Leigh Hunt

A day by the fire

I am one of those that delight in a fireside, and can enjoy it without even the help of a cat or a tea-kettle. To cats, indeed, I have an aversion, as animals that only affect a sociality, without caring a jot for any thing but their own luxury; and my tea-kettle, I frankly confess, has long been displaced, or rather dismissed, by a bronze-colored and graceful urn; though, between ourselves, I am not sure that I have gained any thing by the exchange. Cowper, it is true, talks of the “bubbling and loud-hissing urn,” which—

Throws up a steamy column;

but there was something so primitive and unaffected, so warm-hearted and unpresuming, in the tea-kettle,—its song was so much more cheerful and continued, and it kept the water so hot and comfortable as long as you wanted it,—that I sometimes feel as if I had sent off a good, plain, faithful old friend, who had but one wish to serve me, for a superficial, smooth-faced upstart of a fellow, who, after a little promising and vaporing, grows cold and contemptuous, and thinks himself bound to do nothing but stand on a rug and have his person admired by the circle. To this admiration, in fact, I have been obliged to resort, in order to make myself think well of my bargain, if possible; and, accordingly, I say to myself every now and then during the tea, “A pretty look with it,—that urn;” or, “It’s wonderful what a taste the Greeks had;” or, “The eye might have a great many enjoyments, if people would but look after forms and shapes.” In the mean while, the urn leaves off its “bubbling and hissing,”—but then there is such an air with it! My tea is made of cold water,—but then, the Greeks were such a nation!

If there is any one thing that can reconcile me to the loss of my kettle, more than another, it is that my fire has been left to itself: it has full room to breathe and to blaze, and I can poke it as I please. What recollections does that idea excite?—Poke it as I please! Think, benevolent reader,—think of the pride and pleasure of having in your hand that awful, but at the same time artless, weapon, a poker,—of putting it into the proper bar, gently levering up the coals, and seeing the instant and bustling flame above! To what can I compare that moment? that sudden, empyreal enthusiasm? that fiery expression of vivification? that ardent acknowledgment, as it were, of the care and kindliness of the operator? Let me consider a moment: it is very odd; I was always reckoned a lively hand at a simile; but language and combination absolutely fail me here. If it is like any tiling, it must be something beyond every thing in beauty and life. Oh, I have it now: think, reader, if you are one of those who can muster up sufficient sprightliness to engage in a game of forfeits,—on Twelfth night, for instance,—think of a blooming girl who is condemned to “open her mouth and shut her eyes, and see what heaven,” in the shape of a mischievous young fellow, “will send her.” Her mouth is opened accordingly, the fire of her eyes is dead, her face assumes a doleful air; up walks the aforesaid heaven or mischievous young fellow (young Ouranos, Hesiod would have called him), and, instead of a piece of paper, a thimble, or a cinder, claps into her mouth a peg of orange or a long slice of citron; then her eyes above instantly light up again, the smiles wreath about, the sparklings burst forth, and all is warmth, brilliancy, and delight. I am aware that this simile is not perfect; but if it would do for an epic poem, as I think it might, after Virgil’s whipping-tops and Homer’s jackasses and black-puddings, the reader, perhaps, will not quarrel with it.

But to describe my feelings in an orderly manner, I must request the reader to go with me through a day’s enjoyments by the fireside. It is part of my business to look about for helps to reflection; and, for this reason, among many others, I indulge myself in keeping a good fire from morning till night. I have also a reflective turn for an easy chair, and a very thinking attachment to comfort in general. But of this as I proceed. Imprimis, then: the morning is clear and cold; time, half-past seven; scene, a breakfast-room. Some persons, by the by, prefer a thick and rainy morning, with a sobbing wind, and the clatter of pattens along the streets; but I confess, for my own part, that being a sedentary person, and too apt to sin against the duties of exercise, I have somewhat too sensitive a consciousness of bad weather, and feel a heavy sky go over me like a feather-bed, or rather like a huge brush which rubs all my nap the wrong way. I am growing better in this respect, and, by the help of a stout walk at noon, and getting, as it were, fairly into a favorite poet and a warm fire of an evening, begin to manage a cloud or an east wind tolerably well; but still, for perfection’s sake on the present occasion, I must insist upon my clear morning, and will add to it, if the reader pleases, a little hoar-frost upon the windows, a bird or two coming after the crumbs, and the light smoke from the neighboring chimneys brightening up into the early sunshine. Even the dustman’s bell is not unpleasant from its association; and there is something absolutely musical in the clash of the milk-pails suddenly unyoked, and the ineffable, ad libitum note that follows.

