"Death takes away the commonplace of life; and
positively, when one looks on the thousand and one poor, foolish,
ignoble faces of this world, and listens to the chatter as poor and
foolish as the faces, one, in order to have any proper respect for them,
is forced to remember that solemnity of death which is silently
waiting. The foolishest person will look grand enough one
day. The features are poor now, but the hottest tears and the most
passionate embraces will not seem out of place then. Then
the most affected look sincere, the most volatile serious—all noble,
more or less."
"The sense of impermanence brightens beauty and elevates happiness.
Melancholy is always attendant on beauty, and that melancholy brings out its keenness as the dark green, corrugated leaf brings out the wan lowliness of the primrose.
The spectator enjoys the beauty; but his knowledge that it is fleeting and that
he is fleeting adds a pathetic something to it. Sunset affects us more powerfully than sunrise, simply because it is a setting sun, and suggests a thousand analogies.
A mother is never happier than when her eyes fill over her sleeping child, never does she kiss it more fondly, never dues she pray for it more fervently; and yet there is more in her heart than visible red cheek and yellow curl; possession and bereavement are strangely mingled in the exquisite maternal mood, the one heightening the other.
And that joy is the greatest which, while felt to be joy, can include the thought of death and clothe itself with that crowning pathos."
As brief samples of the lighter style and livelier vein we quote the
"A man receives the shocks of life on the buffer of his vanity. Vanity acts as his second and
bottle-holder in the World's prize-ring, and it fights him well, bringing him smilingly up to time after the fiercest knock-down blows. * *
The most lugubrious poetry is written by very young and tolerably comfortable persons.
When a man's mood becomes really serious he has little taste for such foolery.
The man who has a grave or two in his heart does not need to haunt churchyards."
His remarks on the essay-writer in general, and old Montaigne in particular, are good:—
"Montaigne values obtainable Gascon bread mid cheese more than the unobtainable stars.
He thinks crying for the moon the foolishest thing in the world. He will remain where he is.
He will not deny that a new world may exist beyond the sunset, but he knows that to reach the new world there is a troublesome Atlantic to cross, and, for his part, he will embark with no Columbus.
He feels that life is but a sad thing at best, but as he has little hope of making it better, he accepts it, and will not make it worse by murmuring.
When the chain galls him, he can at least revenge himself by making jests on it.
He will temper the despotism of Nature by epigrams. Of nothing under the sun was Montaigne quite certain, except that every man, whatever his station, might travel farther and fare worse: and that the playing with his own thoughts in the shape of essay-writing, was the most harmless of amusements."
But this is anybody's ground: we prefer our author on that little bit of peculiar ground chosen and made his own under the title of 'Dreamthorp.'—
"Every village has its fool, and, of course, Dreamthorp is not without one.
Him I get to run my messages for me, and he occasionally trims my garden borders with a neat hand enough.
He and I hold frequent converse, and people here, I have been told, think we have certain points of sympathy.
Although this is not meant for a compliment, I take it for one. The poor faithful creature's brain has strange visitors.
Now 'tis fun, now wisdom, and now something which seems in the queerest way a compound of both.
He lives in a kind of twilight which obscures objects, and his remarks seem to come from another world than that in which ordinary people live.
He is the only original person of my acquaintance; his views of life are his own, and form a singular commentary on those generally accepted.
He is dull enough, at times, poor fellow! but anon he startles you with something that makes you think he must have wondered out of Shakspeare's plays into this out-of-the-way place."
Here and there we find that smack of acidulous flavour which gives to humour the pungency of satire.
As for example:—
"Your patient woman, in books and in life, does not draw on our gratitude.
When her goodness is not stupidity—which it frequently is—it is insulting.
She walks about an incarnate rebuke. Her silence is an incessant complaint.
A teacup thrown at your head is not half so alarming as her meek, much-wronged, unretortinq face.
You begin to suspect that she consoles herself with the thought that there is another world where brutal brothers and husbands are settled with for their behaviour to their angelic wives and sisters in this!"
There are readers—we say not of which sex —who will
enjoy that heartily with all the zest that can he added by the
triumphing force of contrast!
