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A London Suburb


One of our English summers looks, in the retrospect, as if it had been
patched with more frequent sunshine than the sky of England ordinarily
affords; but I believe that it may be only a moral effect,--a "light that
never was on sea nor land," caused by our having found a particularly
delightful abode in the neighborhood of London. In order to enjoy it,
however, I was compelled to solve the problem of living in two places at
once,--an impossibility which I so far accomplished as to vanish, at
frequent intervals, out of men's sight and knowledge on one side of
England, and take my place in a circle of familiar faces on the other, so
quietly that I seemed to have been there all along. It was the easier to
get accustomed to our new residence, because it was not only rich in all
the material properties of a home, but had also the home-like atmosphere,
the household element, which is of too intangible a character to be let
even with the most thoroughly furnished lodging-house. A friend had
given us his suburban residence, with all its conveniences, elegances,
and snuggeries,--its drawing-rooms and library, still warm and bright
with the recollection of the genial presences that we had known there,--
its closets, chambers, kitchen, and even its wine-cellar, if we could
have availed ourselves of so dear and delicate a trust,--its lawn and
cosey garden-nooks, and whatever else makes up the multitudinous idea of
an English home,--he had transferred it all to us, pilgrims and dusty
wayfarers, that we might rest and take our ease during his summer's
absence on the Continent. We had long been dwelling in tents, as it
were, and morally shivering by hearths which, heap the bituminous coal
upon them as we might, no blaze could render cheerful. I remember, to
this day, the dreary feeling with which I sat by our first English
fireside, and watched the chill and rainy twilight of an autumn day
darkening down upon the garden; while the portrait of the preceding
occupant of the house (evidently a most unamiable personage in his
lifetime) scowled inhospitably from above the mantel-piece, as if
indignant that an American should try to make himself at home there.
Possibly it may appease his sulky shade to know that I quitted his abode
as much a stranger as I entered it. But mow, at last, we were in a
genuine British home, where refined and warm-hearted people had just been
living their daily life, and had left us a summer's inheritance of slowly
ripened days, such as a stranger's hasty opportunities so seldom permit
him to enjoy.

Within so trifling a distance of the central spot of all the world
(which, as Americans have at present no centre of their own, we may allow
to be somewhere in the vicinity, we will say, of St. Paul's Cathedral),
it might have seemed natural that I should be tossed about by the
turbulence of the vast London whirlpool. But I had drifted into a still
eddy, where conflicting movements made a repose, and, wearied with a good
deal of uncongenial activity, I found the quiet of my temporary haven
more attractive than anything that the great town could offer. I already
knew London well; that is to say, I had long ago satisfied (so far as it
was capable of satisfaction) that mysterious yearning--the magnetism of
millions of hearts operating upon one--which impels every man's
individuality to mingle itself with the immensest mass of human life
within his scope. Day alter day, at an earlier period, I had trodden the
thronged thoroughfares, the broad, lonely squares, the lanes, alleys, and
strange labyrinthine courts, the parks, the gardens and enclosures of
ancient studious societies, so retired and silent amid the city uproar,
the markets, the foggy streets along the river-side, the bridges,--I had
sought all parts of the metropolis, in short, with an unweariable and
indiscriminating curiosity; until few of the native inhabitants, I fancy,
had turned so many of its corners as myself. These aimless wanderings
(in which my prime purpose and achievement were to lose my way, and
so to find it the more surely) had brought one, at one time or another,
to the sight and actual presence of almost all the objects and renowned
localities that I had read about, and which had made London the
dream-city of my youth. I had found it better than my dream; for there
is nothing else in life comparable (in that species of enjoyment, I mean)
to the thick, heavy, oppressive, sombre delight which an American is
sensible of, hardly knowing whether to call it a pleasure or a pain, in
the atmosphere of London. The result was, that I acquired a home-feeling
there, as nowhere else in the world,--though afterwards I came to have a
somewhat similar sentiment in regard to Rome; and as long as either of
those two great cities shall exist, the cities of the Past and of the
Present, a man's native soil may crumble beneath his feet without leaving
him altogether homeless upon earth.

Thus, having once fully yielded to its influence, I was in a manner
free of the city, and could approach or keep away from it as I pleased.
Hence it happened, that, living within a quarter of an hour's rush of
the London Bridge Terminus, I was oftener tempted to spend a whole
summer-day in our garden than to seek anything new or old, wonderful or
commonplace, beyond its precincts. It was a delightful garden, of no
great extent, but comprising a good many facilities for repose and
enjoyment, such as arbors and garden-seats, shrubbery, flower-beds,
rose-bushes in a profusion of bloom, pinks, poppies, geraniums,
sweet-peas, and a variety of other scarlet, yellow, blue, and purple
blossoms, which I did not trouble myself to recognize individually, yet
had always a vague sense of their beauty about me. The dim sky of
England has a most happy effect on the coloring of flowers, blending
richness with delicacy in the same texture; but in this garden, as
everywhere else, the exuberance of English verdure had a greater charm
than any tropical splendor or diversity of hue. The hunger for natural
beauty might be satisfied with grass and green leaves forever. Conscious
of the triumph of England in this respect, and loyally anxious for the
credit of my own country, it gratified me to observe what trouble and
pains the English gardeners are fain to throw away in producing a few
sour plums and abortive pears and apples,--as, for example, in this very
garden, where a row of unhappy trees were spread out perfectly flat
against a brick wall, looking as if impaled alive, or crucified, with a
cruel and unattainable purpose of compelling them to produce rich fruit
by torture. For my part, I never ate an English fruit, raised in the
open air, that could compare in flavor with a Yankee turnip.

