The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.




is the third of that wonderful line of London poets who stand out pre-eminent in genius. He was


faithful to his mother city, and never left her but of necessity, and then not for long. He was born within the walls of the City, he had at different times ten residences in London, and by the whole cast of his mind he was a Londoner of the Londoners. Very familiar must the streets have been to the pale, dignified man, noted for "temperance, sobriety, and chastity"; deeply must the scenes known from boyhood have been engraved upon his brain, so that even after he lost his sight he could see them with the "inward eye." He was born, as every one knows, in in a house in Bread Street, which, like all the other London houses with which he was connected, has disappeared, though its successor is marked by a tablet. 's tender feeling for the home of his youth is shown in the fact that, when the house became his own property after his father's death, he retained it, in spite of all vicissitudes of fortune, until it was destroyed by the Great Fire. It is exceedingly difficult for us to reconstruct the London that knew when he as a boy, with a " thoughtful little face, that of a well-nurtured towardly boy," came out of the house to go to school in St. Paul's Churchyard. Every day he must have seen a London where every vista was a picture in itself. Above the houses hung signs, his father's sign being the Spread Eagle. Timber and tile, plaster and carving were the rule everywhere. Bread Street is narrow enough now, so narrow that in working hours the huge drays pass down it at a foot's pace, but it must have been darker and narrower then. Forth from this


picturesque street the boy went to the school which was to be so highly honoured by numbering him among its scholars. " From the twelfth year of my age," he says, "I hardly ever went to bed before midnight." His brother Christopher was seven years younger than himself. does not seem to have made many schoolboy friendships. Only one, that with Diodati, is mentioned; probably was a solitary boy, for he was old for his years, and certainly of far higher mental calibre than the ordinary boy. In his essay on Education, written many years later, his curriculum for the ordinary schoolboy includes Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, and Italian. himself had a splendid memory and great facility in foreign tongues. He passed on in due course to Cambridge, and afterwards joined his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire, whither the elder had retired about . He does not seem at any time to have had any pressure put upon him to enter into a commercial life; indeed his is one of the rare instances where parents seem to have recognised the true worth of genius in a child, and let him do what fancy prompted him; and it is impossible to read of at all without recognising in him the calm self-possession which, without haste or scuffle, took the position of superiority to which he was entitled. It never seems to have occurred to him to " strive or cry in the streets " ; from the first genius followed its own bent, and went undisturbed upon its way. He stayed at Horton until his famous tour abroad, and on his return, as his younger brother was now living with his widowed


father, undertook the education of the fatherless sons of his sister, Mrs. Phillips. "He took him a lodging in at the House of one Russel a taylor," and here he remained until . St. Bride's, otherwise St. Bridget's, was destroyed in the Great Fire, but rose again after Wren's designs, and stands still, hemmed in by houses, but visible from Fleet Street.
His very short stay here, about a year, was due to " necessity of having a place to dispose his books in, and other goods fit for the furnishing of a good handsome house, hastening him to take one, and therefore a pretty garden-house he took in " This house was in a court now called , opening into , and not far from the quiet church of St. Giles, where he was at last to rest. He was now just outside the wall and within the liberties of the City. Here he occupied himself in training his young nephews, and after three years, by a sudden and totally unexpected movement, he took a wife from the camp of the enemy in the person of Mary Powell, daughter of Richard Powell, a staunch Royalist. This marriage was a disaster. The gay young girl brought suddenly into a household so austere as that regulated by , must have been obliged to occupy her mind with high things, when probably her first idea of a marriage and going to live in London would have been an escape to a freer, more joyous life than the quiet one of the country. She shortly left her husband and went back to her own home. During all the time he was at Aldersgate,


brought forth nothing but prose, in the form of tracts and essays. Two years later, going to visit a kinsman in St. Martin's-le-Grand Lane, where the General Post Office now is, he was surprised to find his wife there, and the meeting, arranged by her people, became a reconciliation. He was at this time on the eve of moving once more, though not very far,-the residences chosen by himself being generally within the neighbourhood of St. Paul's.

