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Lichfield and Uttoxeter


After my first visit to Leamington Spa, I went by an indirect route to
Lichfield, and put up at the Black Swan. Had I known where to find it, I
would much rather have established myself at the inn formerly kept by the
worthy Mr. Boniface, so famous for his ale in Farquhar's time. The Black
Swan is an old-fashioned hotel, its street-front being penetrated by an
arched passage, in either side of which is an entrance door to the
different parts of the house, and through which, and over the large
stones of its pavement, all vehicles and horsemen rumble and clatter into
an enclosed courtyard, with a thunderous uproar among the contiguous
rooms and chambers. I appeared to be the only guest of the spacious
establishment, but may have had a few fellow-lodgers hidden in their
separate parlors, and utterly eschewing that community of interests which
is the characteristic feature of life in an American hotel. At any rate,
I had the great, dull, dingy, and dreary coffee-room, with its heavy old
mahogany chairs and tables, all to myself, and not a soul to exchange a
word with, except the waiter, who, like most of his class in England, had
evidently left his conversational abilities uncultivated. No former
practice of solitary living, nor habits of reticence, nor well-tested
self-dependence for occupation of mind and amusement, can quite avail, as
I now proved, to dissipate the ponderous gloom of an English coffee-room
under such circumstances as these, with no book at hand save the
county-directory, nor any newspaper but a torn local journal of five days
ago. So I buried myself, betimes, in a huge heap of ancient feathers
(there is no other kind of bed in these old inns), let my head sink into
an unsubstantial pillow, and slept a stifled sleep, infested with such a
fragmentary confusion of dreams that I took them to be a medley,
compounded of the night-troubles of all my predecessors in that same
unrestful couch. And when I awoke, the musty odor of a bygone century
was in my nostrils,--a faint, elusive smell, of which I never had any
conception before crossing the Atlantic.

In the morning, after a mutton-chop and a cup of chiccory in the dusky
coffee-room, I went forth and bewildered myself a little while among the
crooked streets, in quest of one or two objects that had chiefly
attracted me to the spot. The city is of very ancient date, and its name
in the old Saxon tongue has a dismal import that would apply well, in
these days and forever henceforward, to many an unhappy locality in our
native land. Lichfield signifies "The Field of the Dead Bodies,"--an
epithet, however, which the town did not assume in remembrance of a
battle, but which probably sprung up by a natural process, like a sprig
of rue or other funereal weed, out of the graves of two princely
brothers, sons of a pagan king of Mercia, who were converted by St. Chad,
and afterwards martyred for their Christian faith. Nevertheless, I was
but little interested in the legends of the remote antiquity of
Lichfield, being drawn thither partly to see its beautiful cathedral, and
still more, I believe, because it was the birthplace of Dr. Johnson, with
whose sturdy English character I became acquainted, at a very early
period of my life, through the good offices of Mr. Boswell. In truth, he
seems as familiar to my recollection, and almost as vivid in his personal
aspect to my mind's eye, as the kindly figure of my own grandfather. It
is only a solitary child,--left much to such wild modes of culture as he
chooses for himself while yet ignorant what culture means, standing on
tiptoe to pull down books from no very lofty shelf, and then shutting
himself up, as it were, between the leaves, going astray through the
volume at his own pleasure, and comprehending it rather by his
sensibilities and affections than his intellect,--that child is the only
student that ever gets the sort of intimacy which I am now thinking of,
with a literary personage. I do not remember, indeed, ever caring much
about any of the stalwart Doctor's grandiloquent productions, except his
two stern and masculine poems, "London," and "The Vanity of Human
Wishes"; it was as a man, a talker, and a humorist, that I knew and loved
him, appreciating many of his qualities perhaps more thoroughly than I do
now, though never seeking to put my instinctive perception of his
character into language.

