Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter XII

Concerning Eyes

White, crimson, emerald green, shining golden yellow, are amongst the colours seen in the eyes of birds. In owls, herons, cormorants, and many other tribes, the brightly-tinted eye is incomparably the finest feature and chief glory. It fixes the attention at once, appearing like a splendid gem, for which the airy bird-body, with its graceful curves and soft tints, forms an appropriate setting. When the eye closes in death, the bird, except to the naturalist, becomes a mere bundle of dead feathers; crystal globes may be put into the empty sockets, and a bold life-imitating attitude given to the stuffed specimen; but the vitreous orbs shoot forth no life-like flames, the “passion and the fire whose fountains are within” have vanished, and the best work of the taxidermist, who has given a life to his bastard art, produces in the mind only sensations of irritation and disgust. In museums, where limited space stands in the way of any abortive attempts at copying nature too closely, the stuffer’s work is endurable because useful; but in a drawing-room, who does not close his eyes or turn aside to avoid seeing a case of stuffed birds — those unlovely mementoes of death in their gay plumes? Who does not shudder, albeit not with fear, to see the wild cat, filled with straw, yawning horribly, and trying to frighten the spectator with its crockery glare? I shall never forget the first sight I had of the late Mr. Gould’s collection of humming-birds (now in the National Museum), shown to me by the naturalist himself, who evidently took considerable pride in the work of his hands. I had just left tropical nature behind me across the Atlantic, and the unexpected meeting with a transcript of it in a dusty room in Bedford Square gave me a distinct shock. Those pellets of dead feathers, which had long ceased to sparkle and shine, stuck with wires — not invisible — over blossoming cloth and tinsel bushes, how melancholy they made me feel!

Considering the bright colour and great splendour of some eyes, particularly in birds, it seems probable that in these cases the organ has a twofold use: first and chiefly, to see; secondly, to intimidate an adversary with those luminous mirrors, in which all the dangerous fury of a creature brought to bay is seen depicted. Throughout nature the dark eye predominates; and there is certainly a great depth of fierceness in the dark eye of a bird of prey; but its effect is less than that produced by the vividly-coloured eye, or even of the white eye of some raptorial species, as, for instance, of the common South American hawk, ‘Asturina pucherani’. Violent emotions are associated in our minds — possibly, also, in the minds of other species — with certain colours. Bright red seems the appropriate hue of anger — the poet Herbert even calls the rose “angrie and brave” on account of its hue — and the red or orange certainly expresses resentment better than the dark eye. Even a very slight spontaneous variation in the colouring of the irides might give an advantage to an individual for natural selection to act on; for we can see in almost any living creature that not only in its perpetual metaphorical struggle for existence is its life safe-guarded in many ways; but when protective resemblances, flight, and instincts of concealment all fail, and it is compelled to engage in a real struggle with a living adversary, it is provided for such occasions with another set of defences. Language and attitudes of defiance come into play; feathers or hairs are erected; beaks snap and strike, or teeth are gnashed, and the mouth foams or spits; the body puffs out; wings are waved or feet stamped on the ground, and many other intimidating gestures of rage are practised. It is not possible to believe that the colouring of the crystal globes, towards which an opponent’s sight is first directed, and which most vividly exhibit the raging emotions within, can have been entirely neglected as a means of defence by the principle of selection in nature. For all these reasons I believe the bright-coloured eye is an improvement on the dark eye.

Man has been very little improved in this direction, the dark eye, except in the north of Europe, having been, until recent times, almost or quite universal. The blue eye does not seem to have any advantage for man in a state of nature, being mild where fierceness of expression is required; it is almost unknown amongst the inferior creatures; and only on the supposition that the appearance of the eye is less important to man’s welfare than it is to that of other species, can we account for its survival in a branch of the human race.

Cerulean eyes; locks comparable in hue to the “yellow hair that floats on the eastern clouds,” and a white body, like snow with a blush on it — what could Nature have been dreaming of when she gave such things to her rudest, most savage humans! That they should have overcome dark-eyed races, and trod on their necks and ruined their works, strikes one as unnatural, and reads like a fable.

