A Passage From Hawthorne's English Note-Books

OUR road to Rydal lay through Ambleside, which is certainly a very pretty town, and looks cheerfully on a sunny day. We saw Miss Martineau’s residence, called the Knoll, standing high up on a hillock, and having at its foot a Methodist chapel, for which, or whatever place of Christian, worship, this good lady can have no occasion. We stopped a moment in the street below her house, and deliberated a little whether to call on her, but concluded otherwise.

After leaving Ambleside, the road winds in and out among the hills, and soon brings us to a sheet (or napkin, rather, than a sheet) of water, which the driver tells us is Rydal Lake ! We had already heard that it was but three quarters of a mile long, and one quarter broad ; still, it being an idea of considerable size in our minds, we had inevitably drawn its ideal physical proportions on a somewhat corresponding scale. It certainly did look very small; and I said, in my American scorn, that 1 could carry it away easily in a porringer ; for it is nothing more than a grassy-bordered pool among the surrounding hills, which ascend directly from its margin; so that one might fancy it not a permanent body of water, but a rather extensive accumulation of recent rain. Moreover, it was rippled with a breeze, and so, as I remember it, though the sun shone, it looked dull and sulky, like a child out of humor. Now the best thing these small ponds can do is to keep perfectly calm and smooth, and not to attempt to show off any airs of their own, but content themselves with serving as a mirror for whatever of beautiful or picturesque there may be in the scenery around them. The hills about Rydal water are not very lofty, but are sufficiently so as objects of every-day view, — objects to live with, — and they are craggier than those we have hitherto seen, and bare of wood, which indeed would hardly grow on some of their precipitous sides.

On the roadside, as we reach the foot of the lake, stands a spruce and rather large house of modern aspect, but with several gables, and much overgrown with ivy, — a very pretty and comfortable house, built, adorned, and cared for with commendable taste. We inquired whose it was, and the coachman said it was “Mr. Wordsworth’s,” and that Mrs, Wordsworth was still residing there. So we were much delighted to have seen his abode ; and as we were to stay the night at Grasmere, about two miles farther on, we determined to come back and inspect it as particularly as should be allowable. Accordingly, after taking rooms at Brown’s Hotel, we drove back in our return car, and, reaching the head of Rydal water, alighted to walk through this familiar scene of so many years of Wordsworth’s life. We ought to have seen De Quincey’s former residence, and Hartley Coleridge’s cottage, I believe, on our way, but were not aware of it at the time. Near the lake there is a stone quarry, and a cavern of some extent, artificially formed, probably, by taking out the stone. Above the shore of the lake, not a great way from Wordsworth’s residence, there is a flight of steps hewn in a rock, and ascending to a seat, where a good view of the lake may be attained; and as Wordsworth has doubtless sat there hundreds of times, so did we ascend and sit down and look at the hills and at the flags on the lake’s shore.

