Atlantic Monthly, Volume 3, Issue 17, March, 1859

Part 1 out of 5

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VOL. III.--MARCH, 1859.--NO. XVII.


At the northwest corner of Switzerland, just on the turn of the Rhine
from its westward course between Germany and Switzerland, to run
northward between Germany and France, stands the old town of Bale. It is
nominally Swiss; but its situation on the borders of three countries,
and almost in them all, has given to the place itself and to its
inhabitants a somewhat heterogeneous air. "It looks," says one
traveller, "like a stranger lately arrived in a new colony, who,
although he may have copied the dress and the manner of those with whom
he has come to reside, wears still too much of his old costume to pass
for a native, and too little to be received as a stranger." Perhaps we
may get a better idea of the mixed nationality of the place by imagining
a Swiss who speaks French with a German accent.

Bale is an ancient city; though Rome was bending under the weight of
more than a thousand years when the Emperor Valentinian built at this
angle of the river a fortress which was called the Basilia. Houses soon
began to cluster round it upon the ruins of an old Helvetian town, and
thus Basel or Bale obtained its existence and its name. Bale suffered
many calamities. War, pestilence, and earthquake alternately made it
desolate. Whether we must enumerate among its misfortunes a Grand
Ecclesiastical Council which assembled there in 1431, and sat for
seventeen years, deposing one infallible Pope, and making another
equally infallible, let theological disputants decide. But the
assembling of this Council was of some service to us; for its Secretary,
Aeneas Sylvius, (who, like the saucy little _prima donna_, was one of
the noble and powerful Italian family, the Piccolomini, and afterward,
as Pope Pius II., wore the triple crown which St. Peter did not wear,)
in his Latin dedication of a history of the transactions of that body
to the Cardinal St. Angeli, has left a description of Bale as it was in

After telling us that the town is situated upon that "excellent river,
the Rhine, which divides it into two parts, called Great Bale and Little
Bale, and that these are connected by a bridge which the river rising
from its bed sometimes carries off," he, naturally enough for an
ecclesiastic and a future Pope, goes on to say, that in Great Bale,
which is far more beautiful and magnificent than Little Bale, there are
handsome and commodious churches; and he naively adds, that, "_although_
these are not adorned with marble, and are built of common stone, they
are much frequented by the people." The women of Bale, following the
devotional instincts of their sex, were the most assiduous attendants
upon these churches; and they consoled themselves for the absence of
marble, which the good. Aeneas Sylvius seems to imply would partly have
excused them for staying away, by an arrangement in itself as odd as in
Roman Catholic places of worship--to their honor--it is, and ever was,
unusual. Each of them performed her devotions in a kind of inclosed
bench or solitary pew. By most of these the occupant was concealed
only to the waist when she stood up at the reading of the Gospel; some
allowed only their heads to appear; and others of the fair owners were
at once so devout, so cruel, and so self-denying as to shut out the
eyes of the world entirely and at all times. But instances of this
remorseless mortification of the flesh, seem to have been exceedingly
rare. Queer enough these structures were, and sufficiently gratifying
to the pride and provocative of the envy which the beauties of Bale
(avowedly) went to churches in which there was no marble to mortify. For
they were of different heights, according to the rank of the occupant.
A simple burgher's wife took but a step toward heaven when she went to
pray; a magistrate's of the lower house, we must suppose, took two; a
magistrate's of the upper house, three; a lady, four; a baroness, five;
a countess, six; and what a duchess, if one ever appeared there, did to
maintain her dignity in the eyes of God and man, unless she mounted into
the pulpit, it is quite impossible to conjecture. Aeneas Sylvius gives
it as his opinion that these things were used as a protection against
the cold, which to his Italian blood seemed very great But that notion
was surely instilled into the courtly churchman by some fair, demure
Baloise; for had it been well-founded, the sentry-boxes would have risen
and fallen with the thermometer, and not with the rank of the occupant.

The walls of the churches were hung around with the emblazoned shields
of knights and noblemen, and the roofs were richly painted in various
colors, and glowed with splendor when the rays of the sun fell upon
them. Storks built their nests upon these roofs, and hatched their young
there unmolested; for the Balois believed, that, if the birds were
disturbed, they would fire the houses.

The dwellings of men of any wealth or rank were very curiously planned,
elaborately ornamented, richly painted, and adorned with magnificent
tapestry. The tables were covered with vessels of wrought silver, in
which Sylvius confesses that the Balois surpassed even the skilful
and profuse Italians. Fountains, those sources of fantastic and
ever-changing beauty, were numerous,--so numerous, says our
afterward-to-be-infallible authority, that the town of Viterbo, in
Tuscany, had not so many,--and Viterbo was noted for its beauty, and for
being surrounded with the villas of wealthy Italians, who have always
used water freely in the way of fountains.

Bale, although it then--four hundred and twenty years ago--acknowledged
the Emperor for its sovereign, was a free town, as it is now; that is,
it had no local lord to favor or oppress it at his pleasure, but was
governed by laws enacted by representatives of the people. The spirit of
a noble independence pervaded the little Canton of which it was and
is the capital. Though it was fortified, its stone defences were not
strong; but when Sylvius tells us that the Balois thought that the
strength of their city consisted in the union of its inhabitants, who
preferred death to loss of liberty, we see what stuff its men were made
of, and why the town was free.

Among its peculiarities, Bale had no lawyers,--this happy and united
Bale. The Balois did not trouble themselves about the Imperial law,
says Sylvius; but when disputes or accusations were brought before the
magistrates, they were decided according to custom and the equity of
each case. They were nevertheless inexorably severe in administering
justice. A criminal could not be saved either by gold, or by
intercession, or by the authority and influence of his family. He
who was guilty must be punished; and the punishments were terrible.
Criminals were banished, hung, beheaded, broken on the wheel, drowned in
the Rhine, (a bad use to which to put that "excellent river,") left to
starve on a gradually diminished supply of bread and water. To compel
confessions, tortures inconceivably horrible were used, to which the
alternative of death would have been a boon; and yet there were not
wanting those among the Balois who would endure these torments rather
than utter their own condemnation.

They were devoted to religion, and held in great reverence the pictures
and images of the Saints; but not on account of any admiration of the
skill of painter or sculptor; for they cared little for the arts, and
were so ignorant of literature that "no one of them had ever heard of
Cicero or of any other orator."

The men of Bale were of noble presence, and dressed well, although they
avoided magnificence. Only those of knightly rank wore purple; the
wealthy burghers confined themselves to black velvet; but their wives,
on fete-days, blazed in splendid silk and satin and jewels. The boys
went with naked feet, and, adds the reverend divine, the women wore upon
their white legs only shoes. There was no distinction of age by costume,
among the women,--a very great singularity in those days, when every
stage and rank of life was marked by some peculiar style of dress; but
in Bale the face alone distinguished the young girl from the matron
of mature years. It may, however, be doubted by some, whether this is
peculiar to the town of Bale or to the time of Sylvius. The men were
addicted to voluptuous pleasures; they lived sumptuously, and passed a
long time at table. In the words of our churchman, "They were too much
devoted to Father Bacchus and Dame Venus,"--faults which they deemed
venial. But he adds, that they were jealous of their honor, and held to
what they promised; they would rather be upright than merely seem to be
so. Though provident, they were content, unless very poor.

Another peculiarity of Bale: its clocks were one hour ahead of all
others, and so continued at least till the middle of the last century.
This of course depended on no difference of time; it was merely that
when, for instance, at mid-day, the clocks of neighboring towns struck
twelve, the clocks of Bale struck one. The origin of this seeming effort
to hasten him who usually moves rapidly enough for us all is lost in

And now why is it that, we have gone back four hundred years and more,
to linger thus long with the Secretary of the Great Ecclesiastical
Council of Bale, in that quaint and queer old town, with its half
French, half German look, its grand, grotesque old churches, hung round
with knightly shields and filled with women, each in a pulpit of her
own, its stork-crowned roofs, its houses blazing with wrought gold and
silver, its threescore fountains, and the magnificence in which, without
a court, it rivalled the richest capitals of Italy, its noble-spirited
and pleasure-loving, but simple-minded and unlearned burghers, its
white-limbed beauties, and its deceitful clocks? It is not because that
town is now one of the principal ribbon-factories of the world, and
exports to this country alone over $1,200,000 worth yearly; although
some fair readers may suppose that an all-sufficient reason,--and some
of their admirers and protectors, too, for that matter. Think of it!
nearly one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars' worth of
ribbons coming to us every year from a single town in Switzerland! The
statement is enough to carry horror and dismay to the heart and the
pocket of every father and brother, and above all, of every husband,
actual or possible, who hears of it. It is a godsend to the
protectionists, who might reedify their party on the basis of a
prohibitory tariff against ribbons. If they were successful, their
success would be brilliant; for if our fair tyrants could not get
ribbons--those necessaries of life--from Bale in Switzerland, they
would tease and coax us to build them a Bale in America; and we should
do it.

We have gone back to the old Bale of four hundred and twenty years ago,
because there, and not long after that time,--about 1498,--according
to general belief, Hans Holbein was born; because these were the
surroundings under the influence of which he grew to manhood; and
because there, about sixty years before his birth, a Dance of Death was
painted, the most ancient and important of which we have any remaining
memorial. This Dance was painted upon the wall of the churchyard of the
Dominican Convent in Great Bale, by order of the very Ecclesiastical
Council of which our Aeneas Sylvius was Secretary, and in commemoration
of a plague which visited the town during the sitting of that Council,
and carried off many of its members.

What is a Dance of Death? and why should Death be painted dancing?
Some readers may think of it as a frantic revel of grim skeletons, or
perhaps--like me in my boyish musings--imagine nameless shapes with
Death and Hell gleaming in their faces, each clasping a mortal beguiled
to its embrace, all flitting and floating round and round to unearthly
music, and gradually receding through vast mysterious gloom till they
are lost in its horrible obscurity.

But neither of these notions is near the truth. The Dance of Death is
not a revel, and in it Death does not dance at all. A Dance of Death, or
a Dance Macabre, as it was called, is a succession of isolated pictures,
all informed with the same motive, it is true, but each independent of
the others, and consisting of a group, generally of but two figures, one
of which is the representative of Death. The second always represents
a class; and in this figure every rank, from the very highest to the
lowest, finds its type. The number of these groups or pictures varies
considerably in the different dances, according to the caprice of the
artist, or, perhaps, to the expense of his time and labor which he
thought warranted by the payment he was to receive. But all express,
with sufficient fulness, the idea that Death is the common lot of
humanity, and that he enters with impartial feet the palace and the
cottage, neither pitying youth nor respecting age, and waiting no
convenient season.

The figure of Death in these strange religious works of Art,--for they
were as purely religious in their origin as the Holy Families and
Madonnas of the same and a subsequent period,--this figure of Death is
not always a skeleton. It is so in but one of the forty groups in the
Dance at Bale, which was the germ of Holbein's, and which, indeed, until
very recently, was attributed to him, although it was painted more
than half a century before he was born. It is generally assumed that a
skeleton has always been the representative of Death, but erroneously;
for, in fact, Holbein was the first to fix upon a mere skeleton for the
embodiment of that idea.

The Hebrew Scriptures, which furnish us with the earliest extant
allusion to Death as a personage, designate him as an angel or messenger
of God,--as, for instance, in the record of the destruction of the
Assyrian host in the Second Book of Kings (xix. 35). The ancient
Egyptians, too, in whose strange system of symbolism may be found the
germ, at least, of most of the types used in the religion and the arts
of more modern nations, had no representation of Death as an individual
agent. They expressed the extinction of life very naturally and simply
by the figure of a mummy. Such a figure it was their custom to pass
round among the guests at their feasts; and the Greeks and Romans
imitated them, with slight modifications, in the form of the image and
the manner of the ceremony. Some scholars have found in this custom a
deep moral and religious significance, akin to that which certainly
attached to the custom of placing a slave in the chariot of a Roman
conquering general to say to him at intervals, as his triumphal
procession moved with pomp and splendor through the swarming streets,
"Remember that thou art a man." But this is too subtile a conjecture.
The ceremony was but a silent way of saying, "Let us eat and drink, for
to-morrow we die," which, as Paul's solemn irony makes but too plain,
must be the philosophy of life to those who believe that the dead rise
not, which was the case with the Egyptians and the Greeks, and the
Hebrews also. An old French epitaph expresses to the full this

"Ce que j'ai mange,
Ce que j'ai bu,
Ce que j'ai dissipe,
Je l'ai maintenant avec moi.
Ce que j'ai laisse,
Je l'ai perdu,"

What I ate,
What I drank,
What I dissipated,
I have with me.
That which I left
I lost.

