Thursday, August 28, 2008

this reading of dead letters

John Lothrop Motley to Dr. Oliver W. Holmes.

Brussels, November 20th, 1853.

My Dear Holmes,

ost certainly both Mary and myself felt deeply your kindness in writing to us, for although your letter was addressed to me personally, she assumes a joint and several character with regard to it in all respects except in the responsibility of responding, and if I could have merely taken up my pen (style of the earlier part of this century in which you and I began to flourish) and acknowledged the kindness, and so rendered you my debtor instantly for another letter, you may be very sure that you would at this moment be writing to me your sixth or seventh. Honestly and most warmly I asseverate that my delay in answering was only because I felt unable to write anything that would be worth your reading. I was too conscientious to think that one sheet of paper with a post-mark was equal to another sheet of paper with a post-mark, and I hoped not to be forced, as I am at last, to tender a pound of lead in payment for a pound of gold. Do, however, be merciful, take your pen and write four score as if I had really discharged the debt. If you knew how often we have read your letter, and how much pleasure it has given us, and how often Mary has been goading me into answering in the mere sordid expectation of getting a second, till at last even the incrustations of time and self-conscious stupidity have penetrated, you would I am sure be willing once more to write to us. You may be sure even if I have myself no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man," that I am quite able to appreciate and to treasure yours.

I do not really know what to say to you. I am in a town which for aught I know may be very gay. I do not know a living soul in it. We have not a single acquaintance in the place, and we glory in the fact. There is something rather sublime in thus floating on a single spar in the wide sea of a populous, busy, fuming, fussy, little world like this. At any rate it is consonant to both our tastes. You may suppose, however, that I find it rather difficult to amuse my friends out of the incidents of so isolated an existence. Our life is as stagnant as a Dutch canal; not that I complain of it, on the contrary the canal may be richly freighted with merchandise, and be a short cut to the ocean of abundant and perpetual knowledge, but at the same time few points rise above the level of so regular a life, to be worthy of your notice. You must therefore allow me to meander along through the meadows of common-place. Do not expect anything in the impetuous, and boiling style.

I do not know whether you ever were in Brussels. It is a striking, picturesque town, built up a steep promontory, the old part at the bottom, very dingy and mouldy, the new part at the top, very showy and elegant. Nothing can be more exquisite in its way than the Grande Place in the very heart of the city, surrounded with those toppling, zig-zag, ten-storied buildings, bedizened all over with ornaments and emblems so peculiar to the Netherlands, with the brocaded Hotel de Ville on one side, with its impossible spire, rising some three hundred and seventy feet into the air, and embroidered on the top with the delicacy of needlework, sugarwork, spiderwork, or what you will. I haunt this place because it is my scene, my theatre. Here were enacted so many deep tragedies, so many stately dramas, and even so many farces, which have been so familiar to me so long, that I have got to imagine myself invested with a kind of property in the place, and look at it as if it were merely the theatre with the coulisses, machinery, drapery, etc.. for representing scenes which have long since vanished, and which no more enter the minds of men and women who are actually moving across its pavements than if they had occurred in the moon. When I say that I know no soul in Brussels I am perhaps wrong. With the present generation I am not familiar. En revanche the dead men of the place are my intimate friends. I am at home in any cemetery. With the fellows of the sixteenth century I am on the most familiar terms. Any ghost that ever flits by night across the moonlight square is at once hailed by me as a man and a brother. I call him by his Christian name at once.

When you come out of this place, however, which, as I said is exactly in the heart of the town, the antique town in the modern setting, you may go either up or down; if you go down you will find yourself in the very nastiest and most dismal complications of lanes and culs de sacs possible, a dark entanglement of gin shops, beer houses, and hovels, through which charming valley dribbles the river Senne (whence I suppose is derived senna) the most nauseous little river in the world, which receives all the outpourings of all the drains and houses, and is then converted into beer for the inhabitants all the way, breweries being directly upon its edge. If you go up the hill instead of down you come to an arrangement of squares, palaces, and gardens, as trim and fashionable as you will find in Europe. Thus you see that our Cybele sits with her head crowned with very stately towers, and her feet in a tub of very dirty water.

