Amwell and its Quaker Poet

How many readers of poetry in the present day are conscious of the existence of John Scott? Johnson, who said to Boswell that “he liked individuals among the Quakers, but not the sect,” was on terms of friendship with the Poet of Amwell. Scott died in December, 1783. In September, 1784, Johnson, in answer to an application to him to write the good man’s life, wrote, “As I have made some advances towards recovery, and loved Scott, I am willing to do justice to his memory.” Three months later Johnson himself had obeyed “kind Nature’s signal for retreat;” and that memory which the author of the “Lives of the Poets” might have preserved from oblivion, was not rendered more enduring by the somewhat feeble memoir of Hoole, the translator of Tasso.

The poetry of which the main feature is local description rarely attains any permanent fame. The most celebrated poems of this kind are chiefly remembered for passages which have a strong human interest. Such is the passage in “Cooper’s Hill,” where the distant prospect of St. Paul’s suggests the thought of the crowd who run, by several ways, beneath “the sacred pile,”

Some to undo, and some to be undone.

Such is Pope’s description, however exaggerated, of the depopulation produced by the Norman forest-makers. But of all tiresome local poetry, save me, Common Sense, from the unrealities of Garth’s “Claremont,” where Echo and Narcissus still haunt the groves, and Druids prophesy the glories of the Second George. Save me, also, from Tickell’s “Kensington Gardens,” their fairies and their dwarfs, their Dryads and their Naiads. Such verses, made to order, have wholly perished, as they deserved to perish.

But the Quaker of Amwell poured forth his local poetry out of the abundance of his heart. His mind was the pure reflection of the gentle scenery amidst which his life was passed. He seems to reproduce, almost without an efffort, the imagery of the sweet pastoral country amidst which his blameless existence glided away. A passing recollection of the one well-known poem of this man of peace,

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,

led me to look at his more elaborate writings. There is nothing very striking in them — few passages that the mind delights to linger over — no vivid flashes of genius. But there is a soothing charm about his home scenes, which in certain moods of the mind is more pleasing than the efforts of more powerful writers. Moreover, the localities in which the Quaker poet delighted are the primrose-hills and silent silver streams which Isaak Walton “thought too pleasant to be looked on, but only on holy-days.” Take your sketch book, my friend, and let us make a holiday to Amwell.

“Pack clouds away! ” The misty June morning will end in sunshine. Less than an hour of railroad will take us to the thriving town whither John Gilpin rode “sore against his will,” and stopped not till his horse stood at the Callender’s door. We whisk over twenty miles of the flattest country, through this valley of the Lea; but over a country abundantly suggestive of historical memories.

We look upon the grey tower of Waltham Abbey, and think of the traditional burial-place of Harold. We look in vain for even a bit of mouldering wall of the proud palace of Theobalds, to help our fancy to a notion of our first Stuart king coming forth to hunt in his forest of Epping, wedged safely in his padded saddle.

A few miles onward, and the red turret of the Rye House tells of baffled conspiracy, and of honourable haters of tyranny confounded with vulgar traitors. As we approach Ware, a vision of Alfred rises up, as we think of his memorable exploit of diverting the channel of the Lea, leaving the Danish ships high and dry behind their Weir. Fighting against invasions, real or threatened, for ten centuries, the Anglo-Saxon is still compelled to think of defending his soil. Upon the many branches of the Lea in the marshes around Waltham are the great gunpowder works of the Board of Ordnance; and those tall chimneys proclaim where the Enfield rifle is forged.

A walk of some half mile by the side of the New River — which has its highest source close at hand at Chadwell Spring — brings us within the near view of a gently rising hill, crowned by a church tower. We wind along a green lane on a pleasant ascent, and are beneath the high bank where the well-preserved windows of this church of the fourteenth century, and its very perfect apse, peep from behind the richest foliage. Scott has described this charming spot, which wants no feature of the most perfect picture. His “pleased eye”

On Amwell rests at last, its favourite scene.
How picturesque the view! where up the side
Of that steep bank her roofs of russet thatch
Rise, mix’d with trees, above whose swelling tops
Ascends the tall church tower, and loftier still
The hill’s extended ridge. How picturesque!
Where slow beneath that bank the silver stream
Glides by the flowery isle, and willow groves
Wave on its northern verge, with trembling tufts
Of osier intermix’d. How picturesque
The slender group of airy elm, the clump
Of pollard oak, or ash, with ivy brown
Entwined; the walnut’s gloomy breadth of boughs,
The orchard’s ancient fence of rugged pales,
The haystack’s dusty cone, the moss-grown shed,
The clay-built barn, the elder-shaded cot.

