First impressions of faces are very much to us; vivid and persistent, even long after they have been judged false they will from time to time return to console or mock us. It is much the same with places, for these, too, an ineradicable instinct will have it, are persons. Few in number are the towns and villages which are dear to us, whose memory is always sweet, like that of one we love. Those that wake no emotion, that are remembered much as we remember the faces of a crowd of shop assistants in some emporium we are accustomed to visit, are many. Still more numerous, perhaps, are the places that actually leave a disagreeable impression on the mind. Probably the reason of this is because most places are approached by railroad. The station, which is seen first, and cannot thereafter be dissociated from the town, is invariably the centre of a chaotic collection of ugly objects and discordant noises, all the more hateful because so familiar. For in coming to a new place we look instinctively for that which is new, and the old, and in themselves unpleasant sights and sounds, at such a moment produce a disheartening, deadening effect on the stranger:—the same clanging, puffing, grinding, gravel-crushing, banging, shrieking noises; the same big unlovely brick and metal structure, the long platform, the confusion of objects and people, the waiting vehicles, and the glittering steel rails stretching away into infinitude, like unburied petrified webs of some gigantic spider of a remote past—webs in which mastodons were caught like flies. Approaching a town from some other direction—riding, driving, or walking—we see it with a clearer truer vision, and take away a better and more lasting image.
Selborne is one of the noted places where pilgrims go that is happily without a station. From whichever side you approach it the place itself, features and expression, is clearly discerned: in other words you see Selborne, and not a brick and metal outwork or mask; not an excrescence, a goitre, which can make even a beautiful countenance appear repulsive. There is a station within a few miles of the village. I approached by a different route, and saw it at the end of a fifteen miles' walk. Rain had begun to fall on the previous evening; and when in the morning I looked from my bedroom window in the wayside inn, where I had passed the night, it was raining still, and everywhere, as far as I could see, broad pools of water were gleaming on the level earth. All day the rain fell steadily from a leaden sky, so low that where there were trees it seemed almost to touch their tops, while the hills, away on my left, appeared like vague masses of cloud that rest on the earth. The road stretched across a level moorland country; it was straight and narrow, but I was compelled to keep to it, since to step aside was to put my feet into water. Mile after mile I trudged on without meeting a soul, where not a house was visible—a still, wet, desolate country with trees and bushes standing in water, unstirred by a breath of wind. Only at long intervals a yellow hammer was heard uttering his thin note; for just as this bird sings in the sultriest weather which silences other voices, so he will utter his monotonous chant on the gloomiest day.
It may be because he sung
The yellow hammer in the rain
that I have long placed Faber among my best-loved minor poets of the past century. He alone among our poets has properly appreciated that the singer who never stops, but, "pleased with his own monotony," shakes off the rain and sings on in a mood of cheerfulness dashed with melancholy:
And there he is within the rain,
And beats and beats his tune again,
Quite happy in himself.
Within the heart of this great shower
He sits, as in a secret bower,
With curtains drawn about him:
And, part in duty, part in mirth,
He beats, as if upon the earth
Rain could not fall without him.
I remember that W. E. Henley once took me severely to task on account of some jeering remarks made about our poet's way of treating the birds and their neglect of so many of our charming singers. In the course of our correspondence he questioned me about the cirl bunting, that lively singer and pretty first cousin of the yellow hammer; and after I had supplied him with full information, he informed me that it was his intention to write a poem on that bird, and that he would be the first English poet to sing the cirl bunting.
He never wrote that lyric, "part in duty, part in mirth"; he was then near his end.
To return to my walk. At last the aspect of the country changed: in place of brown heath, with gloomy fir and furze, there was cheerful verdure of grass and deciduous trees, and the straight road grew deep and winding, running now between hills, now beside woods, and hop-fields, and pasture lands. And at length, wet and tired, I reached Selborne—the remote Hampshire village that has so great a fame.
To very many readers a description of the place would seem superfluous. They know it so well, even without having seen it; the little, old-world village at the foot of the long, steep, bank-like hill, or Hanger, clothed to its summit with beech-wood as with a green cloud; the straggling street, the Plestor, or village green, an old tree in the centre, with a bench surrounding its trunk for the elders to rest on of a summer evening. And, close by, the grey immemorial church, with its churchyard, its grand old yew-tree, and, overhead, the bunch of swifts, rushing with jubilant screams round the square tower.
