Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6


Patricians and plebeians--The discomforts of democracy--Varieties of
equality--Social rights of beggars--The coming peril--Being dragged to
the rich--Frankness of vulgarity and hopelessness of
destitution--Villages rooted in the landscape--Evanescence of the
spiritual and survival of the material--"Of Bebbington the holy
peak"--The Old Yew of Eastham--Malice--prepense interest--History and
afternoon tea--An East-Indian Englishman--The merchantman sticks in
the mud--A poetical man of the world--Likeness to Longfellow--Real
breakfasts--Heads and stomachs--A poet-pugilist--Clean-cut, cold,
gentle, dry--A respectable female atheist--The tragedy of the red
ants--Voluptuous struggles--A psalm of praise.

--

In a country whose ruling principle is caste, it might be expected
that the line of cleavage between the upper and the lower grades would
be punctually observed. It is assumed that democracy levels and
aristocracy distinguishes and separates. My father was not long in
remarking, however, that there was a freedom of intercourse between
the patrician and the plebeian--between people of all orders--such as
did not exist in America. And the fact, once perceived, was not
difficult of explanation. In a monarchy of a thousand years'
standing, every individual knows his place in the social scale and
never thinks of leaving it. He represents a fixed function or element
in the general organism, and holds to it as a matter of course, just
as, in the human body, the body does not aspire to be the head, nor
the liver or heart to take the place of lungs or stomach. The laborer
looks back upon an ancestry of laborers; the shopkeeper has been a
shopkeeper for unnumbered generations; the artisan on the bench to-day
does the same work that his father and grandfathers did before him;
the noble inherits his acres as inevitably as the sun rises, and sits
in the House of Lords by immemorial usage and privilege. Social
position all along the line being thus anchored in the nature of
things, as it were, there is no anxiety on any one's part as to
maintaining his status. He is secure where he is, and nothing and
nobody can change him. There is no individual striving to rise nor
fear to fall. Consequently there can and must be entire freedom of
mutual conversation; the marquis with a revenue of half a million a
year meets as an equal his gardener who gets ten pounds a month, and
the tailor in his measuring-room offers a glass of sherry to his noble
patron who comes to him for a new coat. Each is at his ease,
conscious that he performs a use and fills a place which no one else
can fill or perform, and that nothing else matters. The population is
a vast mutual-benefit association, without envy on the one side or
contempt on the other. And social existence moves as smoothly as a
well-oiled and adjusted machine.

This agreeable condition is impossible in a democracy--at all events,
in a democracy like ours, which is based upon the assumption that all
men are equal. Nevertheless, we are on the right track, and the
English are on the wrong one; for the agreeable English system
obstructs the insensible infiltration of fresh material into old
forms, which is essential to the continued health of the latter; while
the democracy, on the other hand, will gradually learn that it is just
as honorable and desirable to be a good shoemaker, for example, as a
good millionaire; that human life, in short, is a complex of countless
different uses, each one of which is as important on its own plane as
any of the others. But the intermediate period is undeniably irksome.

So my father noticed, not without a certain satisfaction, that even
beggars, in England, are not looked down upon, and that their rights,
such as they are, are recognized. In the steamboat waiting-room at
Rock Ferry, and in the boats themselves, he saw tramps and mendicants
take the best place at the fire or on the companion-way without rebuke
and without consciousness of presumption, and he saw the landlord of a
hotel, with a fortune of six hundred thousand pounds, wait at table as
deferentially as any footman in his employ. He was struck by the
contentment with which, in winter, women went barefoot in the streets,
and by the unpretentious composure with which the common herd, on
holidays, disported themselves in public, not seeking to disguise
their native vulgarity and shabbiness. At the same time, he could not
help a misgiving that the portentous inequality between rich and poor
must finally breed disaster; the secluded luxury of the rich was too
strongly contrasted with the desperate needs of the poor. This
contrast was very marked in England fifty years ago, and was
comparatively unknown in our own country--though to-day we can hardly
lay to our souls the nattering unction of such a difference. The rage
for wealth has done for us in a generation what caste did for England
in a thousand years.