Beyond all question, I might have had a wiser friend than he. The
atmosphere in which alone he breathed was dense; his awful dread of death
showed how much muddy imperfection was to be cleansed out of him, before
he could be capable of spiritual existence; he meddled only with the
surface of life, and never cared to penetrate further than to ploughshare
depth; his very sense and sagacity were but a one-eyed clear-sightedness.
I laughed at him, sometimes, standing beside his knee. And yet,
considering that my native propensities were towards Fairy Land, and also
how much yeast is generally mixed up with the mental sustenance of a
New-Englander, it may not have been altogether amiss, in those childish
and boyish days, to keep pace with this heavy-footed traveller and feed
on the gross diet that he carried in his knapsack. It is wholesome food
even now. And, then, how English! Many of the latent sympathies that
enabled me to enjoy the Old Country so well, and that so readily
amalgamated themselves with the American ideas that seemed most adverse
to them, may have been derived from, or fostered and kept alive by, the
great English moralist. Never was a descriptive epithet more nicely
appropriate than that! Dr. Johnson's morality was as English an article
as a beefsteak.

The city of Lichfield (only the cathedral-towns are called cities, in
England) stands on an ascending site. It has not so many old gabled
houses as Coventry, for example, but still enough to gratify an American
appetite for the antiquities of domestic architecture. The people, too,
have an old-fashioned way with them, and stare at the passing visitor, as
if the railway had not yet quite accustomed them to the novelty of
strange faces moving along their ancient sidewalks. The old women whom I
met, in several instances, dropt me a courtesy; and as they were of
decent and comfortable exterior, and kept quietly on their way without
pause or further greeting, it certainly was not allowable to interpret
their little act of respect as a modest method of asking for sixpence; so
that I had the pleasure of considering it a remnant of the reverential
and hospitable manners of elder times, when the rare presence of a
stranger might be deemed worth a general acknowledgment. Positively,
coming from such humble sources, I took it all the more as a welcome on
behalf of the inhabitants, and would not have exchanged it for an
invitation from the mayor and magistrates to a public dinner. Yet I
wish, merely for the experiment's sake, that I could have emboldened
myself to hold out the aforesaid sixpence to at least one of the old
ladies.

In my wanderings about town, I came to an artificial piece of water,
called the Minster Pool. It fills the immense cavity in a ledge of rock,
whence the building-materials of the cathedral were quarried out a great
many centuries ago. I should never have guessed the little lake to be of
man's creation, so very pretty and quietly picturesque an object has it
grown to be, with its green banks, and the old trees hanging over its
glassy surface, in which you may see reflected some of the battlements of
the majestic structure that once lay here in unshaped stone. Some little
children stood on the edge of the Pool, angling with pin-hooks; and the
scene reminded me (though really to be quite fair with the reader, the
gist of the analogy has now escaped me) of that mysterious lake in the
Arabian Nights, which had once been a palace and a city, and where a
fisherman used to pull out the former inhabitants in the guise of
enchanted fishes. There is no need of fanciful associations to make the
spot interesting. It was in the porch of one of the houses, in the
street that runs beside the Minster Pool, that Lord Brooke was slain, in
the time of the Parliamentary war, by a shot from the battlements of the
cathedral, which was then held by the Royalists as a fortress. The
incident is commemorated by an inscription on a stone, inlaid into the
wall of the house.

I know not what rank the Cathedral of Lichfield holds among its sister
edifices in England, as a piece of magnificent architecture. Except that
of Chester (the grim and simple nave of which stands yet unrivalled in my
memory), and one or two small ones in North Wales, hardly worthy of the
name of cathedrals, it was the first that I had seen. To my uninstructed
vision, it seemed the object best worth gazing at in the whole world; and
now, after beholding a great many more, I remember it with less prodigal
admiration only because others are as magnificent as itself. The traces
remaining in my memory represent it as airy rather than massive. A
multitude of beautiful shapes appeared to be comprehended within its
single outline; it was a kind of kaleidoscopic mystery, so rich a variety
of aspects did it assume from each altered point of view, through the
presentation of a different face, and the rearrangement of its peaks and
pinnacles and the three battlemented towers, with the spires that shot
heavenward from all three, but one loftier than its fellows. Thus it
impressed you, at every change, as a newly created structure of the
passing moment, in which yet you lovingly recognized the half-vanished
structure of the instant before, and felt, moreover, a joyful faith in
the indestructible existence of all this cloudlike vicissitude. A Gothic
cathedral is surely the most wonderful work which mortal man has yet
achieved, so vast, so intricate, and so profoundly simple, with such
strange, delightful recesses in its grand figure, so difficult to
comprehend within one idea, and yet all so consonant that it ultimately
draws the beholder and his universe into its harmony. It is the only
thing in the world that is vast enough and rich enough.

