October 23rd.
DO you recollect our evening rambles last year, upon the hill of pines? I remember we often fancied the scene like Valombrosa; and vowed, if ever an occasion offered, to visit that deep retirement. I had put off the execution of this pilgrimage from day to day till the warm weather was gone; and the Florentines declared I should be frozen if I attempted it. Everybody stared last night at the Opera when I told them I was going to bury myself in fallen leaves, and hear no music but their rustlings.
Mr – was just as eager as myself to escape the chit-chat and nothingness of Florence; so we finally determined upon our expedition, and mounting our horses, set out this morning, happily without any company but the spirit which led us along. We had need of inspiration, since nothing else, I think, would have tempted us over such dreary, uninteresting hillocks as rise from the banks of the Arno. The hoary olive is their principal vegetation; so that Nature, in this country, seems in a withering decrepit state, and may not unaptly be compared to "an old woman clothed in grey." However, we did not suffer the prospect to damp our enthusiasm, which was the better preserved for Valombrosa. About half way, our palfreys thought proper to look out for some oats, and I to creep into a sort of granary in the midst of a barren waste, scattered over with white rocks, that reflected more heat than I cared for, although I had been told snow and ice were to be my portion. Seating myself on the floor between heaps of corn, I reached down a few purple clusters of muscadine grapes, which hung to dry in the ceiling, and amused myself very pleasantly with them till the horses had finished their meal and it was lawful to set forwards. We met with nothing but rocky steeps shattered into fragments, and such roads as half inclined us to repent our undertaking; but cold was not yet amongst the number of our evils. At last, after ascending a tedious while, we began to feel the wind blow sharply from the peaks of the mountains, and to hear the murmur of the forests of pine. A paved path leads across them, quite darkened by boughs, which meeting over our heads cast a gloom and a chillness below that would have stopped the proceedings of reasonable mortals, and sent them to bask in the plain; but, being not so easily discomfited, we threw ourselves boldly into the grove. It presented one of those confusions of tall straight stems I am so fond of, and exhaled a fresh aromatic odour that revived my spirits. The cold to be sure was piercing; but setting that at defiance, we galloped on, and entered a vast amphitheatre of lawns and meadows surrounded by thick woods beautifully green. Flocks of sheep were dispersed on the slopes, whose smoothness and verdure equal our English pastures. Steep cliffs and mountains, clothed with beech to their very summits, guard this retired valley. The herbage, moistened by streams which fall from the eminences, has never been known to fade; thus, whilst the chief part of Tuscany is parched by the heats of summer, these upland meadows retain the freshness of spring. I regretted not having visited them sooner, as autumn had already made great havock amongst the foliage. Showers of leaves blew full in our faces as we rode towards the convent, placed at an extremity of the vale and sheltered by firs and chesnuts towering one above another. Alighting before the entrance, two fathers came out and received us into the peace of their retirement. We found a blazing fire, and tables spread very comfortably before it, round which five or six overgrown friars were lounging, who seemed, by the sleekness and rosy hue of their countenances, not totally to have despised this mortal existence. My letters of recommendation soon brought the heads of the order about me, fair round figures, such as a Chinese would have placed in his pagoda. I could willingly have dispensed with their attention; yet to avoid this was scarcely within the circle of possibility. All dinner, therefore, we endured the silliest questions imaginable; but, that dispatched, away flew your humble servant to the fields and forests. The fathers made a shift to waddle after, as fast and as complaisantly as they were able, but were soon distanced. Now, I found myself at liberty, and ran up a narrow path overhung by rock, with bushy chesnuts starting from the crevices. This led me into wild glens of beech-trees, mostly decayed and covered with moss: several were fallen. It was amongst these the holy hermit Gualbertus had his cell. I rested a moment upon one of their huge branches, listening to the roar of a waterfall which the wood concealed; then, springing up, I clambered over crags and fragments, guided by the sound; and presently discovered a full stream, precipitating itself down a cliff of pines, amongst which I remained several minutes, watching the falling floods, till, tired with their endless succession, I plunged into the thickest of the grove. A beech received me, like a second Gualbertus, in its hollow trunk. The dry leaves chased each other down the steeps on the edge of the torrents with hollow rustlings, whilst the solemn wave of the forests above exactly answered the idea I had formed of Valombrosa,

where th' Etrurian shades High overarch't imbowr.

The scene was beginning to take effect, and the Genius of Milton to move across his favourite valley, when the fathers arrived, puffing and blowing, by an easier ascent than I knew of. Pardon me if I cursed their intention, and wished them as still as Gualbertus. "You have missed the way," cried the youngest; "the hermitage, with the fine picture by Andrea del Sarto, which all the English admire, is on the opposite side of the wood: there! don't you see it on the point of the cliff?" "Yes, yes," said I, a little peevishly; "I wonder the devil has not pushed it down long ago; it seems to invite his kick." "Satan," answered the old Pagod, very dryly, "is full of malice; but whoever drinks of a spring which the Lord causeth to flow near the hermitage is freed from his illusions." "Are they so?" replied I, with a sanctified accent, "then I prithee conduct me thither, for I have great need of such salutary waters, being troubled with strange fancies and imaginations, such as the evil-one himself ought to be ashamed of inspiring." The youngest father shook his head, as much as to say, "This is nothing more than a heretic's whim." The senior, muddled, I conjecture, set forwards with greater piety, and began some legendary tales of the kind which my soul loveth: rare stories of caves and dens of the earth, inhabited by ancient men familiar with spirits, and not the least discomposed by a party of angels coming to dinner, or playing a game at miracles to pass away the evening. He pointed to a chasm in the cliff, round which we were winding by a spiral path, where Gualbertus used to sleep, and, turning himself towards the west, see a long succession of saints and martyrs sweeping athwart the sky, and tinging the clouds with brighter splendours than the setting sun. Here, he rested till his last hour, when the bells of the convent beneath (which till that moment would have made dogs howl had there been any within its precincts) struck out such harmonious jingling that all the country around was ravished, and began lifting up their eyes with singular devotion; when, behold, cherubim appeared, light dawned, and birds chirped, although it was midnight. "Alas! alas! what would I not give to witness such a spectacle, and read my prayerbook by the effulgence of opening heaven!" However, willing to see something at least, I crept into the consecrated cleft and extended myself on its rugged surface. – A very penitential couch! but commanding glorious prospects of the world below, which lay this evening in deep blue shade; the sun looking red and angry through misty vapours, which prevented our discovering the Tuscan sea.
Finding the rock as damp as might be expected, I soon shifted my quarters, and followed the youngest father up to the Romitorio, a snug little hermitage, with a neat chapel, and altarpiece by Andrea del Sarto, which I should have more minutely examined in any other place, but where the wild scenery of hanging woods and meadows, steep hills and nodding precipices, possessed my whole attention. I just stayed to taste the holy fountain; and then, escaping from my conductors, ran eagerly down the path, leaping over the springs that crossed it, and entered a lawn of the smoothest turf, grazed by sheep, and swelling into gentle acclivities skirted by groves of fir, whose solemn verdure formed a contrast with its tender green. Beyond this pleasant opening rises a second, hemmed in with copses; and still higher, a third, from whence a forest of young pines spires up into a lofty theatre terminated by peaks, universally concealed under a thick mantle of beech, tinged with ruddy brown. Pausing in the midst of the lawns, and looking upward to the sweeps of wood which surrounded me, I addressed my orisons to the Genius of the place, and prayed that I might once more return into its bosom, and be permitted to bring you along with me, for surely such meads, such groves, were formed for our enjoyment! This little rite performed, I walked on quite to the extremity of the pastures, traversed a thicket, and found myself on the edge of precipices, beneath whose base the whole Val d'Arno lies expanded. I listened to distant murmurings in the plain, saw wreaths of smoke rising from the cottages, and viewed a vast tract of barren country, which evening rendered still more desolate, bounded by the high mountain of Radicofani. Then, turning round, I beheld the whole extent of rock and forest, the groves of beech, and wilds above the convent, glowing with fiery red, for the sun, making a last effort to pierce the vapours, produced this effect; which was the more striking, as the sky was gloomy, and the rest of the prospect of a melancholy blue. Returning slowly homeward, I marked the warm glow deserting the eminences, and heard the bell toll sullenly to vespers. The young boys of the seminary were moving in a body to their dark enclosure, all dressed in black. Many of them looked pale and wan. I wished to ask them whether the solitude of Valombrosa suited their age and vivacity; but a tall spectre of a priest drove them along like a herd, and presently, the gates opening, I saw them no more. A sadness I could scarcely account for, came over me: I shivered at the bare idea of being cooped up in such a place, and seeing no other living objects than scarecrow priests and friars; to hear every day the same dull service, and droning organ; view the same cloisters; be led the same walks; watched, cribbed, confined, and filled with superstitious terrors. The night was growing chill, the winds boisterous, and in the intervals of the gusts I had the addition of a lamentable screech owl to raise my spirits. Upon the whole, I was not at all concerned to meet the fathers, who came out to show me to my room, and entertain me with various gossipings, both sacred and profane, till supper appeared.
Next morning, the Padre Decano gave us chocolate in his apartment; and afterwards led us round the convent, insisting most unmercifully upon our viewing every cell and every dormitory. However, I was determined to make a full stop at the organ, which is perhaps the most harmonious I ever played upon; but placed in a dark, dingy recess, feebly lighted by lamps, not calculated to inspire triumphant voluntaries. The music partook of the sadness of the scene. The monks, who had all crowded into the lost in expectation of brisk jigs and lively overtures, soon took themselves away, upon hearing a strain ten times more sorrowful than that to which they were accustomed. I did not lament their departure, but played dismally on till our horses came to the gate. We mounted, spurred back through the grove of pines which protect Valombrosa from intrusion, descended the steeps, and, gaining the plains, galloped in three hours to Florence.

Letter I ::: Letter II ::: Letter III ::: Letter IV ::: Letter V ::: Letter VI ::: Letter VII ::: Letter VIII ::: Letter IX ::: Letter X ::: Letter XI ::: Letter XII ::: Letter XIII ::: Letter XIV ::: Letter XV ::: Letter XVI ::: Letter XVII ::: Letter XVIII ::: Letter XIX ::: Letter XX ::: Letter XXI ::: Letter XXII ::: Letter XXIII ::: Letter XXIV ::: Letter XXV ::: Letter XXVI ::: Letter XXVII
Additional letters, I-VII
An Excursion to the Grande Chartreuse in the year 1778