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Near Oxford

On a fine morning in September we set out on an excursion to Blenheim,--
the sculptor and myself being seated on the box of our four-horse
carriage, two more of the party in the dicky, and the others less
agreeably accommodated inside. We had no coachman, but two postilions in
short scarlet jackets and leather breeches with top-boots, each astride
of a horse; so that, all the way along, when not otherwise attracted, we
had the interesting spectacle of their up-and-down bobbing in the saddle.
It was a sunny and beautiful day, a specimen of the perfect English
weather, just warm enough for comfort,--indeed, a little too warm,
perhaps, in the noontide sun,--yet retaining a mere spice or suspicion of
austerity, which made it all the more enjoyable.

The country between Oxford and Blenheim is not particularly interesting,
being almost level, or undulating very slightly; nor is Oxfordshire,
agriculturally, a rich part of England. We saw one or two hamlets, and I
especially remember a picturesque old gabled house at a turnpike-gate,
and, altogether, the wayside scenery had an aspect of old-fashioned
English life; but there was nothing very memorable till we reached
Woodstock, and stopped to water our horses at the Black Bear. This
neighborhood is called New Woodstock, but has by no means the brand-new
appearance of an American town, being a large village of stone houses,
most of them pretty well time-worn and weather-stained. The Black Bear
is an ancient inn, large and respectable, with balustraded staircases,
and intricate passages and corridors, and queer old pictures and
engravings hanging in the entries and apartments. We ordered a lunch
(the most delightful of English institutions, next to dinner) to be ready
against our return, and then resumed our drive to Blenheim.

The park-gate of Blenheim stands close to the end of the village street
of Woodstock. Immediately on passing through its portals we saw the
stately palace in the distance, but made a wide circuit of the park
before approaching it. This noble park contains three thousand acres of
land, and is fourteen miles in circumference. Having been, in part, a
royal domain before it was granted to the Marlborough family, it contains
many trees of unsurpassed antiquity, and has doubtless been the haunt of
game and deer for centuries. We saw pheasants in abundance, feeding in
the open lawns and glades; and the stags tossed their antlers and bounded
away, not affrighted, but only shy and gamesome, as we drove by. It is a
magnificent pleasure-ground, not too tamely kept, nor rigidly subjected
within rule, but vast enough to have lapsed back into nature again, after
all the pains that the landscape-gardeners of Queen Anne's time bestowed
on it, when the domain of Blenheim was scientifically laid out. The
great, knotted, slanting trunks of the old oaks do not now look as if man
had much intermeddled with their growth and postures. The trees of later
date, that were set out in the Great Duke's time, are arranged on the
plan of the order of battle in which the illustrious commander ranked his
troops at Blenheim; but the ground covered is so extensive, and the trees
now so luxuriant, that the spectator is not disagreeably conscious of
their standing in military array, as if Orpheus had summoned them
together by beat of drum. The effect must have been very formal a
hundred and fifty years ago, but has ceased to be so,--although the
trees, I presume, have kept their ranks with even more fidelity than
Marlborough's veterans did.

One of the park-keepers, on horseback, rode beside our carriage, pointing
out the choice views, and glimpses at the palace, as we drove through the
domain. There is a very large artificial lake (to say the truth, it
seemed to me fully worthy of being compared with the Welsh lakes, at
least, if not with those of Westmoreland), which was created by
Capability Brown, and fills the basin that he scooped for it, just as if
Nature had poured these broad waters into one of her own valleys. It is
a most beautiful object at a distance, and not less so on its immediate
banks; for the water is very pure, being supplied by a small river, of
the choicest transparency, which was turned thitherward for the purpose.
And Blenheim owes not merely this water-scenery, but almost all its other
beauties, to the contrivance of man. Its natural features are not
striking; but Art has effected such wonderful things that the
uninstructed visitor would never guess that nearly the whole scene was
but the embodied thought of a human mind. A skilful painter hardly does
more for his blank sheet of canvas than the landscape-gardener, the
planter, the arranger of trees, has done for the monotonous surface of
Blenheim,--making the most of every undulation,--flinging down a hillock,
a big lump of earth out of a giant's hand, wherever it was needed,--
putting in beauty as often as there was a niche for it,--opening vistas
to every point that deserved to be seen, and throwing a veil of
impenetrable foliage around what ought to be hidden;--and then, to be
sure, the lapse of a century has softened the harsh outline of man's
labors, and has given the place back to Nature again with the addition of
what consummate science could achieve.

After driving a good way, we came to a battlemented tower and adjoining
house, which used to be the residence of the Ranger of Woodstock Park,
who held charge of the property for the King before the Duke of
Marlborough possessed it. The keeper opened the door for us, and in the
entrance-hall we found various things that had to do with the chase and
woodland sports. We mounted the staircase, through several stories, up
to the top of the tower, whence there was a view of the spires of Oxford,
and of points much farther off,--very indistinctly seen, however, as is
usually the case with the misty distances of England. Returning to the
ground-floor, we were ushered into the room in which died Wilmot, the
wicked Earl of Rochester, who was Ranger of the Park in Charles II.'s
time. It is a low and bare little room, with a window in front, and a
smaller one behind; and in the contiguous entrance-room there are the
remains of an old bedstead, beneath the canopy of which, perhaps,
Rochester may have made the penitent end that Bishop Burnet attributes to
him. I hardly know what it is, in this poor fellow's character, which
affects us with greater tenderness on his behalf than for all the other
profligates of his day, who seem to have been neither better nor worse
than himself. I rather suspect that he had a human heart which never
quite died out of him, and the warmth of which is still faintly
perceptible amid the dissolute trash which he left behind.

