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England - Beaconsfield

( Originally Published 1910 )

GEORGE BANCROFT, writing to William H. Prescott from England on a summer day in 1847, entertained his fellow historian with a glowing account of a visit he had paid to that corner of Buckinghamshire made famous by the poet Gray. One of the most delightful memories of that vacation was concerned with a drive to the sequestered nook at Jordans where William Penn is buried.

" On the way back," Bancroft wrote, " we drove through Beaconsfield. At the name I cried out Edmund Burke ; and straightway we went to the Gregories, traced the ruins of the old house, which was burned down : went into his garden, studied out his walks ; and tried to get a picture of his life. The larder abounded with good things : many a hogshead of ale was drunk there. No one had such merry harvest homes. His name was cherished all about : from all the villages round they came to his feasts. At the church which I entered, there was his pew, his grave, and the tablet in the wall to that part of him which was mortal. The churchyard has the tomb of Waller under a huge walnut tree : but Waller's huge monument does not move like the plain slab to Edmund Burke, who must have had a kind heart, easily touched with sympathy."

No surprise will be felt that the American historian was more impressed by the grave of the statesman than by that of the poet. Apart altogether from the memory of Burke's sturdy advocacy of the cause of his country, Bancroft was hardly the type of man to whom the peculiar muse of Waller could appeal. But other visitors to the peaceful and picturesque town of Beacons-field are hardly like to make so marked a distinction between the resting-places of the two men.

Edmund Waller was a native of this district. His father was owner of the manor of Beacons-field, and he was born in 1606 in the nearby hamlet of Coleshill. As his father died a decade later the poet came into the possession of the estate at a tender age, and here, in 1687, he died and was buried. Thus, unlike most children of the muse, Waller was nurtured in affluence from his earliest days. As Oldham wrote :

" Waller himself may thank inheritance
For what he else had never got by sense."

Whether that reflection on the poet's incapacity to achieve success in a monetary sense was deserved may be open to question. Indeed, one stubborn fact to the contrary may be adduced. When he had reached a marriageable age he determined to effect the conquest of Anne Bankes, the wealthy heiress of a London merchant. But there were obstacles in his path. Other suitors had fixed their eyes on Mistress Anne as a prize worth striving for, and among these was a gentleman named William Crofts, who could count upon court influence to further his cause. But Waller was not dismayed. He so engineered his plans as to secure the abduction of the heiress, and shortly after Mistress Anne became his wife, greatly to the enrichment of his personal estate.

Had Waller's first wife lived he would not have passed' through the experience which has contributed largely to the perpetuation of his memory. After bearing the poet a son in 1633, the London heiress succumbed at Beaconsfield in giving birth to a daughter in the following year, leaving Waller a widower at the age of twenty-eight.

It was as a once-married man, then, that he began his famous wooing of Sacharissa, otherwise Lady Dorothy Sidney, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester. Waller has been frequently chided for presuming to look so high for a second wife. But it is difficult to see where the presumption comes in. His family was one of repute and antiquity ; he was the owner of a considerable manor ; and his income must have been fully as large as that of many a peer in the seventeenth century. But notwithstanding these advantages, and such further commendable qualities as arose from his attractive personal appearance and his repute as a poet, his wooing of Sacharissa ended in failure.

Perhaps he was not altogether surprised. In one of his earliest poems he is doubtful of his success.

" As when, beyond our greedy reach, we see
Inviting fruit on too sublime a tree; "

and later he bids his messenger carve on a tree the record of his passion that it may be a monument of

" His humble love whose hope shall ne'er rise higher,
Than for a pardon that he dares admire."

For a time, however, this premonition of ultimate failure had no chilling effect on his verse. He praises as liberally as though already secure in the possession of the object of his adoration. In none of the Sacharissa poems is there so warm a glow as in that entitled " On Her Coming to London," and as it has but lately been rescued from its manuscript obscurity a few of its stanzas may be cited here.

" What's she, so late from Penshurst come,
More gorgeous than the mid-day sun,
That all the world amazes?
Sure 'tis some angel from above,
Or 'tis the Cyprian Queen of Love
Attended by the Graces.

" O is't not Juno, Heaven's great dame,
Or Pallas armed, as on she came
To assist the Greeks in fight,
Or Cynthia, that huntress bold,
Or from old Tithon's bed so cold,
Aurora chasing night ?

" No, none of these, yet one that shall
Compare, perhaps exceed them all,
For beauty, wit, and birth;
As good as great, as chaste as fair,
A brighter nymph none breathes the air,
Or treads upon the earth."

Sacharissa, however, evidently demanded in her husband something more than the ability to pen a well-turned line. On her side the poetic passion of Waller appears to have been opposed by indifference. Slowly the truth of the situation dawned upon Waller. At first he took what comfort he could from the reflection that

" What he sung in his immortal strain,
Though unsuccessful, was not sung in vain; "

then he offered the lady the proud reminder that

" Her beauty, too, had perished, and her fame,
Had not the muse redeemed them from the flame; "

and finally he reached a tone of stern remonstrance in the lines,

" To thee a wild and cruel soul is given,
More deaf than trees, and prouder than the heaven ! "

But Waller, to transfer Fielding's phrase from one sex to the other, was not so " whimsically capricious " that one woman only could satisfy his amorous propensities. That memorial in Beaconsfield Church which is adorned with a heart in flames might have been set up in his honour instead of to another member of his family. Sacharissa seems to have had a rival before she wedded, and she certainly had successors speedily after that event. It was not, however, until 1644 that Waller found a second wife in the person of Mary Bracey, a lady of great beauty but who has left no impress on his poetry.

Apart from his dalliance with Sacharissa, there was a potent reason why Waller allowed ten years to elapse between his first and second marriage. In 1640 he became involved as a member of Parliament in the events which led to the Civil War, and, after trying the hazardous task of sitting on the fence for a few years, was eventually discovered to be a participant in a plot in favour of the King. Several of his fellow-conspirators — one a brother-in-law — were executed, but Waller saved his skin by wholesale confession, a piteous plea for mercy, and by willingly accepting a sentence which included a fine of ten thousand pounds and banishment from England.

But his exile only lasted eight years. The poet left his mother behind him at Beaconsfield, and she, as a relative of Oliver Cromwell, was no doubt largely responsible for her son being allowed to return thither in 1652. The Protector appears to have been a frequent guest at Beaconsfield, and concerning one of his visits a story is told well calculated to arouse the flaming indignation of Carlyle. Waller was wont to relate, so the record runs, that when Cromwell had been called to the door in the midst of their conversations, he would overhear him repeating, " The Lord will reveal, the Lord will help," and kindred pious reflections ; for which he would apologize when he came back, saying, " Cousin Waller, I must talk to these men after their own way," and would then resume the talk where it had been broken off.

While the Commonwealth régime lasted Waller wisely remained in rural retirement at Beaconsfield. Ever a courtier, no matter who was in power, he occupied some of his leisure in penning his " Panegyric to my Lord Protector," the poetic effort which Charles II remarked on as superior to Waller's lines on his own return to the throne, thus eliciting the famous retort — " Sire, poets always succeed better in composing fiction than in adorning truth." The King was a penetrating critic ; Waller's lines on Cromwell have far more poetic value than those on the " happy return ; " indeed, waiving the note of flattery by which they are pervaded, they betray greater evidence of genius than any other effort of the poet.

With the re-establishment of the monarchy Waller returned to Parliament and to those gatherings of wit and fashion which had known him in earlier years. Thus it happened that he met Sacharissa again, now a widow. The passing years had altered them both. " When, I wonder," the lady asked, " will you write such beautiful verses to me ? " To which Waller rejoined, much to the horror of Taine in a later age, " When, Madam, you are as young and handsome as you were then."

To Waller, as to many more, years brought the philosophic mind. In his peaceful home at Beaconsfield he was able, from the vantage ground of more than eighty years, to look back unperturbed on the passions which had vexed his soul in earlier days. And the pen which had busied itself with the trifles of an hour, had toyed with love and been traitor to loyalty, is found moving to such sober strains as these :

" The seas are quiet when the winds give o'er;
So calm are we when passions are no more !
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal the emptiness which age descries."

Even the trees at Beaconsfield had their lesson for the aged poet. He told a correspondent, however, that he had not much joy in wandering through his woods, because he found the trees as bare and withered as himself, with this difference —

" That shortly they shall flourish and wax green,
But I still old and withered must be seen,
Yet if vain thoughts fall, like their leaves away,
The nobler part improves with that decay."

As the inevitable end drew near the poet bought a small house at Coleshill, the hamlet where he was born, to placate his poetic sentiment that " a stag, when he is hunted, and near spent, always returns home." But it was in his manor house of Hall Barn at Beaconsfield, and not at Coleshill, that Waller died. And there, in a corner of the churchyard, beneath a lusty tree, he was laid to rest at last. His massive monument, a large sarcophagus of white marble with four urns on a central pyramid, wears well. More than two centuries have passed since it was reared over the remains of Sacharissa's lover, and it bids fair to outlive other centuries yet. Unfortunately his contention that

" 'Tis fit the English reader should be told,
In his own language, what this tomb does hold,"

has not been respected in the case of his own memorial. Each of the inscriptions on the four sides of the monument is couched in Latin, so that it is only one here and there of the visitors to Beaconsfield who learns how high was the poetic fame of Waller at the time of his death.

How striking is the contrast between the copious and sonorous Latin on Waller's tomb and the brief and simple English of the tablet to Edmund Burke ! The latter must be sought inside the church, on the wall of the south aisle, and near the pew where the great publicist used to worship. That this memorial is so unpretentious, that, in fact, this retired church should have been chosen for the honour of Burke's resting-place, was in obedient harmony with the illustrious statesman's own wishes. When a young man he had expressed a preference for " the southern corner of a country churchyard" as his place of rest, desiderating, however, that his remains should " mingle with kindred dust ; " and as death drew nigh he stipulated in his will for a simple funeral, adding, " I desire that no monument beyond a middle-sized tablet, with a small and simple inscription on the church-wall, or on the flag-stone, be erected. I say this," he concluded, " because I know the partial kindness to me of some of my friends; but I have had, in my lifetime, but too much noise and compliment."

Burke was thirty-eight years old when he made Beaconsfield his country home. The purchase of Gregories, the name of his estate, was made from the Waller manor, and the actual transaction is said to have taken place in the poet's mansion. Various explanations have been offered to account for Burke, whose finances were never in a flourishing condition, being possessed of the twenty thousand pounds paid for Gregories, and one version asserts that the sum was placed at his disposal by a peer whom he had served politically. The narrator of this story affirmed that he was present at the purchase, and was wont to describe " the brilliancy which flashed from the eye of Burke on his first grasping the precious boon."

However the great orator became the owner of Gregories, his advent to this beautiful corner of Buckinghamshire was greatly to the advantage of the estate and Beaconsfield in general. Although he has been dead more than a century local tradition still testifies to his beneficient influence. Not only did he carry out notable improvements on his own property, and prove an admirable purveyor for his own table, but he took a paternal interest in all the workmen of the neighbourhood and spared himself no efforts in advancing their interests.

Many notable persons of the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson being of the number, came as guests to Beaconsfield, all of whom would doubtless have cheerfully subscribed to the truthfulness of Mary Leadbeater's poetic record of such an experience.

" Lo ! there the mansion stands in princely pride;
The beauteous wings extend on either side;
Unsocial pomp flies from the cheerful gate,
Where hospitality delights to wait;
A brighter grace her candid smile bestows
Than the majestic pillars' comely rows.
Enter these ever-open doors, and find
All that can strike the eye, or charm the mind:
Painting and sculpture there their pride display,
And splendid chambers deck'd in rich array.
But these are not the honours of the dome
Where Burke resides and strangers find a home;
To whose glad hearth the social virtues move,
Paternal fondness and connubial love,
Benevolence unwearied, friendship true,
And wit unforced, and converse ever new,
And manners, where the polished court we trace,
Combined with artless nature's noble grace.
See where amid the tow'ring trees he moves,
And with his presence dignifies the groves :
Approach with silent awe the wondrous man,
While his great mind revolves some mighty plan;
Yet fear not from his brow a frown austere,
For mild benevolence inhabits there;
And while thine eye feasts on his graceful mien,
Think on the worth that lies within unseen,
And own that Heav'n in wisdom has enshrined
In the most perfect form the noblest mind."

