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The Old Indifference Post by :garymc Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :September 2010 Read :3676

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The Old Indifference

It was an old belief of the poets and the common people that nature was sympathetic towards human beings at certain great crises. Comets flared and the sun was darkened at the death of a great man. Even the death of a friend was supposed to bow nature with despair; and Milton in _Lycidas_ mourned the friend he had lost in what nowadays seems to us the pasteboard hyperbole:

The willows and the hazel copses green
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.


It may be contended that Milton was here speaking, not of nature, but of his vision of nature; and certainly one cannot help reading one's own joys and sorrows into the face of the earth. When the lover in _Maud_ affirms:

A livelier emerald twinkled in the grass,

he states a fact. He utters a truth of the eye and heart. The wonder of the world resides in him who sees it. The earth becomes a new place to a man who has fallen in love or who has just returned to it from the edge of the grave. It is as though he saw the flowers as a stranger. Larks ascending make the planet a ball of music for him. He may well begin to lie about nature, for he has seen it for the first time. Experience is not long in warning him, however, that it is he and not the world that has changed. He meets a funeral in the midsummer of his happiness, and larks sing the same songs above the fields whether it is the lover or the mourner that goes by. The continuity of nature is not broken either for our gladness or our grief. Mr Hardy frequently introduces the mournful drip of rain into his picture of men and women unhappily mated. But the rain is not at the beck and call of the unhappy. The unhappy would still be unhappy though they were in a cherry orchard on the loveliest morning of the year. The happy would still be happy though St Swithin's Day were streaming in floods down the window-panes. Who does not know what it is to be happy watching the rain-drops racing down the glass and hearing the gutter chattering like a hedgeful of sparrows or tinkling like a bell? Who is there, on the other hand, who has not found, and been perplexed to find, the world going on its way in full song and bloom on a day that has seemed to him to darken all human experience? Burns's reproach to the indifferent earth has often been quoted as an expression of this realisation that nature does not mind:

How can ye sing, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care?


Nature, we discover, passes us and our sorrows by. We are of little account to the race of birds. We are of little account, for that matter, to the race of men. The end of Hamlet is not the end even of a kingdom. Fortinbras comes upon the scene, and life goes on. Our mournings are only interruptions. The ranks of the procession close up and little is changed. Even the funeral of a king is as a rule less an occasion for grief than a spectacle for the curious. The crowd may have filled the streets all night, but they did not forget to bring their sandwiches and whisky-flasks with them. The theatres and the tea-shops and the public-houses will be as full as ever the next day. And for the death of a great author not even the sweet-shops will be closed. The funeral ceremonies over the dead body of Herbert Spencer drew a smaller crowd than would gather to see a dog that had been run over in the street.

We were never before so conscious of the indifference of Nature to human tragedy as since the outbreak of the war. Here, one would think, was a tragedy that all but threatened to crack the globe. One would imagine that the sides of Nature must be in pain with it and the earth in peril of being hurled out of her accustomed path round the sun. Yet the sparrows in the Surrey valleys have not heard of it, and the sea-birds know nothing of it, save that occasionally they are bewildered to find a submarine rising from the waters instead of the porpoise for whose presence they had hoped. It is said that the pheasants in a Sussex wood awoke and screamed on Sunday night during the barrage fire around London. But this was egotism on the part of the pheasants. The pheasants of Wiltshire did not have their sleep broken, and so were not troubled about the sufferings of Londoners. Wordsworth assured Toussaint L'Ouverture:

There's not a breathing of the common air
That will forget thee.


He exaggerated. The common air is more perturbed in the year 1918 by the passing of a single gnat than by the memory of Toussaint L'Ouverture. On Sunday I walked along a quiet hill road within thirty miles of London, and it seemed for an hour or two as though one were as remote from the war as a man living a century hence. The catkins in the hazels by the roadside were beautiful as falling rain: they hung on the branches like notes of music. The country children see them as lambs' tails, dangling in twos and threes in the gentle air. They have been growing longer every day since Christmas and the red tips of the female flowers have now begun to appear. In the hedge there are still the remains of old man's beard that, in one light, looks like dirty wool, but, with the sun shining on it, seems at a distance to be hawthorn in the full glory of blossom. Every now and then a crooked caterpillar of down is detached from it by the wind and sails off vaguely over a field. A few weeks ago sparrows were singing choruses as they gorged themselves upon it, but lately they have been scraping their beaks busily on the bark of trees as though they had found more satisfying dishes. At the lower end of the road there is a glow of crimson among the sallows, which have begun to festoon their straight rods with silver buds. Chaffinches are beginning to pipe more solitarily to each other in the tall elms. A few weeks ago they fluttered everywhere in companies, occupying now a hedge, now a road, and now a tree. The naturalists tell us that these winter companies of chaffinches are usually composed of birds of one sex only, the males consorting together for the time as in a boys' school. The chaffinch, I think, is the commonest bird in this part of the country. It is so common that its loveliness has hardly been appreciated as it ought to be. It is a little world of colour, like a small jay, and nothing could be more beautiful than its flushed breast as it sits on the top of a tall tree in the sunset. As for the jay, it hurries away like a thief before one has time to see its coat of many colours. The jay, like the cuckoo, is a bird with a guilty conscience. The wood here is full of jays, uttering their one monotonous shriek, like the ripping of a skirt. They scuttle among the trees at one's approach, showing the white feather. Occasionally, however, they too will sit in a tree and allow the sun to flush their cinnamon-coloured breasts. But we shall see hundreds of them before we see a single one in the crested and passive splendour of the jays in the picture-books. As a matter of fact, nearly all the birds in the picture-books are guesses and exaggerations. The birds, we discover before long, are a secret kingdom into which it is given to few to enter.

The whole of Nature, indeed, is curiously secretive. She does not tell much about herself save to the importunate. Not many of us can speak her language or have learned the password to her cave of treasure. She thrusts upon our notice a few birds, a few insects, a few animals, a few flowers. But for the most part there is no finding her population without seeking for it. Hundreds of her flowers are hidden from the lazy eye, and we may pass a lifetime without seeing so common a bird as a tree-creeper or so common an animal as a shrew-mouse. How seldom it is one sees even a rat! There are human beings who will never discover an early flower, however many miles they cover in their country walks. They take no pleasure in finding a wild-strawberry flower in January or a campion blossom in the first week in February. They are as indifferent to Nature as Nature is to them. The honeysuckle that breaks out with leaves as with green flames; the thrust of the leaves of the wild hyacinth under the trees, like the return of youth; the flowering of the elm; the young moon like a white bird with spread wings in the afternoon sky; the golden journey of Orion and his dog across the heavens by night--these things, they feel, are not interwoven with man's fate. They were before him, and they will be after him. Therefore, he cares more for his little brick house in the suburbs, which will at least be changed when he goes. I do not suggest that anyone consciously adopts a philosophy of this kind. But most of us are undoubtedly a little offended at some time in our lives when we realise that Nature has so little regard for our passions and our tears. She is a consoler, but it is on her own terms. Matthew Arnold found the secret of life in becoming as resigned to obedience as the stars and the tide. Who knows but, if we do this, Nature may be found to care after all? But she does not care in the way in which most of us want her to care. The religious discovered that long ago. They found that Nature was guilty of neutrality in human affairs if they did not go further and suspect her of enmity. It is only when philosophy has been added to religion that men have been able to reconcile without gloom the indifference of Nature with the idea of the love of God. And even the religious and the philosophers are puzzled by the spectacle of the worm that writhes on the garden path while the robin pecks at it, triumphant in his fatness and praising the fine weather.


(The end)
Robert Lynd's essay: The Old Indifference

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