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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 08, No. 48, October, 1861 online

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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. VIII. - OCTOBER, 1861. - NO. XLVIII.







NEAR OXFORD.


On a fine morning in September, we set out on an excursion to
Blenheim, - the sculptor and myself being seated on the box of our
four-horse carriage, two more of the party in the dicky, and the
others less agreeably accommodated inside. We had no coachman, but two
postilions in short scarlet jackets and leather breeches with top-boots,
each astride of a horse; so that, all the way along, when not otherwise
attracted, we had the interesting spectacle of their up-and-down bobbing
in the saddle. It was a sunny and beautiful day, a specimen of the
perfect English weather, just warm enough for comfort, - indeed, a little
too warm, perhaps, in the noontide sun, - yet retaining a mere spice or
suspicion of austerity, which made it all the more enjoyable.

The country between Oxford and Blenheim is not particularly interesting,
being almost level, or undulating very slightly; nor is Oxfordshire,
agriculturally, a rich part of England. We saw one or two hamlets, and I
especially remember a picturesque old gabled house at a turnpike-gate,
and, altogether, the wayside scenery had an aspect of old-fashioned
English life; but there was nothing very memorable till we reached
Woodstock, and stopped to water our horses at the Black Bear. This
neighborhood is called New Woodstock, but has by no means the brand-new
appearance of an American town, being a large village of stone houses,
most of them pretty well time-worn and weather-stained. The Black Bear
is an ancient inn, large and respectable, with balustraded staircases,
and intricate passages and corridors, and queer old pictures and
engravings hanging in the entries and apartments. We ordered a lunch
(the most delightful of English institutions, next to dinner) to be
ready against our return, and then resumed our drive to Blenheim.

The park-gate of Blenheim stands close to the end of the village-street
of Woodstock. Immediately on passing through its portals, we saw the
stately palace in the distance, but made a wide circuit of the park
before approaching it. This noble park contains three thousand acres of
land, and is fourteen miles in circumference. Having been, in part,
a royal domain before it was granted to the Marlborough family, it
contains many trees of unsurpassed antiquity, and has doubtless been the
haunt of game and deer for centuries. We saw pheasants in abundance,
feeding in the open lawns and glades; and the stags tossed their antlers
and bounded away, not affrighted, but only shy and gamesome, as we
drove by. It is a magnificent pleasure-ground, not too tamely kept, nor
rigidly subjected within rule, but vast enough to have lapsed back into
Nature again, after all the pains that the landscape-gardeners of
Queen Anne's time bestowed on it, when the domain of Blenheim was
scientifically laid out. The great, knotted, slanting trunks of the old
oaks do not now look as if man had much intermeddled with their growth
and postures. The trees of later date, that were set out in the Great
Duke's time, are arranged on the plan of the order of battle in which
the illustrious commander ranked his troops at Blenheim; but the ground
covered is so extensive, and the trees now so luxuriant, that the
spectator is not disagreeably conscious of their standing in military
array, as if Orpheus had summoned them together by beat of drum. The
effect must have been very formal a hundred and fifty years ago, but has
ceased to be so, - although the trees, I presume, have kept their ranks
with even more fidelity than Marlborough's veterans did.

One of the park-keepers, on horseback, rode beside our carriage,
pointing out the choice views, and glimpses at the palace, as we drove
through the domain. There is a very large artificial lake, (to say the
truth, it seemed to me fully worthy of being compared with the Welsh
lakes, at least, if not with those of Westmoreland,) which was created
by Capability Brown, and fills the basin that he scooped for it, just as
if Nature had poured these broad waters into one of her own valleys.
It is a most beautiful object at a distance, and not less so on its
immediate banks; for the water is very pure, being supplied by a small
river, of the choicest transparency, which was turned thitherward for
the purpose. And Blenheim owes not merely this water-scenery, but almost
all its other beauties, to the contrivance of man. Its natural features
are not striking; but Art has effected such wonderful things that the
uninstructed visitor would never guess that nearly the whole scene was
but the embodied thought of a human mind. A skilful painter hardly does
more for his blank sheet of canvas than the landscape-gardener, the
planter, the arranges of trees, has done for the monotonous surface
of Blenheim, - making the most of every undulation, - flinging down a
hillock, a big lump of earth out of a giant's hand, wherever it
was needed, - putting in beauty as often as there was a niche for
it, - opening vistas to every point that deserved to be seen, and
throwing a veil of impenetrable foliage around what ought to be
hidden; - and then, to be sure, the lapse of a century has softened the
harsh outline of man's labors, and has given the place back to Nature
again with the addition of what consummate science could achieve.

