England – To Hazlitt’s Winterslow

WHY I should make a pilgrimage to Hazlitt’s Winterslow for the third time in my life I hardly know. It must be from sheer force of habit, for only two others except myself are known to have made the pilgrimage, and I suppose no one reads Hazlitt now a days, except two distinguished dramatic critics — not the two pilgrims referred to. Stevenson, of course, set a fashion of referring to him, but even his influence could not go beyond that. Nor is Hazlitt’s a personality that captivates the heart or the imagination. His memory is acrid and almost unsavoury. So far as one can trust the recreation of him alone possible to us, through contemporary impressions, his own letters, and that silly-sordid ” Li-ber Amoris,” he seems to have been one of the most disagreeable men that ever lived. And yet, as I have said, I seem to care so much about him that, though I have been twice before, I cannot leave Salisbury without diverging six miles and back to visit again the place of almost sinister loneliness which he chose for his literary hermitage, and where some of his finest work was done. No doubt the simple explanation is in the conclusion of the last sentence. At all events Hazlitt could write, and to see a place where something was really written, a place where the fire once came down, is a good deal — or nothing at all, as one happens to be constituted.

Besides, you will find no stretch of down more spacious, more breezy, more openhanded with its sunshine, than the fair and fat six miles which bring you to Winterslow. Then, too, earlier in the year, there are bee-orchids to be gathered on the grassy top of the down, and the common orchid, huge Salisbury spires of perfume, liberally contributes to the general sweetness of the air. For the first two or three miles the country is laughing and open and sunny-browed. Liter-ally it is very lonely, you hardly meet a soul, but the air is so clear that you feel you have every farm you’ can see for company, and there is always the great Cathedral in sight. But, once over the brow of the hill, even that disappears, and you begin to feel that you are really alone. The road dives into the trough of prodigious land waves, crests one to dive again ; and the great scoops of down are no longer cultivated, but are beginning to grow gloomy and even savage with drifts of wind-sown pines, mere swarthy scrub as yet, chance children of occasional plantations upon the ridges. They give a villainous look to the grassy slopes, the kind of ragged-stick-and-a-lonely-road look that tramps six days unshaved are apt to wear. Then a barrow of exceptional length, called, I believe, Long Bar-row, presently adds to the loneliness on the left of the road. Melancholy begins to steal upon you, and you feel inclined to look over your shoulder, though the sun is as bright as ever overhead.

Meanwhile, those little boundary boards between township and township have been busily running over the names of the many Winterbournes, into which one not very big straggling village seems to be nicely divided : Winterbourne Earls, Winterbourne Dantsey, Winterbourne Gunner, and, I think, others. A simple stranger enquiring for Winterbourne is almost as bewildered as one might be who should ask for London and really mean Clapham. However, Winterslow was easier. There is only one Winterslow.

Winterslow — Gumbledon ” called out the little two-handed frontier post, and after a steep drop, there on the left side of a rather dull plain, partly cultivated again, was a lonely, very dilapidated little inn : “Winterslow Hutt.”

Winterslow Hutt is terribly in need of those three coats of paint mentioned in leases, though it would be hardly worth while to paint the tumble-down wooden bay which projects in front of the more durable, but no less weather-worn, building. The sign-post on the opposite side of the road is now a mere stump ; wind or lightning has split it midway. The wind blows drearily about the place even this summer day, and it is all exceeding desolate. If there is an owner to so ownerless-looking a place, I hope he will not resent my kindly-intentioned remark : that he has neglected his property long enough, if he wishes it to remain a property, not to speak of its being an inn. But, of course, that is none of my business.

The pleasant landlady seemed no less conscious of the depression of the place than myself, and when I gave my small order, the whole plain seemed to reverberate with unwonted business. It was like a poor artist having sold a picture. Winterslow Hutt had actually sold a glass of milk. Presently a young man dropped in — startlingly, as out of the sky, for there are no visible houses at Winterslow — and ordered a ginger-beer. Business was becoming absolutely brisk, and quite a cheerful murmur of conversation began to fill the little parlour.

The inn had changed hands since my last visit, so I asked the old question like a new-comer. Did the landlady know anything of one William Hazlitt, a sort of writer fellow, who once lived in the inn years ago — oh, ninety years ago ?

