The Harvest of a Quiet Eye: Leisure Thoughts for Busy Lives by Vernon, John Richard
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The Harvest of a Quiet Eye.
_With Numerous Illustrations by Noel Humphreys, Harrison Weir, Wimperis Pritchett, Miss Edwards, and other eminent Artists._
THE HARVEST OF A QUIET EYE.
LEISURE THOUGHTS FOR BUSY LIVES.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “MY STUDY CHAIR,” “MUSINGS,” ETC.
LONDON: THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY, 56, PATERNOSTER ROW; 65, ST. PAUL’S CHURCHYARD; AND 164, PICCADILLY.
“_The outward shows of sky and earth, Of hill and valley he has viewed; And impulses of deeper birth Have come to him in solitude._
“_In common things that round us lie, Some random truths he can impart, --The harvest of a quiet eye That broods and sleeps on his own heart._”
THE OLD YEAR AND THE NEW 1
MUSINGS ON THE THRESHOLD 23
SPRING DAYS 41
MUSINGS IN A WOOD 63
THE MAY-DAYS OF THE SOUL 85
SUMMER DAYS 101
MUSINGS IN THE HAY 123
THE BEAUTY OF RAIN 145
AUTUMN DAYS 161
MUSINGS ON THE SEA-SHORE 183
MUSINGS ON THE MOUNTAINS 199
MUSINGS IN THE TWILIGHT 221
WINTER DAYS 241
THE END OF THE SEASONS 265
UNDER BARE BOUGHS 283
These papers, written in the intervals of parish work, have appeared in the pages of the _Leisure Hour_ and the _Sunday at Home_. Their publication in a collected form having been decided upon by others, it only remained for me, by careful revision and excision, to render them as little unworthy as might be of starting for themselves in the wide world.
I shall not say that I am sorry that they are thus sent forth on their humble mission. Indeed, I am glad. “Brief life is here our portion”:--and surely the wish is one natural to all earnest hearts, that our work for our Master in this sad and sinful world should not have its term together with the quick ending of our short day’s labour here:--and a book has the possibility of a longer life than that of a man. The Night cometh, when none can work; how sweet, if it might be, that when the day is ended, when the warfare, for us, is over, we may have left some strong watchwords, or some comfortable and cheering utterances, still ringing in the ears of those who stepped into our place in the unbroken ranks.
Yes, the evening soon falls on the field; the day is brief, nor fully employed; inanimate things seem to have an advantage over us; streams flow on, and mountains stand;
“While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise, We men, who, in our morn of youth, defied The elements, must vanish:--be it so! Enough, if something from our hands have power To live, and act, and serve the future hour.”
And I may be permitted to hope that possibly these meditations may have such power and perform such, service in their modest way. They have but the ambition of a flower that looks up to cheer, or a bird’s note that tranquilly, amid storms, continues a simple melody from the heart of its tree. They will, like these, be easily passed by, but, like these, may have a message for hearts that will look and listen.
There is certainly, in the present age, a want of writing that shall rest and brace the mind; of meditative writing of a tendency merely holy and practical, rather shunning than plunging into controversy:--not the cry of the angry or startled bird, but its evening and morning orisons rather. A contemplative strain; one linked with things of earth, and hallowing them--one heard beside “the common path that common men pursue”:--one rising from the common work-a-day experiences, joys, and pains--rising from these and carrying them up with it heavenward, until even earth’s exhalations catch the light of an unearthly glory. We want more of this spiritual rest; more of this standing apart from the perturbations of the day; more of retirement and retired thought--thought that shall leave the throng, with its absorbed purpose and pushing and jostling, always eager, often angry; and having secured a lonely standing-point apart from it all, become better able to judge of the real truth and importance, also of the just relation of things.
I cannot claim to have done more than make a slight attempt towards the supply of this want. Nay, I would rather lay claim not to have _attempted_. This is the age of effort and strain; it were well that thought were sometimes permitted to be natural, spontaneous, and simply expressive of that which the heart’s meditations have laid by in store. A stream thus welling up will want the precision and the single aim of the artificial jet, but it will have its modest use and value to cheer and to refresh lowly grasses, and perhaps to water the roots of loftier growths in its vagaries and meanderings.
In these times men will be held nothing if not controversial; and rival parties will skim the book for shibboleths before they read or throw it by. Assuredly fixed principles and definite teaching are (if ever at one time more than another) of special importance in the present day; and I am not one who think it well to blow both hot and cold at pleasure. Only I would ask, is there absolute need that we be _always blowing_ either? may we not sometimes be permitted simply to breathe? There are occasions on which I find myself compelled to blow one or the other, but I grudge the good breath spent in the exertion, and prefer to return to the normal state of even respiration. A story, told of Archbishop Leighton’s youth, is to the point:--“In a synod he was publicly reprimanded for not ‘preaching up the times.’ ‘Who,’ he asked, ‘does preach up the times?’ It was answered that all the brethren did it. ‘Then,’ he rejoined, ‘if all of you preach up the times, you may surely allow one poor brother to preach up Christ Jesus and eternity.’”
No doubt, we must be militant here on earth, militant against every form of error--old error undisguised, and old error in a new dress; but the more need that we should secure breathing times when we may sheathe the biting sword and lay the heavy armour by. Perhaps many with whom we war, or from whom we stand aloof in suspicion, would be found, when the vizors were raised, to be brothers, and henceforth warriors by our side.
One word as to the title of this book. “The Harvest of a Quiet Eye.” This has always been a favourite line with me, and now I take it to describe my unpretentious volume, though this be rather a handful gleaned than a harvest got in. With some people this gleaning by the way would be contemned, in their single-eyed advance upon some goal; with some it is a thing continual and habitual, this instinctive gathering and half-unconscious storing of hints and touches of wayside beauty--a process so well described in Wordsworth’s verses. To have an eye for the wide pictures and slight studies of Nature; to gather them up, in solitary walks which thus are not lonely; to lay them by, together with the heart’s deeper thoughts, its associations, meditations, and reminiscences;--this is to fashion common things into a beauty which, to the fashioner at least, may be a joy for ever.
“To see the heath-flower withered on the hill, To listen to the woods’ expiring lay, To note the red leaf shivering on the spray, To mark the last bright tints the mountain stain, On the waste fields to trace the gleaner’s way, And moralise on mortal joy and pain,”
--this has been with me the secondary occupation of many a walk, solitary or in company. A rosy sunbeam slanting down a bank, and catching the stems of the ferns and the tops of the grasses; a coral twist of briony berries; a daisy in December;--the eye would be caught, and the train of grave or anxious musing intermitted without being broken off, by the ever-allowed claim of Nature’s silent poetry. And often the deeper meaning of such poetry would run parallel with the mind’s thought--sometimes suggest for it a new path.
“Few ears of scattered grain.” Though this be all my harvest, yet if that be grain at all which has been collected, it may have its use. He who with a very little fed a great multitude, has a ministry for even our humble handfuls. At His feet be this laid: may He accept and bless it, and deign to refresh and hearten by its means some few at least of those who, faint and weary, are following Him in the wilderness of this world!
THE OLD YEAR AND THE NEW.
A Happy New Year!
Words repeated by how many myriads, in how many zones--tropic, temperate, frigid, wherever the English tongue is spoken! Words said commonly with more of meaning and sincerity than fall to the lot of many almost-of-course salutations. Words in which there is a shade of melancholy, and a gleam of gladness; a lingering of regret, with the very new birth of anticipation. “A Happy New Year.”
Ah, but it is not unlike parting with an old friend, the saying good-bye to the Old Year. And it seems unkind to turn from him who has so long dwelt with us, and to take up too jauntily with a new friend.
He had his faults: but, at any rate, we know them; and those of the new-comer have yet to be discovered. And his virtues seem to stand out in bolder relief, now that we feel that we shall never see him again. Such experiences, too, we have had together! we have been sad and merry in company, and the days of our past society come with a warm rush to our heart:--
“Though his eyes are waxing dim, And though his foes speak ill of him, He was a friend to me.”
And so we keep hold still of his hand, loth, very loth indeed to part--as we sit in silence by the flickering fire, and listen to the sudden bursts and sinking of the bells.
It is our habit--(I speak in the name of myself, and of many of my readers)--it is an immemorial custom with us, to assemble, all that can do so, in the old home, from which we have at different times taken wing--to gather together there again, on the last night of the Old Year. I have heard the plan objected to, but I never heard any objections that to my mind seemed weighty ones. True, the gaps that must come from time to time, are perhaps most of all brought prominently, sadly before us, at such a gathering as this. We miss the husband, the brother, the sweet girl-daughter, the little one’s pattering feet--ah, sorely, sorely then! Last year the familiar face was here, and now, now, far away, under the white sheet of snow. This is sad, but it is not a mere unstarlit night of gloom. Nay, I maintain that, to those who look at it rightly, more and brighter stars of comfort shine out then than at other times to compensate for the deepening dark. There is the comfort of sympathy, and of seeing in all surrounding faces how the lost one was loved. But, especially, it seems as though, when all are met again, he may not be far away from the circle that was so unbroken upon earth:--
“Nor count me all to blame if I Conjecture of a stiller guest, Perchance, perchance, among the rest, And, though in silence, wishing joy.”
And most of all, there is the old-fashioned, but ever new comfort--balm, indeed, of Gilead, for every bereaved heart.
“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.”
And these home gatherings, yearly growing more incomplete, and yearly increasing, lead the heart to glad thought of that reunion hereafter, in that House of our Father in which the mansions are many, the Home, one.
Well, you are gathered, my friend and reader, you and your dear ones, about your father’s fireside on this last night of the Old Year. The hours have stolen on: at ten o’clock the servants came in, and the last family prayers have been offered up, and the last thanksgiving of the assembled household for this year; and the chamber candlesticks have been set out, and the father has drawn his chair near the fire, and another log cast upon it crackles and flashes; and each and all announce the intention of seeing the Old Year out and the New Year in.
Cheery talk, reminiscent talk, pensive talk, thankful talk; a little silence. The wind flaps against the window, and throws against it a handful of the Old Year’s cast-off leaves. The clock on the mantelpiece gives eleven sharp, clear tings. The year has but an hour to live. And now the wind brings up a clear ring of bells; and then sinks, that the Old Year may die in peace, and his requiem be well heard over the waking land.
But an hour to live! And the burden of depression that ever comes with the exceeding sweetness of bells, loads, grain after grain, the descending scale of your spirits. It is a solemn time, a time for quiet: a time in which it is well to leave even the dear faces, and to get you apart alone with God.
So you steal away from the fireside blaze; and ascend the creaking stairs, and enter your own room; and close the door, even as a dear Friend long ago advised; and offer the last worship of the year--confessions, supplications, intercessions, praises. You go over the dear names, sweet beads of the heart’s rosary, telling them one by one to God, with their several wants and needs. You mention once more the special blessings to them and to yourself of the past year. You put, once more, all the future for them and for you into that kind, wise Father’s hand; and you feel rested then, and at peace. A few words read, for the last time this year, in the Book of books; and now there is yet a little space for quiet thought about the dying year, before his successor enters at the door.
And it is then, as you sit pensively before the dancing fire, alone in your silent room--while the bell music now comes in bursts, and now dies in whispers--that a sort of abstract of many thoughts that have hovered about you all day is summoned up before your mind. It is the hour of soft regret, helped, I say, by those merry, melancholy bells, which
“Swell up and fail, as though a door Were shut between you and the sound.”
You have had your sad times in the year that is so nearly dead; you have shed your bitter tears; you have had your lonely hours, your weariness of this unsatisfying, disappointing world. Unkindness, estrangement, bereavement, intense solitariness of the spirit, when it is conscious that not another being than the Creator can ever understand, far less supply, its want, or heal its woe--these experiences, these wearing, shaping, refining operations of the kind Father are part of your memories of the dying year. While their bitterness was present with you, you would have said that it was impossible that you could ever regret to part with the year that brought them. “Ring out,” you would have said, “ring out, wild bells, this unkind and bitter year; this year that hath brought a blight over my life; this year that hath dispelled the dreams of youth, and changed into a wilderness that which did blossom as the rose. Ring out, and let this hard year die. Fleet, hours and days and weeks and months, and set a distance between me and what I long to call the _past_. Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky; gladly would I say now, even now, while I listened to you--
“The year is dying--let it die!”
But those hours of bitterness are now, even now, of the past. That sharp pain, or that weary ache, is dulled, perhaps removed. Perhaps you have learned God’s lesson in it, and can thank Him, though the ache still dwells in the heart’s heart; at any rate, the Old Year is passing away; the sad Old Year, the glad Old Year; on the whole--yes, on the whole, the _dear_ Old Year. He is with you but for a few minutes more; he has come to say good-bye.
Who does not unbend at such a time? In all the friendships, in all the ties of life, there comes up surely all the warmth, all the kindly feeling of the heart, when the time comes which is to end that connection for ever. There may have been some old grudges, discontents, heart-burnings, jealousies, disappointments. But they are forgotten now, and the eyes have a kindly light, and the lips a tender word, and the hand a hearty shake, when it has indeed come to saying good-bye.
And so with the Old Year, whatever he has been to us, whatever little disagreements we may have had, whatever heart-burnings, they are not much remembered now.
It is a friend that is leaving you, you are not glad to part with him; _good-bye, Old Year, good-bye_.
Another regretful thought, as the twilight flickers and dances on the blind, and those bells still dance hand-in-hand, row after row, close up to the window, and still pass away hardly perceived into the distant fields. The dying Year brought some happiness, some love; this is now warm and safe in the nest of the heart; the coming time may fledge it, and it may, some summer day, take sudden wing and fly.
“He brought me a friend, and a true, true love, And the New Year will take ’em away.”
Youth is especially the time, perhaps, for a sort of tender prophetic hint of the evanescence and passing away of hopes, loves, dreams. It is indeed but a rose-leaf weight on the heart, but a gossamer passing across the sun; yet there it frequently is. The iron hand of real crushing bereavement, of actual anguish, has never yet had the heart in its gripe, to crush out all that more tender sentiment. Yet some soft, faint shadows of darker hours do, unaccountably, fall early across the daisy fields of youth. And thus in youth a certain foreshadowing, in mature years a stern experience, brings into the heart at this time a thoughtful dread of losing what we already have; an undefinable apprehension of the future. This time next year, when the New Year has become the Old, and its time has come round to say good-bye, what changes may have come to us, to our circle, to our home! Will all be then as it is now? Will love, perhaps newly-acquired, still nestle in our heart, or will it have even taken wings like a dove, and have left it--
“Like a forsaken bird’s nest filled with snow”?
Oh, who shall tell? Answer, quiet heart, that hast learned to trust in God; and rest, rest peacefully, brightly, hopefully, on the answer that God hath taught thee!
But a quarter of an hour left now of the Old Year’s life! and the wind brings the bells in a sudden burst like rain against the window. Before you join the group downstairs there is yet another, the saddest subject for regretful thought. The past hours of the past days of the year nearly past might have been better spent, oh, how much so, than they have been!
“_Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might._” Has _that_ been the rule of the past year? Ah, if it had been, how different a year to look back upon! How many opportunities neglected altogether! How many but weakly and slackly employed! Opportunities that can never come again, that, employed or neglected, are past now. The word that might have done infinite good, but that was not spoken--cowardice, weak complaisance, in a word, _worldliness_, God’s enemy, fettered the tongue: excuses were ready, though the heart did not believe them, and God’s soldier failed, and the devil had the better of that field. Again, actions, that sloth or love of worldly ease caused to die out into smoke when they should have been eager leaping fire. An opportunity came, once and again, of doing something for God. The duty was a laborious one, a painful one; nevertheless, however painful, it must be done; you had resolved that it should be done; you had even sought help upon your knees for the work. But mark the carnal coward spirit creeping over the spiritual manly resolve: a friend came in, a persuasion turned you; your heart, alas! hardly really in earnest, did not set itself as a flint to its purpose; too willing to be turned aside, it basely accepted the tempting excuse, and laboured thereupon to believe itself really acquitted from the duty. Those opportunities passed away, the noble action was not done, the faithful word was never spoken, the heart’s reproaches became dull, and the duty ceased its ceaseless gnawing at the conscience. But amid the fitful sinking and falling of the firelight and the bells as you sit on the rug, hand-shading your eyes--the neglected opportunity comes back, with all its reproach, even newer and keener than at the first; back again to accuse your faint-heartedness, to upbraid your lukewarm love; to tell you of One who died for you, and yet for whom you shirk the least distasteful labour, the least taking up the cross, and denying yourself to follow Him.
And, besides all this, when you think of the whole past year, even of its hours (how few, and how grudged!) when you have tried to do the work which the Master put into your power to perform for Him, how conscious you are of the want of heart in even your best endeavours; you cannot but feel how hard the world’s votaries have been working for their master, and how slackly you have been labouring for your Master and only Saviour--how they have been running, with eyes fixed on the goal; and how you have been hobbling and limping, looking behind, and on this side and on that, not with single purpose, pressing towards the mark--ah, no!
And you think, then, what this life might have been--might be. A life that looked straight forward, that turned not to the right hand nor to the left, that paused for no alluring of pleasure, for no constraining of business--
“This way and that dividing the swift mind,”
and wasting its energy and powers. A life that set God first, utterly first; that shouldered aside the world’s jostling, distracting importunities; that left the little concerns, the little loves, the little jealousies of this brief life, staring after its eager, swift, stedfast advance, whenever they would have interposed to hinder it. A life that really and in good earnest, not half-heartedly and in pretence, should leave all to follow Christ. Something of the unflinching, unswerving, unpausing persistency of those old Jesuits; only in the service of Christ, and not in that of the Pope and the Inquisition. You think of a St. Paul, and his onward, onward still, “in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,” and you think of your lagging, loitering----!
Ah, well, that is best: on your knees once more, for pardon and for grace--grace to love Him more and serve Him better in the year so near at hand! God shall wipe away all those tears that love for Him made to flow, and the blessed Saviour’s perfect righteousness shall hide all our vile and miserable rags; yet even the saved, we can almost fancy, will wish with a feeling akin to regret, to have loved the blessed Lord more; and he who has gained but five pounds will surely wish that it had been ten. For our opportunities, it often seems to me, are such as angels might long to have. Where all are serving God, and we have no longer a sinful nature dragging us back, nor a glittering world around us, nor a subtle tempter at our ear--it will seem little, methinks, to serve God then and there. But now, and here, in a world lying in wickedness, where the more part are not on Christ’s side, but rather leagued with or deserters to the devil, the world, and the flesh--oh, what an Abdiel opportunity to stand up, a speaking, living protest in life’s least and greatest thought, word, and act; a burning and a shining light, reflecting the beams of the Sun of Righteousness in a dark and naughty world!
Ah, may this quiet hour of thought, of regretful meditation, by God’s grace, be the point on which you have collected your powers and energies for a forward spring, that shall not grow slack through eternity!
Five minutes to twelve now. The hour of Regret is near its close. The hour of Anticipation is close at hand. The Old Year’s bells are running down, and the Old Year’s life is passing with them. Five minutes more. First you bow your head, and adore the Almighty and the All-loving--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost--for the Past, for the Present, and for the Future. Then you go downstairs, according to old custom, to join the rest of the dear circle at the open window, and to listen for the ceasing of the bells.
They are gathered at the window, standing quietly and thoughtfully; those that are nearest and dearest linked with loving arms; they are silent, or speak in a subdued tone. You might almost think that they were indeed standing by some bedside, watching the last breathing of a friend; for a solemn thing it is, the passing from one to another of these stepping-stones in the brook of life, and seeing the other shore seem to gather a more distinct shape through the mist of the future.
You join the group. A cold, moist air, full of films of snow, comes out of the dark night into the warm, bright room. The bells are running away; you might almost fancy them the sands, the last few grains of the Old Year’s life. Suddenly they stop, and in the breathing silence a deep clang falls from the church tower,--another,--ten more yet,--and the Old Year is dead.
“A happy New Year!--a happy New Year!” Warm kisses, and hearty shakes of the hand, and, like the crash of a great breaker that has seemed to pause for a moment in the air, down bursts the glad, the melancholy ring of bells again, and floods the bare shore of silence,--still lingering, seething, receding, gathering into new bursts again, and yet again.
A happy New Year! The Past is past, the Old Year is dead, the hour of Regret is gone by, the time of Anticipation is here; not good-bye now, but welcome; not lingering retrospect, but earnest advance. Life is too short for long mourning; not much time can be spared to meditate by the fresh grave of the past. Forward, towards the unknown future: grasp its opportunities, its sorrows, its joys, to be woven into some fabric for the Master’s use! On, towards the untried future, bravely, trustfully, hopefully, cheerfully; but remember you can never overtake it. It changes into the present even as you come up with it; and it is now, or never, that you must be serving God.
“Trust no future, howe’er pleasant, Let the dead past bury its dead; Act, act in the living present, Heart within, and God o’erhead.”
But good night to all, or good morning--which?--and then upstairs, and tired, to bed. When you wake, things will go on much as usual, though the Old Year be dead, and sentry January have relieved sentry December. Only for a time you will find yourself dating still 18--, and, if untidy, you will have to smear, if tidy, to erase, the last figure, and substitute the number of your new friend.
* * * * *
Anticipation. This is especially the dower of the young, if Regret be often the possession of the old. What a strange, glorious thing a New Year is to the child! Little of the feelings that I have been describing find place in the breast of the boy and girl, that were fast asleep and warm in their beds, while you and the bells were at conference: little of such musings trouble them, as they bound out of bed in the morning, and scuttle off in their night-gowns, patter patter, in a race, to be the first to wish father and mother a happy New Year. They are growing out of childhood: _that_ is the joy for them: another of those vast periods has passed. Happy Spring, that does but long to shed and cast away her myriad white blossoms; and to rush on towards the full-grown Summer:--unknowing in the least, of the sober, misty, tear-strung, if fruitful, Autumn boughs! A happy New Year, little ones! Far be it from me to strip Spring boughs in order to imitate the Autumn which they cannot know! God keep you, my children; God teach you, and God bless you!
* * * * *
A little farther on. Anticipation is glowing warmly in the heart of the young man and the young woman. The time of childhood is left behind. The time of independence, the time of manhood, is drawing near: that time which shall transform into realities the great things,--the noble, world-stirring deeds, that have hitherto been only schemes. That time when the loves that are budding in the heart shall burst into exquisite blossoms, and never a frost nip them, and never a rude wind carry at unawares a loose petal away.
A happy New Year. The heart accepts this wish, fearlessly, without doubt, before the strife; before the rough work of a field or two in the scarce-tried warfare of life has smirched the glittering armour, and shorn the gay plumes, and changed the song before the battle into hard labouring sobs, in the stern hand-to-hand tussle with sin and with sorrow, with disappointment and dismay. Before many a scheme overturned, many a brave effort fallen dead as bullets against a stone wall, many a seeming hopeful struggle forced back by the sheer dead weight of evil, has made the heart sick and the knees to tremble, and brought an early weariness and hint of despair over the amazed Recruit; a touch of that felt by the Sage of old: “It is enough: evil is too strong for me: I can do no more than others have done before: my schemes have come to nothing, my bubbles have burst: now let me die.” But the Recruit becomes the Veteran, and is content to wait, where he was once ready to despair. He does not hope so much, and therefore is not so much dismayed; he relies now not so much on earthquake efforts, as on the still small voice uttered to the world by the life which is given to God. He is content to labour,--and to leave it to the Master to give the increase.
Yes, the young heart, even when lit with heavenly love, and full of great designs for God, must submit to the overthrow of the bright visions that anticipation set before it. How much more, when its fire was lit from earth; and earth’s loves, or fame, or pleasure, or power, were the prizes for which life’s battle was to be fought. Vanity and vexation of spirit, disappointment, dismay, despair; these are the ruins that shall be won for Moscows, if that battle be fought to the end!
A happy New Year. That glad wish of youth may come to sound, to the man, nothing but bitter irony. But much of the early hope, and more than the early peace, comes back to the veteran worker for God.
“Who, but the Christian, through all life That blessing may prolong? Who, through the world’s sad day of strife, Still chant his morning song?”
A happy New Year, young man and young woman! God grant it you, in the one true sense of the word. It need not be a freedom from sorrow: this is an ennobling, useful discipline, that I may not wish you to avoid. But, to be happy, it must be free from sloth and wilful sin.
Look out from your window again, at the snow sheet which has silently, deeply, fallen upon the earth. Let it be very early in the morning, while the world is asleep and the broad moon and the glittering stars watch alone over the smooth, sparkling, white face of the land. Not a footstep, so far as you see, has impressed the smooth, pure snow; not a dark cart-track has yet left a long stain on the spotless road. No thawing penitential drippings have made dark wells in it here and there; no rude sweeping has piled the snow in stained heaps hither and thither by the path. All is yet pure, untouched, undefiled.
This is the New Year upon which we have entered, as we look at it from the casement of the Old Year, before yet one step has been placed on its first moment. All as yet unstained, and white, and calm.
For how short a time to remain so! Can we set our first step upon it without somewhat marring its virgin beauty? And then the traffic, the hurrying of many feet, the crushing of many wheels; thought, word, and deed, too often unwatched and unsanctified by prayer; oh, what a change soon, and how short a time that purity and calm has lasted!
New Year; clean New Year; how dark, how defiled, how changed will you be, when you also are now waxing old, and ready to vanish away! The white virgin opportunity all passed by, leaving dark, dreary, sodden fields, and roads churned up into yellow mud. The clinging spotless moments--flakes that, in innumerable combination, made up the great stainless carpet of the untrodden New Year; for them there will be many a trickling rivulet of penitential tears; and the steam and mist of heavy sighs that go up to God because of life’s work too faintly, slackly done. Well then, that is well. Better, of course, if this could have been, that the pure year had remained unstained.
“My little children, these things write I unto you, _that ye sin not_.”
But well, if we are indeed humbly striving, and if hearty repentance, and a true, lively, cleansing faith follow upon our many, many sad failings, faults, and shortcomings. For, sweet words!--
“_If any man sin_, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins.”
And, glorious thought! if we are indeed loving and seeking after purity and holiness, striving because of the hope within us, to purify ourselves, even as He is pure--then know this, we shall not love, and seek, and strive in vain.
“When He shall appear, _we shall be like Him_.”
Think of that! So that, when our last hour comes, and the bellringers are ready for us, to ring out the Old Year of this life, and to ring in the New Year of the next; and we are looking (our near and dear ones still by us) out of the casement of the Old Year of TIME, what may we then see? There shall be stretched out before us the immeasurable unstained tract of the New Year of ETERNITY, unsullied, spotless, pure and white; and we need not then be afraid to enter upon that. The blood of Jesus, which cleanseth from all sin, will have so cleansed us, that even _our_ footprints will not stain nor mar it. The spots and the defilements, the tears and the sighs, they will lie all behind us then, in the Old Year which is dead. Ring out, oh, ringers, then--toll not, but ring out the year of sadness and of sin, of weak strivings, cold hearts, and dull love! Ring out the year of partings and estrangements, of death and tears! And ring in--oh, that it might be so for every reader of this chapter!--ring with none but joy-notes, ring in that everlastingly HAPPY NEW YEAR!
MUSINGS ON THE THRESHOLD.
I call February the Threshold of the Year. In January we were indoors, beside the fire, and there seemed little of new and various to tempt us out. But February comes, and with it the first dream of change, the first scarce-heard whisper of the Spring. The faint possibility of a snowdrop, hinting its yet undrooping white through a peaked green film; the distant hope of a primrose bud, peeping--with yellow point, for all the world just like that of a coloured crayon--out of the young, crisp, green leaves that are crowning the limp, ragged ones of last year; the wild dream of a find of those sweet buds--little geologists’ hammers, with white or violet noses--among their round seeds and drilled leaves, in some warmer corner; such, summonings as these woo the steps to the threshold on a strayed mild day late in February. The black, soaked trees have, we find, taken a warm hue of life; the dull willow bushes have the gleam of golden hair; the first soft air of the year comes to our hearts with a gush of promises; flowers and leaves seem possible to the heart waking from its winter stagnation; trees and men alike feel a new life, a fresh impulse. Even though we have become hard wood and wrinkled rind, our sap is, nevertheless, stirred:
“And even in our inmost ring A pleasure is discerned, From those blind motions of the Spring, That show the year is turned.”
And, perhaps, we are content to pause on the threshold, and lean against the lintel, and survey the smile close at hand, and the gleam far away; and, while the robin draws near in a cheerful, not to say jovial, sympathy with our humour, and the faint branchy shadows move tenderly on the glistening lawn, to muse on the year’s threshold, concerning the programme that the wind is whispering among the bushes, and the promises that the warm air is wafting into the heart.
* * * * *
Musings on the Threshold. Such musings might take many an obvious high road, or quaint turn, we must feel, as we stand on the threshold of our house, and of the year, looking out upon the herald-gleam, and fanned by what seems a Spring air; an air that summons sweet thoughts of March, April, May--scarce June yet; certainly not October or November. On the threshold of the Spring; this we would rather say, and forget that it is really the threshold of the year,--that thing composed of smiles and tears, of gleams and showers, of full green boughs and bare sticks, of promises and disappointments, of growth and life, and decay and death. For instance, with regard to these threshold musings, how often, ere we shall have passed on so far in life’s journey, that we stand on the threshold of the next state,--how often do we pause for awhile upon some threshold, and lean back against the door and muse. On the threshold of joy, or on the threshold of misery; on the threshold of hope, or on the threshold of despair; on the threshold of school, or of the holidays; on the threshold of wearing tail-coats; of being flogged or expelled; of gaining the three head prizes of the school,--these gave musings to some in early days. Later, on the threshold of a pluck, or of a double first-class; on the threshold of first love; and--oh, the dim, delicious look-out, and long, ecstatic musings!--on the threshold of being married; of parting with some beloved one,--and ah, how a stern hand seems to drag you forth from your contemplation here, when your musings were scarce begun! On the threshold of the first fall from purity or honour,--and, alas, the dismal journey that shall follow upon the threshold left, and the first step taken! On the threshold of repentance; and angel-eyes watch eagerly, and angel-hands poise above their golden harps; and at the first step forward a ringing rapture peals up into the trembling roof of Heaven. “Musings on the Threshold”:--are there not then, highways and by-paths which such musings might well take? But it is time for us to choose our present road; and, to do so, we will even go back to the beginning of a certain well-trodden way, upon which every one of us is found, some far back, some near the middle, some tottering on close to the goal.
_On the threshold of Life._ Yes, once upon a time we stood there: and the Spring air was rife with half-shaped songs and indistinct delicious whispers; and we knew that the hedges and copses were full of all sweet promise-buds; and there were songs in the distance, and an interminable thronging of inexhaustible flowers; and life seemed too sweet, when the first blossom that was our own was grasped in our hand, and the stir of life growing conscious and intelligent first made the heart glow and kindle, as we paused musing upon the Threshold, and looked out upon the sweet, strange opening year of Life.
Ah well, the step soon has to be taken, that marks the beginning of separation from those lovely, unreal dreams. There is Solomon’s way of leaving them--much labour, and little profit, and a bitter heart at the end. And there is that other way of leaving them--the hearing once and again, and gradually heeding, an oft-repeated solemn call, “Follow Me.” Out of the sunshine into the shadow; away from dreamy threshold musings, into the rough and stony highway; drop the flowers and clasp the cross: for how run the instructions given long ago, and given to all; given by precept, and given by example? “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
How true of those who--at last, and after long hesitation--take the first step, and leave the threshold of this world’s young dreams, and begin to follow Him; how true that “little did they know to what they pledged themselves, when, in that first season of awe, they arose and followed His voice. But now they cannot go back, for they are too nigh to the unseen One, and His words have sunk deeply within them. Day by day they are giving up their old waking dreams; things they have pictured out and acted over in their imaginations and their hopes, one by one they let them go, with saddened but willing hearts. They feel as if they had fallen under some irresistible attraction, which is hurrying them into the world unseen; and so in truth it is. He is fulfilling to them His promise: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.’ Their turn is come at last, that is all. Before, they had only heard of the mystery; now, they feel it. He has fastened on them His look of love, even as on Peter and on Mary; and they cannot choose but follow, and in following Him, altogether forget both themselves and all their visions of life.”
How strange it is, verily, after we have for many years now, followed that Voice,--followed it, no doubt, with many a declension, many a wavering, many a wayward swerving, and almost turning back; yet, on the whole, followed it, and that with less of timidity, and more of implicitness, as experience justified hope;--how strange, about midway in the journey, to look back at life’s threshold! The January of infancy had past; the February of awakening, conscious life had come, and we came out from our dormant state, and paused upon the threshold, and looked forth upon the world. And now we look back, and with a strange, wondering interest, contemplate that single lonely figure that was ourself, leaning in wrapt musing; the small home behind it; and before, the siren murmurs, and warm, flattering airs of the fairy, enticing Future. The magic dreams, the mirage-reveries, the profuse promises, the unshaped hopes, the just-caught notes of some divine, distant melody: all the flowers to blossom; and all the birds to come. Ah, what sweet, wild musings were those! Far away we seemed to catch a gleam of that
“Light that never was on sea or land, The consecration, and the poet’s dream.”
And even tears had their sparkle, and melancholy its charm, and death its unreal beauty.
“To think of passing bells, of death and dying-- ’Twere good, methought, in early youth to die, So loved, lamented: in such sweet sleep lying, The white shroud all with flowers and rosemary Stuck o’er by loving hands.”
Thus, we remember, once stood that figure, solitary in its own individuality, upon the threshold, and looking out upon life. And, contemplating our present self, we feel that it is “the same, yet not the same.” How changed all has become! It is not only nor chiefly that flowers are less valued than fruit-germs, or sparkling glass than rough, hereafter-to-be-cut diamonds; it is not only, nor so much, that the world’s promises and life’s young dreams have failed us, as that we have turned away from them. That our taste has altered; that the things that then were all, are now nearly nothing; that what once rose before us a golden mirage, seems now as but bare sand; that what seemed gain, would be now held as loss; that what seemed too rare, and delicious, and high, and exquisite, and sublime, for more than trembling hope, has now become as refuse in our thought.
Time was, when other thoughts and purposes than these which now possess us, held sway in our hearts. Time was, when we stood on the threshold, dazzled, and wondering, in a delicious dream, which of all the sublime or lovely paths that opened before us we should pursue. Time was, when at last we began to heed a kind, but still small Voice, that had from the first been speaking to us; when a grave Eye that had from the first watched us, at last fixed our attention. Time was, when we were compelled as it were, at first with hesitating, reluctant step, to follow that Voice and that Look--away from those bright gay paths, or grand aspiring ways, down a lowly, narrow way, strewn with thorns and stones, and sloping into a mist-hid valley. Time was--if we followed still--that the disturbing, distracting sounds and sights above being left behind and hushed,--the mist lifted, and, lo! the valley was a pleasant valley, an abode of “peace that the world cannot give”: and if the way were still rough sometimes, there were undying flowers of unearthly beauty here and there; and if the lark was away, the nightingale was singing; and it was answered to us, yea, our heart returned answer to itself, that, albeit narrow and strait at first, the name of that way was, in very truth, the Way of Pleasantness and the Path of Peace.
