1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Horace Smith

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 2:198-210.



Horace Smith was acquainted with a medical gentleman who had in his possession the head of Oliver Cromwell, and to gratify my curiosity, gave me a note to him. There accompanied the head a memoir relating to its history. It had been torn from the tomb with the heads of Ireton and Bradshaw, after the accession of Charles II., under a feeling of impotent vengeance. All three were fixed over the entrance of Westminster Hall. The other bones of those three distinguished men being interred at Tyburn under the gibbet, an act well fitting the Stuart character. During a stormy night the centre head, which was that of Cromwell, fell to the ground. The sentry on guard beneath, having a natural respect for an heroic soldier, no matter of what party, took up the head and placed it under his cloak until he went off duty. He then carried it to the Russells, who were the nearest relations of Cromwell's family, and disposed of it to them. It belonged to a lady, a descendant of the Cromwell's, who did not like to keep it in her house. There was a written minute extant with it. The disappearance of the head is mentioned in some of the publications of the time. It had been carefully embalmed, as Cromwell's body is known to have been two years before its disinterment. The nostrils were filled with a substance like cotton. The brain had been extracted by dividing the scalp. The membranes within were perfect, but dried up and looked like parchment. The decapitation had evidently taken place after death, as the state of the flesh over the vertebra of the neck plainly showed. It was hacked, and had evidently been done by a hand not used to the work, for there were several cuts besides that which separated the bone. The beard, of a chesnut colour, seemed to have grown after death. An ashen pole, pointed with iron, had received the head clumsily impaled on its point, which came out an inch above the crown, rusty and time-worn. The wood of the staff, and the skin itself, had been perforated by the common wood worm. I wrote to Smith that I had seen it, and deemed it genuine. He replied:

"I am gratified you were pleased with the head, as I was when I saw it, being fully persuaded of its identity. It is indeed a pregnant source of reflections, very humiliating to human nature, and I am afraid we are not much advanced since the days of Cromwell. To bury a man alive, is worse than disinterring him after death. But, perhaps, the process may be reversed in the case of Napoleon, and his bones be as much honoured as he is now degraded. Next week I take my departure for Italy, &c."

What a singular coincidence! The bones of Napoleon have been honoured, and he in France after all. I have preserved but few of the letters of Horace Smith. He took up his quarters at Versailles after he quitted business in London, residing at 15, Rue des Reservoirs.

"Dear Sir,

I have been a good deal occupied in changing and furnishing my lodgings, and have had but little time for writing, and I have no access to books, as mine have not yet been returned from Italy, but they are on the route, and I hope to keep you supplied with admissible matter. Your account of the sale is gratifying, and I should think must be satisfactory to Mr. Colburn, even should it not advance further, though his heavy expenses must demand a wide circulation.

"That you should not receive much novelty is natural enough, for who the deuce can hit upon anything new, when half the world are racking their brains to do the same. The magazine certainly improves, and as far as I can judge from those who see it here, and at Galignani's, gives great satisfaction.

"I had heard of poor Leigh Hunt's adventure, I hope to heaven he will get out to Italy somehow, for this is the very crisis of his fate, not only as it may remove him from all the devilry with which he has been so long beleaguered, but that it may place him within the powerful influence of Lord Byron. His non-arrival has occasioned a whole chapter of embarrassments at Pisa, where his lordship has appropriated a part of his palace for his reception, and has matured the other plans for which he was wanted. What these are I do not exactly know, but Shelley is only interested as an occasional contributor, and none of the party will dream of heretical, still less of atheistical theories, in a Periodical publication which would be inevitably suppressed. Though Shelley is my most particular friend, I regret the imprudence of his early publications on more points than one, but as I know him to possess the most exalted virtues, and find in others who promulgate the most startling theories, most amiable traits, I learn to be liberal towards abstract speculations, which not exercising any baneful influence on their author's lives, are still less likely to corrupt others. Truth is great, and will prevail — that is my motto, and I would, therefore, leave everything unshackled — what is true will stand, and what is false ought to fall, whatever be the consequences. Ought we not to feel ashamed that Lucretius could publish his book in the teeth of an established religion, while martyrs are groaning in perpetual imprisonment, for expressing a conscientious dissent from Christianity.

"Human punishments and rewards will generally be found sufficient for human control, so far as it can really be controlled. Jack Ketch is the most effectual devil, and the gallows the most practical hell, the theoretical ones, which could not deter from crime, are seldom much thought of by the rogue until these most tangible ones are about to punish him.

"John Hunt is a fine spirited fellow, and I beg to be kindly remembered to him.

"I am delighted with France, particularly Versailles, and do not think of an immediate return. There is very good English society here.

"I never look at the magazine without wondering how you get through the labour, which I fear is too heavy to allow you any trip to this side, where I should be most happy to see you. I have taken apartments and furnished them myself; which I find a much cheaper plan.

"I am always, Dear Sir,

Yours very faithfully,

HORATIO SMITH."

I cannot, out of his letters left undestroyed, omit the following. Of the authors of the "Rejected Addresses," he was the superior. His brother was given to jest and epigram only, and was more confined in his views of men and things, being little of the philosopher.

"Versailles, 15, Rue des Reservoirs.

Many thanks, my dear Sir, for your acceptable letter of the 21st July, handed to me by Mr. Crowe, who passed a day with me, very agreeably on my part, and to whom I should have been happy to shew further civilities, but that the shortness of his stay prevented it. He seems a very intelligent unassuming man, and I should much like to join him in his excursion, as I still hope to visit the classic regions if I can get my wife's health re-established.

"I understand the paragraph to which you allude in Blackwood, is an ill-natured one towards me, and it does not contain an atom of truth, as I knew nothing, whatever, of the projected work at Pisa, and certainly shall not contribute a line, even were I requested, which I have never been, so that if you have an opportunity of contradicting the assertion, I will thank you to do so. Even Shelley, the only one of the party with whom I am in communication, has no share in the domiciliation of Hunt, nor has he pledged himself to any literary participation in the plans, whatever they may be. From him I have lately heard of Hunt's arrival at Genoa on his way to Leghorn, Lord Byron's present residence, where he is amusing himself with a beautiful yacht, which he has just had built at Genoa. Two more cantos of Don Juan are finished, at which I for one feel little pleasure, for I hate all productions, whatever be their talent, which present disheartening and degrading views of human nature. This is, in my opinion, worse than impiety, though it is the latter imputation which will destroy its popularity in England, almost the only country existing in Europe where bigotry retains its omnipotence. You did well, however, to strike out anything in any contribution calculated to give offence, even to particular professions, for what Johnson said of the drama is applicable to magazines: 'Those who live to please, must please to live.'

"I suppose a similar feeling suppressed my final journal of a tourist, where my summary of the French national character is probably deemed too favourable, though I do think the English might be benefited by hearing something about the virtues of their neighbours, instead of having their blind hostility aggravated by lying diatribes. A man of four or five hundred a year keeps a cabriolet and horse which would be hooted and pelted in England, but they answer his purpose, convey him to his friends, and give him air, pleasure, and variety. All these an Englishman forgoes if he cannot do it in style, and mount a lackey behind in a blue jacket with gold lace. Pride, filthy pride! — pride is the besetting sin of England, and like most other sins brings its own punishment, by converting existence into a struggle, and environing it with gloom and heartburning.

"I am exactly of your feeling — I can live comfortably under an arbitrary foreign government, while I was perpetually annoyed at home by the tyranny and mismanagement of men whose talents were despicable. I felt as if I was constantly kicked by jackasses — here I do not trouble my head about the French, and only endeavour to forget the English ministers.

"Your information about a paper will be most valuable if we get permission to establish one, of which I have no expectation. We have a Paris English magazine, to which Galignani has started an opposition. I occasionally give it a lift with my pen, but neither of the works answer, nor do I much expect they will. Adieu,

My dear Sir,

Yours very faithfully,

HORATIO SMITH."

I subjoin another note or two of this most excellent man and esteemed friend. It is likely that I over-rate his abilities, but to over-rate the virtues of his heart is scarcely possible.

"My dear Sir,

I have been waiting for a conveyance to London to thank you for Andrews' Travels, which have at length come safely to hand, spite of your apprehensions that they might have been mislaid, and I find them to contain a good deal of curious matter and information which to me was new.

"You came down last month to take a shower-bath or two, if you want 'warm' baths now is your time; and you will have nothing to pay, as the air will confer them gratuitously.

"Should any of the articles I gave you for the magazine prove objectionable you can return them when. any parcel is coming from Burlington Street. They are mere hors-d'euvres as the French 'cartes' say, and do not deserve to be treated with any ceremony.

Yours very truly,

HORATIO SMITH.

"P.S. Will you tell Colburn, when you see him, that 'Zillah' is the most appropriate name he could choose for my novel. I find that lady was the mother of Tubal Cain, the first of the Smiths, and of course the founder of my family; perhaps the circumstance was in Mr. —'s eye when he pitched upon Zillah!"

