The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 81/Wet-Weather Work
BY A FARMER.
In these notes upon the Farm-Writers and the Pastorals, I have endeavored to keep a certain chronologic order; and upon this wet morning I find myself embayed among those old gentlemen who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth century. George III. is tottering under his load of royalty; the French Revolution is all asmoke. Fox and Sheridan and Burke and the younger Pitt are launching speeches at this Gallic tempest of blood,—each in his own way. Our American struggle for liberty has been fought bravely out; and the master of it has retired to his estates upon the Potomac. There, in his house at Mount Vernon, he receives one day a copy of the early volumes of Young's "Annals of Agriculture," with the author's compliments, and the proffer of his services to execute orders for seeds, implements, cattle, or "anything else that might contribute to the General's rural amusements."
The General, in his good old-fashioned way, returns the compliments with interest, and says, "I will give you the trouble, Sir, of providing and sending to the care of Wakelin Welch, of London, merchant, the following articles:—
"Two of the simplest and best-constructed ploughs for land which is neither very heavy nor sandy; to be drawn by two horses; to have spare shares and coulters; and a mould, on which to form new irons, when the old ones are worn out, or will require repairing. I will take the liberty to observe, that, some years ago, from a description or a recommendation thereof which I had somewhere met with, I sent to England for what was then called the Rotherham or patent plough; and, till it began to wear and was ruined by a bungling country-smith, that no plough could have done better work, or appeared to have gone easier with two horses; but, for want of a mould, which I neglected to order with the plough, it became useless after the irons which came with it were much worn.
"A little of the best kind of cabbage seed for field-culture.
"Twenty pounds of the best turnip seed.
"Ten bushels of sainfoin seed.
"Eight bushels of the winter vetches.
"Two bushels of rye-grass seed.
"Fifty pounds of hop-clover seed."
The curious reader may be interested to know that this shipment of goods, somewhat injured by stowage in the hold of the vessel, reached Mount Vernon just one week after Washington had left it to preside over the sittings of the Constitutional Convention. And amidst all the eagerness of those debates under which the ark of our nationality was being hammered into shape, this great man of system did not omit to send to his farm-manager the most minute directions in respect to the disposition of the newly arrived seeds.
Of those directions, and of the farm-method at the home of Washington, I may possibly have something to say at another time: I have named the circumstance only to show that Arthur Young had a world-wide reputation as an agriculturist at this day, (1786-7,) although he lived for more than thirty years beyond it.
Arthur Young was born at a little village near to Bury St. Edmund's, (evermore famous as the scene of Pickwickian adventure,) in the year 1741. He had his schooling like other boys, and was for a time in a counting-room at Lynn, where he plunged into literature at the unfledged age of seventeen, by writing a tract on the American war; and this he followed up with several novels, among which was one entitled "The Fair American." I greatly fear that the book was not even with the title: it has certainly slipped away from the knowledge of all the bibliographers.
At twenty-two, he undertook the management of the farm upon which his mother was living, and of which the lease was about expiring: here, by his own account, he spent a great deal more than he ever reaped. A little later, having come to the dignity of a married man, he leased a farm in Essex, (Samford Hall,) consisting of some three hundred acres. This, however, he abandoned in despair very shortly,—giving a brother-farmer a hundred pounds to take it off his hands. Thereupon he advertises for another venture, gallops through all the South of England to examine those offered to his notice, and ends with renting a hundred-acre farm in Hertfordshire, which proved of "a hungry vitriolic gravel," where, he says, "for nine years, I occupied the jaws of a wolf."
Meantime, however, his pen has not been idle; for, previously to 1773, he had written and published no less than sixteen octavo volumes relating mostly to agricultural subjects, besides two ponderous quartos filled with tabular details of "Experiments on the Cultivation of all Sorts of Grain and Pulse, both in the Old and New Methods."
This last was the most pretentious of his books, the result of most painstaking labor, and by far the most useless and uninteresting; it passed long ago into the waste-paper shops of London. A very full synopsis of it, however, may be found in four or five consecutive numbers of the old "Monthly Review" for 1771.
The great fault of the book is, (and it is the fault of a good many books,) it does not prove what the author wants to prove. He had hoped by a long-continued course of minute experiments (and those detailed in his book count a thousand, and extend over a period of five years) to lay down an exact law of procedure for the guidance of his brother-farmers. But the brother-farmers did not weary themselves over his tables; or if they did, they found themselves as much muddled as the experimenter himself. A good rule for dry weather was a bad one for wet; and what might be advisable for Suffolk would be wrong in Herts. Upon one occasion, where he shows a loss of nearly three pounds to the acre on drilled wheat, against a loss of two shillings fourpence on broadcast-sowing, he observes,—"Reason is so often mistaken in matters of husbandry, that it is never fully to be trusted, even in deducing consequences evident from experiment itself." By which we may safely conclude that the experiment disappointed his expectations. It must be remembered, however, that Mr. Young was quite youthful and inexperienced at the time of conducting these trials, and that he possessed none of that scientific accuracy which characterizes the analysis of farm-experiments at Rothamstead or at Bechelbron. He says, with a diverting sincerity, that he was never "absent more than a single week at a time from the field of his observations without leaving affairs in charge of a trusty bailiff." He was too full of a constitutional unrest, and too much wedded to a habit of wide and rapid generalization, to acquit himself well in the task of laborious and minute observation.
