« AnteriorContinuar »
to think that a great deal of the sublime tone of some of Byron's poetry, as that of the Childe Harold, of the sentiment, almost sentimentality of his Hours of Idleness, and of many of his smaller poems throughout his works, were assumed by him at will and for effect. They do not see how these things could proceed from the same mind as the rhodomontade of many of his most familiar letters, or the slang and wild humour of many parts of Don Juan. How little do such persons know of the human mind! Did not Tam o' Shanter, and Mary in Heaven, and the Cotter's Saturday Night all proceed from the same mind, and one of the most earnest minds that ever lived ? Did not the sublime scenes of the Iliad, and the battle of the beggars in the Odyssey, and the trick of Ulysses in the cave of Polypheme, when he called himself Noman—so that when Polypheme roared out as they put out his eye, and he told his neighbours who came running to inquire what was the matter, that Noman hurt him, they replied,
"If no man hurt thee, why dost thou complain ? "
and marched away without helping him-did not these proceed from the same mind? Did not the puns of Hood, and the sober ballad of Eugene Aram, and the Song of the Shirt, proceed from one and the same mind ? Did not John Gilpin and the loftiest strains of pious poetry proceed from that of Cowper? Did not Chatterton write equally Sly Dick, and the tragedy of Ella? In fact, we might run through the whole circuit of poetic and prose literature, and show that the moods of our minds are as various and changeable as those of external nature. The very gravest, the most steadfast of us bave our transitions from sad to gay, from frivolous to the highest tone of the highest purpose, with a rapidity that is supposed to belong only to the most changeful of us. There is, in fact, no such chameleon, no such kaleidoscope as the human mind. Light and shadow pass over us, and communicate their lustres or their glooms. Facts give us a turn up or down, and the images of our brain present new and ever new arrangements. But in all this change there is no mere chance, far less confusion ; every movement depends on a fixed principle. Perhaps there have been few men in whom circumstances, zircumstances of physical organization, of life, and education, cherished and made habitual so many varied moods as in Lord Byron. Thrown at a very early age into the bosom of a beautiful and solitary nature, he imbibed a profound and sincere love of nature and solitude. Sent early to public schools to battle his way amongst boys of his own age, and with a personal defect which often subjected him to raillery, his native spirit made him bristle up and show fight, as he did afterwards with his reviewers. Raised to rank and wealth, and, spite of his crooked foot, endowed with, in all other respects, a very fine person, he was led to plunge into the dissipations of young men of his class, and he thus acquired a tone of libertinism that ever afterwards, under the same circumstances, was sure to show itself. Led by his quick sense of right and wrong, and by his shrewd insight into character, to despise priestcraft and
political despotism, and spurred on by the spirit of the time. especially abroad where he travelled, he imbibed a spirit of sceptjcism and radicalism as principles. From these causes he soon began to exhibit the most opposite phases of character. In solitude and nature he was religious in his tone-in society a scoffer; in solitudo he was pepsive, and even sentimental-in society he was convivial, fond of practical jokes, satirical. He wrote like a radical, and spoke like an aristocrat. In him Childe Harold and Don Juan, the sublime and the ludicrous, the noble and the mean, the sarcastic and the tender, the voluptuous and beautifully spiritual, the pious and the impious, were all embodied. He was all these by turns, and in all, for the moment, most sincere. Like an instrument of many strings, each had its peculiar tone, and answered faithfully to the external impulse. Multifarious as were his moods, you might in any given circumstances have predicated which of these would prevail. There would be no sensuality in the face of the Alps, there Fould be no sublimity in the city saloon. If he had to speak in the House of Lords, his speech by the spirit of antagonism would assuredly be radical ; did he come in contact with the actual mob, he would case himself in the hauteur of the aristocrat. With Nature he was ashamed of men and his doings and sayings amongst them, with men he was ashamed of nature and poetry. He would laugh at his own flights of sentiment. He was a many-sided monster, showing now sublime and now grotesque, but with a feeling in the depths of his soul that he ought to be something greater than he was or dared to be
