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Smith, Alexander / Dreamthorp A Book of Essays Written in the Country
E-text prepared by Al Haines



DREAMTHORP

A Book of Essays Written in the Country

by

ALEXANDER SMITH







London
George Routledge & Sons, Limited
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
First Edition (in this series), July 1905
Reprinted November, 1907
Reprinted April, 1912




Contents


DREAMTHORP
ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS
OF DEATH AND THE FEAR OF DYING
WILLIAM DUNBAR
A LARK'S FLIGHT
CHRISTMAS
MEN OF LETTERS
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A MAN TO HIMSELF
A SHELF IN MY BOOKCASE
GEOFFREY CHAUCER
BOOKS AND GARDENS
ON VAGABONDS




DREAMTHORP

It matters not to relate how or when I became a denizen of Dreamthorp;
it will be sufficient to say that I am not a born native, but that I
came to reside in it a good while ago now. The several towns and
villages in which, in my time, I have pitched a tent did not please,
for one obscure reason or another; this one was too large, t'other too
small; but when, on a summer evening about the hour of eight, I first
beheld Dreamthorp, with its westward-looking windows painted by sunset,
its children playing in the single straggling street, the mothers
knitting at the open doors, the fathers standing about in long white
blouses, chatting or smoking; the great tower of the ruined castle
rising high into the rosy air, with a whole troop of swallows--by
distance made as small as gnats--skimming about its rents and
fissures;--when I first beheld all this, I felt instinctively that my
knapsack might be taken off my shoulders, that my tired feet might
wander no more, that at last, on the planet, I had found a home. From
that evening I have dwelt here, and the only journey I am like now to
make, is the very inconsiderable one, so far at least as distance is
concerned, from the house in which I live to the graveyard beside the
ruined castle. There, with the former inhabitants of the place, I
trust to sleep quietly enough, and nature will draw over our heads her
coverlet of green sod, and tenderly tuck us in, as a mother her
sleeping ones, so that no sound from the world shall ever reach us, and
no sorrow trouble us any more.

The village stands far inland; and the streams that trot through the
soft green valleys all about have as little knowledge of the sea as the
three-years' child of the storms and passions of manhood. The
surrounding country is smooth and green, full of undulations; and
pleasant country roads strike through it in every direction, bound for
distant towns and villages, yet in no hurry to reach them. On these
roads the lark in summer is continually heard; nests are plentiful in
the hedges and dry ditches; and on the grassy banks, and at the feet of
the bowed dikes, the blue-eyed speedwell smiles its benison on the
passing wayfarer. On these roads you may walk for a year and encounter
nothing more remarkable than the country cart, troops of tawny children
from the woods, laden with primroses, and at long intervals--for people
in this district live to a ripe age--a black funeral creeping in from
some remote hamlet; and to this last the people reverently doff their
hats and stand aside. Death does not walk about here often, but when
he does, he receives as much respect as the squire himself. Everything
round one is unhurried, quiet, moss-grown, and orderly. Season follows
in the track of season, and one year can hardly be distinguished from
another. Time should be measured here by the silent dial, rather than
by the ticking clock, or by the chimes of the church. Dreamthorp can
boast of a respectable antiquity, and in it the trade of the builder is
unknown. Ever since I remember, not a single stone has been laid on
the top of another. The castle, inhabited now by jackdaws and
starlings, is old; the chapel which adjoins it is older still; and the
lake behind both, and in which their shadows sleep, is, I suppose, as
old as Adam. A fountain in the market-place, all mouths and faces and
curious arabesques,--as dry, however, as the castle moat,--has a
tradition connected with it; and a great noble riding through the
street one day several hundred years ago, was shot from a window by a
man whom he had injured. The death of this noble is the chief link
which connects the place with authentic history. The houses are old,
and remote dates may yet be deciphered on the stones above the doors;
the apple-trees are mossed and ancient; countless generations of
sparrows have bred in the thatched roofs, and thereon have chirped out
their lives. In every room of the place men have been born, men have
died. On Dreamthorp centuries have fallen, and have left no more trace
than have last winter's snowflakes. This commonplace sequence and
flowing on of life is immeasurably affecting. That winter morning when
Charles lost his head in front of the banqueting-hall of his own
palace, the icicles hung from the eaves of the houses here, and the
clown kicked the snowballs from his clouted shoon, and thought but of
his supper when, at three o'clock, the red sun set in the purple mist.
On that Sunday in June while Waterloo was going on, the gossips, after
morning service, stood on the country roads discussing agricultural
prospects, without the slightest suspicion that the day passing over
their heads would be a famous one in the calendar. Battles have been
fought, kings have died, history has transacted itself; but, all
unheeding and untouched, Dreamthorp has watched apple-trees redden, and
wheat ripen, and smoked its pipe, and quaffed its mug of beer, and
rejoiced over its new-born children, and with proper solemnity carried
its dead to the churchyard. As I gaze on the village of my adoption I
think of many things very far removed, and seem to get closer to them.
The last setting sun that Shakspeare saw reddened the windows here, and
struck warmly on the faces of the hinds coming home from the fields.
The mighty storm that raged while Cromwell lay a-dying made all the
oak-woods groan round about here, and tore the thatch from the very
roofs I gaze upon. When I think of this, I can almost, so to speak,
lay my hand on Shakspeare and on Cromwell. These poor walls were
contemporaries of both, and I find something affecting in the thought.
The mere soil is, of course, far older than either, but _it_ does not
touch one in the same way. A wall is the creation of a human hand, the
soil is not.

This place suits my whim, and I like it better year after year. As
with everything else, since I began to love it I find it gradually
growing beautiful. Dreamthorp--a castle, a chapel, a lake, a
straggling strip of gray houses, with a blue film of smoke over
all--lies embosomed in emerald. Summer, with its daisies, runs up to
every cottage door. From the little height where I am now sitting, I
see it beneath me. Nothing could be more peaceful. The wind and the
birds fly over it. A passing sunbeam makes brilliant a white
gable-end, and brings out the colours of the blossomed apple-tree
beyond, and disappears. I see figures in the street, but hear them
not. The hands on the church clock seem always pointing to one hour.
Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine. I make a frame of my
fingers, and look at my picture. On the walls of the next Academy's
Exhibition will hang nothing half so beautiful!

My village is, I think, a special favourite of summer's. Every
window-sill in it she touches with colour and fragrance; everywhere she
wakens the drowsy murmurs of the hives; every place she scents with
apple-blossom. Traces of her hand are to be seen on the weir beside
the ruined mill; and even the canal, along which the barges come and
go, has a great white water-lily asleep on its olive-coloured face.
Never was velvet on a monarch's robe so gorgeous as the green mosses
that be-ruff the roofs of farm and cottage, when the sunbeam slants on
them and goes. The old road out towards the common, and the hoary
dikes that might have been built in the reign of Alfred, have not been
forgotten by the generous adorning season; for every fissure has its
mossy cushion, and the old blocks themselves are washed by the
loveliest gray-green lichens in the world, and the large loose stones
lying on the ground have gathered to themselves the peacefulest mossy
coverings. Some of these have not been disturbed for a century.
Summer has adorned my village as gaily, and taken as much pleasure in
the task, as the people of old, when Elizabeth was queen, took in the
adornment of the May-pole against a summer festival. And, just think,
not only Dreamthorp, but every English village she has made beautiful
after one fashion or another--making vivid green the hill slope on
which straggling white Welsh hamlets hang right opposite the sea;
drowning in apple-blossom the red Sussex ones in the fat valley. And
think, once more, every spear of grass in England she has touched with
a livelier green; the crest of every bird she has burnished; every old
wall between the four seas has received her mossy and licheny
attentions; every nook in every forest she has sown with pale flowers,
every marsh she has dashed with the fires of the marigold. And in the
wonderful night the moon knows, she hangs--the planet on which so many
millions of us fight, and sin, and agonise, and die--a sphere of
glow-worm light.

