An Unpublished Chapter In Washington Irving's Life
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT has been one hundred and nineteen years since Washington Irving was born, but only forty-three years since he died. It occurred to me that some of his old friends might still be lingering on the shores of Time, and that they might be able to give me some new facts about his character and life. Accordingly, I started on my search.
Nearly every one I spoke to on this subject in Tarrytown, New York, said: " Irving's old pastor, Dr. J. Sheldon Spencer, is still living. He knows more about the inner life of the great author than any other man."
I went to the rectory of Christ's Episcopal Church in Tarrytown, where I met the venerable pastor. He is four score years of age, but in the color of his hair, the lustre of the eye, the grasp of the hand, the tone of the voice, and the vigor of the mind, he does not appear over three score years and ten.
" Dr. Spencer," I said, " I am searching for new things about Washington Irving. I am glad that I found you, for two reasons, because you knew him so well, and because it is likely that you can give me some facts about his religious life which has been almost entirely overlooked by his biographers. It has been a surprise to me that a man whose spirit was molded so nearly like that of his Master; whose writings have such a pure, healthy tone; whose life from beginning to end stood for righteousness, should be photographed by his biographers with the religious element omitted. Dr. Spencer, you will do a service to the memory of your departed friend, and to the living, if you will supply this chapter which has been omitted in the history of his life."
The venerable rector, his eyes flashing with emotion, said : " I can and will do so, for I have material for the purpose at hand and will give you what you desire. Let me explain, however, why so little is said about the religious side of Irving. He was by nature exceedingly modest. He did not care to have public attention directed to any of his good qualities. He practised his piety, but made no noisy profession of it. He considered his Christian experience a sacred thing to be felt and lived, rather than to be talked about. He intended that Life and Letters, by Pierre Irving, should be his autobiography. He placed most of the material in his nephew's hands for the work. The latter told me so. Irving, with his native modesty, and his aversion to parading so sacred a thing as his spiritual life, left out all reference to his religious experience; and, as most of the biographers went to the Life and Letters for their data, finding no mention of the divine side of his character, they were silent also on this subject.
" My acquaintance with Washington Irving began in 1853, and it soon ripened into friendship under circumstances most tender and affecting. At the beginning of my ministry in Christ Church, Tarrytown, N. Y., my first wife died. Irving was one of the first to call upon me and proffer me the comfort and strength of his tender sympathy. The warm and prolonged pressure of his hand made me feel the power of his sympathy, and then followed these few words, softly and gently spoken, ` They who minister to others must not themselves refuse consolation.' In my sorrow it was a personal revelation of human tenderness, next to the benediction of the Master.
" I can never forget the embarrassment I first experienced in preaching before him. I painfully anticipated the criticism of one who stood in the foremost rank of all authors. But I soon found that there was no more devout or attentive hearer in the church than he. He sat in his pew with his head resting lightly on his hand, in that pensive attitude which one of his portraits exhibits. He would thus sit with his eyes intent upon the speaker as one anxious to receive some truth for his soul's health. With all his powers of mind, he knew of no other spiritual sustenance than the Gospel of Christ, and its plain, simple truths.
" During my first interview with him at Sunnyside, he introduced the subject of church music, of which he was particularly fond, though I do not think he could sing a note ; but the sentiment and the melody deeply affected him. He referred to the " Gloria in Excelsis." Repeating the words as if they were the joyful refrain of his own heart, he exclaimed, his eyes filling with tears, and his voice trembling with emotion : ` That is religion, Mr. Spencer ; that is true religion for you. I never hear the hymn without having my mind lifted up, and my heart made better by it.'
" During another visit he spoke to me of this text, which had profoundly impressed him, ` My Son, give me thine heart.' Years before he must have been deeply impressed with it, for on looking over a volume of Bishop Wainwright's sermons, I found one on the text, accompanied by the statement that it was suggested to the Bishop by Washington Irving, as a text which, more than all others, he should like to hear treated in a sermon. On another occasion, on the church porch, he uttered with great feeling the same general thought, in words which may be classed with the best and most beautiful he ever expressed : ` Religion is of the heart, not of the head. We may, with the understanding, approach the vestibule of the Temple, but it is only with the heart that we can enter its holy precincts and draw near its sacred altar.'
" Mr. Irving was confirmed in the Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City, though his parents were Covenanters. But when he came to Tarrytown and built his Sunnyside home, he became a regular communicant in our church, and continued ever after a most devout and exemplary member of the parish. He once told me that, when he first attended church, he was rather restless during the ritual service and waited impatiently till it was over, and then settled himself to hear the sermon. But one Sunday, he said, as he was entering the church, the solemn exhortation to confession was being read, and the thought struck him that he too had sins to confess, and so he fell upon his knees and joined in the humble confession of sins. ` And,' said he, in that emphatic way which always carried with it the conviction of his sincerity, and with an earnest gesticulation of his arm, which those who knew him well remember, ` from that day forward the church service has ever been to me an increasing and never ending source of comfort and delight.'
" Who will say that the Bible and Prayer Book of that fair maiden who was Washington Irving's early and only love, which from the first hour of agony at his irreparable loss, were ever by him, taken with him in all his travels, and at his death were still by his side, were not, from their sweetly sad associations as well as from their spiritual counsel and comfort, the means of hallowing that gifted heart with high and holy purposes of duty and with the blessed hope of everlasting life, in which he lived and died.
" Mr. Irving took an active part in the practical work of the church. After his return from Spain, as United States Minister, he was elected warden of our church. It became his duty, among other things, to take up the collection. On coming out of church one Sunday, he said, his eyes twinkling with humor. ` I have passed that plate so often up and down the aisle, that I begin to feel like a highwayman. I feel as if I could stop a man on the road and say, ` Your money or your life!'
" At one of the vestry meetings, Mr. Holmes, one of the members, was accompanied by an inoffensive pet dog, which took refuge at his feet. There was an animated discussion. Mr. Holmes, in his earnest manner, pressed his views upon the meeting, and the discussion threatened to be prolonged and serious. When he had ended, Irving, who was always a peacemaker, arose and inquired of the chairman whether Mr. Holmes should be allowed to put them all in bodily terror, adding that he had not only come to advocate his measure, but had brought with him a fierce beast to overawe the vestry and control their votes.' And,' he added, pointing to the little dog, ` there he is now by his side, keeping guard.' And the irresistible drollery of his speech and manner allayed at once the heat of the discussion, and diffused a feeling of perfect good-nature over the meeting, which gave a satisfactory settlement of the question."
By a stairway and a door we entered the beautiful audience room of the church, from the rectory. There is was, the same pew, with the same cushion, just as it had been left by the great author the day before he died, the only change being the removal of the pew a few feet to the baptistery. Above the pew is a beautiful memorial tablet. In the centre is the Irving coat-of-arms—two royal supporters holding a shield emblazoned with holly leaves, having as a crest a hand holding a bunch of holly. The story is that Robert Bruce was aided in his struggle by William Irvin, and that on taking his throne, he knighted his faithful friend and gave him the Castle of Drum in Aberdeenshire, and his own coat-of-arms. The castle, which is now owned by Alexander Forbes Irvine, has been in the possession of the family since the days of Bruce. The holly of the coat-of-arms is the sign of the deliverance of Irving's ancestor and his king. The tablet has the inscription :
Washington Irving, Born in the City of New York, April 3, 1783. For many years a Communicant and Warden of the Church and Respectfully one of its Delegates to the Convention of the Diocese. Loved, Honored, Revered, He fell asleep in Jesus March 28, 1859.
As we went out of the front door of the church, I noticed the beautiful ivy covering the tower, and Dr. Spencer said, Mr. Irving planted that ivy with his own hand. It was a cutting from the vine which mantles his own Sunnyside, which was originally brought from the ruins of Melrose Abbey," The little slip had grown into trunk, which I could scarcely span with both hands.
I asked the venerable pastor about Irving's love for children. He said, " He was passionately fond of them, and they were charmed by him. I have seen the children flock about him in the vestibule of the church and slip bouquets into his hands, and they would have him bend down while they placed flowers in a button-hole of his coat, and they always received some tender word or sweet smile, and seemed so happy, but not more so than he.
" In his conversation, as in his writings, there was no affectation, no parade of learning, for everything was natural and simple, often mirthful, but never coarse. He wielded the shafts of wit and humor, but without inflicting pain. I never heard an unkind or bitter word fall from his lips. He was slow and hesitating in conversation, and the first impression, on hearing him talk, might be one of disappointment, but one soon felt the irresistible fascination of his speech. He would often hesitate for a word. He told me that he wrote his manuscripts in the same hesitating way, as it were, with continual corrections; and even after the proof sheets were sent to him, he would still alter and interline, but only to insure a clearer perception of his thought.
" Now,' said he to me, after he had sent off the last sheet of his final work—his Life of Washington a work which had engaged his thoughts and pen for years, ` now I feel as if I were just ready to sit down and begin to write the life of Washington.'
" Mr. Spencer," I said, " did I understand you to say a moment ago that you never heard Irving say an unkind or bitter word? "
" Yes," he replied, " the nearest state to ill temper I ever saw in him was while he recited an incident to me which he did not allow to be mentioned in his Life and Letters, concerning his mission as Minister to Spain. It was during his official career, when James Buchanan was Secretary of State, that the attitude of our Government toward Mexico threatened to involve us in serious complications with Spain. The Spanish Government was alarmed and continually plied Irving with questions as to the intention of our government.
" `I wrote to Secretary Buchanan,' said Irving, ` a full account of the state of feeling, but received no answer. I wrote again and again, but the Secretary of State did not even deign a reply. I stood, a mortified representative of my country before that proud and sensitive court, and when I returned home, I had to go to Washington, hunt up the letters I had written to Mr. Buchanan, and place them myself on record as a part of the history of my mission.'
" You may imagine the effect of such treatment upon a refined and sensitive nature like that of Irving. In the expression of his face, and the tone of his voice in relating the incident, I discovered that which I had never seen in him before, the deepest indignation."
I suggested to Dr. Spencer my surprise that no monument had been erected to Irving in the family burial lot in Sleepy Hollow. Dr. Spencer said, Irving told me that he wished after death no other monument over his grave than such a simple headstone as marked the graves of others of his family. ` Those old black oaks, waving their requiem over me, with old Sleepy Hollow Church in the fore-ground, will be a sufficient monument.' "
Mr. Irving gave Dr. Spencer a set of his miscellaneous works, with this inscription in the first volume, written with his own hand :
" To the Rev. J. Sheldon Spencer in testimony of the affectionate regard of his parishioner, Washington Irving, Sunnyside, Nov. 5, 1858."
The great author also gave his pastor a copy of his Life of Washington, writing in the first volume :
" To the Rev. J. Sheldon Spencer, in grateful acknowledgment of the profit and satisfaction derived from his ministry, by Washington Irving, Sunnyside, Nov. 5, 1858."
I asked the venerable pastor how long he had served the Church in Tarrytown. He answered, " I was rector of Christ's Church for forty-eight years. Two years ago I resigned, and was made rector emeritus. I shall never cease to be grateful for the honor, pleasure and profit of the acquaintance and intimate friend-ship of America's greatest author, Washington Irving."