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A Year of Spring and a Life of Youth

On one of those fine days which the April of the other year meanly grudged us, a poet, flown with the acceptance of a quarter-page lyric by the real editor in the Study next door, came into the place where the Easy Chair sat rapt in the music of the elevated trains and the vision of the Brooklyn Bridge towers. "Era la stagione nella quale la rivestita terra, più che tutto l' altro anno, si mostra bella," he said, without other salutation, throwing his soft gray hat on a heap of magazines and newspapers in the corner, and finding what perch he could for himself on the window-sill.

"What is that?" he of the Easy Chair gruffly demanded; he knew perfectly well, but he liked marring the bloom on a fellow-creature's joy by a show of savage ignorance.

"It's the divine beginning of Boccaccio's 'Fiammetta,' it is the very soul of spring; and it is so inalienably of Boccaccio's own time and tongue and sun and air that there is no turning it into the language of another period or climate. What would you find to thrill you in, 'It was the season in which the reapparelled earth, more than in all the other year, shows herself fair'? The rhythm is lost; the flow, sweet as the first runnings of the maple where the woodpecker has tapped it, stiffens into sugar, the liquid form is solidified into the cake adulterated with glucose, and sold for a cent as the pure Vermont product."

As he of the Easy Chair could not deny this, he laughed recklessly. "I understood what your passage from Boccaccio meant, and why you came in here praising spring in its words. You are happy because you have sold a poem, probably for more than it is worth. But why do you praise spring? What do you fellows do it for? You know perfectly well that it is the most capricious, the most treacherous, the most delusive, deadly, slatternly, down-at-heels, milkmaid-handed season of the year, without decision of character or fixed principles, and with only the vaguest raw-girlish ideals, a red nose between crazy smiles and streaming eyes. If it did not come at the end of winter, when people are glad of any change, nobody could endure it, and it would be cast neck and crop out of the calendar. Fancy spring coming at the end of summer! It would not be tolerated for a moment, with the contrast of its crude, formless beauty and the ripe loveliness of August. Every satisfied sense of happiness, secure and established, would be insulted by its haphazard promises made only to be broken. 'Rather,' the outraged mortal would say, 'the last tender hours of autumn, the first deathful-thrilling snowfall, with all the thoughts of life wandering flake-like through the dim air—rather these than the recurrence of those impulses and pauses, those kisses frozen on the lips, those tender rays turning to the lash of sleet across the face of nature. No, the only advantage spring can claim over her sister seasons is her novelty, the only reason she can offer for being the spoiled child of the poets is that nobody but the poets could keep on fancying that there was any longer the least originality in her novelty."

The poet attempted to speak, in the little stop he of the Easy Chair made for taking breath, but he was not suffered to do so.

"Every atom of originality has been drained from the novelty of spring 'in the process of the suns,' and science is rapidly depriving her even of novelty. What was once supposed to be the spring grass has been found to be nothing but the fall grass, with the green stealing back into the withered blades. As for the spring lamb which used to crop the spring grass, it is now out of the cold-storage where the spring chicken and the new-laid eggs of yesteryear come from. It is said that there are no birds in last year's nests, but probably a careful examination would discover a plentiful hatch of nestlings which have hibernated in the habitations popularly supposed to be deserted the June before this. Early spring vegetables are in market throughout the twelvemonth, and spring flowers abound at the florists' in December and January. There is no reason why spring should not be absorbed into winter and summer by some such partition as took place politically in the case of Poland. Like that unhappy kingdom, she has abused her independence and become a molestation and discomfort to the annual meteorology. As a season she is distinctly a failure, being neither one thing nor the other, neither hot nor cold, a very Laodicean. Her winds were once supposed to be very siccative, and peculiarly useful in drying the plaster in new houses; but now the contractors put in radiators as soon as the walls are up, and the work is done much better. As for the germinative force of her suns, in these days of intensive farming, when electricity is applied to the work once done by them, they can claim to have no virtue beyond the suns of July or August, which most seeds find effective enough. If spring were absorbed into summer, the heat of that season would be qualified, and its gentler warmth would be extended to autumn, which would be prolonged into the winter. The rigors of winter would be much abated, and the partition of spring among the other seasons would perform the mystic office of the Gulf Stream in ameliorating our climate, besides ridding us of a time of most tedious and annoying suspense. And what should we lose by it?"

