HOME LIFE OF GREAT AUTHORS.
HATTIE TYNG GRISWOLD
CHICAGO A. C. McCLURG & CO. 1902
COPYRIGHT BY A. C. MCCLURG AND CO. A.D. 1886.
The author of these sketches desires to say that they were written, not for the special student of literary biography, who is already familiar with the facts here given, but rather for those busy people who have little time for reading, yet wish to know something of the private life and personal history of their favorite authors. The sketches are not intended to be critical, or to present anything like complete biographies. They are devoted chiefly to the home life of the various authors,—which, though an instructive and fascinating study, seems commonly neglected in popular biographies.
It should be added that a few of these sketches have already appeared in print, but they have been rewritten to adapt them to their present purpose.
H. T. G.
COLUMBUS, WIS., October, 1886.
ROBERT BURNS 24
MADAME DE STAEL 34
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH 43
THOMAS DE QUINCEY 54
WALTER SCOTT 64
CHARLES LAMB 75
CHRISTOPHER NORTH 85
LORD BYRON 94
WASHINGTON IRVING 112
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT 122
RALPH WALDO EMERSON 133
THOMAS CARLYLE 142
VICTOR HUGO 150
GEORGE SAND 164
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY 177
EDWARD BULWER LYTTON 188
ALFRED TENNYSON 197
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE 207
HENRY W. LONGFELLOW 220
JOHN G. WHITTIER 238
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES 251
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL 262
ROBERT AND ELIZABETH BROWNING 274
CHARLOTTE BRONTE 286
MARGARET FULLER 302
EDGAR ALLEN POE 312
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY 322
CHARLES DICKENS 335
GEORGE ELIOT 351
CHARLES KINGSLEY 363
JOHN RUSKIN 372
Home Life of Great Authors.
In an old, many-cornered, and gloomy house at Frankfort-on-the-Main, upon the 28th of August, 1749, was born the greatest German of his day, Wolfgang Goethe. The back of the house, from the second story, commanded a very pleasant prospect over an almost immeasurable extent of gardens stretching to the walls of the city, but the house itself was gloomy, being shut in by a high wall. Over these gardens beyond the walls and ramparts of the city, stretched a long plain, where the young Wolfgang, serious and thoughtful, was wont to wander and to learn his lessons. He had the sort of superstitious dread which is usually the inheritance of children with a poetic nature, and suffered greatly in childhood from fear. He was obliged by his father, who was a stern and somewhat opinionated old man, to sleep alone, as a means of overcoming this fear; and if he tried to steal from his own bed to that of his brothers, he was frightened back by his father, who watched for him and chased him in some fantastic disguise. That this did not tend to quiet his nerves may well be imagined, and it was only through time and much suffering that he overcame his childish terrors. His mother was a gay, cheerful woman, much younger than his father, and as she was only eighteen years old when Wolfgang was born, always said that they were young together. She had married with little affection for her elderly husband, and it was in her favorite son that she found all the romance and beauty of her life. She was a woman of strong character, and presents one of the pleasantest pictures in German literature. With a warm, genial nature, full of spirit and enthusiasm, she retained to the last days of her life an ardent interest in all the things which delighted her in youth. She read much, thought much, and observed much, for one in her sphere of life, and many great people who came to know her through her son learned to value her very highly for herself alone. She corresponded long with the Duchess Amalia, and her letters were much enjoyed at the Court of Weimar. Princes and poets delighted to honor her in later life, and her son was enthusiastic in his devotion to her till the last. She comforted him through his rather fanciful and fantastic childhood as much as she could without directly interfering with the discipline of the didactic father. Goethe and his mother were both taught by this father, who considered her almost as much of a child as the boy himself. She was kept busy with writing, playing the clavichord, and singing, as well as with the study of Italian, in which the father much delighted; and the boy had grammar, and the Latin classics, and a geography in memory-verses. The boy soon got beyond his teacher, but without being well-grounded in anything, and learned, as such children are apt to do, much more from his own desultory reading than from any instruction which was given him. In the library were the beautiful Dutch editions of the Latin classics and many works relating to Roman antiquities and jurisprudence. There were also the Italian poets, and many books of travel, and many dictionaries of various languages, and encyclopaedias of science and art. Through all these the boy searched for himself, and took what was suited to his taste, astonishing the slow father very much by his readiness, and soon becoming famous in the neighborhood for his acquirements. Of course he wrote poetry from the earliest age, and of course many people predicted his future greatness. Most of all, his mother believed in him, and watched him with adoring solicitude. His love for art showed itself very early, and he made friends with artists, and visited their studios frequently when a mere boy. His father had a fondness for pictures, and had some good views of Italian scenery and art in his own house; and it was probably from him that the boy derived his earliest liking for such things. His passion for the theatre also made itself known at the earliest age, and gave him his most intense youthful pleasures.
His taste for natural science was also very strong in early childhood, and he analyzed flowers, to see how the leaves were inserted into the calyx, and plucked birds to see how the feathers were inserted in the wings, when a mere infant, as it appeared to his mother. Indeed, all the strong tastes of the man showed themselves in a decided manner in this precocious child, and his hap-hazard training allowed his genius to develop along its own natural lines in a healthy manner.
He even exhibited at a very youthful period his fatal facility for falling in love, and naturally enough, with a girl older than himself, named Gretchen. He was cured of his first passion only by finding out that the girl regarded him as a child, which filled him with great indignation. He says:—
"My judgment was convinced, and I thought I must cast her away; but her image!—her image gave me the lie as often as it again hovered before me, which indeed happened often enough.
"Nevertheless, this arrow with its barbed hooks was torn out of my heart; and the question then was, how the inward sanative power of youth could be brought to one's aid. I really put on the man; and the first thing instantly laid aside was the weeping and raving, which I now regarded as childish in the highest degree. A great stride for the better! For I had often, half the night through, given myself up to this grief with the greatest violence; so that at last, from my tears and sobbing, I came to such a point that I could scarcely swallow any longer; eating and drinking become painful to me; and my chest, which was so nearly concerned, seemed to suffer. The vexation I had constantly felt since the discovery made me banish every weakness.
"It seemed to me something frightful that I had sacrificed sleep, repose, and health for the sake of a girl who was pleased to consider me a babe, and to imagine herself, with respect to me, something very like a nurse."
Poor Goethe! but many a man since has fallen in love with a woman older than himself, and has afterward felt himself fortunate if he has been treated as Goethe was. The real unfortunates are the ones who have been for some reason encouraged in their passion, and married by these mature women while mere boys. Taking into consideration the welfare of both parties, there is scarcely a more unfortunate occurrence in life than such a marriage. Soon after this first love episode Goethe went up to Leipsic to enter the University. He was sixteen years old, well-favored by nature, even handsome, and full of sensibility and enthusiasm. But he appeared to the inhabitants of Leipsic like a being from another world, on account of the grotesqueness of his costume. His father, who was of an economical turn of mind, always bought his own cloth, and had his servants make the clothing for the family. He usually bought good but old-fashioned materials, and trimmings from some forgotten epoch in the world's history. These trimmings, of the Paleozoic period or some still remoter date, together with the unprofessional and antiquated cut of the garments, made up such a grotesque appearance that Goethe was received with undisguised mirth wherever he went in Leipsic, until he discovered what was the matter with his dress. He had not been noticed at home on this account, and he thought himself very well dressed when he first arrived in the city; but his chagrin and mortification knew no bounds when he discovered how he had been laughed at. It was not until he had visited the theatre and seen a favorite actor throw the audience into convulsions of laughter by appearing in a costume almost identical with his own, that he begun to suspect that he was ill-dressed. He went out and sacrificed his entire wardrobe, in the first tumult of his feelings, remorselessly leaving no vestige of it remaining, and supplying himself with a complete new outfit, not so ample as the old but much more satisfactory. In this act also he will find many sympathizers. Few things are recalled with more acute mortification than the outfit in which people leave their early homes, if they are in the country, and make their first visit to the city. Hundreds of men groan in spirit as they bring up before themselves the appearance they presented upon that momentous day. Comparatively few are able to do as Goethe did, and get rid of the whole vile accoutrement at one stroke. The majority are obliged, suffer as they may, to wear the obnoxious garments long after they have discovered their true character. When Goethe had clothed himself anew he was received with more favor at his boarding-house, and proceeded immediately to fall in love with the landlady's daughter. The thought of Gretchen was buried away out of sight, and the thought of Annette filled his whole heart. This Annette was young, handsome, sprightly, loving, and agreeable, and he saw her daily in the most unrestrained manner.
