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The Blind Preacher.
[This is an extract from one of a series of Letters written by Mr. Wirt, under the assumed name of the British Spy.)
RICHMOND, Oct. 10, 1803. I have been, my dear S
an excursion through the counties which lie along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. A general description of that country and its inhabitants may form the subject of a future letter. For the present, I must entertain you with an account of a most singular and interesting adventure, which I met with in the course of the tour.
It was one Sunday, as I travelled through the county of Orange, that my eye was caught by a cluster of horses tied near a ruinous, old, wooden house, in the forest, not far from the road-side. Having frequently seen such objects before in travelling through these states, I had no difficulty in understanding that this was a place of religious worship.
Devotion alone should have stopped me to join in the duties of the congregation; but I must confess, that curiosity to hear the preacher of such a wilderness, was not the least of my motives. On entering, I was struck with his preternatural appearance. He was a tall and very spare old man; his head, which was covered with a white linen cap, his shrivelled hands, and his voice, were all shaking under the
influence of a palsy ; and a few moments ascertained to me that he was perfectly blind. The first emotions which touched
breast were those of mingled pity and veneration. But how soon were all my feelings changed! The lips of Plato were never more worthy of a prognostic swarm of bees, than were the lips of this holy man! It was a day of the administration of the sacrament; and his subject, of course was the passion of our Saviour. I had heard the subject handled a thousand times : I had thought it exhausted long ago. Little did I suppose, that in the wild woods of America, I was to meet with a man whose eloquence would give to this topic a new and more sublime pathos, than I had ever before witnessed.
As he descended from the pulpit, to distribute the mystic symbols, there was a peculiar, a more than human solemnity in his air and manner, which made my blood run cold, and my whole frame shiver.
He then drew a picture of the sufferings of our Saviour; his trial before Pilate; his ascent up Calvary; his crucifixion; and his death. I knew the whole history; but never, until then, had I heard the circumstances so selected, so arranged, so coloured ! It was all new: and I seemed to have heard it for the first time in my life. His enunciation was so deliberate, that his voice trembled on every syllable ; and every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases had that force of description, that the original scene appeared to be, at that moment, acting before our eyes. We saw the very faces of the Jews: the staring, frightful distortions of malice and rage. We saw the buffet; my soul kindled with a flame of
indignation; and my hands were involuntarily and convulsively clinched.
But when he came to touch on the patience, the forgiving meekness of our Saviour ; when he drew to the life his blessed eyes, streaming in tears to heaven; his voice breathing to God, a soft and gentle prayer of pardon on his enemies, “ Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,”-the voice of the preacher, which had all along faltered, grew fainter, and fainter, until his utterance being entirely obstructed by the force of his feelings, he raised his handkerchief to his eyes, and burst into a loud and irrepressible flood of grief. The effect is inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans, and sobs, and shrieks of the congregation.
It was some time before the turnult had subsided, so far as to permit him to proceed. Indeed, judging by the usual, but fallacious standard of my own weakness, I began to be very uneasy for the situation of the preacher. For I could not conceive how he would be able to let his audience down from the height to which he had wound them, without impairing the solemnity and dignity of his subject, or perhaps shocking them by the abruptness of the fall. But, no! the descent was as beautiful and sublime as the elevation had been rapid and enthusiastic.
The first sentence, with which he broke the awful silence, was a quotation from Rousseau : “ Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ, like a God."
I despair of giving you any idea of the effect produced by this short sentence, unless you could perfectly conceive the whole manner of the man, as well as the peculiar crisis in the discourse. Never before did I completely understand what Demosthenes meant by laying such stress on delivery. You are to bring before you the venerable figure of the preacher; his blindness, constantly recalling to your recollection, old Homer, Ossian, and Milton, and associating with his performance, the melancholy grandeur of their geniuses; you are to imagine that you hear his slow, solemn, well-accented enunciation, and his voice of affecting, trenibling melody: you are to remember the pitch of passion and enthusiasm to which the congregation were raised; and then, the few minutes of portentous, death-like silence which reigned throughout the house; the preacher, removing his white handkerchief from his aged face (even yet wet from the recent torrent of his tears), and slowly stretching forth the palsied hand which holds it, begins the sentence: “Socrates died like a philosopher,” — then pausing, raising his other hand, pressing them both, clasped together, with warmth and energy to his breast, lifting his “sightless balls” to heaven, and pouring his whole soul into his tremulous voice—“but Jesus Christ-like a God !" If he had been in deed and in truth, an angel of light, the effect could scarcely have been more divine.
Intellectual Qualities of Milton. In speaking of the intellectual qualities of Milton, we may begin with observing, that the very splendour of his poetic fame has tended to obscure or conceal the extent of his mind, and the variety of its energies and attainments. To many he seems only a poet; when, in truth, he was a profound scholar, a man of vast compass of thought, imbued thoroughly with all ancient and modern learning, and able to master, to mould, to impregnate with his own intellectual power, his great and various acquisitions.
He had not learned the superficial doctrine of a later day, that poetry flourishes most in an uncultivated soil, and that imagination shapes its brightest visions from the mists of a superstitious age; and he had no dread of accumulating knowledge, lest it should oppress and smother his genius. He was conscious of that within him, which could quicken all knowledge, and wield it with ease and might; which could give freshness to old truths, and harmony to discordant thoughts; which could bind together, by living ties and mysterious affinities, the most remote discoveries, and rear fabrics of glory and beauty from the rude materials which other minds had collected. Milton had that universality which marks the high