Echoes From an Old Parsonage
Long after it was heard no more.”
THE two events of my life which I recall as supreme in felicity and triumph were associated, remotely, it may seem, but absolutely, with music. The first was when, at the age of five, I was bidden to spend the day at the house of our organist, a man of culture and a clever amateur, as has since been revealed to me, but then as fascinating a mystery — what with his Scotch burr, his somewhat florid style of fingering and pedal-playing, and certain slight eccentricities of manner— as ever imaginative child created out of scanty material, and secretly adored. Only he and his ever-surprising movements, though watched afar and furtively from the minister’s pew at the other end of the church, could have reconciled me to two services every Sunday, during which my beloved father was pilloried in that awful pulpit, “ so near and yet so far, " and obliged to go through what I regarded as not only his most uninteresting but positively ignominious rôle of preacher.
But to see the wonderful magician of the organ at home; to be able to crossquestion him (with no officious censor at hand to limit inquiry) as to why he did thus and so with his fingers and his feet and particularly with his head, and whether he really found the score written out for him, and him alone, up among the cobwebs of the ceiling when he tossed back that head so impressively in his voluntaries and interludes; and, wonder of wonders! to see those very fingers which wrought such marvels of harmony on a Sunday graciously devoted to mincing my particular beefsteak at the dinner-table, — these were exalted privileges never to be forgotten though I should live a century. The climax was reached when this wonderful host — ingrate that I am, his is the only image memory retains of all that numerous and kindly household — conjured me home by a process more novel and glorious than any fairy godmother’s cheap devices of pumpkins and mice.
The stage-coach, which at that time brought the mails and an exhilarating breath of the wonderful world without into the quiet village at even-tide, was arrested in the very height of its home spurt: its foaming horses (to my distempered fancy these could not have been fewer than six) were drawn to their haunches, and I was solemnly handed into the otherwise empty coach, commended to the distinguished care of that awful potentate enthroned upon the box, and whirled off through a mile and a half of dust and glory to the parsonage gate, where I reluctantly alighted, my little soul bursting with pride and arrogance,— in short, a changeling, whom I am told it required several days of judicious snubbing to reduce to the parsonage standard.
Triumph the second was a degree less selfish, but coming three or four years later found more material for inflation, and was even more thrilling and memorable. The occasion was the return from school of my big brother — big comparatively, but a little white-headed sage — with the first prize for English composition. His theme was The Power of Song, and the very flourish with which the caption ended was burned into my admiring soul. This thesis opened, of course, with “ An ancient writer has said, ' Let me make the ballads of a nation,’ ” etc., and went on for a sheet or two of “high argument,” in attempting to rise to the level of which, the maturest genius must “outgrabe in despair ” (with the Beaver in The Hunting of the Snark). Although this unimpeachable testimony to the reign of song in the parsonage from which this oracle emanated is not at hand, yet the recollection of how utterly exhaustive it was, so to speak, confirms my belief that the
Friend of Pleasure, Wisdom’s aid,”
was the glory of the home even as the organist, her high priest, was of the church.
As the songs to be hereafter cited are not distinctively priestly, let me state for the benefit of whom it may or may not concern that sacred melodies were not forgotten in the parsonage. The blessed old custom of singing at morning and evening prayers obtained, and the privilege of selecting a hymn for this service was often so hotly contested by the parsonlings that it required all the fabled power of music to calm our tempestuous little souls. In this emulative race my very passion for music wrought me woe. I was “a mute, inglorious” Parepa, and my earliest and favorite day-dream was of falling a happy victim to some terrible disease which should present me, at parting, with divine compensation, a voice of mighty volume and infinite melodiousness; possessed of which and clad in an imposing gown (which I distinctly remember was to he made of what is popularly known as “ bed-ticking,” Heaven only knows why!), I was to stand by my demi-god, the organist, and soar with him among the cobwebs or the stars. It happened that when the necessity of simple choice of matin or vesper song came, my particular fancies came also in such distracting throngs and persuasiveness that I and they stammered and tripped over each other in shocking discord; in the midst of which, unless tender parents came speedily to the rescue, the big brother already referred to was sure to lift up his voice in an exasperatingly superior and collected manner, and say, “ Let us sing “My God, permit me not to be,’ ” which hymn I can never hear at this day without a sensation of discomfiture and chagrin.
