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- The Solitary Summer - 3/18 -


"Dear Sage," I cried, slipping my hand through his arm, "don't be so wise! I promise you that I won't be dull, and I won't be punished, and I will be happy."

And we sauntered slowly back to the house in great contentment, discussing the firmament and such high things, as though we knew all about them.

May 15th.--There is a dip in the rye-fields about half a mile from my garden gate, a little round hollow like a dimple, with water and reeds at the bottom, and a few water-loving trees and bushes on the shelving ground around. Here I have been nearly every morning lately, for it suits the mood I am in, and I like the narrow footpath to it through the rye, and I like its solitary dampness in a place where everything is parched, and when I am lying on the grass and look down I can see the reeds glistening greenly in the water, and when I look up I can see the rye-fringe brushing the sky. All sorts of beasts come and stare at me, and larks sing above me, and creeping things crawl over me, and stir in the long grass beside me; and here I bring my book, and read and dream away the profitable morning hours, to the accompaniment of the amorous croakings of innumerable frogs.

Thoreau has been my companion for some days past, it having struck me as more appropriate to bring him out to a pond than to read him, as was hitherto my habit, on Sunday mornings in the garden. He is a person who loves the open air, and will refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful, and we spend the happiest hours together, he making statements, and I either agreeing heartily, or just laughing and reserving my opinion till I shall have more ripely considered the thing. He, of course, does not like me as much as I like him, because I live in a cloud of dust and germs produced by wilful superfluity of furniture, and have not the courage to get a match and set light to it: and every day he sees the door-mat on which I wipe my shoes on going into the house, in defiance of his having told me that he had once refused the offer of one on the ground that it is best to avoid even the beginnings of evil. But my philosophy has not yet reached the acute stage that will enable me to see a door-mat in its true character as a hinderer of the development of souls, and I like to wipe my shoes. Perhaps if I had to live with few servants, or if it were possible, short of existence in a cave, to do without them altogether, I should also do without door-mats, and probably in summer without shoes too, and wipe my feet on the grass nature no doubt provides for this purpose; and meanwhile we know that though he went to the woods, Thoreau came back again, and lived for the rest of his days like other people. During his life, I imagine he would have refused to notice anything so fatiguing as an ordinary German woman, and never would have deigned discourse to me on the themes he loved best; but now his spirit belongs to me, and all he thought, and believed, and felt, and he talks as much and as intimately to me here in my solitude as ever he did to his dearest friends years ago in Concord. In the garden he was a pleasant companion, but in the lonely dimple he is fascinating, and the morning hours hurry past at a quite surprising rate when he is with me, and it grieves me to be obliged to interrupt him in the middle of some quaint sentence or beautiful thought just because the sun is touching a certain bush down by the water's edge, which is a sign that it is lunch-time and that I must be off. Back we go together through the rye, he carefully tucked under one arm, while with the other I brandish a bunch of grass to keep off the flies that appear directly we emerge into the sunshine. "Oh, my dear Thoreau," I murmur sometimes, overcome by the fierce heat of the little path at noonday and the persistence of the flies, "did you have flies at Walden to exasperate you? And what became of your philosophy then?" But he never notices my plaints, and I know that inside his covers he is discoursing away like anything on the folly of allowing oneself to be overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, which is situated in the meridian shallows, and of the necessity, if one would keep happy, of sailing by it looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. But he gets grimly carried back for all that, and is taken into the house and put on his shelf and left there, because I still happen to have a body attached to my spirit, which, if not fed at the ordinary time, becomes a nuisance. Yet he is right; luncheon is a snare of the tempter, and I would perhaps try to sail by it like Ulysses if I had a biscuit in my pocket to comfort me, but there are the babies to be fed, and the Man of Wrath, and how can a respectable wife and mother sail past any meridian shallows in which those dearest to her have stuck? So I stand by them, and am punished every day by that two-o'clock-in-the-afternoon feeling to which I so much object, and yet cannot avoid. It is mortifying, after the sunshiny morning hours at my pond, when I feel as though I were almost a poet, and very nearly a philosopher, and wholly a joyous animal in an ecstasy of love with life, to come back and live through those dreary luncheon- ridden hours, when the soul is crushed out of sight and sense by cutlets and asparagus and revengeful sweet things. My morning friend turns his back on me when I reenter the library; nor do I ever touch him in the afternoon. Books have their idiosyncrasies as well as people, and will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them. If, for instance, I cannot read Thoreau in a drawing-room, how much less would I ever dream of reading Boswell in the grass by a pond! Imagine carrying him off in company with his great friend to a lonely dell in a rye-field, and expecting them to be entertaining. "Nay, my dear lady," the great man would say in mighty tones of rebuke, "this will never do. Lie in a rye-field? What folly is that? And who would converse in a damp hollow that can help it?" So I read and laugh over my Boswell in the library when the lamps are lit, buried in cushions and surrounded by every sign of civilisation, with the drawn curtains shutting out the garden and the country solitude so much disliked by both sage and disciple. Indeed, it is Bozzy who asserts that in the country the only things that make one happy are meals. "I was happy," he says, when stranded at a place called Corrichatachin in the Island of Skye, and unable to get out of it because of the rain,--"I was happy when tea came. Such I take it is the state of those who live in the country. Meals are wished for from the cravings of vacuity of mind, as well as from the desire of eating." And such is the perverseness of human nature that Boswell's wisdom delights me even more than Johnson's, though I love them both very heartily.

