« PreviousContinue »
and common plant, when seen in luxuriant health in a fertile valley, but rising into a touching, almost an ideal grace, when languishing through a faint and feeble existence, on the extreme borders of those eternal snows, where it shows, like a memory of beauty, a consolation and a hope amid the horrors and desolatior of a stern and barren world.
But the greatest triumph of Mr. Ruskin is that long series of cloud pictures, unparalleled, I suppose, in any language, whether painted or written. I transcribe the fine opening of these mag nificent chapters.
OF THE OPEN SKY.
" It is a strange thing how little, in general, people know about the sky. It is the part of creation in which nature has done more for the sake of pleasing man-more for the sole and evident purpose of talking to him, and teaching him, than in any other of her works ; and it is just the part in which we least attend to her. There are not many of her other works in which some more material or essential purpose than the mere pleasing of men, is not answered by every part of their organization ; but every essential purpose of the sky might, so far as we know, be answered, if, once in three days or thereabouts, a great ugly black rain-cloud were brought up over the blue, and every thing well watered, and so all left blue again till next time, with perhaps a film of morning and evening mist for dew. And, instead of this, there is not a moment of any day of our lives when nature is not producing scene after scene, picture after picture, glory after glory, and working still upon such exquisite and constant principles of the most perfect beauty, that it is quite certain that it is all done for us, and intended for our perpetual pleasure. And every man, wherever placed, however far from other sources of interest or of beauty, has this doing for him constantly. The noblest scenes of the earth can be seen and known but by few ; it is not intended that rnan should live always in the midst of them : he injures them by his presence, he ceases to feel them, if he be always with them ; but the sky is for all ; bright as it is, it is not 'too bright nor good for human nature's daily food ;' it is fitted in all its functions for the perpetual comfort and exalting of the heart, for the soothing it, and purifying it from its dross and dust. Sometimes gentle, sometimes capricious, sometimes awful-never the same for two moments together; almost human in its passions, almost spiritual in its tenderness, almost divine in its infinity, its appeal to what is immortal in us as distinct as its ministry of chastisement or of blessing to what is mortal is essential.
And yet we never attend to it, we never make it a subject of thought, but as it has to do with our animal sensations; we look upon all by which it speaks to us more clearly than to brutes, upon all which bears witness to the intention of the Supreme, that we are to receive more from the covering vault than the light and the dew which we share with the weed and the worm, only as a succession of meaningless and monotonous accident, too common and too painful to be worthy of a moment of watchfulness, or a glance of admiration. If, in our moments of utter idleness and insipidity, we turn to the sky as a last resource, which of its phenomena do we speak of? One says it has been wet, and another it has been windy, and another it has been warm. Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that gilded the horizon at noon yesterday ? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south, and smote upon their summits, until they melted and moldered away in a dust of blue rain ? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds, when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it, like withered leaves ? All has passed unregretted or unseen ; or, if the apathy be ever shaken off, even for an instant, it is only by what is gross, or what is extraordinary; and yet it is not in the broad and fierce manifestations of the elemental energies, not in the clash of the hail, nor the drift of the whirlwind, that the highest characters of the sublime are developed. God is not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice. They are but the blunt and the loud faculties of our nature, which can only be addressed through lampblack and lightning. It is in quiet and subdued passages of unobtrusive majesty—the deep, and the calm, and the perpetual that which must be sought ere it is seen, and loved ere it is understood things which the angels work out for us daily, and yet very eternally, which are never wanting, and never repeated, which are to be found always, yet each found but once. It is through these that the lesson of devotion is chiefly taught, and the blessing of beauty
Jeremy Taylor himself has nothing more holy or more beautiful than this
passage. My rnost kind friend, Mr. Ruskin, will understand why I connect his name with the latest event that has befallen me, the leaving the cottage that for thirty years had been my shelter. In truth, it was leaving me. All above the foundation seemed moldering, like an old cheese, with damp and rottenness. The rain came dripping through the roof and steaming through the walls. The hailstones pattered upon my bed, through the casements, and ihe small panes rattled and fell to pieces every high wind. My pony was driven from his stable by a great hole where the bricks had fallen out of the side, and from the coach-house, where he was led for refuge, by a huge gap in the thatch above. There was some danger that his straw bed must be spread in the little hall; but the hall itself was no safer, for one evening, crossing from the door to the staircase, I found myself dragging off the skirting-board by no stronger a compulsion than the flounce of a
The poor cottage was crumbling around us, and if we had stayed much longer we should have been buried in the ruins.
And yet it was great grief to go. Besides my hatred of all change, especially change of place, a tendency to take root where I am planted, and to eschew all past dwellings, which renders me quite an anachronism in this locomotive age ; besides my general aversion to new habitations, I had associations with those old walls which endeared them to me more than I can tell. There I had toiled and striven, and tasted of bitter anxiety, of fear and of hope as often falls to the lot of women. There, in the fullness of age, I had lost those whose love had made my home sweet and precious. Alas! there is no hearth so humble but it has known such tales of joy and of sorrow !
Other recollections, less dear and less sad, added their interest to the place. Friends, many and kind; strangers, whose names were an honor, had come to that bright garden, and that garden
The list would fill more pages than I have to give. There Mr. Justice Talfourd had brought the delightful gayety of his brilliant youth, and poor Haydon had talked more brilliant pictures than be ever painted. The illustrations of the last century-Mrs. Opie, Miss Porter, Mr. Cary—had mingled there with poets, still in their earliest dawn. It was a heart-tug to leave that garden.
But necessity (may I not say Providence ?) works for us better than our own vain wishes. I did move—I was compelled to move from the dear old house ; not very far; not much farther than Cowper, when he migrated from Olney to Weston, and with quite as happy an effect. I walked from the one cottage to the other on an autumn evening, when the vagrant birds, whose habit of assembling here for their annual departure, gives, I suppose, its name of Swallowfield to the village, were circling and twittering over my head ; and repeated to myself the pathetic lines of Hayley, as he saw those same birds gathering upon his roof during his last illness :
“Ye gentle birds, that perch aloof,
May God, by whom is seen and heard
Thoughts soothing and tender came with those touching lines, and gayer images followed. Here I am in this prettiest village, in the snuggest and cosiest of all snug cabins ; a trim cottage garden, divided by a hawthorn hedge from a little field guarded by grand old trees; a cheerful glimpse of the high-road in front, just to hint that there is such a thing as the peopled world ; and on either side the deep silent lanes that form the distinctive character of English scenery. Very lovely is my favorite lane, leading along a gentle declivity to the valley of the Loddon, by pastoral water meadows studded with willow pollards, past picturesque farm-houses and gaunt old mills, the beautiful river glancing here and there like molten silver, until it disappears through a rustic bridge among the shades and avenues of the Dukc's park, a scene of historians.
We have another historical mansion clore at hand, where 558 RECOLLECTIONS OF A LITERARY LIFE.
Lord Clarendon wrote his thrilling tale of 'the Great Rebellion, and where the inhabitants and the library are worthy of such a predecessor. And they are so kind to me! and every body is so kind; and the new cottage is already dearer than the old.
The very gipsys have found us out. Even as I write, my little maid is bargaining for baskets with my friend of the lane, and seems likely to be as well taken in as I could be ; the pony is rolling in the meadow; the mill-wagon, with the jolly miller's handsome son, is looming in the distance; and on the green before our court, little Henry is driving Fanchon in the wheelbarrow, while her brown curls are turning into gold in the wintry sun, which lends its charm and its glory to the simplest landscape and the humblest home.