Not that I felt, or was worthy to feel, an unmingled enjoyment in gazing
at this wonder. I could not elevate myself to its spiritual height, any
more than I could have climbed from the ground to the summit of one of
its pinnacles. Ascending but a little way, I continually fell back and
lay in a kind of despair, conscious that a flood of uncomprehended beauty
was pouring down upon me, of which I could appropriate only the minutest
portion. After a hundred years, incalculably as my higher sympathies
might be invigorated by so divine an employment, I should still be a
gazer from below and at an awful distance, as yet remotely excluded from
the interior mystery. But it was something gained, even to have that
painful sense of my own limitations, and that half-smothered yearning to
soar beyond them. The cathedral showed me how earthly I was, but yet
whispered deeply of immortality. After all, this was probably the best
lesson that it could bestow, and, taking it as thoroughly as possible
home to my heart, I was fain to be content. If the truth must be told,
my ill-trained enthusiasm soon flagged, and I began to lose the vision of
a spiritual or ideal edifice behind the time-worn and weather-stained
front of the actual structure. Whenever that is the case, it is most
reverential to look another way; but the mood disposes one to minute
investigation, and I took advantage of it to examine the intricate and
multitudinous adornment that was lavished on the exterior wall of this
great church. Everywhere, there were empty niches where statues had been
thrown down, and here and there a statue still lingered in its niche; and
over the chief entrance, and extending across the whole breadth of the
building, was a row of angels, sainted personages, martyrs, and kings,
sculptured in reddish stone. Being much corroded by the moist English
atmosphere, during four or five hundred winters that they had stood
there, these benign and majestic figures perversely put me in mind of the
appearance of a sugar image, after a child has been holding it in his
mouth. The venerable infant Time has evidently found them sweet morsels.

Inside of the minster there is a long and lofty nave, transepts of the
same height, and side-aisles and chapels, dim nooks of holiness, where in
Catholic times the lamps were continually burning before the richly
decorated shrines of saints. In the audacity of my ignorance, as I
humbly acknowledge it to have been, I criticised this great interior as
too much broken into compartments, and shorn of half its rightful
impressiveness by the interposition of a screen betwixt the nave and
chancel. It did not spread itself in breadth, but ascended to the roof
in lofty narrowness. One large body of worshippers might have knelt down
in the nave, others in each of the transepts, and smaller ones in the
side-aisles, besides an indefinite number of esoteric enthusiasts in the
mysterious sanctities beyond the screen. Thus it seemed to typify the
exclusiveness of sects rather than the worldwide hospitality of genuine
religion. I had imagined a cathedral with a scope more vast. These
Gothic aisles, with their groined arches overhead, supported by clustered
pillars in long vistas up and down, were venerable and magnificent, but
included too much of the twilight of that monkish gloom out of which they
grew. It is no matter whether I ever came to a more satisfactory
appreciation of this kind of architecture; the only value of my
strictures being to show the folly of looking at noble objects in the
wrong mood, and the absurdity of a new visitant pretending to hold any
opinion whatever on such subjects, instead of surrendering himself to the
old builder's influence with childlike simplicity.

