The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

WAYFARERS


 

 

I


I PROPOSE TO ASK THE READER 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 lends to these scenes the desire to acknowledge a debt that can never be paid.

    Why is an event that occurs unexpectedly so much more exhilarating than one which has been planned in advance and dated? Why is the thing casually found more treasurable than that sought for diligently? I would hazard an explanation. There is something treacherous in anticipation; it is made up of many strands and imagination is one of them. If you trust yourself to that fairy guide she will not always conduct you to reality. But if you stumble upon a pleasure or pick up a jewel, either a book, a print, or a picture (for gold and precious stones are out of line with this way of life), both sensation and object assume at once a value beyond anything planned or searched for.

    And the pleasure of recollection also comes from the memory of the surprise and the belief that fate had always had this or that in store for you; and why not again, you ask? This is a personal point of view – not many may share it – and when we found ourselves enjoying the hospitality of Wood Norton Hall, in the County of Norfolk, and when I realized that it was surrounded by literary landmarks, I had another instance of the charm of the unexpected. The associations were all stored in memory only waiting to be localized, and one bright morning they fell into place.

    Norfolk has a distinctive charm which every traveller should acknowledge; it must share the charm with Suffolk, with the whole of old East Anglia, in fact. There is no mere prettiness, there is nothing romantic, nothing sublime; the charm is in the distances; from the coast inland to the expanses of downs clothed with fir and heather. There is peaceful beauty in this landscape, sometimes pensive, in shadow, but for the most part cheerful. If you have not read Earlham, by Percy Lubbock, you have missed a record of life in Norfolk which holds the spell distilled in a family history, in character and landscape.

    But the charm of the unexpected; what of that? Why, we were in the country of George Borrow, Lavengro, the word-master; the home of the worthy Sir Thomas Browne and of the gentle William Cowper. Who with any interest in English painting can forget the Norwich school, the glories of Crome, Cotman?

    Borrow was born at Dereham, a town that seems to have changed so little since his day that we will let him describe it himself. “I love to think on thee, pretty, quiet D – – –, thou pattern of an English country town, with thy clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place with thine old-fashioned houses with here and there a roof of venerable thatch.”

    That is not a good example of Borrow’s distinctive style. If he had always written like that he would not have had many devoted admirers. To my mind there is a quotation by which one may test the true Borrovian—if a writer or talker begins and ends with Mr. Petulengro’s disquisition on death he is suspect. You will remember, “The wind on the heath, brother” – I will not repeat all the phrases. I wonder what percentage of the many who know that quotation are familiar with the other countless highlights of Lavengro and TheRomany Rye. I cannot even imagine, and I was never proficient in mathematics.

    Borrow is not an acquired taste, he is a natural instinct; unless you appreciate the flavour at the first taste you are not likely to acquire it. Only by natural charity can you forgive and forget the dull regions of his domain. He is one of the most masculine of our prose writers, downright in opinion and expression, and with some of the defects of these qualities. He is often prejudiced and gives vent to it, but he is never insincere. His sense of romance lies in the freedom and independence of the individual and not in the relation of the sexes. On the rare occasions when he touches that province there is a hardness, a bitterness.

    The episode of Isopel Berners is the nearest approach to what is called “love interest”, and it displays all Borrow’s qualities at their highest. Isopel is a magnificent creature from the moment when she stands as Lavengro’s second in his battle with the Flaming Tinman and advises him to use his right (Long Melford she calls it), until she deserts him, goes to America, sends him a lock of her hair and the advice, “Fear God and take your own part.” Lavengro vacillates, shall he follow her? “I took her lock of hair and looked at it, then put it in her letter, which I folded up and carefully stowed away, resolved to keep both forever, but determined not to follow her.” And Mr. Petulengro’s verdict, “I always knew that you two were never intended for each other,’ he said. ‘How did you know that?’ I inquired. ‘The dook (spirit) told me so, brother, you are born to be a great traveller.’” Will not this reference induce the reader to explore the wilderness of “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye”, or if he has been free of that realm to revisit it?

    There is not a mean soul in it except “the man in black”, and he is as tedious as a tired horse. The folk are all genuine; incidents and adventure arise naturally from character. Much of the matter is autobiographical, much invented. With a lessened harshness we can apply Lavengro’s dialogue with his gypsy friend, Jasper: “`Tis an old saying, Jasper, that listeners hear no good of themselves; perhaps you heard the epithets that Ursula bestowed upon you.”