I had not got the book in my knapsack, nor did I need it. Seeing the Selborne swifts, I thought how a century and a quarter ago Gilbert White wrote that the number of birds inhabiting and nesting in the village, summer after summer, was nearly always the same, consisting of about eight pairs. The birds now rushing about over the church were twelve, and I saw no others.
If Gilbert White had never lived, or had never corresponded with Pennant and Daines Barrington, Selborne would have impressed me as a very pleasant village set amidst diversified and beautiful scenery, and I should have long remembered it as one of the most charming spots which I had found in my rambles in southern England. But I thought of White continually. The village itself, every feature in the surrounding landscape, and every object, living or inanimate, and every sound, became associated in my mind with the thought of the obscure country curate, who was without ambition, and was "a still, quiet man, with no harm in him—no, not a bit," as was once said by one of his parishioners. There, at Selborne—to give an altered meaning to a verse of quaint old Nicholas Culpepper—
His image stampéd is on every grass.
With a new intense interest I watched the swifts careering through the air, and listened to their shrill screams. It was the same with all the birds, even the commonest—the robin, blue tit, martin, and sparrow. In the evening I stood motionless a long time intently watching a small flock of greenfinches settling to roost in a hazel-hedge. From time to time they became disturbed at my presence, and fluttering up to the topmost twigs, where their forms looked almost black against the pale amber sky, they uttered their long-drawn canary-like note of alarm. At all times a delicate, tender note, now it had something more in it—something from the far past—the thought of one whose memory was interwoven with living forms and sounds.
The strength and persistence of this feeling had a curious effect. It began to seem to me that he who had ceased to five over a century ago, whose Letters had been the favourite book of several generations of naturalists, was, albeit dead and gone, in some mysterious way still living. I spent a long time groping about in the long rank grass of the churchyard in search of a memorial; and this, when found, turned out to be a modest-sized headstone, and I had to go down on my knees, and put aside the rank grass that half covered it, just as when we look into a child's face we push back the unkempt hair from its forehead; and on the stone were graved the name, and beneath, "1793," the year of his death.
Happy the nature-lover who, in spite of fame, is allowed to rest, as White rests, pressed upon by no ponderous stone; the sweet influences of sun and rain are not kept from him; even the sound of the wild bird's cry may penetrate to his narrow apartment to gladden his dust!
Perhaps there is some truth in the notion that when a man dies he does not wholly die; that is to say, the earthly yet intelligent part of him, which, being of the earth, cannot ascend; that a residuum of life remains, like a perfume left by some long-vanished, fragrant object; or it may be an emanation from the body at death, which exists thereafter diffused and mixed with the elements, perhaps unconscious and yet responsive, or capable of being vivified into consciousness and emotions of pleasure by a keenly sympathetic presence. At Selborne this did not seem mere fantasy. Strolling about the village, loitering in the park-like garden of the Wakes, or exploring the Hanger; or when I sat on the bench under the churchyard yew, or went softly through the grass to look again at those two letters graved on the headstone, there was a continual sense of an unseen presence near me. It was like the sensation a man sometimes has when lying still with closed eyes of some one moving softly to his side. I began to think that if that feeling and sensation lasted long enough without diminishing its strength, it would in the end produce something like conviction. And the conviction would imply communion. Furthermore, between the thought that we may come to believe in a thing and belief itself there is practically no difference. I began to speculate as to the subjects about to be discussed by us. The chief one would doubtless relate to the bird life of the district. There are fresh things to be related of the cuckoo; how "wonder has been added to wonder" by observers of that bird since the end of the eighteenth century. And here is a delicate subject to follow—to wit, the hibernation of swallows—yet one by no possibility to be avoided. It would be something of a disappointment to him to hear it stated, as an established fact, that none of our hirundines do winter, fast asleep like dormice, in these islands. But there would be comfort in the succeeding declaration that the old controversy is not quite dead yet—that at least two popular writers on British birds have boldly expressed the belief that some of our supposed migrants do actually "lay up" in the dead season. The deep interest manifested in the subject would be a temptation to dwell on it. I should touch on the discovery made recently by a young English naturalist abroad, that a small species of swallow in a temperate country in the Southern Hemisphere shelters itself under the thick matted grass, and remains torpid during spells of cold weather. We have now a magnificent monograph of the swallows, and it is there stated of the purple martin, an American species, that in some years bitter cold weather succeeds its arrival in early spring in Canada; that at such times the birds take refuge in their nesting holes and lie huddled together in a semi-torpid state, sometimes for a week or ten days, until the return of genial weather, when they revive and appear as full of life and vigour as before. It is said that these and other swallows are possessed of habits and powers of which we have as yet but slight knowledge. Candour would compel me to add that the author of the monograph in question, who is one of the first living ornithologists, is inclined to believe that some swallows in some circumstances do hibernate.