Reaching the house that had been pointed out to us as Wordsworth’s residence, we began to peer about at its front and gables, and over the gardenwall on both sides of the road, quickening our enthusiasm as much as we could, and meditating to pilfer some flower or ivy-leaf from the house or its vicinity, to be kept as sacred memorials. At this juncture a man approached, who announced himself as the gardener of the place, and said, too, that this was not Wordsworth’s house at all, but the residence of Mr. Ball, a Quaker gentleman ; but that his ground adjoined Wordsworth’s, and that he had liberty to take visitors through the latter. How absurd it would have been if we had carried away ivy-leaves and tender recollections from this domicile of a respectable Quaker! The gardener was an intelligent young man, of pleasant, sociable, and respectful address ; and as we went along, he talked about the poet, whom he had known, and who, he said, was very familiar with the country people. He led us through Mr. Ball’s grounds, up a steep hillside, by winding, gravelled walks, with summer-houses at points favorable for them. It was a very shady and pleasant spot, containing about an acre of ground, and all turned to good account by the manner of laying it out; so that it seemed more than it really was. In one place, on a small, smooth slab of slate let into a rock, there is an inscription by Wordsworth, which I think I have read in his works, claiming kindly regards from those who visit the spot, after his departure, because many trees bad been spared at his intercession. His own grounds, or rather his ornamental garden, is separated from Mr. Ball's only by a wire fence, or some such barrier, and the gates have no fastening, so that the whole appears like one possession, and doubtless was so as regarded the poet’s walks and enjoyments. We approached by paths so winding, that I hardly know how the house stands in relation to the road ; but, after much circuity, we really did see Wordsworth's residence, — an old house, with an uneven ridge-pole, built of stone, no doubt, but plastered over with some neutral tint, —a house that would not have been remarkably pretty in itself, but so delightfully situated, so secluded, so hedged about with shrubbery and adorned with flowers, so ivy-grown on one side, so beautified with the personal care of him who lived in it and loved it, that it seemed the very place for a poet's residence ; and as if, while he lived so long in it, his poetry had manifested itselt.in flowers, shrubbery, and ivy. I never smelt such a delightful fragrance of flowers as there was all through the garden. In front of the house, there is a circular terrace, of two ascents, in raising which Wordsworth had himself performed much of the labor; and here there are seats, from which we obtained a fine view down the valley of the Rothay, with Windermere in the distance,— a view of several miles, and which we did not suppose could be seen, after winding among the hills so far from the lake. It is very beautiful and picture-like. While we sat here, mamma happened to refer to the ballad of little Barbara Lewthwaite, and Julian began to repeat the poem concerning her ; and the gardener said that little Barbara had died not a great while ago, an elderly woman, leaving grown-up children behind her. Her marriage-name was Thompson, and the gardener believed there was nothing remarkable in her character.

There is a summer-house at one extremity of the grounds, in deepest shadow, but with glimpses of mountainviews through trees which shut it in, and which have spread intercepting boughs since Wordsworth died. It is lined with pine-cones, in a pretty way enough, but of doubtful taste. I rather wonder that people of real taste should help Nature out, and beautify her, or perhaps rather prettify her so much as they do,—opening vistas, showing one thing, hiding another, making a scene picturesque whether or no. I cannot rid myself of the feeling that there is something false, a kind of humbug, in all this. At any rate, the traces of it do not contribute to my enjoyment, and, indeed, it ought to be done so exquisitely as to leave no trace. But I ought not to criticise in any way a spot which gave me so much pleasure, and where it is good to think of Wordsworth in quiet, past days, walking in his home-shadow of trees which he knew, and training flowers, and trimming shrubs, and chanting in an undertone his own verses, up and down the winding walks.

The gardener gave Julian a cone from the summer-house, which had fallen on the seat, and mamma got some mignonette, and leaves of laurel and ivy, and we wended our way back to the hotel.

Wordsworth was not the owner of this house, it being the property of Lady Fleming. Mrs. Wordsworth still lives there, and is now at home.

Five o'clock. — All day it has been cloudy and showery, with thunder now and then ; the mists hang low on the surrounding hills, adown which, at various points, we can see the snow-white fall of little streamlets — forces they call them here — swollen by the rain. An overcast day is not so gloomy in the hill-country as in the lowlands ; there are more breaks, more transfusion of sky-light through the gloom, as has been the case to-day; and, as I found in Lenox, we get better acquainted with clouds by seeing at what height they lie on the hillsides, and find that the difference betwixt a fair day and a cloudy and rainy one is very superficial, after all. Nevertheless, rain is rain, and wets a man just as much among the mountains as anywhere else; so we have been kept within doors all day, till an hour or so ago, when Julian and I went down to the village in quest of the post-office.

