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SHAKSPERE'S FIRST RIDE TO LONDON.
Two young men, Richard Burbage and William Shakspere, “both of one county, and, indeed, almost of one town,” may be assumed, without any improbability, to have taken their way together towards London, on the occasion when one of them went forth for the first time from his native home, depressed at parting, but looking hopefully towards the issue of his adventure. There would be little said till long after the friends had crossed the great bridge at Stratford. The eyes of one would be frequently turned back to look upon the old spire. Thoughts which unquestionably have grown out of some such separation as this would involuntarily possess his soul :
“ How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek--my weary travel's end-
The first stages of this journey would offer little interest to the travellers. Having passed Long Compton, and climbed the steep range of hills
* Sonnet 50.
that divide Warwickshire from Oxfordshire, weary stretches of barren downs would present a novel contrast to the fertility of Shakspere's own county. But after a few miles the scene would change: a noble park would stretch out as far as the eye could reach-rich with venerable oaks and beeches, planted in the reign of Henry I.--the famous park of Woodstock. The poet would be familiar with all the interesting associations of this place. Here was Rosamond Clifford secluded from the eyes of the world by her bold and accomplished royal lover. Here dwelt Edward III. Here, more interesting than either fact, Chaucer wrote some of his early poems
“ Within a lodge out of the way,
Beside a well in a forest." * And here, when he retired from active life, he composed his immortal · Canterbury Tales.' Here was the Lady Elizabeth a prisoner, almost dreading death, only a year or two before she ascended the throne. Here," hearing upon a time out of her garden a certain milkmaid singing pleasantly, she wished herself to be a milkmaid as she was; saying that her case was better, and life more merrier, than was hers in that state as she was.” † The travellers assuredly visited the palace which a few years after Hentzner described as abounding in magnificence; and near a spring of the brightest water they would have viewed all that was left of
* Chaucer's Dream.'
the tomb of Rosamond, with her rhyming epitaph, the production, probably, of a later age:–
“Hic jacet in tombá Rosamundi non Rosamunda,
The earliest light of the next morning would see the companions on their way to Oxford; and an hour's riding would lodge them in the famous hostelry of the Corn-Market, the Crown. Aubrey tells us that “Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected.” The poet's first journey may have determined his subsequent habit of resting at this house. It is no longer an inn. But one who possessed a true enthusiasm, Thomas Warton, described it in the last century, in the belief “that Shakspeare's old hostelry at Oxford deserves no less respect than Chaucer's Tabard at Southwark.” He says, “As to the Crown Inn, it still remains an inn, and is an old decayed house, but probably was once a principal inn in Oxford. It is directly in the road from Stratford to London. In a large upper room, which seems to have been a sort of hall for entertaining a large company, or for accommodating (as was the custom) different parties at once, there was a bow window, with three pieces of excellent painted glass.” We have ample materials for ascertaining what aspect Oxford presented for the first time to the eye of Shakspere. The ancient castle, according to Hentzner, was in ruins; but the elegance of its private buildings, and the magnificence of its public ones, filled this traveller with admiration. So noble a place, raised up entirely for the encouragement of learning, would excite in the young poet feelings that were strange and new. He had wept over the ruins of religious houses; but here was something left to give the assurance that there was a real barrier against the desolations of force and ignorance. A deep regret might pass through his mind that he had not availed himself of the opening which was presented to the humblest in the land, here to make himself a ripe and good scholar. Oxford was the patrimony of the people; and he, one of the people, had not claimed his birthright. He was set out upon a doubtful adventure; the persons with whom he was to be associated had no rank in society,+they were to a certain extent despised; they were the servants of a luxurious court, and, what was sometimes worse, of a tasteless public. But, on the other hand, as he paused before Balliol College, he must have recollected what a fearful tragedy was there acted some thirty years before. Was he sure that the day of persecution for opinions was altogether past? Men were still disputing everywhere around him; and the slighter the differences between them, the more violent their zeal. They were furious for or against certain ceremonial observances; so that they appeared to forget that the
* Life of Davenant.
object of all devotional forms was to make the soul approach nearer to the Fountain of wisdom and goodness, and that He could not be approached without love and charity. The spirit of love dwelt in the inmost heart of this young man. It was in after times to diffuse itself over writings which entered the minds of the loftiest and the humblest, as an auxiliary to that higher teaching which is too often forgotten in the turmoil of the world. His intellect would at any rate be free in the course which was before him. Much of the knowledge that he had acquired up to this period was selftaught ; but it was not the less full and accurate. He had ranged at his will over a multitude of books,—idle reading, no doubt, to the systematic and professional student ; but, if weeds, weeds out of which he could extract honey. The subtile disputations of the schools, as they were then conducted, were more calculated, as he had heard, to call forth a talent for sophistry than a love of truth. Falsehood might rest upon logic, for the perfect soundness of the conclusion might hide the rottenness of the premises. He entered the beautiful Divinity Schools, and there too he found that the understanding was more trained to dispute than the whole intellectual being of man to reverence. He would pursue his own course with a cheerful spirit, nothing doubting that, whilst he worked out his own happiness, he might still become an instrument of good to his fellow men. And yet did the young man reverence Oxford,