The poet seemed not to be answering the Easy Chair directly, but only to be murmuring to himself, "Youth."

"Youth! Youth!" the Easy Chair repeated in exasperation. "And what is youth?"

"The best thing in the world."

"For whom is it the best thing?"

This question seemed to give the poet pause. "Well," he said, finally, with a not very forcible smile, "for itself."

"Ah, there you are!" he of the Easy Chair exclaimed; but he could not help a forgiving laugh. "In a way you are right. The world belongs to youth, and so it ought to be the best thing for itself in it. Youth is a very curious thing, and in that it is like spring, especially like the spring we have just been having, to our cost. It is the only period of life, as spring is the only season of the year, that has too much time on its hands. Yet it does not seem to waste time, as age does, as winter does; it keeps doing something all the while. The things it does are apparently very futile and superfluous, some of them, but in the end something has been accomplished. After a March of whimsical suns and snows, an April of quite fantastical frosts and thaws, and a May, at least partially, of cold mists and parching winds, the flowers, which the florists have been forcing for the purpose, are blooming in the park; the grass is green wherever it has not had the roots trodden out of it, and a filmy foliage, like the soft foulard tissues which the young girls are wearing, drips from the trees. You can say it is all very painty, the verdure; too painty; but you cannot reject the picture because of this little mannerism of the painter. To be sure, you miss the sheeted snows and the dreamy weft of leafless twigs against the hard, blue sky. Still, now it has come, you cannot deny that the spring is pretty, or that the fashionable colors which it has introduced are charming. It is said that these are so charming that a woman of the worst taste cannot choose amiss among them. In spite of her taste, her hat comes out a harmonic miracle; her gown, against all her endeavors, flows in an exquisite symphony of the tender audacities of tint with which nature mixes her palette; little notes of chiffon, of tulle, of feather, blow all about her. This is rather a medley of metaphors, to which several arts contribute, but you get my meaning?" In making this appeal, he of the Easy Chair saw in the fixed eye of the poet that remoteness of regard which denotes that your listener has been hearing very little of what you have been saying.

"Yes," the poet replied with a long breath, "you are right about that dreamy weft of leafless twigs against the hard, blue sky; and I wonder if we quite do justice to the beauty of winter, of age, we poets, when we are so glad to have the spring come."

"I don't know about winter," he of the Easy Chair said, "but in an opera which the English Lord Chamberlain provisionally suppressed, out of tenderness for an alliance not eventually or potentially to the advantage of these States, Mr. William Gilbert has done his duty to the decline of life, where he sings,


'There is beauty in extreme old age;

There's a fascination frantic

In a ruin that's romantic'


Or, at least no one else has said so much for 'that time of life,' which another librettist has stigmatized as


'Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.'"


"Yes, I know," the poet returned, clinging to the thread of thought on which he had cast himself loose. "But I believe a great deal more could be said for age by the poets if they really tried. I am not satisfied of Mr. Gilbert's earnestness in the passage you quote from the 'Mikado,' and I prefer Shakespeare's 'bare, ruined choirs.' I don't know but I prefer the hard, unflattering portrait which Hamlet mockingly draws for Polonius, and there is something almost caressing in the notion of 'the lean and slippered pantaloon.' The worst of it is that we old fellows look so plain to one another; I dare say young people don't find us so bad. I can remember from my own youth that I thought old men, and especially old women, rather attractive. I am not sure that we elders realize the charm of a perfectly bald head as it presents itself to the eye of youth. Yet, an infant's head is often quite bald."

