It was a comfort as I came out of the Albert Memorial Chapel, and rejoined nature upon the Terrace, to mutter to myself those fine lines which not a hundred years ago everybody knew by heart : “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth ere gave, Await alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave, “a verse which I found it not bad to remember as in the Chapel Royal I gazed upon the helmets, and banners, and insignia of many a defunct Knight of the Garter. I wondered if posterity would care much for George the Fourth, or Third, or Second, or First, whose portraits I had just been gazing at; I was sure that a good many would remember the recluse scholar of Pembroke Hall, the Cambridge Professor of Modern History, who cared for nothing but ancient history; who projected twenty great poems, and finished only one or two; who spent his life in commenting upon Plato and studying botany, and in writing letters to his friend Mason; and who with a real touch of Pindar in his nature, was content to fiddlefaddle away his life. He died at last of a most unpoetical gout in the stomach, leaving behind him a cartload of memoranda, and fifty fragments of fine things; and yet I, a stranger from a far distant shore, was about to make a little pilgrimage to his tomb, and all for the sake of that “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard,” which has so held its own while a hundred bulkier things have been forgotten.
The church itself is an interesting but not remarkable edifice, old, small, and solidly built in a style common enough in England. Nothing, however, could be more in keeping with the associations of the scene. The very humility of the edifice has a property of its own, for anything more magnificent would jar upon the feelings, as the monument in the Park does most decidedly. It was Gray’s wish that he might be buried here, near the mother whom he loved so well; otherwise he could hardly have escaped the posthumous misfortune of a tomb in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s. In such case the world would have missed one of the most charming of associations, and the great poem the most poetical of its features. For surely it was fit that he who sang so touchingly of the dead here sleeping, should find near them his last resting-place; that when the pleasant toil in libraries was over, the last folio closed by those industrious hands, the last manuscript collated, and the last flower picked for the herbarium, he who here so tenderly sang of the emptiness of earthly honors and the nothingness of wordly success should be buried humbly near those whom he best loved, and where all the moral of his teaching might be perpetually illustrated. I wondered, as I stood there, whether Horace Walpole ever thought it worth his while, for the sake of that early friendship which was so rudely broken, to come there, away from the haunts of fashion, or from his plaything villa at Strawbeiry Hill, to muse for a moment over the grave of one who rated pedigrees and peerages at their just value. Probably my Lord Orford was never guilty of such a piece of sentimentality. He was thinking too much of his pictures and coins and eternal bric-a-brac for that.
A stone set in the outside of the church indicates the spot near which the poet is buried. I was very anxious to see the interior of the edifice, and, fortunately I found the sexton busy in the neighborhood. There was nothing, however, remarkable to be seen, after sixpence had opened the door, except perhaps the very largest pew which these eyes ever beheld. It belonged to the Penn family, descendants of drab-coated and sweet-voiced William Penn, whose seat is in the neighborhood. I do not know what that primitive Quaker would have said to such an enormous reservation of space in the house of God for the sole use and behoof of two or three aristocratic worshipers. Probably few of my readers have ever seen such a pew as that. It was not so much a pew as a room. It was literally walled off, and quite set apart from the plebeian portion of the sanctuary, was carpeted, and finished with comfortable arm-chairs, and in the middle of it was a stove. The occupants could look out and over at the altar, but the rustics could not look in and at them. The Squire might have smoked or read novels, or my lady might have worked worsted or petted her poodle through the service, without much scandal. The pew monopolized so much room that there was little left for the remainder of the “miserable offenders,” but I suspect that there was quite enough for all who came to pray. For it was, as I have said, literally a country church; and those who sleep near it were peasants.
It is difficult to comprehend the whole physiognomy of the poem, if I may use the expression, without seeing the spot which it commemorates. I take it for granted that the reader is familiar with it. There are “those rugged elms,” and there is “that yew tree’s shade.” There are “the frail memorials,” “with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked;” there “the name, the years, spelt by the unlettered muse;” and the holy texts strewn round “that teach the rustic moralist to die.” There is still “the ivy-mantled tower,” tho the “moping owl” that evening did not “to the moon complain,” partly because there was no moon to complain to, and possibly because there was no moping owl in the tower. But there was one little circumstance which I may be pardoned for mentioning. Gray, some-how, has the reputation of being an artificial poet, yet for one who wrote so little poetry he makes a good many allusions to childhood and children. As I passed through the Park on my way to the churchyard, I encountered a group of merry boys and girls playing about the base of the monument; and I recalled that verse which Gray wrote for the Elegy, and afterward discarded, under the impression that it made the parenthesis too long.
There seatter’d oft, the earliest of the year, By hands unseen are showers of violets found;
The redbreast loves to build and warble there, And little footsteps lightly print the ground.
I have often wondered how Gray could bear to give up these sweet, tender and most natural linen I have sometimes surmised that he thought them a little too much like Ambrose Philips’s verses about childrenNamby Pamby Philips, as the Pope set nicknamed that unfortunate writer.
I lingered about the churchyard until that long twilight, of which we know nothing in America, began to grow dimmer and dimmer. If it was still before, it seemed all the stiller now. I was glad that I had waited so long, because by doing so I understood all the better how true the Elegy is to .nature. The neighbor-hood, with its agreeable variety of meadow and wood, has all the hundred charms of the gentle and winning English scenery. The hush, hardly broken even by the songs of the birds, brought forcibly to my mind that beautiful line of the Elegy : “And all the air a solemn stillness holds;” while that other line: “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,” is exactly true. The landscape did glimmer, and as I watched the sun go down, I pleased myself with the fancy that I was sitting just where the poet sat, as he revolved those lines which the world has got by heart. Just then came the cry of the cattle, and I knew why Gray wrote: “The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,” nor did I fail to encounter a plowman homeward plodding his weary way.
As I strolled listlessly back to the station, there was such a serenity on the earth about me, and in the sky above me, that I could easily give myself to gentle memories and poetic dreams. I recalled the spring-time of life, when I learned this famous Elegy by heart as a pleasant task, and, as yet unsophisticated by critical notions, accepted it as perfect. I thought of innummerable things which I had read about it; of the long and patient revision which its author gave it, year after year, keeping it in his desk, and then sending it, a mere pamphlet, with no flourish of trumpets, into the world. Many an ancient figure came to lend animation to the scene. Horace Walpole in his lace coat and spruce wig went mincing by; the mother of Gray, with her sister, measured lace for the customers who came to her little shop in London; the wags of Pembroke College, grace-less varlets, raise an alarm of fire that they may see the frightened poet drop from the window, half dead with alarm; old Foulis, the Glasgow printer, volunteers to send from his press such a luxurious edition of Gray’s poems as the London printers can not match; Dr. Johnson, holding the page to his eyes, growls over this stanza, and half-grudgingly praises that. I had spent perhaps the pleasantest day which the fates vouchsafed me during my sojourn in England; and here I was back again in Slough Station, ready to return to the noisy haunts of men. The train came rattling up, and the day with Gray was over.