My habits here for the present are very regular. I came here, having, as I thought, finished my work, or rather the first part (something like three or four volumes octavo), but I find so much original matter here, and so many emendations to make, that I am ready to despair. However, there is nothing for it but to penelopise, pull to pieces and stitch away again. Whatever may be the result of my labours, nobody can say that I have not worked hard like a brute beast; but I do not care for the result. The labour is in itself its own reward and all I want. I go day after day to the Archives here (as I went all summer at the Hague), studying the old letters and documents of the sixteenth century. Here I remain among my fellow worms, feeding on those musty mulberry leaves of which we are afterwards to spin our silk. How can you expect anything interesting from such a cocoon? It is, however, not without its amusement in a mouldy sort of way, this reading of dead letters. It is something to read the real bona fide signs manual of such fellows as William of Orange, Count Egmont, Alexander Farnese, Philip the Second, Cardinal Granvelle, and the rest of them. It gives a "realising sense," as the Americans have it. However, you see how insensibly I fall into talking about myself, and yet no topic is more distasteful to me. I hate myself, and am bored by myself, and I rarely commit the sin of egotism. Yet I feel as if it were in writing to so old and kind a friend as you, whose good opinion I so highly value, and to whom I feel grateful for thinking that I am really industrious and capable of being useful. I feel, I say, bound to say something of my occupations, and feel that it would be affectation to be altogether silent on the subject. At the same time I am, in German slang, rather objective than subjective, and would rather entertain my friends with anything than with myself.

There are not many public resources of amusement in this place if we wanted them, which we do not. I miss the Dresden Gallery very much, and it makes me sad to think that I shall never look at the face of the 'Sistine Madonna' again, that picture beyond all pictures in the world, in which the artist certainly did get to heaven and painted a face which man never saw on earth, so pathetic, so gentle, so passionless, so prophetic, "half of earth, and half of heaven" you see I cannot break myself of quoting you to your face. There are a few good Rubens here, but the great wealth of that master is in Antwerp. The great picture of the 'Descent from the Cross' is free again, after having been two years in the repairing room. It has come out again in very good condition. What a picture! It seems to me as if I had really stood at the Cross, and seen Mary weeping on John's shoulder, and Magdalen receiving the dead body of the Saviour in her arms. Never was the grand tragedy represented in so profound and dramatic a manner. For it is not only his colour, in which this man so easily surpasses the world, but in his life-like flesh and blood action, the tragic power of his composition. And is it not appalling to think of the large constitution of this man, when you reflect on the acres of canvas which he has covered? How inspiriting to see with what muscular masculine vigour this splendid Fleming rushed in and plucked up drowning Art by the locks, when it was sinking in the washy sea of such creatures as Luca Giordanos and Pietro Cortonas and the like. Well might Guido exclaim, "The fellow mixes blood with his colours!"

He is certainly the Shakespeare of painting. I did not say that originally: I wish I had. It is worthy to have been said by you. How providentially did the man come in and invoke living, breathing, moving men and women out of his canvas! sometimes he is ranting and exaggerated as are all men of great genius, who wrestle with Nature so boldly. No doubt his heroines are more expansively endowed than would be thought genteel in our country, where cryptogams are so much in fashion; nevertheless with all his exaggerations there is always something very tremendous about him, and very often much that is sublime, pathetic, and moving. I defy any one of the average amount of imagination and sentiment to stand long before the 'Descent from the Cross' without being moved more nearly to tears than he would care to acknowledge. As for colour, his effects are as sure as those of the sun rising in a tropical landscape. There is some- thing quite genial in the cheerful sense of his own omnipotence which always inspired him.

There are a few fine pictures of his here, and I go in some-times of a raw foggy morning merely to warm myself in the blaze of their beauty.

I have just read over your letter again, rather well thumbed by this time, in order to see whether there was anything especially requiring an answer. I find no interrogations, but you speak of Thackeray and his lectures. Of course I know nothing of them, but I heard here that he was very much delighted with you--not the citizens of the U.S.A., but with O.W.H.

Mary sends you an infinite deal of the kindest remembrances. I wish you could come in and enliven our silent fireside (silent after the children have been got to bed) for one evening. My children are all very well and none the worse for their European experience.
Most affectionately yours,
J. L. M.

-from The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley edited by George Williams Curtis 2nd edition (London: John Murray, 1889) vol. 1, pp. 161-65.

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