by William Lyon Phelps
Nearly all the great poetry of the world, ancient and modern, has been written in Europe. This fact should never be forgotten in reading literature that alludes to the weather. The reason every one talks about the weather is not that the average person has nothing else to say; it is that the weather is usually the most interesting topic available. It is the first thing we think of in the hour of waking; it affects our plans, projects and temperament.
When I was a little boy at school there was a song sung in unison called "Hail, Autumn, Jovial Fellow!"It seemed to me to express correctly the true character of autumn. It was not until I had reached maturity in years that I discovered that the song, as judged by the world's most famous writers, was a misfit. Instead of autumn's being jovial, it was dull, damp, dark, depressing. To be sure, I never really felt that way about it; the evidence of my eyes was in favour of the school song, but, as the great poets had given autumn a bad reputation, I supposed in some way she must have earned it.
Still later I learned that Goethe was right when he said that in order to understand a poet you must personally visit the country where he wrote. Literary geography is seldom taught or seriously considered, but it is impossible to read famous authors intelligently without knowing their climatic and geographical environment. So keenly did I come to feel about this that I finally prepared a cardboard map of England, marking only the literary places, and I required my students to become familiar with it.One of them subsequently wrote me a magnificent testimonial, which I have often considered printing on the margin of the map.
Dear Mr. Phelps-I have been bicycling all over England this summer, and have found your Literary Map immensely useful. I have carried it inside my shirt, and I think on several occasions it has saved me from an attack of pneumonia.
There are millions of boys and girls studying Shakespeare in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; the poet's frequent allusions to the climate and the weather must seem strange. That you have such a February face.
February "down under" is midsummer.
Southern latitudes give the lie to Shakespeare's metaphors.
The reason autumn has so bad a name in the world's poetry and prose is that autumn in Northern Europe is a miserable season. In London, Paris, Berlin, November (and often October) is one of the worst times of the year. A chronically overcast sky, a continual drizzle, a damp chill even on mistily rainless days, combine to produce gloom.
The first autumn and winter I spent in Paris revised my notions of those two seasons. As an American, I had thought of the difference between summer and winter as a difference only in temperature; I reasonably expected as much sunshine in autumn and winter as in summer. A typical January day in New York is cold and cloudless. Well, in Paris the sun disappeared for weeks at a time, and on the rare occasions when it shone people ran out in the street to look at it. One of the worst jokes in the world is the expression, "sunny France." The French themselves know better.Frangois Coppee wrote of the "rare smiles" of the Norman climate, and Anatole France, describing a pretty girl, wrote "Her eyes were grey; the grey of the Paris sky."
For the same reason "Italian skies" have been overpraised, because their eulogists are English or French or German. The Italian sky is usually so much better than the sky of more northerly European localities that it seems good by contrast. Now, as a matter of fact the winter sky over Bridgeport, Conn., is superior in brightness and blueness to the sky over Florence or Venice.
November, one of the best months of the year in America, is dreaded by all who live in France, England or Germany. Walking in New Haven one brilliant (and quite typical) day in midNovember, exhibiting the university and city to a visiting French professor, I enquired, "What do you think of our November climate?"He replied, "It is crazy."
A strange thing is that Bryant, born in the glorious Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where autumn, instead of being pale and wet as the European poets have described it, is brilliant and inspiring, all blue and gold, did not use his eyes; he followed the English poetical tradition.
The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year.James Whitcomb Riley used the evidence of his senses, and wrote an autumnal masterpiece.
0 it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best . . .
They's something kind o' hearty-like about the atmosphere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here-
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a picture that no painter has the colorin' to mock
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock .
One difference between the temperament of the typical Englishman and the typical American is caused largely by the climate, and foreigners in writing books about us should not forget the fact. If nearly every morning the sky were overcast and the air filled with drizzle, we might not be quite so enthusiastic.
On the other hand, the early spring in England and France is more inspiring than ours, perhaps by reason of the darkness of winter. It comes much earlier. Alfred Housman says:
Loveliest of trees, the
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
In our Northern American States a blossoming fruit tree at Eastertide would be a strange spectacle.