Our saintly little sister’s repertoire, was as limited, for when appealed to she invariably said, in “a voice that was softer than silence,” “Please sing ‘His papa’s throne,’ ” that being her version of the third line of the second stanza of Watts’s “ Lord, in the morning.” This was also a prime favorite of my own, and probably because the coercion of secular airs to devout uses was not then so common as now, there was a delicious flavor of unusualness, if not of positive naughtiness, which lent special zest to those occasions when we sang these words to the time of an innocent little song about a Modest Violet.
Almost every reader will recall similar fancies to those which invested this same hymn with peculiar charms and clung to me for years. Whenever, after early waking, I lay making narrow eyelids, in childish fashion, through which were visible those luminous circles which, although born of earthly dust, are part and parcel of the “trailing clouds of glory” with which we all come from God, I devoutly believed these heavenly motes to be simple illustrations of my little sister’s pet stanza,—
To plead for all his saints ;
Presenting at his [papa’s] throne
Their songs and their complaints ;”
and as they went trooping up, brilliant and innumerable, on either side my bed, the brightest motes were the “ songs,” and the duller tints the “ complaints.”
Each returning dawn revealed the glorious procession still climbing, climbing, climbing; and more than once came an instant of awful ecstasy, in which the child’s daring and ever-strained vision was rewarded by a blinding flash of the vanishing hem of the high priest’s garment, after whom the motes were perpetually pressing.
The Taylor sisters were, of necessity, often invoked in the parsonage’s service of song; but though profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, their Original Poems for Infant Minds were quite too didactic (with the exception of the Modest Violet, already cited, and two or three other poems) to be prime favorites with imaginative children, — full of traps and pitfalls for eager little souls whom they sought to entice into paths of wisdom by a show of rhyme and story at the beginning.
The child of to-day, for whom George MacDonald sees visions and dreams dreams, and who revels in the delicious inconsequence of the Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark, cannot conceive of poverty so abject as made their parents’ parents hail with rapture a nursery siren whose very advent-song was this grewsome homily: —
The stars with pure brilliancy shine ;
The songs of the woodland have ceased,
And still is the low of the kine.
The men from their work on the hill
Trudge homeward with pitchfork and flail;
The buzz of the hamlet is still,
And the bat flaps his wings in the gale.
Of cypress and holly and yew
That wave their black arms in the breeze
The old village church is in view.
The owl from her ivied retreat
Screams hoarse to the winds of the night ;
And the clock with its solemn repeat
Has tolled the departure of light.
When half the wide world is in bed,
And read o'er the moldering stone
That tells of the moldering dead.
And let us remember it well,
That we must as certainly die;
For us, too, may toll the sad bell,
And in the cold earth we must lie.
(Probably not, under the circumstances. Mark Tapley himself would succumb if dragged out on such a ghoulish “lark.”)
That death cannot snatch you away,
Or some dreadful accident smite.
Here he both the young and the old,
Confined in the coffin so small,
And the earth closes over them cold,
And the grave-worm devours them all.
That once o'er their bodies were spread :
Now still in the desolate tomb
Each rests his inanimate head
Their hands once so active for play,
Their lips which so merrily sung,
Now senseless and motionless lay,
And stiff is the chattering tongue.
Those things which so early must fade;
Let piety dwell in thy breast
And all of thine actions pervade.
And then when beneath the green sod
This active young body shall lie,
Thy soul shall ascend to its God
To live with the blest in the sky.”
In justice to the dear old parsonage let me solemnly affirm that its walls never echoed that song of the gentle Ann, although as I glance through the cherished old volume strains from nearly all the other “poems,” however unlyrical they may seem, come quavering back to me. Whether singing was more general than now, or whether it was an idiosyncrasy of that parsonage, I know not, but as it was, nothing in the least degree metrical entered it without speedily finding its mate in a tune, “ born ” or “ made ” for it. The Bible, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, “ Watts and Select,” and the excellent Taylors’ rhymed sermons were each and all at least intoned in our hearing.
My own experience makes me question the infallibility of the authors of the latter poems. The preface (upon which the toothsome Church-Yard, already quoted, instantly follows, after declaring that the volume is “ inscribed very affectionately to that very interesting little race, the race of children ”) reads: “ It was thought desirable to abridge every poetic freedom and figure, and even every long-syllabled word, which might give, perhaps, a false idea to our little readers, or at least make a chasm in the chain of conception. Images, which to us are so familiar that we forget their imagery, are terrible stumbling-blocks to children, who have none but literal ideas; and though it may be allowable to introduce a simple kind, which a little maternal attention will easily explain, and which may tend to excite a taste for natural and poetic beauty, everything superfluous it has been a primary endeavor to avoid.” Am I mistaken in believing that a little “ maternal ” observation on the part of these good sisters would have shown them that a child who has “ none but literal ideas ” is an anomaly, and that one who would exclude “ poetic freedoms and figures ” and “ everything superfluous ” would put our nurseries on starvation diet?