The garden included that prime feature of English domestic scenery, a
lawn. It had been levelled, carefully shorn, and converted into a
bowling-green, on which we sometimes essayed to practise the time-honored
game of bowls, most unskilfully, yet not without a perception that it
involves a very pleasant mixture of exercise and ease, as is the case
with most of the old English pastimes. Our little domain was shut in by
the house on one side, and in other directions by a hedge-fence and a
brick wall, which last was concealed or softened by shrubbery and the
impaled fruit-trees already mentioned. Over all the outer region, beyond
our immediate precincts, there was an abundance of foliage, tossed aloft
from the near or distant trees with which that agreeable suburb is
adorned. The effect was wonderfully sylvan and rural, insomuch that we
might have fancied ourselves in the depths of a wooded seclusion; only
that, at brief intervals, we could hear the galloping sweep of a
railway-train passing within a quarter of a mile, and its discordant
screech, moderated by a little farther distance, as it reached the
Blackheath Station. That harsh, rough sound, seeking me out so
inevitably, was the voice of the great world summoning me forth. I know
not whether I was the more pained or pleased to be thus constantly put in
mind of the neighborhood of London; for, on the one hand, my conscience
stung me a little for reading a book, or playing with children in the
grass, when there were so many better things for an enlightened traveller
to do,--while, at the same time, it gave a deeper delight to my luxurious
idleness, to contrast it with the turmoil which I escaped. On the whole,
however, I do not repent of a single wasted hour, and only wish that I
could have spent twice as many in the same way; for the impression on my
memory is, that I was as happy in that hospitable garden as the English
summer-day was long.

One chief condition of my enjoyment was the weather. Italy has nothing
like it, nor America. There never was such weather except in England,
where, in requital of a vast amount of horrible east-wind between
February and June, and a brown October and black November, and a wet,
chill, sunless winter, there are a few weeks of incomparable summer,
scattered through July and August, and the earlier portion of September,
small in quantity, but exquisite enough to atone for the whole year's
atmospherical delinquencies. After all, the prevalent sombreness may
have brought out those sunny intervals in such high relief, that I see
them, in my recollection, brighter than they really were: a little light
makes a glory for people who live habitually in a gray gloom. The
English, however, do not seem to know how enjoyable the momentary gleams
of their summer are; they call it broiling weather, and hurry to the
seaside with red, perspiring faces, in a state of combustion and
deliquescence; and I have observed that even their cattle have shnilar
susceptibilities, seeking the deepest shade, or standing midleg deep in
pools and streams to cool themselves, at temperatures which our own cows
would deem little more than barely comfortable. To myself, after the
summer heats of my native land had somewhat effervesced out of my blood
and memory, it was the weather of Paradise itself. It might be a little
too warm; but it was that modest and inestimable superabundance which
constitutes a bounty of Providence, instead of just a niggardly enough.
During my first year in England, residing in perhaps the most ungenial
part of the kingdom, I could never be quite comfortable without a fire on
the hearth; in the second twelvemonth, beginning to get acclimatized, I
became sensible of an austere friendliness, shy, but sometimes almost
tender, in the veiled, shadowy, seldom smiling summer; and in the
succeeding years,--whether that I had renewed my fibre with English beef
and replenished my blood with English ale, or whatever were the cause,--I
grew content with winter and especially in love with summer, desiring
little more for happiness than merely to breathe and bask. At the
midsummer which we are now speaking of, I must needs confess that the
noontide sun came down more fervently than I found altogether tolerable;
so that I was fain to shift my position with the shadow of the shrubbery,
making myself the movable index of a sundial that reckoned up the hours
of an almost interminable day.

For each day seemed endless, though never wearisome. As far as your
actual experience is concerned, the English summer-day has positively no
beginning and no end. When you awake, at any reasonable hour, the sun is
already shining through the curtains; you live through unnumbered hours
of Sabbath quietude, with a calm variety of incident softly etched upon
their tranquil lapse; and at length you become conscious that it is
bedtime again, while there is still enough daylight in the sky to make
the pages of your book distinctly legible. Night, if there be any such
season, hangs down a transparent veil through which the bygone day
beholds its successor; or, if not quite true of the latitude of London,
it may be soberly affirmed of the more northern parts of the island, that
To-morrow is born before its Yesterday is dead. They exist together in
the golden twilight, where the decrepit old day dimly discerns the face
of the ominous infant; and you, though a more mortal, may simultaneously
touch them both with one finger of recollection and another of prophecy.
I cared not how long the day might be, nor how many of them. I had
earned this repose by a long course of irksome toil and perturbation, and
could have been content never to stray out of the limits of that suburban
villa and its garden. If I lacked anything beyond, it would have
satisfied me well enough to dream about it, instead of struggling for its
actual possession. At least, this was the feeling of the moment;
although the transitory, flitting, and irresponsible character of my life
there was perhaps the most enjoyable element of all, as allowing me much
of the comfort of house and home without any sense of their weight upon
my back. The nomadic life has great advantages, if we can find tents
ready pitched for us at every stage.

So much for the interior of our abode,--a spot of deepest quiet, within
reach of the intensest activity. But, even when we stopped beyond our
own gate, we were not shocked with any immediate presence of the great
world. We were dwelling in one of those oases that have grown up (in
comparatively recent years, I believe) on the wide waste of Blackheath,
which otherwise offers a vast extent of unoccupied ground in singular
proximity to the metropolis. As a general thing, the proprietorship of
the soil seems to exist in everybody and nobody; but exclusive rights
have been obtained, here and there, chiefly by men whose daily concerns
link them with London, so that you find their villas or boxes standing
along village streets which have often more of an American aspect than
the elder English settlements. The scene is semi-rural. Ornamental
trees overshadow the sidewalks, and grassy margins border the
wheel-tracks. The houses, to be sure, have certain points of difference
from those of an American village, bearing tokens of architectural
design, though seldom of individual taste; and, as far as possible, they
stand aloof from the street, and separated each from its neighbor by
hedge or fence, in accordance with the careful exclusiveness of the
English character, which impels the occupant, moreover, to cover the
front of his dwelling with as much concealment of shrubbery as his limits
will allow. Through the interstices, you catch glimpses of well-kept
lawns, generally ornamented with flowers, and with what the English call
rock-work, being heaps of ivy-grown stones and fossils, designed for
romantic effect in a small way. Two or three of such village streets as
are here described take a collective name,--as, for instance, Blackheath
Park,--and constitute a kind of community of residents, with gateways,
kept by a policeman, and a semi-privacy, stepping beyond which, you find
yourself on the breezy heath.

