James T. Fields.

Yesterdays with Authors online

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removed, were expected to talk over the prospects of the magazine, and
lay out the contents for next month. Procter described to me the
authors of his generation as they sat round the old "mahogany-tree" of
that period. "Very social and expansive hours they passed in that
pleasant room half a century ago. Thither came stalwart Allan
Cunningham, with his Scotch face shining with good-nature; Charles Lamb,
'a Diogenes with the heart of a St. John'; Hamilton Reynolds, whose good
temper and vivacity were like condiments at a feast; John Clare, the
peasant-poet, simple as a daisy; Tom Hood, young, silent, and grave, but
who nevertheless now and then shot out a pun that damaged the shaking
sides of the whole company; De Quincey, self-involved and courteous,
rolling out his periods with a pomp and splendor suited, perhaps, to a
high Roman festival; and with these sons of fame gathered certain
nameless folk whose contributions to the great 'London' are now under
the protection of that tremendous power which men call _Oblivion_."

It was a vivid pleasure to hear Procter describe Edward Irving, the
eccentric preacher, who made such a deep impression on the spirit of his
time. He is now dislimned into space, but he was, according to all his
thoughtful contemporaries, a "son of thunder," a "giant force of
activity." Procter fully indorsed all that Carlyle has so nobly written
of the eloquent man who, dying at forty-two, has stamped his strong
personal vitality on the age in which he lived.

Procter, in his younger days, was evidently much impressed by that
clever rascal who, under the name of "Janus Weathercock," scintillated
at intervals in the old "London Magazine." Wainwright - for that was his
real name - was so brilliant, he made friends for a time among many of
the first-class contributors to that once famous periodical; but the Ten
Commandments ruined all his prospects for life. A murderer, a forger, a
thief, - in short, a sinner in general, - he came to grief rather early
in his wicked career, and suffered penalties of the law accordingly, but
never to the full extent of his remarkable deserts. I have heard Procter
describe his personal appearance as he came sparkling into the room,
clad in undress military costume. His smart conversation deceived those
about him into the belief that he had been an officer in the dragoons,
that he had spent a large fortune, and now condescended to take a part
in periodical literature with the culture of a gentleman and the grace
of an amateur. How this vapid charlatan in a braided surtout and
prismatic necktie could so long veil his real character from, and retain
the regard of, such men as Procter and Talfourd and Coleridge is
amazing. Lamb calls him the "kind and light-hearted Janus," and thought
he liked him. The contributors often spoke of his guileless nature at
the festal monthly board of the magazine, and no one dreamed that this
gay and mock-smiling London cavalier was about to begin a career so foul
and monstrous that the annals of crime for centuries have no blacker
pages inscribed on them. To secure the means of luxurious living without
labor, and to pamper his dandy tastes, this lounging, lazy _littérateur_
resolved to become a murderer on a large scale, and accompany his cruel
poisonings with forgeries whenever they were most convenient. His custom
for years was to effect policies of insurance on the lives of his
relations, and then at the proper time administer strychnine to his
victims. The heart sickens at the recital of his brutal crimes. On the
life of a beautiful young girl named Abercrombie this fiendish wretch
effected an insurance at various offices for £18,000 before he sent her
to her account with the rest of his poisoned too-confiding relatives. So
many heavily insured ladies dying in violent convulsions drew attention
to the gentleman who always called to collect the money. But why this
consummate criminal was not brought to justice and hung, my Lord Abinger
never satisfactorily divulged. At last this polished Sybarite, who
boasted that he always drank the richest Montepulciano, who could not
sit long in a room that was not garlanded with flowers, who said he felt
lonely in an apartment without a fine cast of the Venus de' Medici in
it, - this self-indulgent voluptuary at last committed several forgeries
on the Bank of England, and the Old Bailey sessions of July, 1837,
sentenced him to transportation for life. While he was lying in Newgate
prior to his departure, with other convicts, to New South Wales, where
he died, Dickens went with a former acquaintance of the prisoner to see
him. They found him still possessed with a morbid self-esteem and a poor
and empty vanity. All other feelings and interests were overwhelmed by
an excessive idolatry of self, and he claimed (I now quote his own words
to Dickens) a soul whose nutriment is love, and its offspring art,
music, divine song, and still holier philosophy. To the last this
super-refined creature seemed undisturbed by remorse. What place can we
fancy for such a reptile, and what do we learn from such a career?
Talfourd has so wisely summed up the whole case for us that I leave the
dark tragedy with the recital of this solemn sentence from a paper on
the culprit in the "Final Memorials of Charles Lamb": "Wainwright's
vanity, nurtured by selfishness and unchecked by religion, became a
disease, amounting perhaps to monomania, and yielding one lesson to
repay the world for his existence, viz. that there is no state of the
soul so dangerous as that in which the vices of the sensualist are
envenomed by the grovelling intellect of the scorner."

