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- Prose Idylls - 4/37 -


In Nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being.'

II. CHALK-STREAM STUDIES. {29}

Fishing is generally associated in men's minds with wild mountain scenery; if not with the alps and cataracts of Norway, still with the moors and lochs of Scotland, or at least with the rocky rivers, the wooded crags, the crumbling abbeys of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Hereford, or the Lowlands. And it cannot be denied that much of the charm which angling exercises over cultivated minds, is due to the beauty and novelty of the landscapes which surround him; to the sense of freedom, the exhilarating upland air. Who would prefer the certainty of taking trout out of some sluggish preserve, to the chance of a brace out of Edno or Llyn Dulyn? The pleasure lies not in the prize itself, but in the pains which it has cost; in the upward climbs through the dark plantations, beside the rock-walled stream; the tramp over the upland pastures, one gay flower-bed of blue and purple butter-wort; the steady breathless climb up the crags, which looked but one mile from you when you started, so clear against the sky stood out every knoll and slab; the first stars of the white saxifrage, golden-eyed, blood-bedropt, as if a fairy had pricked her finger in the cup, which shine upon some green cushion of wet moss, in a dripping crack of the cliff; the first grey tufts of the Alpine club-moss, the first shrub of crowberry, or sea-green rose-root, with its strange fleshy stems and leaves, which mark the two-thousand-feet-line, and the beginning of the Alpine world; the scramble over the arid waves of the porphyry sea aloft, as you beat round and round like a weary pointer dog in search of the hidden lake; the last despairing crawl to the summit of the Syenite pyramid on Moel Meirch; the hasty gaze around, far away into the green vale of Ffestiniog, and over wooded flats, and long silver river-reaches, and yellow sands, and blue sea flecked with flying clouds, and isles and capes, and wildernesses of mountain peaks, east, west, south, and north; one glance at the purple gulf out of which Snowdon rises, thence only seen in full majesty from base to peak: and then the joyful run, springing over bank and boulder, to the sad tarn beneath your feet: the loosening of the limbs, as you toss yourself, bathed in perspiration, on the turf; the almost awed pause as you recollect that you are alone on the mountain-tops, by the side of the desolate pool, out of all hope of speech or help of man; and, if you break your leg among those rocks, may lie there till the ravens pick your bones; the anxious glance round the lake to see if the fish are moving; the still more anxious glance through your book to guess what they will choose to take; what extravagant bundle of red, blue, and yellow feathers, like no insect save perhaps some jewelled monster from Amboyna or Brazil--may tempt those sulkiest and most capricious of trout to cease for once their life-long business of picking leeches from among those Syenite cubes which will twist your ankles and break your shins for the next three hours. What matter (to a minute philosopher, at least) if, after two hours of such enjoyment as that, he goes down again into the world of man with empty creel, or with a dozen pounders and two-pounders, shorter, gamer, and redder-fleshed than ever came out of Thames or Kennet? What matter? If he has not caught them, he might have caught them; he has been catching them in imagination all the way up; and if he be a minute philosopher, he holds that there is no falser proverb than that devil's beatitude--'Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.'

Say, rather, Blessed is he who expecteth everything, for he enjoys everything once at least: and if it falls out true, twice also.

Yes. Pleasant enough is mountain fishing. But there is one objection against it, that it is hard work to get to it; and that the angler, often enough half-tired before he arrives at his stream or lake, has left for his day's work only the lees of his nervous energy.

Another objection, more important perhaps to a minute philosopher than to the multitude, is, that there is in mountain-fishing an element of excitement: an element which is wholesome enough at times for every one; most wholesome at all times for the man pent up in London air and London work; but which takes away from the angler's most delicate enjoyment, that dreamy contemplative repose, broken by just enough amusement to keep his body active, while his mind is quietly taking in every sight and sound of nature. Let the Londoner have his six weeks every year among crag and heather, and return with lungs expanded and muscles braced to his nine months' prison. The countryman, who needs no such change of air and scene, will prefer more homelike, though more homely, pleasures. Dearer than wild cataracts or Alpine glens are the still hidden streams which Bewick has immortalized in his vignettes, and Creswick in his pictures; the long glassy shallow, paved with yellow gravel, where he wades up between low walls of fern-fringed rock, beneath nut, and oak, and alder, to the low bar over which the stream comes swirling and dimpling, as the water-ouzel flits piping before him, and the murmur of the ringdove comes soft and sleepy through the wood. There, as he wades, he sees a hundred sights and hears a hundred tones, which are hidden from the traveller on the dusty highway above. The traveller fancies that he has seen the country. So he has; the outside of it, at least: but the angler only sees the inside. The angler only is brought close face to face with the flower, and bird, and insect life of the rich river banks, the only part of the landscape where the hand of man has never interfered, and the only part in general which never feels the drought of summer, 'the trees planted by the waterside whose leaf shall not wither.'

