Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands/Wordsworth and Southey
WORDSWORTH AND SOUTHEY.
O vale of Grassmere! tranquil, and shut out
From all the strife that shakes a jarring world,
How quietly thy village roofs are bowered
In the cool verdure, while thy graceful spire
Guardeth the ashes of the noble dead,
And, like a fixed and solemn sentinel,
Holm-Crag looks down on all.
And thy pure lake,
Spreading its waveless breast of azure out
'Tween thee and us, — pencil, nor lip of man
May fitly show its loveliness. The soul
Doth hoard it as a gem, and, fancy-led,
Explore its curving shores, its lonely isle,
That, like an emerald clasped in crystal, sleeps.
Ho, stern Helvellyn! with thy savage cliffs
And dark ravines, where the rash traveller's foot
Too oft hath wandered far and ne'er returned,
Why dost thou press so close yon margin green?
Like border-chieftain, seeking for his bride
Some cottage-maiden. Prince among the hills,
That each upon his feudal seat maintains
Strict sovereignty, hast thou a tale of love
For gentle Grassmere, that thou thus dost droop
Thy plumed helmet o'er her, and peruse,
With such a searching gaze, her placid brow?
She listeneth coyly, and her guileless depths
Are troubled at a tender thought from thee.
And yet, methinks some speech of love should dwell
In scenes so beautiful. For not in vain,
Nor with a feeble voice, doth He, who spread
Such glorious charms, bespeak man's kindliness
For all whom He hath made, bidding the heart
Grasp every creature with a warm embrace
Lo! what fantastic forms,
In sudden change are traced upon the sky.
The sun doth subdivide himself, and shine
On either side of an elongate cloud,
Which, like an alligator huge and thin,
Piercest his disk. And then an ostrich seems
Strangely to perch upon a wreath of foam,
And gaze disdainful on the kingly orb,
That lay o'erspent and weary. But he roused
Up as a giant, and the welkin glowed
With rushing splendor, while his puny foes
Vanished in air. Old England's oaks outstretched
Their mighty arms, and took that cloudless glance
Into their bosoms, as a precious thing
To be remembered long.
And so we turned,
And through romantic glades pursued our way,
Where Rydal-Water spends its thundering force,
And through the dark gorge makes a double plunge
Abruptly beautiful. Thicket, and rock,
And ancient summer-house, and sheeted foam,
All exquisitely blent, while deafening sound
Of torrents, battling with their ruffian foes,
Filled the admiring gaze with awe, and wrought
A dim forgetfulness of all beside.
Thee, too, I found within thy sylvan dell,
Whose music thrilled my heart, when life was new,
Wordsworth! mid cliff and stream and cultured rose,
In love with Nature's self, and she with thee.
Thy ready hand, that from the landscape culled
Its long familiar charms, rock, tree, and spire,
With kindness half paternal, leading on
My stranger footsteps through the garden walk,
Mid shrubs and flowers that from thy planting grew;
The group of dear ones gathering round thy board,
She, the first friend, still as in youth beloved,
The daughter, sweet companion, — sons mature,
And favorite grandchild, with his treasured phrase,
The evening lamp, that o'er thy silver locks
And ample brow fell fitfully, and touched
Thy lifted eye with earnestness of thought,
Are with me as a picture, ne'er to fade,
Till death shall darken all material things.
An excursion to Grassmere and Helvellyn, the Falls of Rydal-Water, Stock-Gill-Force, and other points of interest in the vicinity of Ambleside, communicated great pleasure to our party; but at our return we found it had been purchased by the loss of a call from the poet Wordsworth. Though I had more earnestly desired to see him than almost any distinguished writer, whom from early life had been admired, it was with a degree of diffidence, amounting almost to trepidation, that I accepted the invitation to his house, which had been left at the inn. As I approached his lovely and unpretending habitation, embowered with ivy and roses, I felt that to go into the presence of Europe's loftiest crowned head, would not cost so much effort, as to approach and endeavor to converse with a king in the realm of mind. But the kindness of his reception and that of his family, and the unceremonious manner in which they make a guest feel as one of them, removed the reserve and uneasiness of a stranger's heart.
Wordsworth is past seventy years of age, and has the same full, expanded brow, which we see in his busts and engravings. His conversation has that simplicity and richness for which we are prepared by his writings. He led me around his grounds, pointing out the improvements which he had made during the last thirty years, and the trees, hedges, and shrubbery which had been planted under his direction. Snatches of the gorgeous scenery of lake and mountain were visible from different points; and one of the walks terminated with the near view of a chapel built by his neighbor, the Lady Elizabeth Le Fleming, on whose domain are both the upper and lower falls of Rydal-Water. In this beautiful combination of woods, cliffs, and waters, and solemn temple pointing to the skies, we see the germ of many of his thrilling descriptions; for his habit is to compose in the open air. He loves the glorious scenery of his native region, and is evidently pleased when others admire it.
His household consists of a wife, sister, two sons, and a daughter. The eldest of the sons is married, and, with a group of five children, resides under the same roof, giving to the family a pleasant, patriarchal aspect. A fine boy, of five years, who bears the name of his grandfather, and bids fair to possess somewhat of his breadth of brow, is evidently quite a favorite. Among his bright sayings was the question, whether "the Ocean was not the Christian-name of the Sea?" It was delighful to see so eminent a poet, thus pursuing the calm tenor of a happy life, surrounded by all those domestic affections and charities, which his pure lays have done so much to cherish in the hearts of others.
Wordsworth seems habitually pensive, almost to impassiveness. Yet once I noticed in him some approach to naiveté. We were all seated at the table, conversing, after the tea-equipage had been removed. It was a round table, with a closely fitting cover of India-rubber, on which a wreath of rich flowers had been painted.
"I wonder what sort of a table this is," said he. "It keeps its own secrets. I never had a chance to look at it."
Some little reply was made by Mrs. Wordsworth, when, turning to me, he asked, "Is it not a natural curiosity in me to wish to look upon this table, once in my life? I am determined to see it now."
With some difficulty, he disengaged the adhesive envelope, and spreading out his thin hands upon the board, exclaimed, with satisfaction,—
"There! I've got a sight of it at last. It is a mahogany table, and a very good one too."
This playfulness, set off by the solemnity of his manner, seemed to delight his household, and was possibly an episode of rare occurrence. The ripening of this personal acquaintance into epistolary intercourse and friendship, was truly gratifying to me, as was also his benignant approval of the annexed simple greeting, on the first recurrence of his birthday, after my return home.
High-thoughted Bard of Rydal's sounding tide,
Whose stricken lyre, across the ocean blue,
Doth stir our forests in their unshorn pride,
And sweetly steal the woodman's cabin through,
Thy day of birth, here, on Columbia's shore,
The sons of song in faithful memory keep;
White-pinioned sea-birds brought the record o'er
The tossing billows of the boisterous deep,—
So now, — the hour that first with light inspired
An eye that deep in Nature's heart doth look,
Comes with the power of deathless genius fired,
To stamp with signet-ring our household book:
Oh, Bard of tuneful soul! may health be thine,
And ever-cloudless peace illume thy day's decline.
It was during my visit to Wordsworth, that I first received intelligence of the melancholy declension of health and intellect which had befallen Southey. With reluctance I resigned my intention of going to Keswick, having been extremely desirous to see him, and being provided with letters of introduction from mutual friends. How mournful, that such a rayless cloud should envelop that genius which has so long thrown a bridge of light and beauty across the Atlantic. Sometimes I have thought his prolific and versatile powers well symbolized in one of his own descriptive passages:—
"The stream's perpetual flow,
That with its shadows and its glancing lights,
Dimples, and threadlike motions infinite,
Forever varying, and yet still the same,
Like Time towards Eternity, glides on."
A letter from the successor of his beloved Edith, mentions, feelingly, the state of unconsciousness that overshadows him, and says: "In the blackness of this darkness we still live, and shall pass from under it, only through the portals of the grave." She is well known to the reading public, by her former name of Caroline Bowles, as the author of the "Pauper's Death-Bed," with other pathetic and elegant effusions. Her conjugal love faithfully ministers to this severe visitation of one of the most gifted and indefatigable minds which has adorned our age.
I thought to see thee in thy lake-girt home,
Thou of creative soul! I thought with thee
Amid thy mountain solitudes to roam,
And hear the voice, whose echoes wild and free
Had strangely thrilled me, when my life was new,
With old romantic tales of wondrous lore;
But ah! they told me that thy mind withdrew
Into its mystic cell, — nor evermore
Sate on the lip in fond familiar word;
Nor through the speaking eye her love repaid,
Whose heart for thee with ceaseless care is stirred:
That mute at Greta-Hall, on willow-shade,
Thy sweet harp hung: — They told me, and I wept,
As on my pilgrim way o'er England's vales I kept.