Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey

The Abbey Garden

Washington Irving

THE MORNING AFTER my arrival, I rose at an early hour. The daylight was peering brightly between the window curtains, and drawing them apart, I gazed through the Gothic casement upon a scene that accorded in character with the interior of the ancient mansion. It was the old Abbey garden, but altered to suit the tastes of different times and occupants. In one direction were shady walls and alleys, broad terraces and lofty groves; in another, beneath a gray monastic-looking angle of the edifice, overrun with ivy and surmounted by a cross, lay a small French garden, with formal flower-pots, gravel walks, and stately stone balustrades.

The beauty of the morning, and the quiet of the hour, tempted me to an early stroll; for it is pleasant to enjoy such old-time places alone, when one may indulge poetical reveries, and spin cobweb fancies, without interruption. Dressing myself, therefore, with all speed, I descended a small flight of steps from the state apartment into the long corridor over the cloisters, along which I passed to a door at the farther end. Here I emerged into the open air, and, descending another flight of stone steps, found myself in the centre of what had once been the Abbey chapel.

Nothing of the sacred edifice remained, however, but the Gothic front, with its deep portal and grand lancet window, already described. The nave, the side walls, the choir, the sacristy, all had disappeared. The open sky was over my head, a smooth shaven grass-plot beneath my feet. Gravel walks and shrubberies had succeeded to the shadowy isles, and stately trees to the clustering columns.

“Where now the grass exhales a murky dew,
    The humid pall of life-extinguished clay,
In sainted fame the sacred fathers grew,
    Nor raised their pious voices but to pray.
Where now the bats their wavering wings extend,
    Soon as the gloaming spreads her warning shade,
The choir did oft their mingling vespers blend,
    Or matin orisons to Mary paid.”

Instead of the matin orisons of the monks, however, the ruined walls of the chapel now resounded to the cawing of innumerable rooks that were fluttering and hovering about the dark grove which they inhabited, and preparing for their morning flight.

My ramble led me along quiet alleys, bordered by shrubbery, where the solitary water-hen would now and then scud across my path, and take refuge among the bushes. From hence I entered upon a broad terraced walk, once a favorite resort of the friars, which extended the whole length of the old Abbey garden, passing along the ancient stone wall which bounded it. In the centre of the garden lay one of the monkish fish-pools, an oblong sheet of water, deep set like a mirror, in green sloping banks of turf. In its glassy bosom was reflected the dark mass of a neighboring grove, one of the most important features of the garden. This grove goes by the sinister name of “the Devil’s Wood,” and enjoys but an equivocal character in the neighborhood. It was planted by “The Wicked Lord Byron,” during the early part of his residence at the Abbey, before his fatal duel with Mr. Chaworth. Having something of a foreign and classical taste, he set up leaden statues of satyrs or fauns at each end of the grove. The statues, like everything else about the old Lord, fell under the suspicion and obloquy that overshadowed him in the latter part of his life. The country people, who knew nothing of heathen mythology and its sylvan deities, looked with horror at idols invested with the diabolical attributes of horns and cloven feet. They probably supposed them some object of secret worship of the gloomy and secluded misanthrope and reputed murderer, and gave them the name of “The old Lord’s Devils.”

I penetrated the recesses of the mystic grove. There stood the ancient and much slandered statues, overshadowed by tall larches, and stained by dank green mold. It is not a matter of surprise that strange figures, thus behoofed and be-horned, and set up in a gloomy grove, should perplex the minds of the simple and superstitious yeomanry. There are many of the tastes and caprices of the rich, that in the eyes of the uneducated must savor of insanity.

I was attracted to this grove, however, by memorials of a more touching character. It had been one of the favorite haunts of the late Lord Byron. In his farewell visit to the Abbey, after he had parted with the possession of it, he passed some time in this grove, in company with his sister; and as a last memento, engraved their names on the bark of a tree.

The feelings that agitated his bosom during this farewell visit, when he beheld round him objects dear to his pride, and dear to his juvenile recollections, but of which the narrowness of his fortune would not permit him to retain possession, may be gathered from a passage in a poetical epistle, written to his sister in after years:

I did remind you of our own dear lake
    By the old hall, which may be mine no more;
Leman’s is fair; but think not I forsake
    The sweet remembrance of a dearer shore:
Sad havoc Time must with my memory make
    Ere that or thou can fade these eyes before;
Though, like all things which I have loved, they are
Resign’d for ever, or divided far.

