Midsummer Days And Midsummer Nights by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Soon, with pomp of golden days and silver nights, the dying Summer will wave the world farewell; but the precious time is still with us, and we cherish the glad moments gleefully. When the dawn swirls up in the splendid sky, it is as though one gladsome procession of hours had begun to move. The breeze sighs cool and low, the trees rustle with vast whisperings, and the conquering sun shoots his level volleys from rim to rim of the world. The birds are very, very busy, and they take no thought of the grim time coming, when the iron ground will be swept by chill winds and the sad trees will quiver mournfully in the biting air. A riot of life is in progress, and it seems as if the sense of pure joy banished the very thought of pain and foreboding from all living things. The sleepy afternoons glide away, the sun droops, and the quiet, coloured evening falls solemnly. Then comes the hush of the huge and thoughtful night; the wan stars wash the dust with silver, and the brave day is over. Alas, for those who are pent in populous cities throughout this glorious time! We who are out in the free air may cast a kindly thought on the fate of those to whom “holiday” must be as a word in an unknown tongue. Some of us are happy amid the shade of mighty hills: some of us fare toward the Land of the Midnight Sun, where the golden light steeps all the air by night as well as day; some of us rest beside the sea, where the loud wind, large and free, blows the long surges out in sounding bars and thrills us with fresh fierce pleasure; some of us are able to wander in glowing lanes where the tender roses star the hedges and the murmur of innumerable bees falls softly on the senses. Let us thankfully take the good that is vouchsafed to us, and let those of us who can lend a helping hand do something towards giving the poor and needy a brief taste of the happiness that we freely enjoy.

I do not want to dwell on ugly thoughts; and yet it seems selfish to refrain from speaking of the fate of the poor who are packed in crowded quarters during this bright holiday season. For them the midsummer days and midsummer nights are a term of tribulation. The hot street reeks with pungent odours, the faint airs that wander in the scorching alleys at noonday strike on the fevered face like wafts from some furnace, and the cruel nights are hard to endure save when a cool shower has fallen. If you wander in London byways, you find that the people are fairly driven from their houses after a blistering summer day, and they sit in the streets till early morning. They are not at all depressed; on the contrary, the dark hours are passed in reckless merriment, and I have often known the men to rest quite contentedly on the pavement till the dawn came and the time of departure for labour was near. Even the young children remain out of doors, and their shrill treble mingles with the coarse rattle of noisy choruses. Some of those cheery youngsters have an outing in the hopping season, and they come back bronzed and healthy; but most of them have to be satisfied with one day at the most amid the fields and trees. I have spoken of London; but the case of those who dwell in the black manufacturing cities is even worse. What is Oldham like on a blistering midsummer day? What are Hanley and St. Helen’s and the lower parts of Manchester like? The air is charged with dust, and the acrid, rasping fumes from the chimneys seem to acquire a malignant power over men and brain. Toil goes steadily on, and the working-folk certainly have the advantage of starting in the bright morning hours, before the air has become befouled; but, as the sun gains strength, and the close air of the unlovely streets is heated, then the torment to be endured is severe. In Oldham and many other Lancashire towns a most admirable custom prevails. Large numbers of people club their money during the year and establish a holiday-fund; they migrate wholesale in the summertime, and have a merry holiday far away from the crush of the pavements and the dreary lines of ugly houses. A wise and beneficent custom is this, and the man who first devised it deserves a monument. I congratulate the troops of toilers who share my own pleasure; but, alas, how many honest folk in those awful Midland places will pant and sweat and suffer amid grime and heat while the glad months are passing! Good men who might be happy even in the free spaces of the Far West, fair women who need only rest and pure air to enable them to bloom in beauty, little children who peak and pine, are all crammed within the odious precincts of the towns which Cobbett hated; and the merry stretches of the sea, the billowy roll of the downs, the peace of soft days, are not for them. Only last year I looked on a stretch of interminable brown sand, hard and smooth and broad, with the ocean perpetually rolling in upon it with slow-measured sweep, with rustle and hiss and foam, and many a thump as of low bass drums. There before me was Whitman’s very vision, and in the keen mystic joy of the moment I could not help thinking sadly of one dreadful alley where lately I had been. It seemed so sad that the folk of the alley could not share my pleasure; and the murmur of vain regrets came to the soul even amid the triumphant clamour of the free wind. Poor cramped townsfolk, hard is your fate! It is hard; but I can see no good in repining over their fortune if we aid them as far as we can; rather let us speak of the bright time that comes for the toilers who are able to escape from the burning streets.

