England – To Stratford On Avon, To See Sarah Berhardt

TO travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” That depends. When one’s journey is to Stratford-on-Avon to see Sarah Bernhardt play Hamlet,” I think the advantage is with arriving ; particularly if there has seemed a conspiracy on the part of storm and tempest, to make one’s travelling any-thing but hopeful. In my last chapter I made a reference to a newspaper seen at the inn, a reference I promised to explain. The explanation is simple. It was owing to a chance-seen announcement in that newspaper that there, amid the very English natural history and antiquities of Selborne, my thoughts were suddenly summoned from nightjars and haymakers and cool chancels by the magic call of the most romantic name in all romantic France. Madame Sarah Bernhardt, the announcement ran, proposed to play

Hamlet ” at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 29, 1899. Here was a chance of a life-time. The Garrick Jubilee seemed to be a trivial occasion compared with this, — the incongruous attempt of an artificial unpoetic age to do urban homage to the wildest and sweetest of all romantic poets. And, again, when one thinks of the second-rate players to whom the picturesque little theatre by Avon-side is for the most part profanely given up : here, indeed, was the beautiful thing happening at last.

For those who see only the superficial contrasts between nationalities, and miss the human correspondences, the occasion was, I suppose, one of mere curiosity, contrast, incongruity indeed. However, I proposed to be present because the occasion to my thinking promised, on the contrary, to be one of unusual harmony. It was not so much to see Madame Bernhardt play ” Hamlet ” that I was going-but just to enjoy the dramatic harmony of her mere presence in a place which, however English in its natural beauty, is no longer of any country, but that of the imagination ; such is the charmed atmosphere with which Shakespeare has saturated it, as a lane is filled with the scent of honeysuckle, or a wood is filled with the singing of a bird.

I had hoped to do the journeying for myself— and I suppose the half-childish delight of such independent road-travel is a part of the general charm which belongs to any traffic with the earth. Besides, for such an experience as I pro-posed a day or two amid the quiet and freshness of the open air is a lustral preparation peculiarly fit, bracing and sweetening the mind, and renewing the eagerness of the senses. After a day in the country the mind is no less keen for food than the body —and a book has never such good fortune with one as in the after-dinner hour at an inn. However, unexpected rain is a sore destroyer of human hopes, and, though I had returned to the valley and Persephone in a great glory of sunset, that red sky at night was no true shepherd’s delight, for the morning-star came in with skies of very variable temper, and a barometer evidently deter-mined on making a radical change. Heavy showers, and ragged trailing clouds, kept me hesitating till afternoon, when a bright interval tempted me to make a dash for Guildford. As I neared Godalming, a thunderstorm was passing from south to north like an emperor, and, with the downpour that accompanied it, I began to ponder on trains as far as Oxford, where, indeed, I arrived in that cowardly fashion about midnight. Oxford had had its weather troubles too, for its streets rippled with mud beneath my wheels, as I sought the Clarendon, where presently I fell asleep to the music of ancient bells. As I left that learned city by seven of the morning sun, I should have to draw on other visits, were I to attempt superfluous addition to the literature in praise of that beautiful mother. I will but humbly record a sigh that I could not call her mine.

The morning seemed insincerely bright, flashing and glittering with those siren smiles which often lure the unwary traveller on to ambuscades of rain and wind. How-ever, I managed to escape those footpads as far as Banbury, noting little by the way but the morning freshness, the breeze laying a silken hand across the barley, the fatness and towering umbrageousness of the green midland levels. No doubt I should be ready with impressions much more elaborate for those twenty-one miles, but the truth is that the more one enjoys this road-faring, the more primitive are our impressions, the less interrupted by the minutiae of technical observation. Had I been a farmer, or a political economist, or a botanist I would have been able to supply the reader with much. data, for which, as he is probably no more a farmer, a political economist, or a botanist than I am, he could have no possible use. My observations could be of no value to the specialist, and they would only encourage the general reader in his bad habit of half-acquiring useless information. To look at a countryside from any such special point of view is like reading Shakespeare through the spectacles of the philologist. One is inclined to wonder sometimes that country-folk have such dull eyes for the beauty of nature. Yet it is clearly because their manner of livelihood compels them to lose the general effect in their concern with momentous particulars. They must be thinking of composts and drainage, of stock and crops. They are the anxious stage carpenters of this fair scene which we are privileged to contemplate with aesthetic irresponsibility. No few of the effects which charm our eyes and stir our imagimations are ruin to the farmer, pessimism to the economist, and common greenstuff to the botanist, intent, with a lover’s preoccupation, on the one rare species he is for the moment pursuing. To these the wind on the heath and the sun on the meadow are frivolities, and to fall in a dream at the sound of a brook over the stones is an unbusinesslike waste of time.

