Mr. Gibson was characteristically American in his habits of work and in
his love of it. He wrought with a zeal and a passion which are
characteristic of the race from which he came. And the early, abrupt,
and untimely close of his brilliant career must be charged almost wholly
to this fiery passion for work, this ardor in doing.
One comes upon traces of this characteristic very early in his career.
His own letters as well as the letters of his friends written in his
youth show that, very soon after leaving “The Gunnery” at any rate, he
acquired the habit of continuous application, and became an expert at
it. No sooner had he made up his mind what he would do in life, than he
began to do it with all his might. He felt the pressure of need, and
responded to it promptly and vigorously. He lost no time, he spared no
pains to train himself for his career. He realized his lack of education
in art, and that he had to furnish out of himself both discipline and
knowledge. There was in his mind evidently but one way to supply the
defects of technical education, which to so many would have seemed
insuperable obstacles. He could overcome everything by work. He knew
how to “toil terribly.” He spared no time, no trial, no tasking of
himself. After he had done a good day’s work in the things he was under
contract to do for his employers, he would turn to work again for
himself and upon schemes of his own, and would spend hours more in the
most absorbing labor. If any student of his work should wonder how his
swift success was won, and how he so soon made good his defects of
education and training, they may find their answer in that one
word–work. It was his talisman. That he had gifts, power, genius, he
believed most implicitly. It was that which gave him courage; but he
knew, too, that genius without work is an engine without steam. A letter
which he wrote to his mother during the progress of his first drawing
for the “Aldine,” of the Inness landscape is his own confession of
excessive industry, and gives a glimpse at the same time of the fiery
zeal and undoubting courage which possessed him.
“I had intended writing to you during the early part of the week, as I
had a message to send you; but I have been so excessively busy that I
could find no moment of time…. I have worked very hard during the past
few weeks, not only during the day, but in the evenings also, yea, even
until the morning on several occasions. The object of my labors you of
course understand is the Inness picture. Well, it is finished and has
been universally admired. I have drawn nearly the whole of it in the
night-time here at home, as my days have been occupied by O. J. & Co.’s
work. I have (with reason) been very anxious over this ‘Aldine’ picture
of mine. Everybody has told me that I was too headstrong to attempt such
a large drawing for my first start in landscape, and no one imagined
that I would succeed. Roberts told me that he knew I would not succeed
and that I ought to have commenced on something smaller at first. Others
have said: ‘It’s a pretty big start to commence with a full page in the
finest American illustrated journal.’ But I have commenced and my
drawing has been admired, accepted and paid for by Mr. Sutton, and is to
appear in the ‘Aldine’ in the course of a few months. I am going to
study very hard on landscape henceforth, as I feel convinced of
success…. I have received congratulations on all sides, for it is not
a small thing to get a drawing accepted in the ‘Aldine.’ I, of course,
am very much encouraged and am determined that my next drawing shall be
an improvement on my last.”
While he was writing those lines his mother was writing to him, in
warning and caution against his undue application:
“I hope your picture will be done before long, so that you will not have
to work at night. Depend upon it you will lose strength and eyesight by
unwise application. I am uneasy to find that you are trying your
strength to its utmost limit. Do be advised.”
Receiving the news of his success with his work, she sends him her
congratulations, and renews her motherly–and timely–cautions. It is
all very interesting reading in the light of what followed; for it is to
be remembered that all these letters were written in 1872, when Gibson
was but twenty-two,–a mere stripling just entering the lists!
“SANDY HOOK, _Tuesday Eve., March 12/72_.
“MY DEAR WILLIE:
“Excuse this peculiar note-paper! Henry has gone out to spend the
evening, and I cannot find the family supply without more hunting
round than is worth while for mere appearance’s sake. I was
surprised and delighted at the good news in your welcome letter
this noon! Certainly it was a great deal more than I expected, and
I think your success, in such an ambitious effort, the first time,
and with the ‘Aldine,’ is truly wonderful. I can only account for
it by the explanation, that your talent in art is an intuition, a
gift, by which you are, and will be, enabled to surpass those who
would seem to be more likely to succeed than you, on account of
greater practice and education in that particular. But even if this
is the case, that would not be enough of itself, and you add to it
an industry, a perseverance, and a courage which put you straight
through. I cannot see why, if your health and strength are spared,
yours should not yet become a prominent name among American
artists. If you study, work, and continue to add to your knowledge
and skill, you will, by and by, begin to compose, and once well
started in that line, your future is made, and your best ambition
satisfied. I congratulate you most sincerely and lovingly, and
thank God that he has endowed you with a rare and blessed gift.
_Now, don’t keep on working at night._ You must see that it is very
unwise, and that for the future you should not allow yourself to be
tempted into it.”
His early friend, Mr. Beard, from whom the fortunes of business had
separated him, wrote to him in the same warning strain. Would that
these friendly counsels had been heeded! It was this burning of the
candle at both ends which forecast the early end of it all at
forty-six. But who can think of this letter as addressed to the boy
in whom Mr. Gunn could awaken no spontaneous industry!
“Do you know, I think that in many ways our divorce is a mistake. I
am perhaps more prosperous, but not so happy as in the old times
when we were together; and had we waited a little while we would
have found ample space for both to swim without interfering with
each other. The tide was rising. It has risen very high for you at
least, and I have been and now am heartily glad that it is so.
“You need my laziness and carelessness to temper your consuming
ambition. You need to alternately get indignant, and laugh, and
argue, and double shuffle, if you would avoid the horrors of an
early grave. Of course it is not becoming to your station and
position to do this, but to wear your dignity always is as bad as
being condemned to a dress suit and tight shoes without the
possibility of a change. Forgive an old friend for speaking so
freely, but I have a real affection for you and I believe that you
need this admonition. Your work is killing you, because you are so
fierce at it, and don’t let up at all. I know Parsons thinks as I
do and in fact you must know it yourself.”
Seven years later, in 1879, his wife in a letter to his mother reveals
the same habit, and prophesies, alas! too truthfully, the inevitable
result. She says:
“Will, I believe, will always be busy day and night until he breaks down
in health. I think that would be the only thing (except, perhaps, a
fortune) which would put a stop to his midnight work. I certainly
thought he would be ill after his last strain. He was so weak after
remaining in the house so long, and using his brain so continuously,
that when the last day came and he was copying his manuscript, he nearly
fainted. Only a few more strains like that will be necessary to weaken
his constitution seriously.”
But not only did he overdraw upon the hours he ought to have spent in
sleep. He was always at it while he was awake. He was not a fitful
workman, busy by turns, but taking equal turns at idleness. He could not
be idle. All times were work-times, the odds-and-ends of the day, the
intervals between tasks, the moments of interruption and of waiting, he
turned to the most valuable account. Among the drawings which he made
for his projected botany he left a memorandum, which shows his incessant
watchfulness for subjects of study, and the prompt industry which made
him always ready to secure his material. He was always loaded for the
game that turned up. And no scantiness of materials or of tools in the
least daunted or deterred him. This is his memorandum as he wrote it:
“Drawings made in odd moments.”
“While waiting for train.”
“On back of mule.”
“During delay on railroad.”
“On envelopes, bills, letters, check-book, on back of books,
margins of newspapers, inside of a lozenge-paper, all that was
“On top of stage-coach, from overhanging bough while waiting.”
“On boats in water; on back of mule.”
“While sketching; strolls in park.”
“On city fence while waiting for car, yard specimen.”
“From specimens dried to shreds.”
“From specimens collected in hat or under hat sweat-band.”
“On ferry-boat from specimens picked in city yards.”
“Flower reconstructed from dried specimens on fruity stems
entangled in spider-web. (Spider an ally.)”
“Leaf. Impression with soot at hotels everywhere; intricate details in a
“Seeds from spider-webs and bird’s-nests.”
Let indolence meditate this matter.
Not even the working hours seem to have been sufficient for him. He also
trenched upon the term sacred to sleep, and in one instance, at least,
did his planning in his dreams. For a time before the publication of the
“Sharp Eyes” articles was begun in Harper’s “Young Folks,” Gibson was
casting about for some new idea for a book, some hint or inspiration or
theme which should serve to focalize his thoughts and materials. One
morning he said to his wife: “I dreamed out a whole book last night. I
never had such a vivid dream. The whole scheme came to me, and I know
just what I will do. I am going over to Harpers’ to talk it over with
them.” This he immediately did, offering them fifty-two articles, to
serve as a sort of naturalist’s almanac. The contract was agreed upon
and he began work immediately. He often thereafter referred to his
“lucky dream.” It was, perhaps, the most popular of his books, and,
whatever its origin, was certainly in itself a very wide-awake volume.
His note-books are witnesses of the same character and tenor. They show,
of course, his thorough study of every project on which his mind was
engaged. They show also how his brain teemed with new projects and
outlined new schemes, before he was done with old ones. His purposes
were always far outrunning his capacity to perform. Yet if ever a man
could do two or three things at a time, he was the one. At least his
motto might well have been that remorseless pledge to continual
industry, “Nulla dies sine linea.” One of his note-books dates from
April, 1877, and runs to June 12, 1896, a month before he died, covering
thus a period of nineteen years. In it is a record of every day’s work
in all that time; and if there was not a line drawn every day, on some
days he drew enough to fully make good the deficit and fulfil the very
letter of the proverb. Sometimes the entries record every item of his
work, like the following, taken at random:
“March 29. Boston on business.”
“April 9. Cover design for ‘Sharp Eyes.’”
“ “ “ Art Artisans’ Institute.”
“ “ 13. All day on proof of ‘Sharp Eyes.’”
“ “ 14. “ “ “ “ “ “ “
“ “ 15. New York 1/2 day, 1/2 on ‘Sharp Eyes.’”
