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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter VII

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[81]
CHAPTER VII.

           "Sacred was the pen that wrote,
            Thy father's friend forget thou not."[1]
                                                Marmion.

IF to confer happiness be the greatest luxury, he who has learned to impart it, with the least labour, may be considered an adept in a highly important science. Whoever is ambitious of this distinction would be wise, sometimes to consult the enjoyment of children. Here the elastic, unsubdued spirit will co-operate with his design, and those obstacles, which arise from habitual sorrow, deep knowledge of the infirmity of our nature, or sickening acquaintance with the insufficiency of earthly pleasures, are not to be encountered.

               "Theirs are the joys by Fancy fed,
            Less pleasing when possest,
               The tear forgot, as soon as shed,
            The sun-shine of the breast." [2]

This truth was well understood by Madam Lathrop, and practised with that ardour which the love of benevolence excited. Her object was not that indulgence of the appetites, and passions of children, which many indolent teachers, and misguided parents seem to consider their chief good, and the surest method of conciliating affection. She perceived that the fondness, manifested for those who procured them selfish gratifications, was not an enduring [96] attachment; and endeavoured by a judicious mixture of kindness and instruction, to win their confidence, and impress the truth, that they were rational and accountable beings.

It was often her custom, on the afternoons of their stated release from school, to assemble around her the younger children of the neighbourhood. An invitation of this sort was viewed by them as an honour to be boasted of, as well as a pleasure to be enjoyed. On those gala-days, they might be seen, seated in groups around her feet, watching with sparkling eyes the quick movements of her scissors, producing for their amusement, groups of dancing girls, dexterously cut from white paper, tall trees, with prominent buds and leaves, and squirrels, apparently ready to spring from bough to Dough. When these fanciful creations had sufficed for a time, a small cabinet of curiosities would often be produced, and sundry little heads might be observed hanging over it in such close contact, that the gold and chesnut of their locks blended in beautiful irregularity. There, counters were considered as coins, and trifles of slight value esteemed as splendid rarities: yet, perhaps the connoisseur criticising the touches of the artist, or the antiquary bending over his hoard, might have exchanged their heartfelt satisfaction with this sportive group, and sustained no loss. Anon, the variable little beings would be searching for some new source of bliss; as if Nature had already taught them that novelty was the charm of earthly pleasure, but withheld the bitter certainty [97] that "all is vanity." One of the most enterprising might be discerned, mounted on a high chair, with hand extended above the head, to a well known depository of books for children. Then would be seen descending into the wide-spread white apron of another, a shower of tiny volumes, with gilded covers, equally the admiration, and desire of all. There were divers copies of "The Bag of Nuts ready cracked," the renowned history of "Goody Margery Two-Shoes," and the marvellous and dreadful exploits of the "Giant Grumbolumbo." The volumes at that period, appropriated to children, were generally of meagre variety, and questionable excellence. Miss Edgeworth had not then arisen to embody the traits of nature and of feeling, in a vehicle of the most enchanting simplicity; nor Miss More, to build, upon the events of humble life, a column of pure morality, and majestic piety; nor Mrs. Sherwood, to convey to the understanding the precepts of a sublime faith, through the medium of the softened affections. The pens of the sage, and the historian, had not then learned to accommodate themselves gracefully to the capacities of infancy. Watts had indeed set the example of subduing poetical inspiration to the level of untutor'd intellect. He had lured the "highborn-Urania," to warble the cradle hymn; but he had then neither precedent nor imitator. Great will be the responsibility of the present generation. For them Genius has descended to definition, and Science disrobed herself of the mystery of ages. But as no blessing is without [98] alloy, is it not to be feared that these privileges, through Profusion, may frustrate their own design? If, through their aid, no "royal road to astronomy" has been discovered, has not something very like a dunce's avenue to literature, been laid open? Will the mind, which is released from the necessity of laborious research, obtain that pre-eminence which habits of application can alone bestow? Are we not in some danger of having more superficial, than profound students? The supcriour learning of the ancients, has been resolved into a single circumstance,—the scarcity of books. We would not willingly see a return of that scarcity; yet it might be well for education to impress on youth the importance of making itself master of the necessary elementary works, as thoroughly as if there were none beside. This might demand a perseverance which would disturb the repose of indolence, but it would strengthen the energies of intellect. The respect, which, forty years since, was shewn to the extrinsic value of books, did not diminish the sense of their intrinsic worth. The maxim, then enforced, both by the parent and pedagogue, that it was shameful to deface and destroy them, heightened the estimation of their contents; as, in monarchical governments, the sacredness of the person of the King gives weight to his prerogative. Now, the idler in school finds no method of escaping his lessor, more convenient, than to render it illegible, or to mislay, and destroy his book.

