Seeing Europe with Famous Authors, Volume 1 Great Britain and Ireland, part 1 online

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Under the pavement of the chancel, and back of the altar rail, - at which
it was my privilege to kneel while gazing upon this sacred spot, - is the
grave of Byron.... Nothing is written on the stone that covers his
sepulcher except the simple name of BYRON with the dates of his birth and
death, in brass letters, surrounded by a wreath of leaves in brass, the
gift of the King of Greece; and never did a name seem more stately or a
place more hallowed. The dust of the poet reposes between that of his
mother on his right hand, and that of his Ada, - "sole daughter of my house
and heart," - on his left. The mother died on August 1, 1811; the daughter,
who had by marriage become the Countess of Lovelace, in 1852. "I buried
her with my own hands," said the sexton, John Brown, when, after a little
time, he rejoined me at the altar-rail. "I told them exactly where he was
laid when they wanted to put that brass on the stone; I remembered it
well, for I lowered the coffin of the Countess of Lovelace into this
vault, and laid her by her father's side." And when presently we went into
the vestry, he produced the Register of Burials and displayed the record
of that interment in the following words: "1852. Died at 69 Cumberland Pl.
London. Buried December 3. Aged thirty-six. - Curtis Jackson." The Byrons
were a short-lived race. The poet himself had just turned thirty-six; his
mother was only forty-six when she passed away. This name of Curtis
Jackson in the register was that of the rector or curate then incumbent
but now departed....

A book has been kept for many years, at the church of Hucknall-Torkard, in
which visitors desiring to do so, can write their names. The first book
provided for this purpose was an album given to the church by the poet,
Sir John Bowling, and in that there was a record of visitations during the
years from 1825 to 1834.... The catalog of pilgrims to the grave of Byron
during the last eighty years is not a long one. The votaries of that poet
are far less numerous than those of Shakespeare. Custom has made the visit
to Stratford "a property of easiness," and Shakespeare is a safe no less
than a rightful object of worship. The visit to Hucknall-Torkard is
neither as easy nor as agreeable. Torkard is neither as easy nor as
agreeable.... On the capital of a column near Byron's tomb I saw two
moldering wreaths of laurel, which had hung there for several years; one
brought by the Bishop of Norwich, the other by the American poet Joaquin
Miller. It was good to see them, and especially to see them beside the
tablet of white marble which was placed on that church wall to commemorate
the poet, and to be her witness in death, by his loving and beloved sister
Augusta Mary Leigh, - a name that is the synonym of noble fidelity, a name
that cruel detraction and hideous calumny have done their worst to
tarnish. That tablet names him "The Author of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,"
and if the conviction of thoughtful men and women throughout the world can
be accepted as an authority, no name in the long annals of English
literature is more certain of immortality than the name of Byron. His
reputation can afford the absence of all memorial to him in Westminster
Abbey, - can endure it, perhaps, better than the English nation can, - and
it can endure the neglect and censure of the precinct of Nottingham. That
city rejoices in many interesting associations, but all that really
hallows it for the stranger is its association with the name of Byron. The
stranger will look in vain, however, for any adequate sign of his former
connection with that place. It is difficult even to find prints or
photographs of the Byron shrine, in the shops of Nottingham. [Footnote:
Since this paper was written the buildings that flanked the front wall of
Hucknall-Torkard churchyard have been removed, the street in front of it
has been widened, and the church has been "restored" and considerably
altered. - Author's note to the Editor.]

DR. JOHNSON'S BIRTHPLACE [Footnote: From "Our Old Home." Published by
Houghton, Mifflin Co.]


Seeking for Dr. Johnson's birthplace, I found it in St. Mary's Square
(Lichfield), which is not so much a square as the mere widening of a
street. The house is tall and thin, of three stories, with a square front
and a roof rising steep and high. On a side-view, the building looks as if
it had been cut in two in the midst, there being no slope of the roof on
that side. A ladder slanted against the wall, and a painter was giving a
livelier hue to the plaster. In a corner-room of the basement, where old
Michael Johnson may be supposed to have sold books, is now what we should
call a dry-goods store, or, according to the English phrase, a mercer's
and haberdasher's shop.

The house has a private entrance on a cross-street, the door being
accessible by several much worn stone-steps, which are bordered by an iron
balustrade. I set my foot on the steps and laid my hand on the balustrade,
where Johnson's hand and foot must many a time have been, and ascending to
the door, I knocked once, and again, and again, and got no admittance.
Going round to the shop-entrance, I tried to open it, but found it as fast
bolted as the gate of Paradise. It is mortifying to be so balked in one's
little enthusiasms; but looking round in quest of somebody to make
inquiries of, I was a good deal consoled by the sight of Dr. Johnson
himself, who happened, just at that moment, to be sitting at his ease
nearly in the middle of St. Mary's Square, with his face turned toward his
father's house.

Of course, it being almost fourscore years since the doctor laid aside his
weary bulk of flesh, together with the ponderous melancholy that had so
long weighed him down - the intelligent reader will at once comprehend that
he was marble in his substance, and seated in a marble chair, on an
elevated stone-pedestal. In short, it was a statue, sculptured by Lucas,
and placed here in 1838, at the expense of Dr. Law, the reverend
chancellor of the Diocese.