He says of her:—
"But since such connections, the more innocent they are, afford the less variety in the long run, I was seized with that wicked distemper which seduces us to derive amusement from the torment of a beloved one, and to domineer over a girl's devotedness with wanton and tyrannical caprice. By unfounded and absurd fits of jealousy I destroyed our most delightful days, both for myself and her. She endured it for a time with incredible patience, which I was cruel enough to try to its utmost. But to my shame and despair, I was at last forced to remark that her heart was alienated from me, and that I might now have good ground for the madness in which I had indulged without necessity and without cause. There were terrible scenes between us, in which I gained nothing; and I then first felt that I had truly loved her, and could not bear to lose her. My passion grew and assumed all the forms of which it is capable under the circumstances; nay, I at last took up the role which the girl had hitherto played. I sought everything possible in order to be agreeable to her, even to procure her pleasure by means of others; for I could not renounce the hope of winning her again. But it was too late. I had lost her really; and the frenzy with which I revenged my fault upon myself, by assaulting in various frantic ways my physical nature, in order to inflict some hurt on my moral nature, contributed very much to the bodily maladies under which I lost some of the best years of my life: indeed, I should perchance have been completely ruined by this loss, had not my poetic talent here shown itself particularly helpful with its healing power."
His next adventure was with the daughters of his dancing-master, both of whom seemed inclined to draw unwarranted conclusions from the freedom of his intercourse with them. The closing scene of this little drama must be given in Goethe's own words:—
"Emilia was silent, and had sat down by her sister, who became constantly more and more excited in her discourse, and let certain private matters slip out which it was not exactly proper for me to know. Emilia, on the other hand, who was trying to pacify her sister, made me a sign from behind to withdraw; but as jealousy and suspicion see with a thousand eyes, Lucinda seemed to have noticed this also. She sprang up and advanced to me, but not with vehemence. She stood before me and seemed to be thinking of something. Then she said, 'I know that I have lost you; I make no further pretensions to you. But neither shall you have him, sister.' So saying, she took a thorough hold of my head, thrusting both her hands into my locks and pressing my face to hers, and kissed me repeatedly on the mouth. 'Now,' cried she, 'fear my curse! Woe upon woe, for ever and ever, to her who kisses these lips for the first time after me! Dare to have anything more to do with him! I know Heaven hears me this time. And you, sir, hasten now, hasten away as fast as you can.' I flew down the stairs, with a firm determination never again to enter the house."
This conclusion, though doubtless very trying to an ardent young man who enjoyed the adoration of women, seems to have been an eminently wise one under the circumstances, and we believe the resolve was faithfully kept. The dramatic Lucinda appears no more in his reminiscences.
Quite different was the next occupant of his heart. Frederika was the daughter of a country clergyman whom Goethe was taken to visit by his friend Weyland. The hospitality and agreeableness of the family had been highly praised by this friend, also the beauty and charms of the daughters. And indeed this Frederika does seem to have been a most beautiful and charming girl. Goethe constantly compares the family to that of the Vicar of Wakefield, and the daughters to Olivia and Sophia. The affection which Goethe conceived for this beautiful and innocent maiden was one of the strongest and most enduring of his life, and even on into old age he was fond of talking of her and their youthful romance. Why he ever left Frederika at all has never been made clear, for it is plain that at last he truly loved,—the other passions being mere boyish episodes, soon forgotten, while this one exerted a lasting influence upon his life. He writes:—
"Frederika's answer to my farewell letter rent my heart. It was the same hand, the same tone of thought, the same feeling, which had formed itself for me and by me. I now for the first time felt the loss which she suffered, and saw no means to supply it, or even to alleviate it. She was completely present to me; I always felt that she was wanting to me; and what was worst of all, I could not forgive myself for my own misfortune. Gretchen had been taken away from me, Annette had left me; now for the first time I was guilty. I had wounded the most lovely heart to its very depths; and the period of a gloomy repentance, with the absence of a refreshing love to which I had grown accustomed, was most agonizing, nay, insupportable."
Even after eight years he revisits Frederika, with much of the old feeling still alive, although he had in the mean time had at least two new loves. One of these was the Charlotte immortalized in "Werther." She was already engaged when he made her acquaintance, but this did not preclude the possibility of his devoting himself assiduously to her, and her betrothed seems to have laid no obstacles in the way. She was married in due time, and read "Werther" after its publication, not seeming to object to the part she is there made to play. She retained her friendship for Goethe throughout life; and to her husband the poet wrote many, many years after: "God bless you, dear Kustner, and tell Lottie that I often believe I can forget her, but then I have a relapse, and it is worse with me than ever."
Immediately following his infatuation with Lottie came the connection with Lili, which reconciled him to Lottie's marriage. It was of Lottie that he said, in the language of "The New Heloise," "And sitting at the feet of his beloved, he will break hemp; and he will wish to break hemp to-day, to-morrow, and the day after,—nay, for his whole life." Whether he would have been as willing to break hemp with Lili we are not told; but he wrote a great deal of poetry addressed to her,—more perhaps than to any of his other loves,—much of which he reproduces in the "Autobiography."
"Heart, my heart, oh, what hath changed thee? What doth weigh on thee so sore? What hath thus from me estranged thee, That I know thee now no more? Gone is all which once seemed dearest, Gone the care which once was nearest, Gone thy toils and tranquil bliss! Ah! how could'st thou come to this?
"Does that bloom, so fresh and youthful, That divine and lovely form, That sweet look, so good and truthful, Bind thee with unbounded charm? If I swear no more to see her, If I man myself to flee her, Soon I find my efforts vain, Back to her I'm led again."
But even this love affair, which went as far as a betrothal, came to nothing,—Goethe drawing back at the last through a pretended or real fear that he could not support the lady in the style she had been accustomed to; though it is more reasonable to believe that his usual repugnance to marriage overcame all the fervor of his love, and made him feel a real relief when the whole affair was over. This was just previous to his removal to Weimar at the invitation of Carl August, and it was there that the remainder of his life-drama was enacted.
Soon after his arrival there he made the acquaintance of the Frau Von Stein. She was the wife of the Master of Horse at Weimar, and Goethe, who had now passed thirty years of age, for the first time loved a mature woman. She was the mother of seven children and was thirty-three years old. With moral deficiencies which were securely covered up, she was a thoroughly charming woman, and retained her charm even to old age. She was said to have remarked when asked if she would be presented to Goethe, "With all my heart. I have heard as much about him as I ever did about Heaven, and I feel a deal more curiosity about him." She completely ensnared his heart, and held it in undisputed sway for more than ten years; which, considering his proverbial inconstancy, speaks very highly for her charms.
The connection was well known and perfectly understood at Weimar, and appears to have caused no scandal. The love on Goethe's part seemed to have begun even before seeing her; as it is recorded that at Pyrmont he first saw her portrait, and was three nights sleepless in consequence. And when he came to see her, instead of a raw girl such as he had hitherto fancied, he found an elegant woman of the world, whose culture and experience had a singular fascination for him, tired as he was of immaturity and overfondness. She sang well, played well, sketched well, talked well, and showed her appreciation of the poet, not like a gushing girl, but with the delicate tact of a woman of the world. Some years after her first acquaintance with Goethe, Schiller thus writes to his friend Koerner:—
"She is really a genuinely interesting person, and I quite understand what has attached Goethe to her. Beautiful she can never have been, but her countenance has a soft earnestness and a quite peculiar openness. A healthy understanding, truth, and feeling lie in her nature. She has more than a thousand letters from Goethe, and from Italy he writes her every week. They say the connection is perfectly pure and blameless."