After driving a good way, we came to a battlemented tower and adjoining
house, which used to be the residence of the Ranger of Woodstock
Park, who held charge of the property for the King before the Duke of
Marlborough possessed it. The keeper opened the door for us, and in the
entrance-hall we found various things that had to do with the chase and
woodland sports. We mounted the staircase, through several stories,
up to the top of the tower, whence there was a view of the spires
of Oxford, and of points much farther off, - very indistinctly seen,
however, as is usually the case with the misty distances of England.
Returning to the ground-floor, we were ushered into the room in which
died Wilmot, the wicked Earl of Rochester, who was Ranger of the Park in
Charles II.'s time. It is a low and bare little room, with a window in
front, and a smaller one behind; and in the contiguous entrance-room
there are the remains of an old bedstead, beneath the canopy of which,
perhaps, Rochester may have made the penitent end that Bishop Burnet
attributes to him. I hardly know what it is, in this poor fellow's
character, which affects us with greater tenderness on his behalf than
for all the other profligates of his day, who seem to have been neither
better nor worse than himself. I rather suspect that he had a human
heart which never quite died out of him, and the warmth of which is
still faintly perceptible amid the dissolute trash which he left behind.

Methinks, if such good fortune ever befell a bookish man, I should
choose this lodge for my own residence, with the topmost room of the
tower for a study, and all the seclusion of cultivated wildness beneath
to ramble in. There being no such possibility, we drove on, catching
glimpses of the palace in new points of view, and by-and-by came to
Rosamond's Well. The particular tradition that connects Fair Rosamond
with it is not now in my memory; but if Rosamond ever lived and loved,
and ever had her abode in the maze of Woodstock, it may well be believed
that she and Henry sometimes sat beside this spring. It gushes out from
a bank, through some old stone-work, and dashes its little cascade
(about as abundant as one might turn out of a large pitcher) into a
pool, whence it steals away towards the lake, which is not far removed.
The water is exceedingly cold, and as pure as the legendary Rosamond was
not, and is fancied to possess medicinal virtues, like springs at which
saints have quenched their thirst. There were two or three old women
and some children in attendance with tumblers, which they present to
visitors, full of the consecrated water; but most of us filled the
tumblers for ourselves, and drank.

Thence we drove to the Triumphal Pillar which was erected in honor of
the Great Duke, and on the summit of which he stands, in a Roman garb,
holding a winged figure of Victory in his hand, as an ordinary man might
hold a bird. The column is I know not how many feet high, but lofty
enough, at any rate, to elevate Marlborough far above the rest of
the world, and to be visible a long way off: and it is so placed in
reference to other objects, that, wherever the hero wandered about
his grounds, and especially as he issued from his mansion, he must
inevitably have been reminded of his glory. In truth, until I came to
Blenheim, I never had so positive and material an idea of what Fame
really is - of what the admiration of his country can do for a successful
warrior - as I carry away with me and shall always retain. Unless he
had the moral force of a thousand men together, his egotism (beholding
himself everywhere, imbuing the entire soil, growing in the woods,
rippling and gleaming in the water, and pervading the very air with
his greatness) must have been swollen within him like the liver of a
Strasbourg goose. On the huge tablets inlaid into the pedestal of the
column, the entire Act of Parliament, bestowing Blenheim on the Duke
of Marlborough and his posterity, is engraved in deep letters, painted
black on the marble ground. The pillar stands exactly a mile from the
principal front of the palace, in a straight line with the precise
centre of its entrance-hall; so that, as already said, it was the Duke's
principal object of contemplation.