Little, however, as the human eye has changed, assuming it to have been dark originally, there is a great deal of spontaneous variation in individuals, light hazel and blue-grey being apparently the most variable. I have found curiously marked and spotted eyes not uncommon; in some instances the spots being so black, round, and large as to produce the appearance of eyes with clusters of pupils on them. I have known one person with large brown spots on light blue-grey eyes whose children all inherited the peculiarity; also another with reddish hazel irides thickly marked with fine characters resembling Greek letters. This person was an Argentine of Spanish blood, and was called by his neighbours ‘ojos escritos’, or written eyes. It struck me as a very curious circumstance that these eyes, both in their ground colour and the form and disposition of the markings traced on them, were precisely like the eyes of a species of grebe common in La Plata. Browning had perhaps observed eyes of this kind in some person he had met, when he makes his magician say to Pietro de Abano:

Mark within my eye its iris mystic-lettered — That’s my name!

But we look in vain amongst men for the splendid crimson, flaming yellow, or startling white orbs which would have made the dark-skinned brave, inspired by violent emotions, a being terrible to see. Nature has neglected man in this respect, and it is to remedy the omission that he stains his face with bright pigments and crowns his head with eagles’ barred plumes.

The quality of shining in the dark, seen in the eyes of many nocturnal and semi-nocturnal species, has always, I believe, a hostile purpose. When found in inoffensive species, as, for instance, in the lemurs, it can only be attributed to mimicry, and this would be a parallel case with butterflies mimicking the brilliant “warning colours” of other species on which birds do not prey. Cats amongst mammals, and owls amongst birds, have been most highly favoured; but to the owls the palm must be given. The feline eyes, as of a puma or wild cat, blazing with wrath, are wonderful to see; sometimes the sight of them affects one like an electric shock; but for intense brilliance and quick changes, the dark orbs kindling with the startling suddenness of a cloud illumined by flashes of lightning, the yellow globes of the owl are unparalleled. Some readers might think my language exaggerated. Descriptions of bright sunsets and of storms with thunder and lightning would, no doubt, sound extravagant to one who had never witnessed these phenomena. Those only who spend years “conversing with wild animals in desert places,” to quote Azara’s words, know that, as with the atmosphere, so with animal life, there are special moments; and that a creature presenting a very sorry appearance dead in a museum, or living in captivity, may, when hard pressed and fighting for life in its own fastness, be sublimed by its fury into a weird and terrible object.

Nature has many surprises for those who wait on her; one of the greatest she ever favoured me with was the sight of a wounded Magellanic eagle-owl I shot in Patagonia. The haunt of this bird was an island in the river, overgrown with giant grasses and tall willows, leafless now, for it was in the middle of winter. Here I sought for and found him waiting on his perch for the sun to set. He eyed me so calmly when I aimed my gun, I scarcely had the heart to pull the trigger. He had reigned there so long, the feudal tyrant of that remote wilderness! Many a water-rat, stealing like a shadow along the margin between the deep stream and the giant rushes, he had snatched away to death; many a spotted wild pigeon had woke on its perch at night with his cruel crooked talons piercing its flesh; and beyond the valley on the bush uplands many a crested tinamou had been slain on her nest and her beautiful glossy dark-green eggs left to grow pale in the sun and wind, the little lives that were in them dead because of their mother’s death. But I wanted that bird badly, and hardened my heart; the “demoniacal laughter” with which he had so often answered the rushing sound of the swift black river at eventide would be heard no more. I fired; he swerved on his perch, remained suspended for a few moments, then slowly fluttered down. Behind the spot where he had fallen was a great mass of tangled dark-green grass, out of which rose the tall, slender boles of the trees; overhead through the fretwork of leafless twigs the sky was flushed with tender roseate tints, for the sun had now gone down and the surface of the earth was in shadow. There, in such a scene, and with the wintry quiet of the desert over it all, I found my victim stung by his wounds to fury and prepared for the last supreme effort. Even in repose he is a big eagle-like bird; now his appearance was quite altered, and in the dim, uncertain light he looked gigantic in size — a monster of strange form and terrible aspect. Each particular feather stood out on end, the tawny barred tail spread out like a fan, the immense tiger-coloured wings wide open and rigid, so that as the bird, that had clutched the grass with his great feathered claws, swayed his body slowly from side to side — just as a snake about to strike sways his head, or as an angry watchful cat moves its tail — first the tip of one, then of the other wing touched the ground. The black horns stood erect, while in the centre of the wheel-shaped head the beak snapped incessantly, producing a sound resembling the clicking of a sewing-machine. This was a suitable setting for the pair of magnificent furious eyes, on which I gazed with a kind of fascination, not unmixed with fear when I remembered the agony of pain suffered on former occasions from sharp, crooked talons driven into me to the bone. The irides were of a bright orange colour, but every time I attempted to approach the bird they kindled into great globes of quivering yellow flame, the black pupils being surrounded by a scintillating crimson light which threw out minute yellow sparks into the air. When I retired from the bird this preternatural fiery aspect would instantly vanish.