Even before he went away from Weimar at all, the letters were incessant, often trivial, and sometimes made up of homely details of eating and drinking, but loving always. The reader who remembers Charlotte cutting bread and butter will not be shocked at the poet eloquently begging his true love to send him a sausage. All the years of his life in the Gartenhaus are intimately associated with her. The whole spot speaks of her. She was doubtless the grand passion of his life. But even this wore itself out, and after his absence in Italy he never seemed to feel the full ardor of his former love. He returned to Weimar still grateful to her for the happiness she had given, still feeling for her a sincere affection, but retaining little of the passion which for ten years she had inspired. The feeling seemed to have died a natural death. It is not recorded that she had ever really shared his fervor, but she greatly resented his defection, and considered him ungrateful and disloyal to the end.
It was about this time that he first made the acquaintance of Christine Vulpius, who afterwards became his wife. She was the daughter of one of those men whose drunkenness slowly but surely brings a whole family to want. She was at this time very young. He thought her beautiful, and, although uneducated, she had a quick wit, a lively spirit, a loving heart, and great aptitude for domestic duties. She had no social position, and is often spoken of as his servant. Although never really occupying that position, her standing was not much above that plane. She fascinated Goethe as so many young faces had done before, and it seemed to be a thraldom of the mind as well as of the senses. There are few poems in any language which approach the passionate gratitude of those in which he recalls the happiness she gave him.
George Henry Lewes in his life of the poet has this passage, which will be read with peculiar interest, considering his own relations with the highest genius of her day, George Eliot. He says:—
"Why did he not marry her at once? His dread of marriage has already been shown; and to this abstract dread must be added the great disparity of station,—a disparity so great that it not only made the liaison scandalous, but made Christine herself reject the offer of marriage. There are persons now living who have heard her declare that it was her own fault that the marriage was so long delayed. And certain it is that when she bore him a child, he took her, with her mother and sister, to live in his house, and always regarded the connection as marriage. But, however he may have regarded it, public opinion has not forgiven this defiance of its social laws. The world blamed him loudly; even his admirers cannot think of the connection without pain. But let us be just. While no one can refrain from deploring that Goethe, so eminently needing a pure domestic life, should not have found a wife whom he could avow, no one who knows the circumstances can refrain from confessing that there is also a bright light to this dark episode."
He goes on to say:—
"The judgments of men are curious. No action in Goethe's life has excited more scandal than his final marriage with Christine. It is thought disgraceful enough for him to have taken her into his home, but for the great poet to actually complete such an enormity as to crown his connection with her by marriage was, indeed, more than society could tolerate. I have already expressed my opinion of this unfortunate connection, but I most emphatically declare my belief that the redeeming point in it is precisely this which caused the scandal. Better far had there been no connection at all; but if it was to be, the nearer it approached real marriage, and the further it was removed from a fugitive indulgence, the more moral and healthy it became."
He was in his fifty-eighth year when he married her. She had changed much in the passing years. From the bright, lively, pleasure-loving girl, she had grown into a coarse and almost repulsive woman. Her father, as we know, had ruined himself by intemperance, her brother also, and she herself had not escaped the fatal appetite. She was not restrained by the checks which refined society imposes, for in Weimar she had no society, and as the years went by she became openly and shamelessly given over to intemperance. This tragedy in Goethe's life would have been little suspected by those who saw how calmly he bore himself in public. The mere mention of the fact, however, tells its own tale of humiliation and woe. It is often asked why Goethe did not part from her at once. In answer we might ask, Why do not all the noble and right-principled women who wear out wretched lives as drunkards' wives part at once from their debauched husbands? The answer would no doubt be similar in the two cases. He was too weak to alter his position, he was strong enough to bear it. And he did bear it to the bitter end. And when that end came he mourned for her with sincere affection. Says Lewes:—
"She who had for twenty-eight years loved and aided him; who, whatever her faults, had been to him what no other woman had been, could not be taken from him without his feeling her loss. His self-mastery was utterly shaken. He knelt by her bedside, taking her cold hands in his, and exclaiming, 'Thou wilt not forsake me, thou must not forsake me,' and sobbing aloud. He had been to her the most tender of devoted husbands throughout all those weary years."
Many accounts of her vulgarity and repulsiveness have been circulated; but in making up our estimate of her, the fact that she held Goethe in loyal bonds for eight and twenty years must not be passed over lightly. Fickle as he was in youth, and admiring as he did brilliant women in his manhood, Christine Vulpius must have had charms, and not of a light order, to have held him thus her willing slave. No mere fat and vulgar Frau without mind or sensibility could have done this. It is not in the nature of things. We often see men of brilliant minds in our own day choosing to marry women who are not intellectual or cultured,—women who have only beauty, or style and social elegance; but they are women who have some charm, and if the charm remains, the attraction holds indefinitely. But sad indeed is the case of the man of mind who has married a mere doll, and who, when youth has flown, finds he has a wife who is not capable of being companion or friend to him. Many a man holds himself steadfast to duty under these circumstances through a long life, but if the woman whom his maturity would have chosen—the sweet, companionable woman, with a mind that can sympathize with and appreciate his own—chances to dawn upon him, too late, there is apt to be a struggle which is long and hard.
Indeed, it is never the part of wisdom for the intellectual man or woman to marry one who is consciously an inferior. He or she who does this makes a high bid for an unhappy life. As regards Christine Vulpius, it is certain that, although not an intellectual woman, she was not without some taste for pursuits in consonance with those of Goethe. It was for her that he wrote the "Metamorphoses of Plants," and in her company he pursued his optical and botanical researches. Had she shown no comprehension of these things, assuredly Goethe would never have persisted in instructing her in them. It was for her, too, that he wrote the "Roman Elegies," which shows that he did not esteem her a mere drudge.
Whatever may be our general estimate of Goethe's character, it will certainly be conceded that he showed great capacity for domestic love and domestic happiness in continuing loyal for so many years to one who degraded herself as did Christine. He certainly cannot be counted among the sons of genius with whom it is found difficult, almost impossible even, to live. Rather must we rank him high among those genial and warm-hearted men who love too much, rather than too little, and who are easily led by the women to whom they give their devotion. Irregular and faulty, even immoral as he was, he yet possessed the redeeming domestic virtues in a large degree. Away beyond his seventieth year we find women still madly loving him, and him capable of reciprocating their affections. And well was it that this should be so, for otherwise he would have stood alone and friendless. One by one the companions of his youth and his manhood were taken from him, until, upon the death of Carl August, he could truthfully exclaim, "Nothing now remains." It was well that the end drew near.
When one can say, "Nothing now remains," it is surely time for the angel with the brazen trumpet to proclaim, "For him let time be no more."
Lightly let the silver cord be loosed and the golden bowl broken, rather than that the lonely life linger on, with its eyes fixed only on the past, which has become but a dim mirage where ghostly figures are seen walking but from which all warmth and light have fled. Happy indeed is he who, when the allotted years have been passed, and he lingers waiting on the stage for the signal which shall cause the curtain to fall forever on his little life drama, has something which to him is real and tangible to look forward to in the near future. The bitterness of a lingering death must be in all old age without this hope.
Let us trust that after that last low cry of Goethe for "more light," the morning dawned upon the great intellect and great heart which had been watching for it so long. Let us hope, also, that the world may yet learn to see him as did Emerson, who found him "a piece of pure nature, like an oak or an apple, large as morning or night, and virtuous as a brier-rose."
"Oh, ye wha are sae guid yoursel', Sae pious and sae holy, Ye've nought to do but mark and tell Your neebors' fauts and folly,— Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill, Supplied wi' store o' water, The heaped happer's ebbing still, And still the clap plays clatter,—
"Hear me, ye venerable core, As counsel for poor mortals, That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door For glaikit Folly's portals! I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes, Would here propone defences, Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes, Their failings and mischances."
Alas for it! we must all say, in dwelling upon the life of poor Burns, that he so frequently needed to appear as counsel for poor mortals—in his own behoof; and that "their donsie tricks, their black mistakes, their failings and mischances" should form so large a portion of the record of that life, which under other circumstances might have been one of the most brilliant and beautiful of all in the annals of genius. For Burns, although born to such a lowly life, and having in his youth so few advantages of education or general culture, might by sheer force of genius have attained as proud a position as any man of his time, had he but learned to rule over himself in his youth, and not given full rein to those passions which his "veins convulsed," and which "still eternal galloped."
