Wet-Weather Work: Vi
I BEGIN my day with a canny Scot, who was born in Edinburgh in 1726, near which city his father conducted a large market-garden. As a youth, aged nineteen, John Abercrombie (for it is of him I make companion this wet morning) saw the Battle of Preston Pans, at which the Highlanders pushed the King’s-men in defeat to the very foot of his father’s garden-wall. Whether he shouldered a matchlock for the Castle-people and Sir John Hope, or merely looked over from the kale-beds at the victorious fighters for Prince Charley, I cannot learn ; it is certain only that before Culloden, and the final discomfiture of the Pretender, he avowed himself a good King’s-man, and in many an after-year, over his pipe and his ale, told the story of the battle which surged wrathfully around his father’s kalegarden by Preston Pans.
But he did not stay long in Scotland ; he became gardener for Sir James Douglas, into whose family (below-stairs) he eventually married ; afterwards he had experience in the royal gardens at Kew, and in Leicester Fields. Finally he became proprietor of a patch of ground in the neighborhood of London ; and his success here, added to his success in other service, gave him such reputation that he was one day waited upon (about the year 1770) by Mr. Davis, a London bookseller, who invited him to dine at an inn in Hackney; and at the dinner he was introduced to a certain Oliver Goldsmith, an awkward man, who had published four years before a book called “ The Vicar of Wakefield.” Mr. Davis thought John Abercrombie was competent to write a good practical work on gardening, and the Hackney dinner was intended to warm the way toward such a book. Dinners are sometimes given with such ends even now. The shrewd Mr. Davis was
a little doubtful of Abercrombie’s style, but not at all doubtful of the style of the author of “ The Traveller.” Dr. Goldsmith was not a man averse to a good meal, where he was to meet a straightforward, out-spoken Scotch gardener ; and Mr. Davis, at a mellow stage of the dinner, brought forward his little plan, which was that Abercrombie should prepare a treatise upon gardening, to be revised and put in shape by the author of “ The Deserted Village.” The dinner at Hackney was, I dare say, a good one; the scheme looked promising to a man whose vegetable - carts streamed every morning into London, and to the Doctor, mindful of his farm-retirement at the sixmile stone on the Edgeware Road ; so it was all arranged between them.
But, like many a publisher’s scheme, it miscarried. The Doctor perhaps saw a better bargain in the Lives of Bolingbroke and Parnell; 1 or perhaps his appointment as Professor of History to the Royal Society put him too much upon his dignity. At any rate, the world has to regret a gardening-book in which the shrewd practical knowledge of Abercrombie would have been refined by the grace and the always alluring limpidity of the style of Goldsmith.
I know that the cultivators pretend to Spurn graces of manner, and affect only a clumsy burden of language, under which, I am sorry to say, the best agriculturists have most commonly labored ; but if the transparent simplicity of Goldsmith had once been thoroughly infused with the practical knowledge of Abercrombie, what a book on gardening we should have had ! What a lush verdure of vegetables would have tempted us ! What a wealth of perfume would have exuded from the flowers!
But the scheme proved abortive. Goldsmith said, “ I think our friend Abercrombie can write better about plants than I can.” And so doubtless he could, so far as knowledge of their habits went. Eight years after, Abercrombie prepared a book called “ Every Man his own Gardener ”; but so doubtful was he of his own reputation, that he paid twenty pounds to Mr. Thomas Mawe, the fashionable gardener of the Duke of Leeds, to allow him to place his name upon the titlepage. I am sorry to record such a scurvy bit of hypocrisy in so competent a man. The book sold, however, and sold so well, that, a few years after, the elegant Mr. Mawe begged a visit from the nurseryman of Tottenham Court, whom he had never seen ; so Abercrombie goes down to the seat of the Duke of Leeds, and finds his gardener so bedizened with powder, and wearing such a grand air, that he mistakes him for his Lordship ; but it is a mistake, we may readily believe, which the elegant Mr. Mawe forgives, and the two gardeners become capital friends.
Abercrombie afterward published many works under his own name; 2 among these was “ The Gardener’s Pocket Journal,” which maintained an unflagging popularity as a standard book for a period of half a century. This hardy Scotchman lived to bo eighty; and when he could work no longer, lie was constantly afoot among the botanical gardens about London. At the last it was a fall “ downstairs in the dark ” that was the cause of death; and fifteen days after, as his quaint biographers tell us, “ he expired, just as the clock upon St. Paul’s struck twelve, — between April and May”: as if the ripe old gardener could not tell which of these twin garden - months he loved the best; and so, with a foot planted in each, he made the leap into the realm of eternal spring.
