HERE are two portraits in my little collection, before which we will sit to-day and briefly talk together. During the past year we have, month after month, rambled on, conversing in the presence of their likenesses about Pope and Thackeray and Hawthorne and Dickens. This morning we shall hold perhaps our last session together in the “ Whispering Gallery ” ; at any rate it will be some time hence before we resume our gossiping interviews with the portraits on the walls.
This is an original picture of the poet Wordsworth, drawn in crayon a few years before he died. He went up to London on purpose to sit for it, at the request of Moxon, his publisher, and his friends in England always considered it a perfect likeness of the poet. After the head was engraved, the artist’s family disposed of the drawing, and through the watchful kindness of my dear old friend, Mary Russell Mitford, the portrait came across the Atlantic to this house. Miss Mittord said America ought to have on view such a perfect representation of the great poet, and she used all her successful influence in my behalf. So there the picture hangs for anybody’s inspection at any hour of the day.
I once made a pilgrimage to the small market-town of Hawkshead, in the valley of Esthwaite, where Wordsworth went to school in his ninth year. The thoughtful boy was lodged in the house of Dame Anne Tyson in 1788 ; and I had the good fortune to meet a lady in the village street who conducted me at once to the room which the lad occupied while he was a scholar under the Rev. William Taylor, whom he loved and venerated so much. I went into the chamber which he afterwards described in The Prelude, where he
The moon in splendor couched among the leaves
Of a tall ash, that near our cottage stood ” ;
and I visited many of the beautiful spots which tradition points out as the favorite haunts of his childhood.
It was true Lake-country weather when I knocked at Wordsworth’s cottage door, three years before he died, and found myself shaking hands with the poet at the threshold. His daughter Dora had been dead only a few months, and the sorrow that had so recently fallen upon the house was still dominant there. I thought there was something prophet-like in the tones of his voice, as well as in his whole appearance, and there was a noble tranquillity about him that almost awed one, at first, into silence. As the day was cold and wet, he proposed we should sit down together in the only room in the house where there was a fire, and he led the way to what seemed a common sitting or dining room. It was a plain apartment, the rafters visible, and no attempt at decoration noticeable. Mrs. Wordsworth sat knitting at the fireside, and she rose with a sweet expression of courtesy and welcome as we entered the apartment. As I had just left Paris, which was in a state of commotion, Wordsworth was eager in his inquiries about the state of things on the other side of the channel. As our talk ran mostly in the direction of French revolutions, he soon became eloquent and vehement, as one can easily imagine, on such a theme. There was a deep and solemn meaning in all he had to say about France, which I recall now with added interest. The subject deeply moved him, of course, and he sat looking into the fire, discoursing in a low monotone, sometimes quite forgetful that he was not alone and soliloquizing. I noticed that Mrs. Wordsworth listened as if she were hearing him speak for the first time in her life, and the work on which she was engaged lay idle in her lap, while she watched intently every movement of her husband’s face. I also was absorbed in the man and in his speech. I thought of the long years he had lived in communion with nature in that lonely but lovely region. The story of his life was familiar to me, and I sat as if under the influence of a spell. Soon he turned and plied me with questions about the prominent men in Paris whom I had recently seen and heard in the Chamber of Deputies. “ How did Guizot bear himself? What part was De Tocqueville taking in the fray ? Had I noticed George Lafayette especially?” America did not seem to concern him much, and I waited for him to introduce the subject, if he chose to do so. He seemed pleased that a youth from a far-away country should find his way to Rydal cottage to worship at the shrine of an old poet.
By and by we fell into talk about those who had been his friends and neighbors among the hills in former years. “And so,”he said, “you read Charles Lamb in America?” “Yes,” I replied, “ and love him too.” “ Do you hear that, Mary?” he eagerly inquired, turning round to Mrs. Wordsworth. “ Yes. William, and no wonder, for he was one to be loved everywhere,” she quickly answered. Then we spoke of Hazlitt, whom he ranked very high as a prose-writer; and when I quoted a fine passage from Hazlitt’s essay on Jeremy Taylor, he seemed pleased at my remembrance of it.
