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A Midsummer Day's Dream Post by :orange Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :April 2011 Read :3540

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A Midsummer Day's Dream

I suppose that every one knows by experience how certain days in one's life have a power of standing out in the memory, even in a tract of pleasant days, all lit by a particular brightness of joy. One does not always know at the time that the day is going to be so crowned; but the weeks pass on, and the one little space of sunlight, between dawn and eve, has orbed itself

"into the perfect star
We saw not, when we moved therein."

The thing that in my own case most tends to produce this "grace of congruity," as the schoolmen say, is the presence of the right companion, and it is no less important that he should be in the right mood. Sometimes the right companion is tiresome when he should be gracious, or boisterous when he should be quiet; but when he is in the right mood, he is like a familiar and sympathetic guide on a mountain peak. He helps one at the right point; his desire to push on or to stop coincides with one's own; he is not a hired assistant, but a brotherly comrade. On the day that I am thinking of I had just such a companion. He was cheerful, accessible, good-humoured. He followed when I wanted to lead, he led when I was glad to follow. He was not ashamed of being unaffectedly emotional, and he was not vaporous or quixotically sentimental. He did not want to argue, or to hunt an idea to death; and we had the supreme delight of long silences, during which our thoughts led us to the same point, the truest test that there is some subtle electrical affinity at work, moving viewlessly between heart and brain.

What no doubt heightened the pleasure for me was that I had been passing through a somewhat dreary period. Things had been going wrong, had tied themselves into knots. Several people whose fortunes had been bound up with my own had been acting perversely and unreasonably--at least I chose to think so. My own work had come to a standstill. I had pushed on perhaps too fast, and I had got into a bare sort of moorland tract of life, and could not discern the path in the heather. There did not seem any particular task for me to undertake; the people whom it was my business to help, if I could, seemed unaccountably and aggravatingly prosperous and independent. Not only did no one seem to want my opinion, but I did not feel that I had any opinions worth delivering. Who does not know the frame of mind? When life seems rather an objectless business, and one is tempted just to let things slide; when energy is depleted, and the springs of hope are low; when one feels like the family in one of Mrs. Walford's books, who all go out to dinner together, and of whom the only fact that is related is that "nobody wanted them." So fared it with my soul.

But that morning, somehow, the delicious sense had returned, of its own accord, of a beautiful quality in common things. I had sought it in vain for weeks; it had behaved as a cat behaves, the perverse, soft, pretty, indifferent creature. It had stared blankly at my beckoning hand; it had gambolled away into the bushes when I strove to capture it, and looked out at me when I desisted with innocent grey eyes; and now it had suddenly returned uncalled, to caress me as though I had been a long-lost friend, diligently and anxiously sought for in vain. That morning the very scent of breakfast being prepared came to my nostrils like the smoke of a sacrifice in my honour; the shape and hue of the flowers were full of gracious mystery; the green pasture seemed a place where a middle-aged man might almost venture to dance. The sharp chirping of the birds in the shrubbery seemed a concert arranged for my ear. We were soon astir. Like Wordsworth we said that this one day we would give to idleness, though the profane might ask to what that leisurely poet consecrated the rest of his days.

We found ourselves deposited, by a brisk train--the very stoker seemed to be engaged in the joyful conspiracy--at the little town of St. Ives. I should like to expatiate upon the charms of St. Ives, its clear, broad, rush-fringed river, its quaint brick houses, with their little wharf-gardens, where the trailing nasturtium mirrors itself in the slow flood, its embayed bridge, with the ancient chapel buttressed over the stream--but I must hold my hand; I must not linger over the beauties of the City of Destruction, which I have every reason to believe was a very picturesque place, when our hearts were set on pilgrimage. Suffice it to say that we walked along a pretty riverside causeway, under enlacing limes, past the fine church, under the hanging woods of Houghton Hill--and here we found a mill, a big, timbered place, with a tiled roof, odd galleries and projecting pent-houses, all pleasantly dusted with flour, where a great wheel turned dripping in a fern-clad cavern of its own, with the scent of the weedy river-water blown back from the plunging leat. Oh, the joyful place of streams! River and leat and back-water here ran clear among willow-clad islands, all fringed deep with meadow-sweet and comfrey and butterbur and melilot. The sun shone overhead among big, white, racing clouds; the fish poised in mysterious pools among trailing water-weeds; and there was soon no room in my heart for anything but the joy of earth and the beauty of it. What did the weary days before and behind matter? What did casuistry and determinism and fate and the purpose of life concern us then, my friend and me? As little as they concerned the gnats that danced so busily in the golden light, at the corner where the alder dipped her red rootlets to drink the brimming stream.