His "Tours" through the English counties, and his "Letters to Farmers," were of great service, and were widely read. His "Farmer's Calendar" became a standard work. He entertained at one time the project of emigrating to America; but, abandoning this, he enlisted as Parliamentary reporter for the "Morning Post,"—walking seventeen miles to his country-home every Saturday evening, and returning afoot every Monday morning. His energy and industry were immense; his information upon all subjects connected with agriculture, whether British or Continental, entirely unmatched. The Empress of Russia sent three lads to him to be taught the arts of husbandry,—at which, I venture, his plodding neighbors who "made the ends meet" laughed incontinently. He had also pupils from France, America, Italy, Poland, Sicily, and Portugal.
In 1784 he commenced the publication of his famous "Annals of Agriculture," which grew to the enormous mass of forty-five volumes, and in the course of which dukes and princes and kings and republican generals were his correspondents. At the formation of the Board of Agriculture, he was named Secretary, with a salary and duties that kept him mostly in London, where he died at an advanced age in 1820.
It is a somewhat remarkable fact, that a man so distinguished in agriculture, so full of information, so earnest in advocacy of unproved methods of culture, so doggedly industrious, should yet never have undertaken farming on his own account save at a loss. I attribute this very much to his zeal for experiments. If he could establish, or controvert, some popular theory by the loss of his crop, he counted it no loss, but a gain to husbandry. Such men are benefactors; such men need salaries; and if any such are afloat with us, unprovided for, I beg to recommend them for clerkships in the Agricultural Bureau at Washington; and if the Commissioner shall hit upon one Arthur Young among the score of his protégés, the country will be better repaid than it usually is.
The "Practical Farmer," and other books of William Ellis, Hertfordshire, were in considerable vogue in the days of Young, and receive a little faint praise from him, while he says that through half his works he is "a mere old woman."
I notice that Ellis recommends strongly the ploughing-in of buckwheat,—a practice which Washington followed extensively at Mount Vernon. He tells us that a cow is reckoned in his day to pay a clear profit of four pounds a year (for butter and cheese); but he adds, "Certain it is that no one knows what a cow will pay, unless she has her constant bellyful of requisite meat." And his talk about cider has such a relishy smack of a "mere old woman" that I venture to quote it.
"I have drank," he says, "such Pippin Cyder, as I never met with anywhere, but at Ivinghoe, just under our Chiltern Hills, where their Soil is partly a chalky Loam: It was made by its Owner, a Farmer, and on my Recommendation our Minister went with me to prove it, and gave it his Approbation. This was made from the Holland Pippin: And of such a wholesome Nature is the Pippin of any Sort above all others, that I remember there is a Relation of its wonderful influences, I think it was in Germany: A Mother and two or three of her Sons having a Trial at Law, were asked what they eat and drank to obtain such an Age, which was four or five hundred years that they all made up amongst them; they answered, chiefly by eating the Apple, and drinking its Juice. And I knew an eminent, rich Lawyer, almost eighty Years old, who was very much debilitated through a tedious Sickness, on the telling him this Story, got Pippins directly, sliced them to the number of a dozen at a Time, and infused them in Spring-Water, and made it his common Drink, till Cyder-Time came on; also he fell on planting a number of Pippin-Trees in order to his enjoying their salubrious Quality, and a fine Plantation there is at this Day in his Gardens a few miles from me. This Practice of his drinking the Pippin Liquor and Cyder, answered extraordinary well, for he lived several Years after, in a pretty good State of Health."
The next name I come upon, in this rainy-day service, starts a pleasant picture to my mind,—not offset by a British landscape, but by one of our own New-England hills. A group of heavy, overgrown chestnuts stand stragglingly upon a steep ascent of pasture; they are flanked by a wide reach of velvety turf covering the same swift slope of hill; gray boulders of granite, scattered here and there, show gleaming spangles of mica; clumps of pokeweed lift sturdily a massive luxuriance of stems and a great growth of purple berries; occasional stumps are cushioned over with mosses, green and gray; and, winding among stumps and rocks, there comes trending down the green hill-side a comely flock of great, long-woolled sheep: they nibble at stray clover-blossoms; they lift their heads and look,—it is only the old dog who is by me,—they know him; they straggle on. I strew the salt here and there upon a stone; "Dandie" pretends to sleep; and presently the woolly company is all around me,—the "Bakewell" flock.
Robert Bakewell, who gave the name to this race of sheep, (afterward known as New-Leicesters,) lived at Dishley, upon the highway from Leicester to Derby, and not very far from that Ashby de la Zouche where Scott plants the immortal scene of the tournament in "Ivanhoe." He was a farmer's son, with limited education, and with limited means; yet, by due attention to crosses, he succeeded in establishing a flock which gained a world-wide reputation. His first letting of bucks at some fifteen shillings the season was succeeded in the year 1774 by lettings at a hundred guineas a head; and there were single animals in his flock from which he is reported to have received, in the height of his fame, the sum of twelve hundred pounds.
Nor was Bakewell less known for his stock of neat-cattle, for his judicious crosses, and for a gentleness of management by which he secured the utmost docility. A writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine" of his date says,—"This docility seemed to run through the herd. At an age when most of his brethren are either foaming or bellowing with rage and madness, old 'Comely' had all the gentleness of a lamb, both in his look and action. He would lick the hand of his feeder; and if any one patted or scratched him, he would bow himself down almost on his knees."
The same writer, describing Mr. Bakewell's hall, says,—"The separate joints and points of each of the more celebrated of his cattle were preserved in pickle, or hung up there side by side,—showing the thickness of the flesh and external fat on each, and the smallness of the offal. There were also skeletons of the different breeds, that they might be compared with each other, and the comparative difference marked."
Arthur Young, in his "Eastern Tour," says, "All his bulls stand still in the field to be examined; the way of driving them from one field to another, or home, is by a little switch; he or his men walk by their side, and guide them with the stick wherever they please; and they are accustomed to this method from being calves."
He left no book for future farmers to maltreat,—not even so much as a pamphlet; and the sheep that bore his name are now refined by other crosses, or are supplanted by the long-woolled troop of "New-Oxfordshire."
On the way from Leicestershire to London, one passed, in the old coach-days, through Northampton; and from Northampton it is one of the most charming of drives for an agriculturist over to the town of Newport-Pagnell. I lodged there, at the Swan tavern, upon a July night some twenty years gone; and next morning I rambled over between the hedge-rows and across meadows to the little village of Weston, where I lunched at the inn of "Cowper's Oak." The house where the poet had lived with good Mrs. Unwin was only next door, and its front was quite covered over with a clambering rose-tree. The pretty waitress of the inn showed me the way, and a wheezing old man—half gardener and half butler—introduced me to the rooms where Cowper had passed so many a dreary hour, and where he had been cheered by the blithe company of Cousin Lady Hesketh.
My usher remembered the crazy recluse, and, when we had descended to the garden, told me how much he, with other village-boys, stood in awe of him,—and how the poet used to walk up and down the garden-alleys in dressing-gown and white-tasselled cotton cap, muttering to himself; but what mutterings some of them were!
"Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,
"For could I view nor them nor thee,
What sight worth seeing could I see?
The sun would rise in vain for me,
"Partakers of thy sad decline,
Thy hands their little force resign,
Yet, gently pressed, press gently mine,
Afterward the shuffling old usher turns a key in a green gate, and shows me into the "Wilderness." Here I come presently upon the Temple,—sadly shattered,—and upon the urns with their mouldy inscriptions; I wander through the stately avenue of lindens to the Alcove, and, so true are the poet's descriptions, I recognize at once the seat of the Throckmortons, the "Peasant's Nest," the "Rustic Bridge," and far away a glimpse of the spire of Olney.
Plainly as I see to-day the farm-flat of Edgewood smoking under the spring rains below me, I see again the fat meadows that lie along the sluggish Ouse reeking with the heats of July. And I bethink me of the bewildered, sensitive poet, shrinking from the world, loving Nature so dearly, loving friends like a child, loving God with reverence, and yet with a great fear that is quickened by the harsh hammering of John Newton's iron Calvinism into a wild turbulence of terror. From this he seeks escape in the walks of the "Wilderness," and paces moodily up and down from temple to alcove,—in every shady recess still haunted by "a fearful looking-for of judgment," and from every sunny bit of turf clutching fancies by eager handful, to strew over his sweet poem of the "Task."
A sweet poem, I repeat, though not a finished or a grand one; but there is in it such zealous, earnest overflow of country-love that we farmers must needs welcome it with open hearts.
I should not like such a man as Cowper for a tenant, where any bargains were to be made, or any lambs to be killed; nor do I think that the mere memory of his verse would have put me upon that July walk from Newport to Weston; but his letters and his sad life, throughout which trees and flowers were made almost his only confidants, led me to the scene where that strange marriage with Nature was solemnized. And though the day was balmy, and the sun fairly golden, the garden and the alley and the trees and the wilderness were like a widow in her weeds.