To go back, however, from his character to himself. Aberdeen presented to the boy ample food for two of his propensities, those towards the enjoyment of nature and society. The country round, though not sublime, is beautiful. The sea is at hand, an ever grand and stirring objects The Dee comes winding from the mountains of the west through a vale of great loveliness, the Don from the north through scenes perhaps still more striking. There is an air of antiquity about the town, with its old churches, colleges, and towers, that is peculiarly pleasing; and the country has likewise a primitive look that wins at once on the spectator. To a traveller from the Bouth, the approach to it by sea is very striking—I do not mean the immediate approach, for this is flat, but the coast voyage out from Edinburgh. The whole coast is bleak, yet green, and presenting to the sea bold and time-worn rocks. For a considerable part of the way they appear to be of red sandstone, and are therefore scooped out into the boldest caves, hollows, and promontories imaginable. Here and there are deep, dark caverns, into which the sea rushes as into its own peculiar dens; in other places it has cut out arches and doorways through insulated rocks, and you see the light through them displaying other rocks behind. One of these is noted for prekenting, by effect of light behind it, the appearance of a lady in white, standing at the mouth of a cave, and beckoning with her band. As you skim along the coasts of Fife, Forfar, Kincardine, and Aberdeen, these rocks and caverns present ever-new forms, while all
the country above them is now green, smiling, and cultured, though formerly it must have been savage indeed, giving rise to strange superstitions and legends. Bleak little towns ever and anon stretch along the shore ; though green, the country is very bare of trees. Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, are good large towns; and there are the ruins of Arbroath Abbey and Dunnottar Castle, with others of less note. Dunnottar cannot be passed without thinking of Old Mortality, whom Scott found in the churchyard there, restoring the inscriptions on the gravestones of the Covenanters; nor can Uri, an old-fashioned house on the bare uplands above Stonehaven, as the abode of Barclay, the writer of the celebrated Apology for Quakerism, and in our day for that of his pedestrian descendant, Captain Barclay. How singular are the reflections which arise on human life and its combinations when gazing on such a place as this! What should induce a man at one time to go forth from a remote scene and solitary old house like this, to mingle with the ferment of the times—to become an active apostle of Quakerism, and the expositor of its faith; and another, nearly two centuries afterwards, to march out of the same house down into England, not for an exhibition of Quakerism, but of Pedestrianism-not of reasoning but of walking powers? Why should that house, just that house and its family, be destined to produce great Quakers, ending in great walkers and great brewers? How often in my boyhood had I read Barclay's preface to his Apology, dated from “Uri in Scotland, the Place of my Pilgrimage," and addressed to King Charles II, by “Robert Barclay, the servant of Jesus Christ, called by God to à dispensation of the Gospel revealed anew in this our age,” &c. And there it stood, high, bare, and solitary, eliciting the oddest compound ideas of “hops and heresy,” according to the phrase of a clergyman of the time, or rather of Quakerism, London porter, and walking matches against time!
Beyond this, the coast becomes more and more what is called iron-bound, and the rocks-probably of trap, or whinstone-as you advance northward stand up in the sea, black and curdled as it were, and worn into caverns and perpendicular indentures, exactly as you see them in Bewick's wood-cuts. Stepping then on land at Aberdeen, how agreeable is the change! The city, built of a grey and lustrous granite, has a look of cleanness and neatness almost inconceivable. Since the days of Byron's boyhood, great must have been the changes. The main streets are all evidently new; and on advancing into Union-street, the great street which traverses almost the whole length of the city, a mile in length, and seventy feet wide, you are struck with a pleasant surprise. The width and extent, the handsome yet plain buildings of clean granite, and the fine public buildings visible in different directions, are far more than you espected in a town so far north.* On the river you see an imposing assemblage of ships; you find the Marischal College now built in & very graceful style ; and a market-house, I suppose, in extent, convenience of arrangement, and supply, inferior to none in the kingdom. The olden streets, such as were in existence in Byron's time, are much more like what you would have looked for- of a narrower and more ordinary character.
* In the centre of the town is erected a granite statue of the late Duke of Gordon. Seeing a decent looking man near it, I asked him if he could tell me who executed that figure. “Sir!" replied the honest Aberdonian, with unseigned surprise, "he never was executed at all. It is the Duke of Gordon!"