There we chartered a boat, and all that hot forenoon rowed lazily on, the oars grunting and dripping, the rudder clicking softly through avenues of reeds and water-plants, from reach to reach, from pool to pool. Here we had a glimpse of the wide-watered valley rich in grass, here of silent woods, up-piled in the distance, over which quivered the hot summer air. Here a herd of cattle stood knee-deep in the shallow water, lazily twitching their tails and snuffing at the stream. The birds were silent now in the glowing noon; only the reeds shivered and bowed. There, beside a lock with its big, battered timbers, the water poured green and translucent through a half-shut sluice. Now and then the springs of thought brimmed over in a few quiet words, that came and passed like a breaking bubble--but for the most part we were silent, content to converse with nod or smile. And so we came at last to our goal; a house embowered in leaves, a churchyard beside the water, and a church that seemed to have almost crept to the brink to see itself mirrored in the stream. The place mortals call Hemingford Grey, but it had a new name for me that day which I cannot even spell--for the perennial difficulty that survives a hundred disenchantments, is to feel that a romantic hamlet seen thus on a day of pilgrimage, with its clustering roofs and chimneys, its waterside lawns, is a real place at all. I suppose that people there live dull and simple lives enough, buy and sell, gossip and back-bite, wed and die; but for the pilgrim it seems an enchanted place, where there can be no care or sorrow, nothing hard, or unlovely, or unclean, but a sort of fairy-land, where men seem to be living the true and beautiful life of the soul, of which we are always in search, but which seems to be so strangely hidden away. It must have been for me and my friend that the wise and kindly artist who lives there in a paradise of flowers had filled his trellises with climbing roses, and bidden the tall larkspurs raise their azure spires in the air. How else had he brought it all to such perfection for that golden hour? Perhaps he did not even guess that he had done it all for my sake, which made it so much more gracious a gift. And then we learned too from a little red-bound volume which I had thought before was a guide-book, but which turned out to-day to be a volume of the Book of Life, that the whole place was alive with the calling of old voices. At the little church there across the meadows the portly, tender-hearted, generous Charles James Fox had wedded his bride. Here, in the pool below, Cowper's dog had dragged out for him the yellow water-lily that he could not reach; and in the church itself was a little slab where two tiny maidens sleep, the sisters of the famous Miss Gunnings, who set all hearts ablaze by their beauty, who married dukes and earls, and had spent their sweet youth in a little ruined manor-house hard by. I wonder whether after all the two little girls, who died in the time of roses, had not the better part; and whether the great Duchess, who showed herself so haughty to poor Boswell, when he led his great dancing Bear through the grim North, did not think sometimes in her state of the childish sisters with whom she had played, before they came to be laid in the cool chancel beside the slow stream.

And then we sate down for a little on the churchyard wall, and watched the water-grasses trail and the fish poise. In that sweet corner of the churchyard, at a certain season of the year, grow white violets; they had dropped their blooms long ago; but they were just as much alive as when they were speaking aloud to the world with scent and colour; I can never think of flowers and trees as not in a sense conscious; I believe all life to be conscious of itself, and I am sure that the flowering time is the happy time for flowers as much as it is for artists.