Ah, yes, if once we, with purpose of heart, set ourselves to follow His guiding, how God draws us on! We clutch at this, and would rest at that; and surely this is the Chief good, and the Ideal beauty? But no; the early flowers depart, and the late, and we leave the threshold and wander on; and February goes, and March goes, and even June, and August; and sorrowfully and wonderingly we look up at God, following Him on through life, even into the grave September, and the hushed October, and the tearful November; and so into the winter of alienation from the world, which death’s snow comes to seal.
But ere this we have found out His meaning in life, and the flowers of earth are no more regretted; and there is no point at which we would choose to have rested, now that we look back upon the past experiences and events of the journey; and both our hands are laid in His, and we look up with unutterable trust and ineffable love. It was not so once:
“I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou Wouldst lead me on; I loved to see and choose my path, but now Lead Thou me on.”
And then He has led you, little by little, with gentle steps, hiding the full length of the way that you must tread, lest you should start aside in fear, and faint for weariness. And as it has been, so it must be; onward you must go; He will not leave you here; there is yet in store for you more contrition, more devotion, more delight in Him. A few years hence, and you will see how true these words are. If by that time you have not forsaken Him, you will be nigher still, walking in strange, it may be solitary paths, in ways that are “called desert”; but knowing Him, as now you know Him not, with a fulness of knowledge, and a bowing of heart, and a holy self-renouncement, and a joy that you are altogether His. What now seems too much, shall then seem all too little; what too nigh, not nigh enough to His awful cross. Oh, how our thoughts change! A few years ago, and you would have thought your present state excessive and severe; you would have shrunk from it then, as at this time you shrink from the hereafter. But now you look back, and know that all was well. In all your past life you would not have one grief the less, or one joy the more. It is all well.
And so it is, then, that we are led on from our February threshold, on through the maturing, decaying months, until the silent Winter comes. And what then? Is it to be the same over again--the same promises and disappointments, the same dreams and awakenings, the same unreal glory at the threshold, and the same gradual weaning from it on the journey?
Not so. To us the years are not repeated, nor is the “second life, only the first renewed.”
“I know not, oh, I know not What joys await us there; What radiancy of glory, What bliss beyond compare.”
But I love to wander, nevertheless, in my musings far beyond the journey to the Land whither the journey is tending. Beyond this state of probation to that of fruition; beyond striving, to attainment; beyond discipline, to perfection; beyond warfare, to victory; beyond labour, to rest; beyond constant slips and shortcomings, and half-heartedness at best, to stedfast holiness; beyond the cross, to the crown. We are yet within doors: oh, what will open before us on the threshold of that next year!--when the first wonder of its January has passed, and the amazed and almost dizzied soul has straightened and uncrumpled its wings, and collected its powers, and can calmly begin to understand its change, and to muse on its future, and to grasp the idea of the possession upon which it has come: to anticipate the endless succession of amaranthine flowers, ever increasing in glory throughout the months of Eternity, and the songs that shall ever throng more and more abundant and ecstatic, and never migrate nor pass away!
On the Threshold. Those in Paradise are now musing on the threshold, waiting for their full consummation and bliss both in body and soul, waiting for that coming of the Lord with regard to which they are still crying out, “How long?” and are bid to “rest yet for a little season.” And so then they rest, and wait upon the threshold, and contemplate the mighty and magnificent panorama outspread before them as their Future. The Voice is still there, and the Look; and they wait its summons, to leave the threshold, and to follow once again. But how different that following then! How far other than of old that summons! Not to paths of humiliation and discipline, and hills of difficulty, and valleys of shadow, but to realms of brightness and beauty unspeakable, and to heights to which earth’s ambitions never soared. From the threshold of blessedness into the domain of glory; from Abraham’s bosom to the throne of the Lamb; from a star to the Sun in His strength.
And so may we think of our dead that fell asleep in Jesus, as waiting upon that blessed threshold, contemplating that ravishing prospect, which is theirs, and may be ours. Nor do we enough thus think of and realise the state of the departed. The poisonous fungi of error have made us shy of the mushroom of truth. “The superstition of ages past has recoiled into the sadduceeism of to-day.” And so we, the dying, compassionate those who have begun to live, and who stand upon the threshold of the yet higher and more perfect life of the resurrection. Let us think of them more nobly, more worthily, more truly. Let us not heap their burial with gloom; let not our souls dwell with their bodies under the sodden clay. They are changed, but they are not lost; they are “still the same, and yet are not what they were; they have passed from the humiliation of the body to the majesty of the spirit. The weakness, and the littleness, and the abasement of life are gone; they are now excellent in strength, full of heavenly light, ardent with love, above fallen humanity, akin to angels.” “Blessed and happy dead!--great and mighty dead! In them the work of the new creation is well-nigh accomplished; what feebly stirs in us, in them is well-nigh full. They have passed within the vail, and there remaineth only one more change for them,--a change full of a foreseen, foretasted bliss. How calm, how pure, how sainted are they now! A few short years ago, and they were almost as weak and poor as we; burdened with the dying body we now bear about; harassed by temptations, often overcome, weeping in bitterness of soul, struggling with faithful, though fearful hearts, towards that dark shadow from which they shrank, as we shrink now.”
We on our threshold and they on theirs; then let us think of them and of ourselves so. We have left the threshold of life, and are nearing the threshold of Death, or rather of the beginning of Life indeed. They behold the prospect at which we guess, and which we burn to see. But because it may be ours one day, we are already sharers with them, and our higher union is rather cemented than interrupted. “The unity of the saints on earth with the Church unseen is the straitest bond of all. Hell has no power over it, sin cannot blight it, schism cannot rend it, death itself can but knit it more strongly. Nothing is changed but the relations of sight: like as when the head of a far-stretching procession, winding through a broken, hollow land, hides itself in some bending vale, it is still all one; all advancing together; they that are farthest onward in the way are conscious of their lengthened following; they that linger with the last are drawn forward as it were by the attraction of the advancing multitude.” Or, in another figure, beautifully has it been said, that when the Sun of Righteousness passed out of sight, the splendour of His hidden shining is reflected by His saints, “till the night starts out full of silver stars.” “In stedfast and silent course” they pass on, some disappearing below the horizon, some resplendent in mid-heaven, some just emerging from the other boundaries. And when the last has arisen, and some are yet sparkling in the blue vault, the Sun shall arise with sudden glory, and they all shall render to Him their light. But until that time, which no man knoweth, neither the angels of heaven, it is awaiting upon the threshold, in mighty musing upon the glory yet to be revealed; and, “until all is fulfilled,” the desire of the Church unseen is stayed with the “white robes” and the sound of the “Bridegroom’s voice.” Let us comfort one another with these words and these thoughts.
And now thus have we mused upon the Threshold, beginning first with the threshold of the life that is expecting death, and then soaring boldly to the threshold of the life that is expecting the Resurrection. We need reminding in this age that there are two sides to _this_ expectation. There is “a certain fearful looking for of judgment and of fiery indignation,” as well as an ardent, and eager, and rapturous anticipation and longing for His coming who cometh quickly, though He seem to tarry. And it is well to ask, when death ends our journey here, upon which threshold shall we prefer to wait, and which musing shall be our choice: the dreadful looking-for of judgment, or the ecstatic longing to hear that Voice which once said, “Follow Me,” speak again to us, even to us, the incredible words--“Well done, thou good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Choose we, my friends, carefully, prayerfully, deliberately, finally, and at once; for “Behold, _now_ is the accepted time; behold, _now_ is the day of salvation.”
“Forth in the pleasing Spring Thy beauty walks, thy tenderness and love. Wide flush the fields; the softening air is balm; Echo the mountains round; the forest smiles; And every sense, and every heart, is joy.”
What a delicious thing is the first real Spring day! A burst into a buttercup-field! What a thing of mad enjoyment for the legs, and eyes, and hands, and mind of the young human animal! What a sweet time to think of, in our sentimental moods, now that we are growing old! And yet, in that time of fresh animal life, there was not reflection enough to allow of deliberate and actual enjoyment of its hilarity and lightness of heart. It welled up bubbling and singing with the gladness of a spring, that yet is glad only because it is glad, and not because it is pure and bright. For it knows not yet of aught that is muddy and foul, shallow and stagnant. It knows not of drought, and deadness, and impurity, and dulness, and death. How knows it, therefore, why it ought to be glad? Sing on, sweet stream, but you must be left to learn, as you roll seawards, into a sober old river, _why_ you used to sing as a bright untroubled stream.
So, I suppose, except for the impetus and rush of early life, in its Spring days, before it has been checked here, and wasted there, and hemmed in, and spread out, and turned away, and thwarted, until its rush, and song, and glee have settled into a quiet, useful soberness, or into a foul stagnant pool that cannot often bear to call to mind those old pure, careless days--except for that first impetus and rush, I suppose it is more an absence of something than a presence of aught, that makes the child’s heart so glad. Anxious thought for soul and body of self and others; disappointment, regret, estrangements, remorse, satiety, failing powers; none of these check the young limbs, and the young lungs, and the young heart, as a sight of the brimming Spring meadow bursts upon the enchanted young eyes, and there is a shout, and a scamper, and a bound; and lo! the little naked legs are deep in green grass, and yellow bobbing buttercups, and starry radiant daisies.
I can’t feel towards the buttercups and daisies exactly as I did in those very early days. It is indeed a very primitive state of things, when these are as gold and silver coins to the young eager grasping hand, that would yet hold more when already by twos, and ones, and threes, the white discs and yellow cups struggle out of the little space that the finger and thumb cannot quite close in. You very soon get to slight these humble flowers; and, losing your easy content, aim higher, even at cowslips, primroses, and here and there an early purple orchis. That is, perhaps, the most simple-hearted and easily-contented time of life, which asks no more for its riches than both hands full of buttercups and daisies, guineas and shillings bright and fresh coined from the mint of Spring.
I remember well a wide meadow shut in with tall hedges, in which, for a Spring or two, while we were young enough to enjoy them, there was, for my two sisters and myself, a very scramble of such coins. Out on some mild April day, when the sun shone brightly, and the air was a growing air, and the paths dry. Out with our governess, we three, for a walk. A fortnight of soft April showers, or warm damp days, keeping us within the garden while the field was being dressed, had prepared for us a surprise. We ran our hoops along the dry paths, until the winner of the race caught sight of that fair meadow. Through the white wicket-gate then, the hoop thrown aside into the yielding grass, and the three pairs of little hands were busy enough soon. At first, the aim was merely to pick what came to hand, and quantity, not quality, was in demand. But, so soon do we begin to undervalue that which is abundant for that which is less easily attained, in a little while we were busy after rarities; mere white daisies were passed over, and those with a “crimson head” were sought; also, I remember, those with a scarlet jewel in the centre of the boss of gold. Cowslips were rare in the fields about us; were anyhow rare at that early time of year. Fancy then our exultation, if we should come upon a pale bent head, the delicate trembling spotted yellow, curving upwards towards the sheath of faint green. The bound towards it; the excitement of feeling the juicy crisp stalk break, and then rushing away with the treasure! I remember such a _find_ now, though I be far on in life beyond that early stage marked by that slight drooping flower.
But of course the daisies and buttercups, even before “whole summer fields were theirs by right,” soon lost their fascination, even in those early simplest days, before the advance of other rarer flowers. We could pass the meadow soon, without bounding into it, on our way round the park wall on a violet expedition. We could scent these out, and would eagerly part the crowding leaves and the binding ivy-nets that hid them. Not much fear lest we should gather enough of them to risk dropping any from an over-filled hand. Still, we mostly went home well content, with a close-clipped neat dark-blue bunch in one hand, with here and there a pure white prize, or a large one merely purple tinged, gleaming out of the dark. These white- and purple-tinged violets, you must know, had become our prizes, being rare, found seldom indeed by the park wall, but oftener on some mighty sandhills, that towered above the road a little way beyond our daisy-field, and seemed to bury the deep-lying road, with its winding carriages and pigmy passengers.
Out for a long walk now, even to that deep chalk-pit, where not _one_ cowslip hung, rare, unique, precious, but _hundreds_, nay _thousands_, bent their pale yellow heads, and scented the air with their sweet faint breath. So juicily they snapped, without that drawback which I deplore in primroses--the long sinew that a hasty picking leaves behind, to the marring of the flower. Baskets we had, trowels in them, to collect some roots for the misused pieces of ground known as our gardens: and woe betide an early orchis, if we came across it. Nearly always, after a long and patient digging, when the final _pull_ came, a long blanched stalk, with no root at the end, would meet our disappointed eyes.
But of course the great thing was to collect unlimited flowers. And really, if you turned me loose into the Bank of England, into that room in which those aggravating fellows shovel about the gold in coal-scuttle scoops, and bade me gather my fill, I am sure the delight would be neither so fresh, so sweet, nor so wholesome, as that entering unchecked upon the rich cowslip-wealth, trembling all over the short turf of the sloping side of the chalk-pit which ended our expedition. Two principal objects had we in collecting these flowers--for as the year goes on, even children seek _use_ as well as _beauty_ in their gettings; first to make cowslip balls, many and large, when we got home; next, to make cowslip tea. There is, or was, a keen delight in the former of these pursuits. The excitement and delight of the first cowslip ball made is feverish and unsettling. The long, tight string upon which are hung the poor flowers with their tails pinched off; the filling that string, the tying it, with here and there a cowslip tumbling out; and then the playing with the sweet-scented soft toy, till the room is littered with its scattered wealth, these are things to remember even now. But, no doubt, the _great_ thing was the cowslip tea--allowed to us that night instead of milk-and-water; and to be drunk in real teacups instead of mugs. The solemn shredding the yellow crown out of its green calyx; seated, all three, at our little low table with the deep rim; the growing heap of prepared flowers; then the piling them into the teapot, the excitement of seeing the boiling water poured upon them; the grave momentous pause while the tea was brewing; and the hearty, but really at last abortive, endeavour to persuade ourselves and each other that we liked the filthy concoction, and found it really a treat. Ah, life has many a cup of cowslip tea in it; delightful in the preparation, exciting in the anticipation, but most disappointing when it comes to the actual partaking!
We must not stop now to run down that green path into the wood--our one wood, nor to see which shall first enter it with a bound; we must not stop, although we know that a little later in the year there were some rare choice treasures there. A firmament of starry wood anemones; and here and there a bent spike of wild hyacinth, not yet ripened into its deep full blue; and here and there a pale green orchis, coming out of its two ribbed leaves, valued because rarer than its purple brother, that but rarely yet towered with its tall rich spike above the clustering milky flowers. And on one bank that we knew, just two or three roots of primroses, the only roots that grew wild for miles about that part, each tendering to us its crowded offering of sweet faint flowers, and deeper yellow buds imbedded in the crisp, crumpled leaves. And then the lords and ladies: _lord_, handsomest--_lady_, rarest: I could pick and unroll them now. They call to mind a glad, bright little address of a child to the flowers, with which I will conclude these reminiscent wanderings among the old wildflower fields of youth:--
“Oh velvet bee, you’re a dusty fellow, You’ve powdered your legs with gold! Oh brave marsh marybuds, rich and yellow, Give me your money to hold! Oh columbine, open your folded wrapper, Where two twin turtle-doves dwell! Oh cuckoopint, toll me the purple clapper That hangs in your clear green bell!”
Why have I recalled these child remembrances of early Spring days? Why, but to add that those keen delights, those exquisite, though unintellectual and reasonless, appreciations are gone--in this life for ever! Wherefore I say _in this life_, I mean presently to show: suffice it _now_ to say that the Summer and Autumn of human life, dry and dusty, or sorrowful and decaying, have done quite, except for some tender sweet reminiscent hints, with the freshness, and the glee, and the gladness of the old Spring days.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem, Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;-- Turn wheresoe’er I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
These lines of Wordsworth express, very exquisitely, the thought at which I have just been catching. Something goes, as we grow old--a gladness, a suddenness of appreciation of enjoyment is lost; and the dark Summer foliage is not the same with the fresh light green of the young Spring leaves. And when a gush of the old keen relish comes back for a moment, there is regret as well as sweetness in the tears that suddenly dim the eyes.
Spring days, sweet Spring days, my quiet heart and rested eye tell me that there is no fear but that I enjoy you still!
“For, lo, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing of birds is come, And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
This exquisite poetry has its voice of delight for me, and as I shut my eyes, it brings a change over the bare boughs and the Winter land. I dream of the chill black hedges and trees, flushing first into redness, and then “a million emeralds burst from the ruby buds.” I dream of the birds coming back, one after one, until the poetry of the flowers is all set to music. And I go out into the land to behold, not only to dream of and image, these things. I watch for the delicious green, tasselling the earliest larch (there is one every year a fortnight in advance of the others) in the clump of those trees beside the road on my way home. I look, in a warm patch that I know, for the first primroses, and when I find them mildly and quietly gazing up at me from the moss, and ivy, and broken sticks, and dead leaves, a surprise, although I was expecting them, and a dim reflection of that old child-joy, bring with a rush to my heart again those “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” And in the garden I wander through the bare shrubberies, varied with bright green box, and gather in my harvest there. The little Queen Elizabeth aconites, gold-crowned in their wide-frilled green collars; these are no more scant, and just breaking with bent head through cracking frosty ground. They have carpeted the brown beds, and are even waxing old and past now. The snowdrops have but left a straggler here and there; and the miniature golden volcano of the crocus has spent its columns of fire. The hazels are draped with slender, drooping catkins; the sweetbriar is letting the soft sweet-breathed leaves here and there out of the clenched hand of the bud. The cherry-tree is preparing to dress itself almost in angels’ clothing, white and glistening, and delicious with all soft recesses of clear grey shadow, seen against the mild blue sky. The long branches of the horse-chestnut trees, laid low upon the lawn, are lighting up all over with the ravishing crumpled emerald that bursts like light out of the brown sticky bud---as sometimes holy heavenly thoughts may come from one whose first look we disliked; or as God’s dear lessons unfold out of the dark sheath of trouble. The fairy almond-tree--of so tender a hue that you might fantastically imagine it a cherry-tree blushing--casts a light scarf over a dark corner of the shrubbery. The laburnum is preparing for the Summer, and is all hung with tiny green festoons. Against the blue sky, on a bare sycamore branch, that stretches out straight from the trunk, a glad-voiced thrush seems thanking God that the Spring days are come. Wedged tight into three branching boughs, near the stem of a box-tree, I find a warm secure nest, filled with five little blue-green eggs. It is still a delight to me to find a nest; a delight, if not now a rapture, an intoxication.
All these I see on one Spring day or another, as I walk into my garden, or out into the changing lanes. All these I see, and all these I love. But I see them, and I love them tenderly and quietly, not with the wonder and the glee of life’s early Spring days. I am sad, partly because I know that a great deal of that old wondering ecstatic thrill has gone.
“The rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the rose, The moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare; Waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know, where’er I go, That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.”
It must be so, naturally, if only from the mere fact that things must lose their newness, and so their wonder, to the eye and the heart. Do what you will, you must become accustomed to things. And the scent of a hyacinth or of the may, will cease when familiar to be the wonderful enchanting thing that childhood held it to be. And the _thirtieth_ time that we see, to notice, the first snowdrop bursting through the pale green sheath above the brown bed, is a different thing from the _third_ time. We appreciate delights keenly when we are young, seek the same in later years, but never find them; and then all our life remember the search more or less regretfully. So Wordsworth, the old man, addresses the cuckoo that brought back his young days and his young thoughts by its magic voice:--
“Thou bringest unto me a tale Of visionary hours.
“Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring! _Even yet_ thou art to me No bird, but an invisible thing, A voice, a mystery:
“To seek thee did I often rove Through woods and on the green; And thou wert still a hope, a love; Still longed for, never seen.
“And I can listen to thee yet; Can lie upon the plain And listen, till I do beget _That golden time again_.”
Ah well, I must get on to my moral. I must not wail like an Autumn wind among the young flowers, and the bright leaves, and the blithe songs of the sweet Spring days, else I shall lay myself open to the reproach of the poet describing one who--
“Words of little weight let fall, The fancy of the lower mind-- That waxing life must needs leave all Its best behind.”
It is not true really, that we are leaving behind our best, when we have passed into the Summer, or even into the Autumn days. But there is a degree, a portion of truth in it. There is a sense, no doubt, in which even the Summer does lose a beauty which is the peculiar possession of life’s Spring days.
First then (to divide sermon-wise), what is that we lose, when we lose Spring days? I have hinted at this loss in nearly all that has been written above. We lose the _gladness of inexperience_, the gladness and enjoyment that is not _thoughtful_, nor such as can give a reason for itself, but that is merely _natural_, and welling up irresistibly like a spring. We lose the newness of things--aye, more, far more than this, we lose the _newness of ourselves_, the _freshness of our own heart_. _This_ is (with some in a greater, with some in a less degree) what we discover that we have left behind, when we look back on life’s Spring days. Some of us, with a tender half-regretful watering, keep a hint, a reminiscence, of that old freshness. But many heedlessly suffer the world’s dust to coat it over, and the world’s drought to shrivel it up.
But now, what may we have gained, if there be something lost in our leaving Spring days behind? If we lose a little, let us not fear but that our gain is far larger than our loss. We gain gladness and we gain sadness (I use the word _gain_ advisedly)--the gladness and the sadness of _experience_. A gladness that is part of the depth of a grave river now; profound, if not light-hearted like the little spring. A gladness that, when it comes, is more rational than merely animal; that has a reason to give for itself, and does not exist merely because it exists. A joy that is far more rare, also less ecstatic, but that is higher and deeper, having its birth in the _intellect_, and not simply in the _life_ of the human creature.
To exemplify my meaning. In art, compare the mere admiration without knowledge, with the intelligent appreciation. Turned loose without knowledge into a picture-gallery, how many things you admire, almost everything; and how fresh and uncritical is your admiration! But gain knowledge of art, gain experience; and you straightway lose in _quantity_ what you yet gain in _quality_. You admire fewer pictures, but your admiration of the few is a different thing from that old admiration of the many. It is a higher thing, more intelligent, more subtle, more refined. It is an appreciation now, not merely an ignorant admiration. You are harder to please; in one sense you have lost; but manifestly, on the whole you have gained.
And so with the gladness of manhood. It is a deeper, graver, more fastidious, yet a more reasonable and higher feeling than the gladness of the child. The sparkle, and bubble, and glitter, and singing have gone; but in their stead is a strength, an earnestness, an undercurrent not easily stayed or stemmed or turned aside. The gladness which is intelligent is better than the gladness which is instinctive.
And the sadness of experience (for we cannot live long in this world without discovering that life is exquisitely sad)--the sadness which comes with experience--is _this_ also a gain? No doubt it is--no doubt it is. A wise man once told us that sorrow is better than laughter; that the house of mourning is better than the house of feasting. And a Greater than Solomon endorsed with His lips and with His life the declaration, “Blessed are they that mourn.”
And who that regards life in its true aspect, but must bow a grave assent to this verdict? He who watches the effect on himself of God’s teaching, and of the lessons which He sets to be learnt, will understand what the Master means by His saying. He who regards his own life as something more than a bee’s life, or a butterfly’s life; he who sees that the life of man has its _schooling_, meant to raise it above our natural meannesses, and petulances, and impulses, and weaknesses, and selfishnesses, and ungenerousness--into something high and noble and stedfast, exalted, sublime, angelic, godlike; he who thus thinks of life, and watches life with this idea ever in view,--will find it not hard in time to thank God for having made him sad, even while the sadness is fresh and new and keen in his subdued and wounded heart. Disappointed in many things, and with many people, he will accept the disappointment with a quiet, anguished, thankful heart, feeling that God, who tore from him his prop, is raising the trailing vine from the ground, and instructing its tendrils to twine around Himself, the only support that can never fail them. And this is well, he knows, who is a watcher of life, and a learner of its lessons.
And when sadness has produced this, its right and intended effect of sweetening, and not souring the soul, a fresh advantage and gain steals, starlike, into the darkened sky. The heart that has been made lonely, except for God’s then most nearly felt presence, in a sorrow, is that which is the most braced and disentangled for the great and noble deeds of life. With a sad and a disappointed, if _yet still a loving, tender_ heart, we can go out on God’s work, go out to face evil, or to do good, more easily and thoroughly oftentimes, than when this great grave, the world, shows to us “its sunny side.” Sadness, to him who humbly and prayerfully is seeking to learn God’s lesson in life, has not a weakening, but a tonic power. God, who sends the sadness, sends also the health and the strength; yea, the strength arises from the sadness. Something of what I mean is grandly expressed in the following extract:--
“There are moments when we seem to tread above this earth, superior to its allurements, able to do without its kindness, firmly bracing ourselves to do our work as He did His. Those moments are not the sunshine of life. They did not come when the world would have said that all around you was glad; but it was when outward trials had shaken the soul to its very centre, then there came from Him ... grace to help in time of need.”
Sadness, then, which braces and strengthens the character, which raises it into something nobler than it would otherwise have been; which sets a man free and stirs him up for great and noble acts, for a resolute devoted doing of Christ’s work on earth--such an experience is certainly a gain; and if this be our own, even when the Autumn woods are growing bare, we are not to wish to have back the old sweet Spring days.
Now one more loss and gain has occurred to my mind, contemplating those Spring days that seem, but are not, so far behind me in life. How often we pine after the innocence of childhood! how the poetry of our hearts, and of our writers, loves mournfully to recur to this!
“The smell of violets, hidden in the green, Poured back into my empty soul and frame The times when I remember to have been Joyful, _and free from blame_.”
But here again a little thought will show us that we _need_ not have left our best behind, when the Spring days are with us no more. Deliberate and intelligent goodness and holiness is a better thing than mere innocence of childhood, which, again, is rather the absence of something than the presence of aught. There has been merely neither time nor opportunity yet for much evil doing: there was no intelligent choice of good because of its goodness. And thus, if the man (although he have sinned far more than the child can have done) has yet, at last, and through much sharp experience, learnt life’s great lesson, and has become (however it be but incipiently) holy and good, that deliberate and positive, though imperfect goodness, is far better than the _mere negative innocence of the child_. Angelic innocence is, and the innocence of Adam would have been, no doubt, _intelligent_ innocence. But now that we have fallen, that innocence (which, after all, is but comparative) of childhood is little else but the lack of time and knowledge and opportunity for sin. Such innocence is merely a negative thing, while holiness is positive. And he who is ripening into holiness in life’s Summer, need not regret the mere innocence of its Spring days. In life’s filled, and alas, blotted pages, if, amid many smears and stains, the golden letters of GOODNESS at last begin to gleam forth in a clear predominance, he who considers wisely will not regret much the newness of the book, whose pages are only white and pure, because scarce yet written in at all.
* * * * *
“The world passeth away, and the lust thereof.” All is evanescent, passing away; not only the objects that we desire, but even our desire and appreciation of them too. Nor does this only apply to that which is _worldly_, in an evil sense, but to some objects sad to lose, but which to have still, but no longer to be able to appreciate, is yet a sadder but an inevitable loss. When we look back upon life’s Spring days, something really sweet, and beautiful, and desirable, seems left behind and gone. Not life’s best; not the _grape_, but the _bloom_ on it; not the deep blue day, but the strange glory of the morning sky. Something seems lost. I am fond of maintaining that it will yet hereafter be found. In Heaven, I think, there will be not only beauty, fairer than our fairest Spring days; but an appreciative power, undying, ever existing; and _hearts_ that shall not know what it is to be _growing old_. This life is one, I again toll, of incessant _passing away_. Friends and joys leave us, and even if they did not, the power of enjoying often goes, and hands that were once little close-locked hands, deteriorate into flabby, cold fishes’ fins.
_Here_, you must lose, if you would gain; you must spend if you would buy. _Hereafter_ it may be different. A hint of this seems given in an old prophecy of choice things to be had without money, and without price. ’Tis all clear profit _there_, I conclude; you add, without subtracting.
Yes, in that Land (to illustrate by a fancy) the Winter flowers will come, one after one, breaking through the frost-bound beds, and when the time comes at which we shall expect them to go, they will surprise us by staying with us still. The sweet, faint, mild Spring primroses will brim the copses, and spill over, trickling down the banks; the daffodils (not _Lent_-lilies there) will dance over the meadows in a golden sheet, and will wonder to find that they are _additions_, not _substitutes_. The trembling cowslips, the starry anemones, the wood-fulls of hyacinths, the rose campions, the purple orchis spires, these will supplement, not supplant, the fair growth that used to fade at the first footfall of their advent. And so the sweetbriar roses, red and burning, and their paler sisters with unscented leaves, and the clematis snow, and the honeysuckle clusters, and the meadow-sweet; these will come not to fill an empty cup, but a full one, and one that yet, though full, is ever capable of containing more. And so snowdrops need not die for violets to come, nor violets vanish to make room for the rose. And Autumn will not supersede Summer, nor come, except to add its quota of beauty. “How then?” ask you, “shall we not soon arrive at the end of the delights of the year, and weary with their sameness?” No, I reply, for I think we shall not stop at Summer in Heaven, but ever go on into new and lovelier seasons; appreciating old pleasures with unweary hearts, but ever adding to them new.
“Old things are passed away.” That is, perhaps, this old fading state of things, of objects, and capacity of enjoying them: and our hearts that once were young, but that still (except for the youth and freshness that religion can preserve in them) _will_ be ever growing so old--so old.
“Behold I make all things new.” _All_ things--our hearts then, too: they will be again fresh, and that old forgotten or sorrowfully remembered child wonder, and appreciation, and love may come back; and the “forgets” of our later years be called to mind again:--
“Is it warm in that green valley, Vale of childhood, where you dwell? Is it calm in that green valley Round whose bournes such great hills swell? Are there giants in the valley,-- Giants leaving footprints yet? Are there angels in the valley? Tell me----I forget.”
But nothing that is beautiful to remember will be forgotten _there_. And the poet will no more lament a light gone out, a glory faded; our worn-out feelings, and spirits, and appreciations, and hopes, and beliefs, and wonders, and admirations, will be restored to us new. So altogether new, so quite different in nature, as well as in degree, from the old, that they will _keep_ new, and not fade and perish in the using. _That_ world will not pass away, nor the enjoyment thereof. For all there will be in perfect harmony with the will of God, which abideth for ever.
Everlasting Spring days! Think of that! I mean an everlasting Spring season and freshness in the _heart_. Oh the sadness which is an undercurrent of all earth’s poetry, from the nightingale’s, upward, will have left our songs then!
“We look before and after, And pine for what is not; Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
But this will then and there be no longer the case, for life will no longer be “A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.” Season after season, joy after joy, will indeed dance into light, but will not, after a little brief while of enjoyment, die into the shade. Heaven’s everlasting flowers will not grow dry, and dusty, and colourless; but for ever retain and increase the freshness, and the abundance, and the light, and the exquisite glory of those unimagined SPRING DAYS.
MUSINGS IN A WOOD.
Two sweet little pictures, entitled, “The Lark,” and “The Nightingale,” have greatly charmed me. In one, there was a blue-flecked sky, a Spring morning landscape, and a glad-eyed girl, with a lapful of daisies, lying back and looking up with shaded gaze and listening eyes, into those blue depths, wherein
“The lark became a sightless song.”
In the other, there was an evening glow: warm, orange-grey sky, cooling into steel-blue; a bower of rose-leaves; an earnest face, with darker hair, and pensive brow, flushed into warmth by the setting sun. And you would know, even had you not been told, that the child, old enough just to enjoy that young melancholy which is pleasant,--is listening to that
“Wild bird, whose warble, liquid sweet, Rings Eden through the budded quicks.”
For in neither case is the songster seen: with true art the minstrel is left to the imagination to supply, and this subtler artist can furnish voice, form, motion; only one of which three could be given by the painter.
These pictures were in the Winter Exhibition; hence, no doubt, their suggestion of the absent bird-songs was the more valued. For perhaps these, like other delights, are the sweetest when they are not possessed, but only remembered and longed-for.
That remembrance, however, of Winter, will serve, by contrast, to freshen our enjoyment, as we start, on this warm March day, for Bramley Wood, to descry and collect the old familiar bird-songs as they come back to us in the Spring. To collect these and the flowers, I say, in the heart’s cases and herbarium, for use when Winter comes, and woods are dead, and bird-songs gone. This is a better way than to crowd the staircase and hall with stuffed, silent birds, or to encumber your shelves with dried, brittle, brown specimens; which can never suggest the fresh, juicy, sweet-breathed blossoms, or the quick, never-still, bright-glancing inhabitants of the bushes. For the heart keeps these collections all fresh and full of life, and if a picture or a poem or a strain of music does but summon them up, why, there they are in a minute. Though they may have seemed laid by and forgotten, yet, at the magic call, lo! the heart is a lane of primroses, or a copse of bluebells; the lark is high in the heaven, and the thrush answering the blackbird out of great white sheets of the may.
We soon settle down to the bird-songs when once they have really all come back; and we plod on our preoccupied way, hearing them without hearing, unless, indeed, one day-note of a nightingale should electrify our heart. But there is no doubt that, at first returning, the silver minstrelsy of the woods is welcomed by most. And we never grow too old to feel a heart-kindling and a brightening of the eye, on that mild November day, when we start, and listen, and--yes, it _is_, the first Thrush-song breaking the meditative misty hush of the landscape. Autumn is stringing the woods with tears, and the first gripe of Winter has ere now pinched to death the more delicate garden flowers; but, even before his reign has begun in earnest, here is a voice which prophesies of his overthrow. Then the frosts come in defiance, and the last leaves spin down, and the snow-sheet falls, and the thrush is silent as though dead, and resistance seems overcome, and Winter’s reign established. An observant eye will, however, still detect a speckled clean breast, flitting into alternate concealment and sight behind the bushes in the shrubbery, and rustling the counterpane of dry leaves, under which those many little dull-green points are crowding out of the frost-held ground. But his song is kept in reserve for a time. And it seems that Spring is close at hand, and that the year is indeed turned, when next you hear him, high on the boughs of that tulip tree, large against the pale blue sky, singing out loud and clear from early morning to dusk of a bright February day. And the dry leaves have huddled away from the searching wind, and left the brown moist beds, over which trembles a surprise of delicate white cups, where the blunt dull-green points had been.
But I mean now to muse in a fanciful way about the characteristics of these returning songs, and the teaching that may be gathered from them. Canon Evans’ little book, “The Songs of the Birds,” might seem to have preoccupied this ground, but the treatment will differ, if the idea be the same.
To what, then, shall we liken the song of the Thrush? Different temperaments of men and women may well be illustrated by the variety in the character of the bird-songs. In the thrush’s song, then, I seem to hear the utterance of the strong and happy Christian. He has never been troubled with any doubts; the dark dismays and hidden misgivings of other minds are without meaning to him. Clear and glad, and untroubled, and strong in faith, the soul of this man sits upon wintry trees, above few trembling flowers, under a pale still sky, and sings from the early morning to the dusking eve an unwavering, undoubting, happy song. A song in which there are not weird mysterious depths of feeling, nor ecstatic, incomprehensible heights, but in which there is ever an even tenor, a stedfast sustained gladness, an unchecked unvarying trust. A song, perhaps, not of the highest intellect, but of the firmest faith. Here are no dark questionings, that must be content to pause for an answer hereafter; no evil suggestions, fiery darts which the shield of faith must ever be upheld to quench. There is almost a hard ignoring and turning away from minds otherwise fashioned; minds full of anxieties and searchings, that are troubles indeed, but not doubts; struggles, but not defeats, because faith upholds where sight fails. These sing more broken snatches of more passionate music, amid thicker branches, and in the dusk; while the thrush-spirit, unknowing of these fierce alternations, sings out, up there upon the naked bough, clear and distinct against the blue soft sky.