"Yes, and so is an egg," the Easy Chair retorted, "but there is not the same winning appeal in the baldness of the superannuated bird which has evolved from it—eagle or nightingale, parrot or


Many-wintered crow that leads the clanging rookery home.


Tennyson has done his best in showing us venerable in his picture of


'the Ionian father of the rest:

A million wrinkles carved his silver skin,

A hundred winters snowed upon his breast.'


But who would not rather be Helen than Homer, her face launching a thousand ships and burning the topless tower of Ilion—fairer than the evening air and simply but effectively attired in the beauty of a thousand stars? What poet has ever said things like that of an old man, even of Methuselah?"

"Yes," the poet sighed. "I suppose you are partly right. Meteorology certainly has the advantage of humanity in some things. We cannot make much of age here, and hereafter we can only conceive of its being turned into youth. Fancy an eternity of sensibility!"

"No, I would rather not!" he of the Easy Chair returned, sharply. "Besides, it is you who are trying to make age out a tolerable, even a desirable thing."

"But I have given it up," the poet meekly replied. "The great thing would be some rearrangement of our mortal conditions so that once a year we could wake from our dream of winter and find ourselves young. Not merely younger, but young—the genuine article. A tree can do that, and does it every year, until after a hundred years, or three hundred, or a thousand, it dies. Why should not a man, or, much more importantly, a woman, do it? I think we are very much scanted in that respect."

"My dear fellow, if you begin fault-finding with creation, there will be no end to it. It might be answered that, in this case, you can walk about and a tree cannot; you can call upon me and a tree cannot. And other things. Come! the trees have not got it all their own way. Besides, imagine the discomforts of a human springtime, blowing hot and blowing cold, freezing, thawing, raining, and drouthing, and never being sure whether we are young or old, May or December. We should be such nuisances to one another that we should ask the gods to take back their gift, and you know very well they cannot."

"Our rejuvenescence would be a matter of temperament, not temperature," the poet said, searching the air hopefully for an idea. "I have noticed this spring that the isothermal line is as crooked as a railroad on the map of a rival. I have been down in New Hampshire since I saw you, and I found the spring temperamentally as far advanced there as here in New York. Of course not as far advanced as in Union Square, but quite as far as in Central Park. Between Boston and Portsmouth there were bits of railroad bank that were as green as the sward beside the Mall, and every now and then there was an enthusiastic maple in the wet lowlands that hung the air as full of color as any maple that reddened the flying landscape when I first got beyond the New York suburbs on my way north. At Portsmouth the birds were singing the same songs as in the Park. I could not make out the slightest difference."

"With the same note of nervous apprehension in them?"

"I did not observe that. But they were spring songs, certainly."

"Then," the Easy Chair said, "I would rather my winter were turned into summer, or early autumn, than spring, if there is going to be any change of the mortal conditions. I like settled weather, the calm of that time of life when the sins and follies have been committed, the passions burned themselves out, and the ambitions frustrated so that they do not bother, the aspirations defeated, the hopes brought low. Then you have some comfort. This turmoil of vernal striving makes me tired."

"Yes, I see what you mean," the poet assented. "But you cannot have the seasons out of their order in the rearrangement of the mortal conditions. You must have spring and you must have summer before you can have autumn."

"Are those the terms? Then I say, Winter at once! Winter is bad enough, but I would not go through spring again for any—In winter you can get away from the cold, with a good, warm book, or a sunny picture, or a cozy old song, or a new play; but in spring how will you escape the rawness if you have left off your flannels and let out the furnace? No, my dear friend, we could not stand going back to youth every year. The trees can, because they have been used to it from the beginning of time, but the men could not. Even the women——"

At this moment a beatific presence made itself sensible, and the Easy Chair recognized the poet's Muse, who had come for him. The poet put the question to her. "Young?" she said. "Why, you and I are always young, silly boy! Get your hat, and come over to Long Island City with me, and see the pussy-willows along the railroad-banks. The mosquitoes are beginning to sing in the ditches already."


     
William Dean Howells