Francis James Child: I

THROUGH the second half of the nineteenth century Francis James Child lived a quiet scholar’s life in Cambridge. Vast and conscientious work, old songs, dreams, and roses made up the whole of it. He had friends whom he adored, he had pupils for whom he labored faithfully and whom he sent out into the wide world with a message of devotion to ideals, of high and unfailing purpose, of faith in joy, in beauty, and in God. Such messages get no large publicity, they are not heralded with drums and trumpets; but they travel far and sink deep into the hearts that are suited to them, and they are not forgotten.

Professor Child will be chiefly remembered for his thorough, profound, and probably final work on the old English ballads. To be sure, he himself would have been the first to insist that no scholarly work could be really final; yet there are few to whom his own admirable saying, ‘Do it so it shall not have to be done again,’ would be more perfectly applicable. The immense research, not only into all possible English and Scottish sources, both oral and manuscript, but into the comparative folklore and legend of the Continental languages, was no more remarkable than the tact and unerring instinct which distinguished the true from the false and separated what was enduringly human from what was pretentiously literary. Professor Kittredge — and no man living is more competent to judge — declares that ‘as an investigator Professor Child was at once the inspiration and the despair of his disciples. Nothing could surpass the scientific exactness of his methods and the unwearied diligence with which he conducted his researches.’ Yet at the same time, what mainly touched and interested him in all the mass of archaeological fact was the human heart, ‘that universal humanity which always moved him, whenever he found it, whether in the pages of a mediaeval chronicle, or in the stammering accents of a late and vulgarly distorted ballad, or in the faces of the street boys who begged roses from his garden.’

And this vast effort of research was pursued side by side with a round of college duties which many men would have deemed sufficient occupation for an ordinary life. Correspondence was carried on with scholars all over the world. Time had to be made, had to be snatched, had to stolen. In his light and casual way he could make fun of all the labor—‘procrastination, a vice which I find by practice to be as bad as it is said to be in the copybooks’; but few men have overcome procrastination by sterner habit of routine. Above all, he understood the distinction, so difficult to make in his line of work, between a distracted over-conscientiousness, which vainly torments itself, and a frivolous disregard of exactitude. How many scholars might profit by his maxim, so simply expressed to Lowell, ‘I must not be careless, but must still less be fussy.’ For fussiness has ruined some of the best work of the world.

And it must not be supposed that great results were achieved in this case, any more than in others, without difficulties and rebuffs and failures and discouragements. There were times when things went well and times when they did not. ‘I work now every day on this matter, and sometimes am in good spirits about it and sometimes very low.’ There were the endless interruptions: interruptions of necessary duty, attended to with cheerfulness but taking time and strength; interruptions of unnecessary bores, who wasted a day with tedious chat, and dissipated precious hours when what at least seemed worthy things might have been accomplished. There was the inevitable doom, always treading on the heels of accomplishment and threatening to snatch it away: ‘I have had another panic about not living to see the end of the thing, and have been like the hermit in the desert who is running from death. The only way to get on is to work doggedly through dull and pleasant alike, and just now the work is dull.’

Also, there were the external discouragements, the flaunt of false scholarship, the blare of insincere publicity. There was the apparent trend of education away from the things of the spirit to the material, the expedient, the socalled practical, which took more account of body than of soul. To all these annoyances Child was in a sense indifferent. ‘The most grotesque distortions, spread abroad as fresh conquests of truth, by the great army [of notoriety-seekers], drew from him no more than his favorite comment, “Let the children play.”’ Yet there were moments when such things fretted and depressed.

But, on the whole, the work was full of delight, as varied as it was absorbing, and the worker asked nothing better than to give his life to it. ‘His life and his learning were one; his work was the expression of himself,’ says Professor Kittredge, admirably. There was the delight of discovery, the long, dull grind for days of slow turning over of dusty folios, and then the sudden surprise of coming across some bit of grace and freshness, some revelation of music or color, such pleasure as gleams through the comment on a Scandinavian folk-song; ‘It is a jewel that any clime might envy. ‘ There was always the keen, quick sense of humanity, the manifold sympathy with human nature, which is so often lacking to great scholarship, but which was ever-present in Child and ready at any moment to detect the natural touch under archaic disguises and the quaint stiffness of the traditional phrase.

