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An essay by James Runciman

A Rhapsody Of Summer

Title:     A Rhapsody Of Summer
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

There came into my life a time of strenuous effort, and I drank all the joys of labour to the lees. When the rich dark midnights of summer drooped over the earth, I could hardly bear to think of the hours of oblivion which must pass ere I felt the delight of work once more. And the world seemed very beautiful; and, when I looked up to the solemn sky, so sweetly sown with stars, I could see stirring words like "Fame" and "Gladness" and "Triumph" written dimly across the vault; so that my heart was full of rejoicing, and all the world promised fair. In those immortal midnights the sea spoke wonderful things to me, and the long rollers glittering under the high moon bore health and bright promise as they hastened to the shore. And, when the ships stole--oh, so silently!--out of the shadows and moved over the diamond track of the moon's light, I sent my heart out to the lonely seamen and prayed that they might be joyous like me. Then the ringing of the song of multitudinous birds sounded in the hours of dawn, and the tawny-throated king of songsters made my pulses tremble with his wild ecstasy; and the blackbird poured forth mellow defiance, and the thrush shrilled in his lovely fashion concerning the joy of existence.

Pass, dreams! The long beams are drawn from the bosom of dawn. The gray of the quiet sea quickens into rose, and soon the glittering serpentine streaks of colour quiver into a blaze; the brown sands glow, and the little waves run inward, showing milky curves under the gay light; the shoregoing boats come home, and their sails--those coarse tanned sails--are like flowers that wake with the daisies and the peonies to feast on the sun. Happy holiday-makers who are wise enough to watch the fishers come in! The booted thickly-clad fellows plunge into the shallow water; and then the bare-footed women come down, and the harvest of the night is carried up the cliffs before the most of the holiday-folk have fairly awakened. The proud day broadens to its height, and the sands are blackened by the growing crowd; for the beach near a fashionable watering-place is like a section cut from a turbulent city street, save that the folk on the sands think of aught but business. I have never been able to sympathize with those who can perceive only vulgarity in a seaside crowd. It is well to care for deserted shores and dark moaning forests in the far North; but the average British holiday-maker is a sociable creature; he likes to feel the sense of companionship, and his spirits rise in proportion to the density of the crowd amid which he disports himself. To me, the life, the concentrated enjoyment, the ways of the children who are set free from the trammels of town life, are all like so much poetry. I learned early to rejoice in silent sympathy with the rejoicing of God's creatures. Only to watch the languid pose of some steady toiler from the City is enough to give discontented people a goodly lesson. The man has been ground in the mill for a year; his modest life has left him no time for enjoyment, and his ideas of all pleasure are crude. Watch him as he remains passively in an ecstasy of rest. The cries of children, the confused jargon of the crowd, fall but faintly on his nerves; he likes the sensation of being in company; he has a dim notion of the beauty of the vast sky with its shining snowy-bosomed clouds, and he lets the light breeze blow over him. I like to look on that good citizen and contrast the dull round of his wayfarings on many streets with the ease and satisfaction of his attitude on the sands. Then the night comes. The dancers are busy, the commonplace music is made refined by distance, and the murmur of the sea gathers power over all other sounds, until the noon of night arrives and the last merry voices are heard no more. Poor harmless revellers, so condemned by men whose round of life is a search for pleasure! Many of you do not understand or care for quiet refinements of dress and demeanour; you lack restraint; but I have felt much gladness while demurely watching your abandonment. I could draw rest for my soul from the magnetic night long after you were aweary and asleep; but much of my pleasure came as a reflection from yours.

As my memories of sweetness--yes, and of purifying sadness--gather more thickly, I am minded to wonder that so much has been vouchsafed me rather than to mourn over shadowy might-have-beens. The summer day by the deep lovely lake--the lake within sound of the sea! All round the steep walls that shut in the dark glossy water there hung rank festoons and bosses of brilliant green, and the clear reflections of the weeds and flowers hung so far down in the mysterious deeps that the height of the rocky wall seemed stupendous. Far over in one tremendously deep pool the lazy great fish wallowed and lunged; they would not show their speckled sides very much until the evening; but they kept sleepily moving all day, and sometimes a mighty back would show like a log for an instant. In the morning the modest ground-larks cheeped softly among the rough grasses on the low hills, while the proud heaven-scaler--the lordly kinsman of the ground-lark--filled the sky with his lovely clamour. Sometimes a water-rail would come out from the sedges and walk on the surface of the lake as a tiny ostrich might on the shifting sand; pretty creatures of all sorts seemed to find their homes near the deep wonderful water, and the whole morning might be passed in silently watching the birds and beasts that came around. The gay sun made streams of silver fire shoot from the polished brackens and sorrel, the purple geraniums gleamed like scattered jewels, and the birds seemed to be joyful in presence of that manifold beauty--joyful as the quiet human being who watched them all. And the little fishes in the shallows would have their fun as well. They darted hither and thither; the spiny creatures which the schoolboy loves built their queer nests among the waterweeds; and sometimes a silly adventurer--alarmed by the majestic approach of a large fish--would rush on to the loamy bank at the shallow end of the lake and wriggle piteously in hopeless failure. The afternoons were divinely restful by the varied shores of the limpid lake. Sometimes as the sun sloped there might come hollow blasts of wind that had careered for a brief space over the woods; but the brooding heat, the mastering silence, the feeling that multifarious quiescent living things were ready to start into action, all took the senses with somnolence. That drowsy joy, that soothing silence which seemed only intensified by the murmur of bees and the faint gurgle of water, were like medicine to the soul; and it seemed that the conception of Nirvana became easily understood as the delicious open-air reverie grew more and more involved and vague. Then the last look of the sun, the creeping shadows that made the sea gray and turned the little lake to an inky hue, and then the slow fall of the quiet-coloured evening, and, last, the fall of the mystic night!