See also  Blood Will Tell by Richard Harding Davis

The mathematicians and such-like dry personages confine midsummer to one day in June; but we who are untrammelled by science know a great deal better. For us midsummer lasts till August is half over, and we utterly refuse to trouble ourselves about equinoxes and solstices and trivialities of that kind. For us it is midsummer while the sun is warm, while the trees hold their green, while the dancing waves fling their blossoms of foam under the darting rays that dazzle us, while the sacred night is soft and warm and the cool airs are wafted like sounds of blessings spoken in the scented darkness. For us the solstice is abolished, and we sturdily refuse to give up our midsummer till the first gleam of yellow comes on the leaves. We are not all lucky enough to see the leagues upon leagues of overpowering colour as the sun comes up on the Alps; we cannot all rest in the glittering seclusion of Norwegian fiords; but most of us, in our modest way, can enjoy our extravagantly prolonged midsummer beside the shore of our British waters. Spring is the time for hope; our midsummer is the time for ripened joy, for healthful rest; and we are satisfied with the beaches and cliffs that are hallowed by many memories–we are satisfied with simple copses and level fields. They say that spring is the poet’s season; but we know better. Spring is all very well for those who have constant leisure; it is good to watch the gradual bursting of early buds; it is good to hear the thrush chant his even-song of love; it is good to rest the eye on the glorious clouds of bloom that seem to float in the orchards. But the midsummer, the gallant midsummer, pranked in manifold splendours, is the true season of poetry for the toilers. The birds of passage who are now crowding out of the towns have had little pleasure in the spring, and their blissful days are only now beginning. What is it to them that the seaside landlady crouches awaiting her prey? What is it to them that ‘Arry is preparing to make night hideous? They are bound for their rest, and the surcease of toil is the only thing that suggests poetry to them. Spring the season for poets! We wipe away that treasonable suggestion just as we have wiped out the solstice. We holiday makers are not going to be tyrannized over by literary and scientific persons, and we insist on taking our own way. Our blood beats fully only at this season, and not even the extortioners’ bills can daunt us. Let us break into poetry and flout the maudlin enthusiasts who prate of spring.

See also  Idler 066 [No. 66: Loss of ancient writings] by Samuel Johnson

With a ripple of leaves and a twinkle of streams
The full world rolls in a rhythm of praise,
And the winds are one with the clouds and beams–
Midsummer days! Midsummer days!
The dusks grow vast in a purple haze,
While the West from a rapture of sunset rights,
Faint stars their exquisite lamps upraise–
Midsummer nights! O Midsummer nights!

* * * * *

The wood’s green heart is a nest of dreams,
The lush grass thickens and springs and sways,
The rathe wheat rustles, the landscape gleams–
Midsummer days! Midsummer days!
In the stilly fields, in the stilly way,
All secret shadows and mystic lights,
Late lovers, murmurous, linger and gaze–
Midsummer nights! O Midsummer nights!

* * * * *

There’s a swagger of bells from the trampling teams,
Wild skylarks hover, the gorses blaze,
The rich ripe rose as with incense steams–
Midsummer days! Midsummer days!
A soul from the honeysuckle strays,
And the nightingale, as from prophet heights,
Speaks to the Earth of her million Mays–
Midsummer nights! O Midsummer nights!

And it’s oh for my Dear and the charm that stays–
Midsummer days! Midsummer days!
And it’s oh for my Love and the dark that plights–
Midsummer nights! O Midsummer nights!

There is a burst for you! And we will let the poets of spring, with their lambkins and their catkins and the rest, match this poem of William Henley’s if they can. The royal months are ours, and we love the reign of the rose.

When the burnished tints of bronze shine on the brackens, and the night-wind blows with a chilly moan from the fields of darkness, we shall have precious days to remember, and, ah, when the nights are long, and the churlish Winter lays his fell finger on stream and grass and tree, we shall be haunted by jolly memories! Will the memories be wholly pleasant? Perchance, when the curtains are drawn and the lamp burns softly, we may read of bright and beautiful things. Out of doors the war of the winter fills the roaring darkness. It may be that

See also  No. 190 [from The Spectator] by Richard Steele

Hoarsely across the iron ground
The icy wind goes roaring past,
The powdery wreaths go whirling round
Dancing a measure to the blast.

The hideous sky droops darkly down
In brooding swathes of misty gloom,
And seems to wrap the fated town
In shadows of remorseless doom.

