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"He insisted that the love that was of real value in the world wasn't interesting,
and that the love that was interesting wasn't always admirable. Love that happened
to a person like the measles or fits, and was really of no particular credit to itself or
its victims, was the sort that got into the books and was made much of; whereas the
kind that was attained by the endeavour of true souls, and that had wear in it, and
that made things go right instead of tangling them up, was too much like duty to make
satisfactory reading for people of sentiment."
– E. S. MARTIN: My Cousin Anthony.
LOVERS AND LANDSCAPE
THE first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.
The first day of spring is due to arrive, if the calendar does not break down, about the twenty-first of March, when the earth turns the corner of Sun Alley and starts for Summer Street. But the first spring day is not on the time-table at all. It comes when it is ready, and in the latitude of New York this is usually not till after All Fools' Day. About this time, –
"When chinks in April's windy dome
Let through a day of June,
And foot and thought incline to roam,
And every sound's a tune," –
it is the habit of the angler who lives in town to prepare for the labours of the approaching season by longer walks or bicycle-rides in the parks, or along the riverside, or in the somewhat demoralized Edens of the suburbs. In the course of these vernal peregrinations and circumrotations, I observe that lovers of various kinds begin to occupy a notable place in the landscape.
The burnished dove puts a livelier iris around his neck, and practises fantastic bows and amourous quicksteps along the verandah of the pigeon-house and on every convenient roof. The young male of the human species, less gifted in the matter of rainbows, does his best with a gay cravat, and turns the thoughts which circulate above it towards the securing or propitiating of a best girl.
The objects of these more or less brilliant attentions, doves and girls, show a becoming reciprocity, and act in a way which leads us to infer (so far as inferences hold good in the mysterious region of female conduct) that they are not seriously displeased. To a rightly tempered mind, pleasure is a pleasant sight. And the philosophic observer who could look upon this spring spectacle of the lovers with any but friendly feelings would be indeed what the great Dr. Samuel Johnson called "a person not to be envied."
Far be it from me to fall into such a desiccated and supercilious mood. My small olive-branch of fancy will be withered, in truth, and ready to drop budless from the tree, when I cease to feel a mild delight in the billings and cooings of the little birds that separate from the flocks to fly together in pairs, or in the uninstructive but mutually satisfactory converse which Strephon holds with Chloe while they dally along the primrose path.
I am glad that even the stony and tumultuous city affords some opportunities for these amiable observations. In the month of April there is hardly a clump of shrubbery in the Central Park which will not serve as a trysting-place for yellow warblers and catbirds just home from their southern tours. At the same time, you shall see many a bench, designed for the accommodation of six persons, occupied at the sunset hour by only two, and apparently so much too small for them that they cannot avoid a little crowding.
These are infallible signs. Taken in conjunction with the eruption of tops and marbles among the small boys, and the purchase of fishing-tackle and golf-clubs by the old boys, they certify us that the vernal equinox has arrived, not only in the celestial regions, but also in the heart of man.
I have been reflecting of late upon the relation of lovers to the landscape, and questioning whether art has given it quite the same place as that which belongs to it in nature. In fiction, for example, and in the drama, and in music, I have some vague misgivings that romantic love has come to hold a more prominent and a more permanent position than it fills in real life.
This is dangerous ground to venture upon, even in the most modest and deprecatory way. The man who expresses an opinion, or even a doubt, on this subject, contrary to the ruling traditions, will have a swarm of angry critics buzzing about him. He will be called a heretic, a heathen, a cold-blooded freak of nature. As for the woman who hesitates to subscribe all the thirty-nine articles of romantic love, if such a one dares to put her reluctance into words, she is certain to be accused either of unwomanly ambition or of feminine disappointment.
Let us make haste, then, to get back for safety to the ornithological aspect of the subject. Here there can be no penalties for heresy. And here I make bold to avow my conviction that the pairing season is not the only point of interest in the life of the birds; nor is the instinct by which they mate altogether and beyond comparison the noblest passion that stirs their feathered breasts.
'T is true, the time of mating is their prettiest season; but it is very short. How little we should know of the drama of their airy life if we had eyes only for this brief scene! Their finest qualities come out in the patient cares that protect the young in the nest, in the varied struggles for existence through the changing year, and in the incredible heroisms of the annual migrations. Herein is a parable.
It may be observed further, without fear of rebuke, that the behaviour of the different kinds of birds during the prevalence of romantic love is not always equally above reproach. The courtship of English sparrows – blustering, noisy, vulgar – is a sight to offend the taste of every gentle on-looker.
