THOMAS DE QUINCEY.
The Florentines used to point Dante out to strangers in these words: "There goes the man who has been in hell." With much truth could these words have been spoken of Thomas De Quincey, at any time after he began to suffer from his excess in opium eating, which was while he was still a young man,—and especially would these words have been true of him, after he began his struggles to free himself from the thraldom of that most seductive vice. James Payn thus describes his appearance:—
"Picture to yourself a very diminutive man, carelessly—very carelessly—dressed; a face lined, care-worn, and so expressionless that it reminded one of 'that dull, changeless brow, where cold Obstruction's apathy appalls the gazing mourner's heart,'—a face like death in life. The instant he began to speak, however, it lit up as though by electric light; this came from his marvellous eyes, brighter and more intelligent (though by fits) than I have ever seen in any other mortal."
"Conceive a little, pale-faced, woe-begone, and attenuated man, with short indescribables, no coat, check shirt, and a neck-cloth twisted like a wisp of straw, opening his door, and advancing toward you with hurried movement and half-recognizing glance, saluting you in low and hesitating tones, and without looking at you, beginning to pour into your willing ear a stream of learning and wisdom, as long as you are content to listen. . . . His head is small; how can it carry all he knows? His brow is singular in shape, but not particularly large or prominent; where has nature expressed his majestic intellect? His eyes—they sparkle not, they shine not, they are lustreless; there is not even the glare which lights up sometimes dull eyes into eloquence; and yet, even at first, the tout ensemble, strikes you as that of no common man, and you say, ere he has opened his lips, 'He is either mad or inspired.'"
In all literary history there is scarcely a man about whose life and character hang so peculiar an interest and fascination as about De Quincey. He has himself given a most vivid account of his childhood, in his "Autobiographic Sketches," and in the "Opium Eater." From these we learn that he was born in Manchester, August 15, 1785. His father was a very wealthy merchant of that city, who was inclined to pulmonary consumption, and lived mostly abroad, in the West Indies and other warm climates. Thomas had several brothers and sisters, all of whom seem to have been rather peculiar and remarkable children. He was a very precocious child himself, sensitive, excitable, and given to dreams and visions,—living largely in a world of imagination, and for many years ruled over with absolute despotism by an older brother. The loss of a favorite sister in very early childhood seems to have been a blow from which it took him years to recover. He writes of it thus:—
"Inevitable sometimes it is, in solitude, that this should happen to minds morbidly meditative,—that when we stretch out our arms in darkness, vainly striving to draw back the sweet faces that have vanished, slowly arises a new stratagem of grief, and we say, 'Be it that they no more come back to us, yet what hinders but we should go to them?' Perilous is that crisis for the young. In its effect perfectly the same as the ignoble witchcraft of the poor African Obeah, his sublimer witchcraft of grief will, if left to follow its own natural course, terminate in the same catastrophe of death. Poetry, which neglects no phenomena that are interesting to the heart of man, has sometimes touched a little
'On the sublime attractions of the grave.'
But you think that these attractions, existing at times for the adult, could not exist for the child. Understand that you are wrong. Understand that these attractions do exist for the child; and perhaps as much more strongly than they can exist for the adult by the whole difference between the concentration of a childish love and the inevitable distraction upon multiplied objects of any love that can affect any adult. . . . Could the Erl-king's Daughter have revealed herself to me, and promised to lead me where my sister was, she might have wiled me by the hand into the dimmest forests upon earth."
But a beatific vision rose before him, one day in church, and he saw the beautiful sister borne away in the clouds of heaven on a bed of filmy whiteness, surrounded by a celestial throng; and he was somewhat comforted. After twelve years, while he was a student at Oxford, the vision returned to him, and he writes of it:—
"Once again, the nursery of my childhood expanded before me; my sister was moaning in bed; I was beginning to be restless with fears not intelligible to myself. Once again the nurse, but now dilated to colossal proportions, stood as upon some Grecian stage with her uplifted hand, and, like the superb Medea towering amongst her children in the nursery at Corinth, smote me senseless to the ground. Again I am in the chamber with my sister's corpse, again the pomps of life rise up in silence, the glory of summer, the Syrian sunlights, the frost of death. Dream forms itself mysteriously within dream; within these Oxford dreams remoulds itself continually the trance in my sister's chamber,—the blue heavens, the everlasting vault, the soaring billows, the throne steeped in the thought (but not the sight) of 'Who might sit thereon;' the flight, the pursuit, the irrecoverable steps of my return to earth. Once more the funeral procession gathers; the priest, in his white surplice, stands waiting with a book by the side of an open grave; the sacristan is waiting with his shovel; the coffin has sunk; the dust to dust has descended. Again I was in the church on a heavenly Sunday morning. The golden sunlight of God slept amongst the heads of his apostles, his martyrs, his saints; the fragment from the litany, the fragment from the clouds, awoke again the lawny beds that went up to scale the heavens,—awoke again the shadowy arms that moved downward to meet them. Once again arose the swell of the anthem, the burst of the Hallelujah chorus, the storm, the trampling movement of the choral passion, the agitation of my own trembling sympathy, the tumult of the choir, the wrath of the organ. Once more I, that wallowed in the dust, became he that rose up to the clouds. And now all was bound up into unity; the first state and the last were melted into each other as in some sunny, glorifying haze. For high in heaven hovered a gleaming host of faces, veiled with wings, around the pillows of the dying children. And such beings sympathize equally with sorrow that grovels and with sorrow that soars. Such beings pity alike the children that are languishing in death, and the children that live only to languish in tears."
This extract is important as showing that when a mere child, knowing nothing of the fatal drug, he had visions similar to those which filled his after years. At Oxford he had begun the use of opium—but his first vision was a repetition of one of his childish years, and it leads us to infer that his own vivid imagination bore an important part in the brilliant dreams which followed his taking of opium. No person of ordinary mind could induce those gorgeous and bewildering dreams by its use. In his case the drug acted upon a mind fitted to see visions and dream dreams even without its use; and the result was that gorgeous and bewildering phantasmagoria which he so eloquently describes.
The causes of his first indulging in opium may be briefly glanced at here. At seventeen, he ran away from the school at which he had been placed by his guardians, his father now being dead. He wished to enter college at once, and it appears was well prepared to do so, and had made earnest representations to his guardians upon the subject, as he was unhappy where he was, and under a very unsuitable master. But they would not consent, and, like one of his brothers who ran away from school and went to sea, he borrowed a little money and stole quietly away to Wales.
The brother had left school, it appears, with good reason, being brutally treated; but in the case of Thomas there seems to have been no complaint of real ill-usage. It was simply one of the wilful freaks of a precocious and fantastic boy. He wandered in Wales for a few weeks, until his money was nearly spent, and then contrived to get to London, where he suffered the cruellest pangs of poverty, although he was a young gentleman of independent fortune. It is difficult for a matter-of-fact and well-balanced mind to conceive of an experience just like that of De Quincey. Why he should have allowed himself to starve rather than communicate with his friends, we are not told,—it could scarcely have been pride, for he accepted help even from strangers when it was offered,—and why he did not seek some of the friends of his family in the city we are not informed, but such was the fact.
He tells the story thus:—
"And now began the later and fiercer stage of my long sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression, I might say of my agony. For I now suffered for upwards of sixteen weeks the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity, but as bitter, perhaps, as ever any human being can have suffered who has survived it. I would not needlessly harass my readers' feelings by a detail of all that I endured; for extremities such as these, under any circumstances of heaviest misconduct or guilt, cannot be contemplated, even in description, without a rueful pity that is painful to the natural goodness of the human heart. Let it suffice to say that a few fragments of bread from the breakfast table of one individual, and these at uncertain intervals, constituted my whole support. . . . I was houseless, and seldom slept under a roof."
After a time, however, he slept in an unoccupied house, or unoccupied save by a child of ten years,—as forlorn as himself. She slept here, and was much tormented by the fear of ghosts. She hailed his advent with great pleasure as a protection from supernatural visitants; and when the weather became cold, he used to hold her in his arms that she might gain the additional comfort of a little warmth. He says they lay upon the floor "with a bundle of cursed law papers for a pillow, and no covering save an old cloak." He slept only from exhaustion, and could hear himself moaning in his sleep; but his little companion, relieved of fear, and perhaps a little better fed than he, slept soundly and well at all times. He learned to love the poor child as his partner in wretchedness. He made also one other friend, a girl of the streets, named Ann, who was kind to him, and whom he remembered with gratitude to the end of his life. He says of her:—
"This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon the wages of prostitution. . . . Yet, no! let me not class thee, O noble-minded Ann, with that order of women; let me find, if it be possible, some gentler name to designate the condition of her to whose bounty and compassion—ministering to my necessities when all the world had forsaken me—I owe it that I am at this time alive. . . . She was not as old as myself. . . . O youthful benefactress! how often in succeeding years, standing in solitary places and thinking of thee with grief of heart and perfect love,—how often have I wished that, as in ancient times the curse of a father was believed to have a supernatural power, and to pursue its object with a fatal necessity of self-fulfilment,—even so the benediction of a heart oppressed with gratitude might have a like prerogative,—might have power given it from above to chase, to haunt, to waylay, to overtake, to pursue thee into the central darkness of a London brothel, or (if it were possible) into the darkness of the grave, there to awaken thee with an authentic message of peace and forgiveness and final reconciliation!"