The figure is colossal (tho perhaps not much more so than the mountainous
doctor himself) and looks down upon the spectator from its pedestal of ten
or twelve feet high, with a broad and heavy benignity of aspect, very like
in feature to Sir Joshua Reynold's portrait of Johnson, but calmer and
sweeter in expression. Several big books are piled up beneath his chair,
and, if I mistake not, he holds a volume in his hand, thus blinking forth
at the world out of his learned abstraction, owl-like, yet benevolent at
heart. The statue is immensely massive, a vast ponderosity of stone, not
finely spiritualized, nor indeed, fully humanized, but rather resembling a
great stone-boulder than a man. You must look with the eyes of faith and
sympathy, or possibly, you might lose the human being altogether, and find
only a big stone within your mental grasp. On the pedestal are three
bas-reliefs. In the first, Johnson is represented as hardly more than a
baby, bestriding an old man's shoulders, resting his chin on the bald head
which he embraces with his little arms, and listening earnestly to the
high-church eloquence of Dr. Sacheverell. In the second tablet, he is seen
riding to school on the shoulders of two of his comrades, while another
boy supports him in the rear.

The third bas-relief possesses, to my mind, a great deal of pathos, to
which my appreciative faculty is probably the more alive, because I have
always been profoundly imprest by the incident here commemorated, and long
ago tried to tell it for the behoof of childish readers. It shows Johnson
in the market-place of Uttoxeter, doing penance for an act of disobedience
to his father, committed, fifty years before. He stands bare-headed, a
venerable figure, and a countenance extremely sad and wo-begone, with the
wind and rain driving hard against him, and thus helping to suggest to the
spectator the gloom of his inward state. Some market-people and children
gaze awe-stricken into his face, and an aged man and woman, with clapsed
and uplifted hands, seem to be praying for him. These latter personages
(whose introduction by the artist is none the less effective, because, in
queer proximity, there are some commodities of market-day in the shape of
living ducks and dead poultry,) I interpreted to represent the spirits of
Johnson's father and mother, lending what aid they could to lighten his
half-century's burden of remorse.

I had never heard of the above-described piece of sculpture before; it
appears to have no reputation as a work of art, nor am I at all positive
that it deserves any. For me, however, it did as much as sculpture could
under the circumstances, even if the artist of the Libyan Sibyl had
wrought it, by reviving my interest in the sturdy old Englishman, and
particularly by freshening my perception of a wonderful beauty and
pathetic tenderness in the incident of the penance.

The next day I left Lichfield for Uttoxeter, on one of the few purely
sentimental pilgrimages that I ever undertook, to see the very spot where
Johnson had stood. Boswell, I think, speaks of the town (its name is
pronounced Yuteox'eter) as being about nine miles off from Lichfield, but
the county-map would indicate a greater distance; and by rail, passing
from one line to another, it is as much as eighteen miles. I have always
had an idea of old Michael Johnson sending his literay merchandise by
carrier's wagon, journeying to Uttoxeter afoot on market-day morning,
selling "books" through the busy hours, and returning to Lichfield at
night. This could not possibly have been the case.

Arriving at the Uttoxeter station, the first objects that I saw, with a
green field or two between them and me, were the tower and gray steeple of
a church, rising among red-tiled roofs and a few scattered trees. A very
short walk takes you from the station up into the town. It had been my
previous impression that the market-place of Uttoxeter lay immediately
round about the church; and, if I remember the narrative aright, Johnson,
or Boswell in his behalf, describes his father's book-stall as standing in
the market-place close beside the sacred edifice.

It is impossible for me to say what changes may have occurred in the
topography of the town, during almost a century and a half since Michael
Johnson retired from business, and ninety years, at least, since his son's
penance was performed. But the church has now merely a street of ordinary
width passing around it, while the market-place, tho near at hand, neither
forms a part of it nor is really contiguous, nor would its throng and
bustle be apt to overflow their boundaries and surge against the
churchyard and the old gray tower. Nevertheless, a walk of a minute or two
brings a person from the center of the market-place to the church-door;
and Michael Johnson might very conveniently have located his stall and
laid out his literary ware in the corner at the tower's base; better
there, indeed, than in the busy center of an agricultural market. But the
picturesque arrangement and full impressiveness of the story absolutely
require that Johnson shall not have done his penance in a corner, ever so
little retired, but shall have been the very nucleus of the crowd - the
midmost man of the market-place - a central image of Memory and Remorse,
contrasting with and overpowering the petty materialism around him. He
himself, having the force to throw vitality and truth into what persons
differently constituted might reckon a mere external ceremony, and an
absurd one, would not have failed to see this necessity. I am resolved,
therefore, that the true site of Dr. Johnson's penance was in the middle
of the market-place.

How strange and stupid it is that tradition should not have marked and
kept in mind the very place! How shameful (nothing less than that) that
there should be no local memorial of this incident, as beautiful and
touching a passage as can be cited out of any human life! No inscription
of it, almost as sacred as a verse of Scripture on the wall of the church!
No statue of the venerable and illustrious penitent in the market-place to
throw a wholesome awe over its earthliness, its frauds and petty wrongs of
which the benumbed fingers of conscience can make no record, its selfish
competition of each man with his brother or his neighbor, its traffic of
soul-substance for a little worldly gain! Such a statue, if the piety of
the people did not raise it, might almost have been expected to grow up
out of the pavement of its own accord on the spot that had been watered by
the rain that dript from Johnson's garments, mingled with his remorseful

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Online LibraryVariousSeeing Europe with Famous Authors, Volume 1 Great Britain and Ireland, part 1 → online text (page 13 of 13)