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First Impressions of England and its People
Chapter II


Weather still miserably bad ; suited to betray the frequent Poverty of English Landscape. — Gloomy Prospects of the Agriculturist. — Corn-Law League.— York ; a true Sacerdotal City. — Cathedral; noble Exterior ; Interior not less impressive ; Congreve’s sublime Description. — Unpardonable Solecism. — Procession.—Dean Cockburn; Crusade against the Geologists. — Cathedral Service unworthy of the Cathedral. — Walk on the City Ramparts. — Flat Fertility of the surrounding Country. — The more interesting Passages in the History of York supplied by the Makers. — Robinson Crusoe. — Jeanie Deans. — Trial of Eugene Aram. — Aram’s real Character widely different from that drawn by the Novelist.

Rain, rain! — another morning in England, and still no improvement in the weather. The air, if there was any change at all, felt rather more chill and bleak than on the previous evening; and the shower, in its paroxysms, seemed to beat still heavier on the panes. I was in no mood to lay myself up in a dull inn, like Washington Irving’s stout gentleman, and so took the train for York, in the hope of getting from under the cloud somewhere on its southern side, ere I at least reached the British Channel. Never surely was the north of England seen more thoroughly in dishabille. The dark woods and thick-set hedgerows looked blue and dim through the haze, like the mimic woodlands of a half-finished drawing in gray chalk; and, instead of cheering, added but to the gloom of the landscape. They seemed to act the part of mere sponges, that first condensed and then retained the moisture,—that became soaked in the shower, and then, when it had passed, continued dispensing their droppings on the rotting sward beneath, until another shower came. The character of the weather was of a

kind suited to betray the frequent poverty of English landscape. When the sky is clear and the sun bright, even the smallest and tamest patches of country have their charms: there is beauty in even a hollow willow pollard fluttering its silvery leaves over its patch of meadow-sedges against the deep blue of the heavens; hut in the dull haze and homogeneous light, that was but light and shadow muddled into a neutral tint of gray, one could not now and then avoid remarking that the entire prospect consisted of but one field and two hedgerows.

As we advanced, appearances did not improve. The wheaten fields exhibited, for their usual golden tint slightly umbered, an ominous tinge of earthy brown; the sullen rivers had risen high over the meadows; and rotting hay-ricks stood up like islands amid the water. At one place in the line the train had to drag its weary length in foam and spray, up to the wheel-axles, through the overflowings of a neighboring canal. The sudden shower came ever and anon beating against the carriage windows, obscuring yet more the gloomy landscape without; and the passengers were fain to shut close every opening, and to draw their great-coats and wrappers tightly around them, as if they had been journeying, not in the month of August, scarcely a fortnight after the close of the dog-days, but at Christmas. I heard among the passengers a few semi-political remarks, suggested by the darkening prospects of the agriculturist. The Anti-Corn-Law League, with all its formidable equipments, had lain for years, as if becalmed in its voyage, a water-logged hulk, that failed to press on towards its port of destination. One good harvest after another had, as sailors say, taken the wind out of its sails; and now here evidently was there a strong gale arising full in its poop. It was palpably on the eve of making great way in its course; and the few political remarks which I heard bore reference to the fact. But they elicited no general sympathy. The scowling heavens, the blackening earth, the swollen rivers, the ever-returning shower-blast, with its sharp-ringing patter, were things that had nought of the gayety of political triumph in them; and the more solid English, however favorable to free trade, could not deem it a cause of gratulation that for so many weeks “the sun, and the light, and the stars, had been darkened, and the clouds returned after the rain.” The general feeling seemed not inadequately expressed by a staid elderly farmer, with whom 1 afterwards travelled from York to Manchester. “I am sure,” he said, looking out into the rain, which was beating at the time with great violence, — “I am sure I wish the League no harm; but Heaven help us and the country, if there is to be no harvest! The League will have a dear triumph, if God destroy the fruits of the earth.”

