Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Alexandrines.32


32 This paper, it is almost needless to say, was written just after the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales in March, 1863.

DEAR COUSINS — Be pleased to receive herewith a packet of Mayall’s photographs and copies of Illustrated News, Illustrated Times, London Review, Queen, and Observer, each containing an account of the notable festivities of the past week. If, besides these remembrances of home, you have a mind to read a letter from an old friend, behold here it is. When I was at school, having left my parents in India, a good-natured captain or colonel would come sometimes and see us Indian boys, and talk to us about papa and mamma, and give us coins of the realm, and write to our parents, and say, “I drove over yesterday and saw Tommy at Dr. Birch’s. I took him to the ‘George,’ and gave him a dinner. His appetite is fine. He states that he is reading ‘Cornelius Nepos,’ with which he is much interested. His masters report,” &c. And though Dr. Birch wrote by the same mail a longer, fuller, and official statement, I have no doubt the distant parents preferred the friend’s letter, with its artless, possibly ungrammatical, account of their little darling.

I have seen the young heir of Britain. These eyes have beheld him and his bride, on Saturday in Pall Mall, and on Tuesday in the nave of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, when the young Princess Alexandra of Denmark passed by with her blooming procession of bridesmaids; and half an hour later, when the Princess of Wales came forth from the chapel, her husband by her side robed in the purple mantle of the famous Order which his forefather established here five hundred years ago. We were to see her yet once again, when her open carriage passed out of the Castle gate to the station of the near railway which was to convey her to Southampton.

Since womankind existed, has any woman ever had such a greeting? At ten hours’ distance, there is a city far more magnificent than ours. With every respect for Kensington turnpike, I own that the Arc de l’Etoile at Paris is a much finer entrance to an imperial capital. In our black, orderless, zigzag streets, we can show nothing to compare with the magnificent array of the Rue de Rivoli, that enormous regiment of stone stretching for five miles and presenting arms before the Tuileries. Think of the late Fleet Prison and Waithman’s Obelisk, and of the Place de la Concorde and the Luxor Stone! “The finest site in Europe,” as Trafalgar Square has been called by some obstinate British optimist, is disfigured by trophies, fountains, columns, and statues so puerile, disorderly, and hideous that a lover of the arts must hang the head of shame as he passes, to see our dear old queen city arraying herself so absurdly; but when all is said and done, we can show one or two of the greatest sights in the world. I doubt if any Roman festival was as vast or striking as the Derby day, or if any Imperial triumph could show such a prodigious muster of faithful people as our young Princess saw on Saturday, when the nation turned out to greet her. The calculators are squabbling about the numbers of hundreds of thousands, of millions, who came forth to see her and bid her welcome. Imagine beacons flaming, rockets blazing, yards manned, ships and forts saluting with their thunder, every steamer and vessel, every town and village from Ramsgate to Gravesend, swarming with happy gratulation; young girls with flowers, scattering roses before her; staid citizens and aldermen pushing and squeezing and panting to make the speech, and bow the knee, and bid her welcome! Who is this who is honored with such a prodigious triumph, and received with a welcome so astonishing? A year ago we had never heard of her. I think about her pedigree and family not a few of us are in the dark still, and I own, for my part, to be much puzzled by the allusions of newspaper genealogists and bards and skalds to Vikings, Berserkers, and so forth. But it would be interesting to know how many hundreds of thousands of photographs of the fair bright face have by this time made it beloved and familiar in British homes. Think of all the quiet country nooks from Land’s End to Caithness, where kind eyes have glanced at it. The farmer brings it home from market; the curate from his visit to the Cathedral town; the rustic folk peer at it in the little village shop-window; the squire’s children gaze on it round the drawing-room table: every eye that beholds it looks tenderly on its bright beauty and sweet artless grace, and young and old pray God bless her. We have an elderly friend, (a certain Goody Twoshoes,) who inhabits, with many other old ladies, the Union House of the parish of St. Lazarus in Soho. One of your cousins from this house went to see her, and found Goody and her companion crones all in a flutter of excitement about the marriage. The whitewashed walls of their bleak dormitory were ornamented with prints out of the illustrated journals, and hung with festoons and true-lovers’ knots of tape and colored paper; and the old bodies had had a good dinner, and the old tongues were chirping and clacking away, all eager, interested, sympathizing; and one very elderly and rheumatic Goody, who is obliged to keep her bed, (and has, I trust, an exaggerated idea of the cares attending on royalty,) said, “Pore thing, pore thing! I pity her.” Yes, even in that dim place there was a little brightness and a quavering huzza, a contribution of a mite subscribed by those dozen poor old widows to the treasure of loyalty with which the nation endows the Prince’s bride.

Three hundred years ago, when our dread Sovereign Lady Elizabeth came to take possession of her realm and capital city, Holingshed, if you please (whose pleasing history of course you carry about with you), relates in his fourth volume folio, that —“At hir entring the citie, she was of the people received maruellous intierlie, as appeared by the assemblies, praiers, welcommings, cries, and all other signes which argued a woonderfull earnest loue:” and at various halting-places on the royal progress children habited like angels appeared out of allegoric edifices and spoke verses to her —

“Welcome, O Queen, as much as heart can think,
Welcome again, as much as tongue can tell,
Welcome to joyous tongues and hearts that will not shrink.
God thee preserve, we pray, and wish thee ever well!

Our new Princess, you may be sure, has also had her Alexandrines, and many minstrels have gone before her singing her praises. Mr. Tupper, who begins in very great force and strength, and who proposes to give her no less than eight hundred thousand welcomes in the first twenty lines of his ode, is not satisfied with this most liberal amount of acclamation, but proposes at the end of his poem a still more magnificent subscription. Thus we begin, “A hundred thousand welcomes, a hundred thousand welcomes.” (In my copy the figures are in the well-known Arabic numerals, but let us have the numbers literally accurate:)—

“A hundred thousand welcomes!
A hundred thousand welcomes!
And a hundred thousand more!
O happy heart of England,
Shout aloud and sing, laud,
As no land sang before;
And let the paeans soar
And ring from shore to shore,
A hundred thousand welcomes,
And a hundred thousand more;
And let the cannons roar
The joy-stunned city o’er.
And let the steeples chime it
A hundred thousand welcomes
And a hundred thousand more;
And let the people rhyme it
From neighbor’s door to door,
From every man’s heart’s core,
A hundred thousand welcomes
And a hundred thousand more.”

This contribution, in twenty not long lines, of 900,000 (say nine hundred thousand) welcomes is handsome indeed; and shows that when our bard is inclined to be liberal, he does not look to the cost. But what is a sum of 900,000 to his further proposal? —

“O let all these declare it,
Let miles of shouting swear it,
In all the years of yore,
Unparalleled before!
And thou, most welcome Wand’rer
Across the Northern Water,
Our England’s ALEXANDRA,
Our dear adopted daughter — Lay to thine heart,
conned o’er and o’er,
In future years remembered well,
The magic fervor of this spell
That shakes the land from shore to shore,
And makes all hearts and eyes brim o’er;
Our hundred thousand welcomes,
Our fifty million welcomes,
And a hundred million more!”

Here we have, besides the most liberal previous subscription, a further call on the public for no less than one hundred and fifty million one hundred thousand welcomes for her Royal Highness. How much is this per head for all of us in the three kingdoms? Not above five welcomes apiece, and I am sure many of us have given more than five hurrahs to the fair young Princess.

Each man sings according to his voice, and gives in proportion to his means. The guns at Sheerness “from their adamantine lips” (which had spoken in quarrelsome old times a very different language,) roared a hundred thundering welcomes to the fair Dane. The maidens of England strewed roses before her feet at Gravesend when she landed. Mr. Tupper, with the million and odd welcomes, may be compared to the thundering fleet; Mr. Chorley’s song, to the flowerets scattered on her Royal Highness’s happy and carpeted path:—

“Blessings on that fair face!
Safe on the shore
Of her home-dwelling place,
Stranger no more.
Love, from her household shrine,
Keep sorrow far!
May for her hawthorn twine,
June bring sweet eglantine,
Autumn, the golden vine,
Dear Northern Star!”

Hawthorn for May, eglantine for June, and in autumn a little tass of the golden vine for our Northern Star. I am sure no one will grudge the Princess these simple enjoyments, and of the produce of the last-named pleasing plant, I wonder how many bumpers were drunk to her health on the happy day of her bridal? As for the Laureate’s verses, I would respectfully liken his Highness to a giant showing a beacon torch on “a windy headland.” His flaring torch is a pine-tree, to be sure, which nobody can wield but himself. He waves it: and four times in the midnight he shouts mightily, “Alexandra!” and the Pontic pine is whirled into the ocean and Enceladus goes home.

Whose muse, whose cornemuse, sounds with such plaintive sweetness from Arthur’s Seat, while Edinburgh and Musselburgh lie rapt in delight, and the mermaids come flapping up to Leith shore to hear the exquisite music? Sweeter piper Edina knows not than Aytoun, the Bard of the Cavaliers, who has given in his frank adhesion to the reigning dynasty. When a most beautiful, celebrated and unfortunate princess whose memory the Professor loves — when Mary, wife of Francis the Second, King of France, and by her own right proclaimed Queen of Scotland and England (poor soul!), entered Paris with her young bridegroom, good Peter Ronsard wrote of her —

“Toi qui as veu l’excellence de celle
Qui rend le ciel de l’Escosse envieux,
Dy hardiment, contentez vous mes yeux,
Vous ne verrez jamais chose plus belle.”33

33 Quoted in Mignet’s “Life of Mary.”

“Vous ne verrez jamais chose plus belle.” Here is an Alexandrine written three hundred years ago, as simple as bon jour. Professor Aytoun is more ornate. After elegantly complimenting the spring, and a description of her Royal Highness’s well-known ancestors the “Berserkers,” he bursts forth —

“The Rose of Denmark comes, the Royal Bride!
O loveliest Rose! our paragon and pride —
Choice of the Prince whom England holds so dear —
What homage shall we pay
To one who has no peer?
What can the bard or wildered minstrel say
More than the peasant who on bended knee
Breathes from his heart an earnest prayer for thee?
Words are not fair, if that they would express
Is fairer still; so lovers in dismay
Stand all abashed before that loveliness
They worship most, but find no words to pray.
Too sweet for incense! (bravo!) Take our loves instead —
Most freely, truly, and devoutly given;
Our prayer for blessings on that gentle head,
For earthly happiness and rest in Heaven!
May never sorrow dim those dove-like eyes,
But peace as pure as reigned in Paradise,
Calm and untainted on creation’s eve,
Attend thee still! May holy angels,” &c.

