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An essay by James Runciman

The Fading Year

Title:     The Fading Year
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Even in this distressed England of ours there are still districts where the simple reapers regard the harvest labour as a frolic; the dulness of their still lives is relieved by a burst of genuine but coarse merriment, and their abandoned glee is not unpleasant to look upon. Then come the harvest suppers--noble spectacles. The steady champ of resolute jaws sounds in a rhythm which is almost majestic; the fearsome destruction wrought on solid joints would rouse the helpless envy of the dyspeptics of Pall Mall, and the playful consumption of ale--no small beer, but golden Rodney--might draw forth an ode from a teetotal Chancellor of the Exchequer. August winds up in a blaze of gladness for the reaper. On ordinary evenings he sits stolidly in the dingy parlour and consumes mysterious malt liquor to an accompaniment of grumbling and solemn puffing of acrid tobacco, but the harvest supper is a wildly luxurious affair which lasts until eleven o'clock. Are there not songs too? The village tenor explains--with a powerful accent--that he only desires Providence to let him like a soldier fall. Of course he breaks down, but there is no adverse criticism. Friendly hearers say, "Do yowe try back, Willum, and catch that up at start agin;" and Willum does try back in the most excruciating manner. Then the elders compare the artist with singers of bygone days, and a grunting chorus of stories goes on. Then comes the inevitable poaching song. Probably the singer has been in prison a dozen times over, but he is regarded as a moral and law-abiding character by his peers; and even his wife, who suffered during his occasional periods of seclusion, smiles as he drones out the jolting chorus. When the sportsman reaches the climax and tells how--

We slung her on our shoulders,
And went across the down;
We took her to a neighbour's house,
And sold her for a crown.

We sold her for a crown, my boys,
But I 'on't tell ye wheer,
For 'tis my delight of a shiny night
In the season of the year

--then the gentlemen who have sold many a hare in their time exchange rapturous winks, and even a head-keeper might be softened by the prevailing enthusiasm. Hodge is a hunter by nature, and you can no more restrain him from poaching than you can restrain a fox. The most popular man in the whole company is the much-incarcerated poacher, and no disguise whatever is made of the fact. A theft of a twopenny cabbage from a neighbour would set a mark against a man for life; a mean action performed when the hob-nailed company gather in the tap-room would be remembered for years; but a sportsman who blackens his face and creeps out at night to net the squire's birds is considered to be a hero, and an honest man to boot. He mentions his convictions gaily, criticises the officials of each gaol that he has visited in the capacity of prisoner, and rouses roars of sympathetic laughter as he tells of his sufferings on the tread-mill. No man or woman thinks of the facts that the squire's pheasants cost about a guinea apiece to rear, that a hare is worth about three-and-sixpence, that a brace of partridges brings two shillings even from the cunning receiver who buys the poachers' plunder. No; they joyously think of the fact that the keepers are diddled, and that satisfies them.

Alas, the glad and sad times alike must die, and the dull prose of October follows hard on the wild jollity of the harvest supper, while Winter peers with haggard gaze over Autumn's shoulder! The hoarse winds blow now, and the tender flush of decay has begun to touch the leaves with delicate tints. In the morning the gossamer floats in the glittering air and winds ropes of pearls among the stubble; the level rays shoot over a splendid land, and the cold light is thrillingly sweet. But the evenings are chill, and the hollow winds moan, crying, "Summer is dead, and we are the vanguard of Winter. Soon the wild army will be upon you. Steal the sunshine while you may."

What is the source of that tender solemn melancholy that comes on us all as we feel the glad year dying? It is melancholy that is not painful, and we can nurse it without tempting one stab of real suffering. Each season brings its moods--Spring is hopeful; Summer luxurious; Autumn contented; and then comes that strange time when our thoughts run on solemn things. Can it be that we associate the long decline of the year with the dark closing of life? Surely not--for a boy or girl feels the same pensive, dreary mood, and no one who remembers childhood can fail to think of the wild inarticulate thoughts that passed through the immature brain. Nay, our souls are from God; they are bestowed by the Supreme, and they were from the beginning, and cannot be destroyed. From Plato downwards, no thoughtful man has missed this strange suggestion which seems to present itself unprompted to every mind. Cicero argued it out with consummate dialectic skill; our scientific men come to the same conclusion after years on years of labour spent in investigating phenomena of life and laws of force; and Wordsworth formulated Plato's reasoning in an immortal passage which seems to combine scientific accuracy with exquisite poetic beauty--

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us--our life's star--
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, Who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows;
He sees it in his joy.
The youth who daily farther from the east
Must travel still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of coming day.

Had Wordsworth never written another line, that passage would have placed him among the greatest. He follows the glorious burst with these awful lines--

But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized;
High instincts before which our mortal nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.

That is like some golden-tongued utterance of the gods; and thousands of Englishmen, sceptics and believers, have held their breath, abashed, as its full meaning struck home.

Yes; this mysterious thought that haunts our being as we gaze on the saddened fields is not aroused by the immediate impression which the sight gives us; it is too complex, too profound, too mature and significant. It was framed before birth, and it proceeds direct from the Father of all souls, with whom we dwelt before we came to this low earth, and with whom we shall dwell again. If any one ventures to deny the origin of our marvellous knowledge, our sweet, strange impressions, it seems to us that he must risk bordering on impiety.

So far then I have wandered from the commonplace sweetness of the shorn fields, and I almost forgot to speak about the birds. Watch the swallows as they gather together and talk with their low pretty twitter. Their parliament has begun; and surely no one who watches their proceedings can venture to scoff at the transcendental argument which I have just now stated. Those swift, pretty darlings will soon be flying through the pitchy gloom of the night, and they will dart over three or four thousand miles with unerring aim till they reach the far-off spot where they cheated our winter last year. Some will nest amid the tombs of Egyptian kings, some will find out rosy haunts in Persia, some will soon be wheeling and twittering happily over the sullen breast of the rolling Niger. Who--ah, who guides that flight? Think of it. Man must find his way by the stars and the sun. Day by day he must use elaborate instruments to find out where his vessel is placed; and even his instruments do not always save him from miles of error. But the little bird plunges through the high gulfs of air and flies like an arrow to the selfsame spot where it lived before it last went off on the wild quest over shadowy continents and booming seas. "Hereditary instinct," says the scientific man. Exactly so; and, if the swallow unerringly traverses the line crossed by its ancestors, even though the old land has long been whelmed in steep-down gulfs of the sea, does not that show us something? Does it, or does it not, make my saying about the soul seem reasonable?

I have followed the swallows, but the fieldfares and the buntings must also go soon. They will make their way South also, though some may go in leisurely fashion to catch the glorious burst of spring in Siberia. I have been grievously puzzled and partly delighted by Mr. Seebohm's account of the birds' pilgrimage, and it has given me hours of thought. We dwell amid mystery, and, as the leaves redden year by year, here recurs one of the chiefest mysteries that ever perplexed the soul of man. Indeed, we are shadowed around with mystery and there is not one red leaf whirled by the wind among those moaning woods which does not represent a miracle.

We cannot fly from these shores, but our joys come each in its day. For pure gladness and keen colour nothing can equal one of these glorious October mornings, when the reddened fronds of the brackens are silvered with rime, and the sun strikes flashes of delight from them. Then come those soft November days when the winds moan softly amid the Aeolian harps of the purple hedgerows, and the pale drizzle falls ever and again. Even then we may pick our pleasures discreetly, if we dwell in the country, while, as for the town, are there not pleasant fires and merry evenings? Then comes the important thought of the poor. Ah, it is woful! "'Pleasant fires and merry evenings,' say you?"--so I can fancy some pinched sufferer saying, "What sort of merry evenings shall we have, when the fogs crawl murderously, or the sleet lashes the sodden roads?" Alas and alas! Those of us who dwell amid pleasant sights and sounds are apt in moments of piercing joy to forget the poor who rarely know joy at all. But we must not be careless. By all means let those who can do so snatch their enjoyment from the colour, the movement, the picturesque sadness of the fading year; but let them think with pity of the time that is coming, and prepare to do a little toward lifting that ghastly burden of suffering that weighs on so many of our fellows. Gazing around on the flying shadows driven by the swift wind, and listening to the quivering sough amid the shaken trees, I have been led far and near into realms of strange speculation. So it is ever in this fearful and wonderful life; there is not the merest trifle that can happen which will not lead an eager mind away toward the infinite. Never has this mystic ordinance touched my soul so poignantly as during the hours when I watched for a little the dying of the year, and branched swiftly into zigzag reflections that touched the mind with fear and joy in turn. Adieu, fair fields! Adieu, wild trees! Where will next year's autumn find us? Hush! Does not the very gold and red of the leaves hint to us that the sweet sad time will return again and find us maybe riper?

_October, 1886._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Fading Year