It was this intense human instinct which made his public lectures and readings so delightful and popular. He took the old texts and put life into them as the author might have done himself. Hear what Lowell says of his reading of Chaucer: ‘He wound into the meaning of it (as Doctor Johnson says of Burke) like a serpent; or perhaps I should come nearer to it if I said that he injected the veins of the poem with his own sympathetic humor till it seemed to live again. I could see his hearers take the fun before it came, the faces lighting with the reflection of his.’

And the same fresh and natural human grace touches and colors the introductions and notes of the great edition of the Ballads and makes them alive. Songs that might seem quaint and stiff in their dialectic garb, might fail to touch and move us merely from their secular remoteness, somehow acquire vigor and vitality under his touch, seem to be dealing with scenes and persons, at any rate with passions, such as are flowing and fighting about us daily. The vast erudition involved in the scholar’s researches shows itself without a touch of pedantry, because it is not taken too seriously, is served up to us in a delicate, playful vein, which suggests at once that the caterer understood the fragility as well as the profound human truth of the eternal trifles he was dealing with.

A few illustrations here and there will hardly suffice to convey the charming tone of the whole. But how tender is the reference to ‘the beautiful fancy of plants springing from the graves of star-crossed lovers, and signifying by the intertwining of stems or leaves, or in other analogous ways, that an earthly passion has not been extinguished by death.’ How dainty is the play of whimsical humor in the comment: ‘They cast lots, and the lot falls on Annie—a result which strikes us as having more semblance of the “corrupted currents of this world” than of a pure judgment of God.’ While there is an enchanting hint of fun in the remark as to the legendary danger of kissing one’s love in hell: ‘How the lover escaped in this instance is not explained. Such things happen sometimes, but not often enough to encourage one to take the risk.’

When one appreciates this gift of apt and delicate expression, one is tempted to regret that Child did not do more original writing. The grace and wit of his letters alone would suffice to prove that he might have done far more for the world in this way than he actually did. But any desire for general literary fame was restrained by the charming innate modesty which was so conspicuous in him always and which shows in the earnest request to Lowell: ‘I wish you would alter the note [of compliment] and strike out on page 160 “who has done more,” etc, I am content to have “fittingly” remain, if you think it should, but that is quite flattery enough for me.’

He asked no more than to do his own chosen work faithfully and in a manner to gain the respect of his colleagues and the affection of those who came under his instruction. It is needless to point out that in both these points he was successful in the highest degree. Those who collaborated with him for years in the College Faculty bear unanimous testimony to his sincerity, his fidelity, his devoted industry, his self-forgetful and self-sacrificing public spirit. How touching is the tribute of Barrett Wendell to the older teacher, whose attitude toward life and literature was in many respects so different: ‘The academic leader, whose seniority alone was enough to have warranted unquestioning precedence, was not only a scholar and a teacher whose name was known wherever our language is studied, but he was also a friend on whose kindness, despite all divergency of theories and methods, they might confidently depend.’ The weary and preoccupied searcher was ready at any moment to lay aside his own pursuits and give his time and thought to helping his friends, or even those who had little claim upon him.

Child’s relations with his pupils were as cordial and as profitable as with his colleagues and fellow workers. It is true that he had little patience with indolence or indifference, and that he was prone to prick the bubble of pretentious vanity wherever he found it. No man could impose on him, and, modest and unpretentious as he was, he was quite able on occasion to assert his dignity and self-respect. How excellent is Gummere’s account of the student who began to give a pompous and rhetorical reading of Hamlet. ‘Mr. Child uncoiled himself slowly, craned out his head, lifted his spectacles, and peered, first amazed, then quizzical, then tragic at the performer. “Heavens, man— stop!’” How vivid is the story of the costly English copy of Chaucer, which was sent flying through the classroom window, because the editor had ventured to Bowdlerize the old poet’s vigorous and manly phraseology.

But there is a general agreement of all those worthy to judge as to the immense, infectious stimulus of Child’s love and enthusiasm for what was rare and beautiful. The quiet, thoughtful scholar imparted his own delight to those who were able to appreciate it, and they went forth and diffused it all over the country and all over the world. And as he was ready to inspire, so was he ready to help. He would give his time, his thought, his limited means to any student who really showed the ability, or even the disposition, to profit by them. ‘One thing may be safely asserted,’ says Professor Kittredge; ‘no university teacher was ever more beloved.’ And an old pupil puts the same thing even more strikingly: ‘His influence was more powerful, because it was subtle; and although he does not seem to be well known, I have met men in many parts of the world who immediately fell on my neck when I said I had been a pupil of “Stubby Child.”’


