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An essay by Israel Zangwill


Title:     Haslemere
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

I am up a "Bo tree." Every schoolboy knows (that is, of course, every Buddhistic schoolboy) that when the Buddha made "the great renunciation," he attained Nirvana by sitting under a "Bo tree." My "Bo tree" is a great oak in the heart of the woods, mounted by a dizzy spiral staircase, at the summit of which you enter Nirvana by means of the "House on the Garden," a glass-house floored with boards and furnished with rustic chairs, a lounge and a writing-table; and here, amid the tree-tops, I write to the music of thrush and blackbird, with restful glances at the sailing clouds or at the sunny weald, that circles for miles around and ends to the south in the "downs" that hide the English Channel. Perhaps it is because my landscape takes in Tennyson's happy Haslemere home that my thought runs so much on him to-day, and then runs back to a cold stone staircase up which I toiled in pitchy blackness to see a great French poet. Taine, who preferred Alfred de Musset to Tennyson, made of a contrast between the two men the most telling pages in his history of our literature, setting in graphic antithesis the dust and flare and fever of the Boulevards against the

English home, gray twilight poured
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep,--all things in order stored,
A haunt of ancient peace,

where the English Laureate brooded over his chiselled verses. How much more piquant a contrast might be drawn between the jealously-guarded castle in which Tennyson entrenched himself and the accessible garret in the Rue St. Jacques where Verlaine held his court in absolute bonhomie and deshabille.

But, alas! there is no Nirvana on my "Bo Tree"--at least, not to-day. The blatancy of a brass band bursts forth on the breeze. A popular waltz silences the cuckoos. I climb down my spiral staircase and hasten across the wood to discover what these strange sounds portend. In front of the creeper-clad house I come upon a scene of comic opera. This is the village fete day, and here are the festive villagers come to pay allegiance to the lord of the manor. The majority are Foresters, and wear green sashes, and carry banners like to the pictorial pocket-handkerchiefs of Brobdingnag. The music gives over, and my host addresses them from between the roses of his porch, and they laugh at his genial jokes with the unanimity of the footlights. There are tiny tots and old women in the background, and yonder is the Village Beauty--a ripe maid, i' faith, and a comely. There are other girls in her train; but, oddsbobs! what have they done with their tights? and why do they delay to announce her approaching marriage in merry melodic chorus? But I conceal my surprise and, as the cynical Man from Town (gadzooks!), ogle the Pride of the Village, to the disgust of her rural swain, who has started blowing the trombone and dare not desist, though his cheeks get redder and more explosive each instant. In the next Act we all go down to the annual dinner, in a long rose-wreathed tent, and the Parson says grace and the Parson's Clerk "Amen," and the Squire (in corduroy knickerbockers and leggings) bestows his benediction on all the village, while without, the happy peasants project sticks at cocoanuts or try their strength with mallets, and all is virtuous and feudal. In the third Act we are in the Vicarage Garden--a beautiful set, with real rhododendrons. Sir Roger de Coverley takes tea i'fackins with the Parson, and the Stalwart Farmer passes the sugar to the Man from Town, who is gazing out wistfully towards the Village Green, where the Village Beauty foots it featly with the Village Idiot. The last Act passes in the Drawing-Boom of "Bo tree" House, where the Archdeacon's Daughter touches her tinkling guitar and warbles a plaintive ballad:--

O give my love to Nancy,
The girl that I adore--
Tell her that she'll never see
Her soldier any more--
Tell her I died in battle
Fighting with the black,
Every inch a soldier,
Beneath the Union Jack.

Dear naive old song, fitting climax of a feudal day, sweet with the freshness of those simple times, when art for art's sake was a shibboleth uninvented, and every other man was not diabolically clever! How many mothers and sisters wept over thy primitive pathos, as they knitted the Berlin wool-work! how many masculine hearts throbbed more manfully at the appeal of thy crude patriotism! To-day we analyse ruthlessly thy metre, proclaiming it the butterwoman's rank to market, and thy sentiment, which we dub pinchbeck, and we remember that the Union Jack is used only in the Navy; we are deaf to thy inspiration and dumb at thy chorus; we are sceptical as to thy soldier's love: Nancy, we know from realistic poets of the Barrack Room, took up with another young man before her month was out; and as for the black, he is the object of our devoutest solicitude. Go to! thou art surely a Gilbertian travesty, a deliciously droll compound of vulgar patriotism and maudlin pathos. And yet somehow there are tears on the smiling cheeks of the Man from Town. Let us go out and hear the nightingales and be sentimental under the moon. Hark how they precipitate their notes in a fine lyric rapture. This is the same "Jug, Jug, Jug," that called forth Keats' immortal ode. We cannot hear the birds' music for itself; it comes to us through melodious chimes of poetry. Nature has been so filtered through human emotion, so passed and repassed through the alembic of poetic passion, that she has ceased to be natural. Little children and fools, on whom, according to the Talmud, the gift of prophecy devolved when the Temples fell, may still see her naked, but for the lettered man she is draped in lyric conventions. There is anthropomorphism in literature as well as in theology: for George Eliot Nature is steeped in humanity; she cannot see anything for itself. "Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us and transform our perception into love." I wonder if she ever wrote a pure description of scenery without psychological or mythological allusions. To a soul saturated with literary prepossessions, nightingales, like love and most things human, are apt to disappoint and disenchant.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter.

The cultured American, who has no nightingales at home--not even big ones--and who arranges to hear an English nightingale between a performance at Ober-Ammergau and an exploration of the Catacombs of Paris, often wants his money back after the songster "on yon bloomy spray" has "warbled at eve when all the woods are still." He has been expecting something like a song of Patti accompanied on the piano by Paderewski. It was an American poetess--Mrs. Piatt--who informed the skylark:

The song thou sang'st to Shelley was not half
So sweet as that which Shelley sang to thee!

After all, birds repeat themselves sadly--they strike one note, like a minor poet, and live on the reputation of their first success. It is amusing for a few minutes to hear a clever bird giving imitations of the cuckoo clock, but the joke palls. The Archdeacon's Daughter has a wider repertoire. And so? though the nightingales are still singing, conversation springs up in the copse as if it were a drawing-room and the singers human. My host discourses of the litter of pigs just arrived from the Great Nowhere, and dilates upon the fact that of the 3,423,807 pigs in England no two tails are curled alike. Perhaps even so no two nightingales curl their phrase identically, and one roulade differeth from another in glory.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Haslemere