He asked about Inman, the American artist, who had painted his portrait, having been sent on a special mission to Rydal by Professor Henry Reed of Philadelphia, to procure the likeness. The painter’s daughter, who accompanied her father, made a marked impression on Wordsworth, and both he and his wife joined in the question, “ Are all the girls in America as pretty as she ? ” I thought it an honor Mary Inman might well be proud of to be so complimented by the old bard. In speaking of Henry Reed, his manner was affectionate and tender.
Now and then I stole a glance at the gentle lady, the poet’s wife, as she sat knitting silently by the fireside. This, then, was the Mary whom in 1802 he had brought home to be his loving companion through so many years. I could not help remembering too, as we all sat there together, that when children they had “practised reading and spelling under the same old dame at Penrith,” and that they had always been lovers. There sat the woman, now gray-haired and bent, to whom the poet had addressed those undying poems, “ She was a phantom of delight,” “ Let other bands of angels sing,” “ Yes, thou art fair,” and “ O, dearer far than life and light are dear.” I recalled, too, the “ Lines written after Thirty-six Years of Wedded Life,” commemorating her whose
And the old day was welcome as the young,
As welcome, and as beautiful, — in sooth
More beautiful, as being a thing more holy.”
When she raised her eyes to his, which I noticed she did frequently, they seemed overflowing with tenderness.
When I rose to go, for I felt that I must not intrude longer on one for whom I had such reverence, Wordsworth said, “ I must show you my library, and some tributes that have been sent to me from the friends of my verse.” His son John now came in, and we all proceeded to a large room in front of the house, containing his books. Seeing that I had an interest in such things, he seemed to take a real pleasure in showing me the presentation copies of works by distinguished authors. We read together, from many a well-worn old volume, notes in the handwriting of Coleridge and Charles Lamb. I thought he did not praise easily those whose names are indissolubly connected with his own in the history of literature. It was languid praise, at least, and I observed he hesitated for mild terms which he could apply to names almost as great as his own. I believe a duplicate of the portrait which Inman had painted for Reed hung in the room ; at any rate a picture of himself was there, and he seemed to regard it with veneration as we stood before it. As we moved about the apartment, Mrs. Wordsworth quietly followed us, and listened as eagerly as I did to everything her husband had to say. Her spare little figure flitted about noiselessly, pausing as we paused, and always walking slowly behind us as we went from object to object in the room. John Wordsworth, too, seemed deeply interested to watch and listen to his father. “ And now,” said Wordsworth, “ I must show you one of my latest presents.” Leading us up to a corner of the room, we all stood before a beautiful statuette which a young sculptor had just sent to him, illustrating a passage in “ The Excursion.” Turning to me, Wordsworth asked, “ Do you know the meaning of this figure ? ” I saw at a glance that it was
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell,”
and I quoted the lines. My memory pleased the old man ; and as we stood there in front of the figure he began to recite the whole passage from “ The Excursion,” and it sounded very grand from the poet’s own lips. He repeated some fifty lines, and I could not help thinking afterwards, when I came to hear Tennyson read his own poetry, that the younger Laureate had caught something of the strange, mysterious tone of the elder bard. It was a sort of chant, deep and earnest, which conveyed the impression that the reciter had the highest opinion of the poetry.
Although it was raining still, Wordsworth proposed to show me Lady Fleming’s grounds, and some other spots of interest near his cottage. Our walk was a wet one ; but as he did not seem incommoded by it, I was only too glad to hold the umbrella over his venerable head. As we went on, he added now and then a sonnet to the scenery, telling me precisely the circumstances under which it had been composed. It is many years since my memorable walk with the author of “The Excursion,” but I can call up his figure and the very tones of his voice so vividly that I enjoy my interview over again any time I choose. He was then nearly eighty, but he seemed hale and quite as able to walk up and down the hills as ever. He always led back the conversation that day to his own writings, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to do so. All his most celebrated poems seemed to live in his memory, and it was easy to start him off by quoting the first line of any of his pieces. Speaking of the vastness of London, he quoted the whole of his sonnet describing the great city, as seen in the morning from Westminster Bridge. When I parted with him at the foot of Rydal Hill, he gave me messages to Rogers and other friends of his whom I was to see in London. As we were shaking hands I said, “ How glad your many friends in America would be to see you on our side of the water ! ” “ Ah,” he replied, “ I shall never see your country, — that is impossible now; but ” (laying his hand on his son’s shoulder) “John shall go, please God, some day.” I watched the aged man as he went slowly up the hill, and saw him disappear through the little gate that led to his cottage door. The ode on “Intimations of Immortality” kept sounding in my brain as I came down the road, long after he had left me.