There is a wild stormy note which must detain us awhile from our March wood. It comes early in January, and on stormy days, under thin driving clouds, you may hear short bursts, as though the broken song of a husky blackbird, flung from the ivy-clad top of some tall, ancient spruce-fir. This is the note of the Missel-thrush, or Storm-cock. He seems rather to exult in the disturbed sky, and swaying boughs, and passing gleams and showers. There is a wild beauty, tempered with a _little_ harshness, in the short sharp snatches of defiant and militant song. In him I find a type of the religious controversialist and disputant; the watchman set on his tower amid storms and lowering days. Such watchers there are, and they are useful to detect and descry the insidious approach of error. Controversialists-born, as it were, you shall ever hear their sharp short utterances under a stormy sky; and while you value the note, you will often detect and deplore some touch of harshness that grates upon the heart, some falling short of the mellow flute-like tones of Love.
But on our way to the wood, and as we pass through this meadow, a Skylark springs up, and flutters higher and higher; fountain-like, as it rises, scattering about its silver spray of song. Very soon the eye wanders about, searching after it for some time in vain, pleased at last to recover the dim black speck in the grey sky.
I suppose that the picture of which I spoke above gives the natural embodiment of the song of the lark.
“Heigh ho! daisies and buttercups, Fair yellow daffodils, stately and tall; A sunshiny world full of laughter and leisure, And fresh hearts unconscious of sorrow and thrall.”
Up into the sky, bright thoughts and dreams, quivering wings, swelling throat, hurrying ecstasies and crowding notes of joy, impatient, yet impossible to be uttered. Careless flowers upon the lap,--withering, are they? But there is a worldful more to be had for the gathering. Oh yes, the lark’s song is that of the young heart--young enough to stop short at the attainment of simple gladness. There is not yet upon it the sweet hush even of love and sentiment, the upward soaring has no alternate dip and rise; the quick beat of the wings no pause; the bright flash of song no dyings-down into shade. Wonder at life goes hand in hand with joy in it; all is new and all is delicious; all is hope, and nothing is disappointing; the whole widening prospect is one of beauty and glad surprise. The year is in its early Spring, and has never so much as heard of Autumn yet; nor can guess, nor cares to try to divine, what those old brown leaves can mean, out of which huddle the thick primrose clumps. Higher and higher, and brighter and brighter, and gladder and gladder, and more and more impetuous the thronging notes, and more and more untiring the ecstatic wing. And God loves to see this, for He gave the feeling; and we may perceive that He has allotted to most things a young life of fresh colour and unmixed joyfulness. Kittens and lambs, and Spring leaves, and young children--they all sober down soon enough--and well they should. But let us not grudge the short hour of pure lightness of heart, that was God’s gift; nor hunt for ripe fruit among the sheets of blossom; nor dull with our heart’s twilight the first flush of the morning; nor desire, in the song of the lark, the thoughtfulness of the blackbird--far less the moan of the dove. Let not our work ever be to _check_, only to guide, and to tend, and to develop, the heart’s songful gladness, pointing it, indeed, heavenward; or, again, ready to tend the germ which some gust has stolen from its white petal-wings.
I spoke of the Blackbird. And here, as we near the wood, towards which for some long time we have been walking, we catch the smooth, rich, lyric fragments of this deep-hearted poet. Less openly, freely, fearlessly confident and exulting in an unclouded soul, than the thrush,--there is something exceedingly fascinating in the intermitted, but not broken song of the blackbird. The pauses which sever the stanzas of his song, seem well suited to its lyric character. There are in these separate and finished verses the polish and completeness, also the richness and liquid flow, of a set of stanzas of “In Memoriam,” and, moreover, something of their wild mournfulness and tender, deep, questioning thought. The blackbird’s song is that of the grave, mature mind, highly intellectual, somewhat touched with sadness, but more with love, and that has had to battle hard through life to keep both faith and love unimpaired.
“The blackbird’s song at eventide”:
thus it is described, and, in truth, it seems the passionate earnest utterance of one who can understand the difficulties which have blown down unrooted trees, and yet has itself possession of that faith which can control into music notes that make a jarring in undisciplined minds. The riddle of this painful earth has often wrung the heart of this man, but his sorrowful thoughts concerning it have shaped themselves into these rich utterances of yearning love. This trumpet gives no uncertain sound; the speaking is clear, and distinct, and unfaltering. You are, as I said, reminded of the controversial storm-bird by its tones, but all that would have been harsh in its outspoken truthfulness, is mellowed and softened by an exquisite overmastering charm of tender and patient love. So that the blackbird’s song is that of mature faith, which has met and vanquished anxious questionings, and which, if that of a controversialist at all, is only that of one on whom old age is stealing, and whom experience has made gentle and patient; and yearning for souls has made passionate; and love of Christ has made tenderly and invincibly loving. And so when it thrills out clear and full from his hidden quiet retreat in the evening time, even those that think that there is cause for old grudges against the minstrel are arrested reverently to listen to his deep, thoughtful, loving song.
We are at the wood now, at last. We have followed a pleasant stream that played hide-and-seek among its willows, and, while we talked and listened, we have gathered in gleanings of its beauty. And now we cross the narrow plank--parting the branches that half conceal it--and enter the wood. There are tiny pink balls ready to burst into vivid buds, gemming the hawthorn bushes; but the trees and underwood are bare, except for the willow catkins and the hazel tassels, or perhaps the dull green of the elder in a tuft here and there, or the early leaf-bud of a twining honeysuckle. But the pale smooth ash saplings, tall and slim, and silver-grey in the sun, with a narrow shadow edge, the branches studded with black buds; and the golden twigs of the white-stemmed birch; and the warm light brown of the hazel boughs; and the red of the cherry,--these make the wood, though bare, yet neither dull nor colourless. And here, farther in, the many stems are fringed and bearded with the hoary and abundant growth of lichen, cool as the bloom on a greengage, against the pale orange which still lingers in ragged patches upon the six-feet stalks of last year’s bracken.
Certainly there is, all around us in the wood, much material for musing. But we have come hither for a special end. For it is the thirteenth of March, and by this time the first of the train of those songsters, that fly to warmer shores to escape our Winter, ought to have returned. So, all ears, we proceed over the crisp leaves, disturbing the bobbing rabbits. And there! I heard the note--simple enough, yet pleasing even in itself, and sweet as being the forerunner of songs more rich. _Chiff-chaff_,--this dissyllable gives this Willow-wren’s note and name. There is not much in it, may be, still it is the little tuning-fork of the coming concert. And we are reminded by it of some gentle spirit which longs and tries to say a cheery and hopeful word to a heart which has been under wintry skies; that which it repeats may not indeed be very new, very powerful, or very varied; still, it is accepted and loved for the sake of its truth and affection.
This bird has a relation, due some few days later, whose song, though but little more pretentious, is yet a great favourite with me. I call it the laughing Willow-wren; and indeed its note does at once suggest a small silvery peal of merry light-hearted glee. Again and again, peal after peal; flitting through the boughs, almost the tiniest of slim birdlings.
“Gaiety without eclipse,”
it certainly is, and yet it does not weary us, this ceaseless “silver-treble laughter.” This song has its parallel in some life, gay and blight and glad from first to last; hiding for a sobered moment from a shower or a storm, but anon and on a sudden recovering its innocent glee again. Delicate and slim, and easily frightened, but never long troubled; very winning and loveable; too tender and pretty for the hardest hand to crush; never doing huge deeds in the world, but of the same value that a fugitive sunbeam would be in a heavy and gloomy wood, or a daisy in a desert. Keeping the Child’s heart through the Woman’s life; feeling sorrow lightly, and with an April heart; disarming anger or harshness by its simple gleeful innocence; frail yet safe as a feather upon the whirls and eddies of life. Laugh on, light and cheery heart, amid the jay’s harsh dissonance, and the blackbird’s thought, and the thrush’s strength, and the dove’s sadness! Amid Life’s gravities and stern realities there is a grateful place for the gleams of a glad-hearted song like thine!
What variety in the character of the bird-music! Hark, for a moment, at those wise, solemn caws, and watch those sedate, respectable, gravely-clad Rooks sailing across this opening above us; so black and cleanly painted against the filmy blue. _Caw!_ This is the voice of a steady, respectable mediocrity, that by reason of its deep, portentous gravity, and weighty utterance, and staid appearance, might be almost mistaken for philosophy. True, the utterance, if profound, is not remarkable for variety; but then the manner will often make up for lack of matter. And it is something to have one maxim or apophthegm which may be fitted to every case. To all the world’s customs and businesses, its problems and aspirings, its cries and laughter, he gravely and meditatively listens. And when you eagerly await his verdict, he puts his sapient head on one side, looks at you out of one eye,
“And says,--what says he? CAW!”
The young impatient askers, the subtle and patient tracers of truth’s hidden vein, will chafe at his sedate utterances, and in time take their confidences elsewhere. But he can get on without them, and will never want for company of his kind. Raised above all intellectual excitements, and never in a hurry, the rooks step side by side with stately dignity over the scarred earth; or wing a heavy and cautious flight towards the trees; or sail serene in the still sky. For though there may be times when
“The rooks are blown about the skies,”
this haste is involuntary, and must no doubt for the time much discomfort the methodical and stately traveller. And no doubt such characters are as useful ballast in the world, and well counterbalance the full excited sails, and the mad fluttering pennons above them. Commonplace, unruffled, happy Christians are these; with some they gain reputation for wisdom, with some for folly; but they go evenly on; not much troubled by sunshine or storm; not caring to enter into the dusks and gleams of the more passionate songsters and thinkers; ever with one quiet and not unmelodious answer: a life rather of deeds than of words. _Caw_, to all your spasms and heart-searchings,--and then I must just away to my work. Up in the tall trees, bending and swaying to break off the twigs for the nest; practical, if not colloquial; early at work in the morning, and at home in good time in the evening; a life not excited nor greatly eventful, but that has its own quiet, serene lesson.
A day or two hence we might hear a notable and distinguished visitor to the woods and shrubberies. Even now, I have once or twice paused, half-fancying that I heard his voice, and ready to do honour to such a guest. For, while you are momently expecting to hear the Blackcap, the warbling of the meditative Robin has, here and there, a note which puzzles you. You follow out the voice, and there, on an elm branch, is the dark eye, and the warm breast, and the comfortable shape; and you feel half ashamed to have mistaken such a familiar friend for a stranger.
The Blackcap is indeed a wonderful little warbler. So small and so energetic, thrilling song and swelling throat; brown body and whitish chest and jetty head. There are those who trace a resemblance to the nightingale’s song in its quick joyous utterances. If so, certainly the melody is but a suggestion here and there, and not a sustained and continuous resemblance. Shall I be unkind to the sweet little songster, if here I write that its song has its counterpart in the life of unequal Christians? Many there are who, now and then, in thought, word, or deed, seem to touch some perfect chord, and then disappoint the intent listener by sinking down to the more commonplace again.
A moment, and there seemed a strain of angelic utterance, but it was not sustained, and you turn away disappointed at a more homely song which would otherwise have pleased you well. You do not look for Seraph notes in the hedge-sparrow’s song, or the wren’s chatting, and so you are well content with these. But high hopes unfulfilled become disappointment, and you feel an injury in having to resign the exalted idea which you had taken up; until, at last you see _yourself_ in the sweet, but unequal and inadequate song; and learn to reverence and to love the ever-failing and unsustained effort after higher things. Thus, ay thus, do you aim high, and ever fall below your aim; there is one touch of heaven, and a hundred of earth, in the broken and unsustained song of your life; and yet you would rather strive with hopeless yearning after the nightingale’s music, than acquiesce content with the lesser warblings, which accomplish the less that they attempted. Sing on, then, little bird, to an answering heart! In your song I read the rises and falls, the endeavours and failings, the aspirings and rare glimpses of attainment, which are the sweet exceptions, and the commonplace and every-day Christianity, which is the rule, of a life that would fain become the song of an Angel, but that scarce reaches the homeliest warble of the simplest wayside bird. Let us aim high, if we still fall below our passionate striving; let us never acquiesce quietly in less than Perfection; hereafter--who knows? who knows?
It is evening now, as we wend our way home. A thin sickle of light is barred by the slender topmost ash twigs, and the sky is deepening to that cold, clear dusk, that foreruns twilight. We hear a quiet song, far away--the Woodlark’s note always seems far away--you would have asked me the name of the not-generally-familiar songster, but I have just given it. “_That_, the woodlark? Well, I never heard, or never noticed it before” I dare say. But if is a quiet, saintly song; a heavenly voice, serene and clear, never passionate: a twilight, still, calm song, removed far away from the world’s bustle, and deeply imbued with wisdom and melody from a Land far beyond this eager fevered strife. It is not glad, nor sorrowful; nor so much thoughtful as spiritual. It images to us that life which, separated from the world, is yet not ascetic; unobtrusive, yet fascinating when once perceived and heeded; simple, somewhat as is the language of St. John, but with unfathomable suggestions and revelations when you come to study and learn it. Quite away from controversy and strife, there is in it a divine peace, an entranced contemplation, a serene and peaceful uplifting of the soul. Perhaps the writings of Archbishop Leighton best give words to my ideal of the woodlark’s song.
But those throbbing coos must stay our foot ere we quite leave the wood. The Dove--its voice is, of course, the embodiment of love; troubled, but not passionate; earnest, but not of earth merely. It has a melancholy vehemence, a sobbing urging of its cause, that is rather the voice of one seeking the good of another than its own delight. There is a tremulousness, a trembling fulness that might be that of one bidding farewell in death to some very dear friend whom he fain would win to the right and happy path, but for whom he sadly stands in doubt. There is such abundance from which to speak, such love and such mournfulness in saying it, that you smile with the tears near your eyes, on suddenly recollecting whither fancy was leading you, and that it is, after all, but the old old story being beautifully and melodiously told. For you caught a sight of the ash-blue wing, the mild eye, and swelling crop, and of the mate on a branch close by; and so your fancy was overturned.
But there is one song which we shall not hear yet, as we return home from the wood; of which, nevertheless, some words must be said. Yet what words have even the greatest word-masters yet found for the NIGHTINGALE’S unearthly melody! What other song has even a likeness of the instantaneous and riveting fascination that is produced by one note of this? It is music which speaks, not to what we call the heart, merely, or the intellect, merely, but straight at once to that mysterious divine thing within us, which we call the spirit.
And so it represents that recognition of, and yearning for, an ideal perfection and beauty, which many own, but few can express. And thus we start to hear it represented and embodied in sound without language, and, without knowing how, acknowledge a dumb music in ourselves which is closely akin to this superhuman and unearthly song. And we cannot, if we try, exactly define its character; some call it joyous; more sorrowful. But perhaps there is a hint in it of something within us higher and deeper than either of these; else how can it thus startle and electrify our being? At least it tells us of melody that we cannot yet grasp or fully understand, of beauty and harmony and perfection that is not yet our own. And I liken it to the raptured speakings of the prophet, or to an echo of the angelic messages seldom brought to earth.
Well, ’tis difficult, and perhaps hopeless, to strive to interpret the songs of these little minstrels of God. After all, each heart will set them to words of its own. And, by leading others to do so, perhaps my musings may best fulfil their end. Many a one who would have appreciated them, misses the pictures in earth’s great gallery, and the music of earth’s great concert, for want of a finger to point him once to the one, and a hand on his shoulder to arrest his attention for the other. And it is worth regarding pictures at which God is working, and to listen to songs which yet remain in a saddened world, exactly as He first taught them.
THE MAY-DAYS OF THE SOUL.
“All things are new: the buds, the leaves, That gild the elm-tree’s nodding crest; And e’en the nest beneath the eaves: There are no birds in last year’s nest!”
May has come; that time of year has passed the sweet April time,
“When all the wood stands in a mist of green, And nothing perfect.”
The sparsely-gemmed hedges have thickened now, so that you cannot see the gardens through their bare ribs; and little bunches of tight-clenched buds give abundant promise of the sweet-breathed, shell-petaled hawthorn flowers. The coy ash-trees have begun to fringe over with their feather foliage; the ruddy bushy growth that seemed comically like whiskers, at the base of the elms and the lindens, has changed into a surprise of glorified green; the low shoots from the stump of the old oak-tree in the hedge bring out their wealth of soft, crumpled, young red leaves; the elders on the banks have gotten a deep, full garment of green upon them now; above the ash-hued stem of the maples there is a numberless array of small maroon-tinged fists; the tender beech-leaves edge the low boughs that are spread out just above the grass.
The birds are full of importance, and excitement, and enjoyment. The robin has his “fuller crimson”; the “livelier iris shines upon the burnished dove,” The black rook sails lazily with broad wing up in the blue sky: he, too, has his high nest to attend to; but life, on such a day as this, imperatively demands to be enjoyed. The copse rings with the laugh of the little willow-wren; the chiff-chaff ceaselessly announces his presence; the woodpecker cries as he leaves tree for tree; the blackcap, not singing just now, makes that “check, check,” like the striking of two marbles together; the cuckoo, besides telling his name to all the hills, has also a low, cooing, wooing voice for his mate; also another cry, as of a startled blackbird, but flute-like and liquid.
“Flattered with promise of escape From every hurtful blast, Spring takes, O sprightly May, thy shape, Her loveliest and her last.”
A sweet grey tint, that had begun to overspread the bare parts of the copse, is deepening into such a sapphire sheet, that our ungrateful hearts half forget or retract the regret they felt, when the fair young hazels and the tall thin ash-wands bowed in the Winter before the cruel bill. Only lately, it seems, on the way across the fields to the station, a delicate fairy mass, the light lilac of the “faint sweet cuckoo-flower,” had spread its kindly screen over the hacked and maimed stumps of the fallen wood. But the hyacinths take their place now; and, after these, we expect the bright rose of the ragged-robin; and, after these, quite a garden of tall spires of the foxglove, alternating from pale to darker red, with, rarely and preciously, a clustered sceptre of milky white.
But why go on to the ragged-robin and the foxglove, later flowers of the year? Truly, there are flowers enough at this season to satisfy the most avaricious. Look but at the yellow meadows of the daffodils.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er dales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils, Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
“Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”
So the poet; and how could he but be of a May-day heart, amid such a May wealth of flowers? It was a light, a gleam, a possession that he thenceforth held; a sweet, living landscape of the heart, a landscape alive, indeed, not only with colour and light and shade, but with ceaseless gleeful motion.
“I gazed, and gazed, but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought.”
No; for often, when May-days were far away, and perhaps shallow snow, streaked with patches of brown land, slanted away under a pale grey sky, even at such times that wealth and glory, and abundance of the flowers, suddenly would
“Flash upon that inward eye, Which is the bliss of solitude.”
And then, even in a lonely hour, a time of dulness and depression, a time when this sad life seemed saddest; in such a time even, that glad gleeful yellow landscape would come back, with something of the light and joy of a kind deed done, or a strong word said; and, amid the pale snow, and the ever-increasing depression, well can the possessor say that--then,
“Then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.”
Life has its May-days, as well as the year. They come, sometimes; rarely to some, but exquisitely beautiful when God sends them--the May-days of the soul. The times when the Winter fogs have passed away, and the clear sun shines down in its glory on the land; the times when the bare brown trees have become ruddy, and have then flushed into crowded variety of leaf; the times when the flowers, that had been thought to be buried for ever, dawn like a smile upon earth’s pale and furrowed face; the times when youth’s forgotten glow comes back, and a hint of the vigour to which dreams seemed realities, and impossibilities possible, stirs the sluggish sap of the soul. Such times there are, when the mists of November have departed, and the frosts of the succeeding months, and the bitter winds of March, and the flooding tears of April; it is the May, with its lavish promise and exuberant life, and ecstatic beauty! Times when illness or earth or laziness or lack of power no longer chill the soul that is indeed eager to burst into leaf; times when we are winged, when the hardest toils are easy to us, the heaviest stone rolled away; times when soul and body seem in perfect accord, and tongue and limb and eye instantly execute the least mandate of the ruler within; times when the ship obeys the lightest touch of the man at the helm; times that come like holidays scattered through the dull half-year of school-days; times of exuberant life and spirits and powers that visit us rarely, sweetly, now and then, as May-day comes in the year.
I often think how little we use life thoroughly; how little we really live our life; how seldom we are in the humour to carry out its great and solemn purposes: how we let its opportunities fly by us, like thistledown on the wind. Why are we not _always_ denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following our Master? Why are we not _always_ on the watch for every occasion in which a word may be said, or a deed done, or a thought thought, that shall be a protest for Christ, in this vain and sinful world? Why is God’s love but a rare Wintry gleam, and never a steady Summer in our soul? Think, for instance, of such a thing as Prayer; what a wonderful and beautiful thing it is! To kneel, an atom in creation, at the Throne of the Almighty! To be able to bare our hearts to Him, and to feel sure that the least throbs, as well as the great spasms, are perfectly appreciated, felt, understood, sympathised with, by that awful, loving Mind!
And yet, how Wintry our hearts are in our prayers! how seldom they burst into exuberant flower! how constantly the sky above us seems pale and heavy, and dull and impenetrable, and our hearts beneath abiding in their Wintry sleep! Or a snowdrop here and there wanders out, and now and then a pinched primrose--not enough for even the poorest garland.
But that is not all; not only in religion is it that we are more often Wintry-hearted than May-hearted. I have heard of an artist who used sometimes to keep his sitter waiting a whole morning, and at last send him away, unable to _win_ the right humour to his heart, and feeling that his work would not be well done if he _forced_ it. And in reading Haydon’s life you may often find traces of how difficult is this mood to attract, when it has not a mind to come.
So, too, in composition, whether grave or light, how different a thing it is, according to our mood! How delicious a thing is it when the soul has a May-day, and when the pen cannot overtake the mind! when
“Thought leaps out to wed with thought, Ere thought can wed itself with speech!”
when ideas throng
“Glad and thick, As leaves upon a tree in primrose time!”
when we seem to see,
“Smiling upward from the page, The image of the thought within the soul!”
But these times, at least after one has written a good deal, are comparatively rare times, and it is more often February than May within us. A subject that seemed full of leaf when it occurred to the mind some weeks ago, in a May-day mood, stands often a stripped bare Winter tree when we sit down to work it out.
Yes, in most of the business of life that is not mere routine and machine-work, no doubt the soul has its May-days--its times of _being in the humour_ for its work, and of doing that work easily and glibly. How many a Clergyman would endorse this, merely in the every-day case of taking a class in his school! Words, earnest and abundant and interesting, throng forth at one time; at another, how bare the mind, and how unready the tongue!
And now, to what do these thoughts lead us? I think to two considerations--one of warning, one of encouragement.
The warning is an obvious one, and yet one much and often neglected. Let such times of warmth and light and glow and possession of blossom be not only _enjoyed_ but _employed_. The soul’s Flower-time should never be allowed to pass away _without having left some noble fruit set_. It is common-place to repeat that the May-days of the soul are most abundant and most glowing in youth, the May-time of life. And, in connection with this whole subject, I quote, with an addition, Longfellow’s verse:--
“Maiden, that read’st this simple rhyme, Enjoy thy youth: it will not stay; Enjoy the fragrance of thy prime, For oh! it is not always May.”
This is gentle and tender advice; and far am I from wishing to correct it, or to do otherwise than allow it, in its degree. Only there is deeper and more grave advice to be given _with_ it, not _instead_ of it. It is well to enjoy the soul’s May-time, but only well if it be _employed_ as well as _enjoyed_; otherwise it will pass, and no trace be left. We may make a great May-day show by merely gathering our flowers and weaving them into garlands; and there may be much dancing and excitement and glee. But then, it seems purely and simply sad to see them next day lying neglected, limp, and withering, in patches and dribblets, on the ground; whereas, although the apple-tree and the primrose bank may look sobered and saddened when their blossom-time is past, you yet know that all trace of that sweet adornment is not lost; they are busy henceforth, maturing fruit and seed from the germs that the bloom has left.
Therefore, to return to the principal thing, namely, Religion: remember, when the blossom-time comes, or returns, that its fairy brightness is evanescent. It must pass, therefore use it; enjoy it, but put it out to usury; let it not fade and fall without having left a germ of noble fruit behind. When the heaven seems open to prayer, when the dull sky has cleared, and, thick and sweet as May-flowers, the earnest longings and ready words burst from your bare heart, seize the auspicious hour; let it not pass unemployed. Do not merely taste, but exhaust its sweetness. When God seems to make His listening apparent, refrain not; besiege His throne with prayers, supplications, praises. And again, when the heart has thawed from its deadness and indifference, and a very May-gathering of zeal for God, of love for God and man, of high and holy yearnings and longings and resolves and purposes, crowd upon the Winter sleep of the soul; oh, then, indulge not in a mere sensuality of spiritual enjoyment; stay not at mere revelling in the warm sky and profuse up-springing of flowers; set to work to form, in that propitious hour, some germs of fruit, some careful reforms, some holy resolves, some earnest and lofty purposes, some self-denials, some pressing towards the mark. Prayerfully and painfully set to work, so that, by God’s grace, when the beauty has gone, the use may remain, and the boughs bend with fruit that were once winged with bloom.
Oh, we all know, I say, these May-days of the soul: times when the love of God seems natural to us, and our hearts overflow into a spontaneous love of man; times when hard things are easy, and Apollyon in the way, or Giant Maul coming out of his cave, rather stir the soul to exultation than daunt it with dismay; times when God seems to us not an abstraction, but a reality; when we can fancy the Saviour beside us, as in old days He stood beside Peter or John; times when it seems a light thing to spend and to be spent for Christ’s sake and the brethren; times when the World has no allurements and the Flesh no power, and Satan seems already beat down under our feet; times when we go out to face the hardest duties with no secret desire that the call on us may not be made, but rather with grave steady resolution and with face set like a flint. There are times, I say, when God’s image seems to shine out for a while, clearly and brightly, from the rust and mildew of marring sin and sloth; times when, Samson-like, we rise from sleep, and the fetters that have hitherto tied us down from life’s great deeds become upon our shoulders like as tow when it hath seen the fire. Yes, May seasons there are for the soul, in which there is a press and hurry of blossom, that is well and fair if it be secured for God.
For, note this--_it is not always May_. The glow will pass, the sunlight die, the flowers will fade, the bird-songs sink into silence. And, if you have not profited by that gleam of heaven which opened upon your soul, you are certain to have lost by it, especially when such a warmth, such a light, broke, by God’s grace, through the dull sky of a cold and worldly life. If any message from God have warmed your bare heart into leaf and bloom, beware how you let the golden opportunity remain unemployed. Beware lest the east winds return, and nip and scatter the frail petals ere the germ of some good fruit be formed. Life is ever offering to us Sybilline books, and very often we have at last to give as much effort in old age, for the attaining of a poor service to God, as we should have given, long ago, for a full, rich, hearty, life-long serving Him. Late or early, however, employ the excitements, the May-warmths of the soul. “Excitement has its uses; impression has its value. Ye that have been impressed, beware how you let those impressions die away. Die they must: we cannot live in excitement for ever; but beware of their leaving behind them nothing except a languid, jaded heart. If God gives you the excitements of religion, breaking in upon your monotony, take care. There is no restoring of elasticity to the spring that has been over-bent. Let impression pass on at once to action.”
The _warning_ was obvious; somewhat less so, perhaps, the _encouragement_. Still, this violet is to be found if we part the brambles, and seek it among its leaves. The May feeling is delicious--is, indeed, a foretaste of heaven, when hard things seem easy to us, and the face of duty is scarce distinguishable from that of pleasure. Prayer is sweet, sweet indeed, when it is easy to pray; praise is delicious when it seems almost the spontaneous growth of the heart. It is pleasanter to speak a painful word, to perform a painful duty, in those moods when the uplifted heart almost exults at having it to do. It is nothing to deny ourselves when some gleam of heaven has so exalted us that the world and the flesh and the devil have nothing to offer which can turn us from the ecstatic contemplation of Christ, and the Home whither He has gone to prepare. But is prayer more acceptable, is praise more beautiful in God’s sight when the heart is all in flower, or when it is Winterly indeed, but exceeding sorrowful at this, and sadly trying to gather for God a snowdrop out of its Wintry beds? Is it more acceptable in God’s sight to speak a true word when the heart is braced and strong, and the effort small, or _still to speak it_ when the heart is shrinking and weak, and the effort great? Is the deed of love or of justice or of self-denial noblest when most easy or when most difficult to be done?
Ah, well, God knows; and He sends the May-days, and He permits the dull days and the bitter winds. Let us serve Him through both, and then all will be well. No doubt we _ought_ always to have a May-day in our heart for this service. And yet, perhaps, indeed almost surely, He does not mean this to be so in this life of discipline. Here it must not be always easy and delicious to serve Him. Here we must serve Him through cold and warm weather, through calm and storm, up the hill Difficulty, as well as in the quiet valley.
Religious feelings are very variable; but rarely, comparatively, a May-day comes: the flowers are few, and the sky closed, almost generally. Let us, then, use diligently the warm blossom-time, when it is with us, but let us not be dismayed when it passes from the soul. _Perhaps_ the best words we say are those that seemed to us the worst, and the teaching that sank most into the heart was that which we thought weakest and most inadequate; thus may God be pleased, while He deigns to use us and to accept our work, yet to keep us humble. Perhaps the service that was so hard to render, and in which we had so to fight against listlessness and wandering thoughts, may, if still earnest, prevail or please more--who knows?--than that which seemed to fly up at once full-fledged to heaven’s gates. If, though limping, we still hobble on with all our might, we may be really making as much progress as when we seemed to be skimming the ground; for God gives both the wings and the crutches. Of course I am not supposing that the hindrances to love and service arise from want of watchfulness, that let the world creep in, or want of prayer for the Help which alone is sufficient for us. But, generally, we must make up our mind to have more days of weary toiling through the desert sands than of refreshments at “Elim, with its palms and wells”; only, when the rare refreshment comes, it should have braced us for the toilsome march, when we must leave the pleasant spot behind, and labour toilsomely on again. And, if May-days of the soul come but seldom now, and it is oftener difficult than easy to serve God now, fear not, fail not, my Brother or Sister. Rejoice that God gives thee something not easy to do for Him, and think of a time, beyond this brief life, when it will be ever natural and instinctive to love and serve God, when it _will_ be “_always May_.”
“Consider the work of God.”
We have passed, from late Spring into Summer. Let us go out into the balmy air and mark what changes have passed over the land since we had our Spring scamper among the fields. It will befit these graver months of the year soberly to walk now. And a quiet sauntering walk over the fields is in truth a delightful thing upon a Summer’s day.
How delicious to thread the narrow parting through the deep hay, just ready to be cut, meadow after meadow full of tall, silky, waving grass; here a patch feathery, and of silvery lilac hue; here the rough crowfoot; here the drooping oat-grass; here trembling, delicate pyramids; here miniature bulrushes; and, choice and rare, the graceful quaking grass, with its thin filaments, and its fruit shot with faint purple, and pale green, and light brown. Numberless flowers,--gold, and rose, and crimson, and lilac, and amethyst,--these smile up at you close to the path, and give a sweet hint of stronger colour, far away throughout the hues and many unpronounced tints of the grass.
You spring over a stile, and, sweet surprise! come upon a field half-mown. It is the first you have seen this year,--the first deep ranks of close tall growth falling before the scythe,--the first scent of hay; and the first waft of this is to the scent what the first note of the cuckoo is to the ear. There the deep swathes lie in long rows, the innocent sweet flowers looking up at first with something of sad wonder, but soon drooping in a death which shall not be called untimely, because it is useful, and following on completed work. Of it we may say with the wise king, that “being made perfect in a short time, it fulfilled a long time.” And, like a loved memory after a holy death, the scent of the dying grass and flowers lingers sweetly in the soft air.
Well, we surmount another stile, and enter a wheat-field. How beautiful the myriad stalks and the broad drooping leaves, of a more sober bluer green than that of grass! I always notice that as soon as the hay is made, or making, the full bulging sheaths of the wheat begin to open, and to divulge the secret wealth of the green ear. The pointed flag falls over it; but very soon it bursts the swaddling bands, and rises proudly above the now obsequious deposed leaves, like an heir above his nurses. And then the whole wheat-field stands in blossom, the little trembling stamens escaping all over the husks, and the great width of tall ears begins its solemn stately waving and bending, and its undying whisper in the faint warm Summer airs.
And through the long colonnades there are here also sweet and fair flowers: the bright pimpernel, the dull-grey cud-weed, the glad speedwell, the small blue forget-me-not, the white feverfew,--these are the low carpet growth. Then higher, and like illuminations hung through the columns, there is the rich blue corn-flower, and the purple corn-cockle in its green star-shaped cup; and last in order, but almost first in beauty, the glorious scarlet poppy, with its satin-black eye,--a flower of dazzling splendour, but calumniated and ill-used beyond my endurance. “Flaunting poppies,” indeed! Why, they are the drooping banners of God’s army of the corn! Here they are waving out in all their glory; here they are folded up (somewhat crumpled) within that green case, out of which they are gleaming, just ready to be unfurled for the march. I love the violet--none better; but I protest against the folly, and, in a minor degree, injustice, of instituting an inane comparison between it and the poppy, to the discredit of my favourite of the corn-fields. A better lesson might be taught by pointing out how each fulfils the duties of that state to which it has pleased God to call it: the sweet violet among its leaves, like the modest wife at home; the brave poppy among the open and wealthy corn-fields, like the husband called out into the business of the thronged world.
This is a digression, however. Let us get back to Summer days, and the fallen grass, and the wide wheat-fields in flower.
Many days have not passed before that flower falls, and the delicate paleness of the new-born ear passes away, and the corn-fields settle down to the grave work of the year.
“Long grass swaying in the playing of the almost wearied breeze; Flowers bowed beneath a crowd of the tawny-armoured bees; Sumptuous forests, filled with twilight, like a dreamy old romance; Rivers falling, rivers calling, in their indolent advance.”
That was all very well in the year’s early manhood, scarcely distinguishable from youth. But a more prosaic gravity has toned down those romantic feelings, and it has discovered that there is work, grave work--work sometimes a little wearisome and dull--to be done. The fairy lightness and greenness, the delicacy and exquisite freshness, of the year, have passed away. It is not Dream-land any longer--not a scene of faint rose-flushed or dazzling white blossom, but of hushed, sober colour, and of somewhat of monotony and sameness. The fair Bride fruit-trees are clad in dark garments now, and busy with their families of little unripe things, that have to be educated into ripeness and usefulness. The oaks are no more clad in “glad light green” or very red leaves, and the elms have toned down even the little brightening up of Summer growth at the end of their branches, all into that quiet, dust-dulled, dark hue. And so with all the trees; and under the tall growth of the copses there is not the play and dance of myriad butterflies of sunlight in soft meadows of shade; but the shadow is almost gloomy, and the stillness is quite solemn. Thin tall grass or broad grave ferns have taken the place of the sheets of glad primroses, and bright wood anemones, and azure hyacinths, and rich orchis.
