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Recollections of a Gifted Woman

From Leamington to Stratford-on-Avon the distance is eight or nine miles,
over a road that seemed to me most beautiful. Not that I can recall any
memorable peculiarities; for the country, most of the way, is a
succession of the gentlest swells and subsidences, affording wide and far
glimpses of champaign scenery here and there, and sinking almost to a
dead level as we draw near Stratford. Any landscape in New England, even
the tamest, has a more striking outline, and besides would have its blue
eyes open in those lakelets that we encounter almost from mile to mile at
home, but of which the Old Country is utterly destitute; or it would
smile in our faces through the medium of the wayside brooks that vanish
under a low stone arch on one side of the road, and sparkle out again on
the other. Neither of these pretty features is often to be found in an
English scene. The charm of the latter consists in the rich verdure of
the fields, in the stately wayside trees and carefully kept plantations
of wood, and in the old and high cultivation that has humanized the very
sods by mingling so much of man's toil and care among them. To an
American there is a kind of sanctity even in an English turnip-field,
when he thinks how long that small square of ground has been known and
recognized as a possession, transmitted from father to son, trodden often
by memorable feet, and utterly redeemed from savagery by old
acquaintanceship with civilized eyes. The wildest things in England are
more than half tame. The trees, for instance, whether in hedge-row,
park, or what they call forest, have nothing wild about them. They are
never ragged; there is a certain decorous restraint in the freest
outspread of their branches, though they spread wider than any
self-nurturing tree; they are tall, vigorous, bulky, with a look of
age-long life, and a promise of more years to come, all of which will
bring them into closer kindred with the race of man. Somebody or other
has known them from the sapling upward; and if they endure long enough,
they grow to be traditionally observed and honored, and connected with
the fortunes of old families, till, like Tennyson's Talking Oak, they
babble with a thousand leafy tongues to ears that can understand them.

An American tree, however, if it could grow in fair competition with an
English one of similar species, would probably be the more picturesque
object of the two. The Warwickshire elm has not so beautiful a shape as
those that overhang our village street; and as for the redoubtable
English oak, there is a certain John Bullism in its figure, a compact
rotundity of foliage, a lack of irregular and various outline, that make
it look wonderfully like a gigantic cauliflower. Its leaf, too, is much
smaller than that of most varieties of American oak; nor do I mean to
doubt that the latter, with free leave to grow, reverent care and
cultivation, and immunity from the axe, would live out its centuries as
sturdily as its English brother, and prove far the nobler and more
majestic specimen of a tree at the end of them. Still, however one's
Yankee patriotism may struggle against the admission, it must be owned
that the trees and other objects of an English landscape take hold of the
observer by numberless minute tendrils, as it were, which, look as
closely as we choose, we never find in an American scene. The parasitic
growth is so luxuriant, that the trunk of the tree, so gray and dry in
our climate, is better worth observing than the boughs and foliage; a
verdant messiness coats it all over; so that it looks almost as green as
the leaves; and often, moreover, the stately stem is clustered about,
high upward, with creeping and twining shrubs, the ivy, and sometimes the
mistletoe, close-clinging friends, nurtured by the moisture and never too
fervid sunshine, and supporting themselves by the old tree's abundant
strength. We call it a parasitical vegetation; but, if the phrase imply
any reproach, it is unkind to bestow it on this beautiful affection and
relationship which exist in England between one order of plants and
another: the strong tree being always ready to give support to the
trailing shrub, lift it to the sun, and feed it out of its own heart,
if it crave such food; and the shrub, on its part, repaying its
foster-father with an ample luxuriance of beauty, and adding Corinthian
grace to the tree's lofty strength. No bitter winter nips these tender
little sympathies, no hot sun burns the life out of them; and therefore
they outlast the longevity of the oak, and, if the woodman permitted,
would bury it in a green grave, when all is over.

Should there be nothing else along the road to look at, an English hedge
might well suffice to occupy the eyes, and, to a depth beyond what he
would suppose, the heart of an American. We often set out hedges in our
own soil, but might as well set out figs or pineapples and expect to
gather fruit of them. Something grows, to be sure, which we choose to
call a hedge; but it lacks the dense, luxuriant variety of vegetation
that is accumulated into the English original, in which a botanist would
find a thousand shrubs and gracious herbs that the hedgemaker never
thought of planting there. Among them, growing wild, are many of the
kindred blossoms of the very flowers which our pilgrim fathers brought
from England, for the sake of their simple beauty and homelike
associations, and which we have ever since been cultivating in gardens.
There is not a softer trait to be found in the character of those stern
men than that they should have been sensible of these flower-roots
clinging among the fibres of their rugged hearts, and have felt the
necessity of bringing them over sea and making them hereditary in the new
land, instead of trusting to what rarer beauty the wilderness might have
in store for them.

Or, if the roadside has no hedge, the ugliest stone fence (such as, in
America, would keep itself bare and unsympathizing till the end of time)
is sure to be covered with the small handiwork of Nature; that careful
mother lets nothing go naked there, and if she cannot provide clothing,
gives at least embroidery. No sooner is the fence built than she adopts
and adorns it as a part of her original plan, treating the hard, uncomely
construction as if it had all along been a favorite idea of her own. A
little sprig of ivy may be seen creeping up the side of the low wall and
clinging fast with its many feet to the rough surface; a tuft of grass
roots itself between two of the stones, where a pinch or two of wayside
dust has been moistened into nutritious soil for it; a small bunch of
fern grows in another crevice; a deep, soft, verdant moss spreads itself
along the top and over all the available inequalities of the fence; and
where nothing else will grow, lichens stick tenaciously to the bare
stones and variegate the monotonous gray with hues of yellow and red.
Finally, a great deal of shrubbery clusters along the base of the stone
wall, and takes away the hardness of its outline; and in due time, as the
upshot of these apparently aimless or sportive touches, we recognize that
the beneficent Creator of all things, working through his handmaiden whom
we call Nature, has deigned to mingle a charm of divine gracefulness even
with so earthly an institution as a boundary fence. The clown who
wrought at it little dreamed what fellow-laborer he had.

