1885 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Park

Robert C. Jenkins, Outline of the Life of Thomas Park (1885) 7-20.



It would be vain indeed to attempt to draw a finished picture of a life which has too long passed away from the scene of its many trials and bright, Christian example, to enable the few who still remember it to retrace it, except in the merest outline. Of the contemporary friends of Thomas Park, artist, antiquary, poet, and editor of many of the antiquarian and literary collections which were produced in the early part of the present century, very few survived his day. For when we mention the names of Cowper the poet, of Hayley, his biographer, of Dr. Darwin and Miss Seward, of Southey, of Sir Walter Scott, of Haydn, and even of Dr. Johnson, whom he remembered in his earlier years, we may well feel that we are speaking of a very distant past when we refer to the contemporaries of the excellent and saintly man whose memories were associated with theirs. Even those whose earliest recollections belong to his parting years are becoming fewer and fewer, and all that remains for them is the task of deepening, or perhaps retracing, the faint lines of his portrait, which are yet unobliterated — carefully, and with loving hands, gleaning from his few published writings (now themselves become very scarce) such slender materials as may, when illustrated by their own recollections, redeem from, at least, total oblivion a life which lightened many in a day of great spiritual gloom, and when examples of a simple faith and a consistent testimony to the truth and power of the gospel were rarer than they are in our own more favoured age.

The village of East Acton, a hamlet of the extensive parish of that name, which is now almost merged in the metropolis, was, a century and a half ago, and continued to be even in recent memory, a singularly remote and isolated spot; one which presented to those of humble fortune a suitable retreat from the labours and business of the great city, of whose suburbs it now forms a part. "The Acton wells were then in great repute for their medicinal qualities," as Lysons tells us in his account of the environs of London.

"The assembly room was then a place of very fashionable resort, and the neighbouring hamlets of East Acton and Friars Place were filled with persons of all ranks, who came to reside there during the summer season. The wells have long since lost their celebrity; fashion and novelty having given a preference to springs of the same nature at a greater distance from the metropolis." It was at East Acton, whose seclusion presented a contrast to the gaieties of the Well-house, that the parents of Thomas Park lived in lowly and peaceful retirement.

Of the earlier life of his father I know nothing, except that he had raised himself by honest industry to position in which he was able to live with comfort — "rich rather from wanting little than from having much." St. Chrysostom has somewhere said, that "it is better for parents to boast of their children, than children of their parents." But though the son, in this case, less boasted of his parents than reverenced their memory even to devotion, he has left us in several of his poems such a testimony to their piety and excellence as somewhat to modify the rule of the great Eastern Father. The father of the subject of our narrative died many years before his mother, who survived till "past the verge of eighty-nine," as he mentions in some touching lines addressed to her "while sleeping.'' The "close of her pure and pious life," he observes in a note, "was most calm, most saintly, most consolatory. She had outlived every early friend except her son, and was longing for spiritual re-union." In an earlier poem he says of her:—

Yet as the sun the wintry landscape cheers
Let but religion beam on life's decline,
Let virtue's lustre grace the brow of years,
As now they gild a parent's, brighten mine.

The epitaph on his father, which still, I believe, may be read in Acton churchyard, gives as touching a testimony to the filial devotion of the writer:—

When some fond youth by kindred grief is led
To court the dwellings of the sainted dead,
If filial fondness from parental worth
Should lead his footsteps to this hallowed earth,
Here let him rest, — and from this mournful stone
Learn that his sorrows are not his alone—
That he whose honoured dust reposes here
Had every gift to make his being dear,
Had all that heaven of excellence could blend
To make the father cherished as tho friend—
Had all that earth in anguish could resign,
Yet know, sad sorrower, that task was mine!
—And if such sympathy may soothe your grief,
May give the wounded bosom short relief,
O! let the soul this higher prospect cheer,
To gain hereafter what it valued here!

The earlier life of the son of these pious parents, was little else than a daily endeavour to follow in their footsteps. This, as a child, he used to attempt to do in its most literal sense. "It was told me," he writes, "I believe, by my grandmother, that children ought carefully to tread in the steps of their parents; and such was my filial respect and childish simplicity that I used to follow my father whenever I could, and try to place my feet where he had steps before." At ten years of age, he was sent to the grammar school at Heighington, in Durham — probably the place of the earlier settlement of his family — where he boarded with a worthy matron, one Dame Morris, to whose memory he dedicates some playful and graceful lines in his early poems. Here he remained five years, and tho neglect of religious teaching and even of the reading of the Bible, led him to "perceive what a mercy it was that he did not close his earthly existence at what was called a grammar school." Between this period and his entrance upon the study of engraving in mozzotint — a beautiful form of art, which the more perfect development of line engraving has so long superseded, though now it appears to be again reviving — I am unable to recover any record or line of his life. The high proficiency he attained in this style of art, introduced him to the greatest painters of the day; and many specimens of his work are to be found in the larger collections, some of which are well remembered by tho writer of this sketch.

While the labours of life at this time were comparatively calm and monotonous, the pleasures which relieved them were few and simple. It was the day of Ranelagh, of the Pantheon, and of Marybone Gardens — scenes which recall the memory of the Evelina of Miss Burney, and which Mr. Park could well remember. Indeed, his recollections of the London of the past were as full and fresh as those of the late famous antiquary, Mr. Douce; and it is greatly to be regretted that they can now be no more recovered. About this period he married Miss Bagot, a lady whose musical accomplishments were but a part of her higher intellectual qualifications. The former had secured to her the friendship of Haydn, some of whose pieces were dedicated to her. As the musical instructress of many of the nobility, and notably of the family of the Duke of Devonshire, she was enabled to contribute very materially to the comfort of that happy and united home, which several of the poems we have referred to describe with such grateful affection. To her musical powers, one of the last of the Morning Thoughts makes allusion in the words:—

By skill and science highly was she graced,
In Music's melting art; and with such taste
And touch of feeling did she sounds convey,
Her heart appeared more than her hands to play.

In the lines called Contentment Vindicated, On quitting a Country Residence, and An Apology for my Garden, the picture of this happy home is gracefully sketched. We are introduced to tho mother, the children, the garden, whose flowers were over the same yet ever new, the old filbert-tree — everything, in a word, which contributed to the happiness of a peaceful and simple life, and was sufficient for all its needs:—

The jessamine, sweet-briar, woodbine and rose,
Are all that the west of my garden bestows;
And all on tho east that I have or desire
Are the woodbine and jessamine, blush-rose and briar;
For variety little, can add to the scent,
And the eye needs no change where the heart is content

But the storm, too soon, fell upon that peaceful and happy circle. The wife and mother, the centre of the loving group, was taken away. The winter of trial and tempest had begun, and the life which had been thus stricken could look for no second spring. In the little poem called The Widower, he touches the chord of his life-long grief in this simple strain:

From the dwelling of the widower
There breathed a hollow moan;
With some one he seemed talking
When I knew he was alone:
I listened at the lattice
Of the chamber where he lay,
And thus, mid sobs of anguish,
I heard him sadly say—
Thou divest in my bosom, love,
Though thou from earth hast fled,
And on thy widowed pillow
Shall no other lay her head.

This bitter parting left him alone in the charge of a family entirely dependent upon his own labours, now, unhappily, become increasingly trying, on account of his failing sight; and the severe stress of a branch of art peculiarly affecting the eyes, compelled him to fall back upon those literary tastes which were perhaps more congenial to him, and which introduced him to the most cultivated society in England. With the poet Cowper he now entered into a regular correspondence, while Hayley, Miss Seward, Southey, and other literary characters of the day were numbered among his friends and patrons. His admiration of Cowper was almost enthusiastic, and only equalled by that which, on other grounds, he expressed for the great Wilberforce, to whom he dedicated his Morning Thoughts and Midnight Musings, published by subscription in 1818. Among the fruits of his editorial labours were his well-known edition of the British poets — that of Horace Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, the Harleian Miscellany, a valuable and judicious selection of the rarest tracts of that great library, and many other works of a kindred nature. But the yet higher task of educating his only son engrossed every thought that could be spared from those labours which supplied the means of providing for it, now so sadly restricted. Removing him from a school where, after the lax example of the time, a higher religious profession, and punctual fulfilment of religious duty had met with ridicule and even persecution, he took upon himself the task of carrying on his education. With what success he completed it may be gathered from the history of the life of his son, who, after an honourable career as a conveyancer, was nominated by Lord Eldon to the professorship of Law in King's College, London, then lately founded. John James Park, who (as his father used playfully to say) was not named from Rousseau, is well known to the topographical world as the author of the History of Hampstead, a work which has few parallels in tho department of local history and research.

For many years the residence of the family had been transferred to that then rural scene, now become almost a suburb of London, and every part of it was so well known to the subject of our narrative in all its earlier history, that a walk in his company through its fields and lanes was ever illustrated by the memories or traditions of the past, and was, as the writer of these lines has experienced it to be, a treat of a high order. The admirable compilation of the son has fortunately preserved these illustrations of earlier times. Would that he had lived to record with equal fidelity the life of him by whom his interest in the scene of his early ears was first awakened! . . .

The closing years of his life were spent in his house in Church Row, one of the last relics of the Hampstead of an earlier day; his next neighbour having been the late Mr. Edward Upham, whose name was well known in the literary world, and whose conversation was remarkable for a dry humour, which rendered him a pleasant companion to all his contemporaries. The same row of houses numbered among its residents tho venerable Joanna Baillie, the most perfect picture that could be imagined of tho charm and dignity of age — a rare combination of intellectual power and womanly grace. I know not whether the subject of these lines enjoyed the acquaintance of his highly gifted neighbour, but as both were friends of Sir Walter Scott, and of many other literary celebrities of the age, I cannot but entertain the belief that he did. But of all the friends who were near him or around him, there was none more like himself, none to whom he was so closely allied in deep religious sentiment, as the late Miss Devon, the martyr to a terrible disease, and as signal an instance of the power of the gospel in those under extreme physical suffering, as her friend was of its sustaining influence under a succession of domestic afflictions, but rarely paralleled, and which followed him up to the last. For the illness and death of his son, and the reappearance of the hereditary affliction in the case of his surviving daughters, darkened the closing days of his life with clouds of deep and impenetrable sorrow, never to pass away until that day when the inspiring words of the prophet shall be fulfilled: — "He will bring me forth into the light" (Micah vii. 9).

We may well read almost the last of his "Midnight Musings" as the description of these days of returning gloom, and of the spirit in which he met them:—

The world sets in night, I no more look for day,
But faith may yet strengthen, though nature decay;
Lift up, O! my spirit, thy hope to thy God,
And thins on the path which Immanuel trod.
Remember the pangs which His body endured,
Remember the grace which for us He procured;
Whate'er may be mine, yet far more was His pain,
And believers in Jesus should never complain.

The last illness was a long and painful one, but the hymns and lines which were written during the intervals of suffering bear witness to the cheering fact that his faith not only never failed for an instant, but was brighter and brighter as his life came nearer to the "perfect day." . . .