Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1703/The Wordsworths at Brinsop Court
From Temple Bar.
THE WORDSWORTHS AT BRINSOP COURT.
Tennyson has immortalized his "moated grange" by placing the love-lorn Mariana there; his brother poet, Wordsworth, had his also, in which he frequently sojourned himself. We are not told the precise locality where the sickly maiden was - "aweary, aweary;" but the spot where the healthful poet occasionally dwelt is in Herefordshire. It is called Brinsop Court, and was, for over twenty years, the residence of Mr. Hutchinson, Wordsworth's brother-in-law, his wife and family. It is, in itself, a remarkable and interesting place; but the interest deepens when we learn that it has frequently received, as guests, the Wordsworths, their relatives the Quillinans, Southey, H. C. Robinson, and other celebrities.
Although essentially "a court" in the olden time, it is now, literally, a "moated grange," surrounded by sounds and sights connected with farming, The broad moat encircling the house and lawn that once served as protection against the foe is now alive with flocks of ducks and geese. The whirr of the threshing and winnowing machines, the crowing of cocks, the grinding of the cider-mill, the low of flocks and herds, and the call of human voices, sound without the moat, while within all is comparative repose.
Having crossed the bridge, formerly a drawbridge, the first object that attracts the eye is a tall cedar which rises above the broad-faced, two-storied court. This was planted by Wordsworth forty years ago, and bids fair to co-exist with the poet's name. We seem to see him, surrounded by relatives and friends, setting the diminutive tree which has now grown to such proportions; and to hear the couplet, jest, or laugh accompanying the act. We do see the walks he paced, the garden he frequented, the sedge-covered, tree-spanned waters at the back of the court beside which he mused, and the ruined arches he inquiringly surveyed. Although antiquarians have been busy with the arches, they do not appear to have ascertained the precise date of our "moated grange." The oldest part is supposed to have been built in Stephen's reign, by a Dauncy or Dansey, who came from Normandy with the Conqueror, and in whose family it remained until the present century. Its antiquity is, indeed, patent to all, for at the back of the commodious dwelling-house is a quadrangular court, surrounded by relics of a past age. Here antiquarians, like doctors, "differ;" for the large ruined apartment to which we mount by crumbling stone steps is by some accounted a chapel with a crypt beneath, and by others a banqueting-room. Whatever its former use, it was called by the common people Holy Stage. Its length and breadth are noble; the rafters of its high, pointed roof, cross both ways; there is fresco painting still remaining, and the imagination as readily conjures up the ghosts of jovial knights and squires at the festive board, as of cowled monks at prayer.But the poetical touch that would have struck the Wordsworthian chord is a small arched doorway, opening from this hall, or chapel, as may be, and looking in the moat below. All means of ingress have disappeared, and Mariana could scarcely have found her watery solitude more weird or dreary. The moat is so deep and dark, the low trees are so intimately intertwined, and the rushes and sedges are so thick, that even the fowl seem frightened from the spot and leave it to the spirits that haunt it Still we picture Wordsworth here, or at the duck's nest not far off, or by the brook and mimic fall, recalling, possibly, the bolder surroundings of his house at Rydal Mount. But time changes everything, and the Hutchinsons have departed from the court, and Rydal Mount is being, we are told, rebuilt.
Still, life, cheerfulness, and labor survive, and there are signs of them everywhere. Turning from the moat and doorless arch, and casting our eyes from raftered roof to boarded floor, we see that the great hall is filled with little hillocks of what is familiarly called "sharps," or food for fattening cattle. Descending the ruined steps, we perceive that in the centre of the great quadrangular court are unwieldy cider-butts brought out to dry, round about which poultry pick up grain; and against an ancient building, near a broad archway, rises a grated hutch. Here not only do rabbits munch in one compartment, but two motherless kittens disport themselves in another, which are being "brought up by hand" by children not far off. All this would have attracted the poet almost more than the surrounding ruins. So would the tangled garden, and the summer-house, now converted into an aviary; so doubtless did the luxuriant orchards. We almost see him beneath the apple-blossoms of spring and the rosy fruit of autumn.
We do actually see what best represents him on entering the large, wainscoted dining-room of the house. This is a copy of his portrait by Pickersgill, which surmounts the high and antique mantelpiece, and has been presented as an heirloom to Brinsop Court by Lord Saye and Seal, Archdeacon of Hereford. It was from the original of this picture, now at St. John's College, Cambridge, that the engraving was taken which forms the frontispiece to Wordsworth's "Life and Works." It is now easy to call before the mind's eye the forms of the poet and his companions. The portrait, the quaint apartment, the Gothic window, the cedar, lawn, moat, all aid the imagination. We see first Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson, who, having lived eighteen years in Nadnorth, came to reside at Brinsop Court, where they passed twenty-one years more. It was on the eve of their marriage, in the Vale of Grasmere, that Wordsworth composed the twenty-third of his published "Miscellaneous Sonnets," which we venture to reproduce: —
What need of clamorous bells or ribands gay
These humble nuptials to proclaim or grace?