A noticeable fact in regard to this outof-door old gentleman is, that he never took “doctors’-stuff” in his life, until the time of that fatal fall in the dark. He was, however, an inveterate teadrinker ; and there was another aromatic herb (I write this with my pipe in my mouth) of which he was, up to the very last, a most ardent consumer.
In the year 1766 was published for the first time a posthumous work by John Locke, the great philosopher and the good Christian, entitled, “ Observations upon the Growth and Culture of Vines and Olives,” —written, very likely, after his return from France, down in his pleasant Essex home, at the seat of Sir Francis Masham. I should love to give the reader a sample of the way in which the author of “ An Essay concerning Human Understanding” wrote regarding horticultural matters. But, after some persistent search and inquiry, I have not been able to see or even to hear of a copy of the book.3 No one can doubt but there is wisdom in it. “ I believe you think me,” he writes in a private letter to a friend, “ too proud to undertake anything wherein I should acquit myself but unworthily.” This is a sort of pride — not very common in our day — which does not go before a fall.
I name a poet next,—not because a great poet, for lie was not, nor yet because he wrote “ The English Garden,”4 for there is sweeter garden-perfume in many another poem of the day that does not pique our curiosity by its title. But the Reverend William Mason, if not among the foremost of poets, was a man of most kindly and liberal sympathies. He was a devoted Whig, at a time when Whiggism meant friendship for the American Colonists ; and the open expression of this friendship cost him his place as a Royal Chaplain. I will remember this longer than I remember his “ English Garden,” — longer than I remember his best couplet of verse : —
Meek twilight slowly sails, and waves her banners grave,”
It was alleged, indeed, by those who loved to say ill-natured things, (Horace Walpole among them,) that in the later yeare of his life he forgot his first love of Liberalism and became politically conservative. But it must be remembered that the good poet lived into the time when the glut and gore of the French Revolution made people hold their breath, and when every man who lifted a humane plaint against the incessant creak and crash of the guillotine was reckoned by all mad reformers a conservative. I think, if I had lived in that day, I should have been a conservative, too,—however much the pretty and bloody Desmoulins might have made faces at me in the newspapers.
I can find nothing in Mason’s didactic poem to quote. There are tasteful suggestions scattered through it,— better every way than his poetry. The grounds of his vicarage at Aston must have offered charming loitering-places. I will leave him idling there,—perhaps conning over some letter of his friend the poet Gray ; perhaps lounging in the very alcove where he had inscribed this verse of the “ Elegy,”—
By hands unseen, are showers of violets found;
The redbreast loves to build and warble here,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.”
If, indeed, he had known how to strew such gems through his “ English Garden,” we should have had a poem that would have out-shone “ The Seasons.”
And this mention reminds me, that, although I have slipped past his period, I have said no word as yet of the Roxburgh poet; but he shall be neglected no longer. (The big book, my boy, npon the third shelf, with a worn back, labelled THOMSON.)
This poet is not upon the gardeners’ or the agricultural lists. One can find no farm-method in him, — indeed, little method of any sort; there is no description of a garden carrying half the details that belong to Tasso’s garden of Armida, or Rousseau’s in the letter of St. Preux.5 And yet, as we read, how the country, with its woods, its valleys, its hillsides, its swains, its toiling cattle, comes swooping to our vision ! The leaves rustle, the birds warble, the rivers roar a song. The sun beats on the plain; the winds carry waves into the grain; the clouds plant shadows on the mountains. The minuteness and the accuracy of his observation are something wonderful; if farmers should not study him, our young poets may. He never puts a song in the throat of a jay or a wood-dove ; he never makes a mother-bird break out in bravuras; he never puts a sickle into green grain, or a trout in a slimy brook ; he could picture no orchis growing on a hillside, or columbine nodding in a meadow. If the leaves shimmer, you may be sure the sun is shining; if a primrose lightens on the view, you may be sure there is some covert which the primroses love ; and never by any license does a white flower come blushing into his poem.
I will not quote, where so much depends upon the atmosphere which the poet himself creates, as he waves his enchanter’s wand. Over all the type his sweet power compels a rural heaven to lie reflected; I go from budding spring to blazing summer at the turning of a page; on all the meadows below me (though it is March) I see ripe autumn brooding with golden wings; and winter howls and screams in gusts, and tosses tempests of snow into my eyes — out of the book my boy has just now brought me.
One verse, at least, I will cite, — so full it is of all pastoral feeling, so brimming over with the poet’s passion for the country : it is from “ The Castle of Indolence ”: —
You cannot rob me of free Nature’s grace;
You cannot shut the windows of the sky,
Through which Aurora shows her brightening face;
You cannot bar my constant feet to trace
The woods and' lawns, by living stream at eve: Let health my nerves and finer fibres brace, And I their toys to the great children leave; Of fancy, reason, virtue, nought can me bereave.”
