1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Pearse Gillies

John Gibson Lockhart, "Letter XLV" Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 3:119-44.



TO THE REV. DAVID WILLIAMS.

Yesterday was one of the happiest days I have spent since my present travels began; and although I had almost made up my mind to trouble you with no more letters of a merely descriptive character, I think I must venture upon giving you some account of it. Part of it, however, was spent in the company of several individuals whom I had for some weeks felt a considerable curiosity to see a little more of — whom, indeed, my friend W— [John Wilson] had long ago promised to introduce more fully to my acquaintance, and of whom, moreover, I am sure you will be very glad to hear me say a few words. But I shall be contented with giving you a narrative of the whole day's proceedings just as they passed.

Mr. W— and I were invited to dine with a Mr. G— [Gillies], to whom I had been introduced by a letter from my old and excellent friend Sir E— B—[Samuel Egerton Brydges], and whose name you have often seen mentioned in Sir E—'s writings, His residence, at the distance of some six or seven miles from Edinburgh, had hitherto prevented me from being much in his society; but I was resolved to set apart one day for visiting him at his villa, and W— was easily persuaded to accompany me. The villa is situated on the banks of the Eske, in the midst of some of the most classical scenery in all Scotland, so we determined to, start early in the day, and spend the morning in viewing the whole of that beautiful glen, arranging matters so as to arrive at Mr. G—'s in good time for dinner. Knowing that the Ettrick Shepherd is a dear and intimate friend of Mr. G—'s, I asked him to take the spare seat in the shandrydan, and promised to bring him safe home in the evening in the same vehicle. The Shepherd consented. Mr. W— gave us a capital breakfast in the Lawnmarket, and the shandrydan was in full career for Roslin Castle by ten o'clock. Horse and man, the whole party were in high spirits; but the gayest of the whole was the worthy Shepherd, who made appearance on this occasion in a most picturesque fishing-jacket, of the very lightest mazarine blue, with huge mother-of-pearl buttons, — nankeen breeches, made tight to his nervous shapes, — and a broad-brimmed white chip hat, with a fine new ribbon to it, and a peacock's feather stuck in front; which last ornament, by the way, seems to be a favourite fashion among all the country people of Scotland.

The weather was very fine, but such, notwithstanding, as to give to the scenery through which our path lay, a grand, rather than a gay appearance. There had been some thunder in the morning, and rain enough to lay the dust on the road, and refresh the verdure of the trees; and although the sun had shone forth in splendour, the sky still retained, all along the verge of the horizon, a certain sombre and lowering aspect, the relics of the convulsions which the whole atmosphere had undergone. I know not if you have remarked it, but Gaspar Poussin, Turner, Calcott, and Schetky, and almost all the great landscape painters, seem to have done so — that this is precisely the situation of the heavens under which both foreground and distance are seen to the greatest effect. The dark inky mantle wrapped all round the circling mountains and plains, afforded a majestic relief to every tree, spire, and cottage which arose before us; and when we turned round, after proceeding a mile or two, and saw the glorious radiant outlines of Edinburgh, rock and tower, painted bright upon the same massy canopy of blue, it was impossible not to feel a solemn exultation in contemplating the harmonious blending together of so many earthly and etherial splendours. The newly-shaken air, too, had a certain elasticity and coolness about it which sent delightful life into our bosoms with every respiration. There was no rioting of spirits, but we enjoyed a rich, quiet, contemplative, and reposing kind of happiness.