The figure of the sad youth leaning upon an inverted torch, in which
the Greeks embodied their idea of Death, is familiar to all who have
examined ancient Art. The Etruscan Death was a female, with wings upon
the shoulders, head, and feet, hideous countenance, terrible fangs and
talons, and a black skin. No example of the form attributed to him by
the early Christians has come down to us, that I can discover; but we
know that they, as well as the later Hebrews, considered Death as the
emissary of the Evil One, if not identical with him, and called him
impious, unholy. It was in the Dark Ages, that the figure of a dead body
or a skull was first used as a symbol of Death; but even then its office
appears to have been purely symbolic, and not representative;--that is,
these figures served to remind men of their mortality, or to mark a
place of sepulture, and were not the embodiment of an idea, not the
creation of a personage,--Death. It is not until the thirteenth or
fourteenth century that we find this embodiment clearly defined and
generally recognized; and even then the figure used was not a skeleton,
but a cadaverous and emaciated body.

Among the remains of Greek and Roman Art, only two groups are known in
which a skeleton appears; and it is remarkable that in both of these the
skeletons are dancing. In one group of three, the middle figure is a
female. Its comparative breadth at the shoulders and narrowness at the
hips make at first a contrary impression; but the position of the body
and limbs is, oddly enough, too like that of a female dancer of the
modern French school to leave the question in more than a moment's
doubt. Thus the artists who did not embody their idea of death in a
skeleton were the first to conceive and execute a real Dance of Death.
In both the groups referred to, the motive is manifestly comic; and
neither of them has any similarity to the Dances of Death of which
Holbein's has become the grand representative. These had their origin,
we can hardly tell with certainty how, or when, or where; although the
subject has enlisted the investigating labors of such accomplished
scholars and profound antiquaries as Douce and Ottley in England,
and Peignot and Langlois in France. But a story with which they are
intimately connected, even if it is not their germ, has been discovered;
ancient customs which must have aided in their development are familiar
to all investigators of ancient manners, and especially of ancient
amusements; and the motives which inform them all, and the moral
condition of Christendom of which they were the result, are plain

We have seen before, that this Dance consisted of several groups of two
or more figures, one of which was always Death in the act of claiming a
victim; and for the clear comprehension of what follows, it is necessary
to anticipate a little, and remark, that there is no doubt that the
Dance was first represented by living performers. Strange as this seems
to us, it was but in keeping with the spirit of the time, which we call,
perhaps with some presumption, the Dark Ages.

The story which is probably the germ of this Dance was called _Les Trois
Morts et les Trois Vifs_,--"The Three Dead and the Three Living." It is
of indefinable antiquity and uncertain origin. It is said, that three
noble youths, as they returned from hunting, were met in the gloom of
the forest by three hideous spectres, in the form of decaying human
corpses; and that, as they stood rooted to the ground by this appalling
sight, the figures addressed them solemnly upon the vanity of worldly
grandeur and pleasure, and admonished them, that, although in the heyday
of youth, they must soon become as they (the spectres) were. This story,
or _dit_, "saying," as it was called in French, was exceedingly popular
through-out Europe five or six hundred years ago. It is found in the
language of every Christian nation of the period, and, extended by means
of accessory incidents and much moralizing, is made to cover several
pages in more than one old illuminated manuscript. In the Arundel MSS.,
in England, there is one of the many versions of the legend written
in French so old that it is quite as difficult for Frenchmen as for
Englishmen to read it. But over an illuminated picture of the incident,
in which three kings are shown meeting the three skeletons, are these
lines in English, as old, but less obsolete:--

_Over the Kings_.

"Ich am afert
Lo whet ich see
Methinketh hit be develes thre."

_Over the Skeletons_.

"Ich wes wel fair
Such schel tou be
For Godes love be wer by me."

In these rude lines is the whole moral of the legend, and of the Dance
of Death which grew out of it. That growth was simple, gradual, and
natural. In the versions and in the pictorial representations of the
legend there soon began to be much variety in the persons who met the
spectres. At first three noble youths, they became three kings, three
noble ladies, a king, a queen, and their son or daughter, and so
on,--the rank of the persons, however, being always high. For, as we
shall have occasion to notice hereafter more particularly, the mystery
of the Dance had a democratic as well as a religious significance; and
it served to bring to mind, not only the irresistible nature of Death's
summons, but the real equality of all men; and this it did in a manner
to which those of high condition could not object.

The legend was made the subject of a fresco, painted about 1350, by the
eminent Italian painter and architect, Orcagna, upon the walls of the
Campo Santo at Pisa,--which some readers may be glad to be reminded was
a cemetery, so called because it was covered with earth brought from
the Holy Land. It is remarkable, however, that in this work the artist
embodied Death not in the form commonly used in his day, but in the old
Etruscan figure before mentioned. Orcagna's Death is a female, winged
like a bat, and with terrible claws. Armed with a scythe, she swoops
down upon the earth and reaps a promiscuous harvest of popes, emperors,
kings, queens, churchmen, and noblemen. In the rude manner of the time,
Orcagna has divided his picture into compartments. In one of these we
see St. Macarius, one of the first Christian hermits, an Egyptian,
sitting at the foot of a mountain; before him are three kings, who have
returned from the chase accompanied by a gay train of attendants. The
Saint calls the attention of the kings to three sepulchres in which lie
the bodies of three other kings, one of which is much decomposed. The
three living kings are struck with horror; but the painter has much
diminished the moral effect of his work, for this century, at least, by
making one of them hold his nose;--which is regarded by Mr. Ruskin as
an evidence of Orcagna's devotion to the truth; but in this case that
brilliant writer, but most unsafe critical guide, commits an error of a
kind not uncommon with him. The representation of so homely an action,
in such a composition, merely shows that the painter had not arrived at
a just appreciation of the relative value of the actual,--and that he
failed to see that by introducing this unessential incident he diverted
attention from his higher purpose, dragged his picture from a moral to
a material plane, and went at a bound far over the narrow limit between
the horrible and the ludicrous.

St. Macarius is frequently introduced in the pictures of this subject;
and some antiquaries suppose that hence the Dance of Death derived the
name, Dance Macabre, by which it used to be generally known. Others
derive it from the Arabic _mac-bourah_,--a cemetery. Neither derivation
is improbable; but it is of little consequence to us which is correct.

It may seem strange that such a legend as this of "The Three Dead and
the Three Living," with such a moral, should become the origin of a
dance. But we should remember that in many countries dancing has been a
religious ceremony. It was so with the Greeks and Romans, and also with
the Hebrews, among whom, however, saltatory worship seems, on most
occasions, to have been performed spontaneously, and by volunteers. All
will remember the case of Miriam, who thus danced to the sound of her
timbrel after the passage of the Red Sea; and who that has read it can
forget the account of the dance which King David executed before the
ark, dancing with all his might, and girded only with a linen ephod?
Dancing has always seemed to us to be an essentially ridiculous
transaction,--for a man, at least; and we confess that we sympathize
with David's wife, Michal, who, seeing this extraordinary _pas seul_
from her window, "despised David in her heart," and treated him to a
little conjugal irony when he came home. What would the lovely Eugenie
have thought, if, after the fall of Sebastopol, she had seen his
Majesty, the Emperor of the French, "cutting it down," in broad
daylight, before the towers of Notre Dame, girded only with a linen
ephod,--though that's not exactly the name we give the garment
now-a-days? But David was master, not only in Israel, but in his own
household, (which is not the case with all kings and great men,) and
he said to Michal,--"It was before the Lord, which chose me before thy
father and before all his house;.... therefore will I play before the
Lord;.... and of the maid-servants which thou hast spoken of, of them
shall I be had in honor." And Michal all her life repented bitterly the
offence that she had given her husband.

But dancing was not one of the regular ceremonies of the Christian
Church, even in its corruptest days; and yet dances were performed four
hundred years ago in the churches and in church-yards, as a part of, or
an appendage to, entertainments of a religious character. These were the
Mysteries and Moralities, which are the origin of our drama;--and it is
remarkable that in all countries the drama has been at first a religious
ceremony. These Mysteries and Moralities were religious plays of the
rudest kind: the Mysteries being a representation, partly by dumb show
and partly by words, of some well-known incident related in the Bible;
and the Moralities, a kind of discussion and enforcement of religious
doctrine or moral truth by allegorical personages. They were performed
at first almost entirely in the churches, upon scaffolds erected for the

In a Mystery called "Candlemas Day, or the Killing of the Children of
Israel," which represented the Massacre of the Innocents, and in which
Herod, Simeon, Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Watkin, a comic character, and
Anna the Prophetess, appeared, there was a general dance of all the
characters after the Prologue; and at the close of the play, there is
a stage-direction for another, in response to a command of Anna the
Prophetess, who says,--

"Shewe ye sume plesur as ye can
In the worship of Jesu, our Lady, and St. Anne."

And thereupon King Herod, Simeon, Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Watkin the
funny man, and the Prophetess well stricken in years, proceed to forward
four, and end with a promenade all around. Indeed, our ancestors seem to
have found it edifying, not to say entertaining, to go to a cathedral to
see Satan and an Archbishop dance a hornpipe with the Seven Deadly Sins
and the Five Cardinal Virtues.

A Morality called "Every Man," written about 1450, has a direct
connection with the subject which we are considering. Every Man, the
principal personage of the piece, is an allegorical representation of
all mankind; and the purpose of the play is told in this sentence, which
introduces it:--

"Here begynneth a Treatyse how the Hye Fader of Heven sendeth Dethe
to somon every creature to come & gyve a count of theyr lyves in this
worlde, & is in maner of a Morall Playe."

On the title-page of an edition printed in 1500, only one copy of which
exists, is a very rude wood-cut, in which an individual, who is labelled
"Every Man," is startled at the sight of Death standing at the door of
a church and summoning him. In this Moral Play, Fellowship, Good Deeds,
Worldly Goods, Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wittes
are characters; and they cannot interpose between Every Man and the
summons of Death, nor will any of them, except Good Deeds, go with him.
The representation of this play was a kind of Dance of Death, and from
the acting of "Every Man" to the execution of that Dance was but a short

But the Dance of Death had been performed before "Every Man" was
written; and dances in churches and churchyards were of yet greater
antiquity. For, by an order of a Roman council under Pope Pius II. in
the tenth century, priests were directed "to admonish men and women not
to dance and sing in the churches on feast-days, like Pagans." The evil
increased, however, until, according to the old chroniclers, a terrible
punishment fell upon a party of dancers. One of them, Ubert, tells the
story. It was on Christmas Eve, in the time of the Emperor Henry II.,
who assumed the imperial diadem in the year 1002, that a company of
eighteen men and women amused themselves by dancing and singing in the
churchyard of St. Magnus, in the diocese of Magdeburg, to the annoyance
of a priest who was saying mass in the church. He ordered them to
desist; but they danced on in reckless mirth. The holy father then
invoked God and St. Magnus to keep them dancing for a whole year; and
not in vain. For twelve months they danced in spite of themselves.
Neither dew nor rain fell upon them; and their shoes and their clothes
were not worn away, although by their dancing they buried themselves
waist-high. Yet, fatigued and famished beyond human endurance, they
danced on, unable to stop an instant for rest or food. The priest's own
daughter was among the dancers; and, unable to undo what the Saint had
done, he sent his son to drag her out of the dance. But when her brother
pulls her by the arm it comes off in his hand, and he in horror takes it
to his father. No blood flows from the wound. The priest buries the arm,
and the next morning he finds it upon the top of the grave. He repeats
the burial, and with the same result. He makes a third attempt, and the
grave casts out the limb with violence before his eyes. Meanwhile the
girl and her companions continue dancing, and the Emperor, having heard
of this strange occurrence, travels from Rome to see so sad a sight. He
orders carpenters to inclose the dancers in a building, but in vain; for
that which is built in the day falls down in the night. The dancers have
neither rest nor mitigation of their curse until the expiration of the
year, when they all rush into the church and fall before the altar in
a swoon, from which they are not recovered for three days. Then they
immediately flee each other's faces, and wander solitary through the
world, still dancing at times in spite of themselves. In the olden time
this was believed to be the origin of St. Vitus's dance; but we can now
see that the dance is the origin of the story.

