England – Of Sheep And Other Salisbury Excitements

ON the morning I was to leave Salisbury, I was awakened by a running murmur of plaintive sound. The street was sad with the cry of driven sheep. The downs were thus rolling by every avenue into the city, and twenty thousand sheep were to fill the market place that day. I learnt the number from a serious-browed, broad-clothed farmer at breakfast. He was sternly full of the occasion.

It’s a great day in Salisbury today,” he said, as soon as I sat down, evidently longing, like every other human being, to share the ruling passion with another.

I guessed that he referred to the sheep, so I did my best to be sympathetic, though sheep — out of Theocritus or Spenser — is not a subject on which I talk easily. However, I succeeded better than I expected, by a simple plan which I have often found useful : that of asking those rudimentary questions, which, though they betray an entire ignorance of the cherished subject, seem no less acceptable to the enthusiast than the exchange of valuable experience. I did n’t quite begin by asking: ” What is a sheep ? ” But whatever the next simplest question may be, I certainly asked it. Had you met me half an hour afterwards you would have found me a surprising authority on sheep-farming, though at the time of writing my mind has resumed its pristine disinterestedness on the subject.

Remembering Cobbett, I asked the current price of South Down ewes, and, if I remember aright, it was about forty-two shillings ; but before acting on the information, the reader would do well to verify it. I looked in at the market place to see if the sheep had been allowed to bring their starlings with them, but found that they had not. What a noisy ocean ! Twenty thousand woolly waves all baabaaing together. And, I suppose, not a thought in one single farmer’s head that a sheep may possibly have its own business in the universe quite apart from the feeding of man — though as you look a sheep in the face, it is difficult to imagine what that business may be. Perhaps, indeed, its one aim in life is to grow up good mutton, and its highest ambition a handsome funeral in the form of caper sauce. If so, it is wiser than it looks — for who can doubt that the farmers are right and that sheep were made to be fleeced and eaten, and for no other more transcendental purpose at all ? As a topic of conversation I found them as monotonous as mutton, and, as the reader may by this time be too ready to agree with me, I will here say no more on the subject of sheep.

Before leaving the town, I designed to gratify an old desire to see and, if possible, handle some of the volumes from Izaak Walton’s library, which are preserved in the Cathedral — his son, of course, having been a canon of Salisbury. This, after I had taken my morning lesson in architecture from the verger, the kindness of a gentle old librarian enabled me to do. Should this ever meet his eye, I beg once more to offer him my thanks for the patience with which, catalogue in hand, he went from shelf to shelf, picking out the volumes once so reverently read by “the unseen good old man.” For the volumes are not encased in illustrious isolation, but take their place among their fellows, according to the general classification, with nothing to mark them from the rest; which in a sense is charming, and in a sense is unwise — for the library being in daily use, they thus run a risk of being borrowed once too often. Would the library, one wonders, be too proud to accept from some Waltonian a book-case for their special housing?

Thanks to the librarian’s gracious per-severance, I suppose I held in my hands most of the volumes containing the fine old signature ” Izaak Walton ” ; a signature, by the way, which, we noted, occurs in two forms,— one the firm neat signature familiar in facsimiles, the other a rather sprawly, flourished signature, such as a young man might affect, and which indeed may have been the signature of the younger Izaak, a signature with which neither of us was familiar. Thus I handled the “Florio Montaigne,” from which he got the story of Montaigne and his cat, the “Camerarius,” in which he found many a quaint marvel, some of his strange old naturalists, and, with particular interest, the quaint pieties of his especial favourite, the saintly Dr. Sibbes — or ” Sibs,” as Walton usually spelled it. With peculiar emotion I looked upon Dr. Sibs’ “Bowels Opened: or a Discovery of the Union and Communion betwixt Christ and the Church, and consequently betwixt Him and every Believing Soul.” It was on the fly leaf of this volume that Walton first wrote his famous epigram on Sibs, and here I read it again in his own hand : —

“Of this blest man let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.”

Walton was evidently a little vain of this pious pun, for he copies it again in another of Dr. Sibbes’ volumes. Of all his books he seems to have valued these most, so highly, indeed, that he bequeaths two of them, with separate mention in his will : ” To my son Izaak I give Docr. Sibbs his ` Soules Conflict; ‘ and to my daughter his ` Brewsed Rede,’ desiring them to reade them so as to be well acquainted with them.” ” And I also give to her,” the passage relating to his books continues, ” all my bookes at Winchester and Droxford, and what ever in those two places are or I can call mine, except a trunk of linen, which I give to my son Izaak ; but if he doe not live to (marry or) make use of it, then I give the same to my grand-dafter, Anne Hawkins. And I give my dafter Docr. Hall’s works, which be now at Farnham. To my son Izaak I give all my books, not yet given, at Farnham Castell ; and a deske of prints and pickters ; also a Cabinet nere my bed’s head, in which are some little things that he will valew, tho of noe great worth.” Other books bequeathed are ” Doctor Donns sermons, which I have heard preacht and read with much content,” to his son-in-law, Dr. Hawkins, and ” to Mr. John Darbishire the Sermons of Mr. Anthony Faringdon or of dor. Sanderson, which my executor thinks fit.”

