It was here that perhaps the greatest genius nature ever produced was born. Here he first lisped his native tongue; here first conceived the embryos of those compositions which were afterwards to charm a listening world; and on these plains the young Hercules first played. And here, too, in this lowly hut, with a few friends, he happily spent the decline of his life, after having retired from the great theatre of that busy world whose manners he had so faithfully portrayed.
The river Avon is here pretty broad, and a row of neat though humble cottages, only one storey high, with shingled roofs, are ranged all along its banks. These houses impressed me strongly with the idea of patriarchal simplicity and content.
We went to see Shakespeare's own house, which, of all the houses at Stratford I think is now the worst, and one that made the least appearance. Yet, who would not be proud to be the owner of it? There now however lived in it only two old people, who show it to strangers for a trifle, and what little they earn thus is their chief income.
Shakespeare's chair, in which he used to sit before the door, was so cut to pieces that it hardly looked like a chair; for every one that travels through Stratford cuts off a chip as a remembrance, which he carefully preserves, and deems a precious relic, I also cut myself a piece of it, but reverencing Shakespeare as I do, I am almost ashamed to own to you it was so small that I have lost it, and therefore you will not see it on my return.
As we travelled, I observed every spot with attention, fancying to myself that such or such a spot might be the place where such a genius as Shakespeare's first dawned, and received those first impressions from surrounding nature which are so strongly marked in all his works. The first impressions of childhood, I knew, were strong and permanent; of course I made sure of seeing here some images at least of the wonderful conceptions of this wonderful man. But my imagination misled me, and I was disappointed; for I saw nothing in the country thereabouts at all striking, or in any respect particularly beautiful. It was not at all wild and romantic; but rather distinguished for an air of neatness and simplicity.
We arrived at Birmingham about three o'clock in the afternoon. I had already paid sixteen shillings at Stratford for my place in the coach from Oxford to Birmingham. At Oxford they had not asked anything of me, and indeed you are not obliged in general in England, as you are in Germany, to pay your passage beforehand.
My companion and myself alighted at the inn where the coach stopped. We parted with some reluctance, and I was obliged to promise him that, on my return to London, I would certainly call on him, for which purpose he gave me his address. His father was Dr. Wilson, a celebrated author in his particular style of writing.
I now inquired for the house of Mr. Fothergill, to whom I was recommended, and I was readily directed to it, but had the misfortune to learn, at the same time, that this very Mr. Fothergill had died about eight days before. As, therefore, under these circumstances, my recommendation to him was likely to be but of little use, I had the less desire to tarry long at Birmingham, and so, without staying a minute longer, I immediately inquired the road to Derby, and left Birmingham. Of this famous manufacturing town, therefore, I can give you no account.
The road from Birmingham onwards is not very agreeable, being in general uncommonly sandy. Yet the same evening I reached a little place called Sutton, where everything, however, appeared to be too grand for me to hope to obtain lodgings in it, till quite at the end of it I came to a small inn with the sign of the Swan, under which was written Aulton, brickmaker.
This seemed to have something in it that suited me, and therefore I boldly went into it; and when in I did not immediately, as heretofore, inquire if I could stay all night there, but asked for a pint of ale. I own I felt myself disheartened by their calling me nothing but master, and by their showing me into the kitchen, where the landlady was sitting at a table and complaining much of the toothache. The compassion I expressed for her on this account, as a stranger, seemed soon to recommend me to her favour, and she herself asked me if I would not stay the night there? To this I most readily assented; and thus I was again happy in a lodging for another night.
The company I here met with consisted of a female chimney-sweeper and her children, who, on my sitting down in the kitchen, soon drank to my health, and began a conversation with me and the landlady.