England – Sarum

Mr. Lang, in one of his forgotten causeries —I mean forgotten, no doubt, by him, but remembered by every one else —tells how once a train in which he travelled stopping at Salisbury, a sad middle-aged lady in the carriage turned to another sad middle-aged lady and said : “Poor Jane ! she had reason to remember Salisbury.” And Mr. Lang goes on to say how that remark continued to tease his mind, and how often after-wards he had wondered why it was that ” Jane ” should so particularly remember Salisbury. I write ” Jane.” The lady’s name may have been another. That is no matter. I thought of her as Jane as I entered the old city an hour or so from dinner-time ; for, I too, poor anonymous Jane, have reasons to remember Salisbury, reasons glad and sad, perhaps all sad now, because they were once all glad, — reasons for so much as referring to which I must apologise to the reader. All I should have said was that I had been at Salisbury before, and that, when I had taken a cup of tea, I knew exactly where to go to hire a boat, and knew exactly every turn of the pretty river Avon upon which I intended to spend the interval to sunset : knew where the yellow water lilies floated and ducked with the stream — the boys would be bathing near there at this hour and running about to dry themselves — knew every arrowhead and root of meadow-sweet all the way along ; that is, of course, in a manner of speaking.”

The Salisbury Avon is not so ambitious as its name-fellow of Stratford, not so broad, or deep, or, so far as the boat-man is concerned, so long. But who wants running water, sedged and bulrushed, and brimming through rich water-meadows, to be ambitious? Let it be any little green-banked stream that will help to bear the boat along, though every few yards we grate its bed, or entangle ourselves in its streaming hair — it is enough.

I think that of all the creatures of man’s fancy I would care most to meet a river nymph. There would be salt on the lips of sea-nymphs, and the flowers in their hair would be strange and not like flowers at all. A dryad I should love well, particularly if she lived in a very slim and saintly silver birch. But I think I should have to desert her for a water-nymph, with forget-me-not eyes and a walk like the running river. All that is fairest on earth grows at the edge of the water — the fairest flowers and the fairest cities — for there the earth bends over, Narcissus-like, to gaze at himself ; and my river-nymph would be made out of all beauty that ever grew or gazed therein. Earth should be her father and water her mother, and the moon and all the stars should be reflected in her face. She should have little bright fish for brethren, and the flowering rush, and all fair beings that root in earth and sway in water and breathe in air, should be her sisters. Hylas should come to our wedding in a dim chapel floored with white sand ; and our children should be new little water-nymphs just like their mother, whom in time we would marry to young poets snared with strange singing at moonrise, and gently drowned into immortality on couches of living emerald. . . Which, as the sternest of classics says, is absurd !

Yes, all the arrowheads are here. I have n’t missed one as yet. And the meadowsweet. There is but one piece missing, and that I know where to find between the pages of a book. ‘ And there are the boys bathing — I hope not the same boys. Boys bathing, with, I hesitate to add, two or three sprightly little girls to guard, and, presently it transpires, devilishly to steal, their clothes. Indeed, as I come upon them, a quaint little drama begins. One of the lads, just as he was born — only rather bigger — is pursuing a wicked little girl who has stolen his shirt. She has evidently been wading too, for her petticoats are tucked up, and her legs are bare. Her hair streams behind her, and her petticoats escape from their tucking, and flow about her as she runs. The boy is rapidly gaining, breathing slaughter, and there are wild screams of excitement. In a moment, however, she has placed a broad ditch between them, which, for some reason I cannot make out, the boy is unable to cross. He runs along his side of it, evidently seeking a crossing, but, finding none, calls a parley. She only answers with laughter and holds his shirt derisively from the other side almost within his reach. Then once more despair seizes him, and, with the energy of it, he is suddenly on the other side— but not before the girl has found another point of vantage. And so the chase goes on. Once he is for returning to the rest of his clothes, and she, disappointed, calls out an ” O, well then, here it is,” just to allure him back again, and start the game afresh. The lure succeeds, and once more begins the savage chase, the wild girl screams, the young limbs flashing, the petticoats flying. When the bank hid them from me the end was not yet, nor the terrible vengeance that would no doubt fall upon that wicked, but, it struck me, charming little girl. Or would she succeed in making terms ? I fear not. For she was yet some way from the age when her sex will get her out of any possible scrape, not to speak of the scrapes it will get her into.

Well, while this was enacting, the spire of the Cathedral had been rising higher and higher, as it seemed, above the meadows, soaring clear of the town, of which now one could see nothing, left behind in the windings of the river. It is so on the river that one gains the fullest sense of its impressive size, and the great beauty of its vast proportions. I can imagine few finer pictures than these flat water-meadows suddenly overawed with this mighty apparition of stone, to reflect which, and thus double the impressive effect, the Avon seems to have been set to flow just where it does. Seen from any point, Salisbury Cathedral is impressive. It is lovely indeed, seen from its beautiful Close, but seen from the river it is loveliest of all.