Methinks, if such good fortune ever befell a bookish man, I should choose
this lodge for my own residence, with the topmost room of the tower for a
study, and all the seclusion of cultivated wildness beneath to ramble in.
There being no such possibility, we drove on, catching glimpses of the
palace in new points of view, and by and by came to Rosamond's Well. The
particular tradition that connects Fair Rosamond with it is not now in my
memory; but if Rosamond ever lived and loved, and ever had her abode in
the maze of Woodstock, it may well be believed that she and Henry
sometimes sat beside this spring. It gushes out from a bank, through
some old stone-work, and dashes its little cascade (about as abundant as
one might turn out of a large pitcher) into a pool, whence it steals away
towards the lake, which is not far removed. The water is exceedingly
cold, and as pure as the legendary Rosamond was not, and is fancied to
possess medicinal virtues, like springs at which saints have quenched
their thirst. There were two or three old women and some children in
attendance with tumblers, which they present to visitors, full of the
consecrated water; but most of us filled the tumblers for ourselves, and
drank.

Thence we drove to the Triumphal Pillar which was erected in honor of the
Great Duke, and on the summit of which he stands, in a Roman garb,
holding a winged figure of Victory in his hand, as an ordinary man might
hold a bird. The column is I know not how many feet high, but lofty
enough, at any rate, to elevate Marlborough far above the rest of the
world, and to be visible a long way off; and it is so placed in reference
to other objects, that, wherever the hero wandered about his grounds, and
especially as he issued from his mansion, he must inevitably have been
reminded of his glory. In truth, until I came to Blenheim, I never had
so positive and material an idea of what Fame really is--of what the
admiration of his country can do for a successful warrior--as I carry
away with me and shall always retain. Unless he had the moral force of a
thousand men together, his egotism (beholding himself everywhere, imbuing
the entire soil, growing in the woods, rippling and gleaming in the
water, and pervading the very air with his greatness) must have been
swollen within him like the liver of a Strasburg goose. On the huge
tablets inlaid into the pedestal of the column, the entire Act of
Parliament, bestowing Blenheim on the Duke of Marlborough and his
posterity, is engraved in deep letters, painted black on the marble
ground. The pillar stands exactly a mile from the principal front of the
palace, in a straight line with the precise centre of its entrance-hall;
so that, as already said, it was the Duke's principal object of
contemplation.

We now proceeded to the palace-gate, which is a great pillared archway,
of wonderful loftiness and state, giving admittance into a spacious
quadrangle. A stout, elderly, and rather surly footman in livery
appeared at the entrance, and took possession of whatever canes,
umbrellas, and parasols he could get hold of, in order to claim sixpence
on our departure. This had a somewhat ludicrous effect. There is much
public outcry against the meanness of the present Duke in his
arrangements for the admission of visitors (chiefly, of course, his
native countrymen) to view the magnificent palace which their forefathers
bestowed upon his own. In many cases, it seems hard that a private abode
should be exposed to the intrusion of the public merely because the
proprietor has inherited or created a splendor which attracts general
curiosity; insomuch that his home loses its sanctity and seclusion for
the very reason that it is better than other men's houses. But in the
case of Blenheim, the public have certainly an equitable claim to
admission, both because the fame of its first inhabitant is a national
possession, and because the mansion was a national gift, one of the
purposes of which was to be a token of gratitude and glory to the English
people themselves. If a man chooses to be illustrious, he is very likely
to incur some little inconveniences himself, and entail them on his
posterity. Nevertheless, his present Grace of Marlborough absolutely
ignores the public claim above suggested, and (with a thrift of which
even the hero of Blenheim himself did not set the example) sells tickets
admitting six persons at ten shillings; if only one person enters the
gate, he must pay for six; and if there are seven in company, two tickets
are required to admit them. The attendants, who meet you everywhere in
the park and palace, expect fees on their own private account,--their
noble master pocketing the ten shillings. But, to be sure, the visitor
gets his money's worth, since it buys him the right to speak just as
freely of the Duke of Marlborough as if he were the keeper of the
Cremorne Gardens.

[The above was written two or three years ago, or more; and the Duke of
that day has since transmitted his coronet to his successor, who, we
understand, has adopted much more liberal arrangements. There is seldom
anything to criticise or complain of, as regards the facility of
obtaining admission to interesting private houses in England.]

Passing through a gateway on the opposite side of the quadrangle, we had
before us the noble classic front of the palace, with its two projecting
wings. We ascended the lofty steps of the portal, and were admitted into
the entrance-hall, the height of which, from floor to ceiling, is not
much less than seventy feet, being the entire elevation of the edifice.
The hall is lighted by windows in the upper story, and, it being a clear,
bright day, was very radiant with lofty sunshine, amid which a swallow
was flitting to and fro. The ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill
in some allegorical design (doubtless commemorative of Marlborough's
victories), the purport of which I did not take the trouble to make out,
--contenting myself with the general effect, which was most splendidly
and effectively ornamental.

