Bernard Barton

— Edward Fitzgerald’s letters to the Quaker poet, Bernard Barton, remind me of the singular manner in which I first became acquainted with Barton’s letters to Lamb, Southey, and others. About forty years ago, there was an ideal Quaker settlement three miles from Bryant’s historical home at Roslyn, Long Island. Nearly all the Friends who were wont to assemble in a barnlike meeting-house on Sunday lived in quaint, old-fashioned houses, I know not how many generations old, and wore the original Quaker dress. One of the women preachers, known in my mother’s family as Cousin Rebecca, lived on the hill overlooking Roslyn. Books and papers were scarce in her house, but next to George Fox, William Penn, and Horace Greeley, Bernard Barton was Cousin Rebecca’s hero. She not only had Barton’s Memoirs, published by his daughter Lucy (the lady who subsequently became the wife of Edward Fitzgerald), but she possessed a costly copy, bound in red morocco, of that elegant edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress about which Charles Lamb teased Barton in the letter beginning, “A splendid edition of ‘Bunyan’s Pilgrim ’! Why, the thought is enough to turn one’s moral stomach. His cockle-hat and staff transformed to a smart cock’d beaver and a jemmy cane; his amice grey to the last Regent Street cut; and his painful palmer’s pace to the modern swagger. Stop thy friend’s sacrilegious hands. . . . Perhaps you don’t know my edition what I had when a child.” For this edition Barton wrote a very beautiful sonnet, which I herewith transcribe, as it is not found in his Memoirs, and I never have seen it except in two copies of an edition reprinted in this country by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, dated 1844. One of these belonged to my relative, and the other I chanced upon in the University Library at Lawrence, Kansas. The sonnet reads as follows : —

11 O ! for one bright though momentary glance ;
Such as of old in Patmos Isle was given
To him who saw the clouds asunder riven :
And, passing all the splendour of romance,
In glory, and in ‘ pomp of circumstance : ’
The new Jerusalem come down from Heaven : —
Or the least measure of that mystic leaven,
Which blessed old Bunyan’s visionary trance !
But vain the painter’s or the poet’s skill,
That heavenly city’s glory to declare ; —
All such can furnish is a vision fair,
And gorgeous; having as its centre still,
His cross who died on Calvary’s Holy Hill;
Man’s only title to admittance there.”

Mr. R. H. Stoddard has scarcely done Bernard Barton justice. A few of the sonnets, such as those upon the Howitts and John Evelyn and the one upon Selborne (Gilbert White’s village), show much poetical insight, but the letters which Barton inspired Lamb, Edward Fitzgerald, and Southey to write are a precious legacy, which ought to save his name from oblivion. To this Quaker poet Lamb opened his heart during the melancholy mouths when Mary had to be sent to an insane asylum ; to him Fitzgerald confided his hopes and fears as to whether a painting which he had purchased was a genuine Gainsborough; and Southey wrote, July 9, 1821, the startling sentence, “So Buonaparte is now as dead as Cæsar or Alexander.” Thus much of the literary gossip and life of the early part of our century may be found in the letters written to Bernard Barton, the popular Quaker poet, who is but a name in our day to the general reader.