My father, when opportunity offered, was always finding himself among
the poor and their dwellings; he had to be dragged to the rich, though
among them, too, he found, when brought in contact with them, many
interesting points of dissimilarity from ourselves. His office as
consul naturally took him often to the police courts, where
magistrates passed upon the squalid cases cited before them, and in
the consulate itself he saw specimens enough of human crime and
misery. He visited the poor-house and the insane asylum, he was
approached by swindlers of all types, and often he went to fairs and
other resorts of public out-door amusement and watched the unwashed
populace at its play. Beggars followed him on the streets, awaited him
in their chosen coigns of vantage on the corners, or haunted him on
the ferry-boat that took him each day from his home to his office.
Wherever he encountered the forsaken of fortune, he found food for
sympathy, and, in spite of assurances that he was only encouraging
mendicancy, he often gave them money. It was hard for him to believe
that there could be abject poverty where there was work for all, and
the appeal of man in want to man in plenty was too strong for him
easily to resist it. He liked the very frankness of vulgarity and
hopeless destitution of these people, and was appalled by the
simplicity with which they accepted things as they were. There was no
restlessness, as in America--no protest against fate. It was harrowing
enough to see conditions so miserable; it was intolerable to see them
acquiesced in by the victims as inevitable. He learned, after a
while, to harden himself somewhat against manifest imposition; but the
refusal to give cost him quite as much in discomfort as giving did in
purse.

The country villages and cottages, however, afforded him compensating
pleasure. In the neighborhood of Rock Ferry, on the shore of the
Mersey opposite from Liverpool, there were two or three ancient little
settlements which he loved to visit. The thatched and whitewashed
cottages, with their tiny gardens of hollyhocks and marigolds, seemed
like parts of the framework of the land; the passage of centuries only
served to weld them more firmly in their places. The villages were
massed together, each in a small space, instead of being dispread
loosely over a township, as in his native New England, and enduring
stone and plaster took the place of timber and shingles. But the
churches, small and fabulously ancient, affected him most. He placed
his hand on stones which had been set in place before William the
Conqueror landed in England, and this physical survival seemed to
bring into his actual presence the long succession of all the
intervening ages. These structures, still so solid and serviceable,
had witnessed the passing of the entire procession of English history;
all the mighty men and events of her career had come and gone while
they remained unscathed. Under his feet were the graves of the unknown
dead; within the narrow precincts he inhaled that strange, antique
odor of mortality that made him feel as if he were breathing the air
of long-dead centuries. This apparent evanescence of the spiritual
attested by the survival of the material is one of the most singular
and impressive of sensations; it takes history out of the realm of the
mind, and brings it into sensible manifestation. It is almost as
affecting as if the very figures of departed actors of former ages
were to reappear and rub shoulders with us of today, and cast their
shadows in the contemporary sunshine.

On most of these walks in the neighborhood of Rock Ferry I was my
father's companion, but, though my legs could march beside his, my
mental-equipment could not participate in his meditations. He would
occasionally make some half-playful, imaginative remark, calculated to
help me realize the situation that was so vividly present to
himself. His thoughts, however deep, were always ready to break into
playfulness outwardly. We often walked through the village of
Bebbington, whose church had a high stone steeple, nearly to the
summit of which the ancient ivy had clambered. And as it came in view
he would always say, in a sort of recitative, perhaps reminiscent of
Scott's narrative poems, which he was at that time reading aloud to
us, "There is of Bebbington the holy peak!" To which I would as
constantly rejoin, "'Of Bebbington the holy spire,' father!"--being
offended by his use of a word so unmusical as peak. He would only
smile and trudge onward. He was somewhat solicitous, I suspect, to
check in his son any tendency towards mere poetical sentiment; his own
imaginative faculty was rooted in common-sense, and he knew the value
of the latter in curbing undue excursions into the fanciful and
transcendental.

In Eastham, on the village green, stood an old yew-tree which, six
centuries before, had been traditionally called The Old Yew of
Eastham, and was probably at least coeval with the village itself,
which was one of the oldest in England. It was of enormous girth, and
was still in leaf; but nothing but the bark was left of the great
trunk; all the wood had decayed away so long ago that the memory of
man held no record of it. There was a great conical gap in one side,
like an open door, and it was my custom--as it had doubtless been that
of innumerable children of ages gone--to enter this door and "play
house" in the spacious interior. Meanwhile my father would seat
himself on the twisted roots without, and let his thoughts drift back
to the time when this huge hulk had first cast a slender shadow over
the greensward of primitive, Saxon England. It was a massive tree
before the Domesday Book was begun; Chaucer would not be heard of for
four hundred years to come; and where was Shakespeare? What was
suspected of America? Yet here was this venerable vegetable, still
with life enough left in it, perhaps, to see the end of English
monarchy. The yew was a fact; but the ghosts were the reality, after
all.

These obscure village antiquities, which had no special history
attaching to them, were in a way more impressive than the great ruins
of England, which had formed the scene and background of famous
events. The latter had become conventional sights, which the tourist
felt bound to inspect under the voluble and exasperating guidance of a
professional showman; and this malice-prepense sort of interest and
picturesqueness always tried Hawthorne's patience and sympathy a
little. It is the unknown past that is most fascinating, that comes
home closest to the heart. The things told of in history books are
hackneyed, and they partake of the unreality inherent in the
descriptions of the writers. But the unrecorded things are virgin, and
enter into our most private sympathies and realization. My father
viewed and duly admired the great castles, palaces, and cathedrals of
England; but he loved the old villages and their appurtenances, and
could dream dreams more moving under the shadow of Eastham Yew than in
Westminster Abbey itself.

The historic houses and country-seats which were still inhabited were
still more difficult to get in touch with from the historic point of
view; the present dazzled the past out of sight. One was told who
built this facade, who added that wing, who was imprisoned in yonder
tower; where Queen Elizabeth slept, and the foot of what martyr
imprinted the Bloody Footstep on the threshold.

But you listened to these tales over a cup of tea in the drawing-room,
or between the soup and the roast beef at the dinner-table, and they
were not convincing. How were these ruddy-cheeked, full-bodied,
hospitable personages who sat about you to be held compatible with the
romantic periods and characters that they described? The duck and the
green pease, the plum-pudding and the port, the white neck-cloths and
the bare necks were too immediate and potent. In many cases, too, the
denizens of the ancient houses were not lineal descendants of the
original founders; they were interlopers, by purchase or otherwise. In
themselves they were kind and agreeable, their manners were excellent,
they helped one to comprehend the England of the passing moment; but
they only clipped the wings of imagination and retrospect. It was only
after an interval of some years that Hawthorne was able so far to
recover from the effect of their obtrusive existence as to be able to
see through them and beyond them to the splendid and gloomy vistas in
front of which they were grouped.

Yet England, past and present, rich and poor, real and ideal, did
somehow enter into him and become a part of his permanent
consciousness, and he liked it better than anything else he had known.
Even the social life, though he came to it under some compulsion,
rewarded him in the long run. One of the first personal invitations
was to the country-seat of the Brights, where he met the family and
relatives of his friend Henry Bright. Bright's father was a
remarkable figure; he resembled an East-Indian more than an
Englishman. He was dark, slender, courteous, and vivid; in long
after-years I saw Brahmins like him in India. I would liken him to a
rajah, except that rajahs of his age are commonly become gross and
heavy from indulgence, whereas he had an almost ascetic aspect. His
manners were singularly soft and caressing; he courted his wife, when
he returned each day from business, as if they were still in their
honeymoon, and his conduct towards all who surrounded him was
similarly polished. He did not in the least resemble his Saxon son;
and for my part, looking at him from the primitive boy stand-point, I
never suspected that he was related to my father's young friend. He
had made a fortune in colonial trade, and may possibly have been born
in India. At this juncture the dealings of his firm were chiefly with
Australia, and the largest merchant steamship then in the world had
just been built for them, and Hawthorne was invited to the launching.
For a British merchant prince such an occasion could not but be of
supreme importance and pride. Mr. Bright's Oriental visage was
radiant; his white hair seemed to shine with an added lustre; the
reserve of the Englishman was forgotten, and he showed the excitement
and emotion that he felt. There was a distinguished company on the
great deck to witness his triumph and congratulate him upon it. All
went well; at the appointed signal the retaining obstructions were cut
away, and the mighty vessel began its descent into the waiting river.
A lady of his family smashed a bottle of wine over the graceful bows.
For a few moments there was a majestic, sweeping movement downward;
then, of a sudden, it was checked. It was as if a great life had been
quenched at the instant when its heart first began to throb. A murmur
of dismay ran through the assemblage; but it was in the face of Mr.
Bright that the full tragedy of the disaster was displayed. Never was
seen a swifter change from the highest exultation to the depths of
consternation. The color left his cheeks; heavy lines appeared about
his handsome mouth; his eyes became fixed, and seemed to sink into his
head; his erect figure drooped like that of one who has received a
mortal blow. It was only that the ship had stuck in the deep mud of
the river bottom; but all ship-owners are superstitious, and the old
man foreboded the worst. The ship was floated again some days later;
but the omens were fulfilled; she was lost on her first voyage. I do
not remember seeing Mr. Bright after this event, but I know he never
again was the same man as before.