Then some of us may find a magic phrase of Keats’s, or Thomas Hardy’s, or Black’s, or Dickens’s, that recalls the lovely past from the dead. Many times I have had that experience. Once, after spending the long and glorious summer amid the weird subdued beauty of a wide heath, I returned to the great city. It had been a pleasant sojourn, though I had had no company save a collie and one or two terriers. At evening the dogs liked their ramble, and we all loved to stay out until the pouring light of the moon shone on billowy mists and heath-clad knolls. The faint rustling of the heath grew to a wide murmur, the little bells seemed to chime with notes heard only by the innermost spirit, and the gliding dogs were like strange creatures from some shadowy underworld. At times a pheasant would rise and whirl like a rocket from hillock to hollow, and about midnight a rapturous concert began. On one line of trees a colony of nightingales had established themselves near the heart of the waste. First came the low inquiry from the leader; then two or three low twittering answers; then the one long note that lays hold of the nerves and makes the whole being quiver; and then–ah, the passion, the pain, the unutterable delight of the heavenly jargoning when the whole of the little choir begin their magnificent rivalry! The thought of death is gone, the wild and poignant issues of life are softened, and the pulses beat thickly amid the blinding sweetness of the music. He who has not heard the nightingale has not lived. Far off the sea called low through the mist, and the long path of the moon ran toward the bright horizon; the ships stole in shadow and shine over the glossy ripples, and swung away to north and south till they faded in wreaths of delicate darkness. Dominating the whole scene of beauty, there was the vast and subtle mystery of the heath that awed the soul even when the rapture was at its keenest. Time passed away, and on one savage night I read Thomas Hardy’s unparalleled description of the majestic waste in “The Return of the Native.” That superb piece of English is above praise–indeed praise, as applied to it, is half an impertinence; it is great as Shakespeare, great almost as Nature–one of the finest poems in our language. As I read with awe the quiet inevitable sentences, the vision of my own heath rose, and the memory filled me with a sudden joy.

See also  No. 109: The Picture Gallery [from The Spectator] by Richard Steele

I know that the hour of darkness ever dogs our delight, and the shadow of approaching darkness and toil might affront me even now, if I were ungrateful; but I live for the present only. Let grave persons talk about the grand achievements and discoveries that have made this age or that age illustrious; I hold that holidays are the noblest invention of the human mind, and, if any philosopher wants to argue the matter, I flee from his presence, and luxuriate on the yellow sands or amid the keen kisses of the salty waves. I own that Newton’s discoveries were meritorious, and I willingly applaud Mr. George Stephenson, through whose ingenuity we are now whisked to our places of rest with the swiftness of an eagle’s flight. Nevertheless I contend that holidays are the crowning device of modern thought, and I hold that no thesis can be so easily proven as mine. How did our grandfathers take holiday? Alas, the luxury was reserved for the great lords who scoured over the Continent, and for the pursy cits who crawled down to Brighthelmstone! The ordinary Londoner was obliged to endure agonies on board a stuffy Margate hoy, while the people in Northern towns never thought of taking a holiday at all. The marvellous cures wrought by Doctor Ozone were not then known, and the science of holiday-making was in its infancy. The wisdom of our ancestors was decidedly at fault in this matter, and the gout and dyspepsia from which they suffered served them right. Read volumes of old memoirs, and you will find that our forefathers, who are supposed to have been so merry and healthy, suffered from all the ills which grumblers ascribe to struggling civilization. They did not know how to extract pleasure from their midsummer days and midsummer nights; we do, and we are all the better for the grand modern discovery.

See also  A Shocking Affair By P G Wodehouse

Seriously, it is a good thing that we have learned the value of leisure, and, for my own part, I regard the rushing yearly exodus from London, Liverpool, Birmingham, with serene satisfaction. It is a pity that so many English folk persist in leaving their own most lovely land when our scenery and climate are at their best. In too many cases they wear themselves with miserable and harassing journeys when they might be placidly rejoicing in the sweet midsummer days at home. Snarling aesthetes may say what they choose, but England is not half explored yet, and anybody who takes the trouble may find out languorous nooks where life seems always dreamy, and where the tired nerves and brain are unhurt by a single disturbing influence. There are tiny villages dotted here and there on the coast where the flaunting tourist never intrudes, and where the British cad cares not to show his unlovable face. Still, if people like the stuffy Continental hotel and the unspeakable devices of the wily Swiss, they must take their choice. I prefer beloved England; but I wish all joy to those who go far afield.

June, 1886.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *