Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home/Place XII

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Cologne.—Still, my dear C., the same story to tell you of yesterday's journey. The peasants have just began their mowing and harvesting, and the hay and corn are all as thick as the choicest bits in our choice meadows. There were immense plantations of potatoes, oats, pease, and beans; no fences, hedges or barrier of any sort—one vast sea of agricultural wealth.

We are now, as Mr. Murray tells us, "in the largest and wealthiest city on the Rhine,"[1] and have more than enough to do if we see the half set forth on the eight well-filled pages of his best of all guide-books. We leave here at four P.M.; so you see how slight a view we can have even of the outside of things. Our habit of breakfasting at nine abridges our active time, but it gives me a quiet morning hour for my journal. Do you know—I did not—that Cologne received its name from Agrippina, Nero's mother—surely the most wretched of women? She was born here, and sent hither a Roman colony, calling the place Colonia Aggrippina. A happy accident I should think it, if I were a Colognese, that blotted out her infamous name from my birthplace.

We passed the day most diligently; and as it is not in human nature not to value that which costs us labour, you must feel very grateful to me if I spare you the description of church after church, reliques, and pictures. Such reliques, too, as the real bones of St Ursula and her thirteen thousand virgins! the bones, real too, of the Magi, the three kings of Cologne (whose vile effigies are blazoned on half the sign-boards on the Continent), and such pictures as Ruben's crucifixion of St. Peter, which he deemed his best, because his last, probably. The real thing, that would please you better than all the reliques in Belgium, is the establishment of Eau de Cologne, of the actual Jean Maria Farina, whose name and fame have penetrated as far as Napoleon's. No wonder that this dirtiest of all towns should have elicited the perfumer's faculties. When some one said, "The Rhine washes Cologne," it was pithily asked, "What washes the Rhine?"

Another sight here, my dear C., would in earnest have pleased you; the only one of the kind I have seen on the Continent: troops of little boys and girls with their books and slates. A woman of distinction, who was born here, tells us that the feudal feeling of clanship is in high preservation. "I never come here," she says, "without being assailed by some one of the basse classe, who obliges me to listen to all the details of a family grievance as if it were the affair of my own household." This sentiment of feudal dependance will probably melt away before the aforesaid books and slates. So the good goes with the bad. It is a pity we have not a moral flail; but, as of old, the tares and the wheat are too intricately intermingled for human art to separate them. I promised to spare you the churches of Cologne, but I cannot pass by the Cathedral. It would be as bad as the proverbial leaving out Hamlet from the enacting of his own tragedy. The Cologne Cathedral is not, and probably never will be, finished. It impressed me anew with a conviction of the immortality of the human mind. What an infinite distance between its conceptions and the matter on which it works! A work of art rises in vision to the divinely-inspired artist; what years, what ages are consumed in expressing in the slow stone this conception! and the stone is transformable, perishable. Can the mind be so?

The name of the architect of the Cathedral of Cologne is unknown. No matter; here are his thoughts written in stone.

You cannot see the Gothic architecture of Europe without being often reminded of Victor Hugo's idea that architecture was, till superseded by painting,"the great book" wherein man wrote his thoughts in "marble letters and granite pages;" and, being once possessed with this notion, you cannot look at the beautiful arches and columns, at such stupendous flying buttresses as these of the Cologne Cathedral, and its "forest of purfled pinnacles," without feeling as if you were reading a Milton or a Dante. There are innumerable expressions that you cannot comprehend, but, as your eye ranges over them, you read the rapturous praises of a David, and prophecy and lamentation, and, even in these sacred edifices, the keen satires and unbridled humour of the profane poets. Victor Hugo says that, at one period, whoever was born a poet became an architect; that all other arts were subservient to architecture, all other artists the servants of the architect, "the great master workman.'"[2]

I do not know that the ideas which he has so well elaborated originated in his own mind, nor can I tell whether this wondrous art would have suggested the idea to my mind without his previous aid. We see by the bright illumination of another's mind what the feeble light of our own would never reveal; but remember we do as certainly see.

The Apostles' Church here is exquisitely beautiful. Mr. Hope said it reminded him of some of the oldest Greek churches in Asia Minor; and that, when looking at the east end, he almost thought himself at Constantinople; and, though you may think me bitten by Victor Hugo's theory, I will tell you that its romantic and Oriental beauty brought to my mind "The Talisman," in Scott's Tales of the Crusaders.

  1. Cologne has 65,000 inhabitants.
  2. "L’architecte, le poète, le maître totalisait en sa personne la sculpture qui lui ciselait ses façades, la peinture qui lui enluminait ses vitraux, la musique qui mettait se cloche en branle et soufflait dans ses orgues."—Victor Hugo.