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   Chapter 5 WORDSWORTH.

Yesterdays with Authors By James Thomas Fields Characters: 13130

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


That portrait looking down so calmly from the wall is an original picture of the poet Wordsworth, drawn in crayon a few years before he died. He went up to London on purpose to sit for it, at the request of Moxon, his publisher, and his friends in England always considered it a perfect likeness of the poet. After the head was engraved, the artist's family disposed of the drawing, and through the watchful kindness of my dear old friend, Mary Russell Mitford, the portrait came across the Atlantic to this house. Miss Mitford said America ought to have on view such a perfect representation of the great poet, and she used all her successful influence in my behalf. So there the picture hangs for anybody's inspection at any hour of the day.

I once made a pilgrimage to the small market-town of Hawkshead, in the valley of Esthwaite, where Wordsworth went to school in his ninth year. The thoughtful boy was lodged in the house of Dame Anne Tyson in 1788; and I had the good fortune to meet a lady in the village street who conducted me at once to the room which the lad occupied while he was a scholar under the Rev. William Taylor, whom he loved and venerated so much. I went into the chamber which he afterwards described in The Prelude, where he

"Had lain awake on summer nights to watch

The moon in splendor couched among the leaves

Of a tall ash, that near our cottage stood";

and I visited many of the beautiful spots which tradition points out as the favorite haunts of his childhood.

It was true Lake-country weather when I knocked at Wordsworth's cottage door, three years before he died, and found myself shaking hands with the poet at the threshold. His daughter Dora had been dead only a few months, and the sorrow that had so recently fallen upon the house was still dominant there. I thought there was something prophet-like in the tones of his voice, as well as in his whole appearance, and there was a noble tranquillity about him that almost awed one, at first, into silence. As the day was cold and wet, he proposed we should sit down together in the only room in the house where there was a fire, and he led the way to what seemed a common sitting or dining room. It was a plain apartment, the rafters visible, and no attempt at decoration noticeable. Mrs. Wordsworth sat knitting at the fireside, and she rose with a sweet expression of courtesy and welcome as we entered the apartment. As I had just left Paris, which was in a state of commotion, Wordsworth was eager in his inquiries about the state of things on the other side of the Channel. As our talk ran in the direction of French revolutions, he soon became eloquent and vehement, as one can easily imagine, on such a theme. There was a deep and solemn meaning in all he had to say about France, which I recall now with added interest. The subject deeply moved him, of course, and he sat looking into the fire, discoursing in a low monotone, sometimes quite forgetful that he was not alone and soliloquizing. I noticed that Mrs. Wordsworth listened as if she were hearing him speak for the first time in her life, and the work on which she was engaged lay idle in her lap, while she watched intently every movement of her husband's face. I also was absorbed in the man and in his speech. I thought of the long years he had lived in communion with nature in that lonely but lovely region. The story of his life was familiar to me, and I sat as if under the influence of a spell. Soon he turned and plied me with questions about the prominent men in Paris whom I had recently seen and heard in the Chamber of Deputies. "How did Guizot bear himself? What part was De Tocqueville taking in the fray? Had I noticed George Lafayette especially?" America did not seem to concern him much, and I waited for him to introduce the subject, if he chose to do so. He seemed pleased that a youth from a far-away country should find his way to Rydal cottage to worship at the shrine of an old poet.

By and by we fell into talk about those who had been his friends and neighbors among the hills in former years. "And so," he said, "you read Charles Lamb in America?" "Yes," I replied, "and love him too." "Do you hear that, Mary?" he eagerly inquired, turning round to Mrs. Wordsworth. "Yes, William, and no wonder, for he was one to be loved everywhere," she quickly answered. Then we spoke of Hazlitt, whom he ranked very high as a prose-writer; and when I quoted a fine passage from Hazlitt's essay on Jeremy Taylor, he seemed pleased at my remembrance of it.

He asked about Inman, the American artist, who had painted his portrait, having been sent on a special mission to Rydal by Professor Henry Reed of Philadelphia, to procure the likeness. The painter's daughter, who accompanied her father, made a marked impression on Wordsworth, and both he and his wife joined in the question, "Are all the girls in America as pretty as she?" I thought it an honor Mary Inman might well be proud of to be so complimented by the old bard. In speaking of Henry Reed, his manner was affectionate and tender.

Now and then I stole a glance at the gentle lady, the poet's wife, as she sat knitting silently by the fireside. This, then, was the Mary whom in 1802 he had brought home to be his loving companion through so many years. I could not help remembering too, as we all sat there together, that when children they had "practised reading and spelling under the same old dame at Penrith," and that they had always been lovers. There sat the woman, now gray-haired and bent, to whom the poet had addressed those undying poems, "She was a phantom of delight," "Let other bards of angels sing," "Yes, thou art fair," and "O, dearer far than life and light are dear." I recalled, too, the "Lines written after Thirty-six Years of Wedded Life," commemorating her whose

"Morn into noon did pass, noon into eve,

And the old day was welcome as the young,

As welcome, and as beautiful,-in sooth

More beautiful, as being a thing more holy."

When she raised her eyes to his, which I noticed she did frequently, they seemed overflowing with tenderness.