The English should send us photographs of portions of the trunks of
trees, the tangled and various products of a hedge, and a square foot of
an old wall. They can hardly send anything else so characteristic.
Their artists, especially of the later school, sometimes toil to depict
such subjects, but are apt to stiffen the lithe tendrils in the process.
The poets succeed better, with Tennyson at their head, and often produce
ravishing effects by dint of a tender minuteness of touch, to which the
genius of the soil and climate artfully impels them: for, as regards
grandeur, there are loftier scenes in many countries than the best that
England can show; but, for the picturesqueness of the smallest object
that lies under its gentle gloom and sunshine, there is no scenery like
it anywhere.

In the foregoing paragraphs I have strayed away to a long distance from
the road to Stratford-on-Avon; for I remember no such stone fences as I
have been speaking of in Warwickshire, nor elsewhere in England, except
among the Lakes, or in Yorkshire, and the rough and hilly countries to
the north of it. Hedges there were along my road, however, and broad,
level fields, rustic hamlets, and cottages of ancient date,--from the
roof of one of which the occupant was tearing away the thatch, and
showing what an accumulation of dust, dirt, mouldiness, roots of weeds,
families of mice, swallows' nests, and hordes of insects had been
deposited there since that old straw was new. Estimating its antiquity
from these tokens, Shakespeare himself, in one of his morning rambles out
of his native town, might have seen the thatch laid on; at all events,
the cottage-walls were old enough to have known him as a guest. A few
modern villas were also to be seen, and perhaps there were mansions of
old gentility at no great distance, but hidden among trees; for it is a
point of English pride that such houses seldom allow themselves to be
visible from the high-road. In short, I recollect nothing specially
remarkable along the way, nor in the immediate approach to Stratford; and
yet the picture of that June morning has a glory in my memory, owing
chiefly, I believe, to the charm of the English summer-weather, the
really good days of which are the most delightful that mortal man can
ever hope to be favored with. Such a genial warmth! A little too warm,
it might be, yet only to such a degree as to assure an American (a
certainty to which he seldom attains till attempered to the customary
austerity of an English summer-day) that he was quite warm enough. And
after all, there was an unconquerable freshness in the atmosphere, which
every little movement of a breeze shook over me like a dash of the
ocean-spray. Such days need bring us no other happiness than their own
light and temperature. No doubt, I could not have enjoyed it so
exquisitely, except that there must be still latent in us Western
wanderers (even after an absence of two centuries and more), an
adaptation to the English climate which makes us sensible of a motherly
kindness in its scantiest sunshine, and overflows us with delight at its
more lavish smiles.

The spire of Shakespeare's church--the Church of the Holy Trinity--begins
to show itself among the trees at a little distance from Stratford. Next
we see the shabby old dwellings, intermixed with mean-looking houses of
modern date; and the streets being quite level, you are struck and
surprised by nothing so much as the tameness of the general scene, as if
Shakespeare's genius were vivid enough to have wrought pictorial
splendors in the town where he was born. Here and there, however, a
queer edifice meets your eye, endowed with the individuality that belongs
only to the domestic architecture of times gone by; the house seems to
have grown out of some odd quality in its inhabitant, as a sea-shell is
moulded from within by the character of its innate; and having been built
in a strange fashion, generations ago, it has ever since been growing
stranger and quainter, as old humorists are apt to do. Here, too (as so
often impressed me in decayed English towns), there appeared to be a
greater abundance of aged people wearing small-clothes and leaning on
sticks than you could assemble on our side of the water by sounding a
trumpet and proclaiming a reward for the most venerable. I tried to
account for this phenomenon by several theories: as, for example, that
our new towns are unwholesome for age and kill it off unseasonably; or
that our old men have a subtile sense of fitness, and die of their own
accord rather than live in an unseemly contrast with youth and novelty
but the secret may be, after all, that hair-dyes, false teeth, modern
arts of dress, and other contrivances of a skin-deep youthfulness, have
not crept into these antiquated English towns, and so people grow old
without the weary necessity of seeming younger than they are.

After wandering through two or three streets, I found my way to
Shakespeare's birthplace, which is almost a smaller and humbler house
than any description can prepare the visitor to expect; so inevitably
does an august inhabitant make his abode palatial to our imaginations,
receiving his guests, indeed, in a castle in the air, until we unwisely
insist on meeting him among the sordid lanes and alleys of lower earth.
The portion of the edifice with which Shakespeare had anything to do is
hardly large enough, in the basement, to contain the butcher's stall that
one of his descendants kept, and that still remains there, windowless,
with the cleaver-cuts in its hacked counter, which projects into the
street under a little penthouse-roof, as if waiting for a new occupant.

The upper half of the door was open, and, on my rapping at it, a young
person in black made her appearance and admitted me; she was not a
menial, but remarkably genteel (an American characteristic) for an
English girl, and was probably the daughter of the old gentlewoman who
takes care of the house. This lower room has a pavement of gray slabs of
stone, which may have been rudely squared when the house was new, but are
now all cracked, broken, and disarranged in a most unaccountable way.
One does not see how any ordinary usage, for whatever length of time,
should have so smashed these heavy stones; it is as if an earthquake had
burst up through the floor, which afterwards had been imperfectly trodden
down again. The room is whitewashed and very clean, but wofully shabby
and dingy, coarsely built, and such as the most poetical imagination
would find it difficult to idealize. In the rear of this apartment is
the kitchen, a still smaller room, of a similar rude aspect; it has a
great, rough fireplace, with space for a large family under the blackened
opening of the chimney, and an immense passageway for the smoke, through
which Shakespeare may have seen the blue sky by day and the stars
glimmering down at him by night. It is now a dreary spot where the
long-extinguished embers used to be. A glowing fire, even if it covered
only a quarter part of the hearth, might still do much towards making the
old kitchen cheerful. But we get a depressing idea of the stifled, poor,
sombre kind of life that could have been lived in such a dwelling, where
this room seems to have been the gathering-place of the family, with no
breadth or scope, no good retirement, but old and young huddling together
cheek by jowl. What a hardy plant was Shakespeare's genius, how fatal
its development, since it could not be blighted in such an atmosphere!
It only brought human nature the closer to him, and put more unctuous
earth about his roots.

