Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

. (page 27 of 38)
Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 27 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

viduals. I do not hesitate to say that, paradoxical as it
may seem, the most original races, those who have suc-
ceeded best and left their stamp most broadly and per-
manently on the human race have also been the most
teachable, provided they were allowed to learn in their
own way and to adapt to their own purposes any higher
ancient civilization with which they came in contact.
What more striking instances of this truth for truth it
is than the reverence of the free Republic and Greek


for the old despotic civilization of Egypt ? and of the free
Norseman, our own ancestor, for the old and equally
despotic civilization of Rome? These the two most
originative and most progressive races of Europe had a
faith in, an awe of, the supposed or real wisdom of the
men of old time, which was often exaggerated into a
superstition but never thanks to their own innate force
degenerated into a bondage.

Pardon me this somewhat dry proemium; and pardon
me, too, if it leads me on to a compliment to the American
people, which I trust you will not think impertinent. For
I have seen, and seen with joy, a like spirit in those Amer-
icans whom it has been my good fortune to meet in my
own land. I mean this: that I found in them, however
self-teaching and self-determining they might be, that
genial reverence for antiquity which I hold to be the sign
of a truly generous that is in the right sense of the
grand old word a truly high-bred nature. I have been
touched and deeply touched, at finding so many of them,
on landing for the first time at Liverpool, hurrying off
to our quaint old city of Chester, to gaze on its old girdle
of walls and towers; Roman, Mediaeval, Caroline; its
curious rows of overhanging houses; its fragments of
Roman baths and inscriptions ; its modest little Cathedral ;
and the really very few relics of English history which
it contains. Even two banners of an old Cheshire regi-
ment which had been in the Peninsular war were almost
as interesting to some, as an illuminated Bible of the early
Middle Ages.

More than once have I had to repress the enthusiasm
of some charming lady and say, " But this is nothing.
Do not waste your admiration kere. Go on. See the
British Museum, its marbles and its manuscripts see
the French cathedrals; the ruins of Provence and Italy;
the galleries of Florence, Naples, Rome." " Ah, but you
must remember," was the answer, " these are the first old
things I ever saw."

A mere sentiment? Yes; but as poets know, and
statesmen ought to know, it is by sentiment, when well
directed as by sorrow, when well used by sentiment.
I say, great nations live. When sentiment dies out. and
mere prosaic calculation of loss and profit takes its place,


then comes a Byzantine epoch, a Chinese epoch, decrepi-
tude and slow decay. And so the eagerness of those gen-
erous young souls was to me a good augury for the future,
of them, and of their native land. They seemed to me
and I say again it touched me, often deeply to be realiz-
ing to themselves their rightful place in the community
of the civilized nations of all lands, and of all times,
realizing to themselves that they were indeed

" Heirs of all the ages, in the foremost files of time,"

and minded therefore, like wise and noble heirs, not to
despise and squander, but to treasure and to use that in-
heritance, and the accumulated labors of the mighty dead.

I saw this, I say, at Chester. And therefore I was not
surprised to find the pleasant experience repeated and
to even a higher degree at Westminster. A pleasant ex-
perience, I say. I know few more agreeable occupations
than showing a party of Americans round our own great
Abbey ; and sentimentalizing if you will, in sympathy with
them, over England's Pantheon.

I pause to confess once more that it is almost an im-
pertinence in me to pay you such a compliment. You
have a right to answer me, How could it be otherwise?
Are we not educated people? Has not our taste been
trained by native authors, who were at least civilized
enough to value the great past, without the need of any
European crossing the seas to tell us of its wealth? If
you reprove me thus, I can but say that the reproof is
just and will remain just, as long as your poets are what
they are ; and as long, above all, as you reverence as much
in America, as we do in England, the poetry of Mr. Long-
fellow. He has not, if I recollect aright, ever employed
his muse in commemorating our great Abbey; but that
muse is instinct with all those lofty and yet tender emo-
tions which the sight of that great Abbey should call out.
He knows as few know on our side of the wide water, the
effect, chastening and yet ennobling, of such architecture,
consecrated by such association. He has not only per-
ceived and drunk in all that is purest and noblest in the
now sleeping last ten centuries; but he has combined it
again and again, with that which is purest and noblest in


the waking and yearning present ; and combined it organ-
ically and livingly as leaf and stem combine with flower
and fruit. Yes ; as long as the poet who could write both
the " Belfry of Bruges" and the "Village Blacksmith" is
read among you, there is no need for me to bid you
reverence the past ; and little need, I trust, for me to tell
those whom I leave at home to reverence the present.
For it is a fact of which some Americans may not be as
well aware as they should be that your exquisite poet
has exercised an influence in Britain it may be as great as,
and certainly more varied than, that which he has exer-
cised in his native land. With us, as I presume with you,
he has penetrated into thousands of Puritan homes, and
awakened tens of thousands of young hearts to the
beauty and the nobleness of the old pre-Reformation
age, and of that romance and art from which their too
exclusive hereditary training had, until his time, shut
them out. And he has thus, truly done a sacred deed in
turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. That
was enough : but that is not the whole. He has, con-
versely, turned the hearts of the fathers to the children.
The world-wide humanity of his poems, and to be just, of
all your American poets who have studied in his school,
has produced throughout Great Britain a just reverence
and affection for the American mind which will have
which has had already large social and political results.

Be sure, be sure, that in spite of passing jars, our em-
pire will never be long unjust to yours, while Mr. Long-
fellow and Mr. Lowell remain not merely the household
bards, though that is much, but counselors, comforters,
and trusted friends to hundreds of thousands of gentle
and earnest souls ; from the palace to the parsonage, from
the little village shop to the farmhouse on the lonely

But there is another American author, who was the
delight of my own youth, and who should have been my
teacher also, for he was a master of our common tongue,
and his prose is as graceful and felicitous as poor Elia's
own, and it is certainly more manly another American
author, I say, who, with that high-bred reverence for
what is old, has told you already more about Westmin-
ster Abbey, and told it better than I am likely to tell it.


Need I say that I mean the lamented Washington Irving?
Ah, that our authors had always been as just to you as
he was just to us ; and indeed more than just ; for in his
courtesy and geniality he saw us somewhat en beau, and
treated old John Bull too much as the poet advises us to
treat young and fair ladies :

" Be to their faults a little blind,
Be to their virtues very kind.'

But what a charming book is that old " Sketch-book."
And what a charming essay that on our great Abbey, set
with such gems of prose as these : " The sun was pouring
down a yellow autumnal ray into the square of the clois-
ters, beaming upon a scanty spot of grass in the center,
and lighting up an angle of the vaulted passage with a
kind of dusty splendor. From between the arcades, the
eye glanced up to a bit of blue sky, or a passing cloud,
and beheld the sun-gilt pinnacles of the Abbey towering
into the azure heaven." Or this again, describing the
general effect of Henry VII's unrivaled chapel: "The
very walls are wrought into universal ornament; en-
crusted with tracery, and scooped into niches, crowded
with the statues of saints and martyrs. Stone seems, by
the cunning labor of the chisel, to have been robbed of
its weight and density ; suspended aloft as if by magic ;
and the fretted roof achieved with the wonderful minute-
ness and airy security of a cobweb." " Dusty splendor,"
"airy security," epithets so unexpected, and yet so felicit-
ous, as to be seemingly accidental. Such are the tokens
of that highest art, which is to conceal its own existence.
After such speech as that, what have I to tell you of the
great old Abbey?

Yet there are one or two things, I dare to say, which
Washington Irving would have written differently had he
visited Westminster not forty years ago (1834) but now.
I think, in the first place, that if he visited the great
Abbey now, he would not have noticed that look of dilapi-
dation at which he hints and perhaps had a right to hint
some forty years ago. Dilapidation, dirt, and negli-
gence are as hateful to us now, as to the builder of the
newest house outside. We, too, for more than a genera-
tion past, have felt, in common with the rest of England


and with all the nations of Northern Europe, that awak-
ened reverence for Mediaeval Art and Mediaeval History,
which is, for good and for evil, the special social phenom-
enon of our times ; the natural and, on the whole, useful
countercheck to that extreme of revolutionary feeling
which issues, as it did in Paris but three years ago in
utter hatred and renunciation of the past, and destruction
of its monuments. To preserve, to restore, and if not, to
copy, as a sort of filial duty, the buildings which our fore-
fathers have left us, is now held to be the very mark of
cultivation and good taste in Britain. It may be that we
carry it too far; that by a servile and Chinese exactness
of imitation we are crippling what originality of genius
may exist among our draughtsmen, sculptors, architects.
But we at least confess thereby that we cannot invent
and create as could our ancestors five hundred years ago ;
and as long as that is the case it is more wise in us as
in any people to exhaust the signification and power of
the past, and to learn all we can from older schools of art
and thought ere we attempt novelties of our own, which
I confess freely, usually issue in the ugly and the

Be that as it may, we of Westminster Abbey have be-
come, like other Englishmen, repairers and restorers.
Had we not become so, the nation would have demanded
an account of us, as guardians of its national mausoleum,
the building of which our illustrious Dean has so well
said : " Of all the characteristics of Westminster Abbey,
that which most endears it to the nation and gives most
force to its name which has, more than anything else,
made it the home of the people of England and the most
venerated fabric of the English Church is not so much
its glory as the seat of the coronations, or as the sepul-
chre of the kings ; not so much its school, or its monastery,
or its chapter, or its sanctuary, as the fact that it is the
resting place of famous Englishmen, from every rank and
creed, and every form of genius. It is not only Reims
Cathedral and St. Denys both in one; but it is what the
Pantheon was intended to be to France what the Val-
halla is to Germany what Santa Croce is to Italy. . . .
It is this which inspired the saying of Nelson, ' Victory or
Westminster Abbey.' It is this which has intertwined it



with so many eloquent passages of Macaulay. It is this
which gives point to the allusions of recent Nonconform-
ist statesmen, least inclined to draw illustrations from
ecclesiastical buildings. It is this which gives most prom-
ise of vitality to the whole institution. Kings are no
longer buried within its walls; even the splendor of
pageants has ceased to attract. But the desire to be
buried in Westminster Abbey is as strong as ever.

" This sprang, in the first instance, as a natural off-
shoot from the coronations and interments of the kings.
Had they, like those of France, of Spain, of Austria, of
Russia been buried far away in some secluded spot, or
had the English nation stood aloof from the English
monarchy, it might have been otherwise. The sepulchral
chapels built by Henry III and Henry VII might have
stood alone in their glory. No meaner dust need ever
have mingled with the dust of Plantagenets, Tudors,
Stuarts, and Guelphs. But it has been the peculiar privi-
lege of the kings of England that neither in life nor in
death have they been parted from their people. As the
Council of the Nation and the Courts of Law have pressed
into the Palace of Westminster, and engirdled the very
throne itself, so the ashes of the great citizens of England
have pressed into the sepulchre of the kings, and sur-
rounded them as with a guard of honor after their death.
We are sometimes inclined bitterly to contrast the placid
dignity of our recumbent kings with Chatham gesticulat-
ing from the northern transept, or Pitt from the western
door, or Shakespeare leaning on his column in Poet's
Corner, or Wolfe expiring by the chapel of St. John.
But, in fact, they are, in their different ways keeping
guard over the shrine of our monarchs and our laws ; and
their very incongruity and variety become symbols of that
harmonious diversity in unity which pervades our whole

Honored by such a trust, we who serve God daily in
the great Abbey are not unmindful of the duty which lies
on us to preserve and to restore, to the best of our power
the general fabric ; and to call on government and on pri-
vate persons to preserve and restore those monuments
for which they, not we, are responsible. A stranger will
not often enter our Abbey without finding somewhere or



other among its vast arcades, skilled workmen busy over
mosaic, marble, bronze, or " storied window richly dight,"
and the very cloisters which to Washington Irving's eye
were " discolored with damp, crumbling with age, and
crusted with a coat of hoary moss," are being repaired
till " that rich tracery of the arches, and that leafy beauty
of the roses which adorn the keystones " of which he
tells shall be as sharp and bright as they were first, five
hundred years ago.