Close to us here was a wall, with a big, solid Georgian house peeping over, blinking with its open windows and sun-blinds on to a smooth, shaded lawn, full of green glooms and leafy shelters. Why did it all give one such a sense of happiness and peace, even though one had no share in it, even though one knew that one would be treated as a rude and illegal intruder if one stepped across and used it as one's own?

This is a difficult thing to analyse. It all lies in the imagination; one thinks of a long perspective of sunny afternoons, of leisurely people sitting out in chairs under the big sycamore, reading perhaps, or talking quietly, or closing the book to think, the memory re-telling some old and pretty tale; and then perhaps some graceful girl comes out of the house with a world of hopes and innocent desires in her wide-open eyes; or a tall and limber boy saunters out bare-headed and flannelled, conscious of life and health, and steps down to the punt that lies swinging at its chain-- one hears it rattle as it is untied and flung into the prow; and then the dripping pole is plunged and raised, and the punt goes gliding away, through zones of glimmering light and shadow, to the bathing-pool. All that comes into one's mind; one takes life, and subtracts from it all care and anxiety, all the shadow of failure and suffering, sees it as it might be, and finds it good. That is the first element of the charm. And then there comes into the picture a further and more reflective charm, that which Tennyson called the passion of the past; the thought that all this beautiful life is slipping away, even as it forms itself, that one cannot stay it for an instant, but that the shadow creeps across the dial, and the church-clock tells the hours of the waning day. It is a mistake to think that such a sense comes of age and experience; it is rather the other way, for never is the regretful sense of the fleeting quality of things realised with greater poignancy than when one is young. When one grows older one begins to expect a good deal of dissatisfaction and anxiety to be mingled with it all, one finds the old Horatian maxim becoming true:

"Vitae summa brevis nos spem vitat inchoare longam,"

and one learns to be grateful for the sunny hour; but when one is young, one feels so capable of enjoying it all, so impatient of shadow and rain, that one cannot bear that the sweet wine of life should be diluted.

That is, I believe, the analysis of the charm of such a scene; the possibility of joy, and permanence, tinged with the pathos that it has no continuance, but rises and falls and fades like a ripple in the stream.

The disillusionment of experience is a very different thing from the pathos of youth; for in youth the very sense of pathos is in itself an added luxury of joy, giving it a delicate beauty which, if it were not so evanescent, it could not possess.

But then comes the real trouble, the heavy anxiety, the illness, the loss; and those things, which looked so romantic in the pages of poets and the scenes of story-writers, turn out not to be romantic at all, but frankly and plainly disagreeable and intolerable things. The boy who swept down the shining reaches with long, deft strokes becomes a man--money runs short, his children give him anxiety, his wife becomes ailing and fretful, he has a serious illness; and when after a day of pain he limps out in the afternoon to the shadow of the old plane-tree, he must be a very wise and tranquil and patient man, if he can still feel to the full the sweet influences of the place, and be still absorbed and comforted by them.

And here lies the weakness of the epicurean and artistic attitude, that it assorts so ill with the harder and grimmer facts of life. Life has a habit of twitching away the artistic chair with all its cushions from under one, with a rude suddenness, so that one has, if one is wise, to learn a mental agility and to avoid the temptation of drowsing in the land where it is always afternoon. The real attitude is to be able to play a robust and manful part in the world, and yet to be able to banish the thought of the bank- book and the ledger from the mind, and to submit oneself to the sweet influences of summer and sun.

"He who of such delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft is not unwise."

So sang the old Puritan poet; and there is a large wisdom in the word OFT which I have abundantly envied, being myself an anxious- minded man!

The solution is BALANCE--not to think that the repose of art is all, and yet on the other hand not to believe that life is always jogging and hustling one. The way in which one can test one's progress is by considering whether activities and tiresome engagements are beginning to fret one unduly, for if so one is becoming a hedonist; and on the other hand by being careful to observe whether one becomes incapable of taking a holiday; if one becomes bored and restless and hipped in a cessation of activities, then one is suffering from the disease of Martha in the Gospel story; and of the two sisters we may remember that Martha was the one who incurred a public rebuke.