A great deal of white marble decorates the old stonework of the aisles,
in the shape of altars, obelisks, sarcophagi, and busts. Most of these
memorials are commemorative of people locally distinguished, especially
the deans and canons of the Cathedral, with their relatives and families;
and I found but two monuments of personages whom I had ever heard of,--
one being Gilbert Wahnesley and the other Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a
literary acquaintance of my boyhood. It was really pleasant to meet her
there; for after a friend has lain in the grave far into the second
century, she would be unreasonable to require any melancholy emotions in
a chance interview at her tombstone. It adds a rich charm to sacred
edifices, this time-honored custom of burial in churches, after a few
years, at least, when the mortal remains have turned to dust beneath the
pavement, and the quaint devices and inscriptions still speak to you
above. The statues, that stood or reclined in several recesses of the
Cathedral, had a kind of life, and I regarded them with an odd sort of
deference, as if they were privileged denizens of the precinct. It was
singular, too, how the memorial of the latest buried person, the man
whose features went familiar in the streets of Lichfield only yesterday,
seemed precisely as much at home here as his mediaeval predecessors.
Henceforward he belonged in the Cathedral like one of its original
pillars. Methought this impression in my fancy might be the shadow of a
spiritual fact. The dying melt into the great multitude of the Departed
as quietly as a drop of water into the ocean, and, it may be are
conscious of no unfamiliarity with their new circumstances, but
immediately become aware of an insufferable strangeness in the world
which they have quitted. Death has not taken them away, but brought them
home.

The vicissitudes and mischances of sublunary affairs, however, have not
ceased to attend upon these marble inhabitants; for I saw the upper
fragment of a sculptured lady, in a very old-fashioned garb, the lower
half of whom had doubtless been demolished by Cromwell's soldiers when
they took the Minster by storm. And there lies the remnant of this
devout lady on her slab, ever since the outrage, as for centuries before,
with a countenance of divine serenity and her hands clasped in prayer,
symbolizing a depth of religious faith which no earthly turmoil or
calamity could disturb. Another piece of sculpture (apparently a
favorite subject in the Middle Ages, for I have seen several like it in
other cathedrals) was a reclining skeleton, as faithfully representing an
open-work of bones as could well be expected in a solid block of marble,
and at a period, moreover, when the mysteries of the human frame were
rather to be guessed at than revealed. Whatever the anatomical defects
of his production, the old sculptor had succeeded in making it ghastly
beyond measure. How much mischief has been wrought upon us by this
invariable gloom of the Gothic imagination; flinging itself like a
death-scented pall over our conceptions of the future state, smothering
our hopes, hiding our sky, and inducing dismal efforts to raise the
harvest of immortality out of what is most opposite to it,--the grave!

The Cathedral service is performed twice every day at ten o'clock and at
four. When I first entered, the choristers (young and old, but mostly, I
think, boys, with voices inexpressibly sweet and clear, and as fresh as
bird-notes) were just winding up their harmonious labors, and soon came
thronging through a side-door from the chancel into the nave. They were
all dressed in long white robes, and looked like a peculiar order of
beings, created on purpose to hover between the roof and pavement of that
dim, consecrated edifice, and illuminate it with divine melodies,
reposing themselves, meanwhile, on the heavy grandeur of the organ-tones
like cherubs on a golden cloud. All at once, however, one of the
cherubic multitude pulled off his white gown, thus transforming himself
before my very eyes into a commonplace youth of the day, in modern
frock-coat and trousers of a decidedly provincial cut. This absurd
little incident, I verily believe, had a sinister effect in putting me at
odds with the proper influences of the Cathedral, nor could I quite
recover a suitable frame of mind during my stay there. But, emerging
into the open air, I began to be sensible that I had left a magnificent
interior behind me, and I have never quite lost the perception and
enjoyment of it in these intervening years.