“April 16. 1/2 day on proof, ‘Sharp Eyes.’”
“ “ “ Art Artisans’ 2 hours, 3 hours in evening
“April 17. Whole day on proofs.”
“ “ 18. 1/2 day on proof.”
“ “ 20. Initial, design, ‘Shakespeare’s Country.’”
“April 20. Initial, design, illustration of apple-blossom.”
“April 20. Design for ‘Sharp Eyes,’ ‘Bees.’”
So the pages run, by scores and by hundreds. But elsewhere he condenses
the story of a season’s continuous work into a few lines. After the date
May 18, 1887, he wrote:
“Left for Hilltop–
“A very busy summer. Made many drawings for two prospective articles on
‘Midnight Rambles,’ and ‘Insect Botanists,’ beside many flower studies,
and a number of water-colors. Very busy on the memorial volume of Mr.
Gunn. Made a large number of drawings for Botany.”
Then follow pages of entries recording the sketches, designs,
water-colors, illustrations, which in part constituted the details of
that “busy summer.” The following year he made a similar condensation of
a European trip. It is but a note, yet the single item which refers to
“three hundred photographs,” tells the story of his busy days:
“Trip to Europe. Left New York in April, returned in June. Visited
England, France, Holland, Switzerland, including a fortnight each in
London and Paris. Brought home over 300 instantaneous photographs, taken
under all conditions by my detective camera. Went direct to Hilltop, and
settled down to magazine work.”
These note-books carry the evidence of his faithfulness to his various
aims and lines of interest. While he was at work as the artist, he never
hesitated to do something for himself as either naturalist or author. He
was never so preoccupied with his sketching that his ear could not catch
a new bird-note, or his eye perceive an event in the insect-world. His
color box often did duty as a botanist’s case, or bore home a load of
cocoons and beetles. And when he sat down to record his impressions or
outline his plans he revealed his triple interest in every line. Once he
began certain memoranda which he headed “Night-Notes.” In the margin, by
a dozen hasty lines with his pen he made a design for a title-page,–a
lighted candle with moths flying about it. Then he wrote into his text
ideas which should interest the future reader of some article, upon the
scientific side, in sentences which suggest at once the illustrations
and the text itself:
“Moths creeping up screen outside window, their presence marked only by
their luminous eyes. The lamp the center of a whirling maze of all
sorts of nocturnal insects. A rare treat spread on the table before me.
Exquisite hints for the colorist, decorator, or illustrator. Here a
dainty mite of a moth with the most delicate of sage-green, flat-open
wings, crossed by bands of cream-color. Another with steeple-roofed
wings (at rest) glistening like satin, decorated with faint contrast of
pale pink and faded olive.” And so on for pages together.
Such passages as these from his own notes, never meant for the public
eye, and therefore absolutely conclusive of his sincerity and his real
spirit, show how truly he was an observer at first hand. He saw things
for himself. There was not a trace of cant in what he had to say about
original observation of nature, her wonders and her beauties. The thing
he tried to lead others to do he had already done himself. A friend, who
is himself a keen observer of nature, wrote of Gibson, at his death:
“It was to the habit of observation more than to any endowment that he
owed the prosperity of his work,–for his life was a successful one. It
enabled him to see clearly, without a teacher, what others find it hard
to see at all. He acquired his art practically without instruction, and
indeed against opposition, simply taking his pencil and brush into the
field and drawing and painting what he saw there. The greatest painters
are those who have pursued this method. As a writer and lecturer he
showed the advantage of a good scholastic education; yet his themes were
those he had chosen and worked out for himself. He was as well-informed
on botany, entomology, ornithology, and allied studies as almost any
professors of these sciences that could be named; yet it was in the
woods and fields rather than in books that he acquired his knowledge.”
Gibson’s own words, in the preface to “Sharp Eyes,” confirm his friend’s
reflection: “The facts in the following pages are almost entirely drawn
from individual experience, largely gathered in boyhood, the apparently
random selection being based upon a desire for the greatest variety
possible within a limited range of the minor flora and fauna. The dates
are apportioned from careful notes verified through a record of many
It was this close and personal observation of nature which gave him his
rare power in drawing and in composition. He never wished to make his
pictures with the models, the objects he was drawing, before him. He
studied them in sketches, and mastered every detail of their
construction and appearance. This impression, clear-cut, exact,
truthful, he carried in his memory. And when he wished to draw it, he
worked from memory, refreshed, perhaps, by the memorandum of the sketch;
but his picture would be suffused by the glow of his own imagination,
(“_Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine_”)
_Copyright, 1890, by Harper & Brothers_]
by that imperceptible increment which is merely the self, the personal
temperament of the artist, lighting up his subject. His memory furnished
the anatomy of his subject, and his imagination infused it with life. It
was the thing as it was, and something more. Because it was the thing as
he saw it. His view of the function of the sketch, and, indeed, his
theory of art, condensed into small compass, is well put by himself, in
a paragraph from “The Squirrel’s Highway”:
“Humility is the only attitude that wins the heart of nature. It yields
the glow that lights the vision of the ‘inward eye,’ beside which all
other eyes are blind. Audacity and impressionism have their importance
and place in art, but they are not its pinnacle; the one yields helpful
courage for the encounter, the other is the useful short-hand system
which often comes to the artist’s rescue, and without whose aid many of
nature’s most rare and subtle expressions would elude him, and be lost.
But its function is realized in the sketch or motive, which is rarely a
picture, but more often a rough draft, a hieroglyph, a stenographic
note, which like others of its class is fully intelligible alone to its
author, and whose only rational excuse for being is in its latent
possibilities of ultimate translation and perfection.”
That was the method of the artist; and it grew naturally and logically
from the nature of the man. He agreed at bottom with the impressionists,
because he painted and drew only what he saw. His point of difference
with them was that he painted and drew far more than they would
sanction, because he saw so much more. If the canon of the
impressionists is admitted, they must be prepared frequently to see it
apparently violated by some man who, while painting only what he
actually sees, and getting “broad effects” and “values,” sees so much
more than the average observer, and notes as “values” so many things
which even the ordinary trained eye slips over as insignificant, that he
seems to be “descending” to details. Gibson could never have painted to
suit this class, because he saw and felt so much more than they did. Yet
he was as true as the most orthodox of them to the very method he seemed
to defy. He had been speaking (“Highways and Byways,” p. 68) of the
seed-pods of the fireweed, and their hidden floss, “a warp of woven
sunshine, with a woof of ether,” and reasons thus about it:
“It is always awe-inspiring and wonderful to me; it is beautiful beyond
description; and when I see those snowy forms take wing and fly
heavenward, it is more than beautiful, it is divine. And yet it would
seem that there are those among her students who are above the influence
of such a revelation as this in Nature. Disciples of a rampant
superficial school of art, who in seeking to portray Nature ‘in her
breadth’ would feel that they can put the straight jacket upon her and
readily ignore so small and trivial a thing as this. The landscape to
their half-blind and unsympathetic eyes resolves itself into a map, a
relative opposition of so many ‘masses’ and ‘values’ of form and color.
In the mastery of these lies their end and aim while Nature in her
‘detail’ is worthy only of the scientist and ‘has no place in art.’
* * * * *
“That Nature’s landscape does, to those who seek therefor, resolve
itself into so-called masses and values, is an important truth; but
equally and more deeply true are the infinity and spirit of her breadth.
The value of the broad gray mass of yonder sloping meadow will find its
truest interpreter (assuming an equality of technical skill) in him who
knows by heart its elements of life and color, who has seen its ‘violet
by a mossy stone,’ who has plucked its grasses from their purple maze
and knows the scent of those endless subtle variations of tender
russets, greys, and greens, and cloudy films of smoky color that spread
among its herbage. The true significance and ‘value’ of that massive
bank of oaks will be most deeply felt and understood, and therefore most
truly rendered, by him who has learned the beauty of its vernal buds of
scarlet velvet, its swinging catkins, and the contour of its perfect
leaf; who has stood beside its boughs, and seen the blue of sky and gray
of passing cloud in turn reflected from the polished foliage.
“The impress of that knowledge and the sympathy and companionship it
implies will send its impulse quivering to his brush-tip, in a
spontaneous enthusiasm that shall subdue the pigment to a medium for
thought, and shall hold it in its place as the means rather than the
end. And while the misguided apostle of the new school who shows us
‘Nature in her breadth’ shall revel in his values of turpentine, and
paint and brush-marks, the transcript of his more humble brother-worker,
while not less broad, shall palpitate with life and feeling, and through
some secret intangible testimony of its own, shall conjure up in the
beholder the heart-memories of Nature, and shall breathe her spirit from
Perhaps it is worth while just here to rescue from oblivion the
exceedingly funny account of some newspaper writer, whose story of Mr.
Gibson’s methods is widely at variance with that we are telling, and
what Gibson himself told, but which has a certain weird charm of its
own. Commenting upon the “marvelous skill” ascribed to Gibson, he
proceeds to say that nothing could be simpler than his method. “When Mr.
Gibson sets out on a walk he always takes a camera with him, and when an
especially interesting twig or fern attracts his attention, he promptly
snaps at it. On his return home the plates are sent to the nearest
photographer to be developed and from the negatives thus obtained,
‘bleach prints’ are made. Mr. Gibson then proceeds to draw very
carefully on these prints, following of course the outline, shading,
etc., of the photograph. After the drawings are finished, all traces of
the photograph are quickly bleached out by immersing them in a simple
solution of chemicals, leaving only the drawings on white paper.” After
such a graphic and veracious account of the way in which the foremost
American illustrator made his pictures, one is not surprised to have the
writer add the brave statement that “it may be said without fear of
contradiction that whatever excellence may exist in Mr. Gibson’s
published work, is due to the careful work of the photographer and the
engraver.” Such is the sort of stuff which some metropolitan newspapers
serve up as “art criticism.” The writer might indeed declare that he
spoke without fear of contradiction; for nobody would take the trouble
to contradict an account so ridiculous. How refreshing, after such a
tissue of absurdities, to read the letter of Henry Marsh, foremost among
the wood-engravers of his day, the estimate, by a real artist, of
“POMFRET CENTRE, CONN., _March 8th_.