The country rather ascends than descends, all the way from Edinburgh to the line of the Eske, where a single turn shuts from the traveller the whole of that extensive stretch of scenery of which the capital forms the centre, and brings him at once into the heart of this narrow, secluded, and romantic valley. At the edge of the ravine we found Mr. G—, and some of his friends whom he had brought with him from his house to join us. Among others, Mr. W—n, his brother, an uncle of theirs, Mr. S—, a fine active elderly gentleman, in whose lineaments and manners I could easily trace all the fire of the line, and an old friend of his, Mr. M—, collector of the customs at Leith, a charming fellow. In company with these, we immediately began to walk down the hill towards Roslyn, directing the shandrydan to be carried round to Mr. G—'s house by the high-way, for the scenes we were about to explore do not admit of being visited except by pedestrians. Before we came to the Castle, we turned off into a field surrounded by a close embowering grove of venerable elms and chesnuts, to see that beautiful little chapel which Mr. Scott has so often introduced in his earlier poems. It stands quite by itself, deserted and lonely; but it is wonderfully entire, and really an exquisite specimen of architecture. Within, the roof and walls are quite covered with endless decorations of sculpture, leaves, and flowers, and heads and groups, not indeed executed in the pure and elegant taste of Melrose, but productive, nevertheless, of a very rich and fanciful kind of effect. The eastern end towards the site of the altar, is supported by a cluster of pillars quite irregular in their shapes and position; some of them wreathed all over, from base to capital, with arabesque ornaments, others quite plain, but the whole suffused with one soft harmonising tinge of green and mossy dampness. Under foot, the stones on which you tread are covered with dim traces of warlike forms — mailed chieftains, with their hands closed in prayer, and dogs and lions couchant at their feet, in the true old sepulchral style of heraldry. It is said, that below each of these stones, the warrior whom it represents lies interred in panoply,—

There are twenty of Roslin's barons bold,
Lie buried within that proud chapelle,—

while, all around, the lower parts of the wall are covered with more modern monuments of the descendants of the same high lineage — the cross ingrailed of St. Clair, and the galleys of Orkney, being everywhere discernible among their rich and varied quarterings. From behind the altar, you step upon the firm stone roof of the sacristy, which projects from below, and it was from thence that I enjoyed the first full view of the whole glen of Roslyn.

The river winds far below over a bed of rock; and such is the nature of its course and its banks, that you never see more than a few broken and far-off glimpses of its clear waters at the same time. On the side on which we stood, the banks consist of green and woody knolls, whose inextricable richness and pomp of verdure is carried down, deepening as it descends, quite to the channel of the stream. Opposite, there shoots up a majestic screen of hoary rocks, ledge rising square and massy upon ledge, from the river to the horizon — but all and every where diversified with fantastic knots of copsewood, projecting arid clinging from the minutest crannies of the cliffs. Far as the eye can reach down the course of the stream, this magnificent contrast of groves and rocks is continued — mingling, however, as they recede from the eye, into one dim magnificent amphitheatre, over which the same presiding spirit of soothing loneliness seems to hover like a garment. The Castle itself is entirely ruined, but its yellow mouldering walls form a fine relief to the eye in the midst of the dark foliage of pines and oaks which everywhere surround it. We passed over its airy bridge, and through its desolate portal, and descending on the other side, soon found ourselves treading upon the mossy turf around the roots of the cliff on which it stands, and within a few yards of the river. From thence we pursued our walk in pairs — Sometimes springing from stone to stone, along the bed of the stream — sometimes forcing ourselves through the thickets, which drop into its margin — but ever and anon reposing ourselves on some open slope, and gazing with new delight from every new point of view, on the eternal, ever-varying grandeur of the rocks, woods, and sky.

My close companion all along was the excellent Shepherd; and I could not have had a better guide in all the mazes of this Tempe, for often, very often had he followed his fancies over every part of it—

—which well he knew; for it had been his lot
To be a wandering stripling — and there raves
No torrent in these glens, whose icy flood
Hath not been sprinkled round his boyish blood.

And in that region shelter is there none
Of overhanging rock or hermit tree,
Wherein he hath not oft essayed to shun
The fierce and fervid day-star's tyranny.

The whole party, however, were congregated where the river washes the base of the caverned rocks of Hawthornden — the most beautiful in itself, and, in regard to recollections, the most classical point of the whole scenery of the Eske. The glen is very narrow here — even more so than at Roslyn, and the rocks on the right rise to a still more magnificent elevation. Such, indeed, is the abruptness of their sheer ascent, that it is with some difficulty the eye can detect, from the brink of the stream, the picturesque outlines of the house of Hawthornden, situated on the summit of the highest crag. The old castle in which Drummond received Ben Jonson, has long since given way; but the more modern mansion is built within the dilapidated circuit of the ancient fortress — and the land is still possessed, and the hall occupied by the lineal descendants of the poet. I know not that there is any spot in Britain made classical by the footsteps of such a person as Drummond, one's notions respecting which are thus cherished and freshened by finding it in the hands of his own posterity, bearing his own name. We clombe the steep banks by some narrow paths cut in the rock, and entered at various points that labyrinth of winding caves, by which the interior of the rock is throughout perforated, and from which part of the name of the place has, no doubt, been derived. Nothing can be more picturesque than the echoing loneliness of these retreats — retreats which often afforded shelter to the suffering patriots of Scotland, long after they had been sanctified by the footsteps of the poet and his friend. Mr. G— carried me into the house, chiefly to shew me the original portrait of Drummond, which is preserved there; and, in truth, I am obliged to him for having done so. The picture represents him at about the age of forty — the best of all ages, perhaps, for taking a man's portrait, if only one is to be taken of him when the substance of the face is in all its firmness and vigour, and the fire of youth has been tempered, but not obscured, by the gravity of manhood. Drummond's features are singularly fine and expressive — and the picture is an admirable one, and in perfect preservation, so that we see them exactly as they were the day they were painted. His forehead is clear, open, and compact, with the short black hair combed back in dark glossy ringlets in the true Italian style — as we see it in the pictures of Venetian Nobles, by Titian. The nose is high and aquiline, and the lips rich and full, like those in the statues of Antinous. His eyes are black as jet, (and so are his eye-brows,) but the dazzle of their brilliancy is softened by a melancholy wateriness, which gives to the whole visage an inexpressible air of pensive delicacy and sentiment. On the whole, I have seldom seen a more lyrical countenance — or one which presents a more striking contrast to the dry, intellectual, sarcastic harshness of the lineaments of Ben Jonson — a portrait of whom also hangs in the same room.

Nature had framed them both, and both were marked
By circumstance with intermixture fine
Of contrast and resemblance.
To an oak Hardy and firm, a weather-beaten oak,
One might be likened....
The other, like a stately sycamore,
That spreads in gentler pomp its honied shade.

It is wonderful, however, when one looks back into history, how many instances of the most sincere, fervent, and brotherly friendships, we see subsisting between men of apparently the most opposite characters and conformations. It would not do if the intellectual consorted only with the intellectual — the sentimental with the sentimental. The same wise regulation which binds the weakness of woman to the strength of man, unites, not unfrequently, the more gentle and amiable class of men in intimate and relying friendship with others of austerer and harsher disposition; and the effects of such union have been most blessed, not only to the men themselves, but to their species. Such was the tender friendship that subsisted between the proud, hot, imperious Martin Luther, and the mild, holy spirit of Melancthon. Such was the humanizing affection which connected Chillingworth with Hales; and such, I doubt not, was the love which sweetened the flow of wit on the one hand, and elevated the tone of feeling on the other,

When Jonson sate in Drummond's social shade.

Old Ben, however, is not the only English poet who has visited a Scottish poet in the glen of the Eske. It was while wandering among these very scenes that Mr. Wordsworth composed his fine Sonnet to Mr. G—, a sonnet which I think Mr. G—- should attend to more seriously than he has yet done. The testimony of Wordsworth is a thing on which he should place far more reliance than on the wavering and desponding fancies of his own too-sensitive and morbid mind. It is impossible to be in his company for such a length of time as I was, on this delightful day, and in the midst of such scenes, without being satisfied that he possesses many of the finest elements of poetical feeling. The labour of condensing and correcting our thoughts and expressions, which, I suppose, is what Mr. G—'s poetry chiefly wants, is, no doubt, a great labour; but it is one, without which nothing can be done, and therefore Mr. G— should submit to it.