Having discoursed so long about Dreamthorp, it is but fair that I
should now introduce you to her lions. These are, for the most part,
of a commonplace kind; and I am afraid that, if you wish to find
romance in them, you must bring it with you. I might speak of the old
church-tower, or of the church-yard beneath it, in which the village
holds its dead, each resting-place marked by a simple stone, on which
is inscribed the name and age of the sleeper, and a Scripture text
beneath, in which live our hopes of immortality. But, on the whole,
perhaps it will be better to begin with the canal, which wears on its
olive-coloured face the big white water-lily already chronicled. Such
a secluded place is Dreamthorp that the railway does not come near, and
the canal is the only thing that connects it with the world. It stands
high, and from it the undulating country may be seen stretching away
into the gray of distance, with hills and woods, and stains of smoke
which mark the sites of villages. Every now and then a horse comes
staggering along the towing-path, trailing a sleepy barge filled with
merchandise. A quiet, indolent life these bargemen lead in the summer
days. One lies stretched at his length on the sun-heated plank; his
comrade sits smoking in the little dog-hutch, which I suppose he calls
a cabin. Silently they come and go; silently the wooden bridge lifts
to let them through. The horse stops at the bridge-house for a drink,
and there I like to talk a little with the men. They serve instead of
a newspaper, and retail with great willingness the news they have
picked up in their progress from town to town. I am told they
sometimes marvel who the old gentleman is who accosts them from beneath
a huge umbrella in the sun, and that they think him either very wise or
very foolish. Not in the least unnatural! We are great friends, I
believe--evidence of which they occasionally exhibit by requesting me
to disburse a trifle for drink-money. This canal is a great haunt of
mine of an evening. The water hardly invites one to bathe in it, and a
delicate stomach might suspect the flavour of the eels caught therein;
yet, to my thinking, it is not in the least destitute of beauty. A
barge trailing up through it in the sunset is a pretty sight; and the
heavenly crimsons and purples sleep quite lovingly upon its glossy
ripples. Nor does the evening star disdain it, for as I walk along I
see it mirrored therein as clearly as in the waters of the
Mediterranean itself.

The old castle and chapel already alluded to are, perhaps, to a
stranger, the points of attraction in Dreamthorp. Back from the houses
is the lake, on the green sloping banks of which, with broken windows
and tombs, the ruins stand. As it is noon, and the weather is warm,
let us go and sit on a turret. Here, on these very steps, as old
ballads tell, a queen sat once, day after day, looking southward for
the light of returning spears. I bethink me that yesterday, no further
gone, I went to visit a consumptive shoemaker; seated here I can single
out his very house, nay, the very window of the room in which he is
lying. On that straw roof might the raven alight, and flap his sable
wings. There, at this moment, is the supreme tragedy being enacted. A
woman is weeping there, and little children are looking on with a sore
bewilderment. Before nightfall the poor peaked face of the bowed
artisan will have gathered its ineffable peace, and the widow will be
led away from the bedside by the tenderness of neighbours, and the
cries of the orphan brood will be stilled. And yet this present
indubitable suffering and loss does not touch me like the sorrow of the
woman of the ballad, the phantom probably of a minstrel's brain. The
shoemaker will be forgotten--I shall be forgotten; and long after,
visitors will sit here and look out on the landscape and murmur the
simple lines. But why do death and dying obtrude themselves at the
present moment? On the turret opposite, about the distance of a
gun-shot, is as pretty a sight as eye could wish to see. Two young
people, strangers apparently, have come to visit the ruin. Neither the
ballad queen, nor the shoemaker down yonder, whose respirations are
getting shorter and shorter, touches them in the least. They are merry
and happy, and the gray-beard turret has not the heart to thrust a
foolish moral upon them. They would not thank him if he did, I dare
say. Perhaps they could not understand him. Time enough! Twenty
years hence they will be able to sit down at his feet, and count griefs
with him, and tell him tale for tale. Human hearts get ruinous in so
much less time than stone walls and towers. See, the young man has
thrown himself down at the girl's feet on a little space of grass. In
her scarlet cloak she looks like a blossom springing out of a crevice
on the ruined steps. He gives her a flower, and she bows her face down
over it almost to her knees. What did the flower say? Is it to hide a
blush? He looks delighted; and I almost fancy I see a proud colour on
his brow. As I gaze, these young people make for me a perfect idyl.
The generous, ungrudging sun, the melancholy ruin, decked, like mad
Lear, with the flowers and ivies of forgetfulness and grief, and
between them, sweet and evanescent, human truth and love!