I had been requested to write for the editions of "The English Poets," published in Paris by Gallignani, sketches of the lives of most of them, among the rest of Shelley. He wrote me as follows, Mrs. Shelley subsequently supplying me with what I wanted.

"Brighton, 10, Hanover Crescent, 6th April.

My dear Redding,

It does, indeed, seem an age since we encountered, but we live in the hope that when the summer swallows visit us, you will also take wing from the great mart of drudgery, intellectual, manual and financial, and pay us a visit. You will find us still in Hanover Crescent, but in improved quarters at No. 10, where I need not say that you may always depend upon a hearty welcome from me and mine. Two of my daughters are on a visit to H—, and if I go to fetch them back, I will assuredly beat up your quarters in the chance of half an hour's chat.

"Upon looking over the letters of Shelley that I have preserved, I find that I cannot, however anxious to oblige you, comply with your request, for they are of too confidential and hazardous a nature to be copper-plated. Several are requests for loans to himself or Godwin; some make private mention of Byron, Moore, and Hunt, that it might not be right to promulgate, and almost all are full of such heterodox notions as might horrify many good folks who might happen to see them. You shall read these letters when you next visit me, and I am sure you will yourself concur in the prudence of my withholding them. A mere fac-simile you might easily get, I should imagine, by applying to Godwin, Mrs. Shelley, or Mr. Peacock.

"Hoping to have a ride with you soon over the downs, and to share a bottle with you afterwards,

I am, my dear Redding,

Yours very truly,

HORATIO SMITH."

I soon afterwards left London for the midland counties, and nearly ten years separated us from visits or correspondence. In 1840 I returned to town, and wrote to him to ask a contribution for a work of which I was the editor. There was evidently a change in the hand-writing. It varied considerably from the very neat text it had before displayed. His reply was as follows, the last but one I ever received from him.

"Brighton, 12, Cavendish Place,

29th December, 1840.

My dear Sir,

"I was very sorry to have missed seeing you in London; but there was no address on the card which you left a day or two before my departure, and I had no means of finding you, or I should certainly have called.

"I had intended not to have troubled the world with any more of my scribblings, feeling that I have done enough, and was getting old; but circumstances induced me to change this resolution, and I am again about to venture into the literary arena. In periodical literature I have done nothing for a long time-so long that I fear that my hand has lost its cunning, if it ever had any.

"Captain Marryat lately told me that he had agreed to write for a new paper called the 'Era,' edited by Frank Mills, but that he objected vehemently to see the walls plaistered with his name, feeling it to be infra dig. In this I agree with him, but if it will oblige you, I will endeavour to send you up a paper, though I do not exactly know what sort of contribution you require.

"Poor Hill is gone at last, and it seems to have surprised every body, the world seeming to think he could not die. The papers state him to have been eighty-one.

"Did I not feel myself to be growing old in various ways I should be reminded of it by my three girls, who are now, at least two of them, almost as tall as myself. Thank heaven we are all in good health and spirits — disposed to make the best of every thing, and to enjoy the world as well and as long as we can.

I am, my dear Sir,

Yours very faithfully,

HORATIO SMITH."

One of the pleasantest days I ever passed was in a visit to Penshurst. Smith was staying at Tunbridge, and we agreed to employ the day on themes of the past in place of the present. We made the pilgrimage in an excellent tone of mind for entering into he spirit of the old romance. We discoursed all the way between four and five miles, of the "Arcadia," and of "Sydney's sister Pembroke's mother," until we entered the sweet valley where the edifice stands. We wondered how in the sixteen hundred years from the time of Roman luxury, England had got no further in comfort than a fireplace in the midst of a hall with smoky beams, a hole above, and brick floors below. But if there was not comfort, there was the imaginary grandeur of the animal man — the superiority of feudal ignorance and feudal assumption on the dais, over the vassal, the elevated site of the lordly trencher and cup, that told the tale of human pride in the olden time from whence the human intellect was emerging, under Elizabeth and her band of gifted courtiers, the Bacons, Raleighs, and Sidneys of the maiden reign. We found all in decay. One picture there was of the Countess of Pembroke, and another, I remember, said to be Algernon Sidney; but this was hardly probable. We returned as we went exchanging conjectures as to the first, filling up the lack of historical records from the imagination, and perhaps reconciling the destiny of man and his labour by that sense of the necessity of our resignation to a superior power, the purposes of which are to us so great a mystery.

I believe this ramble induced Smith to try his hand at novel writing. "Brambletye House," his best effort, followed soon afterwards.