We were guided through the show-rooms by a very civil person, who allowed
us to take pretty much our own time in looking at the pictures. The
collection is exceedingly valuable,--many of these works of Art having
been presented to the Great Duke by the crowned heads of England or the
Continent. One room was all aglow with pictures by Rubens; and there
were works of Raphael, and many other famous painters, any one of which
would be sufficient to illustrate the meanest house that might contain
it. I remember none of then, however (not being in a picture-seeing
mood), so well as Vandyck's large and familiar picture of Charles I. on
horseback, with a figure and face of melancholy dignity such as never by
any other hand was put on canvas. Yet, on considering this face of
Charles (which I find often repeated in half-lengths) and translating it
from the ideal into literalism, I doubt whether the unfortunate king was
really a handsome or impressive-looking man: a high, thin-ridged nose, a
meagre, hatchet face, and reddish hair and beard,--these are the literal
facts. It is the painter's art that has thrown such pensive and shadowy
grace around him.

On our passage through this beautiful suite of apartments, we saw,
through the vista of open doorways, a boy of ten or twelve years old
coming towards us from the farther rooms. He had on a straw hat, a linen
sack that had certainly been washed and re-washed for a summer or two,
and gray trousers a good deal worn,--a dress, in short, which an American
mother in middle station would have thought too shabby for her darling
school-boy's ordinary wear. This urchin's face was rather pale (as those
of English children are apt to be, quite as often as our own), but he had
pleasant eyes, an intelligent look, and an agreeable, boyish manner. It
was Lord Sunderland, grandson of the present Duke, and heir--though not,
I think, in the direct line--of the blood of the great Marlborough, and
of the title and estate.

After passing through the first suite of rooms, we were conducted through
a corresponding suite on the opposite side of the entrance-hall. These
latter apartments are most richly adorned with tapestries, wrought and
presented to the first Duke by a sisterhood of Flemish nuns; they look
like great, glowing pictures, and completely cover the walls of the
rooms. The designs purport to represent the Duke's battles and sieges;
and everywhere we see the hero himself, as large as life, and as
gorgeous in scarlet and gold as the holy sisters could make him, with a
three-cornered hat and flowing wig, reining in his horse, and extending
his leading-staff in the attitude of command. Next to Marlborough,
Prince Eugene is the most prominent figure. In the way of upholstery,
there can never have been anything more magnificent than these
tapestries; and, considered as works of Art, they have quite as much
merit as nine pictures out of ten.

One whole wing of the palace is occupied by the library, a most noble
room, with a vast perspective length from end to end. Its atmosphere is
brighter and more cheerful than that of most libraries: a wonderful
contrast to the old college-libraries of Oxford, and perhaps less sombre
and suggestive of thoughtfulness than any large library ought to be,
inasmuch as so many studious brains as have left their deposit on the
shelves cannot have conspired without producing a very serious and
ponderous result. Both walls and ceiling are white, and there are
elaborate doorways and fireplaces of white marble. The floor is of oak,
so highly polished that our feet slipped upon it as if it had been New
England ice. At one end of the room stands a statue of Queen Anne in her
royal robes, which are so admirably designed and exquisitely wrought that
the spectator certainly gets a strong conception of her royal dignity;
while the face of the statue, fleshy and feeble, doubtless conveys a
suitable idea of her personal character. The marble of this work, long
as it has stood there, is as white as snow just fallen, and must have
required most faithful and religious care to keep it so. As for the
volumes of the library, they are wired within the cases and turn their
gilded backs upon the visitor, keeping their treasures of wit and wisdom
just as intangible as if still in the unwrought mines of human thought.

I remember nothing else in the palace, except the chapel, to which we
were conducted last, and where we saw a splendid monument to the first
Duke and Duchess, sculptured by Rysbrack, at the cost, it is said, of
forty thousand pounds. The design includes the statues of the deceased
dignitaries, and various allegorical flourishes, fantasies, and
confusions; and beneath sleep the great Duke and his proud wife, their
veritable bones and dust, and probably all the Marlboroughs that have
since died. It is not quite a comfortable idea, that these mouldy
ancestors still inhabit, after their fashion, the house where their
successors spend the passing day; but the adulation lavished upon the
hero of Blenheim could not have been consummated, unless the palace of
his lifetime had become likewise a stately mausoleum over his remains,--
and such we felt it all to be, after gazing at his tomb.

The next business was to see the private gardens. An old Scotch
under-gardener admitted us and led the way, and seemed to have a fair
prospect of earning the fee all by himself; but by and by another
respectable Scotchman made his appearance and took us in charge, proving
to be the head-gardener in person. He was extremely intelligent and
agreeable, talking both scientifically and lovingly about trees and
plants, of which there is every variety capable of English cultivation.
Positively, the Garden of Eden cannot have been more beautiful than this
private garden of Blenheim. It contains three hundred acres, and by the
artful circumlocution of the paths, and the undulations, and the
skilfully interposed clumps of trees, is made to appear limitless. The
sylvan delights of a whole country are compressed into this space, as
whole fields of Persian roses go to the concoction of an ounce of
precious attar. The world within that garden-fence is not the same weary
and dusty world with which we outside mortals are conversant; it is a
finer, lovelier, more harmonious Nature; and the Great Mother lends
herself kindly to the gardener's will, knowing that he will make evident
the half-obliterated traits of her pristine and ideal beauty, and allow
her to take all the credit and praise to herself. I doubt whether there
is ever any winter within that precinct,--any clouds, except the fleecy
ones of summer. The sunshine that I saw there rests upon my recollection
of it as if it were eternal. The lawns and glades are like the memory of
places where one has wandered when first in love.