Thence I was ushered up stairs to the room in which Shakespeare is
supposed to have been born: though, if you peep too curiously into the
matter, you may find the shadow of an ugly doubt on this, as well as most
other points of his mysterious life. It is the chamber over the
butcher's shop, and is lighted by one broad window containing a great
many small, irregular panes of glass. The floor is made of planks, very
rudely hewn, and fitting together with little neatness; the naked beams
and rafters, at the sides of the room and overhead, bear the original
marks of the builder's broad-axe, with no evidence of an attempt to
smooth off the job. Again we have to reconcile ourselves to the
smallness of the space enclosed by these illustrious walls,--a
circumstance more difficult to accept, as regards places that we have
heard, read, thought, and dreamed much about, than any other
disenchanting particular of a mistaken ideal. A few paces--perhaps
seven or eight--take us from end to end of it. So low it is, that I
could easily touch the ceiling, and might have done so without a
tiptoe-stretch, had it been a good deal higher; and this humility of
the chamber has tempted a vast multitude of people to write their names
overhead in pencil. Every inch of the sidewalls, even into the
obscurest nooks and corners, is covered with a similar record; all the
window-panes, moreover, are scrawled with diamond signatures, among which
is said to be that of Walter Scott; but so many persons have sought to
immortalize themselves in close vicinity to his name, that I really could
not trace him out. Methinks it is strange that people do not strive to
forget their forlorn little identities, in such situations, instead of
thrusting them forward into the dazzle of a great renown, where, if
noticed, they cannot but be deemed impertinent.

This room, and the entire house, so far as I saw it, are whitewashed and
exceedingly clean; nor is there the aged, musty smell with which old
Chester first made me acquainted, and which goes far to cure an American
of his excessive predilection for antique residences. An old lady, who
took charge of me up stairs, had the manners and aspect of a gentlewoman,
and talked with somewhat formidable knowledge and appreciative
intelligence about Shakespeare. Arranged on a table and in chairs were
various prints, views of houses and scenes connected with Shakespeare's
memory, together with editions of his works and local publications about
his home and haunts, from the sale of which this respectable lady perhaps
realizes a handsome profit. At any rate, I bought a good many of them,
conceiving that it might be the civillest way of requiting her for her
instructive conversation and the trouble she took in showing me the
house. It cost me a pang (not a curmudgeonly, but a gentlemanly one) to
offer a downright fee to the lady-like girl who had admitted me; but I
swallowed my delicate scruples with some little difficulty, and she
digested hers, so far as I could observe, with no difficulty at all. In
fact, nobody need fear to hold out half a crown to any person with whom
he has occasion to speak a word in England.

I should consider it unfair to quit Shakespeare's house without the frank
acknowledgment that I was conscious of not the slightest emotion while
viewing it, nor any quickening of the imagination. This has often
happened to me in my visits to memorable places. Whatever pretty and
apposite reflections I may have made upon the subject had either occurred
to me before I ever saw Stratford, or have been elaborated since. It is
pleasant, nevertheless, to think that I have seen the place; and I
believe that I can form a more sensible and vivid idea of Shakespeare as
a flesh-and-blood individual now that I have stood on the kitchen-hearth
and in the birth-chamber; but I am not quite certain that this power of
realization is altogether desirable in reference to a great poet. The
Shakespeare whom I met there took various guises, but had not his laurel
on. He was successively the roguish boy,--the youthful deer-stealer,--
the comrade of players,--the too familiar friend of Davenant's mother,--
the careful, thrifty, thriven man of property who came back from London
to lend money on bond, and occupy the best house in Stratford,--the
mellow, red-nosed, autumnal boon-companion of John a' Combe,--and finally
(or else the Stratford gossips belied him), the victim of convivial
habits, who met his death by tumbling into a ditch on his way home from a
drinking-bout, and left his second-best bed to his poor wife.

I feel, as sensibly as the reader can, what horrible impiety it is to
remember these things, be they true or false. In either case, they ought
to vanish out of sight on the distant ocean-line of the past, leaving a
pure, white memory, even as a sail, though perhaps darkened with many
stains, looks snowy white on the far horizon. But I draw a moral from
these unworthy reminiscences and this embodiment of the poet, as
suggested by some of the grimy actualities of his life. It is for the
high interests of the world not to insist upon finding out that its
greatest men are, in a certain lower sense, very much the same kind of
men as the rest of us, and often a little worse; because a common mind
cannot properly digest such a discovery, nor ever know the true
proportion of the great man's good and evil, nor how small a part of him
it was that touched our muddy or dusty earth. Thence comes moral
bewilderment, and even intellectual loss, in regard to what is best of
him. When Shakespeare invoked a curse on the man who should stir his
bones, he perhaps meant the larger share of it for him or them who should
pry into his perishing earthliness, the defects or even the merits of the
character that he wore in Stratford, when he had left mankind so much to
muse upon that was imperishable and divine. Heaven keep me from
incurring any part of the anathema in requital for the irreverent
sentences above written!

From Shakespeare's house, the next step, of course, is to visit his
burial-place. The appearance of the church is most venerable and
beautiful, standing amid a great green shadow of lime-trees, above which
rises the spire, while the Gothic battlements and buttresses and vast
arched windows are obscurely seen through the boughs. The Avon loiters
past the churchyard, an exceedingly sluggish river, which might seem to
have been considering which way it should flow ever since Shakespeare
left off paddling in it and gathering the large forget-me-nots that grow
among its flags and water-weeds.

An old man in small-clothes was waiting at the gate; and inquiring
whether I wished to go in, he preceded me to the church-porch, and
rapped. I could have done it quite as effectually for myself; but it
seems, the old people of the neighborhood haunt about the churchyard, in
spite of the frowns and remonstrances of the sexton, who grudges them the
half-eleemosynary sixpence which they sometimes get from visitors. I was
admitted into the church by a respectable-looking and intelligent man in
black, the parish-clerk, I suppose, and probably holding a richer
incumbency than his vicar, if all the fees which he handles remain in his
own pocket. He was already exhibiting the Shakespeare monuments to two
or three visitors, and several other parties came in while I was there.