Could he but have governed himself—
"When social life and glee sat down All joyous and unthinking, Till, quite transmogrify'd, they've grown Debauchery and drinking,"—
there would have been a far different story to have told of the life of Robert Burns.
What ripe fruits of his genius we might have had, had he not burned out the torch of that brilliant intellect at the early age of thirty-eight. What poems he might have written—he who did immortal work with all his drawbacks—had he kept his brain clear and his life sweet even for the short span of life allotted him! How high might he have soared in the years which he might have hoped from life, had he but moved at a slower pace, in those reckless years, the record of which is so painful to the great world of admiring and pitying friends, who cherish his memory so tenderly. Yet there is in his case everything to mitigate a severe judgment upon his youthful follies; and the great world has always judged him leniently, knowing the story of his early life, and the temptations which at that day must have surrounded a youth of his temperament among the peasants of Scotland. Of the strength of those temptations we probably can form but a slight idea.
"What's done we partly may compute, But know not what's resisted."
And surely, there must have been much that was worthy of honor and esteem, even of reverence, in the heart of the man, to have brought the whole world to his feet, in spite of the faults and follies to which we allude in passing, but upon which we have no disposition to dwell. As a friendly hand long ago wrote, after visiting his poor, mean home and his unhonored burial place:—
"We listened readily enough to this paltry gossip, but found that it robbed the poet's memory of some of the reverence that was its due. Indeed, this talk over his grave had very much the same effect as the home-scene of his life, which we had been visiting just previously. Beholding his poor, mean dwelling and its surroundings, and picturing his outward life and earthly manifestations from these, one does not so much wonder that the people of that day should have failed to recognize all that was admirable and immortal in a disreputable, drunken, shabbily-clothed, and shabbily-housed man, consorting with associates of damaged character, and as his only ostensible occupation gauging the whiskey which he too often tasted. Siding with Burns, as we needs must, in his plea against the world, let us try to do the world a little justice too. It is far easier to know and honor a poet when his fame has taken shape in the spotlessness of marble, than when the actual man comes staggering before you, besmeared with the sordid stains of his daily life. For my part, I chiefly wonder that his recognition dawned as brightly as it did while he was still living. There must have been something very grand in his immediate presence, some strangely impressive characteristic in his natural behavior, to have caused him to seem like a demigod so soon."
To do even faintest justice to the memory of the poet, we must go to Ayr, and look upon the humble cottage which was his birthplace. It consisted of but two small rooms paved with flag-stones, and with but one window of four small panes, while the thatched roof formed the only ceiling. The whole place is inconceivably small for the dwelling of a family, for there is not even an attic-room, or any other spot where children could have been hidden away. In such a hut as this it is hard to conceive of a family being reared in purity and delicacy, even though the parents should have done their best by their children, and been, like the father of Burns, prudent and well-disposed.
This housing of the poor is of immense moral significance in all cases; and it is growing to be a recognized fact that no help which can be rendered them is of much avail, when they are left in these little, one or two room dwellings.
There were seven children in the Burns household, and during the childhood of Robert the family were very poor; and he and his brother were expected to do the work of men, at the age of thirteen. He had some schooling before that age, and must have improved his time, for he could read and spell well, and had some knowledge of English grammar.
Near by the cottage flows the beautiful Bonny Doon, through deep wooded banks, and across it is an ancient ivy-covered bridge with a high arch, making a very picturesque object in the landscape, which is one of great loveliness. Kirk Alloway is not far away,—the smallest church that ever filled so large a place in the imagination of the world. The one-mullioned window in the eastern gable might have been seen by Tam O'Shanter blazing with devilish light as he approached it along the road from Ayr, and there is a small square one on the side next the road; there is also an odd kind of belfry, almost the smallest ever made, with a little bell in it,—and this is all. But no grand and storied cathedral pile in all Europe is better known, and to no shrine of famous minster do more pilgrims journey than to this wee kirk immortalized by the pen of Burns.
The father of Burns has been thus described by one who knew him well:—
"He was a tender and affectionate father; he took pleasure in leading his children in the path of virtue, not in driving them as some parents do to the performance of duties to which they are themselves averse. He took care to find fault but seldom; and therefore when he did rebuke, he was listened to with a kind of reverential awe. A look of disapprobation was felt; a reproof was severely so; and a stripe even on the skirt of the coat, gave heartfelt pain."
He was, indeed, a frugal, industrious, and good man, and his wife seems to have been a woman of good report; so that the little group of children, in spite of their poverty, were really happily situated in life, compared with many of their neighbors. There was always a tinge of melancholy in Robert's disposition, however, and in his earliest youth he used to embody it in verse. The sensibility of genius was his by birthright, and the depressions and exaltations of spirit which marked his later life began at a very early day. He himself describes his earliest years thus:—
"I was by no means a favorite with anybody. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn, sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic, idiot piety."
Again he says:—
"This kind of life—the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing toil of a galley-slave—brought me to my sixteenth year; a little before which period I first committed the sin of rhyme."
It was at this time that he first fell in love, and it may be added that after this he was never out of that interesting state. He says:—
"My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language; but you know the Scottish idiom,—she was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me into that delicious passion, which in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys, our dearest blessing here below! I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her when returning in the evening from our labors; why the tones of her voice made my heartstrings thrill like an AEolian harp; and particularly, why my pulse beat such a furious rattan, when I looked and fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Thus with me began love and poetry, which at times have been my only, and till within the last twelve months, have been my highest enjoyment."
To a later period than this belongs the episode of Highland Mary, of which the
"Banks and braes and streams around The castle of Montgomery"
still whisper to the lovers of Burns, as they keep a solemn tryst with old-time recollections there.
"How sweetly bloomed the gay green birk, How rich the hawthorn's blossom, As underneath their fragrant shade I clasped her to my bosom! The golden hours on angel wings Flew o'er me and my dearie; For dear to me as light and life Was my sweet Highland Mary."
It was the sweetest and tenderest romance of his life; and it is with unbidden tears that the world still remembers that there
"fell death's untimely frost, That nipt my flower sae early! Now green's the sod and cauld's the clay That wraps my Highland Mary."
After a hundred years there are still hearts that take a tender interest in poor Mary's fate, and that feel for poor Robbie as he wrote:—
"Oh, pale, pale now those rosy lips I aft hae kissed sae fondly, And closed for aye the sparkling glance That dwelt on me sae kindly! And mouldering now in silent dust That heart that lo'ed me dearly! But still within my bosom's core Shall live my Highland Mary."
In the monument to Burns, near his old home, are deposited the two volumes of the little pocket Bible which Burns gave to Mary when they pledged their faith to one another. It is poorly printed on coarse paper. A verse of Scripture is written within each cover by the poet's hand, and fastened within is a lock of Mary's golden hair. It is fitting that some memorial of her should find a place in that splendid monument which the Scottish people erected to his memory, after his life of poverty and sorrow had been brought to an untimely end.
Burns in his twenty-third year took the farm at Mossgiel, where he first became acquainted with Jane Armour. This lady was the daughter of a respectable mason in the village of Mauchline, where she was the reigning beauty and belle. It was almost love at first sight upon the part of both, and a close intimacy soon sprung up between them. Burns was very handsome at this time, gay and fascinating in manners, and a more experienced and highly-placed woman than Jane Armour might have been excused for loving the wild young poet. For wild he undoubtedly was, even at this time,—so much so that her parents objected to the friendship. He was nearly six feet high, with a robust yet agile frame, a finely formed head, and an uncommmonly interesting countenance. His eyes were large, dark, and full of ardor and animation. His conversation was full of wit and humor. He was very proud, and would be under pecuniary obligation to no one. He was also very generous with his own money. Of the first five hundred pounds which he received for his poems, he immediately gave two hundred to his brother Gilbert to help toward the support of their mother; and he was always as ready to share whatever sum he had with those he loved.