What a good and happy life might be spent in a paradise like this! And
yet, at that very moment, the besotted Duke (ah! I have let out a secret
which I meant to keep to myself; but the ten shillings must pay for all)
was in that very garden (for the guide told us so, and cautioned our
young people not to be too uproarious), and, if in a condition for
arithmetic, was thinking of nothing nobler than how many ten-shilling
tickets had that day been sold. Republican as I am, I should still love
to think that noblemen lead noble lives, and that all this stately and
beautiful environment may serve to elevate them a little way above the
rest of us. If it fail to do so, the disgrace falls equally upon the
whole race of mortals as on themselves; because it proves that no more
favorable conditions of existence would eradicate our vices and
weaknesses. How sad, if this be so! Even a herd of swine, eating the
acorns under those magnificent oaks of Blenheim, would be cleanlier and
of better habits than ordinary swine.

Well, all that I have written is pitifully meagre, as a description of
Blenheim; and I bate to leave it without some more adequate expression of
the noble edifice, with its rich domain, all as I saw them in that
beautiful sunshine; for, if a day had been chosen out of a hundred years,
it could not have been a finer one. But I must give up the attempt; only
further remarking that the finest trees here were cedars, of which I saw
one--and there may have been many such--immense in girth, and not less
than three centuries old. I likewise saw a vast heap of laurel, two
hundred feet in circumference, all growing from one root; and the
gardener offered to show us another growth of twice that stupendous size.
If the Great Duke himself had been buried in that spot, his heroic heart
could not have been the seed of a more plentiful crop of laurels.

We now went back to the Black Bear, and sat down to a cold collation, of
which we ate abundantly, and drank (in the good old English fashion) a
due proportion of various delightful liquors. A stranger in England, in
his rambles to various quarters of the country, may learn little in
regard to wines (for the ordinary English taste is simple, though sound,
in that particular), but he makes acquaintance with more varieties of hop
and malt liquor than he previously supposed to exist. I remember a sort
of foaming stuff, called hop-champagne, which is very vivacious, and
appears to be a hybrid between ale and bottled cider. Another excellent
tipple for warm weather is concocted by mixing brown-stout or bitter ale
with ginger-beer, the foam of which stirs up the heavier liquor from its
depths, forming a compound of singular vivacity and sufficient body. But
of all things ever brewed from malt (unless it be the Trinity Ale of
Cambridge, which I drank long afterwards, and which Barry Cornwall has
celebrated in immortal verse), commend me to the Archdeacon, as the
Oxford scholars call it, in honor of the jovial dignitary who first
taught these erudite worthies how to brew their favorite nectar. John
Barleycorn has given his very heart to this admirable liquor; it is a
superior kind of ale, the Prince of Ales, with a richer flavor and a
mightier spirit than you can find elsewhere in this weary world. Much
have we been strengthened and encouraged by the potent blood of the
Archdeacon!

A few days after our excursion to Blenheim, the same party set forth, in
two flies, on a tour to some other places of interest in the neighborhood
of Oxford. It was again a delightful day; and, in truth, every day, of
late, had been so pleasant that it seemed as if each must be the very
last of such perfect weather; and yet the long succession had given us
confidence in as many more to come. The climate of England has been
shamefully maligned, its sulkiness and asperities are not nearly so
offensive as Englishmen tell us (their climate being the only attribute
of their country which they never overvalue); and the really good
summer-weather is the very kindest and sweetest that the world knows.

We first drove to the village of Cumnor, about six miles from Oxford, and
alighted at the entrance of the church. Here, while waiting for the
keys, we looked at an old wall of the churchyard, piled up of loose gray
stones which are said to have once formed a portion of Cumnor Hall,
celebrated in Mickle's ballad and Scott's romance. The hall must have
been in very close vicinity to the church,--not more than twenty yards
off; and I waded through the long, dewy grass of the churchyard, and
tried to peep over the wall, in hopes to discover some tangible and
traceable remains of the edifice. But the wall was just too high to be
overlooked, and difficult to clamber over without tumbling down some of
the stones; so I took the word of one of our party, who had been here
before, that there is nothing interesting on the other side. The
churchyard is in rather a neglected state, and seems not to have been
mown for the benefit of the parson's cow; it contains a good many
gravestones, of which I remember only some upright memorials of slate to
individuals of the name of Tabbs.

Soon a woman arrived with the key of the church-door, and we entered the
simple old edifice, which has the pavement of lettered tombstones, the
sturdy pillars and low arches and other ordinary characteristics of an
English country church. One or two pews, probably those of the
gentlefolk of the neighborhood, were better furnished than the rest, but
all in a modest style. Near the high altar, in the holiest place, there
is an oblong, angular, ponderous tomb of blue marble, built against the
wall, and surmounted by a carved canopy of the same material; and over
the tomb, and beneath the canopy, are two monumental brasses, such as we
oftener see inlaid into a church pavement. On these brasses are engraved
the figures of a gentleman in armor and a lady in an antique garb, each
about a foot high, devoutly kneeling in prayer; and there is a long Latin
inscription likewise cut into the enduring brass, bestowing the highest
eulogies on the character of Anthony Forster, who, with his virtuous
dame, lies buried beneath this tombstone. His is the knightly figure
that kneels above; and if Sir Walter Scott ever saw this tomb, he must
have had an even greater than common disbelief in laudatory epitaphs, to
venture on depicting Anthony Forster in such lines as blacken him in the
romance. For my part, I read the inscription in full faith, and believe
the poor deceased gentleman to be a much-wronged individual, with good
grounds for bringing an action of slander in the courts above.

