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   Chapter 10 A PHILOSOPHER, TWO POETS, AND A NOVELIST

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 22379

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Everybody has heard of Sandford and Merton, and hardly anybody nowadays has read it. I confess with shame that I am one who has not. But I have come across so many parodies of it and so many references to it in various books and articles that I am finding it more and more difficult to believe that I have not actually read the story itself. Mr. Barlow, the boy's tutor, lives in my mind as a large and solemn bore, but he was a bore of real knowledge; he was heavy with learning; and the boys themselves were dreadful little prigs, but underneath their priggishness they were manly boys, and there was something fine in their ideals of honour. No doubt they were largely modelled on their author, Thomas Day, who when he was a schoolboy started a fight with another boy on quite justifiable grounds, and soon finding that he completely outmatched his opponent, stopped the fight, and insisted on shaking hands with the other and making peace.

That incident, and the queer originality of his whole outlook on life, has made me more interested in Day himself than in his one famous book, and has made me number 36 Wellclose Square, the house where he was born, among the London literary shrines that must not be overlooked.

Wellclose Square is in Shadwell, on the skirts of Whitechapel, and is one of those melancholy places that have obviously seen better days. Dreary and drab and squalid as you see it now, when Day was born there on the 22nd June 1748 it must have been a fairly select and superior residential quarter. Day's father was a collector of Customs who died a year after his son's birth, leaving him a very comfortable fortune of twelve hundred a year. The boy was educated at Charterhouse and at Oxford, and one way and another acquired lofty Stoic principles and a somewhat original philosophy that he lived up to obstinately all his life through, in spite of many rebuffs and a good deal of ridicule. He dressed carelessly, was indifferent to appearances, and scorned the "admiration of splendour which dazzles and enslaves mankind." He preferred the society of his inferiors because they were more unconventional, less artificial than the ladies and gentlemen of his own rank; he was awkward in the company of women, and regarded the sex with doubt as well as with diffidence. As you would expect of the man who wrote Sandford and Merton, he had no sense of humour; and his smallpox-pitted face and unattractive air and manner told so much against him that he was rejected emphatically by the first one or two women he proposed to. Withal, as was also fitting in the author of that fearsomely moral schoolboy-book, he was, in the words of his friend Edgeworth, "the most virtuous human being I have ever known."

THOMAS DAY. 36 WELLCLOSE SQUARE.

I suppose he was a pioneer of the "simple life" theory; anyhow, he persistently advocated simplicity in dress and living, and was determined to find a wife who shared these tastes, who should, moreover, be fond of literature and moral philosophy, "simple as a mountain girl in her dress, diet, and manners, and fearless and intrepid as the Spartan wives and Roman heroines." He was careful to state these requirements to the lady before proposing to her, and this seems to have spoilt his chances. The difficulty of discovering his ideal wife led to his making an odd experiment. He adopted two young girls, one from the Foundling Hospital, the other from the Shrewsbury Orphanage, and in deference to the proprieties formally bound them apprentice to his friend Edgeworth, and gave guarantees to the authorities that within one year he would make a decision between the two and pay a premium of a hundred pounds to apprentice one to a suitable trade, and send the other to be properly educated with the ultimate object of marrying her. The girls were about twelve years old. In order that they should not be influenced with wrong ideas by the people about them, he took them into France, where, as they only understood English, they could talk with nobody but himself; and there he proceeded to teach them reading and writing, and by ridicule, explanation, and reasoning sought "to imbue them with a deep hatred for dress, for luxury, for fine people, for fashion and titles, all of which inspired his own mind with such an unconquerable horror." In a letter which he wrote home about them he says, "I am not disappointed in one respect. I am more attached to and more convinced of the truth of my principles than ever. I have made them, in respect of temper, two such girls as, I may perhaps say without vanity, you have never seen at the same age. They have never given me a moment's trouble throughout the voyage, are always contented, and think nothing so agreeable as waiting upon me (no moderate convenience for a lazy man)." Nevertheless, in France, the girls proved very quarrelsome; he had to nurse them through a severe attack of smallpox, and once when they were out boating they both fell into the Rhone, and he risked his life to save them.