The consequences of the intimacy between the poet and Jane Armour were soon such as could not be concealed, and the farm having been a disastrous speculation in the hands of Burns, he was not in a situation to marry, although extremely anxious to do so. It was therefore agreed upon between them that he should give her a written acknowledgment of marriage, and then sail for Jamaica, and push his fortunes there. This arrangement, however, did not suit the lady's father, who had a very poor opinion of Burns's general character, and he prevailed upon Jane to destroy this document. Under these circumstances she became the mother of twins, and great scandal followed Burns even to Edinburgh, where he had been induced to stop instead of sailing for Jamaica. But his poems, which he succeeded in publishing at this time, gave him a name and some money, and he returned to Mossgiel, and getting her father to consent, married Jane, and moved on to a farm six miles from Dumfries. He had become a lion, and the tables of the neighboring gentry were soon open to him, as the houses of the great had been in Edinburgh. Those were the days of conviviality, and Burns took his part in the hilarity of the table, soon with very direful consequences to himself and his family. He made many resolutions of amendment; but temperance was a very rare virtue in those days, and Burns, who could not bear it, was expected to drink just as much as those who could bear it, and who could afford it. His genius suffered from this irregular life, and in a little while he was not capable of doing justice to himself in his writings; but he continued to be good company at table, and to be invited with the local magnates, long after he had become a confirmed drunkard. The farm was given up, and he soon depended entirely upon his seventy pounds a year, the pay of an exciseman. He felt his degradation very deeply, and had fearful struggles with his temptation, but was always overborne. The horrible sufferings of genius in such thraldom have never been adequately represented, nor indeed can they ever be. When the will has become so enfeebled that no real resistance can be made, while yet pride and kind-heartedness survive, the agony of such a man is appalling. He loves his family, he knows better than any other all they suffer for his sake; he determines a thousand times to reform, only to find himself powerless to do so. He strives with more than the heroism of a martyr many times, but he is beaten. We often blame him for his defeat, but there comes a time to such a man when defeat is inevitable. Happy he who makes his manful struggle while there is yet time. Poor Burns, alas, did not. He went from bad to worse, while his wife and five small children suffered as the families of such men always suffer. From October, 1795, to the January following, an accident confined him to his house. A few days after he began to go out, he dined at a tavern, and returned home about three o'clock of a very cold morning, benumbed and intoxicated. This was followed by rheumatism. He was never well again, though he lived until the end of June. His mind during all this time was wrung with the most poignant agony in regard to the family he must leave,—for he knew he should not recover. It is heart-rending to read of his sufferings and remorse, and to know that on the morning of her husband's funeral Mrs. Burns gave birth to another child. It is pleasant to learn that a subscription was immediately taken up for the destitute family, which placed them in comparative comfort.
"Fight who will," says Byron, "about words and forms, Burns's rank is in the first class of his art;" and this has long been the deliberate judgment of the world. No finer flower of genius than that of Robert Burns has ever blossomed, and it will be long before the world will see another as fair. But, as Mr. Lockhart observes, "To accumulate all that has been said of Burns, even by men like himself, of the first order, would fill a volume." Not even the most carping critic has ever questioned his genius. The "Cotter's Saturday Night," and "Tam O'Shanter," and "Highland Mary," would stand before the world to refute such a critic; and it would be a venturesome man indeed who would care to contend for such a proposition as that Robert Burns was not a great poet. That he was a great wit is also as well established, and that he might have been a great master of prose is equally unquestionable. That he was great in his life we dare not affirm, but that his life has a great claim upon our charity we will gladly allow. Few writers have been better loved than he. There is a personal warmth in all that he wrote, and we feel that we knew him in a sort of personal way, as if we had shaken hands with him, and heard his voice; and we always have a feeling that he is addressing us in our own person. All of the many pilgrims who visit the places he made immortal have something of this feeling, and the banks of Doon are as classic now as the lovely Avon. And whenever we are tempted to look upon the darker sides of his life-picture, we may well refrain, and repeat his words:—
"Then gently scan your brother man, Still gentler, sister woman; Though they may gang a kennin' wrang, To step aside is human; One point must still be greatly dark,— The moving why they do it; And just as lamely can ye mark How far perhaps they rue it."
MADAME DE STAEL.
That must indeed have been a thrilling life—a life of startling dramatic interest—which covered the period occupied by the career of Madame de Stael, even had the person living the life been but an obscure observer of passing events. For the time was big with the most astounding things the world has known in these later centuries. But to a person like the daughter of Necker, with intellect to comprehend the prodigious events, and with the power oftentimes to influence them to a greater or less extent, the wonderful drama which was then enacted upon the stage of France must have appeared as of even overwhelming importance. It must have dwarfed individual life, until one's own personal affairs, if they would press upon the attention, seemed impertinence, to be disposed of as quickly as possible, that one might give every thought and every emotion to one's country. She saw the commencement and the close of that great social earthquake which overthrew the oldest dynasty in Europe; she saw the rise, the culmination, and the setting of Napoleon's meteor-star; she witnessed the return of the Bourbons after their long absence, and the final death in defeat and exile of her dreaded enemy—the great soldier-Emperor—on the rocky ocean isle. This series of events is not to be paralleled for magnitude and meaning in any period of modern time, and Madame de Stael was something more than a spectator during much of the great miracle-play.
Her father, Necker, was the Controller-General of Finances under Louis XVI., and a man worthy of honor and long remembrance, although he was called during those perilous times to a work he was unable to do, and which perhaps no man could have done. The corrupt and meretricious court had brought France, financially as well as morally, to a point where no one man, had he been ever so great and so noble, could save her—could even retard the period of her ruin. Necker made a noble struggle, but was overborne by fate; and had his genius been even more commanding than it was, he would doubtless have been thus overborne. History tells us of many greater statesmen than he, but of few better men. Disinterested almost to a fault, stainless in his private character as well as unquestioned in his public integrity, truly religious in a time given over to atheism and impiety, conscientious even to the smallest matters in public as well as private life, and moderate when everything about him was in extremes,—well might Madame de Stael be proud of her father, and fond to effusion of his memory.
Her mother was a woman to be held in reverent remembrance. She was both beautiful and accomplished, possessed of fine talents, as well as spotless character. She had been engaged to Gibbon in her youth, and the attachment between them was a strong one. But the marriage was prevented by his father; and, after a long period of mournful constancy, she married M. Necker, and took her place among the great ones of the earth. The friendship between herself and Gibbon was afterwards very tender and sacred, although she was a faithful and devoted wife to Necker, and really warmly attached to him. Necker, on his part, was her worshipping lover to the end of his life.
The daughter of such parents could scarcely fail to be remarkable in some way. It is not from such sources that the mediocrities are recruited. But the child was utterly unlike her parents, and never showed much likeness to either in after life. Her genius was unquestioned even from her precocious babyhood, and she was the wonder and admiration of all the brilliant circle of her father's friends. Her temperament was most vehement and impulsive, and her vivacity a wonder even to the Parisians. She seemed to know everything by intuition, and made light of the hardest tasks which could be given her. The streams of her childish eloquence seemed to flow from some exhaustless fountain. The celebrated men who were her father's guests were never weary of expressing their astonishment at her powers of conversation.
Gibbon, the Abbe Raynal, Baron Grimm and Marmontel were among these friends, and they undoubtedly did much to stimulate the childish intellect, although Madame Necker, troubled at the precocity of her darling, frowned upon all attempts to unduly excite her mind. But great themes were constantly discussed in her presence; the frivolity of the old regime was being rapidly displaced by the intense earnestness of the men of the new era, and the most momentous questions of life and death, of time and eternity, were the subjects of the conversations to which the young genius listened with such rapt attention. Doubtless it was in listening to these profound discussions in her earliest years that she acquired that confidence which in after years never deserted her, but which always led her to believe that she could save both her country and the world, if people would only let her manage things in her own way. Charles X. used to tell the story of her calling upon him, after the return of the Bourbons to France, and offering him a constitution ready-made, and insisting upon his accepting it. He says:—
"It seemed like a thing resolved—an event decided upon,—this proposal of inventing a constitution for us. I kept as long as I could upon the defensive; but Madame de Stael, carried away by her zeal and enthusiasm, instead of speaking of what presumably concerned herself, knocked me about with arguments and crushed me with threats and menaces; so, tired to death of entertaining, instead of a clever, humble woman, a roaring politician in petticoats, I finished the audience, leaving her as little satisfied as myself with the interview."