The new house was in the Barbican, and here the young wife once more took up her duties. This house, long since vanished, formed the scene of many domestic events. The whole family of the Powells, ruined by the success of the Roundheads, came to seek refuge with their Puritan son-in-law, and the result, as might have been expected, was not successful. A man who lived by line and rule, who loved quiet and was rigid in all his ways, as was, must have found himself perpetually jarred by a household consisting of two young nephews and other pupils, an uncongenial wife, and a whole family of people-in-law. Here both his own father and Mr. Powell, his father-in-law, died, and his eldest daughter was born to him.

Shortly after this removed to a house in High Holborn, "not since identified," leaving the remainder of the Powells to find their own lodging. Here he stayed until his appointment as Government Secretary on account of his wonderful fluency in Latin, in which language all State communications were then made. This was in , and he took a house in


Spring Gardens in order to be near his work, but was very soon afterwards persuaded to remove to apartments in Scotland Yard adjoining the rambling old palace of Whitehall.

In , however, he went to in, now called York Street, and was there for eight years. Here his youngest daughter was born, and his wife died. He married again, and after a little more than a year was left a widower a second time. He had lost the sight of one eye when he came to , and two years later was totally blind, though he still retained his Government post with the aid of an assistant. It is noticeable that his love of gardens always led him to a garden house, or one in which there was easy access to an open space. The house which he occupied in stood until . It must, in his time, have been an ideal residence, for it overlooked St. James's Park, in which he was free to walk. The Park was then a mere common, with grass and trees growing irregularly and a few small ponds; it was not until after the Restoration that it was put into shape by . When the Restoration was announced, , as one who had ever been a prominent Puritan, was forced to go into hiding, which he did without quitting London, staying for some time in the house of a friend in Bartholomew Close, Smithfield. The danger over and amnesty proclaimed, he came forth; but he did not return to , probably because it was in proximity to the Court, but took a house again in Holborn temporarily. From


here he went back to near his former quarters at Barbican, renting a dwelling in Jewin Street. His eldest daughters were about thirteen and fifteen at this time, and their unfilial conduct made a deep and bitter impression on their father. It is but fair to say that when the girls are spoken of with reprobation, allowance has hardly been made for their youth, their motherless condition, and their disadvantages under such a stern father as must have been. It is natural that they should have revolted from tasks they abhorred, such as reading aloud languages they did not understand, and that when called up in the night to take down verses whereof Dr. Garnett says, "not one of which the whole world could have replaced," their sleepy eyes and ears should have failed to appreciate the beauty. In Jewin Street, however, cannot have had an unhappy time, for his friends Andrew Marvell and Thomas Ellwood, the Quaker, frequently called on him; he was occupied in the great work which was to place him supreme as " prince of poets," and he brought home his third wife, who seems to have been just the sort of pleasant, goodtempered person to be a suitable companion for a genius. After two years in this house he moved to his last London residence in Artillery Walk, near Bunhill Fields. The house had a small garden both back and front, and here he finished Paradise Lost. In July he left London to escape the Plague, and went to Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire, where stands the only one of his numerous houses that still remains


to form an object of pilgrimage. Yet he retained the house in Bunhill Fields, and here he returned when London was reduced to a heap of ashes. The Fire had stopped before Bunhill Fields, but the air must have been thick with lamentation and crying, and the one topic of conversation must have been of the great disaster, the result of which could not see. We have several word-pictures of him as he was at Bunhill Fields, one "sitting in a coarse grey cloth coat at the door of his house, in warm, sunny weather, to enjoy the fresh air," again indoors, "in an elbow chair, black clothes, and neat enough, pale but not cadaverous, his hands and fingers gouty and with chalk stones." In his sixty-eighth year he died quietly, and was buried in the chancel of St. Giles, near which his home had been. His tombstone may be seen there, and a bust of him, executed by the elder Bacon.

After the account of the lives of these three how ludicrous sounds Heine's exclamation: " Send a philosopher to London, but for your life no poet! "