One of the men best worth meeting in London, under any circumstances,
was Leigh Hunt, but it was a special boon to find him and Procter
together. I remember a day in the summer of 1859 when Procter had a
party of friends at dinner to meet Hawthorne, who was then on a brief
visit to London. Among the guests were the Countess of - - , Kinglake,
the author of "Eothen," Charles Sumner, then on his way to Paris, and
Leigh Hunt, the mercurial qualities of whose blood were even then
perceptible in his manner.

Adelaide Procter did not reach home in season to begin the dinner with
us, but she came later in the evening, and sat for some time in earnest
talk with Hawthorne. It was a "goodly companie," long to be remembered.
Hunt and Procter were in a mood for gossip over the ruddy port. As the
twilight deepened around the table, which was exquisitely decorated with
flowers, the author of "Rimini" recalled to Procter's recollection other
memorable tables where they used to meet in vanished days with Lamb,
Coleridge, and others of their set long since passed away. As they
talked on in rather low tones, I saw the two old poets take hands more
than once at the mention of dead and beloved names. I recollect they had
a good deal of fine talk over the great singers whose voices had
delighted them in bygone days; speaking with rapture of Pasta, whose
tones in opera they thought incomparably the grandest musical utterances
they had ever heard. Procter's tribute in verse to this

"Queen and wonder of the enchanted world of sound"

is one of his best lyrics, and never was singer more divinely
complimented by poet. At the dinner I am describing he declared that she
walked on the stage like an empress, "and when she sang," said he, "I
held my breath." Leigh Hunt, in one of his letters to Procter in 1831,
says: "As to Pasta, I love her, for she makes the ground firm under my
feet, and the sky blue over my head."

I cannot remember all the good things I heard that day, but some of
them live in my recollection still. Hunt quoted Hartley Coleridge, who
said, "No boy ever imagined himself a poet while he was reading
Shakespeare or Milton." And speaking of Landor's oaths, he said, "They
are so rich, they are really nutritious." Talking of criticism, he said
he did not believe in spiteful imps, but in kindly elves who would "nod
to him and do him courtesies." He laughed at Bishop Berkeley's attempt
to destroy the world in one octavo volume. His doctrine to mankind
always was, "Enlarge your tastes, that you may enlarge your hearts." He
believed in reversing original propensities by education, - as
Spallanzani brought up eagles on bread and milk, and fed doves on raw
meat. "Don't let us demand too much of human nature," was a line in his
creed; and he believed in Hood's advice, that gentleness in a case of
wrong direction is always better than vituperation.

"Mid light, and by degrees, should be the plan
To cure the dark and erring mind;
But who would rush at a benighted man
And give him two black eyes for being blind?"

I recollect there was much converse that day on the love of reading in
old age, and Leigh Hunt observed that Sir Robert Walpole, seeing Mr. Fox
busy in the library at Houghton, said to him: "And you can read! Ah, how
I envy you! I totally neglected the _habit_ of reading when I was young,
and now in my old age I cannot read a single page." Hunt himself was a
man who could be "penetrated by a book." It was inspiring to hear him
dilate over "Plutarch's Morals," and quote passages from that delightful
essay on "The Tranquillity of the Soul." He had such reverence for the
wisdom folded up on his library shelves, he declared that the very
perusal of the _backs of his books_ was "a discipline of humanity."
Whenever and wherever I met this charming person, I learned a lesson of
gentleness and patience; for, steeped to the lips in poverty as he was,
he was ever the most cheerful, the most genial companion and friend. He
never left his good-nature outside the family circle, as a Mussulman
leaves his slippers outside a mosque, but he always brought a smiling
face into the house with him. T - - A - - , whose fine floating wit has
never yet quite condensed itself into a star, said one day of a Boston
man that he was "east-wind made flesh." Leigh Hunt was exactly the
opposite of this; he was compact of all the spicy breezes that blow. In
his bare cottage at Hammersmith the temperament of his fine spirit
heaped up such riches of fancy that kings, if wise ones, might envy his
magic power.