“Pressure of work has prevented me from answering yours of Jan.
1st. I did not see an impression of the ‘chick a dee dee’ block and
was surprised to find it was in any degree successful. I have never
even seen a drawing of yours till now and have never had any idea
of your artistic quality. Common printed impressions of course
represent no one fairly, but those artists lose the most who have
the most to lose, and you are no exception to the rule, as I should
never have guessed what your drawings looked like from anything I
ever have seen printed. You will certainly be disappointed in my
rendering of your work, for I have no patience and my hand is not
as firm or my line as delicate as your drawings require, but if you
send me a block I shall do it honestly after my fashion. With
hearty sympathy in the troubles which you must always find in the
engraving of your most elegant and refined work, I remain
Thackeray somewhere says that there are no people who so love their work
as the artists do, unless it be the actors, who when they are not
playing themselves are always at the theater. Even the holiday of the
artist is generally devoted to work in a different locality from the
home studio; so that it amounts to nothing more than a change of scene
without any abatement of business. Gibson himself was one of the worst
offenders in this way. He never seemed to rest, while in health, save in
and by a change in the place and character of his task. In the pages of
“Pastoral Days,” in which he describes–in the chapter upon
“Summer”–his visit to “Hometown and Snug-Hamlet,” he confesses his
propensity for thus using his vacation.
“My wife and I have run away from the city for a month or so. A vacation
we call it; but to an artist such a thing is rarely known in its
ordinary sense, and often, indeed, it means an increase of labor, rather
than a respite. My first week, however, I had consecrated to luxurious
idleness. Together we wandered through the old familiar rambles, where
as boy and girl in earlier days we had been so oft together.” But the
sort of thing which he calls idling comes out a few pages later, when he
sums up the doings of that seven days of luxury.
“For a week thus we idled, now on the mountain, now in the meadow, while
I with my sketch-book and collecting-box either whiled away the hours
with my pencil, or left the unfinished work to pursue the tantalizing
butterfly or search for unsuspecting caterpillars among the weeds and
bushes.” What a busy-body was this, who knew no distinction between work
and play, and to whom the sketch-book and collecting-box were the
playthings of the idle hour as well as the tools of the most laborious
of professions! Well might the companion of that happy summer say in
after years, “He seemed never to spend an idle hour.” Another member of
his household circle bears similar testimony. “If he were sitting at
the table, chatting and joking with us, as likely as not he would have
his pencil in his hand, and before we knew it, would dash off on any
scrap of paper, some sketch of a beetle, or a bird, or a butterfly, or
perhaps a caricature of somebody in the group.” With this nature, steam
was always up, and the fires hardly banked at all. No wonder that the
machinery literally wore out prematurely.
There is one legacy of his busy life which seems to have a special
interest to those who loved his work and care to know how he did it. For
many years he carried in his mind a plan for a new work, which was
characteristic of his genius, and would have added a new delight to
those he had conferred. He meant some day to write and to illustrate a
book which should describe the history of the endless movement of water,
from cloud to mountain-top, from the heights to the valleys, from the
valleys to the sea, and back to the clouds again. He had made many notes
and references, and the scheme was well worked out in its general
features. The memoranda which he left are sufficiently full to convey a
clear idea of what he proposed; and as one reads them they seem to
suggest all the graceful text and the graphic illustration with which
his matured skill would have filled them out. While they raise the
keenest disappointment in the thought that they never were completed
and that American literature and nature-study have missed what they
promised, yet they are so full of hints, so stimulating to the
imagination, that they seem to belong to that public for which he
wrought, and which prizes every thought of his fertile mind.
On the fly-leaf of the blank-book in which these notes are entered, with
long blanks for the material yet to be written in, he has written the
words “Memoranda; Cycle of the Raindrop.” On the next page follow a
number of tentative titles:
“From the Fountain to the Deep Sea.
“The Cycle of the Raindrop.
“From the Rain Cloud to the Sea.
“A Mission of
“A Cycle of
“The Emblematic Cycle. Typical of human life. Soul from heaven. Earthly
pilgrimage: dross and impurity and final resurrection in mist.”
“An Eternal Pilgrimage
“The Story without an End.
Then follows a suggestion for a table of contents. He heads it,
_Division of Subject_
“1. The Rain Cloud and the Fountain. ‘Story of a Fountain.’
“2. The Mountain Brook–(Trout Brook) (Trout Stream).
“3. The Mountain Lake. The Swamp.
“4. The Pastoral Brook. The Pond?
“5. The River.
“6. The Delta and the Deep Sea.”
This is the first and broadest sketch. Upon this ground plan he proceeds
to lay out the themes he would treat, evidently having in mind both text
and illustrations. Sometimes the note means one, sometimes the other.
And the closeness with which the two are associated in his mind is a
fine revelation of the manner in which his thought embraced both forms
of production in a profound psychological unity.
_1. The Rain Cloud and Spring_
The birth of the spring; from perpetual snow on mountain peaks; dew;
mist and cloud; storm cloud.
Rain Cloud dragging its veil on mountain-top. (See quotation from Ruskin
in note-book). Poetic simile of mountain “Light of Asia” (227). Storm on
Hovering Mist and Cloud. Lifting and creeping in fantastic forms, above
the lake. Wild Mountain Pass. Hermit’s Ravine. See reference. Ruskin in
literary memorandum. Shelley’s “Cloud.”
Mountain Veterans. Gnarled spruces.
Mountain Flowers. The heath family, clothing the rugged mountains.
Mountain Fruits. “Propitiating the Mountain-gods
[Illustration: _The Roxbury Road_]
by a sacrifice of their fruits.” Thoreau. Supper of blue-berries.
The Trickling Mountain Spring. “Amy’s Grotto.”
A Dewdrop on leaf (vignette-idea; or tail-piece).
Primeval Elements. Indian Legends, etc. Story of a Fountain. Primeval
spring and incident. Hawthorne.
A Trickling Passage. Drops trickling down a spray of Fumitory (Adlumia)
A Recluse. A shy wood flower.
Loiterings among mossy boulders and ferns.
The Wood-bird’s Bath.
A Fungus. Some beautiful specimen of Hydnum Agaricum or–
Through the Mossy Groove (bole)–to the old Trough.
Water Trough. This subject must come in book. Make view from above
conduit, and looking out through verdure upon road from back of trough.
See Hawthorne’s “Town Pump.” “David Swan.”
Waste Water Running along road and under. Plank Bridge (with roadside
ford) bordered with tall Galingales, Cat-tails etc.
The Meadow Stream (place after mountain-lake?)
The Meadow Rue (shadow or silhouette).
Sensitive Fern (one of the most antiquated forms of existing ferns).
A Border Tangle. Galium. Rue.
Coils of Gold. The Jewel-weed (or some other plant). Strangled by the
golden dodder. The dodder is mentioned in Lowell’s “Threnodia” as an
emblem of love. It is a questionable sort of love that hangs on by the
teeth. “Deadly gripe of gold” (Hawthorne).
Hemlock cones and Chickadees.
An Ambuscade. Leaf-nest of large Arachnid.
Gathering Cowslip-greens (combine with picture of plant).
_The Trout Brook_
The Angler. (Consult Izaak Walton. “Contemplative Man’s Recreation.”)
Beauties (good subject for tail-piece).
The Water-mill. Children playing with toy-wheel. See sketch made at
A Trickling Flume. A mossy flume perched on tall beams, embowered in
leafy branches and overgrown with weeds. See photo and sketch of
“Haunted Mill” with mill in distance.
The Sawmill (combine cider-mill with same? Washington).
“Highland Stream tamed by human cunning.” Hawthorne.
Riding on Sawmill Carry. Children riding out over abyss on the
Under the Mill (old wheel, etc.).
Life under the Water. (Crawfish; leopard-frog, etc.) Under the Water.
Battle of dragon-fly and lizard. Caddis-worms and nests.
The Slender Foot-bridge–“Dangerous passage.” Bubby fishing; three or
four minnows on string. Lovers.
The Witch Hazel. (Several subjects. See memoranda in “Nature Jottings.”)
Unfurling banners and saluting coming snow. The Divining Rod. Old Witch.
Witch hazel; (see Whittier’s Poem, Preface or dedication?) Shrub over
Brook. Peculiar Quality of perfume. Horizontal Foliage in Wood.
Reference in Hawthorne.
Into the Lake. Cascade over precipice into Lake. Boating and fishing.
The Camp. (Adirondacks. See sketch.)
Morning on the Lake (Water-color sketch, deer drinking).
Evening. Hunting with jack. (Dudley Warner’s “Deer hunt.”) “The Loon’s
weird laughter, far away.”
The Rise. Trout rising; flash of sun on still water. “Long ripple.”
Sand Orchid. Secret of fertilization. Lovell’s Pond, several
Pond Lilies? (or on brook?) Yellow pond lilies. Hawthorne’s simile.
The Water Mussel. Beautiful pearl. Saranac lake. Wondrous tints brought
out by scouring with sand.
Tiger-beetles on Sand. (Show nests.)
Heron’s Nest (see cut in Harper’s). Evening Subject. Weird Effect.
Evening Mist. Mist rising. Returning skyward. Sun drawing water.
The Bittern. “His precious legs.” Thoreau.