    “If by epitaph you mean that she called me a liar, I did, brother, and she was not much wrong, for I certainly do not always stick exactly to truth.”

    The fact in this case may be possibly better than the fiction. Nothing invented could be quite so good as Lavengro’s fight with Mr. Petulengro, the gypsy, over the suicide of the latter’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Herne.

    “Mr. Petulengro said, ‘Brother, there is much blood on your face; you had better wipe it off. I find you, as I thought, less apt with the naked morleys than the stuffed gloves; nay, brother, put your hands down; I’m satisfied; blood has been shed which is all that can be reasonably expected for an old woman who carried so much brimstone about with her as Mrs. Herne.’”

    “You are born to be a great traveller,” said Mr. Petulengro, truthfully, for Borrow traveled far and always with his eyes open. “The Bible in Spain” is said to have been the refuge of youth from boredom on puritanical Sabbath afternoons; a successful disguise for a book packed with picturesque incidents, having nothing to do with Bibles but the effort to sell them. His Spanish scenes are as rich in colour as Goya’s paintings, and his sketches of personalities, from Bishop to vagrant, have something of that artist’s mordant, graphic power. But, wherever he wandered, I imagine Borrow felt his true setting to be the Eastern Counties; in the dingles and on the heath, and under the hedges, where he fought the Flaming Tinman, forged horse-shoes and taught Armenian to Isopel Berners.

    In a sympathetic passage in Lavengro, Borrow sketches William Cowper, “England’s sweetest and most pious bard”, and he mentions the sorrows of that afflicted poet which I do not intend to dwell upon. He is buried in the chancel of Dereham Church. Let anyone who wishes to follow the joys and trials of that soul read one of the best biographies of this generation, “The Stricken Deer”, by David Cecil. The title is from a line in Cowper’s “The Task”. “I was a stricken deer, that left the herd long since.”

 

II

    
    It is a far journey both in time and style between George Borrow and Sir Thomas Browne; in the present their nearest contact in space is that the Borrow museum on Swallow Street in Norwich is not far from St. Peter Mancroft, “ a good civic church, standing very stately above the market place”, where Browne lies. The contrast is marked between the museum which cannot conjure up Borrow’s open-air spirit, and the beauty of the church which is appropriate to the richness of Browne’s fancy. His dates are 1605-1682. In “Religio Medici” he wrote that it is indeed a remarkable coincidence for the tail of the snake to return into its mouth precisely at the day of a man’s nativity, and that happened in his own case, for he died on Oct. 19th, his seventy-seventh birthday. To admire Sir Thomas Browne with peculiar affection must not be accounted eccentricity, and no one who feels thus should think of himself as consecrated. Charles Lamb remarks, “You cannot make a pet book of an author whom everybody reads.” You cannot say that Browne is an author whom everybody reads, and he has that negative quality for a “pet book”, but he has many positive qualities. His was one of Sir William Osler’s bedside books; it is great-hearted beings like Osler who have kept this author alive. He is the companion of those who “are happy in a dream, and as content to enjoy a happiness in a fancy, as others in a more apparent truth and reality”.

     These words seem to imply an altogether inactive and imaginative person, but Sir Thomas was not that. After graduating from Pembroke College, Oxford, he travelled on the Continent and took his degree at the London College of Physicians in 1635. He settled in Norwich in 1637 and for 45 years he practiced medicine there and actively shared the civic life. A contemporary record says that his wife, Dorothy, was “a lady of symmetrical proportion to her worthy husband, both in the graces of her body and mind.” During the Civil Wars he was consistently Royalist. The only overt act to prove his adherence was a refusal to contribute to the fund raised by Parliament to recapture Newcastle. When King Charles II visited Norwich in 1671 he wished to knight a prominent citizen and had chosen the Mayor, when that dignitary begged that the honour might be given the most eminent inhabitant of the city, Thomas Browne. Even this passing reference should give the name of this singular official, Thomas Thacker.

    There is only one episode in Browne’s life that one would like to forget; his share in two fatal prosecutions for witchcraft. We can plead, in extenuation, the prevalent errors of the time and even suggest that, in this case, his peculiar studies perverted his good heart, but these excuses do not remove the stain.