There is no disguising it: the freshness and first energy of things has spent itself and gone, the landscape is dulled and dustied. A little while ago every day was different; now every day seems much the same. There is not the constant progression, the still developing beauty, the ever new delights of every new day. New birds to greet, new clothing for the meadows, new carpets for the woods, new glories for the trees: all these
“Faded in the distance, where the thickening leaves were piled.”
And the year has done with its extravagantly profuse promises, its eager pressing on to some ideal and impossible beauty not yet attained, never to be attained, though it would not believe this, in those old inexperienced days, when it cast away blossom and freshness of leaf as things that did but impede it, in the impatience of its hurry after that Perfection which is a dream on earth, though it be true in Heaven. True also in Him, in whom earth and Heaven have met; this stooping to the tangible, and that raised to the sublime.
Yes, the year seems at a standstill now, and sobered down, and sedate, and hushed. Above all, it is silent. Those ecstatic melodies, those “pæans clear,” that rang out through the groves--the song of the willow-wren, the thrush, the blackbird, the blackcap, the nightingale--all are silent. Even the little robin has no voice for Summer days; only the yellow-hammer reiterates its short, plaintive, monotonous note on the dusty wayside hedge.
“Dear is the morning gale of Spring, And dear th’ autumnal eve; But few delights can Summer bring A poet’s crown to weave.
“Her bowers are mute, her fountains dry, And ever Fancy’s wing Speeds from beneath her cloudless sky To Autumn or to Spring.
“Sweet is the infant’s waking smile, And sweet the old man’s rest; But middle age by no fond wile, No soothing calm is blest.”
Sweet Summer days! I am far from meaning to depreciate you, or to deny to you the need of much beauty and calm delight; but it is true, nevertheless, and must be conceded, that the poet’s complaint has some ground of reason. We miss something in Summer days: it must ever be so in this world. Attainment must ever disappoint: reality is another thing from the image of our dreams. The finished painting is not all that the first rough sketch hinted and shadowed out. Spring may be high-spirited and eager--Summer must ever be grave, and hushed, and sedate.
And what then? Something is missed: but is nothing found? What is the year doing in the gravity, and monotony, and silence of Summer days? Our life is much like that of the year. It has its Spring and its Summer, its Autumn and its Winter. We, too, pass out of youth, and excitement, and impetuosity, and hope, into manhood, and gravity, and calmness--and disappointment. What, then, is the year doing in this stage of its life? If we look aside from our own experience to its example, what does that example teach us?
The question, “What is the year doing?” suggests the answer to our inquiries. The year _is doing_. It is gravely, quietly, perseveringly _at work_. And earnest, hearty, steady work at that which God has given us to do--work hearty, if a little dull and monotonous--this is the lesson taught by Summer days.
Work, steady work, dry, monotonous work, aye, this is the lesson of Life’s Summer; this succeeds its dream-time, this precedes its rest. Yes, in truth, the Spring anticipation and eager energy have gone. The Autumn repose has not yet come. The year is gravely, and steadily, and prosaically at work now; its ardour and ecstasies calmed, its wild impossible hopes toned down, its grace of blossom vanished. All vegetation is busy, maturing seed and fruit, sober grain and useful hay. The earth, like her child, the ant,
“Provideth her meat in the summer, And gathereth her food in the harvest.”
Toiling in the dust and heat; toiling without rest, wearily often, uncheered by songs. For the little choristers of the trees are themselves grave and sedate now, and busied with their nests, and with the care of rearing their family. There is little change, save a deepening of colour; the morning finds the earth still ceaselessly at work, and in the tender evenings and grey nights, the glimpsing lightnings and the intent stars disclose or behold the same scene:
“Rapid, rosy-tinted lightnings, where the rocky clouds are riven, Like the lifting of a veil before the inner courts of heaven: Silver stars in azure evenings, slowly climbing up the steep”:
What do these still discover? What but
“Corn-fields ripening to the harvest, and the wide seas smooth with sleep.”
Let Summer days then teach us, as, one after one, they greet us and depart, their wise, but unobtruded lesson. The Summer time being the time of grave steady work, and there being also such a time in our lives, a time of dust, and heat, and toil, when our spirits sometimes seem to flag, and the very sameness of labour brings over us a depression, and a lingering longing after the time of blossom, and of clear new verdure; there being this resemblance between us, let us examine the year’s work, if perhaps we may gather some hints for ours. _How_ does the year work? and how should _we_ work, when that first zest that made work easy has gone, and the time of rest is on the other side of our labour.
The year works _thoroughly_, more implicitly obedient than man to this teaching of its Maker,
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”
God seems to have made, in all the wonderful animal and vegetable growth which surrounds us, some to honour, and some to dishonour. Even as with nations, there were the chosen people, and there were those left yet degraded--and as with individuals, there are those whose work is to evangelise a world, and there are those whose work is to follow the plough, or to order the household--so it is with plants, and flowers, and trees.
And from this point of view we shall find that they have much to teach us in our work. How thoroughly it is all done, and with the might; the noble as well as the homely work! There are some plants busy maturing groundsel-seed and beech-mast, some maturing strawberries, and peaches, and pines. But each does _its utmost_, and the _work_ of the inferior degree is equal in quality with that of the higher. The shepherd’s-purse and the thistledown are as perfectly and exquisitely finished, as are the apricot and the grape.
And this strikes me as leading up to a cheering and beautiful thought--to a thought which has often occurred to me in reading the parable of the _Talents_. There is, let me remark, this difference between this parable and that of the Pounds: that in the one case the _work_ was equal in quality, bearing exactly the same proportion to the advantages, which were dissimilar; in the other case the advantages and opportunities were the same for each, but the _work_ was unequal and greatly differing in quality. Thus each has its separate teaching.
And in this parable of the Talents, the same heartening thought came to me as that wafted from fields, and trees, and gardens, on the breath of Summer days. It was cheering, and a matter of much thankfulness, to recollect that it was possible, in a low condition, and with less advantages, to serve God in the same proportion with the greatest of God’s saints: to fight as well and as nobly in the ranks as any officer could do who waved his soldiers to the charge. It was, I say, very comforting to read, after
“Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more”;
and the “Well done” that followed--it was exceedingly sweet to read, farther on,
“He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.”
And then to hear just the same ringing glorious words, “Well done!” words that come like a burst of joy-bells across the heart. For I said to myself, “Cheer up, and be bold,--humble, insignificant, lowly though thou be, and sorrowfully, impotently longing to do great things, to fight a good fight, for Him who died for thee and rose again. Yea, be of good courage, and do even thy best with that thou hast. The one had ten talents to bring, the other but four, yet cheerily, bravely, modestly, did he bring them; the amount was different, _the work was the same_. Each had wrought in the same proportion. He with five talents had indeed doubled them. But he with two talents _had likewise doubled these_.”
Therefore, men, my brothers, women, my sisters, let us thank God and take courage. Let us not repine if our sphere be narrow, and our work seemingly insignificant; let us not look enviously at those with great talents, and grand opportunities, and wide work. Let us take heart, as we look at the tiny wayside plant, and at the laden fruit-tree, all at work, under the sun, in the quiet Summer days. There is no caprice, but there is much to surprise us in the allotment of work in God’s world. So, art thou an oak, capable, as it seems to thee, of great deeds and noble fruit? Scorn not, however, to spend thy life making and maturing acorns, if thus it please God to employ thee. Art thou a lowly strawberry plant, weak, and easily trampled, and (thou deemest) capable of nothing worthy? Shrink not, at God’s bidding, to endeavour to fashion rich and precious fruit, which, if thou art patient and faithful, God’s rain shall nourish, and His sun shall ripen. Such an oak might St. Paul have seemed, chained to the Roman soldiers, yet I wot he then fashioned acorns, whose branches have since overspread the world. Such a lowly plant was Moses, deprecating God’s behests at the burning bush. Yet I trow that was noble fruit that he was enabled to mature.
For the comfortable thought is, that we work not in our own strength, nor from our own resources. God supplies strength and material, and then undoubtedly it is for us to use them. Yet the principle of growth is His gift; and so also are the sun, and the wind, and the rain. Without Him, we can do nothing. But with Him, everything.
“I can do all things,--through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Let us then be brave-hearted and true-hearted, and learn this lesson from the earth’s work under the sun. Never to envy nor to repine, nor to be amazed at life, but just to give all our heart to the maturing and perfecting the work which God has entrusted to us to do for Him--if in the garden bed, the choice fruit; if by the wayside, the small seed which He has prepared for us to tend. Let us work _thoroughly_, in these short Summer days.
Another hint from the year’s work. It works leisurely, bringing forth fruit _with patience_. Thus the poets sweetly describe its work:
“Lo! in the middle of the wood, The folded leaf is woo’d from out the bud, With winds upon the branch, and there Grows green and broad, and takes no care, Sun-steeped at noon, and in the moon Nightly dew-fed; and, turning yellow, Falls and floats adown the air. Lo! sweetened with the Summer light, The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow, Drops in a silent Autumn night. All its allotted length of days The flower ripens in its place, Ripens, and fades, and falls, and hath no toil, Fast rooted in the fruitful soil.”
Thus flower, and leaf, and fruit, do their part thoroughly, and expect God’s blessing patiently, and trustfully leave all to Him. There is no hurry, though there is no idleness or slackness. Again, as a contrast to our heat and fever, and hurry, and distrust, regard the sublime calm of nature:
“Sweet is the leisure of the bird, She craves no time for work deferred; Her wings are not to aching stirred, Providing for her helpless ones.
“Fair is the leisure of the wheat; All night the damps about it fleet, All day it basketh in the heat, And grows, and whispers orisons.
“Grand is the leisure of the earth; She gives her happy myriads birth, And after harvest fears not dearth, But goes to sleep in snow wreaths dim.”
Yes, as the Great Teacher said (and the saying seems to me one of the most suggestive of even His sayings), the earth brings forth her fruit _with patience_. And now, what a contrast is this to our work! How distrustful, how impatient we are! How apt to be in a hurry! We would have the whole long Summer’s work done in the first short Spring day. We want the leaves perfect, and the blossom gone, and the fruit not only set, but ripened all at once. We cannot ourselves bring forth fruit with patience, nor be content to wait its gradual growth and ripening in others.
I give two examples of this. One is of the education of children. We want the ripe fruit, too often, before the bud has even well developed for the bloom. What unnatural precocity do some well-meaning religious parents bring out, and exult over, in the little delicate undeveloped minds that God has given to their care. It pains me to read the stories that are so prized by some people. They force upon one the sense of such utter unreality. What experience has that infant mind gathered of the deep feelings and inward struggles, the defeats and victories, the repentances and recoveries, the depressions and ecstasies, the wrestlings in prayer, the astonishments, the dismays, the failings, and the attainments, that are familiar to the veteran in the battles of the Lord? And yet we would make him talk the language of the soldier of the hundred fights, when, only very lately brought into the camp, he does but sit among the tents, hardly yet even seeing or hearing
“The distant battle flash and ring.”
Experience will come, but until he has had it, why should you require its tokens? The war is at hand, but is it wise to bid him ape its trophies while its grim earnest is scarcely yet to him a dream? Parents, anxious parents, heartily do I sympathise with your yearnings. You long to know certainly that your child is indeed a faithful and obedient child of God. Nevertheless, to hurry the work is often to mar it. Forced fruit, if you get it, is poor and flavourless, compared to the natural growth. And how much falls blighted from the bough! You have seen gooseberries red before full grown, and while others about them were green. But you know that this is not ripeness, but only its caricature. And I have seen such a mere painful caricature in the talk and conduct of the child. Be content,
“Learn to labour,--and to wait.”
Put in the seed watchfully, wisely, diligently, not rashly, nor over profusely; pray before, and during, and after the sowing; and then trust to God and wait. Dig not up the seed to see if it is sprouting; despair not if through long Winter months scarce any tender blade appear; suffer that the ground which ye have diligently, painfully, prayerfully sown, should _bring forth fruit with patience_.
My other instance is that of the desire and endeavour for holiness. How many that are but beginners in the race, chafe and fret because they cannot be at once at the goal. How many a one, but a babe in holiness, expects to be at once a man, without the gradual growth, the patient succession of day and night, and sun and shower, through this dusty toilsome Summer of our life. And depression, discouragement, sometimes falling away, results on this unwise hurry. The seed tries to grow with unnatural rapidity, and, therefore, having no root, it withers away. Oh wait, and work, and trust, seedling saint, and fear not but that God will send the full growth: yea, if thou wilt, even bid thee bend with fruit an hundredfold for Him. Only remember, God’s order is, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.
Yes, let us take comfort from the thought of the gradual growth and ripening of Summer days. Every day’s sun, every night’s dew, add a little. And at last the grain bows heavy and ripe, and the fruit reddens upon the branch, and weighs it towards the ground--that was once but a thin weak blade, or a small crude, sour, green bullet.
And---for an ending of the discourse of Summer days--working thoroughly, and working patiently, the earth also works _steadily_ on, and in spite of discouragement; of the loss of many dreams, and the experience of many failures. Its songs have gone; its freshness is over-gloomed; and dust has gathered upon its light and glory. Blights, and caterpillars, and frosts, have marred much; and the poetry and early fascination of Spring is over now.
But it goes on steadily, in the dry Summer glare, in the drought, and dust, and silence; patiently, uncheered by showers, and with many a leaf curling, many a fruit dropping. Though life often seems monotonous, and prosaic, and dry, it none the less steadily and persistently, and without giving up or losing heart, toils on.
Ah, thus in our Summer days, in the time of our manhood, when life’s poetry has fled, and we are not that we wished to be, and we do not that we wished to do; and the romance, and the glory, and the glitter of the once distant warfare, when
“Among the tents we paused and sung,”
has resolved itself into the stern realities, and prose, and smirch, and dust, of the long toilsome march, the weary watching, and the sob and sweat of the struggle and the contest; when this is so, let us gravely, solemnly settle down to the, at first sight, uncheered duties and blank programme of the work of Summer days. Yes, when the dull every-day routine of dry work is near to making us heart-sick and over-tired; when
“Still in the world’s hot, restless gleam We ply our weary task, While vainly for some pleasant dream Our restless glances ask,”
let us remember that, whatever our work be, so it be honest, God gave it us to do, and the homeliest act, or repetition of monotonous acts, is ennobled, if the motive be noble, and the labour stedfast and brave--if it be done heartily and well, as to the Lord, and not as unto men. Think of St. Paul making tents--yea, of CHRIST in the carpenter’s shop--and weary not--oh sick at heart, and disappointed of youth’s sweet Spring dreams and high imaginings!--of the work--however homely, however monotonous, however dull and prosaic--which yet God hath given thee to be done.
Friends, let us work in Summer days. The Spring is past; we will not, therefore, spend our golden hours in useless regrets. The Autumn has not yet come. But the Summer is with us now. Beyond it there may be a land of Beulah, even here, when the dust, and toil, and strain pass by a little, and something of the old-remembered brightness of colour and beauty flushes over the land. Whether or no such an Autumn-quiet be attained, the Summer will pass, and the great Winter sleep will come. And beyond that there shall be Spring without its evanescence, Summer without its toil and weariness, and Autumn without its melancholy and death. Beyond the short labour of Summer days, “_There remaineth a rest for the people of God_.” Let us, therefore, labour, that we may enter into that rest.
MUSINGS IN THE HAY.
Ah! now I am seated as I love to be, the June blue over me, and the sweet, warm, new-made hay underneath. On the shadow side of a great haycock, here have I selected my seat, plunging down and feeling the soft cushion give, until it has attained consistency enough to resist me. I have been busy, very busy, all this week, and the week before that, and indeed several weeks back. And I have earned, and mean to indulge in, a quiet long afternoon, and perhaps evening, in the hay-field. I have a book with me, but I do not pledge myself to read much. I have not come out here to read; not to do much, indeed, but just to sit and muse, nay, chiefly to enjoy the feeling of being able to rest. To feel that there is, or shall be, so far as I can choose, no call for the remainder of this day upon anxious heart and weary brain; no parish troubles; no sick, whose silent cry in the distance forbids the pastor to sit still; no sermon, no article, to think out or to write; no letters to pour into that insatiable post-office,--the true sieve of the Danaids; not even any gardening to do or to superintend; no, nothing necessary but to sit on the side of a haycock “in the leafy month of June.” We may go on and on in the round of every day’s business, on and on, unpausing, till we drop: the mere energy of spinning may keep us up, though perhaps on a weak and tottering peg; and work begets work; and busy day will chase busy day like the sails of a windmill; and we hardly dare stop, because we foreknow how we shall then have a long bill to pay, all the arrears of those fatigues and that weariness that we bade stand aside as we laboured on; and we know that if we once stop to give them a hearing, it will be hard work to set the heavy machinery going again. For myself, I often feel that to go on working, is to be able to work; to pause is to collapse, and to feel incapable. Still, in fact, we make life go farther by careful trading, than by spending all our capital at once. And both for purposes of devotional retirement and of necessary recreation, it is well sometimes just “to sport our oak” (to speak in Oxford phrase) upon the noisy and importunate throng of things clamorous to be done, and yet which, if discharged, would but give place to as many more. I could dizzy my brain with thoughts of business that I might do, and want to do. But for some weeks I have worked on and worked on, hoping to satisfy all claims; waiting for a pause, which never would come; and now I will no longer wait for it, but make it. Away! crowding calls, for this afternoon, for all the rest of this day. The wrestling, restless, toiling, moiling, weary world is quite shut out from me behind this mighty chain of haycocks. I hear the sharpening of scythes, and their long sweep in the bending swathes; once or twice in the afternoon a cuckoo sails with broad wing over me, and voice which stammers now near the end of his monotonous but prized oration; there is a scattered rain of larks’ songs falling all around; and, on a hedge near by, the short plaintive cadence of the yellow-hammer’s few notes.
Grass is always beautiful,--thus I am led to think as, leaning on one arm, I inspect the material of my couch. Beautiful after the winter lethargy, and when it grows lush and green, vividly green, and taller and taller under the showers, at the roots of the pines that step forward here and there from the shrubberies into the lawn. Beautiful again, when the scythe and mowing-machine have destroyed _this_ beauty, and substituted that of the smooth, well-kept velvet sward. Beautiful, growing in the meadows, and deepening for hay; a sweet close under-growth of white or dull pink clover; of orange-flowered trefoil; of purple self-heal; of bright yellow-rattle; of small red orchis; of orchis pale lilac specked with dark; and, more desultory and thinner, above these the tall grass and flower-stalks: “all grass of silky feather”; bright rose ragged-robin; white ox-eye daisy; brimstone toad-flax; tall buttercups; pale pink centaury; numberless varieties of fringed flowers, all yellow; and bobbing myriads of the ribwort plantain, to which we are all, when children, very Henry VIII.’s; tall slight sorrel; tougher dock. Beautiful, when the scythe has laid all this in broad, lowly lines upon the whole face of the field; and the mowers advance yet steadily upon the long yielding ranks. Beautiful when the green has turned grey, and the brighter colours of the flowers are dull, the clover not yet brown, only faded, the yellow tassels showing, as they droop, the paler under-wing of the closing flower, the buttercups spoiled of their square varnished petals, and showing only the green spiked ball, the miniature head of Gog or Magog’s mace. Beautiful to lie in the grey mounds of the soft, fragrant, new-made hay, dying, if this be to die, so graciously, and sweetly, and blessingly; lovely in life, and sweet in death. Beautiful when even this bloom-grey has gone, and we shake out from their close-pressed sleep the loose masses of the yellow hay, and brown leaves and flowers, all, however, still fragrant, and full of hints in Winter days, of the warm Summer. Beautiful when the last cart is carried, and the rick is being thatched, and a pale bright under-growth has given to the dry hot field, in the parched Summer-time, something of a faint imitation of the early green of Spring.
So I lean, listless, idle, and examine my couch. Much I find to examine in it; besides the embalmed flowers, there is a small zoological garden--brown ants climbing up the pole of an upright grass-stem; leopard-spotted lady-birds; alligator grasshoppers; woolly-bear caterpillars; bird-of-paradise butterflies. I am left alone with these, and so can be quite quiet; for I am in the rear of the haymakers.
“All in a row Advancing broad, or wheeling round the field, While, as they rake the green-appearing ground, And drive the dusky wave along the mead, The russet haycock rises thick behind.”
And my couch is one of these same pale hills that they have done with. My wife is away with the children: I shall not therefore run the risk of being buried, with shouts, under the piled heaps of the hay. My servant has gone out for a walk: I thus escape the apprehension of seeing her advance into my field steering among the haycocks, and, with hand shading her eyes, looking about all over its wide glare for me. I can lean on this arm until it is tired, then change to the other, then lie on my back and watch the fleecy blue, with handkerchief spread for fear of insects; then turn over again, and resume my inspection of the grass. I am thus particular in description, because I would fain carry my hay-field into hot London. A few distinct details may help out many a memory; and the clerk really in the baking, staring London street may yet, if his imagination be my ally, lean back among the yielding warm-breathed hay to muse with me upon the grass and its teachings.
For it is, after all, impossible to be absolutely doing nothing. The mind, that busy alchemist, works on and works on in the worn laboratory of the body, and transmutes gold into earth, or earth into gold, as the case may be, in its peculiar crucible. And so, since I cannot but muse on the hay into which I am closely peering, I may as well also jot my musings down.
* * * * *
Flesh, and grass: how natural the now common-place connection between the short-lived beauty of the two! It is one of those commonplaces, however, which new thoughts could not easily better. The hay-fields, with their life and glee, and loveliness of flowers just now, and now these faded mounds! The generations of men in the gaiety or toil of the world, and then the churchyard with its “shadowed swells”! Half a year for the one growth, and sometimes less, sometimes more, for the other; but all lying in the bending swathes at last. Take the extreme case:
“All the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years.”
Was flesh like grass then? What! a thousand years akin to the life of a few months? Yes, closely akin; banded together by the last words of the life of both; for how ends the short history of the longest liver of mortal men?
“----_and he died._”
Yea, the growth, the ripening was longer in progress, but the scythe came at last:
“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass,--and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field; The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.”
“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: He fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.”
“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; And the place thereof shall know it no more.”
“In the morning they are like grass which groweth up; In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; In the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”
Oh, faded couch on which I lean, here are witnesses enough of the highest authority of all, to establish a brotherhood between us! I look at these hands which can write and work, I look at these limbs which can rise and go, I consider the brain which can busily toil:--and from these I turn to regard the dry heap that once was living grass;--and I think how slack, and void of energy, and lifeless will these also lie, in the long swathes which ever and ever fall before the advancing mower, Death.
“‘Consider well,’ the voice replied, ‘His face, that two hours since hath died; Wilt thou find passion, pain, or pride?’”
No; each lies in that especial long line of mown grass that we call his generation:
“Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.”
Flesh, and grass: are they not akin? These ever-succeeding generations;--how the grass still grows after every mowing.
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh”;
--there is not a word of abiding at all, says Archbishop Leighton. But, however, there is a notice of constant succession, and the grass grows as fast as it is mown. Load after load is added to the store of Eternity; but the mower Death knows no pause. Ever and ever the tall grass and the sweet flowers bend before that industrious scythe. Where is the glad growth of fifty years ago; and where the life that preceded that; and so on, back to Adam? In long fallen ranks they lie, generation parallel with generation, all across the wide field of the world’s history. Flowers, and plain grass, and wholesome fodder, and prickly thistles, and poison weeds, they bowed at the edge of the scythe; so far they are equal:
“There is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all.”
Yes, all lie in the swathes, and are equal there; the almost bitter saying of the wise man, to whom sin had made even wisdom sadness, is so far true. True while we consider the field after the scythe; true while we look on Death, but not applying any longer when we imagine the Resurrection. A very Life shall revive, or a very Death shall wither, each stalk of the myriads that lie waiting in the field, each in the place where it fell.
* * * * *
I cannot help being also reminded by this history of mowing and growing, of the special field of each human life, with its ever springing, ever falling hopes and dreams. One day it is a carpet of brightness and glory; the next, the withered lines lie on the bare field. Yet look closer, and you will find already the tender green of a new growth appearing to clothe the scarred meadow. A constant succession, ever mown and still growing; every year and often in the year a fresh attire, however the heart, when that common-place desolation was new to it, refused in dismay to believe in the possibility of any further crops. Fond thing! even while it thus protested, _the grass had already begun to grow_; and it was in vain to try in sullenness or self-respect to check the smiling flowers that _would_ crowd up over the ruin. Many a one of us can say, of some past sorrow, that,
“When less keen it seemed to grow, I was not pleased--I wished to go Mourning adown this vale of woe, For all my life uncomforted.”
It could not be, except in the case of a hypochondriac. In healthy lands the growth cannot be checked.
“I thought that I should never more Feel any pleasure near me glow”:
“I grudged myself the lightsome air, That makes men cheerful unaware; When comfort came, I did not care To take it in, to feel it stir.”
After that devastating flood you did not care to take in the dove with the olive-leaf; you had rather sit moodily alone. Very well for a time, but “will you nill you,” the second crop begins to cover the scars. And soon you can tranquilly and thankfully say,
“But I have learned, though this I had, ’Tis sometimes natural to be glad, And no man can be always sad, Unless he wills to have it so.”
For it is an ordinance of God that the grass shall keep on growing.
* * * * *
But, of course, especially, and above all, the analogy before indicated is that which connects this brief life of ours with the grass of the field. We are, above all, alike in our _frailty and evanescence_.
“All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.”
How exquisitely Archbishop Leighton comments upon this text! An idea so anciently true as almost to have become, in our ordinary speech, common-place, blossoms into new beauty under his holy thought. So, however, do what seem to ordinary thinkers bare rods in the teaching of the Bible, yet bloom and bear fruit abundantly in the shrine of a congenial heart. “All flesh is as grass.” Yes, he expands it, and “grass hath its root in the earth, and is fed by the moisture of it for awhile; but, besides that, it is under the hazard of such weather as favours it not, or of the scythe that cuts it down, give it all the forbearance that may be, let it be free from both those, yet how quickly will it wither of itself! Set aside those many accidents, the smallest of which is able to destroy our natural life, the diseases of our own bodies and outward violences, and casualties that cut down many in their greenness, in the flower of their youth, the utmost term is not long; in the course of nature it will wither. Our life indeed is a lighted torch, either blown out by some stroke or some wind; or, if spared, yet within awhile it burns away, and will die out of itself.”
A new idea is here given us as to the mowing. This poet makes the scythe to be the sweeping of disease or accident or violence that every day prostrate their thousands; accidents or violence represent the mowing; and there is, beside these, the withering too. As though a field of deep grass should be left unmown; yet how soon then would its life and light and laughter depart, and a skeleton array of thin, sere, shivering yellow stalks meet the October winds. Even if unmown, we must wither, and either will at times seem saddest to us, until we remember that this field is but the field of Time, and that the eternal God is ordering all.
But Leighton proceeds to develope another exquisite thought, which to many would lie hidden and unperceived in the short and simple word of God--“All flesh is as grass, _and all the glory of man as the flower of grass_.” On the hint of this latter member of the sentence he speaks:
“There is indeed a great deal of seeming difference betwixt the outward conditions of life amongst men. Shall the rich and honourable and beautiful and healthful go in together, under the same name, with the baser and unhappier part, the poor, wretched sort of the world, who seem to be born for nothing but sufferings and miseries? At least, hath the wise no advantage beyond the fools? Is all grass? Make you no distinction? No; _all is grass_, or if you will have some other name, be it so; once this is true, that all flesh is grass; and if that glory which shines so much in your eyes must have a difference, then this is all it can have--it is but the flower of that same grass; somewhat above the common grass in gayness, a little comelier and better apparelled than it, but partaker of its frail and fading nature; it hath no privilege nor immunity that way; yea, of the two, is the less durable, and usually shorter lived; at the best, it decays with it--_The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away_.”
Yes, grass and its flower--loveliness, might, wisdom: Helen of Troy shared the fate of the meanest weed; Julius Cæsar and Napoleon lie with the rank and file; Solomon in his glorious wisdom is at last now equalled with those lilies of the field, that grass which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven. We in the lower rank, we mere grass of the field, look at and admire the glory above us, the flower of the grass, the choice gifts of intellect, of power, of beauty: but even as we gaze, and before the scythe can come, or the sun can wither it, we miss it--“The flower thereof fadeth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth”:
“The wind passeth over it, and it is gone. And the place thereof shall know it no more.”
“The instances are not few, of those who have on a sudden fallen from the top of honour into the foulest disgraces, not by degrees coming down the stair they went up, but tumbled down headlong. And the most vigorous beauty and strength of body, how doth a few days’ sickness, or, if it escape that, a few years’ time, blast that flower!”
And, sadder still, we must feel it to be, the ornaments of the mind are as short-lived; and we watch, with the keenest regret, great intellects quenched by decay or death, and minds that are the most stored with knowledge and learning cut off in a day.
“Yea, those higher advantages which have somewhat both of truer and more lasting beauty in them, the endowments of wit, and learning, and eloquence, yea, and of moral goodness and virtue, yet they cannot rise above this world, they are still, in all their glory, but the _flower of grass_; their root is in the earth. When men have endured the toil of study night and day, it is but a small parcel of knowledge they can attend to, and they are forced to lie down in the dust in the midst of their pursuit of it; that head that lodges most sciences shall within a while be disfurnished of them all; and the tongue that speaks most languages be silenced.”
Yes, and again I look at the jumble of common grass and flower of grass, and bright blossoms all withered, in which I am reclining, and think how our bright days and our commonplace days, our ordinary life and our pageants, fade into dulness even as we live on, and are all swept down at last, as it seems to a superficial thinker, into one common oblivion by Death. “What is become of all the pompous solemnities of kings and princes at their births and marriages, coronations and triumphs? They are now as a dream.” And so with our first flushes of success, our earliest tastes of fame, our new ecstasies of love, our wonders and admirations when life was young--where are they very soon? Lying in the mown ranks, void of their living movement and vivid lustre; numbered with the heap of every-day events and emotions; still distinguished from these, still marked as flowers, but the glory of them dried out under the air of use and the sun of experience. Precious they are still, and dear, but the dreams of youth are not to Age what Youth imagined them; the hay is valuable and sweet, but it is not that field which the least air could stir into a sea of silky light and shade, and a tossing of myriad colours. It was the Flower of grass, and it cannot be, on earth, but that “_the grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away_.”
“Would we consider this, in the midst of those varieties that toss our light minds to and fro, it would give us wiser thoughts, and ballast our hearts; make them more solid and stedfast in those spiritual endeavours which concern a durable condition, a being that abides for ever; in comparison of which the longest term of natural life is less than a moment, and the happiest estate is but a heap of miseries. Were all of us more constantly prosperous than any one of us is, yet that one thing were enough to cry down the price we put upon this life, that it continues not. As he answered to one who had a mind to flatter him in the midst of a pompous triumph, by saying, What is wanting here? _Continuance_, said he.”
Yes, this is the moral of it all, “_we have no abiding city_.” What then? “_But we seek one to come._” And St. Peter, if he talk, it might seem mournfully, of the fading and dying growth from all earth’s sowings, is not really trying to sadden, but rather to cheer us. For he has been telling but just now of incorruptible seed; and he sums up the teaching of the fading grass and its withering glory, with these words of quietness and confidence,
“But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever.”
And this is always the distinction between the Worldling’s or the Sentimentalist’s cry of the vanity of human life and of its glory of hopes and loves and ambitions; and the Inspired declarations of this vanity. In the former it is but a wind which comes with a blight and passes away with a wail. In the latter, some better thing is ever held before us, to which our heart’s yearning tendrils, gently disentangled from their withering support, may safely cling: and if the vanities and emptiness of Time are clearly set before us, we are offered instead the realities and the fulness of Eternity.
“The world passeth away, and the lust thereof”;
“He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
I have mused away my afternoon, and the sun is near the hills, and this day is falling beneath the scythe, and will soon lie behind me in the swathe, as I advance upon the yet unmown field or strip of my life. There are in this flowers, and nettles, and thistles, no doubt, and much common undistinguishable grass. Ah, may it, in the end, be found to be, upon the whole, good and useful hay! Yes; but here the life of man outruns the analogy, for the days that are passed are not done with: they remain dried and stored, either to rise and revive their flowers in far more than their pristine beauty; or to be burnt as rubbish and waste. Nothing that God wrought of good or beautiful in us here, but will, fresher and fairer than at first, remain with us hereafter. And there is One for whose sake even the nettles and thistles that mixed with the useful grass and fair flowers, shall have vanished from those hearts that loved Him, and be counted as though they had never been.
Let me lie back for a little while, as the sun sets, and a cool air fans me, to quiet my heart with this happy trust and confidence.
THE BEAUTY OF RAIN.
At the time at which I am writing, a soft shower has just fallen. For months we have had scarcely any rain. Even the massed primrose roots in the hedges, with the last few stragglings of their Easter decorations here and there about them, have drooped their long broad leaves. The grass and the trees have seemed to remain at a standstill, as though waiting for something. The plough-land has stood in great unbroken lumps. The marsh-land has gaped open in huge cracks. The ponds have sunk a foot below their usual mark; the ditches give no savoury smell from their shallow green soup. The roads are like grindstones, wearing down your shoe-leather with myriad-pointed flint-powder, and your patience with loose stones that carry your legs away from your control and supervision. The roofs want washing, the drains want flooding, the butts want filling. When I pour waterpot after waterpot of water about the roots of some favourite or needy plant, the water runs off the caked ground as though it were a duck’s back; or, the mould being loosened, is sucked in, without the chance of collecting into a pool, and, seemingly, without quenching the fever-thirst of the earth.
All things and all people want rain: the farmers for their land, the cottager for his garden--a steady three or four hours’ downpour, not only such a slight shower as this, that, scarce having browned the beds, is already drying off from them.
Just now, it is certain, rain would be appreciated, but still even now more for its usefulness, than for its beauty. For the beauty of rain is a thing often missed, I think, even by those who do keep, as they pass through this world, a keen eye for the Creator’s thoughts, embodied in beauty about them: poems written on the world’s open page by the Hand of the great _Poet_, or Maker. For, rightly regarded, from the vast epic of the starry heavens, to the simple pastoral of a dewdrop, or the lyric a bird, God’s works are to us the expression of His mind, the language which conveys to us His ideas. Man’s noblest descriptive poetry--what is it but a weak endeavour to interpret to less gifted seers the beautiful thoughts of God?
And rain is one of these thoughts--a realised idea of the mind of the Almighty. And since I find, both in men and in books, a general neglect, if not a rooted dislike, with regard to rain--_as such_, and putting out of sight its _usefulness_--I shall devote a few pages to the endeavour to set forth the beauty of this thought of God.
Even Tennyson, nature-loving Tennyson, what word has he for the rain? Of Enid we are told--
“She did not weep, But o’er her meek eyes came a happy mist, Like that which kept the heart of Eden green Before the _useful trouble_ of the rain.”
Nothing, then, even in the desire to praise it, better than “_useful trouble_”? I do not think that even Wordsworth dwells with much frequency or delight on this friend of mine. Longfellow has--
“The day is cold, and dark, and dreary, It rains, and the wind is never weary.”
