Nothing can be more unsatisfactory than either of these positions. If he is seduced into expenditures en grand seigneur to keep up the style in which the mansion or villa has been erected, he finds that instead of the peace of mind and enjoyment which he expected to find in the country he is perpetually nervous about the tight place in his income, - constantly obliged to make an effort to maintain that which, when maintained, gives no more real pleasure than a residence on a small scale.
If, on the other hand, he stops short, like a prudent man, at the mighty show of figures at the bottom of the builder's accounts, and leaves all about in a crude and unfinished condition, then he has the mortification, if possessed of the least taste, of knowing that all the grace with which he meant to surround his country home, has eluded his grasp - that he lives in the house of a noble, set in the fields of a sluggard. This he feels the more keenly after a walk over the grounds of some wiser or more fortunate neighbor who has been able to sweep the whole circle of taste, and better advised, has realized precisely that which has escaped the reach of our unfortunate improver. Is it any marvel that the latter should find himself disappointed in the pleasures of a country life?
Do we thus portray the mistakes of country life in order to dissuade persons from retiring? Far from it. There is no one who would more willingly exhibit its charms in the most glowing colors. But we would not lure the traveller into an Arcadia without telling him that there are not only golden fruits, but also others, which may prove Sodom-apples if ignorantly plucked. We would not hang garlands of flowers over dangerous pits and fearful chasms. It is rather our duty and pleasure loudly to warn those who are likely to fall into such errors, and to open their eyes to the danger that lies in their paths; for the country is really full of interest to those who are fitted to understand it; nature is full of beauty to those who approach her simply and devoutly; and rural life is full of pure and happy influences, to those who are wise enough rightly to accept and enjoy them.
What most retired citizens need in country life are objects of real interest, society, occupation.
We place first, something of permanent interest; for, after all, this is the great desideratum. All men, with the fresh breath of the hay fields of boyhood floating through their memory, fancy that farming itself is the grand occupation and panacea of country life. This is a profound error. There is no permanent interest in any pursuit which we are not successful in; and farming, at least in the older states, is an art as difficult as navigation. We mean by this, profitable farming, for there is no constant satisfaction in any other; and though some of the best farmers in the Union are retired citizens, yet not more than one in twenty succeeds in making his land productive. It is well enough, therefore, for the citizen about retiring, to look upon this resource with a little diffidence.* If our novice is fond of horticulture, there is some hope for him. In the first place, if he pursues it as an amusement it is inexhaustible, because there is no end to new fruits and flowers, or to the combinations which he may produce by their aid. And besides this, he need not draw heavily on his banker, or purchase a whole township to attain his object.
Only grant a downright taste for fruits and flowers, and a man may have occupation and amusement for years in an hundred feet square of good soil.
Among the happiest men in the country, as we have hinted, are those who find an intense pleasure in nature, either as artists or naturalists. To such men there is no weariness and they should choose a country residence, not so much with a view to what can be made by improving it, as to where it is, what grand and beautiful scenery surrounds it and how much inspiration its neighborhood will offer them.
Men of society, as we have already said, should, in settling in the country, never let go the cord that binds them to their fellows. A suburban country life will most nearly meet their requirements; or, at least, they should select a site where some friends of congenial minds have already made a social sunshine in the "wilderness of woods and forests".
Above all we should counsel all persons not to underrate the cost of building and improving in the country. Do not imagine that a villa, or even a cottage ornee, takes care of itself. If you wish for rural beauty at a cheap rate, either on the grand or the moderate scale, choose a spot where the two features of home scenery are trees and grass. You may have five hundred acres of natural park - that is to say, fine old woods, tastefully opened, and threaded with walks and drives, for less cost, in preparation and annual outlay, than it will require to maintain five acres of artificial pleasure grounds. A pretty little natural glen, filled with old trees and made alive by a clear perennial stream, is often a cheaper and more unwearying source of enjoyment than the gayest flower garden. Not that we mean to disparage beautiful parks, pleasure grounds, or flower-gardens; we only wish our readers about settling in the country to understand that they do not constitute the highest and most expressive kind of rural beauty, - as they certainly do the most expensive.
* This particular caution is more imperative in 1921 than in 1849. - F. A. W.
It is so hard to be content with simplicity! Why, we have seen thousands expended on a few acres of ground, and the result was, after all, only a showy villa, a greenhouse, and a flower garden, - not half so captivating to the man of true taste as a cottage embosomed in shrubbery, a little park filled with a few fine trees, a lawn kept short by a flock of favorite sheep, and a knot of flowers woven gayly together in the green turf of the terrace under the parlor windows. But the man of wealth so loves to astonish the admiring world by the display of riches, and it is so rare to find those who comprehend the charm of grace and beauty in their simple dress!
Note. - It seems certain that the attitude toward country life in America has greatly improved since Mr. Downing wrote this essay. Everybody understands better what country life, in its various forms, implies. Also the public taste in country living has risen by many degrees. - F. A. W.