    He was singularly separate and aloof in a time of national strife and literary activity. There is but one contemporary who is even remotely akin in play of mind, Andrew Marvell, and that, maybe, only in Marvell’s address “To his coy Mistress”: 

 

                                    “I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.”

    
    That has Browne’s fancy; but his vein is richer and seems inexhaustible. He felt himself the servant of beauty and turned each of his prose cadences with brooding care and plundered all the stores of the language for strange compounds and all learning for far-fetched comparisons. I have seen the word “quaint” applied to Browne’s style. This word is annoying in almost every context; it is properly chosen for an antiquated bonnet or an out-moded silk-hat, but as an adjective appropriate to Browne’s style it is profane. See him at midnight drowsily finishing “The Garden of Cyrus”. “To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.”

    Browne’s speculations range from the Garden of Eden to the final destinies of the body. He asseverates that Adam was the only man without a navel. “Whether Eve was framed out of the left side of Adam I dispute not; because I stand not yet assured which is the right side of a man, or whether there be any such distinction in Nature: that she was edified out of the rib of Adam I believe, but raise no question who shall arise with that rib at the Resurrection.”

    In “Urn Burial”, where his style lives in all its splendour, he examines the beliefs of antiquity, transmigration and re-birth, and the skill of the Egyptians;— “contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the wind, and folly. The Egyptian mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummy has become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams.”

    The years were not numbered by many hundreds before Sir Thomas Browne’s tomb was plundered and his skull taken to be a show for the vulgar. If he could have foreseen that he would have moralized the gross theft and would have remained fixed in his faith that “there is nothing strictly immortal but immortality.” The wonderful east window of St. Peter Mancroft may be thought of as a crystal counterpart of Browne’s work. Preserved, like it, through those centuries, and exposed in its fragility, to greater dangers, it glows there, a transparency rich with colour transmuted from a glory far beyond this world. When writing those words “greater dangers” I was thinking of the mild aggressions of those earlier centuries. Has this ‘fragility’ survived the greatest of modern dangers; have German bombs left the transparency still glowing? If not I yet claim for that beauty, and for all beauty destroyed a glory in memory ‘far beyond this world’.

 

III

    
    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 motor car which fills them from hedge to hedge. The moor was brilliant with heather in bloom; so intense was the colour, 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 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 Dartmeet 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 Buckfest Abbey. There, high on the tower, the monks were working in the sun, dwarfs at that distance, trowels twinkling in the light. The French Benedictines with their own hands, have placed stone upon stone up from the traces of the eleventh century Abbey, and were doing the last work on the lofty tower. Memory then retrieved for me the recollection of a beautiful passage written by William Morris in “The Earthly Paradise.” I lost the words by I remember the picture he made of a like scene and I refreshed that memory later by reading, with all the old delight, his description of the monks working on the spire of Peterborough Cathedral in the fourteenth century. That Cathedral was one of his first favourites amongst all the Cathedrals of England. The passage comes in the introductory lines to the tale of “The Proud King.” The charm was renewed and I quote the lines for their singular appropriateness to the view that morning at Buckfast Abbey.

 

                                                —I, who have seen
So many lands, and midst such marvels been,
Clearer than these abodes of outland men
Can see above the green and unburnt fen
The little houses of an English town,
Cross-timbered, thatched with fen-reeds coarse and brown,
And high o’er these, three gables, great and fair
                                   * * * Yea I heard withal
In the fresh morning air, the trowels fall
Upon the stone, a thin noise far away;
For high up wrought the masons on that day,
Since to the monks that house seemed scarcely well
Till they had set a spire or pinnacle
Each side the great porch . . . .


That morning was undisturbed by sound; I could only see the glint of the sun on the trowels; their ringing on the stone did not descend to earth. All things in the purlieus of the Abbey seemed to have taken on a dream-like quality, there was no movement anywhere, even the river Dart had silenced its current. In the sunlight the great building was stark in its newness, but when the years mellow it, within and without it, it will 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 contemporary with 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 anthologies 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 some editions 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 hast sent
      And my content
Makes those and beloved Beet
      To be more sweet,
Thou mak’st my teeming hen to lay
      Her egg each day.”

 

    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 my 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 lye 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.

