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An essay by Vernon Lee

Coming Back

Title:     Coming Back
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

Most people tell you that to return to places where one has been exceptionally happy is an unwise proceeding. But this, I venture to conceive, is what poor Alfred de Musset called "une insulte au bonheur." It shows, at all events, a lack of appreciation of the particular nature, permanent, and, in a manner, radiating, of happy experiences. Of course, I am not speaking of the cases where the happy past has been severed from indifferent present and future by some dreadful calamity; poetry alone is consolatory and also aloof enough to deal decorously with such tragic things, and they are no concern of the essayist. There is, besides, a very individual and variable character about great misfortunes, no two natures being affected by them quite alike, so that discussion and generalization are not merely intrusive, but also mostly fruitless. Therefore the question is not whether people are wise or unwise in avoiding places where they have been happy, after events which have shattered their happiness. And the only loss I have to deal with is the loss--if it really is one, as we shall examine--of the actual circumstances which accompanied a happy experience; the loss of the _then_ as opposed to the _now_, and, in a measure of the irrecoverable time, years or months, and of the small luggage of expectations and illusions which has got inevitably mislaid or scattered in the interval. And the question arises whether 'tis wiser, in a sense whether it is more delicately epicurean, to avoid the places which bring all that, together with the sense of the happy gone-by days, vividly home to one; or whether, as I contend, past happiness ought not to be used as an essential element in the happiness of the present.

I have had, lately, the experience of returning to a part of the world which I had not seen for many, many years, and where I had spent the drowsy long days of a long illness, and the dreamy sweet days of a longer convalescence. It made a day's journey, without any especial resting-place for the soles of my feet, and undertaken, I can scarcely tell why, with a little shyness and fear. I did not go to the house where I had lived, but to one in the neighbourhood, whither I had often been taken all those years ago; and I did not even take the precaution--or perhaps took the contrary one--of securing the presence of the owners. The ladies were out; gone to one of the little fishing towns which are strung all around the Forth, and they would not be back till teatime. But the benevolent Scottish housemaid, noticing perhaps a shadow of disappointment, suggested my going in and waiting.

The little old castle, which had got a little blurred in my recollection, seemed suddenly remembered and familiar, even as had been the case with the country I had driven along from the station; the undulating turnip-fields and fields of pale stooked corn, the reaping-machines and the women tying up the bean-straw, the white line of the Forth, and the whole pale, delicate country under the low, tender, _intimate_ northern sky. Even the smell, sweet and pungent, of the withered potatoes, bringing the sense of knowing it all, turnings of roads and of the land, so well. And similarly inside the castle, where I lingered on the pretext of writing a note to those ladies. It was all unchanged; the escutcheons in relief on the ceiling, the view of cornfield and thin beech belts, and distant sea from the windows, the lavender and _pot-pourri_ in the bowls, and almost the titles of the books, seemed quietly, at the touch of reality, to open out in remembrance. I did not stay till the return of the ladies, but went back to the station, and waited on the bridge for my train, which was a good half-hour late. I looked down from that bridge on the kind and gentle country in the veiled sunshine. The hill to the back of the house where I had lived, in the distance, the red roofs of the fishing villages, the little spire of the smallest of them barely projecting, as it always did, above the freshly reaped fields. And I felt, as I leaned against the parapet watching for my train's smoke coming towards me, not the loss, but rather the inestimable gain which a kindly past represents. Years gone by? Nay, rather years which make endurable, which furnish and warm the present, giving it sweetness and significance. How very poor we must be in our early youth, with no possessions like these; and how rich in our later life, with many years distilled into the essence of a single to-day!

As I stood on the railway bridge thinking or feeling in this manner, I heard wheels, and saw a pony-cart, with an elderly lady, and a younger one driving her, coming towards me. It was the ladies who had been so kind to me all those years back, returning to the little castle. I turned my back, leaned on the parapet, and let them pass me, unnoticing. I wanted to keep them also in that dim and dear kind past.

For we must be discreet as well as grateful-hearted if we would enjoy the Past's full gifts....

The Past's gifts; and to these I would add, or among them rather I would include, an item which I find a difficulty in naming properly, and which, of course, I hesitate a little to speak about. I mean the gifts, odd as it sounds, of Death. For Death, while in his main function the cruel taker-away, the violent or stealthy robber, has also a less important side to his character, and is a giver of gifts, if only we know how to receive them. And he is this even apart from his power (for which one might imagine that the Greeks gave him, in certain terra cottas and reliefs, so very gentle and beautiful an aspect) of bringing light and loving-kindness into poor human creatures' judgments, and teaching them to understand and pardon; apart also from that mystic relationship, felt by Dante and all the poets, which he bears to the genius of imaginative love. What I allude to is a more humble, but quite as gracious function, of leading those he takes away (with the infinitely tender gesture of the antique funereal Hermes), not into vacuity and the horrid blackness of oblivion, but into a place of safe and serene memory. In this capacity Death can be, even like his master, Time, a giver of gifts to us. For those _are_ gifts to us, those friends he gathers together under hazier, tenderer skies into our thoughts which have the autumn warmth and stillness of late-reaped fields. Nay, the gift is greater, for there are added certain half-strangers, towards whom we lose all shyness, and who turn to real friends when introduced by death and worked into our past; dear such-an-one, whom we scarcely knew, barely more than face and name _then_, but know and have the right to care for now. So that I think that we might extract and take with happy interpretation those two last lines of the old, old Goethe's heartbreaking dedication to the generations whom he had outlived:--

"Was ich besitze, seh' ich wie im Weiten,
Und was verschwand, wird mir zu Wirklichkeiten."

For all which reasons let us never be afraid of going back to places where we have been exceptionally happy; not even in the cases where we recognize that such former happiness was due, in part, to some dispelled illusion. For if we can but learn to be glad of the Past and receive its gift with gratitude, may not the remembrance of a dear illusion, brought home with the sight of the places which we filled with it, be merely another blessing; a possession which nothing can rob us of, and by which our spirit is the richer?

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Coming Back