But the circumstance, lightly as we treat it, has its serious moral.
What nonsense it is, this anxiety, which so worries us, about our good
fame, or our bad fame, after death! If it were of the slightest real
moment, our reputations would have been placed by Providence more in our
own power, and less in other people's, than we now find them to be. If
poor Anthony Forster happens to have met Sir Walter in the other world, I
doubt whether he has ever thought it worth while to complain of the
latter's misrepresentations.

We did not remain long in the church, as it contains nothing else of
interest; and driving through the village, we passed a pretty large and
rather antique-looking inn, bearing the sign of the Bear and Ragged
Staff. It could not be so old, however, by at least a hundred years, as
Giles Gosling's time; nor is there any other object to remind the visitor
of the Elizabethan age, unless it be a few ancient cottages, that are
perhaps of still earlier date. Cumnor is not nearly so large a village,
nor a place of such mark, as one anticipates from its romantic and
legendary fame; but, being still inaccessible by railway, it has retained
more of a sylvan character than we often find in English country towns.
In this retired neighborhood the road is narrow and bordered with grass,
and sometimes interrupted by gates; the hedges grow in unpruned
luxuriance; there is not that close-shaven neatness and trimness that
characterize the ordinary English landscape. The whole scene conveys the
idea of seclusion and remoteness. We met no travellers, whether on foot
or otherwise.

I cannot very distinctly trace out this day's peregrinations; but, after
leaving Cumnor a few miles behind us, I think we came to a ferry over the
Thames, where an old woman served as ferryman, and pulled a boat across
by means of a rope stretching from shore to shore. Our two vehicles
being thus placed on the other side, we resumed our drive,--first
glancing, however, at the old woman's antique cottage, with its stone
floor, and the circular settle round the kitchen fireplace, which was
quite in the mediaeval English style.

We next stopped at Stanton Harcourt, where we were received at the
parsonage with a hospitality which we should take delight in describing,
if it were allowable to make public acknowledgment of the private and
personal kindnesses which we never failed to find ready for our needs.
An American in an English house will soon adopt the opinion that the
English are the very kindest people on earth, and will retain that idea
as long, at least, as he remains on the inner side of the threshold.
Their magnetism is of a kind that repels strongly while you keep beyond a
certain limit, but attracts as forcibly if you get within the magic line.

It was at this place, if I remember right, that I heard a gentleman ask a
friend of mine whether he was the author of "The Red Letter A"; and,
after some consideration (for he did not seem to recognize his own book,
at first, under this improved title), our countryman responded,
doubtfully, that he believed so. The gentleman proceeded to inquire
whether our friend had spent much time in America,--evidently thinking
that he must have been caught young, and have had a tincture of English
breeding, at least, if not birth, to speak the language so tolerably, and
appear so much like other people. This insular narrowness is exceedingly
queer, and of very frequent occurrence, and is quite as much a
characteristic of men of education and culture as of clowns.

Stanton Harcourt is a very curious old place. It was formerly the seat
of the ancient family of Harcourt, which now has its principal abode at
Nuneham Courtney, a few miles off. The parsonage is a relic of the
family mansion, or castle, other portions of which are close at hand;
for, across the garden, rise two gray towers, both of them picturesquely
venerable, and interesting for more than their antiquity. One of these
towers, in its entire capacity, from height to depth, constituted the
kitchen of the ancient castle, and is still used for domestic purposes,
although it has not, nor ever had, a chimney; or we might rather say, it
is itself one vast chimney, with a hearth of thirty feet square, and a
flue and aperture of the same size. There are two huge fireplaces
within, and the interior walls of the tower are blackened with the smoke
that for centuries used to gush forth from them, and climb upward,
seeking an exit through some wide air-holes in the comical roof, full
seventy feet above. These lofty openings were capable of being so
arranged, with reference to the wind, that the cooks are said to have
been seldom troubled by the smoke; and here, no doubt, they were
accustomed to roast oxen whole, with as little fuss and ado as a modern
cook would roast a fowl. The inside of the tower is very dim and sombre
(being nothing but rough stone walls, lighted only from the apertures
above mentioned), and has still a pungent odor of smoke and soot, the
reminiscence of the fires and feasts of generations that have passed
away. Methinks the extremest range of domestic economy lies between an
American cooking-stove and the ancient kitchen, seventy dizzy feet in
height and all one fireplace, of Stanton Harcourt.

Now--the place being without a parallel in England, and therefore
necessarily beyond the experience of an American--it is somewhat
remarkable, that, while we stood gazing at this kitchen, I was haunted
and perplexed by an idea that somewhere or other I had seen just this
strange spectacle before.--The height, the blackness, the dismal void,
before my eyes, seemed as familiar as the decorous neatness of my
grandmother's kitchen; only my unaccountable memory of the scene was
lighted up with an image of lurid fires blazing all round the dim
interior circuit of the tower. I had never before had so pertinacious an
attack, as I could not but suppose it, of that odd state of mind wherein
we fitfully and teasingly remember some previous scene or incident, of
which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication.
Though the explanation of the mystery did not for some time occur to me,
I may as well conclude the matter here. In a letter of Pope's, addressed
to the Duke of Buckingham, there is an account of Stanton Harcourt (as I
now find, although the name is not mentioned), where he resided while
translating a part of the "Iliad." It is one of the most admirable
pieces of description in the language,--playful and picturesque, with
fine touches of humorous pathos,--and conveys as perfect a picture as
ever was drawn of a decayed English country-house; and among other rooms,
most of which have since crumbled down and disappeared, he dashes off the
grim aspect of this kitchen,--which, moreover, he peoples with witches,
engaging Satan himself as headcook, who stirs the infernal caldrons that
seethe and bubble over the fires. This letter, and others relative to
his abode here, were very familiar to my earlier reading, and, remaining
still fresh at the bottom of my memory, caused the weird and ghostly
sensation that came over one on beholding the real spectacle that had
formerly been made so vivid to my imagination.

Our next visit was to the church which stands close by, and is quite as
ancient as the remnants of the castle. In a chapel or side-aisle,
dedicated to the Harcourts, are found some very interesting family
monuments,--and among them, recumbent on a tombstone, the figure of an
armed knight of the Lancastrian party, who was slain in the Wars of the
Roses. His features, dress, and armor are painted in colors, still
wonderfully fresh, and there still blushes the symbol of the Red Rose,
denoting the faction for which he fought and died. His head rests on a
marble or alabaster helmet; and on the tomb lies the veritable helmet, it
is to be presumed, which he wore in battle,--a ponderous iron ease, with
the visor complete, and remnants of the gilding that once covered it.
The crest is a large peacock, not of metal, but of wood.

Very possibly, this helmet was but an heraldic adornment of his tomb;
and, indeed, it seems strange that it has not been stolen before now,
especially in Cromwell's time, when knightly tombs were little respected,
and when armor was in request. However, it is needless to dispute with
the dead knight about the identity of his iron pot, and we may as well
allow it to be the very same that so often gave him the headache in his
lifetime. Leaning against the wall, at the foot of the tomb, is the
shaft of a spear, with a wofully tattered and utterly faded banner
appended to it,--the knightly banner beneath which he marshalled his
followers in the field. As it was absolutely falling to pieces, I tore
off one little bit, no bigger than a finger-nail, and put it into my
waistcoat-pocket; but seeking it subsequently, it was not to be found.

On the opposite side of the little chapel, two or three yards from this
tomb, is another monument, on which lie, side by side, one of the same
knightly race of Harcourts, and his lady. The tradition of the family
is, that this knight was the standard-bearer of Henry of Richmond in the
Battle of Bosworth Field; and a banner, supposed to be the same that he
carried, now droops over his effigy. It is just such a colorless silk
rag as the one already described. The knight has the order of the Garter
on his knee, and the lady wears it on her left arm, an odd place enough
for a garter; but, if worn in its proper locality, it could not be
decorously visible. The complete preservation and good condition of
these statues, even to the minutest adornment of the sculpture, and their
very noses,--the most vulnerable part of a marble man, as of a living
one,--are miraculous. Except in Westminster Abbey, among the chapels of
the kings, I have seen none so well preserved. Perhaps they owe it to
the loyalty of Oxfordshire, diffused throughout its neighborhood by the
influence of the University, during the great Civil War and the rule of
the Parliament. It speaks well, too, for the upright and kindly
character of this old family, that the peasantry, among whom they had
lived for ages, did not desecrate their tombs, when it might have been
done with impunity.

There are other and more recent memorials of the Harcourts, one of which
is the tomb of the last lord, who died about a hundred years ago. His
figure, like those of his ancestors, lies on the top of his tomb, clad,
not in armor, but in his robes as a peer. The title is now extinct, but
the family survives in a younger branch, and still holds this patrimonial
estate, though they have long since quitted it as a residence.

We next went to see the ancient fish-ponds appertaining to the mansion,
and which used to be of vast dietary importance to the family in Catholic
times, and when fish was not otherwise attainable. There are two or
three, or more, of these reservoirs, one of which is of very respectable
size,--large enough, indeed, to be really a picturesque object, with its
grass-green borders, and the trees drooping over it, and the towers of
the castle and the church reflected within the weed-grown depths of its
smooth mirror. A sweet fragrance, as it were, of ancient time and
present quiet and seclusion was breathing all around; the sunshine of
to-day had a mellow charm of antiquity in its brightness. These ponds
are said still to breed abundance of such fish as love deep and quiet
waters; but I saw only some minnows, and one or two snakes, which were
lying among the weeds on the top of the water, sunning and bathing
themselves at once.

I mentioned that there were two towers remaining of the old castle: the
one containing the kitchen we have already visited; the other, still more
interesting, is next to be described. It is some seventy feet high, gray
and reverend, but in excellent repair, though I could not perceive that
anything had been done to renovate it. The basement story was once the
family chapel, and is, of course, still a consecrated spot. At one
corner of the tower is a circular turret, within which a narrow
staircase, with worn steps of stone, winds round and round as it climbs
upward, giving access to a chamber on each floor, and finally emerging on
the battlemented roof. Ascending this turret-stair, and arriving at the
third story, we entered a chamber, not large, though occupying the whole
area of the tower, and lighted by a window on each side. It was
wainscoted from floor to ceiling with dark oak, and had a little
fireplace in one of the corners. The window-panes were small and set in
lead. The curiosity of this room is, that it was once the residence of
Pope, and that he here wrote a considerable part of the translation of
Isomer, and likewise, no doubt, the admirable letters to which I have
referred above. The room once contained a record by himself, scratched
with a diamond on one of the window-panes (since removed for safe-keeping
to Nuneham Courtney, where it was shown me), purporting that he had here
finished the fifth book of the "Iliad" on such a day.

A poet has a fragrance about him, such as no other human being is gifted
withal; it is indestructible, and clings forevermore to everything that
he has touched. I was not impressed, at Blenheim, with any sense that
the mighty Duke still haunted the palace that was created for him; but
here, after a century and a half, we are still conscious of the presence
of that decrepit little figure of Queen Anne's time, although he was
merely a casual guest in the old tower, during one or two summer months.
However brief the time and slight the connection, his spirit cannot be
exorcised so long as the tower stands. In my mind, moreover, Pope, or
any other person with an available claim, is right in adhering to the
spot, dead or alive; for I never saw a chamber that I should like better
to inhabit,--so comfortably small, in such a safe and inaccessible
seclusion, and with a varied landscape from each window. One of them
looks upon the church, close at hand, and down into the green churchyard,
extending almost to the foot of the tower; the others have views wide and
far, over a gently undulating tract of country. If desirous of a loftier
elevation, about a dozen more steps of the turret-stair will bring the
occupant to the summit of the tower,--where Pope used to come, no doubt,
in the summer evenings, and peep--poor little shrimp that he was!--
through the embrasures of the battlement.

From Stanton Harcourt we drove--I forget how far--to a point where a boat
was waiting for us upon the Thames, or some other stream; for I am
ashamed to confess my ignorance of the precise geographical whereabout.
We were, at any rate, some miles above Oxford, and, I should imagine,
pretty near one of the sources of England's mighty river. It was little
more than wide enough for the boat, with extended oars, to pass, shallow,
too, and bordered with bulrushes and water-weeds, which, in some places,
quite overgrew the surface of the river from bank to bank. The shores
were flat and meadow-like, and sometimes, the boatman told us, are
overflowed by the rise of the stream. The water looked clean and pure,
but not particularly transparent, though enough so to show us that the
bottom is very much weedgrown; and I was told that the weed is an
American production, brought to England with importations of timber, and
now threatening to choke up the Thames and other English rivers. I
wonder it does not try its obstructive powers upon the Merrimack, the
Connecticut, or the Hudson,--not to speak of the St. Lawrence or the
Mississippi!

It was an open boat, with cushioned seats astern, comfortably
accommodating our party; the day continued sunny and warm, and perfectly
still; the boatman, well trained to his business, managed the oars
skilfully and vigorously; and we went down the stream quite as swiftly as
it was desirable to go, the scene being so pleasant, and the passing
hours so thoroughly agreeable. The river grew a little wider and deeper,
perhaps, as we glided on, but was still an inconsiderable stream: for it
had a good deal more than a hundred miles to meander through before it
should bear fleets on its bosom, and reflect palaces and towers and
Parliament houses and dingy and sordid piles of various structure, as it
rolled two and fro with the tide, dividing London asunder. Not, in
truth, that I ever saw any edifice whatever reflected in its turbid
breast, when the sylvan stream, as we beheld it now, is swollen into the
Thames at London.

Once, on our voyage, we had to land, while the boatman and some other
persons drew our skiff round some rapids, which we could not otherwise
have passed; another time, the boat went through a lock. We, meanwhile,
stepped ashore to examine the ruins of the old nunnery of Godstowe, where
Fair Rosamond secluded herself, after being separated from her royal
lover. There is a long line of ruinous wall, and a shattered tower at
one of the angles; the whole much ivy-grown,--brimming over, indeed, with
clustering ivy, which is rooted inside of the walls. The nunnery is now,
I believe, held in lease by the city of Oxford, which has converted its
precincts into a barn-yard. The gate was under lock and key, so that we
could merely look at the outside, and soon resumed our places in the
boat.

At three o'clock or thereabouts (or sooner or later,--for I took little
heed of time, and only wished that these delightful wanderings might last
forever) we reached Folly Bridge, at Oxford. Here we took possession of
a spacious barge, with a house in it, and a comfortable dining-room or
drawing-room within the house, and a level roof, on which we could sit at
ease, or dance if so inclined. These barges are common at Oxford,--some
very splendid ones being owned by the students of the different colleges,
or by clubs. They are drawn by horses, like canal-boats; and a horse
being attached to our own barge, he trotted off at a reasonable pace, and
we slipped through the water behind him, with a gentle and pleasant
motion, which, save for the constant vicissitude of cultivated scenery,
was like no motion at all. It was life without the trouble of living;
nothing was ever more quietly agreeable. In this happy state of mind
and body we gazed at Christ Church meadows, as we passed, and at the
receding spires and towers of Oxford, and on a good deal of pleasant
variety along the banks: young men rowing or fishing; troops of naked
boys bathing, as if this were Arcadia, in the simplicity of the Golden
Age; country-houses, cottages, water-side inns, all with something fresh
about them, as not being sprinkled with the dust of the highway. We were
a large party now; for a number of additional guests had joined us at
Folly Bridge, and we comprised poets, novelists, scholars, sculptors,
painters, architects, men and women of renown, dear friends, genial,
outspoken, open-hearted Englishmen,--all voyaging onward together, like
the wise ones of Gotham in a bowl. I remember not a single annoyance,
except, indeed, that a swarm of wasps came aboard of us and alighted on
the head of one of our young gentlemen, attracted by the scent of the
pomatum which he had been rubbing into his hair. He was the only victim,
and his small trouble the one little flaw in our day's felicity, to put
us in mind that we were mortal.