The Dance of Death was performed by a large company dressed in the
costumes of various classes of society, which were then very marked in
their difference. One by one the dancers suddenly and silently slipped
off, thus typifying the departure of all mankind at Death's summons.
That this Dance was performed, not only with the consent, but by the
procurement of the clergy, is made certain by the discovery, in the
archives of the Cathedral of Besancon, of the account of the payment of
four measures of wine by the seneschal to those persons who performed
the Dance Macabre on the 10th of July, 1453.

The moral lesson conveyed by this strange pastime or ceremony seems
hardly calculated to secure for it a noteworthy popularity in any age;
but for a long time it was, either as a ceremony or as a picture, very
popular throughout Europe. We know of forty-four places in which it was
painted or sculptured in some large public building, the oldest example
being that at Little Bale, which was painted in 1312. This, like that
in Great Bale, and most of the others, has been destroyed by time or
violence. The Dance was made the ornament of books of devotion, and the
subject of ornamental initial-letters; groups from it were engraved
repeatedly by those fantastic designers and exquisite workmen known as
the Little Masters of Germany; a single group was assumed as a device,
or trademark, by more than one printer; and it was sung in popular
ballads. There is now at Aix-la-Chapelle a huge state-bed-stead, on the
posts, sides, and footboards of which it is elaborately carved, in the
manner of the sixteenth century; and it was even made the ornament of
ladies' fans.

The reasons for this popularity were a certain strange fascination in
the subject,--yet not so strange at a time when women would crowd to see
men burned or hanged and quartered;--but chiefly, the grand democratic
significance of the dance. Death has ever been, and ever will be,
the greatest leveller; and at a time when rank had an importance and
bestowed advantages of which we can form little idea, while at the same
time men had begun to ask why this should be, such a satire as this
Dance of Death, sanctioned by the Church, that great protector of
established rights and dignities, and yet sparing neither noble nor
hierarch, not even the Pope himself, satisfied an eager craving in the
breast of poor, envious, self-asserting human nature. In one of those
ornamental initial-letters above mentioned, the date of which was some
years prior to the execution of Holbein's Dance, Death appears as a
grave-digger, and lifts on his spade, out of the grave which he is
making, two skulls, one crowned, the other covered with a peasant's hat.
He grins with savage glee at seeing these remnants of the two extremes
of society side by side; and underneath them, on the shovel, is written
_Idem_,--"The Same." In this word is the key to the popularity of the

The most important and interesting of these pictured Dances of Death
were those at Bale, at Strasbourg, and at Rouen. That at Bale consisted
of thirty-nine groups, in the first three of which appear a Pope, an
Emperor, and a King. These were portraits of Pope Felix V., the Emperor
Sigismund, and King Albert II., of Rome, all of whom were present at the
Council, by whose order, as we have seen, the Dance was painted. The
last group of this Dance shows the seizure of the painter's child by
Death. It having been almost destroyed by time, the wall on which it was
painted was torn down about a hundred years ago; but engravings had been
made of it in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The Dance at
Strasbourg, like that at Bale, and many others, was on the wall of
a Dominican convent. It was painted in arched compartments, and is
peculiar in that its groups consist of many figures, among whom Death
intrudes, and carries off one, generally the principal personage of the
company. It was painted about 1450, and probably by the eminent German
painter, Martin Schongauer; but having been utterly neglected and
forgotten, it was finally plastered over, no one knows when. In
repairing the church in 1824, it was accidentally discovered, and
carefully exposed; but it was so much injured that it fell into decay
soon after drawings had been made from it.

The Dance at Rouen was in the still existing Cemetery of St. Maclou, and
was not a painting, but a sculpture. It was not entirely completed
until 1526. The cemetery is surrounded by a covered gallery open on the
inside, where it was supported by thirty-nine columns, distant about
eleven feet from each other. Thirty-one of these still exist; and upon
the shaft of all but four of them, on the side facing the court of the
cemetery, is sculptured, in high relief, a group of two figures,--one a
living personage, and the other the cadaverous body by which Death was
represented. On the remainder were sculptured the Christian Virtues
and the Fates,--two on each column. The capitals of these columns are
decorated with figures quite in another manner. Cupids, naked female
figures, grotesque masks, and shapes--human and bestial--are ingeniously
substituted for the foliage usually found on that part of a column. The
execution of these figures is of quite a high order. They have all been
sadly mutilated; but, fortunately, that which has suffered least is a
beautiful figure of Eve. Her head is gone; but the flowing lines of the
lovely torso are unbroken, and the round and graceful limbs are almost
as perfect as when they came from the sculptor's chisel. This figure is
so like the Venus de Medici that it might have been copied from it.

But what is Eve doing in a Dance of Death? Alas! she took the first step
of that dance in Paradise, and the artists of the olden time did not
deprive her of her due precedence. She leads the Dance, but with this
difference from those who follow her:--they, cowering and muffled,
go off the scene with Death; she, upright in her naked innocence and
beauty, brings him on. Poor Eve! she had her punishment and made her
atonement to man for leading him to death, in becoming the source and
the joy and solace of his life; but it was not for the artists of the
Dance of Death to embody this phase of her existence. So essential a
part of the Dance is the temptation of Eve, that the whole subject was
concentrated into the representation of that event by a German engraver,
in this singular manner:--Adam and Eve stand by the Tree of Knowledge,
around which twines the serpent, from whom Eve is receiving the apple;
but the trunk of the tree is formed by the twisted legs and the ribs of
a skeleton, from the head and the outstretched arms of which spring the
branches and the foliage. It is worthy of remark, that many painters,
the greatest of them (Raphael) at their head, have represented the
tempter of Eden as a beautiful woman, whose body terminates in a
serpent. It was a mistake on their part to do so. They knew how much of
the Devil a woman might have in her, and how irresistible a temptress
she is; but they forgot, that, on this occasion, woman, not man, was

There was a Dance of Death in Old St. Paul's Church, in London,--the
one burned down in the Great Fire; and another in the beautiful little
parish church of Stratford-on-Avon,--but this, too, has disappeared. It
is interesting to know that they were there, and that Shakspeare saw
them; for he has woven some of the thoughts that they awakened in his
mind Into a noble passage in one of his historical plays. We shall recur
to it in examining Holbein's Dance.

The Dance was represented, and still exists, in one very singular place.
At Lucerne, in Switzerland, it appears upon a covered bridge, in the
triangles formed by the beams which support the roof. The groups, of
which there are thirty-six, are double, looking away from each other,
and are so arranged, that the passenger, on entering the bridge, has
before him a long array of these grotesque and gloomy pictures. The
motive for placing the Dance in such a place is unknown, and it is
difficult to conjecture what it was. It could hardly have been to
enforce the old adage,--Speak well of the bridge that carries you over.

* * * * *

While we have been thus endeavoring to discover the origin of the Dance
of Death, what it was, and what it meant, Holbein has been waiting more
patiently than he was wont, for us to see who he was, and why the Dance,
which was known three hundred years at least before he was born, is now
universally spoken of as his.

Hans Holbein, the greatest painter of the German school, came honestly
by his talent and his name. He was the son of Hans Holbein, a painter,
who was the son of another Hans Holbein, also a painter. The first Hans
was a poor painter; the second a good one; and the third so great, that
the world, when it speaks their common name, means only him. The father
and grandfather were born at Augsburg, in Bavaria, and of late years
it has been asserted by mousing antiquaries that the grandson was born
there too; but this, perhaps, is not quite certain; and it is much
pleasanter to adhere to the ancient faith, and believe that he was
born at that strange old Bale, in sight of that great Dance, the
reproduction, or rather recreation, of which was to make so great a part
of his fame,--especially as he was quite surely an inhabitant of the
town at such tender years, that the veriest Know-Nothing in the place
would not have deprived him of his citizenship.

Of Holbein's life we unfortunately know very little. He showed his
talent early, as all the great painters have done. Conscious of his
abilities, he devoted himself eagerly to the study of the profession to
which his genius urged him. He learned not only painting, but engraving,
the sculpture of metals, and architecture; and of all these, it will be
remembered, Bale offered him facilities for study, in examples which
must have stimulated both his imagination and his ambition. He did not
lack encouragement; for the nobles and burghers of Bale had begun to
acquire a taste for the arts, which their ruder fathers contemned; and
they had, at this time, a university in their city, which made them
acquainted with Cicero and the orators, of whom Aeneas Sylvius found
them so ignorant.

But Holbein, although eminent and well employed, did not thrive. He had
some Balois failings, and, as Aeneas Sylvius would have said, worshipped
Father Bacchus and Dame Venus with too much devotion;--not that he was
a drunkard or a debauchee; but he sought in conviviality with men of
talent, and in the company of beautiful women, too happy in the caresses
of the great painter, who was generous with his florins, that happiness
which he could not find at home. For poor Hans was afflicted with what
has been the moral and social ruin of many a better, if not greater man
than he--a froward, shrill-tongued wife. Luckily, however, the great
scholar and philosopher, Erasmus, went into retirement at Bale, in 1521;
and he soon recognized the genius of Holbein, and became his admirer and
friend. By his advice, and at the solicitation of an English nobleman,
and, poor fellow, seeking refuge from the temper of his wife, whom even
the sweet cares of maternity could not mollify, Holbein determined to
leave Bale for England. What was the great cause of Frau Holbein's
tantrums,--whether Hans's ears were pierced with conjugal clamors, as
poor Albert Duerer's, the other great German painter's, were, because
he could not supply all his wife's demands for money, to enable her,
perhaps, to exhibit herself at church on holy days in one of those
precious pulpits, splendid in velvet and jewels, to the discomfiture of
the other painters' wives,--we do not know; but whatever was the cause
of her oft-recurring outbreaks, they made him not unwilling to put
France and the English Channel between himself and her, his children,
and the home of his childhood.

He gave out, at first, that his absence from Bale would be
temporary,--only for the purpose of raising the value of his works, by
making them more difficult to obtain. Before he went, he finished and
sent home a portrait on which he was engaged. It was one of his best
pictures; and the person for whom it was painted, lost for a while in
admiration of its beauty, noticed at last that a fly, which had settled
upon the forehead, remained there motionless. He stepped up to brush the
insect away, and found that it was a part of the picture. This story
has, since Holbein's time, been told of many painters,--among others, of
Benjamin West. Such a piece of mere imitation should have added nothing
to the reputation of a painter of Holbein's powers; but the story was
soon told all over Bale, and orders were given to prevent the loss
to the city of so great an artist. But Holbein had quietly gone off,
furnished with letters of introduction from Erasmus, who wrote in one of
them that in Bale the arts were chilled; which might well be true of a
place where so much ado was made about the painting of a fly.

In England, Holbein found a friend and patron in Sir Thomas More,--Henry
the Eighth's great Lord Chancellor; and a sight of some of his works won
him, ere long, the favor of the King himself. He was appointed Court
Painter, with apartments at the palace, and a yearly salary of two
hundred florins, (or thirty pounds, equal to about two hundred pounds
now,) which he received in addition to the price of his pictures. After
about three years of prosperity he went home to his wife and children;
but as he soon returned to England, we may safely conclude that his
visit was to provide for the latter, and with no hope of living with the
former. Some years after, in 1538, when his fame was still increasing,
the city of Bale, proud of its son, offered him a handsome annuity,
in the hope that that might induce him to return to his country, his
children, and his wife. But he could not be tempted. Though not the
wisest of men, he was Solomon enough to know that "it is better to dwell
in a corner of the house-top than with a brawling woman and in a wide
house"; and as he was successful and held in honor in England as well as
Bale, he contented himself with a corner of King Henry's palace.