The poet and his family are in possession of what may be considered the
very best burial-places that the church affords. They lie in a row,
right across the breadth of the chancel, the foot of each gravestone
being close to the elevated floor on which the altar stands. Nearest to
the side-wall, beneath Shakespeare's bust, is a slab bearing a Latin
inscription addressed to his wife, and covering her remains; then his own
slab, with the old anathematizing stanza upon it; then that of Thomas
Nash, who married his granddaughter; then that of Dr. Hall, the husband
of his daughter Susannah; and, lastly, Susannah's own. Shakespeare's is
the commonest-looking slab of all, being just such a flag-stone as Essex
Street in Salem used to be paved with, when I was a boy. Moreover,
unless my eyes or recollection deceive me, there is a crack across it, as
if it had already undergone some such violence as the inscription
deprecates. Unlike the other monuments of the family, it bears no name,
nor am I acquainted with the grounds or authority on which it is
absolutely determined to be Shakespeare's; although, being in a range
with those of his wife and children, it might naturally be attributed to
him. But, then, why does his wife, who died afterwards, take precedence
of him and occupy the place next his bust? And where are the graves of
another daughter and a son, who have a better right in the family row
than Thomas Nash, his grandson-in-law? Might not one or both of them
have been laid under the nameless stone? But it is dangerous trifling
with Shakespeare's dust; so I forbear to meddle further with the grave
(though the prohibition makes it tempting), and shall let whatever bones
be in it rest in peace. Yet I must needs add that the inscription on the
bust seems to imply that Shakespeare's grave was directly underneath it.

The poet's bust is affixed to the northern wall of the church, the base
of it being about a man's height, or rather more, above the floor of the
chancel. The features of this piece of sculpture are entirely unlike any
portrait of Shakespeare that I have ever seen, and compel me to take down
the beautiful, lofty-browed, and noble picture of him which has hitherto
hung in my mental portrait-gallery. The bust cannot be said to represent
a beautiful face or an eminently noble head; but it clutches firmly hold
of one's sense of reality and insists upon your accepting it, if not as
Shakespeare the poet, yet as the wealthy burgher of Stratford, the friend
of John a' Combe, who lies yonder in the corner. I know not what the
phrenologists say to the bust. The forehead is but moderately developed,
and retreats somewhat, the upper part of the skull rising pyramidally;
the eyes are prominent almost beyond the penthouse of the brow; the upper
lip is so long that it must have been almost a deformity, unless the
sculptor artistically exaggerated its length, in consideration, that, on
the pedestal, it must be foreshortened by being looked at from below. On
the whole, Shakespeare must have had a singular rather than a
prepossessing face; and it is wonderful how, with this bust before its
eyes, the world has persisted in maintaining an erroneous notion of his
appearance, allowing painters and sculptors to foist their idealized
nonsense on its all, instead of the genuine man. For my part, the
Shakespeare of my mind's eye is henceforth to be a personage of a ruddy
English complexion, with a reasonably capacious brow, intelligent and
quickly observant eyes, a nose curved slightly outward, a long, queer
upper lip, with the mouth a little unclosed beneath it, and cheeks
considerably developed in the lower part and beneath the chin. But when
Shakespeare was himself (for nine tenths of the time, according to all
appearances, he was but the burgher of Stratford), he doubtless shone
through this dull mask and transfigured it into the face of an angel.

Fifteen or twenty feet behind the row of Shakespeare gravestones is the
great east-window of the church, now brilliant with stained glass of
recent manufacture. On one side of this window, under a sculptured arch
of marble, lies a full-length marble figure of John a' Combe, clad in
what I take to be a robe of municipal dignity, and holding its hands
devoutly clasped. It is a sturdy English figure, with coarse features, a
type of ordinary man whom we smile to see immortalized in the
sculpturesque material of poets and heroes; but the prayerful attitude
encourages us to believe that the old usurer may not, after all, have had
that grim reception in the other world which Shakespeare's squib
foreboded for him. By the by, till I grew somewhat familiar with
Warwickshire pronunciation, I never understood that the point of those
ill-natured lines was a pun. "'Oho!' quoth the Devil, ''t is my John a'
Combe'"--that is, "My John has come!"

Close to the poet's bust is a nameless, oblong, cubic tomb, supposed to
be that of a clerical dignitary of the fourteenth century. The church
has other mural monuments and altar-tombs, one or two of the latter
upholding the recumbent figures of knights in armor and their dames, very
eminent and worshipful personages in their day, no doubt, but doomed to
appear forever intrusive and impertinent within the precincts which
Shakespeare has made his own. His renown is tyrannous, and suffers
nothing else to be recognized within the scope of its material presence,
unless illuminated by some side-ray from himself. The clerk informed me
that interments no longer take place in any part of the church. And it
is better so; for methinks a person of delicate individuality, curious
about his burial-place, and desirous of six feet of earth for himself
alone, could never endure to be buried near Shakespeare, but would rise
up at midnight and grope his way out of the church-door, rather than
sleep in the shadow of so stupendous a memory.

I should hardly have dared to add another to the innumerable descriptions
of Stratford-on-Avon, if it had not seemed to me that this would form a
fitting framework to some reminiscences of a very remarkable woman. Her
labor, while she lived, was of a nature and purpose outwardly irreverent
to the name of Shakespeare, yet, by its actual tendency, entitling her to
the distinction of being that one of all his worshippers who sought,
though she knew it not, to place the richest and stateliest diadem upon
his brow. We Americans, at least, in the scanty annals of our
literature, cannot afford to forget her high and conscientious exercise
of noble faculties, which, indeed, if you look at the matter in one way,
evolved only a miserable error, but, more fairly considered, produced a
result worth almost what it cost her. Her faith in her own ideas was so
genuine, that, erroneous as they were, it transmuted them to gold, or, at
all events, interfused a large proportion of that precious and
indestructible substance among the waste material from which it can
readily be sifted.