The youthful wanderer was finally discovered by his friends, and placed by his wish at Oxford, where about a year after, in 1804, he began the occasional use of opium. He did this merely as a means of pleasure at first, like the drinking of wine, and took it only at stated intervals for a period of eight years. He seemed to experience no harm from its use in this way; but a very severe neuralgic affection of the stomach (caused, it is supposed, by his privations in London primarily) developed itself at the end of that time, and he resorted to the habitual use of opium as a relief from pain.
He was married in 1816 to Miss Margaret Simpson, and lived with her in a cottage at Grasmere. Of this wife, with whom he lived for twenty-one years, he thus writes:—
"But watching by my pillow, or defrauding herself of sleep to bear me company through the heavy watches of the night, sat my Electra; for thou, beloved M., dear companion of my later years, thou wast my Electra! and neither in nobility of mind nor in long-suffering affection would'st permit that a Grecian sister should excel an English wife. For thou thoughtest not much to stoop to humble offices of kindness, and to servile ministrations of tenderest affection; to wipe away for years the unwholesome dews upon the forehead, or to refresh the lips when parched and baked with fever; nor even when thy own peaceful slumbers had by long sympathy become infected with the spectacle of my dread contest with phantoms and shadowy enemies that oftentimes bade me 'sleep no more'—not even then did'st thou utter a complaint or any murmur, nor withdraw thy angelic smiles, nor shrink from thy service of love, more than did Electra of old. For she too, though she was a Grecian woman, and the daughter of the king of men, yet wept sometimes, and hid her face in her robe!"
Hard indeed, no doubt, was the wife's lot through all those years; but the world will never have more than this mere glimpse of her sorrow and her devotion. Yet to a person gifted with imagination, it is enough. He can reconstruct from it that long period of patient watchfulness and unwearied devotion; he can share her hopes when her loved one makes a battle with his enemy, her tears when he is defeated, her rapture when he makes a seeming conquest, the bitterness of her anguish when he again falls. For all this was gone through, not once, but three times, in the course of De Quincey's life. It was not until he felt that death was inevitable if he continued the use of opium (which he was then taking in enormous quantities) that he ever resolved to give up its use. He knew he must die if he kept on, he thought he should die if he gave it up, but he determined to make the effort. His studies had long been abandoned; he could not even read. For two years he had read but one book; he shrank from study with a sense of infantine powerlessness that gave him great anguish when he remembered what his mind had formerly been. From misery and suffering, he might almost be described as being in a dormant state. His wife managed all the affairs of the household, and attended to necessary business. He did not lose his moral sensibilities or aspirations, as so many opium eaters do, but his intellect seemed dead. His brain had become a theatre, which presented spectacles of more than earthly splendor, but as often painful as pleasurable. He had no control now of the dreams which haunted him. He learned now the awful tyranny of the human face.
"Upon the rocking waters of the ocean, the human face began to appear: the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens,—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries; my agitation was infinite, my mind tossed and surged with the ocean. . . . I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed with cancerous kisses by crocodiles; and laid confounded with all unutterable slimy things, among reeds and Nilotic mud. . . . The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him for centuries."
The struggle was a long and hard one, and of it he says:—
"Jeremy Taylor conjectures that it may be as painful to be born as to die. I think it probable; and during the whole period of my diminishing opium I had the torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another. . . . One memorial of my former condition still remains; my dreams are not yet perfectly calm; the dread swell and agitation of the storm have not wholly subsided. My dreams are still tumultuous, and like the gates of Paradise to our first parents when looking back from afar, it is still, in the tremendous line of Milton,
'With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms.'"
It is sad to learn that after all his struggles he never really succeeded in freeing himself from the spell of opium. We learn that "after having at one time abstained wholly for sixty-one days, he was compelled to return to its moderate use, as life was found to be insupportable; and there is no record of any further attempt at total abstinence." His indulgence was, however, very limited in his later years. Weakly as he was, and with a stomach which could digest but the smallest quantity of food, he lived in tolerable health until he was seventy-four years old. His wife died over twenty years before he passed away; and his daughters made a home for him during that time, and cared for him, as his wife had done. He could never be trusted with any practical matters whatever. He had a nervous horror of handling money, and would give away bank-notes to get them out of his way. He was very generous when young, and gave Coleridge three hundred pounds at one time, insisting upon making it five hundred, which was not allowed. He never had a friend who was not welcome to his purse. While he had no care whatever about his dress, and would frequently enter the drawing-room, even when company was there, with but one stocking on, or minus some other very necessary adjunct of dress, he was very dainty and neat about many things. The greasy, crumpled, Scotch one-pound notes annoyed him. He did his best to smooth and cleanse them, before parting with them, and he washed and polished shillings up to their pristine brightness before giving them away. He used to complain of Wordsworth, because of a lack of neatness, and describes somewhere his agony at seeing the old poet cut the leaves of a new book with a knife taken from the supper-table, where buttered toast had been eaten. Coleridge was also distressed over Wordsworth's treatment of books, and says that one would as soon trust a bear in a tulip-garden as Wordsworth in a library.
De Quincey was a very charming companion and a most brilliant talker. He says of himself and Lamb, that they both had a childish love of nonsense,—headlong nonsense. While much given to reverie, and somewhat shy, he had a great fund of humor, drollery, and effervescent wit, which made his society much liked by all fortunate enough to be acquainted with him. He was a very abstemious man, and his tastes were of the simplest. His whole manner and speech were imbued with a high-bred courtesy, though he sometimes loved to run counter to the ordinary conventionalities of life. He could never be depended upon for keeping any sort of engagement, and if a friend wanted him to dinner, he must go for him with his carriage, and take him away. His manner to his daughters was the perfection of chivalrous respect, as well as affection.
What he might have been had he never contracted his fatal habit of opium eating, it is perhaps useless to conjecture; but in his youth he was thought to be one who might do anything,—all things. What he really did do, of permanent value, is very little compared to the expectations of his friends.
Blameless as was his life in every other respect, the pity of this weakness seems infinitely great, and we mourn over his lot with the same unavailing sorrow with which we weep over the graves of other men of great gifts, but some fatal defect of will, which allows them to be bound and held captive all their lives in the chains of some darling vice. Mingled with the rosemary of our remembrance for such, must be the fennel and the rue.
"Day set on Norham's castled steep, And Tweed's fair river, broad and deep, And Cheviot's mountains lone. The battled towers, the donjon keep, The loop-hole grates, where captives weep, The flanking walls that round it sweep, In yellow lustre shone. The warriors on the turrets high, Moving athwart the evening sky, Seemed forms of giant height; Their armor, as it caught the rays, Flashed back again the western blaze, In lines of dazzling light."
Who does not remember the ring of the opening lines of "Marmion,"—pronounced by Horace Greeley to be the finest verse of descriptive writing in the language? How often were they declaimed from the school rostrums in the days, dear reader, when you and I were young! What do school boys and girls declaim now, we wonder, equal to the selections from Scott, which formed the greatest part of our stock in trade? Have "Marmion," and "The Lady of the Lake," and the immortal "Lay" been superseded by the trivialities and inanities of modern poetasters? or do the good old lines still hold their own? Does the orator of the class still rise and electrify the whole school, as in the former days, by drawing his cloak around him, like the noble Douglas, and declaring:—
"My manors, halls, and bowers shall still Be open to my Sovereign's will,— To each one whom he lists, howe'er Unmeet to be the owner's peer. My castles are my King's alone, From turret to foundation-stone: The hand of Douglas is his own; And never shall in friendly grasp The hand of such as Marmion clasp."
And is the whole school lost in breathless admiration still as he continues:—
"Burned Marmion's swarthy cheek like fire, And shook his very frame for ire, And—'This to me!' he said; 'An 'twere not for thy hoary beard, Such hand as Marmion's had not spared To cleave the Douglas' head!'"
We wonder does the—
"Minstrel come once more to view The eastern ridge of Benvenue."
And if he still sees—
"the dagger-crest of Mar, Still sees the Moray's silver star, Wave o'er the cloud of Saxon war, That up the lake comes winding far!"
And does the blood of the youthful listener still thrill as he thinks of the glory of that cavalcade, till he feels, as we used of old, that—
"'Twere worth ten years of peaceful life, One glance at their array."
And does he still throw the old pathos into the lines,—
"Where, where was Roderick then! One blast upon his bugle horn Were worth a thousand men."
Probably he does not. This is all doubtless very old-fashioned, and we doubt if the modern school would quite rise to the situation, even when Roderick makes himself known to Fitz-James, "And, stranger, I am Roderick Dhu;" but in the days we wot of, you and I, this was the most thrilling climax in all literature. Have the boys outgrown "Ivanhoe" too? And do they prefer to hear Du Chaillu tell about the gorillas he invented, or go with Jules Verne twenty thousand leagues under the sea? We hope not, for their sakes, but wish that they may enjoy the tournament as we did, and delight in the "clang of the armor," "the lifting of the vizor," and everything connected with "the lists." We trust, too, that they will walk with Sir Walter everywhere throughout the Highlands, until every mount and loch and ruined castle has become their own; that they will follow poor Jeanie Deans through the "Heart of Mid-Lothian;" that they will shed true, heartfelt tears over "Kenilworth," and love as did the older generations the "Bride of Lammermoor."