We did not arrive at Mr. G—'s villa till about five o'clock, for in walking, loitering, and bathing, we had consumed the whole morning — so that we were well prepared to do justice to our dinner — but, indeed, the dinner might have been enough to tempt appetites more indifferently quickened. What a luxury a good dinner and a bottle of good wine is after a long walk! It always struck me as being a very silly thing in Mahomet, to represent his Paradise as being one unvaried scene of green silk sofas and sparkling goblets. The Northern mythologists, who imagined the Valhalla, have shewn far more knowledge of nature and truth, when they make the heroes of Odin to spend all their mornings in blood and dust, cutting, and slashing, and careering at each other as they had been used to do, till, at the setting of sun, all their wounds are closed at once by magical power, they are bathed, and dressed in soft raiment, and all sit down together to enjoy themselves over a friendly board-as we did now. This is the true way in which life should be made to pass sweetly in this fine time of the year.

At dinner we found a large addition to our party — ladies and gentlemen, some residing for the time under the roof of Mr. G—, — others who had come out from Edinburgh the same morning like ourselves. There was no want of wit — how much of it might be owing to our host's excellent champagne, I shall not pretend to guess. So far, indeed, it appeared to me Mr. G— had followed his friend, the great Laker's advice — for nobody ever lived a more "cheerful life" than he seemed to do, while the tall black bottles chased each other with persevering unrelenting speed around his table. The effect of the champagne on the Ettrick Shepherd, in particular, was quite delightful: Accustomed, for the most part, to the ruder stimulus of whisky-toddy, this etherial inspiration seemed to shoot life with subtler energy through a thousand less explored meanderings of his body and his brain. Among other good things he contributed to our amusement, music was one. Before the ladies left the dining-room, he insisted upon having a violin put into his hands, and really produced a measure of sweet sounds, quite beyond what I should have expected from the workmanship of such horny fingers. It seems, however, he had long been accustomed to minister in this way at the fairs and penny-weddings in Ettrick, and we on the present occasion were well content to be no more fastidious than the Shepherd's old rustic admirers. He appears to be in very great favour among the ladies — and I thought some of the younger and more courtly poets in the company exhibited some symptoms of envying him a little of his copious complement of smiles — and well they might.

We had a great deal of conversation, however, on sober matters of literature and criticism, intermingled with our mirth and the joyous notes of the Shepherd's fiddle. Among other topics, the attacks on the Edinburgh Review in the Edinburgh Magazine, of which I have already spoken to you, were tabled, and a good many remarks were made on them by various persons in the company, among others, your humble servant. I was particularly free in my observations, being aware that a number of the young persons present wrote occasionally in the new Journal, and anxious, from friendly motives, to give them the benefit of a little advice from an unprejudiced and impartial stranger. I gave praise to some particular productions, and censure to others, in the hopes of detecting the authors, in case they should be present, from the variation of their faces; but, of a surety, either the public reports are quite erroneous, or these young gentlemen are masters of more face than I ever met with before in persons of double their years.