Oddly enough it happens that one of the most absurd misapprehensions of my own childhood arose from perhaps the very simplest of these laboriously pruned, “simple-kind” canticles,—a favorite morçeau, though bearing the unappetizing title of Dirty Jack.
Not very long back,”
it began, and it is only within a few years that my bewildered brain has come to understand that that specification of time, “ not very long back,” was not a cold-blooded reflection on the brevity of this fascinating little piggy-wiggy’s spinal column. He is bold, indeed, who dare affirm that anything he can possibly devise is too simple to elude or too poly-figurative to come within the grasp of one of these mysterious little estrays fresh from God, “that interesting little race, the race of children.”
A child, whose favorite lullaby at the age of two years was Ruskin’s Mont Blanc Revisited, intoned after the old parsonage fashion, has recently confessed to an unaccountable misunderstanding, several years in duration, of one of the sweetest and simplest of nursery hymns, “I think when I read that sweet story of old.” That line, “ Let the little ones come unto me,” she declares always conjured before her vision the image of a large man seated in a chair by the wayside, dressing-comb in hand, with which he was always regulating the locks of an endless procession of babies.
One of twin sisters, whose entertaining memoirs began early in the century, used to delight in relating a similar instance, in which her mate contrived to " wrest” to her own " undoing " a stanza of Pope’s Universal Prayer, which both had learned by rote. In the pillow-fights with which each happy day began, little H—noticed that, although they were equally matched in valor and dexterity, the most formidable missile at hand, namely, the bolster, was never under any provocation of opportunity or direst need used by her sister. After accepting this advantage as long as her magnanimity would allow, she at last called M—’s attention to her oversight of this superior ordnance. M— only shook her head with portentous significance. When H— insisted upon explanation, it came in a curdling whisper, heard with bated breath: “ Oh, but I don’t dare touch THAT! Don't you remember what that verse says? —
Presume thy BOLSTEA [bolts to] throw,
And deal damnation round the land
On each I judge thy foe.”
Such misconceptions, which it is safe to say none of the interesting little race escape, suggest the cheerful thought that we can never certainly divine what impressions these little souls, as ingenious as ingenuous, may be taking from our innocentest commonplaces.
But it is time that we come to those songs which are specially memorable to us, and which I have presumed to hope might be not without interest to others. Their peculiar tinge is traceable to the fact that the fountain-head of our parsonage song lay in what was and is still known distinctively as “the English neighborhood” of an old Connecticut town, where no other nationality, if one excepts a stray African now and then (invariably of royal blood), was represented at that time. Warlike and pastoral, Jacobite and anti-Jacobite, Scotch, Irish, and what not, all had an unmistakable flavor of the living spring in the beloved land across the sea. Another marked characteristic of these old songs was their long - windedness. Most of them had eight or ten stanzas, and not a few had the fascinating quality of provoking improvisation, and so were capable of indefinite extension, according to the mood of the performer. Old King Colio was of this latter class: —
He called for his women three ;
And every woman she could scold well,
A very fine Woman was she.
Gibble, gabble, gabble, do the women sing.
There never was a girl in all Scotland
So fair as my Margerinn !
He called for his harpers three ;
And every harper ho could play well,
A very fine harper was he.
Bring prong, pring prong, says the harper,
Gibble, gabble, gabble, do the women sing.
There never was a girl in all Scotland
So fair as my Margerinn ! ”
So, modestly enough, did his majesty begin; but his tertian ague grew by what it fed on, until the whole range of instrumentalists and artisans was compassed, and the inventive singer sank breathless under the overwhelming chorus which he had accumulated to himself, but which, what with its perpetual surprises and dramatic action, never palled upon his audience. After the ever-growing fury of the torrent of vociferous musicians and tradesfolk, crested always with “gibble, gabble, gabble, do the women sing,” what could be more restful and delicious and incongruous than the refrain, —
Is my Margerinn ”
An equally favorite song was of quite another character. Indeed, Old Bolter’s Mare might well be emblazoned on Mr. Bergh’s banners. The pathos of this ballad was at one time more than my heart could endure, and I invariably fled, howling, as often as “ the mare she took it unkindly, but out the door she went,” always returning, however, in time to hear the will read.