Water Adder. (Winnepesaukee incident, see note-book “Nature Jottings.”)
The Outlet. A Chasm. “Ausable Chasm.”
_The Brook (Shepaug?)_
A Hot Day (cows in water in shade).
Under the Water. Caddis Worms in nest. (Life under ice. Thoreau.)
Battle under Water. “No refuge e’en in water.” Lizard and dragon-fly
larva. Aquarium incident.
Scouring Rush (grass) gatherers. See quotations.
The Little Sandpipers.
Ephemera. (The creatures of an hour. The twilight flight.)
The Crossing Pole (Newtown brook. Children over dark still current).
The Swimming Hole. (Bathers. Twilight effect. Interrupted Bath.)
The Old Bridge.
On the Muddy Beam (Phebe nest or other bird).
A Gravel Island. (Thoreau’s sentiments on beholding an island.)
A Pebbly Beach.
A Still Nook in Shore. Gnats emerging. Boats of Eggs.
A Sungleam from the River bed. Minnow or Sunfish turning. Combine same
with Kingfisher, if possible, showing the incident of prey from the
fish’s standpoint, under water looking out above. Consult Thoreau’s
“Concord River” and his experiences in taming the fish.
The Willows. The Closed Gentian. The Button-bush.
Sailing the Boat.
The Kingfisher (watching for the gleam).
A Bit of Sentiment. Two figures by the brink; thoughts of brook, etc.
The Freshet. Broken Dam. Ice Blockade. Ice piling and crushing against
A Tumultuous Record. Water sculpture. Torrent making holes in rocks.
Worn by boulders. Diana’s Baths, Shepaug Falls. Glassy Ice on Dripping
(This section should be introduced here as a “loitering-place” of the
saunterer as well as of the brook,–a rest in the journey of the waters
when they linger placidly in the old mill-pond, backing-up from the dam,
and flooding the lowlands. Although it might be brought in between the
mountain-lake and the brook.)
Consider the Black Mountain Swamp for example; Beaver dam, Lenox. Cotton
sedge; Sarracenia; Pond lilies; Sphagnum.
A Quaint Cradle. Nest of Reed Warbler or other bird built among reeds or
Musk-rat Huts. A Musquash Village. Muskrat’s bubble under the ice,
driven away from its heath. See “Trapper”; also Thoreau. The provident
Scouts. Spring Heralds. Skunk cabbage.
Winter Botany. Crystalline Botany; Thoreau. It is the anatomy which
determines the marked character and distinct individuality of plants,
even of the same genus. The winter phantoms present its most perfect and
unencumbered articulation, and render their forms against the snow
especially conspicuous. Thus have I counted, without effort, eight
species of golden-rod, growing in a tangle each as distinctly specific
as in its summer dress and ornament.
A Frost Grotto.
Will o’ the Wisp. A fantasy with fairies, nymphs, or naiads.
Haunt of the Hylas.
Cranberry Culture. The Cranberry plant.
After Bullfrogs. Spatter Dock, turtles, etc.; turtles on a projecting
log or rock, family group. Pollywogs. Duckweed. Specimen of similar
plant. Green shell-like, nerve-like leaf, floating on surface and
sending downward a fringe of purplish black rootlets. Found at
Washington, spring of 1882.
A Living Opal. A fairy creature of the marsh. This is described in my
note-book about two years ago, and I note that Mr. John Burroughs has
discovered the same creature and has written of it under title “A
Fairy,” in Scribner’s, January, 1883.
Pickerel Weed and Pickerel.
Swamp plants for selection. (Here follows a list of some twenty plants.)
Transformation of Neuroptera.
Exquisite Bivalves in the mud (small pearly clams).
_The Brook (Continued)_
The Water adder (see notes Lake Winnepesaukee).
Nymphæ; maids of the pond (nymphs floating in mist above the floating
lilies. See John Lafarge, portfolio proofs).
Among the Pond-lilies. The Lotus-lily with cup capsule. Allied to
Eastern lily. Suggestion of the Nile.
Mirror of the Sunset. (Reflections. Still pond. Mill dam.)
Winter Sports on the Ice. Fishing. Harvesting the Ice-crop. Waiting for
a Bite (comic character). (See Wordsworth “To win a pittance from the
cold, unfeeling lake.”)
The Grist-Mill. The Miller. (A character from life; Standing at window
of mill door. “The mills of the gods.”)
Under the Fall. (Foam. Bubbles that reflect the glories of the world.)
Swallows. (Skimming over water. “Swallows skating on the air.”)
Below the Dam. The Ripples. The marriage of the Waters; (see Poem,
Burns). The Camp. Shad-fishing.
The Osprey. (Rising with fish. Tumult of water. Bald eagle and catfish,
incident, Cape Cod.) See Wolf’s “Wild Animals.”
The Canoe (modern and Indian).
The Toll Bridge. (Old covered bridge in spans.) Bennett’s Bridge.
Glimpse out from openings of bridge.
The Toll-man’s daughter. (Pathos. Dragging the River. The white face
among the lily-pads.)
Spearing Fish by night.
Drawing the Seine.
The Rope Ferry. (North Hampton.)
Calling the Ferry in “ye olden tyme.” (The swarthy boatman. The
Ferryman’s Cottage. Interior of Cottage.)
Cascade and Factories. (Moonlight.)
Through a Large Manufacturing Town.
Approach to Salt Water. (Stooping from boat to drink from the
river,–brackish water! This and the presence of the mallows which had
escaped our notice, betoken the inroads of the sea.)
Rest this section herewith.
_The Delta and the Deep Sea_
Navigation. (Scene on Hudson, or Connecticut, or Mississippi. Barges.
Twilight from ferry-boat; (further on?))
Wild Ducks. (Chesapeake Bay. Clouds of duck,–and hunters.)
Salt Marshes. (Gathering Salt hay. See Sound sketches. “Picturesque
Crab-fishing. (Sheepshead Bay.)
Low Tide on Marsh. (Fiddler crabs, playing about holes.)
From the edge of the Boat. (A natural aquarium. Hermit Crabs, fishes,
Samphire gatherers. (See Hawthorne. Footprints on Seashore. Samphire
The Prickly Opuntia. (Allude to the wondrous caress of the stamina. A
beautiful cactus, common on our shores, yet quite unknown.)
Fisherman’s Huts. (Quaint houses made of canal-boats. Half canal-boat,
set up on end. See studio prints.)
A Nursling of the Sea. (Beautiful floating Laminaria.)
The Throng at the Surf. (Coney Island or Rockaway.)
Oyster-dredging. (Water in action–picturesque boat.)
Among the Driftwood. Eggs of shark or skate.
Wind-waves on Sand. (Original explanation.)
Sand Yellow-Jackets digging caves in sand.
Sand-spider. Gossamer tunnel. Fierce maternal solicitude.
Fairy Circles in Sand (around bending grasses.)
Faint Columns of Gnats in still twilight rising like streaks of smoke
A Marsh nest.
Tiger Beetles and holes.
Under the Water.
Rocky Headland. (Mt. Desert, Nahant.)
The Sporting Shoal. Porpoises.
The Vasty Deep. Limitless Mid-ocean.
The Return of the Waters. Waterspout. Earth and Heaven. Finis. A link
completing the cycle. Tailpiece.
There is a curious notice of Gibson’s work, written for a leading New
York publication in 1882, which is calculated to fill the minds of his
friends with wonder, not unmingled with amusement. The writer attempts a
portrait of Gibson’s soul, and does it, as the Irishman made his
chopping-block, “out of his own head.” “In some way,” he (or she) says,
“Mr. Gibson has never classed himself in our mind with the profession of
illustrators, but has seemed rather to stand apart, to work in his own
ways, to avoid association, to prefer lonely walks, to follow his own
bent, no matter where it leads, and irrespective of any who come after
him. These impressions have given a certain solitariness to his figure,
so that we fancy him wandering alone up and down the earth, a man of
silence, a man of keen and penetrating eye, of ear attent, of swiftly
susceptible feelings, who searches out nature in her recesses, and
coyest moods, is on the friendliest terms with her, to whose delicate
touch she lends herself with an indulgence which coarser lovers are
denied”! That extraordinary sketch of the personality of the man is a
most felicitous antithesis of the real Gibson. It happily describes
what he was not. It is a capital portrait of somebody else. Just where
the writer got his materials for such a description, it would be hard to
tell. Certainly not from personal contact with the subject. It sounds
like a far-off account of Thoreau; as if he had been taken as the
likeliest type of a thoroughgoing nature lover, and the lines drawn
after the similitude of his strange nature. But it would be hard to find
two men in more total contrast than Thoreau and Gibson. The former may
have loved “to stand apart, to work in his own ways, to avoid
association, to prefer lonely walks.” But the latter loved to touch
elbows with his fellow-men; to cultivate friendships and share the joys
of society; to walk with a company of congenial spirits, from whom he
was always learning something, unless they were those to whom he could
always teach something. He was not the least bit of a recluse. A
hermitage would have had no charms for him. For he was, in the highest
sense, “a man of the world,” who loved his kind, and loved to live with
them. There was no “solitariness” about him. He was eminently social. So
far was he from “wandering alone up and down the world,” that he always
drew a crowd about him, wherever he went. He was no McGregor, to usurp
the head of the table; but wherever Gibson was, there was the center of
the circle. And, far from being “a man of silence,” he was the freest
and easiest of talkers, accessible, communicative, as genial as
sunshine, as fluent as a brook.
The nature which was in him began to express itself from the earliest
years. In his school-days he was anything but the shy, retiring child
which would be the father of such a man as our critic described; and his
love and yearning for companionship and the expression of affection come
out in almost every one of his juvenile letters. It is so seldom that a
boy’s letters really express the boy’s life that one does not feel that
they have any permanent interest. But the boy Gibson wrote letters which
deserve to be preserved. They are as quaint as if they were fictitious.