Another Scotchman, Lord Kames, (Henry Home by name,) who was Senior Lord of Sessions in Scotland about the year 1760, was best known in his own day for his discussion of “The Principles of Equity”; he is known to the literary world as the author of an elegant treatise upon the “ Elements of Criticism ” ; I beg leave to introduce him to my readers to-day as a sturdy, practical farmer. The book, indeed, which serves for his card of introduction, is called “ The Gentleman Farmer ” ; 6 but we must not judge it by our experience of the class who wear that title nowadays. Lord Kames recommends no waste of money, no extravagant architecture, no mere prettinesses. He talks of the plough in a way that assures us he has held it some day with his own hands. People are taught, he says, more by the eye than the ear; show them good culture, and they will follow it.
As for what were called the principles of agriculture, he found them involved in obscurity ; he went to the book of Nature for instruction, and commenced, like Descartes, with doubting everything. He condemns the Roman husbandry as fettered by superstitions, and gives a piquant sneer at the absurd rhetoric and verbosity of Varro7 Nor is he any more tolerant of Scotch superstitions. He declares against wasteful and careless farming in a way that reminds us of our good
friend Judge——, at the last countyshow.
He urges good ploughing as a primal necessity, and insists upon the use of the roller for rendering the surface of wheatlands compact, and so retaining the moisture ; nor does he. attempt to reconcile this declaration with the Tull theory of constant trituration. A great many excellent Scotch farmers still hold to the views of his Lordship, and believe in “keeping the sap” in fresh-tilled land by heavy rolling; and so far as regards a wheat or rye crop upon light lands, I think the weight of opinion, as well as of the rollers, is with them.
Lord Kames, writing before the time of draining-tile, dislikes open ditches, by reason of their interference with tillage, and does not trust the durability of brush or stone underdrains. He relies upon ridging, and the proper disposition of open furrows, in the old Greek way. Turnips he commends without stint, and the Tull system of their culture. Of clover he thinks as highly as the great English farmer, but does not believe in his notion of economizing seed; “ Idealists,” he says, “ talk of four pounds to the acre ; but when sown for cutting green, I would advise twenty - four pounds.” This amount will seem a little startling, I fancy, even to farmers of our day.
He advises strongly the use of oxen in place of horses for all farm-labor ; they cost less, keep for less, and sell for more ; and he enters into arithmetical calculations to establish his propositions. He instances Mr. Burke, who ploughs with four oxen at Beaconsfield. How drolly it sounds to hear the author of “ Letters on a Regicide Peace ” cited as an authority in practical farming ! He still further urges his ox-working scheme, on grounds of public economy : it will cheapen food, forbid importation of oats, and reduce wages. Again, he recommends soiling,8' by all the arguments which are used, and vainly used, with us. He shows the worthlessness of manure dropped upon a parched field, compared with the same duly cared for in court or stable; he proposes movable sheds for feeding, and enters into a computation of the weight of green clover which will be consumed in a day by horses, cows, or oxen : “ a horse, ten Dutch stone daily ; an ox or cow, eight stone ; ten horses, ten oxen, and six cows, two hundred and twenty-eight stone per day,”—involving constant cartage: still he is convinced of the profit of the method.
His views on feeding ordinary store cattle, or accustoming them to change of food, are eminently practical. After speaking of the desirableness of providing a good stock of vegetables, he continues, — - “ And yet, after all, how many indolent farmers remain, who for want of spring food are forced to turn their cattle out to grass before it is ready for pasture ! which not only starves the cattle, but lays the grass-roots open to be parched by sun and wind.”
Does not this sound as if I had clipped it from the “ Country Gentleman ” of last week ? And yet it was written ninety-seven years ago, by one of the most accomplished Scotch judges, and in his eightieth year, — another Varro, packing his luggage for his last voyage.
One great value of Lord Karnes’s talk lies in the particularity of his directions: he does not despise mention of those minutiae a neglect of which makes so many books of agricultural instruction utterly useless. Thus, in so small a matter as the sowing of clover-seed, he tells how the thumb and finger should be held, for its proper distribution ; in stacking, he directs how to bind the thatch ; he tells how mown grass should be raked, and how many hours spread ; 9 and his directions for the making of clover-hay could not be improved upon this very summer. “ Stir it not the day it is cut. Turn it in the swath the forenoon of the next day; and in the afternoon put it up in small cocks. The third day put two cocks into one, enlarging every day the cocks till they are ready for the tramp rick [temporary field-stack].”