Well, said the landlady, that was curious ! and called her husband to join in, for only a few days ago two young gentle-men had called and asked the same question, and they had promised to send the name and publisher of the book which this Hazlitt had written — such apparently was the landlady’s impression — about Winterslow. Perhaps I was acquainted with the book ?

Oh, yes, I had it with me: “Sketches and Essays ; and Winterslow (Essays written there), by William Hazlitt.”

” But,” I said, “it is not about Winterslow,” — and explained that the book had come to have the title from Hazlitt’s attachment to the place, and so on. This was a distinct disappointment. No doubt they had expected a sort of guide-book to Winterslow, and I am afraid that a certain local farmer, who was mentioned as desirous of procuring the mysterious volume by this mysterious writer, will change his mind when this disappointing information gets abroad in the district.

It was evident that mine for once was to be the proud privilege of imparting information. I knew the room where Hazlitt used to write, or at all events the room which former tenants had pointed out as that. So I showed it to them, a mere place of lumber, long since uninhabitable. In return for this information the landlord took me to the barn to show me the old sign. I will confess to conceiving absurd ideas of purchase — before I saw it. I had fancied some picturesque old painted wood, delicately weather-beaten. Instead I found a huge shield of rusty iron weighing surely a ton, on which one slowly discerned the ghost of part of a pheasant on the ghost of part of a moor. The mere cost of conveyance gave me pause, and then what to do with it, if acquired ! It was obviously unfitted for a drawing-room. So, after careful consideration, I left it for the next enthusiast. I have no doubt that a telegram, if sent not too long after the perusal of this chapter, might still secure it.

But if the inn knew nothing of Hazlitt, it was still keenly and gratefully reminiscent of the one real event in its history. Winterslow, I should explain, is on the main road from Exeter to London, and was then a stopping place for mail coaches. Now, on the night of Sun-day the 20th of October, 1816, while the coach was drawn up in front of the inn, a remarkable thing happened. Suddenly a lioness, a lioness, sprang from nowhere and fastened its fangs in the throat of the no doubt foam-flecked and steaming leader. It had escaped from a travelling show, and that is the event which has written itself indelibly in Winterslow memories, and is still as vivid there as the day after the event, though it will soon be eighty-three years ago.

That so remarkable an event should not be forgotten, a London artist made an imaginative sketch of it. A copy hangs on the parlour wall. ” The Lioness attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach” runs the inscription, and I was frivolous enough to copy the accompanying statement that the picture had been ” Drawn from the information of Joseph Pike, guard of the mail at the time of the event, on the night of Sunday, the 20th of October, 1816, at Winterslow Hut, near Salisbury. The ferocious animal had escaped from the caravan of an exhibitor of wild beasts, etc.”

Also I noted that ” To Thomas Hasker, Esq., superintendent of His Majesty’s mail coaches, this print by permission is most respectfully dedicated by his obedient servant, Robert Pollard.” The print represents the inn much as it is at present, though more prosperous-looking, of course, and with the pheasant proudly swinging in its place. The coach is drawn up in front, and while the leader plunges with the long yellow lioness at its throat, Joseph Pike strikes an attitude with a blunderbuss in his right hand, and five gentlemen in top hats lean half out of the inn window in consternation. It is a spirited and, no doubt, quite realistic piece of work, and conveys to us not only the scene itself, but the very atmosphere of the time.

That the reader should be in possession of all my available information on so remarkable an event, I copied, too, this extract from ” The Field,” May 2, 1896, under the heading of ” Notable Horses ” : —

“In the old coaching days there were many horses more or less famous running before or behind the bars on the different roads. Pomegranate was such a thief on the racecourse, and developed such a bad temper in the stable, that he was sold to a coach proprietor, and eventually found his way into the Exeter Mail, and was the leader attacked by the escaped lioness as the coach was passing Winterslow Hutt, near Salisbury.”

Before I left I found that Winterslow had one more memory which. I am proud to think I may be the first to chronicle. ” Do you remember the soldier shooting from the top of the hill ? “‘ said the landlord to the young man who had ordered a bottle of ginger-beer, I, meanwhile, having kept things going with another glass of milk. No, ” the soldier” was before his time. I liked ” the soldier.”

Well, it was a tame enough little reminiscence, after all, but if you ever visit Winterslow you will realise that a little excitement there may go a long way. Some years ago a young soldier had made a bet that he could hit the pheasant sign from the top of the road —a pretty long shot I should say—and he had hit the pheasant ! And that is all !