One of the best discourses in the book is that on Vagabonds:—not exactly the kind of vagabongs alluded to in those parochial notices placed at the entrance to many old country towns. Thus discourse was delivered in the Dreamthorp schoolroom; and the lecturer tells us, that when he took his place behind the small desk and tumbler of water, the
—"couple of hundred eyes struck into me a certain awe. I discovered in a moment why the orator of the hustings is so deferential to the mob.
I addressed the people with the most unfeigned respect. When I began, too, I found what a dreadful thing it is to hear your own voice inhabiting the silence.
You are related to your voice, and yet divorced from it. It is you, and yet a thing apart.
All the time it is going on, you can be critical as to its tone, volume, cadence and other qualities, as if it was the voice of a stranger.
Gradually, however, I got accustomed to my voice, and was able at last to look my audience in the face.
I saw the doctor and the clergyman smile encouragingly, and my half-witted gardener looking at me with open month, which made me take refuge in my paper again."
But, to the discourse:—
"The fresh, rough, heathery parts of human nature, where the air is freshest, and where the linnets sing, is getting encroached upon by cultivated fields.
Every one is making himself and herself useful. Every one is producing something.
Everybody is clever. Everybody is a philanthropist. I don't like it.
I love a little eccentricity. I respect honest prejudices. I admire foolish enthusiasm in a young head better than a wise scepticism.
It is high time, it seems to me, that a moral game low were passed for the preservation of the wild and
vagrant feelings of human nature. Ah, me! what a world this was to live in two or three centuries ago, when it was getting itself
discovered,—when the sunset gave up America. Then were the Arabian Nights commonplace, enchantments a matter of course, and romance the most ordinary thing in the world.
Then man was courting Nature; now he has married her! Yet, for all that time has brought and taken away, I am glad to know that the vagabond sleeps in our blood, and awakes now and then.
Overlay nature as you please, here and there some bit of rock or mound of aboriginal soil will crop out with the wild flowers growing upon it, sweetening the air.
Genius is a vagabond; Art is a vagabond; Enterprise is a vagabond.
The first fine day in spring awakes the gipsy in the blood of the English workman, and incontinently he 'babbles of green fields.'
On the English gentleman, lapped in the most luxurious civilization, and with the thousand powers and resources of wealth at his command, descends oftentimes a fierce unrest, a Bedouin-like horror of cities and the cry of the money-changer, and in a month the fiery dust rises in the track of his desert steed, or in the six-months' polar midnight he bears the big wave dashing on the icy shore.
Vagabonds have moulded the world into its present shape. Respectable people swam in the track of the vagabond as rooks in the track of the ploughshare.
Respectable people do little in the world, except storing wine-cellars and amassing fortunes for the benefit of spendthrift heirs.
Respectable well-to-do Grecians shook their heads over Leonidas and his three hundred when they went down to Thermopylae.
Respectable Spanish churchmen, with shaven crowns, scouted the dream of Columbus.
Respectable German folks attempted to dissuade Luther from appearing before Charles and the princes and electors of the empire.
Nature makes us vagabonds: the world makes us respectable. Commend me to Shakspeare's vagabonds, the most delightful in the world!
His sweet-blooded and liberal nature blossomed into all fine generosities as naturally as an apple-bough into pink blossoms and odours.
It would be better if we could have along with our modern enlightenment, our higher tastes and purer habits, a greater individuality of thought and manner; better that every man should be allowed to grow in his own way, so long as he does not infringe on the rights of his neighbour, or insolently thrust himself between him and the sun.
A little more air and light should be let in upon life. I should think the world has stood long enough under the drill of Adjutant Fashion.
It is hard work; the posture is wearisome, and Fashion is an awful martinet, and has a quick eye and comes down mercilessly on the unfortunate wight who cannot square his toes to the approved pattern, or who appears upon parade with a darn in his coat or with a shoulder-belt insufficiently pipe-clayed.
It is killing work. Suppose we try 'standing at ease' for a little."
