“A Royal Poet”: One day in May, Crayon makes an excursion to Windsor Castle. He goes to the Keep of the Castle, where James I of Scotland was detained as a prisoner of state for much of his youth. He was sent from his home by his father at the age of eleven to be raised in France, far from the treacheries of the Scottish court. Unfortunately, on his way he fell into the hands of the English, who took him prisoner despite their truce with the Scottish.
His father’s grief proved fatal, and James remained in custody for eighteen years. He was, however, treated well thanks to his rank, and he was given a full education while in captivity. He was also blessed with a poetic spirit, which allowed him to pass his captivity writing great poetry. Because he grew up in hardship and not as a king, his poetry had an honesty which is quite rare in royal poetry. James, who had Chaucer as a contemporary, thus belongs to one of the most brilliant eras of literary history. His poetry, Crayon argues, gives Scotland a claim to some of the honor of that period.
The muse of James’s poetry, Lady Jane, eventually also became the means of his escape. His captors thought giving him an English queen would mean that he would care for the interests of England and not just Scotland. Thus he was reinstated to the Scottish throne with Jane as his queen.
Upon his return, he found that the noblemen had seized much power and were living above the law. He carefully gained the love of the common people and then began to take power back from the noblemen, reinstating the rule of law for them. The nobles pretended to be content with this change, but they quickly began to plot against his life. They soon murdered him and wounded his Queen as she tried to save him.
“The Country Church”: Crayon goes to a country church in an old neighborhood. Many generations have worshiped there. Incapable of feeling awed by the well-fed, snuffling vicar, he passes the time instead observing those around him. He notices, as is often the case, that those with the most acknowledged entitlement to respect show the least pretension and, for example, speak as equals with all those present. A family that recently amassed a vast fortune and bought the estate of a ruined nobleman of the neighborhood, in contrast, shows far more pretension and snobbery. Crayon finds these families good examples of something often found in England—the unpretending great and the arrogant little. He claims not to be impressed by title itself, but he often finds that those confident in their place do not have to act with the vulgarity of those trying to rise by humiliating or diminishing those around them.
“The Widow and Her Son”: While staying in one neighborhood for an extended period, Crayon regularly goes to the country church, where he finds too many aristocrats with too much pomp for him to be able to concentrate on the religious proceedings. The only example of humble piety is a poor and decrepit old woman, who shows signs of a life better than one of her apparent abject poverty.
One day while loitering around the church, he watches two laborers digging a grave in the farthest, most neglected corner of the churchyard. They tell him it is for the only son of a poor widow. On the day of the funeral, he sees that the mother of the deceased is the old, pious woman from the church. The service is perfunctory since the woman is so poor, and the priest is cold and unfeeling. The old woman’s grief is so extreme, and her comforts so few, that Crayon is quite overcome with pity.
Crayon later runs into the one woman who had tried to comfort the old woman. She tells him the particulars of the story. The dead man’s parents had both grown up in the village, and they had supported themselves creditably and comfortably in one of the neatest cottages, leading a happy and blameless life. Their one son grew up to be their pride and joy, and he was loved throughout the village for his kindness and dutifulness.
One year, while the family was having an especially hard time, the son was tempted into working on a small ship, and not long afterward he was entrapped by a gang and carried off to sea. The parents learned of this situation but could not get any further information, and the father soon died from grief. The old mother could no longer support herself and had to be supported by the parish, but she was still respected in the village as its oldest inhabitant.
Finally, one day, a very thin man in a sailor’s uniform appeared on her doorstep. It was her son, very weak and very ill. He lay down on his bed, too weak to ever rise again. Everyone in the village did everything they could to help, and his mother constantly nursed him, but he was too far gone, and he soon died.
A few weeks later his mother, in her grief, quietly follows him.
“A Royal Poet” is one of the few sketches that deals with a great historical figure. In the opening sketch of the book, Crayon explains that he often finds himself writing much more about the relatively unknown scenes and people than about his visits to great monuments. The range of topics in the tales bears this out despite exceptions (including the pieces on Westminster Abbey and the British Library). “A Royal Poet” is another of the few exceptions. James I of Scotland is of interest to Crayon largely, it is likely, because he was a talented poet who was specifically unlike other royal figures because of his hardships and incarceration. Here we see again Crayon’s great reverence for good writing. He is also a romantic, and the story of James I is quite romantic.
Crayon’s imagination in this scene, as in many others, overcomes him to such an extreme that he almost has a hallucination. Thus we see how he uses his imagination to make his world a better place—he allows himself to believe even the most unlikely stories, provided that the imagined one is the better, more romantic story. This is probably a significant reason that history is so attractive to him; his imagination is so powerful that these historical sites really come alive to him, and their distance from him means he need only see what he wants to see. The part of history that endures is the interesting, romantic part that holds meaning and interest for each generation.
In “The Country Church,” Crayon goes back to the more rural scenes that he generally prefers. Here he shows an American non-hierarchical bent, judging the richer families of the neighborhood, but he also respects the value of the class system. The old, noble family is to him completely admirable. They are rich but not ostentatious, and they are of longstanding good family, but they are respectful of all and show no snobbery. They are good because of who they are, not because they are rich, but having the leisure of longstanding wealth has given them opportunities to develop their virtue.
The newer rich family of the neighborhood, however, having no family history or rank, has become less virtuous because of wealth. The family has become ostentatious to the extreme, treating everyone with disdain and thinking themselves far above the poorer families of their neighborhood. Crayon expresses disgust about this. Nevertheless, we sense that Crayon sees part of the problem as their existence as a new-money family, a family that would have been better off morally if they had stayed in their place without rising beyond their family’s usual status. Although he at times espouses the American freedom of classless interaction, Crayon often yearns for the days when rank was inflexible and important because the aristocracy meant something substantial instead of being an artificial stratification.
“The Widow and Her Son,” moreover, continues the theme of virtue even in poverty. Crayon certainly does not judge people by rank. He finds the widow to be very respectable, although she now has to live off of the charity of the neighborhood because she cannot support herself. Her true piety and apparent virtue are redeeming values, and Crayon is better able to find such qualities in the most rural neighborhoods of England, where fashion and modernity have not gained as much of a foothold.