The waking epicure rises with an elastic anticipation; enjoys the freshening cold water which endears what is to come; and even goes placidly through the villanous scraping process which we soften down into the level and lawny appellation of shaving. He then hurries down stairs, rubbing his hands, and sawing the sharp air through his teeth; and, as he enters the breakfast-room, sees his old companion glowing through the bars, the life of the apartment, and wanting only his friendly hand to be lightened a little, and enabled to shoot up into dancing brilliancy. (I find I am getting into a quantity of epithets here, and must rein in my enthusiasm.) What need I say? The poker is applied, and would be so whether required or not, for it is impossible to resist the sudden ardor inspired by that sight? The use of the poker, on first seeing one’s fire, is as natural as shaking hands with a friend. At that movement a hundred little sparkles fly up from the coal-dust that falls within, while from the masses themselves, a roaring flame mounts aloft with a deep and fitful sound as of a shaken carpet,—epithets again; I must recur to poetry at once:—

Then shine the bars, the cakes in smoke aspire,
A sudden glory bursts from all the fire.
The conscious wight, rejoicing in the heat,
Rubs the blithe knees, and toasts th’ alternate feet.

The utility, as well as beauty, of the fire during breakfast, need not be pointed out to the most unphlogistic observer. A person would rather be shivering at any time of the day than at that of his first rising; the transition would be too unnatural,—he is not prepared for it, as Barnardine says, when he objects to being hanged. If you eat plain bread and butter with your tea, it is fit that your moderation should be rewarded with a good blaze; and if you indulge in hot rolls or toast, you will hardly keep them to their warmth without it, particularly if you read; and then, if you take in a newspaper, what a delightful change from the wet, raw, dabbing fold of paper when you first touch it, to the dry, crackling, crisp superficies which, with a skilful spat of the finger-nails at its upper end, stands at once in your hand, and looks as if it said, “Come read me.” Nor is it the look of the newspaper only which the fire must render complete: it is the interest of the ladies who may happen to form part of your family,—of your wife in particular, if you have one,—to avoid the niggling and pinching aspect of cold; it takes away the harmony of her features, and the graces of her behavior; while, on the other hand, there is scarcely a more interesting sight in the world than that of a neat, delicate, good-humored female presiding at your breakfast-table, with hands tapering out of her long sleeves, eyes with a touch of Sir Peter Lely in them, and a face set in a little oval frame of muslin tied under the chin, and retaining a certain tinge of the pillow without its cloudiness. This is, indeed, the finishing grace of a fireside, though it is impossible to have it at all times, and perhaps not always politic,—especially for the studious.

From breakfast to dinner, the quantity and quality of enjoyment depend very much on the nature of one’s concerns; and occupation of any kind, if we pursue it properly, will hinder us from paying a critical attention to the fireside. It is sufficient, if our employments do not take us away from it, or at least from the genial warmth of a room which it adorns,—unless, indeed, we are enabled to have recourse to exercise; and in that case, I am not so unjust as to deny that walking or riding has its merits, and that the general glow they diffuse throughout the frame has something in it so extremely pleasurable and encouraging; nay, I must not scruple to confess that, without some preparation of this kind, the enjoyment of the fireside, humanly speaking, is not absolutely perfect, as I have latterly been convinced by a variety of incontestable arguments in the shape of headaches, rheumatisms, mote-haunted eyes, and other logical appeals to one’s feelings which are in great use with physicians. Supposing, therefore, the morning to be passed, and the due portion of exercise to have been taken, the firesider fixes rather an early hour for dinner, particularly in the winter-time; for he has not only been early at breakfast, but there are two luxurious intervals to enjoy between dinner and the time of candles: one that supposes a party round the fire with their wine and fruit; the other, the hour of twilight, of which it has been reasonably doubted whether it is not the most luxurious point of time which a fireside can present; but opinions will naturally be divided on this as on all other subjects, and every degree of pleasure depends upon so many contingencies, and upon such a variety of associations, induced by habit and opinion, that I should be as unwilling as I am unable to decide on the matter. This, however, is certain, that no true firesider can dislike an hour so composing to his thoughts, and so cherishing to his whole faculties; and it is equally certain that he will be little inclined to protract the dinner beyond what he can help, for if ever a fireside becomes unpleasant, it is during that gross and pernicious prolongation of eating and drinking, to which this latter age has given itself up, and which threatens to make the rising generation regard a meal of repletion as the ultimatum of enjoyment.

The inconvenience to which I allude is owing to the way in which we sit at dinner, for the persons who have their backs to the fire are liable to be scorched, while, at the same time, they render the persons opposite them liable to be frozen: so that the fire becomes uncomfortable to the former, and tantalizing to the latter; and thus three evils are produced, of a most absurd and scandalous nature: in the first place, the fireside loses a degree of its character, and awakens feelings the very reverse of what it should; secondly, the position of the back towards it is a neglect and affront, which it becomes it to resent; and finally, its beauties, its proffered kindness, and its sprightly social effect are at once cut off from the company by the interposition of those invidious and idle surfaces called screens. This abuse is the more ridiculous, inasmuch as the remedy is so easy: for we have nothing to do but to use semicircular dining-tables, with the base unoccupied towards the fireplace, and the whole annoyance vanishes at once; the master or mistress might preside in the middle, as was the custom with the Romans, and thus propriety would be observed, while everybody had the sight and benefit of the fire; not to mention that, by this fashion, the table might be brought nearer to it, that the servants would have better access to the dishes, and that screens, if at all necessary, might be turned to better purpose as a general enclosure instead of a separation.

