Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Literature and Life:  A Booklover’s Corner
[III.  English Writers in Italy / Robert Herrick]

 

We would not, in these times of swift, easy and luxurious transportation, think of Edward Gibbon, the historian, as a great traveller.  He went to and fro, by post-chaise, and diligence, between London and Lausanne and knew well some English roads and with his experience he felt himself competent to describe the qualifications most essential to a traveller.  “He should be endowed with an active, indefatigable vigor of mind and body, which can seize every mode of conveyance, and support, with a careless smile, every hardship of road, the weather, or the inn.”
     He had presupposed “knowledge of men and books and a freedom from domestic prejudice,” and the only item I would add to his list would be congenial companionship; without that essentially, which the writer has tested and enjoyed, travel would indeed be tedious and unprofitable.  I purposely left Italy out of the list of his tours.  The consequences of that visit were so important that they required an exclusive paragraph.

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

     I was reminded of this decision by the record of a remark, pithy enough to be called an aphorism, credited to a modern traveller in almost the same situation.  For Al. Smith gave utterance to the following reflection amidst the ruins, not far from the scene of Gibbon’s momentous resolution.  [page 445]

Saw the Roman Forum, and d’you know I was instructed that I stood on the very spot where Mark Antony said he’d come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.  Kinda gets you, doesn’t it.

The reason for travel, for visiting ruins, the graves of the immortals, the habitations where they breathed air and did their work, is in that pregnant phrase, “Kinda gets you, doesn’t it?”  I do not know whether Mr. Al. Smith made any high resolve on this occasion, but I am content even if nothing follows, the phrase is sufficient in itself.  Neither can I tell whether in the future any travellers of his nation will ask for the precise spot on which this thought visited him; it would be as difficult to find as the stone on which Gibbon sat and no one has looked for that.  The personality of the great, little fat man is not of the quality which produces pilgrims, nor is his work carried about in the heart as a comfort and an inspiration.
     At no great distance from the ruins of the Capitol are the graves of Shelley, Keats and Severn.  There is nothing idyllic in the immediate surroundings and the noises of modern Rome rise and fall there.  The shadows of cypresses move on the stone where Shelley’s name is carved, but Keats and Severn, side by side, lie in the sun.  On these three graves there are always flowers; few lovers of the poets fail to buy them at the food of the Spanish Steps and leave them there.  All around are reminders of ancient Rome; the pyramid of Cestius rises above old walls and keeps his name alive, but not his deeds.  Shelley’s lines transfigure the scene:

 

               And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
               Feeds like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
               And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime
               Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
               This refuge for his memory, doth stand
               Like flame transformed to marble.
>

 

     Few fail to visit the room where Keats died.  The building where he and Severn lodged is now memorial to the two poets, and Canadians had part in the purchase.  Here is the very heart of sympathy for the sorrows of genius.  The devotion of Severn, who watched there over his dying friend, comes to mind, irresistibly, as one lingers in these rooms.  The scene must have been the same on this day, only subdued to the pulse of a slower life.  Below the windows in the Piazza di Spagna the water trickled from the little boat-shaped [page 446] fountain; the flowers had the same form and glow; the vendors were bright with color, gayer then than now.
     I trust that the reader will not be depressed at the outset if I propose to ask him to visit, with two wanderers, a few of the places that interested them, where the associations are with spirits that can never die, with minds that are as vital as life itself.  The sense of obligation, maybe, leads to these scenes, the desire to acknowledge a debt that can never be paid.
     Many give homage to Keats and Shelley and there are fewer visitors to the old Protestant cemetery in Florence where Mrs. Browning, Clough and Landor, greatest of these three, are buried.  It is a little oval knoll amid the traffic of Florence; dreams of life eddy around it.  But the place is an island of Peace, once you pass the guardian at the gate and go up through the cypresses into the thicket of roses.  Clough was Matthew Arnold’s friend; Arnold’s elegy, “Thyrsis,” in his memory is well known.  Not so well known is Arnold’s prose tribute.

In the saturnalia of ignoble personal passions, of which the struggle for literary success, in old and crowded communities, offers so sad a spectacle, he never mingled.  He had not yet traduced his friends, nor flattered his enemies, nor disparaged what he admired, nor praised what he despised.  Those who knew him well had the conviction that, even with time, these literary arts would never be his.

     In the popular mind Mrs. Browning has become a character in drama but long after she with her dog, Flush, has ceased to answer to call-boy she will be remembered as the poet of England and Italy.

 

               O lyric love half angel and half bird
               And all a wonder and a wild desire.

 

The close of the first section of her husband’s The Ring and the Book is a rapturous invocation to her, and he draws her portrait in “By the Fireside”:

 

               Reading by fire-light, that great brow
               And the spirit-small hand propping it. [page 447]


     These three, Landor and the Brownings, have of all English writers the closest association with Italy.  The Brownings lived in Florence at Casa Guidi from 1848 until Mrs. Browning died in 1861.  Landor lived there in his villa on the slopes towards Fiesole and, after he had quarrelled with his family, in the city.  One can still see the villa on the hillside.  It was there the incident occurred which has served, whether true or not, as an illustration of the contradictions in Landor’s character, his violent thoughtlessness and his tender consideration for the things he loved.  After he had, in a violent temper, thrown his cook out of the window into the garden, he cried “By heaven, I forgot the violets.”  Dickens portrays that contrast in the character of Boythorn in Bleak House, Boythorn, with his love for his pet canary, thunderous bursts of bad temper and his uncontrolled fits of laughter.  Boythorn may be a fair physical portrait but no one would attempt a recreation of that mind.
     Swinburne said Landor created more characters than Shakespeare.  An exaggeration, even a misstatement.  He worked the mine of his own character to its vitals, and he put his opinions into the mouths of many men and women, but their characters are shadows.  Character is shown by conduct and there is no drama in Landor.  But what wealth of knowledge, what splendor of rhythm and diction, what classic poetry, what superb prose!
     Apropos of Spain I stumbled on a ringing sentence of Landor’s in praise of Wellington:  “His bugles on the Pyrenees dissolved the trance of Europe.”  A mere atom of his style, but what spirit!
     One of Landor’s best known lyrics has an association with a Canadian family, the eight lines addressed to Rose Aylmer when he heard of her death:

Ah, what avails the sceptred race,
     Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
     Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
     May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
     I consecrate to thee.