They could not have been truer to life if they had been made out of
whole cloth. It would be hard to match the following, written when he
was twelve years old, from the “Gunnery”; its quaint and naïve
boyishness is delicious:
“WASHINGTON, _March 1, 1863_.
“I received your letter for the first in three weeks and was as happy as
a king and I am now. you may expect a letter from me every week.
“Only till the latter part of this month before the Exhibition, and then
comes vacation which I long for very much. Every Friday the boys act a
drama; the last one was ‘Love in ’76,’ and it was perfectly splendid
and the one before that was ‘Romance under Difficulties,’ and that was
better than the last. I wish you could send me up some small dramas
because I would like to read them.
“The principal thing among the boys is catching mice with little box
traps, (like the one that Grandpa made two or three summers ago) which
we make ourselves. One of the boys took some hoopskirt and made a cage
to keep his mice in and I made two and have got four traps. The boy that
made the first trap made the first cage and he is a very ingenious boy
his name is Charley Howard he is a nice boy and is liked throughout this
whole great institution as well as the other boys too.
“It is a very unpleasant day first in the morning it snowed and next it
rained and now it is snowing again and looks as if it would snow a long
while it is dark dismal and foggy.
“I am very sorry that Cotty has so many boils, because I can imagine how
they feel but you must tell him he must try to be as patient as Job if
he can. The other evening I touched the tip end of my nose to the stove
pipe the stove pipe being hot burnt the tip of my nose off so now
everywhere I go I am laughed at. It don’t hurt me any to be laughed at
if they leave my nose alone that is all I ask.
“The other day I was sliding out in the grove on the ice and I slipped
and fell and struck on my sore knee and now it cracks just like it did
first, only it don’t hurt me so much, but I guess I will get over it
before long. I am known in this school by the name of Fatty and Pussy
and am so used to it that I take it as my own name.
“Please ask Julie and Henry if they think that they are big enough to
read letters, and if they say yes tell them I will write to them you
tell me in your next letter. In your answer let Hubie write as he did in
one of your letters.
“And now as I have written you a long letter I will stop. Sending love
to you all and give them all a kiss for me.
“From your aff. Willie.
“P. S. Excuse bad writing as I have a sore finger.”
The same winter he wrote to his sister; and surely nothing could be
more delightfully artless than the patronizing little moral
harangue with which the letter begins–a strain which ends in such
complacent satisfaction over his own success as a good boy! It must
have been mightily encouraging to the little girl. But when he
drops into narrative and gives such a vivid account of his skating
adventures, one begins to feel the real boy’s heart again:
“WASHINGTON, _Feb. 24, 1863_.
“I guess that you are getting to be a great big girl by this time
and I hope that you are trying to be a good girl too and that you
are trying to correct all your bad habits. I am trying to do it and
succeed very well.
“I will now tell you about my last skate; we all started at half
past nine in the morning and went to a lake warramaug which is 5
miles from Mr. Gunn’s house I walked up there and put on my skates
and off I went like a streak of blue greased lightning and the ice
was as smooth as glass and a foot thick after I skated about four
hours, something happened. did the ice break, No! did my skate
break, No! My buckle, NO! the clouds broke and their contents were
spilled upon the earth and you had better believe that I got off my
skates and put for home with my legs in my boots. It was a snow
storm. On going home I summed up how many miles I had been that day
and found out that I had gone on my own legs no body else’s you
understand, I had that day gone 20 miles. the next day I was sick.
I soon got over it and was all right again.
“I remain your aff. Brother
“Give love to all write soon.”
Sometime during this same year he wrote in quite a different vein to his
mother. He shows a spirit “strenuous” enough to suit the most
aggressive, and as tender as strenuous. There are two or three points of
school ethics which appear with much force in his account of the
“The other night a few of the boys (Henry and I included) were
playing ‘blind man’s buff’ in the kitchen, and I was it and one of
the boys got a hand full of pepper and doused it in Henry’s eyes.
of course Henry cried some, but you couldn’t get him to tell Mr.
Gunn and at last one of the boys Daniel B. Gunn told Mr. Gunn and
he called him in there and sent all the other boys to bed. When I
was just getting in bed, a knock came at my door and I opened it
and there stood ‘Henry’ with a handkerchief up to his face a crying
he kissed me good night and went in his room. Pretty soon after I
went in his room and he was still crying and told him not to mind
it but keep a wet handkerchief to it and it wouldn’t ache much, so
he did so and he felt quite comfortable. I told Ralph (which was
the boy that did it) if he ever did another thing of the kind to my
brother, I would knock him down, and I think I ought to. If I had
only seen Ralph do it I would have knocked him down on the spot and
teach him to mind his own business.
“According to Mr. Gunn’s rules ‘Stick up for your Brother’ and I
mean to do it.
“With love to all, I remain your aff. son.
Other letters written in these delightful school-days show him at the
time when the boy-mind begins to realize the importance of dress and of
personal adornment. The episode of the diamond pin is told with
characteristic frankness and vivacity. But another paragraph from the
letter shows a most commendable fondness for his old hat–a marked
evidence of the genuine sentiment of the boy’s nature. The description
of the football field and its unfailing perils carries a contemporaneous
interest; and a boy’s account of his studies is always fascinating
reading. The brief story of the prayer-meeting in “Willie Beecher’s”
room and his confidence in the leader who “can explain about any passage
in the Bible” must close these glimpses into the real heart of an
unspoiled and ingenuous boy. They are a key to his nature,–its
frankness, heartiness, enjoyment of simple things, a self-confidence
that was destined to help him touch the goal of a great success,
singularly combined with a humility which kept him always open to
reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. They show his
warm and affectionate nature, which never changed but to deepen and
sweeten as he matured. They reveal his earnestness and sincerity; traits
which underlie all his qualities like the bedrock of the continent, and
on which his fun and frolic grew as naturally as grass and foliage out
of the soil which masks and clothes the granite:
“WASHINGTON, CONN., _May 21, 1864_.
“I arrived here safely. Meeting Willie B. and Bertie B. & Mary Gunn
all at Newtown in the cars. We had a very pleasant time coming up
& Mrs. Gunn was delighted with the Tulips. Everybody noticed my
diamond pin, & I tell you what!!!! They praise it up, saying &
asking me how much it cost? and having me stand still, so that they
might see it, once in a while I do _stand still_ & let them feast
their eyes on it. Some of them ask me if it is glass set round with
Gutta Percha and brass. I always tell them ‘yes of course.’ I tell
you what!! I’m proud of it and _will keep it_ & conform to your
rules. I wear it whenever I go to school & put the guard on my
shirt, so if the tie should fall off it would be held on. I suppose
you remember the blue tie that you got me. I wore it up from N. Y.
to here, & my rough coat rubbing against it made it look awful,
bringing out all the shoddy, and making it look like down all over
“When I got home I took every bit of the white stuff out & now all
the boys think it looks a great deal prettier. Dear Mother I want
to tell you something about that hat. It is one that I have had two
winters, and I like it because it is so old. I would rather have
this one than a new one, and the other is not fit to wear and
doesn’t fit me, so Henry may have a new one.
“Mrs. Gunn thinks that I ought to have my own old hat. And she is
going to try and have the other one fixed up for Henry.
“Here I must stop,
I am your affectionate Son,
RIGHT “WASHINGTON, CONN.,
“_Dec. 6, 1864_.
“MY DEAR MOTHER:
“It is a very cold day, and we have just come in from out doors. We
all have been playing foot ball Which is a very exciting game.
However I dont play much for the simple reason, that I am too short
winded. A great many of the boys get their shins kicked, but I am
very fortunate, for I have never got _mine_ kicked but once and
then I kicked it myself, when I _meant_ to have kicked the
foot-ball. At all times of the recess you can look about the green
and see certain boys hopping about holding one leg up, and crying.
* * * * *
“This year I study a great many lessons, Latin, Anatomy,
Book-keeping, Spelling, & Arithmetic. In Latin, I get along nicely.
It seems a great deal easier this term than it ever has yet. In
Anatomy I get along perfectly splendid. I know every bone in your
body and the latin (or Scientific) names of them all. in
book-keeping I get along nicely. In Arithmetic I am in square root
and I understand it perfectly. I guess that if Mr. Gunn writes to
you, he will say that I get along very well in my studies, and you
can tell Father so too.
“I suppose that he thinks that I idle away my time writing letters.
to be sure I do write a great many letters, but I _don’t_ write
them until all my studies are learned. now this is so. And while a
person is away from home he wants to hear from his friends. All the
boys write a great many letters.
“Please send me some postage stamps in your letter.
“Here I must stop with love to all.
“I remain your aff. Son WILLIE.”
“_Jan. 22, 1865_.
“MY DEAR MOTHER:
“Are you getting better, I hope so. I am very anxious about you, & you
must not think that I forget you, because I think of you all the time,
and pray for you every night.
“Willie Beecher has a prayer-meeting in his room every saturday night, &
a great many boys attend. I am one of them, and I am liked more this
term than any yet. Willie is superintendent and he can explain, about
any passage in the bible, to us, so that we can perfectly understand
But the poor boy did not always keep his lofty and self-approving mood.
Near the close of the same year he had occasion to realize how hard it
is to tread the right line of virtue. His wrath at one of the boys and
his doings got the better of his good feeling, and he vented himself in
some strong language written to one of the boys at home. This, being
brought to his mother’s attention, drew down a sharp reprimand, which
was quite effectual,–almost too effectual one feels, on reading dear
Mrs. Gunn’s calm and wise view of it. But the quick, passionate grief of
the repentant boy shows his warm and wholesome heart:
“WASHINGTON, _Dec. 9th, 1863_.