A large space in the immediate neighborhood of the Cathedral is called
the Close, and comprises beautifully kept lawns and a shadowy walk
bordered by the dwellings of the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the
diocese. All this row of episcopal, canonical, and clerical residences
has an air of the deepest quiet, repose, and well-protected though not
inaccessible seclusion. They seemed capable of including everything that
a saint could desire, and a great many more things than most of us
sinners generally succeed in acquiring. Their most marked feature is a
dignified comfort, looking as if no disturbance or vulgar intrusiveness
could ever cross their thresholds, encroach upon their ornamented
lawns, or straggle into the beautiful gardens that surround them with
flower-beds and rich clumps of shrubbery. The episcopal palace is a
stately mansion of stone, built somewhat in the Italian style, and
bearing on its front the figures 1637, as the date of its erection. A
large edifice of brick, which, if I remember, stood next to the palace, I
took to be the residence of the second dignitary of the Cathedral; and,
in that case, it must have been the youthful home of Addison, whose
father was Dean of Lichfield. I tried to fancy his figure on the
delightful walk that extends in front of those priestly abodes, from
which and the interior lawns it is separated by an open-work iron fence,
lined with rich old shrubbery, and overarched by a minster-aisle of
venerable trees. This path is haunted by the shades of famous personages
who have formerly trodden it. Johnson must have been familiar with it,
both as a boy, and in his subsequent visits to Lichfield, an illustrious
old man. Miss Seward, connected with so many literary reminiscences,
lived in one of the adjacent houses. Tradition says that it was a
favorite spot of Major Andre, who used to pace to and fro under these
trees waiting, perhaps, to catch a last angel-glimpse of Honoria Sueyd,
before he crossed the ocean to encounter his dismal doom from an American
court-martial. David Garrick, no doubt, scampered along the path in his
boyish days, and, if he was an early student of the drama, must often
have thought of those two airy characters of the "Beaux' Stratagem,"
Archer and Aimwell, who, on this very ground, after attending service at
the cathedral, contrive to make acquaintance with the ladies of the
comedy. These creatures of mere fiction have as positive a substance now
as the sturdy old figure of Johnson himself. They live, while realities
have died. The shadowy walk still glistens with their gold-embroidered
memories.

Seeking for Johnson's birthplace, I found it in St. Mary's Square, which
is not so much a square as the mere widening of a street. The house is
tall and thin, of three stories, with a square front and a roof rising
steep and high. On a side-view, the building looks as if it had been cut
in two in the midst, there being no slope of the roof on that side. A
ladder slanted against the wall, and a painter was giving a livelier line
to the plaster. In a corner-room of the basement, where old Michael
Johnson may be supposed to have sold books, is now what we should call a
dry-goods store, or, according to the English phrase, a mercer's and
haberdasher's shop. The house has a private entrance on a cross-street,
the door being accessible by several much-worn stone steps, which are
bordered by an iron balustrade. I set my foot on the steps and laid my
hand on the balustrade, where Johnson's hand and foot must many a time
have been, and ascending to the door, I knocked once, and again, and
again, and got no admittance. Going round to the shop-entrance, I tried
to open it, but found it as fast bolted as the gate of Paradise. It is
mortifying to be so balked in one's little enthusiasms; but looking round
in quest of somebody to make inquiries of, I was a good deal consoled by
the sight of Dr. Johnson himself, who happened, just at that moment, to
be sitting at his case nearly in the middle of St. Mary's Square, with
his face turned towards his father's house.

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

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

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

I had never heard of the above-described piece of sculpture before; it
appears to have no reputation as a work of art, nor am I at all positive
that it deserves any. For me, however, it did as much as sculpture
could, under the circumstances, even if the artist of the Libyan Sibyl
had wrought it, by reviving my interest in the sturdy old Englishman, and
particularly by freshening my perception of a wonderful beauty and
pathetic tenderness in the incident of the penance. So, the next day, I
left Lichfield for Uttoxeter, on one of the few purely sentimental
pilgrimages that I ever undertook, to see the very spot where Johnson had
stood. Boswell, I think, speaks of the town (its name is pronounced
Yuteoxeter) as being about nine miles off from Lichfield, but the
county-map would indicate a greater distance; and by rail, passing from
one line to another, it is as much as eighteen miles. I have always had
an idea of old Michael Johnson sending his literary merchandise by
carrier's wagon, journeying to Uttoxeter afoot on market-day morning,
selling books through the busy hours, and returning to Lichfield at
night. This could not possibly have been the case.