Let us be steadfast in our love of the old books; let us never grow weary of the world-read classics. Who cares for the books of the year? Next twelvemonth we shall not know whether we have read them or not; but what a fadeless possession is the memory of one of the world-books! Life is too brief to be spent upon ephemera; let us go back from our wanderings in the wilderness of new books, and draw nearer to the wells of English undefiled.
To this end let us study this man "than his brethren taller and fairer,"—this kingly Sir Walter of the ancient line.
He says that "every Scotchman has a pedigree." It is a national prerogative, as inalienable as his pride and his poverty. Sir Walter's pedigree was gentle, he being connected, though remotely, with ancient families upon both sides of the house. He was lineally descended from Auld Watt, an ancient chieftain whose name he often made ring in border ballads. He was one of twelve children, and was not specially distinguished through childhood; though, being lame, he got much comfort from books. He took the usual amount of Latin, but obstinately rebelled at the Greek, and even in his college days would have none of it. He was distinguished there by the name of "The Greek Blockhead," and even his excellent professor was betrayed into saying that "dunce he was and dunce he would remain,"—"an opinion," says Scott, "which my excellent and learned friend lived to revoke over a bottle of Burgundy after I had achieved some literary distinction." He read everything he could lay hands on, in English, all through his youth, and his reading seems to have been entirely undirected. He tells about discovering "some odd volumes of Shakspeare," and adds: "Nor can I forget the rapture with which I sat up in my shirt reading them by the light of a fire in my mother's apartment, until the bustle of the family rising from supper warned me it was time to creep back to my bed, where I was supposed to have been safely deposited since nine o'clock." He soon after became enamoured of Ossian and Spenser, whom he thought he could have read forever.
His first acquaintance with the Highlands he was to immortalize was made in his fifteenth year. The same year he became apprenticed to the law in his father's office. The Highland visits were repeated nearly every year thereafter, and from the first afforded him the greatest delight. Of this first visit he says: "Since that hour the recollection of that inimitable landscape has possessed the strangest influence over my mind and retained its place as a memorable thing, while much that was influential on my own fortunes has fled from my recollections."
His appearance at this time was very engaging. He had outgrown his early sallowness and had a fresh, brilliant complexion. His eyes were clear, open, and well set, with a changeful expression; his teeth were dazzling white, and his smile delightful. In very early youth he formed a strong attachment for a young lady very highly connected, and of position far above his own, and of great personal attractions. Their acquaintance began in the Grey Friars Churchyard, where, rain beginning to fall one Sunday as the congregation were dispersing, Scott happened to offer his umbrella, and, the offer being accepted, he escorted her to her residence. The acquaintance proved pleasant to both, and they met frequently, until it became an understood thing that he should escort her home from church. When Scott's father learned of it he deemed it his duty to warn the young lady's father of the interest the young pair were taking in each other, but the gentleman did not think it necessary to interfere. This affection was nourished through several years, and Scott had no thought but that marriage would be its final result, as the young lady warmly reciprocated his attachment, and the parents apparently threw no obstacles in the way. But the little romance, like so many other youthful dreams, was destined to be rudely broken, and the lady was married in due time, by her friends, to a gentleman of high rank and character, who later in life acted the part of a generous patron to his early rival. His hopes of marriage with this lady had rendered him very industrious and devoted to business, and kept him from all youthful follies. These things were certainly clear gains to the young man from the connection, if we say nothing of the pleasant store of memories with which it furnished his whole after-life. But the blow was a severe one when the parting came, and Scott could not refer to it without emotion even after many years. But he was still quite young—not over twenty-five years of age—and he soon saw a lady in whom he grew much interested. Riding, Lockhart tells us, "one day with Ferguson, they met, some miles from Gilsland, a young lady taking the air on horseback, whom neither of them had previously remarked, and whose appearance instantly struck them both so much they kept her in view until they had satisfied themselves that she also was one of the party at Gilsland. The same evening there was a ball, at which Captain Scott appeared in regimentals, and Ferguson also thought proper to be equipped in the uniform of the Edinburgh Volunteers. There was no little rivalry among the young travellers as to who should first get presented to the unknown beauty of the morning's ride; but though both the gentlemen in scarlet had the advantage of being her dancing-partners, young Walter succeeded in handing the fair stranger to supper; and such was his first introduction to Charlotte Margaret Carpenter." She was very beautiful,—a complexion of clearest and lightest olive, eyes large, deep-set, and dazzling, of the finest Italian brown, and a profusion of black hair. Her manners had the well-bred reserve of an Englishwoman, and something of the coquetry of the French from whom she was descended. She spoke with a slight accent, and with much vivacity. Madame Charpentier had made her escape to England during the Revolution,—her husband having been a devoted Royalist and Government officer,—and she had brought up her children as Protestants. No lovelier vision than that of Margaret had ever dazzled the eyes of our young hero, and he became her devoted cavalier at once.
He thus describes her to his mother when announcing his engagement:—
"Without flying into raptures,—for I must assure you that my judgment as well as my affections are consulted upon this occasion,—without flying into raptures, then, I may safely assure you that her temper is sweet and cheerful, her understanding good, and, what I know will give you pleasure, her principles of religion very serious. Her fortune is five hundred pounds a year."
These are a few extracts from Miss Carpenter's letters:—
"Before I conclude this famous epistle I will give you a little hint,—that is, not to put so many 'musts' in your letters, it is beginning rather too soon; and another thing is that I take the liberty not to mind them much, but I expect you to mind me. You must take care of yourself; you must think of me and believe me yours sincerely. . . . I am very glad that you don't give up the cavalry, as I love anything that is stylish. Don't forget to find a stand for the old carriage, as I shall like to keep it in case we have to go a journey; it will do very well until we can keep our carriage. What an idea of yours was that to mention where you wish to have your bones laid! If you were married I should think you had tired of me. A pretty compliment before marriage! If you always have those cheerful thoughts, how very pleasant and gay you must be. Adieu, my dearest friend. Take care of yourself if you love me, as I have no wish that you should visit that beautiful and romantic scene, the burial place! . . . Arrange it so that we shall see none of your family the night of our arrival. I shall be so tired, and such a fright, I should not be seen to advantage."
All of which reads as though the young ladies of 1797 were not very different from those of our own day. After the marriage they went to reside in Edinburgh, and enjoyed some of the gayeties of that time. They were most particularly attracted by the theatres. Mrs. Scott had a great fondness for the shows and pomps of the world, as she had not concealed from him before marriage, and she never recovered from such fondness; but she accommodated herself well to her surroundings, and the young couple were very happy.
In 1814 "Waverley" was published, and received with wonder and delight by the whole reading world. "Guy Mannering" followed closely upon it, and was said to have been written in six weeks' time. It intensified the interest already aroused, and made men wonder anew who this great new light could be. The tragical "Bride of Lammermoor" composed at white heat in a fortnight, added greatly to the sensation, and the whole country was in a fever of excitement over the creations of this enchanted pen. The secret of the authorship of the novels was kept for a long time even from Scott's intimate friends. During the great success of these works, Scott began the building of his house at Abbotsford, and put into the vast and imposing structure so much money that he became very much embarrassed in his finances, and the serious troubles of his life began. The extravagance of his outlay upon his estate, together with liabilities he had assumed for others, led finally to financial ruin, to overwork, and probably to premature death. Let us make a few extracts from his diary written when these misfortunes were fresh upon him.
"What a life mine has been! Half-educated, almost wholly neglected or left to myself; stuffing my head with most nonsensical trash, and undervalued by the most of my companions for a time; getting forward, and held to be a bold and clever fellow, contrary to the opinion of all who had held me a mere dreamer; broken-hearted for two years, my heart handsomely pieced again,—but the crack will remain till my dying day. Rich and poor four or five times; once on the verge of ruin, yet opened a new source of wealth almost overflowing. Now to be broken in my pitch of pride and nearly winged (unless good news should come) because London chooses to be in an uproar, and in the tumult of bulls and bears a poor, inoffensive lion like myself is pushed to the wall. Nobody in the end can lose a penny by me, that is one comfort. I have the satisfaction to recollect that my prosperity has been of advantage to many, and to hope that some at least will forgive my transient wealth on account of the innocence of my intentions, and my real wish to do good to the poor. . . . How could I tread my hall again with such a diminished crest? How live a poor, indebted man, where I was once the wealthy, the honored? I was to have gone there Saturday in joy and prosperity to receive my friends. My dogs will wait for me in vain. It is foolish, but the thoughts of parting from these dumb creatures have moved me more than any of the painful reflections I have put down. Poor things, I must get them kind masters. I must end these gloomy forebodings, or I shall lose the tone of mind with which men should meet distress. I feel my dogs' feet on my knees; I hear them whining and seeking me everywhere. . . .
"I feel neither dishonored nor broken down by the bad—now really bad—news I have received. I have walked my last on the domains I have planted; sat the last time in the halls I have built. But death would have taken them from me if misfortune had spared them. My poor people whom I loved so well! There is just another die to turn up against me in this run of ill-luck,—that is, if I should break my magic wand in the fall from the elephant, and lose my popularity with my fortune.
"Read again and for the third time Miss Austen's story of 'Pride and Prejudice.' That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements, the feelings, and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things interesting is denied to me."
Troubles had indeed come thick and fast upon poor Scott, and the heaviest blow was yet to fall. In 1826 Lady Scott was taken from him, and about the same time a number of his old friends. He felt his desolation extremely, but kept up bravely for the most part, and worked prodigiously for many months. There is a grandeur about the way he bore his misfortunes which casts into shade all that was fine in his character during his prosperous years. Most men, even of brave and noble natures, would have been overcome by misfortunes so overwhelming as were his, and would never have thought of extricating themselves; but he seemed to rise to the occasion in a quite unexampled manner, and to fight with the utmost bravery and fortitude to the last. The wound to his affections was, however, very hard to recover from, and he broke more rapidly after Lady Scott's death than ever before. He writes:—
"A kind of cloud of stupidity hangs about me, as if all were unreal that men seem to be doing and talking about."
After the burial he writes:—
"The whole scene floats as a sort of dream before me,—the beautiful day, the gray ruins covered and hidden among clouds of foliage, where the grave even in the lap of beauty lay lurking and gaping for its prey. Then the grave looks, the hasty, important bustle of the men with spades and mattocks, the train of carriages, the coffin containing the creature that was so long the dearest on earth to me, and whom I was to consign to the very spot which in pleasure parties we so frequently visited. It seems still as if it could not be really so. But it is so, and duty to God and to my children must teach me patience."
His pecuniary troubles were greeted with the liveliest sympathy from all quarters. The Earl of Dudley but voiced the general thought when he exclaimed, on first hearing of them: "Scott ruined! the author of 'Waverley' ruined! Good God! Let every man to whom he has given months of delight give him a sixpence, and he will rise to-morrow morning richer than Rothschild." When, after a time, he rallied and went on a journey to London, the deep sympathy with which he was received, and the kindness of all with whom he associated, cheered his heart a great deal, and he went back to his unparalleled labors quite refreshed. But he had set himself a task which it was impossible that any man could do, and although he worked himself mercilessly to the end, he failed of accomplishing it. His nervous system became completely shattered, and he had several strokes of paralysis; but it was not until his mind also began to fail in serious fashion that he would give over his work. He seemed determined to die a free man, but the task was too prodigious. He labored like a giant, but he failed.
The record of those closing days is very sad. The pity they excite is too deep even for tears. One turns from them with a heavy burden at the heart, which nothing can for a time relieve. The only comfort is that he was surrounded by the kindest and tenderest friends, and that he bore everything which came to him with unflinching fortitude and the kindliest spirit. His last words spoken to Lockhart are characteristic of the man: "Be a good man, my dear; be virtuous, be religious, be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here." There is nothing in the record of Sir Walter's life which any friend would wish to blot. One can but be pained to excess by the record of his business troubles, so hopeless in their entanglements, but through all these even, his character glows with undiminished brightness, and we love him ever more and more. He was a man built on a large scale, both in intellect and heart, and, although he doubtless had his failings, there is little that is recorded of him that detracts in any way from his innate nobility. Such a funeral as his has seldom been witnessed.
"The court-yard and all the precincts of Abbotsford were crowded with uncovered spectators as the procession was arranged; and as it advanced through Darnick and Melrose, and the adjacent villages, the whole population appeared at their doors in like manner,—almost all in black. The train of carriages extended more than a mile; the yeomanry followed in great numbers on horseback, and it was late in the day ere we reached Dryburg. Some accident, it was observed, had caused the hearse to halt for several minutes on the summit of the hill at Bemerside,—exactly where a prospect of remarkable richness opens, and where Sir Walter had always been accustomed to rein up his horse. The day was dark and lowering, and the wind high. The wide enclosure at the Abbey of Dryburg was thronged with old and young; and when the coffin was taken from the hearse and again laid on the shoulders of the afflicted serving-men, one deep sob burst from a thousand lips."
The heart of Scotland was broken at her great loss. And well might she mourn. The sceptre which the great Wizard of the North had so long held was broken, and no successor has yet risen to uphold the fame of Auld Scotia. Nor will a successor arise. No hand like his will ever touch the harp of his native land; no strains such as he evoked ever again sound through the rocky glens and passes, and echo from the mountain-heights of Scotland.
If there is a tender and touching story in all the annals of genius, it is surely the life-history of Charles Lamb. Search where we will, there is nothing to equal the pathos of this gentle and lovable life. Nowhere else can we find a record of such deep devotion, such heroic endurance, such uncomplaining suffering, such geniality and cheerfulness under almost unbearable burdens. The world admires many of its men of letters,—it loves Charles Lamb. Save Carlyle's, no voice among all his literary brethren has ever said a bitter or an unkind word of the gentle humorist. And when we compare the lives of the two men, how brightly glows the page whereon is written the record of Lamb's untiring and unselfish love, exacting nothing for himself, but giving all with lavish prodigality, compared with the pages given to the account of the selfish and exacting life which Carlyle lived with the woman who was his wife, and whom he really loved, but over whom he tyrannized in so petty a manner! Carlyle's characterization of Lamb is really the most damaging thing to himself of the many bitter and biting sarcasms which he has left in regard to the men and women of his day. That he did not know Lamb—had not the slightest appreciation of the man—is evident at a glance. And perhaps this is not to be so much wondered at, for there was very little in common between the two; but it does seem that some hint of the heroism of Lamb's apparently commonplace and perhaps vulgar life might have penetrated even to the heart of the crusty Scotchman, for he could not have been ignorant of the tragic life-story of gentle Elia.
They were very humble people, the Lambs,—poor and obscure, and unfortunate to a degree. No pretensions to gentility had ever been in the family, but an acceptance of their commonplace lot, with little striving for higher things. There was something more, too, than poverty and obscurity and vulgarity in their antecedents; a fearful curse was in the family, the heritage of almost every generation,—the curse of madness. What the contemplation of this frightful inheritance must have been to a youth like Charles Lamb, gifted with the fatal sensibility of genius, and endowed with that imagination which can conceive of a horror before it falls, we can form some sort of conception, but probably a very vague and inadequate one indeed.
The family were very poor, living in humble lodgings. The father was in his dotage, the mother was a paralytic, and Charles with his pen, and his sister Mary with her needle, worked to support the family. They both overworked themselves fearfully, and lived in apprehension of the doom which hung over them. They were very fondly attached to each other, and the only pleasure they had in their cheerless youth was their intercourse. They were both gifted, and of gentle and kind disposition, and their affection for each other was more sympathetic and filled with a deeper insight into each other's characters and feelings than is common between brothers and sisters. In little intervals between their varied labors they wrote and read to each other many things which would have a rare value in these days had they been preserved; and this, with wandering together through the streets in the evenings and looking at the outside of the theatres, seems to have constituted their only youthful pleasure. At the age of twenty-one Charles showed symptoms of the family curse, and his sister herself almost lost her reason in unavailing sorrow over his condition. So young, so gifted, and threatened with such dread disaster,—his loving Mary could not have it so. She even rebelled against Heaven in the extreme of her agony, and called upon God to relieve them both from such ill-fated life. But all her prayers and tears and rebellious risings up against destiny did not avail, and Charles was placed in a mad-house, where he passed a portion of the year 1796. In one of his lucid intervals he wrote a sonnet, "Mary, to thee, my sister, and my friend," which is a touching and tender tribute to her love. Long afterward he was able to write of the experience quite cheerfully:—
"I look back upon it at times with a gloomy kind of envy; for while it lasted I had many, many hours of pure happiness. Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till you have gone mad!"
But there is a painful commentary upon the bitterness of after-life to him in the thought that he could look back upon this dreadful season as a period when he had some happiness. The attack in his case was of brief duration, and it never recurred, which, considering all the sorrows and all the irregularities of his life, seems remarkable. He had not been long in a condition to be responsible when the tragedy took place which cast its blight upon his life. In September of the year 1796 Mary Lamb, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needle-work all day and by watching with her mother at night, broke into uncontrollable insanity, and seizing a knife from the table spread for dinner, stabbed her mother to the heart. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of lunacy." Charles writes to Coleridge:—
"With me the former things are passed away, and I have something more to do than to feel. God Almighty has us well in his keeping."
The horror of the event made so deep an impression upon his mind that he thought he never fully recovered from it. For many, many years it hung over him like a pall, casting a sort of despairing darkness over all that might have been bright in life. Think of that tender and sensitive soul in the awful solitude of the nights which followed the tragedy: the sister he loved removed from him to an asylum; the mother sleeping in her unhonored grave; the father, worse than dead, in almost drivelling idiocy, to be cared for at his hands; the awful doom of the family ever hanging over his own head,—what depths of passionate sorrow must he have waded through in those bitter hours, what unavailing tears he must have shed, what rebellious thoughts may there not have been in his heart!
But he kept a cheerful front, and went about his daily toil, as he needs must, with as little outward show of pain as possible.
