Irving’s health, always delicate, continued so much impaired when he came of age, in 1804., that his brothers determined to send him to Europe. On the 19th of May he took passage for Bordeaux in a sailing vessel, which reached the mouth of the Garonne on the 25th of June. His consumptive appearance when he went on board caused the captain to say to himself, “There’s a chap who will go overboard before we get across;” but his condition was much improved by the voyage.
He stayed six weeks at Bordeaux to improve himself in the language, and then set out for the Mediterranean. In the diligence he had some merry companions, and the party amused itself on the way. It was their habit to stroll about the towns in which they stopped, and talk with whomever they met. Among his companions was a young French officer and an eccentric, garrulous doctor from America. At Tonneins, on the Garonne, they entered a house where a number of girls were quilting. The girls gave Irving a needle and set him to work. He could not understand their patois, and they could not comprehend his bad French, and they got on very merrily. At last the little doctor told them that the interesting young man was an English prisoner whom the French officer had in custody. Their merriment at once gave place to pity. “Ah! le pauvre garcon!” said one to another; “he is merry, however, in all his trouble.” “And what will they do with him?” asked a young woman. “Oh, nothing of consequence,” replied the doctor; “perhaps shoot him, or cut off his head.” The good souls were much distressed; they brought him wine, loaded his pockets with fruit, and bade him good-by with a hundred benedictions. Over forty years after, Irving made a detour, on his way from Madrid to Paris, to visit Tonneins, drawn thither solely by the recollection of this incident, vaguely hoping perhaps to apologize to the tender-hearted villagers for the imposition. His conscience had always pricked him for it. “It was a shame,” he said, “to leave them with such painful impressions.” The quilting party had dispersed by that time. “I believe I recognized the house,” he says; “and I saw two or three old women who might once have formed part of the merry group of girls; but I doubt whether they recognized, in the stout elderly gentleman, thus rattling in his carriage through their streets, the pale young English prisoner of forty years since.”
Bonaparte was emperor. The whole country was full of suspicion. The police suspected the traveler, notwithstanding his passport, of being an Englishman and a spy, and dogged him at every step. He arrived at Avignon, full of enthusiasm at the thought of seeing the tomb of Laura. “Judge of my surprise,” he writes, “my disappointment, and my indignation, when I was told that the church, tomb, and all were utterly demolished in the time of the Revolution. Never did the Revolution, its authors and its consequences, receive a more hearty and sincere execration than at that moment. Throughout the whole of my journey I had found reason to exclaim against it for depriving me of some valuable curiosity or celebrated monument, but this was the severest disappointment it had yet occasioned.” This view of the Revolution is very characteristic of Irving, and perhaps the first that would occur to a man of letters. The journey was altogether disagreeable, even to a traveler used to the rough jaunts in an American wilderness: the inns were miserable; dirt, noise, and insolence reigned without control. But it never was our author’s habit to stroke the world the wrong way: “When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner.” And he adds: “There is nothing I dread more than to be taken for one of the Smellfungi of this world. I therefore endeavor to be pleased with everything about me, and with the masters, mistresses, and servants of the inns, particularly when I perceive they have ‘all the dispositions in the world’ to serve me; as Sterne says, ‘It is enough for heaven and ought to be enough for me.’”
The traveler was detained at Marseilles, and five weeks at Nice, on one or another frivolous pretext of the police, and did not reach Genoa till the 20th of October. At Genoa there was a delightful society, and Irving seems to have been more attracted by that than by the historical curiosities. His health was restored, and his spirits recovered elasticity in the genial hospitality; he was surrounded by friends to whom he became so much attached that it was with pain he parted from them. The gayety of city life, the levees of the Doge, and the balls, were not unattractive to the handsome young man; but what made Genoa seem like home to him was his intimacy with a few charming families, among whom he mentions those of Mrs. Bird, Madame Gabriac, and Lady Shaftesbury. From the latter he experienced the most cordial and unreserved friendship; she greatly interested herself in his future, and furnished him with letters from herself and the nobility to persons of the first distinction in Florence, Rome, and Naples.
Late in December Irving sailed for Sicily in a Genoese packet. Off the island of Planoca it was overpowered and captured by a little picaroon, with lateen sails and a couple of guns, and a most villainous crew, in poverty-stricken garments, rusty cutlasses in their hands and stilettos and pistols stuck in their waistbands. The pirates thoroughly ransacked the vessel, opened all the trunks and portmanteaus, but found little that they wanted except brandy and provisions. In releasing the vessel, the ragamuffins seem to have had a touch of humor, for they gave the captain a “receipt” for what they had taken, and an order on the British consul at Messina to pay for the same. This old-time courtesy was hardly appreciated at the moment.
Irving passed a couple of months in Sicily, exploring with some thoroughness the ruins, and making several perilous inland trips, for the country was infested by banditti. One journey from Syracuse through the center of the island revealed more wretchedness than Irving supposed existed in the world. The half-starved peasants lived in wretched cabins and often in caverns, amid filth and vermin. “God knows my mind never suffered so much as on this journey,” he writes, “when I saw such scenes of want and misery continually before me, without the power of effectually relieving them.” His stay in the ports was made agreeable by the officers of American ships cruising in those waters. Every ship was a home, and every officer a friend. He had a boundless capacity for good-fellowship. At Messina he chronicles the brilliant spectacle of Lord Nelson’s fleet passing through the straits in search of the French fleet that had lately got out of Toulon. In less than a year Nelson’s young admirer was one of the thousands that pressed to see the remains of the great admiral as they lay in state at Greenwich, wrapped in the flag that had floated at the masthead of the Victory.
From Sicily he passed over to Naples in a fruit boat which dodged the cruisers, and reached Rome the last of March. Here he remained several weeks, absorbed by the multitudinous attractions. In Italy the worlds of music and painting were for the first time opened to him. Here he made the acquaintance of Washington Allston, and the influence of this friendship came near changing the whole course of his life. To return home to the dry study of the law was not a pleasing prospect; the masterpieces of art, the serenity of the sky, the nameless charm which hangs about an Italian landscape, and Allston’s enthusiasm as an artist, nearly decided him to remain in Rome and adopt the profession of a painter. But after indulging in this dream, it occurred to him that it was not so much a natural aptitude for the art as the lovely scenery and Allston’s companionship that had attracted him to it. He saw something of Roman society; Torlonia the banker was especially assiduous in his attentions. It turned out when Irving came to make his adieus that Torlonia had all along supposed him a relative of General Washington. This mistake is offset by another that occurred later, after Irving had attained some celebrity in England. An English lady passing through an Italian gallery with her daughter stopped before a bust of Washington. The daughter said, “Mother, who was Washington?” “Why, my dear, don’t you know?” was the astonished reply. “He wrote the ‘Sketch–Book.’” It was at the house of Baron von Humboldt, the Prussian minister, that Irving first met Madame de Stael, who was then enjoying the celebrity of “Delphine.” He was impressed with her strength of mind, and somewhat astounded at the amazing flow of her conversation, and the question upon question with which she plied him.
In May the wanderer was in Paris, and remained there four months, studying French and frequenting the theaters with exemplary regularity. Of his life in Paris there are only the meagerest reports, and he records no observations upon political affairs. The town fascinated him more than any other in Europe; he notes that the city is rapidly beautifying under the emperor, that the people seem gay and happy, and ‘Vive la bagatelle!’ is again the burden of their song. His excuse for remissness in correspondence was, “I am a young man and in Paris.”
By way of the Netherlands he reached London in October, and remained in England till January. The attraction in London seems to have been the theater, where he saw John Kemble, Cooke, and Mrs. Siddons. Kemble’s acting seemed to him too studied and over-labored; he had the disadvantage of a voice lacking rich bass tones. Whatever he did was judiciously conceived and perfectly executed; it satisfied the head, but rarely touched the heart. Only in the part of Zanga was the young critic completely overpowered by his acting — Kemble seemed to have forgotten himself. Cooke, who had less range than Kemble, completely satisfied Irving as Iago. Of Mrs. Siddons, who was then old, he scarcely dares to give his impressions lest he should be thought extravagant. “Her looks,” he says, “her voice; her gestures, delighted me. She penetrated in a moment to my heart. She froze and melted it by turns; a glance of her eye, a start, an exclamation, thrilled through my whole frame. The more I see her, the more I admire her. I hardly breathe while she is on the stage. She works up my feelings till I am like a mere child.” Some years later, after the publication of the “Sketch–Book,” in a London assembly Irving was presented to the tragedy queen, who had left the stage, but had not laid aside its stately manner. She looked at him a moment, and then in a deep-toned voice slowly enunciated, “You’ve made me weep.” The author was so disconcerted that he said not a word, and retreated in confusion. After the publication of “Bracebridge Hall” he met her in company again, and was persuaded to go through the ordeal of another presentation. The stately woman fixed her eyes on him as before, and slowly said, “You ‘ve made me weep again.” This time the bashful author acquitted himself with more honor.
This first sojourn abroad was not immediately fruitful in a literary way, and need not further detain us. It was the irresolute pilgrimage of a man who had not yet received his vocation. Everywhere he was received in the best society, and the charm of his manner and his ingenuous nature made him everywhere a favorite. He carried that indefinable passport which society recognizes and which needs no ‘visee.’ He saw the people who were famous, the women whose recognition is a social reputation; he made many valuable friends; he frequented the theater, he indulged his passion for the opera; he learned how to dine, and to appreciate the delights of a brilliant salon; he was picking up languages; he was observing nature and men, and especially women. That he profited by his loitering experience is plain enough afterward, but thus far there is little to prophesy that Irving would be anything more in life than a charming ‘flaneur.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56