Old sacerdotal York, with its august cathedral, its twenty-three churches in which Divine service is still performed, its numerous ecclesiastical ruins besides, — monasteries, abbeys, hospitals and chapels, — at once struck me as different from anything I had ever seen before. St. Andrews, one of the two ancient archiepiscopal towns of Scotland, may have somewThat resembled it on a small scale in the days of old Cardinal Beaton; but the peculiar character of the Scottish Reformation rendered it impossible that the country should possess any such ecclesiastical city ever after. Modern improvement has here and there introduced more of its commonplace barbarisms into the busier and the genteeler streets than the antiquary would have bargained for; it has been rubbing off the venerable rust, somewhat in the style adopted by the serving-maid, who scoured the old Roman buckler with sand and water till it shone: but York is essentially an ancient city still. One may still walk round it on the ramparts erected in the times of Edward the First, and tell all their towers, bars, and barbacans; and in threading one’s way along antique lanes, flanked by domiciles of mingled oak and old brick-work, that belly over like the sides of ships, and were tenanted in the days of the later Henrys, one stumbles unexpectedly on rectories that have their names recorded in Doomsday Book, and churches that were built before the Conquest. My first walk through the city terminated, as a matter of course, at the cathedral, so famous for its architectural magnificence and grandeur. It is a noble pile, — one of the sublimest things wrought by human hands which the island contains. As it rose gray and tall before me in the thickening twilight, — for another day had passed, and another evening was falling, — I was conscious of a more awe-struck and expansive feeling than any mere work of art had ever awakened in me before. The impression more resembled what I have sometimes experienced on some solitary ocean shore, o’erhung by dizzy precipices, and lashed high by the foaming surf; or beneath the craggy brow of some vast mountain, that overlooks, amid the mute sublimities of nature, some far-spread uninhabited wilderness of forest and moor. I realized better than ever before the justice of the eulogium of Thomson on the art of the architect, and recognized it as in reality

“The art where most magnificent appears
The little builder man.”

It was too late to gain admission to the edifice, and far too late to witness the daily service; and I was desirous to see not only the stately temple itself, but the worship performed in it. I spent, however, an hour in wandering round it, — in marking the effect on buttress and pinnacle, turret and arch, of the still deepening shadows, and in catching the general outline between me and the sky. The night had set fairly in long ere 1 reached my lodging-house. York races had just begun; and, bad as the weather was, there was so considerable an influx of strangers into the town, that there were few beds in the inns unoccupied, and I had to content myself with the share of a bed-room in which there were two. My co-partner in the room came in late and went away early; and all I know of him, or shall perhaps ever know, is, that after having first ascertained, not very correctly, as it proved, that I was asleep, he prayed long and earnestly; that, as I afterwards learned from the landlord, he was a Wesleyan Methodist, who had come from the country, not to attend the races, for he was not one of the race-frequenting sort of people, but on some business ; and that he was much respected in his neighborhood for the excellence of his character.

Next morning I attended service in the cathedral; and being, I found, half an hour too early, spent the interval not unpleasantly in pacing the aisles and nave, and studying the stories so doubtfully recorded on the old painted glass. As I stood at the western door, and saw the noble stone roof stretching away more than thirty yards overhead, in a long vista of five hundred feet, to the great eastern window, I again experienced the feeling of the previous evening. Never before had I seen so noble a cover. The ornate complexities of the groined vaulting, — the giant columns, with their foliage-bound capitals, sweeping away in magnificent perspective, — the colored light that streamed through more than a hundred huge windows, and but faintly illumined the vast area, after all, — the deep withdrawing aisles, with their streets of tombs, — the great tower, under which a ship of the line might hoist top and top-gallant mast, and find ample room overhead for the play of her vane, — the felt combination of great age and massive durability, that made the passing hour in the history of the edifice but a mere half-way point between the centuries of the past and the centuries of the future, — all conspired to render the interior of York Minster one of the most impressive objects I had ever seen. Johnson singles out Congreve’s description of a similar pile as one of the finest in the whole range of English poetry. It is at least description without exaggeration, in reference to buildings such as this cathedral.