“I received your letter and with repeated sobs heard Mrs. Gunn read
it to me. I am very sorry for what I said in Frank’s letter and I
sincerely promise that I never will commit such a wrong again. And
do please forgive me this time and take me into your arms again.
Tell Mrs. Howard if you see her that I am very sorry and will never
permit such a thing to come out of my mouth again. I will write to
Frank and apologize for it. And I don’t think you will ever reprove
me of such a wrong again.
“With much love I remain your affectionate Son
“_He that calleth his brother a fool is in danger of hell fire._ I will
When this letter went to his mother Mrs. Gunn sent the following with
“MY DEAR MRS. GIBSON:
“Willie was almost heartbroken, when he heard your letter, which he
had given to me to read to him, without a suspicion of its
contents. He went immediately, without prompting from any one, and
wrote this answer. I am glad to see that he makes no attempt to
excuse himself, and I rejoice that the ‘expression’ came so soon to
your knowledge. He will never forget the lesson. I know he is not
in the habit of using such expressions, and cannot account for his
having written it. I think he does not quarrel at all with Henry.
You will think from Henry’s letter to Juliet, that he is suffering
from homesickness, but he seems perfectly happy. His mother’s
letter made him long to see you all and he wrote to Juliet
immediately. He and Bertie are very happy together and he is
getting on nicely now with all the boys. At first he used to get
himself into trouble constantly by calling them names, and treating
them as I suppose he had been treated by village boys in Newtown. I
presume it was that which made Willie write of him as he did, as he
was very much annoyed by it. I have heard nothing of it for some
days past, and conclude that he has discovered the way to live
happily and pleasantly with the other boys. He is a dear little
fellow and always good to us, obedient and cheerful.
In haste, yours sincerely,
“A. J. GUNN.”
In a letter written a week later he comes back to the subject in the
same tone of grief and honest penitence; and he gives another glimpse at
his real nature. For when a boy tells you what he thinks about after he
has gone to bed at night, he has taken you very much into his
“WASHINGTON, CONN., _Dec. 15, 1863_.
“You can’t realize how sorry I feel for that great misconduct that
happened about a week ago and I want to be forgiven. Will you forgive me
“Christmas is now near at hand and I have concluded to stay here and I
suppose you had rather have me to. Mrs. Gunn has just got through
reading ‘Eric or little by little’ and the boys were delighted with it
only they didn’t like to have the ‘hero’ of the story die. They expected
to have it turn out that he would be a great man: But it didn’t. You
know that he died on hearing that his Mother was very sick and might
die. It ended up very sad and scarcely a boy ceased to cry. It is a
beautiful book and impressed several things on the hearts of some of our
boys and I realy believe it has done them some good and if it hasn’t
done them any I think it has me. Often in bed I think of ‘Eric’ and hope
that I will never do some of the bad things he did; but, on the other
hand if I turn out to be as good a boy as he turned out to be I will be
satisfied and I guess you will to.”
Out of such a frank, hearty, kindly boyhood, there matured its natural
and necessary fruit. The boy was father to the man. The mature Gibson
was no disappointment to the hopes of those who had known him in youth.
He had all the charm of a perfectly natural and wholesome nature,
developing along lines which strengthened constantly all that was
noblest and most admirable in it. He was able to express himself fully
in his work; and his self-expression constantly broadened and deepened
his best qualities.
His exuberant nature continually overflowed in fun. His seriousness was
tempered by an unfailing sense of humor, and his tremendous energy was
stopped short of oppressiveness by his capacity for play. He had the
secret of perpetual youth. He always kept the heart of boyhood. His
letters bubbled with mirth. His talk was bright with it. All his friends
have memories of this side of his life which form one of the most
delightful legacies from that past. But there is no preserving the
effervescence of such a nature. It is never the same on the memorial
page. His own spirit was so much a part of it all that without his
personality behind the joke it would lose half its point. But whether he
made sport for a company, as in his droll stories at the club, or raised
the laugh in the flow of personal talk, his touch was sure, his humor
Probably no trait in him thus throve and grew as did his enthusiasm, his
zest in living, his love of what he did, and what he saw, and what he
contributed to other lives. To all who knew him he was a fellow of
infinite zest. He enjoyed life. He enjoyed all lives, both great and
small, human and sub-human. A friend used to say of him that Gibson was
a man who thoroughly enjoyed _himself_. No doubt he did. For that is
only another way of saying that he rejoiced in the things God had given
him, the powers which were at once endowment and working capital in his
life. No man ever took more keen delight in what is commonly counted the
drudgery of toil. He really did not seem to be conscious of the hardship
of hard work or the irksomeness of the set task. He so thoroughly loved
the thing which he did, that all labor was a labor of love. That took
away the sense of bondage to his business, and was one of the secrets of
his immense endurance, his elasticity under heavy loads, his exuberance
of spirits in situations when most men would have sunk overwhelmed.
He had the trait which marks all such natures, a whole-heartedness in
all that he undertook, which made him a difficult man to overcome, to
put down, or to defeat. That was obvious in all his hard apprenticeship;
in his determined struggle for success; in his loyalty to his own
ideals. It came out in some other incidents of his life. His vigorous
fight against the spirit of vandalism which threatened the natural
beauties of Prospect Park, at the hands of a dense and narrow
officialism, was a case in point. In the spring of 1887, Mr. Gibson, in
the course of a stroll through the Park, was filled with the
consternation and wrath which are inevitable in a real nature-lover when
he finds that ignorant and unsympathetic hands–and heads–have been
busy destroying the natural beauties which years of artificial culture
cannot make good. As he wrote in a communication to one of the most
reputable journals of the day: “One of the wildest and most beautiful
sections of the Park had been invaded by the butcherly Goths and Vandals
known as our Park Commissioners. Chaos reigned on every side–beautiful
fresh trees by the score, lying in piles of logs among seas of chips,
bonfires of brushwood on every hand, and the beauty of the place
otherwise hacked and slashed on all sides.” Gibson at once sounded an
emphatic and indignant warning through the columns of the Brooklyn
“Eagle.” The Park Commissioners replied through an agent in contemptuous
fashion, and declared that all they had been doing was to cut down “a
lot of ailanthus trees.” They did not know the caliber of their critic.
In a second letter Gibson reiterated his charges and showed as the
result of actual count and careful identification, that over two hundred
trees had been felled in one small acre, and that these included large
and beautiful specimens of white birch, black birch, willow, elm,
poplar, sweet-gum, flowering dogwood, hornbeam, European alder,
nettle-tree, young maple, and numerous other varieties of the minor
sylvae, comprising one of the most beautiful pieces of underwood to be
found in any park. The Park Commissioners met this new charge with a
square denial. Gibson produced new and indisputable evidence to confute
them; induced a committee of gentlemen of the highest standing and
intelligence to investigate the premises and the evidences of his
accuracy,–including Dr. Charles H. Hall, Dr. Charles C. Hall, Dr.
Truman J. Backus, and Dr. Almon Gunnison,–who over their own names
verified all his statements. Then the Commissioners were forced to admit
his charges (and thus, indirectly, their own untruthfulness), but
claimed that what they had done was in the nature of the “improvement”
of the Park. Then Gibson challenged the discomfited Commissioners to
refer their claim of “improvement” to Samuel Parsons, the Superintendent
of Central Park, requesting his expert decision whether this cutting was
or was not a justifiable artistic or skilful piece of landscape
gardening. The challenge was not accepted. There was no need that it
should be. Gibson had roused a vigorous public sentiment which forced
the Commissioners to call a halt in their reckless and stupid work; and
his absolute honesty, accuracy, and readiness as an advocate had put his
adversaries to shame and confusion. The incident is well worth recalling
as an evidence of what one honest and vigorous citizen can do in the
correction of a public evil. It is even more interesting as an
illustration of the thoroughness and grasp of his mind on all subjects
of which he claimed any right to speak.
His encounters with his critics were often as amusing as they were
interesting, on account of the completeness with which he would effect
their refutation and overthrow. His very neat rejoinder to that
redoubtable critic, Charles A. Dana, was a piquant instance of the care
with which he took a position, as well as of the skill with which he
defended it. Mr. Dana had taken Gibson to task in the columns of the
“Sun,” for using the form “witch-hazel” instead of “wych-hazel,” which
he held to be the correct and original form,–“wych” being an old Saxon
word which means “hanging,” and has been applied to foliage with pendent
stems. Gibson responded in a very brief letter showing that while both
forms of the word had sanction, yet that the oldest and the latest
botanists used the form which he had adopted, as well as the most
reputable dictionaries of that date. His summing-up, in a letter to the
“New York Tribune,” is too well-turned to be translated or abridged.
“Who then are my authorities? The botanical scholars; Thoreau, Tennyson;
The Imperial Dictionary, Stormonth’s, Webster’s, and Worcester’s
Dictionaries; and I might add, last but by no means least, ‘The American
Cyclopedia,’ an able authority which presents conspicuously the
questioned form ‘witch-hazel,’ and upon whose title-page, by the way,
the name of Charles A. Dana appears significantly as editor.”
Well might an intimate friend write to him, after such an effective
“counter”: “Against a literary shot like that, which hits the bull’s eye
squarely in the center, no ‘literary sins’ of a minor order can count
for much even when they are proved; and no one who has the power to make
the shot need be over-modest about his literary ability–he has the
Quite as dramatic in its completeness was the refutation to which he
subjected a critic of his illustrations, who had accused him of owing
much that there was of merit in his pictures to the skill of his
engravers. Gibson’s own letter tells the whole story and exposes his
critic in the fewest possible words.
This is the incident referred to in one of Mr. Roe’s letters to Gibson
which appears in his memoir (p. 189).