But although he fled from his wife, he painted her portrait; and we need
no testimony to warrant the likeness. She is the very type of one of
those meek shrews, alternately a martyr and a fury, that drive a man to
madness when they speak and to despair when they are silent. We might
reasonably wonder that he would paint so vivid a representation of that
which he so sedulously shunned. But poor Hans, who probably had some
lingering remains of his early love, knew, that, although he should
make a speaking likeness, it would be a silent one, and that this Frau
Holbein must keep the look which he chose to summon to her face. That,
indeed, was knowledge that was power! How he must have chuckled as he
saw his wife looking at him more natural than life and yet without the
power to worry him! His own portrait shows us a broad, good-natured,
ruddy face, in which we see marks of talent when we know that it is
Holbein's. But in spite of its strength, its bronze, and its beard, it
has a somewhat sad and subdued air; and its heavy-lidded, pensive eyes
look deprecatingly at a Frau Holbein in the distance.

While he lived at Greenwich palace, an incident occurred which may not
be known to all our readers, and which is a striking illustration of the
esteem in which he was held by Henry. It is not a little to the honor
of that monarch, who, arbitrary and sensual as he was, had some noble
traits of character. One day, as Holbein was painting a lady's portrait
in his private studio, a nobleman intruded upon him rudely. Holbein
resented the discourtesy, and, as it was doggedly persisted in, finally
threw my lord downstairs. There was an outcry; and the painter, bolting
his door on the inside, escaped from his window along the eaves of the
roof, and, making his way directly to the King, threw himself before
him and begged a pardon, without telling his offence. Henry promised
forgiveness on condition of a full confession, which the painter began.
But meantime the nobleman arrived, and Henry, in deference to his rank,
gave him precedence, and stepped into another apartment to hear
his story. He accused Holbein of the violence, but suppressed the
provocation; whereat Henry broke into a towering Tudor rage, and, after
reproaching the nobleman for his prevarication, said, "You have to do
with me, Sir. I tell you, that of seven peasants I could make seven
earls like you; but of seven earls I could not make one Holbein. Do not
molest him, if you value your head." And as second-hand heads, though
plentiful about those days, were found to be of no value, even to the
original owner, Holbein remained unmolested.

Holbein is known chiefly by his portraits. He painted some historical
and sacred pictures; but though they all bear witness to his genius, it
can hardly be denied that they also show that that genius was not suited
to such works. Holbein had an objective perception;--that is, his mind
received impressions entirely uninfluenced by its own character or
condition; and his pictures, therefore, seem like literal transcripts
of what was before his eyes. He nowhere shows that he had an idea of
abstract beauty, or the power of generalizing from individuals, or that
he was at all discontented with the subjects which he painted; so that
his works leave an impression of absolute faithfulness. But to suppose,
therefore, that his portraits have merely the merit of reproducing the
external facts of Nature, like photographs, would do him wrong; for he
was faithful to expression as well as form, and has perpetuated upon
his canvas the voluptuous sweetness of Anne Boleyn, the courtliness and
manly grace of Wyatt, and the severity, the energy, and the penetrating
judgment of Sir Thomas More. His portrait of the last is one of the
greatest portraits ever painted. Some competent critics consider it the
greatest. It is so real, so human, that we might be well content, if one
in twenty of the actual men we meet were half as real and human; and it
expresses, with equal strength and subtilty, the large and noble nature
of the man. Holbein was a great colorist, and imitated all the rich
and tender hues of Nature, in their delicate and almost imperceptible
gradations, with a minute truthfulness which is quite marvellous.

This being the character of his mind, it would hardly be supposed that
he could produce such a work as the great Dance of Death, which has
caused all others to be forgotten, except by antiquarians. For this
Dance is the most remarkable embodiment in Art of that fantastic and
grotesque idealism which has found its best expression in the works of
German poets and painters; and the preeminence of Holbein's over all the
other representations of the same subject consists in this,--that, while
they are but a dull and formal succession of mere costumed figures
seized by a corpse and shrinking away from its touch, Holbein's groups
are instinct with life, character, and emotion. In particular is this
true of the figure of Death, although it is a mere skeleton,--the face
without a muscle, and for the eye but a rayless cavern. Death is not one
whom "a limner would love to paint or a lady to look upon"; but Holbein
has given a strange and fascinating interest to the figure, which in all
other hands is merely repulsive. The grim monarch sat to a painter who
not only added to the truthfulness of his portrait the charm of poetic
feeling, but the magic touch of whose pencil made his dry bones live.

The insignificance of the material in which the painter worked, when
compared with the effect which he produced, is also remarkable in this
unique work of Art. For Holbein's Dance of Death is not, like the
others, either a great fresco painting, or a series of sculptures; it
is not a painting at all,--but merely a series of very small woodcuts,
fifty-three in number, forty-six of which were published at Lyons
in 1538, and the whole afterwards at Bale in 1554, under the title,
_Simulachres de la Mort, Icones Mortis:_ that is, in French and Latin,
"Images of Death,"--for the title "Dance of Death" is of recent origin.
The leaves on which the cuts are printed make but part of a little book
not so large as a child's primer; but a copy of it is now worth ten
times its weight in gold. It was copied and republished in numberless
editions, as a popular book, merely for the sake of the subject, and
the great lesson taught by it,--each print being accompanied by an
admonitory stanza, and a quotation from the Bible. Beside these
editions, endeavors have been made of later years to imitate it
satisfactorily as a work of Art,--but in vain. Great as we think our
advancement in the arts has been,--the mechanical part of them, at
least,--all the efforts of the lithographer, the wood-cutter, and even
the line-engraver, to reproduce the spirit or the very lines of this
work, have been but partially successful. There is as much difference
between the most carefully-executed and costliest copies and good
impressions of the original wood-cuts, made three hundred years ago, and
sold for a franc or two, as there is between pinchbeck and gold.

Any attempt to reproduce the effect of those groups in words can hardly
fail to fall equally short of the mark; but we will tell our readers
what they are, and endeavor to give some notion of their purpose and

The first shows the Creation of Woman;--we have seen before why she is
made thus prominent in the Dance. The composition is crowded with the
denizens of the earth, the air, and the water; the sun, the moon, and
the stars all appear; the four winds of heaven issue from the laboring
cheeks of figures that impersonate them. The Creator, in the form of
an aged man in royal robes, and wearing the imperial crown, lifts Eve
bodily from the side of the sleeping Adam.

The second represents the Temptation. Eve reclines upon the ground, and
shows Adam the fruit which she has plucked. Adam stands grasping the
tree with his left hand, and raises his right to gather for himself. The
serpent, who looks down upon Eve, has the face and body of a woman. The
forms in this group are fine; Adam's is remarkable for its symmetry and
grace; but Eve's face is ignoble. Indeed, Holbein, like Rembrandt, seems
to have been incapable of an idea of female beauty.

In the third we see the Expulsion from Paradise; and here the Dance
begins. Our guilty parents fly before the flaming sword,--poor Eve
cowering, and her hair streaming in a wavy flood upon the wind; and
before them, but unseen, Death leaps and curvets to the sound of a
vielle or rote,--an old musical stringed instrument,--which he has hung
about his neck. His glee, as he leads forth his victims into the valley
where his shadow lies, is perceptible in every line of his angular
anatomy; his very toes curl up like those of a baby in its merriment.

In the fourth, Adam has begun to till the ground. The pioneer of his
race, he is uprooting a huge tree, all unconscious that another figure
is laboring at his side. It is not Eve, who sits in the background with
her first-born at her breast and her distaff by her side,--but Death,
who, with a huge lever in his bony gripe, goes at his work with a fierce
energy which puts the efforts of his muscular companion to shame. The
people of Holbein's day not only saw in this subject the beginning of
that toil which is the lot of humankind, but, as they looked upon the
common ancestors of all men, laboring for the means of life, they asked,
in the words of an old distich,--

"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman?"

The fifth composition seems to represent a general rejoicing over the
Triumph of Death. It shows a churchyard and porch filled with skeletons,
who blow trumpets of all sorts and sizes; one beats frantically upon a
pair of kettle-drums, and another, wearing a woman's nightcap, with a
broad frill border, plays the hurdy-gurdy.

In the sixth, a Pope, the highest earthly potentate, is in the act of
crowning an Emperor, who kneels to kiss his toe. But the successor of
St. Peter does not see, as he sits upon his throne, giving authority and
sanction to the ruler of an empire, that a skeleton leans from behind
that throne, and grins in his face, and that another in a cardinal's hat
mingles with the throng before him.

The seventh is one of the finest of the series. An Emperor is enthroned,
with his courtiers round him. He is threatening one with his sword for
some act of injustice from which a poor peasant who kneels before him
has suffered. But, unseen by all, a skeleton bestrides the shoulders of
the monarch and lays his hand upon his very crown. There can be no doubt
that Shakspeare had this subject in his mind when he wrote that fine
passage in "King Richard the Second,"--

"Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and--farewell, King!"

In the eighth we see a King (it is unmistakably Francis I.) dining under
a canopy, and served by a splendid retinue. He stretches out his hand to
receive a wine-cup; for he does not see that Death is filling it.

A Cardinal appears in the ninth, selling an indulgence for a heavy
bribe; and we all rejoice to see that Death has laid hands upon his
hat,--the symbol of his rank,--and is about to tear it from his head.

In the tenth, an Empress, passing through her palace-yard, attended by
her ladies, is led by the favorite on whom she leans, and who she does
not see is Death, into an open grave.

Death, in the next, has assumed the guise of a Court Fool, and has
seized a Queen at the very gate of her palace. She recognizes him, and
struggles, shrieking, to free herself from his grasp; but in vain. With
a grin of fierce delight, he lifts up his hour-glass before her, and,
in spite of her resistance and that of a gentleman who attends her, is
about to bear her off. Every line of this composition is instinct with

In the twelfth, Death carries off a Bishop from his flock.

In the thirteenth, an Elector of the Empire, surrounded by his retinue,
is approached by a poor woman, who begs his aid in behalf of herself and
her child; he repulses her scornfully; for he does not see that Death,
the avenger of the oppressed poor, and who is here crowned with
oak-leaves, has laid his gripe upon him. Holbein has put such an
expression of power into the arm and of wrath into the face of this
skeleton, that we expect to see his victim haled off into the air before
our very eyes.

The Abbot and the Abbess are the subjects of the next two cuts. In the
former, Death has assumed the mitre and the crosier of his victim, and
drags him off with such an expression of fun and burlesque pomp as we
sometimes see in the face of a mischievous boy who mocks his betters.
In the companion group his look is that of a demon; and with his head
fantastically dressed, he drags the Abbess off by the scapulary which
hangs from her neck.

A Nobleman and a Canon are his prey in the sixteenth and seventeenth
groups. We lack space to describe any but the most remarkable with

The satire of the next three is levelled against the Lawyers, who were
held in such little respect in Bale. They show a Judge who takes a bribe
from a rich to wrong a poor suitor, and a Counsellor and an Advocate who
lend their talents to wealthy clients, but turn their backs upon the
poor victims of "the oppressor's wrong." In one, a demon is blowing
suggestions into the Counsellor's ear from a pair of bellows, which he
has doubtless used elsewhere for other purposes; in all, Death stands
ready to avenge the poor.

In the twenty-first, a Preacher addresses a Congregation, whose
interested attention the painter has portrayed with great skill,
knowledge of character, and consequent variety and truth of expression.
Behind the Preacher stands Death, and, with a kind of grotesque
practical pun, holds the jaw of a skeleton over his head, as far more
eloquent than his own.

A Priest and a Mendicant Friar are the subjects of the twenty-second and

The twenty-fourth is of peculiar interest. In it we see a youthful Nun,
who, it is clear, has taken her vows too hastily, kneeling before the
oratory in her cell. But her heart is not in her devotions; for the
lover whom she abandoned has made his way into the apartment, and sits
on her bed singing to his lute. Her hands are clasped, not in prayer,
but in an agony of love and apprehension. She turns from the crucifix to
gaze at him; and we see how the interview will end: for an aged female
attendant, in coif and scapulary, leans over to extinguish the candles.
We see, too, what its consequence will be; for that attendant is Death.

Among the remaining subjects, which we cannot examine particularly, or
in their order, are those of the Old Man and Old Woman led by Death,
each to the sound of a dulcimer;--the Physician, to whom in mockery
Death himself brings a patient;--the Astronomer, to whom the skeleton
offers a skull in place of a celestial globe;--the Miser, from whom
Death snatches his hoarded gold; and the Merchant, whom the same
inexorable hand tears away from his ships and his merchandise;--the
storm-tossed ship, with Death snapping the mast;--a Count, dressed in
the extreme of courtly splendor, who recognizes Death in the disguise
of a peasant who has flung down his flail to seize his lordship's
emblazoned shield and dash it to pieces;--a Duchess, whom one skeleton
drags rudely from her canopied bed, while another scrapes upon a
violin;--a Peddler;--a Ploughman, of whose four-horse team Death is the
driver;--Gamblers, Drunkards, and Robbers, all interrupted in their
wickedness by Death;--a Wagoner, whose wagon, horse, and load have been
tumbled in a ruinous heap by a pair of skeletons;--a Blind Beggar, who
stumbles over a stony path after Death, who is his deceitful leader, and
who turns back with a look of malicious glee to see his bewilderment
and suffering;--and a Court Fool, whom Death, playing on bagpipes, and
dancing, approaches, and, plucking him by the garment, wins him, with a
coaxing leer, to join his pastime.

A few others claim our more particular attention. Among them is a
Knight, armed cap-a-pie, who is run through and through, from back to
front, by Death, himself half armed in mockery. There is a concentrated
vigor in the thrust of the lance, and a cool venom in the countenance
of the assailant, that we may seek in vain in the works of famous
battle-painters; and it must always be remembered that Holbein's figure
is entirely without those indications of muscular movement by which we
express our feelings,--in fact, a mere bare-boned skeleton.

A Bride at her wedding-toilet, whom Holbein has contrived to make almost
beautiful, receives a robe from one attendant; another clasps round her
neck a collar--of gold and jewels? No,--of bones, and with bony fingers.
And the next cut to this shows us the Bridegroom and Bride walking
through an apartment hung with arras, while before them dances Death,
beating a tabor, like a child beside himself with joy.

One of the finest and most touching conceptions in the whole series
represents a dilapidated Cottage,--a mere shanty, so wretched that the
love of those who live in it is all their happiness,--nay, all their
comfort. The mother is preparing for two little children the simplest
and poorest of meals, at a fire made of a few small sticks. She finds
consolation in the very pranks that hinder her humble task. Death
enters,--there is no door to keep him out,--and, seizing the hand of the
younger child, who turns and stretches out the other imploringly to his
mother, carries him off, remorseless and exulting, leaving her frantic
with grief. We may look with comparative indifference, and sometimes
even with sympathy, upon his other feats,--but who is there that does
not hate that grinning skeleton?--And yet, perhaps, he exults that he
has saved one soul, yet pure, from misery and crime.

For vigor of movement the group of Death and the Soldier is preeminent.
The field is covered with the wounded and the slain, in the midst
of which the soldier encounters his last enemy. The man is armed in
panoply, and wields a huge two-handed sword with a vigor unabated
by former struggles. Death has caught a shield from the arm of some
previous victim; but his only offensive weapon is a huge thigh-bone,
which we plainly see will bear down all before it. In the distance
another figure of Death flies madly over the hills, beating a drum which
summons other soldiers to the field. It is impossible to convey in words
the fierce eagerness of this figure, minute as it is, and composed of a
few lines.

The forty-seventh composition is one which has puzzled the critics
and antiquaries; but it is not easy to conjecture why. It shows us a
wretched Beggar, naked, sick, lame,--utterly destitute, miserable, and
forsaken,--suffering at once all the ills that flesh is heir to. He sits
huddled together on some straw, near a large building, and lifts his
hands and face up piteously to heaven. Death is not there; and the
antiquaries ask in wonder, Why is the subject introduced? Why, but to
show that to him alone who would gladly welcome Death, Death will not

The work ends, as a connected series, with the Last Judgment, where
Christ, who conquered Death, appears seated on the bow of promise,--with
his feet resting on a celestial sphere, attended by angels, and showing
to a throng of those who have risen from the grave the wounds by which
he redeemed them from its power.

To this is added an ornamental tail-piece called Death's Arms. It shows
a skull in a battered shield, which has for a crest a regal helmet
surmounted by an hour-glass and two bony arms grasping a stone. The
supporters to the shield are a gentleman and lady richly dressed,--said
to represent Holbein and his wife.

It is not known, positively, when Holbein drew these designs upon the
blocks (for of course he did not engrave them); and it has even been
disputed by one or two eminent antiquarian critics, that he designed
them at all. But there does not appear to be a single valid reason for
thus diminishing his fame. He probably was engaged on them between
1531, the date of his first return to Bale, and 1538, when they were
published,--the year in which he refused the solicitation of his
townsmen to return to the home of his childhood and the bosom of his

Holbein continued to live in London until the year 1554, when that city
suffered a visitation of the plague, similar to that which was the
occasion of the painting of the Great Dance of Death at Bale. Holbein
was struck by the disease; and Death, knowing gratitude as little as
remorse, triumphed over him who had blazoned his triumphs. Upon the
painter's fame, however, and that of his great work, Death could not lay
his hand; but so long as the grim tyrant shall claim his victims, so
long will he perpetuate the memory of Hans Holbein.

Though he was a royal favorite, it is not known where he died; and the
place where lie the ashes of him who, on a king's word, was greater than
seven earls, is equally unknown; there is not a line or a stone to mark
it. So soon after his death as in the reign of Charles I., (within
one hundred years,) a nobleman--noble by nature as well as by
birth--desirous of erecting a monument to him, sought his grave, but
in vain, and was compelled to abandon his design. And thus was Holbein
driven to live among strangers, to die without a wife to console or
children to mourn him, and to lay his bones in a nameless grave in a
foreign land.

Such is an imperfect and brief account of the origin, the various forms,
and the meaning of the Dance of Death, and of the life and character of
him whose genius has caused it to be called by his name. It may
smell too much of mortality and antiquity for this fast-living and
forward-looking age; for it is not only a monument of the past, but an
exponent of its spirit. We can look back at it, through the mellowing
mist of centuries, with curiosity not unmixed with admiration; but we
should turn with aversion from such a work, coming from the hands of an
artist of our own day. We think, and with some reason, that we do not
need its teachings; for we are freed from the thraldom that gave edge
to its democratic satire; and we have learned to look with greater
calmness, if not with higher hope, upon the future, to which the grave
is but the ever-open portal. But we may yet profit by a thoughtful
consideration of the eternal truths embodied by Holbein in his Dance of
Death; and in the story of his life there is a lesson for every man, and
every woman too, if they will but find it.


"So John a'n't a-comin', Miss Gris'ld," squeaked Polly Mariner, entering
the great kitchen, where Mrs. Griswold was paring apples and Lizzy
straining squash.

"Isn't he?" quietly replied the lady addressed, as the tailoress sat
down in the flag-bottomed rocking-chair, and began rocking vehemently,
all the time eyeing Lizzy from the depths of her poke-bonnet with
patient scrutiny.

"No, he a'n't,--so Mr. Gris'ld says," went on Folly. "You see, I was
a-comin' up here from the Centre, so's to see if Sam couldn't wait for
his roundabout till arter Thanksgivin'; for Keziah Perkins, she 't was
my sister's husband's fust wife's darter, 'n' finally married sister's
fust husband's son, she's a real likely woman, and she's wrote over from
Taunton to ask me to go there to Thanksgivin'; 'n' to-day's Monday; 'n'
I was a-comin' here Tuesday so's to make Sam's roundabout; 'n' yesterday
Miss Luken's boy Simon, he 't a'n't but three year old, he got my
press-board, when he was a-crawlin' round, 'n' laid it right onto the
cookin'-stove, and fust thing Miss Lukens know'd it blazed right up, 'n'
I can't get another fixed afore Wednesday, and then I'd ought to be to
Taunton, 'cause there a'n't no stage runs Thursday, and there hadn't
oughter, of course"----

"We have got a press-board," said Mrs. Griswold, quietly.

"Yes, and I a'n't goin' to grandfather's in my old jacket, Miss Poll,"
interposed Sam, one of the "terrible" children who are scattered here
and there through this world. "Catch me where all the folks are, in that
old butternut suit!" added Sam.

But here his father stepped in at the door,--a fine, sturdy, handsome
farmer, one of New England's model men, whose honesty was a proverb, and
whose goodness a reliance to every creature in Greenfield.

"John isn't coming, wife," said Mr. Griswold, in a steady, sober tone.
"He says business will delay him, so that he can only get to Coventry
just as we do."

"So you had a letter," said Mrs. Griswold, carefully avoiding a look at

"Yes," said Mr. Griswold, in a very abrupt way.--"Are you ready to go
back, Miss Polly? for I've got to go down to the Centre again with a
load of wheat."

"Well, yes, I don't know but I be. I ken stay over, if you want help,
Miss Gris'ld. I'm a-goin' to the minister's to help Miss Fletcher a
little mite this afternoon, but I guess she don't lot on it none; 'n'
seein' it's you, I ken stay, if you want help."

Lizzy looked quickly across the kitchen at her mother.

"Oh! no, thank you, Miss Polly, I know Mrs. Fletcher would feel very
badly to lose your help, and I really don't need it until to-morrow."

"Then I'll come round to the door as quick as I've loaded up," said Mr.
Griswold; and Miss Polly settled back in her chair to wait comfortably;
a process much intensified by a large piece of Mrs. Griswold's
gingerbread and a glass of new cider, both brought her by Lizzy's
hospitable hands,--readier even than usual just now, in the vain hope of
stopping Polly Mariner's clattering tongue. But neither gingerbread nor
cider was a specific to that end: Polly talked while she ate, and ate
while she talked. But while she finishes her luncheon, let us make known
to the patient reader whom and what the tailoress discusses.

John Boynton was a step-cousin of Lizzy Griswold's. Her youngest aunt
had married a widower, with one son, some five years older than Lizzy,
and had always lived in the old homestead at Coventry, with her father;
while the other daughters and sons, six in number, were scattered over
the State, returning once a year, at Thanksgiving, to visit their
birthplace, and bring their children into acquaintance with each other.
Eben Griswold, who lived at Greenfield, was nearer home than any of the
others, and Lizzy, consequently, oftener at her grandfather's house than
her cousins. She and John Boynton were playmates from childhood, and it
was not strange that John, who had never known a pleasure unshared by
Lizzy, or suffered a pain without her consolation, should grow up in
the idea that he could not possibly live without her, an idea also
entertained half-consciously by Miss Lizzy, though neither of them ever
yet had expressed it; for John was poor, and had no home to offer any
woman, much less the petted child of a rich farmer. So Mr. Boynton, Jr.,
left home to teach school in Roxbury, five years before the date of our
story, without making any confidences on the subject of his hopes
and fears to Miss Griswold; and she knit him stockings and hemmed
pocket-handkerchiefs for him with the most cold-blooded perseverance,
and nobody but the yarn and the needles knew whether she dropped any
tears on them or not.

Now it had always been John Boynton's custom to give his school
Thanksgiving-week as a vacation,--to take the train on Monday for
Greenfield, and stay there till Wednesday, when the whole family set off
together for Coventry, to spend the next day, according to time-honored

Whatever John and Lizzy did in those two dull November days, it never
has been made known to the present chronicler; it is only understood
that no point-blank love-making went on; yet the days always ran away,
instead of creeping; and neither of the twain could believe it was
Wednesday when Wednesday came. But this year those forty-eight hours
were destined to drag past, for John wasn't coming; why, we shall
discover,--for Polly Mariner has finished the cider, and the gingerbread
is as much subject of inquiry as "The Indians,--where are they?"