A small portion of his book is given up to the discussion of the theory of agriculture ; but he fairly warns his readers that he is wandering in the dark. If all theorists were as honest! He deplores the ignorance of Tull in asserting that plants feed on earth; air and water alone, in his opinion, furnish the supply of plantfood. All plants feed alike, and on the same material. Degeneracy appearing only in those which are not native : white clover never deteriorates in England, nor bull-dogs.
But I will not linger on his theories. He is represented to have been a kind and humane man; but tins did not forbid a hearty relish (appearing often in his book) for any scheme which promised to cheapen labor. “ The people on landed estates” he says, “ are trusted by Providence to the owner’s care, and the proprietor is accountable for the management of them to the Great God, who is the Creator of both.” It does not seem to have occurred to the old gentleman that some day people might decline to be “ managed.”
He gave the best proof of his practical tact, in the conduct of his estate of Blair-Drummond, — uniting there all the graces of the best landscape-gardening with profitable returns.
I take leave of him with a single excerpt from his admirable chapter of Gardening in the “Elements of Criticism ” : — “ Other fine arts may be perverted to excite irregular, and even vicious emotions; but gardening, which inspires the purest and most refined pleasures, cannot fail to promote every good affection. The gayety and harmony of mind it produceth inclineth the spectator to communicate his satisfaction to others, and to make them happy as he is himself, and tends naturally to establish in him a habit of humanity and benevolence.”
It is humiliating to reflect, that a thievish orator at one of our Agricultural Fairs might appropriate page after page out of the “Gentleman Farmer” of Lord Kames, written in the middle of the last century, and the county-paper, and the aged directors, in clean shirt-collars and dress-coats, would be full of praises “ of the enlightened views of our esteemed fellow-citizen.” And yet at the very time when the critical Scotch judge was meditating his book, there was erected a land light-house, called Dunston Column, upon Lincoln Heath, to guide night travellers over a great waste of land that lay a half-day’s ride south of Lincoln. And when Lady Robert Manners, who had a seat at Bloxholme, wished to visit Lincoln, a groom or two were sent out the morning before to explore a good path, and families were not unfrequently lost for days 10 together in crossing the heath. And this same heath, made up of a light fawn-colored sand, lying on “ dry, thirsty stone,” was, twenty years since at least, blooming all over with rank, dark lines of turnips ; trim, low hedges skirted the level highways; neat farm-cottages were flanked with great saddle-backed ricks ; thousands upon thousands of long-woolled sheep cropped the luxuriant pasturage, and the Dunston column was down.
About the time of Lord Kames’s establishment at Blair-Drummond, or perhaps a little earlier, a certain Master Claridge published “ The Country Calendar; or, The Shepherd of Banbury’s Rules to know of the Change of the Weather.” It professed to be based upon forty years’ experience, and is said to have met with great favor. I name it only because it embodies these old couplets, which still lead a vagabond life up and down the pages of country-almanacs : —
It grows the worst for’t ail the year.”
Than to see a fair Februcer.”
It’s good both for hay and corn.”
Makes a full barn and a tindy.”
Is worth a load of hay;
But a swarm in July
Is not worth a fly.”
Will any couplets of Tennyson reap as large a fame ?
About the same period, John Mills, a Fellow of the Royal Society, published a work of a totally different character, — being very methodic, very full, very clear. It was distributed through five volumes, He enforces the teachings of Evelyn and Duhamel, and is commendatory of the views of Tull. The Rotherham plough is figured in his work, as well as thirteen of the natural grasses. He speaks of potatoes and turnips as established crops, and enlarges upon their importance. He clings to the Virgilian theory of small farms, and to the better theory of thorough tillage.
In 1759 was issued the seventh edition of Miller’s “ Gardener’s Dictionary,” 11 in which was for the first time adopted (in English) the classical system of Linnæus. If I have not before alluded to Philip Miller, it is not because he is undeserving. He was a correspondent of the chiefs in science over the Continent of Europe, and united to his knowledge a rate practical skill. He was superintendent of the famous Chelsea Gardens of the Apothecaries Company. He lies buried in the Chelsea Church-yard, where the Fellows of the Lin mean and Horticultural Societies of London have erected a monument to his memory. Has the reader ever sailed up the Thames, beyond Westminster? And does He remember a little spot of garden-ground, walled in by dingy houses, that lies upon the right bank of the river near to Chelsea Hospital ? If he can recall two gaunt, flat-topped cedars which sentinel the walk leading to the river-gate, he will have the spot in his mind, where, nearly two hundred years ago, and a full century before the Kew parterres were laid down, the Chelsea Garden of the Apothecaries Company was established. It was in the open country then ; and even Philip Miller, in 1722, walked to his work between hedge-rows, where sparrows chirped in spring, and in winter the fieldfare chattered: but the town has swallowed it; the city-smoke has starved it; even the marble image of Sir Hans Sloanc in its centre is but the mummy of a statue. Yet in the Physic Garden there are trees struggling still which Philip Miller planted; and I can readily believe, that, when the old man, at seventy-eight, (through some quarrel with the Apothecaries,) took his last walk to the river-bank, he did it with a sinking at the heart which kept by him till he died.
I come now to speak of Thomas Whately, to whom I have already alluded, and of whom, from the scantiness of all record of his life, it is possible to say only very little. He lived at Nonsuch Park, in Surrey, not many miles from London, on the road to Epsom. He was engaged in public affairs, being at one time secretary to the Earl of Suffolk, and also a member of Parliament. But I enroll him in my wet-day service simply as the author of the most appreciative and most tasteful treatise upon landscape-gardening which has ever been written, — not excepting either Price or Repton. It is entitled, “ Observations on Modern Gardening,” and was first published in 1770. It was the same year translated into French by Latapie, and was to the Continental gardeners the first revelation of the graces which belonged to English cultivated landscape. In the course of the book he gives vivid descriptions of Blenheim, Hagley, Leasowes, Claremont, and several other wellknown British places. He treats separately of Parks, Water, Farms, Gardens, Ridings, etc., illustrating each with delicate and tender transcripts of natural scenes. Now he takes us to the cliffs of Matlock, and again to the farmflats of Woburn. His criticisms upon the places reviewed are piquant, full of rare apprehension of the most delicate natural beauties, and based on principles which every man of taste must accept at sight. As you read him, he does not seem so much a theorizer or expounder as he does the simple interpreter of graces which had escaped your notice. His suggestions come upon you with such a momentum of truthfulness, that you cannot stay to challenge them.
There is no argumentation, and no occasion for it. On such a bluff he tells us wood should be planted, and we wonder that a hundred people had not said the same thing before; on such a rivermeadow the grassy level should lie open to the sun, and we wonder who could ever have doubted it. Nor is it in matters of taste alone, 1 think, that the best things we hear seem always to have a smack of oldness in them, — as if we remembered their virtue. “ Capital! ” we say ; “ but has n’t it been said before ? ” or, “ Precisely ! I wonder I did n’t do or say the same thing myself.” Whenever you hear such criticisms upon any performance, you may be sure that it has been directed by a sound instinct. It is not' a sort of criticism any one is apt to make upon flashy rhetoric, or upon flash gardening.
Whately alludes to the analogy between landscape-painting and landscapegardening : the true artists in either pursuit aim at the production of rich pictorial effects, but their means are different. Does the painter seek to give steepness to a declivity ? — then he may add to his shading a figure or two toiling up. The gardener, indeed, cannot plant a man there; but a copse upon the summit will add to the apparent height, and he may indicate the difficulty of ascent by a band-rail running along the path. The painter will extend his distance by the diminuendo of his mountains, or of trees stretching toward the horizon : the gardener has, indeed, no handling of successive mountains, but he may increase apparent distance by leafy avenues leading toward the limit of vision ; he may even exaggerate the effect still further by so graduating the size of his trees as to make a counterfeit perspective.
When I read such a book as this of Whately’s,—so informed and leavened as it is by an elegant taste, — I am most painfully impressed by the shortcomings of very much which is called good landscape-gardening with us. As if serpentine walks, and glimpses of elaborated turf - ground, and dots of exotic evergreens in little circlets of spaded earth, compassed at all those broad effects which a good designer should keep in mind ! We are gorged with petit-maîtreism, and pretty littlenesses of all kinds. We have the daintiest of walks, and the rarest of shrubs, and the best of drainage ; but of those grand, bold effects which at once seize upon the imagination, and inspire it with new worship of Nature, we have great lack. In private grounds we cannot of course command the opportunity which the long tenure under British privilege gives; but the conservators of public parks have scope and verge; let them look to it, that their resources be not wasted in the niceties of mere gardening, or in elaborate architectural devices. Banks of blossoming shrubs and tangled wild vines and labyrinthine walks will count for nothing in park-effect, when, fifty years hence, the scheme shall have ripened, and hoary pines pile along the ridges, and gaunt single trees spot here and there the glades, to invite the noontide wayfarer. A true artist should keep these ultimate effects always in his eye, —eft feets that may be greatly impaired, if not utterly sacrificed, by an injudicious multiplication of small and meretricious beauties, which in no way conspire to the grand and final poise of the scene.
