Abbotsford and Melrose Abbey.
Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
In 1886, Professor Howe consummated a long-cherished desire to visit Europe. His chief purpose was to visit the hospitals of the Old World, but, scholar that he was, he did not neglect the cultural and historical opportunities of travel. Upon the places visited he wrote many delightful articles pregnant with descriptions and historic allusions. These possess a charm rare in letters of travel, and the article selected will please the majority of readers who incline to literary topics. Others on "Michael Angelo" "When the Art of Ancient and Mediaeval Rome," etc., were admirable productions, but too long to reproduce in our pages. This pleasing appreciation of Scott and Abbottsford and Melrose Abbey—literary shrines most loved—shows Dr. Howe in one of his happiest recreative moods.—Ed. Gleaner.
ABBOTSFORD AND MELROSE ABBEY.—The American, whether he visits England or not, always feels as if he inherited certain rights there; and that he should, if the occasion present itself, look after ancestral interests. He speaks the mother tongue, and revels in the literature of a language which in time will be universally spoken.
Although our fathers, as colonists, had a quarrel with the petulant "Home Government," and we succeeded in setting up housekeeping for ourselves, we no longer entertain a grudge against the descendants of those who thought we were wrong! We have a country of our own, and quite naturally glory in its marvelous growth, but we do not forget that our laws and customs have been largely copied from English samples; and we love to read in prose and verse the stirring words of the best English authors. Indeed, we claim partial ownership in the literary productions of the mother country. We purchase her publications, and trust that our patronage has been appreciated. If we have appropriated anything without giving due credit, we have done it much as a boy takes a cake from his mother's pantry.
The most thrilling tales read in our boyhood are from Border Minstrelsy; and the general reader can not help admiring the witching poesy of Sir Walter Scott. The knighted bard was born in Edinburgh, but spent much of his boyhood in a region of country often fought over in strife for territory, in struggles for prestige, and in making reprisals. Then there were the endless disputes about succession to the Scottish crown on the part of kings and chieftains; and bloody bickerings between Scot and Britain in regard to the Anglo-Norman frontier. The results of a battle reconstructed boundaries, and provoked animosities which became chronic. The land was full of song and story; the valiant deeds of chieftains were rehearsed at every fireside on the border, and the youthful maker of rhymes wove these tales into captivating prose and verse. Walter Scott was naturally a genius, but the surroundings of the man helped to develop his talents, and to give them a turn in a given direction. He was a patriotic son of Scotia, and warmly sympathized with the gallant heroes who triumphed well at Bannockburn, but lost at Flodden Field. In these decisive battles, fought mostly in hand-to-hand encounters, were ample opportunities to display
"That stern joy which warriors feel
In foeman worthy of their steel."
The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion are faithful representations of contests in armor, the weapons of the cavaliers being swords, spears, and halberds. Individual tilts took place on horseback as well as on foot. Sometimes heads were severed by the stalwart blow of a battle-ax. The issue of a fight depended more upon the display of personal bravery on the part of leaders than upon the discipline and skillful handling of troops.
The famous "Border Wars" were over before Scott was born, therefore he became a subject to the English Crown. However, his heart was ever loyal to the land of his birth and that of his ancestry. He could not help bestowing glory upon Scotland and championing her causes. His burning patriotism bursts forth in the lines—
"Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land?"
In early life Walter Scott was physically feeble, and a sickness resulted in a lameness which always continued. In manhood he was robust and jolly, but in the last years of his life he became a paralytic, and died at the age of sixty-one, at Abbotsford. His remains were buried beside those of his wife in Dryburg Abbey. As a student the youthful Scott was easy to learn, and possessed a remarkably good memory. He took to modern languages, "and knew little of Latin and less of Greek."
Through the influence of distinguished friends young Scott obtained a lucrative office at Selkirk. Having much leisure he read much, and began to try his talent at ballad writing. At twenty-five he was established on a liberal salary in Edinburgh, and there wrote Border Minstrelsy. At thirty-two he gave to the world The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and stepped to the front as a popular writer. Then in rapid succession came Marmion and The Lady of the Lake.