As for its interior, I know that it is the most perfect, the purest, and the best pro-portioned, early English in England, and indeed it is magnificent. Yet somehow it is too perfect, too faultlessly accomplished, to stir the imagination, as I at least find mine stirred by those ruder Norman churches. I know it is a preposterous feeling to have. One might almost as well prefer a Druid stone to Henry the Sixth’s chapel, or Cædmon’s Vision to Milton’s ” Paradise Lost ” ! I know and yet, if I must choose, it must be Winchester and not Salisbury. Perhaps the absence of stained glass has something to do with the coldness of Salisbury, but, whatever the reason, I cannot give it my heart.

But this is a digression, for as yet, it will be remembered, I am upon the river, and as I leave bathers and other disturbers of the rural peace behind, and pull more and more into the upper reaches of quietness, a curious green hill begins to loom on my (rowing) left, one circular mound upon another, flanked by grassy hum-mocks, and approached by grassy cause-ways. This is Old Sarum, once a Roman camp, then a Saxon town, a cathedral city till 1258, in 1735 a rotten borough capable of returning the elder Pitt, now a haunted rabbit-warren and the most fascinating buried city out of a fairy tale.

If only country people would be kind enough to go on believing in fairies, they might have charming things to tell about such a place as Old Sarum, but, so far as I can hear, all the fairies have been bought up by the enterprising editors of fairy books. At all events they dance on their green hills no more, and even children have to be taught fairies, as they are taught arithmetic, yawning all the time.

The imaginative grown-up person, therefore, must do his best with his own fancy at Sarum, and, if fairies seem a little childish for his years, there are ancient Romans to think of, a ghostly cathedral to build, and a picture, if he chooses, to be painted of Pitt addressing his constituents, — a quite numerous electorate of rabbits and moles.

If you moor your boat, and walk the intervening fields, you find that the place is even more preserved in plan and foundations than it seemed at the distance. Great moats, with trees growing deep down in them, run round the base, and are spanned by causeways which lead up at last quite steeply to the circular plateau, perhaps some three acres in extent, where stood the old camp, and later the Cathedral, of which a fragment still re-mains. This fragment of stone wall makes one, so to speak, a little company, suggesting builders comparatively close at hand in history; but else those grass-muffled contours of the old earthworks affect one with peculiar lonesomeness — a dread of the great deep of the past, such as one has of the great deep of space, the same shudder that goes through one as we look down from a dizzy height.

One clutches at the thought of Pitt and his constituents as at a handrail — or one recalls such a tag of history as that here on this forsaken, but still consecrated, ground, was drawn up that ” Ordinal of Offices for the Use of Sarum,” which was our first English Prayer Book. This is really a much more important place in history than that splendid grandchild yonder —which has had no history to speak of — though nothing is afoot here but the growing of the grass and the breeding of minor animals, while yonder they are at evensong before a jewelled shrine. But, as you think of that, that ghostly Cathedral begins to rise about you, and a dead monk is a peculiarly startling form of departed spirit.

As one hurries back to one’s little boat, the old moats are already filling with night, and early shadows are trooping along the causeways. Soon it will be very dark, and very still, at Old Sarum.

I said just now that Salisbury had practically no history, and it is surprisingly true. So far as I have read, nothing ever seems to have happened at Salisbury, and I seem to see this absence of history in the rather blank look of its streets. Not a single great man seems ever to have been born or even died here, unless we are to except bishops, and if there are any buried in the Cathedral I offer my apologies to their slighted shades. But there is a monument in the Cathedral which I was glad to see, a monument to one of those martyrs of literature which go far to justify Carlyle’s famous comparison of literary history to the Newgate Calendar,— namely, Richard Jefferies, who was born and lived at Coate, not many miles away, and ” who,” as the inscription runs, ” observing the works of Almighty God with a poet’s eye, has enriched the literature of his country and won for him-self a place amongst those who have made men happier and wiser.”

Poor Jefferies ! Well meant as the bust is, it is to be feared he would hear of it with a bitter laugh, and suggest a less placid inscription, which one ventures to write for him: —

This bust is raised to the memory of RICHARD JEFFERIES, a man of genius : a naturalist of remarkable gifts, a master of English prose; whom while it was possible to help we did not help, but left to fight unaided a battle, fought with rare but wasting courage, against ill-health, poverty, and the neglect of an untrained public; but to whom, doing ourselves no more honour than him, we now raise this ironical, unnecessary memorial.

I have said that no great men seem to have died in Salisbury. I must not forget to add that three great men lived here, men indeed no less great than Massinger, Addison, and Fielding. And one great thing did once happen in Salisbury, and that was a very great thing, — namely, the printing of ” The Vicar of Wakefield.” Winchester would, of course, turn up its nose at these merely literary distinctions, but then it is not every city that can boast the bones of Anglo-Saxon Kings.

And, by the way, before I forget Old Sarum, should you ever go there, you should walk observantly a few yards down the highway that goes past the old city (walking away from Salisbury), and watch for a stile in the hedge on the right. If you cross this stile and walk a few yards straight into the field—as you can do, even if the corn is growing, for a little lane is always left by the sower — you will come upon a curious, and I imagine uniquely placed, relic : an old Cromwellian cannon, buried to its waist in the ground, its harmless bore pointed to the sky, and making a little well for the rain.