Ostend, June 21.

T’OTHER minute I was in Greece, gathering the bloom of Hymettus; but now I am landed in Flanders, smoked with tobacco, and half poisoned with garlick. Were I to remain ten days in Ostend, I should scarcely have one delightful vision; 'tis so unclassic a place! Nothing but preposterous Flemish roofs disgust your eyes when you cast them upwards: swaggering Dutchmen and mungrel barbers are the first objects they meet with below. I should esteem myself in luck were the woes of this sea-port confined only to two senses; but, alas! the apartment above my head proves a squalling brattery; and the sounds which proceed from it are so loud and frequent, that a person might think himself in limbo, without any extravagance. Am I not an object of pity when I tell you that I was tormented yesterday by a similar cause? But I know not how it is; your violent complainers are the least apt to excite compassion. I believe, notwithstanding, if another rising generation should lodge above me at the next inn, I shall grow as scurrilous as Dr. Smollet, and be dignified with the appellation of the Younger Smelfungus. Well, let those make out my diploma that will, I am determined to vent my spleen; and, like Lucifer, unable to enjoy comfort myself, teaze others with the detail of my vexations. You must know then, since I am resolved to grumble, that, tired with my passage, I went to the Capuchin church, a large solemn building, in search of silence and solitude; but here again was I disappointed: half-a-dozen squeaking fiddles fugued and flourished away in the galleries, as many paralytic monks gabbled before the altars, whilst a whole posse of devotees, wrapped in long white hoods and flannels, were sweltering on either side. Such piety in warm weather was no very fragrant circumstance; so I sought the open air again as fast as I was able. The serenity of the evening, joined to the desire I had of casting another glance over the ocean, tempted me to the ramparts. There, at least, thought I to myself, I may range undisturbed, and talk with my old friends the breezes, and address my discourse to the waves, and be as romantic and whimsical as I please; but it happened that I had scarcely begun my apostrophe, before out flaunted a whole rank of officers, with ladies and abbés, and puppy dogs, singing, and flirting, and making such a hubbub, that I had not one peaceful moment to observe the bright tints of the western horizon, or enjoy the series of antique ideas with which a calm sunset never fails to inspire me. Finding therefore no quiet abroad, I returned to my inn, and should have gone immediately to bed, in hopes of relapsing again into the bosom of dreams and delusions; but the limbo I mentioned before grew so very outrageous, that I was obliged to postpone my rest till sugarplums and nursery eloquence had hushed it to repose. At length peace was restored, and about eleven o'clock I fell into a slumber, during which the most lovely Sicilian prospects filled the eye of my fancy. I anticipated the classic scenes of that famous island, and forgot every sorrow in the meadows of Enna. Next morning, awakened by the sunbeams, I arose quite refreshed with the agreeable impressions of my dream, and filled with presages of future happiness in the climes which had inspired them. No other ideas, but such as Trinacria and Naples suggested, haunted me whilst travelling to Ghent. I neither heard the vile Flemish dialect which was talking around me, nor noticed the formal avenues and marshy country which we passed. When we stopped to change horses, I closed my eyes upon the whole scene, and was transported immediately to some Grecian solitude where Theocritus and his shepherds were filling the air with melody. To one so far gone in the poetic antiquity, Ghent is not the most likely place to recall his attention; and I know nothing more about it, than that it is a large, ill-paved, dismal-looking city, with a decent proportion of convents and chapels, stuffed with monuments, brazen gates, and glittering marbles. In the great church were two or three pictures by Rubens, mechanically excellent; but these realities were not designed in so graceful a manner as to divert my attention from the mere descriptions Pausanias gives us of the works of Grecian artists, and I would at any time fall asleep in a Flemish cathedral, for a vision of the temple of Olympian Jupiter. But I think I hear, at this moment, some grave and respectable personage chiding me for such levities, and saying – "Really, sir, you had better stay at home, and dream in your great chair, than give yourself the trouble of going post through Europe, in search of inspiring places to fall asleep. If Flanders and Holland are to be dreamed over at this rate, you had better take ship at once, and doze all the way to Italy." – Upon my word, I should not have much objection to that scheme; and, if some cabalist would but transport me in an instant to the summit of Ætna, anybody might slop through the Low Countries that pleased. Being, however, so far advanced, there was no retracting; and, as it is now three or four years since I have almost abandoned the hopes of discovering a necromancer, I resolved to journey along with Quiet and Content for my companions. These two comfortable deities have, I believe, taken Flanders under their especial protection; every step one advances discovering some new proof of their influence. The neatness of the houses, and the universal cleanliness of the villages, shew plainly that their inhabitants live in ease and good-humour. All is still and peaceful in these fertile lowlands: the eye meets nothing but round unmeaning faces at every door, and harmless stupidity smiling at every window. The beasts, as placid as their masters, graze on without any disturbance; and I don't recollect to have heard one grunting swine, or snarling mastiff, during my whole progress. Before every town is a wealthy dunghill, not at all offensive, because but seldom disturbed; and there they bask in the sun, and wallow at their ease, till the hour of death and bacon arrives, when capacious paunches await them. If I may judge from the healthy looks and reposed complexions of the Flemings, they have every reason to exped a peaceful tomb.