Within the year, he brought them back to England and had made his choice. He apprenticed one, who was "invincibly stupid," to a milliner; and the other, Sabrina Sidney, he carried with him to a house he had taken near Lichfield and there "resumed his preparations for implanting in her young mind the characteristic virtues of Arria, Portia and Cornelia." But she disappointed him; he endeavoured in vain to steel her against shrinking from pain and the fear of danger. "When he dropped melting sealing-wax on her arms she did not endure it heroically; nor when he fired pistols at her petticoats which she believed to be charged with balls could she help starting aside or suppress her screams." She was not fond of science, and was unable to keep a secret satisfactorily; so after a year's trial Day sent her away to a boarding-school, and proceeded to pay his addresses to a young lady living in the neighbourhood, who first put him on a period of probation, and then, after he had made himself ridiculous in trying to dress and behave as she wished, rejected him.

LORD BYRON

Whereupon his thoughts turned again to Sabrina, who had a real affection for him; but her failure to obey him in certain small details of dress again displeased him, and finally deciding against her, he in the long run married a Miss Milnes. His one objection to this lady was that she possessed a considerable fortune, and would therefore probably refuse to live the simple life; but when he had categorically put his requirements to her, and she had consented to dispense with all luxuries, to cut herself off from social gaieties, and reside in the country with him, restricted in every way to the bare necessaries of existence, working and spending for the behoof of the poor and needy, he ventured to make her Mrs. Day, and never had occasion to regret it. Sabrina eventually married a barrister, but refused to do so until she had Day's consent; and when, after writing divers political, economic, and philosophical works that nobody hears of now, and Sandford and Merton, which nobody reads any longer, Day died of a fall from an unmanageable horse which he insisted could be controlled by kindness, his wife was inconsolable, and died soon after him of a broken heart.

So he must have been a man worth knowing, and, in spite of his peculiarities and his oppressive earnestness, more likeable than most of us, when you knew him. Anyhow, he thought for himself, and had opinions of his own, and was not afraid to act upon them. And such men are so uncommonly rare that I think the County Council should put a tablet on the face of his birthplace at once, for the encouragement of all men who are something more than cheap copies of their neighbours.

Across the other side of London, at 24 (then 16) Holles Street, Cavendish Square, Lord Byron was born, on 22nd January 1788-a very different man, but also unconventional, though in more conventional ways. But the house here has been considerably altered to suit the requirements of the big drapery establishment that at present occupies it, and of Byron's various residences in London I believe the only one that survives in its original condition is that at No. 4 Bennet Street, St. James's. Here he had rooms on the first floor in 1813 and the early months of 1814, and it was in those rooms that he wrote The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, and The Corsair. Writing to Moore from here on the 28th July 1813, he says, "I am training to dine with Sheridan and Rogers this evening"; and in the Diary he was keeping at this time he notes, on 16th November 1813, "Read Burns to-day. What would he have been, if a patrician? We should have had more polish-less force-just as much verse but no immortality-a divorce and duel or two, the which had he survived, as his potations must have been less spirituous, he might have lived as long as Sheridan, and outlived as much as poor Brinsley."

From Bennet Street Byron carried on a correspondence with the lady he was destined to marry, Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke. "I look upon myself," he tells her in one of his letters, "as a very facetious personage, and may appeal to most of my acquaintance in proof of my assertion. Nobody laughs more, and though your friend Joanna Baillie says somewhere that 'Laughter is the child of misery,' I do not believe her (unless indeed a hysteric), though I think it is sometimes the parent." In another of the same September 1813, evidently replying to one of hers, he protests: "'Gay' but not 'content'-very true.... You have detected a laughter 'false to the heart'-allowed-yet I have been tolerably sincere with you, and I fear sometimes troublesome." In November he writes to her, "I perceive by part of your last letter that you are still inclined to believe me a gloomy personage. Those who pass so much of their time entirely alone can't be always in very high spirits; yet I don't know-though I certainly do enjoy society to a certain extent, I never passed two hours in mixed company without wishing myself out of it again. Still, I look upon myself as a facetious companion, well reputed by all the wits at whose jests I readily laugh, and whose repartees I take care never to incur by any kind of contest-for which I feel as little qualified as I do for the more solid pursuits of demonstration."

BYRON. 4 BENNET STREET. ST. JAMES'S.