At this I should experience a curious and almost startling sensation, as if the airy hands of my invisible companion had been clapped together, and the clap had been followed by an exclamation—a triumphant "Ah!"
Then there would be much to say concerning the changes in the bird population of Selborne parish, and of the southern counties generally. A few small species—hawfinch, pretty chaps, and gold-crest—were much more common now than in his day; but a very different and sadder story had to be told of most large birds. Not only had the honey buzzard never returned to nest on the beeches of the Hanger since 1780, but it had continued to decrease everywhere in England and was now extinct. The raven, too, was lost to England as an inland breeder. It could not now be said that "there are bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone," nor indeed anywhere in the kingdom. The South Downs were unchanged, and there were still pretty rides and prospects round Lewes; but he might now make his autumn journey to Ringmer without seeing kites and buzzards, since these had both vanished; nor would he find the chough breeding at Beachy Head, and all along the Sussex coast. It would also be necessary to mention the disappearance of the quail, and the growing scarcity of other once abundant species, such as the stone plover and curlew, and even of the white owl, which no longer inhabited its ancient breeding-place beneath the caves of Selborne Church.
Finally, after discussing these and various other matters which once engaged his attention, also the little book he gave to the world so long ago, there would still remain another subject to be mentioned about which I should feel somewhat shy—namely, the marked difference in manner, perhaps in feeling, between the old and new writers on animal life and nature. The subject would be strange to him. On going into particulars, he would be surprised at the disposition, almost amounting to a passion, of the modern mind to view life and nature in their ćsthetic aspects. This new spirit would strike him as something odd and exotic, as if the writers had been first artists or landscape-gardeners, who had, as naturalists, retained the habit of looking for the picturesque. He would further note that we moderns are more emotional than the writers of the past, or, at all events, less reticent. There is no doubt, he would say, that our researches into the kingdom of nature produce in us a wonderful pleasure, unlike in character and perhaps superior to most others; but this feeling, which was indefinable and not to be traced to its source, was probably given to us for a secret gratification. If we are curious to know its significance, might we not regard it as something ancillary to our spiritual natures, as a kind of subsidiary conscience, a private assurance that in all our researches into the wonderful works of creation we are acting in obedience to a tacit command, or, at all events in harmony with the Divine Will?
Ingenious! would be my comment, and possibly to the eighteenth century mind it would have proved satisfactory. There was something to be said in defence of what appeared to him as new and strange in our books and methods. Not easily said, unfortunately; since it was not only the expression that was new, but the outlook, and something in the heart. We are bound as much as ever to facts; we seek for them more and more diligently, knowing that to break from them is to be carried away by vain imaginations. All the same, facts in themselves are nothing to us: they are important only in their relations to other facts and things—to all things, and the essence of things, material and spiritual. We are not like children gathering painted shells and pebbles on a beach; but, whether we know it or not, are seeking after something beyond and above knowledge. The wilderness in which we are sojourners is not our home; it is enough that its herbs and roots and wild fruits nourish and give us strength to go onward. Intellectual curiosity, with the gratification of the individual for only purpose, has no place in this scheme of things as we conceive it. Heart and soul are with the brain in all investigation—a truth which some know in rare, beautiful intervals, and others never; but we are all meanwhile busy with our work, like myriads of social insects engaged in raising a structure that was never planned. Perhaps we are not so wholly unconscious of our destinies as were the patient gatherers of facts of a hundred years ago. Even in one brief century the dawn has come nearer—perhaps a faint whiteness in the east has exhilarated us like wine. Undoubtedly we are more conscious of many things, both within and without—of the length and breadth and depth of nature; of a unity which was hardly dreamed of by the naturalists of past ages, a commensalism on earth from which the meanest organism is not excluded. For we are no longer isolated, standing like starry visitors on a mountain-top, surveying life from the outside; but are on a level with and part and parcel of it; and if the mystery of life daily deepens, it is because we view it more closely and with clearer vision. A poet of our age has said that in the meanest floweret we may find "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." The poet and prophet is not alone in this; he expresses a feeling common to all of those who, with our wider knowledge, have the passion for nature in their hearts, who go to nature, whether for knowledge or inspiration. That there should appear in recent literature something of a new spirit, a sympathetic feeling which could not possibly have flourished in a former age, is not to be wondered at, considering all that has happened in the present century to change the current of men's thoughts. For not only has the new knowledge wrought in our minds, but has entered, or is at last entering, into our souls.