It was on this occasion that I had an opportunity of seeing and conversing with Mr. L— who, as well as Mr. W—n, is supposed to be one of the principal supporters of this Magazine, and so of judging for myself concerning an individual who seems to have cared very little how many enemies he raised up among those who were not personally acquainted with him. Owing to the satirical vein of some of the writings ascribed to his pen, most persons whom I have heard speak of him, seemed to have been impressed with the notion that the bias of his character inclined towards an unrelenting subversion of the pretensions of others. But I soon perceived that here was another instance of the incompetency of the crowd to form any rational opinion about persons of whom they see only partial glimpses, and hear only distorted representations. I was not long in his company ere I was convinced that those elements which form the basis of his mind could never find their satisfaction in mere satire, and that if the exercise of penetration had afforded no higher pleasure nor led to any more desireable result than that of detecting error, or exposing absurdity, there is no person who would sooner have felt an inclination to abandon it in despondency and disgust. At the same times a strong and ever-wakeful perception of the ludicrous, is certainly a prominent feature in his composition, and his flow of animal spirits enables him to enjoy it keenly, and invent it with success. I have seen, however, very few persons whose minds are so much alive and awake throughout every corner, and who are so much in the habit of trying and judging every thing by the united tact of so many qualities and feelings all at once. But one meets with abundance of individuals every day, who shew in conversation a greater facility of expression, and a more constant activity of speculative acuteness. I never saw Mr. L— very much engrossed with the desire of finding language to convey any relation of ideas that had occurred to him, or so enthusiastically engaged in tracing its consequences, as to forget every thing else. In regard to facility of expression, I do not know whether the study of languages, which is a favourite one with him — (indeed I am told he understands a good deal of almost all the modern languages, and is well skilled in the ancient ones) — I know not whether this study has any tendency to increase such facility, although there is no question it must help to improve the mind in many important particulars, by varying our modes of perception.

His features are regular, and quite definite in their outlines; his forehead is well advanced, and largest, I think, in the region of observation and perception; but the general expression is rather pensive than otherwise. Although an Oxonian, and early imbued with an admiration for the works of the Stagyrite, he seems rather to incline, in philosophy, to the high Platonic side of the question, and to lay a great deal of stress on the investigation and cultivation of the impersonal sentiments of the human mind — ideas which his acquaintance with German literature and philosophy has probably much contributed to strengthen. Under the influence of that mode of thinking, a turn for pleasantry rather inclines to exercise itself in a light and good-humoured play of fancy, upon the incongruities and absurd relations which are so continually presenting themselves in the external aspect of the world, than to gratify a sardonic bitterness in exulting over them, or to nourish a sour and atrabilious spirit in regarding them with a cherished and pampered feeling of delighted disapprobation, like that of Swift. But Mr. L— is a very young person, and I would hope may soon find that there are much better things in literature than satire, let it be as good-humoured as you will. Indeed, W— tells me he already professes himself heartily sick of it, and has begun to write, of late, in a quite opposite key.

It was here, too, that I first became acquainted with another young gentleman, whose writings in the same Magazine had, in a particular manner, interested and delighted me; and which, indeed, could not possibly excite any feelings but those of the purest delight, in the mind of any person capable of understanding them. This is a Mr. W. H— [Sir William Hamilton]; but the greater part of the company seemed to address him familiarly by the name of Monsieur de Peudemots, which nom-de-guerre was prefixed by him two or three years ago to an exquisite little separate publication of Tales and Essays, or, as he called them, "Fragments and Fictions." I have already sent off this little book to Lady Jones, and I beg you to get it from her and read it with all speed. It is, perhaps, the most perfect bijou our time and country has produced. It appears to me to bear to the prose of our day pretty much the same relation the poetry of Rogers does to our popular poetry. It displays a profound elegance of thought and language — a pure, playful, inoffensive wit — and a most thrilling and poetic tenderness of feeling, such as have very rarely been united in any work of any country, and such as I run no risk in saying were never before displayed in union in the work of a man not much above twenty years of age.

Since his little book was published, however, M. de Peudemots (to judge from the writings, which the inimitable purity of style shews very plainly to be his,) has not a little enlarged his views in regard to men, and manners, and philosophy — and, I doubt not, he will soon shew this enlargement in some very splendid way. By what process of circumstances such a mind as his is, should have been formed and nurtured into its present condition, in the midst of the superficial talkers and debaters of Edinburgh, I am greatly at a loss to imagine. It must, indeed, have been a very noble armour of innate strength, which has enabled him to resist so much of precept and example — and, in spite of all that was passing around him, to train himself, from his earliest years, in so sure a reliance upon the finer examples and higher precepts of the old times of England. It is easy to see much of this inward strength beaming through the modesty of his physiognomy — and in his organization upwards, it is still more easy to detect the marks of a commanding intellect He has a high pale forehead, the pure intellectual conformation of which is sufficient to render it perfectly beautiful. So much for one whose name will not long be an obscure one.