“The Editor of the ‘Tribune.’
“I observe this evening in the current number of the ‘Critic,’ an
art reference which calls for a slight correction. In a review of
‘Nature’s Serial Story,’ by E. P. Roe, after paying a delicate
compliment to the illustrations of the volume the reviewer goes on
to say that, ‘without detracting from the artist’s meed of praise,
the most remarkable thing about these illustrations is the
extraordinary skill displayed by the engravers…. Mr. Henry Marsh,
whose delicacy and precision of touch are marvelous, shows the
still rarer power of taking up the theme submitted to him by the
artist and adding increment after increment of meaning to it until
it becomes almost wholly his own. His engraving of “A Winter
Thunder-Storm” is the finest thing in the book. We give the credit
to him because we know that Mr. Gibson’s forte is not in
“I yield to no one in my admiration of Mr. Marsh not only as a
master and a poet in his art, but equally as an esteemed personal
friend. Indeed I love him too well, and have too great a respect
for his interpretative genius to see attributed to him a piece of
work which I am sure he would not care to claim, although it is
‘the finest thing in the book’ and fraught with ‘increment after
increment of meaning’ and which is nevertheless nothing but a
photo-engraved plate, by a purely mechanical process. Of course the
‘Critic’ (?) will hasten to make all due acknowledgments and place
the credit where it righteously belongs, _i. e._, to the Ives
Photo-Engraving Company, Phila., Pa., whose admirable process has
reproduced not only this, but several others of the illustrations
in which the aforesaid alleged marvelous ‘increment’ was
discovered. Such is fame!
“Shade of Albrecht Dürer! Who are our critics?”
Mr. Roe wrote under date of Dec. 29, 1884: “You did indeed win a victory
over the ‘incrementitious’ critic. I should think he would wish to crawl
into a small hole, and pull the hole in after him. I enjoyed your
triumph as much as if it had been my own. It was the neatest thrust
under the fifth rib I ever saw, and I fear I shall never have enough of
Christian meekness not to enjoy seeing a fellow receive his _congé_ when
so well deserved. Dr. Abbott and I took part in the ‘wake’ up here.”
Another instance of his trapping the friendly critic is preserved in his
correspondence. Colonel Gibson had objected to the “Old Barnyard” as
pictured in “Pastoral Days.” “The sloppy slush through which the man is
splashing” he wrote, “is almost too faithful. But, my dear fellow,–an
apple-tree in a cow-yard!–and loose fence-posts leaning on it!… And
do you ever see trees or shrubs on the pond side of a mill?” (referring
to the skating scene in the same paper). To which Gibson the artist made
answer as follows:
“I have had considerable amusement over my large and most important work
at the last display, viz.: ‘Autumn at Knoll Farm,’ bought first day by
Henry Ward Beecher, who says that ‘the Colmans, the Giffords, or the
Smiths can’t beat it.’ He tells all his friends so, and in his
appreciation of it only sounds the universal praise which it met with;
but, mark you! Our most high-toned and modern art publication, ‘The Art
Review,’ which employs the finest staff of contributors the country
affords, contained in its last issue a criticism that ‘did me proud’ and
at the same time gave me a jolly laugh at the way I had ‘fooled’ one of
our most noted art critics. He went on at the beginning of his
‘critique’ to condemn lightly the body-color school, claimed that it
took away from the atmosphere, ‘made mud,’ was always likely to hurt
rather than improve a painting. He hedged himself however in the
statement that ‘a skilful hand could obtain a finer effect with ‘body
color’ than an unskilled hand with wash.’ But he did not see the
necessity of using it at all.’ ‘Not even for the most bold subjects is
it necessary.’ … ‘Take for instance Swain Gifford’s (I forget title,
but it was a very strong bit of color), rich and full of strength, or
even W. H. Gibson’s very strong “Autumn,” all rocks and tree trunks and
weeds and admirable sky, all done with pure blots.’ Mark you! Those
rocks and tree trunks and weeds were all put in thick with body color,
painted over. The result was a rich full texture, that could not have
been got in wash without at least much more labor and I doubt even then.
Others are deceived in the same way, and I repeat that the result
sanctifies the means, and I will guarantee to deceive any critic in the
country on the question of body color. I sold
[Illustration: _Late October_
_From a Painting_]
three of my pictures and it looks as though the rest would go too.
“I am glad you admired my ‘Idyl’ and especially so that you should have
thought to write me about it. It is always pleasant to receive such
letters, although unpleasant to think that you are obliged to send such
horrible scrawls in return. But I believe you are good at ‘puzzles’ even
if it is a 13.15.14. But you slipped up in your overhauling of that barn
with its fence-posts leaning against an apple-tree, and an ‘apple-tree
in a barn-yard’! Know, my friend, that that apple-tree and barn, with
all their ‘improbabilities’ in the way of posts and apple-trees, etc.,
were direct from a photograph which I made from nature with my little
camera, and all these things were there. The old mill with its
‘pond-side trees’ was also from nature, and if you will take another
look at it, consider these questions meanwhile: What does the mill stand
on? Could not a tree grow from the ground at its other indefinite end
and spread toward you?”
He was a man of many and warm friendships. It was natural for him to
like and to love his fellow-men. He opened his heart and his lips
readily to all who came to him in sincerity and in friendliness. But he
had special places in his life and thoughts for those who stood nearest
to him in sympathy and affinity. The “old boys” of the “Gunnery” were
accorded a high place in his heart, and so were those who later became
his neighbors in Washington. His affection for Mr. and Mrs. Gunn was
almost a sacred passion with him, and never waned but rather grew
throughout his life. Very tender and beautiful were the expressions of
this affection which passed between himself and his old teacher.
No less genuine and tender was his devotion to Henry Ward Beecher, his
pastor as a boy in Plymouth, his friend and sympathizer always. His
frank and open nature was one to which the warm heart of the great
preacher would naturally be drawn; and Beecher’s fervid, enthusiastic
personality would as inevitably attract and hold the appreciative,
impulsive heart of the young artist. There was little danger of
misunderstanding between these two. Through all the great sorrow of Mr.
Beecher’s life, young Gibson was his enthusiastic champion, his loyal
friend. His own heart was heavy and hot by turns, over the hounding of
Mr. Beecher. He wrote at the close of a letter to his wife:
“Mr. D. worked me up into a red-hot rage this evening, by his
insufferable and insulting remarks against Mr. Beecher. If he were a
gentleman he would at least have manners enough not to insult Mr.
Beecher to my face, knowing him to be my pastor and personal friend.”
In a later letter of the same year, he excuses himself for not writing
oftener, by saying:
“My mind has been full of this trouble, not through anxiety about Mr.
Beecher’s innocence or guilt, but more through my belief in his
innocence and consequent pity and sorrow for him. I love him almost as a
father. He has done more than I can tell for my spiritual good, and his
kindness and interest in me have drawn me close to him.”
He poured his whole heart into a letter which he sent with the volume
which he had dedicated to Mr. Beecher:
“19 WEST 24TH STREET, NEW YORK,
“_Dec 23, ’86_.
“DEAR MR. BEECHER:–
“I send herewith the volume which I have taken the liberty of
inscribing to you. If you shall find between these brief lines any
deeper sentiment than there appears, any grateful acknowledgment of
a friendship which I have been fortunate and proud to possess,
which I have sought to deserve and which has been most fondly
returned; of thanks for many kindnesses on the threshold of my
struggle for recognition, and of your continual helpful and welcome
encouragement; of sincere gratitude too toward my pastor, who from
earliest youth has quickened my aspirations toward a high ideal of
character and a life of usefulness and integrity;–if you shall
discover these and thus learn how close a place you hold in my
affections, then you shall read truly the spirit of my dedication.
“With hopes that the coming Christmas may be blest with peace and
joy to you and yours and that your helpful companionship may be
spared to all of us with health and happiness to yourself and with
continual beneficence to others for many years to come,
“W. HAMILTON GIBSON.”
An interesting side-light is thrown on a now memorable event in Plymouth
Church in another letter, written on the same day on which Mr. Beecher
delivered his famous sermon in denunciation of Calvinism, and made his
outspoken and unmistakable revolt against the stern dogmas of an older
day. There is little doubt that Gibson was one of the quickest and
heartiest in the applause which he describes:
“Mr. Beecher delivered, this morning, to an immense audience the finest
sermon of his life,–the most eloquent effort, without doubt, that ever
escaped his lips. He was heartily applauded throughout the house several
times, as he vehemently denounced the right of bishops and other
ecclesiastical heads, to usurp authority in the Church. True
Christianity, he said, implied liberty. Men should not turn their hearts
to Christ through fear but through love. The God that has been and is
still preached in the churches throughout the land, is not a god but a
devil. If he could picture a monster the most horrible and cruel
imaginable it would be the God which is preached in many of our churches
and to thousands of our people. He maintained his utter independence,
and said that no man could say to him what he should do or what he
should not do, he was responsible to God alone, and if he was inspired
to preach the gospel to his people he would do it with all his heart and
all his soul and would give utterance to every thought he chose. ‘Men
say I shall not, I say I shall.’ Christianity, he said, had been
trampled under foot by the spirit of ecclesiastical authority, that the
time was approaching when liberty in the church was to rule triumphant
and until it did the world would suffer.
“His voice rose very high and it was altogether the most eloquent effort
he has ever made in this pulpit,–and is so conceded by all whom I have
spoken with. I never saw Mr. Beecher when he appeared happier and
healthier than now.
“It had been almost decided to send him away on a six months’ vacation
for rest, but he to-day refused to take it, saying that he did not need
it and would rather stay at home with his people as ‘they needed his
preaching and he needed to preach.’ I am going to call on him soon.”
