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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Snows Of Yester-Year

Title:     The Snows Of Yester-Year
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

_Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?_ As I transcribe once more that ancient sigh, perhaps the most real sigh in all literature, it is high mid-summer, and the woodland surrounding the little cabin in which I am writing lies in a trance of green and gold, hot and fragrant and dizzy with the whirring of cicadas, under the might of the July sun. Bees buzz in and out through my door, and sometimes a butterfly flits in, flutters a while about my bookshelves, and presently is gone again, in search of sweets more to his taste than those of the muses, though Catullus is there, with

Songs sweeter than wild honey dripping down,
Which once in Rome to Lesbia he sang.

As I am caught by the dream-drowsy spell of the hot murmuring afternoon, and my eyes rest on the thick vines clustering over the rocks, and the lush grasses and innumerable underbrush, so spendthrift in their crowding luxuriance, I try to imagine the ground as it was but four months ago still in the grasp of winter, when the tiniest blade of grass, or smallest speck of creeping green leaf, seemed like a miracle, and it was impossible to realize that under the broad snowdrifts a million seeds, like hidden treasure, were waiting to reveal their painted jewels to the April winds. Snow was plentiful then, to be had by the ton--but now, the thought suddenly strikes me, and brings home with new illuminating force Villon's old refrain, that though I sought the woodland from end to end, ransacked its most secret places, not one vestige of that snow, so lately here in such plenty, would it be possible to find. Though you were to offer me a million dollars for as much as would fill the cup of a wild rose, say even a hundred million, I should have to see all that money pass me by. I can think of hardly anything that it couldn't buy--but such a simple thing as last year's snow!

Could there be a more poignant symbol of irreclaimable vanished things than that so happily hit on by the old ballade-maker:

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with thus much for an overword--
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Villon, as we know, has a melancholy fondness for asking these sad, hopeless questions of snow and wind. He muses not only of the drift of fair faces, but of the passing of mighty princes and all the arrogant pride and pomp of the earth--"pursuivants, trumpeters, heralds, hey!" "Ah! where is the doughty Charlemagne?" They, even as the humblest, "the wind has carried them all away." They have vanished utterly as the snow, gone--who knows where?--on the wind. "'Dead and gone'--a sorry burden of the Ballad of Life," as Thomas Lowell Beddoes has it in his _Death's Jest Book_. "Dead and gone!" as Andrew Lang re-echoes in a sweetly mournful ballade:

Through the mad world's scene
We are drifting on,
To this tune, I ween,
"They are dead and gone!"

"Nought so sweet as melancholy," sings an old poet, and, while the melancholy of the exercise is undoubted, there is at the same time an undeniable charm attaching to those moods of imaginative retrospect in which we summon up shapes and happenings of the vanished past, a tragic charm indeed similar to that we experience in mournful music or elegiac poetry.

For, it is impossible to turn our eyes on any point of the starlit vista of human history, without being overwhelmed with a heart-breaking sense of the immense treasure of radiant human lives that has gone to its making, the innumerable dramatic careers now shrunk to a mere mention, the divinely passionate destinies, once all wild dream and dancing blood, now nought but a name huddled with a thousand such in some dusty index, seldom turned to even by the scholar, and as unknown to the world at large as the moss-grown name on some sunken headstone in a country churchyard. What an appallingly exuberant and spendthrift universe it seems, pouring out its multitudinous generations of men and women with the same wasteful hand as it has filled this woodland with millions of exquisite lives, marvellously devised, patterned with inexhaustible fancy, mysteriously furnished with subtle organs after their needs, crowned with fairy blossoms, and ripening with magic seeds,--such a vast treasure of fragrant sunlit leafage, all produced with such elaborate care, and long travail, and all so soon to vanish utterly away!

Along with this crushing sense of cosmic prodigality, and somewhat lighting up its melancholy, comes the inspiring realization of the splendid spectacle of human achievement, the bewildering array of all the glorious lives that have been lived, of all the glorious happenings, under the sun. Ah! what men this world has seen, and--what women! What divine actors have trod this old stage, and in what tremendous dramas have they taken part! And how strange it is, reading some great dramatic career, of Caesar, say, or Luther, or Napoleon, or Byron, to realize that there was a time when they were not, then a time when they were beginning to be strange new names in men's ears, then all the romantic excitement of their developing destinies, and the thunder and lightning of the great resounding moments of their lives--moments made out of real, actual, prosaic time, just as our own moments are made, yet once so splendidly shining on the top of the world, as though to stay there forever, moments so glorious that it would seem that Time must have paused to watch and prolong them, jealous that they should ever pass and give place to lesser moments!

