Cobbett's Boyhood

Perhaps, in Cobbett's voluminous writings, there is nothing so complete

as the following picture of his boyish scenes and recollections: it has

been well compared to the most simple and touching passages in

Richardson's Pamela:--

"After living within a hundred yards of Westminster Hall and the

Abbey church, and the bridge, and looking from my own window into

St. James's Park, all other buildings and spots appear mean and

insignificant. I went to-day to see the house I formerly occupied.

How small! It is always thus: the words large and small are

carried about with us in our minds, and we forget real dimensions.

The idea, such as it was received, remains during our absence from

the object. When I returned to England in 1800, after an absence

from the country parts of it of sixteen years, the trees, the

hedges, even the parks and woods, seemed so small! It made me

laugh to hear little gutters, that I could jump over, called

rivers! The Thames was but 'a creek!' But when, in about a month

after my arrival in London, I went to Farnham, the place of my

birth, what was my surprise! Every thing was become so pitifully

small! I had to cross in my postchaise the long and dreary heath

of Bagshot. Then, at the end of it, to mount a hill called Hungry

Hill; and from that hill I knew that I should look down into the

beautiful and fertile vale of Farnham. My heart fluttered with

impatience, mixed with a sort of fear, to see all the scenes of my

childhood; for I had learned before the death of my father and

mother. There is a hill not far from the town, called Crooksbury

Hill, which rises up out of a flat in the form of a cone, and is

planted with Scotch fir-trees. Here I used to take the eggs and

young ones of crows and magpies. This hill was a famous object in

the neighbourhood. It served as the superlative degree of height.

'As high as Crooksbury Hill,' meant with us, the utmost degree of

height. Therefore, the first object my eyes sought was this hill.

I could not believe my eyes! Literally speaking, I for a moment

thought the famous hill removed, and a little heap put in its

stead; for I had seen in New Brunswick a single rock, or hill of

solid rock, ten times as big, and four or five times as high! The

post-boy, going down hill, and not a bad road, whisked me in a few

minutes to the Bush Inn, from the garden of which I could see the

prodigious sand hill where I had begun my gardening works. What a

nothing! But now came rushing into my mind all at once my pretty

little garden, my little blue smock-frock, my little nailed shoes,

my pretty pigeons that I used to feed out of my hands, the last

kind words and tears of my gentle and tender-hearted and

affectionate mother. I hastened back into the room. If I had

looked a moment longer, I should have dropped. When I came to

reflect, what a change! What scenes I had gone through! How

altered my state! I had dined the day before at a secretary of

state's, in company with Mr. Pitt, and had been waited upon by men

in gaudy liveries! I had had nobody to assist me in the world. No

teachers of any sort. Nobody to shelter me from the consequence of

bad, and nobody to counsel me to good behaviour. I felt proud. The

distinctions of rank, birth, and wealth, all became nothing in my

eyes; and from that moment (less than a month after my arrival in

England), I resolved never to bend before them."

Cobbett was, for a short time, a labourer in the kitchen grounds of the

Royal Gardens at Kew. King George the Third often visited the gardens

to inquire after the fruits and esculents; and one day, he saw here

Cobbett, then a lad, who with a few halfpence in his pocket, and Swift's

Tale of a Tub in his hand, had been so captivated by the wonders of

the royal gardens, that he applied there for employment. The king, on

perceiving the clownish boy, with his stockings tied about his legs by

scarlet garters, inquired about him, and specially desired that he might

be continued in his service.

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