About a mile to the north of the new town lies Old Aberdeen. In advancing towards it you become every moment more aware of its far greater antiquity. It looks as if it had a fixed attachment to the past, and had refused to move. There is a quietness, a stationariness about it. One old house or villa after another stands in its garden or court, as it has done for centuries. The country about has an old Saxon look. It carried me away into Germany, with its unfenced fields of corn and potatoes ; villages seen in the distance, also unfenced, but with a few trees clustered about them; and the country naked, except for its corn. To the right lay the sea, to the left this open country; and on before arose, one beyond the other, tower and spire of an antique character, as of a very ancient city. Presently I came to the college-King's College, with the royal crown of Scotland surmounting its tower, in fine and ample dimensions, and its courts and corridors seen through the ancient gateway. Then, on the other hand, the equally antique gateway to the park of Mr Powis Leslie, with its two tall round towers of most ancient fashion, with galleries and spires surmounted with crescents. Then, onwards, the ancient, massy cathedral, with its two stone spires, and tall western window of numerous narrow windowlets, and ponderous walls running along the roadside, with a coping of a yard high, and stuccoed. Everything had a heavy, ancient, and German character. I could have imagined myself in Saxony or Franconia ; and, to augment the illusion, a woman at a cottage door, inquiring the time of day, received the answer, “half twa," as near as possible "half two" in Plat-deutsch. Still further to increase the illusion, the people talked of the bridge as “she.” Truly, the repose of centuries, and the fashion of a far-gone time, so far as relates to our country, lay over the whole place.
I had now to inquire my way to the brig of Balgounie, a spot which makes a conspicuous figure in Byron's boyish history. “The brig of Don," says he himself in a note in Don Juan, Canto X. p. 309, “ near the auld town' of Aberdeen, with its one arch, and its black deep salmon stream, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote, the awful proverb which made me pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with a childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother's side. The saying as recollected by me was this, but I have never heard or seen it since I was nine years of age :
• Brig of Balgounie, wight (strong) is thy wa',
Down shalt thou fa'.'” How accurate was his recollection of this old bridge; a proof of the delight with which he had enjoyed this scenery. We are told that on holiday afternoons he would get down to the sea-side and find great amusement there. Here was the sea just below; and it will be seen that the whole way that he had to come from New Aberdeen was full of a spirit and an aspect to fall deep into the heart of an embryo poet. There is a new and direct way now from the city nearer to the sea, and from the new bridge of Don the view of the old bridge is very picturesque. It is one tall grey pointed arch, with cottages about it on both sides on the high banks of the Don, and mills, with masses of trees. On the low ground below the bridge at the left-hand end stands a white house, and little fishermen's huts or sheds scattered here and there. On the other bank of the river the ground is high and knolly. Clumps of trees seem to close in upon the bridge, and behind and above them is a little group of fishermen's houses called the huts of Balgounie. Below the bridge the river widens out into a broad expanse, and between high, broomy banks, comes down to the new bridge and thence to the sea meadows, where the white billows are seen chasing each other at its mouth. Above the bridge the river is dark and deep, and the high banks are overhung with wood. The valley of the Don above is very picturesque with woods and rocks, and is enlivened with mills and factories.
The view from the bridge itself down into the river is striking. I suppose it must be forty or fifty feet from its centre to the water, yet a man living close by told me that he once saw a sailor leap from it for a wager. The bridge is remarkably strongly built. It is said to have been built in the time of Bruce, yet it has by no means a very ancient look, and being of solid granite is not very likely to fulfil the prophecy of its fall. Yet Mr. Chambers, in his “ Picture of Scotland,” says this superstition has not always been confined to children, for our late Earl of Aberdeen, who was an only son, and rode a favourite horse, which was “a mare's ae foal,” always dismounted on approaching this bridge, and used to have his horse led over at a little distance after him. The people near do not now seem to partake of it. “Fall !” say they, “ay, when the rocks on which it is based fall !” It is, in fact, like a solid piece of rock itself; and is in possession of funds left in 1605, by Sir Alexander Hay, which though then only producing five and forty shillings a year, have so accumulated that they are not only amply sufficient to maintain it in repair, but have built the new brig. At each end of the bridge you see several large iron rings in the wall. These, I was told, were to secure ropes or chains to, from which to suspend scaffolding for the repair of the bridge on the outside. Every care is thus taken of it, “She is verra rich, is the auld brig," said the man before mentioned. “ She has been verra useful in her time, for before the new brig was built, she was the only means of getting to the north country-there was no fording the river. And the new brig has been built wi' her money, ay every sixpence of it, gran brig as the new ane is with her five granite arches ; and the auld brig gives 1001. a-year to take care of her too. But she's verra well off in the world yet, for all that, she has plenty left for herself.” Thus do they talk of the auld brig as if she were a wealthy old lady. If, however, any one should pay