The scene has a more dressed appearance now than in the days of its poet. The russet thatch of the elder-shaded cot has given place to the trim roof of the rose-covered villa. But the natural features — the steep bank, the flowery island, the trees, are still the same. Here is the Amwell spring — the Emme-well of the Domesday Book —one of the heads of the New River. There is an urn to the memory of Middleton on the island,round which the stream flows far more gracefully than in its ordinary course; and on the bank is a stone inscribed with eight lines by the contemplative Quaker:

Amwell, perpetual be thy stream,
Nor e’er thy spring be less,
Which thousands drink who never dream
Whence flows the boon they bless.

Too often thus ungrateful man
Blind and unconscious lives,
Enjoys kind Heaven’s indulgent plan,
Nor thinks of Him who gives.

There is a tranquillising influence in such spots, of which minds formed as those of the poet of Amwell, and of the author of the “Complete Angler,” are the best interpreters. Scott has paid his tribute to Isaak Walton, who

Oft our fair haunts explored; upon Lea’s shore
Beneath some green tree oft his angle laid,
His sport suspending to admire their charms.

Here all the sweet passages of the cheerful old haberdasher come unbidden into our mind. Two hundred years have passed since he walked forth from his “shop near Chancery Lane,” to sit under the high honeysuckle hedge, whilst the shower fell gently upon the teeming earth, and to listen to the birds, who “seemed to have a friendly contention with an echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree, near to the brow of that primrose hill.”

The hill of Amwell still echoes the nightingale’s song, undisturbed by the tread of busy feet. The exquisite passage in which ‘Walton describes the music of the nightingale has been compared by Henry Headley,* with a marked preference, to the more famous strains of Milton and Thomson: “He that at midnight, when the very labourer sleeps securely, should hear, as I have very often, the clear airs, the sweet descants,the natural rising and falling, the doubling and redoubling of her voice, might well be lifted above earth, and say, Lord, what music hast thou provided for the saints in heaven, when thou affordest bad men such music on earth! ”
* In his charming volumes, “Select Beauties of Ancient
English Poetry.” 1787.

Thoughts such as these naturally lead us to climb the rustic steps which mount to the churchyard. Here lie, amidst the peaceful tenants of the hamlet, men not unknown to fame. William Warner, the author of “Albion’s England,” was buried here in 1609. Scott calls him “the gentle bard, by fame forgotten.” He who told the tender story of “Argentile and Curan,” was not forgotten when Percy revived the tastes which had been lost in the unimaginative times that had consigned our old poets to oblivion.

Robert Mylne, the engineer of Blackfriars Bridge, has here a splendid monument. Scott himself rests in the Quakers’ burial-place at Ware. We hear the hum of children’s voices on “the hill’s extended ridge,” and are pursuing our way upward, when we come suddenly upon a plain tomb which startles us out of our musings upon past worthies:

The Rev. Richard Jones
Died 1855
Aged 64.

Here then is thy resting-place, most energetic and sagacious of men. Thy worldly wisdom (for thy administrative ability was as eminent as thy profound knowledge) was tempered by as generous and benevolent a heart as ever beat. Yes; thy Haileybury, the home of thy arduous labours, the seat of thy genial hospitality, is in this parish of Amwell; and here thou liest in the prettiest of churchyards. Here is the work of education going forward which Richard Jones, the professor of History and Political Economy, so advanced in a higher sphere.

The clergyman of Amwell invites us into his school-room, and the rosiest of girls and the cleanest of boys sing with no mean skill a simple strain in praise of summer. A little farther on, the clergyman’s wife sits under a shading elm, and hears a class of elder girls read aloud in the clear air. Life and death; youth and age; the past and the present, blend harmoniously together.

Scott’s “Amwell” has the historical allusions that belong to local poetry. Hertford’s “GreyTowers,” Ware’s “Tournaments’ proud pomp,” “Alfred, father of his people,” Rhye’s “Old Walls,” are naturally suggested by the wide prospect. He looks, too, upon Ware Park, where Fanshawe, retired from camps and courts, sat in the garden “famed in Wotton’s page,” and translated “Guarini’s amorous lore.”