This is all very well, my dear country cousins. But will you say “Amen” to this prayer? I won’t. Assuredly our fair Princess will shed many tears out of the “dovelike eyes,” or the heart will be little worth. Is she to know no parting, no care, no anxious longing, no tender watches by the sick, to deplore no friends and kindred, and feel no grief? Heaven forbid! When a bard or wildered minstrel writes so, best accept his own confession, that he is losing his head. On the day of her entrance into London who looked more bright and happy than the Princess? On the day of the marriage, the fair face wore its marks of care already, and looked out quite grave, and frightened almost, under the wreaths and lace and orange-flowers. Would you have had her feel no tremor? A maiden on the bridegroom’s threshold, a Princess led up to the steps of a throne? I think her pallor and doubt became her as well as her smiles. That, I can tell you, was OUR vote who sat in X compartment, let us say, in the nave of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, and saw a part of one of the brightest ceremonies ever performed there.

My dear cousin Mary, you have an account of the dresses; and I promise you there were princesses besides the bride whom it did the eyes good to behold. Around the bride sailed a bevy of young creatures so fair, white, and graceful that I thought of those fairy-tale beauties who are sometimes princesses, and sometimes white swans. The Royal Princesses and the Royal Knights of the Garter swept by in prodigious robes and trains of purple velvet, thirty shillings a yard, my dear, not of course including the lining, which, I have no doubt, was of the richest satin, or that costly “miniver” which we used to read about in poor Jerrold’s writings. The young princes were habited in kilts; and by the side of the Princess Royal trotted such a little wee solemn Highlander! He is the young heir and chief of the famous clan of Brandenburg. His eyrie is amongst the Eagles, and I pray no harm may befall the dear little chieftain.

The heralds in their tabards were marvellous to behold, and a nod from Rouge Croix gave me the keenest gratification. I tried to catch Garter’s eye, but either I couldn’t or he wouldn’t. In his robes, he is like one of the Three Kings in old missal illuminations. Goldstick in waiting is even more splendid. With his gold rod and robes and trappings of many colors, he looks like a royal enchanter, and as if he had raised up all this scene of glamour by a wave of his glittering wand. The silver trumpeters wear such quaint caps, as those I have humbly tried to depict on the playful heads of children. Behind the trumpeters came a drum-bearer, on whose back a gold-laced drummer drubbed his march.

When the silver clarions had blown, and under a clear chorus of white-robed children chanting round the organ, the noble procession passed into the chapel, and was hidden from our sight for a while, there was silence, or from the inner chapel ever so faint a hum. Then hymns arose, and in the lull we knew that prayers were being said, and the sacred rite performed which joined Albert Edward to Alexandra his wife. I am sure hearty prayers were offered outside the gate as well as within for that princely young pair, and for their Mother and Queen. The peace, the freedom, the happiness, the order which her rule guarantees, are part of my birthright as an Englishman, and I bless God for my share. Where else shall I find such liberty of action, thought, speech, or laws which protect me so well? Her part of her compact with her people, what sovereign ever better performed? If ours sits apart from the festivities of the day, it is because she suffers from a grief so recent that the loyal heart cannot master it as yet, and remains treu und fest to a beloved memory. A part of the music which celebrates the day’s service was composed by the husband who is gone to the place where the just and pure of life meet the reward promised by the Father of all of us to good and faithful servants who have well done here below. As this one gives in his account, surely we may remember how the Prince was the friend of all peaceful arts and learning; how he was true and fast always to duty, home, honor; how, through a life of complicated trials, he was sagacious, righteous, active and self-denying. And as we trace in the young faces of his many children the father’s features and likeness, what Englishman will not pray that, they may have inherited also some of the great qualities which won for the Prince Consort the love and respect of our country?

The papers tell us how, on the night of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, all over England and Scotland illuminations were made, the poor and children were feasted, and in village and city thousands of kindly schemes were devised to mark the national happiness and sympathy. “The bonfire on Coptpoint at Folkestone was seen in France,” the Telegraph says, “more clearly than even the French marine lights could be seen at Folkestone.” Long may the fire continue to burn! There are European coasts (and inland places) where the liberty light has been extinguished, or is so low that you can’t see to read by it — there are great Atlantic shores where it flickers and smokes very gloomily. Let us be thankful to the honest guardians of ours, and for the kind sky under which it burns bright and steady.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00