List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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National Gallery one day, trying to make up my mind about Turner, when
this chimney-pot meteor came down. It was like a great yellow dog
taking possession of the world. The light faded from the room, the
pictures ran together in confused masses of shadow on the walls, and in
the street only a dim yellowish twilight prevailed, through which
faintly twinkled the lights in the shop windows. Vehicles came slowly
out of the dirty obscurity on one side and plunged into it on the
other. Waterloo Bridge gave one or two leaps and disappeared, and the
Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square was obliterated for half its length.
Travel was impeded, boats stopped on the river, trains stood still on
the track, and for an hour and a half London lay buried beneath this
sickening eruption. I say eruption, because a London fog is only a
London smoke tempered by a moist atmosphere. It is called "fog" by
courtesy, but lampblack is its chief ingredient. It is not wet like our
fogs, but quite dry, and makes the eyes smart and the nose tingle.
Whenever the sun can be seen through it, his face is red and dirty;
seen through a bona fide fog, his face is clean and white. English
coal--or "coals," as they say here--in burning gives out an enormous
quantity of thick, yellowish smoke, which is at no time absorbed or
dissipated as it would be in our hard, dry atmosphere, and which at
certain times is not absorbed at all, but falls down swollen and
augmented by the prevailing moisture. The atmosphere of the whole
island is more or less impregnated with smoke, even on the fairest
days, and it becomes more and more dense as you approach the great
towns. Yet this compound of smut, fog, and common air is an elixir of
youth; and this is one of the surprises of London, to see amid so much
soot and dinginess such fresh, blooming complexions, and in general
such a fine physical tone and full-bloodedness among the people,--such
as one has come to associate only with the best air and the purest,
wholesomest country influences. What the secret of it may be, I am at a
loss to know, unless it is that the moist atmosphere does not dry up
the blood as our air does, and that the carbon and creosote have some
rare antiseptic and preservative qualities, as doubtless they have,
that are efficacious in the human physiology. It is no doubt true,
also, that the people do not tan in this climate, as in ours, and that
the delicate flesh tints show more on that account.

I speak thus of these things with reference to our standards at home,
because I found that these standards were ever present in my mind, and
that I was unconsciously applying them to whatever I saw and wherever I
went, and often, as I shall have occasion to show, to their discredit.

Climate is a great matter, and no doubt many of the differences between
the English stock at home and its offshoot in our country are traceable
to this source. Our climate is more heady and less stomachic than the
English; sharpens the wit, but dries up the fluids and viscera; favors
an irregular, nervous energy, but exhausts the animal spirits. It is,
perhaps, on this account that I have felt since my return how much
easier it is to be a dyspeptic here than in Great Britain. One's
appetite is keener and more ravenous, and the temptation to bolt one's
food greater. The American is not so hearty an eater as the Englishman,
but the forces of his body are constantly leaving his stomach in the
lurch, and running off into his hands and feet and head. His eyes are
bigger than his belly, but an Englishman's belly is a deal bigger than
his eyes, and the number of plum puddings and the amount of Welsh
rarebit he devours annually would send the best of us to his grave in
half that time. We have not enough constitutional inertia and
stolidity; our climate gives us no rest, but goads us day and night;
and the consequent wear and tear of life is no doubt greater in this
country than in any other on the globe. We are playing the game more
rapidly, and I fear less thoroughly and sincerely, than the mother

The more uniform good health of English women is thought to be a matter
of exercise in the open air, as walking, riding, driving, but the prime
reason is mainly a climatic one, uniform habits of exercise being more
easily kept up in that climate than in this, and being less exhaustive,
one day with another. You can walk there every day in the year without
much discomfort, and the stimulus is about the same. Here it is too hot
in summer and too cold in winter, or else it keys you up too tight one
day and unstrings you the next; all fire and motion in the morning, and
all listlessness and ennui in the afternoon; a spur one hour and a
sedative the next.

A watch will not keep as steady time here as in Britain, and the human
clock-work is more liable to get out of repair for the same reason. Our
women, especially, break down prematurely, and the decay of maternity
in this country is no doubt greater than in any of the oldest civilized
communities. One reason, doubtless, is that our women are the greatest
slaves of fashion in the whole world, and, in following the whims of
that famous courtesan, have the most fickle and destructive climate to
contend with.

English women all have good-sized feet, and Englishmen, too, and wear
large, comfortable shoes. This was a noticeable feature at once:
coarse, loosefitting clothes of both sexes, and large boots and shoes
with low heels. They evidently knew the use of their feet, and had none
of the French, or American, or Chinese fastidiousness about this part
of their anatomy. I notice that, when a family begins to run out, it
turns out its toes, drops off at the heel, shortens its jaw, and dotes
on small feet and hands.

Another promoter of health in England is woolen clothes, which are worn
the year round, the summer driving people into no such extremities as
here. And the good, honest woolen stuffs of one kind and another that
fill the shops attest the need and the taste that prevail. They had a
garment when I was in London called the Ulster overcoat,--a coarse,
shaggy, bungling coat, with a skirt reaching nearly to the feet, very
ugly, tried by the fashion plates, but very comfortable, and quite the
fashion. This very sensible garment has since become well known in

The Americans in London were put out with the tailors, and could rarely
get suited, on account of the loose cutting and the want of "style."
But "style" is the hiatus that threatens to swallow us all one of these
days. About the only monstrosity I saw in the British man's dress was
the stove-pipe hat, which everybody wears. At first I feared it might
be a police regulation, or a requirement of the British Constitution,
for I seemed to be about the only man in the kingdom with a soft hat
on, and I had noticed that before leaving the steamer every man brought
out from its hiding-place one of these polished brain-squeezers. Even
the boys wear them,--youths of nine and ten years with little stovepipe
hats on; and at Eton School I saw black swarms of them: even the boys
in the field were playing football in stove-pipe bats.

What we call beauty in woman is so much a matter of youth and health
that the average of female beauty in London is, I believe, higher than
in this country. English women are comely and good-looking. It is an
extremely fresh and pleasant face that you see everywhere,--softer,
less clearly and sharply cut than the typical female face in this
country,--less spirituelle, less perfect in form, but stronger and
sweeter. There is more blood, and heart, and substance back of it. The
American race of the present generation is doubtless the most shapely,
both in face and figure, that has yet appeared. American children are
far less crude, and lumpy, and awkward-looking than the European
children. One generation in this country suffices vastly to improve the
looks of the offspring of the Irish or German or Norwegian emigrant.
There is surely something in our climate or conditions that speedily
refines and sharpens--and, shall I add, hardens?--the human features.
The face loses something, but it comes into shape; and of such beauty
as is the product of this tendency we can undoubtedly show more,
especially in our women, than the parent stock in Europe; while
American schoolgirls, I believe, have the most bewitching beauty in the

The English plainness of speech is observable even in the signs or
notices along the streets. Instead of "Lodging," "Lodging," as with us,
one sees "Beds," "Beds," which has a very homely sound; and in place of
"gentlemen's" this, that, or the other, about public places, the word
"men's" is used.

I suppose, if it were not for the bond of a written language and
perpetual intercourse, the two nations would not be able to understand
each other in the course of a hundred years, the inflection and
accentuation are so different. I recently heard an English lady say,
referring to the American speech, that she could hardly believe her own
language could be spoken so strangely.


One sees right away that the English are a home people, a domestic
people; and he does not need to go into their houses or homes to find
this out. It is in the air and in the general aspect of things.
Everywhere you see the virtue and quality that we ascribe to home-made
articles. It seems as if things had been made by hand, and with care
and affection, as they have been. The land of caste and kings, there is
yet less glitter and display than in this country, less publicity, and,
of course, less rivalry and emulation also, for which we pay very
dearly. You have got to where the word homely preserves its true
signification, and is no longer a term of disparagement, but expressive
of a cardinal virtue.