But it is high time to leave our swinish moralities behind us, and jog on towards Antwerp. More rich pastures, more ample fields of grain, more flourishing willows! – A boundless plain before this city, dotted with cows and flowers; from whence its spires and quaint roofs are seen to advantage! The pale colours of the sky, and a few gleams of watery sunshine, gave a true Flemish cast to the scenery, and everything appeared so consistent, that I had not a shadow of pretence to think myself asleep. After crossing a broad, noble river, edged on one side by beds of osiers, beautifully green, and on the other by gates and turrets, preposterously ugly, we came through several streets of lofty houses to our inn. Its situation in the Place de Mer, a vast open space, surrounded by buildings above buildings, and roof above roof, has something striking and singular. A tall gilt crucifix of bronze, sculptured by some famous artist adds to its splendor; and the tops of some tufted trees, seen above a line of magnificent hotels, add greatly to the effect of the perspective. It was almost dusk when we arrived; and, as I am very partial to seeing new objects discovered by this dubious, visionary light, I went immediately a rambling. Not a sound disturbed my meditations: there were no groups of squabbling children or talkative old women. The whole town seemed retired into their inmost chambers; and I kept winding and turning about, from street to street, and from alley to alley, without meeting a single inhabitant. Now and then, indeed, one or two women in long cloaks and mantles glided by at a distance; but their dress was so shroud-like, and their whole appearance so ghostly, that I was more than half afraid to accost them. As the night approached, the ranges of buildings grew more and more dim, and the silence which reigned amongst them more aweful. The canals, which in some places intersect the streets, were likewise in perfect solitude, and there was just light sufficient for me to observe on the still waters the reflection of the structures above them. Except two or three tapers glimmering through the casements, no one circumstance indicated human existence. I might, without being thought very romantic, have imagined myself in the city of petrified people which Arabian fabulists are so fond of describing. Were any one to ask my advice upon the subject of retirement, I should tell him: By all means repair to Antwerp. No village amongst the Alps, or hermitage upon Mount Lebanon, is less disturbed: you may pass your days in this great city without being the least conscious of its sixty thousand inhabitants, unless you visit the churches. There, indeed, are to be heard a few devout whispers, and sometimes, to be sure, the bells make a little chiming; but, walk about, as I do, in the twilights of midsummer, and be assured your ears will be free from all molestation. You can have no idea how many strange, amusing fancies played around me whilst I wandered along; nor how delighted I was with the novelty of my situation. But a few days ago, thought I within myself, I was in the midst of all the tumult and uproar of London: now, as if by some magic influence, I am transported to a city equally remarkable for streets and edifices but whose inhabitants seem cast into a profound repose. What a pity that we cannot borrow some small share of this soporific disposition! It would temper that restless spirit which throws us sometimes into such dreadful convulsions. However, let us not be too precipitate in desiring so dead a calm; the time may arrive when, like Antwerp, we may sink into the arms of forgetfulness; when a fine verdure may carpet our Exchange, and passengers traverse the Strand without any danger of being smothered in crowds or lost in the confusion of carriages. Reflecting, in this manner, upon the silence of the place, contrasted with the important bustle which formerly rendered it so famous, I insensibly drew near to the cathedral, and found myself, before I was aware, under its stupendous tower. It is difficult to conceive an object more solemn or more imposing than this edifice, at the hour I first beheld it. Dark shades hindered my examining the lower galleries or windows; their elaborate carved work was invisible; nothing but huge masses of building met my sight, and the tower, from the gloom which prevailed below. The sky being perfectly clear, several stars twinkled through the mosaic of the spire, and added not a little to its enchanted effect. I longed to ascend it that instant, to stretch myself out upon its very summit, and calculate, from so sublime an elevation, the influence of the planets. Whilst I was indulging my astrological reveries, a ponderous bell struck ten, and such a peal of chimes succeeded, as shook the whole edifice, notwithstanding its bulk, and drove me away in a hurry. No mob obstructed my passage, and I ran through a succession of streets, free and unmolested, as if I had been skimming along over the downs of Wiltshire. My servants, conversing before the hotel, were the only voices which the great Place de Mer echoed. This universal stillness was the more pleasing, when I looked back upon those scenes of horror and outcry, which filled London but a week or two ago, when danger was not confined to night only, and to the environs of the capital, but haunted our streets at mid-day. Here, I could wander over an entire city; stray by the port, and venture through the most obscure alleys, without a single apprehension; without beholding a sky red and portentous with the light of houses on fire, or hearing the confused and terrifying murmur of shouts and groans mingled with the reports of artillery. I can assure you, I think myself very fortunate to have escaped the possibility of another such week of desolation, and to be peaceably lulled at Antwerp. Were I not still fatigued with my heavy progress through sands and quagmires, I should descant a little longer upon the blessings of so quiet a metropolis; but it is growing late, and I must retire to enjoy it.


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