Angels of love, look down upon the place;
Shed on the chosen vale a sunbright day!
Yet no proud gladness would the bride display
Even for such promise: serious is her face,
Modest her mien; and she, whose thoughts keep pace
With gentleness, in that becoming way
Will thank you. Faultless does the maid appear;
No disproportion in her soul, no strife;
But, when the closer view of wedded life
Hath shown that nothing human can be clear
From frailty, for that insight may the wife
To her indulgent lord become more dear.
It was of this "indulgent lord" that Wordsworth writes, in a letter to Professor Reed, dated Brinsop Court, September 27, 1845; and sonnet and letter not only form a touching homily, but testify to the loving, sympathetic spirit of the writer. It says: —
- This letter is written by the side of my brother-in-law, who, eight years ago, became a cripple, confined to his chair by the accident of his horse falling with him in the high-road, where he lay without power to move either hand or leg, but left in perfect possession of his faculties. His bodily sufferings are by this time somewhat abated, but they still continue severe. His patience and cheerfulness are so admirable that I could not forbear mentioning him to you. He is an example to us all, and most undeserving should we be if we did not profit by it. His family have lately succeeded in persuading him to have his portrait taken as he sits in his armchair. It is an excellent likeness, the best I ever saw, and will be invaluable to his family.
It may not be out of place here to say that this portrait, painted by Lucy, is now in the possession of Mr. Hutchinson's daughter, at West Malvern, and conveys, even to a stranger, the impression of the "patience and cheerfulness" mentioned by his brother-in-law. When Wordsworth wrote the foregoing, his wife was also probably at the side of her crippled brother, since they were at Brinsop Court together.
The portraits of the two men remain, but of the wife and sister no picture is left to aid the imagination. Mrs. Wordsworth refused to sit either for portrait or photograph, having a wholesome dread of all publicity. Both she and her husband disliked the idea of laying bare the sanctity of private life to the world, and it was with much difficulty that the poet's biographer could prevail on her to furnish him with those details most interesting to the public. Still, it is to Mrs. Wordsworth and her sister, Sara Hutchinson, as well as to Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, and daughter Dora, that much of his poetry is due. Devoted to him and to his genius, they never wearied of encouraging him to write, or of accompanying him on his long and fatiguing walks. When his eyesight failed, his wife, the beloved companion of half a century, was his untiring amanuensis, and it is not surprising that he should say that "he never saw an amiable single woman without wishing that she were married."
Yet two of these, his untiring aids and companions, were single women, and had they been married, some of Wordsworth's poetry might never have been written. Sara Hutchinson, a woman of no slender intellect, passed her time between Brinsop Court, Rydal Mount, the poet's home, and Greta Hall. It was to her he wrote the lines on her spinning-wheel; and the two poems signed S. H., honored by a niche in his own poetical volumes, are her composition. She was afterwards Southey's amanuensis. Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister who was his constant friend from childhood, and to whom so many of his poems are addressed, was also frequently in this our moated grange. She was, like her brother, a great walker, and at sixty would take her ten miles' walk among the Herefordshire meads, woods, or orchards. But she outwalked her strength by crossing the Alps more than once, and was an invalid for the last twenty years of her life. Miss Hutchinson has a charming and touching photograph of her, taken during this trying period, and when she was verging on eighty. Her face appears placid and unwrinkled, if pensive, and is surrounded by a full-bordered cap.
A story is told of a favorite Brinsop dog, interesting from its connection with Dorothy Wordsworth and Mr. Quillinan, afterwards her nephew, by marriage with Dora Wordsworth. Dorothy was not naturally fond of dogs, but this one, Prince by name, attached himself to her, and accompanied her unheeded, during her long, solitary Herefordshire rambles. On the eve of one of her departures from the Court, he discovered, as dogs will, what was about to happen, and lay at her bedroom door all the night. The following morning he secreted himself in the cart that conveyed her luggage to Hereford, and finally met her at the coach. It was with difficulty that they could restrain the affectionate animal from following her, and with still greater that they could get him home again. Sometime after, when poor Prince was, like Dorothy, "stricken in years," he became sadly infirm, and a burden not only to those about him, but to himself. We hope that aged dogs do not fully understand what that means, or their declining years would be more burdensome still. However, Prince's young master, George Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth's nephew, did not find the old dog a burden, and when the command to get rid of him was repeatedly issued, he begged him off with entreaties and tears.
At last, however, the fiat went forth that Prince must die. There was no kindly chloroform in those days, so the faithful dog was hanged by a servant named Jerry Preece, during the temporary absence of his friend George. Quillinan was staying at the Court at the time, and was engaged in laying night-lines across the moat. When the boy returned, he unadvisedly sent him to search for worms in "the duck's nest," a spot immortalized by Wordsworth in his fifteenth miscellaneous sonnet: —
Words cannot paint the o'ershadowing yew-tree bough,
And dimly gleaming nest — a hollow crown
Of golden leaves inlaid with silver down,
Fine as the mother's softest plumes allow.