Richard Monckton Milnes, who was afterwards Lord Houghton, was greatly
attracted towards my father, who liked him; but circumstances
prevented their seeing much of each other. Milnes was then forty-five
years old; he was a Cambridge man, and intimate with Tennyson, Hallam,
and other men of literary mark, and he was himself a minor poet, and
warm in the cause of literature. During his parliamentary career, in
1837, he was instrumental in passing the copyright act. He had
travelled in Greece and Italy in his twenties; was fond of society,
and society of him. A more urbane and attractive English gentleman did
not exist; everything that a civilized man could care for was at his
disposal, and he made the most of his opportunities. His manners were
quiet and cordial, with a touch of romance and poetry mingling with
the man-of-the-world tone in his conversation, and he was quite an
emotional man. I have more than once seen tears in his eyes and heard
a sob in his voice when matters that touched his heart or imagination
were discussed. There was, indeed, a vein of sadness and pessimism in
Milnes, though only his intimates were aware of it; it was the
pessimism of a man who has too much leisure for intellectual analysis
and not enough actual work to do to keep him occupied. It lent a fine
flavor of irony to some of his conversation. He was liberal in
politics and liberal in his attitude towards life in general; but
there was not force enough in him, or, at any rate, not stimulus
enough, to lift him to distinction. Some of his poems, however,
betrayed a deep and radical vein of thought. He was of middle
height, well made, light built, with a large and well-formed head and
wavy, dark hair. His likeness to Longfellow was marked, though he was
hardly so handsome a man; but the type of head and face was the
same--the forehead and brain well developed, the lower parts of the
countenance small and refined, though sensuous. His eyes were dark,
brilliant, and expressive. He, like the old poet Rogers, made a
feature of giving breakfasts to chosen friends, and as he had the
whole social world to choose from, and unfailing good taste, his
breakfasts were well worth attending. They were real breakfasts--so
far as the hour was concerned--not lunches or early dinners in
masquerade; but wine was served at them, and Milnes was very
hospitable and had an Anacreontic or Omar touch in him. To breakfast
with him, therefore, meant--unless you were singularly abstemious and
strong-minded--to discount the remaining meals of the day. But the
amount of good cheer that an Englishman can carry and seem not
obscured by it surprises an American. A bottle or so of hock of a
morning will make most Americans feel that business, for the rest of
that day, is an iridescent dream; but an Englishman does not seem to
be burdened by it--at any rate, he did not fifty years ago.

Another hearty companion was Bryan Waller Procter, who, for literary
uses, anagrammed his name into Barry Cornwall, and made it famous,
fifty years ago, as that of the best song-writer in contemporary
England. But he had made a literary reputation before the epoch of his
songs; there were four or five dramatic and narrative poems to his
credit published during the first quarter of the last century. Procter
was, indeed, already a veteran in 1854, having been born in 1787, and
bred to the bar, to which he was admitted in 1831. But he spent the
active thirty years of his life in the discharge of that function
which seems often sought by respectable Englishmen-commissioner of
lunacy. He sent my father a small volume containing the Songs, and
some fragments; they fully deserved their reputation. The fragments
were mostly scraps of dramatic dialogue, of which one at least sticks
in my memory:

"She was a princess; but she fell; and now Her shame goes blushing
down a line of kings."

As I recollect him, he may have looked like a commissioner of lunacy,
but he did not look like a poet; he was rather undersized, with a
compact head and a solemn face, and the quietest, most unobtrusive
bearing imaginable. He was a well-made little man, and he lived to a
great age, dying some time in the seventies, at the age of
eighty-seven. He told my father that after leaving Harrow School he
was distinguished in athletics, and for a time sparred in public with
some professional bruiser. He had been a school-mate of Byron and Sir
Robert Peel, and had known Lamb, Kean, and the other lights of that
generation. He was a most likeable and remunerative companion. His
wife, who survived him (living, I think, to be over ninety), was a
woman of intellect and charm, and she retained her attractiveness to
the end of her life. There are poets who are consumed early by their
own fires, and others who are gently warmed by them beyond the common
span of human existence, and Barry Cornwall was one of these, and
transmitted his faculty, through sympathetic affection, to his wife.