Think too of those other fateful moments of history, moments not confined to a few godlike individuals, but participated in by whole nations, such moments as that of the great Armada, the French Revolution, or the Declaration of American Independence. How strangely it comes upon one that these past happenings were once only just taking place, just as at the moment of my writing other things are taking place, and clocks were ticking and water flowing, just as they are doing now! How wonderful, it seems to us, to have been alive then, as we are alive now, to have shared in those vast national enthusiasms, "in those great deeds to have had some little part"; and is it not a sort of poor anti-climax for a world that has gone through such noble excitement to have sunk back to this level of every day! Alas! all those lava-like moments of human exaltation--what are they now, but, so to say, the pumice-stone of history. They have passed as the summer flowers are passing, they are gone with last year's snow.

But the last year's snow of our personal lives--what a wistful business it is, when we get thinking of that! To recall certain magic moments out of the past is to run a risk of making the happiest present seem like a desert; and for most men, I imagine, such retrospect is usually busied with some fair face, or perhaps--being men--with several fair faces, once so near and dear, and now so far. How poignantly and unprofitably real memory can make them--all but bring them back--how vividly reconstruct immortal occasions of happiness that we said could not, must not, pass away; while all the time our hearts were aching with the sure knowledge that they were even then, as we wildly clutched at them, slipping from our grasp!

That summer afternoon,--do you too still remember it, Miranda?--when, under the whispering woodland, we ate our lunch together with such prodigious appetite, and O! such happy laughter, yet never took our eyes from each other; and, when the meal was ended, how we wandered along the stream-side down the rocky glen, till we came to an enchanted pool among the boulders, all hushed with moss and ferns and overhanging boughs--do you remember what happened then, Miranda? Ah! nymphs of the forest pools, it is no use asking me to forget.

And, all the time, my heart was saying to my eyes:--"This fairy hour--so real, so magical, now--some day will be in the far past; you will sit right away on the lonely outside of it, and recall it only with the anguish of beautiful vanished things." And here I am today surely enough, years away from it, solitary on its lonely outside!

I suppose that the river, this summer day, is making the same music along its rocky bed, and the leafy boughs are rustling over that haunted pool just the same as when--but where are the laughing ripples--ah! Miranda--that broke with laughter over the divinely troubled water, and the broken reflections, as of startled water-lilies, that rocked to and fro in a panic of dazzling alabaster?

They are with last year's snow.

Meriel of the solemn eyes, with the heart and the laughter of a child, and soul like the starlit sky, where should one look for the snows of yester-year if not in your bosom, fairy girl my eyes shall never see again. Wherever you are, lost to me somewhere among the winding paths of this strange wood of the world, do you ever, as the moonlight falls over the sea, give a thought to that night when we sat together by a window overlooking the ocean, veiled in a haze of moonlit pearl, and, dimly seen near shore, a boat was floating, like some mystic barge, as we said, in our happy childishness, waiting to take us to the _Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon_? Ah! how was it we lingered and lingered till the boat was no more there, and it was too late? Perhaps it was that we seemed to be already there, as you turned and placed your hand in mine and said: "My life is in your hand." And we both believed it true. Yes! wherever we went together in those days, we were always in that enchanted land--whether we rode side by side through London streets in a hansom--"a two-wheeled heaven" we called it--(for our dream stretches as far back as that prehistoric day--How old one of us seems to be growing! You, dear face, can never grow old)--or sat and laughed at clowns in London music halls, or wandered in Surrey lanes, or gazed at each other, as if our hearts would break for joy, over the snow-white napery of some country inn, and maybe quoted Omar to each other, as we drank his red wine to the immortality of our love. Perhaps we were right, after all. Perhaps it could never die, and Time and Distance are perhaps merely illusions, and you and I have never been apart. Who knows but that you are looking over my shoulder as I write, though you seem so far away, lost in that starlit silence that you loved. Ah! Meriel, is it well with you, this summer day? A sigh seems to pass through the sunlit grasses. They are waving and whispering as I have seen them waving and whispering over graves.

Such moments as these I have recalled all men have had in their lives, moments when life seemed to have come to miraculous flower, attained that perfect fulfilment of its promise which else we find only in dreams. Beyond doubt there is something in the flawless blessedness of such moments that links our mortality with super-terrestrial states of being. We do, in very deed, gaze through invisible doors into the ether of eternal existences, and, for the brief hour, live as they, drinking deep of that music of the infinite which is the divine food of the enfranchised soul. Thence comes our exaltation, and our wild longing to hold the moment for ever; for, while it is with us, we have literally escaped from the everyday earth, and have found the way into some other dimension of being, and its passing means our sad return to the prison-house of Time, the place of meetings and partings, of distance and death.