Love!--does it yet walk the world, or is it imprisoned in poems and
romances? Has not the circulating library become the sole home of the
passion? Is love not become the exclusive property of novelists and
playwrights, to be used by them only for professional purposes?
Surely, if the men I see are lovers, or ever have been lovers, they
would be nobler than they are. The knowledge that he is beloved
should--_must_ make a man tender, gentle, upright, pure. While yet a
youngster in a jacket, I can remember falling desperately in love with
a young lady several years my senior,--after the fashion of youngsters
in jackets. Could I have fibbed in these days? Could I have betrayed
a comrade? Could I have stolen eggs or callow young from the nest?
Could I have stood quietly by and seen the weak or the maimed bullied?
Nay, verily! In these absurd days she lighted up the whole world for
me. To sit in the same room with her was like the happiness of
perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for her, or to do
any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent of nobility
were conferred on me. I kept my passion to myself, like a cake, and
nibbled it in private. Juliet was several years my senior, and had a
lover--was, in point of fact, actually engaged; and, in looking back, I
can remember I was too much in love to feel the slightest twinge of
jealousy. I remember also seeing Romeo for the first time, and
thinking him a greater man than Caesar or Napoleon. The worth I
credited him with, the cleverness, the goodness, the everything! He
awed me by his manner and bearing. He accepted that girl's love coolly
and as a matter of course: it put him no more about than a crown and
sceptre puts about a king. What I would have given my life to
possess--being only fourteen, it was not much to part with after
all--he wore lightly, as he wore his gloves or his cane. It did not
seem a bit too good for him. His self-possession appalled me. If I
had seen him take the sun out of the sky, and put it into his breeches'
pocket, I don't think I should have been in the least degree surprised.
Well, years after, when I had discarded my passion with my jacket, I
have assisted this middle-aged Romeo home from a roystering wine-party,
and heard him hiccup out his marital annoyances, with the strangest
remembrances of old times, and the strangest deductions therefrom. Did
that man with the idiotic laugh and the blurred utterance ever love?
Was he ever capable of loving? I protest I have my doubts. But where
are my young people? Gone! So it is always. We begin to moralise and
look wise, and Beauty, who is something of a coquette, and of an
exacting turn of mind, and likes attentions, gets disgusted with our
wisdom or our stupidity, and goes off in a huff. Let the baggage go!

The ruined chapel adjoins the ruined castle on which I am now sitting,
and is evidently a building of much older date. It is a mere shell
now. It is quite roofless, ivy covers it in part; the stone tracery of
the great western window is yet intact, but the coloured glass is gone
with the splendid vestments of the abbot, the fuming incense, the
chanting choirs, and the patient, sad-eyed monks, who muttered _Aves_,
shrived guilt, and illuminated missals. Time was when this place
breathed actual benedictions, and was a home of active peace. At
present it is visited only by the stranger, and delights but the
antiquary. The village people have so little respect for it, that they
do not even consider it haunted. There are several tombs in the
interior bearing knights' escutcheons, which time has sadly defaced.
The dust you stand upon is noble. Earls have been brought here in
dinted mail from battle, and earls' wives from the pangs of
child-bearing. The last trumpet will break the slumber of a right
honourable company. One of the tombs--the most perfect of all in point
of preservation--I look at often, and try to conjecture what it
commemorates. With all my fancies, I can get no further than the old
story of love and death. There, on the slab, the white figures sleep;
marble hands, folded in prayer, on marble breasts. And I like to think
that he was brave, she beautiful; that although the monument is worn by
time, and sullied by the stains of the weather, the qualities which it
commemorates--husbandly and wifely affection, courtesy, courage,
knightly scorn of wrong and falsehood, meekness, penitence,
charity--are existing yet somewhere, recognisable by each other. The
man who in this world can keep the whiteness of his soul, is not likely
to lose it in any other.

