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12. SIR ROGER DE COVERLEY.-I.
[JOSEPH ADDISON was born on the 1st of May, 1672, at Milston, Wilts, of which parish his father was rector. His early education was at the Charter-house, from which celebrated school he proceeded to Oxford, and obtained a scholarship of Magdalen College. In 1694, he published his first English poem. Men of letters at that period were sought out for public employments. Addison filled several official appointments, for which he seems to have been peculiarly unfitted. With his contemporaries his fame was that of a poet. With us 'Cato' is forgotten; the Spectator' and 'Guardian' are the best monuments of Addison's genius. He died in 1719.]
Cowley is a pretty village about two miles from Oxford; and here some one lived in the days of the Tudors who was famous enough to have his name linked with the pretty dancetune that has once again become fashionable. But he had a higher honour. The popularity of the dance in the days of Queen Anne gave a name to the most famous character in The Spectator;' and ever afterwards the dance itself gathered an accession of dignity even in its name; and plain Roger of Cowley became Sir Roger de Coverley. Some of the most delightful papers of Addison, in which Steele occasionally assisted, are devoted to the fictitious character of Sir Roger. Few people now read The Spectator' as a whole. One or two of the more celebrated essays, such as 'The Vision of Mirza,' find their place in books of extract. The delicate humour of the delineation of Sir Roger de Coverley is always referred to as the highest effort of Addison's peculiar genius; but not many will take the pains to select these sixteen or seventeen papers from the six hundred and thirty which form the entire work. These papers have a completeness about them which shows how thoroughly they were written upon a settled plan. Steele appears to have first conceived the character in the second number of 'The Spectator:' but Addison very soon took it out of his friend's hands, who was scarcely able to carry on the portraiture with that refinement which belonged to Addison's conception of the character. Addison, it is said, killed Sir Roger in the fear that another hand would spoil him.
As a representation of manners a century and a half ago, the picture of Sir Roger de Coverley has a remarkable value. The good knight is thoroughly English; and in him we see a beautiful specimen of the old-fashioned gentleman, with a high soul of honour, real benevolence, acute sense, mixed up with the eccentricities which belong to a nation of humourists. The readers of The Spectator' are fast diminishing. No one now gives "his days and nights to the volumes of Addison;" but his gentle graceful humour has never been excelled, and nowhere is it more conspicuous than in the papers of which Sir Roger de Coverley is the hero.]
The plan of The Spectator' is founded upon the fiction of a club that assembles every Tuesday and Thursday to carry on the publication. Sir Roger does not appear highly qualified for a literary colleague-a collaborateur, as the French style it, but he nevertheless is the foremost in 'The Spectator's' "account of those gentlemen who are concerned with me in the work."
"The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of an ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him. All who know that shire are very well acquainted with the parts and merits of Sir Roger. He is a gentleman that is very singular in his behaviour, but his singularities proceed from his good sense, and are contradictions to the manners of the world, only as he thinks the world is in the wrong. However, this humour creates him no enemies, for he does nothing with sourness or obstinacy, and his being unconfined to modes and forms makes him but the readier and more capable to please and oblige all who know him. When he is in town he lives in Soho Square. It is said he keeps himself a bachelor by reason he was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him. Before this disappointment, Sir Roger was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked bully Dawson in a public coffee-house for calling
him youngster: but being ill used by the above-mentioned widow, he was very serious for a year and a half; and though, his temper being naturally jovial, he at last got over it, he grew careless of himself, and never dressed afterward. He continues to wear a coat and doublet of the same cut that were in fashion at the time of his repulse, which, in his merry humours, he tells us has been in and out twelve times since he first wore it. He is now in his fifty-sixth year, cheerful, gay, and hearty; keeps a good house both in town and country; a great lover of mankind; but there is such a mirthful cast in his behaviour, that he is rather beloved than esteemed. "His tenants grow rich, his servants look satisfied, all the young women profess love to him, and the young men are glad of his company. When he comes into a house he calls the servants by their names, and talks all the way up stairs to a visit. I must not omit that Sir Roger is a justice of the quorum, that he fills the chair at a quarter-session with great abilities, and three months ago gained universal applause by explaining a passage in the Game Act."