Alas ! beauty is no one’s business except his who can succeed at no other. Yet there are exceptional cases where a whole unaesthetic community is commercially interested in preserving a beautiful thing. Warwick and Stratford-on-Avon are two cases in point, and well, for the most part, have the burgesses of those towns under-stood on which side their bread is buttered. In these towns public spirit is privileged to be a branch of taste. In more modern towns, public spirit is shown for the most part by an energetic determination to make one’s native place as hideous as possible, by steam-trams, over-head railways, and bad statues. All that makes for bustle and clangour and ugliness will be the care of the man who in a modern town hopes in due course to grin through the golden horse-collar of mayoralty.

In Warwick, on the contrary, your public-spirited man knows that it is to the civic interest that the town be kept as quiet as a museum, that its sense of ancient peace ” is precious as a Grecian vase, and that its present and future depend entirely on the preservation of its past. In Warwick, therefore, the man who has had the bad civic energy to run a tram-car to within a few yards of the beautiful Leycester’s Hospital is not to be rewarded with that gratitude which might rightly be his in another town. Rather he should be marked as a dangerous civic enemy, and be condemned to tear up his tram-lines with his own hands.

No vehicle later than the most antique form of omnibus should be allowed in Warwick, where speed is surely an unknown and undesirable necessity. That the railway was ever allowed to approach such a perfect place is no doubt but another of those crimes against beauty which we owe to the fearful fifties though this consideration, I must confess, had not prevented my gratefully catching the 9.15 from Banbury to Warwick under threat, once more, of thunderstorm.

It proved a false alarm — so I was able to take the road again at Warwick and travel for myself the eight pleasant miles to Stratford in a duly meditative frame of mind.

Stratford is one of those rare places of pilgrimage whose charm increases the oftener we visit them. Its freshness seems to grow with familiarity. And no doubt the simple reason is that it is mainly a shrine of nature’s making. A stone monument begins to age from the moment we set it up. Soon it cracks and crumbles and mildews, subject to the con-tempt of the elements and the forgetfulness of man. But whoso would honour his dead, let him plant a young tree upon the grave, and thus will the memory of the sleeper literally grow greener each spring. How wise was Omar, who committed his immortality to the keeping of a rose-bush, and thus bound up his name with the eternal energies of nature. A chapel to his memory, however richly dowered, would have fallen into decay, idle priests would have forgotten the prayers for which they were paid ; but Omar knew that the rose-bush would never forget, and that with each punctual spring the west wind would swing that censer of perfumed petals above his sleep.

So with the green monument of Shakespeare. Let antiquarianism do what it will with that unanimated bust, let one bad commentator whitewash and another bad commentator colour, yea ! whoso has the courage let him stir the thunder of those curse-protected bones—it matters little, for the real monument is outside, beyond their reach. If a window be open in the church, you can hear it flowing and rippling and rustling for many a green mile—his river, the river he sowed with eternal forget-me-nots. The people of Stratford are good priests. They do not forget the services to the great dead in whose green temple they are all more or less directly servants. The humblest shopkeeper is proudly conscious that he keeps his shop in Shakespeare’s town, while the innkeepers regard themselves as veritable high-priests of this mystery which so many cross the Atlantic, and so few cross England, to revere.

There are many forget-me-nots on Avon-banks, and those who, like the present writer, have been to Stratford many times, will find that the kind commemorative river takes no less care of some private ones of their own sowing. As we all have fancies for the disposal of our dust — some that it should be blown upon the winds, some that it should become part of the bitter-sweetness of the sea, some that it should share the simple fate of the grass — so one finds oneself apt to make Stratford the home of one’s most precious memories, as one hangs a tattered flag in a cathedral, or places an urn in some country chancel. Your little private memory craves shelter beneath the mighty dome of a public immortality. So one goes to Stratford year by year, not only for Shakespeare’s sake, but to look at our own forget-me-nots.

