Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

March and a Moral

I was going to write some fierce and eloquent things about March weather: about the days that grow longer and yet drearier, about the leaden heavens, the villainous wind from the north-east which comes from far, unhappy Siberian plains and searches to the very marrow of the bones, and about the March dust which swirls about the pavements, afflicting the eyes, choking mouth and nostrils. Our light-hearted ancestors used to say that a peck of this March dust was worth a king’s ransom; but they lived on the land and measured life, largely, by the land. They knew nothing of what that dust can do in Piccadilly and the Strand. In fine, I was going to be savage with March and with Charles Kingsley, who was perverse enough to write a poem in praise of that horrible northeast wind, which sent him at last to his grave. And then, calling up memories of bygone March weather, I changed my mind. The sort of article which I had in mind would look silly, read in a deck-chair placed securely in garden shade, while the young people played lawn tennis in the full blaze and glow of the sun, and mopped their brows, calling for more ice in the cup. Yet that might well happen. Exactly forty years ago, I remember that there was just such weather in March; almost a week of it. A cloudless blue sky morning after morning, a delicious warmth in the sunlight, and that brilliance in the air which we do not often seem London — or in England either for the matter of that — that brilliance which reminds me always of Touraine and Provence, in which everything seen is clearly and sharply defined, in which every object seems to sparkle, as if it were not only in the light but was itself a form of light: all these signs were to be seen in those days of March, 1882. All the shops put out their awnings, people sauntered happily in this happy summer air, and lawn tennis — a youngish game then — flourished in that wonderful March weather. We all took the snowstorm which ended the spell as an outrage.

So again in ‘93, the year of the King’s marriage — there were real music-halls in London in those days, and Charles Godfrey was singing two songs, ‘After the Ball’ and a loyal chant about ‘Georgy–Porgy, Duke of Yorky’— in the year 1893 summer began in March and continued without a break till autumn. Then, again, only two years ago March in London was like July in Penzance; warm, still air and a constant dropping of fine warm rain; the sort of weather which gardeners like for budding-roses and taking cuttings. My pear tree —the pear tree — was a white cloud of shining glory that year on St. Patrick’s Day; and my fern —the fern — had sent up its young growth with the fronds curved like a bishop’s crozier five or six inches above ground. So, on the whole, it is best to leave March well alone; to say nothing about that vile north-easter, those bitter and grievous skies, the abominable scourge of the blinding, stinging dust. March may be anything or everything: it is only constant in its inconstancy — like the remaining eleven months of our blessed English year.

And hence the interest which we take in our weather. Foolish and proud people often reproach us with talking overmuch about the weather. ‘A fine day, isn’t it, for March?’ ‘Gorgeous June weather!’ ‘A very seasonable Christmas’: these remarks, and many others like them, are supposed to indicate the depths of banality and stupidity on the part of the speakers. ‘They can talk about nothing except the weather,’ say the proud and foolish ones. These would like us to talk about Mrs. Humphry Ward, The Story of an African Farm, Nietzsche, Bergson, Psycho–Analysis, Relativity. They do not realize that it is they themselves who are the frivolous chatterers, occupied with the passing, the transient, the radically unimportant. What price — if I may be familiar for a moment —Robert Elsmere to-day? How many people in a hundred can tell me what happened at that African Farm? And as to the élan vital, now? And where do you think Psycho–Analysis will be in 1932? With crinolines and gigot sleeves — and Robert Elsmere. But we shall still be talking about the weather. And rightly: for our English weather is a matter of perennial interest. This, be it noted, is by no means the case with all weather. Don’t tell a Southern Spaniard in August what a sunny day it is; he would invoke his saints against you. It is unwise to greet an Anglo–Indian on the plains at breakfast with, ‘Another splendid day!’ for if you do his liver will burn with angry bile, as Horace says of another matter, and he will hate you. I do not know what an Eskimo would say if you remarked to him: ‘Snowy, isn’t it?’ in December. But he would not be interested. Note the distinction. In the Arctic region and on the Indian plain, weather talk is banal, empty and ridiculous. Here the sun never fails to blaze and scorch, there the snow surely falls. There is nothing to be said. To comment on the weather in such lands is as if one remarked: ‘The sun rose this morning,’ or ‘The angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal.’ But in England the case is altogether different. The Englishman may justly note that it is a fine day for March and that it is gorgeous June weather and so forth — just because there is no possibility of his encountering the answer: ‘Of course it is.’ It is never, of course. It froze in the southern counties in August a year and a half ago; and I must confess that the blaze of sunlight and the figures of the thermometer last October frightened me. There was something almost Apocalyptic about such weather. I remember especially noting the incongruity between the position of the sun in the sky with its heat and brilliance. Morning and evening it was low in the heavens, for such is the place of the sun in October; and yet its heat was vehement and its light blazed in the eyes as if we had been in the high dog-days. And on the other hand, there is the old tale of the Derby, run, not in a snowstorm, but — as I am assured — between two flurries of snow. Hence the perpetual interest of the English weather. It abounds in differences, in the unexpected; and it is only such things which are truly interesting, significant and beautiful. All the relish of life, or almost all of it, is to be sought in the element of surprise.

And this, let it be observed, is one of the few universal axioms that apply to everything; to nature, to man, to art. Let us consider, for example, the case of Jones, of London Wall and Surbiton, and the case of the starry heavens. Take Jones. We avoid him when we can. We let him choose his own carriage in the 9.30; and then get into another. The reason is that Jones never fails to say the expected thing. His conversation can be foretold with a degree of accuracy that the Meteorological Department of the Air Service has never attained in dealing with the weather. You always know exactly what he will say on any possible subject. A good man is Jones in every relation of life, and his pink peonies are the pride of Surbiton, Hampton, Molesey and the Dittons; but avoid him, since he lacks the element of surprise; in Bacon’s words, there is no ‘strangeness in the proportion’ of Jones. He lacks that quality which the man who didn’t write Shakespeare’s works saw was essential to true beauty — or, we may add, to true significance and interest. And then, with this rule and measure of things still in our hands, let us contemplate the midnight sky of a clear, frosty night. An awful spectacle indeed, as Carlyle is supposed to have observed; but a spectacle awful in its wonder and its beauty — in its infinite diversity of form. Consider how the heavens would appear if the stars had been arranged in a definite and formal pattern of geometrical design, with everything matching and corresponding. That would be an awful spectacle in another sense; a spectacle as awful as a model prison or the corridors of a modern hotel. We could not have borne to look upon it. Indeed, there are modern streets that we can hardly bear to look upon, long, straight streets that go off from main roads in the far east of London, almost vanishing in perspective. They are terrible, these streets, because they consist of one house repeated, as it seems, to infinity. From end to end there is no variety, no element of surprise, in these dreary ways; hence, if we can, we avoid them as we avoid Jones of London Wall and Surbiton.

Hence, on the other hand, the charm and delight of things made by hand as contrasted with things made mechanically. Mark the difference between a bit of ironwork that has been hammered out by a craftsman, and another bit of ironwork that has been cast from the same design. In the latter case, absolute uniformity of execution, twirl and twist and curve corresponding with twirl and twist and curve to the tenth of an inch. In the former, infinite difference, endless though slight variety; no two twirls or twists exactly or absolutely alike. And you will find, if you care to examine the matter closely, that an oak tree is constructed on the same principle as the craftsman’s ironwork. No two leaves on that tree are exactly alike, though there is a close general resemblance between all the leaves on the broad tree. And here I am reminded that with all the goodwill in the world, one must not write about our English weather and omit to have a dig at it. So, be it observed, the difference between the leaves on the oak tree and the curly-wurlies on the iron gates are slight differences. The pattern in the ironwork ‘matches,’ though not absolutely; the leaves of the oak are very like one another, though not the same. I should not like to see fronds of a tree-fern sprouting from the boughs of our stout native oak.

So — it may be hinted — our English climate sometimes overdoes its passion for the unexpected. Eighty-four in the shade in October, five degrees of frost in August; a little violent, a thought Futurist?

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39