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Summer Nights

If the best of all ways of lengthening our days be to take a few hours from the night, many of us are involuntarily prolonging existence at the present hour. Macbeth did not murder sleep more effectually than the hot weather does. At best, in the sultry nights, most people sleep what is called "a dog's sleep," and by no means the sleep of a lucky dog. As the old English writers say, taking a distinction which our language appears to have lost, we "rather slumber than sleep," waking often, and full of the foolishest of dreams. This condition of things probably affects politics and society more than the thoughtless suppose. If literature produced in the warm, airless fog of July be dull, who can marvel thereat?

"Of all gods," says Pausanias, "Sleep is dearest to the Muses;" and when the child of the Muses does not get his regular nine hours' rest (which he fails to do in warm weather), then his verse and prose are certain to bear traces of his languor. It is true that all children of the Muses do not require about double the allowance of the saints. Five hours was all St. Jerome took, and probably Byron did not sleep much more during the season when he wrote "Childe Harold." The moderns who agree with the Locrians in erecting altars to Sleep, can only reply that probably "Childe Harold" would have been a better poem if Byron had kept more regular hours when he was composing it. So far they will, perhaps, have Mr. Swinburne with them, though that author also has Sung before Sunrise, when he would (if the wisdom of the ancients be correct) have been better employed in plucking the flower of sleep.

Leaving literature, and looking at society, it is certain that the human temper is more lively, and more unkind things are said, in a sultry than in a temperate season. In the restless night-watches people have time to brood over small wrongs, and wax indignant over tiny slights and unoffered invitations. Perhaps politics, too, are apt to be more rancorous in a "heated term." Man is very much what his liver makes him.

Hot weather vexes the unrested soul in nothing more than this, that (like a revolution in Paris) it tempts the people to "go down into the streets." The streets are cooler, at least, than stuffy gas-lit rooms; and if the public would only roam them in a contemplative spirit, with eyes turned up to the peaceful constellations, the public might fall down an area now and then, but would not much disturb the neighbourhood. But the 'Arry that walketh by night thinks of nothing less than admiring, with Kant, the starry heavens and the moral nature of man. He seeks his peers, and together in great bands they loiter or run, stopping to chaff each other, and to jeer at the passer-by. Their satire is monotonous in character, chiefly consisting of the words for using which the famous Mr. Budd beat the baker. {152} Now, the sultry weather makes it absolutely necessary to leave bedroom windows wide open, so that he who is courting sleep has all the advantage of studying the dialogue of the slums. These disturbances last till two in the morning in some otherwise quiet districts near the river. When Battersea 'Arry has been "on the fly" in Chelsea, while Chelsea 'Arry has been pursuing pleasure in Battersea, the homeward-faring bands meet, about one in the morning, on the Embankment. Then does Cheyne Walk hear the amoebean dialogues of strayed revellers, and knows not whether Battersea or Chelsea best deserves the pipe, the short black pipe, for which the rival swains compete in profanity and slang. In music, too, does this modern Dionysiac procession rejoice, and Kensington echoes like Cithaeron when Pan was keeping his orgies there--Pan and the Theban nymphs. The music and the song of the London street roamer is excessively harsh, crabbed, and tuneless. Almost as provoking it is, in a quiet way, when three or four quite harmless people meet under a bedroom window and converse in their usual tone of voice about their private affairs.

These little gatherings sometimes seem as if they would never break up, and though the persons in the piece mean no harm, they are nearly as noxious to sleep as the loud musical water-side rough or public-house loafer. Dogs, too, like men, seem to feel it incumbent on them to howl more than usual in hot weather, and to bay the moon with particular earnestness in July. No enemy of sleep is deadlier than a dear, good, affectionate dog, whose owners next door have accidentally shut him out. The whole night long he bewails his loneliness, in accents charged with profound melancholy. The author of the "Amusement Philosophique" would have us believe that animals can speak. Nothing makes more for his opinion than the exquisite variety of lyrical howl in which a shut-out dog expresses every phrase of blighted affection, incommunicable longing, and supreme despair. Somehow he never, literally never, wakens his owners. He only keeps all the other people in a four-mile radius wide awake. Yet how few have the energy and public spirit to get up and go for that dog with sticks, umbrellas, and pieces of road-metal! The most enterprising do little more than shout at him out of the window, or take long futile shots at him with bits of coal from the fireplace. When we have a Municipal Government of London, then, perhaps, measures will be taken with dogs, and justice will be meted out to the owners of fowls. At present these fiends in human shape can keep their detestable pets, and defy the menaces, as they have rejected the prayers, of their neighbours. The amount of profanity, insanity, ill-health, and general misery which one rooster can cause is far beyond calculation.

When London nights are intolerable, people think with longing of the cool, fragrant country, of the jasmine-muffled lattices, and the groups beneath the dreaming evening star. One dreams of coffee after dinner in the open air, as described in "In Memoriam;" one longs for the cool, the hush, the quiet. But try the country on a July night. First you have trouble with all the great, big, hairy, leathery moths and bats which fly in at the jasmine-muffled lattice, and endeavour to put out your candle. You blow the candle out, and then a bluebottle fly in good voice comes out too, and is accompanied by very fair imitations of mosquitoes. Probably they are only gnats, but in blowing their terrible little trumpets they are of the mosquito kind. Next the fact dawns on you that the church clock in the neighbouring spire strikes the quarters, and you know that you cannot fall asleep before the chime wakes you up again, with its warning, "Another quarter gone." The cocks come forth and crow about four; the hens proclaim to a drowsy world that they have fulfilled the duties of maternity. All through the ambrosial night three cows, in the meadow under your windows, have been lamenting the loss of their calves. Of all terrible notes, the "routing" of a bereaved, or amorous, or homesick cow is the most disturbing. It carries for miles, and keeps all who hear it--all town-bred folk, at least--far from the land of Nod. At dawn the song-birds begin, and hold you awake, as they disturbed Rufinus long ago; but the odds are that they do not inspire you, like Rufinus, with the desire to write poetry. The short and simple language of profanity is more likely to come unbidden to the wakeful lips. Thus, as John Leech found out, the country in July is almost as dreadful at night as the town. Nay, thanks to the cow, we think the country may bear away the prize for all that is uncomfortable, all that is hostile to sleep and the Muses. Yet rustics always sleep very well, and no more mind the noise of cocks, sparrows, cows, dogs, and ducks than the owner of a town-bred dog minds when his faithful hound drives a whole street beyond their patience. It is a matter of sound health and untaxed brains. If we always gave our minds a rest, none of us would dread the noises of the nights of summer.

{152} What was this anecdote?


Andrew Lang