The dragon eyes of that Magellanic owl haunt me still, and when I remember them, the bird’s death still weighs on my conscience, albeit by killing it I bestowed on it that dusty immortality which is the portion of stuffed specimens in a museum.

The question as to the cause of this fiery appearance is one hard to answer. We know that the source of the luminosity in owls’ and cats’ eyes is the ‘tapetum lucidum’ — the light-reflecting membrane between the retina and the sclerotic coat of the eyeball; but the mystery remains. When with the bird, I particularly noticed that every time I retired the nictitating membrane would immediately cover the eyes and obscure them for some time, as they will when an owl is confronted with strong sunlight; and this gave me the impression that the fiery flashing appearance was accompanied with, or followed by, a burning or smarting sensation. I will here quote a very suggestive passage from a letter on this subject written to me by a gentleman of great attainments in science: “Eyes certainly do shine in the dark — some eyes, e.g. those of cats and owls; and the scintillation you speak of is probably another form of the phenomenon. It probably depends upon some extra-sensibility of the retina analogous to what exists in the molecular constitution of sulphide of calcium and other phosphorescent substances. The difficulty is in the ‘scintillation’. We know that light of this character has its source in the heat vibrations of molecules at the temperature of incandescence, and the electric light is no exception to the rule. A possible explanation is that supra-sensitive retinae in times of excitement become increasedly phosphorescent, and the same excitement causes a change in the curvature of the lens, so that the light is focussed, and ‘pro tanto’ brightened into sparks. Seeing how little we know of natural forces, it may be that what we call light in such a case is eye speaking to eye — an emanation from the window of one brain into the window of another.”

Probably all those cases one hears and reads about — some historical — of human eyes flashing fire and blazing with wrath, are mere poetic exaggerations. One would not look for these fiery eyes amongst the peaceful children of civilisation, who, when they make war, do so without anger, and kill their enemies by machinery, without even seeing them; but amongst savage or semi-savage men, carnivorous in their diet, fierce in disposition, and extremely violent in their passions. It is precisely amongst people of this description that I have lived a great deal. I have often seen them frenzied with excitement, their faces white as ashes, hair erect, and eyes dropping great tears of rage, but I have never seen anything in them even approaching to that fiery appearance described in the owl.

Nature has done comparatively little for the human eye, not only in denying it the terrifying splendours found in some other species, but also in the minor merit of beauty. When going about the world one cannot help thinking that the various races and tribes of men, differing in the colour of their skins and in the climates and conditions they live in, ought to have differently-coloured eyes. In Brazil, I was greatly struck with the magnificent appearance of many of the negro women I saw there; well-formed, tall, majestic creatures, often appropriately clothed in loose white gowns and white turban-like head-dresses; while on their round polished blue-black arms they wore silver armlets. It seemed to me that pale golden irides, as in the intensely black tyrant-bird ‘Lichenops perspicillata’, would have given a finishing glory to these sable beauties, completing their strange unique loveliness. Again in that exquisite type of female beauty which we see in the white girl with a slight infusion of negro blood, giving the graceful frizzle to the hair, the purple-red hue to the lips, and the delicate dusky terra-cotta tinge to the skin, an eye more suitable than the dark dull brown would have been the intense orange-brown seen in some lemurs’ eyes. For many very dark-skinned tribes nothing more beautiful than the ruby-red iris could be imagined; while sea-green eyes would have best suited dusky-pale Polynesians and languid peaceful tribes like the one described in Tennyson’s poem:

And round about the keel with faces pale, Dark faces pale against that rosy flame, The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Since we cannot have the eyes we should like best to have, let us consider those that Nature has given us. The incomparable beauty of the “emerald eye” has been greatly praised by the poets, particularly by those of Spain. Emerald eyes, if they only existed, would certainly be beautiful beyond all others, especially if set off with dark or black hair and that dim pensive creamy pallor of the skin frequently seen in warm climates, and which is more beautiful than the rosy complexion prevalent in northern regions, though not so lasting. But either they do not exist or else I have been very unfortunate, for after long seeking I am compelled to confess that never yet have I been gratified by the sight of emerald eyes. I have seen eyes CALLED green, that is, eyes with a greenish tinge or light in them, but they were not the eyes I sought. One can easily forgive the poets their misleading descriptions, since they are not trustworthy guides, and very often, like Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, make words do “extra work.” For sober fact one is accustomed to look to men of science; yet, strange to say, while these complain that we — the unscientific ones — are without any settled and correct ideas about the colour of our own eyes, they have endorsed the poet’s fable, and have even taken considerable pains to persuade the world of its truth. Dr. Paul Broca is their greatest authority. In his ‘Manual for Anthropologists’ he divides human eyes into four distinct types — orange, green, blue, grey; and these four again into five varieties each. The symmetry of such a classification suggests at once that it is an arbitrary one. Why orange, for instance? Light hazel, clay colour, red, dull brown, cannot properly be called orange; but the division requires the five supposed varieties of the dark-pigmented eye to be grouped under one name, and because there is yellow pigment in some dark eyes they are all called orange. Again, to make the five grey varieties the lightest grey is made so very light that only when placed on a sheet of white paper does it show grey at all; but there is always some colour in the human skin, so that Broca’s eye would appear absolutely white by contrast — a thing unheard of in nature. Then we have the green, beginning with the palest sage green, and up through grass green and emerald green, to the deepest sea green and the green of the holly leaf. Do such eyes exist in nature? In theory they do. The blue eye is blue, and the grey grey, because in such eyes there is no yellow or brown pigment on the outer surface of the iris to prevent the dark-purple pigment — the ‘uvea’ — on the inner surface from being seen through the membrane, which has different degrees of opacity, making the eyes appear grey, light or dark blue, or purple, as the case may be. When yellow pigment is deposited in small quantity on the outer membrane, then it should, according to the theory, blend with the inner blue and make green. Unfortunately for the anthropologists, it doesn’t. It only gives in some cases the greenish variable tinge I have mentioned, but nothing approaching to the decided greens of Broca’s tables. Given an eye with the right degree of translucency in the membrane and a very thin deposit of yellow pigment spread equally over the surface, the result would be a perfectly green iris. Nature, however, does not proceed quite in this way. The yellow pigment varies greatly in hue; it is muddy yellow, brown, or earthy colour, and it never spreads itself uniformly over the surface, but occurs in patches grouped about the pupil and spreads in dull rays or lines and spots, so that the eye which science says “ought to be called green” is usually a very dull blue-grey, or brownish-blue, or clay colour, and in some rare instances shows a changeable greenish hue.

In the remarks accompanying the Report of the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association for 1881 and 1883, it is said that green eyes are more common than the tables indicate, and that eyes that should properly be called green, owing to the popular prejudice against that term, have been recorded as grey or some other colour.

Does any such prejudice exist? or is it necessary to go about with the open manual in our hands to know a green eye when we see one? No doubt the “popular prejudice” is supposed to have its origin in Shakespeare’s description of jealousy as a green-eyed monster; but if Shakespeare has any great weight with the popular mind, the prejudice ought to be the other way, since he is one of those who sing the splendours of the green eye.

Thus in ‘Romeo and Juliet’:

The eagle, madam, Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye As Paris hath.

The lines are, however, nonsense, as green-eyed eagles have no existence; and perhaps the question of the popular prejudice is not worth arguing about.

Once only in my long years’ quest after green eyes, during which I have sometimes walked miles along a crowded thoroughfare seeing the orbs of every person that passed me, was I led to think that my reward had come at last. On taking my seat in a public conveyance I noticed a fashionably-dressed lady, of a singularly attractive appearance, on the opposite seat, but a little higher up. Her skin was somewhat pale, her hair dark, and her eyes green! “At last!” I exclaimed, mentally, glad as if I had found a priceless gem. It was misery to me to have to observe her furtively, to think that I should so soon lose sight of her! Several minutes passed, during which she did not move her head, and still the eyes were green — not one of the dull and dark hues that Broca imagined and painted, but a clear, exquisitely beautiful sea-green, as sea-water looks with a strong sunlight in it, where it is deep and pure, in the harbour of some rocky island under the tropics. At length, not yet convinced, I moved a little higher up on my seat, so that when I should next look at her her eyes would meet mine full and straight. The wished (and feared) moment came: alas! the eyes were no longer green, but grey, and not very pure in colour. Having looked green when viewed obliquely, they could not be a very pure grey: they were simply grey eyes with an exceedingly thin pigment, so thin as not to appear as pigment, equally spread over the surface of the irides. This made the eyes in some lights appear green, just as a dog’s eyes, when the animal sits in shadow and the upturned balls catch the light, sometimes look pure green. I know a dog, now living, whose eyes in such circumstances always appear of that colour. But as a rule the dog’s eyes take a hyaline blue.

If we could leave out the mixed or neutral eyes, which are in a transitional state — blue eyes with some pigment obscuring their blueness, and making them quite unclassifiable, as no two pairs of eyes are found alike — then all eyes might be divided into two great natural orders, those with and those without pigment on the outer surface of the membrane. They could not well be called light and dark eyes, since many hazel eyes are really lighter than purple and dark-grey eyes. They might, however, be simply called brown and blue, for in all eyes with the outer pigment there is brown, or something scarcely distinguishable from brown; and all eyes without pigment, even the purest greys, have some blueness.

Brown eyes express animal passions rather than intellect and higher moral feelings. They are frequently equalled in their own peculiar kind of eloquence by the brown or dark eyes in the domestic dog. In animals there is, in fact, often an exaggerated eloquence of expression. To judge from their eyes, caged cats and eagles in the Zoological Gardens are all furred and feathered Bonnivards. Even in the most intellectual of men the brown eye speaks more of the heart than of the head. In the inferior creatures the black eye is always keen and cunning or else soft and mild, as in fawns, doves, aquatic birds, etc.; and it is remarkable that in man also the black eye — dark-brown iris with large pupil — generally has one or the other of these predominant expressions. Of course, in highly civilised communities, individual exceptions are extremely numerous. Spanish and negro women have wonderfully soft and loving eyes, while the cunning weasel-like eye is common everywhere, especially amongst Asiatics. In high-caste Orientals the keen, cunning look has been refined and exalted to an appearance of marvellous subtlety — the finest expression of which the black eye is capable.

The blue eye — all blues and greys being here included — is ‘par excellence’ the eye of intellectual man: that outer warm-coloured pigment hanging like a cloud, as it were, over the brain absorbs its most spiritual emanations, so that only when it is quite blown away are we able to look into the soul, forgetting man’s kinship with the brutes. When one is unaccustomed to it from always living with dark-eyed races, the blue eye seems like an anomaly in nature, if not a positive blunder; for its power of expressing the lower and commonest instincts and passions of our race is comparatively limited; and in cases where the higher faculties are undeveloped it seems vacant and meaningless. Add to this that the ethereal blue colour is associated in the mind with atmospheric phenomena rather than with solid matter, inorganic or animal. It is the hue of the void, expressionless sky; of shadows on far-off hill and cloud; of water under certain conditions of the atmosphere, and of the unsubstantial summer haze, whose margin faces For ever and for ever as I move.

