London, 20th June, 1782.
At length my determination of going into the country takes effect; and I am to set off this very afternoon in a stage; so that I now write to you my last letter from London, I mean till I return from my pilgrimage, for as soon as ever I have got beyond the dangerous neighbourhood of London, I shall certainly no longer suffer myself to be cooped up in a post-coach, but take my staff and pursue my journey on foot. In the meantime, however, I will relate to you what I may either have forgotten to write before, or what I have seen worth notice within these few days last past; among which the foremost is
I must own that on my entrance into this massy building, an uncommon vacancy, which seemed to reign in it, rather damped than raised an impression of anything majestic in me. All around me I could see nothing but immense bare walls and pillars. Above me, at an astonishing height, was the vaulted stone roof; and beneath me a plain, flat even floor, paved with marble. No altar was to be seen, or any other sign that this was a place where mankind assembled to adore the Almighty. For the church itself, or properly that part of it where they perform divine service, seems as it were a piece stuck on or added to the main edifice, and is separated from the large round empty space by an iron gate, or door. Did the great architects who adopted this style of building mean by this to say that such a temple is most proper for the adoration of the Almighty? If this was their aim, I can only say I admire the great temple of nature, the azure vaulted sky, and the green carpet with which the earth is spread. This is truly a large temple; but then there is in it no void, no spot unappropriated, or unfulfilled, but everywhere proofs in abundance of the presence of the Almighty. If, however, mankind, in their honest ambition to worship the great God of nature, in a style not wholly unsuitable to the great object of their reverence, and in their humble efforts at magnificence, aim in some degree to rival the magnificence of nature, particular pains should be taken to hit on something that might atone for the unavoidable loss of the animation and ampleness of nature; something in short that should clearly indicate the true and appropriated design and purpose of such a building. If, on the other hand, I could be contented to consider St. Paul's merely as a work of art, built as if merely to show the amazing extent of human powers, I should certainly gaze at it with admiration and astonishment, but then I wish rather to contemplate it with awe and veneration. But, I perceive, I am wandering out of my way. St. Paul's is here, as it is, a noble pile, and not unworthy of this great nation. And even if I were sure that I could, you would hardly thank me for showing you how it might have been still more worthy of this intelligent people. I make a conscience however of telling you always, with fidelity, what impression everything I see or hear makes on me at the time. For a small sum of money I was conducted all over the church by a man whose office it seemed to be, and he repeated to me, I dare say, exactly his lesson, which no doubt he has perfectly got by rote: of how many feet long and broad it was; how many years it was in building, and in what year built. Much of this rigmarole story, which, like a parrot, he repeated mechanically, I could willingly have dispensed with. In the part that was separated from the rest by the iron gate above mentioned, was what I call the church itself; furnished with benches, pews, pulpit, and an altar; and on each side seats for the choristers, as there are in our cathedrals. This church seemed to have been built purposely in such a way, that the bishop, or dean, or dignitary, who should preach there, might not be obliged to strain his voice too much. I was now conducted to that part which is called the whispering gallery, which is a circumference of prodigious extent, just below the cupola. Here I was directed to place myself in a part of it directly opposite to my conductor, on the other side of the gallery, so that we had the whole breadth of the church between us, and here as I stood, he, knowing his cue no doubt, flung to the door with all his force, which gave a sound that I could compare to nothing less than a peal of thunder. I was next desired to apply my ear to the wall, which, when I did, I heard the words of my conductor: "Can you hear me?" which he softly whispered quite on the other side, as plain and as loud as one commonly speaks to a deaf person. This scheme to condense and invigorate sound at so great a distance is really wonderful. I once noticed some sound of the same sort in the senatorial cellar at Bremen; but neither that, nor I believe any other in the world, can pretend to come in competition with this.
I now ascended several steps to the great gallery, which runs on the outside of the great dome, and here I remained nearly two hours, as I could hardly, in less time, satisfy myself with the prospect of the various interesting objects that lay all round me, and which can no where be better seen, than from hence.
Every view, and every object I studied attentively, by viewing them again and again on every side, for I was anxious to make a lasting impression of it on my imagination.
Below me lay steeples, houses, and palaces in countless numbers; the squares with their grass plots in their middle that lay agreeably dispersed and intermixed, with all the huge clusters of buildings, forming meanwhile a pleasing contrast, and a relief to the jaded eye.