previous next

Chapter 28: Mr. Davis's literary Preferences.

In one of the most disheartening periods of the War, when Norfolk had been evacuated and the Virginia destroyed, he came home, about seven o'clock, from his office, staggered up to a sofa in his little private office, and laid down. He declined dinner, and I remained by his side, anxious and afraid to ask what was the trouble which so oppressed him. In an hour or two he told me that the weight of responsibility oppressed him so, that he felt he would give all his limbs to have someone with whom he could share it. I found that nothing comforted him, and at last picked up Lawrence's “Guy Livingstone.” Knowing that he had not read it, I thought it might distract his mind. The descriptions of the horses and the beau sabreur Guy interested him at first, in a vague kind of way, but gradually he became absorbed, and I read on until the sky became gray and then pink. He was so wrapped in the story that he took no notice of time. When Guy's back was broken, and when Cyril Brandon in the interview that followed, [302] struck him, my husband rose up, in the highest state of excitement, and called out, “I should like to have been there to punish the scoundrel who would strike a helpless man when he was down.”

The stream of light literature which was then just gathering into a flood, had flowed by him, with very few exceptions, from 1845 until 1861, and he had read none of it, being too busy with the severer studies of statecraft to attach any importance to it.

The first book bearing upon anything except governmental problems that he read with eagerness, was the introduction to Buckle's “History of civilization.” We read this together, and he seemed to greatly enjoy the stately fragment.

Novels were to him only a means of driving out thoughts of more serious things. For many years he did not read them at all, and preferred essays, history, biography, or governmental treatises; though he remembered with astonishing clearness Walter Scott's poems and novels, Cooper's novels, “The children of the Abbey,” “The Scottish Chiefs,” Theodore Hook's, and even Miss Edgeworth's books. There was one sporting novel, which came out in short instalments in the old Spirit of the Times, called “The Handley cross Hounds,” in which he took [303] great delight, and so frequently quoted from it that his brother declared he would cease to take the paper if the story was continued. One special jest in it was Jorax's statement that “he called his horse Zerxes and his little groom's horse Arterzerxes, ‘cause Bengy rode arter him.”

His love for poetry was continuous throughout his life. In his youth he memorized a large part of Moore's “Lalla Rookh,” Byron's “Childe Harold,” “The Giaour,” “Lara,” “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” and especially the storm in “Don Juan,” and the “Lady of the Lake.” I have often seen him sitting at night, and, in a half-whisper, repeating:

Time rolls its course,
The race of yore that danced our infancy upon its knee;
How are they blotted from the things that be?

His voice was musical in the extreme, and added charm to the numberless verses he had unconsciously committed to memory from his favorite poets.

The fight at Coilantogle's Ford was another great favorite of his. Fitz-James's interview with Blanche of Devon before her death, and Douglas's contempt of the fickle crowd who deserted him, were two others. His recitation of “I saw Duncanon's Widow stand, [304] her husband's dirk gleamed in her hand,” gave new force to the verse. He was so familiar with Burns, that at almost any part of his poems he could, when given a line, go on to repeat those contiguous to it, especially “The Cotter's Saturday night,” and the “Advice to a young friend.”

In after-years Clough's “Poems of patriotism” were great favorites with him, and the edition we have is marked all through with passages which he admired. Milton to him was a dreadful bore, while he was very familiar with Virgil, and loved to quote from him. He read parts of Tennyson, and a little of Browning, but had little sympathy with the latter. Of heroic songs, he had memorized a great number, and quoted them in intimate intercourse with his friends with appositeness. I never saw anyone who could resist the charm of these recitations, when he was in the mood. He had a lovely, high baritone voice in song, no musical culture, but a fine ear; and if he heard a song rendered accurately and well, sang it afterward very sweetly. One of his favorites was Moore's “Had I the leisure to sigh and mourn, Fannie dearest, I'd mourn for thee.” Another was, “Has sorrow thy young days shaded;” and those he liked the best were, “The harp that once in Tara's halls,” and “The Minstrel [305] boy.” These were the fashionable songs of his day, and his retentive memory kept them intact as long as he lived. His voice never lost its sweetness, or its upper notes, and, when feeling very well, it was common for him to sing in his room while arranging his papers. There was an Indian song which calmed our children whenever they were obstreperous:

Cora wankee shangmonee, sheereerra notty hiee, notty hiee.

The translation he gave — of so much as I remember was, “Friends, a man walks through your village.”

He was at one time able to speak several Indian languages rather fluently, and knew a great deal of the Indian traditions and customs, and was a more than ordinarily good French scholar, but had learned the language simply to read military books, and pronounced it as though it were English. He was also a very good Spanish scholar, and was fond of reading Spanish literature in his younger days. He was also a fair classical scholar, and never forgot his Greek and Latin.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Norfolk (Virginia, United States) (1)
Lawrence, Kansas (Kansas, United States) (1)
Devonshire (United Kingdom) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Moore (2)
Guy (2)
Tennyson (1)
Walter Scott (1)
Milton (1)
Guy Livingstone (1)
Lara (1)
Don Juan (1)
Childe Harold (1)
English (1)
Edgeworth (1)
A. Douglas (1)
Jefferson Davis (1)
Samuel Cooper (1)
Clough (1)
Byron (1)
Burns (1)
Browning (1)
Cyril Brandon (1)
Blanche (1)
English Bards (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1861 AD (1)
1845 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: