neatness.
At each extremity of the street-front there is a spacious and hospitably open gateway, lounging about which I saw some gray veterans in long scarlet coats of an antique fashion, and the cocked hats of a century ago, or occasionally a modern foraging-cap.
Almost all of them moved with a rheumatic gait, two or three stumped on wooden legs, and here and there an arm was missing.
Inquiring of one of these fragmentary heroes whether a stranger could be admitted to see the establishment, he replied most cordially, "Oh yes, sir, — anywhere! Walk in and go where you please, — upstairs, or anywhere!" So I entered, and, passing along the inner side of the quadrangle, came to the door of the chapel, which forms a part of the contiguity of edifices next the street.
Here another pensioner, an old warrior of exceedingly peaceable and Christian demeanor, touched his three-cornered hat and asked if I wished to see the interior; to which I assenting, he unlocked the door, and we went in.
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 be 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, "Oh 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 Chelsea Hospital allows too little of that wholesome care and regulation of their own occupations and interests which might assuage the sting of life to those naturally uncomfortable individuals by giving them something external to think about.
But my old friend here was happy in the hospital, and by this time, very likely, is happy in heaven, in spite of the bloodshed that he may have caused by touching off a cannon at Waterloo.
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 London and its vicinity has been depicted innumerable times, but never once translated into intelligible images; it is an "old, old story", never yet told, nor to be told.
While writing these reminiscences, I am continually impressed with the futility of the effort to give any creative truth to my sketch, so that it might produce such pictures in the reader's mind as would cause the original scenes to appear familiar when afterwards beheld.
Nor have other writers often been more successful in representing definite objects prophetically to my own mind.
In truth, I believe that the chief delight and advantage of this kind of literature is not for any real information that it supplies to untraveled people, but for reviving the recollections and reawakening the emotions of persons already acquainted with the scenes described.
Thus I found an exquisite pleasure, the other day, in reading Mr.Tuckerman's "Month in England", — a fine example of the way in which a refined and cultivated American looks at the Old Country, the things that he naturally seeks there, and the modes of feeling and reflection which they excite.
Correct outlines avail little or nothing, though truth of coloring may be somewhat more efficacious.
Impressions, however, states of mind produced by interesting and remarkable objects, these, if truthfully and vividly recorded, may work a genuine effect, and, though but the result of what we see, go further towards representing the actual scene than any direct effort to paint it.
Give the emotions that cluster about it, and, without being able to analyze the spell by which it is summoned up, you get something like a simulachre of the object in the midst of them.
From some of the above reflections I draw the comfortable inference, that, the longer and better known a thing may be, so much the more eligible is it as the subject of a descriptive sketch.
The Crystal Palace gleamed in the sunshine; but I do not think a very impressive edifice can be built of glass, — light and airy, to be sure, but still it will be no other than an overgrown conservatory.
It is unlike anything else in England; uncongenial with the English character, without privacy, destitute of mass, weight, and shadow, unsusceptible of ivy, lichens, or any mellowness from age.
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 London, and with a far wider and loftier concave than any human power of lungs could fill with audible prayer.
Oaken benches were arranged in the transept, on one of which I seated myself, and joined, as well as I knew how, in the sacred business that was going forward.
But when it came to the sermon, the voice of the preacher was puny, and so were his thoughts, and both seemed impertinent at such a time and place, where he and all of us were bodily included within a sublime act of religion, which could be seen above and around us and felt beneath our feet.
The structure itself was the worship of the devout men of long ago, miraculously preserved in stone without losing an atom of its fragrance and fervor; it was a kind of anthem-strain that they had sung and poured out of the organ in centuries gone by; and being so grand and sweet, the Divine benevolence had willed it to be prolonged for the behoof of auditors unborn.
I therefore came to the conclusion, that, in my individual case, it would be better and more reverent to let my eyes wander about the edifice than to fasten them and my thoughts on the evidently uninspired mortal who was venturing — and felt it no venture at all — to speak here above his breath.
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 marvelous 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 Jonson 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 he 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!
Poets' Corner has never seemed like a strange place to me; it has been familiar from the very first; at all events, I cannot now recollect the previous conception, of which the reality has taken the place.
I seem always to have known that somewhat dim corner, with the bare brown stone-work of the old edifice aloft, and a window shedding down its light on the marble busts and tablets, yellow with time, that cover the three walls of the nook up to a height of about twenty feet.
Prior's is the largest and richest monument.
It is observable that the bust and monument of Congreve are in a distant part of the Abbey.
His duchess probably thought it a degradation to bring a gentleman among the beggarly poets.
We found our way to Poets' Corner, however, and entered those holy precincts, which looked very dusky and grim in the smoky light.
I was strongly impressed with the perception that very commonplace people compose the great bulk of society in the home of the illustrious dead.
It is wonderful how few names there are that one cares anything about a hundred years after their departure; but perhaps each generation acts in good faith in canonizing its own men.
But the fame of the buried person does not make the marble live, — the marble keeps merely a cold and sad memory of a man who would else be forgotten.
No man who needs a monument ever ought to have one.
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 at Agincourt, and now suspended above his tomb, are memorable objects, but more for Shakespeare's sake than the victor's own.
Rank has been the general passport to admission here.
Noble and regal dust is as cheap as dirt under the pavement.
I am glad to recollect, indeed (and it is too characteristic of the right English spirit not to be mentioned), one or two gigantic statues of great mechanicians, who contributed largely to the material welfare of England, sitting familiarly in their marble chairs among forgotten kings and queens.
Otherwise, the quaintness of the earlier monuments, and the antique beauty of some of them, are what chiefly gives them value.
Nevertheless, Addison is buried among the men of rank; not on the plea of his literary fame, however, but because he was connected with nobility by marriage, and had been a Secretary of State.
His gravestone is inscribed with a resounding verse from Tickell's lines to his memory, the only lines by which Tickell himself is now remembered, and which (as I discovered a little while ago) he mainly filched from an obscure versifier of somewhat earlier date.
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 Campbell.
At best, only a little portion of the Abbey is dedicated to poets, literary men, musical composers, and others of the gentle artist breed, and even into that small nook of sanctity men of other pursuits have thought it decent to intrude themselves.
Methinks the tuneful throng, being at home here, should recollect how they were treated in their lifetime, and turn the cold shoulder, looking askance at nobles and official personages, however worthy of honorable interment elsewhere.
Yet it shows aptly and truly enough what portion of the world's regard and honor has heretofore been awarded to literary eminence in comparison with other modes of greatness, — this dimly lighted corner (nor even that quietly to themselves) in the vast minster the walls of which are sheathed and hidden under marble that has been wasted upon the illustrious obscure.
Nevertheless, it may not be worth while to quarrel with the world on this account; for, to confess the very truth, their own little nook contains more than one poet whose memory is kept alive by his monument, instead of imbuing the senseless stone with a spiritual immortality, — men of whom you do not ask, "Where is he?" but, "Why is he here?" I estimate that all the literary people who really make an essential part of one's inner life, including the period since English literature first existed, might have ample elbow-room to sit down and quaff their draughts of Castaly round Chaucer's broad, horizontal tombstone.
These divinest poets consecrate the spot, and throw a reflected glory over the humblest of their companions.
And as for the latter, it is to be hoped that they may have long outgrown the characteristic jealousies and morbid sensibilities of their craft, and have found out the little value (probably not amounting to sixpence in immortal currency) of the posthumous renown which they once aspired to win.
It would be a poor compliment to a dead poet to fancy him leaning out of the sky and snuffing up the impure breath of earthly praise.
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.