But I hasten from dinner, according to notice; and cannot but observe that, if you have a small set of visitors who enter into your feelings on this head, there is no movement so pleasant as a general one from the table to the fireside, each person taking his glass with him, and a small, slim-legged table being introduced into the circle for the purpose of holding the wine, and perhaps a poet or two, a glee-book, or a lute. If this practice should become general among those who know how to enjoy luxuries in such temperance as not to destroy conversation, it would soon gain for us another social advantage, by putting an end to the barbarous custom of sending away the ladies after dinner, —a gross violation of those chivalrous graces of life, for which modern times are so highly indebted to the persons whom they are pleased to term Gothic. And here I might digress, with no great impropriety, to show the snug notions that were entertained by the knights and damsels of old in all particulars relating to domestic enjoyment, especially in the article of mixed company; but I must not quit the fireside, and will only observe that, as the ladies formed its chief ornament, so they constituted its most familiar delight.

The minstralcie, the service at the feste,
The grete yeftes to the most and leste,
The riche array of Theseus’ paleis,
Ne who sate first, ne last upon the deis,
What ladies fairest ben, or best dancing,
Or which of hem can carole best or sing,
Ne who most felingly speketh of love;
What haukis sitten on the perch above,
What houndis liggen on the flour adoun,—
Of all this now make I no mencioun.
             — CHAUCER

The word snug, however, reminds me that amidst all the languages, ancient and modern, it belongs exclusively to our own; and that nothing but a want of ideas suggested by that soul-wrapping epithet could have induced certain frigid connoisseurs to tax our climate with want of genius,—supposing, forsooth, that because we have not the sunshine of the Southern countries, we have no other warmth for our veins, and that, because our skies are not hot enough to keep us in doors, we have no excursiveness of wit and range of imagination. It seems to me that a great deal of good argument in refutation of these calumnies has been wasted upon Monsieur du Bos and the Herr Winckelman: the one a narrow-minded, pedantic Frenchman, to whom the freedom of our genius was incomprehensible; the other, an Italianized German, who being suddenly transported into the sunshine, began frisking about with unwieldy vivacity, and concluded that nobody could be great or bewitching out of the pale of his advantages. Milton, it is true, in his “Paradise Lost,” expresses an injudicious apprehension lest—

                 An age too late, or cold
Climate, or years, damp his intended wing;

but the very complaint which foreign critics bring against him, as well as Shakespeare, is that his wing was not damped enough,—that it was too daring and unsubdued; and he not only avenges himself nobly of his fears by a flight beyond all Italian poetry, but shows, like the rest of his countrymen, that he could turn the coldness of his climate into a new species of inspiration, as I shall presently make manifest. Not to mention, however, that the Greeks and Romans, Homer in particular, saw a great deal worse weather than these critics would have us imagine; the question is, would the poets themselves have thought as they did? Would Tyrtaeus, the singer of patriotism, have complained of being an Englishman? Would Virgil, who delighted in husbandry, and whose first wish was to be a philosopher, have complained of living in our pastures, and being the countryman of Newton? Would Homer, the observer of character, the panegyrist of freedom, the painter of storms, of landscapes, and of domestic tenderness,—aye, and the lover of snug house-room and a good dinner,—would he have complained of our humors, of our liberty, of our shifting skies, of our ever-green fields, our conjugal happiness, our firesides, and our hospitality? I only wish the reader and I had him at this party of ours after dinner, with a lyre on his knee, and a goblet, as he says, to drink as he pleased,—

———Piein, hote thumos anogoi.
          —Odyss. lib. viii. v. 70.

I am much mistaken if our blazing fire and our freedom of speech would not give him a warmer inspiration than ever he felt in the person of Demodocus, even though placed on a lofty seat, and regaled with slices of brawn from a prince’s table. The ancients, in fact, were by no means deficient in enthusiasm at sight of a good fire; and it is to be presumed that, if they had enjoyed such firesides as ours, they would have acknowledged the advantages which our genius presents in winter, and almost been ready to conclude, with old Cleveland, that the sun himself was nothing but—

                    Heaven’s coalery;—
A coal-pit rampant, or a mine on flame.

The ancient hearth was generally in the middle of the room, the ceiling of which let out the smoke; it was supplied with charcoal or faggots, and consisted sometimes of a brazier or chafing-dish (the focus of the Romans), sometimes of a mere elevation or altar (the εστια or εσχαρα of the Greeks). We may easily imagine the smoke and annoyance which this custom must have occasioned,— not to mention the bad complexions which are caught by hanging over a fuming-pan, as the faces of the Spanish ladies bear melancholy witness. The stoves, however, in use with the countrymen of Mons. du Bos and Winckelman are, if possible, still worse, having a dull, suffocating effect, with nothing to recompense the eye. The abhorrence of them which Ariosto expresses in one of his satires, when, justifying his refusal to accompany Cardinal d’Este into Germany, he reckons up the miseries of its wintertime, may have led M. Winckelman to conclude that all the Northern resources against cold were equally intolerable to an Italian genius; but Count Alfieri, a poet, at least as warmly inclined as Ariosto, delighted in England; and the great romancer himself, in another of his satires, makes a commodious fireplace the climax of his wishes with regard to lodging. In short, what did Horace say, or rather what did he not say, of the raptures of in-door sociality,—Horace, who knew how to enjoy sunshine in all its luxury, and who nevertheless appears to have snatched a finer inspiration from absolute frost and snow?

