A Suburban Sentimentalist by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

That wild and engaging region known as the Salamis Estates has surprising enchantments for the wanderer. Strolling bushrangers, if they escape being pelleted with lead by the enthusiastic rabbit hunters who bang suddenly among thickets, will find many vistas of loveliness. All summer long we are imprisoned in foliage, locked up in a leafy embrace. But when the leaves have shredded away and the solid barriers of green stand revealed as only thin fringes of easily penetrable woodland, the eye moves with surprise over these wide reaches of colour and freedom. Beyond the old ruined farmhouse past the gnarled and rheumatic apple tree is that dimpled path that runs across fields, the short cut down to the harbour. The stiff frozen plumes of ghostly goldenrod stand up pale and powdery along the way. How many tints of brown and fawn and buff in the withered grasses–some as feathery and translucent as a gauze scarf, as nebulous as those veilings Robin Herrick was so fond of–his mention of them gives an odd connotation to a modern reader–

So looks Anthea, when in bed she lyes,
Orecome, or halfe betray’d by Tiffanies.

Our fields now have the rich, tawny colour of a panther’s hide. Along the little path are scattered sumac leaves, dark scarlet. It is as though Summer had been wounded by the hunter Jack Frost, and had crept away down that secret track, leaving a trail of bloodstains behind her.

This tract of placid and enchanted woodland, field, brake, glen, and coppice, has always seemed to us so amazingly like the magical Forest of Arden that we believe Shakespeare must have written “As You Like It” somewhere near here. One visitor, who was here when the woods were whispering blackly in autumn moonlight, thought them akin to George Meredith’s “The Woods of Westermain”–

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Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.
Nothing harms beneath the leaves
More than waves a swimmer cleaves,
Toss your heart up with the lark,
Foot at peace with mouse and worm.
Fair you fare.
Only at a dread of dark
Quaver, and they quit their form:
Thousand eyeballs under hoods
Have you by the hair.
Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.

But in winter, and in such a noonday of clear sunshine as the present, when all the naked grace of trunks and hillsides lies open to eyeshot, the woodland has less of that secrecy and brooding horror that Meredith found in “Westermain.” It has the very breath of that golden-bathed magic that moved in Shakespeare’s tenderest haunt of comedy. Momently, looking out toward the gray ruin on the hill (which was once, most likely, the very “sheepcote fenced about with olive trees” where Aliena dwelt and Ganymede found hose and doublet give such pleasing freedom to her limbs and her wit) one expects to hear the merry note of a horn; the moralizing Duke would come striding thoughtfully through the thicket down by the tiny pool (or shall we call it a mere?). He would sit under those two knotty old oaks and begin to pluck the burrs from his jerkin. Then would come his cheerful tanned followers, carrying the dappled burgher they had ambushed; and, last, the pensive Jacques (so very like Mr. Joseph Pennell in bearing and humour) distilling his meridian melancholy into pentameter paragraphs, like any colyumist. A bonfire is quickly kindled, and the hiss and fume of venison collops whiff to us across the blue air. Against that stump–is it a real stump, or only a painted canvas affair from the property man’s warehouse?–surely that is a demijohn of cider? And we can hear, presently, that most piercingly tremulous of all songs rising in rich chorus, with the plenitude of pathos that masculines best compass after a full meal–

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Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude–

We hum the air over to ourself, and are stricken with the most perfect iridescent sorrow. We even ransack our memory to try to think of someone who has been ungrateful to us, so that we can throw a little vigorous bitterness into our tone.

Yes, the sunshine that gilds our Salamis thickets seems to us to have very much the amber glow of footlights.

In another part of this our “forest”–it is so truly a forest in the Shakespearean sense, as all Long Island forests are (e.g., Forest Hills), where even the lioness and the green and gilded snake have their suburban analogues, which we will not be laborious to explain–we see Time standing still while Ganymede and Aliena are out foraging with the burly Touchstone (so very like that well-loved sage Mr. Don Marquis, we protest!). And, to consider, what a place for a colyumist was the Forest of Arden. See how zealous contributors hung their poems round on trees so that he could not miss them. Is it not all the very core and heartbeat of what we call “romance,” that endearing convention that submits the harsh realities and interruptions of life to a golden purge of fancy? How, we sometimes wonder, can any one grow old as long as he can still read “As You Like It,” and feel the magic of that best-loved and most magical of stage directions–The Forest of Arden.

And now, while we are still in the soft Shakespearean mood, comes “Twelfth Night”–traditionally devoted to dismantling the Christmas Tree; and indeed there is no task so replete with luxurious and gentle melancholy. For by that time the toys which erst were so splendid are battered and bashed; the cornucopias empty of candy (save one or two striped sticky shards of peppermint which elude the thrusting index, and will be found again next December); the dining-room floor is thick with fallen needles; the gay little candles are burnt down to a small gutter of wax in the tin holders. The floor sparkles here and there with the fragments of tinsel balls or popcorn chains that were injudiciously hung within leap of puppy or grasp of urchin. And so you see him, the diligent parent, brooding with a tender mournfulness and sniffing the faint whiff of that fine Christmas tree odour–balsam and burning candles and fist-warmed peppermint–as he undresses the prickly boughs. Here they go into the boxes, red, green, and golden balls, tinkling glass bells, stars, paper angels, cotton-wool Santa Claus, blue birds, celluloid goldfish, mosquito netting, counterfeit stockings, nickel-plated horns, and all the comical accumulation of oddities that gathers from year to year in the box labelled CHRISTMAS TREE THINGS, FRAGILE. The box goes up to the attic, and the parent blows a faint diminuendo, achingly prolonged, on a toy horn. Titania is almost reduced to tears as he explains it is the halloo of Santa Claus fading away into the distance.

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