When George, in high spirits at his quest, drew near this retired place, he chanced to look up at a neighboring willow-tree. There he saw his beloved Prince ignominiously hanging by the neck. The shock was so great that the boy went half mad with grief, and would not be consoled. Quillinan, who had not known of the place of execution, was much distressed. Retiring to his room, he hastily wrote the following impromptu lines by way of consolation, which he threw out of the window facing the cedar and moat, to the boy wailing beneath it, with the words, "Look, George! Here's an epitaph."
Epitaph on a Favorite Dog.
Stop! passenger, and drop a tear;
A most ill-fated Prince lies here.
His reign in youth was wild and pleasant;
He hunted rabbit, hare, and pheasant;
Grown old, he bid adieu to sport,
And mildly ruled at Brinsop Court.
But shame on these reforming times
Of revolutionary crimes!
This harmless, old, and good Prince-royal
Was vilely used by hands disloyal.
His noble neck was hempen-collared,
And stretched upon a willow-pollard.
Oh, wicked traitor, Jerry Preece,
Repent, if you would die in peace.
We do not know whether these verses consoled George Hutchinson, but they were engraven on stone, and placed at the head of Prince's grave. The remains of the good dog still rest at Brinsop Court, but the tombstone has been removed to Miss Hutchinson's garden at West Malvern. The lines, composed in a few minutes, afford proof, if any be needed, of Quillinan's genius, to whom Wordsworth wrote as follows before he became his son-in-law in 1840: —
- It is in your power to attain a permanent place among the poets of England. Your thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and judgment in style, and skill in metre, entitle you to it; and, if you have not yet succeeded in gaining it, the cause appears to me to lie in the subjects which you have chosen. It is worthy of note how much of Gray's popularity is owing to the happiness with which his subject is selected in three places; his "Hymn to Adversity," his "Ode on the Distant Prospect of Eton College," and his "Elegy." I must, however, in justice to you, add that one cause of your failure appears to have been thinking too humbly of yourself, so that you have not reckoned it worth while to look sufficiently round you for the best subjects, or to employ as much time in reflecting, condensing, bringing out, and placing your thoughts and feelings in the best point of view as is necessary.
It would be well if the writers of the present day would take to heart this advice, given by Wordsworth to Quillinan four years before his marriage with Dora. She also was an accomplished scribe, and her husband was wont to call her "the queen of letter-writers." But not many years after the epitaph to Prince was written, she, like the faithful dog,
Slept the sleep that knows no waking.
Unlike her parents, she died young, and is the last of the spectres that flit before us as we sit, facing her father's portrait, in the wainscoted dining-room of our moated grange. Neither the Mount, the Hall nor the Court could preserve a life so dear; and, after a vain effort to keep her here below a little longer by residence abroad, she was laid to rest in Grasmere churchyard, where, three years later, in 1850, her father was placed by her side.
There is one other member of this united family party who, though "unknown to fame," was not undeserving of it. This was Mrs. Hutchinson's brother, John Monkhouse, known as "the blind agriculturist," a very remarkable man, who was much at Brinsop Court, and in his later years at Rydal Mount. We are told that after Wordsworth's death his widow also became blind, and it was a touching sight to see her and her blind cousin, Mr. Monkhouse, both in extreme old age, walking arm in arm about the spot where the poet had lived and wandered.
All this and much more recurs to us as we roam within and around this old moated court. Fresh inmates dwell here now, and Wordsworths and Hutchinsons are dead or scattered; still memory holds them by her invisible chords, and would gently detain their unsubstantial presence where they have once been.
Not only here, however, where they habitually lived or visited, but in the old church where they worshipped, is the remembrance of them preserved. And if the Court is, in some sort, idyllic from old associations and modern surroundings, from its situation in the heart of nature and the pastoral occupations of its inhabitants, the church and schoolhouse are equally so. Situated within easy distance of the Court, they are also surrounded by woods and meads. The present vicar, the Rev. William Fowle, has restored the one and erected the other. Outside the picturesque schoolhouse is a merry-go-round, on which a dozen or more joyous children ride energetically together, their cheerful voices echoing to the quiet churchyard beyond. Within "God's acre" is a tombstone to a faithful female servant, who died at Brinsop Court while Wordsworth and his wife were paying their last visit there, in 1845. The turf of the churchyard is smoothly mown, and dotted and surrounded by evergreens. A seemly and quiet spot for Christian burial. Inside the ancient church is a memorial window to the poet who frequented it. This has been raised in the chancel by the vicar and a few friends; and it is refreshing in this exciting age to come upon a peaceful country oasis where one who sung so bravely and sweetly of God and nature is thus affectionately remembered. The vicar hopes soon to see a second memorial window in this interesting old church, to recall to this and future generations three other members of the Wordsworth family who also knelt within the sacred walls — the poet's wife, sister, and daughter — Mrs. Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Dora Quillinan.