As for his gloom or gaiety, Sir Walter Scott, who lunched with him and Charles Mathews at Long's Hotel, in Old Bond Street, in 1815, said, "I never saw Byron so full of fun, frolic, wit, and whim: he was as playful as a kitten." Again, writing in his Journal, after Byron's death, Sir Walter observes, "What I liked about Byron, besides his boundless genius, was his generosity of spirit as well as purse, and his utter contempt of all affectations of literature, from the school-magisterial style to the lackadaisical"; and he relates an anecdote in illustration of Byron's extreme sensitiveness: "Like Rousseau, he was apt to be very suspicious, and a plain, downright steadiness of manner was the true mode to maintain his good opinion. Will Rose told me that once, while sitt

ing with Byron, he fixed insensibly his eyes on his feet, one of which, it must be remembered, was deformed. Looking up suddenly, he saw Byron regarding him with a look of concentrated and deep displeasure, which wore off when he observed no consciousness or embarrassment in the countenance of Rose. Murray afterwards explained this by telling Rose that Lord Byron was very jealous of having this personal imperfection noticed or attended to." He goes on to say that Byron was a mischief-maker; he would tell one man the unpleasant things that had been privately said of him by another; and he loved to mystify people, "to be thought awful, mysterious and gloomy, and sometimes hinted at strange causes."

So that if he had no literary affectations he clearly cultivated a pose of mysterious misery both in his life and his poetry, and this it was that exasperated Carlyle into calling him "the teeth-grinding, glass-eyed, lone Caloyer." And the pose was helped out by his handsome and romantic appearance. "Byron's countenance is a thing to dream of," Scott told Lockhart. "A certain fair lady whose name has been too often mentioned in connection with his told a friend of mine that when she first saw Byron it was in a crowded room, and she did not know who it was, but her eyes were instantly nailed, and she said to herself, 'That pale face is my fate.' And, poor soul, if a god-like face and god-like powers could have made excuse for devilry, to be sure she had one." He said on the same occasion, "As for poets, I have seen, I believe, all the best of our own time and country-and, though Burns had the most glorious eyes imaginable, I never thought any of them would come up to an artist's notion of the character except Byron." Mrs. Opie said, "His voice was such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with"; and Charles Mathews once remarked that "he was the only man I ever contemplated to whom I felt disposed to apply the word beautiful."

Nevertheless, for a while Miss Milbanke was proof against his fascinations. In November 1813, about the date of that last letter of his to her from which I have quoted, he offered her his hand and was rejected. He proposed to another lady in the following September, and was rejected again, and almost immediately afterwards he called on Miss Milbanke at her father's house, 29 Portland Place, and in the library there passionately renewed his suit, and this time was successful. They were married in January 1815, and went to live at 13 Piccadilly, and in January of the next year, after twelve months of little happiness and much wretchedness, separated for good, a month after the birth of their child.

This Piccadilly house has been pulled down. The Albany to which Byron removed in 1814, and which he left on his marriage, still remains; and so, too, does No. 8 St. James's Street, where he lived in 1809, when his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers took the town by storm, but it has undergone so much alteration that it no longer seems so intimately reminiscent of Byron as Bennet Street does.

Whilst Byron was residing in St. James's Street, publishing the English Bards and writing the first canto of Childe Harold, Coleridge was living in a house at Portland Place, Hammersmith, that is now known as No. 7 Addison Bridge Place. Somehow, one does not readily connect Coleridge with London, even though he had lodged for many years at Highgate before he died there. But one time and another he spent quite a large part of his life in the metropolis. He was at school with Lamb, of course, at Christ's Hospital; and are not Lamb's letters strewn with yearning remembrances of the glorious evenings he and Coleridge and Hazlitt and others passed, in later years, in the smoky parlour of "The Salutation and Cat," in Newgate Street? At various dates, he lived at Buckingham Street, and at Norfolk Street, Strand, in Pall Mall, and in King Street, Covent Garden, when he was working on the staff of the Morning Post; to say nothing of visits to London when he put up at one or another of Lamb's many homes in the City; and there is still in one of the courts of Fetter Lane that Newton Hall where he delivered a series of lectures in 1818.

By 1810, when he came to London and settled for a period at 7 Addison Bridge Place, Coleridge had done all his great work as a poet, and under stress of financial difficulties was turning more and more from poetry to lecturing and journalism as sources of income. There is a letter of Lamb's to Hazlitt, dated 28th November 1810, when Hazlitt was holidaying and working at Winterslow, in which he mentions towards the close-"Coleridge is in town, or at least at Hammersmith. He is writing or going to write in the Courier against Cobbett and in favour of paper money." Byron wrote to a friend in the succeeding year, "Coleridge is lecturing. 'Many an old fool,' said Hannibal to some such lecturer, 'but such as this, never'"; and to the same friend two days later, "Coleridge has been lecturing against Campbell. Rogers was present, and from him I derive the information. We are going to make a party to hear this Manichean of poesy"; and on the same day to another friend, "Coleridge has attacked the Pleasures of Hope, and all other pleasures whatsoever. Mr. Rogers was present, and heard himself indirectly rowed by the lecturer"; and next week, "To-morrow I dine with Rogers, and am to hear Coleridge, who is a kind of rage at present."

