"Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, paints, crucibles, bags, and boxes, were scattered on the floor and in every place; as if the young chemist, in order to analyze the mystery of creation, had endeavored first to reconstruct the primeval chaos. The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter. More than one hole in the carpet could elucidate the ultimate phenomena of combustion,—especially a formidable aperture in the middle of the room, where the floor had also been burned by spontaneous combustion; and the horrible wound was speedily enlarged by rents,—for the philosopher as he hastily crossed the room in pursuit of truth, was frequently caught in it by the foot."
No student ever read more assiduously than he; and one of his chums said to him, after he had literally read all day:—
"If I read as long as you read, Shelley, my hair and my teeth would be strewed about on the floor, and my eyes would slip down into my waistcoat pockets."
It was only by attracting his attention by some extravagance that he could be drawn away from his books. He seldom stopped to take a regular meal, but would have his pockets stuffed with bread, from which he ate from time to time, anywhere he chanced to be. When he was walking in London he would suddenly run into a baker's shop, purchase a supply, and breaking a loaf, offer half of it to his companion; if it was refused he would wonder that his friend did not like bread, and could scarcely appreciate the joke when they laughed at him for devouring two or three pounds of dry bread in the streets.
Very early in life he began to have decided opinions upon religious topics; and for some of his so-called atheistic tendencies, embodied in his writings, he was expelled from Oxford at the age of seventeen, without a word of friendly remonstrance upon the part of the authorities, or any attempt whatever to counteract the errors which he had imbibed from the reading of French philosophy. We can scarcely believe it at this day, but it was true.
"At seventeen," says Mrs. Shelley, "fragile in health and frame, of the purest habits in morals, full of devoted generosity and universal kindness, glowing with ardor to attain wisdom, resolved at every personal sacrifice to do right, burning with a desire for affection and sympathy, he was treated as a reprobate, cast forth as a criminal."
Even his father cast him off on account of his impious opinions, and added his curse; and had he been in the way of procuring a lettre de cachet, like Mirabeau's father, he would certainly have sent him to Newgate and kept him there. As it was, all his friends deserted him, and he lived in lodgings in London, in a very irregular manner, for some time. Even his cousin Harriet Grove, with whom he had been in love in his boyish way for a long time, gave him up, and soon after married another. The affair was not a serious one upon the part of either; but it cost Shelley some tears at the time. He soon consoled himself, however, with a schoolmate of his sisters whom he sometimes met when he went to visit them. Harriet Westbrook was empowered by his sisters to convey to Percy such sums of money as they could gather for him; for his father had refused to assist him, and he was in absolute want at this time. She appeared to Shelley in the guise of a ministering angel, and his imagination at once took fire. She was a comely, pleasing, amiable, ordinary girl, who felt herself oppressed because obliged to go to school, and excited Shelley's sympathy by appearing unhappy. He soon became entangled with her and her sister, who was older, and who is accused of furthering the intrigue out of ambition, thinking that the son of a baronet must be a great match. He writes to a friend in May, 1811:—
"You will perhaps see me before you can answer this; perhaps not; Heaven knows. I shall certainly come to York, but Harriet Westbrook will decide whether now or in three weeks. Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way by endeavoring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice; resistance was the answer,—at the same time that I essayed to mollify Mr. W. in vain. And in consequence of my advice, she has thrown herself upon my protection."
The whole history of Shelley's courtship of Harriet—or of her courtship of him, as many of his friends put it—will probably never be written. It seems to have been promoted by others quite as much as by themselves. That her father was not averse to her marriage with the eldest son of a baronet may be taken for granted, and Shelley was the very man to be duped by designing parties; of this there can be no doubt. He was but nineteen years old, and she but sixteen, when they eloped,—of which proceeding there does not seem to have been any especial need,—and proceeded to Edinburgh, where they were married. By the time they reached Edinburgh their money was gone, and Shelley laid the case before his landlord, and asked him to advance money enough so that they might be married. To this the landlord consented, and the ceremony was performed. But the landlord, it appears, presumed somewhat upon the aid he had rendered, and in the evening, when Shelley and his bride were alone together, he knocked at the door and told them it was customary there for the guests to come in, in the middle of the night, and wash the bride with whiskey.
"I immediately," says Shelley, "caught up my brace of pistols, and pointing them both at him, said to him, 'I have had enough of your impertinence; if you give me any more of it I will blow your brains out;' on which he ran or rather tumbled downstairs, and I bolted the doors."
Even before the honeymoon was over, Harriet's sister Eliza, the evil genius of the pair, appeared upon the scene. The friend who was with them at the time thus describes her advent:—
"The house lay, as it were, under an interdict; all our accustomed occupations were suspended; study was forbidden; reading was injurious; to read aloud might terminate fatally. To go abroad was death; to stay at home the grave. Bysshe became nothing; I of course much less than nothing,—a negative quantity of a very high figure."
That Harriet already had peculiar notions of her own was soon evident. The same friend writes:—
"'What do you think of suicide?' said Harriet one day. 'Did you ever think of destroying yourself?' It was a puzzling question, for indeed the thought had never entered my head. 'What do you think of matricide, of high treason, of rick-burning? Did you ever think of killing any one? of murdering your mother? or setting rick-yards on fire?' I replied."
But Harriet often discoursed at great length, in a calm, resolute manner, of her purpose of killing herself some day or other. Of their after-housekeeping in London lodgings Hogg writes:—
"Our dinners therefore were constructive, a dumb show, a mere empty idle ceremony; our only resource against absolute starvation was tea. Penny-buns were our assured resource. The survivors of those days of peril and hardship are indebted for their existence to the humane interposition and succor of penny-buns. A shilling's worth of penny-buns for tea. If the purchase was intrusted to the maid, she got such buns as none could believe to have been made on earth, proving thereby incontestably that the girl had some direct communication with the infernal regions, where they alone could have been procured."
The married life was on the whole, when not a roaring farce, almost a tragedy. Harriet's sister was, like the poor, always with them. Shelley grew to hate her, and tried in every way to be delivered from her presence, but in vain. Harriet would not live without her, and paid little attention to anybody else when she was present. Two children were born to them, but even the children Shelley was not permitted to enjoy without the constant supervision of Eliza. He became nearly frantic from the constant annoyance, and finally a separation came about between the ill-mated pair. The women themselves became tired of the moping and inefficient youth, who still remained poor and unsettled, with a father desperately healthy and inexorable. They grew tired and went away,—the wife, like Lady Byron, refusing to go back to such an aimless, rhapsodizing husband. And in truth, the hardship of living with such a man as Shelley, for a woman like Harriet, must have been very great. It is easy to understand how a limited nature like hers should be worn out by the exaction and impracticability of one like Shelley; for to her, most impracticable would seem his lofty and ideal requirements. The parting was not unfriendly, and Shelley always spoke of her with deep kindness and pity, and she continued to write to him for some time after he had formed his connection with Mary Godwin, of which she did not seem to disapprove. He had found a sort of comfort in his intercourse with Mary from his first acquaintance with her, and she was probably the first woman he had ever known who in any way understood or appreciated him. Some lines have been given in the "Relics," written to her at this time, which run thus:—
"Upon my heart thy accents sweet Of peace and pity fell like dew On flowers half-dead. . . .
"We are not happy, sweet! our state Is strange and full of doubt and fear; More need of words that ills abate;— Reserve or censure come not near Our sacred friendship, lest there be No solace left for thee or me."
Shelley and Mary seem to have been very happy with each other from the first, although they felt the keenest sorrow at his being deprived by the Court of Chancery of the guardianship of his children, on the alleged grounds of his atheism, and although they were inexpressibly pained and shocked at the suicide of Harriet, which occurred about two years after the separation.
Her death seems to have had no immediate connection with any act of Shelley's, but he mourned over it with great bitterness to the end of his life. He married Mary in a legal manner soon after Harriet's death, and of course a most violent storm of detraction and denunciation burst upon his head. He soon retired to Italy, where he first met Byron, and he passed nearly all the rest of his life there. Poor Harriet was only twenty-two at the time of her tragic death. Whatever may have been the errors of her life, she had suffered much in their expiation. After her return to her father's house it appears that she was treated with unkindness, and fell into some irregularities of life,—how great, remains still a disputed point. But no one charges anything against her up to the time of her separation from Shelley, except that she was almost as foolish and impracticable as himself.
Shelley's fancy for her was that of a mere boy, and his friend Mr. Peacock thus describes the conflict of his feelings after meeting Mary Godwin:—
"Between his old feelings towards Harriet, from whom he was not then separated, and his new passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind suffering, like a little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He frequently repeated the lines from Sophocles,—
'Man's happiest lot is not to be; And when we tread life's thorny steep, Most blest are they who, earliest free, Descend to death's eternal sleep.'"
Godwin, it appears, tried hard to re-unite Shelley and Harriet, and disapproved entirely of the new connection. Mary was but seventeen years old, very beautiful, and possessed of genius; and her father, moral considerations entirely aside, did not look upon Shelley as a suitable husband for her. But Shelley had conceived for her the one violent, uncontrollable passion of his life, and she was very easily brought under his influence, in spite of the disapproval of her father. Mary had not been brought up with conventional ideas upon the subject of marriage (her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, having had very unusual opinions upon that subject), and she fell an easy victim to Shelley's impassioned eloquence, when he urged her to flee with him from an uncongenial home. Shelley appeared to Mary as almost a divine being, and her worshipful love never waned, even during her long widowhood of thirty years' duration. For Shelley, in the whole matter, there seems to be no valid excuse. He deliberately defied the world and the world's ways, and even his memory must bear the fatal consequences. If we allow his genius to excuse his acts, we are setting up a precedent which we have only to imagine universally carried out to produce not only moral revolution but chaos throughout the social world. He sinned like an ordinary mortal, he suffered also in the same wise, and in the memory of man he must be held to the same responsibility as his fellows. But his unworldliness may well be taken into the account. He lived in a sort of dreamworld of his own, and the thoughts and opinions and feelings of ordinary men upon matters of life and conduct were so different from his that he could hardly comprehend the value they had in the eyes of their possessors. Born to rank and wealth, he desired to induce every rich man to despoil himself of superfluity, and to create a brotherhood of property and service, and was ready to be the first one to lay down the advantages of his birth. Born with the most fanatical love of liberty, he looked upon all the conventionalities of the world as tyranny, and defied all restraints of authority from his earliest youth. He believed the opinions he entertained to be true, and he loved truth with a martyr's love; he was ready to sacrifice station and fortune and his dearest affections at her shrine. With the rashness of youth he proclaimed all the wildest of his opinions, and upheld them with uncompromising zeal. In his acts he rushed into the face of the world in the same defiant manner; and the world did not fail to take her revenge upon him. But posterity will do him justice; it will see him, noble, kind, passionate, generous, tender, brave, with an unbounded and unquestioning love for his fellow-men, with a holy and fervid hope in their ultimate virtue and happiness, and an intense and passionate scorn for all baseness and oppression.
Already about his grave in a foreign land there gather many pilgrims, not only from his own country, but from beyond the sea; and as they read the inscription there,—
"Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange,"—
they think that the misconceptions which hung over him during life are gradually suffering such a change, and they thank God amid their tears.
It is a little over one hundred years since Washington Irving was born; and it is nearly thirty years since he ceased to charm the reading world by the work of his genial and graceful pen. For fifty long and fruitful years he was our pride and boast, and his memory will for many a long year yet be green in the hearts of his countrymen. He was our first and best humorist. Before his advent, what little writing had been done in this country was mostly of the sentimental and tearful sort. And for many years after he began to write, it was much the same. Weeping poetesses filled whole columns with their tears, and in every local sheet new Werthers were trying to tell of the worthlessness of life and the beauties of dying. Young bards were inditing odes to melancholy, and everybody was chanting in chorus, if not the words, at least the sentiment of, "how sublime a thing it is to suffer and be strong." There was no laughter in the land.
Could a collection of these mournful melodies have been made, and these lorn lyrists have been induced to glance over it, it seems to us that they must have received it with inextinguishable laughter. Each delicate little wail when taken by itself was not so bad, but the united wail of this band of broken-hearted singers would have produced, instead of tears, laughter both long and deep. This doleful period lasted long after Irving had begun to write in a different vein, and has lasted in too large a measure even to this day; but he began the corrective process, and has had more influence for good in that direction than any of our other writers. At a later day Dr. Holmes began to write almost, if not quite, "as funny as he could." Charles G. Leland, in his "Sunshine-in-Thought" series, in the old "Knickerbocker," ridiculed the prevailing weakness so forcibly and effectually that some stopped groaning through sheer shame. Charles Dudley Warner sent a smile over the set features of the nation when he wrote of his "Summer in a Garden;" and Willis told in his "Fun Jottings" about some of the laughs he had taken a pen to. But none of these had the magic touch of Irving, although each in his own way was inimitable; and during these later years, when the professional humorist has become one of our established institutions, no writer has arisen to wear the mantle which fell from the shoulders of Washington Irving. Bret Harte, doubtless, made us laugh more. Irving could by no possibility ever have written the "Heathen Chinee," or those other bits of compressed humor called Poems; but Bret Harte is not exactly a lineal descendant of Irving. Mark Twain also can produce a roar, a thing which Irving never did. But, though it has been a good thing for the American people to roar with Mark Twain, we are all desirous to see some writer arise who, with as keen an eye as his for the humorous side of life, shall have a delicacy of touch which he lacks, and a refinement of expression to which he is a stranger.
Washington Irving was born in the city of New York in 1783, the youngest of eleven children born to his parents. At that time New York was a rural city of twenty-three thousand inhabitants clustered about the Battery. The Irvings were descendants of the old Scotch Covenanters, and were strict Presbyterians. The home rule was one of austerity and repression. The children were brought up on the catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles. As they grew older all were repelled from the church of the father by the severity of its dogmas, and all except one attached themselves to the Episcopal Church. Washington, we are told by Mr. Warner, "in order to make sure of his escape and feel safe, while he was still constrained to attend his father's church, went stealthily to Trinity Church at an early age and received the rite of confirmation." He was of a joyous and genial temperament, full of life and vivacity, and not at all inclined to religious seriousness. He was born with a passion for music, and was also a great lover of the theatre. These things, in the eyes of his father, were serious evils, and he felt great anxiety for the son's spiritual welfare. The gladsomeness and sportiveness of the boy's nature were things which he could not understand, and he feared that they were of the Evil One. There was no room in the darkness of his religions creed for anything that was simply bright and joyous. To save one's soul was the business of life; all things else were secondary and of small importance. Of course, he worried much over this handsome, dashing, susceptible, music-loving, laughter-loving son, and doubtless shed many tears over his waywardness. Yet there was nothing wild about the boy. The writing of plays seems to have been his worst boyish offence. His first published writings were audacious satires upon the theatre, the actors, and the local audiences. They had some promise, and attracted some attention in the poverty of those times.
At the age of twenty-one he was in such delicate health that a voyage to Europe was looked upon as the only means of saving his life. He accordingly embarked for Bordeaux and made an extended tour of Europe, loitering in many places for weeks at a time, and laying up a store of memories which gave him pleasure throughout life. In Rome he came across Washington Allston, then unknown to fame. He was about three years older than Irving, and just establishing himself as a painter. Irving was completely captivated with the young Southerner, and they formed a very romantic friendship for each other.
Irving even dreamed of remaining in Rome and turning artist himself, that he might always be near his friend. He had a great dread of returning to the New World and settling down to the uncongenial work of the law, and he fancied he had some talent for art. He certainly had one essential qualification,—a passionate love of color, and an eye for its harmonies. This love was a great source of pleasure to him throughout life. He always thought that he might have succeeded as a landscape painter. However this might be, the gift of color-loving is in itself a rich endowment to any mind. There are few purer and higher sources of enjoyment in this life than this love of color, and it is a possession which ought to be cultivated in every child.
But the art scheme was soon abandoned, and he went on to London, where he began his literary work. His name of Washington attracted considerable attention there, and he was frequently asked if he was a relative of General Washington. A few years later, after he had written the "Sketch Book," two women were overheard in conversation near the bust of Washington in a large gallery. "Mother, who was Washington?" "Why, my dear, don't you know?" was the reply, "he wrote the 'Sketch Book.'"