Mary soon grew better, and he exerted himself to have her released from confinement. He succeeded in doing so by entering into a solemn agreement to make her his charge for life, and to watch over her that she should do no harm. When she was returned to him he was almost happy again, in spite of the shadow caused by the memory of what had happened, as well as by the uncertainty of the future. He had but one hundred pounds a year from his clerkship, and there was a maiden aunt as well as the father to be cared for. But he says cheerfully:—
"If my father, my aunt, my sister, and an old maid servant cannot live comfortably on one hundred and twenty or one hundred and thirty pounds a year, we ought to burn by slow fires; and I almost would, that Mary might not go to a hospital."
And he hoped to earn the twenty or thirty pounds by literature. His father had to be amused by cribbage; and many were the weary hours that Charles would sit playing with him, to the neglect of his correspondence, his friends, the thousand-and-one private interests which filled up his little leisure. Sometimes he would try to be let off, but the old man would say, reproachfully, "If you won't play with me, you might as well not come home at all;" and the dutiful son set to afresh. There is a sort of heroism in this which only those people can appreciate who really value their time. These people will give all else cheerfully,—money, strength, the heart's deep devotion,—but they give very grudgingly their precious moments; they feel as though they were being robbed in every hour thus lost. Oh, the agony of impatience! oh, the restlessness of the fever which consumes them when they feel the moments fleeing away, and the unconscious thief perhaps deriving little pleasure or profit from the loss! Rebellion against fate is often a virtue under such circumstances; and we are inclined to think it would have been so in the case of poor Elia, even though the poor old man should have gone to his grave with a few less games of cribbage recorded against him.
Think of the delicious essays which might have been written in those misspent hours, in those days of youth when Elia was at his best, before the sorrowful touches of Time had been left upon his genius; think of the exquisite letters his friends might have received, and which would have enriched all the coming time; think of the inimitable drolleries which would have sent a smile over the face of the world; think of the little pathetic touches he would have given in sketches of characteristic humor, all with the freshness of his dawn upon them,—and mourn, O world of letters, for your loss! But the old man,—he for whom the light had gone out in darkness; over whose brain the cobwebs had been woven; who had no joy in the great things of this life; who saw no beauty or splendor in the outer world; who had no treasure in the world of thought; who could not be stirred again by any of the absorbing passions of life; who knew no love, no hate, no ambition, no great impulse to do or to dare; who could not enter into the realm of books or art or music; who had not even a friend in all the universe of God; think of the old man who had only this one thing,—cards,—and pause a moment before you say that gentle Elia did not well.
Finally the old man, too, went his way, and there were only Charles and Mary left. He had long since given up the hope of there being a third in their life-drama, although there had been one to whom his heart was given, and whose presence had been with him always, even in his days of madness,—sweet Alice W., as he always called her, but of whom the world has lost all trace save this, that she was Charles Lamb's early and only love, and that he treasured her memory until all were gone, "the old familiar faces." Long after she was married to another, Lamb used to be seen at evening pacing up and down in front of her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her through the windows. But after he had taken Mary to be his charge it was impossible to think of marriage. He could not ask another to share his sad vigils with the afflicted sister, nor hope that another would look upon her with his eyes; so he buried his romance out of sight, and never turned to that phase of a man's life again. At twenty-two one does not easily give up the thoughts of love, or the hopes of home with wife and children,—and Charles had his struggle, as any strong man would have had; but he conquered himself once again, and went bravely on. Day by day he toiled at the India House, never losing time, never taking a vacation, ever at his post till he was fifty years old, when he "came home forever."
During those thirty years of steady toil he went through many sad experiences with Mary; but he must earn their daily bread, and he never left his post. Many were the nights he spent in anxious watchings with her,—for she had periodical returns of her insanity during all this time,—when, sleepless and harassed to the point of exhaustion with her dangerous vagaries, he must still rise in the morning and go to his desk. Many were the days when he ran in hot haste the moment he was released, to see that she was still safe; even many hand-to-hand encounters he had with her in her dangerous hours,—but no murmur ever escaped his lips at all this. When she became very bad he took her back to the asylum, and she remained sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months; but he always eagerly reclaimed her the moment she was better. He took her with him on little journeys,—a strait-jacket always safely packed in her portmanteau by herself,—and one time she went mad while they were travelling in the diligence and far from home. Often he wrote to their friends in the later days, when he had become somewhat famous and friends had grown plenty, to apologize for not keeping engagements or accepting invitations, "My sister is taken ill." As George W. Curtis once wrote,—
"In those few words how much tragedy lies hidden! What a life of patient heroism do they suggest!—in comparison with which the career of Lamb's huge contemporary, Bonaparte, shrinks into the meanest melodrama; while the misanthropic mouthings of Lord Byron become maudlin when we recall the sweet, life-long, heroic silence of Charles Lamb."
"What sad, large pieces it cuts out of life," Lamb writes in 1809,—"out of her life, who is getting rather old; and we may not have many years to live together." Once again when she was in confinement he writes:—
"It cuts out great slices of the time—the little time—we shall have to live together. But I won't talk of death; I will imagine us immortal, or forget that we are otherwise. By God's blessing, in a few weeks we may be taking our meal together, or sitting in the front row of the pit at Drury Lane, or taking our evening walk past the theatres, to look at the outside of them at least, if not to be tempted in. Then we forget that we are assailable; we are strong for the time as rocks,—the wind is tempered to the shorn Lambs."
Then away on in 1833 he writes to Wordsworth:—
"Mary is ill again. Her illnesses encroach yearly. The last was three months, followed by two of depression most dreadful. . . . I look back upon her earlier attacks with longing,—nice little durations of six weeks or so, followed by complete restoration,—shocking as they were to me then."
This sister was a woman quite worthy of his devotion. Possessed of genius somewhat akin to that of her brother, she also handled a delicate pen, and but for her misfortune would have been well known in the world of books. She was in complete sympathy with her brother, in heart as well as in mind. And the record of their lives is one of the most beautiful pictures of brotherly and sisterly affection in all literature.
Let us turn from the dark picture, and see some of the brighter sides of this life, sketched so far in Rembrandt-like color. Throughout all this darkness and dread, he had joked and jested his way on, amusing his friends in private, and entertaining the world of letters by his genial humor. It welled up as from a hidden fountain, and that fountain never failed but with life. So easily and spontaneously did it flow, that if he wanted an order to see the play, for some friends, he would scribble something like this to Ayrton:—
"I would go to the play In a very economical sort of a way, Rather to see Than be seen; Though I'm no ill sight Neither— By candle-light, And in some kinds of weather, You might pit me for height Against Kean; But in a grand tragic scene I'm nothing. It would create a kind of loathing To see me act Hamlet; There'd be many a damn let Fly At my presumption, If I should try,— Being a fellow of no gumption."
And so on through half a dozen verses of exquisite nonsense. And in every little note to his many friends there was always some characteristic touch to excite their ready smiles; as in the note to Coleridge, who had carried off some of his books:—"There is a devilish gap in my shelf where you have knocked out the two eye-teeth," and where he goes on to beg him in a whimsical way to return them—because, although he had himself borrowed them of somebody else, they had long adorned his shelf. Truly, most people who own books at all can sympathize with Lamb in this, though they may think he got off lightly to have only the two eye-teeth knocked out. We have known of cases where cuspids, bicuspids, and molars have all been extracted. These letters are all exquisitely droll, the most of them containing a gentle oath or two, as where he wrote "Some d——d people have come in, and I must stop;" and then recollecting that he was writing to a "proper" person, making a postscript which says, "when I wrote d——d I only meant deuced." But one would as soon think of dropping out Shakspeare's adjective, and saying (as a very prim lady we once knew did in reading Lady Macbeth's soliloquy), "Out, spot!" as to drop out any of Lamb's qualifying words. He was sometimes accused of being irreverent, as in his article upon "Saying Graces," where he affirms that he is more disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day than before his dinner, and inquires why not say them over books, those spiritual repasts. But he was very far indeed from being irreverent, and had much of genuine religious feeling.
His hospitality was unbounded, and the evenings at his home have become as well known in literature as the grand evenings at Holland House.
His friends were the first literary men of the day,—Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall, Talfourd, Hazlitt, Southey, Coleridge,—all the giants of that day and generation, and he was loved by them all. Not that they did not know and deplore his faults,—or his one fault; for if he could have conquered his fondness for wine he would have had none of much moment left. But even this was overlooked by his friends at the time, and has not been considered as entirely inexcusable by posterity. That he smoked much and drank hard, even for that day, may be true; but it can scarcely justify the bitter sneers of Carlyle, or the holding of him up as an awful warning without putting in any plea in mitigation, as is sometimes done by severe moralists in our own day. He abased himself in awful shame over it many a time in life, and suffered in his own person all the fearful retribution which such habits bring in their train. Let this be sufficient for us, and let us but pity and pass on. One of the most beautiful things in his later life was his fatherly tenderness toward a friendless young girl whom he and Mary had befriended and finally adopted,—Emma Isola, who was afterwards married to Moxon, the publisher. He was extremely fond of her, and she brightened his home much in the later years, although she married before his death. It is sad to think that he should have died before his sister. He had often prayed that this might not be. But he provided for her tenderly, and gave her to the care of his friends.
Lamb is described as having a face of "quivering sweetness, nervous, tremulous, and so slight of frame that he looked only fit for the most placid fortune."
Fit or not, he had to contend with the hardest thing a man can have in life,—he had to live a life-long witness of the sufferings of one he dearly loved, and whom he was entirely powerless to help, the daily and hourly pathos of whose sufferings he was fitted to appreciate keenly, and for whom in all this wide weltering chaos of a world there was no hope. He renounced everything else in life to try to mitigate this dreadful lot. His kindness was unceasing, his pity was both fatherly and motherly; it was more,—Godlike; and yet it was of small avail. He toiled physically that she might live at ease. He exerted his mind constantly when in her presence, that she might be cheerful. He watched over her with the tenderness of both brother and lover; and this shall be his justification, if he needs one: he loved much.
Hazlitt has a long paper "On Persons One would Wish to have Seen." And surely, if he had lived at this time, he would have added genial and lovable Kit North to the list of those thus honored. There are few of those who belonged to his day and generation to whom we should have a stronger wish to be presented, than to Wilson,—the student, the Bohemian, the bookworm, the sportsman, the professor, the kindliest, merriest, and most entertaining of genial companions,—the great hero of the "Noctes Ambrosianae."
Not even Lamb—the quaint and merry companion, so full of quips and puns that laughter lingered with any company he graced with his pathetic little body and quizzical countenance—could rival Christopher as a fountain of merriment and eternal good-cheer. His humor was not quiet and subtle like Lamb's, but broad, rich, bordering on farce, and of "imagination all compact." And Lamb could by no means rival him in splendor of description, vivacity of retort, energy of criticism, or in riotous and uproarious mirth. De Quincey alone could match the splendor of his diction when describing outward sights and sounds, and De Quincey had not a tithe of his intense love of Nature, and appreciation of her glory and magnificence. Ruskin alone equals him in this, and he scarcely reaches the height of rhetorical eloquence to which Wilson soars so easily.
In these same "Noctes" we have descriptions of some of those nights when, as Carlyle would have said, "there was much good talk." And Wilson was mainly the talker. The chief characteristic of his discourse was its prodigality of humor and its infinite variety. His imagination too ran riot, and his wit sparkled ever and anon with a radiance all its own.
His memory was prodigious, and in his conversation he taxed it for anecdotes and illustrations drawn from the four quarters of the globe, and from the most remote and unusual stores of literary hoarding. His mind was many-sided as well as keen, and he kept all his faculties in full play, not excepting his sympathies, which were as broad as the world of men.
Can we wonder that those who crowded the table where he sat, lingered on till the daylight drove them from the board? or that no man who had had him for a boon companion could ever be satisfied with another? Can we wonder that the students who crowded his lecture-room after he became a professor thought every other lecturer commonplace and dull? Not that he gave them more information than others—perhaps he did not give them as much; but he excited and inspired them. He quickened their minds, and wakened their dormant faculties. Some of the white heat of his own enthusiasm he communicated to their colder natures, and they enjoyed the unusual warmth. Those who listened to those wonderful discourses can never be persuaded that eloquence did not die with Christopher North. They were all addressed to the hearts of his listeners, and thrills, and tears, and laughter that was not loud but deep, accompanied his speech from the beginning to the very end. Let one who thus listened to him speak:—
"We have heard him in the assembly-rooms, speaking on the genius of Scott, a little after the death of the Wizard, and in the tremble of his deep voice could read his sorrow for the personal loss, as well as his enthusiasm for the universal genius. We have heard him in his class-room, in those wild and wailing cadences, which no description can adequately re-echo, in those long, deep-drawn, slowly expiring sounds, which now resembled the moanings of a forsaken cataract, and now seemed to come hoarse and hollow from the chambers of the thunder, advocating the immortality of the soul, describing Caesar weeping at the grave of Alexander, repeating, with an energy which might have raised the dead, Scott's lines on the landing of the British in Portugal, and discovering the secret springs of laughter, beauty, sublimity, and terror, to audiences whom he melted, electrified, subdued, solemnized, exploded into mirth, or awed into silence, at his pleasure."
His eloquence gained little from his personal appearance, about which there was something savage, leonine, massive, but little that was refined or attractive in the usual sense of that word. Still his face is described by some as magnificent, and his gray, flashing eyes, as being remarkably expressive. In his dress he was exceedingly slovenly except upon state occasions. His professor's gown, as he stalked along the college-terraces, flew in tattered stripes behind him, his shirts were usually buttonless, and his hat like a reminiscence of a pre-historic age. His yellow hair always floated over his shoulders, in confusion worse confounded, and he wore immense unkempt whiskers hanging upon his breast. Dickens thus describes him:—
"At his heels followed a wiry, sharp-eyed shaggy devil of a terrier, dogging his steps as he went slashing up and down, now with one man beside him, now with another, and now quite alone, but always at a fast rolling pace, with his head in the air, and his eyes as wide open as he could get them. A bright, clear-complexioned, mountain-looking fellow, he looks as if he had just come down from the Highlands, and had never taken a pen in hand."
His carelessness of appearances extended to his rooms, which looked like small sections from the primeval chaos. The book-shelves were of unpainted wood, knocked together in the rudest fashion, and the books were many of them tattered and without backs. A case containing foreign birds was used also as a wardrobe, and all of his rare possessions in natural history were mixed up with a most motley collection of books and papers,—these latter consisting of all sorts of scraps, of which no one else could have made anything. He always seemed to be able to find them when wanted, even in the worst confusion; but how he did it was a mystery to his friends. "Here and there, in the interstices between books, were stuffed what appeared to be dingy, crumpled bits of paper, but they were in reality bank-notes, his class fees; which he never carried in a purse, but stuffed away wherever it seemed most convenient at the moment." He never, even in the coldest weather, had a fire in his room.
No account of Kit North would be complete that left out entirely the convivialities of the table, though we should make a great mistake if we took the humorous caricatures of the "Noctes Ambrosianae" for accounts of literal feats in that line. This has sometimes been done, and he is frequently represented as a glutton and a drunkard. He was neither, although he did perform some remarkable feats both of eating and drinking in his day. His life of constant out-of-door exercise gave him a keen appetite, and a perfect digestion, and he loved the hilarity of the table as well as any man of his day. But in his later life he became a teetotaller. Even in his earlier days it was often the excitement of company which quickened all of his powers to their utmost tension, when the effect was attributed to wine. So fond was he of all sorts and kinds of out-of-the-way company, that he was at one time in the habit of going at midnight to the Angel Inn, where many of the up and down London coaches met, and there to preside at the passengers' supper, carving for them, inquiring all about their respective journeys, and astonishing them with his wit and pleasantry. He would also linger about with coachmen and guards, and was present at, and took a hand in, many a street row, unknown by those with whom he mingled.
He is said to have remained for three months in the back room of a Highland blacksmith, strolling daily about the hills, and performing some of his prodigious pedestrian feats, to the great surprise of the rustics. He is also said to have followed the lady who became his wife all over the lake country of Scotland in the disguise of a waiter, serving her at table wherever the party happened to be, until the suspicions of her father were aroused by seeing the same waiter at every inn. Wilson then made himself known, declared his admiration for the lady, and finally became her accepted suitor. After their marriage he took her with him all over the Highlands on foot, assuring her that only so could she become really acquainted with their beauties. No man perhaps ever loved the Highlands as Christopher North loved them,—with the possible exception of Walter Scott.—and we can truly envy his young bride to be thus escorted through their deepest labyrinths, and introduced to their most delicate and hidden beauties. Here he introduced his beloved also to the cottages of the peasants, and made her acquainted with the poetry of that life which has inspired some of the finest of modern literature. He knew as well as Hogg, or Scott, or Lockhart, that the characteristic romance of a people like the Scotch is to be sought chiefly in the cottages of the poor, and that the finest poetry of such a people has for the most part a like inspiration. And these same peasants showed to their best advantage always when Christopher was around. They loved him instinctively, although they knew him only as a sportsman, or in some cases, perhaps, as a naturalist. But his large heart always shone forth in his intercourse with the poor, and he seemed conscious of no superiority to them, meeting them always on the common ground of humanity, and sympathizing, in his hearty and genial way, in all their joys and sorrows. They took to him just as dogs and children did.
And his descriptions of their cramped and narrow lives, enlivened by his characteristic humor, are among the best pictures the world has cherished of Scottish rural life. He did not spare their vices, but gave many dramatic pictures of the darker sides of peasant life, with which he gained a close acquaintance during those long foot-journeys which he was so fond of making, living really what we would call the life of a tramp, for long periods. Sometimes he camped with gypsies for weeks, and at all times was intimate with all of the so-called lower classes. Tinkers, cairds, poachers, were his familiar roadside acquaintances, and he extracted great amusement from their peculiarities. Sometimes he had to win the respect of these worthies by knocking them down in the beginning of the acquaintance, but after that they usually stood by him to the end. He usually figured as the champion of the weak in these games at fisticuffs, but sometimes he managed things on his own account.
Although he loved to wander in the Highlands, he made his home among the lakes at Elleray. This home was a rambling, mossy-roofed cottage, of very picturesque appearance, overhung by a giant sycamore.
"Never," he says, "in this well-wooded world, not even in the days of the Druids, could there have been such another tree. It would be easier to suppose two Shakspeares. Oh, sweetest and shadiest of sycamores, we love thee beyond all other trees."