"So John Boynton a'n't a-comin'? Well! Hetty Maria Clapp's jest got home
from Bunkertown, that's tew mile from Roxbury, 'n' she told Miss Lucas
that Miss Perrit, whose sister's son keeps a grocer's store to Roxbury,
told that Mr. Boynton, their teacher to the 'Cademy, was waitin' on
Miss Roxany Sharp's cousin, a dreadful pretty gal, who'd come down from
Boston to see Roxany, an' liked it so well she staid to Roxbury all
through October. I do'no's I should ha' remembered it, only 't I hed the
dredfullest jumpin' toothache that ever you did, 'n' Miss Lucas, she'd
jest come in to our house, an' she run an' got the lodlum an' was
a-puttin' some on't onto some cotton so's to plug the hole, while she
was tellin'; 'n' I remember I forgot all about the jumpin' while 't she
was talkin', so I ses, ses I, 'Miss Lucas, I guess your talkin's as good
as lodlum'; 'n' she bu'st out larfin', 'n' ses she, 'Polly Mariner, I
declare for't, you do beat all!' 'Well,' ses I, 'I'd die content, ef I
could beat John Boynton; fur ef ever I see a feller payin' attention
to a gal, he's been payin' on't to Lizzy Gris'ld this four year;
and 'ta'n't no wonder 't I think hard on't, for there never was a
prettier-behaved gal than her on Greenfield Hill'; an' I ses"----

Lizzy was on the point of "freeing her mind" just at this juncture, when
Mrs. Griswold interposed her quiet voice,--

"Don't trouble yourself to defend Lizzy, Miss Mariner; you know John
Boynton is her cousin, and he has been here a good deal. Folks will
talk, I suppose, always; but if John Boynton marries well, I don't think
anybody 'll be more forward to shake hands with him than our Lizzy."

"Of course I shall," said the young lady, with a most indignant toss of
her head. "Pray, keep your pity, Miss Polly, for somebody else. I don't
need it."

"H'm," sniffed the sagacious Polly. "Well, I didn't suppose you'd allow
't you felt put out about it; and I wouldn't, if I was you. Besides,
there's as good fish in the sea as----I declare for 't! there's Mr.
Gris'ld! I'll come round early to-morrer. Good-day, all on ye!"

So Polly departed.

"I don't care, if he is!" said Lizzy, flinging herself down on the
settle, when the door closed behind Polly's blue cloak.

Mrs. Griswold said nothing, but Sam looked up from his whittling, and
coolly remarked,--

"It looks as if you did, though!"

"Sam!" said his mother, with--emphasis.

Sam whistled, and, with his hands in his pockets, having shut his
jack-knife with a click, and kicked his shavings into the fire,
muttered something about feeding the pigs, and beat an ignominious
retreat,--snubbed, as the race of Adam daily are, and daily will be, let
us hope, for telling "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the

For Lizzy certainly did look as if she cared. A pretty enough picture
she made, too, flung down on the old black settle, one well-shaped
hand pinching the arm as if it had been--John Boynton's!--the other as
vigorously clenched on a harmless check-apron that showed no disposition
to get away; her bright red lips trembling a little, and her gray eyes
suspiciously shiny about the lashes, while her soft black hair had
fallen from part of its restraints on to the gay calico dress she wore,
and her foot beat time to some quick step that she didn't sing!

Mrs. Griswold did not care for the picturesque, just then; she cared
much more for Lizzy, and her acute feminine instinct helped her to the
right word.

"I don't believe it, dear!" said she; "you'd better finish straining
that squash, or Widow Peters won't have her pies for Thursday."

Lizzy went to work,--work is a grand panacea, even for sentimental
troubles,--and in doing battle with the obstinate squash,--which was not
as well cooked as it might have been,--Lizzy, for the moment, looked
quite bright, and forgot John, till her father came in to dinner.

Somebody once said that Mrs. Griswold was "a lesser Providence," and
Lizzy thought so now; for scarce were they all seated at dinner, when
she remarked, in a very unconcerned and natural way,--

"What keeps John in Roxbury so long, father?"

"He has business in Boston," curtly answered Mr. Griswold.--"Sam, did
you go over to the Corners, yesterday, about those sheep?"

Sam answered, and the conversation went on, but John's name did not
enter it, nor did Mr. Griswold offer to show his letter either to mother
or Lizzy.

Now the latter lady, not being a perfect woman, had sundry small faults;
she was proud, after a certain fashion of her own; slightly sentimental,
which is rather a failing than a fault; but her worst trait was a
brooding, fault-seeing, persevering tact at making herself miserable,
scarce ever equalled. The smallest bit of vantage-ground was enough for
a start, and on that foundation Lizzy took but a few hours of suspicion
and imagination to build up a whole Castle Doubting. The cause she had
to-day was even greater than was necessary; it was peculiar that
her father should be so reserved; it was more strange that he so
perseveringly withheld John's letter; and certainly he watched Lizzy at
her work with unusually tender eyes, that sometimes filled with a sort
of mist. All these things heaped up evidence for the poor girl; she
brooded over each separate item all night, and added to the sum Polly
Mariner's gossip, and looked forward to the day when everybody in
Greenfield should say, "Lizzy Griswold's had a disapp'intment of John
Boynton!" Poor, dear, Lizzy! as if that were an unheard-of pang! as if
nine-tenths of her accusers were not "disapp'inted" themselves,--some
before, some after marriage,--some in themselves, some in their
children, some in their wretched, dreary lives! But there was only one
John and only one heart-break present to her vision.

Polly Mariner came to breakfast next day, and pervaded the kitchen
like a daily paper. Horrible murders, barn-burnings, failures, deaths,
births, marriages, separations, lawsuits, slanders, and petty larcenies
outran each other in her glib speech, and her fingers flew as fast on
Sam's blue jacket as her tongue clappered above it.

Lizzy's pride kept her up before the old woman; she was in and out and
everywhere, a pretty spot of crimson on either fair cheek, her eyes as
sparkling and her step as light as any belle's in a ballroom, and her
whole manner so gay and charming that Polly inwardly pronounced John
Boynton a mighty fool, if he dodged such a pretty girl as that, and one
with "means."

But night came, and Polly went. Lizzy went to bed with a bad
headache,--convenient synonyme for aches of soul or body that one does
not care to christen! Sleep she certainly did that night, for she
dreamed John was married to a rich Boston girl with red hair and a
yellow flannel dress, and that Polly Mariner was bridesmaid in the
peculiar costume of a blue roundabout and pantaloons! But sleep with
such dreams was scarcely a restorer; and Wednesday morning, when Mrs.
Griswold asked Lizzy if she had put up her carpet-bag to go to Coventry,
she received for answer a flood of tears, and a very earnest petition to
be left at home.

"Leave you, Lizzy! Why, grandfather couldn't have Thanksgiving without
you! And Uncle Boynton! And Aunt Lizzy is coming up from Stonington with
the new baby;--and--John, too! You must go, Lizzy, dear!"

"I can't, mother! I can't!" said the poor girl, sobbing after every
word; "please don't ask me. I can't! I've got a headache; oh, dear!"
Here a fresh burst of tears followed, as Lizzy buried her head in her
mother's lap.

Mrs. Griswold was both grieved and astonished; she sat speechless,
stroking the soft hair that swept over her knee, till Lizzy's sobs
quieted, and then said,--

"Well, dear, if you're set on staying at home, I won't oppose it, if
your father thinks best; but I must ask him; only what will you do,
Lizzy, here alone all night?"

"Chloe and Peter will be here, mother; and I'll make Chloe sleep in
Sam's room, and leave the door open; and when they go down to Dinah's,
I'll lock up, and I shan't feel afraid in broad day."

Mrs. Griswold shook her head doubtfully.

"I'll see what father says," said she. So Lizzy lifted her head, and
smoothed her hair, while her mother went out to the barn to consult

Here she was, if anything, more puzzled. Mr. Griswold heard the proposal
with a rather misty look, as if he didn't see why, and when his wife
finished, said, gravely,--

"What is it, Susan? Anybody 't has lived as long as I have knows pretty
well that a woman's headache stands for a whole dictionary."

"Why, you see," said Mrs. Griswold, twisting a little lock of hay in her
fingers, and faintly blushing, as if the question had been of herself
rather than Lizzy, "she--well, the fact is, husband, she's kind of riled
about John's not coming; you see we haven't been real particular about
the children, and so"----

"You needn't spell it, Susan," said Mr. Griswold, with a half smile;
"Polly Mariner's tongue helped on, I guess. You let Lizzy stay, if she
wants to; 'twon't hurt her; when folks want to sulk, I generally let
'em. She can stay."

He began to whistle "Yankee Doodle" and pitch hay energetically, while
"Susan" was within hearing; but how would that dear woman's soul have
floundered deeper and deeper in the fog that clouded it now, had she
seen her grave husband sit down on one end of the hay-mow and laugh till
the tears stood in his keen eyes, and then, drawing his coat-sleeve
across the shaggy lashes, say to himself, "Poor child!" and begin his
work with fresh strength!

So matters were all arranged. After dinner, the rusty, dusty, old
carriage appeared at the door, with the farm-horses harnessed thereto,
jingling, and creaking, and snapping, as if oil and use were strange to
its dry joints and stiff straps. Mrs. Griswold mounted to the back seat,
after kissing Lizzy with hearty regret and tenderness,--her old gray
pelisse and green winter bonnet harmonizing with the useful age of her
conveyance. "Father," in a sturdy great-coat and buckskin mittens, took
the reins; and Sam, whose blue jacket was at that moment crushing his
mother's Sunday cap in a bandbox that sat where Lizzy should have been,
clambered over the front wheel, to the great detriment of the despised
butternut suit, and, seizing the whip, applied it so suddenly to Tom
and Jerry that they started off down the Coventry road at a pace that
threatened a solution of continuity to bones and sinews, as well as wood
and leather.

Lizzy turned away sadly from the door. Who can say that just at that
minute she did not wish she had gone, too? But nobody heard her say so.
She went up-stairs to her room, and tried to read, but couldn't attach
any ideas to the words; she was half an hour over a page of a very good
book, and then flung it upon the bed with an expression of disgust, as
if it were the book's fault. Poor authors! toil your fingers off, and
spin your brains out! be as wise as Solomon, or witty as Sheridan! your
work is vanity and vexation of spirit, unless the reader's brain choose
to receive and vivify the hieroglyphs of your ideas; think yourselves
successful because a great man praises you, and to-morrow that man is
twisted with dyspepsia, or some woman passes him without a smile, and
your sparkling sketch, your pathetic poem are declared trash! Such is
fame! Of which little homily the moral is,--Write for money! What a
thing it is to be worldly-wise! So was not Lizzy; if she had been, she
would now be at Coventry, kissed and caressed by grandfather, aunts,
uncles, cousins, and----But we won't anticipate.

Lizzy flung down the book, and went to her closet for another; but it
was as good (or as bad) as Bluebeard's closet, for there hung the pretty
crimson merino, with delicate lace at the throat and round the short
sleeves, in which Miss Lizzy Griswold once intended to electrify Mr.
John Boynton this very evening. True it is that short sleeves are not
the most sensible things for November; but Lizzy was twenty, and had
such round, white arms, that she liked to wear short sleeves, as any
girl would; and who is going to blame her? Not I! A girl doesn't know
her privileges who was never just a little vain,--just a little glad to
be pretty when John is by. Lizzy looked at the crimson merino, and at
the smart slippers on the door with a shining black bow on each instep.
There, too, on a little low table, was a green box; somebody had left
it open,--mother, perhaps,--so she saw on its cotton bed a red coral
bracelet, that came from Roxbury, or thereabout, last year at this time.
Lizzy shut up the box, and went down-stairs to get tea.

Chloe was indignant to think "Miss 'Lisbeth" thought she couldn't get
supper without help, and Miss 'Lisbeth was vexed with Chloe for being
cross. And then, when supper came, the tea seemed to be very unwilling
to be swallowed, and the new bread was full of large lumps that choked a
person, and the lamps didn't burn clearly at all,--and--and--when Chloe,
still sulky, had cleared the table, Lizzy sat down on a low cricket
beside her mother's stuffed rocking-chair, and had as good a cry as ever
she had in her life, and felt much better for it.