We hear little of Sir Roger, except an occasional opinion, till we reach the 100th number, when Addison takes up the man of whom he said "we are born for each other."
"Having often received an invitation from my friend Sir Roger de Coverley to pass away a month with him in the country, I last week accompanied him thither, and am settled with him for some time at his country-house, where I intend to form several of my ensuing speculations. Sir Roger, who is very well acquainted with my humour, lets me rise and go to bed when I please, dine at his own table or in my chamber, as I think fit, sit still and say nothing without bidding me be merry. When the gentlemen of the country come to see him, he shows me at a distance. As I have been walking in his fields I have observed them stealing a sight of me over a hedge, and have heard the knight desiring them not to let me see them, for that I hated to be stared at.
"I am the more at ease in Sir Roger's family, because it consists of sober, staid persons; for as the knight is the best master in the world, he seldom changes his servants; and as he is beloved by all about him, his servants never care for leaving him; by this means his domestics are all in years, and grown old with their master. You would take his valet-de-chambre for his brother; his butler is grey-headed, his groom is one of the gravest men that I have ever seen, and his coachman has the looks of a privy councillor. You see the goodness of the master even in his old house-dog, and in a grey pad that is kept in the stable with great care and tenderness, out of regard for his past services, though he has been useless for several years.
"I could not but observe with a great deal of pleasure the joy that appeared in the countenances of these ancient domestics upon my friend's arrival at his countryseat. Some of them could not refrain from tears at the sight of their old master; every one of them pressed forward to do something for him, and seemed discouraged if they were not employed. At the same time the good old knight, with a mixture of the father and the master of the family, tempered the inquiries after his own affairs with several kind questions relating to themselves. This humanity and good nature engages every body to him, so that when he is pleasant upon any of them, all his family are in good humour, and none so much as the person whom he diverts himself with: on the contrary, if he coughs, or betrays any infirmity of old age, it is easy for a stander-by to observe a secret concern in the looks of all his servants.
"My worthy friend has put me under the particular care of his butler, who is a very prudent man, and, as well as the rest of his fellow-servants, wonderfully desirous of pleasing me, because they have often heard their master talk of me as of his particular friend."
Such is the general outline of the character and position of Sir Roger de Coverley.
personage is a pleasing specimen of the unambitious, quiet, placable clergyman of the days of Anne, when there was not a vast amount of zeal in the Church, and perhaps not quite so much piety as an earnest Christian would desire.
"My chief companion, when Sir Roger is diverting himself in the woods or the fields, is a very venerable man who is ever with Sir Roger, and has lived at his house in the nature of a chaplain above thirty years. This gentleman is a person of good sense and some learning, of a very regular life and obliging conversation; he heartily loves Sir Roger, and knows that he is very much in the old knight's esteem, so that he lives in the family rather as a relation than a dependant.
"I have observed in several of my papers that my friend Sir Roger, amidst all his good qualities, is something of a humourist; and that his virtues as well as imperfections are, as it were, tinged by a certain extravagance which makes them particularly his, and distinguishes them from those of other men. This cast of mind, as it is generally very innocent in itself, so it renders his conversation highly agreeable and more delightful than the same degree of sense and virtue would appear in their common and ordinary colours. As I was walking with him last night, he asked me how I liked the good man whom I have just now mentioned: and without staying for my answer, told me that he was afraid of being insulted with Latin and Greek at his own table; for which reason he desired a particular friend of his at the university to find him out a clergyman rather of plain sense than much learning, of a good aspect, a clear voice, a sociable temper, and, if possible, a man that understood a little of backgammon. 'My friend,' says Sir Roger, 'found me out this gentleman, who, besides the endowments required of him, is, they tell me, a good scholar, though he does not show it. I have given him the parsonage of the parish; and because I know his value, have set upon him a good annuity for life. If he outlives me, he shall find that he was higher in my esteem than perhaps he thinks he is. He has now been with me thirty years; and though he does not know I have taken notice of it, has never in all that time asked any thing of me for himself, though he is every day soliciting me for something in behalf of one or other of my tenants his parishoners. There has not been a law-suit in the parish since he has lived among them; if any dispute arises, they apply themselves to him for the decision; if they do not acquiesce in his judgment, which I think never happened above once or twice at most, they appeal to me. At his first settling with me, I made him a present of all the good sermons which have been printed in English, and only begged of him that every Sunday he would pronounce one of them in the pulpit. Accordingly he has digested them into such a series that they follow one another naturally, and make a continued system of practical divinity."
