1891 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Mitford

Charlotte Matilda Houstoun, in Letters and Reminiscences of the Rev. John Mitford (1892) 53-57.



To one who, like my father, was deeply imbued with the vital importance of religious faith, and whose respect for the duties which that faith inculcates neither slumbered nor slept, the unfitness of Mr. Mitford for the profession on which he had entered was a source of great and constant regret. The Rector of Benhall, excellent "company" albeit he was, and, as a rule, possessed in appearance of a cheerful and contented spirit, could not at all times disguise the fact that he was subject to fits of gloom, which rendered his solitary life at Benhall a penance which it was difficult to endure. He and his wife had long been separated, and with his only child, a son, he was not on speaking terms. To neither of these circumstances was he ever heard to allude, whilst, on the subject of religion, to which my father very gently and cautiously sometimes endeavoured to direct his attention, he showed himself equally reticent. I have heard it hinted, but with what truth I know not, that some act of indiscretion committed in the days of his hot youth, and probably since sorely repented of, could alone account for the non-advancement in his profession of a man so highly gifted as was the brilliant scholar, who in the comparative obscurity of a Suffolk Living wore his uneventful life away. Whether or not there was any foundation for the vague reports which from time to time cropped up concerning him, my father never took the trouble to inquire. His affection for his friend and his appreciation of that friend's rich fund of varied lore were inexhaustible, whilst to them was joined a tender pity for the man who perhaps did not enjoy, as was his own case, the inestimable blessing of a peaceful conscience.

Mr. Mitford took a great interest in the horticultural improvements which my father, with the saturnine Scotchman for his prime minister, effected in the various royal parks which it was his pleasant lot to embellish. The quaint and now exquisitely beautiful gardens appertaining to Hampton Court Palace were to our visitor a source of endless delight, and many were the hours spent by him on a bench under a yew tree's shade, the while he conjured up visions of fair ladies, attired as their chronicler, gossiping old Pepys, has painted them, "flirting" their fans along the terrace-walk, or,

With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that,

gazing from out the "structure of majestic frame" in which "great Anna" and her attendant "fraus," held, at rare intervals, her Court.

I have often thought that the gift which is possessed by the imaginative, of peopling solitude with persons who centuries perhaps before, have fretted their little hour upon the "stage of fools" is one of the most enviable that can by Nature be bestowed; and this fact has been especially brought home to me when I have watched Mr. Mitford's thoughtful face as he stood in mute contemplation in Cardinal Wolsey's Hall. In the restoration of that most valuable portion of Hampton Court Palace to its original gorgeous and artistic beauty, my father had taken both delight and pride, but I doubt — "labours of love" as the renovation had been to him — whether the great Cardinal, who had "sounded all the depths and shoals of honour," and who must so often in his robes of state have paced the echoing floor of the hall which now bears his name, ever appeared before his (my parent's) mind's eye after the vivid fashion in which, more than three centuries after Wolsey's death, a Protestant priest half realised the mystic presence there of the mighty prince whose "high-blown pride at length broke o'er him."

As a matter of course, and "pair of friends" although they were, they sometimes differed in opinion, and amongst other causes of disagreement was the opposite ideas regarding the character and merits of the poet Shenstone which they severally entertained. Mr. Mitford, who held Gray and Pope to be the first of English bards, took very much the same view of Shenstone's genius and proclivities as did Dr. Johnson. In his opinion, the author of "The Village Schoolmistress" was a vain, self-concentrated man. There was no reality — Mr. Mitford in his arguments with my father urged — in William Shenstone's assumed love of Nature's works. Under no circumstances could he have distinguished himself in the profession (one on which Sylvanus Urban set a high value) of landscape-gardening. His taste, as was evidenced by his adornment of the "Leasowes," was vulgar and meretricious; and as to his poetry, no man, Mr. Mitford would add, could jingle so many rhymes without occasionally producing a couplet which had to the ear a pleasant sound.

I believe that but for my father's enthusiastic admiration for the poet in question — an admiration which Mr. Mitford, with his grave yet comic manner, ascribed to the bees that buzzed about the Leasowes banks, — it is doubtful whether he would have spoken so mercilessly of one whose predilections in many respects resembled his own. Possibly, however, it was that very resemblance which, unknown to himself, aroused a sense of irritation in Mr. Mitford's breast.