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An essay by Israel Zangwill


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

If people cannot do without sulphur and noise, there are always fireworks. It is difficult to imagine festivity without them, and yet there must have been a time when rockets did not rise or Catherine wheels go round. You cannot have fireworks without gunpowder, and every school-boy knows that gunpowder was only invented in--I haven't got a dictionary of dates handy. Surely we ought to let off fireworks on Roger Bacon's birthday. "They let off fireworks when he was born," say the French in a slyly witty proverb, which is a circumlocutory way of saying that a man won't set the Thames on fire. For "he has not invented gunpowder" is the French equivalent for this idiom of ours, and it is obvious to the meanest intellect that a man whose birth was celebrated by fireworks could not have been the inventor of gunpowder. And yet there were fireworks of a kind from the earliest times, from the first appearance of stars in the firmament with their wandering habits and shooting expeditions. And, indeed, did not humanity long regard the heavens as a firework show for its amusement, a set piece entirely for its delectation? Mankind has always been fond of playing with fire--ever since Prometheus stole it from heaven and burnt his fingers. I am convinced the ancients only used bonfires for messages so as to enjoy the flare-up on the mountains. Who would not fight when summoned by a tongue of flame?

And the red glare on Skiddaw roused the burghers of Carlisle.

Roman candles were unknown to the Romans, but they enjoyed themselves with torches, and these were the fireworks at wedding fetes. The golden rain in which Jupiter wooed Danae was another sort of hymeneal fireworks. There were fireworks at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The love of fireworks is a natural passion. Does not nature amuse herself with fireworks, especially on tropical summer nights? She loves to flash her lightnings (which are not to be put out by the rain), and to crash her thunder (which, as everybody knows, is only the report of the meeting of two electric clouds). And who does not admire her grand pyrotechnic display--twice daily--at sunrise and at sunset, or her celebrated local effect, the Aurora Borealis?

I have loved fireworks from boyhood, and would rather have had dry bread and fireworks than cake with jam. In manhood often I have listened to the long-drawn ecstatic "aw" of the Crystal Palace crowd. I have even written a poem on fireworks. Here it is:--

A dazzling fiery show of sphery rainbows,
Whereof each wonder, monarch of a moment,
Yields up its glory to the next one's splendour,
And sadly sinks into the arms of darkness.

Is it not a true simile of the favour of the fickle crowd? The most brilliant phenomena are forgotten after a moment. Life and Time are full of such fireworks--religions, philosophies, fashions, dynasties. And overhead the sure stars shine on. In literature fireworks rarely last. They are too clever to live. A humble rushlight lasts longer. "All fireworks are unsound," says Steinitz. He is talking of chess, and chess is very much like life. Whistler has painted fireworks--I mean literally--in his blue and silver nocturne of old Battersea Bridge. Tennyson has painted them in his "Welcome to Alexandra" and elsewhere.

Flash, ye cities, in rivers of fire!
Rush to the roof, sudden rocket, and higher,
Melt into stars for the land's desire!

"Sudden rocket." How good the adjective is! A poet I know spent hall a day in finding the correct epithet for rockets, and was equally pleased and annoyed to discover subsequently that he had chosen the same adjective as the Master.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Fireworks