Christmas Dreams





CHRISTOPHER NORTH



To-morrow is Merry Christmas; and when its night descends there will be

mirth and music, and the light sounds of the merry-twinkling feet within

these now so melancholy walls--and sleep now reigning over all the house

save this one room, will be banished far over the sea--and morning will

be reluctant to allow her light to break up the innocent orgies.



Were every Christmas of which we have been present at the celebration,

painted according to nature--what a Gallery of Pictures! True that a

sameness would pervade them all--but only that kind of sameness that

pervades the nocturnal heavens. One clear night always is, to common

eyes, just like another; for what hath any night to show but one moon

and some stars--a blue vault, with here a few braided, and there a few

castellated, clouds? yet no two nights ever bore more than a family

resemblance to each other before the studious and instructed eye of him

who has long communed with Nature, and is familiar with every smile and

frown on her changeful, but not capricious, countenance. Even so with

the Annual Festivals of the heart. Then our thoughts are the stars that

illumine those skies--and on ourselves it depends whether they shall be

black as Erebus, or brighter than Aurora.



Thoughts! that like spirits trackless come and go--is a fine line of

Charles Lloyd's. But no bird skims, no arrow pierces the air, without

producing some change in the Universe, which will last to the day of

doom. No coming and going is absolutely trackless; nor irrecoverable by

Nature's law is any consciousness, however ghostlike; though many a one,

even the most blissful, never does return, but seems to be buried among

the dead. But they are not dead--but only sleep; though to us who recall

them not, they are as they had never been, and we, wretched ingrates,

let them lie for ever in oblivion! How passing sweet when of their own

accord they arise to greet us in our solitude!--as a friend who, having

sailed away to a foreign land in our youth, has been thought to have

died many long years ago, may suddenly stand before us, with face still

familiar and name reviving in a moment, and all that he once was to us

brought from utter forgetfulness close upon our heart.



My Father's House! How it is ringing like a grove in spring, with the

din of creatures happier, a thousand times happier, than all the birds

on earth. It is the Christmas Holidays--Christmas Day itself--Christmas

Night--and Joy in every bosom intensifies Love. Never before were we

brothers and sisters so dear to one another--never before had our hearts

so yearned towards the authors of our being--our blissful being! There

they sat--silent in all that outcry--composed in all that

disarray--still in all that tumult; yet, as one or other flying imp

sweeps round the chair, a father's hand will playfully strive to catch a

prisoner--a mother's gentler touch on some sylph's disordered symar be

felt almost as a reproof, and for a moment slacken the fairy flight. One

old game treads on the heels of another--twenty within the hour--and

many a new game never heard of before nor since, struck out by the

collision of kindred spirits in their glee, the transitory fancies of

genius inventive through very delight. Then, all at once, there is a

hush, profound as ever falls on some little plat within a forest when

the moon drops behind the mountain, and small green-robed People of

Peace at once cease their pastime, and vanish. For she--the

Silver-Tongued--is about to sing an old ballad, words and air alike

hundreds of years old--and sing she doth, while tears begin to fall,

with a voice too mournfully beautiful long to breathe below--and, ere

another Christmas shall have come with the falling snows, doomed to be

mute on earth--but to be hymning in Heaven.



Of that House--to our eyes the fairest of earthly dwellings--with its

old ivyed turrets, and orchard-garden bright alike with fruit and with

flowers, not one stone remains. The very brook that washed its

foundations has vanished along with them--and a crowd of other

buildings, wholly without character, has long stood where here a single

tree, and there a grove, did once render so lovely that small demesne;

which, how could we, who thought it the very heart of Paradise, even for

one moment have believed was one day to be blotted out of being, and we

ourselves--then so linked in love that the band which bound us

altogether was, in its gentle pressure, felt not nor understood--to be

scattered far and abroad, like so many leaves that after one wild

parting rustle are separated by roaring wind-eddies, and brought

together no more! The old Abbey--it still survives; and there, in that

corner of the burial-ground, below that part of the wall which was last

in ruins, and which we often climbed to reach the flowers and

nests--there, in hopes of a joyful resurrection, lie the Loved and

Venerated--for whom, even now that so many grief-deadening years have

fled, we feel, in this holy hour, as if it were impiety so utterly to

have ceased to weep--so seldom to have remembered!--And then, with a

powerlessness of sympathy to keep pace with youth's frantic grief, the

floods we all wept together--at no long interval--on those pale and

placid faces as they lay, most beautiful and most dreadful to behold, in

their coffins.