Perhaps something of this kind may have influenced Napoleon in banishing her from the Empire.
Necker himself idolized his daughter, and was naturally very proud of her youthful triumphs, while she in turn made him her one hero among men. Throughout life her devotion to him continued, and she wrote of him as one might write of a god. She frequently lamented that he had been her father and not one of her own generation, that there might have been a man of her time worthy of the love which she could have lavished upon him. The fervor of this devotion, although it seems unnatural, belonged to her intensely impulsive temperament, and in her case we must make some allowance for the excesses of her passionate expressions of affection. Although she talked much and in the grandest manner of love, even when young and unmarried,—which is a very indelicate thing to do in the eyes of the French,—she did not appear to have any youthful romance of a serious sort. She had a great reputation as a wit and a genius, but few admirers who could be classed as lovers. Many men were her friends, and she was much sought after; but she was far from beautiful, which goes a great way in matters of the heart, and many disliked the manner in which she trampled upon the conventionalities, while doubtless many others objected to her strong-mindedness and the aggressiveness of her opinions.
She made a marriage de convenance at the age of twenty, apparently without much thought of love upon either side, and entered upon her new career with all the confidence which characterized her. Baron de Stael was a man of good character and noble birth, an attache of the Swedish Embassy, and, as she had money enough for both, the match was regarded favorably by her friends. Although the Baron was a handsome man and of pleasing address, one, it seems, who might have touched a maiden's heart, Mademoiselle Necker, it is said, never made even a pretence of love, but took the whole affair as a matter of business. It was necessary that she should be married,—it is only thus that French women achieve their independence,—and this man would do as well as another; that seemed to be all there was of this remarkable occurrence. Remarkable in our eyes, but of the usual sort in the eyes of the French. For domestic happiness she seemed to care little. The excitement of Parisian society was her heaven, and into this she entered with all the ardor of her nature. Her marriage had given her every freedom, although it does not appear that she was much restrained before,—for a French girl; and she dashed into the whirlpool of the gayest society in the world with a sort of intoxication. Her vivacity and enthusiasm knew no bounds, and she held her own little court in every assembly, at which the envious and unnoticed looked askance. She was regarded as a dangerously fascinating woman, although personally she was so entirely unattractive.
For three years she enjoyed her triumphs to the utmost. Then came the earthquake which dissolved the fair fabric of her dreams. The Reign of Terror began, and Paris was in the wildest ferment. Of course, she was in the very midst of those exciting events, and her influence was of moment in the terrific crisis. Her position gave her influence, and she worked with all the strength and enthusiasm of her nature to aid the escape of her friends and to succor the endangered. All the powers of her remarkable mind were put into active service, and she seems never to have thought of herself. To be sure, she was as inviolable as any one could be considered in that fearful time, but she had a rare courage and unbounded fortitude, and would have worked as she did even at personal hazard. She prevailed upon the ferocious Revolutionists to show mercy in some cases where they were bound to have blood. She concealed her friends and even strangers in her house, and she used all the powers of her marvellous eloquence to turn the tide of revolution backward. But it was in vain. Her father was deposed, her friends were murdered, her king was slain, all of her society were under surveillance, she herself everybody thought in danger, but she would not leave her beloved Paris. Her husband was in Holland, and thought she was subjecting her children to needless peril; but she still had hope that somehow she might be useful to her country. The sublime confidence which she had in her own powers did not desert her. She saw the streets flow with blood, one might say,—for the murders of the Revolutionists were of daily occurrence,—but it was not until all hope of being of use was gone that she took her children to England.
Here a little colony of French exiles were already established, and she became at once the centre of the group. She pined in the exile and mourned with ever-increasing sorrow for her country. Her interest in the events of the time was cruelly intense, and burned out her life. M. de Narbonne, whose life she had saved, was one of her consolations in the dreadful exile, as was the friendship of Talleyrand and of Benjamin Constant.
She returned to France after quiet was restored, and lived in Paris something after the old way. Then came Napoleon, whom she hated with all the ardor of her nature, and who returned her hate with interest. He banished her from France, and would not permit her return during his entire reign. "She carries a quiver full of arrows," he said, "which would hit a man were he seated upon a rainbow." It was a purely personal dislike on his part, and a piece of his most odious despotism to allow his personal feelings to influence him in such a matter. There are few things recorded of him more utterly inexcusable than this. She passed fourteen years in exile,—the best years of her life,—and exile to her had all the bitterness of death; she could never really live except in Paris. We hear little of her husband during all this time, but it is not likely that she derived much consolation from domestic life. She had no taste for it, and found it the supreme bore. She consoled herself as much as she could with literature, and wrote those books which, wonderful and brilliant as they are, all who knew her personally unite in saying, never did justice to her genius. The gloom of exile was over them all. She suffered a great variety of petty persecutions at the hands of Napoleon during all those years, and these added to the inevitable miseries of her lot.
After the fall of the Napoleonic empire she returned to Paris, and there passed the remainder of her life. It was at this time that she presented the constitution to Charles X. She was never remarkable for her taste in dress, and that Prince thus describes her on that occasion:—
"She wore a red satin gown embroidered with flowers of gold and silk, a profusion of diamonds, rings enough to stock a pawnbroker's shop; and I must add that I never before saw so low cut a corsage display less inviting charms. Upon her head was a large turban, constructed on the pattern of that worn by the Cumean sybil, which put the finishing touch to a costume so little in harmony with the style of her face. I scarcely can understand how a woman of genius can have such a false, vulgar taste."
It can be easily comprehended how she might have bored the Prince by pressing upon him at such length her ideas of the reconstruction of the empire, for she often bored even those who really admired and appreciated her by the torrents of her talk. She was not witty, but full of rhetorical surprises, and had boundless stores of information upon every subject. People do not like to be instructed, nor do they like to be preached to, even by eloquent lips, and her great conversational powers often made her dreaded rather than admired in general society. While she was in Germany Goethe, who must be allowed the capability of appreciating her, was wont to run away from her whenever he could, and bore up under her eloquence with rather an ill grace when he could not escape it. Schiller also, in whom she much delighted, was ungallant enough to dislike her extremely. On the contrary, Talleyrand and many other famous Frenchmen seemed never to weary of her, and have handed down the tradition of her wonderful eloquence to a later generation. It is probable that her excessive vivacity was more pleasing to the French mind than to that of the English and Germans, and her lack of repose did not weary them to the same extent. She retained her friends to the end of her life, and they were the source of her greatest satisfaction. She was loyal and devoted in the extreme to all whom she favored with her friendship, and all such loved her with deep affection. Indeed, it may be said that human nature was the only thing which much interested her. She had no love for Nature, and would scarcely take the trouble to see the Alps when in Switzerland, and said that if she were left to her own feelings she would not open her window to see the bay of Naples for the first time, but that she would travel five hundred leagues at any time to see a great man she had not met before. She cared little for art, and not much for literature as such, though she had a passion for ideas. Her ideal life was a life of intellectual excitement,—constant intercourse with minds of her own order. The improvisations of Corinne give one a little idea what her conversation was like. Still she has been quoted as saying that she would have exchanged all her talent for the one gift of beauty which was denied her.
In the life of William Cullen Bryant we find the following passage relating to Madame de Stael, occurring in one of his letters; it gives the last glimpse that we get of the close of her career, and is interesting also as showing his estimate of a great but faulty woman. He says:—
"What a life! Passionate, for she was brought up not to control her passions; almost always unhappy; marrying an old man whom she did not care for, after being twice refused by young men whom she did love, and to whom she offered herself, if not formally yet in a manner not to be misunderstood; forming, after her marriage, intimate relations with Benjamin Constant, to her father's great grief; and when he deserted her, marrying, after her husband's death, a half-dead Italian named Rocca; and finally wearing out her life by opium-eating."
This marriage with Albert Jean-Michel de Rocca took place at Geneva, and was for a time concealed from the world, causing some scandal. But her children and intimate friends knew of it, although much opposed to it. Rocca was a young Italian officer, just returned from the war in Spain, with a dangerous wound. He was of a poetic temperament and exceedingly romantic, and fell violently in love with Madame de Stael, although she was forty-five years old and he but twenty-three. During the years of her first marriage she used to say that she would force her own daughter to marry for love if that were necessary, and it is supposed that at last she herself made a marriage of real affection. Despite the disparity of their years, they seemed to be really happy in this marriage, and her friends were at last reconciled to it. But her new-found happiness was of short duration,—she being but fifty years old at the time of her death.
Mr. Swinburne quotes the following passage from a description given by one of the daily papers of a certain murderer who at the time was attracting great attention in London:—
"He has great taste for poetry, can recite long passages from popular poets,—Byron's denunciations of the pleasures of the world having for him great attraction as a description of his own experiences. Wordsworth is his favorite poet. He confesses himself a villain."
At this day the two latter facts will not necessarily be supposed to have any logical connection; but there was a time when the violence of the opponents of Wordsworth's claim to be a poet might have suggested the most intimate relation between these two statements. For many years he was looked upon as an "inspired idiot" by a large part of the reading world; and his place in literature has not been definitely settled to this day. Such extravagant claims have always been made for him by his friends that they have called forth just as extravagant denunciations from those who do not admire his works; and violent controversies arise concerning his merits among first-class scholars and critics. It is always noticeable, however, in these discussions that his panegyrists always quote his best efforts, those sublime passages to which no one denies transcendent merit, and that his opponents never get much beyond "Peter Bell," and other trivialities and absurdities, which his best friends must admit that he wrote in great numbers. That his best work ranks next to Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley, can scarcely be doubted by any true lover of poetry; and he certainly has the right to be judged by his best, rather than by his inferior work.
Wordsworth was born in 1770, in Cumberland, and received his early education there, being noted for his excellence in classical studies and for his thoughtful disposition. He graduated from St. John's College, Cambridge, and immediately after began his literary labors, which were continued through a long and most industrious life.
In 1803 he married Miss Mary Hutchinson of Penrith, and settled at Grasmere, in Westmoreland, where he passed the remainder of his life, and where he lies buried in the little churchyard where so many of his family had preceded him. He helped to make the Lake district famous the world over, and himself never wearied of its charms. He was pre-eminently the poet of Nature, and it was from the unrivalled scenery of this part of England that he caught much of his inspiration. Mrs. Wordsworth, who was as fond of it as her husband, used to say in extreme old age, that the worst of living in the Lake region was that it made one unwilling to die when the time came. The poet's marriage was an eminently happy one, although Miss Martineau hints that it was not first love on his part, but that the lines, "She was a phantom of delight," so often quoted as relating to Mrs. Wordsworth, were really meant to indicate another person who had occupied his thoughts at an early day. At any rate, he did address the following lines to his wife after thirty-six years of married life, which is certainly a far higher compliment to her:—
"Morn into noon did pass, noon into eve, And the old day was welcome as the young, As welcome, and as beautiful,—in sooth, more beautiful, As being a thing more holy."
The other poems, "Let other bards of angels sing," and "Oh, dearer far than life and light are dear," were also addressed to her.
It was through her early friendship for Wordsworth's sister that she first came to know the poet, and she was not at that time a person whom a poet would be supposed to fancy. She was the incarnation of good-sense as applied to the concerns of the every-day world, and in no sense a dreamer, or a seeker after the ideal. Her intellect, however, developed by contact with higher minds, and her tastes after a time became more in accordance with those of her husband. She learned to passionately admire the outward world, in which he took such great delight, and to admire his poetry and that of his friends. She was of a kindly, cheery, generous nature, very unselfish in her dealings with her family, and highly beloved by her friends. She was the finest example of thrift and frugality to be found in her neighborhood, and is said to have exerted a decidedly beneficial influence upon all her poorer neighbors. She did not give them as much in charity as many others did, but she taught them how to take care of what they had, and to save something for their days of need. Miss Martineau, who was a neighbor, says: "The oldest residents have long borne witness that the homes of the neighbors have assumed a new character of order and comfort and wholesome economy, since the poet's family lived at Rydal Mount." She took the kindest and tenderest care of Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, who was for many years a helpless charge upon her hands. This sister had ruined her health, and finally dethroned her reason, by trying to accompany her brother on his long and tiresome rambles among the lakes and up the mountains. She has been known to walk with him forty miles in a single day. Many English women are famous walkers, but her record is beyond them all. Such excessive exercise is bad for a man, as was proved in the case of Dickens, who doubtless injured himself much by such long pedestrian trips after brain labor; but no woman can endure such a strain as this, and the adoring sister not only failed to be a companion to her idolized brother, but became a care and burden for many years. She lies now by her brother's side in the crowded little churchyard, and doubtless the "sweet bells jangled" are in tune again. A lovely group of children filled the Wordsworth home, some of whom died in childhood; but one daughter and two sons lived, as loving companions for their parents, until near the end of the poet's life, when the daughter Dora preceded him a little into the silent land. Wordsworth was utterly inconsolable for her loss; and used to spend the long winter evenings in tears, week after week, and month after month. Mrs. Wordsworth was much braver than he, and bore her own burdens calmly, while trying to cheer his exaggerated gloom. He was old and broken at this time, and never recovered from the shock of his daughter's death. Mrs. Wordsworth survived him for several years, being over ninety at the time of her death, and having long been deaf and blind. But she was very cheerful and active to the last, and not unwilling to live on, even with her darkened vision. The devotion of the old poet to his wife was very touching, and she who had idolized him in life was never weary of recounting his virtues when he was gone.
The character of Wordsworth is getting to be understood as we recede from the prejudices of the time in which he lived, and begins to assume something like a consistent whole, compared to the contradictions which at one time seemed to be inherent in it. He says of his own childhood:—
"I was of a stiff, moody, and violent temper; so much so that I remember going once into the attic of my grandfather's house at Penrith, upon some indignity having been put upon me, with an intention of destroying myself with one of the foils which I knew were kept there. I took the foil in my hand, but my heart failed."
De Quincey says of his boyhood:—
"I do not conceive that Wordsworth could have been an amiable boy; he was austere and unsocial, I have reason to think, in his habits; not generous; and above all, not self-denying. Throughout his later life, with all the benefits of a French discipline, in the lesser charities of social intercourse he has always exhibited a marked impatience of those particular courtesies of life. . . . Freedom,—unlimited, careless, insolent freedom,—unoccupied possession of his own arms,—absolute control over his own legs and motions,—these have always been so essential to his comfort that in any case where they were likely to become questionable, he would have declined to make one of the party."
Wordsworth has been accused of excessive penuriousness, of overwhelming conceit, and of being slovenly and regardless of dress. For the first accusation there seems little warrant, other than that he was prudent and thrifty, and knew the value of money. His most intimate friends exonerate him from meanness of any sort, and often praise his kindness to the poor and dependent. As regards conceit there can probably be no denial, though doubtless the stories told of it are much exaggerated. He is said never to have read any poetry but his own, and to have been exceedingly ill-natured and contemptuous in his estimate of his contemporaries. His estimate of Dickens is well known:—
"I will candidly avow that I thought him a very talkative, vulgar young person,—but I dare say he may be very clever. Mind, I don't want to say a word against him, for I have never read a word he has written."
He greeted Charles Mackay thus, when the latter called upon him:—
"I am told you write poetry. I never read a line of your poems and don't intend to. You must not be offended with me; the truth is, I never read anybody's poetry but my own."
Even James T. Fields, whose opinion of the poet was high, remarks:—
"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 that he hesitated for mild terms which he could apply to names almost as great as his own."
Carlyle testifies on the same point:—
"One evening, probably about this time, I got him upon the subject of great poets, who I thought might be admirable equally to us both; but was rather mistaken, as I gradually found. Pope's partial failure I was prepared for; less for the narrowish limits visible in Milton and others. I tried him with Burns, of whom he had sung tender recognition; but Burns also turned out to be a limited, inferior creature, any genius he had a theme for one's pathos rather; even Shakespeare himself had his blind sides, his limitations. Gradually it became apparent to me that of transcendent unlimited, there was to this critic probably but one specimen known,—Wordsworth."
