In Arden: An Idyl of the Hunting Field

THERE was hunting in Arden when Rosalind wandered through its forest glades in doublet and hose, and when lords in exile discussed the chase from the point of view of the “poor sequestered stag.” There was hunting, too, in Arden when one Christopher Sly, a tinker with aristocratic pretensions, used to call at the hostelry of Mistress Marian Hacket, “ the fat alewife of Wincot,” or Wilmcote. Even after Shakespeare’s time this particular corner of Warwickshire continued to be identified with sport, for here lived and died William Somervile, the sportsman-poet of England. The coach road from London to Birmingham passes close to the parish church of Wootton Wawen, where he rests, and the milestone at the bridge of Wootton informs us that we are exactly one hundred miles from London, two miles from Henley-in-Arden, and six miles from Stratford-on-Avon. Thus the very milestones are reminiscent of Shakespeare, and we pass English lanes with fingerposts inviting us to Warwick, Hampton Lucy, and Wilmcote, the early home of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. But though we are in the heart of Arden, our present pilgrimage is not to the great shrine at Stratford-on-Avon. An interesting minor poet of Arden claims the tribute of a more than passing reference.

William Somervile of Edstone was a fine old country gentleman all of the olden time,— something of the school of Sir Roger de Coverley, with a strong dash of Squire Western. But whereas Addison and Fielding gave us types, Somervile gave us himself. Born at Edstone Grange near Wootton in 1677, and educated at Winchester, and New College, Oxford, Somervile combined with his fox-hunting instincts the literary culture of the reign of Queen Anne. Dr. Johnson wrote of him that “he was distinguished as a poet, a gentleman, and a skilful and useful justice of the peace.” This country squire gathered about him a small coterie of local literary friends, — Shenstone, and Lord Bolingbroke’s sister, Lady Luxborough, among the number. When Joseph Addison purchased an estate in Warwickshire, Somervile wrote a poem congratulating him on his choice of a district

Distinguish’d by th’ immortal Shakespeare’s birth ;

and now

Ardenna’s groves shall boast an Addison.

He also wrote eulogies on Pope and Thomson. As the representative of one of the oldest families in England, he dispensed hospitality on a lordly scale, and in the end, in return for timely pecuniary help, he left the reversion of his estates of Edstone and Somervile-Aston in Gloucestershire to Lord Somervile, the Scottish representative of the same old Norman family. Meantime this Warwickshire squire’s poems percolated to Scotland, and Allan Ramsay, recognizing in the poet a kinsman of his patron, sent him a laudatory epistle. Somervile returns the compliment, telling him how, “near fair Avona’s silver tide,” he reads to delighted swains Ramsay’s jocund songs and rural strains. He then goes on to say what longings he has felt

to view those lofty spires,
Those domes, where fair Edina shrouds
Her towering head amid the clouds;

but that the journey was too serious an undertaking in those early eighteenth-century days. Ramsay replies by inviting him north in summertime, while “Caledonia’s hills are green,” and assures him of a welcome “To Ed’nburgh and the Land of Cakes.”

I doubt, however, whether he would have exchanged his life in Warwickshire for the northern capital, and it is a curious coincidence that among his poems there is one addressed to a Dr. Mackenzie, who had evidently worked his way into the affections of his Warwickshire patients. (His name, by the way, occurs also in Shenstone’s Letters).

But still the heart is true, the heart is Highland,

and doubtless the Scottish doctor had some thought of returning to his native land, and thus gave Somervile occasion to write a poem that was at once a graceful tribute to a beloved physician and a reflex of the poet’s own kindly soul:—

O thou, whose penetrating mind,
Whose heart benevolent and kind
Is ever present in distress,
Glad to preserve and proud to bless :
Oh ! leave not Arden’s faithful grove,
On Caledonian hills to rove ;
But hear our fond united prayer
Nor force a county to despair.

With these impressions of the man, I turn to Edstone Grange and to the poem by which he is remembered, The Chace. ’T is a pleasant country round about Edstone, and it retains many features that would be familiar to Somervile two hundred years ago. The old parish churches of the district would differ little. This, too, is a land of timbered cottages of the Elizabethan age, the spaces between the oaken beams sometimes filled in with brick and sometimes with wattles and clay like basket-work, and yet there they stand, their general effect softened by time until every gradation of color is represented on their venerable walls. Under certain atmospheric conditions they burn and glow like leaves in autumn. Where so little has changed it is unfortunate that the Edstone Grange of Somervile’s time has given place to a modern mansion with classic porticoes. But the old elms that surround the house look as if they belonged to the earlier period. There, too, close by the house, is Somervile’s brook. It still flows on as of yore, chattering merrily over its pebbly bed, with eddies here and there where one would fain east a fly in the hope of catching a trout. The trees by the brook are all old and weather-beaten, —oaks, thorns, and elms. Yonder a heron rises above the trees in Somervile’s own demesne, — descendant — who knows ? — of the noble bird that he apostrophizes so beautifully in his Field Sports, when mighty princes did not disdain to wear

Thy waving crest, the mark of high command.

On this September day there is the soughing of the east wind, a kindly, cooling east wind that is welcome. Here in this great silent park, overlooking the spot where the cattle come to the brook to drink, here is the place to turn over the pages of Somervile’s Chace. You note the date of its publication, 1735, and then you glance at his old-world preface, in which he cites ancient authorities such as Xenophon, Pliny, Oppian, Gratius, Galen, Nemesianus; and when he has thus sufficiently convinced his reader of the dignity of his subject, the old Adam bursts forth in his last paragraph.

“But I have done,” he says, — and jolly glad he was to be done, I fancy. “But I have done. I know the impatience of my brethren, when a fine day, and the concert of the kennel, invite them abroad. I shall therefore leave my reader to such diversion as he may find in the poem itself.”

And so we come to “the poem itself.” To give it a more literary flavor Somervile enters into the history of hunting and the modes of hunting abroad, for which he received the encomiums of Dr. Johnson. To-day, however, we are more interested in the poem in so far as it illustrates English sport in the eighteenth century.

First let the kennel be the huntsman’s care,
Upon some little eminence erect,
And fronting to the ruddy dawn ; its courts
On either hand wide op’ning to receive
The sun’s all-cheering beams, when mild he shines,
And gilds the mountain tops. For much the pack
(Rous’d from their dark alcoves) delight to stretch,
And bask, in his invigorating ray :
Warn’d by the streaming light and merry lark,
Forth rush the jolly clan ; with tuneful throats
They carol loud, and in grand chorus join’d
Salute the new-born day.

Apart from the poetic diction of the period, this is a pleasing picture. It is an autumn morning in Warwickshire. There has been just a touch of frost during the night; but the warm September sun soon dries up the moisture on the grass, and we seem to see the foxhounds coining out into the courts, stretching their legs and simultaneously opening wide their jaws in that long-drawn yawn that clears away the cobwebs of the night. Now we’re ready for anything, they seem to say. Breakfast first, and then — “Hark together! hark! and forrard away! ”

Somervile was a sanitarian: he believed in cleanliness, and in practical fashion points out the advantages of plenty of water. Again and again he discusses the welfare of the pack. Be kind to the dogs, is his motto; when the weather is unsuitable for hunting, he counsels the enthusiast, “Kindly spare thy sleeping pack in their warm beds of straw.” On such days he recommends his “Brethren of the Couples” to spend their precious hours in study. Somervile expects the followers of the chase to be gentlemen in every sense of the word, and he is particularly hard on the “bounders” (to use a modern expression) who sometimes haunt the hunting-field. Because a man loved horses and rode to hounds, Somervile saw no reason why sport should absorb his whole attention, to the exclusion of mental accomplishments,— culture in short, — and the work that lay to his hand.

Well-bred, polite,
Credit thy calling. See ! how mean, how low,
The bookless saunt’ring youth, proud of the skut
That dignifies his cap, his flourish’d belt,
And rusty couples jingling by his side.
Be thou of other mould ; and know that such
Transporting pleasures were by Heav’n ordain’d
Wisdom’s relief, and Virtue’s great reward.