Soon after the book was published Irving was one night in the room with Mrs. Siddons, the Queen of Tragedy. She carried her tragic airs even into private life, it is said, and when Irving was presented to her, he, being young and modest, was somewhat taken aback on being greeted with the single sentence, given in her grandest stage voice and with the most lofty stateliness, "You have made me weep." He could find no words to reply, and shrank away in silence. A very short time after he met with her again, and, although he sought to avoid her, she recognized him and repeated in tones as tragic as at first, "You have made me weep;" which salutation had the effect of discomfiting Irving for the second time.
He returned to New York in 1806, and was much sought after in society from that time on. It was a very convivial company, that of old New York in the early part of the century, and Irving entered into its pleasures with the rest of his friends. Late suppers and good wine sometimes rendered these young men rather hilarious, and one evening, going home, Harry Ogden, Irving's chum, fell through a grating into a vault beneath. He told Irving next day that the solitude was rather dismal at first, but in a little while, after the party broke up, several other guests came along and fell in one by one, and then they all had a pleasant night of it, "who would have thought," said Irving to Governor Kemble, in alluding, at the age of sixty-six, to these scenes of high jollity, "that we should ever have lived to be two such respectable old gentlemen!"
It was during these years that he made the acquaintance and learned to love so deeply Matilda Hoffman, a beautiful young girl, daughter of one of his older friends. She was a most lovely person, in body and mind, and in his eyes the paragon of womanhood. He was young, romantic, full of sensibility, and his love for this beautiful girl filled his whole life. He was poor and could not marry, but he had many arguments with himself about the propriety of doing so even without an income. "I think," he finally writes, "that these early and improvident marriages are too apt to break down the spirit and energy of a young man, and make him a hard-working, half-starving, repining animal all his days." And again: "Young men in our country think it a great extravagance to set up a horse and carriage without adequate means, but they make no account of setting up a wife and family, which is far more expensive." But while he was looking about on every side for some way to better his fortunes, that he might take to his home this woman he loved so tenderly, her health began to fail, and in a short time he was deprived by death of her companionship. His sorrow was life-long, and it was a sorrow which he held sacredly in his own heart. He never mentioned her name, even to family friends, and they learned to avoid any allusion to her, he was so overcome with emotion when merely hearing her name spoken. This was in his early youth, and throughout a long life he held himself faithful to her memory,—never, it is believed, wavering once in his allegiance. Thackeray refers to this as one of the most pleasing things he knew of Irving.
It was at this time that he was writing the "History of New York." He wrote afterward:—
"When I became more calm and collected I applied myself by way of occupation to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction."
His countenance long retained the trace of his melancholy, and he was ever after a more subdued and quiet man. After his death a beautiful picture and lock of hair were found among his private papers marked in his hand-writing, "Matilda Hoffman." He also kept by him throughout life her Bible and Prayer-Book. He lay with them under his pillow in the first days of his anguish, and carried them with him always in all lands to the end of his life. In a little private notebook intended only for his own eye were found these words after his death: "She died in the beauty of her youth, and in my memory she will ever be young and beautiful." Truly, not an unhappy fate as the world goes,—to live thus in the memory of such a man. What would years and cares and the commonplace of existence have done for such a love as this, we wonder? We shall never know. But we have all seen loves apparently as pure and as strong, worn away by the attritions of life,—by the daily labor for daily bread, by little incessant worries and faults and foibles upon the part of one or both,—until there was nothing left of the early color of romance; only a faded web of life where once was cloth of gold. How sweet to many a faded and careworn woman would be the thought of being always young and beautiful to the man she loved. Fortunate Matilda Hoffman of the olden time!
In 1817 he went again to Europe, and while there definitely made up his mind to look upon literature as his profession,—an almost unheard of thing in America at that time. He writes to his brother:—
"For a long while past I have lived almost entirely at home, sometimes not leaving the house for two or three days, and yet I have not had an hour pass heavily; so that if I could see my brothers around me prospering, and be relieved from this cloud that hangs over us all, I feel as if I could be contented to give up all the gayeties of life; I certainly think that no hope of gain, however flattering, would tempt me again into the cares and sordid concerns of traffic. . . . In protracting my stay in Europe, I certainly do not contemplate pleasure, for I look forward to a life of loneliness and of parsimonious and almost painful economy."
Some time after this he wrote to a friend:—
"Your picture of domestic enjoyment indeed raises my envy. With all my wandering habits, which are the result of circumstances rather than of disposition, I think I was formed for an honest, domestic, uxorious man; and I cannot hear of my old cronies snugly nestled down with good wives and fine children round them, but I feel for the moment desolate and forlorn. Heavens! what a hap-hazard, schemeless life mine has been, that here I should be at this time of life, youth slipping away, and scribbling month after month, and year after year, far from home, without any means or prospect of entering into matrimony, which I absolutely believe indispensable to the happiness and even comfort of the after-part of existence."
He was thus described at this time:—
"He was thoroughly a gentleman, not merely in external manners and looks, but to the innermost fibres and core of his heart; sweet-tempered, gentle, fastidious, sensitive, and gifted with warmest affections; the most delightful and invariably interesting companion; gay and full of humor, even in spite of occasional fits of melancholy, which he was, however, seldom subject to when with those he liked; a gift of conversation that flowed like a full river in sunshine,—bright, easy, and abundant."
In his fiftieth year he returned to America, far from rich, though he had made money from his books. Although he had thought he could not support a family of his own, he found himself with two brothers and several nieces upon his hands for whom he must provide. He was very fond of them all; and, being the least selfish of men, enjoyed making them all comfortable. But to do so he had to be industrious with his pen, and he never gave himself much rest. He bought a home at Tarrytown, upon the Hudson, which he called Sunnyside, and where he resided till his death. The farm had on it a small Dutch cottage, built about a century before, and inhabited by the Van Tassels. This was enlarged, still preserving the quaint Dutch characteristics; it acquired a tower and a whimsical weathercock, the delight of the owner, and became one of the most snug and picturesque residences on the river. A slip of Melrose ivy was planted, and soon overrun the house; and there were shaded nooks and wooded retreats, and a pretty garden.
It soon became the dearest spot on earth for him; and although it ate up his money almost as fast as he could earn it, he never thought of parting with it. The little cottage soon became well stocked. He writes:—
"I have Ebenezer's five girls, and himself also whenever he can be spared from town, sister Catherine and her daughter, and occasional visits from all the family connection."
Thackeray describes him as having nine nieces on his hands, and makes a woful face over the fact. He dispensed a charming hospitality here, and no friend who ever visited him forgot the pleasure. He was a most genial and cordial host, and loved much to have his friends bring the children, of whom he was passionately fond. His nieces watched over his welfare with most tender solicitude; and the cottage at Sunnyside, although without a mistress, was truly a home.
It was with great reluctance that he left it after his appointment as minister to Spain, and all the pleasure he received from that high mark of the appreciation of his country did not compensate him for the hardship of leaving home. During this third visit to Europe "it is easy to see that life has grown rather sombre to Irving,—the glamour is gone, he is subject to few illusions. The show and pageantry no longer enchant; they only weary." He writes home: "Amidst all the splendors of London and Paris I find my imagination refuses to take fire, and my heart still yearns after dear little Sunnyside." Those were exciting times in Spain, and Irving entered into all the dramatic interest of the situation with a real enthusiasm, and wrote most interesting letters to friends at home, describing the melodrama in which he had sometimes an even perilous interest. Throughout his four years' stay the excitement continued, and the duties of minister were sometimes perplexing enough. From the midst of court life, in 1845, he wrote:—
"I long to be back once more at dear little Sunnyside, while I have yet strength and good spirits to enjoy the simple pleasures of the country, and to rally a happy family group once more around me. I grudge every year of absence that rolls by. To-morrow I shall be sixty-two years old. The evening of life is fast drawing over me; still I hope to get back among my friends while there is a little sunshine left."
In 1846 he did return, and enjoyed thirteen years more of happy life there.