"Onward in faith, and leave the rest to Heaven,"

was a line he often quoted. There was about him such a modest fortitude
in want and poverty, such an inborn mental superiority to low and
uncomfortable circumstances, that he rose without effort into a region
encompassed with felicities, untroubled by a care or sorrow. He always
reminded me of that favorite child of the genii who carried an amulet in
his bosom by which all the gold and jewels of the Sultan's halls were no
sooner beheld than they became his own. If he sat down companionless to
a solitary chop, his imagination transformed it straightway into a fine
shoulder of mutton. When he looked out of his dingy old windows on the
four bleak elms in front of his dwelling, he saw, or thought he saw, a
vast forest, and he could hear in the note of one poor sparrow even the
silvery voices of a hundred nightingales. Such a man might often be cold
and hungry, but he had the wit never to be aware of it.

Hunt's love for Procter was deep and tender, and in one of his notes to
me he says, referring to the meeting my memory has been trying to
describe, "I have reasons for liking our dear friend Procter's wine
beyond what you saw when we dined together at his table the other day."
Procter prefixed a memoir of the life and writings of Ben Jonson to the
great dramatist's works printed by Moxon in 1838. I happen to be the
lucky owner of a copy of this edition that once belonged to Leigh Hunt,
who has enriched it and perfumed the pages, as it were, by his
annotations. The memoir abounds in felicities of expression, and is the
best brief chronicle yet made of rare Ben and his poetry. Leigh Hunt has
filled the margins with his own neat handwriting, and as I turn over the
leaves, thus companioned, I seem to meet those two loving brothers in
modern song, and have again the benefit of their sweet society, - a
society redolent of

"The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books."

I shall not soon forget the first morning I walked with Procter and
Kenyon to the famous house No 22 St. James Place, overlooking the Green
Park, to a breakfast with Samuel Rogers. Mixed up with this matutinal
rite was much that belongs to the modern literary and political history
of England. Fox, Burke, Talleyrand, Grattan, Walter Scott, and many
other great ones have sat there and held converse on divers matters with
the banker-poet. For more than half a century the wits and the wise men
honored that unpretending mansion with their presence. On my way thither
for the first time my companions related anecdote after anecdote of the
"ancient bard," as they called our host, telling me also how all his
life long the poet of Memory had been giving substantial aid to poor
authors; how he had befriended Sheridan, and how good he had been to
Campbell in his sorest needs. Intellectual or artistic excellence was a
sure passport to his _salon_, and his door never turned on reluctant
hinges to admit the unfriended man of letters who needed his aid and
counsel.

We arrived in quite an expectant mood, to find our host already seated
at the head of his table, and his good man Edmund standing behind his
chair. As we entered the room, and I saw Rogers sitting there so
venerable and strange, I was reminded of that line of Wordsworth's,

"The oldest man he seemed that ever wore gray hair."

But old as he was, he seemed full of _verve_, vivacity, and decision.
Knowing his homage for Ben Franklin, I had brought to him as a gift from
America an old volume issued by the patriot printer in 1741. He was
delighted with my little present, and began at once to say how much he
thought of Franklin's prose. He considered the style admirable, and
declared that it might be studied now for improvement in the art of
composition. One of the guests that morning was the Rev. Alexander Dyce,
the scholarly editor of Beaumont and Fletcher, and he very soon drew
Rogers out on the subject of Warren Hastings's trial. It seemed ghostly
enough to hear that famous event depicted by one who sat in the great
hall of William Rufus; who day after day had looked on and listened to
the eloquence of Fox and Sheridan; who had heard Edmund Burke raise his
voice till the old arches of Irish oak resounded, and impeach Warren
Hastings, "in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the
name of every rank, as the common enemy and oppressor of all." It
thrilled me to hear Rogers say, "As I walked up Parliament Street with
Mrs. Siddons, after hearing Sheridan's great speech, we both agreed that
never before could human lips have uttered more eloquent words." That
morning Rogers described to us the appearance of Grattan as he first
saw and heard him when he made his first speech in Parliament. "Some of
us were inclined to laugh," said he, "at the orator's Irish brogue when
he began his speech that day, but after he had been on his legs five
minutes nobody dared to laugh any more." Then followed personal
anecdotes of Madame De Stael, the Duke of Wellington, Walter Scott, Tom
Moore, and Sydney Smith, all exquisitely told. Both our host and his
friend Procter had known or entertained most of the celebrities of their
day. Procter soon led the conversation up to matters connected with the
stage, and thinking of John Kemble and Edmund Kean, I ventured to ask
Rogers who of all the great actors he had seen bore away the palm. "I
have looked upon a magnificent procession of them," he said, "in my
time, and I never saw any one superior to _David Garrick_." He then
repeated Hannah More's couplet on receiving as a gift from Mrs. Garrick
the shoe-buckles which once belonged to the great actor: -

"Thy buckles, O Garrick, another may use,
but none shall be found who can tread in thy shoes"

We applauded his memory and his manner of reciting the lines, which
seemed to please him. "How much can sometimes be put into an epigram!"
he said to Procter, and asked him if he remembered the lines about Earl
Grey and the Kaffir war. Procter did not recall them, and Rogers set off
again: -

"A dispute has arisen of late at the Cape,
As touching the devil, his color and shape;
While some folks contend that the devil is white,
The others aver that he's black as midnight;
But now't is decided quite right in this way,
And all are convinced that the devil is _Grey_."

We asked him if he remembered the theatrical excitement in London when
Garrick and his troublesome contemporary, Barry, were playing King Lear
at rival houses, and dividing the final opinion of the critics. "Yes,"
said he, "perfectly. I saw both those wonderful actors, and fully agreed
at the time with the admirable epigram that ran like wildfire into every
nook and corner of society." "Did the epigram still live in his memory?"
we asked. The old man seemed looking across the misty valley of time for
a few moments, and then gave it without a pause: -

"The town have chosen different ways
To praise their different Lears;
To Barry they give loud applause,
To Garrick only tears.

"A king! ay, every inch a king,
Such Barry doth appear;
But Garrick's quite another thing, -
He's every inch _King Lear!_"

Among other things which Rogers told us that morning, I remember he had
much to say of Byron's _forgetfulness_ as to all manner of things. As an
evidence of his inaccuracy, Rogers related how the noble bard had once
quoted to him some lines on Venice as Southey's, "which he wanted me to
admire," said Rogers; "and as I wrote them myself, I had no hesitation
in doing so. The lines are in my poem on Italy, and begin,

"'There is a glorious city in the sea.'"

Samuel Lawrence had recently painted in oils a portrait of Rogers, and
we asked to see it; so Edmund was sent up stairs to get it, and bring it
to the table. Rogers himself wished to compare it with his own face, and
had a looking-glass held before him. We sat by in silence as he regarded
the picture attentively, and waited for his criticism. Soon he burst out
with, "Is my nose so d - - y sharp as that?" We all exclaimed, "No! no!
the artist is at fault there, sir." "I thought so," he cried; "he has
painted the face of a dead man, d - n him!" Some one said, "The portrait
is too hard." "I won't be painted as a hard man," rejoined Rogers. "I am
not a hard man, am I, Procter?" asked the old poet. Procter deprecated
with energy such an idea as that. Looking at the portrait again, Rogers
said, with great feeling, "Children would run away from that face, and
they never ran away from me!" Notwithstanding all he had to say against
the portrait, I thought it a wonderful likeness, and a painting of great
value. Moxon, the publisher, who was present, asked for a certain
portfolio of engraved heads which had been made from time to time of
Rogers, and this was brought and opened for our examination of its
contents. Rogers insisted upon looking over the portraits, and he amused
us by his cutting comments on each one as it came out of the portfolio.
"This," said he, holding one up, "is the head of a cunning fellow, and
this the face of a debauched clergyman, and this the visage of a
shameless drunkard!" After a comic discussion of the pictures of
himself, which went on for half an hour, he said, "It is time to change
the topic, and set aside the little man for a very great one. Bring me
my collection of Washington portraits." These were brought in, and he
had much to say of American matters. He remembered being told, when a
boy, by his father one day, that "a fight had recently occurred at a
place called Bunker Hill, in America." He then inquired about Webster
and the monument. He had met Webster in England, and greatly admired
him. Now and then his memory was at fault, and he spoke occasionally of
events as still existing which had happened half a century before. I
remember what a shock it gave me when he asked me if Alexander Hamilton
had printed any new pamphlets lately, and begged me to send him anything
that distinguished man might publish after I got home to America.