Of renown not less than the song-writer's was the metaphysical
theologian, James Martineau, then in the Liverpool epoch of his
career. He was a clean-cut, cold, gentle, dry character, with a
somewhat Emersonian cast of countenance, but with the Emersonian
humanity and humility left out. Like Emerson, he had ascended a
Unitarian pulpit, but, unlike Emerson, he stayed there long after what
he was pleased to regard as his convictions had ceased to possess even
a Unitarian degree of religious quality. He was always apostolic in
his manner, and his utterances were ex cathedra, and yet his whole
long life was a story of changing views on the subjects he had chosen
to be the theme of his career.

He was the great opponent of orthodoxy in his day, yet he led his
followers to no goal more explicit than might be surmised from a study
of Kant and Hegel. He was, however, sincere in his devotion to the
will-o'-the-wisp that he conceived to be the truth, and he was
courageous enough to admit that he never satisfied himself. There was
chilly and austere attraction about the man; he was so elevated and
superior that one could hardly help believing that he must know
something of value, and this illusion was the easier because he did
know so much in the way of scholarly learning. My father felt respect
for his character, but was bored by his metaphysics--a form of
intellectual athletics which he had exhausted while still a young man.
James's sister Harriet was also of the company. She was so deaf as to
be obliged to use an ear-trumpet, and she was as positive in her views
(which had become avowedly atheistic) as her brother, and whenever any
one began to utter anything with which she disagreed, she silenced him
by the simple expedient of dropping the ear-trumpet. In herself, she
was an agreeable old lady; but she seldom let her opinions rest long
enough for one to get at her on the merely human side, and she
cultivated a retired life, partly on account of her deafness, partly
because her opinions made society shy of her, and partly because she
did not think society worth her time and attention. She was a good
woman, with a mind of exceptional caliber, but the world admired more
than it desired her.

As a relief from the consideration of these exalted personages, I am
disposed to relate a tragic anecdote about our friend Henry Bright.
Early in our Rock Ferry residence he came to dine with us--or I rather
think it was to supper. At any rate, it was an informal occasion, and
the children were admitted to table. My mother had in the cupboard
a jar of excellent raspberry jam, and she brought it forth for the
delectation of our guest. He partook of it liberally, and said he had
never eaten any jam so good; it had a particular tang to it, he
declared, which outdid his best recollections of all previous
raspberry jam from his boyhood up. While he was in the midst of these
rhapsodies, and still consuming their subject with enthusiasm, my
mother, who had taken some of the jam on her own plate, suddenly made
a ghastly discovery. The jam-pot had been for several days standing in
the cupboard with its top off, or ajar, and an innumerable colony of
almost microscopic red ants had discovered it, and launched themselves
fervently upon it and into it; it had held them fast in its sweet but
fatal embrace, and other myriads had followed their fellows into the
same delicious and destructive abyss. What the precise color of the
ants may have been before they became incorporate with the jam is not
known; but as the case was, they could be distinguished from it only
by their voluptuous struggles in its controlling stickiness. Only the
keenest eye could discern them, and the eyes of Henry Bright were
among the most near-sighted in England. Besides, according to his
custom, he was talking with the utmost volubility all the time.

What was to be done? My father and mother stealthily exchanged an
awful look, and the question was settled. It was too late to recall
the ants which our friend had devoured by tens of thousands. It
seemed not probable that, were he kept in ignorance of his
predicament, they would do him any serious bodily injury; whereas,
were he enlightened, imagination might get in her fatal work.
Accordingly, a rigorous silence upon the subject was maintained, and
the dear innocent actually devoured nearly that whole potful of red
ants, accompanying the meal with a continual psalm of praise of their
exquisite flavor; and never till the day of his death did he suspect
what the secret of that flavor was. I believe the Chinese eat ants and
regard them as a luxury. Very likely they are right; but at that
period of my boyhood I had not heard of this, and then and often
afterwards did I meditate with misgivings upon the predicament of
Henry Bright's stomach after his banquet.

Julian Hawthorne

Sorry, no summary available yet.