The only time I ever saw Miss Bacon was in London, where she had lodgings
in Spring Street, Sussex Gardens, at the house of a grocer, a portly,
middle-aged, civil, and friendly man, who, as well as his wife, appeared
to feel a personal kindness towards their lodger. I was ushered up two
(and I rather believe three) pair of stairs into a parlor somewhat humbly
furnished, and told that Miss Bacon would come soon. There were a number
of books on the table, and, looking into them, I found that every one had
some reference, more or less immediate, to her Shakespearian theory,--a
volume of Raleigh's "History of the World," a volume of Montaigne, a
volume of Lord Bacon's letters, a volume of Shakespeare's plays; and on
another table lay a large roll of manuscript, which I presume to have
been a portion of her work. To be sure, there was a pocket-Bible among
the books, but everything else referred to the one despotic idea that had
got possession of her mind; and as it had engrossed her whole soul as
well as her intellect, I have no doubt that she had established subtile
connections between it and the Bible likewise. As is apt to be the case
with solitary students, Miss Bacon probably read late and rose late; for
I took up Montaigne (it was Hazlitt's translation) and had been reading
his journey to Italy a good while before she appeared.

I had expected (the more shame for me, having no other ground of such
expectation than that she was a literary woman) to see a very homely,
uncouth, elderly personage, and was quite agreeably disappointed by her
aspect. She was rather uncommonly tall, and had a striking and
expressive face, dark hair, dark eyes, which shone with an inward light
as soon as she began to speak, and by and by a color came into her cheeks
and made her look almost young. Not that she really was so; she must
have been beyond middle age: and there was no unkindness in coming to
that conclusion, because, making allowance for years and ill-health, I
could suppose her to have been handsome and exceedingly attractive once.
Though wholly estranged from society, there was little or no restraint or
embarrassment in her manner: lonely people are generally glad to give
utterance to their pent-up ideas, and often bubble over with them as
freely as children with their new-found syllables. I cannot tell how it
came about, but we immediately found ourselves taking a friendly and
familiar tone together, and began to talk as if we had known one another
a very long while. A little preliminary correspondence had indeed
smoothed the way, and we had a definite topic in the contemplated
publication of her book.

She was very communicative about her theory, and would have been much
more so had I desired it; but, being conscious within myself of a sturdy
unbelief, I deemed it fair and honest rather to repress than draw her out
upon the subject. Unquestionably, she was a monomaniac; these
overmastering ideas about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, and the
deep political philosophy concealed beneath the surface of them, had
completely thrown her off her balance; but at the same time they had
wonderfully developed her intellect, and made her what she could not
otherwise have become. It was a very singular phenomenon: a system of
philosophy growing up in thus woman's mind without her volition,--
contrary, in fact, to the determined resistance of her volition,--and
substituting itself in the place of everything that originally grew
there. To have based such a system on fancy, and unconsciously
elaborated it for herself, was almost as wonderful as really to have
found it in the plays. But, in a certain sense, she did actually find it
there. Shakespeare has surface beneath surface, to an immeasurable
depth, adapted to the plummet-line of every reader; his works present
many phases of truth, each with scope large enough to fill a
contemplative mind. Whatever you seek in him you will surely discover,
provided you seek truth. There is no exhausting the various
interpretation of his symbols; and a thousand years hence, a world of new
readers will possess a whole library of new books, as we ourselves do, in
these volumes old already. I had half a mind to suggest to Miss Bacon
this explanation of her theory, but forbore, because (as I could readily
perceive) she had as princely a spirit as Queen Elizabeth herself, and
would at once have motioned me from the room.

I had heard, long ago, that she believed that the material evidences of
her dogma as to the authorship, together with the key of the new
philosophy, would be found buried in Shakespeare's grave. Recently, as I
understood her, this notion had been somewhat modified, and was now
accurately defined and fully developed in her mind, with a result of
perfect certainty. In Lord Bacon's letters, on which she laid her finger
as she spoke, she had discovered the key and clew to the whole mystery.
There were definite and minute instructions how to find a will and other
documents relating to the conclave of Elizabethan philosophers, which
were concealed (when and by whom she did not inform me) in a hollow
space in the under surface of Shakespeare's gravestone. Thus the
terrible prohibition to remove the stone was accounted for. The
directions, she intimated, went completely and precisely to the point,
obviating all difficulties in the way of coming at the treasure, and
even, if I remember right, were so contrived as to ward off any
troublesome consequences likely to ensue from the interference of the
parish-officers. All that Miss Bacon now remained in England for--
indeed, the object for which she had come hither, and which had kept her
here for three years past--was to obtain possession of these material and
unquestionable proofs of the authenticity of her theory.

She communicated all this strange matter in a low, quiet tone; while, on
my part, I listened as quietly, and without any expression of dissent.
Controversy against a faith so settled would have shut her up at once,
and that, too, without in the least weakening her belief in the existence
of those treasures of the tomb; and had it been possible to convince her
of their intangible nature, I apprehend that there would have been
nothing left for the poor enthusiast save to collapse and die. She
frankly confessed that she could no longer bear the society of those who
did not at least lend a certain sympathy to her views, if not fully share
in them; and meeting little sympathy or none, she had now entirely
secluded herself from the world. In all these years, she had seen Mrs.
Farrar a few times, but had long ago given her up,--Carlyle once or
twice, but not of late, although he had received her kindly; Mr.
Buchanan, while Minister in England, had once called on her, and General
Campbell, our Consul in London, had met her two or three times on
business. With these exceptions, which she marked so scrupulously that
it was perceptible what epochs they were in the monotonous passage of her
days, she had lived in the profoundest solitude. She never walked out;
she suffered much from ill-health; and yet, she assured me, she was
perfectly happy.

