Selected Writings of William Sharp, Vol. IV, Literary Geography


IT is no small fortune for a writer to have as his birthland a region of beautiful names, of old and romantic associations. The poetry of these enters the blood. Youth may not note, and manhood or womanhood may ignore, but in maturer years the very mention of an obscure hamlet, a running water, a field by the burnside, will flood the memory with light as wonderful as moonshine. Think of how Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Burns, Scott, have filled their verse with the quiet music of old places, old names. What charm in those pages of Stevenson, when, from some mountain solitude in Colorado or from the isles of Samoa, he recalls the manse at Swanston, or the grey-green links opposite Fidra or the Bass, or the green hollows of Pentland! To the Devonian and the Cornishman what pleasure to come upon the fragrant oldworld names in the romances of Charles Kingsley and Blackmore and Baring Gould! Tennyson declared once, when passing through an ancient hamlet in West Sussex, "What good luck to be born in this county of quaint and lovely names! Where else would one find a peasant called Oswald Paris or Stephen Songthrush? and would any one but a Sussex yokel call the swallow a 'squeaker' and the cuckoo a 'yaffer,' and 'transmogrify' the wild arum into 'lamb-in-the-pulpit'?" And I recall a like remark made to me, many years ago by Matthew Arnold, from whom I first heard of that lovely Buckinghamshire region now made easy of reach by the railway extension from Rickmansworth . . . that valley of the Chess where he loved to angle, and where he composed so much in prose and verse: "What a happy fortune to be a native of a region like this, with such delightful names as Chenies and Latimer and Chesham Bois and Chalfont St. Giles. . . . Norman roses in old Saxon homesteads!"

However, even a Northerner may not always be able to appreciate the beauty of certain names familiar north of the Tweed: Camlachie, the Gorbals, Drumsheugh, they are not euphonious. So, for their own sake, we must not expect Southron sympathy for the names of the two most famous places in the Carlyle country. Ecclefechan and Craigenputtock do not make a delicate music. The lyric poet would regard either with disgust. But for Thomas Carlyle there were no word-bells to ring a more homesweet chime. He could dispense with these, however, when recalling the names of other native localities made musical to the ears and the memories of his countrymen: Kirkconnell Lea, wedded to deathless balladmusic; Solway Moss, with its echo of tramping hoofs and lost battle-cries; Annan Water, and the dark Moor of Lochar, and solitary Cummertrees, lonely lands of The Red Gauntlet; silent Caerlaverock, that once was Caerlaverock of the Bugles; the dim Water of Urr; Drumlanrig Woods; Durisdeer among the hills; the heaths of Sanquhar; the Keir Hills, where the first cuckoo is heard; the dark narrow water of Sark, bordered with yellow flag and tangled peat-moss, that once ran red with the blood of English thousands. Then there are Nithsdale and Eskdale, and Strathannan, in whose heart the Bruce was born and Burns died; Repentance Hill, with its grey peel, where once the Lord Herries, Warden of the West March, stained his soul with the blood of hapless men, so that to this day the ballad-singer croons of how

He sat him on Repentance Hicht
An' glower'd upon the sea

Tynedale Fell, overlooking the mountainlands of Cumberland and Galloway; Glenesslin, where once the forbidden hymns of the Covenant rose on Sabbath morns; Cluden Water, where the harps of Faery have been heard; and Irongrey Kirkyard, where Helen Walker, immortal as Jeanie Deans, sleeps in peace. A score or more names of like beauty and import will come to the mind of the North-countryrnan of the Marches, from Gretna Green to where shadowy Loch Urr sends her dark waters past Craigenputtock Hill (that long prowshaped Crag of the Hawks where Carlyle and Emerson spent hours one summer day discussing the immortality of the soul) ; then southward beyond Glaisters, where "TeufelsdriOckh" for long took his solitary "gloaming-shots," as, in a letter to his mother, he calls his twilight walks; and at last to that grey water of Solway whose tidal flow farther east will wash Glencaple Quay--that small haven whence seventy years ago the packet-boat was wont to sail with south-faring passengers for the port of Liverpool, and that one August morning in 1831 carried Thomas Carlyle out of Scotland to seek fortune with the manuscript of Sartor Resartus.

The country of Carlyle is an actual country. We do not seek it under the guidance of his imagination, either in the Sartor Resartus of a fictitious Germany, or in the turbulent Paris or the wild and distorted France of The French Revolution.   It is certainly not to be found in the History of Frederick the Great, or in that of Oliver Cromwell. The Carlyle country is the native land, the native regions, where the great writer spent his boyhood and youth and so much of his early manhood; where he returned whenever he could; whither his remembrance and longing continually went; the lands of his love, his people, his strength, his heart.