I recollect how delighted I was when Rogers sent me an invitation the
second time to breakfast with him. On that occasion the poet spoke of
being in Paris on a pleasure-tour with Daniel Webster, and he grew
eloquent over the great American orator's genius. He also referred with
enthusiasm to Bryant's poetry, and quoted with deep feeling the first
three verses of "The Future Life." When he pronounced the lines: -

"My name on earth was ever in thy prayer,
And must thou never utter it in heaven?"

his voice trembled, and he faltered out, "I cannot go on: there is
something in that poem which breaks me down, and I must never try again
to recite verses so full of tenderness and undying love."

For Longfellow's poems, then just published in England, he expressed the
warmest admiration, and thought the author of "Voices of the Night" one
of the most perfect artists in English verse who had ever lived.

Rogers's reminiscences of Holland House that morning were a series of
delightful pictures painted by an artist who left out none of the
salient features, but gave to everything he touched a graphic reality.
In his narrations the eloquent men, the fine ladies, he had seen there
assembled again around their noble host and hostess, and one listened in
the pleasant breakfast-room in St. James Place to the wit and wisdom of
that brilliant company which met fifty years ago in the great _salon_ of
that princely mansion, which will always be famous in the literary and
political history of England.

Rogers talked that morning with inimitable finish and grace of
expression. A light seemed to play over his faded features when he
recalled some happy past experience, and his eye would sometimes fill as
he glanced back among his kindred, all now dead save one, his sister,
who also lived to a great age. His head was very fine, and I never
could quite understand the satirical sayings about his personal
appearance which have crept into the literary gossip of his time. He was
by no means the vivacious spectre some of his contemporaries have
represented him, and I never thought of connecting him with that
terrible line in "The Mirror of Magistrates," -

"His withered fist still striking at Death's door."

His dome of brain was one of the amplest and most perfectly shaped I
ever saw, and his countenance was very far from unpleasant. His
faculties to enjoy had not perished with age. He certainly looked like a
well-seasoned author, but not dropping to pieces yet. His turn of
thought was characteristic, and in the main just, for he loved the best,
and was naturally impatient of what was low and mean in conduct and
intellect. He had always lived in an atmosphere of art, and his
reminiscences of painters and sculptors were never wearisome or dull. He
had a store of pleasant anecdotes of Chantrey, whom he had employed as a
wood-carver long before he became a modeller in clay; and he had also
much to tell us of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose lectures he had attended,
and whose studio-talk had been familiar to him while he was a young man
and studying art himself as an amateur. It was impossible almost to make
Rogers seem a real being as we used to surround his table during those
mornings and sometimes deep into the afternoons. We were listening to
one who had talked with Boswell about Dr. Johnson; who had sat hours
with Mrs. Piozzi; who read the "Vicar of Wakefield" the day it was
published; who had heard Haydn, the composer, playing at a concert,
"dressed out with a sword"; who had listened to Talleyrand's best
sayings from his own lips; who had seen John Wesley lying dead in his
coffin, "an old man, with the countenance of a little child"; who had
been with Beckford at Fonthill; who had seen Porson slink back into the
dining-room after the company had left it and drain what was left in the
wineglasses; who had crossed the Apennines with Byron; who had seen Beau
Nash in the height of his career dancing minuets at Bath; who had known
Lady Hamilton in her days of beauty, and seen her often with Lord
Nelson; who was in Fox's room when that great man lay dying; and who
could describe Pitt from personal observation, speaking always as if his
mouth was "full of worsted." It was unreal as a dream to sit there in
St. James Place and hear that old man talk by the hour of what one had



Online LibraryJames T. FieldsYesterdays with Authors → online text (page 34 of 37)