As regards eccentricities of dress, we will give but a single testimony. William Jordan says:—
"On his visits to town the recluse of Rydal Mount was quite a different creature. To me it was demonstrated, by his conduct under every circumstance, that De Quincey had done him gross injustice in the character he loosely threw upon him in public, namely, 'that he was not generous or self-denying, . . . and that he was slovenly and regardless in dress.' I must protest that there was no warrant for this caricature; but on the contrary, that it bore no feature of resemblance to the slight degree of eccentricity discoverable in Cumberland, and was utterly contradicted by the life in London. In the mixed society of the great Babylon, Mr. Wordsworth was facile and courteous; dressed like a gentleman, and with his tall commanding figure no mean type of the superior order, well-trained by education, and accustomed to good manners. Shall I reveal that he was often sportive, and could even go the length of strong expressions, in the off-hand mirth of his observations and criticisms?"
Wordsworth had the fondness of many poets for reading his poetry to his friends, and even of reciting it like a schoolboy. When Emerson visited him he was already an old man, and it struck the philosopher so oddly, as he tells us in his "English Traits," to see "the old Wordsworth, standing apart, and reciting to me in a garden walk, like a schoolboy declaiming, that I at first was near to laugh; but recollecting myself, that I had come thus far to see a poet, and he was chanting poems to me, I saw that he was right and I was wrong, and gladly gave myself up to hear."
Another story is told of his being in a large company, and seeing for the first time a new novel by Scott, with a motto taken from his poems; and of his going immediately and getting the poem, and reading it entire to the assembled company, who were waiting for the reading of the new novel.
Literary biography is full of such anecdotes as these, going to show his absorption in himself, and his comparative indifference to the works of others; but they prove at most only a trifling weakness in a great man's character; such weaknesses being so common as to cause no surprise to those familiar with the lives of men of genius. He was a strong man, massive in his individuality, full of profound feeling and deep spirituality, and dominated by a powerful will. He was no mere sentimentalist and versifier, but a student at first hand of Nature and all her mysteries,—a man whose profound meditations had pierced to the centre of things, and who held great thoughts in keeping for a waiting and expectant world. His outward life was full of proofs of the wide and deep benevolence of his nature; and it was only shallow minds who dwelt upon some petty defects of his character. The deep wisdom gained by contemplation comes forth whenever he talks of childhood. This subject always possesses inspiration for him, as when he says:—
"Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar. Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God who is our home. Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,— He sees it in his joy. The youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature's priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day."
This conception of the nearness of the child to the unseen made all children sacred in his eyes, and he always felt that he learned more from them than he could teach them. He expresses this thought often, as thus:—
"Oh dearest, dearest boy; my heart For better lore would seldom yearn, Could I but teach the hundredth part Of what from thee I learn."
"Dear child; dear girl; thou walkest with me here; If thou appear untouched by solemn thought, Thy nature is not therefore less divine; Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year; And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine, God being with thee when we know it not."
His own children he loved almost to idolatry, and after the lapse of forty years, would speak with the deepest emotion of the little ones who had died. Indeed, he was a man of profound feeling, passionate and intense in his loves, though outwardly calm and self-contained. He himself says:—
"Had I been a writer of love-poetry, it would have been natural for me to write it with a degree of warmth which could hardly have been approved by my principles, and which might have been undesirable for the reader."
His sister Dorothy frequently refers to the intensity of his passionate affection for the members of his family, and of the full and free expression he gave it. Greatly indeed have they erred who have imagined him as by nature cold or even tranquil. "What strange workings," writes one, "are there in his great mind! how fearfully strong are all his feelings and affections! If his intellect had been less powerful they would have destroyed him long ago." Indeed, no one who had ever known him well could doubt this intensity of nature, this smothered fire. It leaped out in bursts of anger at the report of evil doings; in long and violent tramps over the mountains, in exaggerated grief at the death of loved ones; and in almost unnatural intensity of devotion, to his sister first, and his daughter Dora afterwards. It took the form of passionate adoration of Nature in his poems, and of passionate patriotism as well, and it gave strength and fire to the best of all his literary work.
Let us dwell for a moment more upon the married life of the poet,—that calm and quiet and happy life which made it possible that he should be the poet he was, unvexed by worldly cares or vanities. His late biographer, Mr. Myers, tells us:—
"The life which the young couple led was one of primitive simplicity. In some respects it was even less luxurious than that of the peasants about them. They drank water, and ate the simplest fare. Miss Wordsworth had long rendered existence possible for her brother, on the narrowest of means, by her unselfish energy and skill in household management; and plain living and high thinking were equally congenial to the new inmate of the frugal home. Wordsworth gardened; and all together, or oftenest the poet and his sister, wandered almost daily over the neighboring hills. Narrow means did not prevent them from offering a generous welcome to their few friends, especially Coleridge and his family, who repeatedly stayed for months under Wordsworth's roof. Miss Wordsworth's letters breathe the very spirit of hospitality in their naive details of the little sacrifices gladly made for the sake of the presence of these honored guests. But for the most part the life was solitary and uneventful. Books they had few, neighbors none, and their dependence was almost entirely upon external nature."
The cottage in which they lived was very small, but they covered it with roses and honeysuckles, and had a little garden around it. Inside, all was the perfection of simplicity, but the soul of neatness and thrift pervaded everything, and love glorified it all. They had a little boat upon the lake, and rowing and walking were their pleasures.
They lived in this simple fashion that the poet might pursue his high vocation, and not be put into the treadmill of any steady work. In after years, through bequests from friends and a pension from Government, they were made more prosperous, and their declining years were cheered by an assured abundance. Rydal Mount has been described so often that it is familiar to most readers. The house stands looking southward, on the rocky side of Nab Scar above Rydal Lake. The garden is terraced, and was full of flowering alleys in the poet's time. There was a tall ash-tree in which the thrushes always sung, and a laburnum in which the osier cage of the doves was hung. There were stone steps, in which poppies and wild geraniums filled the interstices; and rustic seats here and there, where they all sat all day during the pleasant weather. The poet spent very little time in-doors. He lived constantly in the open air, composing all his poems there, and committing them to paper afterwards. Their friends grew more numerous in later life, and Wordsworth much enjoyed their companionship, being himself very bright and delightful company when in the mood for talk. Here that strange being, Thomas De Quincey, came and lived, purposely to be near the poet. Coleridge was always at call, genial Kit North paid loyal court to the great man from the first, and loving and gentle Charles Lamb came at times, sadly missing the town, and almost afraid of the mountains. Here Dr. Arnold of Rugby came often from Fox How, his own house in the neighborhood; hither Harriet Martineau walked over from Ambleside, with some new theory of the universe to expound; and here poor Hartley Coleridge passed the happiest hours of his unfortunate life. Wordsworth's kindness and tenderness to this poor son of his great friend were well known to his little world, and show some of the most pleasing traits of his character. This amiable and gifted man, Hartley Coleridge, ruined himself through the weakness of his will, finding it utterly impossible to leave wine alone, even when he knew it was ruining his life, and so sorely afflicting his friends. Wordsworth dealt with him like a father, recognizing the weakness of his character, and perhaps being able to trace it to inherited tendencies,—the elder Coleridge's devotion to opium being well known. Poor Hartley lies with Wordsworth's own family in the little churchyard at Grasmere, and we trust in that quiet retreat sleeps well, at the foot of his friend and master.
Wordsworth's last years were of great solemnity and calm. He lived in retrospection, and dwelt much upon the unseen world. The deep spirituality of his nature was shown in all his later life. He was absorbed, as it were, in thoughts of God, and of the ultimate destiny of man. All worldly interests died out, and he was able to write even of his fame:—
"It is indeed a deep satisfaction to hope and believe that my poetry will be, while it lasts, a help to the cause of virtue and truth, especially among the young. As for myself, it seems now of little moment how long I may be remembered. When a man pushes off in his little boat into the great seas of Infinity and Eternity, it surely signifies little how long he is kept in sight by watchers from the shore."