I need not quote all those beautiful little invitations he sent to his acquaintances, telling one of them that a neat room and a sparkling fire were waiting for him; describing to another the smoke springing out of the roof in curling volumes, and even congratulating his friends in general on the opportunity of enjoyment afforded them by a stormy day; but, to take leave at once of these frigid connoisseurs, hear with what rapture he describes one of those friendly parties, in which he passed his winter evenings, and which only wanted the finish of our better morality and our patent fireplaces, to resemble the one I am now fancying.

Vides, ut altâ stet nive candidum
Soracte, nec jam sustineant onus
     Silvæ laborantes, geluque
          Flumina constiterint acuto:

Dissolve frigus ligna super foco
Largé reponens, atque benigniùs
     Deprome quadrimum Sabinâ,
          O Thaliarche, merum diotâ.

Permitte Divis caetera; . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Donec virenti canities abest
Morosa. Nunc et campus, et areæ,
     Lenesque sub noctem susurri
          Compositâ repetantur horâ;

Nunc et latentis proditor intimo
Gratus puellæ risus ab angulo,
     Pignusque dereptum lacertis
          Aut digito male pertinaci
                                        LIB. I. OD. 9.

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
     Made higher with new mounts of snow;
Again behold the winter’s weight
     Oppress the lab’ring woods below,
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumb’d and crampt to solid ground.

With well-heap’d fogs dissolve the cold,
     And feed the genial hearth with fires,
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
     And sprightly wit and mirth inspires.
For what hereafter shall betide,
Jove, if ‘tis worth his care, provide.
          *     *     *     *     *
Th’ appointed hour of promis’d bliss,
     The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half unwilling, willing kiss,
     The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign,
And hides but to be found again,
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

The Roman poet, however, though he occasionally boasts of his temperance, is too apt to lose sight of the intellectual part of his entertainment, or at least to make the sensual part predominate over the intellectual; Now, I reckon the nicety of social enjoyment to consist in the reverse; and, after partaking with Homer of his plentiful boiled and roast, and with Horace of his flower-crowned wine-parties, the poetical reader must come at last to us barbarians of the North for the perfection of fireside festivity,—that is to say, for the union of practical philosophy with absolute merriment,—for light meals and unintoxicating glasses; for refection that administers to enjoyment, instead of repletions that at once constitute and contradict it. I am speaking, of course, not of our commonplace eaters and drinkers, but of our classical arbiters of pleasure, as contrasted with those of other countries; these, it is observable, have all delighted in Horace, and copied him as far as their tastes were congenial; but, without relaxing a jot of their real comfort, how pleasingly does their native philosophy temper and adorn the freedom of their conviviality,—feeding the fire, as it were, with an equable fuel that hinders it alike from scorching and from going out, and, instead of the artificial enthusiasm of a heated body, enabling them to enjoy the healthful and unclouded predominance of a sparkling intelligence! It is curious, indeed, to see how distinct from all excess are their freest and heartiest notions of relaxation. Thus our old poet, Drayton, reminding his favourite companion of a fireside meeting, expressly unites freedom with moderation:—

My dearly loved friend, how oft have we
In winter evenings, meaning to be free,
To some well-chosen place us’d to retire,
And there with moderate meat, and wine, and fire,
Have pass’d the hours contentedly in chat,
Now talk’d of this, and then discours’d of that,—
Spoke our own verses ‘twixt ourselves, —if not
Other men’s lines, which we by chance had got.
                              EPISTLE TO HENRY REYNOLDS, ESQ., of Poets and Poesy.

And Milton, in his “Sonnet to Cyriack Skinner,” one of the turns of which is plainly imitated from Horace, particularly qualifies a strong invitation to merriment by anticipating what Horace would always drive from your reflections,—the feelings of the day after:—

Cyriack, whose Grandsire, on the royal bench
     Of British Themis, with no mean applause
     Pronounc’d, and in his volumes taught, our laws,
Which others at their bar so often wrench;
To-day deep thoughts resolve with me to drench
     In mirth, that, after, no repenting draws.

     Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause,
And what the Swede intends, and what the French
To measure life learn thou betimes, and know
     Tow’rd solid good what leads the nearest way
     For other things mild Heav’n a time ordains,
And disapproves that care, though wise in show,
     That with superfluous burden loads the day,
          And when God sends a cheerful hour, refrains.