Madam Lathrop, educated in the sobriety and economy of [99] more ancient times, entrusted her volumes to the little readers, with repeated injunctions not to tear, tarnish, or turn down the leaves. These directions usually accompanied those also, which she gave as presents, and so well were they obeyed, that it was a general remark, no books retained their beauty so long as hers, whether lent, given away, or retained in her own library.

Some of these fairy forms might sometimes be descried in closer contact with the Lady, displaying their powers of recitation. Then, might be heard, in every variety of emphasis and intonation, the standard pieces of the day, "How doth the little busy bee,"—[3]"Abroad in the meadows to see the young lambs,"—[4]or "Though I am young, a little one."[5] Thus, an opportunity was afforded for inquiry into their different grades of improvement at school, and for those admonitions respecting the value of time, industry, and correct habits, which she was as faithful to impress as she was happy to adapt to different dispositions, and degrees of improvement.

These little groups could not be persuaded to separate, without a song from their kind patroness. Her memory, well stored with songs which had been fashionable in her youth, and her voice, of great melody and compass, were always at the command of these lilliputian visitants; for she felt that she not only thus gave them pleasure, but cherished gentle, and virtuous sentiments. "The distracted Lady," a tender and melancholy complaint of a young female, bereft of reason, was a great favourite with [100] the auditors. So was "Indulgent parents dear," an ancient ballad of considerable length, and most tragical character. Many an eye, that sparkled with curiosity ^ when the hero of the tale, moved by love, sought the hand of a "maid of low degree," was dilated with horrour, when his proud mother took the life of the kneeling fair-one; or was suffused with tears, when the unfortunate youth, discovering the deed, and reproaching the guilty murderess—

            "————————his rapier drew,
            And pierc'd his bosom through,
            And bade this world adieu,
                        Forevermore."

The address of the "Ghost of Pompey to his wife Cornelia," was considered as the climax of this part of the entertainment. It is here subjoined, as a specimen of the grave song, admired at that period among the better educated part of the community. Its antiquity is not known to the writer, but it has been used as a song in Connecticut, for more than a century.

           "From lasting and unclouded day,
            From joys refn'd, above allay,
            And from a spring without decay—

            I come!—by Cynthia's borrow'd beams,
            To visit my Cornelia s dreams,
            And give them yet sublimer themes.

            Behold the man thou lov'dst before!
            Pure streams have wash'd away his gore,
            And Pompey now shall bleed no more [101]

            By death, this glory I assume,
            Nor could I bear the fearful doom,
            To outlive the liberties of Rome.

            By me, her changeful fate was tried,
            Her honour was my dearest pride,
            I for it liv'd, and with it died.

            Nor shall my vengeance he withstood,
            Nor unattended with a flood
            Of Roman and Egyptian blood;

            Cæsar himself it shall pursue,
            His days shall troubled be, and few,
            And he shall fall by treason too.

            He, by severity divine,
            Shall swell the offerings at my shrine,
            As I was his, he shall be mine.

            Regret thy woes, my Love, no more,
            For Fate shall waft thee soon ashore,
            And to thy Pompey, thee restore;

            Where, past the fears of sad removes,
            We'll entertain our deathless loves,
            In beauteous and immortal groves:

            There, none a tyrant's crown shall wear,
            No Cæsar be dictator there,
            Nor shall Cornelia shed a tear.

Perhaps some young mind imperceptibly imbibed a love for the lore of Rome, from the explanations often connected with these quaint stanzas, whose tune, by her manner of execution, possessed exquisite harmony. Inquiries, from the more intelligent, would invariably follow, about Rome and Caesar, and "Cynthia's borrow'd beams," which the Lady answered in such a manner as to excite [102] stronger curiosity. She would then direct them to proper books for gaining requisite knowledge, and propose questions to be answered respecting it, at their next meeting. Frequently, during the intervals of these parties, the infant students might be heard asking each other, "do you know perfectly where Rome was? and how large? and who was its founder? and what were the characters of Pompey and Cæsar? and why Cynthia's beams are said to be "borrow'd beams?" Each was anxious to render the most clear account to their kind benefactress, who often rewarded patient research, with some book adapted to excite it anew. But, not satisfied with sowing the seeds of knowledge in the soil of infancy, she sought to implant the germs of piety. Her stock of devotional pieces of music was large; many of them simple in their construction,—all rendered delightful by her powers of voice, and perfect elocution. One called "Solitude," and commencing with "What voice is this I hear?" and another, which the children familiarly styled, "Ah me !" were earnestly Sought for, and seemed to inspire a mixture of softened and solemn feeling. "While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night," was understood by them as a close of their musical entertainment, or a signal that as much as was proper had been accorded. Yet a few tender remarks usually followed, on the character of that Saviour who was thus represented as bringing peace and good will, with a brief illustration of their duty in order to gain his love. An early supper was given to these joyous guests, most of [103] whom were accustomed to retire to slumber with the birds. Full of pleasure, which seemed more dignified than that usually exemplified in childhood, because it was derived from a higher source, they separated, praising the benevolent Lady, who expressed such an interest in their welfare.