George W. Curtis thus delightfully sketches the man:—
"Irving was as quaint a figure as Diedrich Knickerbocker in the preliminary advertisement of the 'History of New York.' Thirty years ago he might have been seen on an autumnal afternoon, tripping with an elastic step along Broadway, with low-quartered shoes neatly tied, and a Talma cloak,—a short garment that hung from his shoulders like the cape of a coat. There was a chirping, cheery, old-school air in his appearance, which was undeniably Dutch, and most harmonious with the associations of his writings. He seemed, indeed, to have stepped out of his own books; and the cordial grace and humor of his address were delightfully characteristic."
Through all the honors which he received—and he was one of the most honored men of his day—he was always modest, unassuming, and even diffident. He was the most cheerful of men, and seemed to diffuse sunshine wherever he went. He was essentially lovable, and could hardly be said to have made an enemy during his life. Indeed, one of his lacks was that of aggressiveness; it would have given a deeper force to his character and brought out some qualities that were latent in him.
He died on the 28th of November, 1859, at the close of a lovely Indian-summer day, and was buried on a little elevation overlooking Sleepy Hollow. Near by winds the lovely Hudson, up and down which go the white-winged boats bearing tourists to view the river he so loved, and over which hangs the blue haze he has so often described, softening everything in its gauzy folds. The feet of those he loved go in and out at Sunnyside, and his memory is a benediction.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
In a fragment of autobiography which Mr. Bryant left among his papers, he speaks thus of his childhood:—
"So my time passed in study, diversified with labor and recreation. In the long winter evenings and the stormy winter days I read with my brother books from my father's library,—not a large one, but well chosen. I remember well the delight with which we welcomed the translation of the Iliad by Pope when it was brought to the house. I had met with passages from it before, and thought them the finest verses ever written. My brother and myself, in emulation of ancient heroes, made for ourselves wooden shields, swords, and spears, and fashioned old hats in the shape of helmets, with plumes of tow; and in the barn, when nobody observed us, we fought the battles of the Greeks and Trojans over again.
"I was always, from my earliest years, a delighted observer of external nature,—the splendors of a winter daybreak over the wide wastes of snow seen from our windows; the glories of the autumnal woods; the gloomy approaches of the thunderstorm, and its departure amid sunshine and rainbows; the return of spring with its flowers; and the first snowfall of winter. I cannot say, as some do, that I found my boyhood the happiest part of my life. I had more frequent ailments than afterward; my hopes were more feverish and impatient, and my disappointments were more acute; the restraints on my liberty of action, although meant for my good, were irksome, and felt as fetters that galled my spirit and gave it pain. After-years, if their pleasures had not the same zest, were passed in more contentment, and the more freedom of choice I had, the better, on the whole, I enjoyed life."
Among the prayers of his childhood he mentions that he often prayed that he might be endowed with poetic genius, and write verses which should endure. And he began at a very early age to make attempts in this direction, which seem somewhat less crude than the mass of such productions. He was taught Latin by the Rev. Thomas Snell, his uncle, and Greek by the Rev. Moses Hallock, a neighboring minister, who boarded and instructed him for a dollar a week. He continued his studies at Williams College, although he never was graduated, being taken from college from motives of economy.
The town of Cummington, where he was born, is a little hamlet among the hills in Hampshire County in western Massachusetts. The country around is mountainous, and the valleys very beautiful. The poet was always much attached to the region, and when he had become an old man bought the old family home and fitted it up as a summer residence, where he used to gather together the remaining members of the family, and enjoy himself highly in exploring the country round about as he had done in the days of his boyhood. Many stories are told of his pedestrian feats, even after he was seventy-five years old; and he sometimes walked ten or twelve miles when in his eightieth year. He retained his boyish love for plants and flowers, and was as enthusiastic as in youth over a rare specimen or a beautiful bit of landscape. He further evinced his interest in the old home by presenting the town with a fine library of six thousand volumes, and building a suitable house for its accommodation upon a beautiful site which he purchased for that purpose.
Upon leaving school Mr. Bryant pursued the study of law, and entered upon its practice, first in Plainfield, and afterward in Great Barrington, a pleasant village in Berkshire County, on the banks of the Housatonic. While studying at Worthington, a distinguished friend of his father came from Rhode Island upon a visit, bringing with him a beautiful and accomplished daughter, to whom the young poet at once lost his heart. The passion seems to have been reciprocated, if we can judge by the assiduity with which the correspondence was carried on after her return; but some unknown cause seems to have broken off the fascinating romance, and after a year or two we hear of it no more. That the end was painful to Mr. Bryant, we have reason to suspect from his poems and letters; but as to how the lady felt, we have no evidence. The verses show little promise of the work which the young poet soon afterward did, but they are not entirely without charm:—
"The home thy presence made so dear, I leave,—the parting hour is past; Yet thy sweet image haunts me here, In tears as when I saw thee last.
"It meets me where the woods are deep, It comes when twilight tints depart, It bends above me while I sleep, With pensive looks that pierce my heart."
In another little poem we are informed,—
"The gales of June were breathing by, The twilight's last faint rays were gleaming, And midway in the moonless sky The star of Love was brightly beaming.
"When by the stream, the birchen boughs Dark o'er the level marge were playing, The maiden of my secret vows I met, alone, and idly straying.
"And since that hour,—for then my love Consenting heard my passion pleaded,— Full well she knows the star of Love, And loves the stream with beeches shaded."
The poet had quite a lengthened season of darkness and despair after this love-dream came to an end, and it must be confessed wrote a good deal of very bad poetry, none of which he placed in collections of his poems, but some of which have been published by his biographer. They are rather worse than the usual run of such poems, which may indicate that the feeling was really deeper,—too deep for expression in verse,—or that it was not as deep and lasting as some of the first loves of poets. As he had already written "Thanatopsis" and other fine poems, it is rather surprising that there are so few gleams of the true poetic fire in these amatory verses.
As is usual in such cases, he did not recover from the old love until he had discovered a new one, and he did this in his new residence, not long after his arrival there. The second lady of his choice was Miss Fanny Fairchild, daughter of a well-to-do and respectable farmer on the Green River. She was nineteen years old at the time, a "very pretty blonde, small in person, with light-brown hair, gray eyes, a graceful shape, a dainty foot, transparent and delicate hands, and a wonderfully frank and sweet expression of face." She was as sensible as beautiful, and had great charm of manner, which she retained to the end of her life. He soon engaged himself to Miss Fairchild, and the course of their love ran smoothly throughout a long life. To show with what deep feeling and earnestness they entered upon their new relations, the following prayer, dated 1820, has been printed, which was found among Mr. Bryant's private papers after his death:—
"May God Almighty mercifully take care of our happiness here and hereafter. May we ever continue constant to each other, and mindful of our mutual promises of attachment and truth. In due time, if it be the will of Providence, may we become more nearly connected with each other, and together may we lead a long, happy, and innocent life, without any diminution of affection till we die. May there never be any jealousy, distrust, coldness, or dissatisfaction between us, nor occasion for any,—nothing but kindness, forbearance, mutual confidence, and attention to each other's happiness. And that we may be less unworthy of so great a blessing, may we be assisted to cultivate all the benign and charitable affections and offices, not only toward each other, but toward our neighbors, the human race, and all the creatures of God. And in all things wherein we have done ill, may we properly repent our error, and may God forgive us, and dispose us to do better. When at last we are called to render back the life we have received, may our deaths be peaceful, and may God take us to his bosom. All which may He grant for the sake of the Messiah."
If ever a prayer was granted, it seems to have been so in this instance, for in every detail it was fulfilled in the lives which followed. So rarely beautiful a marriage has seldom been seen, as the one which was entered into in this solemn and lofty manner, by this young and high-minded couple. The days of their pilgrimage were many, but they grew more and more beautiful until the final parting; and when the separation at last came, in the fulness of time, the old poet mourned, with a grief which could not be comforted, for the companion of his youth, the delight of his mature years, and the idol of his old age. Forty-five years they lived together, and after her death he wrote to his brother:—
"We have been married more than forty-five years, and all my plans, even to the least important, were laid with some reference to her judgment or her pleasure. I always knew it would be the greatest calamity of my life to lose her, but not till the blow fell did I know how heavy it would be, and what a solitude the earth would seem without her."
To another brother he said:—
"Her life seemed to me to close prematurely, so useful was she, and so much occupied in doing good; and yet she was in her seventieth year. It is now more than forty-five years since we were married,—a long time, as the world goes, for husband and wife to live together. Bitter as the separation is, I give thanks that she has been spared to me so long, and that for nearly a half-century I have had the benefit of her counsel and her example."