In summer I spend a good deal of time floating about the lake. The
landing-place to which my boat is tethered is ruinous, like the chapel
and palace, and my embarkation causes quite a stir in the sleepy little
village. Small boys leave their games and mud-pies, and gather round
in silence; they have seen me get off a hundred times, but their
interest in the matter seems always new. Not unfrequently an idle
cobbler, in red night-cap and leathern apron, leans on a broken stile,
and honours my proceedings with his attention. I shoot off, and the
human knot dissolves. The lake contains three islands, each with a
solitary tree, and on these islands the swans breed. I feed the birds
daily with bits of bread. See, one comes gliding towards me, with
superbly arched neck, to receive its customary alms! How wildly
beautiful its motions! How haughtily it begs! The green pasture lands
run down to the edge of the water, and into it in the afternoons the
red kine wade and stand knee-deep in their shadows, surrounded by
troops of flies. Patiently the honest creatures abide the attacks of
their tormentors. Now one swishes itself with its tail,--now its
neighbour flaps a huge ear. I draw my oars alongside, and let my boat
float at its own will. The soft blue heavenly abysses, the wandering
streams of vapour, the long beaches of rippled clouds, are glassed and
repeated in the lake. Dreamthorp is silent as a picture, the voices of
the children are mute; and the smoke from the houses, the blue pillars
all sloping in one angle, float upward as if in sleep. Grave and stern
the old castle rises from its emerald banks, which long ago came down
to the lake in terrace on terrace, gay with fruits and flowers, and
with stone nymph and satyrs hid in every nook. Silent and empty enough
to-day! A flock of daws suddenly bursts out from a turret, and round
and round they wheel, as if in panic. Has some great scandal exploded?
Has a conspiracy been discovered? Has a revolution broken out? The
excitement has subsided, and one of them, perched on the old
banner-staff, chatters confidentially to himself as he, sideways, eyes
the world beneath him. Floating about thus, time passes swiftly, for,
before I know where I am, the kine have withdrawn from the lake to
couch on the herbage, while one on a little height is lowing for the
milkmaid and her pails. Along the road I see the labourers coming home
for supper, while the sun setting behind me makes the village windows
blaze; and so I take out my oars, and pull leisurely through waters
faintly flushed with evening colours.

I do not think that Mr. Buckle could have written his "History of
Civilization" in Dreamthorp, because in it books, conversation, and the
other appurtenances of intellectual life, are not to be procured. I am
acquainted with birds, and the building of nests--with wild-flowers,
and the seasons in which they blow,--but with the big world far away,
with what men and women are thinking, and doing, and saying, I am
acquainted only through the _Times_, and the occasional magazine or
review, sent by friends whom I have not looked upon for years, but by
whom, it seems, I am not yet forgotten. The village has but few
intellectual wants, and the intellectual supply is strictly measured by
the demand. Still there is something. Down in the village, and
opposite the curiously-carved fountain, is a schoolroom which can
accommodate a couple of hundred people on a pinch. There are our
public meetings held. Musical entertainments have been given there by
a single performer. In that schoolroom last winter an American
biologist terrified the villagers, and, to their simple understandings,
mingled up the next world with this. Now and again some rare bird of
an itinerant lecturer covers dead walls with posters, yellow and blue,
and to that schoolroom we flock to hear him. His rounded periods the
eloquent gentleman devolves amidst a respectful silence. His audience
do not understand him, but they see that the clergyman does, and the
doctor does; and so they are content, and look as attentive and wise as
possible. Then, in connexion with the schoolroom, there is a public
library, where books are exchanged once a month. This library is a
kind of Greenwich Hospital for disabled novels and romances. Each of
these books has been in the wars; some are unquestionable antiques.
The tears of three generations have fallen upon their dusky pages. The
heroes and the heroines are of another age than ours. Sir Charles
Grandison is standing with his hat under his arm. Tom Jones plops from
the tree into the water, to the infinite distress of Sophia. Moses
comes home from market with his stock of shagreen spectacles. Lovers,
warriors, and villains,--as dead to the present generation of readers
as Cambyses,--are weeping, fighting, and intriguing. These books,
tattered and torn as they are, are read with delight to-day. The
viands are celestial if set forth on a dingy table-cloth. The gaps and
chasms which occur in pathetic or perilous chapters are felt to be
personal calamities. It is with a certain feeling of tenderness that I
look upon these books; I think of the dead fingers that have turned
over the leaves, of the dead eyes that have travelled along the lines.
An old novel has a history of its own. When fresh and new, and before
it had breathed its secret, it lay on my lady's table. She killed the
weary day with it, and when night came it was placed beneath her
pillow. At the seaside a couple of foolish heads have bent over it,
hands have touched and tingled, and it has heard vows and protestations
as passionate as any its pages contained. Coming down in the world,
Cinderella in the kitchen has blubbered over it by the light of a
surreptitious candle, conceiving herself the while the magnificent
Georgiana, and Lord Mordaunt, Georgiana's lover, the pot-boy round the
corner. Tied up with many a dingy brother, the auctioneer knocks the
bundle down to the bidder of a few pence, and it finds its way to the
quiet cove of some village library, where with some difficulty--as if
from want of teeth--and with numerous interruptions--as if from lack of
memory--it tells its old stories, and wakes tears, and blushes, and
laughter as of yore. Thus it spends its age, and in a few years it
will become unintelligible, and then, in the dust-bin, like poor human
mortals in the grave, it will rest from all its labours. It is
impossible to estimate the benefit which such books have conferred.
How often have they loosed the chain of circumstance! What unfamiliar
tears--what unfamiliar laughter they have caused! What chivalry and
tenderness they have infused into rustic loves! Of what weary hours
they have cheated and beguiled their readers! The big, solemn
history-books are in excellent preservation; the story-books are
defaced and frayed, and their out-of-elbows, condition is their pride,
and the best justification of their existence. They are tashed, as
roses are, by being eagerly handled and smelt. I observe, too, that
the most ancient romances are not in every case the most severely worn.
It is the pace that tells in horses, men, and books. There are Nestors
wonderfully hale; there are juveniles in a state of dilapidation. One
of the youngest books, "The Old Curiosity Shop," is absolutely falling
to pieces. That book, like Italy, is possessor of the fatal gift; but
happily, in its case, every thing can be rectified ay a new edition.
We have buried warriors and poets, princes and queens, but no one of
these was followed to the grave by sincerer mourners than was Little
Nell.

