Bracebridge Hall, vol. I

A Literary Antiquary

Washington Irving

Printed bookes he contemnes, as a novelty of this latter age; but a manuscript he pores on everlastingly; especially if the cover be all moth-eaten, and the dust make a parenthesis betweene every syllable.
—Mico-Cosmographie, 1638.


THE SQUIRE receives great sympathy and support, in his antiquated humours, from the parson, of whom I made some mention on my former visit to the Hall, and who acts as a kind of family chaplain. He has been cherished by the Squire almost constantly, since the time that they were fellow-students at Oxford; for it is one of the peculiar advantages of these great universities, that they often link the poor scholar to the rich patron, by early and heart-felt ties, that last through life, without the usual humiliations of dependence and patronage. Under the fostering protection of the Squire, therefore, the little parson has pursued his studies in peace. Having lived almost entirely among books, and those, too, old books, he is quite ignorant of the world, and his mind is as antiquated as the garden at the Hall, where the flowers are all arranged in formal beds, and the yew-trees clipped into urns and peacocks.

His taste for literary antiquities was first imbibed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford; where, when a student, he passed many an hour foraging among the old manuscripts. He has since, at different times, visited most of the curious libraries in England, and has ransacked many of the cathedrals. With all his quaint and curious learning, he has nothing of arrogance or pedantry; but that unaffected earnestness and guileless simplicity which seem to belong to the literary antiquary.

He is a dark, mouldy little man, and rather dry in his manner; yet, on his favourite theme, he kindles up, and at times is even eloquent. No fox-hunter, recounting his last day’s sport, could be more animated than I have seen the worthy parson, when relating his search after a curious document, which he had traced from library to library, until he fairly unearthed it in the dusty chapter-house of a cathedral. When, too, he describes some venerable manuscript, with its rich illuminations, its thick creamy vellum, its glossy ink, and the odour of the cloisters that seemed to exhale from it, he rivals the enthusiasm of a Parisian epicure, expatiating on the merits of a Perigord pie, or a Paté de Strasbourg.

His brain seems absolutely haunted with love-sick dreams about gorgeous old works in “silk linings, triple gold bands, and tinted leather, locked up in wire cases, and secured from the vulgar hands of the mere reader;” and, to continue the happy expressions of an ingenious writer, “dazzling one’s eyes like eastern beauties, peering through their jealousies.”1

He has a great desire, however, to read such works in the old libraries and chapter-houses to which they belong; for he thinks a black-letter volume reads best in one of those venerable chambers where the light struggles through dusty lancet windows and painted glass; and that it loses half its zest, if taken away from the neighbourhood of the quaintly-carved oaken book-case and Gothic reading-desk. At his suggestion, the Squire has had the library furnished in this antique taste, and several of the windows glazed with painted glass, that they may throw a properly tempered light upon the pages of their favourite old authors.

The parson, I am told, has been for some time meditating a commentary on Strutt, Brand, and Douce, in which he means to detect them in sundry dangerous errors in respect to popular games and superstitions; a work to which the Squire looks forward with great interest. He is, also, a casual contributor to that long-established repository of national customs and antiquities, the Gentleman’s Magazine, and is one of those that every now and then make an inquiry concerning some obsolete custom or rare legend; nay, it is said that several of his communications have been at least six inches in length. He frequently receives parcels by coach from different parts of the kingdom, containing mouldy volumes and almost illegible manuscripts; for it is singular what an active correspondence is kept up among literary antiquaries, and how soon the fame of any rare volume, or unique copy, just discovered among the rubbish of a library, is circulated among them. The parson is more busy than common just now, being a little flurried by an advertisement of a work, said to be preparing for the press, on the mythology of the middle ages. The little man has long been gathering together all the hobgoblin tales he could collect, illustrative of the superstitions of former times; and he is in a complete fever lest this formidable rival should take the field before him.