The Spectator goes to church, and hears "the Bishop of St Asaph in the morning, and Dr. South in the afternoon;" that is, he hears the chaplain read a sermon from Fleetwood's and South's printed collections. He says, "I was so charmed with the gracefulness of his figure and delivery, as well as with the discourses he pronounced, that I think I never passed any time more to my satisfaction." This is to speak of a sermon as he would of a play; which was indeed very much the temper of the Spectator's age. He recommends to the country clergy not "to waste their spirits in laborious compositions of their own;" but to enforce "by a handsome elocution" those discourses "which have been penned by great masters." Whether the advice be judicious or not is scarcely necessary to be discussed. There is something higher to be attained by preaching than enabling a listener to pass his time to his satisfaction; but something even worse may be effected by cold, incoherent, and dull preaching-drowsiness under the shadow of high pews.
Sir Roger's picture gallery is an interesting portion of his ancient mansion. There is one picture in it which has reference to his own personal history:
"At the very upper end of this handsome structure I saw the portraiture of two young men standing in a river, the one naked, the other in a livery. The person
supported seemed half dead, but still so much alive as to show in his face exquisite joy and love towards the other. I thought the fainting figure resembled my friend Sir Roger; and looking at the butler, who stood by me, for an account of it, he informed me that the person in the livery was a servant of Sir Roger's, who stood on the shore while his master was swimming, and observing him taken with some sudden illness, and sink under water, jumped in and saved him. He told me Sir Roger took off the dress he was in as soon as he came home, and by a great bounty at that time, followed by his favour ever since, had made him master of that pretty seat which we saw at a distance as we came to his house. I remembered, indeed, Sir Roger said, there lived a very worthy gentleman to whom he was highly obliged, without mentioning any thing further. Upon my looking a little dissatisfied at some part of the picture, my attendant informed me that it was against Sir Roger's will, and at the earnest request of the gentleman himself, that he was drawn in the habit in which he had saved his master.
But the gallery is chiefly filled with the portraits of the old De Coverleys. There we have the knight in buff of the days of Elizabeth, who won "a maid of honour, the greatest beauty of her time," in a tournament in the tilt-yard. The spendthrift of the next generation—the fine gentleman who "ruined every body that had any thing to do with him, but never said a rude thing in his life," is drawn at full-length, with his "little boots, laces, and slashes." But the real old English country gentleman, who kept his course of honour in evil times-in days of civil commotion, and afterwards in a period of court profligacy-is a character which we trust will never be obsolete:
"This man (pointing to him I looked at) I take to be the honour of our house, Sir Humphrey de Coverley: he was in his dealings as punctual as a tradesman, and as generous as a gentleman. He would have thought himself as much undone by breaking his word, as if it were to be followed by bankruptcy. He served his country as knight of the shire to his dying day. He found it no easy matter to maintain an integrity in his words and actions, even in things that regarded the offices which were incumbent upon him in the care of his own affairs and relations of life, and therefore dreaded (though he had great talents) to go into employments of state, where he must be exposed to the snares of ambition. Innocence of life and great ability were the distinguishing parts of his character; the latter, he had often observed, had led to the destruction of the former, and he used frequently to lament that great and good had not the same signification. He was an excellent husbandman, but had resolved not to exceed such a degree of wealth; all above it he bestowed in secret bounties many years after the sum he aimed at for his own use was attained. Yet he did not slacken his industry, but to a decent old age spent the life and fortune which were superfluous to himself in the service of his friends and neighbours."
