Things and Thoughts in Europe . . . VIII.

Things and Thoughts in Europe

Correspondence of The Tribune[No. VIII.

Recollections of London—The English Gentleman—London Climate—Out of Season—Luxury and Misery—A Difficult Problem—Terrors of Poverty—Joanna Baillie and Madame Roland—Hampstead—Miss Berry—Female Artist—Margaret Gillies—Tennyson—Horne—The People’s Journal—The Times—The Howitts—Southwood Smith—Houses for the Poor—Skeleton of Jeremy Bentham—Cooper the Poet—Thom.
PARIS, Dec. 1846.

  I sit down here in Paris to narrate some recollections of London. The distance in space and time is not great, yet I seem in wholly a different world. Here is the region of wax lights, mirrors, bright wood [illegible], shrugs, vivacious ejaculations, wreathed smiles and adroit courtesies, it is hard to remember John Bull with his coal-smoke, hands in pockets, except when extended for ungracious demand of the perpetual half-crown or to pay for the all but perpetual mug of beer. John, seen on that side, is certainly the most churlish of clowns, and the most clownish of churls. But then there are so many other sides! When a gentleman he is so truly the gentleman, when a man he is so truly the man of honor! His graces, when he has any, grow up from his inmost heart.

  Not that he is free from humbug, on the contrary, he is prone to the most solemn humbug, generally of the philanthropic or otherway moral kind. But he is always awkward beneath the mask, and can [illegible] impose upon anybody—but himself. Nature meant him to be noble, generous, sincere, and has furnished him with no faculties to make himself agreeable in any other way or mode of being. ‘Tis not so with your Frenchman who can cheat you pleasantly, and move with grace in the devious and slippery path. You would be almost sorry to see him quite disinterested and straight-forward; so much of agreeable talent and naughty wit would thus lie hid for want of use. But John, oh John, we must admire, esteem or be disgusted with thee.

  As to climate, there is not much to choose at this time of year. In London, for six weeks, we never saw the sun for coal-smoke and fog. In Paris we have not been blessed with its cheering rays above three or four days in the same length of time, and are, beside, tormented with an oily and tenacious mud beneath the feet, which makes it almost impossible to walk. This year, indeed, it is an uncommon severe one at Paris, and then if they have their share of dark, cold days, it must be admitted that they will do all they can to enliven them.

  But to dwell first on London—London, in itself a world. We arrived at a time which the well-bred Englishman considers as no time at all—quite out of “the season,” when Parliament is in session, and London thronged with the equipages of her aristocracy, her titled, wealthy nobles.—I was listened to with a smile of polite contempt when I declared that the stock shows of London would yield me amusement and employment more than sufficient for the time I had to stay. But I found that, with my way of viewing things, it would be to me an inexhaustible studio, and that if life were only long enough, I would live there for years obscure in some corner, from which I could issue forth day by day to watch unobserved the vast stream of life, or to decipher the hieroglyphics which ages have been inscribing on the walls of this vast palace (I may not call it a temple) which human effort has reared for means, not yet used efficaciously, of human culture.

  And though I wish to return to London in “the season” when that city is an adequate representation of the state of things in England, I am glad I did not at first see all that pomp and parade of wealth and luxury in contrast with the misery, squalid, agonizing, ruffianly, which stares one in the face in every street of London and hoots at the gates of her palaces more ominous a note than ever was that of owl or raven in the portentous times when empires and races have crumbled and fallen from inward decay.

  It is impossible, however, to take a near view of the treasures created by English genius, accumulated by the English industry, without a prayer, daily more fervent that the needful changes in the condition of this people may be effected by peaceful revelation which shall destroy nothing except the shocking inhumanity of exclusiveness, which now prevents their being used for the benefit of all. —May their present possessors look to it in time! A few already are earnest in a good spirit. For myself, much as I pitied the poor, abandoned, hopeless wretches that swarm in the roads and streets of England, I pity far more the English noble with this difficult problem before him, and such need of a speedy solution. Sad is his life if a contentious man; sadder still, if not. Poverty in England has terrors of which I never dreamed at home. I felt that it would be terrible to be poor there, but far more so to be the possessor of that for which many thousands are perishing. And the middle class, too, cannot here enjoy that serenity which the sages have described as naturally their peculiar blessing. Too close, too dark throng the evils they cannot obviate, the sorrows they cannot relieve. To a man of good heart, each day must bring purgatory, which he knows not how to bear—yet to which he fears to become insensible.

  From these clouds of the Present it is pleasant to turn the thoughts to some objects which have cast a light upon the Past, and which, by the virtue of their very nature, prescribe hope for the Future. I have mentioned with satisfaction seeing some persons who illustrated the past dynasty in the progress of thought here: Wordsworth, Dr. Chalmers, De Quincey, Andrew Combe. With a still higher pleasure, because of to one of my own sex whom I have honored almost above any, I went to pay my court, to Joanna Baillie. I found on her brow not indeed a coronal of gold, but a serenity and strength undimmed and unbroken by the weight of more than fourscore years, or by the scanty appreciation which her thoughts have received.

  I prize Joanna Baillie and Madame Roland as the best specimens which have been hitherto offered of women of a Spartan, Roman strength and singleness of mind, adorned by the various culture and capable of the various action opened to them by the progress of the Christian Idea. They are not sentimental; they do not sigh and write of withered flowers of fond affection, and woman’s heart born to be misunderstood by the object or objects of her fond, inevitable choice. Love, (the passion,) when spoken of at all by them, seems a thing noble, religious, worthy to be felt. They do not write of it always; they did not think of it always; they saw other things in this great, rich, suffering world. In superior delicacy of touch they show the woman, but the hand is firm; nor was all their speech one continued utterance of mere personal experience. It contained things which are good, intellectually, universally.

  I regret that the writings of Joanna Baillie are not more known in the United States. The Plays on the Passions are faulty in their plan—all attempts at comic, even at truly dramatic effect, fail—but there are masterly sketches of character, vigorous expressions of wise thoughts, deep, fervent ejaculations of an aspiring soul!

  We found her in her little calm retreat at Hampstead, surrounded by marks of love and reverence from distinguished and excellent friends. Near her was the sister, older than herself, yet still sprightly and full of active kindness, whose character and their mutual relation she has, in one of her last poems, indicated with such a happy mixture of sagacity, humor and tender pathos, and with so absolute a truth of outline. Although no autograph collector, I asked for theirs, and when the elder gave hers as “sister to Joanna Baillie,” it drew a tear from my eye, a good tear, a genuine pearl, fit homage to that fairest product of the soul of man, humble, disinterested tenderness.

  Hampstead has still a good deal of romantic beauty. I was told it was the favorite sketching ground of London artists, till the railroads gave them easy means of spending a few hours to advantage farther off. But, indeed, there is a wonderful deal of natural beauty lying in untouched sweetness near London. Near one of our cities it would all have been grubbed up the first thing. —But we, too, are beginning to grow wiser.

  At Richmond I went to see another lady of more than three score years; celebrity, more than fourscore in age, Miss Berry, the friend of Horace Walpole, and for her charms of manner and conversation long and still a reigning power. She has still the vivacity, the careless nature or refined art that made her please so much in earlier days—still is girlish and gracefully so. Verily, with her was no sign of labor or sorrow.

  From the older turning to the young, I must speak with pleasure of several girls I knew in London who are devoting themselves to painting as a profession. They had really wise and worthy views of the artist’s avocation—if they remain true to them, they will enjoy a free, serene existence, unprofaned by undue care or sentimental sorrow. Among these, Margaret Gillies has attained some celebrity; she may be known to some in America by engravings in the “People’s Journal” from her pictures, but, if I remember right, these are coarse things, and give no just notion of her pictures, which are distinguished for elegance and refinement; a little mannerized, but she is improving in that respect.