 

IV

    
    It was hardly in the spirit of a worshipper looking for some new shrine that I started out one afternoon from Princes Street to look at Swantson, where Robert Louis Stevenson used sometime to abide. Swanston is less the scene of any early escapades of “R.L.S.” than the home of John Todd, the roaring shepherd, and Robert the gardener. Whatever faint memorials there may be of the author are smothered by the imaginative life that he has given to those two old friends of his, the one who walked the hills herding the sheep and the one who tended his fragile charges rooted in the parterre of the cottage garden.

    I was anxious for a breath of the Scot’s country and weary for a moment of romantic, beautiful, austere, decorous, self-satisfied Edinburgh, where one (if one is a traveler) always comes from the ridge of the old town where all the buildings seem slashed out of rock by a dull claymore, to Princes Street. And back of Princes Street there are those smug, cockney squares and rows with their statues of King George IV and Melville, the greatest political wire-puller of his time. After a while one wearies of the contrast and desires something that is undivided in its allegiance—either to the past or present. But Swanston was not such a place.

    Above it, in the Pentlands, were the haunts of the Covenanters and the moors and the hill-slopes looked as bleak as in their day. The old Farmhouse, at one time the grange of Whitekirk Abbey, stands dour sand stiff as any ancient protestor against the powers and principalities. Its windows, few and shrunken, seemed intended less to admit light than to give a restricted view of the world. But over against all this ancientness was the new cottage of the Lothianburn golf club, and the knolls and hollows of these foothills of the Pentlands were become hazards and bunkers and putting greens. Even the Stevenson cottage, for it is often so called, was but a new thing and consorted ill with cotter’s rubble hamlet and the stern ashlar walls of the Farmhouse. Then of the two human beings that I saw at Swanston one belonged to the past and one to the present.

    As I left the golf links behind me and approached the entrance to the farmstead down a rough lane open to the hills, I met the past. This was of a certainty “the oldest man that ever wore gray hairs.” He was a tradition; thin as light, and as frail as shadow. Surely the wind moved through him unobstructed and troubled him not at all. He dragged from his shoulder a large branch of an ash tree that swept the ground behind him. He was of one colour with it, and it had been dead and weather-beaten for a long time. He felt at the gate with a stick, and when I opened it for him he passed through without a word, incurious. He seemed blind, deaf, dumb, and there seemed in him only power enough to drag himself and the ash branch.

    The present I met in a hill-field in front of the cottage. He was a shepherd, but none of John Todd’s breed. He was of the Scot’s tongue, but I had grave doubts that he knew anything of the Metrical Version, or was aware that he was upon historic ground. Well, as he has a word to say for himself let us test him by later standards. Does he know “R.L.S.”? Yes, to be sure, that was a name that brought some few idle folk thereabouts. But what did “R.L.S.” stand for? Ah! That he did not know. He knew that he wrote books, but he had never read any of them. “Are they any good?” he queried, and asked for the name of the best for his case, and took a note of it in a note-book, presented by the makers of a celebrated whiskey, against the long winter evening that might find him with a resolution to prop his eyelids open.

    I was sorry for his ignorance. For a moment or two I was Stevenson himself, and laughed it off bravely, to go masked and find myself unknown in my own country. Then I felt the weariness of an ambition slighted, it would have been health itself to have known that a little, battered copy of “Travels with a Donkey” or “Kidnapped” or “Weir of Hermiston” was kept warm under a frieze coat on the heights of the Pentlands, to be read in some fold of the hills with the leaves turning of themselves in the bright air. But then the next moment I was myself, with hope springing up for Stevenson and his darling ambition. Perhaps I had consorted with the wrong shepherd! For the rest, elect or unelect, he had an honest face, red with weather, and one thumb split through like a goat’s foot. Let these be his badges in memory.

    That day the air was filled with a haze and Caerketton and Allermuir, the two hills that begin the Pentlands, were but outlines from Edinburgh. A nearer view gave no impression of the dignity or sternness which perversely enough, perhaps, one has associated with these hills. They are pastoral elevations, they have an exquisite charm, a lovely fullness of atmosphere and outline, but no sense of largeness or austerity.