We believe that there is genius in all childhood. But the creative joy

that makes it great in its simplicity dies a natural death or is killed,

and genius dies with it. In favored spirits, neither few nor many, the

joy and the might survive; for you must know that unless it be

accompanied with imagination, memory is cold and lifeless. The forms it

brings before us must be inspired with beauty--that is, with affection

or passion. All minds, even the dullest, remember the days of their

youth; but all cannot bring back the indescribable brightness of that

blessed season. They who would know what they once were, must not merely

recollect but they must imagine, the hills and valleys--if any such

there were--in which their childhood played, the torrents, the

waterfalls, the lakes, the heather, the rocks, the heaven's imperial

dome, the raven floating only a little lower than the eagle in the sky.

To imagine what he then heard and saw, he must imagine his own nature.

He must collect from many vanished hours the power of his untamed heart,

and he must, perhaps, transfuse also something of his maturer mind into

these dreams of his former being, thus linking the past with the present

by a continuous chain, which, though often invisible, is never broken.

So is it too with the calmer affections that have grown within the

shelter of a roof. We do not merely remember, we imagine our father's

house, the fireside, all his features then most living, now dead and

buried; the very manner of his smile, every tone of his voice. We must

combine with all the passionate and plastic power of imagination the

spirit of a thousand happy hours into one moment; and we must invest

with all that we ever felt to be venerable such an image as alone can

satisfy our filial hearts. It is thus that imagination, which first

aided the growth of all our holiest and happiest affections, can

preserve them to us unimpaired--



For she can give us back the dead,

Even in the loveliest looks they wore.



Then came a New Series of Christmases, celebrated, one year in this

family, another year in that--none present but those whom Charles Lamb

the Delightful calleth the old familiar faces; something in all

features, and all tones of voice, and all manners, betokening origin

from one root--relations all, happy, and with no reason either to be

ashamed or proud of their neither high nor humble birth, their lot being

cast within that pleasant realm, the Golden Mean, where the dwellings

are connecting links between the hut and the hall--fair edifices

resembling manse or mansion-house, according as the atmosphere expands

or contracts their dimensions--in which Competence is next-door neighbor

to Wealth, and both of them within the daily walk of Contentment.



Merry Christmases they were indeed--one Lady always presiding, with a

figure that once had been the stateliest among the stately, but then

somewhat bent, without being bowed down, beneath an easy weight of most

venerable years. Sweet was her tremulous voice to all her

grandchildren's ears. Nor did these solemn eyes, bedimmed into a

pathetic beauty, in any degree restrain the glee that sparkled in orbs

that had as yet shed not many tears, but tears of joy or pity. Dearly

she loved all those mortal creatures whom she was soon about to leave;

but she sat in sunshine even within the shadow of death; and the voice

that called her home had so long been whispering in her ear, that its

accents had become dear to her, and consolatory every word that was

heard in the silence, as from another world.



Whether we were indeed all so witty as we thought ourselves--uncles,

aunts, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins, and the rest, it

might be presumptuous in us, who were considered by ourselves and a few

others not the least amusing of the whole set, at this distance of time

to decide--especially in the affirmative; but how the roof did ring with

sally, pun, retort, and repartee! Ay, with pun--a species of

impertinence for which we have therefore a kindness even to this day.