Such a memory within a memory is Washington Irving’s private chapel at the Red Horse Inn. The fame of Dickens needs not even the assistance of Shakespeare—yet I am sure his shade rejoices to know that every time Mrs. Baker shows the proudest pages in the book of visitors at Ann Hathaway’s cottage, she always shows with especial pride the signature of Charles Dickens—and explains, in oft-repeated legend, how it comes to be robbed of its customary flamboyance. There was very little ink in the pot the day Dickens sat by the well in the garden and wrote his name, and the pen was very bad. That is the reason — and Mrs. Baker, herself actual Shakespearian archæology, always tells the story in a way that makes you hear that pen scratching to this day, though the ink has dried this many a year.

Then, too, the fairest of American Perditas, untimely withdrawn from our worship to a little village in the Cotswolds, has left her signature like dropped flowers, in the several visitors’ books within the sacred radius. It was once the pilgrimage of a summer’s afternoon to follow her from visitors’ book to visitors’ book, so close to her actual presence as to be but some six signatures behind—yet, alas ! never catching her up. ” The air was bright with her past presence yet,” but she herself had gone. By hers all that afternoon ran, too, the beautiful signature of William Winter, who will some day be remembered, less because he was once the first dramatic critic in America, as because he loved our Stratford so well. But, as not even a flutter of the goddess’s robe rewarded me that afternoon, not even did I catch a glimpse of Mr. Winter’s coat-tails.

Ah, well, I was to be more fortunate at a later day—and the eyes that have seen Sarah Bernhardt stepping into her carriage outside the Memorial Theatre are not likely to dwell upon lost opportunities. Happy privileged eyes ! Years hence when you are closed for ever, when you are eyes no longer, but merely a pinch of forgotten dust, other eyes still brimming with the miracle of eager sight will long to have seen that — as till to-day you longed to have seen Cleopatra step into her golden barge — but long for that no more — eyes that have seen an equal marvel.

As I waited with the crowd, literally holding its breath, for her exit from the theatre, I heard one or two dull people discussing her “Hamlet” as dull folk must, discussing the French text, and the individual players. But most of us cared little to do that. It had been, as it could not fail to be, interesting, personal, intellectual, and in parts electric, but I am sure that all in that crowd felt the real moment of the afternoon was to be that which we were breathlessly awaiting—the moment of her stepping out into the sunlight in the magnificent part of herself.

There is something very pathetic in the worship of a crowd. It is so hopelessly remote, in the individual unit, from its idol, and yet so personally passionate ; so sure, it would seem, is each single beating heart, each single pair of eyes, that the idol is conscious of its single adoration. No man ever saw a great actress play without a certain absurd unconscious feeling that she is playing for him ; while at the same time he knows well enough that the love of an individual wave for the moon is not more hopeless.

Of a sudden the wonder was enacting. She had bloomed in the doorway, half orchid and half queen. The moment had come, and already one’s heart sank to realise that in a breath it would be gone. There was the moment historic before our eyes. How they hung upon it, hoped that it might pause in its passage, that the lens of the soul—to use a mechanical image — might be granted such an ” exposure ” that the picture should remain upon it vivid for ever in all its parts.

Yes, once long ago men and women had watched Cleopatra like that. So crowds had looked upon Napoleon.

Today we gazed, with that exaltation of the soul in the spectacle of any greatness, at the strange beauty, the imperious distinction, the siren charm, of Sarah Bernhardt.

There she was, already a legend, yet still a woman, smiling on white-headed mayors in golden horse-collars, so pleased with her flowers, so smart in her slim Paris gown, — a woman, a legend ; Romance made visible ; all the sorceries of nature and art — and France — incarnate. And there for her background was the willowed Avon flashing in the sun, and everywhere the thought of Shakespeare filling the air like spices. A dazzle in the eyes, a tumult in the heart — and she is gone ; and so bright had been that dazzle, so wild that tumult even in the hearts of women, that when — remembering Perse-phone’s interest in such matters — I asked some ladies standing near to tell me, in set feminine terms, how the wonder had been clothed, not one of them could tell.

We could see nothing but her face ! ” they all exclaimed, and evidently looked upon me as a materialistic person, unworthy of the vision. It is seldom women pay a tribute such as that.

Well, eyes, you have seen, and you will never forget. Aching eyes that long to behold the vision again, already doubt that it was real. Alas ! for the beauty that makes the heart lonely. But here is the river for companion. It is lonely, too, and the sunset is lonely. Stratford seems love-sick. Let us float up the lonely river and plant forget-me-nots, till starlight.