Poor little birds, moving uneasily in the darkness, threw down tiny fragments from the rocks, and each fragment fell with a sound like the clink of a delicate silver bell; softly the sea moaned, softly the night-wind blew, and softly--so softly!--came whispering the spirits of the dead. Joyous faces could be seen by that lake long, long ago. In summer, when the lower rim was all blazing with red and yellow flowers, young lovers came to whisper and gaze. They are dead and gone. In winter, when the tarn was covered with jetty glossy ice, there were jovial scenes whereof the jollity was shared by a happy few. Round and round on the glossy surface the skaters flew and passed like gliding ghosts under the gloom of the rocks; the hiss of the iron sounded musically, and the steep wall flung back sharp echoes of harmless laughter. Each volume of sound was magically magnified, and the gay company carried on their pleasant outing far into the chili winter night. They are all gone! One was there oftenest in spring and summer, and the last sun-rays often made her golden hair shine in splendour as she stood gazing wistfully over the solemn lake. She saw wonders there that coarser spirits could not know; and all her gentle musings passed into poetry--poetry that was seldom spoken. Those who loved her never cared to break her sacred stillness as she pondered by the side of the beloved tarn; her language was not known to common folk, for she held high converse with the great of old time; and, when she chanced to speak with me, I understood but dimly, though I had all the sense of beauty and mystery. A shipwrecked sailor said she looked as if she belonged to God. Her Master claimed her early. Dear, your yellow hair will shine no more in the sun that you loved; you have long given over your day-dreams--and you are now dreamless. Or perhaps you dwell amid the silent glory of one last long dream of those you loved. The gorse on the moor moans by your grave, the brackens grow green and tall and wither into dead gold year by year, the lake gleams gloomily in fitful flashes amid its borders of splendour; and you rest softly while the sea calls your lullaby nightly. Far off, far off, my soul, by quiet seas where the lamps of the Southern Cross hang in the magnificence of the purple sky, there is one who remembers the lake, and the glassy ice, and the blaze of pompous summer, and the shining of that yellow hair. Peace--oh, peace! The sorrow has passed into quiet pensive regret that is nigh akin to gladness.

How many other ineffable days and nights have I known? All who can feel the thrilling of sea-winds, all who can have even one day amid grass and fair trees, grasp the time of delight, enjoy all beauties, do not pass in coarseness one single minute; and then, when the Guide comes to point your road through the strange gates, you may be like me--you may repine at nothing, for you will have much good to remember and scanty evil. It is good for me now to think of the thundering rush of the yacht as, with the great mainsail drawing heavily, she roared through the field of foam made by her own splendid speed, while the inky waves on the dim horizon moaned and the dark summer midnight brooded warmly over the dark sea. It is good to think of the strange days when the vessel was buried in wreaths of dark cloud, and the rush of the wind only drove the haze screaming among the shrouds. The vast dim mountains might not be pleasant to the eye of either seaman or landsman; but, when they poured their thundering deluge on a strong safe deck, we did not mind them. Happy hearts were there even in stormy warring afternoons; and men watched quite placidly as the long grim hills came gliding on. Then in the evenings there were chance hours when the dim forecastle was a pleasant place in bad weather. The bow of the vessel swayed wildly; the pitching seemed as if it might end in one immense supreme dive to the gulf, and the mad storming of the wind forced us to utter our simple talk in loudest tones. Gruff kindly phrases, without much wit or point, were good enough for us; perhaps even the appalling dignitary--yes, even the mate--would crawl in; and we listened to lengthy disjointed stories. And all the while the tremendous howl of the storm went on, and the merry lads who went out on duty had to rush wildly so as to reach the alley when a very heavy sea came over. The sense of strength was supreme; the crash of the gale was nothing; and we rather hugged ourselves on the notion that the fierce screaming meant us no harm. The curls of smoke flitted softly amid the blurred yellow beams from the lamp, and our chat went on while the monstrous billows grew blacker and blacker and the spray shone like corpse-candles on the mystic and mighty hills. And then the hours of the terrible darkness! To leave the swept deck while every vein tingled with the ecstasy of the gale! The dull warmth below was exquisite; the sly creatures which crept from their, dens and let the lamplight shine on their weird eyes--even the gamesome rats--had something merrily diabolic about them. Their thuds on the floor, their sordid swarming, their inexplicable daring--all gave a kind of minor current of _diablerie_ to the rush and hurry of the stormy night; for they seemed to speak--and the creatures which on shore are odious appeared to be quite in place in the soaring groaning vessel. Ah, my brave forecastle lads, my merry tan-faced favourites, I shall no more see your quaint squalor, I shall no more see your battle with wind and savage waves and elemental turmoil! Some of you have passed to the shadows before me; some of you have only the ooze for your graves; and the others cannot ever hear my greeting again on the sweet mornings when the waves are all gay with lily-hued blossoms of foam.

Pale beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with dark flowers she stands,
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands.

Gathers! And Proserpina will strew the flowers of foam that I may never see more--and then she will gather me.

All was good in the time of delight--all is good now that only a memory clings lovingly to the heart. Take my counsel. Rejoice in your day, and the night shall carry no dread for you.

_June, 1889._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Rhapsody Of Summer