“Aimeria.It was a fancied noise; for all is hushed.

Leonora. It bore the accent of a human voice.

Almeria. It was thy fear, or else some transient wind Whistling through hollows of this vaulted aisle.

We ’ll listen —

Leonora. Hark!
Almeria. No, all is hushed and still as death: it is dreadful.
How reverend is the face of this tall pile,
Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads,
To bear aloft its arched and ponderous roof,
By its own weight made steadfast and immovable, —
Looking tranquillity! It strikes an awe
And terror on the aching sight: the tombs
And monumental caves of death look cold,
And shoot a chillness to the trembling heart.
Give me thy hand, and let me hear thy voice;
Nay, quickly speak to me, and let me hear
Thy voice: my own affrights me with its echoes.”

But though I felt the poetry of the edifice, so little had my Presbyterian education led me to associate the not unelevated impulses of the feeling with the devotional spirit, that, certainly without intending any disrespect to either the national religion or one of the noblest ecclesiastical buildings of England, I had failed to uncover my head, and was quite unaware of the gross solecism I was committing, until two of the ofS-cials, who had just ranged themselves in front of the organ-screen, to usher the dean and choristers into the choir, started forward, one from each side of the door, and, with no little gesticulatory emphasis, ordered me to take off my hat., “Off hat, sir! off hat!” angrily exclaimed the one. “Take off your hat, sir!” said the other, in a steady, energetic, determined tone, still less resistible. The peccant beaver at once sunk by my side, and I apologized. “Ah, a Scotchman!” ejaculated the keener official of the two, his cheek meanwhile losing some of the hastily-summoned red; “I thought as much.” The officials had scarcely resumed their places beside the screen, when Dean and Sub-dean, the Canons Residentiary and the Archdeacon, the Prebendaries and the Vicars Choral, entered the building in their robes, and, with step slow and stately, disappeared through the richly-fretted entrance of the choir. A purple curtain fell over the opening behind them, as the last figure in the procession passed in while a few lay saunterers, who had come to be edified by the great organ, found access by another door, which opened into one of the aisles.

The presiding churchman, on the occasion, was Dean Cock-burn, — a tall, portly old man, fresh-complexioned and silvery-haired, and better fitted than most men to enact the part of an imposing figure in a piece of impressive ceremony. I looked at the dean with some little interest; he had been twice before the public during the previous five years, — once as a dealer in church offices, for which grave offence he had been deprived by his ecclesiastical superior, the archbishop, but reponed by the queen, — and once as a redoubtable asserter of what he deemed Bible cosmogony, against the facts of the geologists. The old blood-boltered barons who lived in the times of the Crusades used to make all square with Heaven, when particularly aggrieved in their consciences, by slaying a few scores of infidels a-piece ; — the dean had fallen, it would seem, in these latter days, on a similar mode of doing penance, and expiated the crime of making canons residentiary for a consideration, by demolishing a whole conclave of geologists.

The cathedral service seemed rather a poor thing, on the whole. The coldly-read or fantastically-chanted prayers, commonplace by the twice-a-day repetition of centuries, — the mechanical responses, — the correct inanity of the choristers, who had not even the life of music in them,— the total want of lay attendance, for the loungers who had come in by the side-door went off en masse when the organ had performed its introductory part, and the prayers began, — the ranges of empty seats, which, huge as is the building which contains them, would scarce accommodate an average-sized Free Church congregation, — all conspired to show that the cathedral service of the English Church does not represent a living devotion, but a devotion that perished centuries ago. It is a petrifaction,— a fossil, — existing, it is true, in a fine state of keeping, but still an exanimate stone. Many ages must have elapsed since it was the living devotion I had witnessed on the previous evening in the double-bedded room, — if, indeed, it was ever so living a devotion, or aught, at best, save a mere painted image. Not even as a piece of ceremonial is it in keeping with the august edifice in which it is performed. The great organ does its part admirably, and is indisputably a noble machine; its thirty-two feet double-wood diapason pipe, cut into lengths, would make coffins for three Goliahs of Gath, brass armor and all: but the merely human part of the performance is redolent of none of the poetry which plays around the ancient walls, or streams through the old painted glass. It reminded me of the story told by the eastern traveller, who, in exploring a magnificent temple, passed through superb porticoes and noble halls, 5 to find a monkey enthroned in a little dark sanctum, as the god of the whole.