What one has to try to perceive is that life is designed not wholly for discomfort, or wholly for ease, but that we are here as learners, one and all. Sometimes the lesson comes whispering through the leaves of the plane-tree, with the scent of violets in the air; sometimes it comes in the words and glances of a happy circle full of eager talk, sometimes through the pages of a wise book, and sometimes in grim hours, when one tosses sleepless on one's bed under the pressure of an intolerable thought--but in each and every case we do best when we receive the lesson as willingly and large-heartedly as we can.

Perhaps, in some of my writings, those who have read them have thought that I have unduly emphasised the brighter, sweeter, more tranquil side of life. I have done so deliberately, because I believe that we should follow innocent joy as far as we can. But it is not because I am unaware of the other side. I do not think that any of the windings of the dark wood of which Dante speaks are unknown to me, and there are few tracts of dreariness that I have not trodden reluctantly. I have had physical health and much seeming prosperity; but to be acutely sensitive to the pleasures of happiness and peace is generally to be morbidly sensitive to the burden of cares. Unhappiness is a subjective thing. As Mrs. Gummidge so truly said, when she was reminded that other people had their troubles, "I feel them more." And if I have upheld the duty of seeking peace, it has been like a preacher who preaches most urgently against his own bosom-sins. But I am sure of this, that however impatiently one mourns one's fault and desires to be different, the secret of growth lies in that very sorrow, perhaps in the seeming impotence of that sorrow. What one must desire is to learn the truth, however much one may shudder at it; and the longer that one persists in one's illusions, the longer is one's learning- time. Is it not a bitter comfort to know that the truth is there, and that what we believe or do not believe about it makes no difference at all? Yes, I think it is a comfort; at all events upon that foundation alone is it possible to rest.

How far one drifts in thought away from the sweet scene which grows sweeter every hour. The heat of the day is over now; the breeze curls on the stream, the shadow of the tower falls far across the water. My companion rises and smiles, thinking me lost in indolent content; he hardly guesses how far I have been voyaging

"On strange seas of thought alone."

Does he guess that as I look back over my life, pain has so far preponderated over happiness that I would not, if I could, live it again, and that I would not in truth, if I could choose, have lived it at all? And yet, even so, I recognise that I am glad not to have the choice, for it would be made in an indolent and timid spirit, and I do indeed believe that the end is not yet, and that the hour will assuredly come when I shall rejoice to have lived, and see the meaning even of my fears.

And then we retrace our way, and like the Lady of Shalott step down into the boat, to glide along the darkling water-way in the westering light. Why cannot I speak to my friend of such dark things as these? It would be better perhaps if I could, and yet no hand can help us to bear our own burden.

But the dusk comes slowly on, merging reed and pasture and gliding stream in one indistinguishable shade; the trees stand out black against the sunset, thickening to an emerald green. A star comes out over the dark hill, the lights begin to peep out in the windows of the clustering town as we draw nearer. As we glide beneath the dark houses, with their gables and chimneys dark against the glowing sky, how everything that is dull and trivial and homely is blotted out by the twilight, leaving nothing but a sense of romantic beauty of mysterious peace! The little town becomes an enchanted city full of heroic folk; the figure that leans silently over the bridge to see us pass, to what high-hearted business is he vowed, burgher or angel? A spell is woven of shadow and falling light, and of chimes floating over meadow and stream. Yet this sense of something remotely and unutterably beautiful, this transfiguration of life, is as real and vital an experience as the daily, dreary toil, and to be welcomed as such. Nay, more! it is better, because it gives one a deepened sense of value, of significance, of eternal greatness, to which we must cling as firmly as we may, because it is there that the final secret lies; not in the poor struggles, the anxious delays, which are but the incidents of the voyage, and not the serene life of haven and home.

(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: A Midsummer Day's Dream

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