Shortly after my arrival at the Hall, I called at the parsonage, in company with Mr. Bracebridge and the general. The parson had not been seen for several days, which was a matter of some surprise, as he was an almost daily visitor at the Hall. We found him in his study; a small dusky chamber, lighted by a lattice window that looked into the church-yard, and was overshadowed by a yew-tree. His chair was surrounded by folios and quartos, piled upon the floor, and his table was covered with books and manuscripts. The cause of his seclusion was a work which he had recently received, and with which he had retired in rapture from the world, and shut himself up to enjoy a literary honeymoon undisturbed. Never did boarding-school girl devour the pages of a sentimental novel, or Don Quixote a chivalrous romance, with more intense delight than did the little man banquet on the pages of this delicious work. It was Dibdin’s Bibliographical Tour; a work calculated to have as intoxicating an effect on the imaginations of literary antiquaries, as the adventures of the heroes of the round table, on all true knights; or the tales of the early American voyagers on the ardent spirits of the age, filling them with dreams of Mexican and Peruvian mines, and of the golden realm of El Dorado.

The good parson had looked forward to this bibliographical expedition as of far greater importance than those to Africa or the North Pole. With what eagerness had he seized upon the history of the enterprise! with what interest had he followed the redoubtable bibliographer and his graphical squire in their adventurous roamings among Norman castles, and cathedrals, and French libraries, and German convents and universities; penetrating into the prison-houses of vellum manuscripts, and exquisitely illuminated missals, and revealing their beauties to the world!

When the parson had finished a rapturous eulogy on this most curious and entertaining work, he drew forth from a little drawer a manuscript, lately received from a correspondent, which had perplexed him sadly. It was written in Norman French, in very ancient characters, and so faded and mouldered away as to be almost illegible. It was apparently an old Norman drinking song, that might have been brought over by one of William the Conqueror’s carousing followers. The writing was just legible enough to keep a keen antiquity-hunter on a doubtful chase; here and there he would be completely thrown out, and then there would be a few words so plainly written as to put him on the scent again. In this way he had been led on for a whole day, until he had found himself completely at fault.

The Squire endeavoured to assist him, but was equally baffled. The old general listened for some time to the discussion, and then asked the parson if he had read Captain Morris’s, or George Stevens’s, or Anacreon Moore’s bacchanalian songs? On the other replying in the negative, “Oh, then,” said the general, with a sagacious nod, “if you want a drinking song, I can furnish you with the latest collection—I did not know you had a turn for those kind of things; and I can lend you the Encyclopedia of Wit into the bargain. I never travel without them; they’re excellent reading at an inn.”

It would not be easy to describe the odd look of surprise and perplexity of the parson, at this proposal; or the difficulty the Squire had in making the general comprehend, that though a jovial song of the present day was but a foolish sound in the ears of wisdom, and beneath the notice of a learned man, yet a trowl, written by a tosspot several hundred years since, was a matter worthy of the gravest research, and enough to set whole colleges by the ears.

I have since pondered much on this matter, and have figured to myself what may be the fate of our current literature, when retrieved, piecemeal, by future antiquaries, from among the rubbish of ages. What a Magnus Apollo, for instance, will Moore become, among sober divines and dusty schoolmen! Even his festive and amatory songs, which are now the mere quickeners of our social moments, or the delights of our drawing-rooms, will then become matters of laborious research and painful collation. How many a grave professor will then waste his midnight oil, or worry his brain through a long morning, endeavouring to restore the pure text, or illustrate the biographical hints of “Come, tell me, says Rosa, as kissing and kissed;” and how many an arid old bookworm, like the worthy little parson, will give up in despair, after vainly striving to fill up some fatal hiatus in “Fanny of Timmol”!

Nor is it merely such exquisite authors as Moore that are doomed to consume the oil of future antiquaries. Many a poor scribbler, who is now, apparently, sent to oblivion by pastrycooks and cheese-mongers, will then rise again in fragments, and flourish in learned immortality.

After all, thought I, time is not such an invariable destroyer as he is represented. If he pulls down, he likewise builds up; if he impoverishes one, he enriches another; his very dilapidations furnish matter for new works of controversy, and his rust is more precious than the most costly gilding. Under his plastic hand, trifles rise into importance; the nonsense of one age becomes the wisdom of another; the levity of the wit gravitates into the learning of the pedant, and an ancient farthing moulders into infinitely more value than a modern guinea.

1.    D’Israeli—Curiosities of Literature.    [back]

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