In a brief memoir of their intercourse, prepared for the eyes of his daughters alone, he said:—
"I never wrote a poem that I did not repeat to her, and take her judgment upon it. I found its success with the public to be precisely in proportion to the impression it made upon her. She loved my verses, and judged them kindly, but did not like them all equally well."
One who knew her well thus describes her character:—
"Never did poet have a truer companion, a sincerer spiritual helpmate, than Mr. Bryant in his wife. Refined in taste, and elevated in thought, she was characterized alike by goodness and gentleness. Modest in her ways, she lived wholly for him; his welfare, his happiness, his fame, were the chief objects of her ambition. To smooth his pathway, to cheer his spirit, to harmonize every discordant element of life, were purposes for the accomplishment of which no sacrifice on her part could be too great."
Another who visited them familiarly in their home wrote:—
"In the autumn of 1863, we visited Mr. and Mrs. Bryant at West Point, where they occupied Mr. John Bigelow's charming cottage, 'The Squirrels.' From there we accompanied them to Roslyn, and spent a week under their own roof-tree. How much we enjoyed those days, I need not say. Mrs. Bryant's health was very delicate, and she sat much in her large arm-chair by the open wood-fire which blazed under the old tiles of the chimney-place. Mr. Bryant sat at her feet when he read in the autumn twilight those exquisite lines, 'The Life that Is.' Such was our last meeting with our dear Mrs. Bryant. I never saw her again, but the thought of her dwells like a sweet strain of music amid the varied notes of human life, and will be ours again when 'beyond these voices there is peace.' The union between Mr. and Mrs. Bryant was a poem of the tenderest rhythm. Any of us who remember Mr. Bryant's voice when he said 'Frances' will join in his hope that she kept the same beloved name in heaven. I remember alluding to those exquisite lines, 'The Future Life,' to Mrs. Bryant, and her replying, 'Oh, my dear, I am always sorry for any one who sees me after reading those lines, they must be so disappointed.' Beatrice and Laura have not received such tributes from their poets, for Mrs. Bryant's husband was her poet and her lover at seventy as at seventeen."
After Mrs. Bryant had been dead seven years, Mr. Bryant wrote the following poem, showing how tenderly he cherished her memory:—
The morn hath not the glory that it wore, Nor doth the day so beautifully die, Since I can call thee to my side no more, To gaze upon the sky.
For thy dear hand, with each return of Spring, I sought in sunny nooks the flowers she gave; I seek them still, and sorrowfully bring The choicest to thy grave.
Here, where I sit alone, is sometimes heard, From the great world, a whisper of my name, Joined, haply, to some kind commending word, By those whose praise is fame.
And then, as if I thought thou still wert nigh, I turn me, half-forgetting thou art dead, To read the gentle gladness in thine eye That once I might have read.
I turn, but see thee not; before my eyes The image of a hillside mound appears, Where all of thee that passed not to the skies Was laid with bitter tears.
And I, whose thoughts go back to happier days That fled with thee, would gladly now resign All that the world can give of fame or praise For one sweet look of thine.
Thus ever, when I read of generous deeds, Such words as thou didst once delight to hear, My heart is wrung with anguish as it bleeds To think thou art not near.
And now that I can talk no more with thee Of ancient friends and days too fair to last, A bitterness blends with the memory Of all that happy past.
That past had, indeed, been happy and most successful from every worldly point of view. He had published his poems, while still a young man, and they had made him famous at once. For more than fifty years he was honored as one of the first of the poets of America, and for a large part of that time he was held as indisputably the first in rank. His work received honors and commendation over the sea as well as at home, almost from the first. It seems very curious to us now to think of his selling the very finest of his poems for two dollars apiece; yet he did that, and seemed satisfied with the compensation. In later life, when two hundred dollars would have been gladly paid him for such poems, he declined to write, saying that no man should write poetry in old age. The greater part of his poetry was written before he went to New York and became editor-in-chief of the "Evening Post." After that time he was always driven by newspaper work and involved in political controversy, and rarely wrote verses. In old age he made his translations of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," which were very remarkable works for a man of his years; but he seldom wrote an original poem, although what he did write scarcely showed a falling off from the work of his prime.
He was very conscientious in his work as an editor, and was honored by the entire nation for the noble and patriotic course he took at the time of the anti-slavery excitement, and throughout the Civil war. Men will long remember the brave and spirited utterances of his paper during that time that so tried men's souls. He did much, during his long career as an editor, for American literature, for American art, and for the general culture of his countrymen. In his numerous visits to Europe he learned much of the workings of the institutions of the Old World, and gave his readers the benefit of his studies of the comparative merits of Old and New World methods; and while always fair in his judgments, he was always patriotic, and stood gallantly by his own land. He was much honored while abroad, as well as at home, and made acquaintance with many distinguished men in foreign lands. Mr. Bryant had been brought up a Unitarian, and he maintained his connection with that church throughout life. Many of his dearest friends were among the ministers of that denomination, and he wrote many of his most beautiful hymns for occasions connected with that church. He was always a devoutly religious man, but grew even more so in later life. During a long sickness which his wife had in Naples in 1858, his thoughts became more and more fixed upon this subject; and meeting with an old friend there, the Rev. Mr. Waterson, he opened his mind to him as perhaps he had never done to any one before. Mr. Waterson tells us:—
"At this time I received a note from him stating that there was a subject of interest upon which he would like to converse with me. On the following day, the weather being delightful, we walked in the Villa Reale, the royal park or garden, overlooking the Bay of Naples. Never can I forget the beautiful spirit that breathed through every word he uttered,—the reverent love, the confiding trust, the aspiring hope, the rooted faith. Every thought, every view, was generous and comprehensive. Anxiously watching, as he had been doing, in that twilight boundary between this world and another, over one more precious to him than life itself, the divine truths and promises had come home to his mind with new power. He said he had never united himself with the Church, which with his present feelings he would most gladly do. He then asked if it would be agreeable to me to come to his room on the morrow, and administer the Communion,—adding that as he had not been baptized, he desired that ordinance at the same time. The day following was the Sabbath, and a most heavenly day. In fulfilment of his wishes, in his own quiet room, a company of seven persons celebrated together the Lord's Supper. With hymns, selections from the Scripture, and devotional exercises, we went back in thought to the large upper-room where Christ first instituted the Holy Supper in the midst of his disciples. Previous to the breaking of bread, William Cullen Bryant was baptized. With snow-white head and flowing beard, he stood like one of the ancient prophets; and never, perhaps, since the days of the Apostles, has a truer disciple professed allegiance to the Divine Master."
A purer and nobler life than Mr. Bryant led has hardly been chronicled in our day; and the quiet and calm of his closing years was a fitting end to such a life. He was tenderly cared for during these years by his daughters, to whom he was most devotedly attached. His son-in-law, Parke Godwin, thus writes of the closing years:—
"It was very curious to his friends to observe how he had mellowed with time. The irritabilities of his earlier days had been wholly overcome; his reluctance to mingle with men was quite gone; and old age, which makes so many of us exacting and crabbed, if not morose, imparted to him additional gentleness and sweetness. He had learned to live more and more in the happiness of others, and was rewarded for his unconscious devotion by new streams of happiness constantly opening in his bosom."
He even learned to take good-naturedly what had annoyed him a good deal in an earlier time, namely, the results of his fame. He writes thus to a friend in extreme old age:—
"Is there a penny-post, do you think, in the world to come? Do people there write for autographs to those who have gained a little notoriety? Do women there send letters asking for money? Do boys persecute literary men with requests for a course of reading? Are there offices in that sphere which are coveted, and to obtain which men are pestered to write letters of recommendation? If anything of this kind takes place in the spirit-world it may, perhaps, be of a purgatorial nature, or perhaps be the fate of the incorrigible sinner. Here on earth this discipline never ends; and if it exists at all in the other world, it is of a kind which will, of course, never cease. On this account I am inclined to believe that the punishment for sin may be of endless duration; for here the annoyances and miseries which I have mentioned only cease with death, and in the other world, where there is no death, they will, of course, never come to an end."