A description of scenes like these will doubtless be condemned by many, as puerile. They will immediately discern in it proofs of that mental dotage, which leads us, in our second childhood, to cling tenderly to the most minute traces of the first.

They may perhaps inquire, of what consequence is it if the children of another age were amused and improved at the same time? Probably of none, to those who are willing theirs should find amusement, at the expense of improvement. But it was deemed of some importance, in pourtraying a character which really existed, to represent things as they were. It was not thought improper to follow the smaller streams, which might diverge from so pure a fountain. The science of conferring happiness depends less upon splendid achievements, and fortuitous combinations of circumstance, than upon those smaller occurrences, which vary the common lot of existence: as the evidence of piety, is not so much in sustaining great affliction, as in surmounting those slighter perplexities, where, if we may use the expression, the soul imagines herself to be out of sight of the Deity. Yet might this simple delineation, of what one of the best of human beings was, in the humbler walks of her benevolence, induce [104] but one heart to exercise the same friendly influence over the welfare of the rising generation, cheerfully should this volume sustain all the censure which the critic might pronounce. More than one of those, who now bend beneath the burdens of maturity, can look back to the scenes of happy youthful instruction which have been here depicted, then upward to the realm of glory, and say,—

           "If some faint love of goodness glow in me,
            Pure Spirit! I first caught that flame from thee."[6]

No heart ought more warmly to respond these sentiments, than that which now thrills, even to tears, while the hand traces this feeble transcript of its benefactress. That gratitude, which hovers round her bright image, revolts, both at the veil which conceals it, and at the faintness of its own pencil. It is not meet here to speak of personal obligations, of the kindness that encouraged a lonely spirit, and the monitions that strove to guide it in the way to heaven. The still voice of memory is idle music in the ear of the world. Thus far, the full heart has forced the pen to trespass. The remainder shall be inscribed upon a tablet which fades not, and which will be spread where the righteous hear the words, "Inasmuch as ye have done good unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me."[7]

There was, about this noble female, an union of majes ty with mildness, which I have never seen equalled. [105] Doubtless, much of excellence exists in modern times, and my lot has been so graciously cast by heaven, as often to bring me into contact with some of the purest and best, some who still retain traces of that disinterested benevolence, which the cynic pronounces to have fled from the earth. Yet, whether it be that more of sublimity really belonged to the worthies of ancient days, or whether the moral perceptions, like the physical tastes, of childhood possess a keenness, a zest, which never again return, I cannot say; but there seems to me nothing now on earth, like the hallowed, saintlike dignity of a few who were serenely awaiting their departure from this world, when I had just entered it.

Should any visitant of Norwich ever direct his steps to the spot, where its lifeless inhabitants rest from their labours, perchance he might descry a simple white stone, bearing one inspired passage from the man of wisdom. At its foot, a smaller monument testifies, that Death smiteth the bud in its greenness, and that a mother had thrice wept. By its side, another speaks, in its marble stillness, the words of the moral poet,

            "What tho we wade in wealth, or soar in fame?
            Earth's highest station ends in, here he lies,
            And "dust to dust!" concludes her noblest song."<ref>Young. Night Thoughts. Night iv.

Let the stranger, who discovers these vestiges, know that his foot presses the dust of her, of whom "the world was not worthy." And, if he believe that the righteous [106] shall rise to immortality, at the "voice of the archangel, and at the trump of God," let him kneel over their slumbering ashes, and breathe the soul's voiceless prayer, that he may live their life.

Notes[edit]

  1. Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto Fourth.
  2. Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College reads as follows:

          "Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed,
                Less pleasing when possest;
          The tear forgot as soon as shed,
                The sunshine of the breast"
  3. Watts, Isaac. Against Idleness and Mischief.
  4. Watts, Isaac. Innocent Play.
  5. "Though I am young, a little one" is an untitled poem which had a rather long version in The New England Primer. A shorter version appeared on pages 9-10 of The Infant School and Nursery Hymn Book.[1]

                THOUGH I am young a little one,
                If I can speak and go alone,
                Then I must learn to know the Lord,
                And learn to read his holy word.
                'Tis time to seek to God and pray
                For what I want for every day,
                I have a precious soul to save,
                And I a mortal body have.
                                      The Infant School and Nursery Hymn Book, 2nd ed. New York: A. W. Corey: 1829.

  6. More, Hannah. "Sensibility". In Sensibility, Mrs. More noted that sensibility (modern usage might favor compassion) is not to be found in tears at "Clarissa's woes." She then apologizes to Samuel Richardson for her reproach of Clarissa:
                   Forgive, oh Richardson, nor think I mean,
                With cold contempt, to blast thy peerless scene;
                If some faint love of virtue glow in me,
                Pure spirit, I first caught that flame from thee.
  7. Matthew 25:35-40. In the King James translation, the parallel portion of Matthew 25:40 reads "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."