In the afternoon I potter in the garden with Goethe. He did not, I am sure, care much really about flowers and gardens, yet he said many lovely things about them that remain in one's memory just as persistently as though they had been inspired expressions of actual feelings; and the intellect must indeed have been gigantic that could so beautifully pretend. Ordinary blunderers have to feel a vast amount before they can painfully stammer out a sentence that will describe it; and when they have got it out, how it seems to have just missed the core of the sensation that gave it birth, and what a poor, weak child it is of what was perhaps a mighty feeling! I read Goethe on a special seat, never departed from when he accompanies me, a seat on the south side of an ice-house, and thus sheltered from the north winds sometimes prevalent in May, and shaded by the low-hanging branches of a great beech-tree from more than flickering sunshine. Through these branches I can see a group of giant poppies just coming into flower, flaming out beyond the trees on the grass, and farther down a huge silver birch, its first spring green not yet deepened out of delicacy, and looking almost golden backed by a solemn cluster of firs. Here I read Goethe-- everything I have of his, both what is well known and what is not; here I shed invariable tears over Werther, however often I read it; here I wade through Wilhelm Meister, and sit in amazement before the complications of the Wahlverwandschaften; here I am plunged in wonder and wretchedness by Faust; and here I sometimes walk up and down in the shade and apostrophise the tall firs at the bottom of the glade in the opening soliloquy of Iphigenia. Every now and then I leave the book on the seat and go and have a refreshing potter among my flower beds, from which I return greatly benefited, and with a more just conception of what, in this world, is worth bothering about, and what is not.

In the evening, when everything is tired and quiet, I sit with Walt Whitman by the rose beds and listen to what that lonely and beautiful spirit has to tell me of night, sleep, death, and the stars. This dusky, silent hour is his; and this is the time when I can best hear the beatings of that most tender and generous heart. Such great love, such rapture of jubilant love for nature, and the good green grass, and trees, and clouds, and sunlight; such aching anguish of love for all that breathes and is sick and sorry; such passionate longing to help and mend and comfort that which never can be helped and mended and comforted; such eager looking to death, delicate death, as the one complete and final consolation--before this revelation of yearning, universal pity, every-day selfishness stands awe-struck and ashamed.

When I drive in the forests, Keats goes with me; and if I extend my drive to the Baltic shores, and spend the afternoon on the moss beneath the pines whose pink stems form the framework of the sea, I take Spenser; and presently the blue waves are the ripples of the Idle Lake, and a tiny white sail in the distance is Phaedria's shallow ship, bearing Cymochles swiftly away to her drowsy little nest of delights. How can I tell why Keats has never been brought here, and why Spenser is brought again and again? Who shall follow the dark intricacies of the elementary female mind? It is safer not to attempt to do so, but by simply cataloguing them collectively under the heading Instinct, have done with them once and for all.

What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden. And how easy it would have been to come into the world without this, and possessed instead of an all-consuming passion, say, for hats, perpetually raging round my empty soul! I feel I owe my forefathers a debt of gratitude, for I suppose the explanation is that they too did not care for hats. In the centre of my library there is a wooden pillar propping up the ceiling, and preventing it, so I am told, from tumbling about our ears; and round this pillar, from floor to ceiling, I have had shelves fixed, and on these shelves are all the books that I have read again and again, and hope to read many times more--all the books, that is, that I love quite the best. In the bookcases round the walls are many that I love, but here in the centre of the room, and easiest to get at, are those I love the _best_--the very elect among my favourites. They change from time to time as I get older, and with years some that are in the bookcases come here, and some that are here go into the bookcases, and some again are removed altogether, and are placed on certain shelves in the drawing-room which are reserved for those that have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and from whence they seldom, if ever, return. Carlyle used to be among the elect. That was years ago, when my hair was very long, and my skirts very short, and I sat in the paternal groves with _Sartor Resartus_, and felt full of wisdom and _Weltschmerz_; and even after I was married, when we lived in town, and the noise of his thunderings was almost drowned by the rattle of droschkies over the stones in the street below, he still shone forth a bright, particular star. Now, whether it is age creeping upon me, or whether it is that the country is very still and sound carries, or whether my ears have grown sensitive, I know not; but the moment I open him there rushes out such a clatter of denunciation, and vehemence, and wrath, that I am completely deafened; and as I easily get bewildered, and love peace, and my chief aim is to follow the apostle's advice and study to be quiet, he has been degraded from his high position round the pillar and has gone into retirement against the wall, where the accident of alphabet causes him to rest in the soothing society of one Carina, a harmless gentleman, whose book on the _Bagni di Lucca_ is on his left, and a Frenchman of the name of Charlemagne, whose soporific comedy written at the beginning of the century and called _Le Testament de l'Oncle_, _ou Les Lunettes Cassees_, is next to him on his right. Two works of his still remain, however, among the elect, though differing in


The Solitary Summer - 3/18

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