Nor must it be for a moment supposed that Child’s relations and connections were limited to academic surroundings and to those who had a part in his scholarly pursuits. He was a man of the world and knew the world, and all its subtle, winding ways, even while he kept himself unspotted from it. He enjoyed the diversions of men, the common, simple ones, the diversions of children, enjoyed them as a child. He enjoyed the circus, and was a frequenter of Barnum’s. He and Lowell ‘enjoyed a charming bear, who visited us at Elmwood the last time I was with him, as much as any of the other children.’

He entered with even more zest into public, serious pursuits, and perhaps was not incapable of finding them more diverting than the circuses. He threw all the ardor of his intense and sensitive nature into political thought and discussion, and his love for democracy, in the highest sense, was as eager as his love for Shakespeare and old ballads. Especially he resented wrong and cruelty and injustice. ‘When he was confronted with injury or oppression,’ says Professor Kittredge, ‘none could stand against the anger of this just man. His unselfishness did not suffer him to see offenses against himself, but wrong done to another aroused him in an instant to protesting action.’ It was this ardor which sustained his hope and enthusiasm through all the bitter years of the Civil War. In spite of his age, he himself would have fought , if physical strength had permitted it. But all that an earnest tongue and pen and unremitting effort could do to sustain the national cause was done, from the beginning to the end.

This political activity was not confined to larger issues. Child would omit his classes to go and distribute ballots at the polls. He would attend caucuses and political meetings, and speak, if necessary. He would oppose the local boss with such vehemence that friends gathered about after the meeting in dread of actual conflict. Yet the vehemence was tempered with such sincerity and fundamental human kindness that the boss walked up and offered a cigar, instead of a threat. Child accepted the cigar and lighted it from the boss’s, with the remark, ‘I can match you in all your little vices.’

The fundamental human kindness was never failing, affecting friend and foe, rich and poor, intimate and stranger, with equal warmth and equal sunny charity. He would give his time to studying needs and his limited means to relieving them. The salary of a professor hardly went further in those days than now for meeting the varied requirements of a family, for keeping up the tone of social life in a semi-urban atmosphere, and for purchasing the many books and accessories indispensable for the scholar’s wide and original research. There is no complaint of the limits; on the contrary, always a humorous acceptance of them. But one gets an occasional glimpse of how narrow they were: ‘Were it not for the pay—small as it is — I should certainly stop after the third course. I must earn eight, or ten hundreds extra for the present; but the consequences look bad—nothing else done and no real vacation.’

Yet, no matter how limited the means, there was always something for the need of those who were more limited still. All who knew Child well insist upon the amplitude of his beneficence and his constant readiness to respond to appeals for charity of all kinds. Indeed, his unfailing tenderness and sympathy made him liable to be easily imposed upon; and this would have amounted almost to a weakness, if it had not been for the sense of humor which made him the first to appreciate the comic facility with which he was taken in. Hear him tell the story of one experience: ‘That is the point of the diurnal revolution where I am, just after receiving a second call from a discharged convict, who finds it difficult to get back to a respectable career, a pretty tough problem for him and for me. Having had to do with two or three of these fellows, I am likely to have a very fair clientele. . . . It is wonderful what decent-looking fellows some of them are, by nature; or is it that I am not a connoisseur? ‘

In more normal social relations with humanity Child was generally responsive and always attractive. It is true he was by nature shy and self-effacing. One of his colleagues tells of the amusement of seeing a pompous minor official stride across the Yard, forcing everybody out of his way, while little ‘Stubby Child’ trotted along with his bag of books, turning out even for an insignificant freshman. Also, he had the busy man’s hatred of those who have no use for their time except to devour other people’s. ‘There is no escape from them. I bow my head meekly, not always so very meekly, there are maledictions when the door opens, but I yield, give forced attention, hope that they will go, see them rise with a sigh of relief, see them sit again with a sigh of despair — well, probably I have my allowance for today.’ And he had the simple, unconventional man’s — or why not say, the man’s — hatred of formality, and dinner-clothes, and t hose litt le elements of the parade of life so sacred to the feminine heart. ‘A dinner-party for six or seven (the hosts being in formal mourning, which keeps the tone agreeably low, and the movement allegro, ma non troppo) would certainly be a good thing twice a week, were I sufficiently civilized, and I think I could submit to be civilized enough, if I could go without heart-eating cares.’