Since I sat, a little child, in “a woman’s school ” his poems had been familiar to me. Here is my first schoolbook, with a name written on the cover by dear old “ Marm Sloper,” setting forth that the owner thereof is “aged 5.” As I went musing along in Westmoreland that rainy morning, so many years ago, little figures seemed to accompany me, and childish voices filled the air as I trudged through the wet grass. My small ghostly companions seemed to carry in their little hands quaint-looking dog’s-eared books, some of them covered with cloth of various colors. None of these phantom children seemed to be over six years old. and all were bareheaded, and some of the girls wore old-fashioned pinafores. They were the schoolmates of my childhood, and many of them must have come out of their graves to run by my side that morning in Rydal. I had not thought of them for years. Little Emily R— read from her book with a chirping lisp : —
What’s the matter? What is’t that ails young Harry Gill ? ”
Mary B— began : —
Nancy C— piped up : —
‘ If there are two in heaven ? ’
The little maiden did reply,
‘ O master ! we are seven.’ ”
Among the group I seemed to recognize poor pale little Charley F—, who they told me years ago was laid in St. John’s Churchyard after they took him out of the pond, near the mill-stream, that terrible Saturday afternoon. He too read from his well-worn, greenbaize-covered book,—
“The dew was falling fast, the stars began to blink.”
Other white-headed little urchins trotted along very near me all the way, and kept saying over and over their Wordsworth ditties of “no tone” till I reached the village inn, and sat down as if in a dream of long-past years.
Two years ago I stood by Wordsworth’s grave in the churchyard at Grasmere, and my companion wove a chaplet of flowers and placed it on the headstone. Afterwards we went into the old church and sat down in the poet’s pew. “ They are all dead and gone now,” sighed the gray-headed sexton; “but I can remember when the seats used to be filled by the family from Rydal Mount. Now they are all outside there in yon grass.”
Make your best bow to that portrait, my young friend, for it is next to seeing Mary Russell Mitford herself as I first saw her, twenty-three years ago, in her geranium - planted cottage at Three-Mile Cross. She sat to John Lucas for that picture in her serene old age, and the likeness is faultless. She had proposed to herself to leave the portrait, as it was her own property, to me in her will; but as I happened to be in England during the latter part of her life, she altered her determination, and gave it to me from her own hands.
Sydney Smith said of a certain quarrelsome person, that his very face was a breach of the peace. The face of that portrait opposite to us is a very different one from Sydney’s fighter. Everything that belongs to the beauty of old age you will find recorded in that charming countenance. Serene cheerfulness most abounds, and that is aiquality as rare as it is commendable. You will observe that the dress of Miss Mitford in the picture before you is quaint and somewhat antiquated even'for the time when it was painted, but a pleasant face is never out of fashion.
An observer of how old age is neglected. in America said to me the other day, “It seems an impertinence to be alive after sixty on this side of the globe ” ; and I have often thought how much we lose by not cultivating fine old-fashioned ladies and gentlemen. Our aged relatives and friends seem to be tucked away, nowadays, into neglected corners, as though it were the correct thing to give them a long preparation for still narrower quarters. For my own part, comely and debonair old age is most attractive ; and when I see the “thick silver-white hair lying on a serious and weather-worn face, like moonlight on a stout old tower,” I have a strong tendency to lift my hat, whether I know the person or not.
As I have seen in an autumnal face.”
