Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905

A solemn peace of its own.

DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON, in one of the most stately of those Ramblers, whose "stately wisdom" is like the playing of solemn and grand music, has written the following passage, speaking of the propriety of keeping death before our eyes. "If this same thought was always predominant," he says, "we should then find the absurdity of stretching out our arms incessantly to grasp that which we cannot keep, and wearing out our lives in endeavours to add new turrets to the fabric of ambition, when the foundation itself is shaken, and the ground on which it stands is mouldering away." At first sight it would seem easy and most natural that, standing in the midst of death every moment of our lives, we should think the subject of our own approaching dissolution a theme of such importance that we should rarely need the Doctor's euphonious persuasions. But so strangely and wonderfully do we fail in realising the awful importance of this last moment, that we not only utterly ignore as many as we please of the considerations which would tend to convince us of its importance, but we turn the rest into sources of pleasure through our earthly imaginations, and suffer a pleasing, sentimental melancholy to prevail upon us, when we ought to be roused by the blast of a trumpet, second in power only to that which shall blow at the last day.

There is a season of the year of which the poetic nature delights to think, when the voices of the trees are hushed before their approaching desolation, and the water in the pools is yellow with the shadow of the faded leaves,--when the wind plays low and mournful music, and the storm demon is preparing to let loose his blasts upon the earth. Then there is a hush and silence over all nature, as around the deathbed of a dying hero, when all men are thinking of his departed glory and past life, and are bowing their heads in silence before the coming blow. The mind receives from the face of the country at this season a portion of its calm; and by the contemplation of the fate of nature, we are soothed into a fond resignation to our own.

It was on an afternoon in autumn that I left the cheerful glow of the fire in the parlour of a country-house, and, in the company of a lady, took a walk in the fields. The day was cloudy, and a heavy, dull feeling pervaded the air. The country around us was flat and moderately wooded, and when, after passing two or three fields, we turned to look at the red-brick house we had left, surrounded by its trees, the prospect reminded us of one of the engravings of the last century, in which the chief characteristic is the absence of sunlight. The harvest had been mostly gathered, and the bright yellow of the stubble fields, and of many of the trees, contrasted finely with the cloudy sky and the dull brown of the grass. Our path led through several fields to a pool of water hidden from the sight by thick trees. We did not say much. What had we to tell? At these times each one sees for himself a different scene to his companion. It was the remark of a subtle thinker, that since the remembrance of each person gives to a place a look and meaning which he only can perceive, there must be an unknown number of pleasing, sad, or dreadful associations spread over the scenes inhabited or visited by man.

These fields, the old house behind us, this moaning wind, that dark water hidden by the trees, which we contemplate with a pensive pleasure, may excite in another unutterable ideas of grief or agony. Who knows with what strange and fearful beings this scene might be peopled for him, as we ourselves have known in other places! Nor is such a fancy unsuitable to an autumn walk. May not this feeling, these associated ideas, known only to ourselves, have been in time formed into the wild legends of earthly spirits, gnomes, and fairies of this and other lands; and what are more autumnal in their associations, and the frame of mind which they create, than such legends? In days like this, full of dark shadows and dim, soft lights, with a sensation of fulness and ripeness and approaching decay in the air, we understand and realise these stories--the birthright and heirloom of a northern race. Autumn is the epic of the deep-thinking northern nations, as summer is the voluptuous love-song of the south. These yellow woods and brown fields are not the dwelling-places of nymphs and satyrs, but the home of the spirits of our fatherland (to many of us, at least). The German dwarfs, elves, giants, little men of the mines, kobolds, and nixies--these, which surpass in number even the legends of the ideal Greek, are even perhaps more lovely than his,--witness the beautiful myth of the "silent people." They are, like the autumn, domestic, familiar, homely in their tone and character; in all of them the human interest is predominant, the supernatural is but accessory. The heroes are peasants, poor children, herdsmen; they are honest, simple, manly, and yet child-hearted; they are generally oppressed and looked down upon by their fellow human beings, and sit hopelessly in the chimney-corner, or wander mournfully in the fields, like those deprived of mortal friends. Such, these worldly spirits love; they appear to have adopted and to believe in the old German proverb, "A heart worthy of scarlet lies often under a coarse woollen cloak." Acting upon this principle, they assist and help these forsaken ones, and lavish upon them and their families prosperity and blessings. All this is so natural and homely, so mixed up with the daily life of a people, that these legends suit the autumn days better than the most gorgeous classic dreams.