One who sent out, some years ago, a volume of unfulfilled promise, writes--
“How beautiful the yesterday that stood Over me like a rainbow! I am alone, The past is past. I see the future stretch All dark and barren as a rainy sea.”
And so on, generally; all that is dreary, uninviting, dismal, seems connected in the English mind with rain. In the English mind, I say, for I suppose the want of appreciation of it arises from its somewhat abundance in our climate. But how differently is it regarded by the poets of an Eastern land! How beautiful the description--
“Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it; Thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: Thou preparest them corn, when Thou hast so provided for it: Thou waterest the ridges thereof abundantly: Thou settlest the furrows thereof: Thou makest it soft with showers: Thou blessest the springing thereof.”
How lovingly it is spoken of! That “gracious rain upon Thine inheritance,” refreshing it when it was weary; the “rain upon the mown grass, and showers that water the earth.” How its mention is a signal for thanksgiving--“Sing unto the Lord, who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth.”
* * * * *
To be rightly appreciated in our climate, rain should certainly come after a drought. Most people, no doubt, then appreciate it, because of its watering the crops, or laying the dust. But the true lover of rain regards it not merely or chiefly in this utilitarian matter-of-fact aspect. He has a deep inner enjoyment of the rain, _as rain_, and his sense of its beauty drinks it in as thirstily as does the drinking earth. It refreshes and cools his heart and brain; he longs to go forth into the fields, to feel its steady stream, to scent its fragrance; to stand under some heavy-foliaged chestnut-tree, and hear the rushing music on the crowded leaves. Let the drought have continued two months; let the glass have been, at last, steadily falling for a day or two; let, at last, a delicious mellow gloom have overspread the hot glaring heavens; let it have brooded all day, with a constant momently yet lingering promise of rain. The cattle stand about with a sort of pleasing dreamy anticipation; they know rain is coming, and no more muddy shallow ponds, and dry choking herbage for them. The birds expect it, and chirp and nestle in the foliage, important, excited, joyful. Or some one thrush or blackbird, amid the chirping hush of the others, constitutes himself the loud spokesman of their joy. So Keble--
“Deep is the silence as of summer noon, When a soft shower Will trickle soon, A gracious rain, freshening the weary bower-- Oh sweetly then far off is heard The clear note of some lonely bird.”
And at last it comes. You hear a patter here and there; you see a leaf here and there bob and blink about you; you feel a spot on your face, on your hand. And then the gracious rain comes, gathering its forces--steady, close, abundant. Lean out of window, and watch, and listen. How delicious! The gradually-browning beds; the verandah beneath losing its scattered spots in a sheet of luminous wet; and, never pausing, the close, heavy, soft-rushing noise; the patter from the eaves, the
“Two-fold sound, The clash hard by, and the murmur all round.”
The crisp drenching rustle from the dry foliage of the perceptibly grateful trees, broad pavilions for ever-chirping birds; the little plants, in speechless ecstasy, receiving cupful after cupful into the outspread leaves, that silently empty their gracious load, time after time, into the still expecting roots, and open their hands still for more. You can hardly leave the window. You come again at night; you have heard that ceaseless pour on the roof, on the skylight, and the loud clashing under the eaves, in the silence, as you went up late to bed. You open the window and let the mild cool air in, and look through the darkness, and listen, for you cannot see. On the vine-leaves about the casement is the steady
“Sound of falling rain; A bird, awakened in its nest, Gives a faint twitter of unrest, Then smooths its plumes, and sleeps again.”
Your light shines out into the deep dark, and touches the trees just about the house, and gives a dull gleam to some portion of the streaming lines. Unwillingly you shut the window, and hear still, as you kneel and there is silence, the rushing undertone. Or, if a cool breeze arise, sudden bursts of rattling drops come impetuously against the panes, with intervals of dreamy rustling, or in quick succession. You like to hear that sound as you lie in bed, for you think of the bedding plants that you have just put out, or of the burnt patches in the lawn, or of the turnip and onion seed; or, with a larger sympathy, you think of the great thirsty fields of corn, yellowing for want of rain; of the mill-stream, so long shallow and inadequate; of the wells in the cottage-gardens about you, and their turbid or exhausted condition. You look forward, ere you lose consciousness, to how next day all vegetation will have advanced and appear refreshed.
And next morning you look out from your window, as you dress, with a deep sense of luxurious enjoyment. The rain has continued steadily all night, until six in the morning. But it has ceased now, though the warm tender gloom still continues, and only just veils the bright sun, which now and then breaks through it. As you contemplate the scene from the open window, the refreshed look of the rich brown road, that was so white and dusty, makes you long to sally forth upon it. Tearful puddles smile here and there on the walks; the drenched grass twinkles and sparkles, and reminds you of that exquisite description of “the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.” And, breakfast over, you walk out, through the garden gate, a little way into the road. There is a peculiar, as it were, _growing_ warmth in the air. Everything seems to have attained a week’s growth in the one night. You remark the vivid gold-green patches in the hedges. The lime-trees--indeed, all the trees--make a most effective background with their black wet stems and branches for the radiant emeralds that have burst their pink caskets all over them. The corn-blades, the hedge-banks, the drooping boughs, have all a drenched, tearfully-grateful look.
You pass, well pleased, back into the garden again. How well the peas show in the dark mould, and how much taller are they than they were yesterday! The dull green of the potatoes, that appeared but here and there last time you looked, seems now to cover the beds. The little crumpled flowers of the currant and gooseberry bushes have developed all over them into many blossom-laden strings. In the flower-beds the annuals appear above the round sanded patches; and of the bedding plants, no geranium, heliotrope, or verbena droops a leaf. You go back into the house refreshed by the beauty of the rain, as much as vegetation has been by the rain itself. The worst of such a day is, that it makes you feel idle, indisposed to settle down to work, inclined from time to time to saunter out and watch nature chewing the cud of its late refreshment.
But this is only one example of the deliciousness of rain--one, you will say, picked, selected, exceptional. There are many other times at which it is beautiful. It is beautiful when it comes hurried and passionate, fleeing from the storm wind, hurled, like a volley of small musketry, against your streaming panes; and the few tarnished gold leaves of the beech-trees are struck down one after one by the bullets. It is beautiful in the Midsummer, when it comes in light, soft showers, or, more in earnest, accompanied with thunder-music, straight and heavy; when, as the poet says--
“Rolling as in sleep, Low thunders bring the mellow rain.”
It is beautiful when it rains far away in the distance, the bright sun shining on the mound on which you stand, and only a few guerilla drops heralding the approach of the shower towards you. It is beautiful among leafless trees, in early Spring or late Autumn, under an avenue, or in a copse, when every long bough and black branch is glittering, strung with trembling diamonds; when, the force of the wind and rain being kept from you by the trees and underwood, the gentle sadness and quiet melancholy of the scene can be gathered into your heart. It is beautiful in a town, when you stand at the window, and watch the emptying streets; the gutters pour by in a yellow, twisted flood; the street becomes a river, and, as the sudden gust drives them before it,
“Skirmishing drops Rush with bright bayonets across the road.”
The window is lined with rows of brilliants, that gradually grow bigger and bigger, and waver and fall, ever supplied by a constant succession of new comers, like the Scotch at Flodden,
“Each stepping where his comrade stood The instant that he fell.”
And, since I have mostly spoken of the beauty of rain in the country, I will quote a description of its beauty in London:--
“A slight, quick, fervid shower--tears more of happiness brimming over than anger breaking its bounds--had just fallen, and pricked the dry grey pavement into a dark lace pattern of spots, out of which you could select the newest by their being sharper in outline and darker than the rest. The aristocracy of five minutes ago, and the parvenues of the last moment, alike, as the soft warm rain fell now quicker and more petulantly passionate, melting one into the other, losing shape, place, and purpose, as the stone washed luminous brown, and transparent as slabs of Cairngorm agate.”
Londoners caught in a shower will surely thank me for this extract, and recall the description while they admire the process.
* * * * *
But if some people, notwithstanding my special pleading, still agree with Coleridge’s address to the rain,--
“Oh, rain, that I lie listening to You’re but a doleful sound at best,”
and echo his decision,--
“And, by the by, ’tis understood, You’re not so pleasant as you’re good”
for these I have yet a word.
If we cannot _enjoy_, let us _accept_ rain at any rate without grumbling; ay, even though it last day after day; ay, though it spoil our pleasure-plans, or our crops--remembering at Whose ordering it comes. People who grumble at the weather always remind me of the Israelites grumbling at Moses and Aaron, the mere instruments used by the Supreme. “_What are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord._”
From whence comes the shower that stops our pleasure-party; the drenching rain that falls, just when the hay or the corn was fit to carry? If such events move our ill-temper, or make us irritable and angry (and many are apt to be so), with whom is it that we are vexed? who has aggrieved us so that we speak as injured persons? Let us have a care. What is that “it” that we speak of as being “tiresome,” “annoying”? The clouds, the winds, the rain--_what are these, that we murmur against them?_ Are not such murmurings really against the Sender, if we trace them home? Such a result is commonly born of thoughtlessness more than of purpose. But that will not excuse it.
“Evil is wrought by want of thought, As well as want of heart.”
But evil it still is, and must remain. Therefore grumbling at the weather appears to me to be something more than foolish and ungrateful. A little thought on the matter seems to mark it as impious and profane. A heathen philosopher would have despised the _silliness_ of losing the balance of your temper, when there is no one that you dare blame for the cause. A Christian ought surely to soar beyond this, and, in things little or large, to accustom himself to recognise a Father’s ordering, and cheerfully to accept it, as sure to be the best and wisest.
I said a heathen might despise the folly of those who lose their temper because it rains. A beautiful anecdote occurs to me, which I met with in a very pleasant book, “Domestic Life in Palestine,” by Mary Eliza Rogers. This lady and her party were traversing, under the conduct of their guide, the fertile plains west of the Carmel range. “Rain began to fall in torrents; Mohammed, our groom, threw a large Arab cloak over me, saying, ‘May Allah preserve you, O lady! while He is blessing the fields!’ Thus pleasantly reminded, I could no longer feel sorry to see the pouring rain, but rode on rejoicing, for the sake of the sweet Spring flowers and the broad fields of wheat and barley.”
Can you fancy a more exquisite instance of the “art of putting things”? Can you not imagine yourself positively enjoying the wetting, even though no whit alive to the beauty of rain, _as_ rain? So much depends on the manner in which a thing is put before you; so much depends on the lead which is given to your way of looking at it. Had a grumbling Christian been beside the lady instead of the at least pious-languaged Moslem, to mutter, and repine, and reiterate, “How very unfortunate” (whatever this word may mean) “we are!” would not a gloom and dulness obscure the memory of that ride, in her mind? Whereas the beautiful thought of the Arab, as it made the idea of the rain pleasant and lovely at the time, so it dwells with a rainbow brightness on all after-memories of that cloud.
But enough has been said as to the beauty of rain. It seems, after all, that much depends on our way of looking at the thing. If we regard rather the inconveniences that will sometimes attend it, we shall probably not even think of looking for the beauty that I have endeavoured to describe. But if our way is to look rather for what is pleasant than for what is disagreeable, in the common events of life; if we love nature in all her moods, and watch, with a lover’s eye, each sweet change in her face; especially if we regard God’s works as the language of God’s thoughts, and consider nothing as the offspring of chance, but all things as consequent on His ordering, who sees the sparrows fall, and by whom the very hairs of the head are all numbered--if this be our manner of regarding those dispensations which are above our control, I dare affirm that in nothing that the Great Maker expresses, shall we miss finding, not only _use_, but _beauty_. And if I have suggested to some minds any thoughts that may hereafter lead them to share my love for the beautiful rain, I rejoice that I have been to them the exponent of a beauty that they have missed hitherto; and I shall receive their gratitude when the soft showers come that water the earth. And if my meditations be read, unhappily for them, not during a dearth, but during a glut of rain, my pleasant labour will not have been in vain, if, though failing to make many admirers, I yet quiet some fretfulness, and correct some thoughtless repining. Some rain, as well as some days, must be dark and dreary. But, after all, it rather receives its tinge of pleasantness or gloom from the colour of our own mind at the time, than itself influences our thoughts. Let there be within us the clear shining of a contented mind, and the darkest clouds will never want for a rainbow. Yea, such a mind, predisposed to enjoy and admire all that the Creator sends, will need no mediation of an interpreter to bid it discern and gather in for itself the exceeding beauty of rain.
Entering upon the last week of August, I may call the year still Summer,--yes, still Summer, but the Autumn days are drawing near. “_September_”--directly I pen that word in the right-hand corner of my letters, a great gap seems to have opened between the Summer and me. Autumn days are here: the gladness and glee of the year have gone, and a tender sweet sadness and mellow lucid gloom seem to have gathered over the still calm expecting landscape. The corn is all cut and carried, the pale stubble fields, edged with the deep green hedges, lie a little blankly on the hill-side or in the valley; the brighter Summer-shoots of the elms and the apple-trees have all sobered down now into uniform darkness; the little blue harebells tremble in clusters on the dried sunny hedge-banks; the gossamers twinkle on the grass, late into the morning, with a thick dew that has not yet quite made up its mind to be frost. The partridges whirr up from under your feet as you throw your leg over that stile; the rooks wheel home much earlier to bed. The fungus tribe begins to look up, and after a shower you come suddenly, as you cross the meadow, upon a cluster of buff-white mushrooms, with the delicious rose-grey under their eaves, and gathering them for the wife at home, you wander here and there to catch the white gleam among the grass, and are pleased, when successful, as a child with his first Spring daisies. Quiet, tenderly-sad Autumn days, after the harvest is gathered in and the plums are picked!
“Autumn! Forth from glowing orchards stepped he gaily, in a gown Of warm russet, freaked with gold, and with a visage sunny brown; And he laughed for very joy, and he danced from too much pleasure, And he sang old songs of harvest, and he quaffed a mighty measure.
But above this wild delight an overmastering graveness rose, And the fields and trees seemed thoughtful in their absolute repose; And I saw the woods consuming in a many-coloured death-- Streaks of yellow flame, down-deepening through the green that lingereth;
Sanguine flushes, like a sunset, and austerely-shadowing brown. And I heard within the silence the nuts sharply rattling down; And I saw the long dark hedges all alight with scarlet fire, Where the berries, pulpy-ripe, had spread their bird-feasts on the briar.”
We have here, save for some little flaws, a perfect painting of the intensely still, calm, expecting attitude of nature, the absolute repose of the year, which rests by its work done, and asks, in a quiet peace, in a deep trust, of the All-wise and the All-loving, “What next?”
“Calm is the morn without a sound, Calm as to suit a calmer grief, And only through the faded leaf, The chestnut pattering to the ground.”
Autumn days! I think they would be very sad indeed if we could only see decay in them, and if God had not put a little safe bud and germ of hope into every bulb and upon every branch--a promise of future life amid universal death: just as He put that green promise-bud into the heart of Adam and Eve, when such a dreadful death had gathered about the present and the future for them--declaring, to their seemingly victorious foe, of the woman’s seed, that
“It shall bruise thy head.”
A tiny dear little germ of a bud, and oh, how many hundred Summers and Winters passed before it developed into the glorious perfect flower! And so now there is yet a sadness, but only a cheery, gentle, tender sadness, about Autumn days to the heart that is waiting for God. And it seems to me wonderful that He should have given us one of His own minstrels to sit on the twigs as they grow bare and lonely-looking, and to express to us just the feeling that Autumn calls up within the heart, and that we yearn to have set to music for us. The little Robin waits his time; he does not cease, indeed, to trill his note in Spring, although we do not notice him then amid our blackbirds and thrushes and blackcaps and nightingales; for he is very humble-hearted, and content to be set aside when we can do without him. But Autumn days come, and the nightingale has fled, and the blackcap is far away, and the lark and the thrush and the blackbird are silent;--then the robin draws near. Close to our houses he comes, with his cheery warm breast, and kind bright eye, and his message from God. And then he interprets the Autumn to us, in those broken, tenderly-glad thrills of song, that, simple though they be, can sometimes disturb the heart with beauty that it cannot fathom, but that agitates and shakes it even to the sudden brimming of the eyes with tears. “Yes, it _is_ sad,” he says, “to see the flowers dying, and the leaves falling, and the harvest over. It _is_ sad--not a little sad--still, cheer up, cheer up; have a good heart. God has told me, and my little warm heart knows, that it is not _all_ sad. I know it is not. I can’t tell why. But it can’t be all sad; for God sent me to sing in the Autumn days. He taught me my song, and I know that there is a great deal in it about peace and joy. And it must be right; for though my nest is choked up, and my little ones are flown, and my mate has left me, I can’t help singing it. Cheer up. It is sad, but not all sad. Peace and joy--joy and peace.”
“The morning mist is cleared away, Yet still the face of heaven is grey, Nor yet th’ autumnal breeze has stirred the grove, Faded, yet full, a paler green Skirts soberly the tranquil scene, The red-breast warbles round this leafy cove.
“Sweet messenger of ‘calm decay,’ Saluting sorrow as you may, As one still bent to find or make the best, In thee and in this quiet mead, The lesson of sweet peace I read, Rather in all to be resigned than blest.
“Oh cheerful, tender strain! the heart That duly bears with you its part, Singing so thankful to the dreary blast, Though gone and spent its joyous prime, And on the world’s Autumnal time, ’Mid withered hues and sere, its lot be cast,
“That is the heart for watchman true, _Waiting to see what God will do_.”
* * * * *
Let us walk out into the garden. I love an Autumn garden, and I think that at any season of the year a garden is a book in which we may read a great deal about God. On the Sunday evenings, therefore, I like to sit there, under a tree may be, with some peaceful heavenly book, sometimes to read, and sometimes to close over my thumb, and keep just as company while I meditate; and God’s works seem an apt comment on God’s Word, which I have heard or read that day.
But now we will go in the early morning before breakfast--
“To bathe our brain from drowsy night In the sharp air and golden light. The dew, like frost, is on the pane, The year begins, though fair, to wane: There is a fragrance in its breath, Which is not of the flowers, but death.”
And we pass out of the window that opens into the garden under the tulip-tree standing so tall and still, with pale green and now yellow-touched leaves, that harmonise well with the pale sky against which you see them. The beech in the shrubbery has begun to “gather brown”; the tall dark elms that shut it in remind you vividly of the poet’s description of
“Autumn laying here and there A fiery finger on the leaves.”
Against the thick box-trees underneath you love to see
“The sunflower, shining fair, Ray round with flames her disc of seed,”
and some tall hollyhocks, still keeping up a brave cheer of rose-coloured and primrose and black blossoms upon their highest spike. The grass is glistening with heavy dew, sapphire, rose-diamond, pure brilliant, and yellow-diamond;--move a little, and one drop changes from one to the other of these. Walking across the lawn towards that rose-bed, you leave distinct green foot-prints upon the hoary grass. Perhaps the feeling that at last almost weighs upon you, and depresses you, is the intense, _waiting_ stillness of everything. That apple-tree, bending down to the lawn with rosy apples, it seems so perfectly still and resting, that it quite makes you start to hear one of its red apples drop upon the path. The hurry and bustle and eager growth of the year has all gone by: these roses, that used to send out crowding bud after bud;--for some weeks a pause, a waiting, has come over them. This one purely white blossom, you watched it developing, unfolding so slowly, that it never seemed to change, taking a week for what would have taken no more than half a summer day, until at last it had opened fully, and hung down its head towards the brown damp mould. And there it seemed to stop. It seems not to have changed now for a week or two--why should it hurry to fade?--there were no more to come after it should go. Now half of it has detached itself, and lies in a little unbroken snowy heap on the ground. How quietly it must have fallen there! And the other half still stays on the tree, and leans down, and watches with a strange calm over the fallen white heaped petals,
“Innumerably frost impearled.”
Something of depression comes over you, I say, and there happens to be no cheery robin just now to put in a word, nor sedate rook sailing with still wings overhead across the pale sky, to give you even the poorer encouragement of his mere stoic _caw_. Why are you depressed? What is this strange sadness that seems to you to lurk under the exquisite calm and beautiful stillness of the Autumn morning?
Do you hardly know? I will tell you. That quiet is the quiet of Death coming on; that calm waiting and expectancy is the herald of its approach, the beauty is the hectic flush of the consumptive cheek. Death is sad for Life to contemplate; and we are so much akin to all this decay, that this quiet tells us of it almost more than the heavy bell that now and then stirs the air of the Summer morning. The coming death of the Summer leaves and the Summer flowers preaches to us a solemn sermon of our own death drawing near. Watch that leaf circling down from that silent tree, and listen to the echo in your own heart:
“We all do fade as a leaf.”
Yes, death, the sense of advancing death, is at the root of your sadness and depression. Death in its beauty, in a tender loveliness--death, the angel, not the skeleton, yet still DEATH. And,
“Whatever crazy sorrow saith, No life that breathes with human breath Has ever truly longed for death.
“’Tis LIFE, whereof our nerves are scant, Oh life, not death, for which we pant, More life, and fuller, that I want.”
And a great warrior, of long ago, one who had less cause than most to fear death, yet said:
“We that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be _unclothed_, but _clothed upon_, that _mortality_ might be swallowed up of _life_.”
Well, this sadness must remain in some measure; the flowers must die, and the leaves must fall, and the robin’s attempts to cheer us bring the tears very near our eyes. “_Sin entered into the world, and death by sin_”: and the child of such a parent cannot bring joy as his attendant. Still, let us go on with our garden walk, and see whether, even in the face of nature, there be nothing else but only this peaceful waiting sadness.
Take these branches of the Lilac bushes, that we remember bending under their scented masses in the warm early Summer days. Bare and damp, bare of flowers, and only clad with sickly yellow leaves; but what else can we see in them? There is not one (examine them well) which has not already a full green bud of promise, developed even before the leaves, the old leaves, have fallen away. Look on the ground in the shrubberies. What are these little green points that begin just to break the mould? Ah, they are indeed the myriad white constellations of snowdrops already beginning to dawn, and the frail flower will sleep warm and safe in the bulb, under the patchwork counterpane of gold beech leaves, and bronze-purple pear-leaves, and silver-white poplar, and come out among the first to tell you that nature is not dead, but sleepeth. Look farther, on to the flower borders, at the base of the tall gaunt stalks of the once stately Queen of flowers. Lo, there already
“Green above the ground appear The lilies of another year.”
Not all sad, then; no, not all sad! Memory droops indeed with dewy eyes, but the baby, Hope, is laughing on her lap. There is a resurrection for the flowers and the trees; true, this of itself could not assure us that there is one for man. But God has told us in the Book of His Word, the meaning of what we read in the Book of His Works. And we know now what the robin meant, in his small song without words, and we know what the promise of Spring means, hidden in each Autumn twig; and indeed, the garden and the field, and every hedgerow, and every grass, gather now into a great chorus that take up an Apostle’s words,
“This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
But it is now nearly half-past eight o’clock, and the family will be assembling for prayer. Let us pass round this walk, with hearts cheerful, or only tinged with a shade rather of quiet than of gloom--
“And then return, by walls of peach, And pear-trees bending to our reach, And rose-beds with the roses gone, To bright-laid breakfast.”
Autumn days. Such thoughts as these may interpret to us the strange oppressive sadness that comes over us, as we watch them stealing on; also, why it is that this is such a tender, sweet sadness, and not a dark, deadly gloom--the shade of a solemn grove, not the blackness of a vault. Death is indeed a valley of shadow still. But the rays of the Sun of Righteousness have penetrated even there--and the hideous darkness is softened to a tender twilight hush. Oh,
“Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And now the Autumn days are very calm and restful to think upon, and there is a deep peace in the Autumn of life, for which we are well content to exchange the flush and glee of Spring, and the glory and glow of Summer. Our snowdrops and our primroses are all over, our lilac and laburnum, roses and lilies, all died long ago; even the fruit is plucked, except for the gleam of a stray red apple that burns upon the nearly leafless bough; and the corn is all carried, and we are wandering over life’s once waving fields, collecting just the last gleanings for our Master. Our larks are silent in the fallows, our thrushes and blackbirds voiceless in the groves; the rich flood of the nightingale’s thrilling song has long been lost to our hearts. The withered leaves sail down about us, the mists sleep on the hills, the dew lies thick in the valleys. But we are very happy and peaceful; even here there is a stray flower or two, and the Autumn crocus droops on the garden beds; and the berries are bright in the hedges, under the feathery tufts of the “traveller’s joy.” And our heart is well satisfied with the robin’s song of trust and content, that has taken the place of--if richer and fuller--yet less spiritual and more distracting strains. There is an intense waiting calm; but, oh, such thoughts of Life!--life everlasting, life indeed--push their way through the yet unfallen leaves of this frail existence, and that small cheery melody is, we well know, the prelude to the full symphonies that shall burst from Angel choirs.
How beautiful a time, thus thought of, is life’s Autumn time! I love to read of such a calm season in the life of a good man--a calm only broken by flashes of exultation, that come, like the aurora borealis, into the twilight sky. There is a sadness, no doubt--there _must_ be--in the coming shade of death which deepens on the path. But the bud of life in the very heart of death; of this we are more and more conscious, the closer we draw near to the withered branches. And, like the fabled scent of the Spice Islands, even over the darkening seas are wafted to us sweet odours from the Promised Land.
* * * * *
Autumn days--when the flowers are over, and the harvest well-nigh gathered in, and the flush and the eagerness very far behind, and the strength and the vigour things also of the past:--I think they are sweet days to which to look forward amid life’s hurry and bustle, its excitement of laughter and tears. A very peaceful land, a land of Beulah, where repose seems to reign, and all seems “only waiting.” No more wild dreams, it is true, of what life is going to be, but then no sad wakings, and, lo, it was a dream! No more quick blood coursing in the veins, no more excess of animal life making stillness impossible and silence torture; no more young devotion and quick enthusiasm, warming the heart even to tinder, ready to flare at the first spark of friendship or love. No more glow of poetry cast about every face, and every daisy, and every sky, and every scene of every act of the coming years. No more expectation of becoming a great poet, a mighty warrior, an evangeliser of the world. And then no vigour to act, as when life went on; no leading the front of the battle, striking strong strokes for the right; no rejoicing in the strength that has now come, and that is still, still in its prime.
All that, and more, has passed away from life’s Autumn days. It was, perhaps, rather sad to feel these things departing; to notice growth first come to a standstill--and then, here and there the streak of Autumn, and the first yellow leaves stealing down. To find the years so short, instead of so long; to lose the wonder and the thrill at the first snowdrop, the first cowslip; the first nest low in the bushes with five blue eggs; the first excursion round the park wall for violets, or into the wood for nuts. To lose the glow of early love, the despair of early disappointment, the vigour of early intention and action; and to mellow down into a half-light, undisturbed by any of those violent lights and shadows. It was, I say, perhaps rather sad to feel these things departing.
But now they have gone, and the Autumn days have come, and the heart has settled down to this state of things, and is content that it should be so. It is better, far better, the old man sees, to be in the Autumn of life, though he yet thinks tenderly, lovingly, of those young days in the impetuous, over-blossomed Spring. The “visionary gleam” has left his sky. But a truer, if a quieter lustre has arisen in it and abides. “_There hath passed a glory from the earth._” But the glory has been transferred to Heaven. It was sad, at first, when the glamour, and the magic, and the glow, passed away from this world, which, to youth’s heart seemed so exceedingly, inexpressibly glorious and fair. But it is better so. A mirage gave, indeed, a certain sweet mysterious light to life’s horizon, and he could not but feel dashed at first to find little but bare sand where the unreal brightness had been. But he journeyed on, learning, somewhat sadly, in manhood, God’s loving lesson, that we are strangers and pilgrims upon earth, that we have _no continuing city here_, not love, nor fame, nor wealth, nor power; none of these could, even had we attained it, prove a City of Rest: we must still journey on before we can sit down satisfied. And God’s true servant, in his Autumn days, has learned not to miss nor to mourn over youth’s mirage. Nay, his future has “no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it. For the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”
He looks at the sky, which is certainly darkening, because life’s one-day sun is going down. But, the lower it sinks, the less he laments it, for he finds that it did indeed hide from him the vast tracts of Infinity, and close him in, by its light, in a small low-ceiled room. Oh quiet days of peace and reverence and mild serenity; the rocking waves of the passions asleep about the tossed heart, and the glittering thoughts of heaven reflected instead from the calm soul; and its speechless infinite depths gradually mirroring themselves in the being! Happy days, when life’s feverish, exciting novel is closed, and we are just reading quietly for an hour in the Book of peace, before the time comes for us to go off to bed! Happy days; when God Himself is striking off one by one the fetters and manacles of earth, and will soon send His Angel to open for us the last iron gate of earth’s prison!
How thankful we should be, as we grow into the Autumn, for those kind words which assure us that life’s beginning, not life’s end, is then really near; that it is but the bud of immortal youth that is pushing off those withered leaves of mortality; for those who have given the year of their life to God; or, at least (such is His mercy in Christ Jesus), the earnest gleaning of its late months. For else, how sad to watch the sun setting, the only sun we know of, and to hope for no long day beyond. Think of what a wise heathen said of old age. Cicero wrote a treatise, a wonderfully beautiful treatise, in praise of it. But all this was but playing with his own sadness, in his old age; pleading the cause of a client, in whose cause he did not believe. For, after all, he writes his real thought to his friend Atticus. “_Old age_,” he says, “_has embittered me--my life is spent_.” Sad, yet true from his point of view. Sad--all spent; and no good hope of a “treasure in the heavens _that faileth not_.” How even one of the little ones in our village schools could have cheered up sad Cicero!
Now see what Christianity can do, and has done. Think of waiting Simeon:
“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, According to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
Hear aged Paul, the great champion Apostle, leaning now on his sword, and exhorting the younger warriors who are leading on that war, that he soon must leave. What peace, nay, what exultation, flashes through his waiting!
And a picture arises before us of another aged, very aged man, ending the Bible and his life with the solemn rapturous words of glowing expectation--
“He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
There is another aspect of Autumn days, dreary and sad as they apply to the worldling. But to the obedient faithful child of God, their sadness, we have seen, is gentle, peaceful sadness, a tender hush more than counterbalanced by the promise of we know not yet, _what_ exceeding ecstasy and glow of life, while we speak of it as _the life everlasting_. Aye,
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth,”
and there must be a hush over Autumn days, because death must be sad, even when it is beautiful. But how sweet and glorious, amid the fall and decay of the loveliness and beauty around us, to be able to rest our heart quietly upon a land beyond earth’s horizon; and to look forward brightly and happily across these changes, “to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and _that fadeth not away_.”
MUSINGS ON THE SEA-SHORE.
“Mourn on, mourn on, O solitary sea I love to hear thy moan, The world’s mixed cries attuned to melody In thy undying tone. Lo, on the yielding sand I lie alone, And the white cliffs around me draw their screen, And part me from the world. Let me disown For one short hour its pleasure and its spleen, And wrapt in dreamy thought, some peaceful moments glean.”
The tide is coming in; the waves are big enough to be called waves, yet they break upon the shelving shore from a perfectly calm sea. And the long ranks rise and fall at my feet, curving and breaking in endless succession; line after line sent forth by the stern mandate of General Ocean, to die each in his turn upon the impregnable rampart of the Land. Ever since the third day of Creation has this assault been protracted, now by craft, now with the thunder of artillery and the violence of the storm; although it be really so hopeless that the balance of things remains about as it was at the beginning. If the armies of the Sea have made a breach here, fresh earthworks have been thrown up in another place by its stubborn antagonist, and the interminable strife remains equal still.
But the solemn Sea forbids longer trifling; and its oppressive vastness, and melancholy murmur, and mysterious whisper of ever born and ever dying waves, own, surely, some grave meaning.
“The earnest sea, Which strives to gain an utterance on the shore, But ne’er can shape unto the listening hills The lore it gathered in its awful age--”
it seems to demand an interpreter. Let it be my mood to disentangle some of its utterances. Let me employ this hour of thought upon the lonely shore, in guessing at the meaning of the voice of the long lines which ever bow to the ground before me with eastern salaam, and then retire, having delivered their message.
“The sea approaches, with its weary heart Mourning unquietly; An earnest grief, too tranquil to depart, Speaks in that troubled sigh; Yet the glad waves sweep onward merrily, For hope from them conceals the warning tone, Gaily they rush toward the shore--to die. All their bright spray upon the bare sand thrown, How soon they learn their part in that old ceaseless moan!”
Yes, this well-worn lesson shall be the first that the waves shall teach us--the vanity and disappointment of human aspirations and early hopes and dreams. See now how glad and gleeful and bright and energetic they come on, twinkling with a myriad laugh, line behind line, eager ridge chasing eager ridge; all setting towards the cold sullen shore of the unsympathetic earth. Oh the clear pure curve, and the unsullied transparency; and the glancing crest of feathers and diamonds, and the rainbow tints as at last the longed-for shore is reached, and the eager plunge made! Oh the dis-illusion, the broken enchantment, the check, the change, the fall, when the white glittering spray lies now, lost and sullied and broken, upon the defiling earth; and the wave--amazed, daunted, shattered, quickly changing from over-hope to over-despair--flees back with a wild cry to the great Sea. Another and another and another, the warning is not taken; it is true that earth scattered this bright hope, this strong purpose, this brave design, this gleaming ambition; it is true that the yellow sands have been busy, ever since the Fall, inviting and then defeating the eager waves; receiving, marring, and sucking in the trembling snowy spray, the rainbow-tinged bubble dreams that the heart lavished upon them; and changing joyous onsets into moaning retreats. Yet who will expect the young heart to believe in the destiny of all its mere earth-dreams, _so long as, within it, the tide is coming up_? You almost smile, though with no scorn, to hear that momentary despairing sigh. For _you_ stand now on a point from which you can see a seemingly exhaustless and endless array of ever-new schemes, and hopes, and fancies, and purposes, and ambitions and dreams, line chasing line, towards that magic disenchanting shore. Those behind cry “Forward!” Vain for those before to cry “Back!” Yea, themselves soon pick up their broken forces, and swell the energy and join in the advance of the crested lines that chase one another to the shore.
This, then, is to me one lesson of the waves coming in. Human aspirations and dreams, advancing gaily in youth, awhile seeming to make some progress; but learning at high tide that they have but been conquering unprofitable tracts of barren sand. Then yielding ground inch by inch, losing their grasp of the world and relinquishing the very lust thereof; and spoiled, and stained, and marred, and with a very heart-moan, sinking to low ebb as life turns. Was not this Solomon’s story? Wave after wave dancing to the shore, curve after curve breaking eagerly upon it, scheme after scheme, toil after toil, pleasure after pleasure, hope after hope, ambition after ambition, dream after dream; the eye is bewildered and dizzied with the ceaseless motion, the steady endless advance of the gay and crested waters--“Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy: for my heart rejoiced in all my labour.” It was gladdening, exhilarating, exciting to see the flashing battalions of earthward plans, and earthward dreams, pressing each close upon each, to the inexorable, impassive line of rocks or sand--what matter that here one shattered with a crash against a cruel blunt crag, and fled with a scream, and that another left its light and beauty trembling and sinking into the sand, while itself slunk back with a hollow sigh; what matter these single and insignificant experiences of the vanity of things mundane, while there was yet a whole rising tide of wildly eager waters, coming in fast, fast, exhaustless, infinite, flashing and gleaming and dancing in the sun? On, gaily on, and what if some die? Are there not myriads to follow! Why heed the waste, amid youth’s profusion?