Some birds reiterate and vociferate their love-songs in a fashion that displays their inconsiderateness as well as their ignorance of music. This trait is most marked in domestic fowls. There was a guinea-cock, once, that chose to do his wooing close under the window of a farm-house where I was lodged. He had no regard for my hours of sleep or meditation. His amatory click-clack prevented the morning and wrecked the tranquillity of the evening. It was odious, brutal, – worse, it was absolutely thoughtless. Herein is another parable.
Let us admit cheerfully that lovers have a place in the landscape and lend a charm to it. This does not mean that they are to take up all the room there is. Suppose, for example, that a pair of them, on Goat Island, put themselves in such a position as to completely block out your view of Niagara. You cannot regard them with gratitude. They even become a little tedious. Or suppose that you are visiting at a country-house, and you find that you must not enjoy the moonlight on the verandah because Augustus and Amanda are murmuring in one corner, and that you must not go into the garden because Louis and Lizzie are there, and that you cannot have a sail on the lake because Richard and Rebecca have taken the boat.
Of course, unless you happen to be a selfish old curmudgeon, you rejoice, by sympathy, in the happiness of these estimable young people. But you fail to see why it should cover so much ground.
Why should they not pool their interests, and all go out in the boat, or all walk in the garden, or all sit on the verandah? Then there would be room for somebody else about the place.
In old times you could rely upon lovers for retirement. But nowadays their rôle seems to be a bold ostentation of their condition. They rely upon other people to do the timid, shrinking part. Society, in America, is arranged principally for their convenience; and whatever portion of the landscape strikes their fancy, they preempt and occupy. All this goes upon the presumption that romantic love is really the only important interest in life.
This train of thought was illuminated, the other night, by an incident which befell me at a party. It was an assembly of men, drawn together by their common devotion to the sport of canoeing. There were only three or four of the gentler sex present (as honorary members), and only one of whom it could be suspected that she was at that time a victim or an object of the tender passion. In the course of the evening, by way of diversion to our disputations on keels and centreboards, canvas and birch-bark, cedar-wood and bass-wood, paddles and steering-gear, a fine young Apollo, with a big, manly voice, sang us a few songs. But he did not chant the joys of weathering a sudden squall, or running a rapid feather-white with foam, or floating down a long, quiet, elm-bowered river. Not all. His songs were full of sighs and yearnings, languid lips and sheep's-eyes. His powerful voice informed us that crowns of thorns seemed like garlands of roses, and kisses were as sweet as samples of heaven, and various other curious sensations were experienced; and at the end of every stanza the reason was stated, in tones of thunder –
"Because I love you, dear."
Even if true, it seemed inappropriate. How foolish the average audience in a drawing-room looks while it is listening to passionate love-ditties! And yet I suppose the singer chose these songs, not from any malice aforethought, but simply because songs of this kind are so abundant that it is next to impossible to find anything else in the shops.
In regard to novels, the situation is almost as discouraging. Ten love-stories are printed to one of any other kind. We have a standing invitation to consider the tribulations and difficulties of some young man or young woman in finding a mate. It must be admitted that the subject has its capabilities of interest. Nature has her uses for the lover, and she gives him an excellent part to play in the drama of life. But is this tantamount to saying that his interest is perennial and all-absorbing, and that his rôle on the stage is the only one that is significant and noteworthy?
Life is much too large to be expressed in the terms of a single passion. Friendship, patriotism, parental tenderness, filial devotion, the ardour of adventure, the thirst for knowledge, the ecstasy of religion, – these all have their dwelling in the heart of man. They mould character. They control conduct. They are stars of destiny shining in the inner firmament. And if art would truly hold the mirror up to nature, it must reflect these greater and lesser lights that rule the day and the night.
How many of the plays that divert and misinform the modern theatre-goer turn on the pivot of a love-affair, not always pure, but generally simple! And how many of those that are imported from France proceed upon the theory that the Seventh is the only Commandment, and that the principal attraction of life lies in the opportunity of breaking it! The matinee-girl is not likely to have a very luminous or truthful idea of existence floating around in her pretty little head.
But, after all, the great plays, those that take the deepest hold upon the heart, like Hamlet and King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, are not love-plays. And the most charming comedies, like The Winter's Tale, and The Rivals, and Rip Van Winkle, are chiefly memorable for other things than love-scenes.
Even in novels, love shows at its best when it does not absorb the whole plot. Lorna Doone is a lovers' story, but there is a blessed minimum of spooning in it, and always enough of working and fighting to keep the air clear and fresh. The Heart of Midlothian, and Hypatia, and Romola, and The Cloister and the Hearth, and John Inglesant, and The Three Musketeers, and Nôtre Dame, and Peace and War, and Quo Vadis, – these are great novels because they are much more than tales of romantic love. As for Henry Esmond, (which seems to me the best of all,) certainly "love at first sight" does not play the finest rôle in that book.