But when he once submitted to the dinner-clothes, and still more, when the dinner-clothes were not required and there was informal and unushered ease, he was sure to enjoy himself, and others were sure to enjoy themselves, at any rate. There was a charm about his appearance — the shrewd, homely, kindly, responsive face, set in its frame of auburn curls. There was a charm about his soul — a kindly, homely, engaging naturalness, which put the shyest at their ease and drew wit or comprehension from the dryest and dullest. He loved children, and was a child with them and with their elders, and Howells plays delightfully upon the aptness of his name. It is really surprising how universal is the agreement among all sorts of persons as to this pervading charm, so that Henry and William James, Doctor Hale, Howells, Norton, and a dozen others repeat some such words as Lowell’s: ‘Child goes on winning all ears and all hearts.’ There was something gay and sprightly about his spirit, with all its refinement and reserve, something of the waywardness and elfishness of the old songs he so greatly loved, which sometimes showed in odd and playful freaks, as when with his three little girls he performed the ballad of ‘Young Beichan’ at a Christmas entertainment, or united with Lowell in the lyrical frolic of the ‘Pesceballo.’ And again the spirit flowed out in the infinite humor of his letters — sometimes in wild puns, worthy of the most licentious extravagance of Lamb, sometimes in rollicking exaggeration, as on the staid, conservative diversions of ancient Boston: ‘Nevertheless, in far-off Madrid, cold perhaps, shady probably, foreign altogether, even an Advertiser must have a fairly agreeable taste — the advertisements are there; some of them are new, too, but you could find India Wharf and Long Wharf, and horse-sales — don’t you like those? The horse not afraid of anything — not afraid of ——? Raciness in the Advertiser remains only in the horse columns. Have you noticed how the fellows that write fireworks ads are going out, perhaps gone out? Had Boston known what was for its peace, it would always keep the Fourth of July show for the genius that the institution fostered. It was fully equal to Sir Thomas Malory. Now a race has come that knows not Jacob — Boston is not Boston.’ Could the soul of Lamb flicker and trifle more deliciously? Let us pray that some day such letters will be published.

With this social grace and attraction, and with the deeper qualities behind it, it is unnecessary to say that Child was beloved. He was not so widely known as some, though the circle even of his intimate acquaintance was fairly large. But in that circle he is invariably spoken of with a peculiar regard. And the tenderness was amply merited by the warmth of affection which went out from him to meet it. ‘He had a moral delicacy and a richness of heart that I never saw and never expect to see equaled,’ wrote William James. Richness of heart fits exquisitely, as you feel when you read Child’s letters, with their singular wealth of overflowing, almost caressing tenderness. Love was an essential, perhaps the essential, element of felicity, in his universe. ‘I wish we could live a thousand years on this pleasant earth, under this bright sky, being happy or growing happier always. . . . Only may we have love where we go.’ And if he had tenderness for those beyond his own hearth, we can divine, though we are left mainly to divine, what he felt for those about it. How charming is his relish for the quiet evening at home, when he is free to read to those he loves Chaucer, or Don Quixote, or Dante, or the old songs which made at once the labor and the relaxation of his life. It is only the fullest appreciation of this tenderness that enables us to understand, and not misunderstand, the warmth of affection in the letters written in later years to a young girl for whom the gentle scholar cherished a peculiar fondness. ‘He always had,’ wrote Mrs. Child, ‘ from the beginning of my knowledge of him, friendships with women, at first near his own age, with whom he habitually corresponded, and whose letters came like fresh breezes from without.’ The play of humor, of melancholy, of imagination, of sympathy, in these printed letters of Child is as winning as that of sunshine upon a summer brook.