But I must not dwell upon so enticing a topic, or my wet day will run over into sunshine. One word more, however, I have to say of the personality of the author who has suggested it. The reader of Sparks’s Works and Life of Franklin may remember, that, in the fourth volume, under the head of “ Hutchinson’s Letters,” the Doctor details difficulties which he fell into in connection with “ certain papers” he obtained indirectly from one of His Majesty’s officials, and communicated to Thomas Cashing, Speaker of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts Bay. The difficulty involved others besides the Doctor, and a duel came of it between a certain William Whately and Mr. Temple. This William Whately was the brother of Thomas Whately,—the author in question,—and secretary to.Lord Grenville,12 in which capacity he died in 1772.13 The “papers” alluded to were letters from Governor Hutchinson and others, expressing sympathy with the British Ministry in their efforts to enforce a grievous Colonial taxation. It was currently supposed that Mr. Secretary Whately was the recipient of these letters; and upon their being made public after his death, Mr, Whately, his brother and executor, conceived that Mr. Temple was the instrument of their transfer. Hence the duel. Dr. Franklin, however, by public letter, declared that this allegation was ill-founded, but would never reveal the name of the party to whom he was indebted. The Doctor lost his place of Postmaster-General for the Colonies, and was egregiously insulted by Wedderburn in open Council ; but he could console himself with the friendship of such men as Lawyer Dunning, (one of the suspected authors of “Junius,”) and with the eulogium of Lord Chatham.
There are three more names belonging to this period which I shall bring under review, to finish up my day. These are Horace Walpole, (Lord Orford,) Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith. Walpole was the proprietor of Strawberry Hill, and wrote upon gardening : Burke was the owner of a noble farm at Beaconsfield, which he managed with rare sagacity : Goldsmith could never claim land enough to dig a grave upon, until the day he was buried ; but he wrote the story of “ The Vicar of Wakefield,” and the sweet poem of “ The Deserted Village,”
I take a huge pleasure in dipping from time to time into the books of Horace Walpole, and an almost equal pleasure in cherishing a hearty contempt for the man. With a certain native cleverness, and the tact of a showman, he paraded his resources, whether of garden, or villa, or memory, or ingenuity, so as to carry a reputation for ability that he never has deserved. His money, and the distinction of his father, gave him an association with cultivated people, — artists, politicians, poets,—which the metal of his own mind would never have found by reason of its own gravitating power. He courted notoriety in a way that would have made him, if a poorer man, the toadying Boswell of some other Johnson giant, and, if very poor, the welcome buffoon of some gossiping journal, who would never weary of contortions, and who would brutify himself at the death, to kindle an admiring smile.
He writes pleasantly about painters, and condescendingly of gardeners and gardening. Of the special beauties of Strawberry Hill he is himself historiographer ; elaborate copper plates, elegant paper, and a particularity that is ludicrous, set forth the charms of a villa which never supplied a single incentive to correct taste, or a single scene that has the embalmment of genius, He tells us grandly how this room was hung with crimson, and that other with gold ; how “the tearoom was adorned with green paper and prints, .... on the hearth, a large green vase of German ware, with a spread eagle, and lizards for handles,”—which vase (if the observation be not counted disloyal by sensitive gentlemen) must have been a very absurd bit of pottery. “ On a shelf and brackets are two potpourris of Hankin china; two pierced blue and white basons of old Delft; and two sceaus [sic] of coloured Seve ; a blue and white vase and cover ; and two old Fayence bottles.”
When a man writes about his own furniture in this style for large type and quarto, we pity him more than if he had kept to such fantastic nightmares as the “ Castle of Otranto.” The Earl of Orford speaks in high terms of the literary abilities of the Earl of Bath : have any of my readers ever chanced to see any literary work of the Earl of Bath ? If not, I will supply the omission, in the shape of a ballad, “ to the tune of a former song by George Bubb Doddington.” It. is entitled, “ Strawberry Hill.”
For Sion some declare;
And some say that with Chiswick House
No villa can compare.
But ask the beaux of Middlesex,
Who know the country well,
If Strawb’ry Hill. if Strawb’ry Hill
Don’t bear away the bell ?
There’s scarce a hill around
But what in song or ditty
Is turned to fairy ground.
Ah, peace be with their memories!
I wish them wondrous well;
But Strawb’ry Hill, but Strawb’ry Hill
Must bear away the bell.”
It is no way surprising that a noble poet capable of writing such a ballad should have admired the villa of Horace Walpole : it is no way surprising that a proprietor capable of admiring such a ballad should have printed his own glorification of Strawberry Hill.