” I have felt the dint of the bullet with my finger,” said the landlord, with the air of a man who had inspected secret sources of information —”Yes! the dint’s there sure enough to this day.”

And, of course, the moral of it all is : Don’t write books if you would be re-membered at Winterslow. But, indeed, what should Winterslow do with books ? What is there in Hazlitt for Winterslow that Winterslow should remember him?

That Hazlitt should remember Winter-slow one can better understand, particularly if you follow his example and wander half-a-day about its waste places. It is a fine solitude for the imagination. Someone should write a book on the Solitudes of England. It would be a charming title, and the book might be delightfully illustrated with pictures of old inns ! For solitude in England is sown thick with inns. Where indeed should inns be if not in a solitude, which such an inn as Winterslow Hutt tends to deepen rather than cheer ?

When I left the inn I felt that the transactions had been inadequate as a service to Hazlitt’s memory, so I found a quiet corner of the down and read, for I suppose at least the hundredth time, this passage of charming fancy, and noble eloquence, and that touching love for literature which has in it a pathos peculiarly its own:

“I do not mean to speak disrespectfully of the stage; but I think still higher of Nature, and next to that, of books. They are the nearest to our thoughts : they wind into the heart ; the poet’s verse slides into the current of our blood. We read them when young, we remember them when old. We read there of what has happened to others ; we feel that it has happened to ourselves. They are to be had everywhere cheap and good. We breathe but the air of books : we owe everything to their authors on this side barbarism ; and we pay them easily with contempt while living, and with an epitaph when dead !

Michael Angelo is beyond the Alps ; Mrs. Siddons has left the stage, and us to mourn her loss. Were it not so, there are neither picture-galleries nor theatres royal on Salisbury Plain, where I write this ; but here, even here, with a few old authors, I can manage to get through the summer or the winter months, without ever knowing what it is to feel ennui. They sit with me at breakfast; they walk out with me before dinner. After a long walk through unfrequented tracks, after starting the hare from the fern, or hearing the wing of the raven rustling above my head, or being greeted by the woodman’s ‘ stern good-night,’ as he strikes into his narrow homeward path, I can ‘take mine ease at mine inn,’ beside the blazing hearth, and shake hands with Signor Orlando Friscobaldo, as the oldest acquaintance I have. Ben Jonson, learned Chapman, Master Webster, and Master Heywood, are there ; and seated round, discourse the silent hours away. Shakespeare is there himself, not in Cibber’s manager’s coat. Spenser is hardly yet returned from a ramble through the woods, or is concealed behind a group of nymphs, fawns and satyrs. Milton lies on the table, as on an altar, never taken up or laid down without reverence. Lyly’s Endymion sleeps with the moon, that shines in at the window ; and a breath of wind stirring at a dis-tance seems a sigh from the tree under which he grew old. Faustus disputes in one corner of the room with fiendish faces, and reasons of divine astrology. Bellafront soothes Matheo, Vittoria triumphs over her judges, and old Chapman repeats one of the hymns of Homer, in his own fine translation ! I should have no objection to pass my life in this manner out of the world, not thinking of it, nor it of me; neither abused by my enemies, nor defended by my friends; careless of the future, but sometimes dreaming of the past, which might as well be forgotten.”

No one can read this without feeling how Hazlitt loved literature, and it is my humble opinion that, as the rationale of criticism is better understood, it will be seen that such love-passion for literature is the vital, and therefore the most important, element in the best criticism. Our present day critics may be more accurate in their judgments than Hazlitt, you might prefer to seek their opinion on some delicate point, but in so far as they never venture or wish to wear their hearts on their sleeves, never write of the greatest author save with a slight reserve of superiority in their manner, wouldn’t be caught in a boyish gladness and rapture over a new book for the world : in so far — and it is further than they dream of—do they fail as critics, whatever their learning and whatever their subtlety.

There is a well-known English critic, in some respects the worst we have, who confesses to closing a critical essay on Balzac with tears in his eyes, so impressed had he been by contemplation of his master. The “criticism” may be — what you will ; but those tears are already in the temple of fame. Quia multum amavit — the true critic will seek to win that for his epitaph. And surely it must be Hazlitt’s. For he loved literature so well that somehow one cannot help loving him too, in spite of that acrid and almost un-savoury memory. And I should not be surprised if I should pay even a fourth visit to Winterslow Hutt for his sake.