England - To Lechlade And Kelmscott
( Originally Published 1900 )
Beautiful words and beautiful lives — Ugly Swindon —" To Kelmscott" — William Morris's grave -- Tea in Kelmscott Garden — Shelley and Lechlade.
WHAT beautiful words are made by beautiful lives — though I suppose there are names of places which no amount of godly or romantic living on the part of immortals can make beautiful: Swindon, for example, through which gate of horn I must perforce pass to meet the Upper Thames. No doubt many noble and useful lives have been lived at Swindon, yet they have hidden no echo of their music in the curt syllables of that inglorious name. A grim junction for green places, a hard and hideous halt in a pleasant pilgrimage, a town to pass through with eyes shut and fingers in your ears — such is Swindon, for which I seem to have conceived a peculiar spite. Perhaps it comes of my having once opened my eyes as I passed through, and severely wounded them against a public building. I am sure that I only came through Swindon alive by saying "Lechlade and Kelmscott " softly all the way ; for it is well known that beautiful words are a sovereign charm against evil spirits. " Lechlade and Kelmscott I" The names seemed to float out of the musical distance, to meet and heal the poor pilgrim, eye-sore and ear-wounded from his passage through Swindon. Thank God, I was safe on the green other side — with the evening bells of two beautiful names sounding ever nearer. " Lechlade and Kelmscott ! " Would they have seemed so beautiful, I wondered, had not Shelley filled one with starlight, and William Morris made an orchard of the other ? They were beautiful names always, one can see ; but it is plain, too, that no beauty of their own would have made them so very precious to the ear. Mere natural beauty could not have sufficed them. Like women, however literally beautiful, they had to be loved by poets ere they could be robed in that supernatural beauty with which the love of a poet transfigures its object.
Kelmscott ! When at last I stood beneath a finger-post which said " To Kelmscott," I stood and looked a long while. It was as though in some green lane I had come upon a finger-post: To the Moon " — in fact, was not Kelmscott "East of the Sun and West of the Moon " ? It is strange how a great man first of all makes a place so real, and then turns it to utter fairyland. Once Kelmscott was an unknown cluster of farms and pigstyes ; then it became real with the daylight of contemporary fame; now it is a dream-village, bathed in the moonlight of immortality.
"To Kelmscott!" O my bicycle — wheel very softly thither. And shall we not wreath us in green boughs, and thus enter the village—very strangely ? The villagers would not fear us so, for they have seen many strange and moon-like things at Kelmscott. As in some Italian village once obscure, but suddenly wild with fame because the Madonna has appeared to a goatherd in a great radiance, the peasants are learned in holy things ; so at Kelmscott, one might fancy, the very pigs must know somewhat of the ways of poets.
It is a sad, stone village is Kelmscott, — sad with something of the sadness of the stone villages of the Cotswolds. The hard life of the earth seems to have made grim the wintry faces of the buildings, as it makes grim the faces of old farm hands that have feared God for seventy years, yet with just that sweetness which comes of being worn and worn, like old silver. But the good trees try to make the old buildings feel at home in the world. How they nestle and rustle, the thick green leaves around the sad old stone !
But how lovingly, shelteringly, they close around the tiny church, with its one great grave ! Grave so great, yet almost hidden away beneath the boundary hedge of the churchyard, — a careless moulderingplace, where no official sexton disturbs the dead with nicely ordered gravel and packets of forget-me-nots, but where the moss creeps stealthily in the night of forgetfulness, and the weeds fearlessly thicken.
Just a sarcophagus of plain stone, with a touch of simple beauty in its shape, and : " William Morris, 1834–1896." Ah, Master — and it is here that you lie a-sleeping. Happily there are feelings that all can understand. All who matter to me will understand what it might perhaps be to stand by the grave of William Morris.
As I stood there, I hardly know why, and with no special reference, I found myself saying to myself some words from one of those beautiful prose romances which were more truly William Morris—" William Morris, 1834–1896 "— than his poetry, some words accidentally held in the tangle of my memory : —
" ... . and Ralph said : 'How is it with thee, beloved ? '
O well, indeed,' she said.
Quoth he : 'And how tasteth to thee the water of the Well ?
Slowly she spake and sleepily : 'It tasted good, and as if thy love were blended in it.' "
And then I turned away from the Well at the World's End," with a full, sweet heart, gravely glad somehow, and again irrelevantly, and, probably inaccurately, I hummed to myself: —
"I know a little garden close,
and thereat I came to the end of the lane, — a cul-de-sac of great trees, with the young Thames just below, lying like a nymph among the reeds — and the grey gables of Kelmscott House, and I sat in the orchard and took tea with one whom I will not name for very reverence, --the muse of all those memories that came upon me thick as the ripe sun through the twisted apple-boughs. Then I walked through the house he had loved, looked at his books, touched gently the woven works of his hands—and thought of it all : of Rossetti, too, and of all that praying brotherhood of beauty. And so I went away filled with wonder, and not far away from tears.
Then Lechlade spire rose out of the green flatness, and my thoughts turned to that earlier spirit. Poor young spirit, so trapped and trammelled, and yet escaping into such a radiance of song—the purest soul since Christ, the gentlest heart. His face of white fire was somewhere down there among the river rushes, for it was yet afternoon, and he and his friends were busy with one of his glorious absurdities, tugging vainly at the oar against the weeds and shallows of the river. That wonderful Thames voyage ! Listen to an old letter. It is from Charles Clairmont to Clare Clairmont, and is dated September 16, 1815. The "we" means "Mary," Peacock, Charles Clairmont, and Shelley.
" . . . Having left Oxford, we proceeded onward, and in a day or two to Lechlade, the last town on the riverside, and about fourteen miles from the source of the Thames. We had in the course of our voyage conceived the scheme of not stopping here, but, by going along a canal which here joins the Thames, to get into the Severn, and so also to follow up that river to its source. Shelley even pro-posed in his wildness, that there should be no halting place even there; he even proposed, by the help of divers canals and rivers, to leave North Wales, and, traversing the inland counties, to reach Durham and the Lakes, so on to the Tweed, and hence to come out on the, Forth, nor rest till we reached the Falls of the Clyde, when by the time we returned we should have voyaged two thousand miles. However, all this airy scheme was soon laid aside, for the Commissioner would not allow us to pass the Severn Canal under 20 pounds. This was out of the question, so, having satisfied ourselves on these points, we determined at least to draw our boat up to the very spring of the Thames before we returned. We made a most bold endeavour at this last project, but by the time we got three miles above Lechlade the reeds became so enormously thick and high that all three of us tugging could not move the boat an inch ; the water also, a little further on, was so shallow that it barely covered the hoofs of some cows standing in the middle to drink. Quite scared by this sight, we turned round and passed the rest of the day at Lechlade. Next morning at six we commenced our homeward course, and in about four days reached Windsor again, much delighted by our excursion, but heartily tired of its length. We have all felt the good effects of this jaunt, but in Shelley the change is quite remarkable ; he has now the ruddy, healthy complexion of the autumn upon his countenance, and he is twice as fat as he used to be."
Shelley had been fired to all this by memories of river navigation on the Reuss and the Rhine, and there is no telling how many times as they tugged upstream, he had chanted his favourite verse from Southey. As no one quotes "Thalaba" nowadays, one may as well quote it :
" The little boat moved on,
But, as we have seen, the little boat did not move on. So the party, happy all the same, had to spend the night at Lech-lade, a curiously sad and time-swept old village. It is pleasant to think that Shelley was really happy at Lechlade. It stands in his history for one of his rare perfect hours. In the tumbled cloudland of his life, it is a sweet, unobstructed star. Peacock, with his usual judgment, attributed this serenity to a lapse from Shelley's customary vegetarianism. He had prescribed " peppered mutton-chops," and Shelley had been unable to resist them. So it came that he wandered so happily about Lechlade churchyard in the starlight, eagerly making an elegy : —
" Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
The Lechlade steeple still dreams of it all at starlight.