Pleasant are those hidden waterways: but yet are they the more pleasant because the hand of man has not interfered with them?

It is a question, and one which the older one grows the less one is inclined to answer in the affirmative. The older one grows, the more there grows on one the sense of waste and incompleteness in all scenery where man has not fulfilled the commission of Eden, 'to dress it and to keep it;' and with that, a sense of loneliness which makes one long for home, and cultivation, and the speech of fellow men.

Surely the influence of mountain scenery is exaggerated now-a-days. In spite of the reverend name of Wordsworth (whose poetry, be it remembered, too often wants that element of hardihood and manliness which is supposed to be the birthright of mountaineers), one cannot help, as a lowlander, hoping that there is a little truth in the threnodes of a certain peevish friend who literally hates a mountain, and justifies his hatred in this fashion:-

'I do hate mountains. I would not live among them for ten thousand a year. If they look like paradise for three months in the summer, they are a veritable inferno for the other nine; and I should like to condemn my mountain-worshipping friends to pass a whole year under the shadow of Snowdon, with that great black head of his shutting out the sunlight, staring down into their garden, overlooking all they do in the most impertinent way, sneezing and spitting at them with rain, hail, snow, and bitter freezing blasts, even in the hottest sunshine. A mountain? He is a great stupid giant, with a perpetual cold in his head, whose highest ambition is to give you one also. As for his beauty, no natural object has so little of its own; he owes it to the earthquakes that reared him up, to the rains and storms which have furrowed him, to every gleam and cloud which pass over him. In himself he is a mere helpless stone-heap. Our old Scandinavian forefathers were right when they held the mountain Yotuns to be helpless pudding-headed giants, the sport of gods and men: and their English descendant, in spite of all his second-hand sentiment, holds the same opinion at his heart; for his first instinct, jolly honest fellow that he is, on seeing a snow alp, is to scramble up it and smoke his cigar upon the top. And this great stupid braggart, pretending to be a personage and an entity, which, like Pope's monument on Fish-street hill,

"Like a tall bully, lifts the head and lies,"

I am called upon now-a-days to worship, as my better, my teacher. Shall I, the son of Odin and Thor, worship Hrymir the frost giant, and his cows the waterfalls? Shall I bow down to the stock of a stone? My better? I have done an honest thing or two in my life, but I never saw a mountain do one yet. As for his superiority to me, in what does it consist? His strength? If he be stronger than I, let him cut stones out of my ribs, as I can out of his. His size? Am I to respect a mountain the more for being 10,000 feet high? As well ask me to respect Daniel Lambert for weighing five-and-twenty stone. His cunning construction? There is not a child which plays at his foot, not an insect which basks on his crags, which is not more fearfully and wonderfully made; while as for his grandeur of form, any college youth who scrambles up him, peel him out of his shooting jacket and trousers, is a hundred times more beautiful, and more grand too, by all laws of art. But so it is. In our prurient prudery, we have got to despise the human, and therefore the truly divine, element in art, and look for inspiration, not to living men and women, but to leaves and straws, stocks and stones. It is an idolatry baser than that of the old Canaanites; for they had the courage to go up to the mountain tops, and thence worship the host of heaven: but we are to stay at the bottom, and worship the mountains themselves. Byron began the folly with his misanthropic "Childe Harold." Sermons in stones? I don't believe in them. I have seen a better sermon in an old peasant woman's face than in all the Alps and Apennines of Europe. Did you ever see any one who was the better for mountains? Have the Alps made * * * a whit honester, or * * * a whit more good-natured, or Lady * * * a whit cleverer? Do they alter one hair's breadth for the better the characters of the ten thousand male and female noodles who travel forth to stare at them every year? Do mountains make them lofty-minded and generous-hearted? No. Caelum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt. Don't talk to me of the moral and physical superiority of mountain races, for I tell you it is a dream. Civilization, art, poetry, belong to the lowlands. Are the English mountaineers, pray, or the French, or the Germans? Were the Egyptians mountaineers, or the Romans, or the Assyrians, as soon as they became a people? The Greeks lived among mountains, but they took care to inhabit the plains; and it was the sea and not the hills which made them the people which they were. Does Scotland owe her life to the highlander, or to the lowlander? If you want an experimentum crucis, there is one. As for poetry, will you mention to me one mountain race which has written great poetry? You will quote the Hebrews. I answer that the life of Palestine always kept to the comparatively low lands to the west of Jordan, while the barbarous mountaineers of the eastern range never did anything,--had but one Elijah to show among them. Shakspeare never saw a hill higher than Malvern Beacon; and yet I suppose you will call him a poet? Mountaineers look well enough at a distance; seen close at hand you find their chief distinctions to be starvation and ignorance, fleas and goitre, with an utter unconsciousness--unless travellers put it into their heads--of the "soul-elevating glories" by which they have been surrounded all their lives.'


Prose Idylls - 4/37

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