We now proceeded to the palace-gate, which is a great pillared archway,
of wonderful loftiness and state, giving admittance into a spacious
quadrangle. A stout, elderly, and rather surly footman in livery
appeared at the entrance, and took possession of whatever canes,
umbrellas, and parasols he could get hold of, in order to claim sixpence
on our departure. This had a somewhat ludicrous effect. There is
much public outcry against the meanness of the present Duke in his
arrangements for the admission of visitors (chiefly, of course,
his native countrymen) to view the magnificent palace which their
forefathers bestowed upon his own. In many cases, it seems hard that a
private abode should be exposed to the intrusion of the public merely
because the proprietor has inherited or created a splendor which
attracts general curiosity; insomuch that his home loses its sanctity
and seclusion for the very reason that it is better than other men's
houses. But in the case of Blenheim, the public have certainly an
equitable claim to admission, both because the fame of its first
inhabitant is a national possession, and because the mansion was a
national gift, one of the purposes of which was to be a token of
gratitude and glory to the English people themselves. If a man chooses
to be illustrious, he is very likely to incur some little inconveniences
himself, and entail them on his posterity. Nevertheless, his present
Grace of Marlborough absolutely ignores the public claim above
suggested, and (with a thrift of which even the hero of Blenheim himself
did not set the example) sells tickets admitting six persons at ten
shillings: if only one person enters the gate, he must pay for six; and
if there are seven in company, two tickets are required to admit them.
The attendants, who meet you everywhere in the park and palace, expect
fees on their own private account, - their noble master pocketing the ten
shillings. But, to be sure, the visitor gets his money's worth, since it
buys him the right to speak just as freely of the Duke of Marlborough as
if he were the keeper of the Cremorne Gardens.[A]

[Footnote A: The above was written two or three years ago, or more; and
the Duke of that day has since transmitted his coronet to his successor,
who, we understand, has adopted much more liberal arrangements. There is
seldom anything to criticize or complain of, as regards the facility of
obtaining admission to interesting private houses in England.]

Passing through a gateway on the opposite side of the quadrangle, we had
before us the noble classic front of the palace, with its two projecting
wings. We ascended the lofty steps of the portal, and were admitted into
the entrance-hall, the height of which, from floor to ceiling, is not
much less than seventy feet, being the entire height of the edifice. The
hall is lighted by windows in the upper story, and, it being a clear,
bright day, was very radiant with lofty sunshine, amid which a swallow
was flitting to and fro. The ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill
in some allegorical design, (doubtless commemorative of Marlborough's
victories,) the purport of which I did not take the trouble to make
out, - contenting myself with the general effect, which was most
splendidly and effectively ornamental.

We were guided through the showrooms by a very civil person, who allowed
us to take pretty much our own time in looking at the pictures. The
collection is exceedingly valuable, - many of these works of Art having
been presented to the Great Duke by the crowned heads of England or the
Continent. One room was all aglow with pictures by Rubens; and there
were works of Raphael, and many other famous painters, any one of which
would be sufficient to illustrate the meanest house that might contain
it. I remember none of them, however, (not being in a picture-seeing
mood,) so well as Vandyck's large and familiar picture of Charles I on
horseback, with a figure and face of melancholy dignity such as never
by any other hand was put on canvas. Yet, on considering this face of
Charles, (which I find often repeated in half-lengths,) and translating
it from the ideal into literalism, I doubt whether the unfortunate king
was really a handsome or impressive-looking man: a high, thin-ridged
nose, a meagre, hatchet face, and reddish hair and beard, - these are the
literal facts. It is the painter's art that has thrown such pensive and
shadowy grace around him.

On our passage through this beautiful suite of apartments, we saw,
through the vista of open doorways, a boy of ten or twelve years old
coming towards us from the farther rooms. He had on a straw hat, a linen
sack that had certainly been washed and re-washed for a summer or two,
and gray trousers a good deal worn, - a dress, in short, which an
American mother in middle station would have thought too shabby for her
darling school-boy's ordinary wear. This urchin's face was rather pale,
(as those of English children are apt to be, quite as often as our own,)
but he had pleasant eyes, an intelligent look, and an agreeable, boyish
manner. It was Lord Sunderland, grandson of the present Duke, and heir -
though not, I think, in the direct line - of the blood of the great
Marlborough, and of the title and estate.