When I rose to go, for I felt that I must not intrude longer on one for whom I had such reverence, Wordsworth said, "I must show you my library, and some tributes that have been sent to me from the friends of my verse." His son John now came in, and we all proceeded to a large room in front of the house, containing his books. Seeing that I had an interest in such things, he seemed to take a real pleasure in showing

me the presentation copies of works by distinguished authors. We read together, from many a well-worn old volume, notes in the handwriting of Coleridge and Charles Lamb. I thought he did not praise easily those whose names are indissolubly connected with his own in the history of literature. It was languid praise, at least, and I observed he hesitated for mild terms which he could apply to names almost as great as his own. I believe a duplicate of the portrait which Inman had painted for Reed hung in the room; at any rate a picture of himself was there, and he seemed to regard it with veneration as we stood before it. As we moved about the apartment, Mrs. Wordsworth quietly followed us, and listened as eagerly as I did to everything her husband had to say. Her spare little figure flitted about noiselessly, pausing as we paused, and always walking slowly behind us as we went from object to object in the room. John Wordsworth, too, seemed deeply interested to watch and listen to his father. "And now," said Wordsworth, "I must show you one of my latest presents." Leading us up to a corner of the room, we all stood before a beautiful statuette which a young sculptor had just sent to him, illustrating a passage in "The Excursion." Turning to me, Wordsworth asked, "Do you know the meaning of this figure?" I saw at a glance that it was

"A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract

Of inland ground, applying to his ear

The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell,"

and I quoted the lines. My recollection of the words pleased the old man; and as we stood there in front of the figure he began to recite the whole passage from "The Excursion," and it sounded very grand from the poet's own lips. He repeated some fifty lines, and I could not help thinking afterwards, when I came to hear Tennyson read his own poetry, that the younger Laureate had caught something of the strange, mysterious tone of the elder bard. It was a sort of chant, deep and earnest, which conveyed the impression that the reciter had the highest opinion of the poetry.

Although it was raining still, Wordsworth proposed to show me Lady Fleming's grounds, and some other spots of interest near his cottage. Our walk was a wet one; but as he did not seem incommoded by it, I was only too glad to hold the umbrella over his venerable head. As we went on, he added now and then a sonnet to the scenery, telling me precisely the circumstances under which it had been composed. It is many years since my memorable walk with the author of "The Excursion," but I can call up his figure and the very tones of his voice so vividly that I enjoy my interview over again any time I choose. He was then nearly eighty, but he seemed hale and quite as able to walk up and down the hills as ever. He always led back the conversation that day to his own writings, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to do so. All his most celebrated poems seemed to live in his memory, and it was easy to start him off by quoting the first line of any of his pieces. Speaking of the vastness of London, he quoted the whole of his sonnet describing the great city, as seen in the morning from Westminster Bridge. When I parted with him at the foot of Rydal Hill, he gave me messages to Rogers and other friends of his whom I was to see in London. As we were shaking hands I said, "How glad your many readers in America would be to see you on our side of the water!" "Ah," he replied, "I shall never see your country,-that is impossible now; but" (laying his hand on his son's shoulder) "John shall go, please God, some day." I watched the aged man as he went slowly up the hill, and saw him disappear through the little gate that led to his cottage door. The ode on "Intimations of Immortality" kept sounding in my brain as I came down the road, long after he had left me.

Since I sat, a little child, in "a woman's school," Wordsworth's poems had been familiar to me. Here is my first school-book, with a name written on the cover by dear old "Marm Sloper," setting forth that the owner thereof is "aged 5." As I went musing along in Westmoreland that rainy morning, so many years ago, little figures seemed to accompany me, and childish voices filled the air as I trudged through the wet grass. My small ghostly companions seemed to carry in their little hands quaint-looking dog's-eared books, some of them covered with cloth of various colors. None of these phantom children looked to be over six years old, and all were bareheaded, and some of the girls wore old-fashioned pinafores. They were the schoolmates of my childhood, and many of them must have come out of their graves to run by my side that morning in Rydal. I had not thought of them for years. Little Emily R-- read from her book with a chirping lisp:-

"O, what's the matter? what's the matter?

What is't that ails young Harry Gill?"

Mary B-- began:-

"Oft I had heard of Lucy Grey";

Nancy C-- piped up:-

"'How many are you, then,' said I,

'If there are two in heaven?'

The little maiden did reply,

'O Master! we are seven.'"

Among the group I seemed to recognize poor pale little Charley F--, who they told me years ago was laid in St. John's Churchyard after they took him out of the pond, near the mill-stream, that terrible Saturday afternoon. He too read from his well-worn, green-baize-covered book,-

"The dew was falling fast, the stars began to blink."

Other white-headed little urchins trotted along very near me all the way, and kept saying over and over their "spirit ditties of no tone" till I reached the village inn, and sat down as if in a dream of long-past years.

Two years ago I stood by Wordsworth's grave in the churchyard at Grasmere, and my companion wove a chaplet of flowers and placed it on the headstone. Afterwards we went into the old church and sat down in the poet's pew. "They are all dead and gone now," sighed the gray-headed sexton; "but I can remember when the seats used to be filled by the family from Rydal Mount. Now they are all outside there in yon grass."

* * *

MISS MITFORD.

"I care not, Fortune, what you me deny:

You cannot rob me of free Nature's grace;

You cannot shut the windows of the sky,

Through which Aurora shows her brightening face;

You cannot bar my constant feet to trace

The woods and lawns, by living streams at eve:

Let health my nerves and finer fibres brace,

And I their toys to the great children leave:

Of fancy, reason, virtue, naught can me bereave."

THOMSON.

* * *

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