Besides the itinerant lecturer, and the permanent library, we have the
Sunday sermon. These sum up the intellectual aids and furtherances of
the whole place. We have a church and a chapel, and I attend both.
The Dreamthorp people are Dissenters, for the most part; why, I never
could understand; because dissent implies a certain intellectual
effort. But Dissenters they are, and Dissenters they are likely to
remain. In an ungainly building, filled with hard gaunt pews, without
an organ, without a touch of colour in the windows, with nothing to
stir the imagination or the devotional sense, the simple people
worship. On Sunday, they are put upon a diet of spiritual bread and
water. Personally, I should desire more generous food. But the
labouring people listen attentively, till once they fall asleep, and
they wake up to receive the benediction with a feeling of having done
their duty. They know they ought to go to chapel, and they go. I go
likewise, from habit, although I have long ago lost the power of
following a discourse. In my pew, and whilst the clergyman is going
on, I think of the strangest things--of the tree at the window, of the
congregation of the dead outside, of the wheat-fields and the
corn-fields beyond and all around. And the odd thing is, that it is
during sermon only that my mind flies off at a tangent and busies
itself with things removed from the place and the circumstances.
Whenever it is finished fancy returns from her wanderings, and I am
alive to the objects around me. The clergyman knows my humour, and is
good Christian enough to forgive me; and he smiles good-humouredly when
I ask him to let me have the chapel keys, that I may enter, when in the
mood, and preach a sermon to myself. To my mind, an empty chapel is
impressive; a crowded one, comparatively a commonplace affair. Alone,
I could choose my own text, and my silent discourse would not be
without its practical applications.

An idle life I live in this place, as the world counts it; but then I
have the satisfaction of differing from the world as to the meaning of
idleness. A windmill twirling its arms all day is admirable only when
there is corn to grind. Twirling its arms for the mere barren pleasure
of twirling them, or for the sake of looking busy, does not deserve any
rapturous paean of praise. I must be made happy after my own fashion,
not after the fashion of other people. Here I can live as I please,
here I can throw the reins on the neck of my whim. Here I play with my
own thoughts; here I ripen for the grave.




ON THE WRITING OF ESSAYS

I have already described my environments and my mode of life, and out
of both I contrive to extract a very tolerable amount of satisfaction.
Love in a cottage, with a broken window to let in the rain, is not my
idea of comfort; no more is Dignity, walking forth richly clad, to whom
every head uncovers, every knee grows supple. Bruin in winter-time
fondly sucking his own paws, loses flesh; and love, feeding upon
itself, dies of inanition. Take the candle of death in your hand, and
walk through the stately galleries of the world, and their splendid
furniture and array are as the tinsel armour and pasteboard goblets of
a penny theatre; fame is but an inscription on a grave, and glory the
melancholy blazon on a coffin lid. We argue fiercely about happiness.
One insists that she is found in the cottage which the hawthorn shades.
Another that she is a lady of fashion, and treads on cloth of gold.
Wisdom, listening to both, shakes a white head, and considers that "a
good deal may be said on both sides."