Readers about to escape from the crowd that is not company, and the talk that is only a tinkling cymbal, to get a little outlet for the vagabond spirit, far away from the smoke and dust and turmoil of city life, will find in this book a capital pocket-companion to carry with them into the many quiet Dreamthorps of our native land, the shy and shady nooks of woodland and green lane, or the open spaces of ripe, brown sand and breezy, blue sea; a book to be read in a spirit of lazy leisure to the sound of babbling brook and whispering wood, and long, drowsy wash of the cool summer wave.
It is exquisitely printed, handy, handsome, and cheap.
From... Dreamthorp, a Book of
Essays Written in the Country.
IT MATTERS not to relate how or when I became a
denizen of Dreamthorp; it will be sufficient to say that I am not a born
native, but that I came to reside in it a good while ago now. The several
towns and villages in which, in my time, I have pitched a tent did not
please, for one obscure reason or another: this one was too large, t'other
too small; but when, on a summer evening about the hour of eight, I first
beheld Dreamthorp, with its westward-looking windows painted by sunset,
its children playing in the single straggling street, the mothers knitting
at the open doors, the fathers standing about in long white blouses,
chatting or smoking; the great tower of the ruined castle rising high into
the rosy air, with a whole troop of swallows—by distance made as small as
gnats—skimming about its rents and fissures;—when I first beheld all
this, I felt instinctively that my knapsack might be taken off my
shoulders, that my tired feet might wander no more, that at last, on the
planet, I had found a home. From that evening I have dwelt here, and the
only journey I am like now to make, is the very inconsiderable one, so far
at least as distance is concerned, from the house in which I live to the
graveyard beside the ruined castle. There, with the former inhabitants of
the place, I trust to sleep quietly enough, and nature will draw over our
heads her coverlet of green sod, and tenderly tuck us in, as a mother her
sleeping ones, so that no sound from the world shall ever reach us, and no
sorrow trouble us any more.
The village stands far inland; and the streams that trot through the soft
green valleys all about have as little knowledge of the sea, as the
three-years' child of the storms and passions of manhood. The surrounding
country is smooth and green, full of undulations; and pleasant country
roads strike through it in every direction, bound for distant towns and
villages, yet in no hurry to reach them. On these roads the lark in summer
is continually heard; nests are plentiful in the hedges and dry ditches;
and on the grassy banks, and at the feet of the bowed dikes, the blue-eyed
speedwell smiles its benison on the passing wayfarer. On these roads you
may walk for a year and encounter nothing more remarkable than the country
cart, troops of tawny children from the woods, laden with primroses, and
at long intervals—for people in this district live to a ripe age—a black
funeral creeping in from some remote hamlet; and to this last the people
reverently doff their hats and stand aside. Death does not walk about here
often, but when he does, he receives as much respect as the squire
himself. Everything round one is unhurried, quiet, moss-grown, and orderly. Season follows in the track of season, and one year can hardly be
distinguished from another. Time should be measured here by the
silent dial, rather than by the ticking clock, or by the chimes of the
church. Dreamthorp can boast of a respectable antiquity, and in it the trade of
the builder is unknown. Ever since I remember, not a single stone has been
laid on the top of another. The castle, inhabited now by jackdaws and
starlings, is old; the chapel which adjoins it is older still; and the
lake behind both, and in which their shadows sleep, is, I suppose, as old
as Adam. A fountain in the market-place, all mouths and faces and curious
arabesques—as dry, however, as the castle moat—has a tradition connected
with it; and a great noble riding through the street one day several
hundred years ago, was shot from a window by a man whom he had injured. The death of this noble is the chief link which connects the place with
authentic history. The houses are old, and remote dates may yet be
deciphered on the stones above the doors; the apple-trees are mossed and
ancient; countless generations of sparrows have bred in the thatched
roofs, and thereon have chirped out their lives. In every room of the
place men have been born, men have died. On Dreamthorp centuries have
fallen, and have left no more trace than have last winter's snowflakes. This commonplace sequence and flowing on of life is immeasurably
affecting. That winter morning when Charles lost his head in front of the
banqueting-hall of his own palace, the icicles hung from the eaves of the
houses here, and the clown kicked the snowballs from his clouted shoon,
and thought but of his supper when, at three o'clock, the red sun set in
the purple mist. On that Sunday in June while Waterloo was going on, the
gossips, after morning service, stood on the country roads discussing
agricultural prospects, without the slightest suspicion that the day
passing over their heads would be a famous one in the calendar. Battles
have been fought, kings have died, history has transacted itself; but, all
unheeding and untouched, Dreamthorp has watched apple-trees redden, and
wheat ripen, and smoked its pipe, and quaffed its mug of beer, and
rejoiced over its newborn children, and with proper solemnity carried its
dead to the churchyard. As I gaze on the village of my adoption, I think
of many things very far removed, and seem to get closer to them. The last
setting sun that Shakspeare saw reddened the windows here, and struck
warmly on the faces of the hinds coming home from the fields. The mighty
storm that raged while Cromwell lay a-dying made all the oak-woods groan
round about here, and tore the thatch from the very roofs I gaze upon. When I think of this, I can almost, so to speak, lay my hand on Shakspeare
and on Cromwell. These poor walls were contemporaries of both, and I find
something affecting in the thought. The mere soil is, of course, far older
than either, but it does not touch one in the same way. A wall is the
creation of a human hand, the soil is not.
