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Wren was a little later one of the chief founders of the Royal Society, and its first meetings were held in his rooms. As versatile and original as Da Vinci, he excelled in Latin, mathematics, and astronomy, and was a close student of anatomy, and other sciences as well. Ten years before the Great Fire he was professor of astronomy in Gresham College, London, and at the age of twenty-eight, he was elected to the professorship of astronomy in Oxford. Before he was thirty and had done any work in architecture, Isaac Barrow declared him to be "something superhuman."
About this time he invented an agricultural implement for planting, and a method of making fresh water at sea. A year before the Fire he solved a knotty problem in geometry which Pascal had sent to English mathematicians. Says Hooke, "I must affirm that since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man in so great a perfection such a mechanical hand and so philosophic a mind." Had Wren never designed a building he would have been famous for his achievements in the study of the cycloid, in rendering practical the use of the barometer, in inventing a method for the transference of one animal's blood to another, in methods for noting longitude at sea, and for other studies and inventions too numerous to mention.
Wren was a self-taught architect. Before the Fire he erected Pembroke College Chapel at Cambridge, and the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. He then visited Paris, where he saw Bernini, and made the most of observations of the Louvre and such Renaissance work as Paris then afforded. His bent of mind was wholly divergent from the Gothic, and as it proved, in the few instances in which he introduced its features into his Renaissance churches, the result was as incongruous as Chaucer's cap and gown upon a Roman emperor.
London's calamity was the opportunity for this little man of mighty intellect. Four days after the fire ceased he laid before the king the sketch of his plan for the restoration of the city. He looked far into the future, and in vision saw a splendid town built on a well-conceived, harmonious plan. He proposed to have Ludgate Hill widen as it approached St. Paul's, where it would divide into two broad streets around the cathedral and leave ample s.p.a.ce for its huge ma.s.s to be plainly viewed.
One of these streets should lead to the Tower and the other to the Royal Exchange, which was to be the centre of the city. Around it should be a great piazza, from which ten streets were to lead, and on the outer edge of this piazza would be situated the Post-Office, the Mint, and other important buildings. "All churchyards, gardens, and trades that use great fires and noisome smells" were to be relegated to the country, and the churches with their spires were to be placed in prominent positions on the main thoroughfares.
All this meant present sacrifice for future good; but the short-sighted and impatient Londoners thought of the crying needs of the present year alone. The architect might implore and weep bitter tears, but all in vain.
London must rise again on its old, congested plan, with its crooked alleyways and narrow courts. But, though the ground-plan was discarded, Wren was to make the new city his monument. Besides St. Paul's he built within and without the walls fifty parish churches, thirty-six of the companies' halls, the Custom House, and much besides.
During the last eight years of Milton's life, the destruction of the walls of St. Paul's went on and the new edifice was a.s.suming shape in the mind of its creator. The old walls were blown down by gunpowder explosions and by battering-rams. This took about two years, and the clearing away of rubbish and building the ma.s.sive foundations, longer still. Several schemes were considered and rejected, and the plan which finally took its present form was not begun until the funeral wreaths were withered upon Milton's grave. Into the history of this mighty structure we may not enter. In 1710 the last stone of the lantern above the dome was laid by Wren's son in the presence of the now aged architect and of all London, which a.s.sembled for the proud spectacle. The fair walls, ungrimed by soot and smoke, rose fresh and perfect, a monument to one of the greatest geniuses of all time.
One building erected the year after Milton's death is worth mentioning as an ill.u.s.tration of the consideration shown for the insane at that period.