It was a fortunate hour for me when kind-hearted John Kenyon said, as I was leaving his hospitable door in London one summer midnight in 1847, “ You must know my friend, Miss Mitford. She lives directly on the line of your route to Oxford, and you must call with my card and make her acquaintance.” I had lately been talking with Wordsworth and Christopher North and old Samuel Rogers, but my hunger at that time to stand face to face with the distinguished persons in English literature was not satisfied. So it was during my first “ tourification” in England that I came to know Miss Mitford. The day selected for my call at her cottage door happened to be a perfect one on which to begin an acquaintance with the lady of “ Our Village.” She was then living at Three - Mile Cross, having removed there from Bertram House in 1820. The cottage where I found her was situated on the high road between Basingstoke and Reading; and the village street on which she was then living contained the public-house and several small shops near by. There was also close at hand the village pond full of ducks and geese, and I noticed several young rogues on their way to school were occupied in worrying their feathered friends. The windows of the cottage were filled with flowers, and cowslips and violets were plentifully scattered about the little garden. Miss Mitford liked to have one dog, at least, at her heels, and this day her pet seemed to be constantly under foot. I remember the room into which I was shown was sanded, and a quaint old clock behind the door was marking off the hour in small but very loud pieces. The cheerful old lady called to me from the head of the stairs to come up into her sitting-room. I sat down by the open window to converse with her, and it was pleasant to see how the village children, as they went by, stopped to bow and courtesy. One curly-headed urchin made bold to take off his well-worn cap, and wait to be recognized as “little Johnny.” “No great scholar,” said the kind-hearted old lady to me, “ but a sad rogue among our flock of geese. Only yesterday the young marauder was detected by my maid with a plump gosling stuffed halfway into his pocket! ” While she was thus discoursing of Johnny’s peccadilloes, the little fellow looked up with a knowing expression, and very soon caught in his cap a gingerbread dog, which the old lady threw to him from the window. “ I wish he loved his book as well as he relishes sweetcake,” sighed she, as the boy kicked up his heels and disappeared down the lane.
Her conversation that afternoon, full of anecdote, ran on in a perpetual flow of good-humor, and I was shocked, on looking at my watch, to find I had stayed so long, and had barely time to reach the railway-station in season to arrive at Oxford that night. We parted with the mutual determination and understanding to keep our friendship warm by correspondence, and I promised never to come to England again without finding my way to Three-Mile Cross.
During the conversation that day, Miss Mitford had many inquiries to make concerning her American friends, Miss Catherine Sedgwick, Daniel Webster, and Dr. Channing. Her voice had a peculiar ringing sweetness in it, rippling out sometimes like a beautiful chime of silver bells ; and when she told a comic story, hitting off some one of her acquaintances, she joined in with the laugh at the end with great heartiness and naïveté. When listening to anything that interested her, she had a way of coming into the narrative with “ Dear me, dear me, dear me,” three times repeated, which it was very pleasant to hear.
From that summer day our friendship continued, and during other visits to England I saw her frequently, driving about the country with her in her pony-chaise, and spending many happy hours in the new cottage which she afterwards occupied at Swallowfield. Her health had broken down years before, from too constant attendance on her invalid parents, and she was never certain of a well day. When her father died, in 1842, shamefully in debt (for he had squandered two fortunes not exactly his own, and was always one of the most improvident of men, (belonging to that class of impecunious individuals who seem to have been born insolvent), she said, “ Everybody shall be paid, if I sell the gown off my back or pledge my little pension.” And putting her shoulder to the domestic wheel, she never flagged for an instant, or gave way to despondency.
She was always cheerful, and her talk is delightful to remember. From girlhood she had known and had been intimate with most of the prominent writers of her time, and her observations and reminiscences were so shrewd and pertinent that I have scarcely known her equal.
Carlyle tells us “nothing so lifts a man from all his mean imprisonments, were it but for moments, as true admiration” ; and Miss Mitford admired to such an extent that she must have been lifted in this way nearly all her lifetime. Indeed she erred, if she erred at all, on this side, and overpraised and over-admired everything and everybody whom she regarded. When she spoke of Beranger or Dumas or Hazlitt or Holmes, she exhausted every term of worship and panegyric. Louis Napoleon was one of her most potent crazes, and I fully believe, if she had been alive during the days of his downfall, she would have died of grief. When she talked of Munden and Bannister and Fawcett and Emery, those delightful old actors for whom she had had such an exquisite relish, she said they had made comedy to her a living art full of laughter and tears. How often have I heard her describe John Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, Miss O’Neil, and Edmund Kean, as they were wont to electrify the town in her girlhood ! With what gusto she reproduced Elliston, who was one of her prime favorites, and tried to make me, through her representation of him, feel what a flavor there was in the man. Although she had been prostrated by the hard work and increasing anxieties of forty years of authorship, when I saw her she was as fresh and independent as a skylark. She was a good hater as well as a good praiser, and she left nothing worth saving in an obnoxious reputation.