    Allermuir has a growth of small trees that look like the fell of a Southdown thrown upon its shoulders. Caerketton is but a step to the height of Allermuir, and is an accessible hill, round shouldered, gently sloping. All about them the landscape looks neat and small, and pleached. You gather, from the fact that every little coign and corner has its name, that the land is weary with human association. With us no farmer has his house on the map, and his cross-roads called with names of high and romantic sound. But there, Fairmilehead is but a house in the trees; Bowbrig is a culvert with a trickle of water below; the trickle is Lothianburn, and it is the same as far as you may wander. At hand the fields may be furrowed and the woodland shaggy, but at a rood’s distance it all looks as if it had been laid with a dutch-hoe or lopped with a pruning hook. Everywhere as you walk, under your eyes are poppies burning amid the tawny stems of the red-fyfe, or filling, in masses of vivid colour, the ochre gashes where the torrents had gone violently in the gravel pits.

    In the distance is the well-nurtured landscape, hayricks spiked like tents, buff on the lush green of the aftermath, little groups of cottages with deep thatches and roses twinkling at the eaves, the gradual slope of meadows going down to the level of Lothianburn, and rising again to the gaunt Farmhouse at Swanston. Everywhere the colour is mild and suave and mellow like the tints on the canvases of the old masters. It is through such a landscape that you walk to Swanston and over to Colinton Manse, where lived Stevenson’s grandfather.

    In the wood beyond the Manse, you will find a memorial of “R.L.S.” in the rowan-tree he carved with his father’s initials, “T.S.,” the date, “1874,” a sun-burst and below, his own, “R.L.S.” We would call Swanston Cottage a “double house”; it is roomy and planned for comfort. It faces the south and all day takes the sun that shines on the slope that leads up to the heights of Caerketton. The garden is yet the old-fashioned enclosure that Stevenson described. There the wall-flowers and roses and dahlias are perpetuated and the privet hedges, and the ivy rounding the fence tops luxuriantly. There the cabbages and onions (“the rose among roots”) still breed in a long descent from the earliest cultivators. They sustain the memory of Robert the gardener, being all like him “lowly and peacemakers and servant of God.”

    On the long sheep-trodden slopes of the hills I found no such suggestion of John Todd. But August was not his season. Mayhap his spirit might also inhabit the inclement hills if one visited them in December when the air was thickening, and night breaking in snow-clouds over the head of Allermuir.

 

V


    Let those who come to Haworth, the home of the Brontes, come to it through sunshine. Let them leave the plain of East Yorkshire from magnificent York and go toward the higher plateau at Harrowgate. If the gods are kind to them they will have brilliant sunshine and be reminded of the clarity of Canadian skies and the rolling, unconfined fields of North Sasketchewan where the wheat is ripening. At Knaresborough they will find nothing to remind them of the West. Over the deep glen through which the river Nidd flows, dark and silent, under the ruins of John of Gaunt’s Castle a change has come into the sunlight. It may be just as bright but it falls on a landscape which takes its interest from associations that crowd out any thought of a country innocent of events greater than sowing and reaping.

    Haworth is not far distant and, before long, the road is deep in the shadow of the moors, for clouds have come to preside over the lapses of sunshine. These shorn hills seem held prisoners to the earth by the stone fences that in rigid lines bind them down. Why is it that these bleak upland acres with their fetters of stone call upon the imagination? Already the spirit of Emily Bronte pervades the scene:

    “And deepening still the dream-like charm
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere.”

    Passing through Keighley does not destroy the charm, for that town is important as a link in a journey to Haworth and is inseparable from the Bronte tradition. Mrs. Gaskell’s description, written nearly a century ago, with her promise of “future stateliness if not picturesqueness,” still serves. She did not promise the reflected glory from the village on the hill, which has made Haworth, the moors and even Keighley famous. Mrs. Gaskell’s description of the stony road to Haworth does not need to be revised; the road is still steep and stony but a motor easily conquers it.

    Compare her sketch of the church and the parsonage as she saw them in the Eighteen-fifties with the present aspect and the changes wrought by nearly a hundred years are apparent. In her sketch the graveyard becomes a foreground of desolation and the group of buildings surround it with mournful acquiescence in Time’s neglect both of the dead and the living. The church presides with stolid indifference, does not give a blessing to the scene or cover with grace the sacred graves under its pavement. The church has now been rebuilt, a clock in the tower told us it was a quarter past two. The parsonage has been enlarged and remodeled; we do not find the ‘small old-fashioned window panes,’ or the ‘high-pitched roof.’ The graveyard with its grey ancient headstones has an orderly appearance from the modern windows and trees have lent their unfailing power to cheer even the most neglected graves.

    One is prone to think of Haworth as always in shadow and mist, the very center of storm. The accent of much of the Bronte literature is on that aspect of nature. Even on this day in August the clouds press down on the moors and the vista is diminished to a glimpse of Keighley through mist and its own smoke. These two visitors come to the home of Emily Bronte; others may think of the three sisters and pay due homage; to us Emily alone is the source of the faithful wonder and admiration which leads us to her shrine. Thinking of her genius one inevitably thinks of that other Emily, Emily Dickinson, and our two great women poets are joined in thought, so dissimilar yet so in spirit akin and almost “equal in renown.”

    I cannot refrain from comparing this dour landscape with the little, gentle space of earth that Emily Dickinson looked upon in 1848, the year of Emily Bronte’s death. There the fruitful fields of Massachusetts were outspread holding the village of Amherst, and at the center of Amherst life was the spacious dwelling of the Dickinsons. It was planned on the generous New England scale and today it maintains that tradition of dignity in domestic architecture. Around the house was an intimate garden, farther away were fields which could give Emily the feeling of an estate, and the countryside was familiar to her. But when she was in the early power of understanding and interpreting the larger scene, the world was drawn close about her by her own will; her outlook was restricted to the trees, the paths and the flowers of this garden. In 1870 she could reply to an invitation by the refusal absolute, “I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.” In Massachusetts violent storms break and there is deep cold and heavy snow; the reader traces these changes in Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems; they play only a small part in the general fruitful serenity of the State. In 1886, the year of her death Amherst could still be called a ‘village’ and the farms came to its margin. When I visited it in 1929 and 1930, forty-three years had made it more than a town. The house and garden had not changed; flowers from this soil and these trees had been companions, one source of her deepest thought on life and nature. I recalled her admiration of Emily Bronte, ‘magnificent’ among all the modern writers she was familiar with, and remembered the words of that immortal poem of hers read by Col. Higginson at the funeral. Both my visits to Amherst were made in the full sunshine of July and September, and in the summer there was a vireo hidden in the garden preaching to a heedless congregation of leaves. How then could I refrain from comparison between that light and song with this shadow that is soundless.

    The Bronte house is now safe from further change, is protected by a Trust from deterioration and maintained as a repository of relics of the family. Many of the M.S.S. and articles preserved are of great value and some of poignant associations. One cannot look without grief on the vestige of the comb that fell from Emily Bronte’s fingers and was singed in the grate-fire on the morning of her last day when she was struggling alone to the end, “Full of ruth for others, on herself she had no mercy.” The interior of the main part of the house is now as it was when they lived there. Emily’s bedroom, as I remember, corresponds to the narrow room that we call in our new country, ‘the hall bedroom.’ Hardly more than a closet, it is smaller than the room in which Keats died. In these two rooms the presence of genius if felt in a spiritual, almost a personal contact, and sorrow wells up for lives cut down in their prime. Keats was prophetic of his destiny: “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” Emily Bronte wrote a quatrain that gives the impulse of her genius:—

“Wildly rushed the mountain-spring
From its source of fern and ling;
How invincible its roar,
Had its waters worn the shore.”

    She did not affirm her destiny or even put the question. We can answer; she too is with the Immortals.

    These rooms in the Bronte house with their burden of frustration and sorrow bring also memories of a homely and happy life. In 1839 I note, “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen.” One is reminded again of Emily Dickinson who made the only bread her father would eat. Anne Bronte writes in 1841, “All are doing something for our livelihood except Emily, who, however is as busy as any of us and in reality earns her food and raiment as much as we do.” In Emily’s own record, “Anne and I should have picked the black-currants if it had been fine and sunshiny”: and Charlotte writes, “Emily and I set to sheet-making the very day after you left and have stuck to it pretty closely ever since.” Thus one can conjure up a broken picture of domestic felicity, and when she was absent from these rooms and this simple life Emily suffered one of the sharpest agonies of human feelings, nostalgia.

    Here was the nest of her imagination and just beyond the wall was the source of its power and the solace of a troubled heart,—the moors. Charlotte Bronte writes, “It is only deep amongst the ridges of the moors that Imagination can find rest for the sole of her foot.” Here Emily wandered and found the fragile beauty of the bluebells, of the clustered mosses in the glens, saw clouds change the colour on the heather, and the ‘blue ice curdling on the stream.’ Here she dramatized her inner life in characters of strange fictions that had no endings; where visionary actors revealed, in tremendous syllables, her tragic mind.