COLERIDGE. ADDISON BRIDGE PLACE.

Coleridge was then only thirty-eight, and had another twenty-four years of life before him. He was already, and had for long past, been struggling in the toils of the opium habit, and his poetical inspiration was leaving him, for though Christabel and Kubla Khan were not published until 1816 they were written nearly ten years before. There are a number of minor poems bearing later dates; several in 1809, many long after that, but only one dated 1810, which may be supposed to have been written in that Hammersmith house, and this is nothing but a respectable translation of a passage in Ottfried's metrical paraphrase of the Gospels. But his lectures were a wonder and a delight, Byron's disapproval notwithstanding. He was always an eloquent preacher, and became a chief among lecturers as he did among poets. "Have you ever heard me preach?" he asked Lamb, and Lamb replied with his whimsical stammer, "I never heard you do anything else!" But you remember that fine essay of Hazlitt's in which he recounts his first acquaintance with Coleridge?-how he rose before daylight and walked ten miles in the mud to hear him preach. "When I got there, the organ was playing the hundredth psalm, and when it was done Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, 'And he went up into the mountain to pray, Himself, alone.' As he gave out his text his voice 'rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes,' and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe." He describes the sermon, and goes on, "I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and Philosophy had met together.... I returned home well satisfied." Then Coleridge called to see his father, a dissenting minister in the neighbourhood, and for two hours he talked and Hazlitt listened spellbound, and when he went, Hazlitt walked with him six miles on the road. "It was a fine morning," he says, "in the middle of winter, and he talked the whole way." And with what a fine generosity he acknowledges what that meeting and this talk of Coleridge's had meant to him. "I was stunned, startled with it as from a deep sleep.... I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless; but now, bursting the deadly bands that bound them-

'With Styx nine times round them,'

my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes catch the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found nor will it ever find a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge." That was when Coleridge was twenty-six and Hazlitt twenty. These twelve years after that, when Coleridge was lecturing in London, his fancy and imagination were as dazzling and as powerful as ever, and his voice and language had lost none of their magic. But his thoughts were perhaps tending towards that transcendental obscurity that reached its worst when he was established in his closing days at Highgate, with his little group of worshipping disciples around him, and when Carlyle went to hear and to ridicule him. Anyhow, here is an account Rogers gives of a visit he paid to him when he had transferred himself from Hammersmith to Pall Mall:-

"Coleridge was a marvellous talker. One morning when Hookham Frere also breakfasted with me, Coleridge talked for three hours without intermission, about poetry, and so admirably that I wish every word he uttered had been written down. But sometimes his harangues were quite unintelligible, not only to myself, but to others. Wordsworth and I called upon him one afternoon, when he was in a lodging off Pall Mall. He talked uninterruptedly for about two hours, during which Wordsworth listened to him with profound attention, every now and then nodding his head, as if in assent. On quitting the lodgings I said to Wordsworth, 'Well, for my part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge's oration; pray did you understand it?' 'Not one syllable of it,' was Wordsworth's reply."

He talked like one inspired, but his looks, except whilst he was talking, belied him. "My face," he said justly of himself, "unless when animated by immediate eloquence, expresses great sloth and great, indeed almost idiotic, good nature. 'Tis a mere carcase of a face, flat, flabby, and expressive chiefly of unexpression. Yet I am told that my eye, eyebrows, and forehead are physiognomically good." De Quincey says there was a peculiar haze or dimness mixed with the light of his eyes; and when he was roused to animation Lamb thought he looked like "an archangel a little damaged." But whether that haze of his eyes got into his talk, whether his thoughts were obscurely uttered, or whether it was they were too high and great for his auditors to take in so easily as a listener expects to grasp what is said to him is, at least, an open question. It may well be that Shelley hit the truth in the Letter to Maria Gisborne that he wrote from Leghorn, in 1820:-

"You will see Coleridge; he who sits obscure

In the exceeding lustre and the pure

Intense irradiation of a mind

Which, with its own internal lightnings blind,

Flags wearily through darkness and despair-

A cloud-encircled meteor of the air,

A hooded eagle among blinking owls."

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