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Fires Post by :Chris_J Category :Essays Author :E. V. Lucas Date :October 2011 Read :4100

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A Friend of mine making a list of the things needed for the cottage that he had taken, put at the head "bellows." Then he thought for some minutes, and was found merely to have added "tongs" and "poker." Then he asked someone to finish it. A fire, indeed, furnishes. Nothing else, not even a chair, is absolutely necessary; and it is difficult for a fire to be too large. Some of the grates put into modern houses by the jerry-builders would move an Elizabethan to tears, so petty and mean are they, and so incapable of radiation. We English people would suffer no loss in kindliness and tolerance were the inglenook restored to our homes. The ingle humanises.

Although the father of the family no longer, as in ancient Greece, performs on the hearth religious rites, yet it is still a sacred spot. Lovers whisper there, and there friends exchange confidences. Husband and wife face the fire hand in hand. The table is for wit and good humour, the hearth is for something deeper and more personal. The wisest counsels are offered beside the fire, the most loving sympathy and comprehension are there made explicit. It is the scene of the best dual companionship. The fire itself is a friend, having the prime attribute--warmth. One of the most human passages of that most human poem, The Deserted Village, tells how the wanderer was now and again taken by the memory of the hearth of his distant home:--

"I still had hopes my latest hours to crown,
Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down ...
Around my fire an evening group to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw...."

Only by the fireside could a man so unbosom himself. A good fire extracts one's best; it will not be resisted. FitzGerald's "Meadows in Spring" contains some of the best fireside stanzas:--

"Then with an old friend
I talk of our youth--
How 'twas gladsome, but often
Foolish, forsooth:
But gladsome, gladsome!

Or to get merry
We sing some old rhyme,
That made the wood ring again
In summer time--
Sweet summer time!

Then we go to drinking,
Silent and snug;
Nothing passes between us
Save a brown jug--

And sometimes a tear
Will rise in each eye,
Seeing the two old friends
So merrily--
So merrily!"

The hearth also is for ghost stories; indeed, a ghost story demands a fire. If England were warmed wholly by hot-water pipes or gas stoves, the Society for Psychical Research would be dissolved. Gas stoves are poor comforters. They heat the room, it is true, but they do so after a manner of their own, and there they stop. For encouragement, for inspiration, you seek the gas stove in vain. Who could be witty, who could be humane, before a gas stove? It does so little for the eye and nothing for the imagination; its flame is so artificial and restricted a thing, its glowing heart so shallow and ungenerous. It has no voice, no personality, no surprises; it submits to the control of a gas company, which, in its turn, is controlled by Parliament. Now, a fire proper has nothing to do with Parliament. A fire proper has whims, ambitions, and impulses unknown to gas-burners, undreamed of by asbestos. Yet even the gas stove has advantages and merits when compared with hot-water pipes. The gas stove at least offers a focus for the eye, unworthy though it be; and you can make a semicircle of good people before it. But with hot-water pipes not even that is possible. From the security of ambush they merely heat, and heat whose source is invisible is hardly to be coveted at all. Moreover, the heat of hot-water pipes is but one remove from stuffiness.

Coals are a perpetual surprise, for no two consignments burn exactly alike. There is one variety that does not burn--it explodes. This kind comes mainly from the slate quarries, and, we must believe, reaches the coal merchant by accident. Few accidents, however, occur so frequently. Another variety, found in its greatest perfection in railway waiting-rooms, does everything but emit heat. A third variety jumps and burns the hearthrug. One can predicate nothing definite concerning a new load of coal at any time, least of all if the consignment was ordered to be "exactly like the last."

A true luxury is a fire in the bedroom. This is fire at its most fanciful and mysterious. One lies in bed watching drowsily the play of the flames, the flicker of the shadows. The light leaps up and hides again, the room gradually becomes peopled with fantasies. Now and then a coal drops and accentuates the silence. Movement with silence is one of the curious influences that come to us: hence, perhaps, part of the fascination of the cinematoscope, wherein trains rush into stations, and streets are seen filled with hurrying people and bustling vehicles, and yet there is no sound save the clicking of the mechanism. With a fire in one's bedroom sleep comes witchingly.

Another luxury is reading by firelight, but this is less to the credit of the fire than the book. An author must have us in no uncertain grip when he can induce us to read him by a light so impermanent as that of the elfish coal. Nearer and nearer to the page grows the bended head, and nearer and nearer to the fire moves the book. Boys and girls love to read lying full length on the hearthrug.

Some people maintain a fire from January to December; and, indeed, the days on which a ruddy grate offends are very few. According to Mortimer Collins, out of the three hundred and sixty-five days that make up the year only on the odd five is a fire quite dispensable. A perennial fire is, perhaps, luxury writ large. The very fact that sunbeams falling on the coals dispirit them to greyness and ineffectual pallor seems to prove that when the sun rides high it is time to have done with fuel except in the kitchen or in the open air.