So much for the man’s outer life and relations with his fellows. The inner life is equally attractive. Of course reading played a large part in it. Not that Child appears to have been an indiscriminate and omnivorous reader: he was too industrious and conscientious a worker in his own field. But he read largely in various sorts of books, and, above all, he was passionately fond of poetry and of imaginative writing. The great English poets entered into the very tissue of the life of his spirit. Chaucer, Milton, Spenser were his daily companions, and their rich and varied splendor was so inwoven with his own mode of expression that it is often difficult to distinguish between them. ‘When the charm of poetry goes,’ he says, ‘it seems to me best not to stay. If the world is nothing but Biology and Geology, let’s get quickly to some place which is more than that.’ As for Shakespeare, the intimate affinity between them is delightful to trace. It was not merely the affection of a scholar and expounder for his theme; it was a close sympathy between two spirits which looked at the world with the same gentle tolerance, the same humorous comprehension, the same infinite love. The Shakespearean turn of phrase, even more than that of the other poets, had become so much Child’s own, that one is constantly wondering where Shakespeare ends and where Child begins.

‘I see that you are of no age, of Adam’s years,’ he writes to Lowell; and one feels that the words must be Shakespearean. Or again, ‘As she has a sweet, low voice, truth comes mended from her lips.’

In matters of abstract thought one feels something as with general reading, that Child did not make them peculiarly his business. And this was not from the defect of an intelligence large and acute enough to grapple with any philosophical problem whatsoever, but merely from love of the concrete, from simple, genial appreciation of what could be warmly touched and felt, instead of an endless groping in barren regions of unremunerative thought. He slipped away from the profounder difficulties, because he felt that the human spirit might be better occupied. ‘My thoughts have been deeply tinged with mortality all through. That means that all the questions which we can’t answer have been weighing on my mind. But if I can’t answer them, I can turn them.’ In Madame de Sévigné’s pretty phrase, ilfaut glisser sur les pensées, et ne pas les approfondir. And for such turning, a temperament like Child’s found, as did Lamb, the solution of humor exquisitely helpful — not bitter mockery, not cynical irony, but a gentle, whimsical sense of the insignificance of human effort and bustle in the face of the vast problems and difficulties of eternity. ‘I should have wreathed my thanks and my delight in some of my customary folly.’ Just as such lyrical, gracious, customary folly wreathes the delight and the wonder and the questioning of those airy creatures, the Shakespearean clowns, whom this quiet scholar loved enough perhaps to call them brothers. Touchstone and Feste also turned the great questions, because they could not and did not care to answer them.

And as with Lamb, and with these other lovely Shakespearean dream-children, the customary folly and trifling were always close to the grief of the world, its pity and its tears; were merely a relief from them, a screen from them. This remote, secluded scholar, especially as years and friends slipped away from him, felt the agony and strain of life, felt the dumb effort at adjustment in a universe of apparent distortion and incoherent, irrelevant misery. ‘My foot used to feel so firm on the earth; now I should not be surprised to see the heavens roll up as a scroll and the hollow crust we walk on vanish into thin air the next minute.’ There are even times when the depression approaches despair: ‘Yesterday I all but wished that things would cease.’

But amid these shadows the struggling spirit had always the comfort of profound religious belief, to which it clung perhaps more ardently because the basis was emotional rather than intellectual. At times this emotional element even felt the charm of Catholicism, so alluring to souls mystically and aesthetically disposed. ‘When such voices come to me, I feel as if I were all but ready to take the step. There is glamour in the recurrence which for the moment subdues rationalism and reason. There was a time when perhaps I could not have resisted the fascination, for it is a fascination, an enchantment.’ And at all times the secure foundation of God, the firm assurance of the future, offered unfailing comfort in the storms and tempests of this uncertain world.

Now this assurance manifested itself in shrewd, homely, brief phrases, as in the remark to Gummere, ‘I could send a letter of condolence to James Lowell, for I am one of those old fools who think that we go on.’ Now it flowed out in sweet and solemn amplitude, as in the letter of condolence itself: ‘It has not entered into man’s heart to conceive what is preparing, a life to which this is exile; a delight beyond all that poetry, roses, skies can give. . . . And who that is not blinded or deafened by misery or grief believes that the insubstantial pageant is to dissolve or fade? What, the man who wrote those words? Or better, the man that suffered on the cross? Or the sweet pure souls we have known?’ Now it played about the great problems with a gracious tenderness. ‘Don’t, let the poets falter, or where shall we be? Though I don’t value the philosophers very much, their talk frightens me like ghost stories. When I go back to the poets, I realize I have been fooled.’