But a pause comes over all the glad onset; a stagnant time, a period of neither advance nor retreat: the tide is at the full. You mark no change for awhile either way: then at last a space of wet sand begins to border the line of dying spray. Broadening and broadening; but it was quite enough that it had once begun. The tide has turned. Here is “the check, the change, the fall.” An eager strife, a wild race, an impetuous advance, a profuse and uncalculating spending all youth’s energies, and purposes, and powers, and aspirations; an excited resistless march. And with what result? An unprofitable and transitory conquest of a narrow track of barren sand.
Oh draw off, draw off your broken forces, defeated in that they were victorious; disappointed by the very fact of attainment; steal back with that heart-sigh of “Vanity, vanity, vanity: all is vanity,”--back into the deep sea again! Leaving, it is true, the colour, and the light, and the gladness, and the purity; the crested spray, the diamond drops, the rainbow gleam; all lying wrecked and sucked in by the hungry shore. Leaving the spoils of youth, yet glad anyhow to get away; for what can equal the bitterness of that moment when the tide, long sluggish, begins at last to turn?
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”
No,--and the bitter thought is, that not the missing, but the attaining the prize, has disappointed; not failure, but success, has embittered: and that it might have been known from the very first that thus it must be--that the coveted possession was but lifeless rock or bare sand. There was a warning voice to this effect, but, oh, who heard or heeded it in that glorious advance of the long battalions of battling gleaming waters? And, to add bitterness to the cup, this was all an old story; we were not, as we dreamed, invading new worlds; no, those ancient sands have borne the furrows of myriads upon myriads of just such excited, eager, leaping tides. The anguish has not even the pathos of novelty; it is actually commonplace. That which seemed so new to us, at what more than millionth hand we received it!
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
“Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.”
And so hark to the moan of the waves as they draw off, when the tide has turned, and the disenchantment has come, sigh after sigh, moan upon moan, in the weary and desolate retreat. “_Vanity of vanities; all is vanity._” Yes; and farther on, a more bitter wail, as it passes back over some spot where some of the gayest morning hopes were spilt: “_I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit._” Lower and lower yet, with yet duller and heavier moan: “_What hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity._” And now an almost fierce and angry cry: “_Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me; for all is vanity and vexation of spirit._”
And what then? Is this the end of all? Is there no hope for the wailing tide; no redemption for the scattered spray?
I have seen what has seemed to me a sweet and touching answer to this question. Over the desolate sands a quiet Mist has been drawn, while the Sea moaned far away down at low tide. And I seemed thus taught how even earth’s wrecks may be repaired, and earth’s ruin turned into gain. Better to give to God the fresh sparkle and the first eager and joyous onset of life. But if not, and if the waves must set towards some earth shore, until they are broken, sullied, and wrecked there, see what the rising mist teaches. Let them remember themselves, and at last come homeward, leaving the stain and the defilement behind. So merciful is God, that even these ruins and disappointments are all messages of His patient love to us. If we will not turn at first to Him, He will let us break our hearts upon the shore of earth, content if but at last our hopes and aspirations will rise in a pure repentant mist from their overthrow and ruin, and wait beside the gate of heaven, touched now with the clear moonlight of peace, and expecting the rich sunburst of glory hereafter. The very overthrows and dissatisfactions of earth may thus rise, spiritualised and purified, to God at last.
This, no doubt, is the intention of the disappointments and inadequacies of this earth, upon which the heart, at the time of the coming in of the tide, spends so much of its powers, and against which it bursts and dies down into wild cries and weary sighings. This is the intention--an intention, alas! too often unfulfilled. For if God is saying, “Turn, my children, from that careless dwelling upon earth’s pursuits, excitements, and enterprises, to heavenly aspirations, letting your heart and mind, like rising mist from broken waves, ascend, instead of dwelling in tears on the bare sands that were never worth the winning--ascend thither, whither He who loved you is gone before, and continually dwell with Him, in the place called Fair Havens, where the waves of this troublesome world have ceased their restless eager quest, and are lulled into a peace beyond all understanding”--if God thus invites us, even by that sigh of our broken retiring waves, there is another voice, commonly heard, and too often heeded--a voice counselling hardness, repining, rebellion: a moan of sullenness, of despair, of defiance--a voice that whispers, “Curse God and die,” rather than, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” The voice, oh let us be assured, of folly, not of wisdom; of our Enemy, and not of a friend.
The waves are still tumbling upon the shore; with scarce perceptible progress they have advanced really a broad piece since I took my station here. Ever gathering their forces in long parallels, ever bending and falling, and seething back in wide sheets of white foam, seemingly ever repulsed, but really ever advancing, they bring to my mind an idea of great beauty and truth that I have somewhere met with, though where I cannot recall. It was a comparison of the earnest humble Christian’s progress in holiness to this coming in of the tide. The healthy Christian life will always be advancing; there must ever be a progression in holiness. Stagnant water is deteriorating water; it does not remain the same as when it ceased to flow. And this oft-repeated truth will come sadliest home to the more earnest, who are therefore the more humble. There ought to be, there _must_ be an advance, if the water be a living sea, and not a stagnant pool.
But dare we hope that there _is_ any such progress, such steady continuous advance in our own Christian life? Alas! we look sadly back at it and see long lines of earnest endeavours, at least of passionate yearnings, after better things, after perfection, after the beauty of holiness, after Christ-like consistency: they came in, and come in still, bright perhaps, and intent, and resolved; and, lo! how they trip and fall as they reach the shore of trial, and slide back, losing all the ground again! Ever advancing, only to recede; ever rising, but to fall; ever trying, yet still baffled; only able to weep over their own weakness, and to sigh continually with a depression that men call a morbid pain. New yearnings at every special time of solemn self-examination; new resolves, driven on by the breath of prayers; new endeavours; and, after all, old failures! How the waves come in, earnest, but impotent, each running up the little way on the shore that its predecessor had attained, and giving ground again, to be succeeded by another as weak.
* * * * *
But to cheer and encourage us sometimes, amid all this depressing history of failures, which may well serve to keep us humble, there is another analogy with the rising tide besides that of its endless endeavours and endless failings. There is, as with the waters, _an advance upon the whole_, though they seem to keep at much the same point, and to be doing little but ceaselessly recede and fail. You might mark, were you a watching angel, how this point is reached, and that passed; and how, though (and better for them here and now) the sighing waters perceive it not, each day’s expiring and almost despairing, but still earnest and prayerful efforts, have increased a little upon the shore to-day, and deepened and secured yesterday’s work. And quiet earnestness seems recommended by this thought: for have we not seen some impetuous waves come dashing in, as though to take the shore at one rush? And it is these most commonly which, meeting steady and sustained resistance, and feeling the strength which excitement had lent dying out from them; it is these impatient spirits that then lose heart most deeply, and sink back the farther, and sometimes quite fall away with a shrill and bitter cry, and lose themselves in the Deep, too dismayed to return,--rather, too little really in earnest to face the necessity of the daily, hourly strife--the inch by inch advance, the little by little, the day of small things.
If we are humbly in earnest, and if we are stedfastly, quietly striving, with unyielding watch and instant prayer, and faithful use of every means of grace, then we may hope, amid that which seems sometimes scarce anything but a sad history of failures, that thus there may be yet _advance upon the whole_.
But now I remember that there is, in appearance, and to the unpractised or uncareful beholder, little difference between the tide that is advancing and that which is going down. Still the endless hurry of flocking waves, still the appearance of life and purpose, still the advance and retreat upon the shore--and what is the difference? If there are many, many broken, defeated, and baffled endeavours, why so there were when the tide was rising. Ay, but there we found advance,--here we find retrogression--_upon the whole_. Alas! how great is the danger that is subtle and unseen; and in a spiritual falling back, it is the very slightness and imperceptibility of the loss of ground that makes the case so perilous. They have given over their watchfulness, their close observation of marks; the breath of prayer has fallen to a stillness; the waves seem to gleam and ripple and rustle as of old, and how shall the unearnest heart and the unwatchful eye ever know that _the tide is going down_?--a sinking so gradual, so stealthy, with such slight difference from day to day.
Many noteworthy causes there are of this lamentable failure and decline, many subtle enemies, that is to say, to diligent watchfulness and continual prayer. “Much trading, or much toiling for advancement, or much popularity, or much intercourse in the usages and engagements of society, or the giving up of much time to the refinements of a soft life--these, and many like snares, steal away the quick powers of the heart, and leave us estranged from God.” “How awfully do people deceive themselves in this matter! We hear them saying, ‘It does me no harm to go into the world. I come away, and can go into my room and pray as usual.’ Oh, surest sign of a heart half laid asleep! You are not aware of the change, _because it has passed upon you_. Once, in days of livelier faith, you would have wept over the indevoutness of your present prayers, and joined them to the confession of your other backslidings; but now your heart is not more earnest than your prayers, and there is no index to mark the decline. Even they that lament the loss of their former earnestness do not half know the real measure of their loss. The growth of a duller feeling has the power of masking itself. Little by little it creeps on, marked by no great changes.” And yet you would start, had you an Angel’s point of view, to see how wide a strip of former advance is relinquished now. The treacherous sands suck in the wet line, and it ever seems just before you--just a narrow band such as always edges the advancing and retiring waters, whether at ebb or flow. And how great does this danger then appear to be!--how deadly the craft of an Enemy too subtle ever to startle us!--how needful to watch for that retrogression which can hardly be perceived! Little by little we advance, and commonly little by little we decline. Even a great fall, it has been pointed out--one which seemed a sudden catastrophe, unheralded by any warnings--what a slow gradual process of “retirement neglected and hurried prayers” had been long preparing secretly for this. But now a saint, men think--and on a sudden a notorious sinner! Ah, they know not for how long, how secretly, how imperceptibly and undetected, how surely and how fatally _the tide had been going down_.
* * * * *
Enough of these desultory musings. Let us pause awhile in reverent silence, contemplating the mighty Sea as a whole, assuredly of things upon this earth our greatest emblem--an emblem grand, oppressive in its vastness--of Eternity and Infinity.
MUSINGS ON THE MOUNTAINS.
Mountains! I scarcely feel myself competent to fulfil the promise of this title, for I was never upon one in my life! Never had I the advantage of contemplating the mighty eminences of America; I have not even had the experience of standing beneath and toiling up to the summit of the white-haired Alps; nay, even the grand hills of Scotland, or the classic watchers beside the English lakes, have never been visited by me. Still imagination will often supplement the deficiencies of experience, and it is a good thing, I am convinced, for us all, so far as we can, to leave sometimes the plain of our daily routine of life, and to muse upon at least relatively higher ground.
I will begin by recalling my nearest approach to any experience of mountain ascent.
I was staying in Herefordshire with my brother, in his parish among the hills and woods. When a friend is with us, we seem to think it a necessity, both for his sake and our own, to rove somewhat, and to explore some of the more distant country. Accordingly we fell to planning expeditions, and after divers suggestions, contemplations, and rejections, fixed upon a small village beside a lovely stream renowned for its trout and grayling, and near a hill famous in those parts, and named Croft Ambrey. We were to sleep two nights at a small inn near the stream, and from that stream we were to extract our breakfast. There is always a great charm about these expeditions--a novelty, an independence, a breaking through the trammels of life’s daily routine, in their enterprising pic-nic character. And so my brother, his wife and I, started on the appointed morning, in high glee. We were, I remember, however, employed half the day in the vain endeavour to catch the white pony; and were at one time almost in despair of our getting off at all. The little rogue had been put up to some sly tricks by a horse with whom he had been observed to have been conferring over the fence for some days previously, and I remember the almost comic provocation with which he let us sidle up to him, with blandishments and barley, until just within range for the halter, and then, at the very moment of attainment, was off, and anon standing demure and meek at the other end of the field. Nor did we fare better if we altered our tactics, and, like wolves over the northern snows, tried to hem in our prey in a deadly half-circle. He ever contrived to give us the slip, and it was not until we were wearied out, and on the point of giving up our expedition for that day, that he surrendered at discretion.
We started, nevertheless, wound up again as to our spirits for the excursion, and thoroughly enjoying a twenty-miles drive through lovely scenery. It was so late, however, when we arrived near Croft Ambrey, that we had but time that afternoon for a walk towards it, and up a lesser hill, and so back to our quiet little inn, close to the Lugg. How one enjoys the meals on these occasions! That broiled ham and eggs, and home-brewed beer, in the little sanded room; what venison and champagne refection could for a moment compare with them? It is the charm of novelty, I suppose, in scene and room and everything. Of course, it is easy to understand the zest that attends a dish of trout and grayling of your own catching.
But to return to Croft Ambrey. Next day we were prevented by other engagements from fulfilling that with our hill. And, since we were to start quite early on the morrow, the chance of my ascending it seemed over when I retired to my homely but clean little bedroom at night. However, I had not quite given the thing up. It was in my mind, could I but contrive to wake at five in the morning, to sally forth, while great part of the world was asleep, and explore the peaks, passes, and glaciers of that noble hill. I am not good at waking, unless called. But--and this seems an illustration of how the mind controls the body--it is certain that if you go to sleep with a strong desire or sense of duty concerning the waking at a certain hour, you not unfrequently, after a careful fumbling under the pillow, find your watch demonstrating pretty nearly the time that your mind had appointed. This may be a mere coincidence, but it is one whose recurrence I have often marked. At any rate, I know that next morning I awoke, with a sudden instinct consulted my privy counsellor, and was by it informed that five o’clock was yet a few minutes distant. And so I arose, and drew the blind, and looked out upon the still world, in the sharp cool morning air. The light seemed clear and cold, and there was an incessant twitter and loud chirping dialogue of many awakened birds. A thin mist was withdrawing from the fields, and yet lay upon the course of the river. I hastened my dressing, and quietly slid down stairs. How well most of us know the weird strangeness of the house at the early morning hour, when all in it are still asleep, but day is peering in through closed shutters, and above locked doors! The darkling light; the breathing hush; the dog curled on the mat, rising uneasily, and surveying matters suspiciously, but, reassured, settling himself down again with a preliminary shake, when
“His sagacious eye an inmate owns”;
the sullen disturbing sound at the street door, of bolts and locks, and bars, that would have seemed noiseless enough by day. And then the clear sharp feeling of the air, when you step into the road; the silent unpeopled worship of nature at its matins’ hour; the shadows, long as those of evening, and more grey and pearly, along the white empty road. And, enhancing the stillness, perhaps one lonely traveller met, seeming the world’s only inhabitant; and, as you walk farther on into the day, presently
“The carter, and his arch-necked, sturdy team, Following their shadows on the early road.”
Thus, then, I sallied forth, and to my mind the details of that morning walk are even more distinct than when I trod it. The pause of consideration as to the turning to be taken; the selection, as it happened, of just the right gate; the belt of pines half-way up the hill, that from below seemed so near the highest point, but attained, showed a great height still to be surmounted--much like all striving upwards here after any excellence, especially after holiness; the pleasure when at last the summit was attained; the little incidents connected with that attainment; the frail harebell plucked, and pressed even now in my pocket-book; the curious war that I found and left going on between a hawk and a rook; each striving to get above the other, each making and each avoiding the hostile swoop; all these slight matters are the details which make that day’s whole still a distinct sharp picture to my mind.
And very full of matter for musing appears to me now that morning expedition. I forget how many counties of England and Wales lay outspread before me; some six or seven, I think. Certainly a mist brooded over them, and I did not see them clearly; but yet there they were, and I know not but that the half-appearance may have more impressed (imagination being called in to complete the scene) than a clear panorama would have done. The world’s ordinary sights and sounds lay far beneath me; the narrow scope of the ordinary view was widened; for fields, I surveyed counties in my landscape, and for hedges, lines of distant hills. All things were wider and larger, and I breathed a more expansive, freer air; and I seemed, I think, a little raised above life’s pettinesses, by the quiet and the breadth of view of that early morning ascent.
* * * * *
Ah, friends,--and brothers in both the meannesses and the great expectations of this strange finite, infinite existence,--how we need, how we need, these periodical ascents into Higher ground! How large life is; and yet, how little! How we fret and fume about fields and hedges--merest trifles, when counties and hills--nay, continents and seas--nay, worlds or systems, and space, might lie under the ken of our perception and contemplation, which, indeed, has no bounds, forward, through eternal time, and infinite space! How, in the littleness of things, are we apt to swamp the largeness which they might present to our thought! How life’s pettinesses overmaster the mighty tremendous prospect that God has set before us, looming indeed through a veil of mist, far below our feet! Oh, how grand, how stupendous, how magnificent, might this our life, rightly thought of, become! Money, love, fame, power; it is, while we stand on the mountain, the tinkle of a sheep-bell far below us in the valley; it is the pigmy form, it is the muffled cry of those things which seemed to us large and of full growth, when we met them down far below in the bustle and busy intercourse of life. I think of Martha, with the ordering of a meal the great matter in her eyes; Mary, indeed at the Saviour’s feet, but thus seated, placed, in good truth, upon a mountain, from whose wide range of view all merely of this world seemed petty, worthless, mean. Oh, for a mountain view of life! Oh, for an angel’s view! Then money, power, talents, influence, all would be noble, as offerings to Christ; contemptible in any other aspect. How I crave to take always that standing-point; to survey life--so far as such as I am can--from God’s point of sight; to look at time as, after all, only a tooth in the great cog-wheel of Eternity, as something very small, that fits into something very large! The littleness of life; its scandals, its jealousies, its irritations, its safe voyages or its wrecks, its gains or losses of a fast-flying hour; its loves and hopes, its hates and despairs, its ecstasies and anguishes; these are the fields and hedges that are perceived no longer, when we have ascended above this brief and transient state of things, and look down upon counties, continents, worlds.
How I mourn over life’s pettinesses! How I grieve, in my better mountain hours, to find myself always easily moved and disturbed, either to enjoyment or vexation, by the merest and most absolute trifles! How bitter it is to me, next time I get the wider view, to perceive how easily, and naturally, and contemptibly, I descended, after the last ascent, down among the thronging, chafing, soul-lowering interests and phantasies of this lower world, this span-long life again! Ah, spark of the Infinite, that finite things can so absorb thee! Ah, heir of Eternity, that time’s dancing motes can affect thee so much! Ah, member of Christ, child of God and inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven, that it can much concern thee in what station of life, in what external condition, it may please Him that thou shouldst serve Him, here, and now, in this minute of space and time!
* * * * *
In life’s morning we may all, I think, be said to stand on the mountain, and, although it be a morning view, made illusive by mist and early sunshine, obtain the widest, least petty, view. More wide, more noble, more expansive--all these the scope of youth’s sight must be conceded to be. There is not the suspicion, the narrow thought, the selfishness, the intent consideration of the present interest; there is a broader, more generous way of contemplating life than we shall find later in its course. Doubtless there is the greater proneness to be deceived. The eye is not yet trained to calculate distances; arduous undertakings are misjudged; easy attainments are regarded with admiration and awe; there are many mistakes, much proof of want of experience. But as life goes on, and as men descend to gain this knowledge and correctness of estimation, often the wider view narrows, the freer air is left behind, and the eye that roamed over and took in that nobler scope becomes shut in by surrounding trees and hedges into the range of but one small field. Could we, as a few have done, not barter youth’s aspirations and superb ideas for manhood’s experience and practical mind, but add the riches of manhood to the riches of youth, how much greater a thing we might make this life of ours to be! For certainly in youth we do stand upon an eminence, and look round upon counties and hills, and gradually, as manhood gains upon us, are apt to descend towards mere gardens, fields, and fences.
And so the evil to be guarded against--or to be deplored--will be the declension of the mind and heart from this wider, more open and generous view, a loss inward, not outward. Mixing, as we soon must, among life’s pettinesses, how many of us forget the mountain upon which we once stood, nor care to ascend it still from time to time, but are content to sink into hardness, coldness of heart, narrow-mindedness, selfishness, a cynical, unsympathetic temper, a habit of low suspicion, a littleness of caution, a close hand, an absorbed heart. So that we should try, from time to time, to draw apart from the highways and byways and crowded walks of life’s daily cares and concerns, and to ascend a point which overlooks them and brings them more into their just proportion with that wider view which diminishes if it does not absorb them.
In reading some of the highest poetry I have found this ascent gained. It carries you up into the ideal, from life’s mean realities and commonplaces; there is an atmosphere of honour and love and generosity; men think and act grandly, and money-getting is not the mainspring of all. And this is one profit of high and wholesome poetry, that it does water and keep alive those nobler greater ideas and yearnings that the dust of the world’s traffic might otherwise choke. For the heart’s true poetic sense (I do not mean mere sentimentality) is no doubt one of the links nearest to God in the chain which connects us with Him.
How much of the sublimest poetry we find, in truth, in the Bible. And here I would point out especially how we may indeed breathe a mountain air--indeed obtain a mountain view, namely, in the sacredly-kept times of morning devotional reading. In a trouble, whether a small worry or a crushing anguish, how sweet, when the time has come round for the reading and meditation on the things of Eternity and of God. How, as we go on with our upward winding path, the fret or the agony insensibly takes its place in the wider landscape, and diminishes by an imperceptible process from the exaggerated size it presented to us when we stood beside it on the plain. Other greater objects open upon our view, and attract our attention; the far scenery of God’s mighty workings widens out before us, and the vast Ocean of Eternity stretching round and embracing the little island of Time; and we seem to feel a cool air fanning our hot tear-tired eyes, and we breathe more freely, and our heart, despite of itself, loses somewhat of its weary load. The world is left below; even the clouds sleep under our feet; and heaven is nearer, not only for that hour, but during the rest of the day.
And how naturally may this thought of mountain-quiet and distance from earth’s noises lead us to the consideration of that most exquisite and precious communion with God which we know by the name of Prayer. In associating the time of prayer with the idea of mountain seclusion, two pictures rise at once before the mind, because in them actually a mountain was the scene, and not only the type, of earnest and retired prayer. We see first the top of Carmel, bare and burnt under the sun of Palestine, and overlooking the intensely blue sea. Upon it the solitary prophet Elijah bends to the ground, prostrate on the earth, with his face between his knees. A watching form stands on a point towards the sea, until, at last, far away over the water, in the sultry horizon, a little dark speck, like a man’s hand, arises, and, on rapid wing, the delicious cool clouds gather and spread their awning between the burnt earth and the pitiless sun. Then the glorious sudden rush of the restoring rain, steady, incessant, abundant, settling in pools on the caked ground, streaming down the sides of the orange hills, sending eddying torrents to brim the parched cracked river-beds. Thus impetuous and profuse came the answer to the prophet’s lonely mountain prayer.
And another dearer picture we never weary of contemplating; another account of One who, after the day’s toil of healing, of teaching, of feeding the multitudes, sends the thronging crowd away, dismisses even His disciples in a ship across the lake, and then, when
“The feast is o’er, the guests are gone, And over all that upland lone, The breeze of eve sweeps wildly as of old,”
retires up into a mountain apart to pray, and continues all night in prayer to God. What a lesson! The crush and press dismissed; even the closest and most intimate companions avoided, and a quiet time secured for we know not what prayers to the co-equal Father.
Ah, that we more entirely followed His example: how, if our prayers had more leisure secured for them, were more strictly protected from intrusion and disturbance, more lonely--how they would aid us to breathe the air of the mountain, to keep ever before us its wider view, even when we had descended to mix again with life’s thronging necessities in the plain. Even in our room, when the door is closed upon us (for I am speaking here of private prayer, not of public worship),--even thus, we are not necessarily upon the mountain, speaking through the stars to God. The larger crowd may have been satisfied and dismissed, but we have taken with us into our retirement some few that were more intimate and close to our heart, and we have not been careful enough to be _alone_. The preparation of dismissing the multitude, and even the disciples, then the ascent of the mountain, by the winding path of meditation, and then the unrestricted view, the sky nearest, indeed touching us, and earth spread out far below, and the soul left to calm, leisure, unharassed communion with God; all these are necessary; all these we learn from the example of that mild yet awful Being who is God manifest in the flesh. Let us arm ourselves with the same mind.
But my thoughts, returning to that morning walk which introduced this essay, remind me that there is one suggestive point in it which deserves a little attention. It is _the time of day_ at which the ascent was made. Early prayer, while the world’s cares are asleep, and the road lies hushed and still, not thronged with jostling passengers, nor stunned with noisy vehicles--this is that, which of all our private devotions, most aids in consecrating life to God. Descending from that early hour of high communion, to take our part in the awakening toil and interest of earth, it is then easier to give their proper proportion to the events and employments of the day. Be it a joy or a sorrow, be it a loss or a gain, it takes its just place in the grand scheme of things, and does not monopolise the heart, nor obscure the vision; far less will the mere straws in the path, or the butterflies that dance by, catch and retain the absorbed regard of the heirs of immortality. The trifling irritations, the mean jealousies, the little rankling grudges, the petty quarrels, also the transitory enjoyments and short-lived profits, of each day’s life, will not greatly, nor for long, move the heart that retains its memory of that far-stretching Morning view. And it will be less difficult to rescue life from its proneness to become ignoble, and to free ourselves from the narrowing, stunting, dwarfing process which it often is, but which it was never intended to be. Yet, but for these mountain-pauses, but for these retirements from the over-familiarity and intrusiveness of trifles, how shall we avoid the danger of habitually, and soon, entirely bounding our view and mode of thought by the hedges which shut in our eyes and hearts, down in the valley of our ordinary employments?
And how much the saints of God have valued this early hour of prayer! It has been called the Dew which the later hours have irretrievably dried up; the Manna which has vanished when the sun has gained strength. And there is no doubt in my mind that the quality of the spiritual life greatly depends upon the jealous guarding of this priceless hour, which so easily and quickly escapes us. At that hour Jordan stands in a heap, and leaves us a clear passage heavenward, but the rapid stream of cares, businesses, anxieties, worries, returns to its strength as the morning appeareth, and if we would cross at all, it must be during a distracting and wearisome buffeting with those crowding waters.
Let me say here how valuable appear to me to be the retreats that are being established in many parts of England. Who does not know how the routine of little cares, and small wearing anxieties, and petty, yet necessary employments, are apt to eat out the spirituality from even the clergyman’s life, especially if he be placed in a sphere which presents labour after which he is ever toiling, but which he can never overtake? They seem to me, at least, formed upon the very model of our Lord’s custom, and at once to commend themselves to any unprejudiced mind, or even any prejudiced mind that has preserved the power of calm and fair thought. I will let Cowper continue and conclude this train of musing for me:
“Not that I mean to approve, or would enforce A superstitious and monastic course; Truth is not local, God alike pervades And fills the world of traffic and the shades, And may be feared amid the busiest scenes, Or scorned where business never intervenes. But ’tis not easy, with a mind like ours, Conscious of weakness in its noblest powers, And in a world, where, other ills apart, The roving eye misleads the careless heart, To limit thought, by nature prone to stray Wherever freakish fancy points the way; To bid the pleadings of self-love be still, Resign our own, and seek our Teacher’s will; To spread the page of Scripture, and compare Our conduct with the laws engraven there; To measure all that passes in the breast, Faithfully, fairly, by that sacred test; To dive into the secret deeps within, To spare no passion and no favourite sin, And search the themes, important above all, Ourselves, and our recovery from our fall, --But leisure, silence, and a mind released From anxious thoughts how wealth may be increased; How to secure, in some propitious hour, The point of interest, or the post of power; A soul serene, and equally retired From objects too much dreaded or desired, Safe from the clamours of perverse dispute,-- At least are friendly to the great pursuit.”
To complete the ideal of a mountain, at least in a picture, it seems necessary to see a lake lying at its foot. I have such a picture in my mind’s eye, besides that of Scott’s,
“--On yonder liquid lawn, In hues of bright reflection drawn, Distinct the shaggy mountains lie, Distinct the rocks, distinct the sky.”
[Illustration: “In hues of bright reflection drawn, distinct the shaggy mountains lie.”]
And a beautiful lesson seems by their association suggested to my mind. For thus ought the mirror of our daily life, which lies at their foot, clearly and constantly to reflect the calm and the beauty and the elevation of those mountain-hours. Beware of influences, sudden winds and treacherous currents, which, ruffling and wrinkling the lake, shall mar and blur the image of those high moments, and of the heaven yet far above the mountains.
MUSINGS IN THE TWILIGHT.
But now the quiet days of September are come. September, which is the Twilight of the year--rather, I would call it the first hint of twilight, when the flush and glow are sobering down, and a cast of thoughtfulness is deepening day by day upon the months. “Autumn has o’erbrimmed the clammy cells” of the bees; the fields, where the long rows of many sheaves stand, gradually grow bare; the intensely dark summer green of the elms and of the hedgerows out of which they rise, is interrupted here and there by a tenderer tinge; the spruce firs in the copses begin to appear more dark, distinct, and particular; the larches begin to show faint hearts, and to look more delicate beside their sombre brothers. There is rather the augury, the prescience, than the perceived presence of a change. I have fancied sometimes that the trees have plotted together and banded themselves by an agreement not to give in, this time, but to defy the utmost power of stripping, desolating Winter. And it is curious, with this idea, to watch them. Throughout September, they at least keep up appearances well, and from one to another the watchword is whispered,--
“Keep a good heart, O trees, and hold The Winter stern at bay!”
and for a time they moult no feather, drop no leaf; or, if one circles down here and there, it is huddled by in a corner, and they flatter themselves that none has noticed. But you watch with pitying love, knowing what the end must be. And you perceive how great the effort, the strain, becomes, to keep up appearances. Here and there, at last, despite of their utmost endeavour, the hidden fire bursts out; and finally, with a wild Autumnal wail, some weaker tree, in despair, gives up the unnatural and too excessive strain, and casts down a great profusion of yellow sickly foliage. There is a murmur among the stouter trees; but, in good truth, they are not sorry for the excuse, while, muttering that all is rendered useless now, like avowed bankrupts, they give up the effort to sustain appearances, and, as it were, with a sigh of relief and rest, resign them to the fate they vainly strove against and could not long avert. So the elm flames out into bars and patches, very yellow in the dark; and the chesnut is all tinged and burnt with brown; and the mulberry has slipped off all her leaves in a single night; and the ash and the sycamore blacken; and the white poplar leaves change to pale gold; and the pear to bronze; and the wild cherry to scarlet; and the maple to orange; and the bramble at their feet to bright crimson.
Not so yet, in the Twilight of the year. It is the month of tranquillity, of peaceful hush. If there be a hint of decay, it is but what has been called “calm decay”; it is but evening with the landscape, the Evening of the year. You might forget, as you looked at the resting stationary aspect of things, that the further change, the Night of Winter, was indeed drawing near. There seems no prophecy of those wild tossing October arms, with the stream of leaves hurrying away in the wind; no presage of the dull November days, when, from the scanty foliage of the trees, great drops plash down upon the decaying leaves beneath, and the whole wood looms out of the fog. Far less, in the full-bosomed, sober, rather air- than mist-mellowed woodlands, do you detect any foretelling of the time when all will stand, a bare thicket of gaunt boughs and naked twigs, dully shadowed in the ice, or made darker and more dreary by the great white fields of snow.
Of all this there is no hint given yet, nor need we yet awake to the knowledge that we have indeed bid the Summer farewell till next year. The evenings are still warm, warm with that cool warmth which is so delicious: it will be some time yet before we can see our breath as we talk: we can stay out well until eight or later, and hear through the open window the clatter of arranging tea-cups, and watch the lamp, still faint in the twilight, warm the room with a dim orange glow.
Therefore I shall sit here awhile on this garden seat, and muse in and upon the twilight. The scene and place are favourable for quiet thought. The lawn is smooth and shaven; at my feet lie beds of profuse geranium, verbena, calceolaria, petunia, in their rich Autumn prime, before any hint of frost has visited them. The air is quite heavy with the scent of the massed heliotrope. The colours, if sobered, are not yet lost in the fading light; the scarlets and purples are hushing and blending; the cherry colour, yellow, and white, have grown more distinct, and stand out more apparent upon the grass. Overhead, the sky is deepening to that dusk steel blue which soon discloses the very faint yet eye-catching glimmer of one white star. Across the quiet dome, and between the still, outstretched, motionless branches, the silent bats flit to and fro; there is a rustle of chafers in the lime. One sweet melancholy monotonous sound gives a background to the silence, an undertone that enhances, not in the least disturbs, the quiet. For the great charm of this garden, which lies on the slope of a hill, is, that near the foot of that hill swells and fails the ever-moving Sea. And looking from my garden seat through the near rose-bushes and above the taller growth lower down the slope, I see the broad silver shield, rising, as it seems to me on my hill-seat, up the circle of its horizon. An hour ago I was admiring the brilliancy and intensity of its colour, green shoaling into blue, and sparkling in the sun; now the faint light of the broad moon shares the sway of the decaying sunlight; and I see above and through the branches a space of pale bright grey. The jewel blue of afternoon has died out from it, but the more neutral tint accords better, I feel, with the sober hour and hushed sounds of twilight. How complete is the harmony and the balance of colour in all God’s pictures!
And I love these twilight studies, that are much like the paintings, so Robert Browning tells us, of Andrea del Sarto, the faultless painter. Pictures in which--
“A common greyness silvers everything, All in a twilight.”
This is essentially a twilight poem I always think; silver-grey; a quiet calmed heart that has settled down into a deep still sadness and disappointment. He longs for those higher aspirations which can here be but imperfectly expressed, knowing that it is not well unless we hold an ideal far above our fulfilment here; and that, if we have attained all we sought in our pursuit of the beautiful and the good, we have not intended nobly enough:--
“There’s the bell clinking from the chapel-top; That length of convent wall across the way Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside; The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease And Autumn grows, Autumn in everything. Eh? the whole seems to fall into a shape As if I saw alike my work and self, And all that I was born to be and do, A twilight piece.”
Is not the tone of thought here expressed one natural to us all at certain times, when for us life’s vivid lights and deep shadows have all toned into a uniform half tint? We all have such twilight hours: times when the sun has sunk, and our heart has gone down with it, and a grey depression settles gradually upon the soul. Times when we feel that our life is little, and low, and mean: when we yearn for a sympathy that earth has not to give; when we turn away disheartened and disgusted from our life and from ourselves, and turn the faces of what seemed our most faultless works to the wall, and care not if we never saw them again. Times when we go about to cause our heart to despair of all the labour which we took under the sun. Times when the failures of others seem better than our successes; times when we lament over the lowness of our aim, the meanness of our intention, the winglessness of our soul; and yet times when our very discontent with all that we are and have accomplished, our very disgust at our grovelling minds, prove our affinity with higher things than any of these that we have grasped here. Those anguished yearnings to be nobler prove that we are something nobler than we hold ourselves to be. The depression of the twilight marks our kindred with the golden glory of the sun. Thus may we cheer our hearts, that in their dull hours are wont to judge our aims by our attainments, and from the inadequacy of the performance, to conclude the lowness of the intention. The workman’s dissatisfaction with his own life’s work is the clear proof that his inmost self is nobler, not only than his attainments, but often even than his endeavours.
I awake from my abstraction, however, and look around. The twilight has deepened, the flowers are losing their colour, the surrounding objects their distinctness. One peculiar property, sometimes a charm, sometimes a dread, of this light neither clear nor dark, begins to be developed. I mean the uncertainty, the indefiniteness, the illusions of twilight. And how many analogies occur to my mind as I sit here musing on the twilight, and comparing with it the indistinctness and the ænigma in which we are living here.