We took a path that leads from the hotel across the fields, and, coming into a wood, crosses the Rothay by a onearched bridge, and passes the village church. The Rothay is very swift and turbulent to-day, and hurries along with foam-specks on its surface, filling its banks from brim to brim, a stream perhaps twenty feet wide, perhaps more ; for I am willing that the good little river should have all it can fairly claim. It is the St. Lawrence of several of these English lakes, through which it flows, and carries off their superfluous waters. In its haste, and with its rushing sound, it was pleasant both to see and hear ; and it sweeps by one side of the old churchyard where Wordsworth lies buried, — the side where his grave is made. The church of Grasmere is a very plain structure, with a low body, on one side of which is a low porch with a pointed arch. The tower is square, and looks ancient; but the whole is overlaid with plaster of a buff or pale-yellow hue. It was originally built, I suppose, of rough, shingly stones, as many of the houses hereabouts are now, and the plaster is used to give a finish. We found the gate of the churchyard wide open; and the grass was lying on the graves, having probably been mowed yesterday. It is but a small churchyard, and with few monuments of any pretension in it, most of them being slate headstones, standing erect. From the gate at which we entered a distinct foot-track leads to the corner nearest the river-side, and I turned into it by a sort of instinct, the more readily as I saw a tourist-looking man approaching from that point, and a woman looking among the gravestones. Both of these persons had gone by the time I came up, so that Julian and I were left to find Wordsworth’s grave all by ourselves.

At this corner of the churchyard there is a hawthorn bush or tree, the extremest branches of which stretch as far as where Wordsworth lies. This whole corner seems to be devoted to himself and his family and friends ; and they all lie very closely together, side by side, and head to foot, as room could conveniently be found. Hartley Coleridge lies a little behind, in the direction of the church, his feet being towards Wordsworth’s head, who lies in the row of those of his own blood. I found out Hartley Coleridge's grave sooner than Wordsworth’s ; for it is of marble, and, though simple enough, has more of sculptured device about it, having been erected, as I think the inscription states, by his brother and sister. Wordsworth’s has only the very simplest slab of slate, with “William Wordsworth ” and nothing else upon it. As I recollect it, it is the midmost grave of the row. It is, or has been, well grass-grown, but the grass is quite worn away from the top, though sufficiently luxuriant at the sides. It looks as if people had stood upon it, and so does the grave next to it, which, I believe, is of one of his children. I plucked some grass and weeds from it; and as he was buried within so few years, they may fairly be supposed to have drawn their nutriment from his mortal remains, and I gathered them from just above his head. There is no fault to be found with his grave, — within view of the hills, within sound of the river, murmuring near by,—no fault, except that he is crowded so closely with his kindred; and, moreover, that, being so old a churchyard, the earth over him must all have been human once. He might have had fresh earth to himself, but he chose this grave deliberately. No very stately and broadbased monument can ever be erected over it, without infringing upon, covering, and overshadowing the graves, not only of his family, but of individuals who probably were quite disconnected with him. But it is pleasant to think and know — were it but on the evidence of this choice of a resting-place — that he did not care for a stately monument. After leaving the churchyard, we wandered about in quest of the post-office, and for a long time without success. This little town of Grasmere seems to me as pretty a place as ever I met with in my life. It is quite shut in by hills that rise up immediately around it, like a neighborhood of kindly giants. These hills descend steeply to the verge of the level on which the village stands, and there they terminate at once, the whole site of the little town being as even as a floor. I call it a village ; but it is no village at all, all the dwellings standing apart, each in its own little domain, and each, I believe, with its own little lane leading to it, independently of the rest. Most of these are old cottages, plastered white, with antique porches, and roses and other vines trained against them, and shrubbery growing about them ; and some are covered with ivy. There are a few edifices of more pretension and of modern build, but not so strikingly as to put the rest out of countenance. The post-office, when we found it, proved to be an ivied cottage, with a good deal of shrubbery round it, having its own pathway, like the other cottages. The whole looks like a real seclusion, shut out from the great world by these encircling hills, on the sides of which, whenever they are not too steep, you see the division-lines of property, and tokens of cultivation, — taking from them their pretensions to savage majesty, but bringing them nearer to the heart of man.