On this great, bare, dreary common I often went astray, as I afterwards
did on the Campagna of Rome, and drew the air (tainted with London smoke
though it might be) into my lungs by deep inspirations, with a strange
and unexpected sense of desert freedom. The misty atmosphere helps you
to fancy a remoteness that perhaps does not quite exist. During the
little time that it lasts, the solitude is as impressive as that of a
Western prairie or forest; but soon the railway shriek, a mile or two
away, insists upon informing you of your whereabout; or you recognize in
the distance some landmark that you may have known,--an insulated villa,
perhaps, with its garden-wall around it, or the rudimental street of a
new settlement which is sprouting on this otherwise barren soil. Half a
century ago, the most frequent token of man's beneficent contiguity might
have been a gibbet, and the creak, like a tavern sign, of a murderer
swinging to and fro in irons. Blackheath, with its highwaymen and
footpads, was dangerous in those days; and even now, for aught I know,
the Western prairie may still compare favorably with it as a safe region
to go astray in. When I was acquainted with Blackheath, the ingenious
device of garroting had recently come into fashion; and I can remember,
while crossing those waste places at midnight, and hearing footsteps
behind me, to have been sensibly encouraged by also hearing, not far off,
the clinking hoof-tramp of one of the horse-patrols who do regular duty
there. About sunset, or a little later, was the time when the broad and
somewhat desolate peculiarity of the heath seemed to me to put on its
utmost impressiveness. At that hour, finding myself on elevated ground,
I once had a view of immense London, four or five miles off, with the
vast Dome in the midst, and the towers of the two Houses of Parliament
rising up into the smoky canopy, the thinner substance of which obscured
a mass of things, and hovered about the objects that were most distinctly
visible,--a glorious and sombre picture, dusky, awful, but irresistibly
attractive, like a young man's dream of the great world, foretelling at
that distance a grandeur never to be fully realized.

While I lived in that neighborhood, the tents of two or three sets of
cricket-players were constantly pitched on Blackheath, and matches were
going forward that seemed to involve the honor and credit of communities
or counties, exciting an interest in everybody but myself, who cared not
what part of England might glorify itself at the expense of another. It
is necessary to be born an Englishman, I believe, in order to enjoy this
great national game; at any rate, as a spectacle for an outside observer,
I found it lazy, lingering, tedious, and utterly devoid of pictorial
effects. Choice of other amusements was at hand. Butts for archery were
established, and bows and arrows were to be let, at so many shots for a
penny,--there being abundance of space for a farther flight-shot than any
modern archer can lend to his shaft. Then there was an absurd game of
throwing a stick at crockery-ware, which I have witnessed a hundred
times, and personally engaged in once or twice, without ever having the
satisfaction to see a bit of broken crockery. In other spots you found
donkeys for children to ride, and ponies of a very meek and patient
spirit, on which the Cockney pleasure-seekers of both sexes rode races
and made wonderful displays of horsemanship. By way of refreshment
there was gingerbread (but, as a true patriot, I must pronounce it
greatly interior to our native dainty), and ginger-beer, and probably
stauncher liquor among the booth-keeper's hidden stores. The frequent
railway-trains, as well as the numerous steamers to Greenwich, have made
the vacant portions of Blackheath a play-ground and breathing-place for
the Londoners, readily and very cheaply accessible; so that, in view of
this broader use and enjoyment, I a little grudged the tracts that have
been filched away, so to speak, and individualized by thriving citizens.
One sort of visitors especially interested me: they were schools of
little boys or girls, under the guardianship of their instructors,--
charity schools, as I often surmised from their aspect, collected among
dark alleys and squalid courts; and hither they were brought to spend a
summer afternoon, these pale little progeny of the sunless nooks of
London, who had never known that the sky was any broader than that narrow
and vapory strip above their native lane. I fancied that they took but a
doubtful pleasure, being half affrighted at the wide, empty space
overhead and round about them, finding the air too little medicated with
smoke, soot, and graveyard exhalations, to be breathed with comfort, and
feeling shelterless and lost because grimy London, their slatternly and
disreputable mother, had suffered them to stray out of her arms.

Passing among these holiday people, we come to one of the gateways of
Greenwich Park, opening through an old brick wall. It admits us from the
bare heath into a scene of antique cultivation and woodland ornament,
traversed in all directions by avenues of trees, many of which bear
tokens of a venerable age. These broad and well-kept pathways rise and
decline over the elevations and along the bases of gentle hills which
diversify the whole surface of the Park. The loftiest, and most abrupt
of them (though but of very moderate height) is one of the earth's noted
summits, and may hold up its head with Mont Blanc and Chimborazo, as
being the site of Greenwich Observatory, where, if all nations will
consent to say so, the longitude of our great globe begins. I used to
regulate my watch by the broad dial-plate against the Observatory wall,
and felt it pleasant to be standing at the very centre of Time and Space.

There are lovelier parks than this in the neighborhood of London, richer
scenes of greensward and cultivated trees; and Kensington, especially, in
a summer afternoon, has seemed to me as delightful as any place can or
ought to be, in a world which, some time or other, we must quit. But
Greenwich, too, is beautiful,--a spot where the art of man has conspired
with Nature, as if he and the great mother had taken counsel together how
to make a pleasant scene, and the longest liver of the two had faithfully
carried out their mutual design. It has, likewise, an additional charm
of its own, because, to all appearance, it is the people's property and
play-ground in a much more genuine way than the aristocratic resorts in
closer vicinity to the metropolis. It affords one of the instances in
which the monarch's property is actually the people's, and shows how much
more natural is their relation to the sovereign than to the nobility,
which pretends to hold the intervening space between the two: for a
nobleman makes a paradise only for himself, and fills it with his own
pomp and pride; whereas the people are sooner or later the legitimate
inheritors of whatever beauty kings and queens create, as now of
Greenwich Park. On Sundays, when the sun shone, and even on those grim
and sombre days when, if it do not actually rain, the English persist in
calling it fine weather, it was too good to see how sturdily the
plebeians trod under their own oaks, and what fulness of simple enjoyment
they evidently found there. They were the people,--not the populace,--
specimens of a class whose Sunday clothes are a distinct kind of garb
from their week-day ones; and this, in England, implies wholesome habits
of life, daily thrift, and a rank above the lowest. I longed to be
acquainted with them, in order to investigate what manner of folks they
were, what sort of households they kept, their politics, their religion,
their tastes, and whether they were as narrow-minded as their betters.
There can be very little doubt of it: an Englishman is English, in
whatever rank of life, though no more intensely so, I should imagine, as
an artisan or petty shopkeeper, than as a member of Parliament.