One sentiment again, which was called up in the mind
of your charming essayist, at the sight of Westminster
Abbey, I have not felt myself: I mean its sadness.
" What," says he, " is this vast assembly of sepulchres
but a treasury of humiliation? a huge pile of reiterated
homilies on the emptiness of renown and the certainty of
oblivion." So does that " mournful magnificence " of
which he speaks, seem to have weighed on him, that he
takes for the motto of his whole essay that grand
Elizabethan epigram:

" When I behold, with deep astonishment,

To famous Westminster how there resort
Living in brasse or stony monument

The princes and the worthies of all sort ;
Do I not see reformed nobilitie,

Without contempt, or pride, or ostentation,
And look upon offenseless majestic,

Naked of pomp or earthly domination ?
And how a play-game of a painted stone

Contents the quiet, now, and silent sprites
Whom all the world, which late they stood upon

Could not content, nor quench their appetites.
Life is a frost of cold felicities ;

And death the thaw of all our vanities."

True, true who knows it not, who has lived fifty years
in such a world as this ? and yet but half the truth.

Were there no after-life, no juster home beyond the
grave, where each good deed so spake the most august
of lips shall in no wise lose its reward, is it nought,
vimm volitarc per ora, to live upon the lips of men, and
find an immortality, even for a few centuries, in their
hearts? I know what answer healthy souls would have


made in every age to that question; and what they will
make to the end, as long as the respect of their fellow-
creatures is, as our Creator meant that it should be,
precious to virtuous men. And let none talk of " the
play-game of a painted stone " of " the worthless honors
of a bust." The worth of honor lies in that same worth-
lessness. Fair money wage for fair work done, no wise
man will despise. But that is pay, not honor; the very
preciousness whereof, like the old victor's parsley crown
in the Greek games, is that it had no value, gave no
pleasure, save that which is imperishable, spiritual, and
not to be represented by gold nor quintessential diamond.
Therefore, to me at least, the Abbey speaks, not of
vanity and disappointment, but of content and peace.

" The quiet now and silent sprites,"

of whom old Christolero sings, they are content; and
well for them that they should be. They have received
their nation's thanks, and ask no more, save to lie there
in peace. They have had justice done them ; and more
than one is there who had scant justice done him while
alive. Even Castlereagh is there, in spite of Byron's and
of Shelley's scorn. It may be that they too have found
out ere now, that there he ought to be. The nation has
been just to him who, in such wild times as the world had
not seen for full three hundred years, did his duty accord-
ing to his light, and died in doing it; and his sad, noble
face looks down on Englishmen as they go by, not with
reproach, but rather with content.

Content, I say, and peace. Peace from their toil, and
peace with their fellow men. They are at least at rest.
Obdormicrwit in pace. They have fallen asleep in peace.
The galled shoulder is freed from the collar at last. The
brave old horse has done his stage and lain clown in the
inn. There are no x more mistakes now, no more sores,
no more falls, and no more whip, than God, laid on too
often when it was least needed and most felt. And there
are no more quarrels, too. Old personal feuds, old
party bickerings, old differences of creed, and hatreds in
the name of the God of love all those are past, in that
world of which the Abbey is to me a symbol and a sacra-



ment. Pitt and Fox, Warren Hastings and Macaulay,
they can afford to be near to each other in the Abbey;
for they understand each other now elsewhere; and the
Romish Abbot's bones do not stir in their grave beside
the bones of the Protestant Divine whom he, it may be,
would have burned alive on earth.

In the south aisle of Henry VII's chapel, lies in royal
pomp she who so long was Britain's bane " the daugh-
ter of debate, who discord still did sow" poor Mary
Queen of Scots. But English and Scots alike have for-
gotten the streams of noble blood she cost their nations ;
and look sadly and pityingly upon her effigy why not ?

" Nothing is left of her
Now but pure womanly."

And in the corresponding aisle upon the north, in a like
tomb which the voice of the English people demanded
from the son of Mary Stuart lies even a sadder figure
still poor Queen Elizabeth. To her indeed, in her last
days, vanity of vanities all was vanity. Tyrone rebel-
lion killed her. " This fruit have I of all my labors which
I have taken under the sun " and with a whole book of
Ecclesiastes written on her mighty heart, the old crowned
lioness of England coiled herself up in her lair, refused
food, and died, and took her place henceforth opposite to
her " dear cousin " whom she really tried to save from
herself, who would have slain her if she could, and whom
she had at last, in obedience to the voice of the people of
England, to slay against her will. They have made up
.that quarrel now.