Since writing the above, I have been again with S— to see Wordsworth’s grave, and, finding the door of the church open, we went in. A woman and little girl were sweeping at the farther end, and the woman came towards us out of the cloud of dust which she had raised. We were surprised at the extremely antique appearance of the church. It is paved with bluish-gray flagstones, over which uncounted generations have trodden, leaving the floor as well laid as ever. The walls are very thick, and the arched windows open through them at a considerable distance above the floor. And down through the centre of the church runs a row of five arches, very rude and round-headed, all of rough stone, supported by rough and massive pillars, or rather square stone blocks, which stand in the pews, and stood in the same places, probably, long before the wood of those pews began to grow. Above this row of arches is another row, built upon the same mass of stone, and almost as broad, but lower; and on this upper row rests the framework, the oaken beams, the black skeleton of the roof. It is a very clumsy contrivance for supporting the roof, and if it were modern we certainly should condemn it as very ugly ; but being the relic of a simple age, it comes in well with the antique simplicity of the whole structure. The roof goes up, barn-like, into its natural angle, and all the rafters and cross-beams are visible. There is an old font ; and in the chancel is a niche, where, judging from a similar one in Furness Abbey, the holy water used to be placed for the priest's use while celebrating mass. Around the inside of the porch is a stone bench, placed against the wall, narrow and uneasy, but where a great many people had sat who now have found quieter restingplaces.

The woman was a very intelligentlooking person, not of the usual English ruddiness, but rather thin and somewhat pale, though bright of aspect. Her way of talking was very agreeable. She inquired if we wished to see Wordsworth’s monument, and at once showed it to us, — a slab of white marble fixed against the upper end of the central row of stone arches, with a pretty long inscription, and a profile bust, in bas-relief, of his aged countenance. The monument is placed directly over Wordsworth’s pew, and could best be seen and read from the very corner-seat where he used to sit. The pew is one of those occupying the centre of the church, and is just across the aisle from the pulpit, and is the best of all for the purpose of seeing and hearing the clergyman, and likewise as convenient as any, from its neighborhood to the altar. On the other side of the aisle, beneath the pulpit, is Lady Fleming’s pew. This and one or two others are curtained ; Wordsworth's was not. I think I can bring up his image in that corner seat of his pew — a white-headed, tall, spare man, plain in aspect — better than in any other situation. The woman said that she had known him very well, and that he had made some verses on a sister of hers. She repeated the first lines, something about a lamb ; but neither S— nor I remembered them.

On the walls of the chancel there are monuments to the Flemings, and painted escutcheons of their arms ; and along the side walls also, and on the square pillars of the row of arches, there are other monuments, generally of white marble, with the letters of the inscription blackened. On these pillars, likewise, and in many places in the walls, were hung verses from Scripture, painted on boards. At one of the doors was a poor-box, an elaborately carved little box of oak, with the date 1648, and the name of the church — St. Oswald’s — upon it. The whole interior of the edifice was plain, simple, almost to grimness,—or would have been so, only that the foolish church-wardens, orother authority, have washed it over with the same buff color with which they have overlaid the exterior. It is a pity; it lightens it up, and desecrates it horribly, especially as the woman says that there were formerly paintings on the walls, now obliterated forever. I could have stayed in the old church much longer, and could write much more about it, but there must be an end to everything. Pacing it from the farther end to the elevation before the altar, I found that it was twenty-five paces long.

On looking again at the Rothay, I find I did it some injustice ; for at the bridge, in its present swollen state, it is nearer twenty yards than twenty feet across. Its waters are very clear, and it rushes along with a speed which is delightful to see, after an acquaintance with the muddy and sluggish Avon and Learn.