I liked the English habit of naming their houses; it shows the
importance they attach to their homes. All about the suburbs of London
and in the outlying villages I noticed nearly every house and cottage
had some appropriate designation, as Terrace House, Oaktree House, Ivy
Cottage, or some Villa, usually cut into the stone gate-post, and this
name is put on the address of the letters. How much better to be known
by your name than by your number! I believe the same custom prevails in
the country, and is common to the middle classes as well as to the
aristocracy. It is a good feature. A house or a farm with an
appropriate name, which everybody recognizes, must have an added value
and importance.

Modern English houses are less showy than ours, and have more weight
and permanence,--no flat roofs and no painted outside shutters. Indeed,
that pride of American country people, and that abomination in the
landscape, a white house with green blinds, I did not see a specimen of
in England. They do not aim to make their houses conspicuous, but the
contrary. They make a large, yellowish brick that has a pleasing effect
in the wall. Then a very short space of time in that climate suffices
to take off the effect of newness, and give a mellow, sober hue to the
building. Another advantage of the climate is that it permits outside
plastering. Thus almost any stone may be imitated, and the work endure
for ages; while our sudden changes, and extremes of heat and cold, of
dampness and dryness, will cause the best work of this kind to peel off
in a few years.

Then this people have better taste in building than we have, perhaps
because they have the noblest samples and specimens of architecture
constantly before them,--those old feudal castles and royal residences,
for instance. I was astonished to see how homely and good they looked,
how little they challenged admiration, and how much they emulated rocks
and trees. They were surely built in a simpler and more poetic age than
this. It was like meeting some plain, natural nobleman after contact
with one of the bedizened, artificial sort. The Tower of London, for
instance, is as pleasing to the eye, has the same fitness and harmony,
as a hut in the woods; and I should think an artist might have the same
pleasure in copying it into his picture as he would in copying a
pioneer's log cabin. So with Windsor Castle, which has the beauty of a
ledge of rocks, and crowns the hill like a vast natural formation. The
warm, simple interior, too, of these castles and palaces, the honest
oak without paint or varnish, the rich wood carvings, the ripe human
tone and atmosphere,--how it all contrasts, for instance, with the
showy, gilded, cast-iron interior of our commercial or political
palaces, where everything that smacks of life or nature is studiously
excluded under the necessity of making the building fire-proof.

I was not less pleased with the higher ornamental architecture,--the
old churches and cathedrals,--which appealed to me in a way
architecture had never before done. In fact, I found that I had never
seen architecture before,--a building with genius and power in it, and
that one could look at with the eye of the imagination. Not mechanics
merely, but poets, had wrought and planned here, and the granite was
tender with human qualities. The plants and weeds growing in the niches
and hollows of the walls, the rooks and martins and jackdaws inhabiting
the towers and breeding about the eaves, are but types of the feelings
and emotions of the human heart that flit and hover over these old
piles, and find affectionate lodgment in them.

Time, of course, has done a great deal for this old architecture.
Nature has taken it lovingly to herself, has set her seal upon it, and
adopted it into her system. Just the foil which beauty--especially the
crystallic beauty of architecture--needs has been given by this hazy,
mellowing atmosphere. As the grace and suggestiveness of all objects
are enhanced by a fall of snow,--forest, fence, hive, shed, knoll,
rock, tree, all being laid under the same white enchantment,--so time
has wrought in softening and toning down this old religious
architecture, and bringing it into harmony with nature.

Our climate has a much keener edge, both of frost and fire, and touches
nothing so gently or creatively; yet time would, no doubt, do much for
our architecture, if we would give it a chance,--for that apotheosis of
prose, the National Capitol at Washington, upon which, I notice, a
returned traveler bases our claim to be considered "ahead" of the Old
World, even in architecture; but the reigning gods interfere, and each
spring or fall give the building a clean shirt in the shape of a coat
of white paint. In like manner, other public buildings never become
acclimated, but are. annually scoured with soap and sand, the national
passion for the brightness of newness interfering to defeat any benison
which the gods might be disposed to pronounce upon them. Spotlessness,
I know, is not a characteristic of our politics, though it is said that
whitewashing is, which may account for this ceaseless paint-pot
renovation of our public buildings. In a world lit only by the moon,
our Capitol would be a paragon of beauty, and the spring whitewashing
could also be endured; but under our blazing sun and merciless sky it

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