Had incomparable Thomas Hood had the good fortune to have been born a

cousin of ours, how with that fine fancy of his would he have shone at

those Christmas festivals, eclipsing us all! Our family, through all its

different branches, has ever been famous for bad voices, but good ears;

and we think we hear ourselves--all those uncles and aunts, nephews and

nieces, and cousins--singing now! Easy it is to warble melody as to

breathe air. But we hope harmony is the most difficult of all things to

people in general, for to us it was impossible; and what attempts ours

used to be at Seconds! Yet the most woful failures were rapturously

encored; and ere the night was done we spoke with most extraordinary

voices indeed, every one hoarser than another, till at last, walking

home with a fair cousin, there was nothing left it but a tender glance

of the eye--a tender pressure of the hand--for cousins are not

altogether sisters, and although partaking of that dearest character,

possess, it may be, some peculiar and appropriate charms of their own;

as didst thou, Emily the Wild-cap!--That _soubriquet_ all forgotten

now--for now thou art a matron, nay a Grandam, and troubled with an elf

fair and frolicsome as thou thyself wert of yore, when the gravest and

wisest withstood not the witchery of thy dancings, thy singings, and thy

showering smiles.



On rolled Suns and Seasons--the old died--the elderly became old--and

the young, one after another, were wafted joyously away on the wings of

hope, like birds almost as soon as they can fly, ungratefully forsaking

their nests and the groves in whose safe shadow they first essayed their

pinions; or like pinnaces that, after having for a few days trimmed

their snow-white sails in the land-locked bay, close to whose shores of

silvery sand had grown the trees that furnished timber both for hull and

mast, slip their tiny cables on some summer day, and gathering every

breeze that blows, go dancing over the waves in sunshine, and melt far

off into the main. Or, haply, some were like fair young trees,

transplanted during no favorable season, and never to take root in

another soil, but soon leaf and branch to wither beneath the tropic sun,

and die almost unheeded by those who knew not how beautiful they had

been beneath the dews and mists of their own native climate.



Vain images! and therefore chosen by fancy not too plainly to touch the

heart. For some hearts grew cold and forbidding with selfish

cares--some, warm as ever in their own generous glow, were touched by

the chill of Fortune's frowns, ever worst to bear when suddenly

succeeding her smiles--some, to rid themselves of painful regrets, took

refuge in forgetfulness, and closed their eyes to the past--duty

banished some abroad, and duty imprisoned others at home--estrangements

there were, at first unconscious and unintended, yet erelong, though

causeless, complete--changes were wrought insensibly, invisibly, even in

the innermost nature of those who being friends knew no guile, yet came

thereby at last to be friends no more--unrequited love broke some

bonds--requited love relaxed others--the death of one altered the

conditions of many--and so--year after year--the Christmas Meeting was

interrupted--deferred--till finally it ceased with one accord, unrenewed

and unrenewable. For when Some Things cease for a time--that time turns

out to be forever.



Survivors of those happy circles! wherever ye be--should these imperfect

remembrances of days of old chance, in some thoughtful pause of life's

busy turmoil, for a moment to meet your eyes, let there be towards the

inditer a few throbs of revived affection in your hearts--for his,

though absent long and distant far, has never been utterly forgetful

of the loves and friendships that charmed his youth. To be parted in

body is not to be estranged in spirit--and many a dream and many a

vision, sacred to nature's best affections, may pass before the mind of

one whose lips are silent. Out of sight out of mind is rather the

expression of a doubt--of a fear--than a belief or a conviction. The

soul surely has eyes that can see the objects it loves, through all

intervening darkness--and of those more especially dear it keeps within

itself almost undimmed images, on which, when they know it not, think it

not, believe it not, it often loves to gaze, as on relics imperishable

as they are hallowed.



All hail! rising beautiful and magnificent through the mists of

morning--ye Woods, Groves, Towers, and Temples, overshadowing that

famous Stream beloved by all the Muses! Through this midnight

hush--methinks we hear faint and far-off sacred music--



Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise!