This place suits my whim, and I like it better year after year. As
with everything else, since I began to love it I find it gradually growing
beautiful. Dreamthorp—a castle, a chapel, a lake, a straggling strip of gray houses, with a blue film of smoke over all—lies embosomed in
emerald. Summer, with its daisies, runs up to every cottage door. From the
little height where I am now sitting, I see it beneath me. Nothing could
be more peaceful. The wind and the birds fly over it. A passing sunbeam
makes brilliant a white gable-end, and brings out the colours of the
blossomed apple-tree beyond, and disappears. I see figures in the street,
but hear them not. The hands on the church clock seem always pointing to
one hour. Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine. I make a frame
of my fingers, and look at my picture. On the walls of the next Academy's
Exhibition will hang nothing half so beautiful!
My village is, I think, a special favourite of summer's. Every window-sill
in it she touches with colour and fragrance; everywhere she wakens the
drowsy murmurs of the hives; every place she scents with apple-blossom. Traces of her hand are to be seen on the weir beside the ruined mill; and
even the canal, along which the barges come and go, has a great white
water-lily asleep on its olive-coloured face. Never was velvet on a
monarch's robe so gorgeous as the green mosses that be-ruff the roofs of
farm and cottage, when the sunbeam slants on them and goes. The old road
out towards the common, and the hoary dikes that might have been built in
the reign of Alfred, have not been forgotten by the generous adorning
season; for every fissure has its mossy cushion, and the old blocks
themselves are washed by the loveliest gray-green lichens in the world,
and the large loose stones lying on the ground have gathered to themselves
the peacefulest mossy coverings. Some of these have not been disturbed for
a century. Summer has adorned my village as gaily, and taken as much
pleasure in the task, as the people of old, when Elizabeth was queen, took
in the adornment of the May-pole against a summer festival. And, just
think, not only Dreamthorp, but every English village she has made
beautiful after one fashion or another—making vivid green the hill slope
on which straggling white Welsh hamlets hang right opposite the sea;
drowning in apple-blossom the red Sussex ones in the fat valley. And
think, once more, every spear of grass in England she has touched with a
livelier green; the crest of every bird she has burnished; every old wall
between the four seas has received her mossy and licheny attentions; every
nook in every forest she has sown with pale flowers, every marsh she has
dashed with the fires of the marigold. And in the wonderful night the moon
knows, she hangs—the planet on which so many millions of us fight, and
sin, and agonise, and die—a sphere of glow-worm light.
