To Theo van Gogh. Isleworth, Saturday, 25 November 1876.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your last letter, which I received at the same time as one from Etten. So you’re back at the gallery. Do whatever your hand finds to do, with all your might, and your work and prayers cannot fail to be blessed. How I’d have liked to go along on that walk to Het Heike and to Sprundel in the first snow. But before I go further, I’ll copy out a couple of poems that you’ll no doubt like.
The journey of life
Two lovers by a mossgrown spring
They leaned soft cheeks together
Mingled the dark and sunny hair,
And heard the wooing thrushes sing
o Budding time
o Loves best prime.
Two wedded from the portal steps
The bells made happy carolings
The air was soft as fanning wings
While petals on the pathway slept
O pure eyed bride
o tender pride.
Two faces o’er a cradle bent
Two hands above the head were locked
These pressed each other while they rocked
Those watched a life which love had sent
O solemn hour
o hidden power.
Two parents by the evening fire
The red light fell about their knees
On heads that rose by slow degrees
Like buds upon the lily spire
O patient life
O tender strife.
The two still sat together there
The red light shone about their knees
But all the heads by slow degrees
Had gone and left that lonely pair
O Voyage fast
O Banished past.
The red light shone upon the floor
And made the space between them wide
They drew their chairs up side by side
Their pale cheeks joined, and said ‘once more’
O past that is!
The three little chairs.
They sat alone by the bright woodfire
The grey-haired dame and the aged sire
Dreaming of days gone by;
The tear drop fell on the wrinkled cheek
They both had thoughts that they could not speak,
And each heart uttered a sigh.
For their sad and tearful eyes descried
Three little chairs placed side by side
Against the sitting room wall;
Old fashioned enough as there they stood
Their seats of flag, and their frames of wood,
With their backs so straight and tall.
Then the sire shook His silvery head,
And with trembling voice he gently said,
‘Mother, those empty chairs,
They bring us such sad, sad thoughts tonight,
We’ll put them for ever out of sight
In the small dark room upstairs’.
But she answered: Father, no, not yet;
For I look at them, and I forget
That the children went away,
The boys come back, and our Mary, too,
With her apron on of checkered blue
And sit here every day.
Johnny still whittles a ships tall masts,
And Willie his leaden bullets casts
While Mary her patchwork sows;
At evening time three childish prayers
Go up to God from those little chairs,
So softly that no one knows.
Johnny comes back from the billowy deep,
Willie wakes from the battle field sleep,
To say good night to me:
Mary’s a wife and mother no more,
But a tired child whose play-time is o’er,
And comes to rest on my knee.
So let them stand there – though empty now,
And every time when alone we bow
At the Fathers throne to pray,
We’ll ask to meet the children above
In our Saviours home of rest and love,
Where no child goeth away.
In his letter Pa wrote, among other things: ‘in the afternoon I had to go to Hoeven, Ma had ordered the cab but it couldn’t come, because they hadn’t yet been able to have he horses’ shoes frosted – I therefore decided to go on foot and good Uncle Jan didn’t want me to go alone, so he came along. It was a hard journey, but Uncle Jan rightly said: the devil is never so black that you can’t look him in the face. And indeed, we arrived there and returned safe and sound, even though there was a gale blowing, coupled with freezing rain, so that the roads were slippery as ice, and I cannot describe how wonderful it was to sit so cosily in a nice warm room in the evening, resting after work – that dear Theo was still with us then’.
Shall we, too, go once again to some church in this way? As sorrowful yet alway rejoicing, with everlasting joy in our hearts because we are the poor in the kingdom of God, because we have found in Christ a friend in our lives that sticketh closer than a brother, who brought us to the end of the journey as to the door of the Father’s house. May God grant it – what God hath done is done aright.
Last Sunday evening I went to a village on the Thames, Petersham. In the morning I had been at the Sunday school at Turnham Green, and went after sunset from there to Richmond and then on to Petersham. It grew dark early and I wasn’t sure of the way, it was a surprisingly muddy road over a kind of embankment or rise on the hill covered with gnarled elm trees and shrubs. At last I saw below the rise a light in a small house, and scrambled and waded over to it, and there I was told the way. But, old boy, there was a beautiful little wooden church with a kindly light at the end of that dark road, I read Acts V:14-16 Acts XII:5-17, Peter in prison, and Acts XX:7-37, Paul preaching in Macedonia, and then I told the story of John and Theagenes yet again. There was a harmonium in the church, played by a young woman from a boarding school that was attending en masse.
In the morning it was so beautiful on the way to Turnham Green, the chestnut trees and clear blue sky and the morning sun were reflected in the water of the Thames, the grass was gloriously green and everywhere all around the sound of church bells. The day before I’d gone on a long journey to London, I left here at 4 in the morning, arrived at Hyde Park at half past six, the mist was lying on the grass and leaves were falling from the trees, in the distance one saw the shimmering lights of street-lamps that hadn’t yet been put out, and the towers of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and the sun rose red in the morning mist – from there on to Whitechapel, that poor district of London, then to Chancery Lane and Westminster, then to Clapham to visit Mrs Loyer again, her birthday was the day before. She is indeed a widow in whose heart the psalms of David and the chapters of Isaiah are not dead but sleeping. Her name is written in the book of life. I also went to Mr Obach’s to see his wife and children again. Then from there to Lewisham, where I arrived at the Gladwells at half past three. It was exactly 3 months ago that I was there that Saturday their daughter was buried, I stayed with them around 3 hours and thoughts of many kinds occurred to all of us, too many to express. There I also wrote to Harry in Paris. I hope you’ll see him sometime.
It may well be that you too will go to Paris sometime. That night I was back here at half past ten, I went part of the way with the underground railway. Fortunately I’d received some money for Mr Jones. Am working on Ps. 42:1, My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. At Petersham I told the congregation that they would be hearing poor English, but that when I spoke I thought of the man in the parable who said ‘have patience with me, and I will pay thee all’, God help me. At Mr Obach’s I saw the painting, or rather the sketch, by Boughton: the pilgrim’s progress. If you can ever get Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress, it’s very worthwhile reading. For my part I love it with heart and soul.
It’s night-time now, I’m still doing a bit of work for the Gladwells at Lewisham, copying out one thing and another etc.; one must strike while the iron is hot and soften the human heart when it is burning within us. Tomorrow off to London again for Mr Jones. Beneath that poem The journey of life and The three little chairs one should write: that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth. So be it. A handshake in thought, give my regards to Mr and Mrs Tersteeg and to everyone at the Rooses’ and the Haanebeeks’ and the Van Stockums’ and the Mauves’, adieu and believe me
Your most loving brother