To another correspondent he writes:—
"How is it in the world to come? Will patience have had her perfect work in this sphere, or is the virtue to be exercised there, until we shall have acquired an evenness of temper which no possible provocation can disturb? Are the bores to be all penned in a corner by themselves, or are they to be let loose to educate the saints to the sublimest degree of patience of which our nature is capable? These are deep questions. I do not remember that you have given any special attention to the use of bores in the moral government of the world in your book on 'The Problem of Human Destiny.' I admit their utility as a class: they serve a most excellent purpose; but whether we are to be annoyed with them in the next world is the doubt. Some of them are most worthy people, and capital Christians, and cannot be kept out of Paradise; but will they be allowed to torment the elect there?"
Probably the title of the Great American could be as fittingly applied to Bryant as to any man our nation has produced. He has been happily called the Puritan Greek; and this epithet applies equally well to his life and to his writings. If he was a Stoic in his earlier years, he was as unmistakably a Christian in later life. During both periods he was pure as ice, lofty in thought, noble in deed,—an inspiration toward the True Life to all who watched his course. No errors of passion or of overheated blood did he have to mourn over, even in youth; yet he was not cold or unimpassioned, as his deep devotion throughout life to the woman of his choice proved. He led emphatically the intellectual life, with as little admixture of the flesh as possible; yet the warm currents of feeling were never dried up in his nature, but bubbled up freshly to the end. He lived largely on the heights of life, yet he was not uncharitable to the weaknesses and follies he saw everywhere about him, but rather looked upon them with a half-pitying tenderness; and he dropped a tear occasionally where the integrity of his own nature counselled a stern reproof.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
"I have seen Emerson, the first man I have ever seen," wrote George Eliot in her diary many years ago. Carlyle uses similar expressions in his letters at least a score of times. Sentences like the following appear very often:—
"It remains true and will remain, what I have often told you, that properly there is no voice in this world which is completely human to me but your voice only."
"In the whole world I hardly get to my spoken human word any other word of response that is authentically human. God help us, this is growing a very lonely place, this distracted dog-kennel of a world."
Indeed, the personality of Emerson seems to have produced a very marked effect upon all the great men and women with whom he came in contact. We find that he was often described as an angel in appearance in his younger days. Here are one or two instances: Of his appearance to them in their stony solitude at Craigenputtoch Carlyle afterwards wrote to Emerson:—
"Among the figures I can recollect as visiting us in our Nithsdale hermitage,—all like apparitions now, bringing with them airs from heaven, or else blasts from the other region,—there is perhaps not one of a more undoubtedly supernal character than yourself,—so pure and still, with intents so charitable; and then vanishing, too, so soon into the azure inane, as an apparition should."
Mrs. Carlyle always spoke of this visit of Emerson to them there as a visitation from an angel.
Mr. Charles Congdon thus writes in the "Reminiscences of a Journalist:"—
"One day there came into our pulpit the most gracious of mortals, with a face all benignity, who gave out the first hymn and made the first prayer as an angel might have read and prayed. Our choir was a pretty good one, but its best was coarse and discordant after Emerson's voice."
The ancestors of Emerson were all of clean pure blood. Behind him were many generations of fine old New England ministers, and he was but the natural product of his race in character,—though from what source sprang the consummate flower of his genius it is hard to tell. He was brought up to all good things, under the immediate eyes of a superior mother and a gifted aunt. He was a fine scholar during his college days, and entered the Unitarian ministry when quite young. He also married young, but early lost his wife, and soon afterward retired from the ministry to devote himself to literature.
In September, 1835, Emerson was married for the second time, to Miss Lydia Jackson of Plymouth. The wedding took place in the fine old mansion known as the Winslow house. After the marriage they went to reside in Concord, in the house where he passed the rest of his life, and where his family still live. This is the plain, square, wooden house, with horse-chestnuts in the front yard and evergreens around it, which has often been described by visitors to Concord. Near by is the orchard planted by Emerson, and two miles away his wood-lot, which he describes to Carlyle as his new plaything, and where he proposed to build a tower to which to flee from intrusive visitors. Of the planting of the orchard he thus writes:—
"You are to know that in these days I lay out a patch of orchard near my house, very much to the improvement, as all the household affirm, of our homestead. Though I have little skill in these things, and must borrow that of my neighbors, yet the works of the garden and orchard at this season are fascinating, and will eat up days and weeks; and a brave scholar should shun it like gambling, and take refuge in cities and hotels from these pernicious enchantments. For the present I stay in the new orchard."
In due time came the little troop of children, to gladden the home and to be a perpetual wonder and delight to the father. In his essay on "Domestic Life" he thus talks of the little one:—
"The size of the nestler is comic, and its tiny beseeching weakness is compensated perfectly by the happy, patronizing look of the mother, who is a sort of high reposing Providence toward it. Welcome to the parents the puny struggler, strong in his weakness,—his little arms more irresistible than the soldier's, his lips touched with persuasion which Chatham and Pericles in manhood had not. His unaffected lamentations when he lifts up his voice on high, or, more beautiful, the sobbing child, soften all hearts to pity and to mirthful and clamorous compassion. His ignorance is more charming than all knowledge, and his little sins more bewitching than any virtue."
Emerson was never a rich man, and his home was always so ordered as to come within the scope of his limited income; but it was always attractive and charming, and pervaded by an air of dignity and repose. And that in it he could dispense hospitality in the old royal manner is shown by the many times he invites Carlyle to come and spend a year with him, and seriously urges him to do so. Thoreau availed himself of such invitation, and spent months at a time in Emerson's home. One wonders if Mrs. Emerson received such instruction as her husband gives in the essay just mentioned, and if she profited by it:—
"I pray you, O excellent wife, not to cumber yourself and me to get a rich dinner for this man or this woman who has alighted at our gate, nor a bed-chamber made ready at too great a cost. These things, if they are curious in, they can get for a dollar at any village. But let this stranger, if he will, in your looks, in your accent and behavior, read your heart and earnestness, your thought and will,—which he cannot buy at any price in any village or city, and which he may well travel fifty miles, and dine sparely and sleep hard, in order to behold. Certainly let the board be spread, and let the bed be dressed for the traveller, but let not the emphasis of hospitality lie in these things. Honor to the house where they are simple to the verge of hardship, so that there the intellect is awake and reads the law of the universe, the soul worships truth and love, honor and courtesy flow into all deeds."
If the American people had heeded such wise words as these the old-fashioned virtue of hospitality would not have become so rare among us. The "emphasis of hospitality" has been placed upon the material things to such an extent that one hardly dares to invite his friend now, unless it be to an elaborate feast; and the labor, to say nothing of the expense, of preparing the elaborate feast is so great that more and more we neglect to call our friends around us, and to bind their hearts to ours by loving and tender ministrations.
Let us learn of Emerson the meaning of economy. He says:—
"Parched corn eaten to-day that I may have roast fowl to my dinner Sunday is a baseness; but parched corn and a house with one apartment, that I may be free of all perturbations, that I may be serene and docile to what the mind shall speak, and quit and road-ready for the lowest mission of knowledge or good-will, is frugality for gods and heroes."
This was the sort of frugality that Thoreau practised in his hut on Walden Pond, and it is a frugality which has made him famed throughout the hero-worshipping world.
The charm of Emerson's home life lay largely in his manners, which were simple, yet faultless. He greeted his friends with all the mildness and serenity of the very god of repose, and induced in them that most enjoyable sensation, a feeling of entire contentment with all the world. No heat, no fret, no hurry, no great call to strenuous exertion to appear well or make a fine impression. All was ease, calm, unstudied attention to every little want, and talk fit for the noblest and the best. He was an example of what he himself honored most.
"I honor that man whose ambition it is, not to win laurels in the state or the army, not to be a jurist or a naturalist, not to be a poet or a commander, but to be a master of living well, and to administer the offices of master or servant, of husband, father, and friend."
In all these relations Emerson shone resplendently, and in the old-fashioned relation of neighbor he was always at his best. To the family of his old friend Alcott he was as a special providence for many years, and beautiful indeed was the affection in which he was held by them. When, during Emerson's absence in Europe, his house was partly burned, his neighbors promptly rebuilt it, ready for his return. Of these helpers Emerson wrote, in accepting their gift:—
"Judge Hoar has up to this time withheld from me the names of my benefactors; but you may be sure I shall not rest till I have learned them, every one, to repeat to myself at night and at morning."