Having discoursed so long about Dreamthorp, it is but fair that I should
now introduce you to her lions. These are, for the most part, of a
commonplace kind; and I am afraid that, if you wish to find romance in
them, you must bring it with you. I might speak of the old church-tower,
or of the church-yard beneath it, in which the village holds its dead,
each resting-place marked by a simple stone, on which is inscribed the
name and age of the sleeper, and a Scripture text beneath, in which live
our hopes of immortality. But, on the whole, perhaps it will be better to
begin with the canal, which wears on its olive-coloured face the big white
water-lily already chronicled. Such a secluded place is Dreamthorp that
the railway does not come near, and the canal is the only thing that
connects it with the world. It stands high, and from it the undulating
country may be seen stretching away into the gray of distance, with hills
and woods, and stains of smoke which mark the sites of villages. Every now
and then a horse comes staggering along the towing-path, trailing a sleepy
barge filled with merchandise. A quiet, indolent life these barge-men lead
in the summer days. One lies stretched at his length on the sun-heated
plank; his comrade sits smoking in the little dog-hutch, which I suppose
he calls a cabin. Silently they come and go; silently the wooden bridge
lifts to let them through. The horse stops at the bridge-house for a
drink, and there I like to talk a little with the men. They serve instead
of a newspaper, and retail with great willingness the news they have
picked up in their progress from town to town. I am told they sometimes
marvel who the old gentleman is who accosts them from beneath a huge
umbrella in the sun, and that they think him either very wise or very
foolish. Not in the least unnatural! We are great friends, I
believe—evidence of which they occasionally exhibit by requesting me to
disburse a trifle for drink-money. This canal is a great haunt of mine of
an evening. The water hardly invites one to bathe in it, and a delicate
stomach might suspect the flavour of the eels caught therein; yet, to my
thinking, it is not in the least destitute of beauty. A barge trailing up
through it in the sunset is a pretty sight; and the heavenly crimsons and
purples sleep quite lovingly upon its glossy ripples. Nor does the evening
star disdain it, for as I walk along I see it mirrored therein as clearly
as in the waters of the Mediterranean itself.
The old castle and chapel already alluded to are, perhaps, to a stranger,
the points of attraction in Dreamthorp. Back from the houses is the lake,
on the green sloping banks of which, with broken windows and tombs, the
ruins stand. As it is noon, and the weather is warm, let us go and sit on
a turret. Here, on these very steps, as old ballads tell, a queen sat
once, day after day, looking southward for the light of returning spears. I bethink me that yesterday, no further gone, I went to visit a
consumptive shoemaker; seated here I can single out his very house, nay,
the very window of the room in which he is lying. On that straw roof might
the raven alight, and flap his sable wings. There, at this moment, is the
supreme tragedy being enacted. A woman is weeping there, and little
children are looking on with a sore bewilderment. Before nightfall the
poor peaked face of the bowed artisan will have gathered its ineffable
peace, and the widow will be led away from the bedside by the tenderness
of neighbours, and the cries of the orphan brood will be stilled. And yet
this present indubitable suffering and loss does not touch me like the
sorrow of the woman of the ballad, the phantom probably of a minstrel's
brain. The shoemaker will be forgotten—I shall be forgotten; and long
after visitors will sit here and look out on the landscape and murmur the
simple lines, But why do death and dying obtrude themselves at the present
moment? On the turret opposite, about the distance of a gunshot, is as
pretty a sight as eye could wish to see. Two young people, strangers
apparently, have come to visit the ruin. Neither the ballad queen, nor the
shoemaker down yonder, whose respirations are getting shorter and shorter,
touches them in the least. They are merry and happy, and the graybeard
turret has not the heart to thrust a foolish moral upon them. They would
not thank him if he did, I daresay. Perhaps they could not understand him. Time enough! Twenty years hence they will be able to sit down at his feet,
and count griefs with him, and tell him tale for tale. Human hearts get
ruinous in so much less time than stone walls and towers. See, the young
man has thrown himself down at the girl's feet on a little space of grass. In her scarlet cloak she looks like a blossom springing out of a crevice
on the ruined steps. He gives her a flower, and she bows her face down
over it almost to her knees. What did the flower say? Is it to hide a
blush? He looks delighted; and I almost fancy I see a proud colour on his
brow. As I gaze, these young people make for me a perfect idyl. The
generous, ungrudging sun, the melancholy ruin, decked, like mad Lear, with
the flowers and ivies of forgetfulness and grief, and between them, sweet
and evanescent, human truth and love!