And first I think of God’s ancient people: how many of God’s promises to them were misconceived because of the twilight in which they were seen. And we might, thinking shallowly, wonder that the light of prophecy was such twilight, so dim, and the objects seen in it so undefined and uncertain. For instance, how obscure and almost confusing seems to us the light given to the Jews as to the spiritual nature of the Messiah’s kingdom. Through the twilight of prophecy we may very well fancy that a grand earthly kingdom of power and conquest loomed upon the hope and imagination of the people of Israel. Because of the hardness of their hearts, indeed, and the lowness of their spiritual standard, spiritual revelations had to be clothed for them in a body of flesh. The people that could worship the golden calf under the very cloud that rested upon Sinai, would have ill-received, we may be sure, a clear revelation of the manner of the Messiah’s kingdom. A kingdom not of this world, with no outward show of pomp and glory; a King despised and rejected of men, and nailed upon the accursed tree: how would those carnal hearts have received such a programme? Nay, how _did_ this people, even in the Messiah’s time, receive it? Behold the shouting crowds, one preceding, one following the King of the Jews! Behold the waving palms, the strewn cloaks! Hear the “Hosannas” ring out as the concourse arrives in sight of the royal city; and the enthusiastic burst, “Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord!” What visions, we perceive, were seething and working in their minds--visions of restored freedom, and rule, and power, and the sway of Israel restored, as in those old glorious days, from the river even unto the sea. Grand, and splendid, and indistinct, that promised kingdom towered before them in the twilight; they threw loose reins on their imagination, and let it carry them whither it would.
But when the truth which they had so misconceived and misinterpreted stood close to them, and they perceived its entire difference from their excited dreams, mark the change--the revulsion. The King is crowned; His kingdom is proclaimed as being not of this world: the crowd are shouting still; but the cry is now, “_Crucify Him! Crucify Him!_” Nay further yet. The discovery of the real proportions and character of that fabric which had appeared so majestic and superb through the twilight: this discovery had proved too much even for their faith who had formed the chosen court of the King Messiah. “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel”; but, lo! the Shepherd is smitten, and the sheep are scattered.
Now, as it has been pointed out before this, an illusion of the twilight was converted by the impatience and the carnal hearts of the Jews, into a delusion. It was true that a mighty King was coming, that He should set up a kingdom great and glorious, one which should crumble widest kingdoms into the dust. It was true that the enemies of God’s people should fall before this kingdom which should have no end; true that this King was He which should redeem Israel. All this which was prophesied was no delusion: all was true: all came to pass.
But now let us search out the fault of the Jews, who were deluded by revelation, and blinded by partial light. They were told that these great things would be: they were bidden to prepare to receive them. Forthwith they decided in their own minds _how_ and _in what way_ God would bring them about; they gave form and shape to those indistinct half-seen masses after the pattern and desire of their own vain hearts; they decided that God would give them the exact reality of their own carnal dreams; they prepared their heart therefore to receive its own interpretation, and shut it close against any other. And so when the course of time brought them close to that which their fancy in the twilight had thus disguised, they could not recognise it, they refused to believe it: they passed on beyond it, still searching after the unreal fabric of their own imagination; and even now, while the twilight seems deepening to darkness about them, they go on and on across the blank desert, seeking those gigantic hopes which have already, could they but believe it, been much more than fulfilled.
“Oh, say, in all the bleak expanse, Is there a spot to win your glance, So bright, so dark as this? A hopeless faith, a homeless race, Yet seeking the most holy place, And owning the true bliss!”
That this was not God’s doing, but the result of their own impatience, and of the earthliness of their own hearts, we have abundant proof. In that light, neither clear nor dark, there were those who were content to wait until God Himself should reveal the manner of those great things that He had foreshadowed; many died thus implicitly waiting; some, with Elizabeth, and Simeon, and holy Anna, departed in peace, their eyes having just seen His salvation. They had by diligent use of the light they had, attained to a more spiritual understanding of prophecy; and so to them was fulfilled that saying, “Unto you that have shall more be given.”
But have we not passed out of the twilight even now that Christ’s fuller revelation has come? No: for, I take it, still, while we live here, do we walk in the dusk; it is with us _waiting_ still for the grand indistinct objects of prophecy to assume a definite outline as we draw near to them; it is the passing on in a twilight march, contemplating the attained reality of one dim foreshadowing, and straightway looking up to see before us the gigantic distant form of another, awful in its dimness and uncertainty.
Is not this what the Great Teacher would have us learn when He declares that the spirit of a little child is the right and necessary spirit for those who would receive the kingdom of God? In these mighty mysteries we are to be content to be children now, not yet men: it is to be twilight here; noon hereafter. How it saddens me, then, sitting in the twilight and waiting for the wonderful panorama of morning; how it saddens me to hear the loud talk nowadays of our attained manhood--of our possessed noon. Nowadays, forsooth, we are so full grown, have such clear light, that we are to handle doubts familiarly, and to decide at once concerning that which God has but half revealed; and to reject what we cannot understand, and to deny that which we cannot define. Man’s reason--methought that, at present, it had to work in the sphere of the twilight; but this idea is by some rejected with scorn, and they would fain persuade us that it is already placed in the full blaze of day. The “province of reason,” we hear great talk of this; and yet now let me ask what really _is_ the true province of reason? Is it, can it be, to determine and decide, to fathom and understand concerning the deep and mysterious ways of God, and His counsel secret to us and _past finding out_? One would think so, to see men casting overboard this and that revealed truth because they cannot understand it in the twilight, or because it will not piece in with that creation of their own fancy, which they would substitute for our revealed God. Yet to me it seems that we have not the material, the data, for such an exercise of reason; we have not _revelation_ enough for this; the light is too dim.
No, as we sit here in the twilight it seems to me that the province of reason is not to be straining its eyes to map out the huge mysteries which still lie in the dim distance; and to declare that those masses are shapeless, whose shape it cannot trace. Is it not rather to consider and to decide concerning those things which are placed within its scope? To satisfy itself as to our Guide, as to the reliability of the proofs of His being really what He claims to be; to search whether these things be so, and then implicitly to follow that Guide through uncertainty into certainty, out of the twilight into the clear day? This is not to fetter reason, to cramp thought. It is merely to confine it to its legitimate sphere. It is to acknowledge ourselves now in the dusk, but expecting the full morning; to own ourselves children now, but children who will one day be men.
Are we not little children here; our very reason doubtless in its twilight; probably as unable--even were they explained to us--to take in God’s counsels, as a child just capable of an addition-sum would be unable to master and understand the science of astronomy? Would anyone who considered wisely of these things, even wish that this present state should be our manhood? Oh, low view to take of man’s magnificent destiny! What? This all? To-day’s blunders food for to-morrow’s corrections; schemes of science changing every year; nothing certain, nothing known? Are we to grow no bigger in knowledge, are we to grow no bigger in capacity, than this? Is such dim twilight really our full day? Ah, dreary prospect then, mournful lot! But away with so mean a view of man’s future; with such a cramping of man’s reason!
Little children are we, must we be, with regard to the stupendous plans and counsels of God, so long as we have no more than our present amount of Revelation. We may advance in the world’s knowledge, but we must be content to sit down in the twilight before God’s ways and counsels, still as listeners, still as learners, reverent, teachable, humble; little children still. How can it be otherwise? We hear of the boasted advance of education and knowledge; we hear of reason more cultivated, and thought more free to soar. All very well; but does this, can this touch the subject of which I speak? In acquiring any further knowledge of God’s hidden things, have we advanced at all? Is there in our possession any more material on which to set reason to work, than since the last Apostle wrote the last epistle? Have we advanced? can we advance? Must we not still be children, must we not still make the most of twilight, until, having grown to manhood, the full light bursts upon us in another world, and we see no more in an ænigma darkly, but face to face; know no more in part only, but even as we are known?
Oh, brother, doubting brother--if any such should hear this my talking out loud with myself--who waverest where thou shouldest stand firm, and art ready to let that slip, which thou shouldest keep in thy heart’s heart--wilt thou not take these words of the Wisest and Best of all, of a Teacher most mighty in intellect, most vast in knowledge; yea, who spake as never did man: wilt thou not say them to thy tossing soul, until there fall on it a great calm? A little child, a little child; that is the model for us here. Noon, one day; but now, twilight: men, hereafter; but here, children: called upon here not to explain and to fathom, but to listen and to believe. First, of course, let reason determine whether our Teacher be trustworthy; but, this decided, cannot we be content to be taught by Him? Toil on in the half-light, and the full light shall break on thee! Do the works, and thou shalt know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. Yea, but you say, this is none other than a leap in the dark. Before I _feel_ the divinity of the doctrine, why should I do the works? What is my warrant, that I should do, before I know? This, O man, _satisfy thyself as to thy Guide_. Examine whether He be what He pretends to be. And then commit thyself to His guidance. Implicitly, entirely, like a child that likes to put his hand into his Father’s, _because_ of the uncertain light.
Do, then, the works, on this warrant. Believe me, the doing them will make thy faith rock-firm. Is there not, I would ask the sceptic--is there not something in a simple child-like faith, leading to a holy angelic life, that brings the protest of a great reality against all your doubts and waverings? Watching such a quiet unearthly life, you feel, through all your shadows and questionings, that here, at least, is something _real_. While you have been making religion a series of puzzles, he has been making it a series of deeds. You studied Revelation in order to find out its difficulties; he studied it in order to learn its precepts, to learn how to live. And, depend upon it, he has thus gained a far deeper insight even into those unfathomable mysteries by _his_ study than you can ever do by yours. Do: then thou shalt know much more even of the doctrine.
Oh, my brother, be content; ’tis only waiting! Receive the kingdom of God as a little child. “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” If we enter the lists with Him as equals, He will mock us, and let us be puzzled, and bring to nothing the understanding of even the prudent and intellectual. Thus did our Lord with the cavilling Pharisees, perplexing them with the question how Messiah could be David’s son, and yet his Lord. But if we sit at His feet as learners, He will teach us much that the humble alone may know. Granted that in this dim light some of His ways puzzle us, and seem inexplicable. Granted that His own words are true, “_What I do thou knowest not now_.” But there is no need to understand His counsels, for the attaining salvation. And let us take it on trust, as well we may, that what may seem God’s harshness, is kinder than man’s kindness; that what may seem God’s foolishness, is wiser than man’s wisdom; that what seems God’s weakness, is stronger than man’s strength.
I have mused in the twilight, near the boundless, restless, ever-tumbling sea, and under the vast canopy of heaven; I have mused in the twilight, until the darkness has fallen, and the heaven is eloquent with its sign-speech of stars. Sitting in a speck of one of those myriad worlds that, flying along with inconceivable velocity, yet appear to me intensely still in the dark, I catch a glimpse of the immensity of the plans and designs of God. Star whirls by star, system fits into system, all in an astounding complex order; none clashing, each kept in its due place and its right proportion by the Infinite Mind. And I gather a hint of a reply to many questions that perplex us, many problems that weary us here; questions that are often best answered by the confession that here we cannot answer them; questions worst answered by an inadequate attempt resulting in an inadequate explanation; questions that we may perhaps quiet with such thoughts as these:--Who knows into what other schemes and systems this life of our globe and of ourselves may be fitted; who knows, seated in this isolated planet, in this narrow twilight of time, how the vast day of Eternity before, and the vast day of Eternity behind, may make at once evident things that here were deepest, seemingly shapeless, mysteries to our mind? The moon rolls round the earth, and the earth round the sun, and this again, with all its planets, round some greater centre; and so on, perhaps, who shall guess how far? For space, as well as time, is infinite, boundless, with the eternal God. And thus, too, I divine, with that vastness and complexity of scheme which we shall not begin to understand until we gain the standing-point of Eternity; thus too, I seem entitled to prophesy, with the infinite designs of God, and with the interwoven system of His counsels. How can we, how _should_ we, understand the different bearings, the linked relations, of His eternal plans? A fly perched on one nut in the enormous machinery of some manufactory, and deciding upon the plan and purpose and working of the whole, from the twistings of the point on which he stood; nay, this is not even a poor analogy with the position of man standing on this speck of Time, and complacently deciding concerning the tremendous counsels of Him who inhabiteth Eternity.
Heaven is revealed to us as night deepens. Thus, as the Twilight of the good man’s life dusks towards night, stars, unperceived before, stars of certainty, of knowledge, of hope, of trust, steal out one by one into his sky, until the heaven is one glitter above him. Earth dies out, and becomes indistinct; its colours are toned down, its scenery becomes less absorbing and obtrusive; it begins to take its proper place in that eternal glittering dust of worlds. And so amid that speaking silence he falls asleep. I suppose that then, in Paradise, a clear morning breaks, which afterwards, in Heaven, becomes the full light of noon.
But the Twilight has gone: night has come down upon the sea: the earnest silence of those infinitely multiplied stars becomes oppressive: I am getting chilly also, and want my tea. Therefore I go indoors, close the shutters, and rest my strained thoughts with the sight of the cheery lamp-lit room; and, asking and obtaining of my wife some half-dozen of my favourite “Songs without Words,” call back my musings from those exhausting mysteries of our twilight state, and lull them with the gentler and more peaceful mystery of music.
There is always, I think, much more of sadness in the anticipation of Winter days than we find that they at all deserved when they are once fairly at home with us. The anticipation, the _transition_, is sad from Autumn profusion to Winter bareness. The month that severs the two is a month somewhat tinged with melancholy, and clad in a weeping robe of fogs and mists. There is a certain chill and gloom in wandering about the shrouded face of the so-lately rich Autumn fields,--
“When a blanket wraps the day, When the rotten woodland drips, And the leaf is stamped in clay,”--
there is something sad in passing through the sodden lanes, thickly carpeted with flat damp leaves, and strewn with the bright sienna chesnuts; here the gleaming nut, and there the three-fold shattered husk, brown-green, with cream-white lining.
You may find a sort of pleasing melancholy, of tender romance, in watching the first tints of Autumn stealing over the Summer, from the very first, when
“The long-smouldering fire within the trees Begins to blaze through vents,”
until,--tree by tree, wood by wood, landscape by landscape,--they stand in their glory--
“The death-flushed trees, that, in the falling year, As the Assyrian monarch, clothe themselves In their most gorgeous pageantry to die.”
Then the first frosts, and the calm clear mornings, and the grey fresh blue of the evenings, with their sprinkling of intensely piercingly glittering stars. And then the deep spell upon the trees is broken, and we stand and watch while, now in a shower and now singly,
“The calm leaves float Each to his rest beneath their parent shade,”
and the year seems just passing away like a beautiful dissolving view.
There is also something to keep you up, something of excitement and stir, and glow, in the brave October days, when a great wind comes roaring and booming over the land, and you see the tall ash trees toss up their wild arms in dismay, and a deep roar gathers in the elms, and a far hissing in the pines, and from that beech avenue,
“The flying gold of the ruined woodlands Drives through the air.”
You can walk out, and press your hat on to your head, and button your coat, and labour up the rising downs, yielding no foot to the blustering screaming wind; and a glow and exhilaration tingles in your veins as you march on, with pace no whit slackened for all its vehement opposition.
But November has come; and the calm quiet hectic of September and the hale vigour of October have now passed away. The rain has sodden and struck down leaf after leaf, heaping the roadside, until you might count the leaves left upon the trees that edge the lanes. A sense of bareness and desolation oppresses you, and an aspect of dreariness and moist death has overspread the landscape. You walk into the garden: the dahlias are blackened with the frosts of October; the pinched geraniums, verbenas, heliotropes, lie wrecked on the beds; the few straggling chrysanthemums and scattered Michaelmas daisies--these are not enough to cheer you; for even these are drooping in the universal damp, and strung with trembling glittering diamonds of sorrowful tears. The dark sodden walnut-leaves thickly carpet the side paths, and the most cheerful thing in them is here and there the black wet walnut lying, with just a warm hint of the clean bright yellow shell within, betrayed through a torn fibrous gap. Day after day the fog sleeps over the land, and you see your breath in the morning in the cold damp air. You are brought face to face--earth stripped of its poetry and romance--face to face with Winter days.
And their approach seems gloomy. The light, and warmth, and the glory of the year have gone; but, as yet, the memory of them has not all quite departed. There are still the gleeful leaves lying, poor dead things, in the lanes; there are yet the unburied flowers, black on the garden-beds; the air is tepid; the trees are not entirely bare; the state is one of transition.
“The year’s in the wane, There is nothing adorning, The night has no eve, And the day has no morning;-- Cold Winter gives warning.”
Yes, the approach of Winter days seems gloomy. We have more in our thought the chill drear outside of Winter, than his warm comfortable core, glowing as the heart of a burst pomegranate.
But November has now ended, and December has come. The early days of this month seem stragglers from that which has just gone out, and the same chill warm gloom prevails. There is a muggy closeness in the air; everything feels damp to the touch, and an oppressive scent of decay dwells in the gardens and the fields. You seem to see low fevers brooding over the lanes and alleys of the city, and you apprehend that “green Yule,” which “makes a fat kirkyard.” Your spirits, if your health be such as that they are a little dependent on the weather, seem drooping and languid and foggy too. And in this mood it is that you determine after lunch to call for a friend, and take a walk for a mile or two, with thick boots and trousers turned up, because of the drenched roads and the sticky fields. And you warm into a better mood with the walk and the talk, and make the mile or two five or six miles; indeed the sun is setting, and a deepening dusk in the sky shows a pale star here and there, while you are yet a mile from home. A sort of clearness and freshness seems to have come into the air since you started homewards; and you notice as you walk on, the frosty glitter in the stars, and you perceive that the road is actually growing rough and hard under your feet, and the road-side puddles are gathering a lace-work at their edge.
“By the breath of God frost is given: And the breadth of the waters is straitened.”
And so either “the hoary frost of heaven” falls upon the earth, making a white feather of every straw, and a crisp fairy forest of the lawn, and a fernery of the windows, and hanging gardens of the spider’s webs, and a wondrous dreamland of the asparagus bed, a mist of white feather-foliage, with a lovely scattering of red fruit glowing among it here and there; or a black frost descends on the lands and waters, holding them with a gripe that grows closer, closer, and stiffens with more iron rigidity every day, until
“The waters are hid as with a stone, And the face of the deep is frozen.”
And the blood tingles in the veins, and life and health come back with sudden rush, and you leave who will to stay by the fire, while you start forth with swinging skates to do the next best thing to flying; having dined hastily at midday, so as to have a long evening.
And one night you go to bed, leaving a yellow dun sky sleeping over the hard fields. At a little before seven you rise, and drawing aside the blind with something of a shiver and a yawn, rub your eyes with amaze. In the half dark you seem to look out from your dim-lit room upon one large Twelfthcake, with a dark figure here and there for an ornament. And when you put out your candle, and draw up the blind, on how strange a sight do you look! How changed the appearance of everything since last night! What a heavy fall of snow there has been; and how sudden, and how silent! Against the slate sky a few dark flakes steal down, or a small drift dances, changing into a pearl-white as they sink lower, and are seen against the black bare trees, or the full evergreens. You are fascinated; you _must_ stand at the window and watch. That araucaria--how _can_ its long dark arms hold such a piled sheer height of snow? How deep and dazzling it lies upon the window sill! what a broad sheet upon the roof of that barn! how of the thinnest twigs of the nut trees and the acacias each sustains his piled inch and-a-half in the complete stillness! how the laurels bend down under great heavy loads of snow; and the erect holly shows a prickly dark gleam, and a burning berry here and there! All the sad traces of the dead Summer are buried, and the bustling birds chirp and huddle upon the anew foliaged branches, raining down a miniature snow-storm as they fidget about the trees. All the sodden leaves, and the black flower-stalks, and the bare fields are hidden now, and Autumn and Summer are buried; and the Winter days are come in earnest. Ah, yes, the sadness was more in the transition, and now that that is over and the change made, did you not discover that--
“Some beauty still was found; for, when the fogs had passed away, The wide lands came glittering forward in a fresh and strange array; Naked trees had got snow foliage, soft, and feathery, and bright, And the earth looked dressed for heaven, in its spiritual white.
“Black and cold as iron armour lay the frozen lakes and streams; Round about the fenny plashes shone the long and pointed gleams Of the tall reeds, ice-encrusted; the old hollies, jewel-spread, Warmed the white, marmoreal chillness with an ardency of red:
“Upon desolate morasses, stood the heron like a ghost, Beneath the gliding shadows of the wild fowls’ noisy host; And the bittern clamoured harshly from his nest among the sedge, Where the indistinct, dull moss had blurred the rugged water’s edge.”
But, O writer, your pen has wandered; and this mere description of God’s snow and frost is mere secular writing. Dear Reader, let me contradict you, and plead--“_It is not so_.” A careful loving observer of God’s works, attains also the privilege of becoming a reader of a second volume of God’s word. And if you would have for what I say authority from the sacred volume, take it down and turn to the 104th Psalm. You will find in that, God’s works abundantly brought in and interwoven with God’s word, still further, as I may say, embellishing and beautifying it; and illuminating the text with initial letters and little gems of illustration. Here is a bird’s nest, you will find, swung securely in the long flat arm of a cedar; here a breadth of bright green grass, with cattle feeding upon it; here a tinkling spring, trickling down the hill side, whilst, as it sleeps in the valley, the beasts of the field gather about it, and the wild asses quench their thirst. The birds chirp and sing among the branches, the murmuring rain descends from the chambers of God upon the grateful hills and the satisfied earth; the tender grapes appear, and the “olive-hoary capes,” and the wide waving fields of the deep golden grain. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats, and the conies stud the rocks here and there. There are moonlight scenes, and sunsets, and an Eastern night, with its great luminous stars, and the deep roar of the lion creeping under the shadow of those tall silent palms. There is a field with labourers at work, coming out from their homes as the sun rises, and the beasts of prey slink back to theirs.
And there are sea pieces too: we turn from the land to the hoary wrinkled ocean, with its ships, and its monsters, and its innumerable population, all gathering their meat from God. And in other psalms, and in many another part of the Bible, we find God’s word studded with illustrations from God’s works. In the 147th Psalm, for instance, there is something to our present purpose:
“He sendeth forth His commandment upon earth: His word runneth very swiftly. He giveth snow like wool: He scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes. He casteth forth His ice like morsels: who can stand before His cold?”
Further, who will not recall our Saviour’s teaching, so interwoven with pictures from the wonders of beauty and design which, the clue having been once given, reveal God to us through Nature. “_Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow._” “_Behold the fowls of the air._” Then the corn-field, the vineyard, the fig-tree, the fall of the sparrows, the red evening and morning sky,--through all these Christ teaches us. And St. Paul, forthshadowing the resurrection body, what does he but use the image of the seed sown in the plough-lands, and rising again with the new and glorious body which God gives it, as it pleaseth Him?
Religion, in truth, is too much thought of as “a star that dwells apart,” and is not one with our common life; not as the daisy by our hedgerows, or the rose in our gardens, as well as the light in our sky. It should not be a mere Sunday garb, to be wrapped up and put away in a drawer till Sunday comes again; if we understand and use it aright, it is our holiday dress, and our every-day dress too; and no need to fear lest we should shabby it, or wear it out. The world may look on it as an artificial restraint, a thing _to be put on_, and not our common apparel; as a light which has to be lit after a great deal of fuss in striking the match; or a moon only useful in the night of sorrow. But we should learn to make it a light ever at hand, and ever in use; there needs not that we should have to make a disturbance in order to procure it at any moment:--
“But close to us it gleams, Its soothing lustre streams Around our Home’s green walls, and on our Churchway path.”
Only thoughts on Nature should really lead on to thoughts of God; else we do but look at the type, but are not reading the book. And I must here own to something of deeper meaning underlying these stray jottings on Winter days. For it struck me that, taking the reader’s arm, and walking out for a short stroll into the frosty air through the vista of November, I might show, perchance, from one or two points of view, the cheeriness and the calm, and the deep heart of peace, that underlies all even of the sadnesses that God sends. There is a bitter kernel to all the sorrows that we bring on ourselves--the kernel of remorse and unavailing regret. But there is a sweet kernel, believe me, to all the bitter-cased walnuts which fall, naturally, straight down from God’s trees. There is use, yea, also, beauty, in His dying fields and His shrouded earth; in His November, and in His Winter days.
Let me gather a thought here and there that seem to come up, like Christmas roses, from the bare beds of Winter days.
The life of man has its November time; a time of sheer, literal, moist decay; no romantic flush of Autumn woods, freaking them with a thousand fancies and poetic hues, and crowning death with an intense, fascinating, dreamy glory. The wild abundant Spring blossoms are over long ago; the achievements of Summer, sobered though they were, have passed away, and the tinge of pleasant dreamy melancholy that touched their first decay has died out; and the heart sinks as we look around us.
“That time of life thou dost in him behold, When yellow leaves, or few or none, do hang Upon the boughs that shake against the cold, Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
The ageing man looks back upon his past life, and on all the works that his hands have wrought, and on the labour that he has laboured to do; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. What we meant to be, and what we are! The bright, soaring, heaven-adorned bubbles that gleamed about us, and the little mess of soapsuds that are sinking into the ground here and there! The crowd, the rush of emerald vivid buds that our boyhood knew; and now the bare, poor black twigs and branches, that drip above the yellow stained heaps below! Hopes, ambition, dreams, love, friendships, aspirations, yearnings, plans, resolves, scattered and lying about the lanes of our life, or here and there heaped in a mass at some well-remembered turn or corner, dead, and sodden, and desolate exceedingly.
“Oh! ’tis sad to lie and reckon All the days of faded youth, All the vows that we believed in, All the words we spoke in truth.”
Well, and what then? Can there be a December to follow upon and beautify those sad chilly hours? I think so. Sometimes it is just when the leaves are all fallen, and the flowers all dead, and the fruits only represented by a straggler lying here and there, and when the bare boughs are strung with trembling tears that gleam with a dull light in the heavy enfolding mist; sometimes it is even then that a wondrous work is wrought. A pinching frost comes with, as it seems, the finishing stroke, and the last sere leaf circles down, and even the fading chrysanthemums blacken, and the little robin lies dead on the iron border. A dim sky overglooms all, and you go your sad way from the scene as night deepens over it. But God wakens you some morning, and bids you look out of the dim-lit room in which your heart was shut; and lo! a strange transformation! His consolations, and His teaching of the deep meaning of things, have descended thick and abundant from heaven, and even earth’s dull ruins and desolations are glorified and transfigured by the beauty of that heavenly snow. You are content now that the earthly foliage should have made way for and given place to that unearthly glory which reclothes earth’s bare boughs; you can think calmly, quietly, without any anguish, of those desolate leaves, and stained flowers, and cold robin, that all sleep undisturbedly under the snow. God’s snow, I think--the snow which He sends down upon hearts desolate and deserted,
“That once were gay, and felt the Spring.”
God’s quiet snow, I think, that succeeds all the Spring and Summer excitements, and ecstasies, and heats of life, is just that _peace of God which passeth all understanding_ sent down to keep our heart and mind, that its life be not destroyed nor its aspirations all cut off, but that it may be folded over warm and safe until the Resurrection, that Spring time, better than earth’s Springs, which do but reform perishable buds and leaves; a Spring which shall know no November, no Winter days; a Spring which shall no doubt revive and recover every feeling, and thought, and love, and aspiration which was really God-given and beautiful, and shall make those blighted hopes bright with the blossom of unearthly beauty, and shall bend the bare boughs of those unquiet inexpressible yearnings low towards Him with the abundant fruit of satisfaction.
“Brighter, fairer far than living, With no trace of change or stain, Robed in everlasting beauty, Shall we see them once again.”
I think the contemplation a little way off, of any sorrow or bereavement, bears out what I have said concerning the _anticipation_ of Winter being really the worst and most cheerless time--a time when only the chill, and the death, and the dreariness is in our thoughts, and we do not suspect the strange beauties that will accompany it, nor the warm glow that is hidden in its heart. We only see the trouble coming, and we know not, until the time of need is even with us, of the consolation, and the support, and the spiritual loveliness that are coming too; coming with the silent step of the snow, or the unseen breath of the frost, to adorn thoughts, and feelings, and character with a fringe and foliage of heavenly beauty; coming with a glow of consolation, like Christmas in the heart of Winter--the warm fire of God’s love, which can keep out earth’s sharpest and most piercing cold. So that when the Winter has really come, and we look out on the soft snow of God’s peace, and creep closer to the fire of God’s love, we find that even the sharpest Winter days are not so terrible as November painted them; and, revolving and realising their beauty and their use, we can enter into his feelings who said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted”; and say Amen with quiet grateful hearts to those once inexplicable words, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
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The thought of Winter days seems to lead us at once, by analogy, to the Winter of Death drawing near any one of us, old men and maidens, young men and children. And indeed this time, seen from the misty avenues of November, is apt to seem chill and cold to the mind and heart. Still, I am sure that death, since the Saviour died, is not a time of real unlovely or uncomforted gloom to the obedient and faithful child of God. Oh no! when that Winter has indeed come, such a one then perceives and realises its Christmas heart of warm comfort, and its unearthly frost work of strange sweet thoughts and teachings. To such a one, if gloomy, it is only gloomy by anticipation, and while the traces of earth’s Summers yet linger, and the tears and regrets of earth are yet glittering on the empty trees, bare lands, and faded flowers; only gloomy until God has quite weaned us, first by His chastenings and then by His consolations.
How sad it is that, in our common ideas, and representations, and modes of speech, Death, even the good man’s death--should be overshadowed with such dismal gloom! I remember a curious proof of this, if proof were needed.
In a small illustrated edition of Longfellow’s poems, the artist has chosen for illustration those sweet verses, “The Reaper and the Flowers.” You know them, of course, my reader, by heart. You remember these graceful lines:--
“He gazed at the flowers with tearful eyes, He kissed their drooping leaves; It was for the Lord of Paradise He bound them in his sheaves.
“‘My Lord hath need of these flow’rets gay,’ The Reaper said, and smiled; ‘Dear tokens of the earth are they, Where He was once a Child.’”
And how do you think the artist has represented that gentle Angel-Reaper? Actually as a hideous Skeleton with a lank scythe! So ingrained is that ghastly and loathsome idea of death in the common thought of men. Then think of all the impenetrable gloom with which we surround death in this Christian England in this nineteenth century; of the utter absence of hope or beauty (save for the glorious pæan of the service) in our obsequies. Listen, as soon as the happy, hopeful Christian has “fallen asleep,” to the manner in which we tell the news to the family of our village or town. Drop, drop, like melted lead falling, for a whole hour sometimes comes that dull monotony of gloom, TOLL, TOLL, TOLL, till the heart dies down into depression for the day.
Save that we know that that recurring note comes from the belfry of the peaceful little church that presides hopefully and holily over its gathering of sleepers--save for this, would there, I ask, be any thought but of dreariness in that dull ceaseless repetition of one desolate tone? Death is, indeed
always a grave and solemn thing, and it were well that a grave and solemn voice should announce its presence to the clustered or the scattered homes. But why change solemnity into despair? Why fill the air with nought but heavy gloom for a whole hour or half-hour? I would not say, in the words of Poe:--
“Avaunt! to-night my heart is light, no dirge will I upraise, But waft the angel on her flight with a pæan of old days! Let _no_ bell toll! lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth, Should catch the note as it doth float up from the weeping earth.”
For there _must_ be sadness here, if there be joy where the spirit has gone. Only let not the dark cloud be debarred from any the least silver lining. Something gentle, tender, and sweet, in accordance, so far as earth’s lamenting can accord, with the glory and rapture of the released one, would surely be better for the living than that slow prolonged numbering the beads of their own sorrow. _I_ would have the bells rung, as for a wedding; only with a minute’s interval between each note. So the joy and the sorrow would each claim its share.
The early Christians used to speak of and commemorate the day of death, as “τὰ γενέθλια,” the birthday feast of the Dead. What a different way of putting things from our compassionate mention--not of the surviving, but of the dead. _Poor so-and-so! How sad!_--this, for the spirit, that we feel a good hope, is in Paradise! How the having it put before you in the just view--rather as an entering into true life, than a dying from it, casts a glow on what most seem to regard as nought but gloom. A most exquisite instance of such a beautiful putting of such a sharp Winter day to even a bereaved father and mother, I find in one of Archbishop Leighton’s heavenly letters. In what a different light must their loss, surely, have appeared to them, after its perusal.
“Indeed,” he writes, “it was a sharp stroke of a pen, that told me your pretty Johnny was dead: and I felt it truly more than, to my remembrance, I did the death of any child in my lifetime. Sweet thing! and is he so quickly _laid to sleep? Happy he!_ Though we shall have no more the pleasure of his lisping and laughing, he shall have no more the pain of crying, nor of being sick, nor of dying: and hath wholly escaped the trouble of schooling, and all other sufferings of boys, and the riper and deeper griefs of riper years, this poor life being all along but a linked chain of many sorrows and many deaths. Tell my dear sister she is now much more akin to the other world; and this will quickly be passed to us all. _John is but gone an hour or two sooner to bed, as children use to do, and we are undressing to follow._”
In another letter the same writer says of himself--
“I am grown exceedingly uneasy in writing and speaking, yea, almost in thinking, when I reflect how cloudy our clearest thoughts are; but, I think again what other can we do, till the day break and the shadows flee away, as one that lieth awake in the night must be thinking; and one thought that will likely oftenest return, when by all other thoughts he finds little relief, is, _when will it be day?_”
You see he would have wondered to be spoken of thus--“Poor Leighton has gone.” Answer, “How very sad,”--when at last he had attained to that day.
Let me show, by another noble instance, that, as Winter days, when they come, bring often unforeseen beauty and gladness with them, so not even the anticipation is always necessarily sad to the eye of exalted faith. Remember you those words of the mighty Apostle of Christ--when the Winter time was yet somewhat removed--with their more than calm anticipation of it, their deep warmth of joy?
“To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. What I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; _which is far better_.”
And then the stirring tones of exultation and triumph, as now but few leaves were left, and Winter days were even at the door.
“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.”
Here is an aurora borealis flashing up to the heavens in light and splendour, over the wide snow landscape of Winter days.
THE END OF THE SEASONS.
The Summer is past, the Autumn is passing quite away, the Harvest is long ended, the fruit all garnered. And the year seems as desolate as Solomon in his sad time, having been clad in more than all his glory. It has gathered gardens, and orchards, and pools, and singers, and delights; and whatsoever its eyes desired it kept not from them, nor withheld its heart from any joy or beauty; and it rejoiced in all its labour. But now what a change! You may fancy that it has looked on all the works that it had wrought, and on the labour that it had laboured to do,--and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun! And so it hastens to cast away all its gathered store and cherished delights, and stands naked, desolate, bankrupt, under the cold searching gaze of the clear bright stars. Ah!
“Where is the pride of Summer, the green prime,-- The many, many leaves all twinkling? Three On the mossed elm; three on the naked lime, Trembling,--and one upon the old oak tree!”