There are good stories of our own day – pathetic, humourous, entertaining, powerful – in which the element of romantic love is altogether subordinate, or even imperceptible. The Rise of Silas Lapham does not owe its deep interest to the engagement of the very charming young people who enliven it. Madame Delphine and Ole 'Stracted are perfect stories of their kind. I would not barter The Jungle Books for a hundred of The Brushwood Boy.
The truth is that love, considered merely as the preference of one person for another of the opposite sex, is not "the greatest thing in the world." It becomes great only when it leads on, as it often does, to heroism and self-sacrifice and fidelity. Its chief value for art (the interpreter) lies not in itself, but in its quickening relation to the other elements of life. It must be seen and shown in its due proportion, and in harmony with the broader landscape.
Do you believe that in all the world there is only one woman specially created for each man, and that the order of the universe will be hopelessly askew unless these two needles find each other in the haystack? You believe it for yourself, perhaps; but do you believe it for Tom Johnson? You remember what a terrific disturbance he made in the summer of 189-, at Bar Harbor, about Ellinor Brown, and how he ran away with her in September. You have also seen them together (occasionally) at Lenox and Newport, since their marriage. Are you honestly of the opinion that if Tom had not married Ellinor, these two young lives would have been a total wreck?
Adam Smith, in his book on The Moral Sentiments, goes so far as to say that "love is not interesting to the observer because it is an affection of the imagination, into which it is difficult for a third party to enter." Something of the same kind occurred to me in regard to Tom and Ellinor. Yet I would not have presumed to suggest this thought to either of them. Nor would I have quoted in their hearing the melancholy and frigid prediction of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the effect that they would some day discover "that all which at first drew them together – those once sacred features, that magical play of charm – was deciduous."
Cold, unpleasant, botanical word!
Rather would I prognosticate for the lovers something perennial,
"A sober certainty of waking bliss,"
to survive the evanescence of love's young dream. Ellinor should turn out to be a woman like the Lady Elizabeth Hastings, of whom Richard Steele wrote that "to love her was a liberal education.'' Tom should prove that he had in him the lasting stuff of a true man and a hero. Then it would make little difference whether their conjunction had been eternally prescribed in the book of fate or not. It would be evidently a fit match, made on earth and illustrative of heaven.
But even in the making of such a match as this, the various stages of attraction, infatuation, and appropriation should not be displayed too prominently before the world, nor treated as events of overwhelming importance and enduring moment. I would not counsel Tom and Ellinor, in the midsummer of their engagement, to have their photographs taken together in affectionate attitudes.
The pictures of an imaginary kind which deal with the subject of romantic love are, almost without exception, fatuous and futile. The inanely amatory, with their languishing eyes, weary us. The endlessly osculatory, with their protracted salutations, are sickening. Even when an air of sentimental propriety is thrown about them by some such title as "Wedded" or "The Honeymoon," they fatigue us. For the most part, they remind me of the remark which the Commodore made upon a certain painting of Jupiter and Io which hangs in the writing-room of the Contrary Club.
"Sir," said that gently piercing critic, "that picture is equally unsatisfactory to the artist, to the moralist, and to the voluptuary."
Nevertheless, having made a clean breast of my misgivings and reservations on the subject of lovers and landscape, I will now confess that the whole of my doubts do not weigh much against my unreasoned faith in romantic love. At heart I am no infidel, but a most obstinate believer and devotee. My seasons of skepticism are transient. They are connected with a torpid liver and aggravated by confinement to a sedentary life and enforced abstinence from angling. Out-of-doors, I return to a saner and happier frame of mind.
As my wheel rolls along the Riverside Drive in the golden glow of the sunset, I rejoice that the episode of Charles Henry and Matilda Jane has not been omitted from the view. This vast and populous city, with all its passing show of life, would be little better than a waste, howling wilderness if we could not catch a glimpse, now and then, of young people falling in love in the good old-fashioned way. Even on a trout-stream, I have seen nothing prettier than the sight upon which I once came suddenly as I was fishing down the Neversink.
A boy was kneeling beside the brook, and a girl was giving him a drink of water out of her rosy hands. They stared with wonder and compassion at the wet and solitary angler, wading down the stream, as if he were some kind of a mild lunatic. But as I glanced discreetly at their small tableau, I was not unconscious of the new joy that came into the landscape with the presence of
"A lover and his lass."
I knew how sweet the water tasted from that kind of a cup. I also have lived in Arcadia, and have not forgotten the way back.