I was introduced also to a third of these youthful coadjutors, in the person of a Captain H— [Captain Thomas Hamilton], a very fine-looking young officer, whom the peace has left at liberty to amuse himself in a more pleasant way than he was accustomed to, so long as Lord Wellington kept the field. He has a noble Spaniard-looking head, and a tall, graceful person, which he swings about in a style of knowingness that might pass muster even in the eye of Old Potts. The expression of his features is so very sombre, that I should never have guessed him to be a playful writer, (indeed how should I have guessed such a person to be a writer at all?) — Yet such is the case — for, unless I am totally misinformed, he is the author of a thousand beautiful jeux-d'esprit, both in prose and verse, which I shall point out to you more particularly when we meet.

In the conversation of this large party, and over the prime Chateau-Margout of Mr. G— the time past most agreeably till ten o'clock, at which hour we transferred ourselves to the drawing-room, and began dancing reels in a most clamorous and joyous manner, to the music sometimes of the Shepherd's fiddle — sometimes of the harpsichord. On these latter occasions the Shepherd himself mingled in the maze with the best of us, and indeed displayed no insignificant remains of that light-heeled vigour, which enabled him in his youth (ere yet he had found nobler means of distinction,) to bear the bell on all occasions from the runners and leapers of Ettrick-dale. The great beauty of this man's deportment, to my mind, lies in the unaffected simplicity with which he retains, in many respects, the external manners and appearance of his original station — blending all, however, with a softness and manly courtesy, derived, perhaps, in the main, rather from the natural delicacy of his mind and temperament, than from the influence of anything he has learned by mixing more largely in the world. He is truly a most interesting person — his conversation is quite picturesque and characteristic, both in its subjects and its expression — his good-humour is unalterable, and his discernment most acute — and he bears himself with a happy mixture of modesty and confidence, such as well becomes a man of genius, who has been born and bred in poverty, and who is still far from being rich, but who has forfeited, at no moment of his career, his claim to the noble consciousness of perfect independence.

A merry supper, followed by a variety of songs and stories, detained us at Lasswade till a late, or rather till an early hour; but the moon had arisen in all her brightness, and our drive to Edinburgh was a cooling and calm termination to all the hilarities of the evening.

This morning I spent almost entirely in driving from one house to another, bidding adieu for a few months to such of my Edinburgh friends as are still in town. This would, indeed, have been a sad duty, but for the prospect of meeting them all again after my return from the ulterior part of my pilgrimage. In the meantime, however, it is a real sorrow for me to part, even with that consolation in view, for so long a time from my excellent old friend, Mr. W—. His kindness has really been such as I can never repay — not even in gratitude. Ever since I came, he seems to have made me, my comfort, and convenience, and gratification, the sole subject of his concern. I trust I shall be able to induce him to give me, so far, my revenge, next summer in Cardigan — but, alas! what can I shew him there like much of what he has shewn me in Edinburgh?

My time, however, presses, and I cannot possibly delay setting off for Glasgow any longer. I propose spending a week in and about that city, to several of the most respectable inhabitants of which I have received letters of introduction, through the kindness of my indefatigable friend. To-day W— dines with me, once more "solus cum solo," at my hotel — and with tomorrow's dawn I must gird myself for my journey. I shall write to you shortly after my arrival; but, in the meantime, in case you should write to me, address your letters to the Buck's-Head Hotel, Glasgow.

Ever your's,

P. M.

P.S. Don't forget to borrow M. de Peudemot's book from my aunt. If you don't get the "One Night in Rome" by heart, I shall lose all faith in your taste.