The fire in the open air is indeed joy perpetual, and there is no surer way of renewing one's youth than by kindling and tending it, whether it be a rubbish fire for potatoes, or an aromatic offering of pine spindles and fir cones, or the scientific structure of the gipsy to heat a tripod-swung kettle. The gipsy's fire is a work of art. "Two short sticks were stuck in the ground, and a third across to them like a triangle. Against this frame a number of the smallest and driest stick were leaned, so that they made a tiny hut. Outside these there was a second layer of longer sticks, all standing, or rather leaning, against the first. If a stick is placed across, lying horizontally, supposing it catches fire, it just burns through the middle and that is all, the ends go out. If it is stood nearly upright, the flame draws up to it; it is certain to catch, burns longer, and leaves a good ember." So wrote one who knew--Richard Jefferies, in Bevis, that epic of boyhood. Having built the fire, the next thing is to light it. An old gipsy woman can light a fire in a gale, just as a sailor can always light his pipe, even in the cave of Aeolus; but the amateur is less dexterous. The smoke of the open-air fire is charged with memory. One whiff of it, and for a swift moment we are in sympathy with our remotest ancestors, and all that is elemental and primitive in us is awakened.

An American poet, R. H. Messinger, wrote--

"Old wood to burn!--
Ay, bring the hillside beech
From where the owlets meet and screech,
And ravens croak;
The crackling pine, the cedar sweet;
Bring, too, a clump of fragrant peat,
Dug 'neath the fern;
The knotted oak,
A faggot, too, perhaps,
Whose bright flame, dancing, winking,
Shall light us at our drinking;
While the oozing sap
Shall make sweet music to our thinking."

There is no fire of coals, not even the blacksmith's, that can compare with the blazing fire of wood. The wood fire is primeval. Centuries before coals were dreamed of, our rude forefathers were cooking their meat and gaining warmth from burning logs.

Coal is modern, decadent. Look at this passage concerning fuel from an old Irish poem:--"O man," begins the lay, "that for Fergus of the feasts does kindle fire, whether afloat or ashore never burn the king of woods.... The pliant woodbine, if thou burn, wailings for misfortunes will abound; dire extremity at weapons' points or drowning in great waves will come after thee. Burn not the precious apple tree." The minstrel goes on to name wood after wood that may or may not be burned. This is the crowning passage:--"Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him none may escape unhurt; by partiality for him the head is set on aching, and by his acrid embers the eye is made sore. Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight--undoubtedly burn at thy discretion both the alder and the white thorn. Holly, burn it green; holly, burn it dry; of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly." Could anyone write with this enthusiasm and poetic feeling about Derby Brights and Silkstone--even the best Silkstone and the best Derby Brights?

The care of a wood fire is, in itself, daily work for a man; for far more so than with coal is progress continuous. Something is always taking place and demanding vigilance--hence the superiority of a wood fire as a beguiling influence. The bellows must always be near at hand, the tongs not out of reach; both of them more sensible implements than those that usually appertain to coals. The tongs have no pretensions to brightness and gentility; the bellows, quite apart from their function in life, are a thing of beauty; the fire-dogs, on whose backs the logs repose, are fine upstanding fellows; and the bricks on which the fire is laid have warmth and simplicity and a hospitable air to which decorative tiles can never attain. Again, there is about the logs something cleanly, in charming contrast to the dirt of coal. The wood hails from the neighbouring coppice. You have watched it grow; your interest in it is personal, and its interest in you is personal. It is as keen to warm you as you are to be warmed. Now there is nothing so impersonal as a piece of coal. Moreover, this wood was cut down and brought to the door by some good-humoured countryman of your acquaintance, whereas coal is obtained by miners--bad-tempered, truculent fellows that strike. Who ever heard of a strike among coppicers? And the smoke from a wood fire!--clean and sweet and pungent, and, against dark foliage, exquisite in colour as the breast of a dove. The delicacy of its grey-blue is not to be matched.

Whittier's "Snow Bound" is the epic of the wood-piled hearth. Throughout we hear the crackling of the brush, the hissing of the sap. The texture of the fire was "the oaken log, green, huge, and thick, and rugged brush":--

"Hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst flower-like into rosy bloom.

That italicised line--my own italics--is good. For the best fire (as for the best celery)--the fire most hearty, most inspired, and inspiring--frost is needed. When old Jack is abroad and there is a breath from the east in the air, then the sparks fly and the coals glow. In moist and mild weather the fire only burns, it has no enthusiasm for combustion. Whittier gives us a snowstorm:--

"Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed."

But the wood fire is not for all. In London it is impracticable; the builder has set his canon against it. Let us, then--those of us who are able to--build our coal fires the higher, and nourish in their kindly light. Whether one is alone or in company, the fire is potent to cheer. Indeed, a fire is company. No one need fear to be alone if the grate but glows. Faces in the fire will smile at him, mock him, frown at him, call and repulse; or, if there be no faces, the smoke will take a thousand shapes and lead his thoughts by delightful paths to the land of reverie; or he may watch the innermost heart of the fire burn blue (especially if there is frost in the air); or, poker in hand, he may coax a coal into increased vivacity. This is an agreeable diversion, suggesting the mediaeval idea of the Devil in his domain.

(The end)
E. V. Lucas's essay: Fires

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