There is a wise saying to the effect that "a man can eat no more than
he can hold." Every man gets about the same satisfaction out of life.
Mr. Suddlechops, the barber of Seven Dials, is as happy as Alexander at
the head of his legions. The business of the one is to depopulate
kingdoms, the business of the other to reap beards seven days old; but
their relative positions do not affect the question. The one works
with razors and soap-lather the other with battle-cries and
well-greaved Greeks. The one of a Saturday night counts up his shabby
gains and grumbles; the other on _his_ Saturday night sits down and
weeps for other worlds to conquer. The pence to Mr. Suddlechops are as
important as are the worlds to Alexander. Every condition of life has
its peculiar advantages, and wisdom points these out and is contented
with them. The varlet who sang--

"A king cannot swagger
Or get drunk like a beggar,
Nor be half so happy as I"--

had the soul of a philosopher in him. The harshness of the parlour is
revenged at night in the servants' hall. The coarse rich man rates his
domestic, but there is a thought in the domestic's brain, docile and
respectful as he looks, which makes the matter equal, which would
madden the rich man if he knew it--make him wince as with a shrewdest
twinge of hereditary gout. For insult and degradation are not without
their peculiar solaces. You may spit upon Shylock's gaberdine, but the
day comes when he demands his pound of flesh; every blow, every insult,
not without a certain satisfaction, he adds to the account running up
against you in the day-book and ledger of his hate--which at the proper
time he will ask you to discharge. Every way we look we see
even-handed nature administering her laws of compensation. Grandeur
has a heavy tax to pay. The usurper rolls along like a god, surrounded
by his guards. He dazzles the crowd--all very fine; but look beneath
his splendid trappings and you see a shirt of mail, and beneath _that_
a heart cowering in terror of an air-drawn dagger. Whom did the memory
of Austerlitz most keenly sting? The beaten emperor? or the mighty
Napoleon, dying like an untended watch-fire on St. Helena?

Giddy people may think the life I lead here staid and humdrum, but they
are mistaken. It is true, I hear no concerts, save those in which the
thrushes are performers in the spring mornings. I see no pictures,
save those painted on the wide sky-canvas with the colours of sunrise
and sunset. I attend neither rout nor ball; I have no deeper
dissipation than the tea-table; I hear no more exciting scandal than
quiet village gossip. Yet I enjoy my concerts more than I would the
great London ones. I like the pictures I see, and think them better
painted, too, than those which adorn the walls of the Royal Academy;
and the village gossip is more after my turn of mind than the scandals
that convulse the clubs. It is wonderful how the whole world reflects
itself in the simple village life. The people around me are full of
their own affairs and interests; were they of imperial magnitude, they
could not be excited more strongly. Farmer Worthy is anxious about the
next market; the likelihood of a fall in the price of butter and eggs
hardly allows him to sleep o' nights. The village doctor--happily we
have only one--skirrs hither and thither in his gig, as if man could
neither die nor be born without his assistance. He is continually
standing on the confines of existence, welcoming the new-comer, bidding
farewell to the goer-away. And the robustious fellow who sits at the
head of the table when the Jolly Swillers meet at the Blue Lion on
Wednesday evenings is a great politician, sound of lung metal, and
wields the village in the taproom, as my Lord Palmerston wields the
nation in the House. His listeners think him a wiser personage than
the Premier, and he is inclined to lean to that opinion himself. I
find everything here that other men find in the big world. London is
but a magnified Dreamthorp.

