From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, and Rare Manuscripts, Volume XXX, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 11026-11038.
WHITE, RICHARD GRANT, an American essayist, critic, and Shakespearean scholar; born at New York, May 22, 1821; died there, April 8, 1885. He was graduated at the University of the City of New York in 1839; studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1845. But he previously had turned his attention to literature, and never entered upon legal practice. Without being the editor of any periodical, he was editorially connected with several newspapers and magazines. For more than twenty years — ending in 1878 — he held positions in the United States Revenue Service at New York. His works, while covering a wide range of topics, relate mainly to general philology, and especially to Shakespeare and his writings. His most important works are “Handbook of Christian Art” (1853); “Shakespeare’s Scholar” (1854); “Essay on the Authorship of the Three Parts of Henry VI.” (1859); “National Hymns” (1861); “Life and Genius of Shakespeare” (1865); “The New Gospel of Peace” (1866); “Words and Their Uses” (1870); “Every-day English” (1880); “England Without and Within” (1881); “The Fate of Mansfield Humphreys,” his one novel (1884); “Studies in Shakespeare” (1885). He edited an edition of Shakespeare in twelve volumes.
I DID not spend a whole Sunday on the Thames; but as I was going to morning service at the Abbey, and to evening service at St. Paul’s, I chose to make the river my way from one to the other; and doing this it seemed to me good to go leisurely over the whole of it within what is called the metropolitan district. This one is enabled to do easily and pleasantly by the little steamers that ply back and forth constantly within those limits. The day was as beautiful as a summer sky, with its bright blue tempered by lazy clouds smiling with light and sailing upon a soft, gentle breeze, could make it; the sense of 11027 Sunday seemed to pervade the air; and even the great city sat in sweet solemnity at rest. When science has taken entire possession of mankind, and we find no more anything to worship, will the Sunday-less man possess, in virtue of his rule of pure reason, any element of happiness that will quite compensate him for that calm, sweet, elevating sense — so delicate as to be indefinable, and yet so strong and penetrating as to pervade his whole being and seem to him to pervade all nature — of divine serenity in the first day of the Christian week? It is passing from us, fading gradually away, not into the forgotten — for it can never be forgotten by those who have once felt it, — but into the unknown. There are men now living who have never known it; their numbers will increase; and at last, in the long by and by, there will be a generation of civilized men who will say, that there should ever have been a difference between one day and another passes human understanding. This sense of Sunday is much stronger in the country than in the town; — strangely, for the current of life is there much less visibly interrupted; and it is always deepened by a sky at once bright and placid. And such a sky has its effect even in town. I felt it on this day, as I glided, through sunny hours and over gentle waters, past the solid stateliness and homely grandeur that are presented on the Thames side of London
I walked across the lower end of St. James’s Park, passing over much the same ground that King Charles trod on the 30th of January, when, in the midst of a regiment of Cromwell’s Ironsides, but attended personally by his own private guard and his gentlemen of the bed-chamber, and with the Parliamentary colonel in command walking uncovered by his side, he went to lay down his handsome, weak, treacherous head upon the block before the outraged Commonwealth of England: — an event which, notwithstanding the Restoration and the subsequent two centuries of monarchy in England, is the greatest and most significant of modern times, and is also of all grand retributive public actions the most thoroughly and characteristically English. Tyrants have been put to death or driven from their thrones at other times and by other peoples; but then for the first time, and first by men of English blood and speech, was a tyrant solemnly and formally tried like an accused criminal, condemned as a criminal, and put to death in execution of a warrant issuing from a court constituted by 11028 the highest power in the land. Compared with this high-handed justice the assassination of a Cæsar is like a brawl among “high-toned” politicians, and the expulsion of the Bourbons the chance consequence of a great popular tumult. And in this was its endless worth and its significance; and hence it was that from that time there was a new tenure of kingship. Then for the first time the great law of government was written, — that it should be for the best interests of the governed; and it was written in the blood of a king. This was the one boon of that great act to England, to the English race, to all civilized Christendom; for politically the beheading of Charles was a blunder; and the Commonwealth, after living an artificial life for a few years, died an inevitable death, because it was born out of due time.
None the less because it was Sunday did I find the cows at the place towards the lower end of the park, whither I strolled, and where they and their predecessors have stood day after day for centuries, professing to give new milk to visitors thirsting for this rustic beverage, either for its own sake, or that it might by its associations enhance the rural effect of the meadows and the trees. I did not drink of the product of their maternal founts; but my experience leads me to the unhesitating conclusion that if those cows give milk instead of milk-and-water, they must be of a breed which, or the product of which, cannot be found in Middlesex without St. James’s Park. The milk of London is a little thicker, a little more opaque, an a little whiter than its fog. Whether or no it is more nourishing I shall not venture to say. Probably these cows do give milk-and-water, and produce instinctively, as becomes metropolitan British kine, their article of trade ready adulterated. For, many times as I passed the place where they stand, I never saw man, woman, or child drinking; and I am sure that if they gave real milk there would at least be a procession to them of mothers and nurses with their weanlings. They seemed to be of the homely variety known as the red cow, to which belonged she of the crumpled horn and she that jumped over the moon. And if this were so it is yet another witness to the perpetuity of things in England; for the facetious Tom Brown, who lived and wrote in the days of James II., tells of the intrusion of the milk-folks upon the strollers through the Green Walk with the cry, “A can of milk, ladies! A can of red cow’s milk, sir!”11029
I could not but think that if kine could communicate their thoughts there would be in that little knot of horned creatures a tradition of the looks of Charles I. and of Cromwell, and of Charles II. and of the Duchess of Cleveland, and of Nell Gwynne, and of dear, vain, clever, self-candid, close-fisted, kind-hearted Pepys, and of the beautiful Gunnings, and of the captivating, high-tempered Sarah Jennings, who could cut of her own auburn hair to spite the Duke of Marlborough, and fling it into his face, and of the Duchess of Devonshire, who kissed the butcher and wore the hat, and of all those noted beauties, wits, gallants, and heroes whose names and traits are the gilded flies in the amber of English literature. For there probably has been no time since the park ceased to be a royal chase when there was not at least some one of the herd, and probably more, that could have learned all these things in direct line of tradition from predecessors. So, to be sure, the same is true of the men and the women of London; but the directness of such a course of transmission was brought more home to me in considering these cattle, as they stood there, the representatives and perpetuators of a little custom, older than any commonwealth, in one of the richest, most populous, and most powerful countries of the earth.
Chewing the cud of my fancies, I passed out of the park, and soon was at the Abbey door; but not soon was I much farther. I had not troubled myself upon the score of punctuality; and being a few minutes late I found the Abbey — that part of it which is used for service — full, even to the crowding of the aisles down to the very doors. I managed to squeeze myself in, but was obliged to stand, and moreover to be leaned against like a post, through service and through sermon. In these I found no noteworthy unlikeness, even of a minor sort, to what I had been accustomed to hear from my boyhood. The changes in the language of the Book of Common Prayer to adapt it to the political constitution and the social condition of the United States of America are so few and so slight that they must be closely watched for to be detected. The preacher was Canon Duckworth, canon in residence, who reminded me in voice, in accent, and in manner very much, an somewhat in person, although he was less ruddy, of a distinguished clergyman of the same church in New York, and whose sermon was the same sensible gentleman-like, moderately high-church talk which may be heard from half a dozen pulpits in 11030 that city every Sunday. Not every one, however, of those who preach them or the like of them in England, has Canon Duckworth’s rich, vibrating voice and fine, dignified presence. The long hood of colored silk that he wore (his was crimson), like all English clergymen that I saw within the chancel, was not, as I find many persons suppose it to be, an article of ecclesiastical costume. It was merely his master’s hood, — that which belonged to him as Master of Arts. The different colors of the linings of these academic hoods indicate the degree of the wearer and the university by which it was bestowed. They are worn by university “clerks” on all formal occasions.
After the sermon there was an administration of the communion, and all persons who were not partakers were required to leave the church. The exodus was very slow. Even after the throng was thinned and movement was easy, many lingered, looking up into the mysterious beauty of that noble nave. These the vergers did not hesitate to hasten, addressing them in some cases very roughly, as I thought, and even putting their hands upon their shoulders; but on my telling one of them that although I did not mean to commune I should like to remain during the service, he with ready civility, and with no shilling-expectant expression of countenance, took me to a seat within a gate and very near the outer rails. In this service, too, I found nothing peculiar to the place or to the building, — indeed, how could there well be? — but I observed that certain of the communicants, as they passed through the railing on their way to the table (which they, I suppose, would call the altar), and as they returned, carried their hands upright before them, holding the palms closely together, and bowing their heads over them, with an air which conveyed the impression that the thought they were behaving like the saints in an altar-piece or in a missal. Perhaps I might have observed the same practice at home if my church-going had been more frequent since the outbreak of “ritualism.”
It was strange, as I came out from such a solemn service in that venerable and sacred pile, and strongly indicative of the political position of the church in England, to be met just outside the door by a man who carried under his arm a huge bundle of handbills, calling a meeting and making a protest about some municipal matter. These he distributed freely to the communicants, as they issued from the celebration of the mystery, who took them as a matter of course into the same 11031 hands which had been pressed together with such ascetic fervor only a few minutes before, and glancing at them, put them for the most part carefully into their pockets. We know that the English Church is a part of the government of England; but its peculiar place is shown by practices which to us would seem highly indecorous. In the rural counties I saw posted on the doors of parish churches — beautiful with the beauty of a lost inspiration, and venerable with the historic associations of centuries thick with acts of import — notices of those persons in the parish who had taken out licenses to keep dogs; the list being always led by the name of the lord of the manor. There was no sacrilege. A parish in England is a political and legal entity, with material boundaries within which certain officers have power; and the parish church is its moral centre. Why, therefore, should not the licenses to keep dogs be announced upon its doors?
Soon after leaving the Abbey I was at the river side; and in a minute or two along came a small black steamer, in length about twice that of the little tug-boats that run puffing and bustling about New York harbor, and no wider. It seemed to me more than simple, indeed almost rude in its bare discomfort; and certainly it was as far from anything gay or festive in appearance as such a boat could be. The absence of bright paint and gilding, and of all that glare of decoration which it is thought necessary to make “Americans” pay for, commended the little craft to my favor; but I thought that without these it yet might have been made a little less coarse and much more comfortable. On the dingy deck were some benches or long settles of unmitigated wood; and that was all. There was not even an awning; but perhaps awnings would interfere with the vailing of the funnel as these boats pass under the bridges, and they might perhaps also be in danger of fire from the small cinders that then escape. The passengers, in number about a score, were all of what would be called in England the lower-middle class, with one exception, a fine-looking man, manifestly a “gentleman,” and with an unmistakable military air.
As I sat upon my hard seat, worn shiny by the sitting of countless predecessors, and looked around upon my fellow-passengers, I was impressed by the stolidity of their faces. The beauty of the sky, the soft, fresh breeze, the motion, the fact that it was a holiday, a fine Sunday, seemed to awaken no 11032 glow of feeling in their bosoms. And yet they were, most of them, plainly pleasure-seekers. As we moved swiftly on (I had taken an up boat) we soon passed over toward the Surrey side of the river. Erelong an elderly woman by whom I sat turned to me, and, pointing out at some distance ahead on our left a square tower, the familiar outlines of which had attracted my attention some minutes before, asked, “Wot buildin ’s that there?” —“Lambeth, madam, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace.” — “The Harchbishop o’ Cantubbury! Well, well! deary me! A many times as I ’ve bin on the river, I never see that afore.” To be asked such a question by a Londoner in my first half hour upon the Thames astonished me, and the confession that followed it was amazing; for Lambeth palace is almost opposite Westminster. This was within the first fortnight after my arrival in England, and although, as I have already mentioned, I met with an exhibition of this kind of ignorance even before I set foot on English ground, I was not yet prepared for quite such an example. Before another fortnight had passed I had learned better.
As I turned to look at the questioner, I saw that she was a neatly-dressed, obese female, and that she was accompanied by a neatly-dressed, obese man, who plainly was her husband. The couple had lived together a long while; they had grown old together; they had grown fat together; together they had sunk, year after year, deeper into a slough of stupidity; together they had, as they passed through the world and life, become more and more ignorant of the one, and more and more indifferent to all of the other, except eating and drinking and the little round of their daily duties that enabled them to eat and drink. Their faces had grown like each other, not only in expression but in form. The noses had become more shapeless; the chinless jaws had swelled and rounded imperceptibly into the short, thick neck. Those faces probably had once expressed some of the vivacity of youth; but this had passed away, and nothing, no trace of thought or feeling, had come into its place, — only fat; a greasy witness of content; and the result was two great sleepy moons of flabby flesh pierced here and there by orifices for animal uses. I made surreptitiously an outline sketch of their two faces, as they sat side by side staring stupidly before them; and it looked like two Bourbon heads on a medal. He was one of those long-bodied, short-legged Englishmen who are framed with facilities for a great 11033 development of paunch. Man and wife were about the same height; and at the next landing they got up and waddled off together. I laughed within myself, as I am laughing now; and yet why should I have sat there and scoffed at those good folk for being what nature and circumstance had made them?
Of a very different fabric in every way was the military-looking man whom I have already mentioned. He was tall and strong, although not stout; a well-made, good-looking man, with a certain consciousness of good looks not uncommon among handsome Englishmen, and not unpleasant. His dress showed that union of sobriety with scrupulous neatness and snugness which is characteristic of the Englishman of the upper classes.
He alone of all my male fellow-passengers kept me in countenance in my chimney-pot hat. The round-topped hat, called “wide awake,” or what not, has become so common in London that a crowd looked down upon from window or from ’bus seems like a swarm of great black beetles. I walked toward this gentleman, thinking that I would speak to him if he appeared willing; but he dismissed my doubts by speaking first. Brief as my experience in England had been, this did not surprise me; for I had already learned that English folk — women as well as men — are free in their intercourse with strangers to a degree that made me wonder whence came their reputation for gruff reserve. I should say that the chances of a pleasant chat with a fellow-traveller in England compared with those in the United States were as seven to three. I have again and again travelled from New York to Boston, and from New York to Washington and back (both journeys being of about two hundred and thirty miles each way), without having one word spoken to me by a stranger, although my journeys have mostly been by daylight, but in England I never went a dozen miles in company with other people without pleasant talk with one or more of them. Nor is such intercourse limited to travelling; there is a freedom of intercourse there to which we are comparative strangers; this, notwithstanding the visible limitations and restraints of rank, — perhaps rather by reason of them.
We sat down and talked as the boat glided swiftly up the river, the banks of which became gradually more suburban in appearance. The Thames, wherever I saw it, whether below London Bridge, or above that landmark and within the metropolitan 11034 district, or beyond, where it passes Kew and Isleworth and Twickenham and Richmond and Hampton, is remarkable for its character. It is nowhere common-looking; and the variety of its traits within a few miles surprises the eye at every stage with new delight. From the wide-expanding shores, the vast gloomy docks, the huge black hulls, and the strange clumsy lighter craft of the Pool and Limehouse Beach, past the stately magnificence of the embankment and the Abbey, with the Houses of Parliament on one side, and Lambeth on the other, up to the enchanting rural scene at Richmond, is not farther than it is from one village to another one just like it, through miles of sameness upon the Hudson.
My talk with my temporary companions was the mere chat of fellow-travellers under a bright sky; but even he managed to illustrate that narrowness of knowledge of which I found so many examples. As we looked off toward the west end of the town, there were in sight three or four rows of new houses, all unfinished, and some not yet roofed. He spoke of “so much buildin’ goin’ on” and “sellin’ houses,” and wondered how it was, and why gentlemen built houses and sold them. Thereupon I told him of the associations of builders, masons, carpenters, and the like, who built houses by a sort of club arrangement, and had their pay in an interest in the houses, which they sold at a good profit. Now this I merely remembered having read some two or three years before in the London “Building News.” It was nothing in me to know it; the remarkable thing was that a Yankee, hardly a fortnight in England, should be called upon to tell it to an intelligent Englishman.
Our little boat soon reached her upper landing, and then turned back. I went down the river to London Bridge, and there, after visiting the Monument and looking at the plain and unpretending solidity of the warehouses, which had the look of holding untold wealth, and after loitering about the murky purlieus of Thames Street, I crossed the bridge and was in Southwark. But of course the bridge was like a short street across the river (it used to be a street with houses on either side), and one end of it was much the same as the other. In the people that I met, who were generally of the lower classes, there was a pleasant appearance of homogeneousness. They were all English people; and the speech that I heard, although it was not cultivated and was sometimes even rude, was English. 1103 I heard no brogue nor other transformation of my mother tongue. Little else attracted my attention, except the general inferiority of the men in height and weight to those we see in New England, and the rarity of good looks, not to say of beauty, in the women. They were all plainly in their Sunday clothes, which did not much become them, and in which they were at once much set up and ill at ease.
Not far from here I encountered a flock of girls between eight and twelve years old, who proved to belong to the Bridgewater School. They were dressed in blue and white, with straw bonnets trimmed with blue. They were neat, and looked comfortable and happy; and some of the elder girls with whom I talked said that they were so. The school contained forty-two girls and sixty-five boys. The best that I learned about it was that the girls made their own dresses, and were taught every afternoon to sew by hand. But I looked in vain among them for the rosy, golden-haired, blue-eyed cherubs which I had been led to suppose were as thick in England as in an antique altar-piece.
On my way to St. James’s Park, I had stopped at a little coster-monger’s stand and bought an apple, merely for the sake of a few words with the man and his wife, who were both in attendance. I took up an apple carelessly as I was going away, when the man said, “No, sir, don’t take that; it’s no good. Let me get you a better;” and he picked out one of the best he could find. He appeared pleased when I thanked him and said that was a good one. Ungratefully, I gave the fruit to the first urchin I met; for although I might have been willing to walk down St. James’s Street munching an apple on a Sunday morning, it was not for an English apple that I would have done so. But none the less I reflected that the like of that had never happened to me in my boyhood, when I did buy apples to eat them anywhere, in doors or out of doors; and I thought that most persons in trade would not have regarded that transaction as “business” on the part of my coster-monger. I he could “work off” his poor stock first, at good prices, he should do so, and — caveat emptor. I do not mean to imply that all coster-mongers in England are like him; but, notwithstanding all that we hear about the tricks of British traders, adulteration, and the like, I will say that his was the spirit which seemed to me to prevail among the retail dealers of whom I bought in England. The seller seemed to be willing 11036 to take some trouble to please me, and — without making any fuss about it — to be pleased when I was pleased.