Nature is always beautiful to those who always look for beauty in her. But perhaps she is _least_ lovely when clad in a close thick fog. And it is thus that we have seen her continually of late. The wet black trees stood dim and ghostlike in the mist, and much like seaweed under tissue-paper. The hedges looked unreal and distant, as you passed between them on the pale road. Passengers and carriages loomed blurred and big and indistinct, out of the chill cloud in front of you, long after the wheels and the steps had been heard. Dull unglittering dew strung the branches that stretched over you, and gave a blunt light here and there in the hedge. You were isolated from your kind; scarce could you see one approaching until he was close upon you; and then, a few steps, and he was straightway swallowed up. It was not a fading morning mist; but a good November fog, one developing from cold blue to grey, and thence to yellow, and so on to tawny dun. Homeward-bound, you emerge from it into the railway-station. The train is late; the fire is pleasant; and you muse or doze away half-an-hour by the waiting-room fire. Presently a red spot dyes part of the mist; a behemoth mass is perceivable beside the platform; you get into a carriage, the whistle shrills, the train moves, and the station lights are gone in a minute,--and you also are swallowed up in the fog.
And as you pass, up the garden, home,--the chance is that you hurry on, where you would have paused to admire beauty. In the cold fog, the asparagus, hung with leaden mist-drops that chilly gleam here and there, bends and falls about its mounded bed; a black, wet, sere leaf or two clings to the ragged black sticks against that wall; the acacias drop pattering drops upon the broad fallen sycamore leaves: you might as well walk through water, as cross that lawn for a short cut to the warm mellow room, at whose window, which opens to the ground, stands she who chiefly makes that house, home. You are not sorry to shut the windows, and to have the curtains drawn, and to let the earth stand without, like a shrouded ghost, clad in winding-sheet of fog, while you enjoy the genial blaze, the cosy meal, the little ones on your lap after dinner, the gentle wifely smile that loves to see these loved.
Well, I contend that there is beauty even in the fog; but I will not stop to prove this now. I will only say that there is less beauty in this than in most other aspects of nature, and much excuse for the connecting the foggy bare time of year with chill and dreary thoughts. Then, growth of flower and fruit seems suspended, save for a scarlet splash on the hedge here and there; and dead-fingered fungi crowd in bunches above the graves of the flowers, and at the roots of the trees.
The fields are bare, with no coming crops; only swart and self-satisfied pigs roam in herds over them: the grass has stopped growing; there is neither blossom nor fruit, nor leaves upon the trees; the birds’ nests are empty and sodden; hope and fulfilment seem alike departed, and death seems to reign in solitary gloom over the pale and shrouded land. Is not all this sad beyond tears?
No; we are sure that this is not sad in the year, really; for that memory and hope are alike supporting the year’s aged steps, as it totters into December. The hope is to be found in every twig, as well as in the broad brown lands that are beginning to be ruled in music lines of thin emerald. The memory suggests by analogy, and in a sweet figure, those words that have comforted many a mourner,--
“I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.”
It is not sad, really, to see the year in its bareness and barrenness; lonely winds searching over the cornless uplands, and sighing amid the stripped boughs; dull fogs brooding over the damp fields, and shrouding the universal desolation and decay. No; because the fruits _have been_, and are garnered in. It is not that the year’s work has been left, until too late, to do. It is only that _it is done_. It is not sad, really; for when we walk through the dull bare fields, that once moved with millions of stalks and one whisper, we think of the heaped, massed grain, or of the crumbling white flour, or of the tawny square loaves. Or, if we miss the dancing grass and the bobbing clover, we look at the goodly camps of close-stacked hay, under the peaked roofs of straw. And walking through the garden or the orchard, if for a moment we are chilled by the bare look of the pitiful cold boughs, black, and ragged, and starred with tears, our thought flies from these to the bright, smooth red or white cherries, and the dark blue-bloomed damsons, and the ruddy plums, and the yellow pears, and the grey greengages, and the dead-orange apricots, and the smooth nectarines, and the soft, crimson-hearted peaches,--all of which were, in their turn, yielded faithfully by those desolate branches. Ay, and we think with double satisfaction of a store yet left; of the cosy apples and freckled pears, sorted, wiped, and laid by in rows--brown-yellow nonpareils, streaked ribstones, mellow Blenheim oranges, and russets, betraying a gleam of gold just where the brown has rubbed. We may, perhaps, think--but this is a pleasing thought,--how different all would be with the year, were all this otherwise, and had the Spring, and Summer, and Autumn been squandered in merely making wreaths of dying flowers, that perished at the chill breath of the fogs and frosts.
Thus, then, our sober thought concludes. But still, to our fancy the year seems desolate, forlorn, and sad; the fog is a chill and heavy depression; the rain sobs out its heart in tears; the wind--
“Like a broken worldling wails, And the flying gold of the ruined woodland drives through the air.”
In poetry, and even in prose, we do not most readily think of the year, between November and Christmas, as asleep after work done, but as stagnant, and brooding in despair over a wasted life and lost opportunities, and hopes withered and gone by. Why does this aspect arise most naturally to our mind? for no such thought would trouble that of a contemplating angel.
Well, the truth is, that _we_ look through coloured glass, tinting with a hue of sadness to the mind’s eye things not really sad. We see the leaves circle down, and straightway are reminded that--
“We all do fade as a leaf.”
We see the mists gather and the rain descend, and no one but can recall heavy mists of sorrow that rose over the heart’s landscape, and glooming clouds that burst in bitter tears. And the wind gets its wail as it passes through our heart, and not from the bare boughs of the watered resting trees. And we choose to represent the year as thoughtlessly glad and wastefully profuse in its lost seasons, and as _now_ broken-hearted and despairing; because this is so common a case, if not in our own experience, yet in the history of so very many about us. We cannot but think how this idle business and succeeding gloom is indeed to be found too often, too often, in the year of man’s life. Flowers, when he is young; flowers, in life’s prime; flowers, in its Autumn; and what will ye do in the end thereof? What, when the fogs and the frosts have come, and the evil days are close at hand, and the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them? Where is the secure store, the treasure laid up in the safe garner, to cheer the heart when the sap has gone down for this year, and the fields are blank, and growth is stayed?
How foolish, we can see and should readily acknowledge; how unpardonably shortsighted it would be of the Year to postpone its work of preparing, maturing, ripening its fruits until the dark, short, chill days towards its end. “It is the sweet pleasure time, this Spring; wait for Summer, I will then begin. Summer, with its thick leaves and hazy blue--who would begin at such a time as this to work? Autumn--let me enjoy the cool bracing air after Summer’s heat; soon, really, a start shall be made.” And so November--and all the year’s harvest, and all the year’s fruits to be begun, grown, matured, all the year’s work crowded into the last thin group of dwindling days. Desolate, indeed, would the year be then, and a wild wail of “Too late!” would sweep with a shiver over the dreary land; no sunshine now, no time, no opportunity, no inclination, no power. The sap would be sluggish, the impulse of growth gone by; and at last a stolid, hard frost of indifference and fixed sterility close the sad story of the year.
Well, this may be fanciful--yet, brothers and sisters mine, that which is fanciful in the year of Nature, which always does God’s work faithfully, even while it enjoys His glad sun and refreshing rain, and smiles up to Him in flowers--that which is fanciful applied to the life of the Year, is gravely, heart-touchingly true of many and many a life of Man. Nature,
“True to her trust, tree, herb, or reed, She renders for each scattered seed, And to her Lord with duteous heed Gives large increase: Thus year by year she works unfee’d, And will not cease.”
But, many among us, how do _we_ look at this life, this brief life which God has given to each--a life which has so many close analogies with Nature’s year? For what is our short year given us? To trifle away? or to use in God’s service in preparing fruit for eternity--wheat that shall be gathered into God’s barn? The latter, you will own; and happy, if not your lips only, but your life gives this answer, too!
But how many, owning the truth of this grave view of life with their words, deny it with their deeds! Yet a little longer--there is time enough. It is now the time for enjoyment--the time for work will come. Vain to answer,
“But if indeed with reckless faith, We trust the flattering voice, Which whispers, ‘Take thy fill ere death, Indulge thee, and rejoice,’
“Too surely, every setting day, Some lost delight we mourn, The flowers all die along our way, Till we, too, die forlorn”;
and there is, then, indeed, an unredeemed bareness and desolation without the glow of memory or hope, in life’s ending days. Vain to urge this: even if the words call up a grave look for a while, the thought is soon shelved till “a convenient season.” And the life, if not the lips, of many proclaims--Let the world have my Spring, Summer, Autumn; and after that no doubt a good crop of holiness and heavenly-mindedness will yet be found in the thin last sere days of Life’s year. Let the world have the best of the year; we will spare its fragments and leavings for God. To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, and Spring goes, and Summer passes, and Autumn dwindles, and the foolish heart begins to discover that it is too late then. For its life is chilled, its sap gone down, its fertility exhausted. It is not the time for blossoms now, or fruit; habits are fixed, and effort is paralysed; often ugly fungi have sprung from the ruins of comparatively innocent thoughtless delights. And this was not foreseen, nor will men believe it, although you sadly warn them of it. We read it from the Bible, we cry it from the pulpit--
“They that seek Me early shall find Me.”
“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, While the evil days come not, Nor the years draw nigh, When thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.”
“To-day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”
But young and old listen, and then go home to their Sunday dinner; and other talk, and other interests, and other thoughts, dry up the water that had stood in a little pool upon the heart, but had not sunk in. God’s Spirit could have drawn it in, but His help was not heartily asked, even if asked at all.
* * * * *
Ah yes, is it not true, as one writes, that “men are ever beguiling themselves with the dream that they shall one day be what they are not now; they balance their present consciousness of a low worldly life, and of a mind heavy and dull to spiritual things, with the lazy thought that some day God will bring home to them in power the realities of faith in Christ. Who is there that has not at some time secretly indulged this soothing flattery, that the staid gravity of age, when youth is quelled, or the leisure of retirement, when the fret of busy life is over, or, it may be, the inevitable pains and griefs which are man’s inheritance, shall break up in his heart the now-sealed fountains of repentance, and make, at last, his religion a reality? So men dream away their lives in pleasures, sloth, trade, or study. Who has not allayed the uneasy consciousness of a meagre religion, with the hope of a future change? Who has not been thus mocked by the enemy of man? Who has not listened, all too readily, to him who would cheat us of the hour that is, and of all the spiritual earnings which faith makes day by day in God’s service, stealing from us the present hour, and leaving us a lie in exchange? And yet, this present hour is all we have. To-morrow must be to-day before we can use it; and day after day we squander in the hope of a to-morrow; but to-morrow shall be stolen away too, as to-day and yesterday. God’s kingdom was very nigh to him who trembled at the judgment to come. Felix trembled once; we nowhere read that he trembled again.”
Habits are stronger when we are weaker. People forget this, and imagine that they can cast off fetters that have grown from silken to iron, and that with force that has dwindled from vigour to impotence. That they can lie fallow all the growing time of life, and cram clearing, ploughing, sowing, growth, harvest, all into the dark, few, shortening days of life’s decay. “A convenient season!” Ah! does this mean, then, _the end of the seasons_--the meagre leavings of life’s year? Is this the season convenient for God’s work--for the great purpose of our being? Is spiritual life likely to be then first lifting up its head, when all life is fading away?
“Gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost.” This is a command exquisitely applicable to the gleanings of an old age, whose harvest has been given to God:
“They shall still bring forth fruit in old age”;
--not like the old age of the year--for the fruit of this, at the best, is hips and haws, and holly-berries.
But can the command ever apply to a life of which the world, and the flesh, and the devil have had the harvest? Will God accept the mere gleanings?
“Autumn departs--from busy fields no more Come rural sounds, our kindred banks to cheer; Blent with the stream, and gale that wafts it o’er, No more the distant reaper’s mirth we hear. The last blithe shout hath died upon the ear, And harvest-home hath hushed the clanging wain: On the waste hill no forms of life appear, Save where, sad laggard of the Autumnal train, Some age-struck wanderer gleans few ears of scattered grain.”
Thus, when the world’s shouts and glee have passed by him, may we sometimes see the sad late seeker of God occupied. Sometimes, not often; for be it well laid to heart that God’s enemies seldom leave any gleanings on their fields, but are busy with careful rake to collect even life’s last days. Not often; for settled habits are hardest to overcome; and when the character and tastes are formed, there will seldom remain even the hearty wish to alter. Not often, then, but _sometimes_, in later life the worldling, or the devil’s labourer, turns back with wrung hands and tears--smitten and pricked to the heart by some sharp voice from God--and wanders over the bare, desolate fields in life’s chill and fog, and shakes the dreary boughs;--if perhaps there may be a little handful of corn, or an overlooked grape, or any fruit, that yet may be tremblingly offered to the Master of the Harvest, when He comes to take account with His labourers.
And now the question is, Is this late labour, labour in vain?
“Will God indeed with fragments bear, Snatched late from the decaying year? Or can the Saviour’s blood endear The dregs of a polluted life?”
He will: it can. If the heart be _truly_ turned to Him at last, it will not be turned to Him in vain. Many of my readers will recall a beautiful allegory of servants trading for their lord, and how one, late caused to tremble and to turn, brought at the reckoning-day salt tears and rough sackcloth, that changed as he bore them into rich stuff and jewels. Aye, a broken and a contrite heart, if real, at _no_ time in life will He despise. Better give the harvest than only the gleanings, but better these than nothing.
It is a base truth that men often only desert the world when the world deserts them. But, I have seen it observed, there is something very touching in the fact that men thus find that they must turn to God at last, after all, without Him, has disappointed, and that if they truly turn, so gracious is He, that He will deign to accept the world’s leavings. The story of the lost sheep, of the piece of money, but chiefly of the prodigal son, assure us of the truth of this. When he had spent all, it was,--all his rich patrimony of young powers, feelings, hopes, and after he had even gone after swine’s husks,--after he had spent _all_, the Father accepted the empty casket! When the seed-time, and the ripening-time, and the harvest-time had passed, the bare November fields and stripped boughs were accepted, because over them had gathered the mournful mist of true repentance, and because they were thickly strung with abundance of sorrowful tears!
Oh, wonderful love, not of earth, but divine!--God deigns to prize what earth has thrown away! Therefore let those who seem even settled on their lees, fixed in the ways of the world or of sin, let them tremble exceedingly, but let them not despair. If they _will_, they yet _may_. Let them cry to the Helper, let them retrace the path with tears, gleaning as they go a scattered rare grain here and there,--redeeming the time, although the evil days have come. There is One for whose perfect merits the harvest of the saint and the handful of the sinner shall alike find acceptance; and though ’tis best to “sin not,” nevertheless, “if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Let none presume, however; for the gleaning commonly goes the same way that the harvest has gone. And it were base indeed, designedly, to set apart only life’s leavings for God’s share. Oh, rather let those who can give life’s whole broad year to God!
Too late, too late! This, if the year had postponed its work, must be the sad burden of the winds’ wailing over its desolate and weed-strewn fields. But it is a thought to humble the heart, and bring tears of shame and gratitude into the eyes, that no human life with which God’s Spirit is still striving need take that bitter wail for its own. Too late to love God? Nay, be assured that, if it _be_ love, it shall be as tenderly, gladly welcomed as the dawn of the lonely white Christmas rose on the bare Winter beds.
“For love too late can never glow; The scattered fragments love can glean, Refine the dregs, and yield us clean To regions where one thought serene Breathes sweeter than whole years of sacrifice below.”
UNDER BARE BOUGHS.
December is here--one of those mild cheery days, however, when you can hardly realise that the boughs are indeed bare, and the beds flowerless, and the Spring birds far away;--one of those days which tempt you out into the garden, to saunter and loiter there, and look at the patches that will be snowdrops soon, and to think longingly of leaves where you had before naturally and as of course acquiesced in the canopy of bare boughs;--a day on which you--at least _I_--do not care to go beyond the garden. To me it seems a peaceful, and far from gloomy, churchyard. Like a spire that tall, ancient, ivy-clothed spruce-fir stands out of the shrubbery; here, near it, the gay laburnum tresses lie buried; here the pink apple-blossom crumbled into dust; each round bed along the lawn is sacred to the memory of some choice rose; the violets sleep under that high wall--the lilies, tall, white, stately, but dead and gone--claim remembrance from each side of the walk; the geraniums, verbenas, heliotropes, petunias, have their cemetery in those dark beds on the smooth sward, and each flower has some spot specially or generally consecrated to it.
The memory of my old friends and companions has a tender charm for me, and I look at the stripped rose-twigs, and at the brown mould where the flowers were, with a faint halo of that feeling which is keen at the heart, when we pace among the mounds that hide the dust of friends. There is promise everywhere, I know, and the naked twigs are strung with germs of future leaves, and there are next year’s flowers sleeping at the heart of the rose. But I rather cling to any relic of the past, than care just now to look forward; and I hail this lingering arrested bud with the buff-yellow petals, or this half-shattered pure white blossom, as belonging to the sweet array of the dead flowers. True, I accept this cluster of the winter-cherry, leaning forward on to the path, an orange globe in a golden network; and the unfolding buds of the Christmas rose,--as being a link between the past and the future. But my thoughts slant backwards now, as I look upon the setting sun of the year; nor am I, in this mood, regarding it from the point that it will rise again all fresh and new to-morrow. No, I am not now concerned with the lovely wealth of leaves and flowers, the new year’s dower,--so soon all spent,--so soon all spent;--I am now of a mind to muse under the
“Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
Let me sit down under this network of sycamore and chesnut boughs, while the faint patches of pale sunlight move about me on the rank and drenched, yet ungrowing grass; let me sit down under the bare boughs, while the brown, wet, marred leaves huddle by the side of the garden seat, and under the barred plank that serves as my footstool. I dare say my old and unfailing friend will soon come and perch near me, his lover, and match the sad cheery gleams of sunlight with sad cheery gleams of song. Bird of the mild dark loving eye, and quick quiet motion, and olive plumage, and warm sienna-red breast; bird of the soft song,--passion subdued now to tenderness, hope that has sunk to patience, eagerness that is merged in tranquillity,--faithful bird, whose every tone and motion, familiar and loved, seems to fit the Winter heart as well as the Spring fancy,--those fervent, passionate songsters of the Spring, that now are flown, they never drowned to my ear thy quiet song of peace; no, not even in the days when the nightingale’s thrilling utterance made the world as it were full of the unsubstantial beauty of a dream. And so now I feel a sort of right to the calm and comfort of thy tranquil, unfailing utterance, when the evanescent dream has passed away, and the disenchanted world stands naked. Thus, while you are young, O my friends, and all the boughs are clothed, and all the birds are singing, and your heart makes answer to the loveliness and the music,--do not disdain, then, to listen to and to heed that quieter voice which tells, in an undertone, very beautiful, if attended to, of the love of God. Your heart, if you knew it, cannot really afford to dispense with it when all the woods are loud, “and all the trees are green.” And if you _did_ hear and heed and love it then, ah, how exquisite, how refreshing, how more than cheering the faithful notes appear, as you sit meditating under a pale winter sky, and looking at silent, leafless boughs,--and the songster draws nearer to you then, finding you alone!
* * * * *
Well, let me, I say, sit me down on this garden seat, under these “bare ruined choirs,” and hail the one little chorister, whose quiet, modest song ever seems to me to compensate for the absence of all the rest. The dewdrops twinkle about me in the drenched grass, groups of brown toadstools cluster here and there, and wax-white fungi straggle away in a broken line; there is a scarlet gleam of hips in the rose-bushes under the shrubbery, and of mountain-ash higher above them. It is Winter, but nature has not forgotten to stick some sprays of Christmas about her bare pillars, and to twist them in devices about her arches, that run up around me into this groined roof above.
The first thing that we all should muse about, under the bare boughs, would be, I suppose, the leaves that once clad them. Ay, even if, under the full shading foliage, we never thought to give them an upward glance of gratitude, love, and admiration. But they are gone, and what was taken as a matter of course is valued, now that it is missed. There is repining as to the desolation of Winter, and this from those who did not consciously enjoy the Summer.
I cannot reproach myself on this score. I have loved and learnt by heart every shape and development, from the first vivid light of green to the sombre sameness of hue, and then the rich variety that dispersed this;--all this growth, and attainment, and decay have I heedfully and affectionately noted, during the space which separated last year’s bare boughs from these.
“A million emeralds break from the ruby-budded lime.”
Yes, I saw that,--and I watched the juicy foliage deepen, and the thin maize-coloured strips of flower chequer the darkening full mass, and change the picture into
“The lime, a summer home of murmurous wings.”
Then those curved chesnut boughs near the grass--I detected the first fresh crumpled gleam, bursting from the brown sticky buds, until all over the tree, as in an illumination,
“The budding twigs spread out their fan To catch the breezy air.”
And so I watched them into milky spires, and swarthy green globes, that grew brown, and fell, and burst threefold, lying among the heaped leaves, such a picture, with the white lining and bright nut!
The beech, changing from soft silky fledging of its boughs into hardier green foliage, and afterwards becoming a very mint, each branch
“All overlaid with patines of bright gold”;
and so subsiding into a sparer dress of sienna brown.
“The pillared dusk of sounding sycamores.”
The brave oaks, soon passing out of their Chaucerian attire,
“Some very red, and some a glad light green,”
and now all gnarled and knotted, and only clutching still a wisp of pale dull dry leaves here and there:--all these, be sure, have had their meed of attention and of regard from me. And so I sit under the bare boughs with no remorseful if with some regretful feelings. But still, I say, who can look up at the stripped branches in the Winter without sometimes giving fancy and memory leave to clothe them again with the fair frail dreams and hopes and enjoyments that, though they were evanescent, yet were beautiful, and that, though passing away with the Summer of Time, yet no doubt have influenced the Eternal growth of the Tree. Yes, sometimes it will be graceful, and at least not harmful, to let memory wander back into the days of childhood and of youth, and bid the frail and inexperienced foliage cover the branches again with that rich but short-lived beauty:
“Old wishes, ghosts of broken plans, And phantom hopes assemble; And that child’s heart within the man’s Begins to move and tremble.”
Aye, there they are again, for a moment, shimmering in the sunlight and in the shade, “clapping their little hands in glee.” But we start, and they are gone. And, instead, how clearly we may see the blue Sky through the stripped boughs!
* * * * *
I remember, some time ago, sitting under some sycamore trees, near the sea-side. Of course those trees are all bare now, but the leaves were then at the fall. It was just at that time of the year when all the sweeping in the world will not keep the lawn tidy, and every gust littered it with the crisp, curled leaves. Amid this surely advancing decay there was, however, a pathetic effort towards renovation and new life. The year could hardly yet quietly acquiesce in the truth that its once exuberant power of growth was over, and that it must give in to stagnation increasing to decay. The like of this we may trace in the human year: in the faded Beauty; in the worn-out Author and Wit; and there is always a sadness about the sight. Under the nearly black leaves some very yellow-green ones were clustering upon the lower shoots; a late frond or two bent timidly amid the burnt and battered growth of the fernery; autumn crocuses came like ghosts upon the rich moist beds, but fell prone with an overmastering weakness; one gleam of laburnum drooped, and two white clusters of pear-blossom tried to ignore the heavy mellowing fruit; and some frail crumpled bramble-bloom appeared among the blackberries; tenderest and most touching, but wildest and most abortive endeavour, a primrose, too pale even for that pale flower, started up here and there out of the long draggled, ragged leaves. I know that many days ago winter must have frightened away all this frail gathering, the more easily and suddenly, because of their weakness and timidity. But I took pleasure in watching and moralising upon the impotent yet graceful struggle. And then, I recall, I sat down under the trees, much as I do now, and in much such a day. The flickering spots of faint sunlight moved slowly on the sward: the day was calm, after a wild windy Summer. It was cool for Autumn as this is warm for Winter, and so the two days were near akin, except for this one difference, that the leaves were mostly still upon the trees. They had begun in good earnest to fall, but they were still left in considerable numbers upon the boughs. And I fell, after some unconscious watching these leaves, into a fit of musing upon them. There was a peculiarity about them all which caught my attention. Let me set down, under these bare boughs, some of my thoughts at that time. It can be done the less unkindly now that that generation of leaves has all, some weeks ago, fluttered away.
The peculiarity was this. The trees being within the scope of many contending and fierce and unremitting winds, there was not upon any twig, that I could see, one single _perfect_ leaf. Perhaps a young one, just born, and to die almost as soon as born, might keep somewhat of its intended shape. But those that had endured the fierce winds and the heat and the rain and the blights,--ah, how shattered and scarred and stained they were! Some marred out of any trace of the intention of their birth; rent and beaten into a sorry strip, hardly to be called a leaf at all. But even the best were defaced and disfigured, spotted and imperfect.
Now sentiment about these leaves would, obviously, be extremely ill-placed. But my thought traced in these battered masses of the sycamore a picture of this life of ours, until the trees almost became a mirror, in which I, with the myriad race of much-enduring men, seemed to be exactly reflected. _Not one_ perfect leaf; many _so_ shattered and stained and marred. So beaten out of that pattern to which God had designed them. Some with hardly the very least trace of that Image in which mankind was at first moulded. Most with little to remind us of it. But, saddest of all, it seemed to me, there was not one, not even the best, which would bear close inspection. Not one but, even if the shape were somewhat preserved, had yet some ugly scar or hole or crack; not one perfect, no, not one!
And so it is, that we are in truth fain to accept for our idea of a good man here, merely that one who is least defaced and disfigured. The wise among men, what is he, but only one not quite so foolish as most others. The kind, only one that is less often cruel. The dutiful, and obedient, only one that is at least and at best inadequately trying among the gross that are utterly careless, to fear God, and to regard man. How negative most of our goodness is, and the qualities whose possession inspires our fellow-men with admiration! A good son, a good husband--this surely only means one who is not bad, undutiful, unjust, unkind. And yet who could lay claim to either title, nor exhibit some, yea many, flaws and spots? And for positive goodness--ah, well, if it were not for the utterly marred and ragged growth with which we are surrounded, there would be little fear, surely of any, such as are we, laying claim to the possession of that here. _Great and good men?_--Rent and shattered, rent and shattered; and if in comparison with the shreds about us, we trace in ourselves some hint of the original shape, how often we must then think, “I was more in shelter, lower down on the tree,” and how little inclined shall we be, contemplating sadly our own stains and clefts, to think superciliously and pharisaically of those mere strips that, growing on the higher boughs, seemed the prey of every rough wind that blew.
“Safe home, safe home in port!-- Rent cordage, shattered deck, Torn sails, provisions short, And _only not a wreck_.”
This seems the most that the best can say. And that this is so, appears to me sad. God’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; and I puzzle about this long and universal history of successes which are but half-failures. Inveterate as is the evil of our nature, vast as has been its fall, yet, I ask myself, is there any limit to the stores of God’s grace? And, with such an armoury, ought the fight to be so sorry, only just not a defeat? I know we cannot attain; I know that perfection must fly before us, and ever elude our grasp, in this state. I know, by a guess, that the nearer we seem to it, in the view of others, surely the farther we shall, in our own view, appear to be behind it, the more vainly striving after it. And I know, nevertheless, that the soul hungry and thirsty for righteousness shall have even here some daily bread, to satisfy just the most restless gnawing of its desire, and that hereafter it shall fully feast, and be satisfied, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
But what distresses me is this: that even truly good men are often, if not always, so disappointing. You were awakened to the loveliness of Christianity, and yearning for sympathy and advice; you sought one of those ideals which seemed, to hope and fancy, sure to be embodiments of it--and how often a chilling want of gentleness, or patience, or tenderness, closed up the heart’s opening blossom! Or carrying some opportunity for serving Christ in the person of a poor member of His Body, to one who, you felt sure, would, at least, meet you with kindliness, if unfortunately other calls precluded aid: how often a cold manner or a chilling snub disappoints and damps you! There is frequently too much bloodless, abstract faith, where you expected warm human interest; and wounded and hurt and baffled, you betake yourself to the only perfect sympathy, that of God. There is hardness, where you had taken for granted Christ’s tenderness would be found; there is bitterness, where you had counted upon Christ’s badge of love (St. John xiii. 35); there is pride, even, where you had never dreamed of finding anything but absolute humility. There is anxiety about worldly matters, where you had pictured a perfect, restful trust in God; carefulness and trouble about many things, where you had looked forward to seeing at last the calm sitting at the Saviour’s feet. There is irritability, and fussiness at trifles, where you had dreamed that things of eternal moment would alone have greatly moved: there is, upon the whole, disappointment, where you had looked for the realisation of that Ideal which you possess, and after which you did not wonder to find your own weak self vainly toiling. The winds and the blights seem too much for poor human nature, that will not draw, as it might, upon Divine grace; and upon every branch that we examine, there is not a leaf that is not sadly marred and imperfect; no, not one.
I know this must be, in a measure, in this wingless, fallen state. I know that in the sight of God and of angels, yea, of our own selves, if we have at all really learned what goodness is, the best of us are but weak buffeters of those waters of evil in which many around us are drowning. Still, without taking an Angel’s point of view, might not our light, at least before men, shine a little more brightly and consistently, and not be made up of mere alternations of spasmodic flares and dimness or darkness? Must there be so many spots of inconsistency, so many rents of surely elementary and avoidable unloveliness; so many high places not taken away, even though God be served somewhat in His Temple; such marring flies making even genuine and precious ointment to stink?
Oh, I often think that in this world and in this day, there lies a great opportunity unclaimed! When we see the powerful influence which even a broken and unequal attempt at service, at fulfilling the mere elements of our duty to God and to man, exerts upon a world where it is the rare exception even to _attempt_ earnestly, then I think, what might not a perseverance beyond the first steps (and God’s grace knows no stint), what might not a steady advance towards perfection work in this sceptical, critical, anxious, weary world? This world narrowly watches for flaws, and, finding them, strengthens itself in its carelessness and godlessness. But if compelled to acknowledge a reality, a fulfilment of those theories which it has come to consider as scarcely meant, quite impossible, to be reduced to practice; if forced to acknowledge a sterling goodness, human and yet Divine, which stands the searching tests by which men try profession; it will then fall vanquished before it, and, in many things, surrender itself to the influence of a goodness alike strict, gracious, and glad. If the good man set sentinels at all sides of his life, and not only at one or two chosen posts; if he were ever trimming his lamp, seeking and pouring in more oil; not letting any slovenly black fungus grow on the wick, and dim part of the flame--how much might a few such bright and steady lights do in reproving the darkness, and bringing out sister gleams! How might we, thus rebuked, instead of resting proud of our sickly glimmer, set to work in good earnest, with watchfulness and prayer, to mend our flame, until the noble rays of the lighthouse, and the clustering lesser lights beneath, might lure some that were driven and tossed homelessly upon the treacherous, troubled seas. Now the lights often go out when they are wanted, and the beacon is dark just when a despairing look was cast towards it; and so the dreary, hopeless course is renewed.
A perfect man must be kind and wise, patient and loving,--not one whose life shall make the worldling sore and resentful, but shall rather make him sad and longing,--not one who boasts to be a “man of prayer,” but forgets to be a man of love,--not one who makes Faith the cuckoo nestling that edges out Charity,--not one too much absorbed in devotion, and even divine and religious contemplation, to enter into the difficulties, and wants, and cries, and doubts, and struggles of those beneath the mountain which he is ascending. He must be one of a universal kindliness,--of an always ready sympathy for any feeling which he perceives to be real, howsoever it find no echo in his own heart; one ever just, generous, forbearing, forgiving; ever ready to stop and to descend to raise the fallen; firm and fixed in principle, but tender and gentle in heart; speaking the truth, but speaking it still in love; severity against sin never swamping yearning for the sinner; never base or mean in things large or little; always ready to suppose the best of others; never vaunting, never puffed up; not easily provoked; thinking no evil; rejoicing with the joyful, weeping with the sad; hard only upon himself; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. Never giving others to understand that he has already attained, or is already perfect; not counting himself to have apprehended, but _pressing toward the mark_. Alas! it is true that men are mostly content with a very low standard, and if they seem to themselves and others to have attained that, easily rest there;--and the great opportunity passes away ungrasped.
Torn leaves, tattered leaves, at best marred and imperfect, not one approaching perfection, not one without a flaw. Ah, yes, one,--and one only. How glorious the thought that in Christ, born into the world, and taking our nature upon Him,--in Christ, the Seed of the woman,--this our poor human nature, tattered, torn, and defaced, is exalted into absolute and eternal Perfection. All the fiercest storms and blights and heats attacked our nature in Him, but attacked it in vain. The most minute and scrutinising examination can here detect no least speck, or swerving from the ideal of symmetry. In Him we see what we long, vainly it seems, to be. In Him we see that towards which He would exalt us, if we will be exalted,--that which we may in a sense attain, if we will be perfected. And so at last we turn from sad contemplation of innumerable greater or less failures, and dwell restfully and hopefully upon the only and all-sufficient perfect One. To be like Him when He shall appear, oh, glorious hope that He has given us! to awake thus in the Spring of the Next Year, and this in a Land where there are no blights, nor colds, nor heats, to mar that shape. But let us remember, that having this hope, we should even now be purifying ourselves, even as He is pure.
But here a burst of little ones comes into the garden, anxious for my leave and help to cut boughs of the holly and the box to clothe the rooms for Christmas, and to divert thoughts of the bare boughs that stand without. And it is well that my musings should thus be interrupted, and should thus end. Among the bare branches of the saddest thought there may still be found warm-berried evergreens, planted by God’s love here and there. And all that tells here of Death and Winter, tells of that which is temporary and evanescent, now that the LIFE has come into the world. Even the cold stripped trees and the buried flowers,--there is hope in their death,--and how much are we better than they!
And thus the Poet whom I quoted above goes on to thought of that Spring from the contemplation of the rending winds and stripping Winter here:
“Safe home, safe home in port!-- Rent cordage, shattered deck, Torn sails, provisions short, And only not a wreck. _But, oh, the joy upon the shore, To tell our voyage perils o’er!_
“The prize, the prize secure! The athlete nearly fell, Bare all he could endure, And bare not always well; _But he may smile at troubles gone, Who sets the victor garland on._”
Well, I must muse no longer, I see, but give up myself to the will of the children. Come along, then, and let us make all bright and cheery at this joyous season. Tall sprays of thick-berried holly; golden winter cherries, laurel, and yew, and box; ay, and if you will, Cyril shall climb the old mossy gnarled apple-tree, and bring down a branching bunch of that pale-green, Druid-loved parasite, with its berries like opal beads. In this happy time the children may well claim to have their “time to laugh,” and to rejoice; and the elders may look on or join with kindly geniality. Yea, we may say, “It is _meet_ that we should make merry and be glad;--for this our earth was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Laugh and be happy, therefore, at the Christmas time. Only in enjoying the holiday, let not its etymology and true meaning be altogether lost sight of. And remember that it is only the thought of the Spring of Eternity that can take away the sadness from the contemplation of Time’s bare boughs.
LONDON: ROBERT K. BURT, PRINTER, WINE OFFICE COURT, FLEET STREET.
Punctuation, hyphenation, and spelling were made consistent when a predominant preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.
Simple typographical errors were corrected; occasional unbalanced quotation marks retained.
Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.
Text uses both “chesnut” and “chestnut”; both retained here.
Some illustrations intertwined with the text. That appearance has been followed in versions of this eBook capable of such visual presentations; in other versions, the illustrations precede the text. However, when the illustration included the first letter of the first word of a chapter, that letter has been repeated here as part of the text.