More--with this autumni feeling upon us I think we can understand what they are. They are an attempt to find language for nameless sights and voices. They are the translation of the murmuring song of the ocean, of the fitful strains that the wind is playing in wild music; they are the description

Of undescribed sounds
That come a-swooning over hollow grounds,
And wither drearily on barren moors!

These fearful lines, for instance, come nearer to the sound of the wind at this moment over the tops of the fir-trees than anything else:

From the deep mine rush wildly out
The troop of gnomes, in hellish rout,
Forth to the witches-clubs they fly;
The griffins watch as they go by;
The horn of Satan grimly sounds,
On Blocksburg's flanks strange din resounds,
And spectres crowd its summit high.

The idea of the griffins watching the gnomes as they fly past, and the spectres crowding the top of the high mountain, is particularly fine.

The class of spirits called trolls (which may be either dwarfs or giants) are mostly wicked and malignant; the kobolds or hobgoblins are neither good nor bad, but are boisterous, terrifying, and noisy; but the nissies or nixies are of a thoroughly and decidedly good disposition, as their names indicate. Some of them have been known to fill the office of treasurer or master-builder in churches or cathedrals, greatly to the edification of the people and the assistance of the workmen.

There is something at all times peculiarly fascinating and mysterious in a deep pool of water, but at no season more so than in autumn. A short walk on the day I am writing about brought us to the brink of a large pond, partly overgrown with rushes, and surrounded with high trees on a sloping bank. The colour of the water was various--in some places yellow with the reflection of the faded leaves; in others dark and gloomy, reflecting the cloudy sky; and where the brown grassy bank shaded it, it was black. Here and there, through the trunks of the trees all round, we could see the bright yellow of the stubble fields shining amidst the prevailing brown. The water was strewn round the edges with fallen leaves, the wind was rustling through the sedges and moaning through the trees, but there was still a great silence and solemnity about, which we find at no other time.

If I had the power of those old legend-makers, what wild stories would I translate for you from what the wind is saying! This dark water itself speaks a language too--very suggestively, if I could translate it--touching some fearful tale. Consider--a dark water, evening, the wind wailing among trees--thus much is Nature's language--how easy to find it a voice and a meaning in our own. There is a scene like this in a German story of a giant. These giants--a good-natured, honest, truth-loving race--were being continually taken in and cheated by men. This particular one was deceived by a boy, who was very weak, but very cunning. By many tricks he made the giant believe he was very strong, and lived with him to serve him. One day he was sent out with the giant's child. On their way they passed by a large pool. The water was very dark and deep. The child fell in and was drowned. Then the boy told the giant that his child had left him and gone into the forest, thinking to meet its father.

Upon this, the giant and the boy set out through the forest seeking it. When they came to the edge of the wood next the boy's home, he asked leave to go to see his mother, promising to return and renew the search the next day. The giant gave him leave; and mindful of his word, and as a reward for (as he supposed) the boy's faithful services, he gave him three bushels of gold, with which he returned to his mother, and, never returning, nor ever haunted by his cruel deceit and broken word, lived all his life rich and fortunate; but (these are the touching words with which the legend ends) " the giant wandered about in the forest, seeking for his child." Excepting poor blind Polyphemus (also a giant), in love with the sea-nymphs, I know nothing so pathetically touching as this--the strong, true-hearted, and deceived giant wandering about the dark, dreary forest, seeking for his lost child!

Many more such legends are there, and many more too could we learn, if we listened reverently to the teaching of Nature. But the evening comes on silently, and the darkness gathers about us. Gradually the tops of the trees grow fainter and less distinct against the sky; gradually the dark shadows spread out on the water from the banks and meet in the centre; the wind ceases, moaning only at intervals very low: you can hear the falling leaves dropping on the grass. Through the dark fields we go homeward: there is a light all round the horizon, which sheds a faint glimmer over the earth, but there is neither moon nor stars.

Just thus, as winter cometh on, and the fair glory of summer is faded away, and is remembered only as a pleasant dream--just so shall we too fade and pass away. And, the strength of our spring and the proud glory of our summer departed, we shall follow them. Happy, if at our going we show good store of fruit, our barns filled with corn, and our sheaves bound up! So that when the last great harvest is gathered in, and the last great Christmas is come, we may join the everlasting carol to the glory of the Great Husbandman. If so, our close will be as calm and peaceful as the setting in of this autumn night, though the night which shall come then will be the one that cometh to all men, when this world and all its beauties are of no account:

When the pale waste widens around us,
And the banks fade dimmer away,
As the stars come out, and the night wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

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