But the execution of this sonnet is not to be compared in gracefulness and a finished sociality with the one addressed to his friend Lawrence, which, as it presents us with the acme of elegant repast, may conclude the hour which I have just been describing, and conduct us complacently to our twilight,—

Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son,
     Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire,
     Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day, —what may be won
From the hard season gaining? Time will run
     On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire
     The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, that neither sown nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
     Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well-touch’d, and artful voice
     Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?
     He who of these delights can judge, and spare
          To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

But twilight comes: and the lover of the fireside, for the perfection of the moment, is now alone. He was reading a minute or two ago, and for some time was unconscious of the increasing dusk, till, on looking up, he perceived the objects out of doors deepening into massy outline, while the sides of his fireplace began to reflect the light of the flames, and the shadow of himself and his chair fidgeted with huge obscurity on the wall. Still wishing to read, he pushed himself nearer and nearer the window, and continued fixing on his book till he happened to take another glance out of doors, and on returning to it, could make out nothing. He therefore lays it aside, and restoring his chair to the fireplace, seats himself right before it in a reclining posture, his feet apart upon the fender, his eyes bent down towards the grate, his arms on the chair’s elbows, one hand hanging down, and the palm of the other turned up and presented to the fire,—not to keep it from him, for there is no glare or scorch about it, but to intercept and have a more kindly feel of its genial warmth. It is thus that the greatest and wisest of mankind have sat and meditated; a homely truism, perhaps, but such a one as we are apt enough to forget. We talk of going to Athens or to Rome to see the precise objects which the Greeks and Romans beheld; and forget that the moon, which may be looking upon us at the moment, is the same identical planet that enchanted Homer and Virgil and that has been contemplated and admired by all the great men and geniuses that have existed: by Socrates and Plato in Athens, by the Antonines in Rome, by the Alfreds, the I’Hospitals, the Miltons, Newtons, and Shakespeares. In like manner, we are anxious to discover how these great men and poets appeared in common, what habits they loved, in what way they talked and meditated, nay, in what postures they delighted to sit, and whether they indulged in the same tricks and little comforts that we do. Look at nature and their works, and we shall see that they did; and that, when we act naturally and think earnestly, we are reflecting their commonest habits to the life. Thus we have seen Horace talking of his blazing hearth and snug accommodations like the jolliest of our acquaintances; and thus we may safely imagine that Milton was in some such attitude as I have described, when he sketched that enchanting little picture which beats all the cabinet portraits that have been produced,—

Or if the air will not permit,
Some still removed place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm.

But to attend to our fireside. The evening is beginning to gather in. The window, which presents a large face of watery gray, intersected by strong lines, is imperceptibly becoming darker; and as that becomes darker, the fire assumes a more glowing presence. The contemplatist keeps his easy posture, absorbed in his fancies; and every thing around him is still and serene. The stillness would even ferment in his ear, and whisper, as it were, of what the air contained; but a minute coil, just sufficient to hinder that busier silence, clicks in the baking coal, while every now and then the light ashes shed themselves below, or a stronger, but still a gentle, flame flutters up with a gleam over the chimney. At length, the darker objects in the room mingle; the gleam of the fire streaks with a restless light the edges of the furniture, and reflects itself in the blackening window; while his feet take a gentle move on the fender, and then settle again, and his face comes out of the general darkness, earnest even in indolence, and pale in the very ruddiness of what it looks upon: This is the only time, perhaps, at which sheer idleness is salutary and refreshing. How observed with the smallest effort is every trick and aspect of the fire! A coal falling in, a fluttering flame, a miniature mockery of a flash of lightning,—nothing escapes the eye and the imagination. Sometimes a little flame appears at the corner of the grate like a quivering spangle; sometimes it swells out at top into a restless and brief lambency; anon it is seen only by a light beneath the grate, or it curls around one of the bars like a tongue, or darts out with a spiral thinness and a sulphurous and continued puffing as from a reed. The glowing coals meantime exhibit the shifting forms of hills and vales and gulfs,—of fiery Alps, whose heat is uninhabitable even by spirit, or of black precipices, from which swart fairies seem about to• spring away on sable wings; then heat and fire are forgotten, and walled towns appear, and figures of unknown animals, and far-distant countries scarcely to be reached by human journey; then coaches and camels, and barking dogs as large as either, and forms that combine every shape and suggest every fancy, till at last, the ragged coals tumbling together, reduce the vision to chaos, and the huge profile of a gaunt and grinning face seems to make a jest of all that has passed.

During these creations of the eye, the thought roves about into a hundred abstractions, some of them suggested by the fire, some of them suggested by that suggestion, some of them arising from the general sensation of comfort and composure, contrasted with whatever the world affords of evil, or dignified by high wrought meditation on whatsoever gives hope to benevolence and inspiration to wisdom. The philosopher at such moments plans his Utopian schemes, and dreams of happy certainties which he cannot prove; the lover, happier and more certain, fancies his mistress with him, unobserved and confiding, his arm round her waist, her head upon his shoulder, and earth and heaven contained in that sweet possession; the poet, thoughtful as the one, and ardent as the other, springs off at once above the world, treads every turn of the harmonious spheres, darts up with gleaming wings through the sunshine of a thousand systems, and stops not till he has found a perfect paradise, whose fields are of young roses, and whose air is music, whose waters are the liquid diamond, whose light is as radiance through crystal, whose dwellings are laurel bowers, whose language is poetry, whose inhabitants are congenial souls, and to enter the very verge of whose atmosphere strikes beauty on the face, and felicity on the heart. Alas, that flights so lofty should ever be connected with earth by threads as slender as they are long, and that the least twitch of the most commonplace hand should be able to snatch down the viewless wanderer to existing comforts! The entrance of a single candle dissipates at once the twilight and the sunshine, and the ambitious dreamer is summoned to his tea!