So she sat there, with her head on the arm of the chair, rather tired
with the cry, rather downhearted for want of the supper she hadn't
eaten, and making pictures in the fire, when all of a sudden it came
into her head to wonder what they were doing at Coventry. There was
grandfather, no doubt, in the keeping-room, telling his never-tiring
stories of Little Robby, and Old Bose, and the Babes in the Wood; of
singing the ever-new ditty of

"Did you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever,"--

and so on, _ad infinitum_, till you got to--

"See a man eat a whale?"

to some half dozen children; while sweet Aunt Lizzy, serenely smiling,
rocked the fair little baby that fifteen cousins had kissed for welcome
that day; and Uncle Boynton trotted the baby's brother on his knee,
inviting him persistently to go to Boston and buy a penny-cake, greatly
to little Eben's aggravation, who would end, Lizzy knew, by crying for
the cake, and being sent to bed. Then there were Sam, and Lucy Peters,
and Jim Boynton, up to all sorts of mischief in the kitchen,--Susan
Boynton and Nelly James cracking nuts and their fingers on the
hearth,--father and mother up-stairs in grandmother's room; for
grandmother was bedridden, but kindly, and good, and humorous, and
patient, even in her hopeless bed, and nobody was dearer to the whole
family than she. Then, of course, there was a fire in the best parlor,
and there were all the older cousins, telling conundrums and stories,
and playing grown-up games, and some two, or four, may-be, looking out
in couples at the moonshine, from behind the curtains,--Sue James,
perhaps, and John. Sue was so pretty!

Lizzy's head bent lower on the arm of the chair; her thoughts travelled
back over a great many Thanksgivings,--years ago, when she wore short
frocks, and used to go with John to see the turkeys fed, and be
so scared when they gobbled and strutted with rage at her scarlet
bombazette;--how they used to pick up frozen apples and thaw them in
the dish-kettle; how she pounded her thumb, cracking butternuts with a
flat-iron, and John kissed it to make it well,--only it didn't! And
then how they slid down-hill before church, and sat a long two hours
thereafter in the square pew, smelling of "meetin'-seed," and dinted
with the kicks of weary boys in new boots; and finally, after the first
anthem and the two hymns and the three prayers and the long sermon were
over, came home to dinner, where the children had their own table at the
end of the grown people's board, and Lizzy always took the head and
John the foot,--till, exhausted by the good things they had eaten, and
tantalized by the good things they couldn't eat, they crept away to the
fire and their picture-books for a quiet hour, winding up the day with
all the plays that country and city children alike delight in.

Then came recollections of later days, when John was a young man, and
Lizzy still a little girl,--when long talks banished turkeys and apples
and sliding,--when new books or sleigh-rides crowded out the old
games,--when the two days of John's yearly visit were half-spent in the
leafless, sunny woods, gathering mosses and acorn-cups, delicate fern
leaves, and clusters of fire-moss, and red winter-green berries, for the
pretty frames and baskets Lizzy's skilful fingers fabricated,--when he
shook hands at coming and going, instead of kissing her;--but it seemed
just the same, somehow. Dear me! those days were all gone! John didn't
care about her any more! he was in love with a beautiful Boston lady.
Why should he care about a homely little country cousin? He would go to
live in Boston in a great big house, and he'd be a great man, and people
would talk about him, and she should see his name in the papers, but he
never would come to Coventry any more! And he'd acted as if he did love
her, too!--that was men's way,--heartless things! If John had a good
time, what did he care if Lizzy did grow into a gray-haired, puckered-up
old maid, like Miss Case, with nobody to love her, or take care of her,
or ask about her, or--or--kiss her?--The climax was too much for Lizzy;
great big tears ran down on the arm of the stuffed chair, and she
would have sobbed out loud, only Chloe opened the door, to put up the
tea-things, I suppose, and Lizzy wouldn't cry before her. But, for all
that, she didn't hear Chloe come to the fireplace; she only felt her sit
down in the big chair, and, simultaneously, a pair of strong arms lifted
Miss Lizzy on to John Boynton's knee, and held her there. It wasn't

I declare, one gets out of patience with these men! they do astonish a
person so sometimes, one doesn't know what to do or say. Lizzy had been
thinking to herself, not two minutes ago, with what cool and smiling
reserve she should meet John Boynton, how dignified and kindly distant
she would be to him,--and now,--well! it was so sudden,--and then, as
I said before, these men do get round one so,--if you happen to love
them.--Lizzy forgot, I suppose; at any rate, she wasn't dignified, or
reserved, or proper, or anything of the kind, for she just hid her
pretty head on his square shoulder, and said, "Oh, John!"--"slowly, and
nothing more,"--as Mr. Tennyson remarks about cutting Iphigenia's head
off with a sharp knife.

I don't know that John talked much, either. I rather think Lizzy got
over the climax that had troubled her a little while ago. Presently,
she raised her head and gathered up her hair that had fallen down, and
became painfully aware that she had on only a blue calico! John never
knew it; he knew somebody had a very sweet face, full of cloudy blushes
and sunshiny smiles, and, not being a Pre-Raphaelite, the foreground was
of no consequence to him.

So, after a time, Lizzy slipped down to her cricket again, still leaning
on the arm--of the chair,--and John expounded to her the excellent
reason that had delayed his coming home. He had been offered a large
salary to take the head of a public school in Boston, and those two
days had been devoted to arranging the affair; he had satisfied the
school-committee as to his capacity, and made up his mind on several
points of minor importance to them,--but, perhaps, greater to him. Among
others, he had found a house, a tiny house, with a little yard behind,
and a view of Boston Harbor from the upper windows, all at a reasonable
rent, prospect thrown in; this house he had hired, and now--he had come
to Greenfield for a housekeeper.

Lizzy suddenly discovered that she was hungry, and invited John into the
kitchen to get a piece of pie; but, after all, instead of eating hers
while he was eating his, she went up-stairs, brushed out her hair
and coiled it up with a coral-topped comb, that came to light, very
strangely, just in time,--put on her merino frock, her bracelet, and her
slippers,--rolled herself up in shawls and hoods and mittens, and was
lifted into John's buggy, to old Chloe's great delight, who held the
lamp, grinning like a lantern herself, and tucking "Mr. John's" fox-skin
round his feet, as if he had been ten years old.

So Lizzy Griswold did get to Coventry the night before Thanksgiving,
after all; and when Uncle Boynton met her at the door, he called her "my
dear daughter." Perhaps, as John had told Lizzy, on the drive over, that
her father had heard all about his business and his intentions, in that
letter she did not see, the young lady had decided to disinherit him,
and adopt Uncle Boynton in his place; rather an unfair proceeding, it
is true, since the letter was withheld by John's special request; and,
indeed, Lizzy didn't act like a "cruel parient" to her father, when he
came, after uncle, to give her a welcome.

They had a merry time at Coventry that Thanksgiving,--even merrier
than another smaller assemblage, that took place at Greenfield about
Christmas, when Polly Mariner came over a week before-hand to make Sam
a new suit throughout, and Lizzy looked prettier than anybody ever did
before, in a fresh white dress, and a white rose, off grandmother's
tea-rose-bush, in her hair. It is on record, that she behaved no better
than she did that evening when somebody found her crying in a blue
calico; for Sam was overheard to say, as Polly hustled him off to bed,
that, "if ever he was married, he guessed they wouldn't catch him makin'
a fool of himself by kissin' a girl right before the minister!--if he'd
have been Lizzy, John Boynton's ears would have sung for one while; but
girls _were_ fools!"

So John Boynton got a housekeeper; and Lizzy had more than one
Thanksgiving-day in her life, beside the Governor's appointments.

* * * * *


An old Arabian tale the truth conveys,
That, honor's passion avarice outweighs.

* * * * *

Brave Achmed owned a mare of wondrous speed;
He prized her much above his wife or creed.

And lest some one should steal that precious mare,
He guarded her with unremitting care.

He tied her every night before his tent;
The fastening-cord then round his pillow went.

When all in slumber lay, the robber crept,
Unloosed the cord, and on the courser leapt.

"Wake up!" he cries,--"'tis I, the thief, who call;
See now if she in flight is chief of all!"

Mount Achmed and his tribe in wrath and shame,
And chase him as a tempest chases flame.

Hot Achmed nearly to the robber came,
When thus he thought: "My mare will lose her fame.

"If I o'ertake her, she is then outrun;
But if I reach her not, I am undone.

"Oh, better she were stolen before my face
Than have her vanquished in this desperate race!"

One secret sign his mare was taught to heed,
Whenever she must try her utmost speed.

He to the robber screamed, "Quick, pinch her ear!"
The sign she felt with answering love and fear.

As like a level thunderbolt she flew,
All chase was vain, the vexed pursuers knew.

Before this self-betrayal blank surprise
Fills Achmed's comrades, and their wondering cries

Demand, "How shall thy foolish act be named?"--
"My mare is lost, her glory is not shamed."

He says: "I knew, that, if her ear he nipped,
The darling prize could never be outstripped."


There were in Great Britain, soon after the commencement of the present
century, three remarkable groups of young men. Distinct schools of
thought, like the philosophic schools of Greece, each of the groups was
marked by peculiar ideas, tastes, and sympathies. The French Revolution,
with its menace of fundamental changes, clashing with sentiments and
convictions which ages had rendered habitual and dear, called for an
inquiry into great principles and the grounds of things. The Napoleonic
age had the terrific formlessness of chaos. Did it premonish the passing
away of old things, and herald the birth of a new order and a new social
state? or did the trouble spring from innate madness in the "younger
strengths" which were trying to overthrow the world's kingdoms? Should
venerable Royalty, after howling in the wilderness and storm, be again
enthroned? or should men attempt to realize the fair ideals which
the word Republic suggested? Should religion be supplanted? should
Protestantism be confirmed? or should, perchance, the crosier of the Old
Church be again waved over Europe? These were the questions that were
mooted, and they aroused unwonted activity and vigor of thought as well
in literature as in politics.

The old century left in England few celebrated names to take part in the
literature of the new. The men who made the poems, romances, dramas,
reviews, and criticisms for the first quarter of our century had almost
all been in youth contemporaries of the Reign of Terror, and had been
tried in that unparalleled period as by a fiery furnace, while their
opinions were in a formative state. Crabbe and Rogers were traditions of
the time of Goldsmith and Johnson; Gilford wrote with a virulence and
ability which he might have learned in boyhood from Junius; but with
these exceptions, English literature fifty years ago was represented by
young men.

We mention, as the first group of young thinkers, the founders of the
"Edinburgh Review,"--Sydney Smith, Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner, and
Henry Brougham,--whose united ages, when the first number of that review
appeared in 1802, made one hundred and seven years. Members of the Whig
party, possessing much learning and more vivacity and earnestness,
and having among them, if not severally, abundance both of daring and
prudence, they startled conservative people, evoked the best efforts of
authors by their brilliant castigations, and inaugurated the discussion
of measures of reform which it took thirty years to get through
Parliament. The critic of the company was Francis Jeffrey, whose
happiness it was to live just when he was needed. Without capacity to
excel either in the realm of ideas or of facts, he was unrivalled in the
power of discovering the relations between the two. He was neither a
statesman, philosopher, nor poet; but while the heavens and the earth
threatened to rush in confusion together, he was an admirable _cicerone_
to the troubled and wandering wits of men. He had no inherent qualities,
and, if other people had not existed, would not have been alive himself;
his faculty was simply an eye for relations, and his mental life began
when some one threw a series of thoughts across his line of vision.
He could tell all about those thoughts,--how large each was, what
complexion they had, how they stood in order with each other, and how
they compared with other thoughts which he remembered having seen
before. Such a mind might have achieved success among the technicalities
of the law, but nowhere else, had not the "Edinburgh Review" been
created. Jeffrey's critical articles have little value when regarded
according to their aim and as integral compositions; the arguments which
they contain are often insufficient, and the literary judgments wrong.
But they are full of the scattered elements of thought. Many of the best
ideas of the books and men of which they treat are stated in them with
admirable clearness and piquancy, and they are, therefore, pleasant
secondary sources of information.