Iam not insensible to the easy grace and the piquancy of his letters ; no man could ever pour more delightful twaddle into the ear of a great friend ; no man could more delight in doing it, if only the friend were really' great, I am aware that he was highly cultivated, — that he had observed widely at home and abroad, — that he was a welcome guest in distinguished circles; but he never made or had a real friend ; and the news of the old man’s death made no severer shock than if one of his Fayence pipkins had broken.
But what most irks me is the absurd dilettanteism and presumption of the man. He writes a tale as if he were giving dignity to romance ; he applauds an artist as Dives might have thrown crumbs to Lazarus; vain to the last degree of all that he wrote or said, he was yet too fine a gentleman to be called author; if there had been a way of printing books, without recourse to the vulgar media of type and paper, — a way of which titled gentlemen could command the monopoly', —
I think he would have written more. As I turn over the velvety pages of his works, and look at his catalogues, his bon-mots, his drawings, his affectations of magnificence, I seem to see the fastidious old man shuffling with gouty step up and down, from drawing-room to library,—stopping here and there to admire some newly arrived bit of pottery, — pulling out his golden snuff-box, and whisking a delicate pinch into his old nostrils,—then dusting his affluent shirt-frill with the tips of his dainty fingers, with an air of gratitude to Providence for having created so fine a gentleman as Horace Walpole, and of gratitude to Horace Walpole for having created so fine a place as Strawberry
I turn from this ancient specimen of titled elegance to a consideration of Mr. Burke, with much the same relief with which I would go out from a perfumed drawing-room into the breezy air of a June morning. Lord Kames has told us that Mr. Burke preferred oxen to horses for field-labor ; and we have Burke’s letters to his bailiff, showing a nice attention to the economics of farming, and a complete mastery ot its working details. But more than anywhere else does his agricultural sagacity declare itself in his “ Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.” 14
Will the reader pardon me the transcript of a passage or two ? “ It is a perilous thing to try experiments on the farmer. The farmer’s capital (except in a few persons, and in a very few places) is far more feeble than is commonly imagined. The trade is a very poor trade ; it is subject to great risks and losses. The capital, such as it is, is turned but once in the year ; in some branches it requires three years before the money is paid ; I believe never less than three in the turnip and
grass-land course.It is very rare that the most prosperous farmer, counting the value of his quick and dead stock, the interest of the money he turns, together with his own wages as a bailiff or overseer, ever does make twelve or fifteen per centum by the year on his capital. In most parts of England which have fallen within my observation, I have rarely known a farmer who to his own trade has not added some other employment or traffic, that, after a course of the most unremitting parsimony and labor, and persevering in his business for a long course of years, died worth more than paid his debts, leaving his posterity to continue in nearly the same equal conflict between industry and want in which the last predecessor, and a long line of predecessors before him, lived and died.”
In confirmation of this last statement, I may mention that Samuel Ireland, writing in 1792, (“ Picturesque Views on the River Thanros,”) speaks of a farmer named Wapshote, near Chertsey, whose ancestors had resided on the place eversince the time of Alfred the Great; and amid all the chances and changes of centuries, not one of the descendants had either bettered or marred his fortunes. The truthfulness of the story is confirmed in a number of the “Monthly Review” for the same year.
Mr. Burke commends the excellent and most useful works of his “friend Arthur Young,” (of whom I shall have somewhat to say another time,) but regrets that he should intimate the largeness of a farmer’s profits. He discusses the drill-culture, (for wheat,) which, he says, is well, provided “ the soil is not excessively heavy, or encumbered with large, loose stones, and provided the most vigilant superintendence, the most prompt activity, which has no such day as to-morrow in its calendar,15 combine to speed the plough ; in this case I admit,” he says, “ its superiority over the old and general methods.” And again he says,— “It requires ten times more of labor, of vigilance, of attention, of skill, and, let me add, of good fortune also, to carry on the business of a farmer with success, than what belongs to any other trade.”
May not “ A Farmer ” take a little pride in such testimony as this ?
One of his biographers tells us, that, in his later years, the neighbors saw him on one occasion, at his home of Beaconsfield, leaning upon the shoulder of a favorite old horse, (which had the privilege of the lawn,) and sobbing. Whereupon the gossiping villagers reported the great man crazed. Ay, crazed, — broken by the memory of his only and lost son Richard, with whom this aged saddle-horse had been a special favorite,—crazed, no doubt, at thought of the strong young hand whose touch the old beast, waited for in vain,—crazed and broken,—an oak, ruined and blasted by storms. The great mind in this man was married to a great heart.