An aged relative has kindly written out from memory several more stanzas of this song than I can myself recall, but there are others still missing (notably, sundry items of the will), which possibly some reader may be able to supply. There are also evident mistakes in this version, and doubtless not a few interesting examples of the lapses to which oral tradition is liable in the wear and tear of two hundred years.
OLD BOLTER’S MARE.
He had as good a mare, sir, as ever you saw go ;
He had as good a mare, sir, as ever man did stride,
And many a hundred mile, sir, did old Bolter ride.
Sometimes he rode to London, sometimes to—
And in her youth and prime she was so nimble quick
That all the day she traveled without spur or whip.
Old Bolter and the mare fell out, he turned her out of door,
Saying, “ If you will not labor, I pray you go your way,
And come no more unto my door until your dying day.”
Thus to fulfill her master’s will, for fear she should be sent.
The hills they were high, and the valleys they were hare ;
The summer it was hot and dry, and killed old Bolter’s mare
He bade him search each valley, each valley and each hill,
To find the old mare ont and to bring her back again,
For he did long to see her and keep her from the rain.
Until the night was coming on ; he then himself bethought:
“ I will go home and rest myself and come again to-morrow,
For if I cannot find the mare, grandsire will die of sorrow.”
'T was down by old Dame Wigglesmith’s, and there the mare he spied.
He asked her how she did, she stared him in the face,
And not a word unto him spake ; she was in sorry case.
But all the labor was in vain, it was of no effect;
Old Bolter said he 'd kill her, and then the old mare spake,
“ I cannot bear it longer, my heart is like to break.
“ Unto my heirs' executors, whoever they may be :
I will bequeath my saddle, my bridle, and my bit
Unto the plodding cobbler, who has but little wit.
Unto the arbitrator, the maker of the song ;
I will bequeath my mane, and it I freely give,
Unto the arbitrator’s wife for making of a sieve.”
Now, if any naan disputes me, and says this is not true,
Why, he may go to Blackknolls where poison puddings grow ;
To Francis Bacon he may go, if he be living still,
Where he may have for fourpeuce a copy of her will.
N. B. Information is wanted in regard to the legatees, particularly of the “ arbitrator, the maker of the song;” also to the locality of fatal puddings.
In cheerful reaction from the above dirge was a recitative and chorus, of which, alas, only the opening remains.
“ The very first minute old Father Quipes heard there was a wedding upon the carpet, he ran to the chimney corner and thrust up his hand and pulled out his bagpipes, and squeezed them under his arm and struck up a little bit of a
And there was Mat
And sturdy Pat
And merry Morgan Murphy O,
And Merloch Megs,
And Sherloch Shegs,
McLaughin and Dick Durphy O ;
And then to see old Father Quipes,
And the bride’s dad, O'Bailie O,
While the chanter with his merry pipes
Struck up the lilt so gayly O !
Tiddery aye,” etc.
There was also an Irish love song which was unspeakably fascinating to ns, not so much for its vehement courtship and gentle bulls, — though these were highly appreciated, — as for its heartbreaking refrain. This song, too, we have never seen written, and doubtless the monosyllabic chorus herein given is quite astray from the original, but the incomparable tenderness of the wail into which Phelim characteristically sinks after the momentary exultation of each stanza will haunt our memories forever.
PHELIM TO HIS LOVE.
At home or abroad, or alone in the throng,
I find that my passion’s so lively and strong
That your name, though yet silent, still runs in my song.
Sing bar le mo ne ro, bar le me no ro,
o ho ho, ro ho ho, bar le mo ne ro-o,
Your sweet little finger for me !
I sleep all the day to forget half my woes ;
So strong is the passion that in my breast glows,
By Saint Patrick I fear it will burn through my clothes!
Sing bar le mo no ro, etc.,
Your lily-white hand for me !
Unless yon comply and poor Phelim will save.
Then grant the petition your lover doth crave,
For you never was silent till you made me your slave!
Sing bar le mo ne ro, etc.,
Your pretty black eye for me !
With a swinging long sword will I strut and I ’ll stride ;
With a horse and six coaches so gayly we 'll ride,
While together we walk to the church side by side !