She loathed mere dandies, and there were no epithets too hot for her contempts in that direction. Old beaux she heartily despised, and speaking of one whom she had known, I remember she quoted with a fine scorn this appropriate passage from Dickens: “Ancient, dandified men, those crippled invalides from the campaign of vanity, where the only powder was hair-powder, and the only bullets fancy balls.”
There was no half-way with her, and she never could have said with M. S., when a certain visitor left the room one day after a call, “ If we did not love our dear friend Mr. &emdash so much, should n’t we hate him tremendously! ” Her neighbor, John Ruskin, she thought a more eloquent prose-writer than Jeremy Taylor, and I have heard her go on in her fine way, giving preferences to certain modern poems far above the works of the great masters of song. Pascal says that “ the heart has reasons that reason does not know ” ; and Miss Mitford was a charming exemplification of this wise saying.
Her dogs and her geraniums were her great glories. She used to write me long letters about Fanchon, a dog whose personal acquaintance I had made some time before, while on a visit to her cottage. Every virtue under heaven she attributed to that canine individual; and I was obliged to allow in my return letters, that, since our planet began to spin, nothing comparable to Fanchon had ever run on four legs. I had also known Flush, the ancestor of Fanchon, intimately, and had been accustomed to hear wonderful things of that dog ; but Fanchon had graces and genius unique. Miss Mitford would have joined with Hamerton in his gratitude for canine companionship, when he says, “ I humbly thank Divine Providence for having invented dogs, and I regard that man with wondering pity who can lead a dogless life.”
Her fondness for rural life, you may well imagine, was almost unparalleled. I have often been with her among the wooded lanes of her pretty country, listening for the nightingales, and on such occasions she would discourse so eloquently of the sights and sounds about us, that her talk seemed to me “far above singing,” She had fallen in love with nature when a little child, and had studied the landscape till she knew familiarly every flower and leaf which grows on English soil. She delighted in rural vagabonds of every sort, especially in gypsies ; and as they flourished in her part of the country, she knew all their ways, and had charming stories to tell of their pranks and thievings. She called them “the commoners of nature ” ; and once I remember she pointed out to me on the road a villanous-looking youth on whom she smiled as we passed, as if he had been Virtue itself in footpad disguise. She knew all the literature of rural life, and her memory was stored with delightful eulogies of forests and meadows. When she repeated or read aloud the poetry she loved, her accents were
“ Like flowers’ voices, if they could but speak.”
She understood how to enjoy rural occupations and rural existence, and she had no patience with her friend Charles Lamb, who preferred the town. Walter Savage Landor addressed these lines to her a few months before she died, and they seem to me very perfect and lovely in their application : —
Snatch, as they pass, the linden flow’rs ;
And children leap to pluck a spray
Bent earthward, and then run away.
Park-keeper ! catch me those grave thieves
About whose frocks the fragrant leaves,
Sticking and fluttering here and there,
No false nor faltering witness bear.
“ I never view such scenes as these
In grassy meadow girt with trees,
Sits with serenely patient brow
Amid deep sufferings : none hath told
More pleasant tales to young and old.
Fondest was she of Father Thames,
But rambled to Hellenic streams ;
Nor even there could any tell
The country’s purer charms so well
As Mary Mitford.
And breathe o’er gentle breasts her worth.
Needless the task .... but should she see
One hearty wish from you and me,
A moment’s pain it may assuage, —
A rose-leaf on the couch of Age.
And Harriet Martineau pays her respects to my friend in this wise : “ Miss Mitford’s description of scenery, brutes, and human beings have such singular merit, that she may be regarded as the founder of a new style ; and if the freshness wore off with time, there was much more than a compensation in the fine spirit of resignation and cheerfulness which breathed through everything she wrote, and endeared her as a suffering friend to thousands who formerly regarded her only as a most entertaining stranger.”
What lovely drives about England I have enjoyed with Miss Mitford as my companion and guide ! We used to arrange with her trusty Sam for a day now and then in the open air. He would have everything in readiness at the appointed hour, and be at his post with that careful kind-hearted little maid, the “ hemmer of flounces,” all prepared to give the old lady a fair start on her day’s expedition. Both those excellent servants delighted to make their mistress happy, and she greatly rejoiced in their devotion and care Perhaps we had made our plans to visit Upton Court, a charming old house where Pope’s Arabella Fermor had passed many years of her married life On the way thither we would talk over “ The Rape of the Lock ” and the heroine, Belinda, who was no other than Arabella herself. Arriving on the lawn in front of the decaying mansion, we would stop in the shade of a gigantic oak, and gossip about the times of Queen Elizabeth, for it was then the old house was built, no doubt.