Love!—does it yet walk the world, or is it imprisoned in poems and
romances? Has not the circulating library become the sole home of
the passion? Is love not become the exclusive property of novelists
and playwrights, to be used by them only for professional purposes?
Surely, if the men I see are lovers, or ever have been lovers, they would
be nobler than they are. The knowledge that he is beloved should—must make a man
tender, gentle, upright, pure. While yet a youngster in a jacket, I can
remember falling desperately in love with a young lady several years my
senior—after the fashion of youngsters in jackets. Could I have fibbed in
these days? Could I have betrayed a comrade? Could I have stolen eggs or
callow young from the nest? Could I have stood quietly by and seen the
weak or the maimed bullied? Nay, verily! In these absurd days she lighted
up the whole world for me. To sit in the same room with her was like the
happiness of perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for
her, or to do any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent
of nobility were conferred on me. I kept my passion to myself, like a
cake, and nibbled it in private. Juliet was several years my senior, and
had a lover—was, in point of fact, actually engaged; and, in looking
back, I can remember I was too much in love to feel the slightest twinge
of jealousy. I remember also seeing Romeo for the first time, and thinking
him a greater man than Caesar or Napoleon. The worth I credited him with,
the cleverness, the goodness, the everything! He awed me by his manner and
bearing. He accepted that girl's love coolly and as a matter of course; it
put him no more about than a crown and sceptre puts about a king. What I
would have given my life to possess—being only fourteen, it was not much
to part with after all—he wore lightly, as he wore his gloves or his
cane. It did not seem a bit too good for him.
His self-possession appalled me. If I had seen him take the sun out of the
sky, and put it into his breeches' pocket, I don't think I should have
been in the least degree surprised. Well, years after, when I had
discarded my passion with my jacket, I have assisted this middle-aged
Romeo home from a roystering wine-party, and heard him hiccup out his
marital annoyances, with the strangest remembrances of old times, and the
strangest deductions therefrom. Did that man with the idiotic laugh and
the blurred utterance ever love? Was he ever capable of loving? I protest
I have my doubts. But where are my young people? Gone! So it is always. We
begin to moralise and look wise, and Beauty, who is something of a
coquette, and of an exacting turn of mind, and likes attentions, gets
disgusted with our wisdom or our stupidity, and goes off in a huff. Let
the baggage go!
The ruined chapel adjoins the ruined castle on which I am now sitting, and
is evidently a building of much older date. It is a mere shell now.
It is quite roofless, ivy covers it in part; the stone tracery of the
great western window is yet intact, but the coloured glass is gone with
the splendid vestments of the abbot, the fuming incense, the chanting
choirs, and the patient, sad-eyed monks, who muttered Aves, shrived guilt, and
illuminated missals. Time was when this place breathed actual
benedictions, and was a home of active peace. At present it is visited
only by the stranger, and delights but the antiquary. The village people
have so little respect for it, that they do not even consider it haunted. There are several tombs in the interior bearing knights' escutcheons,
which time has sadly defaced. The dust you stand upon is noble. Earls have
been brought here in dinted mail from battle, and earls' wives from the
pangs of child-bearing. The last trumpet will break the slumber of a right
honourable company. One of the tombs—the most perfect of all in point of
preservation—I look at often, and try to conjecture what it commemorates. With all my fancies, I can get no further than the old story of love and
death. There, on the slab, the white figures sleep; marble hands, folded
in prayer, on marble breasts. And I like to think that he was brave, she
beautiful; that although the monument is worn by time, and sullied by the
stains of the weather, the qualities which it commemorates—husbandly and
wifely affection, courtesy, courage, knightly scorn of wrong and
falsehood, meekness, penitence, charity—are existing yet somewhere,
recognisable by each other. The man who in this world can keep the
whiteness of his soul, is not likely to lose it in any other.