In organic nature we only find the hue sparsely used in the quickly-perishing flowers of some frail plants; while a few living things of free and buoyant motions, like birds and butterflies, have been touched on the wings with the celestial tint only to make them more aerial in appearance. Only in man, removed from the gross materialism of nature, and in whom has been developed the highest faculties of the mind, do we see the full beauty and significance of the blue eye — the eye, that is, without the interposing cloud of dark pigment covering it. In the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author says of him: “His eyes were large, dark-blue, brilliant, and full of varied expression. Bayard Taylor used to say that they were the only eyes he ever knew to flash fire . . . . While he was yet at college, an old gipsy woman, meeting him suddenly in a woodland path, gazed at him and asked:

‘Are you a man or an angel?’”

I may say here that gipsies are so accustomed to concentrate their sight on the eyes of the people they meet that they acquire a marvellous proficiency in detecting their expression; they study them with an object, as my friend the gambler studied the backs of the cards he played with; without seeing the eyes of their intended dupe they would be at a loss what to say.

To return to Hawthorne. His wife says in one of her letters quoted in the book: “The flame of his eyes consumed compliment, cant, sham, and falsehood; while the most wretched sinners — so many of whom came to confess to him — met in his glance such a pity and sympathy that they ceased to be afraid of God and began to return to Him. . . . ‘I never dared gaze at him, even I, unless his lids were down.’”

I think we have, most of us, seen eyes like these — eyes which one rather avoids meeting, because when met one is startled by the sight of a naked human soul brought so near. One person, at least, I have known to whom the above description would apply in every particular; a man whose intellectual and moral nature was of the highest order, and who perished at the age of thirty, a martyr to the cause of humanity.

How very strange, then, that savage man should have been endowed with this eye unsuited to express the instincts and passions of savages, but able to express the intelligence, high moral feelings, and spirituality which a humane civilisation was, long ages after, to develop in his torpid brain! A fact like this seems to fit in with that flattering, fascinating, ingenious hypothesis invented by Wallace to account for facts which, according to the theory of natural selection, ought not to exist.

In answer to the question, What is the colour of the British eye? so frequently asked, and not yet definitely settled, I wish, in conclusion, to record my own observations here. I have remarked a surprisingly great difference in the eyes of the two classes into which the population is practically divisible — the well-to-do class and the poor. I began my observations in London — there is no better place; and my simple plan was to walk along the most frequented streets and thoroughfares, observing the eyes of every person that passed me. My sight being good, even the very brief glance, which was all that could be had in most cases, was sufficient for my purpose; and in this way hundreds of pairs of eyes could be seen in the course of a day. In Cheapside the population seemed too mixed; but in Piccadilly, and Bond Street, and along Rotten Row, during the season, it appeared safe to set down a very large majority of the pedestrians as belonging to the prosperous class. There are other streets and thoroughfares in London where very nearly all the people seen in it at any time are of the working class. I also frequently strolled up and down the long streets, where the poor do their marketing on Saturday evenings, and when, owing to the slow rate of progress, their features can be easily studied.

To take the better class first. I think it would puzzle any stranger, walking in Piccadilly or along the Row on a spring afternoon, to say what the predominant colour of the English eye is, so great is the variety. Every shade of grey and blue, from the faint cerulean of a pale sky, to the ultramarine, called purple and violet, and which looks black; and every type and shade of the dark eye, from the lightest hazel and the yellowish tint resembling that of the sheep’s iris, to the deepest browns, and the iris of liquid jet with ruddy and orange reflections in it — the tortoiseshell eye and chief glory of the negro woman. Another surprising fact was the large proportion of fine eyes. For this variety and excellence several explanations might be given, not one of which would probably seem quite satisfactory; I therefore leave the reader to form his own theory on the subject.

In the lower class no such difficulty appeared. Here, in a very large majority of cases — about eighty per cent. I think — the eye was grey, or grey-blue, but seldom pure. The impurity was caused by a small quantity of pigment, as I could generally see by looking closely at the iris, a yellowish tinge being visible round the pupil. My conclusion was, that this impure grey eye is the typical British eye at the present time; that it is becoming pigmented, and will probably, if the race endures long enough, become dark.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38