The ghosts which used to haunt Sir Roger's mansion were laid, even in his time, by a good orthodox process :
"My friend Sir Roger has often told me, with a great deal of mirth, that at his first coming to his estate he found three parts of his house altogether useless; that the best room in it had the reputation of being haunted, and by that means was locked up; that noises had been heard in his long gallery, so that he could not get a servant to enter it after eight o'clock at night; that the door of one of his chambers was nailed up, because there went a story in the family, that a butler had formerly hanged himself in it; and that his mother, who lived to a great age, had shut up half the rooms in the house, in which either her husband, a son, or daughter had died. The knight, seeing his habitation reduced to so small a compass, and himself in a manner shut out of his own house, upon the death of his mother ordered all the apartments to be flung open, and exorcised by his chaplain, who lay in every room one after another, and by that means dissipated the fears which had so long reigned in the family."
But the belief in apparitions was not passed away. The haunted ruins are described by Addison with his usual grace :—
"At a little distance from Sir Roger's house, among the ruins of an old abbey, there is a long walk of aged elms, which are shot up so very high, that when one passes under them, the rooks and crows that rest upon the tops of them seem to be cawing in another region. I am very much delighted with this sort of noise, which I consider as a kind of natural prayer to that Being who supplies the wants of his own creation, and who, in the beautiful language of the Psalms, feedeth the young ravens that call upon him. I like this retirement the better, because of an ill report it lies under of being haunted; for which reason (as I have been told in the family) no living creature ever walks in it besides the chaplain. My good friend the butler desired me, with a very grave face, not to venture myself in it after sunset, for that one of the footmen had been almost frightened out of his wits by a spirit that appeared to him in the shape of a black horse without a head; to which he added, that about a month ago one of the maids, coming home late that way with a pail of milk upon her head, heard such a rustling among the bushes that she let it fall.”
The fame of the Spectator's Sir Roger de Coverley was revived some twenty years ago by one of the most beautiful pictures of the modern English school-the charming representation, by Newton, of the fine old squire coming out of church, amidst the reverential greetings of his affectionate tenantry. This was a real old English scene; and such as touched our sympathies even in an age when much of this cordial intercourse between the great and the humble has passed away. The paper of the 'Spectator' upon which this picture is founded is by Addison, and in his best style :-
"I am always very well pleased with a country Sunday, and think, if keeping holy the seventh day were only a human institution, it would be the best method that could have been thought of for the polishing and civilising of mankind. It is certain the country people would soon degenerate into a kind of savages and barbarians, were there not such frequent returns of a stated time, in which the whole village meet together with their best faces, and in their cleanliest habits, to converse with one another upon different subjects, hear their duties explained to them, and join together in adoration of the Supreme Being. Sunday clears away the rust of the whole week, not only as it refreshes in their minds the notions of religion, but as it puts both the sexes upon appearing in their most agreeable forms, and exerting all such qualities as are apt to give them a figure in the eye of the village. A country fellow distinguishes himself as much in the churchyard, as a citizen does upon the 'Change, the whole parish politics being generally discussed in that place either after sermon or before the bell rings.
"My friend Sir Roger, being a good churchman, has beautified the inside of his church with several texts of his own choosing. He has likewise given a handsome pulpit-cloth, and railed in the communion-table at his own expense. He has often told me, that at his coming to his estate he found his parishioners very irregular: and that in order to make them kneel, and join in the responses, he gave every one of them a hassock and a Common Prayer Book; and at the same time employed an itinerant singing-master, who goes about the country for that purpose, to instruct them rightly in the tunes of the Psalms, upon which they now very much value themselves, and indeed outdo most of the country churches that I have ever heard.
"As Sir Roger is landlord to the whole congregation, he keeps them in very good order, and will suffer nobody to sleep in it besides himself; for if by chance he has been surprised into a short nap at sermon, upon recovering out of it he stands up and looks about him, and if he sees any body else nodding, either wakes them himself, or sends his servants to them. Several other of the old knight's particularities break out upon these occasions. Sometimes he will be lengthening out a verse in the singing