The English character, as I conceive it, is by no means a very lofty one;
they seem to have a great deal of earth and grimy dust clinging about
them, as was probably the case with the stalwart and quarrelsome people
who sprouted up out of the soil, after Cadmus had sown the dragon's
teeth. And yet, though the individual Englishman is sometimes
preternaturally disagreeable, an observer standing aloof has a sense of
natural kindness towards them in the lump. They adhere closer to the
original simplicity in which mankind was created than we ourselves do;
they love, quarrel, laugh, cry, and turn their actual selves inside out,
with greater freedom than any class of Americans would consider decorous.
It was often so with these holiday folks in Greenwich Park; and,
ridiculous as it may sound, I fancy myself to have caught very
satisfactory glimpses of Arcadian life among the Cockneys there, hardly
beyond the scope of Bow-Bells, picnicking in the grass, uncouthly
gambolling on the broad slopes, or straying in motley groups or by single
pairs of love-making youths and maidens, along the sun-streaked avenues.
Even the omnipresent policemen or park-keepers could not disturb the
beatific impression on my mind. One feature, at all events, of the
Golden Age was to be seen in the herds of deer that encountered you in
the somewhat remoter recesses of the Park, and were readily prevailed
upon to nibble a bit of bread out of your hand. But, though no wrong had
ever been done them, and no horn had sounded nor hound bayed at the heels
of themselves or their antlered progenitors for centuries past, there was
still an apprehensiveness lingering in their hearts; so that a slight
movement of the hand or a step too near would send a whole squadron of
them scampering away, just as a breath scatters the winged seeds of a
dandelion.

The aspect of Greenwich Park, with all those festal people wandering
through it, resembled that of the Borghese Gardens under the walls of
Rome, on a Sunday or Saint's day; but, I am not ashamed to say, it a
little disturbed whatever grim ghost of Puritanic strictness might be
lingering in the sombre depths of a New England heart, among severe and
sunless remembrances of the Sabbaths of childhood, and pangs of remorse
for ill-gotten lessons in the catechism, and for erratic fantasies or
hardly suppressed laughter in the middle of long sermons. Occasionally,
I tried to take the long-hoarded sting out of these compunctious smarts
by attending divine service in the open air. On a cart outside of the
Park-wall (and, if I mistake not, at two or three corners and secluded
spots within the Park itself) a Methodist preacher uplifts his voice and
speedily gathers a congregation, his zeal for whose religious welfare
impels the good man to such earnest vociferation and toilsome gesture
that his perspiring face is quickly in a stew. His inward flame
conspires with the too fervid sun and makes a positive martyr of him,
even in the very exercise of his pious labor; insomuch that he purchases
every atom of spiritual increment to his hearers by loss of his own
corporeal solidity, and, should his discourse last long enough, must
finally exhale before their eyes. If I smile at him, be it understood,
it is not in scorn; he performs his sacred office more acceptably than
many a prelate. These wayside services attract numbers who would not
otherwise listen to prayer, sermon, or hymn, from one year's end to
another, and who, for that very reason, are the auditors most likely to
be moved by the preacher's eloquence. Yonder Greenwich pensioner, too,--
in his costume of three-cornered hat, and old-fashioned, brass-buttoned
blue coat with ample skirts, which makes him look like a contemporary of
Admiral Benbow,--that tough old mariner may hear a word or two which will
go nearer his heart than anything that the chaplain of the Hospital can
be expected to deliver. I always noticed, moreover, that a considerable
proportion of the audience were soldiers, who came hither with a day's
leave from Woolwich,--hardy veterans in aspect, some of whom wore as many
as four or five medals, Crimean or East Indian, on the breasts of their
scarlet coats. The miscellaneous congregation listen with every
appearance of heartfelt interest; and, for my own part, I must frankly
acknowledge that I never found it possible to give five minutes'
attention to any other English preaching: so cold and commonplace are the
homilies that pass for such, under the aged roofs of churches. And as
for cathedrals, the sermon is an exceedingly diminutive and unimportant
part of the religious services,--if, indeed, it be considered a part,--
among the pompous ceremonies, the intonations, and the resounding and
lofty-voiced strains of the choristers. The magnificence of the setting
quite dazzles out what we Puritans look upon as the jewel of the whole
affair; for I presume that it was our forefathers, the Dissenters in
England and America, who gave the sermon its present prominence in the
Sabbath exercises.

The Methodists are probably the first and only Englishmen who have
worshipped in the open air since the ancient Britons listened to the
preaching of the Druids; and it reminded me of that old priesthood, to
see certain memorials of their dusky epoch--not religious, however, but
warlike--in the neighborhood of the spot where the Methodist was holding
forth. These were some ancient barrows, beneath or within which are
supposed to be buried the slain of a forgotten or doubtfully remembered
battle, fought on the site of Greenwich Park as long ago as two or three
centuries after the birth of Christ. Whatever may once have been their
height and magnitude, they have now scarcely more prominence in the
actual scene than the battle of which they are the sole monuments retains
in history,--being only a few mounds side by side, elevated a little
above the surface of the ground, ten or twelve feet in diameter, with a
shallow depression in their summits. When one of them was opened, not
long since, no bones, nor armor, nor weapons were discovered, nothing but
some small jewels, and a tuft of hair,--perhaps from the head of a
valiant general, who, dying on the field of his victory, bequeathed this
lock, together with his indestructible fame, to after ages. The hair and
jewels are probably in the British Museum, where the potsherds and
rubbish of innumerable generations make the visitor wish that each
passing century could carry off all its fragments and relics along with
it, instead of adding them to the continually accumulating burden which
human knowledge is compelled to lug upon its back. As for the fame, I
know not what has become of it.

After traversing the Park, we come into the neighborhood of Greenwich
Hospital, and will pass through one of its spacious gateways for the sake
of glancing at an establishment which does more honor to the heart of
England than anything else that I am acquainted with, of a public nature.
It is very seldom that we can be sensible of anything like kindliness in
the acts or relations of such an artificial thing as a National
Government. Our own government, I should conceive, is too much an
abstraction ever to feel any sympathy for its maimed sailors and
soldiers, though it will doubtless do then a severe kind of justice, as
chilling as the touch of steel. But it seemed to me that the Greenwich
pensioners are the petted children of the nation, and that the government
is their dry-nurse, and that the old men themselves have a childlike
consciousness of their position. Very likely, a better sort of life
might have been arranged, and a wiser care bestowed on them; but, such as
it is, it enables them to spend a sluggish, careless, comfortable old
age, grumbling, growling, gruff, as if all the foul weather of their past
years were pent up within them, yet not much more discontented than such
weather-beaten and battle-battered fragments of human kind must
inevitably be. Their home, in its outward form, is on a very magnificent
plan. Its germ was a royal palace, the full expansion of which has
resulted in a series of edifices externally more beautiful than any
English palace that I have seen, consisting of several quadrangles of
stately architecture, united by colonnades and gravel-walks, and
enclosing grassy squares, with statues in the centre, the whole extending
along the Thames. It is built of marble, or very light-colored stone, in
the classic style, with pillars and porticos, which (to my own taste,
and, I fancy, to that of the old sailors) produce but a cold and shivery
effect in the English climate. Had I been the architect, I would have
studied the characters, habits, and predilections of nautical people in
Wapping, Hotherhithe, and the neighborhood of the Tower (places which I
visited in affectionate remembrance of Captain Lemuel Gulliver, and
other actual or mythological navigators), and would have built the
hospital in a kind of ethereal similitude to the narrow, dark, ugly, and
inconvenient, but snug and cosey homeliness of the sailor boarding-houses
there. There can be no question that all the above attributes, or enough
of then to satisfy an old sailor's heart, might be reconciled with
architectural beauty and the wholesome contrivances of modern dwellings,
and thus a novel and genuine style of building be given to the world.

But their countrymen meant kindly by the old fellows in assigning them
the ancient royal site where Elizabeth held her court and Charles II.
began to build his palace. So far as the locality went, it was treating
them like so many kings; and, with a discreet abundance of grog, beer,
and tobacco, there was perhaps little more to be accomplished in behalf
of men whose whole previous lives have tended to unfit them for old age.
Their chief discomfort is probably for lack of something to do or think
about. But, judging by the few whom I saw, a listless habit seems to
have crept over them, a dim dreaminess of mood, in which they sit between
asleep and awake, and find the long day wearing towards bedtime without
its having made any distinct record of itself upon their consciousness.
Sitting on stone benches in the sunshine, they subside into slumber, or
nearly so, and start at the approach of footsteps echoing under the
colonnades, ashamed to be caught napping, and rousing themselves in a
hurry, as formerly on the midnight watch at sea. In their brightest
moments, they gather in groups and bore one another with endless
sea-yarns about their voyages under famous admirals, and about gale and
calm, battle and chase, and all that class of incident that has its
sphere on the deck and in the hollow interior of a ship, where their
world has exclusively been. For other pastime, they quarrel among
themselves, comrade with comrade, and perhaps shake paralytic fists in
furrowed faces. If inclined for a little exercise, they can bestir their
wooden legs on the long esplanade that borders by the Thames, criticising
the rig of passing ships, and firing off volleys of malediction at the
steamers, which have made the sea another element than that they used to
be acquainted with. All this is but cold comfort for the evening of
life, yet may compare rather favorably with the preceding portions of it,
comprising little save imprisonment on shipboard, in the course of which
they have been tossed all about the world and caught hardly a glimpse of
it, forgetting what grass and trees are, and never finding out what woman
is, though they may have encountered a painted spectre which they took
for her. A country owes much to human beings whose bodies she has worn
out and whose immortal part she has left undeveloped or debased, as we
tied them here; and having wasted an idle paragraph upon them, let me now
suggest that old men have a kind of susceptibility to moral impressions,
and even (up to an advanced period) a receptivity of truth, which often
appears to come to them after the active time of life is past. The
Greenwich pensioners might prove better subjects for true education now
than in their school-boy days; but then where is the Normal School that
could educate instructors for such a class?

There is a beautiful chapel for the pensioners, in the classic style,
over the altar of which hangs a picture by West. I never could look at
it long enough to make out its design; for this artist (though it pains
me to say it of so respectable a countryman) had a gift of frigidity, a
knack of grinding ice into his paint, a power of stupefying the
spectator's perceptions and quelling his sympathy, beyond any other
limner that ever handled a brush. In spite of many pangs of conscience,
I seize this opportunity to wreak a lifelong abhorrence upon the poor,
blameless man, for the sake of that dreary picture of Lear, an explosion
of frosty fury, that used to be a bugbear to me in the Athenaeum
Exhibition. Would fire burn it, I wonder?

The principal thing that they have to show you, at Greenwich Hospital, is
the Painted Hall. It is a splendid and spacious room, at least a hundred
feet long and half as high, with a ceiling painted in fresco by Sir James
Thornhill. As a work of art, I presume, this frescoed canopy has little
merit, though it produces an exceedingly rich effect by its brilliant
coloring and as a specimen of magnificent upholstery. The walls of the
grand apartment are entirely covered with pictures, many of them
representing battles and other naval incidents that were once fresher in
the world's memory than now, but chiefly portraits of old admirals,
comprising the whole line of heroes who have trod the quarter-decks of
British ships for more than two hundred years back. Next to a tomb in
Westminster Abbey, which was Nelson's most elevated object of ambition,
it would seem to be the highest need of a naval warrior to have his
portrait hung up in the Painted Hall; but, by dint of victory upon
victory, these illustrious personages have grown to be a mob, and by no
means a very interesting one, so far as regards the character of the
faces here depicted. They are generally commonplace, and often
singularly stolid; and I have observed (both in the Painted Hall and
elsewhere, and not only in portraits, but in the actual presence of such
renowned people as I have caught glimpses of) that the countenances of
heroes are not nearly so impressive as those of statesmen,--except, of
course, in the rare instances where warlike ability has been but the
one-sided manifestation of a profound genius for managing the world's
affairs. Nine tenths of these distinguished admirals, for instance, if
their faces tell truth, must needs have been blockheads, and might have
served better, one would imagine, as wooden figure-heads for their own
ships than to direct any difficult and intricate scheme of action from
the quarter-deck. It is doubtful whether the same kind of men will
hereafter meet with a similar degree of success; for they were victorious
chiefly through the old English hardihood, exercised in a field of which
modern science had not yet got possession. Rough valor has lost
something of its value, since their days, and must continue to sink lower
and lower in the comparative estimate of warlike qualities. In the next
naval war, as between England and France, I would bet, methinks, upon the
Frenchman's head.

It is remarkable, however, that the great naval hero of England--the
greatest, therefore, in the world, and of all time--had none of the
stolid characteristics that belong to his class, and cannot fairly be
accepted as their representative man. Foremost in the roughest of
professions, he was as delicately organized as a woman, and as painfully
sensitive as a poet. More than any other Englishman he won the love and
admiration of his country, but won them through the efficacy of qualities
that are not English, or, at all events, were intensified in his case and
made poignant and powerful by something morbid in the man, which put him
otherwise at cross-purposes with life. He was a man of genius; and
genius in an Englishman (not to cite the good old simile of a pearl in
the oyster) is usually a symptom of a lack of balance in the general
making-up of the character; as we may satisfy ourselves by running over
the list of their poets, for example, and observing how many of them have
been sickly or deformed, and how often their lives have been darkened by
insanity. An ordinary Englishman is the healthiest and wholesomest of
human beings; an extraordinary one is almost always, in one way or
another, a sick man. It was so with Lord Nelson. The wonderful contrast
or relation between his personal qualities, the position which he held,
and the life that he lived, makes him as interesting a personage as all
history has to show; and it is a pity that Southey's biography--so good
in its superficial way, and yet so inadequate as regards any real
delineation of the man--should have taken the subject out of the hands of
some writer endowed with more delicate appreciation and deeper insight
than that genuine Englishman possessed. But Southey accomplished his own
purpose, which, apparently, was to present his hero as a pattern for
England's young midshipmen.

But the English capacity for hero-worship is full to the brim with what
they are able to comprehend of Lord Nelson's character. Adjoining the
Painted Hall is a smaller room, the walls of which are completely and
exclusively adorned with pictures of the great Admiral's exploits. We
see the frail, ardent man in all the most noted events of his career,
from his encounter with a Polar bear to his death at Trafalgar, quivering
here and there about the room like a blue, lambent flame. No Briton ever
enters that apartment without feeling the beef and ale of his composition
stirred to its depths, and finding himself changed into a Hero for the
notice, however stolid his brain, however tough his heart, however
unexcitable his ordinary mood. To confess the truth, I myself, though
belonging to another parish, have been deeply sensible to the sublime
recollections there aroused, acknowledging that Nelson expressed his life
in a kind of symbolic poetry which I had as much right to understand as
these burly islanders. Cool and critical observer as I sought to be, I
enjoyed their burst of honest indignation when a visitor (not an
American, I am glad to say) thrust his walking-stick almost into Nelson's
face, in one of the pictures, by way of pointing a remark; and the
bystanders immediately glowed like so many hot coals, and would probably
have consumed the offender in their wrath, had he not effected his
retreat. But the most sacred objects of all are two of Nelson's coats,
under separate glass cases. One is that which he wore at the Battle of
the Nile, and it is now sadly injured by moths, which will quite destroy
it in a few years, unless its guardians preserve it as we do Washington's
military suit, by occasionally baking it in an oven. The other is the
coat in which he received his death-wound at Trafalgar. On its breast
are sewed three or four stars and orders of knighthood, now much dimmed
by time and damp, but which glittered brightly enough on the battle-day
to draw the fatal aim of a French marksman. The bullet-hole is visible
on the shoulder, as well as a part of the golden tassels of an epaulet,
the rest of which was shot away. Over the coat is laid a white waistcoat
with a great blood-stain on it, out of which all the redness has utterly
faded, leaving it of a dingy yellow line, in the threescore years since
that blood gushed out. Yet it was once the reddest blood in England,--
Nelson's blood!

The hospital stands close adjacent to the town of Greenwich, which will
always retain a kind of festal aspect in my memory, in consequence of my
having first become acquainted with it on Easter Monday. Till a few
years ago, the first three days of Easter were a carnival season in this
old town, during which the idle and disreputable part of London poured
itself into the streets like an inundation of the Thames, as unclean as
that turbid mixture of the offscourings of the vast city, and overflowing
with its grimy pollution whatever rural innocence, if any, might be found
in the suburban neighborhood. This festivity was called Greenwich Fair,
the final one of which, in an immemorial succession, it was my fortune to
behold.

If I had bethought myself of going through the fair with a note-book and
pencil, jotting down all the prominent objects, I doubt not that the
result might have been a sketch of English life quite as characteristic
and worthy of historical preservation as an account of the Roman
Carnival. Having neglected to do so, I remember little more than a
confusion of unwashed and shabbily dressed people, intermixed with some
smarter figures, but, on the whole, presenting a mobbish appearance such
as we never see in our own country. It taught me to understand why
Shakespeare, in speaking of a crowd, so often alludes to its attribute of
evil odor. The common people of England, I am afraid, have no daily
familiarity with even so necessary a thing as a wash-bowl, not to mention
a bathing-tub. And furthermore, it is one mighty difference between
them and us, that every man and woman on our side of the water has a
working-day suit and a holiday suit, and is occasionally as fresh as a
rose, whereas, in the good old country, the griminess of his labor or
squalid habits clings forever to the individual, and gets to be a part of
his personal substance. These are broad facts, involving great
corollaries and dependencies. There are really, if you stop to think
about it, few sadder spectacles in the world than a ragged coat, or a
soiled and shabby gown, at a festival.

This unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense, being welded together, as it
were, in the street through which we strove to make our way. On either
side were oyster-stands, stalls of oranges (a very prevalent fruit in
England, where they give the withered ones a guise of freshness by
boiling them), and booths covered with old sail-cloth, in which the
commodity that most attracted the eye was gilt gingerbread. It was so
completely enveloped in Dutch gilding that I did not at first recognize
an old acquaintance, but wondered what those golden crowns and images
could be. There were likewise drums and other toys for small children,
and a variety of showy and worthless articles for children of a larger
growth; though it perplexed me to imagine who, in such a mob, could have
the innocent taste to desire playthings, or the money to pay for them.
Not that I have a right to license the mob, on my own knowledge, of being
any less innocent than a set of cleaner and better dressed people might
have been; for, though one of them stole my pocket-handkerchief, I could
not but consider it fair game, under the circumstances, and was grateful
to the thief for sparing me my purse. They were quiet, civil, and
remarkably good-humored, making due allowance for the national gruffness;
there was no riot, no tumultuous swaying to and fro of the mass, such as
I have often noted in an American crowd, no noise of voices, except
frequent bursts of laughter, hoarse or shrill, and a widely diffused,
inarticulate murmur, resembling nothing so much as the rumbling of the
tide among the arches of London Bridge. What immensely perplexed me was
a sharp, angry sort of rattle, in all quarters, far off and close at
hand, and sometimes right at my own back, where it sounded as if the
stout fabric of my English surtout had been ruthlessly rent in twain; and
everybody's clothes, all over the fair, were evidently being torn asunder
in the same way. By and by, I discovered that this strange noise was
produced by a little instrument called "The Fun of the Fair,"--a sort of
rattle, consisting of a wooden wheel, the cogs of which turn against a
thin slip of wood, and so produce a rasping sound when drawn smartly
against a person's back. The ladies draw their rattles against the backs
of their male friends (and everybody passes for a friend at Greenwich
Fair), and the young men return the compliment on the broad British backs
of the ladies; and all are bound by immemorial custom to take it in good
part and be merry at the joke. As it was one of my prescribed official
duties to give an account of such mechanical contrivances as might be
unknown in my own country, I have thought it right to be thus particular
in describing the Fun of the Fair.

But this was far from being the sole amusement. There were theatrical
booths, in front of which were pictorial representations of the scenes to
be enacted within; and anon a drummer emerged from one of them, thumping
on a terribly lax drum, and followed by the entire dramatis personae, who
ranged themselves on a wooden platform in front of the theatre. They
were dressed in character, but wofully shabby, with very dingy and
wrinkled white tights, threadbare cotton-velvets, crumpled silks, and
crushed muslin, and all the gloss and glory gone out of their aspect and
attire, seen thus in the broad daylight and after a long series of
performances. They sang a song together, and withdrew into the theatre,
whither the public were invited to follow them at the inconsiderable cost
of a penny a ticket. Before another booth stood a pair of brawny
fighting-men, displaying their muscle, and soliciting patronage for an
exhibition of the noble British art of pugilism. There were pictures of
giants, monsters, and outlandish beasts, most prodigious, to be sure, and
worthy of all admiration, unless the artist had gone incomparably beyond
his subject. Jugglers proclaimed aloud the miracles which they were
prepared to work; and posture-makers dislocated every joint of their
bodies and tied their limbs into inextricable knots, wherever they could
find space to spread a little square of carpet on the ground. In the
midst of the confusion, while everybody was treading on his neighbor's
toes, some little boys were very solicitous to brush your boots. These
lads, I believe, are a product of modern society,--at least, no older
than the time of Gay, who celebrates their origin in his "Trivia"; but in
most other respects the scene reminded me of Bunyan's description of
Vanity Fair,--nor is it at all improbable that the Pilgrim may have been
a merry-maker here, in his wild youth.

It seemed very singular--though, of course, I immediately classified
it as an English characteristic--to see a great many portable
weighing-machines, the owners of which cried out, continually and
amain, "Come, know your weight! Come, come, know your weight to-day!
Come, know your weight!" and a multitude of people, mostly large in the
girth, were moved by this vociferation to sit down in the machines. I
know not whether they valued themselves on their beef, and estimated
their standing as members of society at so much a pound; but I shall set
it down as a national peculiarity, and a symbol of the prevalence of the
earthly over the spiritual element, that Englishmen are wonderfully bent
on knowing how solid and physically ponderous they are.

On the whole, having an appetite for the brown bread and the tripe and
sausages of life, as well as for its nicer cates and dainties, I enjoyed
the scene, and was amused at the sight of a gruff old Greenwich
pensioner, who, forgetful of the sailor-frolics of his young days, stood
looking with grim disapproval at all these vanities. Thus we squeezed
our way through the mob-jammed town, and emerged into the Park, where,
likewise, we met a great many merry-makers, but with freer space for
their gambols than in the streets. We soon found ourselves the targets
for a cannonade with oranges (most of them in a decayed condition), which
went humming past our ears from the vantage-ground of neighboring
hillocks, sometimes hitting our sacred persons with an inelastic thump.
This was one of the privileged freedoms of the time, and was nowise to be
resented, except by returning the salute. Many persons were running
races, hand in hand, down the declivities, especially that steepest one
on the summit of which stands the world-central Observatory, and (as in
the race of life) the partners were usually male and female, and often
caught a tumble together before reaching the bottom of the hill.
Hereabouts we were pestered and haunted by two young girls, the eldest
not more than thirteen, teasing us to buy matches; and finding no market
for their commodity, the taller one suddenly turned a somerset before our
faces, and rolled heels over head from top to bottom of the hill on which
we stood. Then, scrambling up the acclivity, the topsy-turvy trollop
offered us her matches again, as demurely as if she had never flung aside
her equilibrium; so that, dreading a repetition of the feat, we gave her
sixpence and an admonition, and enjoined her never to do so any more.