At twenty-six he married, and lived happily with his wife during her lifetime. Sometimes they dwelt in Edinburgh, and sometimes in the country. As Scott's fortune grew a desire developed to have a home in a rustic neighborhood. After consulting the wishes of his consort, the admirer of rural scenes bought a farmhouse on the "Border," and converted the estate into "Abbotsford," as he christened his growing mansion. On some broad acres of alluvial soil, in a bend of the Tweed, still stands the "Romance in Stone;" and the renown of its founder draws thousands of pilgrims to the place every year. The location for a home was carefully selected, and the erection of the buildings and the ornamentation of the estate were conducted at intervals as leisure and income permitted. The surrounding at best is attractive only to a moderate degree. The land is not fertile, except in occasional spots near the bank of the river; and the pastoral inhabitants are plain as they are honest. The hills are not covered with timber, but with heather and brushwood—covers for rabbits and pheasants. The Duke of Buccleuch owns large estates hereabouts, and maintains a hunter's lodge in the vicinity. Occasionally he entertains members of the Royal Family, and takes his visitors on a fox hunt. Then the musical bay of the hounds calls to the fields the entire population of the vicinage. "It is then that his lordship shows himself the gentleman he is," and the ruralists flatter themselves the princely display is gotten up, in part at least, on their account.
When Washington Irving paid Abbotsford a visit, he remarked to his distinguished host that the scenery of "Borderland" had been a disappointment—that "the hills were too bare to be beautiful, and too low to be impressive." Scott hummed a moment as if at loss for a proper reply, and then bravely said: "It may be pertinacity in me, but to my eye these gray hills and all this Border country have beauties peculiar to themselves. I like the very nakedness of the land; it has something bold, stern, and solitary about it. When I have been for some time in the rich scenery about Edinburgh, which is like ornamented garden land, I begin to wish myself back again among my own honest gray hills; and if I did not see the heather at least once a year, I think I should die."
A business transaction of an unfortunate character called Sir Walter Scott to Edinburgh and kept him there during a period of life he had planned to pass in retirement among the crags and glens of the "Border," and there in the great mart of trade he delved like a galley slave, with an unwavering purpose to free himself from every pecuniary obligation. And his prolific pen and his popularity as a writer soon wiped out the larger part of a debt which at first seemed a mountain. But the incessant toil sapped the foundation of a vigorous constitution, so that the recreative influence of foreign travel failed to restore vigor to the impaired body and mind. Death did not too soon close a life which at length became a burden.
A lineal descendant of Sir Walter now resides at the old homestead, and shows tourists the most interesting features of the somewhat extensive demense. From the large windows of the breakfast-room is a view of rare loveliness. Cattle and sheep graze on the grassy mead which stretches a few hundred yards to the gurgling Tweed, which is here shallow—Abbot's ford. A large hall is filled with old armor, and other curiosities of a multitudinous character. A drawing room is hung with valuable paintings, and embraces carved furniture, with images in ebony and ivory. The library is the largest room in the house, and contains seventy thousand volumes. The grounds within the domain are kept in fine order; and the visitor feels quite well paid for the time and money spent in a pilgrimage to the villa.
The railway which takes the traveler to the vicinity of Abbots-ford runs from Edinburgh to Carlisle, passing through Hawick (where is the manufactory of "tweeds") and having a station at Melrose, a village three miles from the Scott estate. Before arranging for the drive to Abbotsford, the tourist takes a survey of Melrose Abbey, a cloistered ruin of beauty and renown. The dilapidated monastery was built in 1136, under the liberal patronage of St. David, or David I, of Scotland; and a colony of Benedictine monks was invited to conduct the ceremonies of the conventicle. The English, in a foray over the border, destroyed the structure in 1328, and scattered the pious band. However, this hardship made the members all the more influential. They were a highly educated class, and skilled in the arts of an advanced civilization, therefore they naturally became schoolmasters for the rising generations; and cultivated the arts of peace among the warlike dwellers on the Border. They shed a refining influence on every hand, and earned the protection and patronage of those in authority. At length Robert Bruce was moved to rebuild the Abbey, and through the scattered monks to re-establish the ceremonials and hospitalities of the place. In the restored condition the monastery continued to flourish until the throes of the Reformation despoiled the sacred vestments and art treasures, and defaced the venerated structure.
While tenanted by monks of the Cistercian order, the Abbey was often a place given to wine and wassail; and the following verse was perpetrated to satirize the doings of the cloister:
- "The monks of Melrose made gude kail
- On Fridays when they fasted ;
- Nor wanted they gude beef and ale
- As long 's their neighbor's lasted."
The enclosing walls of the Abbey are nearly entire, and a part of the roof, supported on the arches of Gothic columns, still shelters the foot of the crucial nave. The body of St. David was buried near the head of the auditorium. To the left of the King's grave was placed the embalmed heart of Robert Bruce.
Adjoining the ruin on two sides is a burying ground, whose moss-covered headstones can scarcely be seen, and whose graves are level with the intervening ground. The most ancient of English lettering is on the more pretentious monuments; and the curious among tourists spend days and days in attempting to decipher the epitaphs. Nearly all the interments are centuries old. A few families of the neighborhood possess rights in the grounds, and there are some recent burials made by them. Fragments of sculpture, half overgrown with grass, are to be seen here and there, but whether wrecked by time or iconoclastic hands is left to conjecture. A few statues still hold their places on the cornices of the Abbey, and serve as samples of what might have been the original ornamentation of the architects. The first stanza in Canto Second of The Lay of the Minstrel is a metrical and rhymed description of the famous ruin:
"If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but do not flout, the ruins gray.
When the broken arches are black in night,
And each shafted oriel glimmers white ;
When the cold lights uncertain shower
Streams on the ruined central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately,
Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery,
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o'er the dead man's grave.
Then go—but go alone the while—
There view St. David's ruined pile,
And home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair."
The good people of Melrose are timid about following Scott's formula; they are not given to viewing the Abbey at night. In fact, they declare the night air in the vicinity of the ruin to be unwholesome, and hint that on certain crispy nights in autumn the narrow galleries are visited by phantom monks who chant weird music to the accompaniment of lute and harp. The belief is that specters and goblins haunt the place, and do not relish having their nocturnal orgies viewed by mortal eyes. The testimony is that spirits have been seen flitting in dark corners of the crumbling pile; and the suggestion that the mysterious movements may have been produced by the wings of bat or owl is treated with derision. Scott's advice to "go alone" to the ruined pile, and at night, is treated with contempt, the idea being that we have no right to trifle with the powers of darkness! A brave citizen stated that he should not be afraid to visit every part of the dilapidated building at midnight, if there was any good reason for so doing, but he should not go unbid. Why should he disturb the repose of the dead at night? Scott might do it, but he would not. He believed the low musical notes, like the subdued chants of a choir, were produced by the wind while forced through the fluted corbels. He did not think that the spirits of departed monks revisited the consecrated place.
At the inn adjoining the Abbey are apartments looking upon the ruin and adjacent burying ground, and guests aim to secure lodgings in these rooms. There is so much fascination in connection with the old monastery that occupants of these favored quarters spend much time in gazing upon the "scene so sad and fair," and in musing upon events connected with the history of the "ruined pile." The desolate and dismantled Abbey was constructed of such durable material, and the foundations were so well placed, that the sanctified and despoiled structure is liable to last a thousand years. The ravages of time alone are likely to disturb the interesting ruin. A pious reverence for the founders of the notable Abbey, and a cherished hate for its destroyers, tend to perpetuate a profound interest in the hallowed shrine.—HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1887.