It was a saying of Somervile’s friend Shenstone that “the world may be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think, and foxhunters.” Somervile did his best to modify this humorous estimate, if possible, by judicious blending.

But away with such sentiments and aphorisms on this fine hunting morning. Now our sportsman-poet is in the saddle. Men, horses, and dogs participate in the “ universal joy. ” The harvest is gathered in, and the contented farmer courteously levels his fences and joins in the common cry. The description of the hunt is perhaps the finest passage in the whole poem. All is life and bustle, till

The welkin rings, men, dogs, hills, rocks, and woods,
In the full concert join.

On, on they go, and well away. The hunters shout, and the clanging horns swell their sweet, winding notes. On through a village the rattling clamor rings, out into the open again, and as the hunt flies past,

The weary traveller forgets his road,
And climbs th’ adjacent hill; the ploughman leaves
Th’ nufinish’d furrow ; nor his bleating flocks
Are now the shepherd’s joy men, boys, and girls,
Desert th’ unpeopled village.

I recollect standing on such a hill on the borders of Worcestershire. Looking westward there was a great expanse of tree-fringed meadows and tree-crowned heights, until the horizon was bounded by the dim haze of the distant Malverns. As my local gossip pointed out with genuine enthusiasm, why, from this spot you can see the hunt working for “moiles an’ moiles.” So it was in Somervile’s day; so it is still. The whole village seems somehow to be well up with the hounds, for in every village there are some old peasants, enthusiastic sportsmen, who in their Warwickshire dialect will tell you which way the fox is sure to go and where he is most likely to be run to earth. And then when all is over the farmer calls the hunt to a “short repast.” He himself passes round in ample measure the homebrewed ale, while

His good old mate With choicest viands heaps the liberal board.

But the hunt is not always o’er hill and dale, or skimming with “well-breathed beagles”1 the distant Cotswolds near Somervile’s Gloucestershire estate of Somervile-Aston. The deep, sluggish streams of Arden are still the haunt of the otter, and in Book the Fourth Somervile describes an otter hunt. Just as Reynard is the terror of the farmyard, the otter is the midnight poacher of the stream. All is fish that come into his net, the ravenous pike, the perch, the yellow carp, the “insinuating” eel, and

The crimson-spotted trout, the river’s pride
And beauty of the stream.

Once more the air resounds with melody. The harmonious notes float with the stream, and the otter hounds, —

Now on firm land they range, then in the flood
They plunge tumultuous ; or thro’ reedy pools
Rustling they work their way, —

storming the otter’s citadel, some hollow trunk or spreading roots beneath the surface of the stream.

Thus passes the glorious September morning. I have long since left the brook at Edstone Grange, and the pathway now leads through the meadows to the sedgy banks of the river Alne, fringed with osiers, as Shakespeare takes care to tell us, and dotted here and there with pollard willows or giant oaks. In the middle distance stands out in relief the beautiful church of Aston Cantlow with its square embattled tower, and in front the river is glistening in the sunshine. Somervile’s sounding iambics are still ringing in my ears. But hark! surely the sound is more than imaginative. Surely that is the distant sound of a horn. A faint halloo is borne down the stream, and, yes, is not that the music of the pack ? The effect is somewhat stagey, I must admit, reading Somervile’s Chace by his own meads and streams, to the music, it would seem, of his own invisible otter hounds. Who knows who may be present amid this ghostly company ? — perhaps Rosalind! or at least Cicely! She would be sure to come over from Wilmcote with the village lads.

But it was neither imagination nor a spectral hunt after all, for here they come across the meadows, stalwart huntsmen armed with staves and dressed in the blue serge knickerbocker suit and red stockings of the otter hunt, with the otter paw or pad as a badge on their caps; and ladies, too, with their smart short skirts, — happy, healthy English gentlewomen: the women you meet on a Highland moor in August tramping the heather with their sportsmen friends: women who can throw a fly or play a salmon as skillfully as their husbands or brothers. And the dogs ? Aye! here they are, with their long ears and rough coats dripping, — serious-looking animals who gaze up into your face with such solemn, wistful eyes. It was all so strange, this sudden bustle at the mill, the al fresco luncheon in the meadow by the mill stream, and the sound of merry voices after the morning’s day-dreaming.