After passing through the first suite of rooms, we were conducted
through a corresponding suite on the opposite side of the entrance-hall.
These latter apartments are most richly adorned with tapestries, wrought
and presented to the first Duke by a sisterhood of Flemish nuns; they
look like great, glowing pictures, and completely cover the walls of the
rooms. The designs purport to represent the Duke's battles and sieges;
and everywhere we see the hero himself, as large as life, and as
gorgeous in scarlet and gold as the holy sisters could make him, with a
three-cornered hat and flowing wig, reining in his horse, and extending
his leading-staff in the attitude of command. Next to Marlborough,
Prince Eugene is the most prominent figure. In the way of upholstery,
there can never have been anything more magnificent than these
tapestries; and, considered as works of Art, they have quite as much
merit as nine pictures out of ten.

One whole wing of the palace is occupied by the library, a most noble
room, with a vast perspective length from end to end. Its atmosphere
is brighter and more cheerful than that of most libraries: a wonderful
contrast to the old college-libraries of Oxford, and perhaps less sombre
and suggestive of thoughtfulness than any large library ought to be;
inasmuch as so many studious brains as have left their deposit on the
shelves cannot have conspired without producing a very serious and
ponderous result. Both walls and ceiling are white, and there are
elaborate doorways and fireplaces of white marble. The floor is of oak,
so highly polished that our feet slipped upon it as if it had been
New-England ice. At one end of the room stands a statue of Queen Anne in
her royal robes, which are so admirably designed and exquisitely wrought
that the spectator certainly gets a strong conception of her royal
dignity; while the face of the statue, fleshy and feeble, doubtless
conveys a suitable idea of her personal character. The marble of this
work, long as it has stood there, is as white as snow just fallen, and
must have required most faithful and religious care to keep it so. As
for the volumes of the library, they are wired within the cases and turn
their gilded backs upon the visitor, keeping their treasures of wit and
wisdom just as intangible as if still in the unwrought mines of human
thought.

I remember nothing else in the palace, except the chapel, to which we
were conducted last, and where we saw a splendid monument to the first
Duke and Duchess, sculptured by Rysbrach, at the cost, it is said, of
forty thousand pounds. The design includes the statues of the deceased
dignitaries, and various allegorical flourishes, fantasies, and
confusions; and beneath sleep the great Duke and his proud wife, their
veritable bones and dust, and probably all the Marlboroughs that have
since died. It is not quite a comfortable idea, that these mouldy
ancestors still inhabit, after their fashion, the house where their
successors spend the passing day; but the adulation lavished upon the
hero of Blenheim could not have been consummated, unless the palace of
his lifetime had become likewise a stately mausoleum over his remains,
- and such we felt it all to be, after gazing at his tomb.

The next business was to see the private gardens. An old Scotch
under-gardener admitted us and led the way, and seemed to have a fair
prospect of earning the fee all by himself; but by-and-by another
respectable Scotchman made his appearance and took us in charge, proving
to be the head-gardener in person. He was extremely intelligent and
agreeable, talking both scientifically and lovingly about trees and
plants, of which there is every variety capable of English cultivation.
Positively, the Garden of Eden cannot have been more beautiful than this
private garden of Blenheim. It contains three hundred acres, and by
the artful circumlocution of the paths, and the undulations, and the
skilfully interposed clumps of trees, is made to appear limitless. The
sylvan delights of a whole country are compressed into this space,
as whole fields of Persian roses go to the concoction of an ounce of
precious attar. The world within that garden-fence is not the same weary
and dusty world with which we outside mortals are conversant; it is a
finer, lovelier, more harmonious Nature; and the Great Mother lends
herself kindly to the gardener's will, knowing that he will make evident
the half-obliterated traits of her pristine and ideal beauty, and allow
her to take all the credit and praise to herself. I doubt whether there
is ever any winter within that precinct, - any clouds, except the fleecy
ones of summer. The sunshine that I saw there rests upon my recollection
of it as if it were eternal. The lawns and glades are like the memory of
places where one has wandered when first in love.

