Written after an outpouring about difficulties at home.
Portobello is the beach resort 3 miles east of Edinburgh.
The ‘Spec’ is the Speculative Society, the literary and debating society founded in 1764 at Edinburgh University.
The German quotes are taken from Friedrich von Matthison’s poem Adelaide, put in music by Ludwig van Beethoven (1795) and Franz Schubert (1814). The text expresses an outpouring of yearning for an idealized and apparently unattainable woman.
Jedediah Cleishbotham is an imaginary editor in Walter Scott’s Tales of My Landlord (1816-1831).
[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 140].
To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 74-78]
Edinburgh, Tuesday, September 16, 1873.
[…] I must be very strong to have all this vexation and still to be well. I was weighed the other day, and the gross weight of my large person was eight stone six! Does it not seem surprising that I can keep the lamp alight, through all this gusty weather, in so frail a lantern? And yet it burns cheerily. […]
My mother is leaving for the country this morning, and my father and I will be alone for the best part of the week in this house. Then on Friday I go south to Dumfries till Monday. I must write small, or I shall have a tremendous budget by then.
7.20 p.m. – I must tell you a thing I saw to-day. I was going down to Portobello in the train, when there came into the next compartment (third class) an artisan, strongly marked with smallpox, and with sunken, heavy eyes – a face hard and unkind, and without anything lovely. There was a woman on the platform seeing him off. At first sight, with her one eye blind and the whole cast of her features strongly plebeian, and even vicious, she seemed as unpleasant as the man; but there was something beautifully soft, a sort of light of tenderness, as on some Dutch Madonna, that came over her face when she looked at the man. They talked for a while together through the window; the man seemed to have been asking money. ‘Ye ken the last time,’ she said, ‘I gave ye two shillin’s for your ludgin’, and ye said … ’ it died off into whisper. Plainly Falstaff and Dame Quickly over again. The man laughed unpleasantly, even cruelly, and said something; and the woman turned her back on the carriage and stood a long while so, and, do what I might, I could catch no glimpse of her expression, although I thought I saw the heave of a sob in her shoulders. At last, after the train was already in motion, she turned round and put two shillings into his hand. I saw her stand and look after us with a perfect heaven of love on her face – this poor one-eyed Madonna – until the train was out of sight; but the man, sordidly happy with his gains, did not put himself to the inconvenience of one glance to thank her for her ill-deserved kindness.
[…] I have been up at the Spec, and looked out a reference I wanted. The whole town is drowned in white, wet vapour off the sea. Everything drips and soaks. The very statues seem wet to the skin. I cannot pretend to be very cheerful; I did not see one contented face in the streets; and the poor did look so helplessly chill and dripping, without a stitch to change, or so much as a fire to dry themselves at, or perhaps money to buy a meal, or perhaps even a bed. My heart shivers for them.
Dumfries, Friday. – […] All my thirst for a little warmth, a little sun, a little corner of blue sky avails nothing. Without, the rain falls with a long drawn swish, and the night is as dark as a vault. There is no wind indeed, and that is a blessed change after the unruly, bedlamite gusts that have been charging against one round street corners and utterly abolishing and destroying all that is peaceful in life. Nothing sours my temper like these coarse termagant winds. I hate practical joking; and your vulgarest practical joker is your flaw of wind.
I have tried to write some verses; but I find I have nothing to say that has not been already perfectly said and perfectly sung in Adelaïde. I have so perfect an idea out of that song! The great Alps, a wonder in the starlight – the river, strong from the hills, and turbulent, and loudly audible at night – the country, a scented Frühlingsgarten of orchards and deep wood where the nightingales harbour – a sort of German flavour over all – and this love-drunken man, wandering on by sleeping village and silent town, pours out of his full heart, Einst, O Wunder, einst, etc. I wonder if I am wrong about this being the most beautiful and perfect thing in the world – the only marriage of really accordant words and music – both drunk with the same poignant, unutterable sentiment.
To-day in Glasgow my father went off on some business, and my mother and I wandered about for two hours. We had lunch together, and were very merry over what the people at the restaurant would think of us – mother and son they could not suppose us to be […].
Saturday. – And to-day it came – warmth, sunlight, and a strong, hearty living wind among the trees. I found myself a new being. My father and I went off a long walk, through a country most beautifully wooded and various, under a range of hills. You should have seen one place where the wood suddenly fell away in front of us down a long, steep hill between a double row of trees, with one small fair-haired child framed in shadow in the foreground; and when we got to the foot there was the little kirk and kirkyard of Irongray, among broken fields and woods by the side of the bright, rapid river. In the kirkyard there was a wonderful congregation of tombstones, upright and recumbent on four legs (after our Scotch fashion), and of flat-armed fir-trees.
One gravestone was erected by Scott (at a cost, I learn, of £ 70) to the poor woman who served him as heroine in the Heart of Midlothian, and the inscription in its stiff, Jedediah Cleishbotham fashion is not without something touching.
We went up the stream a little further to where two Covenanters lie buried in an oakwood; the tombstone (as the custom is) containing the details of their grim little tragedy in funnily bad rhyme, one verse of which sticks in my memory:-
‘We died, their furious rage to stay,
Near to the kirk of Iron-gray.’
We then fetched a long compass round about through Holywood Kirk and Lincluden ruins to Dumfries. But the walk came sadly to grief as a pleasure excursion before our return.
Sunday. – Another beautiful day. My father and I walked into Dumfries to church. When the service was done I noted the two halberts laid against the pillar of the churchyard gate; and as I had not seen the little weekly pomp of civic dignitaries in our Scotch country towns for some years, I made my father wait. You should have seen the provost and three bailies going stately away down the sunlit street, and the two town servants strutting in front of them, in red coats and cocked hats, and with the halberts most conspicuously shouldered.
We saw Burns’s house – a place that made me deeply sad – and spent the afternoon down the banks of the Nith. I had not spent a day by a river since we lunched in the meadows near Sudbury. The air was as pure and clear and sparkling as spring water; beautiful, graceful outlines of hill and wood shut us in on every side; and the swift, brown river fled smoothly away from before our eyes, rippled over with oily eddies and dimples. White gulls had come up from the sea to fish, and hovered and flew hither and thither among the loops of the stream.
By good fortune, too, it was a dead calm between my father and me. Do you know, I find these rows harder on me than ever. I get a funny swimming in the head when they come on that I had not before – and the like when I think of them. […]