Bethlehem Hospital, which has been referred to, was in Milton's time situated on Bishopsgate Street Without. "This hospital stood in an obscure and close place near unto many common sewers; and also was too little to receive and entertain the great number of distracted Persons both men and women," writes an old author. But the city with admirable public spirit gave ground for a better site against London wall near Moorfields. A handsome brick and stone structure 540 feet long was erected in 1675, and large gardens were provided for the less insane. Over the gate were placed two figures representing a distracted man and woman. This building had a cupola surmounted by a gilded ball; there was a clock within and "three fair dials without." Men occupied one end of the building, and women the other. Hot and cold baths were provided, and there was a "stove room,"
where in the winter the patients might a.s.semble for warmth. Considering the ignorance of the time, astonishingly good sense was displayed in all the arrangements, insomuch that two out of every three persons were reported cured.
As if this were not enough for one man's work, Wren of course was busy all these years with the care of all the churches. Before Milton died he had been knighted, and lived in a s.p.a.cious mansion in Great Russell Square. He had by then rebuilt St. Dunstan's in the East in Tower Ward; St.
Mildred's, Bread Street Ward; St. Mary's, Aldermanbury; St. Edmund the King's; St. Lawrence's, Jewry; St. Michael's, Cornhill, where he attempted Gothic work; the beautiful St. Stephen's, Wallbrook; St. Olave's, Jewry; St. Martin's, Ludgate; St. Michael's, Wood Street; St. Dionis's, Langbourne Ward; St. George's, Botolph Lane; and the Custom House.
No interior, either of these or those that followed these, is so perfect as St. Stephen's, Wallbrook. Architecturally speaking, it has been questioned whether St. Paul's itself shows greater genius.
In most of his labours Wren was embarra.s.sed by lack of adequate funds and the caprice of his employers. Most of his churches were ingenious compromises between his ideals and their necessities or whims. His spires were in the Renaissance forms, but of endless variations. The most beautiful are so placed as rarely to be seen to advantage. Probably the most admired of all of them are St. Bride's and St. Mary le Bow. The former, which overshadows the spot where Milton conceived the plan of "Paradise Lost," is situated on a little narrow street called after St.
Bride or Bridget, the Irish maiden, who died in 525. She had a holy well, which is commemorated by an iron pump within a niche upon its site.
[Ill.u.s.tration: BOW STEEPLE, CHEAPSIDE
_From a print published in 1798._]
The lofty spire of the church rises to an alt.i.tude of 226 feet, a trifle higher than Bunker Hill Monument, in Charlestown, Ma.s.sachusetts, which is a measuring-rod for many Americans.
St. Mary le Bow is on the site of a Norman church of the Conqueror's time, and so named because it was built on arches or "bows" of stone. This crypt still remains. The steeple of the later church, which rang its bells above the head of little John Milton on Bread Street, close by, was built a hundred and fifty years before his birth; the church was said to have been a rather low, poor building. Bow bells were nightly rung at nine o'clock, but an old couplet shows that they were not always punctual:
"Clark of the Bow Bell, with the yellow lockes, For thy late ringing, thy head shall have knockes."
To which the clerk responded:
"Children of Cheape, hold you all still, For you shall have the Bow Bell rung at your will."
From the days when little d.i.c.k Whittington, a forlorn runaway, heard from far Bow bells summon him back to London, the bells have played a notable part in the life of Londoners. A true c.o.c.kney is supposed to be one born within hearing of these bells. Certainly the boy in Spread Eagle Court deserved the t.i.tle.
The spire of St. Mary le Bow rises a little higher than St. Bride's, and bears a golden dragon nine feet long.
Upon the side of Bow Church, half hidden behind the tower, is an inscription which the pilgrim to Milton's London will step aside to read.
It is on the tablet which was transferred from All Hallows Church, in which Milton was baptised, when it was torn down. It closes with the familiar lines of Dryden, the poet whom England most admired when this new spire of Wren's was rising upon the ruins of the old, and close beside the birthplace of the greatest soul ever born to London in all her two millenniums of history.
"Three poets, in three distant ages born, Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
The first in loftiness of thought surpa.s.sed, The next in majesty, in both the last; The force of nature could no farther go, To make a third she joined the other two."