Not far from the Southwark end of London Bridge I passed a little fruiterer’s stall. It was plainly a temporary affair set up for the Sunday trade; but in it were hanging some bunches of very fine white grapes, and I bought some that I might take them down to the river-side and eat them. They were only eightpence a pound. Down to the river-side I went, and, finding an old deserted boat or scow, I seated myself upon it, and ate my grapes, and flung the skins into the water, as it ebbed swiftly past me, but gently and almost without a ripple. As I lay there the beauty of the day began to sink into my soul. The air had a softness that was new to me, and which yet I felt that I was born to breathe. The light in the low, swelling, slowly moving clouds seemed to come from a heaven that I once believed was beyond the sky, and did not smite my eyes with blindness as I looked upward. The stillness in such a place impressed me, and took possession of me. There was not a sound, except the distant plash of the wheels of one of the little steamers, and a faint laugh borne lightly down from the parapet of the bridge. And there lay before me, stretching either way beyond my sight, the great, silent city, — London, the metropolis of my race; the typical city of my boyhood’s dreams and my manhood’s musings; the port from which my forefather had set sail two hundred and fifty years ago, to help to make a new England beyond the sea; the place whose name was upon all the books that I had loved to read; the scene of all the great historical events by which I had been most deeply moved. It was worth the Atlantic voyage to enjoy that vision in that silent hour. Within my range of sight, as I turned my head, were the square turrets of the Tower and the pinnacles of Westminster; and I must have been made of duller stuff than most of that which either came from or remained in England between 1620 and 1645 not to be stirred by the thoughts of what had passed, of mighty moment to my people, at those two places, or between them. Many of those events flitted through my mind; but that which settled in it and took possession of it was the return of Hampden and Pym and the other five Members who had fled from Westminster to London before King Charles and his halberdiers. From where I sat, had I sat there on the 11th of January, 1642, I might have seen that now calm and almost vacant stretch of water 11037 swarming with wherries and decorated barges outside two lines of armed vessels that began at London Bridge and ended at Westminster, while up the river, between this guard of honor, sailed to Westminster a ship bearing the five men whose safety was the pledge of English liberty; and along that opposite bank, now silent and almost deserted (not indeed the Embankment, but the Strand, then the river street, as its name indicates), marched the trained-bands of London, with the sheriffs and all the city magnates and the shouting citizens, amid the booming of guns, the roll of drums, and the blare of trumpets. It was London that received and sheltered the Five Members; it was London that protected them against the king; it was London that carried them back in triumph past Whitehall, then purged of its royal tyrant, to resume their seats at Westminster, at the command of the outraged but undaunted House of Commons. That was the brightest, greatest day in London’s history; that the most memorable pageant of the many memorable seen upon the bosom of old Thames. I should not have enjoyed this vision and these thoughts if I had not lusted for those grapes, and for the pleasure of eating them to the music of the rippling water.
Again I took a steamer and went up the river and returned, that I might mark well the bulwarks and the palaces of this royal city, and see it all from the outside by daylight; and also that I might enjoy the day, which was beautiful with a rich, soft, cool beauty unknown to the land from which we are driving the Sitting Bulls and Squatting Bears, to whose coarse constitutions and rude perceptions the fierce glories of its skies are best adapted. On the return trip the few passengers thinned rapidly away, so that at Charing Cross (I believe it was) every one but myself went ashore; and as no one came on board I was left actually alone upon the deck. This did not suit me, for I wanted to see the people as well as the place; and I too, just in time, went hastily ashore to wait for another steamer.
The landings are made at long, floating piers or platforms; and upon one of these I walked up and down, after having bought another ticket. Erelong another steamer came, well loaded, and I watched the people as they came ashore. Thoughtlessly I turned and walked with the last of them toward the stairs by which they made their exit to the city. It was my first day on the Thames, and I had not observed 11038 how very brief the stoppages of the boats were: they touch and go. I was startled by the plash of the wheels, and, turning, I saw the boat in motion. Instinctively I made for her, and having the length of the platform as the start for a running jump, I easily cleared the widening distance and the taffrail, and landed lightly on the deck. But it was a wonder that I was not frightened out of my jump and into the water; for there was sensation and commotion on the boat, and cries; two of the deck hands sprang forward, and stretched out their arms to catch me as if I had been a flying cricket-ball; and when I was seen safely on the deck there were cheers, — decorous cheers, after the English fashion. Indeed, I was sitting comfortably down and opening a newspaper before the little stir that I had caused was over. I did not read my paper; for I was in the condition in which Montaigne supposed his cat might be when he played with her. The action of the people interested me quite as much as mine interested them. These English folk, whom I had been taught were phlegmatic and impassible, had been roused to visible and audible manifestation of excitement by an act that would not have caused an “American” to turn his head. The passengers on our crowded ferry-boats saw men jump on board them after they were under way day after day without moving a muscle, until, too many having jumped into the water, and too many of these having been drowned, we put up gates and chains, not long ago, to stop the performance. I should not take that jump again, nor should I have taken it then if I had stopped to think about it; but I was glad that I did take it then, not for the saving of the five or ten minutes that I did not know what to do with, but for the revelation that it made to me of English character.
1 By permission of Houghton, Mifflin, & Co.