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Insignificant as these little details may appear, they were not thought to be so by a man whose mind was evidently stored with considerable learning, who possessed a cultivated and elegant taste for what is beautiful in nature, and who has left behind him one of the most delightful works in the English language, –a work which will be read as long as that language lasts, and which is equally remarkable for its extreme accuracy, its pleasing style, and the agreeable and varied information it contains.
In order to enable our readers to enter more fully into the merits of the “Natural History of Selborne,” some account of that village, its neighbourhood, and of Mr. White's residence, is now given.
Selborne is situated in the extreme eastern corner of Hampshire, bordering on Sussex. It is about fifty miles from London, and between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. It is evident (whatever may be the case at present) that in Mr. White's time the village was not readily approached by carriages. The charming deep sandy lanes in that part of Hampshire and Sussex, overgrown as they are with stunted oaks, hazels, hawthorns, and dog-roses, and the banks covered with wild strawberries, primroses, and pretty ferns, would in winter be filled with mud, to say nothing of the cart-ruts. I find amongst Mr. White's papers the following pleasing lines, addressed to one of his nieces, Mrs. J. White, by her father, and signed G. T., and which will give some idea of the roads of Selborne :
“ From henceforth, my dear M I'll no longer complain
But as now neither lover nor student am I,
As Selborne is approached from Alton, the beauty of its valley is seen as it bursts suddenly into view, and affords a prospect of great rural beauty. A foot-bridge is thrown across a deep ravine of rocky bank, at the bottom of which a little streamlet runs over a road, which is at once its channel and the carriage-way to the village. From this spot the precipitous beechen hangers may be seen, so often referred to by Mr. White; the white tower of the village church; the snug parsonage, and the pretty cottages, sprinkled over the landscape.
Farm-houses, with their barns and straw-yards, hop-lands, and corn-fields, and what is seldom seen in these degenerate days, a may-pole, add to the beauty of the scenery.
And here I may be allowed to quote a passage or two from an article which appeared some years ago in the New Monthly Magazine, on the village of Selborne, written by one who appears to have visited it out of pure love for the memory of Mr. White, and from the pleasure he had derived from his writings.
“ The traveller who would 'view fair Selborne aright,' should humour the caprices of our fickle climate, and visit
* [These lines were written by Mr. Gabriel Tahourdin,]
it only when its fields and foliage are clothed in their summer verdure, or autumnal russet, and lighted up in genial sunshine; for its beauty is of the joyous seasons, fitted neither to be observed by the sullen influence of a rainy day, nor torn by the rude hand of winter. Descending into the single straggling street' of which the village consists, my steps were instinctively directed towards the hanger, and I soon found myself climbing the winding path which was cut through the beech-wood in the time of Gilbert White. A sweeter spot than the interior of this thick covert, with its craggy slopes, and 'graceful pendulous foliage,' it is impossible to conceive. The effect on entering its cool shades, and deep twilight gloom, after the full blaze of the glowing sunshine, was most refreshing, and stole over the senses with a peculiar delight. The stillness which reigned around was here only broken by the hum of insects, and the tinkling of the bells from a herd of cattle, which, the woodland being part of the village common ground, were turned in to graze. The charm of the scene was much increased by this rural music, borne through the glades in the hanger.
“ Mr. White's own house, the successive abode of several generations of his family, is, of course, the first object of the traveller's inquiry. It stands not very far from the church, and is an irregular, unpretending edifice, which has evidently been enlarged at different periods, with more care of interior comfort than of architectural symmetry. Aided by the old-fashioned neatness of its lawns and gravel walks, the house preserves the staid aspect of bygone days, and has apparently undergone no alteration since the death of the naturalist. It was impossible to gaze on the spot without recalling to memory those hundred little passages in his book which, with so pleasing and beautiful an association, have identified the intellectual pursuits of the man, with the tasteful purity of his mind, with the every beauty of his
beloved retreat. The swallows, his favourite object of notice among the 'winged people,' were at the moment careering in circles round the house, and twittering among its eaves. In looking over the garden-fence, I thought of its quondam tenant, and his old familiar friends, his tortoise, whose habits he has so quaintly described; and at last the form of the venerable naturalist himself almost rose up in fancy before
In the churchyard is an ancient yew, which I do not remember that White has noticed, and measuring full sixteen feet in girth."
And here we may set this tasteful traveller right. Although no mention is made of this tree in the Natural History, it occurs in the fifth letter of the “Antiquities of Selborne,” where White says that in the churchyard of the village is a yew-tree whose aspect bespeaks it to be of a great age. It seems to have seen several centuries, and is probably coeval with the church, and therefore may be deemed an antiquity. The body is short, squat, and thick, and measures twenty-three feet in the girth, supporting a head of suitable extent to its bulk. This is a male tree, which in the spring sheds clouds of dust, and fills the atmosphere around with farina. We may mention, while speaking of the Selborne churchyard, that on the fifth grave from the north wall of the chancel, the following inscription may be seen on a head-stone:
There is "a slight heave of the turf," and this marks the humble grave of the naturalist and philosopher. In the church there is the following inscription on a monument:-
IN TEZ PIFTH GRAVE FROM THIS WALL ARE BURIED THE REMAINS OP
THE REV. GILBERT WHITE, M. A.,
FIFTY YEARS FELLOW OP ORIEL COLLEGE, IN OXFORD,
AND HISTORIAN OF THIS HIS NATIVE PARISH.
HE WAS ELDEST SON OF JOHN WHITE, ESQUIRE, BARRISTER-AT-LAW,
AND ANNE, HIS WIFE, ONLY CHILD OF
THOMAS HOLT, RECTOR OF STREATHAM, IN SURREY,
WHICH SAID JOHN WHITE WAS THE ONLY SON OF GILBERT WHITE,
FORMERLY VICAR OF THIS PARISH.
HE WAS KIND AND BENEFICENT TO HIS RELATIONS,
BENEVOLENT TO THE POOR,
AND DESERVEDLY RESPECTED BY ALL HIS FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS.
HE WAS BORN JULY 18TH, 1720, 0. s.,
AND DIED JUNE 26TH, 1793.
NEC BONO QUICQUAM MALI EVENIRE POTEST,
NEC Vivo, NEC MORTUO.
Few personal reminiscences of Gilbert White are now to be collected at Selborne. The writer we have quoted states, that “all an old dame, who had nursed several of the family, could tell him of a philosophical old bachelor, was that he was a still, quiet body," and that“ there wasn't a bit of harm in him, I'll assure you, sir,—there wasn't, indeed.” Alas! for all the dignity of science, and all the honour that befalleth “ a prophet in his own country."
Mr. White died, as we have already said, at the advanced age of seventy-three, having passed his life with scarcely any
other vicissitudes than those of the seasons. The fol lowing letter, with which the editor has been favoured by one of Mr. White's family, will show his style of correspondeuce,- it was addressed to his brother Thomas.