To attempt to enumerate the authors and the artists, the critics and the
clergymen, the naturalists and the nature “amateurs” with whom he was on
friendly and even intimate terms would be to make a long catalogue of
the most eminent men of his time. It would include such names as Stedman
and Stoddard, Beard and Murphy, Abbott and Ludlow, Burroughs and Roe and
Ellwanger, Parsons and Alden and the Egglestons. His correspondence
included men and women from all over the world. His genius appealed to
men of all classes and pursuits–to all who had the simple heart of
childhood and its open eye. And that genius was so full of the vitality
of the individual, so warm with his own personality, that to admire him
as artist or naturalist was to be drawn to him as a man. He seemed to
come to people as a friendly interpreter and as a helpful friend,
unlocking new gates outward into nature’s life, disclosing new horizons,
telling new secrets of the Cosmos. The tone of the letters he received
from hundreds of unknown admirers shows that he was everywhere held as a
personal friend, a teacher who won at once the attention, the
admiration, and the love of his disciples.
Two letters from correspondents curiously remote from each other are
types of the hundreds who were drawn by the human spirit of his writings
to ply him with questions, or overwhelm him with appreciation and
gratitude. From the confines of civilization on the north to the
boundary of the nation on the south, the friends whom he had made by his
pencil and his pen, his art and his scientific knowledge, appealed to
him with an instinctive feeling that he would understand them, welcome
them, help them if he could. Nor were they ever disappointed. The first
letter is from bleak Anticosti Island:
“_South West Point_,
“_13th May, 1895_.
“DEAR MR. GIBSON:
“We hesitated a long time before coming to you with this question.
We knew that so many must worry you in the same way, and yet we
have come at last like the rest. I can only hope you will forgive
us. We live on Anticosti, an island with a very bad name in the
Gulf of St. Lawrence. I know you never heard a good word of it. I
must beg you, though, to believe that it is as much belied as the
toadstools you championed last year. Its woods and plains are full
of treasures and among them goodly stores of those same toadstools.
They were all under the ban, though, as in other places and we
dared only look at them regretfully.
“You don’t know how glad we were when you broke the spell in
‘Harper’s’ last summer. I don’t think anybody else was so glad. You
know we live alone here and try to make friends of ‘all out-doors’
and anything like this means more to us than to most people.
“For a while then we were happy. We knew you and we had faith
enough in ourselves to believe that we were able to understand
anything you wrote for everyday folks, let alone something that led
them among deadly poisons. But very soon we began to fret. Nearly
every toadstool we met near home was a Russula and generally far
larger and more delicious-looking than anything else we could find
far or near.
“They went through every shade of redness and pinkness and
pepperiness. I should be afraid to say how often I vowed with
pricking lips that I would taste no more. Some ‘were not so _very_
red or so _very_ peppery’ and then ‘how very far Mr. Gibson must be
keeping on the safe side for the sake of stupid people.’ I tried
cooking some of them though I felt in my heart that they were the
same as the rest and found them very good. But every one was, and
very reasonably, shy of them.
“At this critical time we came across the article enclosed.
“Here was another excitement. But who was Charles McIlvaine? ‘He
knows what he is talking about anyway,’ I said, ‘and I am going to
try the whole red tribe’; and I did.
“They were all he said and after a while the others took courage
and we even gave some to a friend who had discovered the common
mushroom for us.
“I felt misgivings all through the winter, though, about the
coming season. I did not want to risk unpleasantness and ‘emeticus’
is such a very ominous name. And who was McIlvaine, after all?
Wasn’t it rash to listen to him?
“And lo and behold you talk now in the ‘Bazar’ of Captain Charles
McIlvaine the eminent mycologist!
“Did you know that he said all that about the Russula? If we follow
his advice what risk do we run of making people ill? We don’t mind
so much about ourselves but we must think a little more of our
guests. They are rare enough without poisoning any of them.
“Please give us just a little word of advice, anything you find
time to say. And please, even if you cannot excuse this liberty and
cannot say anything, send me back the newspaper cutting.
“I never intended to say all this when I began and feel quite
ashamed when I look back at the length of my letter. Hoping that
you will excuse it, believe me with warmest thanks and gratitude,
“W. HAMILTON GIBSON, Esq.,
The second letter, a few years before, came from the extreme southwest:
“SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS,
“_Jan’y 13th, 1892_.
“MY DEAR MR. GIBSON:
“Will you pardon me, an entire stranger, and a Texan writing to
you, but I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed and profited by
reading your ‘Sharp Eyes.’ A good friend sent it from Denver as a
Xmas remembrance and each night I read some portion because it is a
never failing delight to read of my many familiar friends in Nature
you describe in such a clear and delightful manner. Knowing your
time is valuable and you are of human patience, though you have the
young lover of Nature at heart, I am tempted to ask you to solve
for me a problem that has been not only a mystery for several years
but an actual annoyance not to be able to find a satisfactory
explanation. It is this. Often in winter time we see flies and
mosquitoes swollen almost to bursting attached to panes of glass,
their little bodies oftentimes striped like a yellow wasp’s and
surrounding them and attached to the glass is a misty deposit of
some kind. It is the cause and object of this misty deposit I seek.
If you will enlighten me upon this subject by explanation or
reference you will add only one more favor to a large number.
“That you have been the means of adding greatly to the pleasure and
instruction of the present generation, young and old, I see from my
limited field of observation. That you may be spared many years to
continue your good work and enjoy the pleasures of God’s Nature in
this world and reap a rich reward in the Life hereafter is the
earnest wish of
“Your sincere admirer,
“ARCHIBALD A. ALEXANDER.”
One could add to these indefinitely. A minister in the northwest, a
lover of flowers and a true woodsman, has a fine program for a canoeing
trip on Minnesota rivers and lakes; a farmer’s wife writes to ask
direction to some simple manual which will help her copy flowers in
color, and encloses some examples of her simple work; an admiring poet
sends some verses which will not scan, and will be glad to have her
adulations published,–and remuneration secured; another admirer insists
that he is not an autograph fiend,–but he _would_ like a letter in
reply to his praises; an impecunious poet suggests an immediate loan of
ten dollars; a mother in a western state sends some admirable sketches
done by her daughter and wishes his judgment upon their merits. People
felt his kindly nature in his writings and in his pictures. It was a
virtue that went out of him, and drew like a loadstone.
Nowhere, perhaps, outside the charmed and privileged circle of the
“Gunnery” boys,–they were always “boys” and “girls” to one
another!–was he more welcome or more warmly cherished than at the
Authors Club. He counted it a great honor to be chosen into that
favored circle, and as he was one of its earliest members, so he was one
of its most constant and loyal supporters. Whenever he could he joined
in its social conclaves and its decorous revels; and his presence was
always a guarantee of good fellowship, unconstrained, talkative, and
sparkling. In the earliest home of the Club in East Fifteenth St.; in
its rooms in West Twenty-fourth St.; later in the West Twenty-third St.
quarters; and finally in the soaring apartments to which it attained,
Gibson’s was one of the familiar figures, as it was one of those most
commonly sought out of strangers. But it was never a figure with “a
certain solitariness,” as seen by his imaginative critic. Wherever
Gibson sat or stood, there was sure to be a group. Men gathered about
him as birds flock to the banks of a rippling stream. Nor was he any
slower in coming to the side of others. He sought companionship as
frankly as he gave it. He was always running over with bright,
attractive talk; but he had a willing ear. He was conscious of his power
to attract; but it never bred in him the slightest condescension toward
others. He was passionately fond of wit, and humor, and all the honest
fun of life; but he never showed a particle of coarseness, and he never
confounded fun with foulness. He was as much at home with the largest
minds and characters as he was with the simple farmers and rustics, he
delighted to describe; for he met all men on the ground of their common
[Illustration: _The Edge of the Woods_
_From a Painting_]
and had no absurd consciousness of external condition and accidental
differences to embarrass him. His reverence and his religiousness were
profound elements of his nature. He was no formalist. Probably he did
not set a very high value upon some of the externals of spiritual life
which seem so important to many men. He was, indeed, a loyal supporter
of religious works and enterprises, as he was a member of the visible
church; and he paid the highest respect to all that pertained to what is
commonly demanded as a mark of Christian life and interest. But he had a
life in the Spirit which was larger and broader than all that. He felt
and he loved the Divine Life in all that he saw, and heard, and studied,
and tried to draw and paint, in the world around him. To his thinking it
was all the expression of God; as such he reverenced the creation.
Through this world of nature he was always seeing and feeling the
Father. His letters breathe a note of honest devoutness which passes all
lip-service. And scattered through his pages are frequent expressions of
a spirituality deeper than any words or phrases which so easily become
cant. There is a deep revelation of the heart of the man in a passage in
“Woodnotes.” Listen to his soul pouring itself out in these words:
“Sitting alone in the woods I have sometimes known a moment of such
supreme exaltation that I have almost questioned my sanity–a spirit and
an impulse which I would no more attempt to frame into words than I
should think to define the Deity himself–‘I am glad to the brink of
fear.’ My own identity is a mystery. The presence of the dearest friend
on earth would be an unwelcome intrusion. The pulses of the woods beat
through me. The joyous flight of bird brings buoyant memories, the
linnet’s song now seems swelling in my own throat. Happy Donatello in
the garden of the Borghese is no longer a myth, though even he knew no
such joy as this. At such times–and are they not vouchsafed to every
true ‘Holy-Lander’?–I am conscious of an unwonted sympathy in nature–a
strange, double, paradoxical existence, which, while lifting me to the
clouds, still holds me to the earth.”
It was this inner soul of nature as it filled the inner soul of the man,
which he felt a growing power to express in art. But before he could
speak his message he passed from our presence.