I have planted the forget-me-nots, and I am sitting in Washington Irving’s parlour near the day’s end, dreaming over again the day. The landlady has been very kind to me, allowing me to have the room all to myself for the evening. So I fasten the door with the little brass catch, and turn to enjoy my little kingdom of sentiment, with an even greater sense of privileged possession than that which Washington Irving writes of feeling as he drew up the arm-chair like a throne, and brandished the poker like a sceptre — monarch of an inn fireside. Greater than his, of course, because a man may not participate in the posthumous associations of himself, — though it is true that certain demi-gods of art, such as Goethe, have sat in their arm-chairs with a mien suggesting that the chair already belongs to the national museum. Irving’s arm-chair is here in a glass case, under lock and key, on one side of the chimney piece — the poker, too. There is room for another glass case on the other side. But I must be careful and eschew laziness — it is hardly big enough to hold a sofa.

Portraits of Irving — a handsome fellow with a stock and a fine head of hair — and a framed page or two of his handwriting, hang on the walls, accompanied by a great cloud of great actors ; Garrick leaning against Shakespeare’s bust, as Shakespeare leans upon his own greatness in Leicester-square ; Booth —” Mr. Booth,” as they touchingly speak of him in his old house, now the Players’ Club, in New York, just as though he were still in his room upstairs — and many others.

A copy of “The Sketch Book” is on the table. It is, I imagine, little read out of Stratford to-day, sharing thus the general fate of minor classics ; but you have only to open it anywhere to find that it is still alive with the deathless charm of humanity, not to speak of a style, which, if sometimes too neatly Addisonian, is at its best full of a fine ease. I find the paper on Stratford. How good it is ! Even Lamb himself could hardly have twined together the various traditions and impressions of the place into a prettier wreath of sentiment. I will transcribe the opening passage that the reader may the better be able to realise what I am feeling and saying : —

” To a homeless man who has no spot on this wide world which he can truly call his own, there is a momentary feeling of something like independence and territorial consequence, when, after a weary day’s travel, he kicks off his boots, thrusts his feet into slippers, and stretches him-self before an inn fire. Let the world without go as it may ; let kingdoms rise or fall, so long as he has the wherewithal to pay his bill, he is, for the time being, the very monarch of all he surveys. The arm-chair is his throne ; the poker his sceptre, and the little parlour of some twelve feet square his undisputed empire. It is a morsel of certainty, snatched from the midst of the uncertainties of life ; it is a sunny moment gleaming out kindly on a cloudy day ; and he who has advanced some way on the pilgrimage of existence knows the importance of husbanding even morsels and moments of enjoyment. ‘ Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn ? ‘ thought I, as I gave the fire a stir, lolled back in my elbow chair, and cast a complaisant look about the little parlour of the Red Horse, at Stratford-on-Avon.

“The words of sweet Shakespeare were just passing through my mind, as the clock struck midnight from the tower of the church in which he lies buried. There was a gentle tap at the door, and a pretty chambermaid, putting in her smiling face, inquired with a hesitating air whether I had rung. I understood it as a modest hint that it was time to retire. My dream of absolute dominion was at an end : so abdicating my throne, like a prudent potentate, to avoid being deposed, and putting the Stratford Guide Book under my arm as a pillow companion, I went to bed, and dreamt all night of Shakespeare, the Jubilee, and David Garrick.”

I suppose M. Huysmans, and such virtuosi of the one inevitable word, would think small beer of such writing. Ah well ! time will show ! — show again no doubt as it has so often shown, that survival in literature depends on no one quality — not on the mot juste, or on ” distinction,” or on style alone, but that indeed a kind heart may be as important as any of these, so awe-inspiring in the mouths of certain modern writers who confuse distinction ” with hauteur, and style with stiffness and affectation.

Besides, as one turns over this ” Sketch Book” again, one is reminded that not only was Irving a graceful essayist, but a creator of at least one large and lasting figure of the fantastic imagination, and of at least one national type. Of course, I refer to personages no less famous than Rip Van Winkle, and that Diedrich Knickerbocker, after whom the best ” New York families are proud to call themselves. Besides, Bracebridge Hall and Sleepy Hollow are haunts of the fancy hardly less familiar in our thoughts than Hampton Court or Richmond Park. Oh, yes, Irving belongs to the Beginners, the makers of new realities and new words. But, perhaps, best of all, he was that rare and unfashionable apparition in contemporary literature — a charming nature.

I have spent a long while dipping about his Sketch Book,” making quick and warm re-acquaintance with old friends. It must be near midnight, and I half expect that pretty chambermaid to put in her smiling admonitory face. And shall I dream of Shakespeare, the Jubilee, and David Garrick? Perhaps — but I confess I hope not. “No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive.”