How precious Walton held the spiritual property of his books is best shown by this last extract. Books are still too precious even at the end of the seventeenth century, for him extravagantly to bequeath two at once to a friend. Mr. John Darbishire may have either Mr. Antony Faringdon’s sermons or those of Bishop Sanderson. But he must n’t expect both. Alas ! how far we have travelled from this religious regard of books, and how fantastic such bequests in a modern will would seem to a family lawyer, though, indeed, from a purely commercial view, there have been several editions de luxe of late which would be by no means despicable inheritances. For example :

To my old and tried friends, W. and S. F., I do give and bequeath my copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer; and to that excellent poet, P. S., I offer my Kelmscott Keats as a remembrancer of affection, and a symbol of my great delight during life in his divine poems; also to Mistress 7. N. I do bequeath my Edinburgh Stevenson in gratitude that I did sometimes look upon her beautiful face; to my little daughter, I commend the writings of that great spiritual doctor, George Meredith, not in the forbidding library edition, but in the friendly old editions which she will find much marked by my fatherly pencil — and so on. It is to be hoped that in the event of such a will, the legatees would forget the pecuniary value of the books, and think of them only as spiritual property, as in Walton’s day, when ,. . . . a book was still a book Where a wistful man might look, Feeling something through the whole Beating like a human soul.”

I suppose that to many my desire to handle books once held by Izaak Walton will seem no less incomprehensible than my curious interest in a forlorn, dilapidated Winterslow. Perhaps they will under-stand it even less, and biologists of the Italian School have, no doubt, already found a long name for this peculiar form of possession.

What is their name, I wonder, for the man who collects flint-heads ? I ask, because Salisbury contains for me still another interesting place of pilgrimage : the Black-more Museum. Here is stored, perhaps, the most important collection of prehistoric antiquities in England, but it is not the genuine, or supposed genuine, antiquities that chiefly interested me, but the collection of the spurious arrowheads and other flint implements made by the famous ” Flint Jack.”

” Flint Jack ” is one of the most distinguished of those heartless men of genius, who from the beginning have preyed upon the innocence of antiquaries. A peasant born in a county of barrows and cave dwellings, he was early familiarised with the ” gentleman” who circled round an excavation like a vulture, and doted on certain ancient rubbish like a lover. It was difficult to see what the gentleman saw in bits of arrow-shaped flint, but, whatever it was, it seemed to make him very happy. Besides, it was a happiness for which he was evidently prepared to pay. Unfortunately, however, the cave-men who were supposed to have shaped these arrow-heads had left behind them a supply quite inadequate to the modern demand. What could be more natural than to repair their deficiency ? Arrow-heads were easy enough to make. What a caveman could do surely a nineteenth century peasant could do as well. Antiquaries would be just as happy with the imitation. Besides, they would n’t actually be imitation. The flint would at least be as old in. one case as in the other. So ” Flint Jack ” became the Burns of flint and as long as men collect arrow-heads he will be remembered. Probably “Flint Jack ” had few opportunities for immortality. I congratulate him on so brilliantly taking one within his reach.

If Salisbury itself be somewhat poor in memories, it is surrounded by places amply historical. Clarendon is close by, and still closer are Bemerton and Wilton. The two latter places I planned to take on my way to Stonehenge. Bemerton is about a mile out of Salisbury, on the Wilton road, a long village — ” more pleasant than healthful” in Walton’s time —lying between the Avon bank and the highway. Here, of course, George Herbert lived his gentle life and meditated his pious acrostics. His tiny church is still in use, near the riverside, the river here suddenly spreading itself out in a fresh and glittering reach.

For those who still read Walton’s ” Lives ” — I fear they may not be too many— that mile between Salisbury and Bemerton will seem a mile of holy ground accredited as are few Palestines. It was over this very road Herbert used to walk twice a week to hear the music in Salisbury Cathedral, for his chiefest recreation was Music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many Divine Hymns and Anthems, which he set or sung to his lute or viol.” Not only was it the cathedral music that drew him thus to Salisbury, but little music-parties among his friends, of which Walton gives us charming glimpses. But the association that will be uppermost in the mind of the literary pilgrim, as he meditatively lingers over that sacred mile, will be a story of Herbert’s practical piety, like that of the early saints, which I beg leave to recall to the reader in Walton’s own words : —

“In another walk to Salisbury, he saw a poorish man with a poorer horse, that was fallen under his load ; they were both in distress, and needed present help ; which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man ; and was so like the Good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse ; and told him, ” That if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast.” Thus he left the poor man, and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed ; but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him ” He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment,” his answer was, ” That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight ; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place, for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you I would not willingly pass one day of my life with-out comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy ; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let ‘s tune our instruments.”

Herbert must often, too, have walked the two or three miles in the other direction, which bring one to Wilton, the lordly home of his kinsfolk, the Earls of Pembroke — the home perhaps (almost surely, say many) of ” Mr. W. H.,” and certainly one of the homes of Sir Philip Sidney. I think it was Hazlitt who could still read ” The Arcadia ” with delight — or was it Coleridge ? Whichever it was, he was probably the last man to be grateful for that interminable pleasure. Yet, if one can no longer read it, the book once meant so much to so many beautiful and gallant people, has lain about in so many fragrant boudoirs, been the mirror of chivalry in which so many knightly young faces have sought themselves, that one cannot turn the leaves of a folio” Arcadia” to this day without filling the room with the perfume of dead roses. Then, too, one can pick out the fine verses here and there, in which Sidney hid a very human heart amid all the shepherdess ribbons of his fashionable conceits. As one looks on the lock of Elizabeth’s hair given to Sidney, which is still preserved at Wilton, with the courtier’s sonnet-in-waiting attached, or is reminded by the paintings in the drawing-room that the ” Arcadia ” was written to please his sister in the pleasant Wilton gardens ; one is thinking all the time of the old heart tragedy behind that glittering career — thinking of Lady Penelope Rich, and ” Astrophel and Stella.” Then, as in another room we come upon the beautiful face of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, it cannot but strike us as curious that the tragic mysteries behind the two great personal poems of English poetry should be in the keeping of the undivulging Wilton peace.