List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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parches the vision, and makes it turn with a feeling of relief to rocks
and trees, or to some weather-stained, dilapidated shed or hovel.

How winningly and picturesquely in comparison the old architecture of
London addresses itself to the eye,--St. Paul's Cathedral, for
instance, with its vast blotches and stains, as if it had been dipped
in some black Lethe of oblivion, and then left to be restored by the
rains and the elements! This black Lethe is the London smoke and fog,
which has left a dark deposit over all the building, except the upper
and more exposed parts, where the original silvery whiteness of the
stone shows through, the effect of the whole thus being like one of
those graphic Rembrandt photographs or carbons, the prominences in a
strong light, and the rest in deepest shadow. I was never tired of
looking at this noble building, and of going out of my way to walk
around it; but I am at a loss to know whether the pleasure I had in it
arose from my love of nature, or from a susceptibility to art for which
I had never given myself credit. Perhaps from both, for I seemed to
behold Art turning toward and reverently acknowledging Nature,-indeed,
in a manner already become Nature.

I believe the critics of such things find plenty of fault with St.
Paul's; and even I could see that its bigness was a little prosy, that
it suggested the historic rather than the poetic muse; yet, for all
that, I could never look at it without a profound emotion. Viewed
coolly and critically, it might seem like a vast specimen of
Episcopalianism in architecture. Miltonic in its grandeur and
proportions, and Miltonic in its prosiness and mongrel classicism also,
yet its power and effectiveness are unmistakable. The beholder has no
vantage-ground from which to view it, or to take in its total effect,
on account of its being so closely beset by such a mob of shops and
buildings; yet the glimpses he does get here and there through the
opening made by some street, when passing in its vicinity, are very
striking and suggestive; the thin veil of smoke, which is here as
constant and uniform as the atmosphere itself, wrapping it about with
the enchantment of time and distance.

The interior I found even more impressive than the exterior, perhaps
because I was unprepared for it. I had become used to imposing
exteriors at home, and did not reflect that in a structure like this I
should see an interior also, and that here alone the soul of the
building would be fully revealed. It was Miltonic in the best sense; it
was like the mightiest organ music put into form. Such depths, such
solemn vastness, such gulfs and abysses of architectural space, the
rich, mellow light, the haze outside becoming a mysterious, hallowing
presence within, quite mastered me, and I sat down upon a seat, feeling
my first genuine cathedral intoxication. As it was really an
intoxication, a sense of majesty and power quite overwhelming in my
then uncloyed condition, I speak of it the more freely. My companions
rushed about as if each one had had a searchwarrant in his pocket; but
I was content to uncover my head and drop into a seat, and busy my mind
with some simple object near at hand, while the sublimity that soared
about me stole into my soul and possessed it. My sensation was like
that imparted by suddenly reaching a great altitude: there was a sort
of relaxation of the muscles, followed by a sense of physical weakness;
and after half an hour or so I felt compelled to go out into the open
air, and leave till another day the final survey of the building. Next
day I came back, but there can be only one first time, and I could not
again surprise myself with the same feeling of wonder and intoxication.
But St. Paul's will bear many visits. I came again and again, and never
grew tired of it. Crossing its threshold was entering another world,
where the silence and solitude were so profound and overpowering that
the noise of the streets outside, or of the stream of visitors, or of
the workmen engaged on the statuary, made no impression. They were all
belittled, lost, like the humming of flies. Even the afternoon
services, the chanting, and the tremendous organ, were no interruption,
and left me just as much alone as ever. They only served to set off the
silence, to fathom its depth.

The dome of St. Paul's is the original of our dome at Washington; but
externally I think ours is the more graceful, though the effect inside
is tame and flat in comparison. This is owing partly to its lesser size
and height, and partly to our hard, transparent atmosphere, which lends
no charm or illusion, but mainly to the stupid, unimaginative plan of
it. Our dome shuts down like an inverted iron pot; there is no vista,
no outlook, no relation, and hence no proportion. You open a door and
are in a circular pen, and can look in only one direction,--up. If the
iron pot were slashed through here and there, or if it rested on a row
of tall columns or piers, and were shown to be a legitimate part of the
building, it would not appear the exhausted receiver it does now.