Sing bar le mo ne ro, etc.,
Your fine English lady for me !
The Golden Days of Good Queen Bess was familiar in our ears as household words, although I am able to cite but a single stanza of the dozen which were sung: —
If I jumble together music, poetry, and history,
The times to display in the days of Queen Bess, sir,
Whose name and whose memory posterity may bless, sir!
Oh, the golden days of good Queen Bess !
Merry be the memory of good Queen Bess ! ”
Beyond this opening challenge, I recall only one example of the break-neck rhymes with which the ode abounded namely, —
In short, the Vicar of Bray himself (another of our special songs) was not more omnivorous than we in our tastes. But I dare not trespass further on your patience than to give in full one more song, which perhaps is dearest of all because it has been from generation to generation the favorite cradle song of our clan. Why, it. was only yesterday that I heard it delivered, with rollicking enjoyment and immense effect, by a precocious little four-years-old, verbatim et literatim, as her two great-grandmothers sang it over the never empty cradles in the “old English neighborhood ” before the nineteenth century was born, these song-loving sisters having received it in due succession from the homesick Roxbury exile who was the father of us all. Our beloved octogenarian himself had never seen it written, and avers that his mother, who died during his first year at Yale, sang it without text or note; and yet, when a month ago we fortunately happened upon hath music and words in Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, it was interesting to note how slight was the variation of onr traditional version, which latter I shall here give. Chappell remarks (vol. i., p. 322): “Hunting the Hare is also in the list of songs and ballads printed by William Thackeray at the Angel in Duck Lane, in the early part of the reign of Charles II., and it is in all probability the song to this tune commencing ' Songs of shepherds and rustical roundelays,’ because the tune was then popular, and the words are to be found near that time in Westminster Drollery, part second (1672), as well as afterwards in Wit and Drollery (1682).”
HUNTING THE HARE.
Formed by fancy and whistled on reeds,
Sung to solace young nymphs upon holidays,
Are too unworthy of wonderful deeds.
So sottish Silenus was sent by Dame Venus
To Phœbus the genius a song to prepare,
In phrase nicely coined and words quite refined,
How the states divine went hunting the hare.
Stars and planets that beautiful shone,
Could no longer endure that men only
Should revel in pleasure that they but looked on.
So round about horned Lucina they swarmed,
And quickly informed how minded they were,
Each god and goddess to take human bodies
As lords and as ladies to follow the hare.
While pale Proserpine sat down in her place
To light the welkin and govern the ocean,
While Dian conducted her nephews in chase.
Taught by her example their father to trample,
The Earth old and ample, they quick leave the air,
Neptune the water, and wine bibber pater,
And Mars the slaughter, to follow the hare.
Lent by the Muses by kisses and prayers;
Stern Alcides upon cloudy Caucasus
Mounted a centaur which proudly him bears ;
The postilion of the sky, light-heeled Sir Mercury,
Made the swift coursers fly fleet as the air ;
While tuneful Apollo the kennel did follow,
To whoop and to hallo boys after the hare.
Roused by Echo, new manhood did take ;
While snoring Somnus upstarted from Cimmeria,
Although for a thousand years he did not wake;
There was lame, club-footed Mulciber booted,
And Pan, too, promoted on Cory don’s mare,
Cœlus flouted, while with mirth Momus shouted,
And wise Pallas pouted, yet followed the hare.
The humor took hold of Latona the coid ;
Ceres the brown, too, and bright Cytherea,
Thalia the wanton, Bellona the bold;
While shame-faced Aurora, with witty Pandora,
And Maia with Flora did company bear,
And Juno was stated too high to be mated,
Although, sir, she hated not hunting the hare.
The Troy-born boy now presents on his knee,
While Jove to Phoebus carouses in nectar,
And Phœbus to Hermes, and Hermes to me.
Wherewith infused, I piped and mused,
In language unused their Sports to declare,
While the vast house of Jove in their bright sphere did move,
A health to all those who love hunting the hare.
The musie is given with the thought that possibly lads and lasses of to-day may enjoy practicing the vocal gymnastics requisite in order to make our text and score trip on harmoniously together. Chappell says, “ The tune is now in common use for comic songs or such as require great rapidity of utterance; but it has also been employed as a slow air. For instance, in Gay’s ballad, Opera of Achilles, 1733, it is printed in 3-4 time, and called ‘ a minuet.’ ”
Mrs. Edward Ashley Walker.