Arriving at the Uttoxeter station, the first objects that I saw, with a
green field or two between them and me, were the tower and gray steeple
of a church, rising among red-tiled roofs and a few scattered trees. A
very short walk takes you from the station up into the town. It had been
my previous impression that the market-place of Uttoxeter lay immediately
roundabout the church; and, if I remember the narrative aright, Johnson,
or Boswell in his behalf, describes his father's book-stall as standing
in the market-place, close beside the sacred edifice. It is impossible
for me to say what changes may have occurred in the topography of the
town, during almost a century and a half since Michael Johnson retired
from business, and ninety years, at least, since his son's penance was
performed. But the church has now merely a street of ordinary width
passing around it, while the market-place, though near at hand, neither
forms a part of it nor is really contiguous, nor would its throng and
bustle be apt to overflow their boundaries and surge against the
churchyard and the old gray tower. Nevertheless, a walk of a minute or
two brings a person from the centre of the market-place to the
church-door; and Michael Johnson might very conveniently have located his
stall and laid out his literary ware in the corner at the tower's base;
better there, indeed, than in the busy centre of an agricultural market.
But the picturesque arrangement and full impressiveness of the story
absolutely require that Johnson shall not have done his penance in a
corner, ever so little retired, but shall have been the very nucleus of
the crowd,--the midmost man of the market-place,--a central image of
Memory and Remorse, contrasting with and overpowering the petty
materialism around him. He himself, having the force to throw vitality
and truth into what persons differently constituted might reckon a mere
external ceremony, and an absurd one, could not have failed to see this
necessity. I am resolved, therefore, that the true site of Dr. Johnson's
penance was in the middle of the market-place.

That important portion of the town is a rather spacious and irregularly
shaped vacuity, surrounded by houses and shops, some of them old, with
red-tiled roofs, others wearing a pretence of newness, but probably as
old in their inner substance as the rest. The people of Uttoxeter seemed
very idle in the warm summer-day, and were scattered in little groups
along the sidewalks, leisurely chatting with one another, and often
turning about to take a deliberate stare at my humble self; insomuch that
I felt as if my genuine sympathy for the illustrious penitent, and my
many reflections about him, must have imbued me with some of his own
singularity of mien. If their great-grandfathers were such redoubtable
starers in the Doctor's day, his penance was no light one. This
curiosity indicates a paucity of visitors to the little town, except for
market purposes, and I question if Uttoxeter ever saw an American before.
The only other thing that greatly impressed me was the abundance of
public-houses, one at every step or two Red Lions, White Harts, Bulls'
Heads, Mitres, Cross Keys, and I know not what besides. These are
probably for the accommodation of the farmers and peasantry of the
neighborhood on market-day, and content themselves with a very meagre
business on other days of the week. At any rate, I was the only guest in
Uttoxeter at the period of my visit, and had but an infinitesimal portion
of patronage to distribute among such a multitude of inns. The reader,
however, will possibly be scandalized to learn what was the first, and,
indeed, the only important affair that I attended to, after coming so far
to indulge a solemn and high emotion, and standing now on the very spot
where my pious errand should have been consummated. I stepped into one
of the rustic hostelries and got my dinner,--bacon and greens, some
mutton-chops, juicier and more delectable than all America could serve up
at the President's table, and a gooseberry pudding; a sufficient meal for
six yeomen, and good enough for a prince, besides a pitcher of foaming
ale, the whole at the pitiful small charge of eighteen-pence!

Dr. Johnson would have forgiven me, for nobody had a heartier faith in
beef and mutton than himself. And as regards my lack of sentiment in
eating my dinner,--it was the wisest thing I had done that day. A
sensible man had better not let himself be betrayed into these attempts
to realize the things which he has dreamed about, and which, when they
cease to be purely ideal in his mind, will have lost the truest of their
truth, the loftiest and profoundest part of their power over his
sympathies. Facts, as we really find them, whatever poetry they may
involve, are covered with a stony excrescence of prose, resembling the
crust on a beautiful sea-shell, and they never show their most delicate
and divinest colors until we shall have dissolved away their grosser
actualities by steeping them long in a powerful menstruum of thought.
And seeking to actualize them again, we do but renew the crust. If this
were otherwise,--if the moral sublimity of a great fact depended in any
degree on its garb of external circumstances, things which change and
decay,--it could not itself be immortal and ubiquitous, and only a brief
point of time and a little neighborhood would be spiritually nourished by
its grandeur and beauty.

Such were a few of the reflections which I mingled with my ale, as I
remember to have seen an old quaffer of that excellent liquor stir up his
cup with a sprig of some bitter and fragrant herb. Meanwhile I found
myself still haunted by a desire to get a definite result out of my visit
to Uttoxeter. The hospitable inn was called the Nag's Head, and standing
beside the market-place, was as likely as any other to have entertained
old Michael Johnson in the days when he used to come hither to sell
books. He, perhaps, had dined on bacon and greens, and drunk his ale,
and smoked his pipe, in the very room where I now sat, which was a low,
ancient room, certainly much older than Queen Anne's time, with a
red-brick floor, and a white-washed ceiling, traversed by bare, rough
beams, the whole in the rudest fashion, but extremely neat. Neither did
it lack ornament, the walls being hung with colored engravings of
prize oxen and other pretty prints, and the mantel-piece adorned with
earthen-ware figures of shepherdesses in the Arcadian taste of long ago.
Michael Johnson's eyes might have rested on that selfsame earthen image,
to examine which more closely I had just crossed the brick pavement of
the room. And, sitting down again, still as I sipped my ale, I glanced
through the open window into the sunny market-place, and wished that I
could honestly fix on one spot rather than another, as likely to have
been the holy site where Johnson stood to do his penance.

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

Long after my visit to Uttoxeter, I was told that there were individuals
in the town who could have shown me the exact, indubitable spot where
Johnson performed his penance. I was assured, moreover, that sufficient
interest was felt in the subject to have induced certain local
discussions as to the expediency of erecting a memorial. With all
deference to my polite informant, I surmise that there is a mistake, and
decline, without further and precise evidence, giving credit to either of
the above statements. The inhabitants know nothing, as a matter of
general interest, about the penance, and care nothing for the scene of
it. If the clergyman of the parish, for example, had ever heard of it,
would he not have used the theme, time and again, wherewith to work
tenderly and profoundly on the souls committed to his charge? If parents
were familiar with it, would they not teach it to their young ones at the
fireside, both to insure reverence to their own gray hairs, and to
protect the children from such unavailing regrets as Johnson bore upon
his heart for fifty years? If the site were ascertained, would not the
pavement thereabouts be worn with reverential footsteps? Would not every
town-born child be able to direct the pilgrim thither? While waiting at
the station, before my departure, I asked a boy who stood near me,--an
intelligent and gentlemanly lad, twelve or thirteen years old, whom I
should take to be a clergyman's son,--I asked him if he had ever heard
the story of Dr. Johnson, how he stood an hour doing penance near that
church, the spire of which rose before us. The boy stared and
answered,--

"No!'

"Were you born in Uttoxeter?"

"Yes."

I inquired if no circumstance such as I had mentioned was known or talked
about among the inhabitants.

"No," said the boy; "not that I ever heard of."

Just think of the absurd little town, knowing nothing of the only
memorable incident which ever happened within its boundaries since the
old Britons built it, this sad and lovely story, which consecrates the
spot (for I found it holy to my contemplation, again, as soon as it lay
behind me) in the heart of a stranger from three thousand miles over the
sea! It but confirms what I have been saying, that sublime and beautiful
facts are best understood when etherealized by distance.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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