The dome of St. Paul's is the culmination of the whole interior of the
building. Rising over the central area, it seems to gather up the power
and majesty of the nave, the aisles, the transepts, the choir, and give
them expression and expansion in its lofty firmament.

Then those colossal piers, forty feet broad some of them, and nearly
one hundred feet high,--they easily eclipsed what I had recently seen
in a mine, and which I at the time imagined shamed all the architecture
of the world,--where the mountain was upheld over a vast space by
massive piers left by the miners, with a ceiling unrolled over your
head, and apparently descending upon you, that looked like a petrified

The view from the upper gallery, or top of the dome, looking down
inside, is most impressive. The public are not admitted to this
gallery, for fear, the keeper told me, it would become the scene of
suicides; people unable to withstand the terrible fascination would
leap into the yawning gulf. But, with the privilege usually accorded to
Americans, I stepped down into the narrow circle, and, leaning over the
balustrade, coolly looked the horrible temptation in the face.

On the whole, St. Paul's is so vast and imposing that one wonders what
occasion or what ceremony can rise to the importance of not being
utterly dwarfed within its walls. The annual gathering of the charity
children, ten or twelve thousand in number, must make a ripple or two
upon its solitude, or an exhibition like the thanksgiving of the Queen,
when sixteen or eighteen thousand persons were assembled beneath its
roof. But one cannot forget that it is, for the most part, a great
toy,--a mammoth shell, whose bigness bears no proportion to the living
(if, indeed, it is living), indwelling necessity. It is a tenement so
large that the tenant looks cold and forlorn, and in danger of being
lost within it.

No such objection can be made to Westminster Abbey, which is a mellow,
picturesque old place, the interior arrangement and architecture of
which affects one like some ancient, dilapidated forest. Even the
sunlight streaming through the dim windows, and falling athwart the
misty air, was like the sunlight of a long-gone age. The very
atmosphere was pensive, and filled the tall spaces like a memory and a
dream. I sat down and listened to the choral service and to the organ,
which blended perfectly with the spirit and sentiment of the place.


One of my best days in England was spent amid the singing of skylarks
on the South Down Hills, near an old town at the mouth of the Little
Ouse, where I paused on my way to France. The prospect of hearing one
or two of the classical birds of the Old World had not been the least
of the attractions of my visit, though I knew the chances were against
me so late in the season, and I have to thank my good genius for
guiding me to the right place at the right time. To get out of London
was delight enough, and then to find myself quite unexpectedly on these
soft rolling hills, of a mild October day, in full sight of the sea,
with the larks pouring out their gladness overhead, was to me good
fortune indeed.

The South Downs form a very remarkable feature of this part of England,
and are totally unlike any other landscape I ever saw. I believe it is
Huxley who applies to them the epithet of muttony, which they certainly
deserve, for they are like the backs of immense sheep, smooth, and
round, and fat,--so smooth, indeed, that the eye can hardly find a
place to take hold of, not a tree, or bush, or fence, or house, or
rock, or stone, or other object, for miles and miles, save here and
there a group of strawcapped stacks, or a flock of sheep crawling
slowly over them, attended by a shepherd and dog, and the only lines
visible those which bound the squares where different crops had been
gathered. The soil was rich and mellow, like a garden,--hills of chalk
with a pellicle of black loam.

These hills stretch a great distance along the coast, and are cut
squarely off by the sea, presenting on this side a chain of white chalk
cliffs suggesting the old Latin name of this land, Albion.