Gilbert White, of Selborne, belongs to this epoch; and no lover of the country or of country-things can pass him by without cordial recognition and genial praise. There is not so much of incident or of adventure in his little book as would suffice to pepper the romances of one issue of a weekly paper in our day. The literary mechanicians would find in him no artful contrivance of parts and no rhetorical jangle of language. It is only good Parson White, who, wandering about the fields and the brook-sides of Selborne, scrutinizes with rare clearness and patience a thousand miracles of God's providence, in trees, in flowers, in stones, in birds,—and jots down the story of his scrutiny with such simplicity, such reverent trust in His power and goodness, such loving fondness for almost every created thing, that the reading of it charms like Walton's story of the fishes.
We Americans, indeed, do not altogether recognize his chaffinches and his titlarks; his daws and his fern-owl are strange to us; and his robin-redbreast, though undoubtedly the same which in our nursery-days flitted around the dead "Children in the Wood," (while tears stood in our eyes,) and
Did cover them with leaves,"
is by no means our American redbreast. For one, I wish it were otherwise; I wish with all my heart that I could identify the old, pitying, feathered mourners in the British wood with the joyous, rollicking singer who perches every sunrise, through all the spring, upon the thatch of the bee-house, within stone's-throw of my window, and stirs the dewy air with his loud bravura.
Notwithstanding, however, the dissimilarity of species, the studies of this old naturalist are directed with a nice particularity, and are colored with an unaffected homeliness, which are very charming; and I never hear the first whisk of a swallow's wing in summer but I feel an inclination to take down the booklet of the good old Parson, drop into my library-chair, and follow up at my leisure all the gyrations and flutterings and incubations of all the hirundines of Selborne. Every country-liver should own the book, and be taught from it—nicety of observation.
There was another clergyman of a different stamp,—the Reverend John Trusler of Cobham, Surrey,—who wrote about this time a book on chronology, a few romances, a book on law, and another upon farming. He commenced public life as an apothecary; from his drug-shop he went to the pulpit, thence to book-selling, and finally to book-making. I am inclined to think that he found the first of these two trades the more profitable one: it generally is.
Mr. Trusler introduces his agricultural work by declaring that it "contains all the knowledge necessary in the plain business of farming, unencumbered with theory, speculation, or experimental inquiry";—by which it will be seen that the modesty of the author was largely overborne by the enterprise of the bookseller. The sole value of his treatise lies in certain statistical details with regard to the cost and profits of different crops, prices of food, rates of wages, etc. By his showing, the profit of an acre of wheat in 1780 was £2 10s; of barley, £3 3s 6d; of buckwheat, £2 19s; and a farm of one hundred and fifty acres, judiciously managed, would leave a profit of £379.
These estimates of farm-profits, however, at all times, are very deceptive. A man can write up his own balance-sheet, but he cannot make up his neighbor's. There will be too many screws—or pigs—loose, which he cannot take into the reckoning. The agricultural journals give us from time to time the most alluring "cash-accounts" of farm-revenue, which make me regard, for a month or two thereafter, every sober-sided farmer I meet as a Rasselas,—"choring" and "teaming it" in a Happy Valley; but shortly I come upon some retired citizen, turned farmer, and active member of a Horticultural Society, slipping about the doors of some "Produce and Commission Store" for his winter's stock of vegetables, butter, and fruits,—and the fact impresses me doubtfully and painfully. It is not often, unfortunately, that printed farm-accounts—most of all, model-farm-accounts—will bear close scrutiny. Sometimes there is delicate reservation of any charge for personal labor or superintendence; sometimes an equally cheerful reticence in respect to any interest upon capital; and in nearly all of them such miniature expression of the cost of labor as gives a very shaky consistency to the exhibit.
Farmers, I am aware, are not much given to figures; but outside "averagers" are; and agricultural writers, if they indulge in figures, ought to show some decent respect for the proprieties of arithmetic. I have before me now the "Bi-Monthly Report of the United States Agricultural Department for January and February, 1864," in the course of which it is gravely asserted, that, in the event of a certain suggested tax on tobacco, "the tobacco-grower would find at the end of the year two hundred and ten percent of his crops unsold." Now I am not familiar with the tobacco-crop, and still less familiar with the Washington schemes of taxation; but whatever may be the exigencies of the former, and whatever may be the enormities of the latter, I find myself utterly unable to measure, even proximately, the misfortune of a tobacco-grower who should find himself stranded with two hundred and ten percent of his crop, after his sales were closed! It is plainly a case involving a pretty large quid pro quo, if it be not a clear one of nisi quid.
Sir John Sinclair, so honorably known in connection with British agriculture, dealt with an estate in Scotland of a hundred thousand acres. He parcelled this out in manageable farms, advanced money to needy tenants, and by his liberality and enterprise gave enormous increase to his rental. He also organized the first valid system for obtaining agricultural statistics through the clergymen of the different parishes in Scotland, thus bringing together a vast amount of valuable information, which was given to the public at intervals between 1790 and 1798. And I notice with interest that the poet Burns was a contributor to one of these volumes, over the signature of "A Peasant," in which he gives account of a farmers' library established in his neighborhood, and adds, in closing,—"A peasant who can read and enjoy such books is certainly a much superior being to his neighbor, who, perhaps, stalks beside his team, very little removed, except in shape, from the brutes he drives."
There is reason to believe that Sir John Sinclair, at one time,—in the heat of the French Revolution,—projected emigration to America; and I find in one of Washington's letters to him the following allusion to the scheme:—"To have such a tenant as Sir John Sinclair (however desirable it might be) is an honor I dare not hope for; and to alienate any part of the fee-simple estate of Mount Vernon is a measure I am not inclined to."
Another British cultivator of this period, whose name is associated with the Mount Vernon estate, was a certain Richard Parkinson of Doncaster, who wrote "The Experienced Farmer," and who not only proposed at one time to manage one of the Washington farms, but did actually sail for America, occupied a place called Orange-Hill, near Baltimore, for a year or more, travelled through the country, making what sale he could of his "Experienced Farmer," and on his return to England, published "A Tour in America," which is to be met with here and there upon the top-shelves of old libraries, and which is not calculated to encourage immigration.
He sets out by saying,—"The great advantages held out by different authors, and men travelling from America with commission to sell land, have deluded persons of all denominations with an idea of becoming land-owners and independent. They have, however, been most lamentably disappointed,—particularly the farmers, and all those that have purchased land; for, notwithstanding the low price at which the American lands are sold, the poverty of the soil is such as to make it not to pay for labor; therefore the greater part have brought themselves and their families to total ruin."
He is distressed, too, by the independence of the laborers,—being "often forced to rise in the morning to milk the cows, when the servants were in bed."
Among other animals which he took with him, he mentions "two race-horses, ten blood mares, a bull and cow of the North Devon, a bull and cow of the no-horned York, a cow (with two calves and in calf again) of the Holderness, five boar- and seven sow-pigs of four different kinds."
On arriving at Norfolk, Virginia, in November, he inquired for hay, and "was informed that American cattle subsisted on blades and slops, and that no hay was to be had." He found, also, that "American cows eat horse-dung as naturally as an English cow eats hay; and as America grows no grass, the street is the cheapest place to keep them in." This sounds very much as if it had been excerpted from the scientific column of the London "Athenæum." Again he says, with a delightful pointedness of manner,—"No transaction in America reflects any discredit on a man, unless he loses money by it. . . . . I remember an Englishman, after repeating all the things that could fill a stranger's mind with trouble and horror, said, with a very heavy sigh, as he was going out of the house, 'It is the Devil's own country, to be sure!'"
The "Times" newspaper never said a prettier word than that!
Mr. Robert Brown was a worthier man, and, I suspect, a better farmer; he was one of the earlier types of those East-Lothian men who made their neighborhood the garden of Scotland. He was also the author of a book on "Rural Affairs," the editor for fifteen years of the well-known "Edinburgh Farmers' Magazine," and (if I am not mistaken) communicated the very valuable article on "Agriculture" to the old "Encyclopædia Britannica."
At this period, too, I find an Earl of Dundonald (Archibald Cochrane) writing upon the relations of chemistry to agriculture,—and a little later, Richard Kirwan, F.R.S., indulging in vagaries upon the same broad, and still unsettled, subject.
Joseph Cradock, a quiet, cultivated gentleman, who had been on terms of familiarity with Johnson, Garrick, and Goldsmith, published in 1775 his "Village Memoirs," in which Lancelot Brown has a little fun pointed at him, under the name of "Layout," the general "undertaker" for gardens. Sir Uvedale Price, too, a man of somewhat stronger calibre, and of great taste, (fully demonstrated on his own place of Foxley,) made poor Brown the target for some well-turned witticisms, and, what was far better, demonstrated the near relationship which should always exist between the aims of the landscape-painter and those of the landscape-gardener. I am inclined to think that Brown was a little unfairly used by these new writers, and that he had won a success which provoked a great deal of jealousy. A popularity too great is always dangerous. Sir Uvedale was a man of strong conservative tendencies, and believed no more in the levelling of men than in the levelling of hills. He found his love for the picturesque sated in many of those hoary old avenues which, under Brown, had been given to the axe. I suspect he would have forgiven the presence of a clipped yew in a landscape where it had thriven for centuries; the moss of age could give picturesqueness even to formality. He speaks somewhere of the kindly work of his uncle, who had disposed his walks so as to be a convenience to the poor people of an adjoining parish, and adds, with curious naïveté,—"Such attentive kindnesses are amply repaid by affectionate regard and reverence; and were they general throughout the kingdom, they would do much more towards guarding us against democratical opinions than 'twenty thousand soldiers armed in proof.'"