It is almost with a feeling of awe that I enter upon my wet-day studies the name of Oliver Goldsmith: I love so much his tender story of the good Vicar ; I love so much his poems. The world is accustomed to regard that little novel, which Dr. Johnson bargained away for sixty guineas, as a rural tale : it is so quiet; it is so simple ; its atmosphere is altogether so redolent of the country. And yet all, save some few critical readers, will be surprised to learn that there is not a picture of natural scenery in the book of any length ; and wherever an allusion of the kind appears, it does not bear the impress of a mind familiar with the country, and practically at home there. The Doctor used to go out upon the Edgeware road, — not for his love of trees, but to escape noise and duns. Yet we overlook literalness, charmed as we are by the development of his characters and by the sweet burden of his story. The statement may seem extraordinary, but I could transcribe every rural, out-ofdoor scene in the “ Vicar of Wakefield” upon a single halfpage of foolscap. Of the first home of the Vicar we have only this account: — “ We had an elegant house, situated in a fine country and a good neighborhood.” Of his second home there is this more full description :—“ Our little habitation was situated at the foot of a sloping hill, sheltered with a beautiful underwood behind, and a prattling river before : on one side a meadow, on the other a green. My farm consisted of about twenty acres of excellent land, having given a hundred pounds for my predecessor’s good-will. Nothing could exceed the neatness of my little inclosures : the elms and hedge-rows appearing with inexpressible beauty. My house consisted of but one story, and was covered with thatch, which gave it an air of great snugness.” It is quite certain that an author familiar with the country, and with a memory stocked with a multitude of kindred scenes, would have given a more determinate outline to this picture. But whether he would have given to his definite outline the fascination that belongs to the vagueness of Goldsmith, is wholly another question.
Again, in the sixth chapter, Mr. Burchell is called upon to assist the Vicar and his family in “saving an after-growth of hay.” “ Our labors,” he says, “ went on lightly; we turned the swath to the wind.” It is plain that Goldsmith never saved much hay; turning a swath to the wind may be a good way of making it, but it is a slow way of gathering it. In the eighth chapter of this charming story, the Doctor says, — “ Our family dined in the field, and we sat, or rather reclined, round a temperate repast, our cloth spread upon the hay. To heighten our satisfaction, the blackbirds answered each other from opposite hedges, the familiar redbreast came and pecked the crumbs from our hands, and every sound seemed but the echo of tranquillity.” This is very fascinating; but it is the veriest romanticism of country-life. Such sensible girls as Olivia and Sophia would, I am quite sure, never have spread the dinner-cloth upon hay, which would most surely have set all the gravy allow, if the platters had not been fairly overturned ; and as for the redbreasts, (with that rollicking boy Moses in my mind,) I think they must have been terribly tame birds.
But this is only a farmer’s criticism,—a Crispin feeling the bunions on some Phid ian statue. And do I think the less of Goldsmith, because he wantoned with the literalism of the country, and laid on his prismatic colors of romance where only white light lay? Not one whit. It only shows how Genius may discard utter faithfulness to detail, if only its song is charged with a general simplicity and truthfulness that fill our ears and our hearts.
As for Goldsmith’s verse, who does not love it ? It is wicked to consume the pages of a magazine with extracts from a poem that is our daily food, else I would string them all down this column and the next, and every one should have a breezy reminder of the country in it. Not all the arts of all the modernists,—not “Maud,” with its garden-song, — not the caged birds of Killingworth, singing up and down the village-street, — not the heather-bells out of which the springy step of Jean Ingelow crushes perfume, — shall make me forget the old, sweet, even flow of the “ Deserted Village.”
Down with it, my boy, from the third shelf! G-O-L-D-S-M-I-T-H — a worker in gold — is on the back.
And I sit reading it to myself, as a fog comes weltering in from the sea, covering all the landscape, save some halfdozen of the city - spires, which peer above the drift-like beacons.
- Published 1770-'71.↩
- Johnson enumerates fifteen.↩
- Many of the bibliographers, even, have omitted mention of it.↩
- Of which the first book was published in 1772. This author is to be distinguished from George Mason, who in 1708 published “ Au Essay on Design in Gardening.’↩
- Lettre XI. Liv. IV. Nouvelle Héloise.↩
- First published in 1766.↩
- Citing, in confirmation, that passage commencing, — “ Nunc dicam agri quibus rebvscolaniur,” etc.↩
- Pp. 177-179, edition of 1802, Edinburgh.↩
- Pp. 166, 167.↩
- See Article of Philip Pussy, M. P., in Transactions of the Royal Society, Yol. XIV.↩
- First published in 1724.↩
- I find him named, in Dodsley’s “ Annual Register ” for 1771, “ Keeper of His Majesty’s Private Reads.”↩
- Loudon makes an error in giving 1780 as the year of his death.↩
- Presented to William Titt, 1705.↩
- At that day, horse-hoeing, at regular intervals, was understood to form part of what was counted drill-culture.↩