How steeped now in the stillness of moonlight are all those pale,

pillared Churches, Courts and Cloisters, Shrines and Altars, with here

and there a Statue standing in the shade, or Monument sacred to the

memory of the pious--the immortal dead. Some great clock is striking

from one of many domes--from the majestic Tower of St. Mary

Magdalen--and in the deepened hush that follows the solemn sound, the

mingling waters of the Cherwell and the Isis soften the severe silence

of the holy night.



Remote from kindred, and from all the friendships that were the native

growth of the fair fields where our boyhood and our youth had roamed and

meditated and dreamed, those were indeed years of high and lofty mood

which held us in converse with the shades of great Poets and ages of old

in Rhedicyna's hallowed groves, still, serene, and solemn, as that Attic

Academe where divine Plato, with all Hybla on his lips, discoursed such

excellent music that his life seemed to the imagination spiritualized--a

dim reminiscence of some former state of being. How sank then the

Christmas Service of that beautiful Liturgy into our hearts! Not

faithless we to the simple worship that our forefathers had loved; but

Conscience told us there was no apostasy in the feelings that rose

within us when that deep organ began to blow, that choir of youthful

voices so sweetly to join the diapason,--our eyes fixed all the while on

that divine Picture over the Altar, of our Saviour



Bearing his cross up rueful Calvary.



The City of Palaces disappears--and in the setting sunlight we behold

mountains of soft crimson snow! The sun hath set, and even more

beautiful are the bright-starred nights of winter, than summer in all

its glories beneath the broad moons of June. Through the woods of

Windermere, from cottage to cottage, by coppice-pathways winding up to

dwellings among the hill-rocks where the birch-trees cease to grow--



Nodding their heads, before us go,

The merry minstrelsy.



They sing a salutation at every door, familiarly naming old and young by

their Christian names; and the eyes that look upward from the vales to

the hanging huts among the plats and cliffs, see the shadows of the

dancers ever and anon crossing the light of the star-like window, and

the merry music is heard like an echo dwelling in the sky. Across those

humble thresholds often did we on Christmas-week nights of

yore--wandering through our solitary silvan haunts, under the branches

of trees within whose hollow trunks the squirrel slept--venture in,

unasked perhaps, but not unwelcome, and, in the kindly spirit of the

season, did our best to merrify the Festival by tale or song. And now

that we behold them not, are all those woods, and cliffs, and rivers,

and tarns, and lakes, as beautiful as when they softened and brightened

beneath our living eyes, half-creating, as they gazed, the very world

they worshipped! And are all those hearths as bright as of yore, without

the shadow of our figure! And the roofs, do they ring as mirthfully,

though our voice be forgotten. We hang over Westmoreland, an

unobserved--but observant star. Mountains, hills, rocks, knolls, vales,

woods, groves, single trees, dwelling--all asleep! O Lakes! but we are

indeed, by far too beautiful! O fortunate Isles! too fair for human

habitation, fit abode for the Blest! It will not hide itself--it will

not sink into the earth--it will rise; and risen, it will stand steady

with its shadow in the overpowering moonlight, that ONE TREE! that ONE

HOUSE!--and well might the sight of ye two together--were it

harder--break our heart. But hard at all it is not--therefore it is but

crushed.



Can it be that there we are utterly forgotten! No star hanging higher

than the Andes in heaven--but sole-sitting at midnight in a small

chamber--a melancholy man are we--and there seems a smile of

consolation, O Wordsworth! on thy sacred Bust.



Alas! how many heavenly days, seeming immortal in their depth of rest,

have died and been forgotten! Treacherous and ungrateful is our memory

even of bliss that overflowed our being as light our habitation. Our

spirit's deepest intercommunion with nature has no place in her

records--blanks are there that ought to have been painted with

imperishable imagery, and steeped in sentiment fresh as the morning on

life's golden hills. Yet there is mercy in this dispensation--for who

can bear to behold the light of bliss re-arising from the past on the

ghastlier gloom of present misery? The phantoms that will not come when

we call on them to comfort us, are too often at our side when in our

anguish we could almost pray that they might be reburied in oblivion.