In summer I spent a good deal of time floating about the lake. The
landing-place to which my boat is tethered is ruinous, like the chapel and
palace, and my embarkation causes quite a stir in the sleepy little
village. Small boys leave their games and mud-pies, and gather round in
silence; they have seen me get off a hundred times, but their interest in
the matter seems always new. Not unfrequently an idle cobbler, in red
nightcap and leathern apron, leans on a broken stile, and honours my
proceedings with his attention. I shoot, off, and the human knot
dissolves. The lake contains three islands, each with a solitary tree, and
on these islands the swans breed. I feed the birds daily with bits of
bread. See, one comes gliding towards me, with superbly arched neck to
receive its customary alms! How wildly beautiful its motions! How
haughtily it begs! The green pasture lands run down to the edge of the
water, and into it in the afternoons the red kine wade and stand knee-deep
in their shadows, surrounded by troops of flies. Patiently the honest
creatures abide the attacks of their tormentors. Now one swishes itself
with its tail—now its neighbour flaps a huge ear. I draw my oars
alongside, and let my boat float at its own will. The soft blue
heavenly abysses, the wandering streams of vapour, the long beaches of
rippled cloud, are glassed and repeated in the lake. Dreamthorp is silent as a
picture, the voices of the children are mute; and the smoke from the
houses, the blue pillars all sloping in one angle, float upward as if in
sleep. Grave and stern the old castle rises from its emerald banks, which
long ago came down to the lake in terrace on terrace, gay with fruits and
flowers, and with stone nymph and satyrs hid in every nook. Silent and
empty enough to-day! A flock of daws suddenly bursts out from a turret,
and round and round they wheel, as if in panic. Has some great scandal
exploded? Has a conspiracy been discovered? Has a revolution broken out? The excitement has subsided, and one of them, perched on the old
banner-staff, chatters confidentially to himself as he, sideways, eyes the
world beneath him. Floating about thus, time passes swiftly, for, before I
know where I am, the kine have withdrawn from the lake to couch on the
herbage, while one on a little height is lowing for the milkmaid and her
pails. Along the road I see the labourers coming home for supper, while
the sun setting behind me makes the village windows blaze; and so I take
out my oars, and pull leisurely through waters faintly flushed with
I do not think that Mr. Buckle could have written his "History of
Civilisation" in Dreamthorp, because in it books, conversation, and the
other appurtenances of intellectual life, are not to be procured. I
am acquainted with birds, and the building of nests—with wild-flowers, and
the seasons in which they blow—but with the big world far away, with what
men and women are thinking, and doing, and saying, I am acquainted only
through the Times, and the occasional magazine or review, sent by
friends whom I have not looked upon for years, but by whom, it seems, I am
not yet forgotten. The village has but few intellectual wants, and the
intellectual supply is strictly measured by the demand. Still there is
something. Down in the village, and opposite the curiously-carved
fountain, is a schoolroom which can accommodate a couple of hundred people
on a pinch. There are our public meetings held. Musical entertainments
have been given there by a single performer. In that schoolroom last
winter an American biologist terrified the villagers, and, to their simple
understandings, mingled up the next world with this. Now and again some
rare bird of an itinerant lecturer covers dead walls with posters, yellow
and blue, and to that schoolroom we flock to hear him. His rounded periods
the eloquent gentleman devolves amidst a respectful silence. His audience
do not understand him, but they see that the clergyman does, and the
doctor does; and so they are content, and look as attentive and wise as
possible. Then, in connexion with the schoolroom, there is a public
library, where books are exchanged once a month. This library is a kind of
Greenwich Hospital for disabled novels and romances. Each of these books
has been in the wars; some are unquestionable antiques. The tears of three
generations have fallen upon their dusky pages. The heroes and the
heroines are of another age than ours. Sir Charles Grandison is standing
with his hat under his arm. Tom Jones plops from the tree into the water,
to the infinite distress of Sophia. Moses comes home from market with his
stock of shagreen spectacles. Lovers, warriors, and villains—as dead to
the present generation of readers as Cambyses—are weeping, fighting, and
intriguing. These books, tattered and torn as they are, are read with
delight to-day. The viands are celestial if set forth on a dingy
tablecloth. The gaps and chasms which occur in pathetic or perilous
chapters are felt to be personal calamities. It is with a certain feeling