Once I remember Miss Mitford carried me on a pilgrimage to a grand old village church with a tower half covered with ivy. We came to it through laurel hedges, and passed on the way a magnificent cedar of Lebanon. It was a superb pile, rich in painted glass windows and carved oak ornaments. Here Miss Mitford ordered the man to stop, and turning to me with great enthusiasm said, “This is Shiplake Church, where Alfred Tennyson was married ! ” Then we rode on a little farther, and she called my attention to some of the finest wychelms I had ever seen.
Another day we drove along the valley of the Loddon, and she pointed out the Duke of Wellington’s seat of Strathfieldsaye. As our pony trotted leisurely over the charming road, she told many amusing stories of the Duke’s economical habits, and she rated him soundly for his money-saving propensities. The furniture in the house she said was a disgrace to the great man, and she described a certain old carpet that had done service so many years in the establishment that no one could tell what the original colors were.
But the mansion most dear to her in that neighborhood was the residence of her kind friends the Russells of Swallowfield Park. It is indeed a beautiful old place, full of historical and literary associations, for there Lord Clarendon wrote his story of the Great Rebellion. Miss Mitford never ceased to be thankful that her declining years were passing in the society of such neighbors as the Russells. If she were unusually ill, they were the first to know of it and come at once to her aid. Little attentions, so grateful to old age, they were always on the alert to offer ; and she frequently told me that their affectionate kindness had helped her over the dark places of life more than once, where without their succor she must have dropped by the way.
As a letter-writer, Miss Mitford has rarely been surpassed. Her “ Life, as told by herself in Letters to her Friends,” is admirably done in every particular. Few letters in the English language are superior to hers, and I think they will come to be regarded as among the choicest specimens of epistolary literature. When her friend, the Rev. William Harness, was about to collect from Miss Mitford’s correspondents, for publication, the letters she had written to them, he applied to me among others. I was obliged to withhold the correspondence for a reason that existed then ; but I am no longer restrained from printing it now. Very soon I hope to collect these letters into a volume and publish them. Miss Mitford’s first letter to me was written in 1847, and her last one came only a few weeks before she died, in 1855. I am inclined to think that her correspondence, so full of point in allusions, so full of anecdote and recollections, will be considered among her finest writings. Her criticisms, not always the wisest, were always piquant and readable. She had such a charming humor, and her style was so delightful, that her friendly notes had a relish about them quite their own. In reading some of them you will see that she overrated your kinsman as she did most of her personal friends. You will regard these letters, then, as though they were written to somebody else, and not to your unworthy old uncle. I shall have hard work to place the dates properly, for the good lady rarely took the trouble to put either month or year at the head of her paper.
She began her correspondence with me before I left England after making her acquaintance, and, true to the instincts of her kind heart, the object of her first letter was to press upon my notice the poems of a young friend of hers, and she was constantly saying good words for unfledged authors who were struggling forward to gain recognition. No one ever lent such a helping hand as she did to the young writers of her country.
The recognition which America, very early in the career of Miss Mitford, awarded her, she never forgot, and she used to say, “It takes ten years to make a literary reputation in England, but America is wiser and bolder, and dares say at once, ‘This is fine.’ ”
Sweetness of temper and brightness of mind, her never-failing characteristics, accompanied her to the last ; and she passed on in her usual cheerful and affectionate mood, her sympathies uncontracted by age, narrow fortune, and pain.
A plain substantial cross marks the spot in the old churchyard at Swallowfield, where, according to her own wish, Mary Mitford lies sleeping. It is proposed to erect a memorial in the old parish church to her memory, and her admirers in England have determined, if a sufficient sum can be raised, to build what shall be known as “ The Mitford Aisle,” to afford accommodation for the poor people who are not able to pay for seats. Several of Miss Mitford’s American friends will join in this beautiful object, and a tablet will be put up in the old church commemorating the fact that England and America united in the tribute.