It was in May of the year 1846 that I first saw Downing. A party was made up under the locusts to cross the river and pass the day at "Highland Gardens," as his place was named. The river at Newburgh is about a mile wide, and is crossed by a quiet country ferry, whence the view downward toward the West Point Highlands, Butter Hill, Sugar-Loaf, Cro' Nest, and Skunnymunk, is as beautiful a river view as can be seen upon a summer day. It was a merry party which crossed, that bright May morning, and broke, with ringing laughter, the silence of the river. Most of us were newly escaped from the city, where we had been blockaded by the winter for many months, and although often tempted by the warm days that came in March, opening the windows on Broadway and ranging the blossoming plants in them, to believe that summer had fairly arrived, we had uniformly found the spring to be that laughing lie which the poets insist it is not. There was no doubt longer, however. The country was so brilliant with the tender green that it seemed festally adorned, and it was easy enough to believe that human genius could have no lovelier nor loftier task than the development of these colors, and forms, and opportunities, into their greatest use and adaptation to human life. " God Almighty first planted a garden, and, indeed, it is the first of human pleasures." Lord Bacon said it long ago, and the bright May morning echoed it, as we crossed the river.
I had read Downing's books; and they had given me the impression, naturally formed of one who truly said of himself, "Angry volumes of politics have we written none: but peaceful books, humbly aiming to weave something more into the fair garland of the beautiful and useful that encircles this excellent old earth".
His image in my mind was idyllic. I looked upon him as a kind of pastoral poet. I had fancied a simple, abstracted cultivator, gentle and silent. We left the boat and drove to his house. The open gate admitted us to a smooth avenue. We had glimpses of an arbor-vitae hedge, - a small and exquisite lawn - rare and flowering trees, and bushes beyond - a lustrous and odorous thicket - a gleam of the river below - "a feeling" of the mountains across the river - and were at the same moment alighting at the door of the elegant mansion, in which stood, what appeared to me a tall, slight Spanish gentleman, with thick black hair worn very long, and dark eyes fixed upon me with a searching glance. He was dressed simply in a costume fitted for the morning hospitalities of his house, or for the study, or the garden. His welcoming smile was reserved, but genuine, - his manner singularly hearty and quiet, marked by the easy elegance and perfect sauoir faire which would have adorned the Escurial. We passed into the library. The bookshelves were let into the wall, and the doors covered with glass. They occupied only part of the walls, and upon the space above each was a bracket with busts of Dante, Milton, Petrarch, Franklin, Linnaeus, and Scott. There was a large bay window opposite the fireplace.
The forms and colors of this room were delightful. It was the retreat of an elegantly cultivated gentleman. There were no signs of work except a writing-table, with pens, and portfolios, and piles of letters.
Here we sat and conversed. Our host entered into every subject gayly and familiarly, with an appreciating deference to differences of opinion, and an evident tenacity of his own, all the while, which surprised me, as the peculiarity of the most accomplished man of the world. There was a certain aristocratic hauteur in his manner, a constant sense of per-sonal dignity, which comported with the reserve of his smile and the quiet welcome. His intellectual attitude seemed to be one of curious criticism, as if he were sharply scrutinizing all that his affability of manner drew forth. No one had a readier generosity of acknowledgment, and there was a negative flattery in his address and attention, which was very subtle and attractive. In all allusions to rural affairs, and matters with which he was entirely familiar, his conversation was not in the slightest degree pedantic, nor positive. He spoke of such things with the simplicity of a child talking of his toys. The workman, the author, the artist were entirely subjugated in him to the gentleman. That was his favorite idea. The gentleman was the full flower, of which all the others were suggestions and parts.
The gentleman is, to the various powers and cultivations of the man, what the tone is to the picture, which lies in no single color, but in the harmony of the whole. The gentleman is the final bloom of the man. But no man could be a gentleman without original nobleness of feeling and genuineness of character. Gentleness was developed from that by experience and study, as the delicate tinge upon precious fruits, by propitious circumstances and healthy growth.
In this feeling, which was a constituent of his character, lay the secret of the appearance of hauteur that was so often remarked in him, to which Miss Bremer alludes, and which all his friends perceived, more or less distinctly. Its origin was, doubtless, twofold. It sprang first from his exquisite mental organization, which instinctively shrunk from whatever was coarse or crude, and which made his artistic taste so true and fine. That easily extended itself to demand the finest results of men, as of trees, and fruits, and flowers; and then committed the natural error of often accepting the appearance of this result, where the fact was wanting. Hence he had a natural fondness for the highest circles of society - a fondness as deeply founded as his love of the best possible fruits. His social tendency was constantly toward those to whom great wealth had given opportunity of that ameliorating culture, - of surrounding beautiful homes with beautiful grounds, and filling them with refined and beautiful persons, which is the happy fortune of few.