And he thus discourses of the lakes amid which he lived,—and about whose borders he wandered so continually:—
"Each lake hath its promontories, that every step you walk, every stroke you row, undergo miraculous metamorphoses, accordant to the change that comes o'er the spirit of your dream, as your imagination glances again over the transfigured mountains. Each lake hath its bays of bliss, where might ride at her moorings, made of the stalks of water-lilies, the fairy bark of a spiritual life. Each lake hath its hanging terraces of immortal green, that along her shores run glimmering far down beneath the superficial sunshine, where the poet in his becalmed canoe, among the lustre, could fondly swear by all that is most beautiful on earth, and air, and water, that these three are one, blended as they are by the interfusing spirit of heavenly peace."
Lover of beauty as he was, yet he was well content with what he could find in Scotland; he cared little for England, and nothing for the Continent. There was enough to exhaust the seeing possibilities of a lifetime in his own little land, with its rocks and lakes and heathery hills. This was because he really had the poet's eye and heart. Such do not need to traverse the whole wide world to find enough of beauty; it is only the mediocre and the commonplace who care to gaze superficially at the landscapes of two continents. But Wilson knew his land not only with the eye of a poet, but also with that of a naturalist. His favorite pastime was ornithology, and he made fine collections of specimens in this line.
He was a great sportsman, and a story is told by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, of his travelling seventy miles in one day, to fish in a certain favorite loch among the braes of Glenarchy, called Loch Toila. He was also a good shot, and very enthusiastic in sport even to old age. Boating was another favorite pastime; and engaged in one or another of these out-of-door pursuits, he passed a very large portion of his whole life. When he did write, he did it with great rapidity, composing one of the "Noctes" at a sitting. His love for the animal creation was very deep, and he would never submit to seeing any creature abused. He one day saw a man cruelly beating his horse, which was overloaded with coals, and could not move. He remonstrated with the driver, who, exasperated at the interference, took up the whip in a threatening way, as if with intent to strike the professor. In one instant the well-nerved hand of Wilson, not new to these encounters, twisted the whip from the coarse fist of the driver, and walking up to the cart, he unfastened the trams and hurled the whole weight of the coals into the street. He then took the horse and led it away, depositing it in the hands of the authorities, with injunctions to see that the beast was better treated in future.
He made great pets of game-birds, the aristocracy of the species, with their delicate heads and exquisite plumage, and kept at one time no less than sixty-two in the back yard of his house. The noise was simply unendurable to all but Wilson, who was never annoyed by it in the least. He kept one lame sparrow for eleven years, caring for it with the tenderest solicitude.
He was always well known in the houses of the poor, and he never gave up one of his humble friends. He was tender and gentle always to these, as to the members of his own household, where it was said the very strength of his hand was softened, that he might caress the infant, or play with the little ones at his feet. With all children he was a prime favorite, and in his declining years his grandchildren were his daily playmates. Noah's ark, trumpets, drums, pencils, puzzles, dolls, were all supposed by them to possess interest in his eyes equal to their own.
He was thrown much upon these children for his pleasures near the close of his life. That frame of gigantic build and of gigantic strength became almost helpless from paralysis, and he was cared for till death by his daughter, the mother of these favored little ones. Oh, it is sad to think of it! Poor Christopher,—the active, the alert, the keen-sighted, the fleet-footed, the gay and rollicking sportsman, the famous angler, the champion boxer, too, upon occasions,—laid low, and propped helpless upon pillows within walls, which he had always hated so sincerely. He writes:—
"Our spirit burns within us, but our limbs are palsied, and our feet must brush the heather no more. Lo, how beautifully those fast-travelling pointers do their work on that black mountain's breast; intersecting it into parallelograms and squares and circles, and now all a-stoop on a sudden, as if frozen to death. Higher up among the rocks and cliffs and stones, we see a stripling whose ambition it is to strike the sky with his forehead, and wet his hair in the misty cloud, pursuing the ptarmigan. . . . Never shall eld deaden our sympathies with the pastimes of our fellow-men, any more than with their highest raptures, their profoundest griefs."
It is safe to say that he kept his word, and was to the last, the same genial, warm-hearted, impulsive, wayward man who had by these and other engaging qualities made for himself so large a place in the heart of his countrymen, during the long years he had wandered over her moors and hills, seeing all her beauties, and describing them as no other had done.
He was almost the last of that band of strong men who cast such lustre over the beginning of this century. Coleridge had gone before, and Wordsworth, Byron, and Campbell, Shelley, and Canning, and Peel, and Jeffrey, and Moore, and he lingered on in a solitude made greater by that last stroke of calamity which deprived him of motion for a time that was weary and heart-breaking to him, and over which the world yet sheds its sympathizing tears. He died at the age of sixty-eight.
So many volumes have been written about the domestic life and the loves of Lord Byron, that it would be a hopeless undertaking to attempt to say anything new about them. But the story of Byron's life will never lose its fascination, and to every new generation of readers the romance will be fresh. Marvellously beautiful, wonderfully gifted, unfortunately constituted man; wronged by his birth, wronged by his education, wronged most of all by himself, the world will never cease to wonder and to weep when his tragic story is told. While the language remains his words will live. Immortal poetry for youth!—new generations will learn it by heart, when the older generations are forgetting; and long after all memory of his waywardness and folly has faded from the world, his deathless songs will still sing on.
In any attempt to understand Byron, his ancestry must be much considered. It will never do to compare him with cool-headed, calm-blooded, matter-of-fact people. He was the peculiar product of a peculiar race. Coming through generations of hot, turbulent blood, which was never once mastered or tamed by its possessors, he entered the world with a temperament and disposition which made it simply impossible that he should lead the ordinary life of the British Philistine of his day.
As far back as they have been traced, the family were violent, passionate, high-spirited, but unrestrained in the indulgence of their desires by any of the cardinal principles of morality. Byron's father, one of Byron's biographers tells us, had outraged in his previous family life not only the principles of religion, but also the laws of society; and when, in 1783, he married Catherine Gordon, the wealthy heiress of Gight, Aberdeenshire, it was chiefly for the purpose of paying off his debts with her fortune. Within two years after the marriage the heiress of Gight was reduced to a pittance of one hundred and fifty pounds a year. In 1790, for economy's sake, they removed from London to Aberdeen, but soon separated.
Even after this, Captain Byron was mean-spirited enough to solicit money from his wife, and she had not the heart to refuse him. With a small supply thus obtained he crossed the channel, and in 1791 died in Valenciennes, in the North of France. Of the violent temper of Byron's mother many stories are told, and of her heartless treatment of him in his early years; so that upon neither side can we find much upon which we could expect to build a very noble or well-balanced character, and the fact seems to be that the eccentricities of the Byron family were so great as to be dangerously near the point called insanity.
A youth inheriting such blood as this, and brought up without even a pretence of moral or religious training, could hardly be expected to develop many of the domestic virtues. Neither could high-mindedness or lofty principle be predicted of him. And in truth, Byron possessed neither of these things. With this fiery Norman blood flowing in his veins, restlessness was the habitual condition of his existence, such restlessness as drove him to seek excitement at whatever cost,—quiet, as he expressed it, to the quick bosom being hell. This restlessness led him into all sorts of folly and excess, in the pursuit of new excitements. Then he was cursed with an exaggerated sensibility, which, while it gave him many rare delights in life, inflicted upon him also the keenest tortures. His massive egotism was the cause, doubtless, of many of his most marked eccentricities. He was so anxious to have the world's gaze fixed upon him that he said and did things continually for the mere purpose of holding its attention. In this way he frequently made himself appear worse than he really was. Society was held willingly in the thrall of his personality. A dull world likes to have laid bare for its inspection the pulses of a vivid existence. Byron may have been no worse than many other men of his day, for it was a time of general immorality, but he never concealed even his worst vices. While hypocrisy is a national vice in England, Byron, though essentially English in most things, never possessed this marked characteristic of his countrymen. He flaunted his vices in the light of day; and the world took a speedy revenge upon him for his audacity. The little episode of his love for Mary Chaworth occurred at so early an age that it seems scarcely probable that it affected him as seriously as he claimed; yet he was a very precocious child, and his account of the strength of his passion, and its disappointment, may not be wholly an affectation. It is difficult, too, to arrive at his real feeling toward Miss Milbank, there was so much of contradiction both in his words and in his conduct. Miss Milbank probably loved him but feared to marry him, having heard of the irregularities of his life. And certainly the sort of life which Byron had led was a very poor preparation for happiness at the fireside, and if all other causes of unhappiness had been wanting would doubtless have wrecked his union with Miss Milbank. But there were not wanting numberless other sources of misery to this ill-mated couple, first among which was the complete incompatibility of their tastes, feelings, characters. That she was a noble, intelligent, and high-principled woman, none have ever denied. The wonder was, not that she would not live with such a man as Byron, but that she could ever have married him. In charity we must decide that she was ignorant of the unspeakable degradation of such an act. That he was a famous man of genius, the most wonderfully gifted poet of his time, might have been a temptation, but it was no excuse, if she entered into the contract with her eyes open. But aside from the question of vice or virtue, there was nothing in common between them. She felt that she had fallen from the unalterable serenity and dignity of her existence, into chaos. Her natural reserve and his natural frankness were the occasion of continual clashings. Her formality and his bluntness caused constant unrest. Accustomed to the regularity of a well-ordered English household, she was miserable at the utter demoralization of their home,—of which the bailiff had possession nine times during the short year they occupied it. Formed for a calm, domestic life, she would probably have been a most admirable wife to a man suited to her virtuous tastes, but her very virtues irritated Byron.