I feel almost at times as I have felt
    In happy childhood; trees, and flowers, and brooks.
Which do remember me of where I dwelt
    Ere my young mind was sacrificed to books,
Come as of yore upon me, and can melt
    My heart with recognition, of their looks;
And even at moments I would think I see
Some living things I love—but none like thee.”

I searched the grove for some time, before I found the tree on which Lord Byron had left his frail memorial. It was an elm of peculiar form, having two trunks, which sprang from the same root, and, after growing side by side, mingled their branches together. He had selected it, doubtless, as emblematical of his sister and himself. The names of BYRON and AUGUSTA were still visible. They had been deeply cut in the bark, but the natural growth of the tree was gradually rendering them illegible, and a few years hence, strangers will seek in vain for this record of fraternal affection.

Leaving the grove, I continued my ramble along a spacious terrace, overlooking what had once been the kitchen garden of the Abbey. Below me lay the monks’ stew, or fish pond, a dark pool, overhung by gloomy cypresses, with a solitary water-hen swimming about in it.

A little farther on, and the terrace looked down upon the stately scene on the south side of the Abbey; the flower garden, with its stone balustrades and stately peacocks, the lawn, with its pheasants and partridges, and the soft valley of Newstead beyond.

At a distance, on the border of the lawn, stood another memento of Lord Byron; an oak planted by him in his boyhood, on his first visit to the Abbey. With a superstitious feeling inherent in him, he linked his own destiny with that of the tree. “As it fares,” said he, “so will fare my fortunes.” Several years elapsed, many of them passed in idleness and dissipation. He returned to the Abbey a youth scarce grown to manhood, but, as he thought, with vices and follies beyond his years. He found his emblem oak almost choked by weeds and brambles, and took the lesson to himself.

“Young oak, when I planted thee deep in the ground,
    I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine,
That thy dark waving branches would flourish around,
    And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.

Such, such was my hope—when in infancy’s years
    On the laud of my fathers I reared thee with pride;
They are past, and I water thy stem with my tears—
    Thy decay not the weeds that surround thee can hide.”

I leaned over the stone balustrade of the terrace, and gazed upon the valley of Newstead, with its silver sheets of water gleaming in the morning sun. It was a sabbath morning, which always seems to have a hallowed influence over the landscape, probably from the quiet of the day, and the cessation of all kinds of week-day labor. As I mused upon the mild and beautiful scene, and the wayward destinies of the man, whose stormy temperament forced him from this tranquil paradise to battle with the passions and perils of the world, the sweet chime of bells from a village a few miles distant came stealing up the valley. Every sight and sound this morning seemed calculated to summon up touching recollections of poor Byron. The chime was from the village spire of Hucknall Torkard, beneath which his remains lie buried!

——I have since visited his tomb. It is in an old gray country church, venerable with the lapse of centuries. He lies buried beneath the pavement, at one end of the principal aisle. A light falls on the spot through the stained glass of a Gothic window, and a tablet on the adjacent wall announces the family vault of the Byrons. It had been the wayward intention of the poet to be entombed, with his faithful dog, in the monument erected by him in the garden of Newstead Abbey. His executors showed better judgment and feeling, in consigning his ashes to the family sepulchre, to mingle with those of his mother and his kindred. Here,

“After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further!”

How nearly did his dying hour realize the wish made by him, but a few years previously, in one of his fitful moods of melancholy and misanthropy:

“When time, or soon or late, shall bring
    The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
    Wave gently o’er my dying bed!

“No band of friends or heirs be there,
    To weep or wish the coming blow:
No maiden with dishevelled hair,
    To feel, or fein decorous woe.

“But silent let me sink to earth.
    With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
    Nor startle friendship with a tear.”

He died among strangers, in a foreign land, without a kindred hand to close his eyes; yet he did not die unwept. With all his faults and errors, and passions and caprices, he had the gift of attaching his humble dependents warmly to him. One of them, a poor Greek, accompanied his remains to England, and followed them to the grave. I am told that, during the ceremony, he stood holding on by a pew in an agony of grief, and when all was over, seemed as if he would have gone down into the tomb with the body of his master.—A nature that could inspire such attachments, must have been generous and beneficent.

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