Part of the pang of recalling such moments is a remorseful sense that perhaps we might have held them fast, after all. If only we might bring them back, surely we would find some way to dwell in them for ever. They came upon us so suddenly out of heaven, like some dazzling bird, and we were so bewildered with the wonder of their coming that we stretched out our hands to seize them, only when they were already spreading their wings for flight. But O if the divine bird would but visit us again! What golden nets we would spread for him! What a golden cage of worship we would make ready! Our eyes would never leave his strange plumage, nor would we miss one note of his strange song. But alas! now that we are grown wise and watchful, that "moment eternal" comes to us no more. Perhaps too that sad wisdom which has come to us with the years would least of all avail us, should such moments by some magic chance suddenly return. For it is one of the dangers of the retrospective habit that it incapacitates us for the realization of the present hour. Much dwelling on last year's snow will make us forget the summer flowers. Dreaming of fair faces that are gone, we will look with unseeing eyes into the fair faces that companion us still. To the Spring we say: "What of all your blossom, and all your singing! Autumn is already at your heels, like a shadow; and Winter waits for you like a marble tomb." To the hope that still may beckon we say: "Well, what though you be fulfilled, you will pass, like the rest. I shall see you come. We shall dwell together for a while, and then you will go; and all will be as it was before, all as if you had never come at all." For the retrospective mood, of necessity, begets the anticipatory; we see everything finished before it is begun, and welcome and valediction blend together on our lips. "That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been."

In every kiss sealed fast
To feel the first kiss and forebode the last--

that is the shadow that haunts every joy, and sicklies o'er every action of him whom life has thus taught to look before and after.

Youth is not like that, and therein, for older eyes, lies its tragic pathos. Superficial--or, if you prefer it, more normal--observers are made happy by the spectacle of eager and confident young lives, all abloom and adream, turning towards the future with plumed impatient feet. But for some of us there is nothing quite so sad as young joy. The playing of children is perhaps the most unbearably sad thing in the world. Who can look on young lovers, without tears in their eyes? With what innocent faith they are taking in all the radiant lies of life! But perhaps a young mother with her new-born babe on her breast is the most tragical of all pictures of unsuspecting joy, for none of all the trusting sons and daughters of men is destined in the end to find herself so tragically, one might say cynically, fooled.

Cynically, I said; for indeed sometimes, as one ponders the lavish heartless use life seems to make of all its divinely precious material--were it but the flowers in one meadow, or the butterflies of a single summer day--it does seem as though a cruel cynicism inhered somewhere in the scheme of things, delighting to destroy and disillusionize, to create loveliness in order to scatter it to the winds, and inspire joy in order to mock it with desolation. Sometimes it seems as though the mysterious spirit of life was hardly worthy of the vessels it has called into being, hardly treats them fairly, uses them with an ignoble disdain. For, how generously we give ourselves up to life, how innocently we put our trust in it, do its bidding with such fine ardours, striving after beauty and goodness, fain to be heroic and clean of heart--yet "what hath man of all his labours, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun." Yea, dust, and fallen rose-leaves, and last year's snow.

And yet and yet, for all this drift and dishonoured decay of things, that retrospective mood of ours will sometimes take another turn, and, so rare and precious in the memory seem the treasure that it has lost, and yet in imagination still holds, that it will not resign itself to mortal thoughts of such manifest immortalities. The snows of yester-year! Who knows if, after all, they have so utterly vanished as they seem. Who can say but that there may be somewhere in the universe secret treasuries where all that has ever been precious is precious still, safely garnered and guarded for us against some wonderful moment which shall gather up for us in one transfiguring apocalypse all the wonderful moments that have but preceded us into eternity. Perhaps, as nothing is lost in the world, so-called, of matter, nothing is lost too in the world of love and dream.

O vanished loveliness of flowers and faces,
Treasure of hair, and great immortal eyes,
Are there for these no safe and secret places?
And is it true that beauty never dies?
Soldiers and saints, haughty and lovely names,
Women who set the whole wide world in flames,
Poets who sang their passion to the skies,
And lovers wild and wise:
Fought they and prayed for some poor flitting gleam
Was all they loved and worshipped but a dream?
Is Love a lie and fame indeed a breath?
And is there no sure thing in life--but death?

Ah! perhaps we shall find all such lost and lovely things when we come at length to the Land of Last Year's Snow.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Snows Of Yester-Year