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let tall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Never was snug hour more feelingly commenced! Cowper was not a great poet; his range was neither wide nor lofty; but such as it was, he had it completely to himself—he is the poet of quiet life and familiar observation. The fire, we see, is now stirred, and becomes very different from the one we have just left; it puts on its liveliest aspect in order to welcome those to whom the tea-table is a point of meeting, and it is the business of the firesider to cherish this aspect for the remainder of the evening. How light and easy the coals look! How ardent is the roominess within the bars! How airily do the volumes of smoke course each other up the chimney, like so many fantastic and indefinite spirits, while the eye in vain endeavours to accompany anyone of them! The flames are not so fierce as in the morning, but still they are active and powerful; and if they do not roar up the chimney, they make a constant and playful noise that is extremely to the purpose. Here they come out at top with a leafy . swirl; there they dart up spirally and at once; there they form a lambent assemblage that shifts about on its own ground, and is continually losing and regaining its vanishing members. I confess I take particular delight in seeing a good blaze at top; and my impatience to produce it will sometimes lead me into great rashness in the article of poking; that is to say, I use the poker at the top instead of the middle of the fire, and go probing it about in search of a flame. A lady of my acquaintance,—“near and dear,” as they say in Parliament,-will tell me of this fault twenty times in a day, and every time so good-humouredly that it is mere want of generosity in me not to amend it; but somehow or other I do not. The consequence is that, after a momentary ebullition of blaze, the fire becomes dark and sleepy, and is in danger of going out: It is like a boy at school in the hands of a bad master, who, thinking him dull, and being impatient to render him brilliant, beats him about the head and ears till he produces the very evil he would prevent. But, on the present occasion, I forbear to use the poker; there is no need of it: every thing is comfortable,—every thing snug and sufficient. How equable is the warmth around us! How cherishing this rug to one’s feet! How complacent the cup at one’s lip! What a fine broad light is diffused from the fire over the circle, gleaming in the urn and the polished mahogany, bringing out the white garments of the ladies, and giving a poetic warmth to their face and hair! I need not mention all the good things that are said at tea,—still less the gallant. Good humour never has an audience more disposed to think it wit, nor gallantry an hour of service more blameless and elegant. Ever since tea has been known, its clear and gentle powers of inspiration have been acknowledged, from Waller paying his court at the circle of Catharine of Braganza, to Dr. Johnson receiving homage at the parties of Mrs. Thrale. The former, in his lines, upon hearing it “commended by her Majesty,” ranks it at once above myrtle and laurel, and her Majesty, of course, agreed with him:—

Venus her myrtle, Phæbus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of queens, and best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation, which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun does rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse’s friend, Tea, does our fancy aid,
Repress those vapours which the head invade,
And keeps that palace of the soul serene,
Fit, on her birth-day, to salute the Queen.

The eulogies pronounced on his favourite beverage by Dr. Johnson, are too well known to be repeated here; and the commendatory inscription of the Emperor Kien Long, to an European taste at least, is somewhat too dull, unless his Majesty’s teapot has been shamefully translated. For my own part, though I have the highest respect, as I have already shown, for this genial drink, which is warm to the cold, and cooling to the warm, I confess, as Montaigne would have said, that I prefer coffee,—particularly in my political capacity:—

Coffee, that makes the Politician wise
To see through all things with his half-shut eyes.

There is something in it, I think, more lively, and, at the same time, more substantial. Besides, I never see it but it reminds me of the Turks and their Arabian tales,—an association infinitely preferable to any Chinese ideas; and, like the king who put his head into the tub, I am transported into distant lands the moment I dip into the coffee-cup,—at one minute ranging the valleys with Sindbad, at another encountering the fairies on the wing by moonlight, at a third exploring the haunts of the cursed Maugraby, or wrapt into the silence of that delicious solitude from which Prince Agib was carried by the fatal horse. Then, if I wish to poeticize upon it at home, there is Belinda, with her sylphs, drinking it in such state as nothing but poetry can supply:—

For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crown’d,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round:
On shining altars of japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze;
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
And China’s earth receives the smoking tide:
At once they gratify the scent and taste,
And frequent cups prolong the rich repast.
Straight hover round the fair her airy band;
Some, as she sipp’d, the fuming liquor fann’d;
Some o’er her lap their careful plumes display’d,
Trembling, and conscious of the rich brocade.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the general association of ideas is at present in favour of tea, which, on that account, has the advantage of suggesting no confinement to particular ranks or modes of life. Let there be but a fireside, and anybody, of any denomination, may be fancied enjoying the luxury of a cup of tea, from the duchess in the evening drawing-room, who makes it the instrument of displaying her white hand, to the washerwoman at her early tub, who, having had nothing to signify since five, sits down to it with her shining arms and corrugated fingers at six. If there is anyone station of life in which it is enjoyed to most advantage, it is that of mediocrity: that in which all comfort is reckoned to be best appreciated, because, while there is taste to enjoy, there is necessity to earn the enjoyment; and I cannot conclude the hour before us with a better climax of snugness than is presented in the following pleasing little verses. The author, I believe, is unknown, and may not have been much of a poet in matters of fiction;j but who will deny his taste for matters of reality; or say that he has not handled his subject to perfection?—

The hearth was clean, the fire was clear,
     The kettle on for tea,
Palemon in his elbow-chair,
     As blest as man could be.

Clarinda, who his heart possess’d,
     And was his new-made bride,
With head reclin’d upon his breast
     Sat toying by his side.

Stretch’d at his feet, in happy state,
     A fav’rite dog was laid,
By whom a little sportive cat
     In wanton humour play’d.

Clarinda’s hand be gently prest:
     She stole an amorous kiss,
And, blushing, modestly confess’d
     The fulness of her bliss.

Palemon, with a heart elate,
     Pray’d to Almighty Jove
That it might ever be his fate,
     Just so to live and love.

Be this eternity, he cried,
     And let no more be given:
Continue thus my lov’d fireside,
     I ask no other heaven.
                         THE HAPPY FIRESIDE.

There are so many modes of spending the remainder of the evening between tea-time and bed-time (for I protest against all suppers that are not light enough to be taken on the knee), that a general description would avail me nothing, and I cannot be expected to enter into such a variety of particulars. Suffice it to say that, where the fire is duly appreciated, and the circle good humoured, none of them can be unpleasant, whether the party be large or small, young or old, talkative or contemplative. If there is music, a good fire will be particularly grateful to the performers, who are often seated at the farther end of the room; for it is really shameful that a lady who is charming us all with her voice, or firing us, at the harp or piano, with the lightning of her fingers, should at the very moment be trembling with cold. As to cards, which were invented for the solace of a mad prince, and which are only tolerable, in my opinion, when we can be as mad as he was, that is to say, at a round game, I cannot by any means patronize them, as a conscientious firesider: for, not to mention all the other objections, the card-table is as awkward, in a fireside point of view, as the dinner-table, and is not to be compared with it in sociality. If it be necessary to pay so ill a compliment to the company as to have recourse to some amusement of the kind, there is chess or draughts, which may be played on a tablet by the fire; but nothing is like discourse, freely uttering the fancy as it comes, and varied, perhaps, with a little music, or with the perusal of some favourite passages which excite the comments of the circle. It is then, if tastes happen to be accordant, and the social voice is frank as well as refined, that the “sweet music of speech” is heard in its best harmony, differing only for apter sweetness, and mingling but for happier participation, while the mutual sense smilingly blends in with every rising measure,—

And female stop smoothens the charm o’er all.

This is the finished evening; this the quickener at once and the calmer of tired thought; this the spot where our better spirits await to exalt and enliven us, when the daily and vulgar ones have discharged their duty!

Questo è il Paradiso,
Più dolce, che fra l’ acque, e fra l’ arene
In ciel son Ie Sirene.

                    TASSO.—Rime Amorose.

Here, here is found
A sweeter Paradise of sound
Than where the Sirens take their summer stands
Among the breathing waters and glib sands.

Bright fires and joyous faces; and it is no easy thing for philosophy to say good night. But health must be enjoyed or nothing will be enjoyed, and the charm should be broken at a reasonable hour. Far be it, however, from a rational firesider not to make exceptions to the rule, when friends “have been long asunder, or when some domestic celebration has called them together, or even when hours peculiarly congenial render it difficult to part. At all events, the departure must be a voluntary matter; and here I cannot help exclaiming against the gross and villanous trick which some people have, when they wish to get rid of their company, of letting their fires go down, and the snuffs of their candles run to seed: it is paltry and palpable, and argues bad policy as well as breeding; for such of their friends as have a different feeling of things, may chance to be disgusted with them altogether, while the careless or unpolite may choose to revenge themselves on the appeal, and face it out gravely till the morning. If a common visitor be inconsiderate enough, on an ordinary occasion, to sit beyond all reasonable hour, it must be reckoned as a fatality, as an ignorance of men and things, against which you cannot possibly provide: as a sort of visitation, which must be borne with patience, and which is not likely to recur often, if you know whom you invite, and those who are invited know you. But with an occasional excess of the fireside what social virtue shall quarrel? A single friend, perhaps, loiters behind the rest; you are alone in the house; you have just got upon a subject delightful to you both; the fire is of a candent brightness; the wind howls out of doors; the rain beats; the cold is piercing! Sit down. This is a time when the most melancholy temperament may defy the clouds and storms, and even extract from them a pleasure that will take no substance by daylight. The ghost of his happiness sits by him, and puts on the likeness of former hours; and if such a man can be made comfortable by the moment, what enjoyment may it not furnish to an unclouded spirit! If the excess belong not to vice, temperance does not forbid it when it only grows out of the occasion. The great poet, whom I have quoted so often for the fireside, and who will enjoy it with us to the last, was, like the rest of our great poets, an ardent recommender of temperance in all its branches; but though he practised what he preached, he could take his night out of the hands of sleep as well as the most entrenching of us. To pass over, as foreign to our subject in point of place, his noble wish that he might”oft outwatch the bear," with what a wrapped-up collection of snugness, in the elegy on his friend Diodati, does he describe the fireside enjoyment of a winter’s night?—