Scott knew not, perhaps, of the admirable wife of Fanshawe — for her Memoirs were unpublished in his time — whose tender anxiety for her husband’s freedom Cromwell could not resist; who, when the ship in which they sailed was about to be attacked by a Turkish galley, put on a sailor’s blue cap and tarred coat, and stood upon deck beside her husband, who snatched her up in his arms, saying “Good God, that love can make this change!” Scott does not overdo his historical allusions. But he is in his true element when he sings, as old Herrick sang, “of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers.” He rejoices to look from the airy point of his Amwell Hill upon the prospect,

Not vast and awful, but confined and fair;
Not the black mountain and the foamy main;
Not the throng’d city, and the busy port;
But pleasant interchange of soft ascent,
And level plain, and growth of shady woods,
And turning course of rivers clear, and sight
Of rural towns, and rural cots, whose roofs
Rise scattering round.

Through these scenes we must wend our way to the Rye House, where the pretty inn will give us refreshment, and the swift train bear us back to “the throng’d city.” We can scarcely wander through the valley of the Lea as honest Isaak wandered; for the river has been made navigable by long formal cuts, and the old stream is in most places strictly preserved.

So we may gradually ramble along by the less picturesque New River, and rest at last in the holiday garden of the inn, whither hundreds come by excursion-train and van to escape for a long summer’s day from the vast area,

Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air.

Hither come for their annual festivals, clubs of Odd Fellows and of Jolly Fellows — the skilled artisans of great London establishments, such as printers and pianoforte makers. They dine in a vast saloon, formed out of an extension of the old offices of Rumbold the malster, who dwelt in the Rye House. Up the old turret they climb, and look out upon the green fields through which the Lea flows amidst osier’d banks. They crowd into punts, and aspire to angle where Walton angled.

They speed over the meadows, and try their unaccustomed hands at trap-ball and quoits. The provident host of the Rye House is justly proud of the patronage of these great associations of ingenious workmen, who dine economically, and care more for ale than champagne. His dining room is radiant with bright gilt frames, holding pleasant certificates of their excellent fare from the representatives of the merry and contented hundreds who have thus forgot their accustomed lot for the summer holiday long to be remembered.

The form of enjoyment is changed: the conveniences for enjoyment have multiplied since Walton described his holidays — “stretching our legs up Tottenham Hill;” “taking our morning draught at the Thatched House at Hodsden;” “leading our mates to an honest alehouse, where we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and twenty ballads stuck about the wall;” listening to the song of “a handsome milkmaid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be.”

We have no time in our days for such lingering delights; we have no taste for such simple luxuries. We ourselves rejoice to find as good a dinner at the Rye House as at the Bedford, instead of bringing out of our fish-bags “a piece of powdered beef and a radish or two.” We sit contentedly sipping our sherry and water and puffing our cigar under alcoves festooned with roses, instead of indulging in such rare gratification as that with which happy Isaak finished his three days’ sport – “a bottle of sack, milk, oranges, and sugar, which all put together make a drink like nectar – indeed, too good for anybody but anglers.”

The habitual economy of those times enabled the industrious tradesman to be occasionally expensive in his tastes. The cheapness and rapidity of modern conveyance permits the London artisan to have a full day’s relaxation with that best of economies, the economy of his time. Our holiday enjoyments are perhaps not quite so poetical as when the cheerful old Piscator went out with a determined purpose to be happy.

On the banks of the Lea no milkmaid now charms us with “that smooth song which was made by Kit Marlow,” of

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, or bills, or field,
Or woods and steepy mountains yield

No milkmaid’s mother sings “an answer to it, which was made by Sir Walter Raleigh in his younger days.” Maudlin and her mother have vanished from the scene. Less pretty and pastoral are three sable minstrels who suddenly glide into our garden walks by the side of the Lea, and burst out, to the music of the banjo, with:

Who’s dat knocking at the door!

The forms of our pleasures and their accompaniments in other respects incessantly change, but their natural backgrounds are eternally fresh and perennially welcome.

September 1859 – CHARLIE KNIGHT.




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Central Florida
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