Since tea, I have taken a stroll from the hotel in a different direction from usual, and passed the Swan Inn, where Scott used to go daily to get a draught of liquor when he was visiting Wordsworth, who had no wine nor other inspiriting fluid in his house. It stands directly on the wayside, a small, whitewashed house, with an addition in the rear that seems to have been built since Scott’s time. On the door is the painted sign of a swan, — and the name “Scott’s Swan Hotel.” I walked a considerable distance beyond it; but a shower coming up, I turned back, entered the inn, and, following the mistress into a snug little room, was served with a glass of bitter ale. It is a very plain and homely inn, and certainly could not have satisfied Scott’s wants, if he had required anything very farfetched or delicate in his potations. I found two Westmoreland peasants in the room with ale before them. One went away almost immediately ; but the other remained, and, entering into conversation with him, he told me that he was going to New Zealand, and expected to sail in September. I announced myself as an American, and he said that a large party had lately gone from hereabouts to America ; but he seemed not to understand that there was any distinction between Canada and the States. These people had gone to Quebec. He was a very civil, well-behaved, kindly sort of person, of a simple character, which I took to belong to the class and locality, rather than to himself individually. I could not very well understand all that he said, owing to his provincial dialect; and when he spoke to his own countrymen, or to the women of the house, I really could but just catch a word here and there. How long it takes to melt English down into a homogeneous mass ! He told me that there was a public library in Grasmere, to which he has access in common with the other inhabitants, and a reading-room connected with it, where he reads the “Times ” in the evening. There was no American smartness in his mind. When I left the house, it was showering briskly ; but the drops quite ceased, and the clouds began to break away, before I reached my hotel, and I saw the new moon over my right shoulder.

July 21. — We left Grasmere yesterday, after breakfast, it being a delightful morning, with some clouds, but the cheerfullest sunshine on great part of the mountain-sides and on ourselves. We returned, in the first place, to Ambleside, along the border of Grasmere Lake, which would be a pretty little piece of water, with its steep and highsurrounding hills, were it not that a stubborn and straight-lined stone fence, running along the eastern shore, by the roadside, quite spoils its appearance. Rydal water, though nothing can make a lake of it, looked prettier and less diminutive than at the first view ; and, in fact, I find that it is impossible to know accurately how any prospect or other thing looks until after at least a second view, which always essentially corrects the first. This, I think, is especially true in regard to objects which we have heard much about, and exercised our imagination upon ; the first view being a vain attempt to reconcile our idea with the reality, and at the second we begin to accept the thing for what it really is. Wordsworth’s situation is really a beautiful one; and Nab Scaur behind his house rises with a grand, protecting air. We passed Nab’s cottage, in which De Quincey formerly lived, and where Hartley Coleridge lived and died. It is a small, buff-tinted, plastered, stone cottage, immediately on the roadside, and originally, I should think, of a very humble class; but it now looks as if persons of taste might some time or other have sat down in it, and caused flowers to spring up about it. It is very agreeably situated, under the great, precipitous hill, and with Rydal water close at hand, on the other side of the road. An advertisement of lodgings to let was put up on this cottage.

I question whether any part of the world looks so beautiful as England — this part of England, at least —on a fine summer morning. It makes one think the more cheerfully of human life to see such a bright, universal verdure ; such sweet, rural, peaceful, flower-bordered cottages, — not cottages of gentility, but dwellings of the laboring poor; such nice villas along the roadside, so tastefully contrived for comfort and beauty, and adorned more and more, year after year, with the care and afterthought of people who mean to live in them a great while, and feel as if their children might live in them also. And so they plant trees to overshadow their walks, and train ivy and all beautiful vines up against their walls, — and thus live for the future in another sense than we Americans do. And the climate helps them out, and makes everything moist and green, and full of tender life, instead of dry and arid, as human life and vegetable life are so apt to be with us. Certainly, England can present a more attractive face than we can, even in its humbler modes ot life, — to say nothing of the beautiful lives that might be led, one would think, by the higher classes, whose gateways, with broad, smooth gravelled drives leading through them, one sees every mile or two along the road, winding into some proud seclusion. All this is passing away, and society must assume new relations ; but there is no harm in believing that there has been something very good in English life, — good for all classes, while the world was in a state out of which these forms naturally grew.