There is, of course, one obvious exception--London. The hackneyed phrase "the Sage of Chelsea" reveals the extent to which, in the general mind, Carlyle has become supremely identified with one locality, and that in a city he did not love, and where his least happy if his most famous years were lived. As "the Sage of Chelsea" he will doubtless long be remembered; "like old china," as he remarked once, "however cracked and timeworn, that is preserved because of the shibboleth of its name." Doubtless he would have much preferred to be known as the Sage of Annandale. Perhaps, if he could, he would very gladly have prevented any such nomenclature at all. He did not love labels, though an adept at affixing them.

I recollect an amusing story told by the late Dr. George Bird (that delightful raconteur, whose vivid memory embraced half a century of intimate acquaintance with many of the most distinguished men and women of the Victorian era), though it was not, I fancy, at first hand, and for all I know to the contrary may have already appeared, though I have not met with it. One day Carlyle was walking with a friend near the Marble Arch end of Hyde Park ("black-felt coat, whitey-grey trousers, wide whitey-grey felt hat, old-fashioned stock, a thick walkingstick, hair more grizzly than usual, beard still more so, face furrowed, a heavy frown"), and had stopped to listen to a stump orator addressing an indolent and indifferent crowd on the question of thefranchise. Suddenly a rough-hewn worthy detached himself from a group, and, without word of greeting or other preamble, addressed himself to Carlyle in a Annandale accent.

"Whit, now, ye'll be Tam Carlyle frae Ecclefechan?"

The great man nodded, his eyes twinkling.

"An' they ca' ye the Sage o' Chelsea?"

"They do, puir buddies!" (this in the same vernacularism).

"Weel," said the man scornfully, "I've heard o' the wurrd applyit in connection wi' a burrd I'll no name, but never afore this wi' a self-respecting mon!"

Carlyle laughed heartily, but remarked afterwards to his companion that his compatriot's crude satire "had the gist o' guid common sense in 't,"--"for who am I," he added, "or who is any man, to be held above all his fellows as the Sage, and worse, as the Sage?"

But though it would be impossible to ignore Chelsea in connection with the literary geography "of Carlyle's life, we will all agree doubtless as to his "country" being restricted to what he himself, in pride and love, would have called his own land. That land, of course, lies between the Water of Sark on the east- -the boundary between Cumberland and the Scottish border- -and the Water of Urr on the west, where Galloway lies against the farther highlands of Dumfries. It includes Dumfries town and Annan, where the boy "first learned the humanities"; Mainhill Farm, where his parents lived, and that was so long a home to him; the farms of Hoddam and Scotsbrig; Templand, where he and Jane Welsh were wedded; Craigenputtock, where his happiest years were spent; and, "capital" of the Carlyle country, Ecclefechan, where he was born, and where at last he was brought again to rest in peace with his own people.

It has been a moot point with many correspondents and commentators, in connection with this series of Literary Geography, whether regions where a famous author has spent time and which he has commemorated in his writings should be ranked as his "country." Some have thought that a writer's "country" should be the lands of or regions brought under the sway of his imagination, as Provence and Palestine in the instance of the author of Quentin Durward and The Talisman, as Samoa or Silverado or Fontainebleau in the instance of Stevenson. Others have held that the "country" should be the actual country of birth and upbringing and residence. Others have gone further, and argued that wherever a great writer has sojourned and where he has thought out or actually composed romance or poem or other rare achievement, there is his land, or at least one of his outlying provinces. It might be pleasant to say that because Carlyle spent a time with Sir George Sinclair at Thurso Castle, and from the shores of Caithness dreamed across the North Sea towards Iceland of the Vikings, therefore Caithness has become part of his "country."   Even so un-Carlylean a place as Mentone might be thus claimed for him. But, obviously the plea is fallacious. Can, for example, the Isle of Wight be considered as within Turgeniev's "country," because there the great Russian sojourned awhile and wrote one of his most famous romances? Can Kensington Gardens be considered an appanage of Chateaubriand-land, because the great Frenchman composed Réné in the pleasant shadow of these Bayswater glades? Or is Wimbledon (is it Wimbledon?) a section of the vast territories of the Rougon-Maquart clan because M. Zola dwelt there awhile in exile with Mr. Vizetelly, and on an epic scale pondered a London ? Imagine Voltaire's ironical smile if informed that the Voltaire country included certain parishes of Surrey and Middlesex; or Heine's caustic comment if told that the hardly-by-him-beloved British capital was a section of Heine-land?

Perhaps the happiest compromise is in the instance of a writer like George Eliot, whose own country and whose most enduring country of the imagination are practically identical.

In the instance of Carlyle there need not be much perplexity. His wanderings from Dumfriesshire in the north or from Chelsea in the south were few and unimportant. Little of his work was done abroad; though the Reminiscences were begun at Mentone in 1867, whither Carlyle went in December with Professor Tyndall.  More notable were the German wayfarings, when Carlyle was on the quest of Frederick's battlefields. He travelled in Flanders, in Holland, in Ireland: brief visits, and in his literature, unimportant. In East Anglia, of course, one would not forget his raid into Cromwell-land. Cromwell was begun in 1842, and in a letter to Thomas Erskine of Linlatlien the author spoke of his "three days' riding excursion into Oliver Cromell's country: where I smoked a cigar on his broken horseblock in the old city of Ely, under the stars, beside the graves of St. Mary's churchyard; and almost, wept to stand upon the flagstones, under the setting sun, where he ordered the refractory parson--'Leave off your fooling, and come out, Sir!' "

Between the Solway coast and that of far Caithness, there are few parts of Scotland, save the remoter Western Highlands and Isles, which at one time or another he had not visited. In Kirkcaldy, on the Fife coast, he lived a couple of years, schoolmastering, when but a youth himself. Not much was done here in actual achievement but much reading and study were accomplished; and in his long walks with Irving, afterwards to become so famous, Carlyle learned much that he could not have found in books. Here, again, he stayed awhile in 1874 with his friend Provost Swan. I have seen an unpublished photograph of him at this time, taken in the garden of friends who lived near North Queensferry ; and certainly, to judge by appearances, witty and winsome Jeanie Welsh "had her handful," as they say in Fife. As her husband remarked to Mr. Syrnington, when complaining once of the exaggerations of the photographer, "I'm revealed as an old, rascally, ruffian, obfuscated goose."

Kirkcaldy is hardly a place to suggest poetry, but there are few passages in Carlyle more haunting than that memory of "the lang toon" in the Reminiscences; "the beach of Kirkcaldy, in summer twilights, a mile of the smoothest sand, with one long wave coming on, gently, steadily, and breaking in gradual explosion, accurately gradual, into harmless melodious whitle, at your hand, all the way (the break of it) rushing along like a mane of foam, beautifully sounding and advancing, ran from south to north. . . . We roved in the woods, too, sometimes, till all was dark."

Again, and not least of his temporary homes away from his own "country," was Kinnaird House, in a glen near Dunkeld. Here, while a resident tutor, he "moped much, saw his friend Irving on his honeymoon, wrote love-letters to Annandale, where Jane Welsh lived with her mother, and during his nine months' stay wrote most of  his Life of Schiller and translated the greater part of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.

Once more, who of us happening to be in the desolate iron-country of Muirkirk of Ayr but would recall that day-long walk of Carlyle and Irving among the peat-hags of Druinclog Moss, when the younger confided to the other the secrets of his spiritual life? "These peat-hags are still pictured in me: brown bog, all pitted, and broken into heathy remnants and bare abrupt wide holes, four or six feet deep, a flat wilderness of broken bog, of quagmire not to be trusted" [the scene of many a Covenanters' meeting, and immortalised by Scott as the locality of Claver'se (Claverhouse) Skirmish]:   "I know not that we talked much of this, but we did of many things . . . a colloquy the sum of which is still mournfully beautiful to me, though the details are gone. I remember us sitting on a peat-hag, the sun shining, our own voices the one sound; far, far away to westward, over our brown horizon, towered up, white and visible at the many miles of distance, a high irregular pyramid. Ailsa Craig! we at once guessed, and thought of the seas and oceans over yonder."  Or there is that other walk by the lovely shores of Aberdour: "the summer afternoon was beautiful; beautiful exceedingly our solitary walk by Burntisland and the sands and rocks to Inverkeithing"; or Moffatdale with its green holms and hill-ranges; or a score other such excursions, memorable in all ways, and for intimate associations above all. Many of my readers will know, some may have landed on that lonely isle of Inchkeith, and wandered among the coneyhaunted grasses and over by the Russian graves, and from the same "wild stony little bay" where Carlyle landed have looked on that scene which, he tells us in his Reminiscences, seemed to him the "beautifullest he had ever beheld". . . . "Sun just about setting straight in face of us, behind Ben Lomond far away, Edinburgh with its towers, the great silver rnirror of the Frith, girt by such a framework of mountains, cities, rocks and fields and wavy landscape, on all hands of us; and reaching right underfoot (as I remember) came a broad pillar as of gold from the just sinking sun; burning axle, as it were, going down to the centre of the world!"

But we might traverse Scotland, highland and lowland, if we recall overmuch. After all, we must hark back to the Kirtle Water and the winding Mein, to moor-set Ecclefechan, Mainhill and Scotsbrig and Hoddam, to remote Craigenputtock.

As to Carlyle's town life, that was unequally divided between London and Edinburgh, for in the latter he spent far fewer months than the tale of years he spent in Chelsea. To Edinburgh he and his young wife went in 1826, and lived for eighteen months at 21 Comely Bank, then an isolated country-clasped suburb of Edinburgh on its north-western side, with its back to the Forth and its front towards the Hill of Corstorphine and its deep woods: our " trim little cottage," he wrote at the time he was contributing his first essays to the Edinburgh and the Foreign Quarterly reviews, "far from the uproar and putrescence (material and spiritual) of the reeky town, the sound of which we hear not, and only see over the knowe the reflection of its gaslights against the dusky sky. "He had already had experience of Edinburgh, where, as a student at the University, he had lived in Simon Square, off  Nicholson Street, then a poor and now a sordid region; and, after one or two unfortunate experiments, at No. 1 Moray Street (now Spey Street), Leith Walk, of special interest to us, as it was here he first began in earnest that literary work which he was to carry to such a magnificent development. It is a street to be remembered of every reader of Sartor Resartus, all of whose Teutonically hued pages were coloured from home-dyes. Who does not know that the German realm "Weissnichtwo" is no other than the "Kennaquhair" of Annandale; that "Entepfuhl," that centre of the world, is the homely Scottish village of Ecclefechan; and that even Blumine, that fair maiden of the famous "Romance of Clothes," was no Saxon fraulein but a winsome lass o' Kirkcaldy? For Spey Street or Moray Street, or in its ampler dignity as Leith Walk, is the "Rue Saint Thomas de l'Enfer" of Sartor.

In London, also, Carlyle resided, now here, now there, before he took the house in Cheyne Row where he lived from 1834 till his death forty-seven years later. Chief of these temporary metropolitan homes was 4 Ampton Street, Gray's Inn Road. Here in the early summer of 1834 he and his wife came, after their burning of their ship of Craigenputtock behind them; here again earlier, in midwinter of 1831-2, they were staying, with Sartor Resartus (on which hung so many hopes) just started on its unpopular serial course through Fraser's, when the news came of the death of that "silent, strong man," Carlyle the elder, at the farm of Scotsbrig--the famous writer's "last parental nest in beloved Annandale."

All readers of the Reminiscences, and of Froude and Eliot and other biographers, know how nearly Bayswater or Bloomsbury was given preference over Chelsea. No. 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, however, carried the day. For long, even in Carlyle's lifetime, one of the chief literary shrines of the Metropolis, it is now more visited by thousands annually, from all parts of the world, than any other dwelling of the kind in London. Needless to write about a house and neighbourhood so widely familiar, or of what may now be seen there by the curious. It is still the chief jewel in the crown of Chelsea. But the unwary must not go thither expecting the pleasant quarters of the " thirties," when "dear Leigh Hunt was just round the corner." Carlyle, alas ! would not to-day write of this dull little street submerged in a part of Chelsea as now in any wise lovely: "We lie safe at a bend of the river, away from all the great roads, have an air and quiet hardly inferior to Craigenputtock, an outlook from the back windows into mere leafy regions, with bore and there a red high-peaked old roof looking through ; and we see nothing of London except by day the summits of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and by night the gleam of the great Babylon affronting the peaceful skies."

"An air and quiet hardly inferior to Craigenputtock" . . . to that of remote Crag of the Hawks in far-off Nithsdale, where, across the Water of Urr, Galloway calls to the hills of Dumfries . . . no, alas not now, nor for a long time past.