Francis Horner died of consumption in Italy before he was forty years of
age, and there is nothing of surpassing brilliancy or power in any of
his writings. Yet he made a most extraordinary impression upon his
contemporaries. His name is never mentioned by his associates except
with unusual respect. Brougham, when he alludes to him, even in a
letter, seems to check his pen into soberness, and to be as cautious as
if he were speaking on a religious subject. Search through the published
correspondence of Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Mackintosh, and Horner is
found uniformly mentioned, not with peculiar affection or kindness, not
with any intention of doing him honor, but as a man whose qualities were
quite superior to those of other men, and whose destiny it was to be the
first statesman of his country. Lord Cockburn, who was a schoolmate of
Horner, relates that the latter was at one time selected by his class to
present a book to the master, and adds: "As he stepped forward at
the close of a recitation, and delivered the short Latin
presentation-address, I thought him to be a god." This fascination is
hard to be explained. The great seriousness of Horner's character may in
part account for it. He could not bear trifling on important subjects,
and could not help frowning on all jests which were not more wise
than witty. The calm determination, the unvarying earnestness of his
character, may aid in explaining it. From a boy, he never swerved from
great purposes, pursued the most useful though difficult knowledge, and
cultivated with equal zeal the ornaments of taste and those recondite
historical and statistical studies which are the roots of political
science. He was as far from being flighty as Immanuel Kant. Everything
that he did was marked both by temperance and sagacity. Philosophically
speaking, a personality, any personal being, is undoubtedly the most
mysterious thing in the universe. How abstract ideas come together to
grow and bloom in a young bosom is wholly past the comprehension of
philosophy. As personality in the abstract fascinates a philosopher
by its mystery, so a personality of uncommon purity, intensity, and
completeness fascinates all men, and thus, perhaps, is explained the
high estimation in which Horner was held. He was regarded by those
who knew him, as Pythagoras was by his disciples, with the deference
commanded by a superior person.

The indefatigable character of Lord Brougham, the only survivor of this
group, cannot yet be sketched in a paragraph. To Sydney Smith we shall
presently return.

The second group of young men was formed fifteen years later. They were
the antagonists of the Edinburgh reviewers, the authors of the "Noctes
Ambrosianae," the main support of "Blackwood's Magazine," almost from
its beginning. Their names were John Wilson, J.G. Lockhart, James Hogg,
and, for a time, William Maginn. These were very high, as well as,
excepting Hogg, very young Tories. It would be an apotheosis of loyalty
to say that they were also eminently religious, though they drank many
bumpers to their religion. When they meet in the third of the "Noctes"
and have taken their places at the table, North proposes: "A bumper!
The King! God bless him!" and three times three are given. Then Tickler
proposes: "A bumper! The Kirk of Scotland!" and the rounds of cheers
are repeated. These indispensable ceremonies being over, the Blackwood
council proceeds to discuss men and things over nectar and ambrosia.

Wilson was the centre and best representative of this group. At Oxford,
he had been so democratic that he blacked his own boots on principle.
On leaving Oxford, he had roamed for a time as a wild man in a band of
gypsies. He next took a cottage in the lake district in the North of
England, where he associated with Wordsworth, and occupied himself
alternately with desperate gymnastic exercises and composing slight
descriptive poems. Even after connecting himself with the magazine and
becoming the symposiarch of the "Noctes," and perhaps the greatest Tory
in all broad Scotland, he did not renounce his home among the lakes. He
was a lover of scenery, and an enthusiast and master in manly sports. He
is said to have fished in every trout-brook north of the Clyde, and
he wandered every season over the Highlands. In his sportsman's
accomplishments he took a truly English pride, and made fun of the
Edinburgh Whigs by representing a company of them as getting by chance
into the same room with himself and his associates, and then, pipes and
tobacco being brought, as being fairly smoked out, sickened, and
obliged to retreat by the superior smoking capacities of the Tories. He
ridiculed Leigh Hunt for fancying in one of his poems that he should
like a splendid life on a great estate, when (as Wilson says) he
couldn't even ride without being thrown. Yet, of all the men of this
time, there was probably no one who had wider sympathies or more
delightful prejudices than Professor Wilson, or who made more sagacious
reflections. The centre of a literary clique, he loved to associate
with all the other cliques, and was one of the first to recognize and
proclaim the great merits of Wordsworth.

The third group was larger than either of the preceding, retained its
_esprit de corps_ longer, and may be most conveniently defined as the
associates of Charles Lamb. Beside Lamb, there were Coleridge, Southey,
Lovel, Dyer, Lloyd, and Wordsworth, among the earlier members of
it,--and Hazlitt, Talfourd, Godwin, De Quincy, Bernard Barton, Procter,
Leigh Hunt, Gary, and Hood, among the later. This group, unlike the
others, did not make politics, but literature, its leading object. It
was composed of literary men,--a title of doubtful import, but which
certainly in civilized society will always designate a class. Political
life has more of outward importance, religious life is holier, but
literary life is the most humane of all the avocations. It is to the
professions what pastoral occupations are to the trades. Politics and
religion both have something to do with institutions. A mechanical
man can play a part in them not very well, but passably well. But
the literary man is sheer humanity, with nothing to help him but his
thoughtfulness and sensibility. He is the unfelled tree, not the timber
framed into the ship of state or carved into ecclesiastic grace. He
lives as Nature lives, putting on the splendor of green when the air
is sunny, and of crystal when the blasts sweep by; and while his roots
reach down into the earth, there rises nothing above him but the
heavens. Past experience shows that he may be harsh, prejudiced, and
unhappy; but it shows also that the richest human juices are within him,
and that not only the most peculiar and most sensitive, but also the
most highly-endowed characters are named in the list of authors. The
central and most admirable figure in this particular group of literary
men is Charles Lamb; and as each of the other groups clustered around
an organ, so at a later period Lamb and his associates supported the
"London Magazine," in which the "Essays of Elia" first appeared.

If it be asked what gave that strong coherence to these associates which
constituted them groups, a wise man would answer,--congeniality of
character. A wiser man, however, would not overlook the element of
_suppers_. The "Edinburgh Review" seems to have been first suggested
over a quiet bottle of wine; and at a later day the Edinburgh reviewers,
increased in number by the accession of Mackintosh and one or two
others, formed an honored clique by themselves in the splendid society
of Holland House. The "Noctes Ambrosianae" is the enduring monument of
the way in which the Blackwood men passed their nights, and not the less
so from the fact that they were for the most part written out by Wilson
in sober solitude. Charles Lamb began his career of suppers with
Coleridge, as the latter came up to London from the University to visit
him, and the famous Wednesday-evening parties given by him and his
sister Mary would occupy a large space in the literary history of this
epoch. It is a true proverb, that people are but distant acquaintances
till they have eaten salt together.

The sketches which we have thus given will indicate the leading
tendencies that were operating in English literature, though the groups
themselves did not include all the eminent literary men.
Campbell, Shelley, and Byron were single lights, and did not form
constellations,--unless, perhaps, Shelley and Byron may be regarded as a
wayward and quickly-disappearing Gemini. Sir Walter Scott, and, in their
later years, Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, were of a cosmopolitan
character, and served as links between different parties. And it may be
added, that diplomatic relations and frequent intercommunication existed
between all the groups.

Passing from the general schedule to the characters and careers of
Charles Lamb and Sydney Smith, it will be our aim to show how these two
most witty men were also intensely serious and dutiful,--how they
were both disciplined by a great sorrow, and obedient to a noble
purpose,--and thus to relieve wit from the charge of having any natural
alliance with frivolity.

A thorn, it needs not a sage to say, vexes the side of every human
being. Poetry laments the inadequacy of men to their ideals, philosophy
declares an error in the figures which sum up life, religion reveals
the fall of the race. The thorn is known which pierced the matchless
joyousness of Charles Lamb. His family, highly gifted with wit,
tenderness of feeling, and mutual love, had a tinge of madness in the
blood. At twenty years of age he was himself shut up six weeks in a
madhouse, his imagination in a vagary. He was not again affected; but
the poison had sunk deeper into the veins of his sister. The shadow of a
deed done in the dark ever pursued her. Charles devoted his life to
her whose life was an intermittent madness, yet who, in her months of
sanity, was a worthy sister of such a brother. His kindness to her knew
no bounds. It was strange that she had premonition of the recurring fits
of her disorder; and when the ghost of unreason beckoned, Charles
took her by the hand and led her to the appointed home. Charles Lloyd
relates, that, at dusk one evening, he met them crossing the field
together on their melancholy way toward the asylum, both of them in
tears. In the smiles of Charles Lamb, and they were many, his friends
always remarked a prevailing expression of sadness. The "fair-haired
maid," who had been the theme of his first poetizing, appears not again
in his verses or in his life. He and Mary lived together, received
evening visitors together, went to the theatre and picture-gallery
together, visited the lakes and the poets together; and if he was ever
seen in public without her, his friends knew there could be but one
reason for it, and did not ask. When he left the India House, he had
reserved from his income a considerable sum for her support; though the
liberality of his employers, as it proved, rendered this precaution
unnecessary. She was his partner in writing the Shakspearian tales, and
he always affirmed that hers were better done than his own. To her
he dedicated the first poems that he published; and she, too, was a
poetess, excellent in her simple way. Thus was Charles Lamb's life
saddened by a great affliction ever impending over it, and sanctified by
a great duty which he never for a moment forgot.

It was his good-fortune, while at school at Christ's Hospital, to become
acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A timid boy, creeping around
among his boisterous companions like a little monk, it was that soaring
spirit which first taught him to look up. Two men whose intellects more
strongly contrasted could not be found. Coleridge suffered throughout
life from over-much speculation. Could he have had his eye less upon the
heavens and more upon the earth, could he have been concentrated upon
some human duty, he would have been a much wiser and better man. Even in
his youth he was the rhapsodist of old philosophies, had resolved social
life into its elements, and dreamed of putting it together again to suit
himself on the banks of the Susquehannah. Though Lamb wondered at the
speculations of Coleridge, and, loving him, loved the metaphysics which
were a part of him, yet it was without changing his own essentially
opposite disposition. Lamb clung to the earth. He cultivated the
excellency of this life. He was concrete, and hugged the world as he
did his sister. He reverently followed the discourses of Coleridge,
admiring, perhaps, "the beauty of the words, but not the words
themselves"; but when the Opium-Eater also began to take speculative
flights before Lamb, the latter stopped him at once by jangling his
metaphysics into jokes. It was in conversation with Coleridge, begun at
school and continued afterward at frequent meetings, that Lamb first
ventured to try his own powers and was prompted to literary activity.
But for a slight defect in his speech, he would probably have followed
Coleridge to the University with the intention of going into the Church.
A delightful clergyman he would have been, if he had duly undertaken the
office, and one would have walked far to see him in the priestly robe,
to hear him chant the service, to receive pastoral advice from him; yet
we fear the "Essays of Elia" would have been less admirable than now. He
was roused by Coleridge; and though he could not put the aureole of the
latter about his own head, he began to do the best he could in his own

Life is a play between accident and purpose. Why was it, that, of all
the books in the world, Charles Lamb should have fixed his affections
chiefly on the old English dramatists? He might have turned to old
Greece, admired the fruits of the classic ages, and become one of those
sparkling artistic Hellenists that are occasionally seen in modern
times. He might have turned to the mediaeval period. He had an eye
for cloisters and nuns. His fancy would have been struck with the
grotesqueness of many of the ideas and institutions of those times.
He would have got on finely with Gurth the swineherd and Burgundy the
tusk-toothed, and one of his masterly witticisms would have upset Duns
Scotus. Perhaps, of all the mediaeval characters, he would have been
most smitten with the court fool, and, if he could have been seated at
a princely table of the twelfth century, the bowl surely would not have
been round many times before he and the fool would have had a few passes
at each other. There was enough in the Middle Ages to have fascinated
him; and could he, like some romantic Novalis, have once penetrated
thither, and tasted the fruit, he would have found it a lotus, and
would have wished never to depart. His soul would have clung to church
architecture,--under which term maybe included all the religious,
political, poetical, moral, and practical life of the Middle Ages. The
accident in the case, however, was, that his uncle's library did not
contain the Greeks, nor the Middle Ages, but did contain the old English
authors. These he mastered; and out of these he created his ideals. In
the affluent vigor of the Elizabethan age, in the buoyant _neglige_ of
the times of merry Charles, he found people that he liked. To every
reflective and slightly scholastic mind, there is a charm in looking
at things in the distance. The perspective fits the eye. This may have
helped the enthusiasm with which he looked upon the writers and heroes
of the old English literature; but its principal cause was their
open-heartedness, their informality, their stout and free humanity
underneath laces and uniform.

Having thus found his place in literature, he began also to be rich in
friends, and his life was devoted every moment to thought and affection.


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