Richard Knight (a brother of the distinguished horticulturist) illustrated the picturesque theory of Price in a passably clever poem, called "The Landscape," which had not, however, enough of outside merit to keep it alive. Humphrey Repton, a professional designer of gardens, whose work is to be found in almost every county of England, took issue with Price in respect to his picturesque theory,—as became an independent gardener who would not recognize allegiance to the painters. But the antagonism was only one of those petty wars about non-essentials, and significance of terms, into which eager book-makers are so apt to run.
In the course of one of my earlier Wet-Days I took occasion to allude to the brave old age that was reached by the classic veterans,—Xenophon, Cato, and Varro; and now I find among the most eminent British agriculturists and gardeners of the close of the last century a firm grip on life that would have matched the hardihood of Cato. Old Abercrombie of Preston Pans, as we have already seen, reached the age of eighty. Walpole, though I lay no claim to him as farmer or gardener, yet, thanks to the walks and garden-work of Strawberry Hill, lived to the same age. Philip Miller was an octogenarian. Lord Kames was aged eighty-seven at his death (1782). Arthur Young, though struggling with blindness in his later years, had accumulated such stock of vitality by his out-door life as to bridge him well over into the present century: he died in 1820, aged seventy-nine. Parson Trusler, notwithstanding his apothecary-schooling, lived to be eighty. In 1826 died Joseph Cradock of the "Village Memoirs," and a devoted horticulturist, aged eighty-five. Three years after, (1829,) Sir Uvedale Price bade final adieu to his delightful seat of Foxley, at the age of eighty-three. Sir John Sinclair lived fairly into our own time, (1835,) and was eighty-one at his death.
William Speechley, whom Johnson calls the best gardener of his time, and who established the first effective system of hot-house culture for pines in England, died in 1819, aged eighty-six; and in the same year, William Marshal, a voluminous agricultural writer and active farmer, died at the age of eighty. And I must mention one more, in Dr. Andrew Duncan, a Scotch physician, who cultivated his garden with his own hands,—inscribing over the entrance-gate, "Hinc salus,"—and who was the founder of the Horticultural Society of Edinburgh. This hale old doctor died in 1828, at the extreme age of eighty-four; and to the very last year of his life he never omitted going up to the top of Arthur's Seat every May-Day morning, to bathe his forehead in the summer's dew.
As a country-liver, I like to contemplate and to boast of the hoary age of these veterans. The inscription of good old Dr. Duncan was not exaggerated. Every man who digs his own garden, and keeps the weeds down thoroughly, may truthfully place the same writing over the gate,—"Hinc salus" (wherever he may place his "Hinc pecunia"). Nor is the comparative safety of active gardening or farming pursuits due entirely to the vigorous bodily exercise involved, but quite as much, it seems to me, to that enlivening and freshening influence which must belong to an intimate and loving and intelligent companionship with Nature. It may be an animal view of the matter,—but, in estimating the comparative advantages and disadvantages of a country-life, I think we take too little account of that glow and exhilaration of the blood which come of every-day dealings with the ground and flowers and trees, and which, as age approaches, subside into a calm equanimity that looks Death in the face no more fearingly than if it were a frost. I have gray-haired neighbors around me who have come to a hardy old age upon their little farms,—buffeting all storms,—petting the cattle which have come down to them from ten generations of short-lived kine, gone by,—trailing ancient vines, that have seen a quarter of a century of life, over their door-steps,—turning over soil, every cheery season of May, from which they have already gathered fifty harvests; and I cannot but regard their serene philosophy, and their quiet, thankful, and Christian enjoyment of the bounties of Nature, as something quite as much to be envied as the distinctions of town-craft. I ask myself,—If these old gentlemen had plunged into the whirlpool of a city five-and-fifty years ago, would they have been still adrift upon this tide of time, where we are all serving our apprenticeships?—and if so, would they have worn the same calm and cheerful equanimity amid the harvests of traffic or the blight of a panic?—and if not adrift, would they have carried a clearer and more justifying record to the hearing of the Great Court than they will carry hence when our village-bell doles out the funeral march for them?
The rain is beating on my windows; the rain is beating on the plain; a mist is driving in from the Sound, over which I see only the spires,—those Christian beacons. And (by these hints, that always fret the horizon) calling to mind that bit of the best of all prayers, "Lead us not into temptation," it seems to me that many a country-liver might transmute it without offence, and in all faith, into words like these,—"Lead us not into cities." To think for a moment of poor farmer Burns, with the suppers of Edinburgh, and the orgies of the gentlemen of the Caledonian hunt, inflaming his imagination there in the wretched chamber of his low farm-house of Ellisland!