I had a long and very agreeable walk along the city ramparts. White watery clouds still hung in the sky; but the day was decidedly fine, and dank fields and glistening hedgerows steamed merrily in the bright warm sunshine. York, like all the greater towns of England, if we except the capital and some two or three others, stands on the New Red Sandstone; and the broad extent of level fertility which it commands is, to a Scotch eye, very striking. There is no extensive prospect in even the south of Scotland that does not include its wide ranges of waste, and its deep mountain sides, never furrowed by the plough; while in our more northern districts, one sees from every hill-top which commands the coast a landscape colored somewhat like a russet shawl with a flowered border; — there is a mere selvage of green cultivation on the edge of the land, and all within is brown heath and shaggy forest. In England, on the contrary, one often travels, stage after stage, through an unvarying expanse of flat fields laid out on the level formations, which, undisturbed by trappean or metamorphic rocks, stretch away at low angles for hundreds of miles together, forming blank tablets, on which man may write his works in whatever characters he pleases. Doubtless such a disposition of things adds greatly to the wealth and power of a country; — the population of Yorkshire, at the last census, equalled that of Scotland in 1801. But I soon began to weary of an infinity of green enclosures, that lay spread out in undistinguishable sameness, like a net, on the flat face of the landscape, and to long for the wild free moors and bold natural features of my own poor country. One likes to know the place of one’s birth by other than artificial marks: by some hoary mountain, severe yet kindly in its aspect, that one has learned to love as a friend; by some long withdrawing arm of the sea, sublimely guarded, where it opens to the ocean, by its magnificent portals of rock; by some wild range of precipitous coast, that rears high its ivy-bound pinnacles, and where the green wave ever rises and falls along dim resounding caverns; by some lonely glen, with its old pine forests hanging dark on the slopes, and its deep-brown river roaring over linn and shallow in its headlong course to the sea. Who could fight for a country without features, — that one would scarce be sure of finding out on one’s return from the battle, without the assistance of the mile-stones?

As I looked on either hand from the ancient ramparts, now down along the antique lanes and streets of the town, now over the broad level fields beyond, I was amused to think how entirely all my more vivid associations with York — town and country — had been derived from works of fiction. True, it was curious enough to remember, as a historical fact, that Christianity had been preached here to the pagan Saxons in the earlier years of the Heptarchy, by missionaries from Iona. And there are not a few other picturesque incidents, that, frosted over with the romance of history, glimmer with a sort of phosphoric radiance in the records of the place, — from the times when King Edwyn of the Northumbrians demolished the heathen temple that stood where the cathedral now stands, and erected in its room the wooden oratory in which he was baptized, down to the times when little crooked Leslie broke over the city walls at the head of his Covenanters, and held them against the monarch, in the name of the king. But the historical facts have vastly less of the vividness of truth about them than the facts of the makers. It was iqjthis city of York that the famous Robinson Crusoe was born; and here, in this city of York, did Jeanie Deans rest her for a day, on her London journey, with her hospitable countrywoman, Mrs. Bickerton of the Seven Stars; and it was in the country beyond, down in the West Riding, that Gurth and Wamba held high colloquy together, among the glades of the old oak forest; and that Cedric the Saxon entertained, in his low-browed hall of Roth-erwood, the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer of Jorvaulx.