And just as the Rev. Mr. White took note of the ongoings of the seasons
in and around Hampshire Selborne, watched the colonies of the rooks in
the tall elms, looked after the swallows in the cottage and rectory
eaves, played the affectionate spy on the private lives of chaffinch
and hedge-sparrow, was eaves-dropper to the solitary cuckoo; so here I
keep eye and ear open; take note of man, woman, and child; find many a
pregnant text imbedded in the commonplace of village life; and, out of
what I see and hear, weave in my own room my essays as solitary as the
spider weaves his web in the darkened corner. The essay, as a literary
form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is moulded by some central
mood--whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay,
from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon
grows around the silkworm. The essay-writer is a chartered libertine,
and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the
infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit,
are all that the essayist requires to start business with. Jacques, in
"As You Like It," had the makings of a charming essayist. It is not
the essayist's duty to inform, to build pathways through metaphysical
morasses, to cancel abuses, any more than it is the duty of the poet to
do these things. Incidentally he may do something in that way, just as
the poet may, but it is not his duty, and should not be expected of
him. Skylarks are primarily created to sing, although a whole choir of
them may be baked in pies and brought to table; they were born to make
music, although they may incidentally stay the pangs of vulgar hunger.
The essayist is a kind of poet in prose, and if questioned harshly as
to his uses, he might be unable to render a better apology for his
existence than a flower might. The essay should be pure literature as
the poem is pure literature. The essayist wears a lance, but he cares
more for the sharpness of its point than for the pennon that flutters
on it, than for the banner of the captain under whom he serves. He
plays with death as Hamlet plays with Yorick's skull, and he reads the
morals--strangely stern, often, for such fragrant lodging--which are
folded up in the bosoms of roses. He has no pride, and is deficient in
a sense of the congruity and fitness of things. He lifts a pebble from
the ground, and puts it aside more carefully than any gem; and on a
nail in a cottage-door he will hang the mantle of his thought, heavily
brocaded with the gold of rhetoric. He finds his way into the Elysian
fields through portals the most shabby and commonplace.

The essayist plays with his subject, now whimsical, now in grave, now
in melancholy mood. He lies upon the idle grassy bank, like Jacques,
letting the world flow past him, and from this thing and the other he
extracts his mirth and his moralities. His main gift is an eye to
discover the suggestiveness of common things; to find a sermon in the
most unpromising texts. Beyond the vital hint, the first step, his
discourses are not beholden to their titles. Let him take up the most
trivial subject, and it will lead him away to the great questions over
which the serious imagination loves to brood,--fortune, mutability,
death,--just as inevitably as the runnel, trickling among the summer
hills, on which sheep are bleating, leads you to the sea; or as,
turning down the first street you come to in the city, you are led
finally, albeit by many an intricacy, out into the open country, with
its waste places and its woods, where you are lost in a sense of
strangeness and solitariness. The world is to the meditative man what
the mulberry plant is to the silkworm. The essay-writer has no lack of
subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if
unsatisfied with that, he has the world's six thousand years to
depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here,
and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is
an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one
need only be the world's amanuensis. The proverbial expression which
last evening the clown dropped as he trudged homeward to supper, the
light of the setting sun on his face, expands before me to a dozen
pages. The coffin of the pauper, which to-day I saw carried carelessly
along, is as good a subject as the funeral procession of an emperor.
Craped drum and banner add nothing to death; penury and disrespect take
nothing away. Incontinently my thought moves like a slow-paced hearse
with sable nodding plumes. Two rustic lovers, whispering between the
darkening hedges, is as potent to project my mind into the tender
passion as if I had seen Romeo touch the cheek of Juliet in the
moon-light garden. Seeing a curly-headed child asleep in the sunshine
before a cottage door is sufficient excuse for a discourse on
childhood; quite as good as if I had seen infant Cain asleep in the lap
of Eve with Adam looking on. A lark cannot rise to heaven without
raising as many thoughts as there are notes in its song. Dawn cannot
pour its white light on my village without starting from their dim lair
a hundred reminiscences; nor can sunset burn above yonder trees in the
west without attracting to itself the melancholy of a lifetime. When
spring unfolds her green leaves I would be provoked to indite an essay
on hope and youth, were it not that it is already writ in the carols of
the birds; and I might be tempted in autumn to improve the occasion,
were it not for the rustle of the withered leaves as I walk through the
woods. Compared with that simple music, the saddest-cadenced words
have but a shallow meaning.

The essayist who feeds his thoughts upon the segment of the world which
surrounds him cannot avoid being an egotist; but then his egotism is
not unpleasing.



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Main -> Smith, Alexander -> Dreamthorp A Book of Essays Written in the Country