Ay, and that tomb is the sacred symbol of a reconcilia-
tion even more pathetic and more strange. Elizabeth
lies seemingly by her own desire in the same vault as
her own sister, Mary Tudor. " Bloody Mary," now, no
more. James I, who had no love for either of them, has
placed at the head of the monument " two lines " as has
been well said, " full of a far deeper feeling than we should
naturally have ascribed to him "

" Fellows in the kingdom and in the tomb, here we sleep;
Mary and Elizabeth the sisters; in hope of the resurrection."

those men were not tyrants, but kings, who swore to keep,


I make no comment on these words ; or on that double
sepulchre. But did I not say well that the great Abbey
was a place of peace, a place to remind hardworked,
purblind, and often alas ! embittered souls :

" For mother Earth she gathers all
Into her bosom, great and small.
Ah ! could we look into her face,
We should not shrink from her embrace."

Yes, all old misunderstandings are cleared up by now
in that just world wherein all live to God. They live to
God; and therefore the great Abbey is to me awful
indeed, but never sad. Awful it ought to be, for it is a
symbol of both worlds, the seen and the unseen; and of
the veil, as thin as cobweb, yet opaque as night, which
parts the two. Awful it is; and ought to be like that
with which it grew the life of a great nation, growing
slowly to manhood, as all great nations grow, through
ignorance and waywardness, often through sin and sor-
row; hewing onward a devious track through unknown
wildernesses ; and struggling, victorious, though with
bleeding feet, athwart the tangled woods and thorny
brakes of stern experience.

Awful it is ; and should be. And therefore, I, at least
do not regret that its very form, outside should want
those heaven-pointed spires, that delicate lightness, that
airy joyousness, of many a foreign cathedral even of
our own Salisbury and Lichfield. You will see in its
outer shape little, if any, of that type of architecture
which was, as I believe, copied from scenery with which
you, as Americans, must be even more familiar than were
the mediaeval architects who traveled through the Ger-
man forests and across the Alps to Rome. True, we
have our noble high-pitched snow-roof. Our architect
like the rest, had seen the mountain-ranges jut black and
bare above the snows of winter. He had seen those
snows slip down in sheets, rush down in torrents from
the sun, off the steep slabs of rock which coped the hill-
side ; and he, like the rest, has copied in that roof, for use
as well as beauty, the mountain rocks.

But he has not, as many another mediaeval architect
has done, decked his roofs as Nature has decked hers,



with the spruce and fir-tree spires, which cling to the
hillside of the crag, old above young, pinnacle above pin-
nacle, whorl above whorl; and clothed with them the
sides and summit of the stone mountain which he had
raised till, like a group of firs upon an isolated rock,
every point of the building should seem in act to grow
toward heaven, and the gray leads of the Minster roof
stand out amid peaks and turrets rich with carven foliage,
as the gray rocks stand out of the primeval woods. That
part of the mediaeval builder's task was left unfinished,
and indeed hardly attempted, by our Westminster archi-
tects, either under Henry III, Edward I, or Henry V.
Their Minster is grand enough by grave height and
severe proportion ; and he who enters stooping under that
low-browed arch of the north door, beneath the beetling
crag of weatherworn and crumbling stone, may feel like
one who, in some old northern fairy-tale, enters a cavern
in some lone mountain-side where trolls and dragons
guard the hoards of buried kings.

And awful it is, and should be still, inside; under that
vaulted roof a hundred feet above, all more mysterious
and more huge, and yet more soft, beneath the murky
London air. But sad I cannot call it. Nor, I think,
would you feel it sad when you perceive how richly suc-
cessive architects have squandered on it the treasures of
their fancy; and made it, so they say, perhaps the most
splendid specimen in the world of one of those stone
forests, in which the men of old delighted to reproduce
those leafy minsters which God, not man, has built ; where
they sent the columns aloft like the boles of giant trees,
and wreathed their capitals, sometimes their very shafts,
with vines and flowers ; and decked with foliage and with
fruit the bosses above and the corbels below ; and sent up
out of those corbels upright shafts along the walls, in

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 27 of 38)