Emerson's personal appearance was that of a scholar and the descendant of scholars,—tall, slender, and with the complexion which is bred in the alcove and not in the open air. His hair was brown, fine, and thick. His eyes were of the deepest blue. His mode of living was very simple, but he was constitutionally fastidious, and very much averse to vulgar or commonplace companionship. He loved all children and simple-minded people, and the very babies in Concord knew and loved him. "Incorrigible spouting Yankee" he called himself; but he was rather a silent man in reality, and did not care to talk excepting when he had somewhat to say. He did not prate eternally of silence, as Carlyle did, while wreaking himself upon speech in the most frantically vehement manner all his days, but he knew when and how to be silent. The glimpses he gives of Mrs. Emerson, in the long correspondence with Carlyle, are all of the most pleasing nature, and his home life was apparently as perfect as music all his life long. Of the boy Waldo, who died, he was fond of speaking, and he evidently mourned him very deeply for a long time. Of his other children he never boasted, but always spoke most kindly. The most entire revelation that Emerson ever made of himself was doubtless in the letters to Carlyle; and it must be said that nowhere else has Carlyle appeared to so good advantage as in this correspondence with Emerson. One loves the grim, sardonic old man better after seeing that he could love his friend faithfully and loyally for so many years, and after reading all the tender and touching things he puts into his letters to him. Especially is this the case in the later days, when both had grown to be old men, and had been saddened by their life experience. Carlyle's letters after his wife's death are very touching. In the first after the sad event he says:—
"By the calamity of last April I lost my little all in this world, and have no soul left who can make any corner of this world into a home for me any more. Bright, heroic, tender, true, and noble was that lost treasure of my heart, who faithfully accompanied me in all the rocky ways and climbings; I am forever poor without her. She was snatched from me in a moment as by a death from the gods. Very beautiful her death was; radiantly to those who understood it, had all her life been: quid plura?"
This which follows in the same letter, written while Carlyle was still in the unbroken possession of his faculties, makes us not only sad but indignant that his determination had not been allowed to be carried out; and that the poor old man, when broken down by age, should have been permitted to expose to view all those sacred things which, when sane and sound, he would so carefully have covered from the prying eyes of the world. He says:—
"All summer last my one solacement in the form of work was writing and sorting of old documents and recollections; summoning out again into clearness old scenes that had now closed on me without return. Sad, and in a sense sacred; it was like a kind of worship,—the only devout time I had had for a great while past. These things I have half or wholly the intention to burn out of the way before I myself die; but such continues still mainly my employment, to me if to no other useful. To reduce matters to writing means that you shall know them, see them in their origins and sequences, in their essential lineaments, considerably better than you ever did before. To set about writing my own life would be no less than horrible to me; and shall of a certainty never be done. The common, impious, vulgar of this earth—what has it to do with my life or me? Let dignified oblivion, silence, and the vacant azure of eternity swallow me; for my share of it, that verily is the handsomest or one handsome way of settling my poor account with the canaille of mankind, extant and to come."
How would his sad old heart have been torn could he have foreseen that in the weakness of senility he would expose to the 'impious vulgar' all the most sacred secrets of his home life! Oh, the pity of it! As a slight offset to the sad revelations thus made, let us accept this little note in Emerson's diary during one of his visits to Chelsea:—
"C. and his wife live on beautiful terms. Their ways are very engaging, and in her bookcase all his books are inscribed to her as they came, year by year, each with some significant lines."
Emerson's regard for Mrs. Carlyle was very great, and there is not one of the many letters but sends a kindly and a warm greeting to her over the sea.
For the rest, this correspondence exhibits Emerson in the light of a true and very useful friend to Carlyle,—taking infinite trouble in the early days to introduce Carlyle's books in America, and to secure to the author in his poverty some return for their publication here. In this he was successful, and sent with great delight little sums of money to his friend. The books met with a quicker recognition in America than in England; and after Emerson had said something to Carlyle of a new edition of "Sartor Resartus," Carlyle writes:—
"As for Fraser, however, the idea of a new edition is frightful to him, or rather ludicrous, unimaginable. Of him no man has inquired for a 'Sartor.' In his whole wonderful world of Tory pamphleteers, Conservative younger brothers, Regent-street lawyers, Crockford gamblers, Irish Jesuits, drunken reporters, and miscellaneous unclean persons (whom water and much soap will not make clean), not a soul has expressed the smallest wish that way. He shrieks at the idea."
There is also much writing, on both sides, of Carlyle's coming to America. For years this was the most enchanting topic, of which they never grew weary. In one of his saddest moods, while yet almost unknown and very poor, Carlyle wrote:—
"In joy, in grief, a voice says to me, 'Behold, there is one that loves thee; in thy loneliness, in thy darkness, see how a hospitable candle shines from far over seas, how a friendly heart watches!' It is very good and precious to me."
There is, of course, a great deal of mutual admiration of each other's work, very genuine, ever pleasant to hear about, expressed in the warmest language,—even in those superlatives which Emerson derided.
There are also lovely bits of home life upon both sides,—faultless interiors over which the mind will linger with delight in times far away from these, when the students of another age strive to make to themselves a picture of what sort of men these the great of the nineteenth century really were. There is nothing told in these volumes that will detract from the fame of either, but much that will add to the kindly impression which they have made upon their time. One cannot but think, as the letters grow more infrequent, and are written with greater labor, of how old age was a weariness to these great men as to others,—how the very grasshopper became a burden, and how inexpressibly sad was the decay of their great powers. Emerson begins to lag first, although a few years younger than Carlyle, and Carlyle implores him, almost piteously, to write. There is an interval of one, two, and even three years in the correspondence toward the end; and after Emerson's last visit to England they wrote no more. Carlyle's gentleness and tenderness show themselves very beautifully in these last letters to his one best friend. When he finds that it has become hard for Emerson to write, he begs at first that he be not forsaken, but after a little says in effect: Never mind, my friend, if it wearies you to write, write to me no more. I will still write to you, and thus our friendship shall not lack for a voice. When the sweet bells had become a little jangled in Emerson's brain, when memory had left him or played him false, and there was a weakening of all his powers,—he sat still in his own home among his friends and kindred, his household intact, and surrounded by the fondest care and affection; while his old friend over the seas—the broken giant, the god of thunder, now grown silent—sat in utter desolation in the home he had reared after infinite struggle and endeavor, and wrapped in a solitude so utter and so black that the heart which can look upon it without pity must be a heart of stone. Carlyle died on the 5th of April, 1881, being eighty-five years old. Emerson died on the 27th of April, 1882, at the age of seventy-nine. In death they were not long divided.
Carlyle is one of the many great men who have suffered severely at the hands of their biographers, and from the pen clan in general. When the world knew him alone or chiefly through the lurid splendors of "The French Revolution,"—that book which, as he himself would have expressed it, was a truth, though a truth written in hell-fire,—or through the uncanny labyrinths of "Sartor Resartus," or the subtle analysis of the "Hero-Worship," or the more pleasing pages of his "Burns," or "Milton," or the "Characteristics," it would stand aloof in wonder, in admiration, almost in awe. But when with his own hand—for he was primarily the cause of all—he stripped away the privacy which he had guarded so jealously through life, and through the "Reminiscences" and his wife's letters, which he prepared for publication, took, as we may say, the roof off from the house, that all the world might look in, then indeed he fell from his lofty pedestal and became like one of us. Hero-worship was no longer possible, but loud abuse and recrimination, or apology and a cry for charitable construction, became the order of the day. We may say that he had only himself to thank for it; but who can help regretting that the man in his old age should so have destroyed the fair fabric of his own fame? We are not so rich in heroes that we can afford to lose even the least of the kingly band; and we have felt that we have sustained an irreparable loss ever since the luckless day when we took up the first of the intensely interesting but most painful books relating to this great life.