Luncheon over, on went the merry party, working the streams lower down the river toward Alcester. Into the distance died away the sound of the cheering voices, the huntsman’s horn, and the concert of the kennel, and all was quiet again as I turned to Wootton Wawen church. Shrines of petrified poetry, I have elsewhere called these parish churches of England. Such is Wootton Wawen. You enter a building that has been consecrated to the service of God for well-nigh a thousand years. It is true that in the history of the universe a thousand years are as one day; but a thousand years to us practically embrace the whole history of our native land. Wootton Wawen is thus not merely a pre-Reformation church, but it dates back beyond the Norman Conquest. Originally a Saxon church, with no form nor comeliness save its primitive simplicity and massiveness, it extended down through the centuries into a nave and south aisle to the west, and chancel and chantry chapel to the east. Saxon, Norman, Early English, Decorated Gothic, Perpendicular, and Flamboyant are all represented in Wootton Wawen church, until now it stands an epitome of the history of English ecclesiastical architecture.

Here is the shrine of Somervile, the poet of The Chace. Here he was buried in 1742, at the age of sixty-five. Unconsciously treading on the very blue-stone slab beneath which he lies, one steps reverently backwards to read the epitaph that he himself penned. It is written in Latin, but has been Englished thus: —

“If you see anything good in me, imitate it. If you discover anything bad, shun it with your very best endeavor. Remember that, though young, you may be on the verge of death. You must die. Trust in Christ.”

As you read these thoughtful lines, his personality seems to stand out stronger than ever. Only a minor poet whom nobody reads, the last of an ancient race, tall and fair, with that kind of aristocratic beauty of countenance such as we associate with the features of Claverhouse, but without the latter’s traditional cruelty, for a warmer-hearted man than William Somervile never breathed, — we seem to see him in his prime, the dashing horseman heading a cry of hounds, or with his spaniels starting the whirring pheasant during his morning walk. Then in later years, shadowed as he was by pecuniary difficulties, we recall his own picture of himself retiring to his old elbow chair, and in half-humorous, half-serious fashion upbraiding it for looking so spruce in its new cover, “a very beau,” confessing that in his youthful days he loved it less, but now! —

Here on thy yielding down I sit secure,
And, patiently, what Heaven has sent, endure ;
From all the futile cares of business free;
Not fond of life, but yet content to be;
Here mark the fleeting hours ; regret the past;
And seriously prepare to meet the last.

Somervile compares himself to an old pensioned sailor, secure from the buffetings of the storm, meditating alone

On his great voyage to the world unknown.

His wife had predeceased him, leaving no issue. His favorite huntsman and butler, James Boeter, died as the result of an accident in the hunting-field (and Somervile had written his epitaph), to be followed to “the world unknown ” by another old huntsman and servant, Hoitt by name.

Here Hoitt, all his sports and labours past,
Joins his loved master, Somervile, at last;
Together went they echoing fields to try,
Together now in silent dust they lie.

With such chastening thoughts and impressions the pilgrim leaves this old Saxon shrine, silently eloquent with the memories of a thousand years. After all, what was the life of the poet to this venerable building, this mother church which had nourished, it may be, generations of Somerviles for centuries before he was born ? Stately mural monuments, recumbent effigies, even the modest slabs that pave her floors, tell us that he was only one of her children. But to us so many are but names, — albeit some are honored names in England’s history,— that we give them little more than a passing glance. To us this is the shrine of Somervile, and the human interest attaching to the sportsman-poet reigns supreme.

” The Squire is proud to see his coursers strain
Or well-breath’d beagles sweep along the plain,” —
“ Warm in pursuit of foxes, and renown,
Hippolitus demands the “ sylvan crown.”
  1. The adjective is Somervile’s; and no doubt Young, the Vicar of Welwyn, in his satire, Love of Fame, refers to Somervile when he writes, —
  2. and goes on to satirize the country justice whose country wit “ shakes the clumsy bench,” and whose “ erudition is a Christmas-tale,” —