Before I had got fifty yards from the station I began to hear the
larks, and being unprepared for them I was a little puzzled at first,
but was not long discovering what luck I was in. The song disappointed
me at first, being less sweet and melodious than I had expected to
hear; indeed, I thought it a little sharp and harsh,--a little
stubbly,--but in other respects, in strength and gladness and
continuity, it was wonderful. And the more I heard it the better I
liked it, until I would gladly have given any of my songsters at home
for a bird that could shower down such notes, even in autumn. Up, up,
went the bird, describing a large easy spiral till he attained an
altitude of three or four hundred feet, when, spread out against the
sky for a space of ten or fifteen minutes or more, he poured out his
delight, filling all the vault with sound. The song is of the sparrow
kind, and, in its best parts, perpetually suggested the notes of our
vesper sparrow; but the wonder of it is its copiousness and sustained
strength. There is no theme, no beginning, middle, or end, like most of
our best birdsongs, but a perfect swarm of notes pouring out like bees
from a hive, and resembling each other nearly as closely, and only
ceasing as the bird nears the earth again. We have many more melodious
songsters; the bobolink in the meadows for instance, the vesper sparrow
in the pastures, the purple finch in the groves, the winter wren, or
any of the thrushes in the woods, or the wood-wagtail, whose air song
is of a similar character to that of the skylark, and is even more
rapid and ringing, and is delivered in nearly the same manner; but our
birds all stop when the skylark has only just begun. Away he goes on
quivering wing, inflating his throat fuller and fuller, mounting and
mounting, and turning to all points of the compass as if to embrace the
whole landscape in his song, the notes still raining upon you, as
distinct as ever, after you have left him far behind. You feel that you
need be in no hurry to observe the song lest the bird finish; you walk
along, your mind reverts to other things, you examine the grass and
weeds, or search for a curious stone, still there goes the bird; you
sit down and study the landscape, or send your thoughts out toward
France or Spain, or across the sea to your own land, and yet, when you
get them back, there is that song above you, almost as unceasing as the
light of a star. This strain indeed suggests some rare pyrotechnic
display, musical sounds being substituted for the many-colored sparks
and lights. And yet I will add, what perhaps the best readers do not
need to be told, that neither the lark-song, nor any other bird-song in
the open air and under the sky, is as noticeable a feature as my
description of it might imply, or as the poets would have us believe;
and that most persons, not especially interested in birds or their
notes, and intent upon the general beauty of the landscape, would
probably pass it by unremarked.

I suspect that it is a little higher flight than the facts will bear
out when the writers make the birds go out of sight into the sky. I
could easily follow them on this occasion, though, if I took my eye
away for a moment, it was very difficult to get it back again. I had to
search for them as the astronomer searches for a star. It may be that
in the spring, when the atmosphere is less clear and the heart of the
bird full of a more mad and reckless love, that the climax is not
reached until the eye loses sight of the singer.

Several attempts have been made to introduce the lark into this
country, but for some reason or other the experiment has never
succeeded. The birds have been liberated in Virginia and on Long
Island, but do not seem ever to have been heard of afterwards. I see no
reason why they should not thrive anywhere along our Atlantic seaboard,
and I think the question of introducing them worthy of more thorough
and serious attention than has yet been given it, for the lark is
really an institution; and as he sings long after the other birds are
silent,--as if he had perpetual spring in his heart,--he would be a
great acquisition to our fields and meadows. It may be that he cannot
stand the extremes of our climate, though the English sparrow thrives
well enough. The Smithsonian Institution has received specimens of the
skylark from Alaska, where, no doubt, they find a climate more like the

They have another prominent singer in England, namely, the robin,--the
original robin redbreast,--a slight, quick, active bird with an orange
front and an olive back, and a bright, musical warble that I caught by
every garden, lane, and hedge-row. It suggests our bluebird, and has
similar habits and manners, though it is a much better musician.

The European bird that corresponds to our robin is the blackbird, of
which Tennyson sings:--

       "O Blackbird, sing me something well;
       While all the neighbors shoot thee round
       I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground
       Where thou may'st warble, eat, and dwell."

It quite startled me to see such a resemblance,--to see, indeed, a
black robin. In size, form, flight, manners, note, call, there is
hardly an appreciable difference. The bird starts up with the same
flirt of the wings, and calls out in the same jocund, salutatory way,
as he hastens off. The nest, of coarse mortar in the fork of a tree, or
in an outbuilding, or in the side of a wall, is also the same.

The bird I wished most to hear, namely, the nightingale, had already
departed on its southern journey. I saw one in the Zoological Gardens
in London, and took a good look at him. He struck me as bearing a close
resemblance to our hermit thrush, with something in his manners that
suggested the water-thrush also. Carlyle said he first recognized its
song from the description of it in "Wilhelm Meister," and that it was a

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