I could well conceive it; for Miss Bacon imagined herself to have
received (what is certainly the greatest boon ever assigned to mortals) a
high mission in the world, with adequate powers for its accomplishment;
and lest even these should prove insufficient, she had faith that special
interpositions of Providence were forwarding her human efforts. This
idea was continually coming to the surface, during our interview. She
believed, for example, that she had been providentially led to her
lodging-house and put in relations with the good-natured grocer and his
family; and, to say the truth, considering what a savage and stealthy
tribe the London lodging-house keepers usually are, the honest kindness
of this man and his household appeared to have been little less than
miraculous. Evidently, too, she thought that Providence had brought me
forward--a man somewhat connected with literature--at the critical
juncture when she needed a negotiator with the booksellers; and, on my
part, though little accustomed to regard myself as a divine minister, and
though I might even have preferred that Providence should select some
other instrument, I had no scruple in undertaking to do what I could for
her. Her book, as I could see by turning it over, was a very remarkable
one, and worthy of being offered to the public, which, if wise enough to
appreciate it, would be thankful for what was good in it and merciful to
its faults. It was founded on a prodigious error, but was built up from
that foundation with a good many prodigious truths. And, at all events,
whether I could aid her literary views or no, it would have been both
rash and impertinent in me to attempt drawing poor Miss Bacon out of her
delusions, which were the condition on which she lived in comfort and
joy, and in the exercise of great intellectual power. So I left her to
dream as she pleased about the treasures of Shakespeare's tombstone, and
to form whatever designs might seem good to herself for obtaining
possession of them. I was sensible of a ladylike feeling of propriety in
Miss Bacon, and a New England orderliness in her character, and, in spite
of her bewilderment, a sturdy common-sense, which I trusted would begin
to operate at the right time, and keep her from any actual extravagance.
And as regarded this matter of the tombstone, so it proved.

The interview lasted above an hour, during which she flowed out freely,
as to the sole auditor, capable of any degree of intelligent sympathy,
whom she had met with in a very long while. Her conversation was
remarkably suggestive, alluring forth one's own ideas and fantasies from
the shy places where they usually haunt. She was indeed an admirable
talker, considering how long she had held her tongue for lack of a
listener,--pleasant, sunny and shadowy, often piquant, and giving
glimpses of all a woman's various and readily changeable moods and
humors; and beneath them all there ran a deep and powerful under-current
of earnestness, which did not fail to produce in the listener's mind
something like a temporary faith in what she herself believed so
fervently. But the streets of London are not favorable to enthusiasms of
this kind, nor, in fact, are they likely to flourish anywhere in the
English atmosphere; so that, long before reaching Paternoster Row, I felt
that it would be a difficult and doubtful matter to advocate the
publication of Miss Bacon's book. Nevertheless, it did finally get
published.

Months before that happened, however, Miss Bacon had taken up her
residence at Stratford-on-Avon, drawn thither by the magnetism of those
rich secrets which she supposed to have been hidden by Raleigh, or Bacon,
or I know not whom, in Shakespeare's grave, and protected there by a
curse, as pirates used to bury their gold in the guardianship of a fiend.
She took a humble lodging and began to haunt the church like a ghost.
But she did not condescend to any stratagem or underhand attempt to
violate the grave, which, had she been capable of admitting such an idea,
might possibly have been accomplished by the aid of a resurrection-man.
As her first step, she made acquaintance with the clerk, and began to
sound him as to the feasibility of her enterprise and his own willingness
to engage in it. The clerk apparently listened with not unfavorable
ears; but, as his situation (which the fees of pilgrims, more numerous
than at any Catholic shrine, render lucrative) would have been forfeited
by any malfeasance in office, he stipulated for liberty to consult the
vicar. Miss Bacon requested to tell her own story to the reverend
gentleman, and seems to have been received by him with the utmost
kindness, and even to have succeeded in making a certain impression on
his mind as to the desirability of the search. As their interview had
been under the seal of secrecy, he asked permission to consult a friend,
who, as Miss Bacon either found out or surmised, was a practitioner of
the law. What the legal friend advised she did not learn; but the
negotiation continued, and certainly was never broken off by an absolute
refusal on the vicar's part. He, perhaps, was kindly temporizing with
our poor countrywoman, whom an Englishman of ordinary mould would have
sent to a lunatic asylum at once. I cannot help fancying, however, that
her familiarity with the events of Shakespeare's life, and of his death
and burial (of which she would speak as if she had been present at the
edge of the grave), and all the history, literature, and personalities of
the Elizabethan age, together with the prevailing power of her own
belief, and the eloquence with which she knew how to enforce it, had
really gone some little way toward making a convert of the good
clergyman. If so, I honor him above all the hierarchy of England.

The affair certainly looked very hopeful. However erroneously, Miss
Bacon had understood from the vicar that no obstacles would be interposed
to the investigation, and that he himself would sanction it with his
presence. It was to take place after nightfall; and all preliminary
arrangements being made, the vicar and clerk professed to wait only her
word in order to set about lifting the awful stone from the sepulchre.
So, at least, Miss Bacon believed; and as her bewilderment was entirely
in her own thoughts, and never disturbed her perception or accurate
remembrance of external things, I see no reason to doubt it, except it be
the tinge of absurdity in the fact. But, in this apparently prosperous
state of things, her own convictions began to falter. A doubt stole into
her mind whether she might not have mistaken the depository and mode of
concealment of those historic treasures; and after once admitting the
doubt, she was afraid to hazard the shock of uplifting the stone and
finding nothing. She examined the surface of the gravestone, and
endeavored, without stirring it, to estimate whether it were of such
thickness as to be capable of containing the archives of the Elizabethan
club. She went over anew the proofs, the clews, the enigmas, the
pregnant sentences, which she had discovered in Bacon's letters and
elsewhere, and now was frightened to perceive that they did not point so
definitely to Shakespeare's tomb as she had heretofore supposed. There
was an unmistakably distinct reference to a tomb, but it might be
Bacon's, or Raleigh's, or Spenser's; and instead of the "Old Player," as
she profanely called him, it might be either of those three illustrious
dead, poet, warrior, or statesman, whose ashes, in Westminster Abbey, or
the Tower burial-ground, or wherever they sleep, it was her mission to
disturb. It is very possible, moreover, that her acute mind may always
have had a lurking and deeply latent distrust of its own fantasies, and
that this now became strong enough to restrain her from a decisive step.

