Abbotsford and Melrose

31 July 1829

On Friday 31 July the two companions travelled to Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, “the lion”, as Mendelssohn had described him. They intended to meet with the great man, but their attempt fell well short of expectations. The way that it is described in a joint letter home underlines the peculiar personality of Klingemann who launches into a completely invented fantasy about how successful the visit had been when, in fact, it had been a disaster:

Karl Klingemann – letter, Abbotsford, 31 July 1829:

Most astonished friends! O most amazed readers! Under us the great man is snoring, his dogs are asleep and his armoured knights awake: it is twelve o’clock, and the sweetest ghostly hour which I have ever spent, for Miss Scott makes the most delicious marmalade – the trees of the park are rustling, the waves of the Tweed whisper to the bard of tales of long bygone days, and the mystery of the present; and harp-strains, sounded by tender hands, mingle therewith, vibrating through the strange old-fashioned apartment in which our celebrated host has quartered us. Never was a letter begun with greater relish, and we look down very much on Europe. When this morning at a quarter to six we drove out of Edinburgh, still quite sleepy, strange sounds fell on our ears: the stage was already in motion, I rushed on to catch it, a street-porter (here of course a Highlander) stopped it and called out eagerly, ‘Run, my man, run, my man; it won’t wait!’ What signify another forty miles, if then we discover the source of the Nile? We were in Melrose: Felix drove to Abbotsford; I stayed behind, as a person without a letter of introduction, who might follow if Sir Walter would positively not let the other go. Melrose Abbey is a ruin full of preservation and conversation; King David (of Scotland) and the magician Scott (Michael, not Walter) are there cut in stone, and the whole neighbourhood is interwoven with legends and ancient fairy dances. Thomas the Rhymer and the Fairy Queen held their revels a little higher up a dark glen, and something of that still animates the castellan when he scrambles like a chamois up to the highest point of the ruins. One gets so hungry in such ruins (which by way of contrast throw the present in one’s very face) that I retired into the inn for bread and cheese and ale and a newspaper. So I lay in quiet enjoyment on the sofa, when the coach came back and someone rushed into our room. Thinking only of Felix, I made some scurrilous remark. That moment I discerned an elderly man: ‘Oh, Sir Walter!’ cried I, jumping up; and with apologising blushes I added, ‘Familiar likenesses can alone excuse like familiarity!’ ‘Never mind!’ was his brief reply, - he who is so famed for prolixity! ‘My dear future Parnassus-brother and historical novelist, I have much pleasure in meeting you. Your friend has already beautifully told me what and how much you will yet write and may have written.’ Meanwhile hands were shaken out of joint and shaken in again, and we all proceeded in happy ecstasy to Abbotsford.

PS by Felix: This is all Klingemann’s invention. We found Sir Walter in the act of leaving Abbotsford, stared at him like fools, drove eighty miles and lost a day for the sake of at best one half-hour of superficial conversation. Melrose compensated us but little: we were out of humour with great men, with ourselves, with the world, with everything. It was a bad day.

Mendelssohn’s bitter disappointment in failing properly to meet and engage with Sir Walter Scott is clear. To have gone all that way – to Scotland in the first place, and then down to Abbotsford – only to be met with a gruff rebuff from Scott would have been painful to him. His embarrassment and frustration jump out from his “PS” and he would no doubt have compared his abortive attempt to meet Scott with the close friendship, based on mutual admiration, that he, Felix, had with Scott’s German counterpart, Goethe, to whom Felix had been introduced by his music teacher Zelter eight years earlier. Goethe was a great admirer of Mendelssohn and famously compared the achievements of the 12-year-old Mendelssohn to those of the 7-year-old Mozart (whom Goethe had heard in the 1760s) as "the cultivated talk of an adult to the prattlings of a child."

Melrose Abbey 31 July 1829

Melrose Abbey 31 July 1829.  Bodleian notebook. 22r

Gargoyles at Melrose Abbey

Gargoyles at Melrose Abbey

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