Meanwhile a table had been laid in the interior of our barge, and spread
with cold ham, cold fowl, cold pigeon-pie, cold beef, and other
substantial cheer, such as the English love, and Yankees too,--besides
tarts, and cakes, and pears, and plums,--not forgetting, of course, a
goodly provision of port, sherry, and champagne, and bitter ale, which is
like mother's milk to an Englishman, and soon grows equally acceptable to
his American cousin. By the time these matters had been properly
attended to, we had arrived at that part of the Thames which passes by
Nuneham Courtney, a fine estate belonging to the Harcourts, and the
present residence of the family. Here we landed, and, climbing a steep
slope from the river-side, paused a moment or two to look at an
architectural object, called the Carfax, the purport of which I do not
well understand. Thence we proceeded onward, through the loveliest park
and woodland scenery I ever saw, and under as beautiful a declining
sunshine as heaven ever shed over earth, to the stately mansion-house.

As we here cross a private threshold, it is not allowable to pursue my
feeble narrative of this delightful day with the same freedom as
heretofore; so, perhaps, I may as well bring it to a close. I may
mention, however, that I saw the library, a fine, large apartment, hung
round with portraits of eminent literary men, principally of the last
century, most of whom were familiar guests of the Harcourts. The house
itself is about eighty years old, and is built in the classic style, as
if the family had been anxious to diverge as far as possible from the
Gothic picturesqueness of their old abode at Stanton Harcourt. The
grounds were laid out in part by Capability Brown, and seemed to me even
more beautiful than those of Blenheim. Mason the poet, a friend of the
house, gave the design of a portion of the garden. Of the whole place I
will not be niggardly of my rude Transatlantic praise, but be bold to say
that it appeared to me as perfect as anything earthly can he,--utterly
and entirely finished, as if the years and generations had done all that
the hearts and minds of the successive owners could contrive for a spot
they dearly loved. Such homes as Nuneham Courtney are among the splendid
results of long hereditary possession; and we Republicans, whose
households melt away like new-fallen snow in a spring morning, must
content ourselves with our many counterbalancing advantages, for this
one, so apparently desirable to the far-projecting selfishness of our
nature, we are certain never to attain.

It must not be supposed, nevertheless, that Nuneham Courtney is one of
the great show-places of England. It is merely a fair specimen of the
better class of country-seats, and has a hundred rivals, and many
superiors, in the features of beauty, and expansive, manifold, redundant
comfort, which most impressed me. A moderate man might be content with
such a home,--that is all.

And now I take leave of Oxford without even an attempt to describe it,--
there being no literary faculty, attainable or conceivable by me, which
can avail to put it adequately, or even tolerably, upon paper. It must
remain its own sole expression; and those whose sad fortune it may be
never to behold it have no better resource than to dream about gray,
weather-stained, ivy-grown edifices, wrought with quaint Gothic ornament,
and standing around grassy quadrangles, where cloistered walks have
echoed to the quiet footsteps of twenty generations,--lawns and gardens
of luxurious repose, shadowed with canopies of foliage, and lit up with
sunny glimpses through archways of great boughs,--spires, towers, and
turrets, each with its history and legend,--dimly magnificent chapels,
with painted windows of rare beauty and brilliantly diversified hues,
creating an atmosphere of richest gloom,--vast college-halls,
high-windowed, oaken-panelled, and hung round with portraits of the men,
in every age, whom the University has nurtured to be illustrious,--long
vistas of alcoved libraries, where the wisdom and learned folly of all
time is shelved,--kitchens (we throw in this feature by way of ballast,
and because it would not be English Oxford without its beef and beer),
with huge fireplaces, capable of roasting a hundred joints at once,--and
cavernous cellars, where rows of piled-up hogsheads seethe and fume with
that mighty malt-liquor which is the true milk of Alma Mater; make all
these things vivid in your dream, and you will never know nor believe how
inadequate is the result to represent even the merest outside of Oxford.

We feel a genuine reluctance to conclude this article without making our
grateful acknowledgments, by name, to a gentleman whose overflowing
kindness was the main condition of all our sight-seeings and enjoyments.
Delightful as will always be our recollection of Oxford and its
neighborhood, we partly suspect that it owes much of its happy coloring
to the genial medium through which the objects were presented to us,--to
the kindly magic of a hospitality unsurpassed, within our experience, in
the quality of making the guest contented with his host, with himself,
and everything about him. He has inseparably mingled his image with our
remembrance of the Spires of Oxford.


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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