Lady Caroline Lamb, who had loved him so madly, and on whom he had expended a temporary passion, was in her ardent nature and erratic genius much better suited to his tastes; and yet it had not taken him long to tire of her, beautiful as she had been. And were ever such bitter and cruel words addressed to a wronged woman, even though she had herself been fearfully to blame in the matter, as those sent by Byron to this poor creature, who had sent him a last touching appeal to remember her? He wrote:—
"Remember you! remember you! Until the waters of Lethe have flowed over the burning torrent of your existence, shame and remorse will cry in your ears, and pursue you with the delirium of fever. Remember you! Do not doubt it, I will remember. And your husband will also remember you. Neither of us can ever forget you. To him you have been an unfaithful wife, and to me—a devil!"
Terrible words, which apparently changed her love to hate, for she was his relentless enemy for many years. But one day the great poet died, in Greece, the death of a hero. His body was taken back to England for burial, and Caroline Lamb stood at her window and saw the procession go by. The coffin was followed by a dog, howling piteously. Caroline uttered a heartrending cry, and sunk to the floor insensible. They raised her and placed her in her bed, from which she never rose; she was borne from it to her grave.
Such was the devotion which his fatal beauty and fascination won from women, from many women, in his brief life. It is not probable that his wife ever loved him in this way, but had she done so it seems very unlikely that they could have lived a happy life together.
For one reason, he had no faith in women. "False as a woman or an epitaph" expressed his deliberate opinion of the sex; and it must be confessed that the sort of women with whom he had best acquaintance were not calculated to give him high ideas upon the subject. This low estimate of women would have stood in the way of domestic happiness under any circumstances.
He was not ignorant of this, and in "Childe Harold" states the case thus:—
"For he through sin's long labyrinth had run, Nor made atonement when he did amiss; Had sighed to many, though he loved but one, And that loved one, alas! could ne'er be his. Ah, happy she! to 'scape from him whose kiss Had been pollution unto aught so chaste! Who soon had left her charms for vulgar bliss, And spoiled her goodly lands to gild his waste, Nor calm domestic bliss had ever deigned to taste."
It has been thought by some that had Byron had the good fortune to meet his latest love, the Countess Guiccioli, in his youth, all his stormy life might have been changed and redeemed. However this may be, she seems, so far as we can judge of her, to have been more likely to be a poet's one great love than any of the others who for a time held his wandering fancy. Beautiful as a poet's wildest dream, young, ardent, gifted, and passionately devoted to him, what more could even his exacting nature demand?—
"Educated in the gloom of the convent, the notes of the organ, the clouds of incense, the waxen tapers burning at the feet of the Virgin, the litanies of the nuns,—all this had filled her mind with the poetry of the cloister, and with that mystic and indefinable love which at the first contact with the world was ready to change into a violent passion when it should meet with an object upon which to fix itself."
Married as soon as she left the convent to a man selected by her parents, whom she had barely seen, and who was old enough to be her father, she was at the time Byron first saw her a melancholy and unhappy woman, much given to the reading of poetry and of the immoral novels of that time and place.
That she should love Byron at first sight was inevitable, and that which followed was almost as inevitable. She herself thus describes her first acquaintance with him:—
"His noble and exquisitely beautiful countenance, the tone of his voice, his manners, the thousand enchantments that surrounded him, rendered him so different and so superior a being to any by whom I was surrounded or had hitherto seen that it was impossible he should not have left the most profound impression upon me. From that evening, during the whole of my subsequent stay at Venice, we met every day."
Almost the only glimpses of quiet happiness which Byron ever enjoyed came from this association. The lovers seemed to be admirably adapted to each other, and their love knew no diminution during the short remainder of his life. And she cherished his memory with the utmost fondness throughout a long life, writing of him with unbounded enthusiasm, in her own account of her acquaintance with him, many years after his death. Byron has probably exaggerated his own unhappiness, yet there can be no doubt that much of what he describes was very real. The nobler elements of his character were constantly at war with the lower, and although he did not have sufficient strength of character to lead the noble life of which he had frequent visions, he had enough innate nobility to despise himself for the life he did lead. Doubtless there was much of truth in what he wrote in his journal in Switzerland:—
"But in all, the recollections of bitterness, and more especially of recent and more home desolation, which must accompany one through life, have preyed upon me here; and neither the music of the shepherd, the crashing of the avalanche, or the torrent, the mountain, the glacier, the forest, or the cloud, have for one moment lightened the weight upon my heart, or enabled me to lose my own wretched identity in the majesty, and the power, and the glory around, above, and beneath me."
The close of Byron's life, in Greece, seems to have been one of peculiar desolation. There is something really tragic in the utter loneliness of such a death-bed. Years before, he had written concerning his death:—
"When time or soon or late shall bring The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead, Oblivion! may thy languid wing Wave gently o'er my dying bed.
"No band of friends or heirs be there To weep, or wish the coming blow; No maiden with dishevelled hair To feel, or feign, decorous woe.
"But silent let me sink to earth, With no officious mourners near; I would not mar one hour of rest Or startle friendship with a tear."
Never was wish more literally fulfilled than this. There were none but servants about him in his last hours:—
"In all these attendants," says Parry, "there was an over-officiousness of zeal; but as they could not understand each other's language their zeal only added to the confusion. This circumstance, and the want of common necessaries, made Byron's apartment such a picture at distress and even anguish during the last two or three days of his life as never before beheld, and have no wish to witness again."
His remains were taken to England and interred in the family vault in the Church of Hucknall. His poems are his imperishable monument.
The beautiful face of Shelley is one that is familiar to all students of literary biography, and contends with that of Byron for the distinction of being the handsomest among the men of letters of his day. Burns was also a picture of manly beauty, whose features have long been familiar in engravings; but Byron and Shelley look the ideal poet far more than their sturdier Scottish brother. The face of Schiller was also one of great charm, and Tennyson and Longfellow in their youth were also beautiful; but the world is more familiar with the representations of their later years, and has almost forgotten the alluring eyes and the flowing locks of the youthful bards.
Shelley always had a girlish look, caused perhaps by a feeble constitution, and he suffered much from poor health, which added to the delicacy of his face. But there was a wonderful charm about his countenance even in childhood, and his eyes seemed like wells into which one might fall. There was rare sweetness in his smile, too. He was a tall man and very slender, with a certain squareness of shoulder, and great bodily litheness and activity. He had an oval face and delicate features. His forehead was high. His fine dark-brown hair disposed itself in beautiful curls over his brow and around the back of his neck. The eyes were brown, and the coloring of his face as soft as that of a girl's, in youth, though he bronzed somewhat during his life in Italy.
His countenance changed with every passing emotion; his usual look was earnest, but when joyful he was very bright and animated in expression. When sad there was something peculiarly touching in his face, and there was sometimes expressed in his look a mournful weariness of everything. But there was something noble and commanding in his aspect through all changes, something hinting of his high and noble birth, as well as of his genius. He had a peculiar voice, not powerful, but musical and expressive, and fine agreeable manners when once the shyness of youth had worn off.
That youth was a period of great unhappiness in many ways. He was irritable and sensitive, and much given to reading and brooding, at which the other children—or, as he called them "the little fiends—scoffed incessantly." He had thoughts beyond his years, and found in these his greatest happiness. He was impatient and full of impulse, with a strong dash of egotism, like most men of genius.
That he was eccentric beyond the usual eccentricities of genius is known to all the world. That he set out fully determined to live the ideal life and to reform the world, is as well known; also, that he failed in both these attempts,—partly through the limitations of his own nature, and partly that the contract was too large, even for a man of his undoubted genius.
Shelley was born in the County of Sussex, on the 4th of August, 1792. His most characteristic childish amusement seems to have been the making of chemical experiments; and his brothers and sisters were often terrified at the experiments in electricity which he tried upon them. He was also fond of making the children personate spirits or fiends, while he burned some inflammable liquid.
He was full of cheerful fun, and had all the comic vein so agreeable in a household. His benevolent impulses displayed themselves in his earliest childhood in his wish to educate some child; and he talked seriously of purchasing a little girl for that purpose, and actually entered into negotiations to that effect with a tumbler who came to the back door. His hatred of tyranny also showed itself at the earliest age, in rebellion against the rule of the old schoolmistress who educated his sisters.
He was exceedingly precocious, and was thus sent to Eton at an age much younger than other boys. He was perhaps a little proud of his birth and breeding; but it was probably more from his inborn hatred of tyranny than from the former reason, that he utterly refused to "fag" for the older boys, and in this way got himself at once into trouble in the school. Neither the cruel vituperation of his fellows nor menaces of punishment upon the part of his superiors could bend his will to an obedience which could only be yielded at the expense of self-respect. He was soon withdrawn from Eton, and was afterwards sent to Oxford. Here his first great enthusiasm was for chemistry; and the appearance of his room is thus described by a fellow-student:—