But all this, down my last half-page, relates to the physical and the moral aspects of the matter,—aspects which are, surely, richly worthy of consideration. The question whether country-life and country-pursuits will bring the intellectual faculties to their strongest bent is quite a distinct one. There may be opportunity for culture; but opportunity counts for nothing, except it occur under conditions that prompt to its employment. The incitement to the largest efforts of which the mind is capable comes ordinarily from mental attrition,—an attrition for which the retirement demanded by rural pursuits gives little occasion. Milton would never have come to his stature among pear-trees,—nor Newton, nor Burke. They may have made first-rate farmers or horticulturists; they may have surpassed all about them; but their level of action would have been a far lower one than that which they actually occupied. There is a great deal of balderdash written and talked upon this subject, which ought to have an end; it does not help farming, it does not help the world,—simply because it is untrue. Rural life offers charming objects of study; but to most minds it does not offer the promptings for large intellectual exertion. It ripens healthfully all the receptive faculties; it disposes to that judicial calmness of mind which is essential to clearness and directness of vision; but it does not kindle the heat of large and ambitious endeavor. Hence we often find that a man who has passed the first half of his life in comparative isolation, cultivating his resources quietly, unmoved by the disturbances and the broils of civic life, will, on transfer to public scenes, and stirred by that emulation which comes of contact with the world, feel all his faculties lighted with a new glow, and accomplish results which are as much a wonder to himself as to others. The pent river is at length set loose,—the barriers broken by the wear of mingled waters, and the force and the roar of it are amazing.
I have alluded to the poet-farmer Burns,—a capital ploughman, a poor manager, an intemperate lover, a sad reveller, a stilted letter-writer, a rare good-fellow, and a poet whose poems will live forever. It is no wonder he did not succeed as farmer; Moss-giel had an ugly, wet subsoil, and draining-tiles were as yet not in vogue; but from all the accounts I can gather, there was never a truer furrow laid than was laid by Robert Burns in his days of vigor, upon that same damp upland of Moss-giel; his "fearings" were all true, and his headlands as clear of draggled sod as if he had used the best "Ruggles, Nourse, and Mason" of our time. Alas for the daisies! he must have turned over perches of them in his day; and yet only one has caught the glory of his lamentation!
Ellisland, where he went later, and where he hoped to redeem his farm-promise, was not over-fertile; it had been hardly used by scurvy tenants before him, and was so stony that a rain-storm made a fresh-rolled field of sown barley look like a paved street. He tells us this; and we farmers know what it means. But it lay in Nithsdale; and the beauty of Nithsdale shed a regal splendor on his home. It was the poet that had chosen the farm, and not the grain-grower.
Then there were the "callants" coming from Edinburgh, from Dumfries, from London, from all the world, to have their "crack" with the peasant-poet, who had sung the "Lass of Ballochmyle." Can this man, whose tears drip (in verse) for a homeless field-mouse, keep by the plough, when a half-score of good-fellows are up from Dumfries to see him, and when John Barleycorn stands frothing in the cupboard?
Consider, again, that his means, notwithstanding the showy and short-lived generosity of his Edinburgh friends, enabled him only to avail himself of the old Scotch plough; his harrow, very likely, had wooden teeth; he could venture nothing for the clearing of gorse and broom; he could enter upon no system of drainage, even of the simple kind recommended by Lord Kames; he had hardly funds to buy the best quality of seed, and none at all for "liming," or for "wrack" from the shore. Even the gift of a pretty heifer he repays with a song.
Besides all this, he was exciseman; and he loved galloping over the hills in search of recreants, and cozy sittings in the tap of the "Jolly Beggars" of Mauchline, better than he loved a sight of the stunted barley of Ellisland.
No wonder that he left his farm; no wonder that he went to Dumfries,—shabby as the street might be where he was to live; no wonder, that, with his mad pride and his impulsive generosity, he died there, leaving wife and children almost beggars. But, in all charity, let us remember that it is not alone the poor exciseman who is dead, but the rare poet, who has intoned a prayer for ten thousand lips,—
"That He, who stills the raven's clamorous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flowery pride,
Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best,
For them and for their little ones provide,
But chiefly in their hearts with grace divine preside."
Let no one fancy that Burns was a poor farmer because he was a poet: he was a poor farmer simply because he gave only his hand to the business, and none of his brain. He had enough of good sense and of clear-sightedness to sweep away every agricultural obstacle in his path, and to make Ellisland "pay well"; but good-fellowship, and the "Jolly Beggars," and his excise-galloping among the hills by Nithsdale made an end of the farmer,—and, in due time, made an end of the man.
Robert Bloomfield was another poet-farmer of these times, but of a much humbler calibre. I could never give any very large portion of a wet day to his reading. There is truthfulness of description in him, and a certain grace of rhythm, but nothing to kindle any glow. The story of Giles, and of the milking, and of the spotted heifers, may be true enough; but every day, in my barn-yard, I find as true and as lively a story. The fact is, that the details of farm-life—the muddy boots, the sweaty workers, the amber-colored pools, the wallowing pigs—are not of a kind to warrant or to call out any burning imprint of verse. Theme for this lies in the breezes, the birds, the waving-wooded mountains (Νηριτον εινοσιφυλλον), the glorious mornings
"Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy,"
—and for these the poet must soar above the barn-yard and the house-tops. There is more of the spirit of true poesy in that little fragment of Jean Ingelow's, beginning,—
"What change has made the pastures sweet,
And reached the daisies at my feet,
And cloud that wears a golden hem?"
than in all the verse of Bloomfield, if all of Bloomfield were compressed into a single song.
And yet, if we had lived in those days, we should all have subscribed for the book of the peasant-bard, perhaps have read it,—but, most infallibly, have given it away to some country-cousin.
I will not leave the close of the last century without paying my respects to good Mrs. Barbauld,—not so much for her pleasant "Ode to Spring," about which there is a sweet odor of the fields, as for her partnership in those "Evenings at Home" which are associated—I scarce can remember how—with roaring fires and winter nights in the country; and not less strongly with the first noisy chorus of the frogs in the pools, and the first coy uplift of the crocuses and the sweet violets. There are pots of flowers, and glowing fruit-trees, and country hill-sides scattered up and down those little stories, which, though my eye has not lighted on them these twenty odd years past, are still fresh in my mind, and full of a sweet pastoral fragrance. The sketches may be very poor, with few artist-like touches in them; it may be only a boyish caprice by which I cling to them; but what pleasanter or more grateful whim to cherish than one which brings back all the aroma of childhood in the country,—floating upon the remnant-patches of a story that is only half recalled? The cowslips are there; the pansies are there; the overhanging chestnuts are there; the dusty high-road is there; the toiling wagons are there; and, betimes, the rain is dripping from the cottage-eaves—as the rain is dripping to-day.
And from Mrs. Barbauld I am led away to speak of Miss Austen,—belonging, it is true, to a little later date, and the tender memory of her books to an age that had outgrown "Evenings at Home." Still, the association of her tales is strongest with the country, and with country-firesides. I sometimes take up one of her works upon an odd hour even now; and how like finding old-garret clothes—big bonnets and scant skirts—is the reading of such old-time story! How the "proprieties" our grandmothers taught us come drifting back upon the tide of those buckram conventionalities of the "Dashwoods"! Ah, Marianne, how we once loved you! Ah, Sir John, how we once thought you a profane swearer!—as you really were.
There are people we know between the covers of Miss Austen: Mrs. Jennings has a splutter of tease, and crude incivility, and shapeless tenderness, that you and I see every day;—not so patent and demonstrative in our friend Mrs. Jones; but the difference is only in fashion: Mrs. Jennings was in scant petticoats, and Mrs. Jones wears hoops, thirty springs strong.
How funny, too, the old love-talk! "My beloved Amanda, the charm of your angelic features enraptures my regard." It is earnest; but it's not the way those things are done.
And what visions such books recall of the days when they were read,—the girls in pinafores,—the boys in roundabouts,—the elders looking languishingly on, when the reader comes to tender passages! And was not a certain Mary Jane another Ellinor? And was not Louisa (who lived in the two-story white house on the corner) another Marianne,—gushing, tender? Yes, by George, she was! (that was the form our boyish oaths took).
And was not the tall fellow who offered his arm to the girls so gravely, and saw them home from our evening visits so cavalierly,—was he not another gay deceiver,—a Lothario, a Willoughby? He could kiss a girl on the least provocation; he took pay out, for his escort, that way. It was wonderful,—the fellow's effrontery. It never forsook him. I do not know about the romance in his family; but he went into the grocery-line, and has become a contractor now, enormously rich. He offers his arm to Columbia, who wishes to get home before dark; and takes pay in rifling her of golden kisses. Yes, by George, he does!
- By an odd coincidence, I observe that Washington made one of his first shipments of tobacco (after his marriage with Mrs. Custis) upon a vessel called "The Fair American." Did the Ship possibly give a name to the novel, or the novel a name to the ship?
- Practical Farmer, by William Ellis. London, 1759.
- The eminent geologist, Robert Bakewell, who lived many years later, wrote of the "Influences of the Soil on Wool," and for that reason, perhaps, is frequently confounded by agricultural writers with the great breeder.
- Third volume Statistics, p. 598.
- Dated December, 1796. Sparks's Life and Letters, Vol. XII. p. 328.
- A poetess whose merits, as it seems to me, are, as yet, only half acknowledged.
- Sense and Sensibility.