Pectora cui credam? Quis me lenire docebit
Mordaces curas? Quis longam fallere noctem
Dulcibus alloquiis, grato cum sibilat igni
Molle pyrum, et nucibus strepitat focus, et malus Auster
Miscet cuncta foris, et desuper intonat ulmo?

In whom shall I confide? Whose counsel find
A balmy med’cine for my troubled mind?
Or whose discourse, with innocent delight,
Shall fill me now, and cheat the wintry night,
When hisses on my hearth the pulpy pear,
And black’ning chestnut start and crackle there,
While storms abroad the dreary meadows whelm,
And the wind thunders through the neighb’ring elm.
                                             COWPER’S Translation

Even when left alone, there is sometimes a charm in watching out the decaying fire,—in getting closer and closer to it with tilted chair and knees against the bars, and letting the whole multitude of fancies, that work in the night silence, come whispering about the yielding faculties. The world around is silent; and for a moment the very cares of day seem to have gone with it to sleep, leaving you to catch a waking sense of disenthralment, and to commune with a thousand airy visitants that come to play with innocent thoughts. Then, for imagination’s sake, not for superstition’s, are recalled the stories of the Secret World and the midnight pranks of Fairyism. The fancy roams out of doors after rustics led astray by the jack-o’-lantern, or minute laughing heard upon the wind, or the night-spirit on his horse that comes flouncing through the air on his way to a surfeited citizen, or the tiny morris-dance that springs up in the watery glimpses of the moon; or keeping at home, it finds a spirit in every room peeping at it as it opens the door, while a cry is heard from upstairs announcing the azure marks inflicted by—

The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,

or hearing a snoring from below, it tiptoes down into the kitchen, and beholds where—

——Lies him down the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Balks at the fire his hairy strength.

Presently the whole band of fairies, ancient and modern,—the demons, sylphs, gnomes, sprites, elves, peries, genii, and above all the fairies of the fireside, the salamanders, lob-lie-by-the-fires, lars, lemures, larvæ, come flitting between the fancy’s eyes, and the dying coals, some with their weapons and lights, others with grave steadfastness on book or dish, others of the softer kind with their arch looks, and their conscious pretence of attitude, while a minute music tinkles in the ear, and Oberon gives his gentle order:—

Through this house in glimmering light
     By the dead and drowsy fire,
Every elf and fairy sprite
     Hop as light as bird from briar;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing and dance it trippingly.

Anon, the whole is vanished, and the dreamer, turning his eye down aside, almost looks for a laughing sprite gazing at him from a tiny chair, and mimicking his face and attitude. Idle fancies these, and incomprehensible to minds clogged with every-day earthliness; but not useless, either as an exercise of the invention, or even as adding consciousness to the range and destiny of the soul. They will occupy us too, and steal us away from ourselves, when other recollections fail us or grow painful, when friends are found selfish, or better friends can but commiserate, or when the world has nothing in it to compare with what we have missed out of it. They may even lead us to higher and more solemn meditations, till we work up our way beyond the clinging and heavy atmosphere of this earthly sojourn, and look abroad upon the light that knows neither blemish nor bound, while our ears are saluted at that egress by the harmony of the skies, and our eyes behold the lost and congenial spirits that we have loved hastening to welcome us with their sparkling eyes, and their curls that are ripe with sunshine. But earth recalls us again; the last flame is out; the fading embers tinkle with a gaping dreariness; and the chill reminds us where we should be. Another gaze on the hearth that has so cheered us, and the last, lingering action is to wind up the watch for the next day. Upon how many anxieties shall the finger of that brief chronicler strike,—and upon how many comforts too! Tomorrow our fire shall be trimmed anew; and so, gentle reader, good night: may the weariness I have caused you make sleep the pleasanter!

Let no lamenting cryes, nor dolefull tears,
Be heard all night within, nor yet without:
Ne let false whispers, breeding hidden fears,
Break gentle sleep with misconceived doubt.
Let no deluding dreams, nor dreadful sights,
Make sudden, sad affrights,
Ne let hobgoblins, names whose sense we see not,
Fray us with things that be not;
But let still silence true night-watches keep,
That sacred peace may in assurance reigne,
And timely sleep, since it is time to sleep,
May pour his limbs forth on your pleasant plaine.
                              SPENSER’S Epithalamion.


MLA Citation

Hunt, Leigh. “A day by the fire.” 1817. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Dec 2007. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/day_by_the_fire/>.

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