Bracebridge Hall, vol. I


Washington Irving

            ———True Gentrie standeth in the trade
Of virtuous life, not in the fleshy line;
For bloud is knit, but Gentrie is divine.


I HAVE MENTIONED some peculiarities of the Squire in the education of his sons; but I would not have it thought that his instructions were directed chiefly to their personal accomplishments. He took great pains also to form their minds, and to inculcate what he calls good old English principles, such as are laid down in the writings of Peachem and his contemporaries. There is one author of whom he cannot speak without indignation, which is Chesterfield. He avers that he did much, for a time, to injure the true national character, and to introduce, instead of open, manly sincerity, a hollow, perfidious courtliness. “His maxims,” he affirms, “were calculated to chill the delightful enthusiasm of youth; to make them ashamed of that romance which is the dawn of generous manhood, and to impart to them a cold polish and a premature worldliness.

“Many of Lord Chesterfield’s maxims would make a young man a mere man of pleasure; but an English gentleman should not be a mere man of pleasure. He has no right to such selfish indulgence. His ease, his leisure, his opulence, are debts due to his country, which he must ever stand ready to discharge. He should be a man at all points; simple, frank, courteous, intelligent, accomplished, and informed; upright, intrepid, and disinterested; one that can mingle among freemen; that can cope with statesmen; that can champion his country and its rights, either at home or abroad. In a country like England, where there is such free and unbounded scope for the exertion of intellect, and where opinion and example have such weight with the people, every gentleman of fortune and leisure should feel himself bound to employ himself in some way towards promoting the prosperity or glory of the nation. In a country where intellect and action are trammelled and restrained, men of rank and fortune may become idlers and triflers with impunity; but an English coxcomb is inexcusable; and this, perhaps, is the reason why he is the most offensive and insupportable coxcomb in the world.”

The Squire, as Frank Bracebridge informs me, would often hold forth in this manner to his sons, when they were about leaving the paternal roof; one to travel abroad, one to go to the army, and one to the university. He used to have them with him in the library, which is hung with the portraits of Sidney, Surrey, Raleigh, Wyat, and others. “Look at those models of true English gentlemen, my sons,” he would say with enthusiasm; “those were men that wreathed the graces of the most delicate and refined taste around the stern virtues of the soldier; that mingled what was gentle and gracious, with what was hardy and manly; that possessed the true chivalry of spirit, which is the exalted essence of manhood. They are the lights by which the youth of the country should array themselves. They were the patterns and idols of their country at home; they were the illustrators of its dignity abroad. ‘Surrey,’ says Camden, ‘was the first nobleman that illustrated his high birth with the beauty of learning. He was acknowledged to be the gallantest man, the politest lover, and the completest gentleman of his time.’ And as to Wyat, his friend Surrey most amiably testifies of him, that his person was majestic and beautiful, his visage ‘stern and mild;’ that he sung, and played the lute with remarkable sweetness; spoke foreign languages with grace and fluency, and possessed an inexhaustible fund of wit. And see what a high commendation is passed upon these illustrious friends: ‘They were the two chieftains, who, having travelled into Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poetry, greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar poetry from what it had been before, and therefore may be justly called the reformers of our English poetry and style.’ And Sir Philip Sidney, who has left us such monuments of elegant thought, and generous sentiment, and who illustrated his chivalrous spirit so gloriously in the field. And Sir Walter Raleigh, the elegant courtier, the intrepid soldier, the enterprising discoverer, the enlightened philosopher, the magnanimous martyr. These are the men for English gentlemen to study. Chesterfield, with his cold and courtly maxims, would have chilled and impoverished such spirits. He would have blighted all the budding romance of their temperaments. Sidney would never have written his Arcadia, nor Surrey have challenged the world in vindication of the beauties of his Geraldine. “These are the men, my sons,” the Squire will continue, “that show to what our national character may be exalted, when its strong and powerful qualities are duly wrought up and refined. The solidest bodies are capable of the highest polish; and there is no character that may be wrought to a more exquisite and unsullied brightness, than that of the true English gentleman.”

When Guy was about to depart for the army, the Squire again took him aside, and gave him a long exhortation. He warned him against that affectation of cool-blooded indifference, which he was told was cultivated by the young British officers, among whom it was a study to “sink the soldier” in the mere man of fashion. “A soldier,” said he, “without pride and enthusiasm in his profession, is a mere sanguinary hireling. Nothing distinguishes him from the mercenary bravo, but a spirit of patriotism, or a thirst for glory. It is the fashion now-a-days, my son,” said he, “to laugh at the spirit of chivalry; when that spirit is really extinct, the profession of the soldier becomes a mere trade of blood.” He then set before him the conduct of Edward the Black Prince, who is his mirror of chivalry; valiant, generous, affable, humane; gallant in the field. But when he came to dwell on his courtesy toward his prisoner, the king of France; how he received him in his tent, rather as a conqueror than as a captive; attended on him at table like one of his retinue; rode uncovered beside him on his entry into London, mounted on a common palfrey, while his prisoner was mounted in state on a white steed of stately beauty; the tears of enthusiasm stood in the old gentleman’s eyes.

Finally, on taking leave, the good Squire put in his son’s hands, as a manual, one of his favourite old volumes, the life of the Chevalier Bayard, by Godefroy; on a blank page of which he had written an extract from the Morte d’Arthur, containing the eulogy of Sir Ector over the body of Sir Launcelot of the Lake, which the Squire considers as comprising the excellencies of a true soldier. “Ah, Sir Launcelot! thou wert head of all Christian knights; now there thou liest: thou wert never matched of none earthly knights-hands. And thou wert the curtiest knight that ever bare shield. And thou wert the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrood horse; and thou wert the truest lover of a sinfull man that ever loved woman. And thou wert the kindest man that ever strook with sword; and thou wert the goodliest person that ever came among the presse of knights. And thou wert the meekest man and the gentlest that ever eate in hall among ladies. And thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put speare in the rest.”

Bracebridge Hall vol. I - Contents    |     Fortune-Telling

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