     Rose Aylmer was a daughter of the fourth Baron Aylmer, and a sister of his successor, Lord Aylmer, who was Governor General of Canada from 1830-1835. [page 448]
    I must check a tendency to rhapsodize when I begin to think of Landor.  One prose quotation may be allowed, salutary, at this time, when everything is sought to be expressed and that boldly:

From the mysteries of religion the veil is seldom to be drawn, from the mysteries of love never.  For this offence the gods take away from us our freshness of heart and our pure delight.  The well loses the spring that fed it, and what is exposed in the shallow basin soon evaporates.

     He warmed both hands by the fire of Life; let us leave him at rest amid the Tuscan roses.

 

•     •     •

 

     Chagford is on the edge of Dartmoor and it was the starting place of our visit to Dean Prior, Robert Herrick’s village.  The short visit was an afterthought.  Our motor had already climbed from Chagford, through lanes that were designed for the horses and carts of the fifteenth century and not for the modern car which fills them from hedge to hedge.  The moor was brilliant with heather in bloom; so intense was the color, that it charged the air with purple haze.  Streaming down from this high point on the road the lines and curves of the moor led the eye to a vague distance, nothing but shadow, and at the edge of the shadow five slender columns of smoke stood motionless, as if they marked the edge of reality.
     Why does Dartmoor give one such a sense of loneliness?  I have been in regions of our own northland where no human life had ever existed and felt less remote from civilization.  Here we were but a few miles from urgent life and felt the desolation of an ancient world.  Was it by reason of the primeval remains scattered on the hills—stone hut-circles, the homes of a folk forgotten centuries ago?
     This was a day as good as any to visit Dean Prior, so on we went by Two Bridges and Dart Meet where the streams of the Dart, east and west, come sparkling together; down valleys which are merely deep creases in the moor; and on to Buckfast Abbey.  There, high on the tower, the monks were working in the sun, dwarfs at that distance, trowels twinkling in the light.  There the French Benedictines, with their own hands, have places stone upon stone up from the traces of the eleventh century Abbey, and were doing the last work on the lofty tower.  In the slight the great building was stark in its newness, but when the years mellow it within and without, it will [page 449] be worthy of its age; for the foundation of beauty is there, and time must have that to work upon.  Too many of our modern buildings will grow uglier the older they grow.
     Dean Prior is on the great road from the West to London and Robert Herrick must have used it in his journeys to and fro.  In my own thought I find it difficult to place him as a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Twenty-five of his years had passed when Shakespeare died; fifty-nine of them remained, for he lived to be 84.  He was one of the group of young poets who treated Ben Jonson as master, and his life in London after he left Cambridge was a mixture of conviviality and piety.  To judge from his poems the first mentioned state took precedence.  The anthologists decided long ago that we should know Herrick by his idyllic charm, by his praise of Julia, and other fascinating maidens; but there was another, and quite different, side to his muse.  In any edition of his works there is a fair proportion of poems in absentia, so to speak; indicated by titles and lines of asterisks.  What these interstellar spaces contain is open to conjecture, but to judge from some of the published epigrams they were extreme.  He was presented to the vicarage at Dean Prior in 1629, and remained until he was turned out by the Commonwealth in 1648, and returned after the Restoration in 1662.  The heart of the little village looks ancient, but the evil form of the bungalow has appeared.  The quiet of this spot in Herrick’s day is to us inconceivable.  It was dullness, even to him, after London; he felt it “banishment to the loathed west.”  He thanks God, though, for


                    A little house whose humble roof
                    Is weather-proof

and for his food too:

                      The Worts, the Purslane, and the Messe
                              Of water-cresse,
                    Which of Thy kindness Thou has sent
                              And my content
                    Makes those and my beloved Beet
                              To be more sweet,
                    Thou mak’st my teeming hen to lay
                              Her egg each day.  [page 450]


     The church is much as it was in Herrick’s day.  Workmen were repairing the tower; the interior was dusty and looked neglected.  It had none of the beauty that many other parish churches have.  The memorial tablet was high on the wall, almost impossible to read, and we could not find his tomb.
     A starling had flown into the church and fluttered against the windows trying to find the sky again.  It reminded me of that starling in A Sentimental Journey, saying over and over, “I Can’t get out; I can’t get out.”  I could no more help it than could Laurence Sterne that other caged bird.  Herrick himself seems like a caged bird, in dull Devonshire, in the cage of the church, for his mind was secular.  “London my home is,” he cries, and he remembers mortality and the pleasant days in the sun:

Born was I, to be old,
     And for to die here;
After that, in the mould
     Long for to lie here.
But before that day comes,
     Still I be Bousing
For I know, in the Tombs
     There’s no Carousing.

     When we left the church the starling was still flitting from arch to arch and vainly testing the sunlight on the windows.

 

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