I visited the old castle, now a prison, and the town museum, and found the geological department of the latter at once very extensive and exquisitely arranged; but the fact, announced in the catalogue, that it had been laid out under the eye of Phillips, while it left me much to admire in the order exhibited, removed at least all cause of wonder. I concluded the day — the first very agreeable one I had spent in England — by a stroll along the banks of the Ouse, through a colonnade of magnificent beeches. The sun was hastening to its setting, and the red light fell, with picturesque effect, on the white sails of a handsome brig, that came speeding up the river, through double rows of tall trees, before a light wind from the east. On my return to my lodging-house, through one of the obscure lanes of the city, I picked up, at a book-stall, what I deemed no small curiosity, — the original “Trial of Eugene Aram;” well known in English literature as the hero of one of Bulwer’s most popular novels, and one of Hood’s most finished poems, and for as wonderful a thing as either, his own remarkable defence. I had never before seen so full an account of the evidence on which he was condemned, nor of the closing scene in his singular history; nor was I aware there existed such competent data for forming an adequate estimate of his character, which, by the way, seems to have been not at all the character drawn by Bulwer. Knares-borough, the scene of Aram’s crime, may be seen from the battlements of York Minster. In York Castle he was imprisoned, and wrote his Defence and his Autobiography; at York Assizes he was tried and convicted; and on York gallows he was hung. The city is as intimately associated with the closing scenes in his history, as with the passing visit of Jeanie Deans, or the birth of Robinson Crusoe. But there is this important difference in the cases, that the one story has found a place in literature from the strangely romantic cast of its facts, and the others from the intensely truthful air of their fictions.

Eugene Aram seems not to have been the high heroic character conceived by the novelist, — not a hero of tragedy at all, nor a hero of any kind, but simply a poor egotistical with a fine intellect set in a very inferior nature. He represents the extreme type of unfortunately a numerous class, — the men of vigorous talent, in some instances of fine genius, who, though they can think much and highly of themselves, seem wholly unable to appreciate their true place and work, or the real dignity of their standing, and so are continually getting into false, unworthy positions, — in some instances falling into little meannesses, in others into contemptible crimes. I am afraid it is all too evident that even the sage Bacon belonged to this class; and there caff be little doubt that, though greatly less a criminal, the elegant and vigorous poet who described him as

“The greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind,”

belonged to it also. The phosphoric light of genius, that throws so radiant a gloom athwart the obscurities of nature, has in some cases been carried by a frivolous insect, in some by a creeping worm: there are brilliant intellects of the fire-fly and of the glow-worm class; and poor Eugene Aram was one of them. In his character, as embodied in the evidence on which he was convicted and condemned, we see merely that of a felon of the baser sort: a man who associated with low companions; married a low wife; entered into low sharping schemes with a poor dishonest creature, whom, early in his career, he used to accompany at nights in stealing flower-roots, — for they possessed in common a taste for gardening, — and whom he afterwards barbarously murdered, to possess himself of a few miserable pounds, — the proceeds of a piece of disreputable swindling, to which he had prompted him. Viewed, however, in another phase, we find that this low felon possessed one of those vigorous intellectual natures that, month after month, and year after year, steadily progress in acquirement, as the forest-tree swells in bulk of trunk and amplitude of bough; till, at length, with scarce any educational advantages, there was no learned language which he had not mastered, and scarce a classic author which he had not read. And, finally, when the learned felon came to make his defence, all Britain was astonished by a piece of pleading that, for the elegance of the composition and the vigor of the thought, would have done no discredit to the most accomplished writers of the day. The defence of Eugene Aram, if given to the public among the defences, and under the name, of Thomas Lord Erskine, so celebrated for this species of composition, would certainly not be deemed unworthy of the collection or its author. There can be no question that the Aram of Bulwer is a well-drawn character, and rich in the picturesque of tragic effect; but the exhibition is neither so melancholy nor so instructive as that of the Eugene Aram who was executed at York for murder in the autumn of 1759, and his body afterwards hung in chains at the place called St. Robert’s Cave, near Knaresborough.”


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