But she continued to hover around the church, and seems to have had full
freedom of entrance in the daytime, and special license, on one occasion
at least, at a late hour of the night. She went thither with a
dark-lantern, which could but twinkle like a glow-worm through the volume
of obscurity that filled the great dusky edifice. Groping her way up the
aisle and towards the chancel, she sat down on the elevated part of the
pavement above Shakespeare's grave. If the divine poet really wrote the
inscription there, and cared as much about the quiet of his bones as its
deprecatory earnestness would imply, it was time for those crumbling
relics to bestir themselves under her sacrilegious feet. But they were
safe. She made no attempt to disturb them; though, I believe, she looked
narrowly into the crevices between Shakespeare's and the two adjacent
stones, and in some way satisfied herself that her single strength would
suffice to lift the former, in case of need. She threw the feeble ray of
her lantern up towards the bust, but could not make it visible beneath
the darkness of the vaulted roof. Had she been subject to superstitious
terrors, it is impossible to conceive of a situation that could better
entitle her to feel them, for, if Shakespeare's ghost would rise at any
provocation, it must have shown itself then; but it is my sincere belief,
that, if his figure had appeared within the scope of her dark-lantern, in
his slashed doublet and gown, and with his eyes bent on her beneath the
high, bald forehead, just as we see him in the bust, she would have met
him fearlessly and controverted his claims to the authorship of the
plays, to his very face. She had taught herself to contemn "Lord
Leicester's groom" (it was one of her disdainful epithets for the world's
incomparable poet) so thoroughly, that even his disembodied spirit would
hardly have found civil treatment at Miss Bacon's hands.

Her vigil, though it appears to have had no definite object, continued
far into the night. Several times she heard a low movement in the
aisles: a stealthy, dubious footfall prowling about in the darkness, now
here, now there, among the pillars and ancient tombs, as if some restless
inhabitant of the latter had crept forth to peep at the intruder. By and
by the clerk made his appearance, and confessed that he had been watching
her ever since she entered the church.

About this time it was that a strange sort of weariness seems to have
fallen upon her: her toil was all but done, her great purpose, as she
believed, on the very point of accomplishment, when she began to regret
that so stupendous a mission had been imposed on the fragility of a
woman. Her faith in the new philosophy was as mighty as ever, and so was
her confidence in her own adequate development of it, now about to be
given to the world; yet she wished, or fancied so, that it might never
have been her duty to achieve this unparalleled task, and to stagger
feebly forward under her immense burden of responsibility and renown. So
far as her personal concern in the matter went, she would gladly have
forfeited the reward of her patient study and labor for so many years,
her exile from her country and estrangement from her family and friends,
her sacrifice of health and all other interests to this one pursuit, if
she could only find herself free to dwell in Stratford and be forgotten.
She liked the old slumberous town, and awarded the only praise that ever
I knew her to bestow on Shakespeare, the individual man, by acknowledging
that his taste in a residence was good, and that he knew how to choose a
suitable retirement for a person of shy, but genial temperament. And at
this point, I cease to possess the means of tracing her vicissitudes of
feeling any further. In consequence of some advice which I fancied it my
duty to tender, as being the only confidant whom she now had in the
world, I fell under Miss Bacon's most severe and passionate displeasure,
and was cast off by her in the twinkling of an eye. It was a misfortune
to which her friends were always particularly liable; but I think that
none of them ever loved, or even respected, her most ingenuous and noble,
but likewise most sensitive and tumultuous, character the less for it.

At that time her book was passing through the press. Without prejudice
to her literary ability, it must be allowed that Miss Bacon was wholly
unfit to prepare her own work for publication, because, among many other
reasons, she was too thoroughly in earnest to know what to leave out.
Every leaf and line was sacred, for all had been written under so deep a
conviction of truth as to assume, in her eyes, the aspect of inspiration.
A practised book-maker, with entire control of her materials, would have
shaped out a duodecimo volume full of eloquent and ingenious
dissertation,--criticisms which quite take the color and pungency out of
other people's critical remarks on Shakespeare,--philosophic truths which
she imagined herself to have found at the roots of his conceptions, and
which certainly come from no inconsiderable depth somewhere. There was a
great amount of rubbish, which any competent editor would have shovelled
out of the way. But Miss Bacon thrust the whole bulk of inspiration and
nonsense into the press in a lump, and there tumbled out a ponderous
octavo volume, which fell with a dead thump at the feet of the public,
and has never been picked up. A few persons turned over one or two of
the leaves, as it lay there, and essayed to kick the volume deeper into
the mud; for they were the hack critics of the minor periodical press in
London, than whom, I suppose, though excellent fellows in their way,
there are no gentlemen in the world less sensible of any sanctity in a
book, or less likely to recognize an author's heart in it, or more
utterly careless about bruising, if they do recognize it. It is their
trade. They could not do otherwise. I never thought of blaming them.
It was not for such an Englishman as one of these to get beyond the idea
that an assault was meditated on England's greatest poet. From the
scholars and critics of her own country, indeed, Miss Bacon might have
looked for a worthier appreciation, because many of the best of them have
higher cultivation, and finer and deeper literary sensibilities than all
but the very profoundest and brightest of Englishmen. But they are not a
courageous body of men; they dare not think a truth that has an odor of
absurdity, lest they should feel themselves bound to speak it out. If
any American ever wrote a word in her behalf, Miss Bacon never knew it,
nor did I. Our journalists at once republished some of the most brutal
vituperations of the English press, thus pelting their poor countrywoman
with stolen mud, without even waiting to know whether the ignominy was
deserved. And they never have known it, to this day, nor ever will.