What a good and happy life might be spent in a paradise like this! And
yet, at that very moment, the besotted Duke (ah! I have let out a secret
which I meant to keep to myself; but the ten shillings must pay for all)
was in that very garden, (for the guide told us so, and cautioned
our young people not to be uproarious,) and, if in a condition for
arithmetic, was thinking of nothing nobler than how many ten-shilling
tickets had that day been sold. Republican as I am, I should still love
to think that noblemen lead noble lives, and that all this stately and
beautiful environment may serve to elevate them a little way above the
rest of us. If it fail to do so, the disgrace falls equally upon the
whole race of mortals as on themselves; because it proves that no
more favorable conditions of existence would eradicate our vices and
weaknesses. How sad, if this be so! Even a herd of swine, eating the
acorns under those magnificent oaks of Blenheim, would be cleanlier and
of better habits than ordinary swine.

Well, all that I have written is pitifully meagre, as a description of
Blenheim; and I hate to leave it without some more adequate expression
of the noble edifice, with its rich domain, all as I saw them in that
beautiful sunshine; for, if a day had been chosen out of a hundred
years, it could not have been a finer one. But I must give up the
attempt; only further remarking that the finest trees here were cedars,
of which I saw one - and there may have been many such - immense in girth
and not less than three centuries old. I likewise saw a vast heap of
laurel, two hundred feet in circumference, all growing from one root;
and the gardener offered to show us another growth of twice that
stupendous size. If the Great Duke himself had been buried in that spot,
his heroic heart could not have been the seed of a more plentiful crop
of laurels.

We now went back to the Black Bear, and sat down to a cold collation, of
which we ate abundantly, and drank (in the good old English fashion) a
due proportion of various delightful liquors. A stranger in England,
in his rambles to various quarters of the country, may learn little
in regard to wines, (for the ordinary English taste is simple, though
sound, in that particular,) but he makes acquaintance with more
varieties of hop and malt liquor than he previously supposed to exist.
I remember a sort of foaming stuff, called hop-champagne, which is very
vivacious, and appears to be a hybrid between ale and bottled cider.
Another excellent tipple for warm weather is concocted by mixing
brown-stout or bitter ale with ginger-beer, the foam of which stirs
up the heavier liquor from its depths, forming a compound of singular
vivacity and sufficient body. But of all things ever brewed from
malt, (unless it be the Trinity Ale of Cambridge, which I drank long
afterwards, and which Barry Cornwall has celebrated in immortal verse,)
commend me to the Archdeacon, as the Oxford scholars call it, in honor
of the jovial dignitary who first taught these erudite worthies how to
brew their favorite nectar. John Barleycorn has given his very heart to
this admirable liquor; it is a superior kind of ale, the Prince of Ales,
with a richer flavor and a mightier spirit than you can find elsewhere
in this weary world. Much have we been strengthened and encouraged by
the potent blood of the Archdeacon!

A few days after our excursion to Blenheim, the same party set forth,
in two flies, on a tour to some other places of interest in the
neighborhood of Oxford. It was again a delightful day; and, in truth,
every day, of late, had been so pleasant that it seemed as if each must
be the very last of such perfect weather; and yet the long succession
had given us confidence in as many more to come. The climate of England
has been shamefully maligned; its sulkinesses and asperities are not
nearly so offensive as Englishmen tell us (their climate being the only
attribute of their country which they never overvalue); and the really
good summer weather is the very kindest and sweetest that the world
knows.

We first drove to the village of Cumnor, about six miles from Oxford,
and alighted at the entrance of the church. Here, while waiting for the
keys, we looked at an old wall of the churchyard, piled up of loose gray
stones which are said to have once formed a portion of Cumnor Hall,
celebrated in Mickle's ballad and Scott's romance. The hall must have
been in very close vicinity to the church, - not more than twenty yards
off; and I waded through the long, dewy grass of the churchyard, and
tried to peep over the wall, in hopes to discover some tangible and
traceable remains of the edifice. But the wall was just too high to be
overlooked, and difficult to clamber over without tumbling down some of


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 08, No. 48, October, 1861 → online text (page 1 of 21)