Having got so far in my apology, a feeling of despair would all at once overcome me at the thought of the vastness of the subject I had entered upon. Looking back it seems but a little while since the introduction of that new element into thought, that "fiery leaven" which in the end would "leaven all the hearts of men for ever." But the time was not really so short; the gift had been rejected with scorn and bitterness by the mass of mankind at first; it had taken them years—the years of a generation—to overcome repugnance and resentment, and to accept it. Even so it had wrought a mighty change, only this had been in the mind; the change in the heart would follow, and it was perhaps early to boast of it. How was I to disclose all this to him? All that I had spoken was but a brief exordium—a prelude and note of preparation for what should follow—a story immeasurably longer and infinitely more wonderful than that which the Ancient Mariner told to the Wedding Guest. It was an impossible task.
At length, after an interval of silence, to me full of trouble, the expected note of dissent would come.
I had told him, he would say, either too much or not enough. No doubt there had been a very considerable increase of knowledge since his day; nevertheless, judging from something I had said on the hibernation, or torpid condition, of swallows, there was still something to learn with regard to the life and conversation of animals. The change in the character of modern books about nature, of which I had told him, quoting passages—a change in the direction of a more poetic and emotional treatment of the subject—he, looking from a distance, was inclined to regard as merely a literary fashion of the time. That anything so unforeseen had come to pass,—so important as to change the current of thought, to give to men new ideas about the unity of nature and the relation in which we stood towards the inferior creatures,—he could not understand. It should be remembered that the human race had existed some fifty or sixty centuries on the earth, and that since the invention of letters men had recorded their observations. The increase in the body of facts had thus been, on the whole, gradual and continuous. Take the case of the cuckoo. Aristotle, some two thousand years ago, had given a fairly accurate account of its habits; and yet in very recent years, as I had informed him, new facts relating to the procreant instincts of that singular fowl had come to light.
After a short interval of silence I would become conscious of a change in him, as if a cloud had lifted—of a quiet smile on his, to my earthly eyes, invisible countenance, and he would add: "No, no; you have yourself supplied me with a reason for questioning your views; your statement of them—pardon me for saying it—struck me as somewhat rhapsodical. I refer to your commendations of my humble history of the Parish of Selborne. It is gratifying to me to hear that this poor little book is still in such good repute, and I have been even more pleased at that idea of modern naturalists, so flattering to my memory, of a pilgrimage to Selborne; but, if so great a change has come over men's minds as you appear to believe, and if they have put some new interpretation on nature, it is certainly curious that I should still have readers."
It would be my turn to smile now—a smile for a smile—and silence would follow. And so, with the dispersal of this little cloud, there would be an end of the colloquy, and each would go his way: one to be re-absorbed into the grey stones and long grass, the ancient yew-tree, the wooded Hanger; the other to pursue his walk to the neighbouring parish of Liss, almost ready to believe as he went that the interview had actually taken place.
It only remains to say that the smile (my smile) would have been at the expense of some modern editors of the famous Letters, rather than at that of my interlocutor. They are astonished at Gilbert White's vitality, and cannot find a reason for it. Why does this "little cockle-shell of a book," as one of them has lately called it, come gaily down to us over a sea full of waves, where so many brave barks have foundered? The style is sweet and clear, but a book cannot live merely because it is well written. It is chock-full of facts; but the facts have been tested and sifted, and all that were worth keeping are to be found incorporated in scores of standard works on natural history. I would humbly suggest that there is no mystery at all about it; that the personality of the author is the principal charm of the Letters, for in spite of his modesty and extreme reticence his spirit shines in every page; that the world will not willingly let this small book die, not only because it is small, and well written, and full of interesting matter, but chiefly because it is a very delightful human document.
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