The next intelligence that I had of Miss Bacon was by a letter from the
mayor of Stratford-on-Avon. He was a medical man, and wrote both in his
official and professional character, telling me that an American lady,
who had recently published what the mayor called a "Shakespeare book,"
was afflicted with insanity. In a lucid interval she had referred to me,
as a person who had some knowledge of her family and affairs. What she
may have suffered before her intellect gave way, we had better not try to
imagine. No author had ever hoped so confidently as she; none ever
failed more utterly. A superstitious fancy might suggest that the
anathema on Shakespeare's tombstone had fallen heavily on her head in
requital of even the unaccomplished purpose of disturbing the dust
beneath, and that the "Old Player" had kept so quietly in his grave, on
the night of her vigil, because he foresaw how soon and terribly he would
be avenged. But if that benign spirit takes any care or cognizance of
such things now, he has surely requited the injustice that she sought to
do him--the high justice that she really did--by a tenderness of love and
pity of which only he could be capable. What matters it though she
called him by some other name? He had wrought a greater miracle on her
than on all the world besides. This bewildered enthusiast had recognized
a depth in the man whom she decried, which scholars, critics, and learned
societies, devoted to the elucidation of his unrivalled scenes, had never
imagined to exist there. She had paid him the loftiest honor that all
these ages of renown have been able to accumulate upon his memory. And
when, not many months after the outward failure of her lifelong object,
she passed into the better world, I know not why we should hesitate to
believe that the immortal poet may have met her on the threshold and led
her in, reassuring her with friendly and comfortable words, and thanking
her (yet with a smile of gentle humor in his eyes at the thought of
certain mistaken speculations) for having interpreted him to mankind so
well.

I believe that it has been the fate of this remarkable book never to have
had more than a single reader. I myself am acquainted with it only in
insulated chapters and scattered pages and paragraphs. But, since my
return to America, a young man of genius and enthusiasm has assured me
that he has positively read the book from beginning to end, and is
completely a convert to its doctrines. It belongs to him, therefore, and
not to me, whom, in almost the last letter that I received from her, she
declared unworthy to meddle with her work,--it belongs surely to this one
individual, who has done her so much justice as to know what she wrote,
to place Miss Bacon in her due position before the public and posterity.

This has been too sad a story. To lighten the recollection of it, I will
think of my stroll homeward past Charlecote Park, where I beheld the most
stately elms, singly, in clumps, and in groves, scattered all about in
the sunniest, shadiest, sleepiest fashion; so that I could not but
believe in a lengthened, loitering, drowsy enjoyment which these trees
must have in their existence. Diffused over slow-paced centuries, it
need not be keen nor bubble into thrills and ecstasies, like the
momentary delights of short-lived human beings. They were civilized
trees, known to man and befriended by him for ages past. There is an
indescribable difference--as I believe I have heretofore endeavored to
express--between the tamed, but by no means effete (on the contrary, the
richer and more luxuriant) nature of England, and the rude, shaggy,
barbarous nature which offers as its racier companionship in America. No
less a change has been wrought among the wildest creatures that inhabit
what the English call their forests. By and by, among those refined and
venerable trees, I saw a large herd of deer, mostly reclining, but some
standing in picturesque groups, while the stags threw their large antlers
aloft, as if they had been taught to make themselves tributary to the
scenic effect. Some were running fleetly about, vanishing from light
into shadow and glancing forth again, with here and there a little fawn
careering at its mother's heels. These deer are almost in the same
relation to the wild, natural state of their kind that the trees of an
English park hold to the rugged growth of an American forest. They have
held a certain intercourse with man for immemorial years; and, most
probably, the stag that Shakespeare killed was one of the progenitors of
this very herd, and may himself have been a partly civilized and
humanized deer, though in a less degree than these remote posterity.
They are a little wilder than sheep, but they do not snuff the air at the
approach of human beings, nor evince much alarm at their pretty close
proximity; although if you continue to advance, they toss their heads and
take to their heels in a kind of mimic terror, or something akin to
feminine skittishness, with a dim remembrance or tradition, as it were,
of their having come of a wild stock. They have so long been fed and
protected by man, that they must have lost many of their native
instincts, and, I suppose, could not live comfortably through, even an
English winter without human help. One is sensible of a gentle scorn at
them for such dependency, but feels none the less kindly disposed towards
the half-domesticated race; and it may have been his observation of these
tamer characteristics in the Charlecote herd that suggested to
Shakespeare the tender and pitiful description of a wounded stag, in "As
You Like It."

At a distance of some hundreds of yards from Charlecote Hall, and almost
hidden by the trees between it and the roadside, is an old brick archway
and porter's lodge. In connection with this entrance there appears to
have been a wall and an ancient moat, the latter of which is still
visible, a shallow, grassy scoop along the base of an embankment of the
lawn. About fifty yards within the gateway stands the house, forming
three sides of a square, with three gables in a row on the front, and on
each of the two wings; and there are several towers and turrets at the
angles, together with projecting windows, antique balconies, and other
quaint ornaments suitable to the half-Gothic taste in which the edifice
was built. Over the gateway is the Lucy coat-of-arms, emblazoned in its
proper colors. The mansion dates from the early days of Elizabeth, and
probably looked very much the same as now when Shakespeare was brought
before Sir Thomas Lucy for outrages among his deer. The impression is
not that of gray antiquity, but of stable and time-honored gentility,
still as vital as ever.

It is a most delightful place. All about the house and domain there is a
perfection of comfort and domestic taste, an amplitude of convenience,
which could have been brought about only by the slow ingenuity and labor
of many successive generations, intent upon adding all possible
improvement to the home where years gone by and years to come give a sort
of permanence to the intangible present. An American is sometimes
tempted to fancy that only by this long process can real homes be
produced. One man's lifetime is not enough for the accomplishment of
such a work of art and nature, almost the greatest merely temporary one
that is confided to him; too little, at any rate,--yet perhaps too long
when he is discouraged by the idea that he must make his house warm and
delightful for a miscellaneous race of successors, of whom the one thing
certain is, that his own grandchildren will not be among them. Such
repinings as are here suggested, however, come only from the fact, that,
bred in English habits of thought, as most of us are, we have not yet
modified our instincts to the necessities of our new forms of life. A
lodging in a wigwam or under a tent has really as many advantages, when
we come to know them, as a home beneath the roof-tree of Charlecote Hall.
But, alas! our philosophers have not yet taught us what is best, nor have
our poets sung us what is beautifulest, in the kind of life that we must
lead; and therefore we still read the old English wisdom, and harp upon
the ancient strings. And thence it happens, that, when we look at a
time-honored hall, it seems more possible for men who inherit such a
home, than for ourselves, to lead noble and graceful lives, quietly doing
good and lovely things as their daily work, and achieving deeds of simple
greatness when circumstances require them. I sometimes apprehend that
our institutions may perish before we shall have discovered the most
precious of the possibilities which they involve.


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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