of tenderness that I look upon these books; I think of the dead fingers
that have turned over the leaves, of the dead eyes that have travelled
along the lines. An old novel has a history of its own. When fresh and
new, and before it had breathed its secret, it lay on my lady's table. She
killed the weary day with it, and when night came it was placed beneath
her pillow. At the sea-side a couple of foolish heads have bent over it,
hands have touched and tingled, and it has heard vows and protestations as
passionate as any its pages contained. Coming down in the world,
Cinderella in the kitchen has blubbered over it by the light of a
surreptitious candle, conceiving herself the while the magnificent
Georgiana, and Lord Mordaunt, Georgiana's lover, the pot-boy round the
corner. Tied up with many a dingy brother, the auctioneer knocks the
bundle down to the bidder of a few pence, and it finds its way to the
quiet cove of some village library, where with some difficulty—as if from
want of teeth, and with numerous interruptions—as if from lack of memory,
it tells its old stories, and wakes tears, and blushes, and laughter as of
yore. Thus it spends its age, and in a few years it will become
unintelligible, and then, in the dust-bin, like poor human mortals in the
grave, it will rest from all its labours. It is impossible to estimate the
benefit which such books have conferred. How often have they loosed the
chain of circumstance! What unfamiliar tears—what unfamiliar laughter
they have caused! What chivalry and tenderness they have infused into
rustic loves! Of what weary hours they have cheated and beguiled their
readers! The big, solemn history-books are in excellent preservation; the
story-books are defaced and frayed, and their out-of-elbows condition is
their pride, and the best justification of their existence. They are tashed, as roses are, by being eagerly handled and smelt. I observe, too,
that the most ancient romances are not in every case the most severely
worn. It is the pace that tells in horses, men, and books. There are Nestors wonderfully hale; there are juveniles in a state of dilapidation. One of the youngest books, "The Old Curiosity Shop," is absolutely falling
to pieces. That book, like Italy, is possessor of the fatal gift; but
happily, in its case, everything can be rectified by a new edition. We
have buried warriors and poets, princes and queens, but no one of these
was followed, to the grave by sincerer mourners than was little Nell.
Besides the itinerant lecturer, and the permanent library, we have the
These sum up the intellectual aids and furtherances of the whole place. We
have a church and a chapel, and I attend both. The Dreamthorp people are
Dissenters, for the most part; why, I never could understand; because
dissent implies a certain intellectual effort. But Dissenters they are,
and Dissenters they are likely to remain. In an ungainly building, filled
with hard gaunt pews, without an organ, without a touch of colour in the
windows, with nothing to stir the imagination or the devotional sense, the
simple people worship. On Sunday, they are put upon a diet of spiritual
bread-and-water. Personally, I should desire more generous food. But the
labouring people listen attentively, till once they fall asleep, and they
wake up to receive the benediction with a feeling of having done their
duty. They know they ought to go to chapel, and they go. I go likewise,
from habit, although I have long ago lost the power of following a
discourse. In my pew, and whilst the clergyman is going on, I think of the
strangest things—of the tree at the window, of the congregation of the
dead outside, of the wheatfields and the corn-fields beyond and all
around. And the odd thing is, that it is during sermon only that my mind
flies off at a tangent and busies itself with things removed from the
place and the circumstances. Whenever it is finished fancy returns from
her wanderings, and I am alive to the objects around me. The clergyman
knows my humour, and is good Christian enough to forgive me; and he smiles
good-humouredly when I ask him to let me have the chapel keys, that I may
enter, when in the mood, and preach a sermon to myself. To my mind, an
empty chapel is impressive; a crowded one, comparatively a commonplace
affair. Alone, I could choose my own text, and my silent discourse would
not be without its practical applications.
An idle life I live in this place, as the world counts it;
but then I have the satisfaction of differing from the world as to the
meaning of idleness. A windmill twirling its arms all day is admirable
only when there is corn to grind. Twirling its arms for the mere barren
pleasure of twirling them, or for the sake of looking busy, does not
deserve any rapturous paean of praise. I must be made happy after my own
fashion, not after the fashion of other people. Here I can live as I
please, here I can throw the reins on the neck of my whim. Here I play
with my own thoughts; here I ripen far the grave.