“Why ask to know what date, what clime?
There dwelt our own humanity,
Power-worshippers from earliest time,
Feet-kissers of triumphant crime,
Crushers of helpless misery,—

“Our corn was garnered months before,
Threshed out and harvested with gore;
Ground, when the ears were milky-sweet,
With furious toil of hoofs and feet,—”


    Here she discovered the beauty and terror of Wuthering Heights and brought to life the Shakespearian Heathcliff. Here was the shrine of her Imagination:


“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading;
It vexes me to choose another guide
Where the grey flocks in ferry glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

“What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief that I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.”


    We explored with our eyes the far reaches of the moors oppressed with gloom. The Spirit that had breathed here had departed and nature only without life was left. Were the memories of that scene and that hour to be so dark and so mingled with doubt of the fate of beauty in the rage of time, beauty, ‘whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ It was the hour to leave, but there was no departure; there could be no severance in the continuity of that experience. There was a journey but there was no beginning and no end. The clouds had parted. A light that seemed more the spirit of all light than of any wandering sunlight pervaded the dark moors and revealed the heights where there was everlasting colour! A light ethereal in quality, but of eternal significance, it was the very light of Imagination transfiguring the sordid foreground of the material world and of present time, never faltering, never lost it flowed on seeking the future with its eternal message.

 

VI

    Sir Thomas Browne wrote, “the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of Men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.” Nowhere is the dust of oblivion so heavy as at Rome; it lies ages-thick on all her seven hills. But there are memories which the lovers of a few of those men who have made England famous have determined to claim for “distinction to merit of perpetuity,” so long as the land and the language remain. An invisible speck in the “iniquity of oblivion,” is the spot amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome where Gibbon mused in 1764.

    We would not, in these times of swift, easy and luxurious transportation, think of Edward Gibbon, the historian, as a great traveler. He went to and fro, by post-chaise, and diligence, between London and Lausanne and knew well some English roads, with his experience he felt himself competent to describe the qualifications most essential to a traveller. “He should be endowed with an active, indefatigable vigour of mind and body, which can seize every mode of conveyance, and support, with a careless smile, every hardship of the road, the weather, or the inn.”

    He had presupposed “knowledge of men and books and a freedom from domestic prejudices,” and the only item I would add to his list would be congenial companionship; without that essential, 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 Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted 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.”

    It is doubtful that any admirer of Gibbon wandering through the ruins of the Capitol, will remember the incident and look for the spot. At no great distance from the ruins there are two places where distinction with “her broad and powerful fan” was winnowed light memories away and left the residue “rich in virtue and unmingled,” the graves of Keats and Shelley. 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 foot 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 a memorial to the two poets. Here is the very heart of sympathy for the sorrows of genius. The devotion of Severn, who watched there over his dying friend, prevails irresistibly, as one lingers in these rooms. The scene must have been the same in their 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 fountain; the flowers had the same form and glow; the vendors were bright with colour, gayer then than now.

    More than a century and a quarter have made almost no alteration in the surroundings. Political and national changes followed one another inevitably, glorious when Italy became free, infamous when she abandoned freedom and was dragged to tragedy and national disgrace. The Piazza di Spagna is not suited either by area or situation for scenes of violence; it is merely a broadening of two main thoroughfares that lead to the Piazza del Popolo. The houses of uniform design that rise at opposite corners of the Scala di Spagna have been preserved in their external form, as it is forbidden by law to alter them. This wise enactment which preserves the harmony for the setting for the Scala di Spagna, the one hundred and thirty seven steps which lead to the Villa Medici and the Trinita di Monte, preserved the form of the Keats-Shelley house and in 1908 it was purchased and the inviolability of the graves was insured by the Trust then formed. I am happy to say that a few Canadians had a part in the purchase. The scheme was originated by eight American writers who were in Rome in 1903. The chairman of the first meeting was Sir Rennal Rodd, the English poet, who was then Chargé d’Affaires of the British Embassy. He gave the meeting an idea of the precarious tenure of the graves of the poets which had been preserved against municipal interference by the Embassy, and once only by the intervention of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

    The house and the graves have received no damage from bombs or shells during the war. By foresight of the custodian and finally by devotion and courage precious memorials of Keats have been preserved. After landings were made by the Allies in North Africa they were removed to the Abbey of Monte Cassino and placed in the care of the Archivist, the Maltese, Don Mauro Inguanez. When that refuge was threatened Don Inguanez was given permission by the German commander to remove his personal belongings. “One morning on the outskirts of battle-torn Cassino, a dusty figure in a priest’s habit ‘thumbed’ a ride on a German truck going into Rome. He had with him a dilapidated suitcase and a box. The box contained the Keats relics. The priest was Don Inguanez.” The treasures found sanctuary in a Monastery in Rome and when the Allies captured and restored order in the city they came again to the famous house in the Piazza di Spagna. All renown to those who sought safety for these treasures, and the name of the Monk of Malta who took the final risk in the midst of unknown dangers will have its place of honour among those who have succeeded in protecting the relics of the poet. I am indebted for these facts to the article by Flight Lieut. S. J. Webb in the Times Literary Supplement of September 30th, `44.

     Italy will sometime, it may be far in the future, become worthy of her immortal past. A fortunate destiny for her will be the possession in safety of the graves of Keats and Shelley and of the room in which Keats spoke his last words.

 

VII


    Of the many who give homage to Keats and Shelley there are few who visit the old Protestant cemetery in Florence when Mrs. Browning, Clough, and Landor, greatest of these three, are buried. It is a little oval knoll amid the traffic of Florence; streams 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. No renown, no pride of ancestry will gain admission to that community of graves. It is secure in serenity; the company is complete; no names can be added to the stones and none taken away, except by ‘that old common arbitrator time,’ who decides impartially whose record shall remain and whose shall be worn away. The new Protestant Cemetery is on the Strada Senese not far from the Certosa del Galluzzo. There the cypresses are younger and flowers are left there to wither on newer graves. Peace has also inevitably entered there and the grave of our own writer William MacLennan claims his share in it.


The Certosa crowns with a cold
Cloud of snow and gold
The olive hill.
What has he now for the song
Of the boatsmen, joyous and long,
Where the rapids shine?
Only the sound of toil,
Where the peasants press the soil
For the oil and wine.


    The lines are from a poem written to his memory after an earlier visit, many years ago, when I stood by the grave of my friend and remembered him.

    In the old Cemetery the memorials of Mrs. Browning, Clough and Landor belong to a past that seems strangely quiet to our present and even to those lives which have closed under the shadow of the Certosa. 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 the 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.”

    At least two of his poems keep alive his memory in most anthologies: Not many have his beautiful lines “Ite domum Saturae, venit Hesperus;” not often will readers remember his aphorism, “The key of our life, that passes all wards, opens all locks, is not I will, but I must, – I must, – I must, – and I do it.” Not far from his grave is the sarcophagus of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was designed by Sir Frederick Leighton and bears for inscription only the initials E.B. Compared with the simplicity of the stones that mark the graves of Landor and Clough it is ornate; it is only a material tribute from the poet to his wife. He has left in his poems the true and lasting memorial to her spirit.

     In the popular mind Mrs. Browning has become a character in drama but long after she with her dog, Flush, has ceased to answer the 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 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 the “By The Fireside:”


“Reading by fire-light, that great brow
And the spirit-small hand propping it.”


    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 quarreled 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, his 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.

    Swindburne said Landor created more characters than Shakespeare. An exaggeration, even misstatement. He worked the mine of his own character to its depths, 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 splendour of rhythm and diction, what classic poetry, what superb prose!

    I lately 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 sceptered 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 to 1835.

     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.”

     Over his grave the Tuscan roses had risen like a wave and bent down ever ready to break, yet unbroken. The green shoots shaded his broad slab from the sun and the roses reflected sufficient light to read his name and date; neglected except by the unchangeable laws of nature that summon daylight and darkness, that call forth stars and tempests, that bid flowers awaken, and time the visits of birds; neglected except for the pilgrims that had ended their journey and remembering a part of all the beauty created by him who rested below, felt their hearts stir with the memory of the labour and the triumph. I bent the stem of a rose and was about to pluck it for a momento of the place and the thought, but the recollection of his love of flowers, of his guardianship over all inarticulate beauty, stayed my hand. The rose, liberated, sprang against to its fellows amid the chaplet, its stem unbroken; as it trembled into place, a petal or two fluttered down upon the letters of the stone and a few shaken dew-drops moistened them.