Such hauntings as these are not as if they were visionary--they come and

go like forms and shapes still imbued with life. Shall we vainly stretch

out our arms to embrace and hold them fast, or as vainly seek to

intrench ourselves by thought of this world against their visitation?

The soul in its sickness knows not whether it be the duty of love to

resign itself to indifference or to despair. Shall it enjoy life, they

being dead? Shall we, the survivors, for yet a little while, walk in

other companionship out into the day, and let the sunbeams settle on

their heads as they used to do, or cover them with dust and ashes, and

show to those in heaven that love for them is now best expressed by

remorse and penitence?



Sometimes we have fears about our memory--that it is decaying; for,

lately, many ordinary yet interesting occurrences and events, which we

regarded at the time with pain or pleasure, have been slipping away

almost into oblivion, and have often alarmed us of a sudden by their

return, not to any act of recollection, but of themselves, sometimes

wretchedly out of place and season, the mournful obtruding upon the

merry, and worse, the merry upon the mournful--confusion, by no fault of

ours, of piteous and gladsome faces--tears where smiles were a duty as

well as a delight, and smiles where nature demanded, and religion

hallowed, a sacrifice of tears.



For a good many years we have been tied to town in winter by fetters as

fine as frost-work filigree, which we could not break without destroying

a whole world of endearment. That seems an obscure image; but it means

what the Germans would call in English--our winter environment. We are

imprisoned in a net; yet we can see it when we choose--just as a bird

can see, when he chooses, the wires of his cage, that are invisible in

his happiness, as he keeps hopping and fluttering about all day long, or

haply dreaming on his perch with his poll under his plumes--as free in

confinement as if let loose into the boundless sky. That seems an

obscure image too; but we mean, in truth, the prison unto which we doom

ourselves no prison is; and we have improved on that idea, for we have

built our own--and are prisoner, turnkey, and jailer all in one, and

'tis noiseless as the house of sleep. Or what if we declare that

Christopher North is a king in his palace, with no subjects but his own

thoughts--his rule peaceful over those lights and shadows--and

undisputed to reign over them his right divine.



The opening year in a town, now answers in all things to our heart's

desire. How beautiful the smoky air! The clouds have a homely look as

they hang over the happy families of houses, and seem as if they loved

their birthplace;--all unlike those heartless clouds that keep

_stravaiging_ over mountain-tops, and have no domicile in the sky! Poets

speak of living rocks, but what is their life to that of houses? Who

ever saw a rock with eyes--that is, with windows? Stone-blind all, and

stone-deaf, and with hearts of stone; whereas who ever saw a house

without eyes--that is, windows? Our own is an Argus; yet the good old

Conservative grudges not the assessed taxes--his optics are as cheerful

as the day that lends them light, and they love to salute the setting

sun, as if a hundred beacons, level above level, were kindled along a

mountain side. He might safely be pronounced a madman who preferred an

avenue of trees to a street. Why, trees have no chimneys; and, were you

to kindle a fire in the hollow of an oak, you would soon be as dead as a

Druid. It won't do to talk to us of sap, and the circulation of sap. A

grove in winter, hole and branch--leaves it has none--is as dry as a

volume of sermons. But a street, or a square, is full of vital sparks

of heavenly flame as a volume of poetry, and the heart's blood

circulates through the system like rosy wine.



But a truce to comparisons; for we are beginning to feel contrition for

our crime against the country, and, with humbled head and heart, we

beseech you to pardon us--ye rocks of Pavey-Ark, the pillared palaces of

the storms--ye clouds, now wreathing a diadem for the forehead of

Helvellyn--ye trees, that hang the shadows of your undying beauty over

the one perfect chrysolite, of blessed Windermere!



Our meaning is transparent now as the hand of an apparition waving peace

and good-will to all dwellers in the land of dreams. In plainer but not

simpler words (for words are like flowers, often rich in their

simplicity--witness the Lily, and Solomon's Song)--Christian people all,

we wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New-Year, in town or in

country--or in ships at sea.





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