Nor is it possible to dwell on Carlyle's life in London . . . the mere "literary geographical" part of it, I mean. He knew all West London, and much of every other region of the Metropolis, with a knowledge gained through many years of continual wayfarings afoot or on long 'bus-rides or on horseback. Of all the many hints and pictures of this London life in Froude's and other biographies and in his own Reminiscences I recall none so delightful as that glimpse afforded in one of Miss Martineau's few humour-touched pages. It is where she relates how Carlyle, dissatisfied with the house in Cheyne Row--no longer "a London Eden," no longer as quiet as Craigenputtock--went forth one morning on a black horse, with three maps of Great Britain and two of the World in his pocket, to explore the area within twenty miles of Chelsea! But, as we all know, the house in Cheyne Row remained the Carlyle home. The first break was when Mrs. Carlyle died one April day in Hyde Park, when driving in her carriage, her husband then in Dumfries; the second, fifteen years later, when all that was left of London's greatest man who had refused a resting-place in Westminster Abbey (one remembers his scathing comment to Froude)--was carried north to his straggling natal village of Ecclefechan, to be buried there among his own people.

These North-country homes of Carlyle . . . how he loved them! Of course, Ecclefechan and Craigenputtock rank first, but with each of the others there are many associations for us, and for him there were many more. If in some regions bleak, if in certain districts sombre and for the greater part of the year repellent, the countryside as a whole is pleasant, is often winsome, and has sometimes a quiet beauty which is an excelling grace. It is far more diversified, more fertile, more human and kindly than Froude painted it in his famous Life. In a hundred passages in his books and letters Carlyle himself depicts it in part and whole with all the sincerity of deep-ingrained love. Even in the days of his wooing Jane Welsh, when he was impatient to be elsewhere in the great world, "to make his cast in the troubled waters of earthly fortune," he could write to her, and as truly as sincerely, thus [in an invitation to her to visit his parents and himself at Hoddam Hill farm . . . [Repentance Hill, as it is commonly called]: "I will show you Kirkconnell churchyard and Fair Helen's grave. I will take you to the top of Burnswark, and wander with you up and down the woods and lanes and moors. Earth, sea, and air are open to us here as well as anywhere. The Water of Milk was flowing through its simple valley as early as the brook Siloa, and poor Repentance Hill is as old as Caucasus itself. There is a majesty and mystery in Nature, take her as you will. The essence of all poetry comes breathing to a mind that feels every province of her Empire."

All these farm-homes lie near each other--Mainhill and Scotsbrig and Hoddain and pleasant Templand--all save Craigenputtock in Nithsdale, just across the Galloway border. There can be few pleasanter centres for the rambling "literary geographer" than Ecclefechan itself, unattractive and now "stranded" village though it be. The pleasant streamways and wandering glens up the Kirtle Water and shadowy Mein are full of charm, and are within easy reach; so are the woods of Brownmoor and Woodcockair; beautiful Hoddam Castle and ruined Bonshaw are but a pleasant walk. The walk to Mainhill itself is in all ways delightful; that up the vale of Kirtle, from Kirkconnell to Springkill by way of Kirkpatrick-Fleming, is lovely enough to repay any wayfarer, apart from any association with Carlyle or with the moving old ballads of the Border Country or the wild and romantic history of the Marshes. From Criffel in the south to Sanquhar in the north, from Scotsbrig in the east to Craigenputtock in the west, there is almost every variety of lowland beauty and charm to be found. The wayfarer need not even go far from Ecclefechan. Let him cross the Meinfoot Bridge and go along the beautiful beechshaded Annan road, and recall "the kind beech-rows of Entepfuhl." One may know loveliness and peace here, if not in straggling, curious, and now "disjaskit" Entepfuhl-Ecclefeclian itself, where there is little for the stranger to see except the Arch House, where Carlyle was born and where Herr Diogenes TeufelsdrOckh saw the light, hard by "the gushing Kuhbach," as the pleasant Water of Mein was renamed in Sartor. Alas! Sartor or aught else of Carlyle is little read in Ecclefechan or Annandale itself. A great name, a famous tradition survive; but in the whole Anglo-Saxon world there are probably few places where "the Sage" is less read, less veritably known. Even in the so-called "Resartus Reading Room" there are (or were) no copies of Carlyle's books. So, another reason for not lingering in Ecclefechan, but to fare abroad through a country in itself fair and nobly planned, and often quietly beautiful, sacred for many associations of history and religion and romance, and for ever dear to all who love the great heart and reverence the powerful genius of Thomas Carlyle. "Whatever else they did, the old Northmen," he said once to a friend, "their swords did not smite the air." And he, this Viking of Anglo-Saxon writers, though he lies at rest among the dust of his own kith and kin in remote Annandale, still wields a mighty sword that does not idly smite air. So, here in his own Northland . . . Ave atque Vale

Return to Vol. IV, Contents