  Talking of coarse engravings, I must observe how shockingly that of Tennyson, which we see in Horne’s “Spirit of the Age” metamorphosizes his picture which I saw at Mr. Moxen’s, as also a beautiful miniature of Keats from which an engraving is being made for his “Life” by Milnes, soon to appear. Tennyson’s eyes are very fine; a heavy lid, but looking as if the eye could glow into effulgence. Talking of Mr. Horne, I saw him; he is a great favorite with his friends, and one can easily see why. I understood he is author of some very good children’s books, a rare gift to his generation. One, “The History of a London Doll,” I read with sincere edification. The Statesman’s attempt to answer Dolly’s letter is very good.

  The “People’s Journal” comes nearer being a fair sign of the times than any other publication of England, apparently, if we except Punch. As for the Times, on which you all use your scissors so industriously, that is the Times’ times, managed with vast ability, no doubt, but the blood would tingle many a time to the finger’s ends of the body politic before that solemn organ which claims to represent the heart, would dare beat in unison. Still it would require all the wise management of the Times or wisdom enough to do without it, and a wide range and diversity of talent, indeed, almost sweeping the circle, to make a People’s Journal for England. The present is only a bud of the future flower.

  Mary and William Howitt are its main support. I saw them several times at their cheerful and elegant home. In Mary Howitt I found the same engaging traits of character we are led to expect from her books for children. Her husband is full of the same agreeable information communicated in the same lively yet precise manner we find in his books; it was like talking with old friends, except that now the eloquence of the eye was added. At their house I became acquainted with Dr. Southwood Smith, the well-known philanthropist. He is at present engaged on the construction of good tenements calculated to improve the condition of the working people. His plans look promising, and should they succeed, you shall have a detailed account of them. On visiting him, we saw an object which I had often heard celebrated and had thought would be revolting, but found on the contrary an agreeable sight; this is the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham. It was at Bentham’s request that the skeleton dressed in the same dress he habitually wore, stuffed out to an exact resemblance of life, and with a portrait mark in wax, the best I ever saw, sits there as assistant to Dr. Smith in the entertainment of his guests and companion of his studies. The figure leans a little forward, resting the hands on a stout stick which Bentham always carried, and had named “Dapple;” the attitude is quite easy, the expression of the whole mild, winning, yet highly individual. It is a pleasing mark of that unity of aim and tendency to be expected throughout the life of such a mind, that Bentham, while quite a young man, had made a will, in which, to oppose in the most convincing manner the prejudice against the dissection of the human subject, he had given his body after death to be used in the service of the cause of science. “I have not yet been able,” said the will, “to do much service to my fellow men by my life, but, perhaps, I may in this manner by my death.” Many years after, reading a pamphlet by Dr. Smith on the same subject, he was much pleased with it, became his friend, and bequeathed his body to his care and use, with directions that the skeleton should finally be disposed of in the way I have described.

  The countenance of Dr. Smith has an expression of expansive, sweet, almost child-like goodness. Miss Gillies has made a charming picture of him, with a favorite little grand-daughter nestling in his arms.

  Another marked figure that I encountered on this great show-board was Cooper, the author of “The Purgatory of Luicides,” a very remarkable poem, of which, had there been leisure before my departure, I should have made a review and given copious extracts in The Tribune. Cooper is as strong as and probably a milder man than when in the prison where that poem was written. The earnestness in seeking freedom and happiness for all men which drew upon him that penalty, seems unabated; he is a very significative type of the new era, also an agent in bringing it near. One of the Poets of the People, also, I saw—the sweetest singer of them all. —Thom. “A Chieftain unknown to the Queen” is again exacting a cruel tribute from him. I wish much that some of those of New-York who have taken an interest in him would provide there a nook in which he might find refuge and solace for the evening of his days, to sing or to work as likes him best, and where he could bring up two fine boys to happier prospects than the parent, land will afford them. Could and would America but take from other lands more of the talent, as well as the one and sinew, she would be rich.

  But the stroke of the clock warns me to stop now and begin to-morrow with fresher eye and hand on some interesting topics. My sketches are slight; still they cannot be made without time, and I find none to be had in this Europe except late at night. I believe it is what the inhabitants use, but I am too sleepy a genius to carry the practice far.  *

“Things and Thoughts in Europe,” New-York Daily Tribune, 2 February 1847, p. 1.