Flattering as this picture is, independent testimony proves that it was much more than the effort of a guest trying to offer some recompense for generous hospitality. Each separate record of Burke's life at Beaconsfield corroborates some specific detail of Mary Leadbeater's glowing tribute. Especially is it true that " parental fondness and connubial love " were constantly in evidence there. The record should have included brotherly affection also, for Burke was hardly more deeply attached to his wife and son than he was to that brother Richard who shares the Beaconsfield grave.

Keen as were the sufferings which the patriotic statesman experienced because of the untoward course of events in America and France, those public sorrows faded into insignificance before the private griefs which attacked him on the side of his domestic affections. Twice within six months death exacted its relentless toll in the persons of two who were nearest to his heart. The first victim was his younger brother, Richard, who for many years had been a member of the Beaconsfield household and in all other respects an intimate sharer of Burke's friendships and pursuits. Twenty years earlier Goldsmith had immortalized Richard Burke in his " Retaliation," that lively portrait-gallery which preserves the characteristics of so many notable men of the eighteenth century :

" Here lies honest Richard whose fate I must sigh at;
Alas that such frolic should now be so quiet !
What spirits were his ! What wit and what whim !
Now breaking a jest, and now breaking a limb ;
Now wrangling and grumbling to keep up the ball,
Now teasing and vexing, yet laughing at all !
In short, so provoking a devil was Dick,
That we wished him full ten times a day at Old Nick;
But missing his mirth and agreeable vein,
As often we wished to have Dick back again."

It is not difficult to imagine how great a blank in the small circle at Beaconsfield the loss of so sprightly a companion would create. But a far heavier loss fell upon Burke when, in August, 1794, his only son was taken from his side. All his hopes had been centered in him. Great as may have been and probably were the gifts of the younger Burke, named Richard after his uncle, the father's fond affection magnified them into a brilliance far exceeding his own, and he consequently looked upon his child not only as the heir of his own renown but as destined to achieve a still greater fame. Burke, too, had the passion for " founding a family," which is so often the one weakness of public men, and the remorseless extinction of that hope added poignancy to his loss. How deeply that loss was felt is evident on page after page of Burke's letters during the few remaining years of his own life. " My heart is very sick," he writes to one correspondent ; " I am as a man dead," to another ; and in his Letter to a Noble Lord he calls to his aid every image of desolation : " The storm has gone over me; and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honours ; I am torn up by the roots and lie prostrate on the earth. I am alone. I have none to meet my enemies in the gate."

So heavy a sorrow could not be borne for long. After the death of his son Burke did not dine out of his own house ; henceforth in travelling from Gregories to London he avoided passing through Beaconsfield, because he could not endure the sight of the church where Richard was buried. But everything conspired to remind him of his loss. While walking one day in his fields Burke found himself approached by an aged horse which had been a great favourite with his son. The animal drew nearer, is said to have spent some moments in surveying his person, and then to have rested his head upon his bosom. What response could the afflicted Burke make other than to throw his arms around the horse's neck and give way to a flood of tears ?

But for Burke himself the days were now rapidly shortening. In February, 1797, he was persuaded to go to Bath for the benefit of the waters, but as a four months' sojourn there could do nothing for the sorrow which was sapping his life, he returned, at the end of May, to Beacons-field, " to be so far at least on my way to the tomb." A little more than a month later he found the peace he desired, rejoining in the grave that affectionate brother and that adored son whom he had missed so sorely. Nearly fifteen years after Mary Burke was laid in the same tomb, and thus at last the " eloquent statesman and sage " had his wish that his ashes should " mingle with kindred dust."

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