And the line sensibility, the quick and ready response to external suggestion, showed itself in all sides of emotional life. Nature? He was prompt to seize its charm in books, he was even prompter to seize the charm in reality. The delicate, fleeting touches of natural appreciation in the old songs instantly appealed to him. Thus, he notes in one example: ‘The landscape background of the first two stanzas has often been praised, and its beauty will never pall. It may be called landscape or prelude, for both eyes and ears are addressed.’ As for the flowers and clouds and stars about him, his eyes were ever open to them, and not one of their aspects of grace and radiance was missed. The chill and loneliness of autumn had their attraction: ‘I like to go about on fallen leaves and offer the waning world my reverent sympathy. But now there is not a leaf to fall; it would be a bare, gray, chilly northeast day but for the light that comes from you.’ And the rapture of spring is welcomed with ecstasy: ‘But when squills and crocuses (not circuses, though I dote on them and they are spring pleasures) and Spring Beauty come (snow-drops have been trying to open for a fortnight), I expect to cast my slough like other reptiles and to snap my fingers at books.’

For all forms of art there is the same eager appreciation; but undoubtedly the form that appealed to him most was music. He loved it in its subtlest, most ethereal development, the string quartettes of Beethoven and Mozart. He loved it in the solemn, impressive masses of the Catholic Church. ‘If anything could carry me over, it would be the Masses. They ought to be true; they must be true to something that cannot be lightly estimated.’ And in his catalogue of the delights of this world — simple and complex alike—the music of Beethoven has its conspicuous place: ‘Ah, what a world — with roses, sunrise and sunset, Shakespeare, Beethoven, brooks, mountains, birds, maids, ballads—why can’t it last, why can’t everybody have a good share?’

It will be noted that ballads form the climax of this list of lovely things, and with what we have seen of Child’s temperament it will be understood that his love for the old songs was far more than the mere scholar’s absorption in his erudite specialty. He entered fully into their romantic, riotous atmosphere, as Scott did. He reveled in their color, their naïve, swift, simple tempests of passion and laughter. Their rude music always awoke an answering echo in his spirit. He was condemned to live in the academic, somewhat formal conventions of a New England college town, and he accepted those conventions outwardly with all due observance, no man more so. But inwardly he felt the restraint of them, felt himself cabined, cribbed, confined, and rebelled with humorous vigor and indignation. ‘ I am too much impromptu,’ he sighs. ‘I ought to live with more prevision and art.’ With what mischievous enjoyment he quotes the comment of a French friend upon the Cambridge ladies: ‘Bonnes mères de families probes,’ as Mlle. Le Clerc said of the women of Cambridge (she added, ‘mais pas un attrait’). How whimsically pathetic is his illustration of the conflict between song and word: ‘I drop my work any half an hour to go out and see if another adonis is springing or a meadow rue showing its claret-colored head. So false are fables: la cigale ayant chanté tout l’été, etc. One should work all winter to be ready to sing all summer, and sing all summer to be able to work the winter through. One or the other one must do, sing or work. I find that I cannot work if I go out under the pretense of just looking at this or that, and I hoped for a rain yesterday (not very earnestly) to keep me indoors.’

Into these staid, decorous surroundings of prosaic propriety the great loud, sweet old songs swept like a burst of wind and sunshine, and stirred the childish professorial heart to laughter and tears. How winning is Gummere’s picture of Child humorously enlarging on the idle, trivial, mirthful matter that enchanted him. ‘“Preposterous,” he said, “to have to work in such stuff, when you could have Young’s Night Thoughts or Cowper’s Task, for the asking. The impudence of the thing!” And he suddenly broke into a kind of chant, reciting the last stanza of the rollicking ballad, and ended in a burst of laughter. He was fairly “going” now, and went on, in a kind of prose parody of that highly moral strain with which Chaucer concludes the Troilus, to bewail his task of dealing with so many bandits, outlaws, roisterers, silly girls, Lord Lovels, and other chuckle-heads of tradition, setting withal a harmless little trap of quotation, as characteristic as might be. “ You remember the line, —

‘Of Jove, Apollo, of Mars, of swich canaille?’

he asked, with a sly emphasis on the last word.’