Let us look a little at this hero's domestic life. What was its foundation, what its outcome? That there was something wrong at the foundation seems to be clear. And it was not so much the fact that neither party married the first choice of the heart,—though it is true that Jane Welsh loved with all the ardor of her nature Edward Irving first, and that Carlyle undoubtedly would have married his first love, the fair and amiable Margaret Gordon, the original of Blumine in "Sartor Resartus," had not poverty prevented,—but rather was it their unsuitability to each other. She was a lady, delicately reared, and with a taste for society and the refinements of life; with a love for admiration, too, and a wish to shine in her little sphere. He was a peasant, coarsely bred, and scorning the amenities of life to which he was unaccustomed,—scorning, too, the chivalric feeling with which better bred men look upon women and treat their wives. He told her this, bluntly and brutally, before marriage. They two were to be one, and he that one. He had the peasant idea of being master, and to the end of his days held fast to it. They were never, to his mind, equals, but he was the chief and she the subject. This was what put her down intellectually. In her youth she had literary tastes and ambitions, and doubtless much ability; but after marriage we hear no more of that. Even in the seven years at Craigenputtoch, when one would think that out of sheer weariness and want of occupation she would have written or studied, we hear nothing of any such attempts. Her married life seems to have quenched all this utterly.
Then all the domestic drudgery, which to her seemed such a burden, and appears to have afflicted her to the end of life, seemed to him to be the natural and proper thing for a woman. He had all his life been accustomed to see his mother and sisters at their tasks, naturally and uncomplainingly, and he could never understand why all women should not feel in the same way. Then he was fond of solitude, and looked upon a visitor as an emissary of the devil; and he failed to see that a gay, pleasure-loving, volatile, sparkling girl could not share his feelings. So he shut her up remorselessly,—never dreaming that he was cruel. That she was fond of admiration was nothing to him, though he was fond of it himself in his own grim way; he was the central figure of this household, and if she was deprived of a natural enjoyment it seemed a trifle to him. In short, their whole philosophy of life was different, their characters unsuited to each other, and their tempers of the order described as "difficult." It is not necessary to blame one or the other entirely for what followed. He saw everything in one light, she in another; what but disappointment and unrest could ensue?
Had she clung to her original determination not to marry him, would it have been better? Doubtless, yet it is certain that she learned to love him, even too much for her peace of mind; and it is foolish to picture her, as some have done, as a loveless wife. Probably at marriage she was not what is usually styled "in love" with him, but that she did love him through life is not to be doubted. And that, spite of all his neglect and harshness and selfishness, he truly loved her and was essentially loyal to her is as little to be doubted. Whence then came the unhappiness,—an unhappiness which, we think, has in some places been greatly exaggerated? As we said before, from their different points of view. Take, for instance, the hardships of Craigenputtoch. They seemed nothing to him, brought up as he had been, but much to her, who from her youth had been the petted darling of a handsome home. This terrible place, which has been described as worse than a desert island, was a large and recently renovated old manor-house standing in fields of its own, only fifteen miles from where her mother lived, and twelve miles from Dumfries. Everything had been made comfortable for them by her mother, and in the farm-cottage near were his brother and sister, Jane and Alexander Carlyle, who had three men and two women; and Mrs. Carlyle herself always one servant. Much has been written of her hardships here,—and they were very real hardships to her; but from his point of view they did not seem so bad. She did some work, but one cannot help thinking that with so many about her, if she habitually did such drudgery as is represented, it was her own fault. There will come domestic crises in all households, when the hands of the mistress must take hold to save from chaos; but on the whole it would seem that she was not so very great a martyr in this.
The lack of society was the real evil; and this Carlyle did not feel, absorbed as he was in his mighty work, his brain burning with the great thoughts to which he must give utterance. How could he appreciate the vacuity of her life,—who had always had young and cheerful company about her, and a mother to pity and cheer her smallest sorrow? It was very pitiful that he could not see, but not so very strange. Many another man would have been equally obtuse.
His sisters would not have minded it; he did not mind it, and it was not given him to see that she minded it as much as she really did. For it is certain that those seven years left marks upon her which she never outgrew. They almost seem to have changed her very nature. Yet Carlyle with his peasant nature did not see it, but wrote cheerfully upon a time, "Jane is far heartier, now that she has got to work." A mistake, says Froude: "Mrs. Carlyle had not strength for household work, and doing it, she permanently broke down her health."
And again Carlyle writes, with a little more appreciation of the situation:—
"Her life beside me, constantly writing here, is but a dull one; however, she seems to desire no other. . . . I tell her many times there is much for her to do, if she were trained for it,—her whole sex to deliver from the bondage of frivolity, dollhood, and imbecility, into the freedom of valor and womanhood."
Of the solitude which had nearly killed his wife, he after a time wearied himself; and then he effected a change. One laughs to think of the second moving, and wonders if it was as bad as the first, which he thus described:—
"In this mansion we have had a battle like that of Saint George and the dragon. Neither are we yet conquerors. Smoke, and wet, and chaos! May the good Lord keep all Christian men from moving."
If it seemed as bad as this to him, what did it seem to her, delicately reared and hating the disagreeables of life? Still she did not complain, but wrote to his mother about this time: "I could wish him a little less yellow, and a little more peaceable; otherwise he is perfect." And she soon learned, compelled to it possibly by dire necessity, to take upon herself all of the practical and prosaic part of the management of their affairs.
It is painful, although it is also comical, to read of her domestic battles and defeats. She put infinite wit and talent into her descriptions of them in her letters to her friends, and the whole world has read them with smiles and tears; but they were not light troubles to her, as they would have been to many commonplace women. Probably upon a majority of wives, even if they have not men of genius for husbands, fall nearly as great a part of the domestic duties and cares as upon Mrs. Carlyle; yet few consider this a great hardship, and the sympathies of the world are not invoked in their behalf. It was not this so much in Mrs. Carlyle's case as it was the moodiness and fault-finding and general irascibility of the husband which aggravated everything, and made little things seem great.
That her spirits were entirely gone and her whole vivacious nature changed at the end of the Craigenputtoch period is proved by sentences from her letters, To his mother she writes:—
"It is my husband's worst fault with me that I will not or cannot speak. Often when he has talked to me for an hour without answer, he will beg for some sign of life on my part, and all that I can give him is a little kiss."
And she was a woman who loved to talk, and he the best and most brilliant talker of his day. Surely, this is pitiful. But after they went up to London this aspect of things was improved for her, and had it not been that thereafter she suffered from constant ill-health she would doubtless have been quite comfortable. But her health was bad, and in the ignorance of the day the dosing was bad; and when we read of the medicine which she took as she took her daily bread, we only wonder that she lived to tell the tale. It speaks a great deal for her Scotch constitution that she survived her remedies.
Carlyle was soon in the zenith of his fame, and the great men of the day sat at his feet, figuratively speaking, and would literally have done so had not his growl been so fierce that it kept them at bay. Of those who did "beard the lion in his den, the Douglas in his hall," many were immolated in his diary; and we see them, now that it has been published, like so many flies with pins stuck through them, fastened to the paper. Poor Charles Lamb stands there, bloodless, fleshless; but we think scarcely the less of gentle Elia as we look upon him, but far less of the cruel perpetrator of the atrocity. Leigh Hunt, too, has a pin quite through his warm heart; and Stuart Mill, and many others. One wonders sometimes if Froude himself escaped, or if he were there too, like a giant bluebottle, desiccated as the rest; and was that the reason why he did not suppress all the damaging letters and recollections, but maliciously gave them to the world?
Mrs. Carlyle's pen could be dipped in acid also, as has been proved in her comments upon the men and women of her time. These, to be sure, are very brief and fragmentary, and it has been a source of much wonder that, knowing intimately as she did many of the notable persons of her time, she has not left behind in any single letter a valuable portrait or even sketch of any of these great people. What priceless words of Darwin she might have gathered up, which all the world would have eagerly read; what characteristic anecdotes she could have told of Tennyson,—what an insight she might have given into the man behind the poet; what noble things she must have known of Stuart Mill; what inimitable facetiae concerning the Hunts; what spirited stories she could have told of Jeffrey; what a light she could have cast over dark places in the life of Edward Irving! Why did she not do this, we wonder. Did the dread of assassination hover over her? For Charles Buller, Carlyle's friend, had just made his plea for the man who killed his wife for keeping a diary: "What else could a poor fellow do with a wife who kept a diary, but murder her?"