The most curious amusement that we witnessed here--or anywhere else,
indeed--was an ancient and hereditary pastime called "Kissing in the
Ring." I shall describe the sport exactly as I saw it, although an
English friend assures me that there are certain ceremonies with a
handkerchief, which make it much more decorous and graceful. A
handkerchief, indeed! There was no such thing in the crowd, except it
were the one which they had just filched out of my pocket. It is one of
the simplest kinds of games, needing little or no practice to make the
player altogether perfect; and the manner of it is this. A ring is
formed (in the present case, it was of large circumference and thickly
gemmed around with faces, mostly on the broad grin), into the centre of
which steps an adventurous youth, and, looking round the circle, selects
whatever maiden may most delight his eye. He presents his hand (which
she is bound to accept), leads her into the centre, salutes her on the
lips, and retires, taking his stand in the expectant circle. The girl,
in her turn, throws a favorable regard on some fortunate young man,
offers her hand to lead him forth, makes him happy with a maidenly kiss,
and withdraws to hide her blushes, if any there be, among the simpering
faces in the ring; while the favored swain loses no time in transferring
her salute to the prettiest and plumpest among the many mouths that are
primming themselves in anticipation. And thus the thing goes on, till
all the festive throng are inwreathed and intertwined into an endless and
inextricable chain of kisses; though, indeed, it smote me with compassion
to reflect that some forlorn pair of lips might be left out, and never
know the triumph of a salute, after throwing aside so many delicate
reserves for the sake of winning it. If the young men had any chivalry,
there was a fair chance to display it by kissing the homeliest damsel in
the circle.

To be frank, however, at the first glance, and to my American eye, they
looked all homely alike, and the chivalry that I suggest is more than I
could have been capable of, at any period of my life. They seemed to be
country-lasses, of sturdy and wholesome aspect, with coarse-grained,
cabbage-rosy cheeks, and, I am willing to suppose, a stout texture of
moral principle, such as would bear a good deal of rough usage without
suffering much detriment. But how unlike the trim little damsels of my
native land! I desire above all things to be courteous; but, since
the plain truth must be told, the soil and climate of England produce
feminine beauty as rarely as they do delicate fruit, and though
admirable specimens of both are to be met with, they are the hot-house
ameliorations of refined society, and apt, moreover, to relapse into the
coarseness of the original stock. The men are manlike, but the women are
not beautiful, though the female Bull be well enough adapted to the male.
To return to the lasses of Greenwich Fair, their charms were few, and
their behavior, perhaps, not altogether commendable; and yet it was
impossible not to feel a degree of faith in their innocent intentions,
with such a half-bashful zest and entire simplicity did they keep up
their part of the game. It put the spectator in good-humor to look at
them, because there was still something of the old Arcadian life, the
secure freedom of the antique age, in their way of surrendering their
lips to strangers, as if there were no evil or impurity in the world. As
for the young men, they were chiefly specimens of the vulgar sediment of
London life, often shabbily genteel, rowdyish, pale, wearing the
uubrushed coat, unshifted linen, and unwashed faces of yesterday, as well
as the haggardness of last night's jollity in a gin-shop. Gathering
their character from these tokens, I wondered whether there were any
reasonable prospect of their fair partners returning to their rustic
homes with as much innocence (whatever were its amount or quality) as
they brought, to Greenwich Fair, in spite of the perilous familiarity
established by Kissing in the Ring.

The manifold disorders resulting from the fair, at which a vast city was
brought into intimate relations with a comparatively rural district, have
at length led to its suppression; this was the very last celebration of
it, and brought to a close the broad-mouthed merriment of many hundred
years. Thus my poor sketch, faint as its colors are, may acquire some
little value in the reader's eyes from the consideration that no observer
of the coming time will ever have an opportunity to give a better. I
should find it difficult to believe, however, that the queer pastime just
described, or any moral mischief to which that and other customs might
pave the way, can have led to the overthrow of Greenwich Fair; for it has
often seemed to me that Englishmen of station and respectability, unless
of a peculiarly philanthropic turn, have neither any faith in the
feminine purity of the lower orders of their countrywomen, nor the
slightest value for it, allowing its possible existence. The distinction
of ranks is so marked, that the English cottage damsel holds a position
somewhat analogous to that of the negro girl in our Southern States.
Hence cones inevitable detriment to the moral condition of those men
themselves, who forget that the humblest woman has a right and a duty to
hold herself in the same sanctity as the highest. The subject cannot
well be discussed in these pages; but I offer it as a serious conviction,
from what I have been able to observe, that the England of to-day is the
unscrupulous old England of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, Humphrey
Clinker and Roderick Random; and in our refined era, just the same as at
that more free-spoken epoch, this singular people has a certain contempt
for any fine-strained purity, any special squeamishness, as they consider
it, on the part of an ingenuous youth. They appear to look upon it as a
suspicious phenomenon in the masculine character.

Nevertheless, I by no means take upon me to affirm that English morality,
as regards the phase here alluded to, is really at a lower point than our
own. Assuredly, I hope so, because, making a higher pretension, or, at
all events, more carefully hiding whatever may be amiss, we are either
better than they, or necessarily a great deal worse. It impressed me
that their open avowal and recognition of immoralities served to throw
the disease to the surface, where it might be more effectually dealt
with, and leave a sacred interior not utterly profaned, instead of
turning its poison back among the inner vitalities of the character, at
the imminent risk of corrupting them all. Be that as it may, these
Englishmen are certainly a franker and simpler people than ourselves,
from peer to peasant; but if we can take it as compensatory on our part
(which I leave to be considered) that they owe those noble and manly
qualities to a coarser grain in their nature, and that, with a finer one
in ours, we shall ultimately acquire a marble polish of which they are
unsusceptible, I believe that this may be the truth.


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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