In short, the release from the tameness and monotony of daily life, which some of us find in the mystery story, he found more romantically and poetically in the primitive passions and elementary tragedy and comedy of popular song.


And then there were the roses. Child’s devotion to them seemed to grow and develop and become richer and more satisfying with the growing years. I do not know that he was a scientific botanist, though it seems as if the admiring pupil of Mrs. Ripley should have imbibed something of her enthusiasm in this direction. But he knew and loved roses as if they were intimate friends. With what complacent delight does he reel off long lists of the names of them. With what real collector’s eagerness does he indulge himself and deny himself: ‘But I have had no time all day till the afternoon, when I took to reading a rose catalogue, which resulted in my ordering more roses, which resulted in remorse, which resulted in my tearing up the order.’

No doubt the cult of roses, like other cults, had its trials and drawbacks. Incessant toil was necessary to attain perfection, toil which distracted from other things, toil which made its importunate demands just when aged limbs were stiffest and weariest; and even with the extreme of toil perfection could hardly be attained. There were the insects to combat forever. ‘Saving your presence,’ said Child to a young lady, ‘I will crush this insect.’ And the young lady answered aptly, ‘I certainly would not have my presence save him.’ While, with all the toil, and after the elimination of all the insects, there was still the eternal tragedy of decay and death. Roses, like fair women, and even sooner, must fade and perish, no matter what delight you found in them, or what pains you took to make them last. ‘You write to one from whose lips the cup of bliss has ever been dashed at the moment when he could sip — and a chalice in which floated the fennel’s bitter leaf regularly substituted; one born to be illuded and eluded in all things, even as in his simple confidence that roses at least would escape the common lot and be allowed to unfold all the charm which Nature endears them with only to baulk them and me.’

And again: ‘Much of this turbidness comes from seeing the short and perilous life of my roses. I cannot bear to witness the world’s dealing with such perfection of beauty and nobleness. It is to-day quite too utterly crushing. I wish I had nothing but dahlias to look at. For the twentieth time I repent me that I ever lived to know what roses are.’

Yet, as with all supreme and overwhelming passions, one returns to roses in spite of failure and discouragement and decay. ‘Such will say of the Rose as of Love, the grand passion I mean, that all other pleasures are not worth its pains.’ What if the beauty fades, has but a brief and transient ecstasy? Shall we not toil for it and enjoy it and adore it all the more on that account? It is such a haunting beauty, such a tantalizing and at the same time satisfying beauty! ‘When I was considerably older than you (I was once so young, et in Arcadia ego!) I could scarcely sleep for love of plants.’ Also, with this passion, as not with some others, we can compound with conscience by sharing the delight with our fellows. We can scatter beauty broadcast, we can give away roses as well as enjoy them. How charming are the stories of the poor children who used to crowd round the gate and be regaled with crimson beneficence. ‘Yesterday I gave away eight or nine noble nosegays and supplied some thirty ragamuffin children besides. There was no end to the “Ohs!” My garden was as full as the sky with stars. You ought to have seen them. There is plenty left.’

Music, love, ballads, roses! These surely weave the tissue of a charming life. ‘Superstitions? I have very few: love of women, roses (including appleblossoms), popular poetry, Shakespeare, my friends, wild flowers, trees, violin music, voilà!’ But roses seem to predominate, with their empurpling glory. One thinks of the almost mystical worship of the rose, which has haunted all the centuries, the ancients, with their blooms of Paestum and the perpetual recurrence in the Anthology, βαιὰ μὲν ἀλλὰ ῥόδα, peu de choseS meis roses, the strange allegory of the mediæval Romaunt, the sensuous hymn of Tasso and Spenser: —

So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre;
Ne more doth florish after first decay,
That earst was sought to deck both bed and bowre
Of many a Lady, and many a Paramowre!
Gather therefore the Rose whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of love whilest yet is time,
Whilest loving thou mayst loved be with equall crime;

the intenser, simple cry of Shakespeare, —

For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save Thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

And one feels that Child himself would be not unwilling to have us end with a bit of old song, which he would perhaps forgive for not being of the people, because of its roses: —

Oh, bury me under the red-rose tree.
For life was a frolicsome thing to me,
Without desire, without regret,
And what I did with it I forget.