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Good Words 1860
Summer Sadness

O the flush of universal summer! What a purple light of love canopies that "bridal of the earth and sky" which every July morning rehearses and every evening celebrates! All that was glad before is gladdest now; a roseate life overspreads death and decay; love laughs in the golden clouds, and revels in the fragrant wind, and bathes in the floods of all-prevailing, all-pervading light.

So the poets speak; and they ever speak the truth. Yet, not always the whole truth. Is it not the case that in most minds this summer gladness is tinged, in some seriously impaired, and in a few altogether neutralized, by a feeling of melancholy rising out of the depths of our nature, which is not met but rather fostered, and even originated, by the very fulness of blessing around? I have known some persons (and they are not a few, even among those who in company are vivacious and high-spirited), to whom the exuberance of beauty in high summer was even an intolerable burden; and the feeling is shared by many of the finest, if not the healthiest, natures. What can be the reasons of such a paradoxical and perverse experience? Are they such as have some bearing upon all men, and are in some shape rooted deep in human nature? Let us see.

One reason for the feeling of summer-sadness is the powerful principle of contrast. The mind is so constituted that it can never rest in any one object presented to it; it is imperatively forced in considering it to pass out of it and compare it with something else. So when our eyes range over the barren plains and leafless woods of winter, they look forward instinctively to another season when a fresh verdure shall clothe the earth; and the outward desolation is robbed of half its power. Is not this too the hidden charm of spring—not so much what it performs, as what it promises—that all the opening buds and blades and beauties are but hints, beyond which the imagination travels to a richer future? Now, in summer, we have no such resource. Nature has given and poured forth all, and when the mind, weary of gazing, seeks to refresh itself by variety, it finds the world impoverished, and it can import into the scene of summer, nothing but images drawn from the seasons of death or of decay. And this the mind will do, rather than do nothing, or be merely recipient. For I have often thought that the antagonism which the Records of old declare to have been established between man and the earth which he tills and subjugates, may apply to more than the struggle of bodily labour. The mind too, keeps a position not merely independent of the material universe, but even antagonistic to it. It will not submit to be merely the reflex of influences borrowed from the world without; it asserts its authentic and immortal energy. The only season of the year in which a very intimate friend of mine has for many years attained really high spirits, is during the early months of winter, and especially in "gloomy November;" and I have no doubt the explanation of such cases is, that, feeling all outward sources and suggestions of gladness removed, and an array of dismal images crowding in upon the sense, the mind instinctively recoils upon its own immortality, summons up its innate and divine strength, and so makes the happiness it does not find. And just as it refuses to be intimidated into sadness, so will it often scorn to be bribed into joy. You cannot feed the immortal spirit with bon-bons. It sees vanity under the verdure of summer, and the trail of death among the flowers. Therefore, even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; in all pleasure surgit amari ali-quid; and in summer bursting around, we may feel a winter of inward discontent or satiety.

May there not be another reason? There is always to human creatures something saddening in the perfection of beauty. You have spent the week, let us suppose, in some huge and overgrown city, and day after day while mingling with the feverish flow of business in its streets, you have looked forward to the calm beauty and peace of some quiet country nook to which the Saturday consigns you. Nor when the day comes can you accuse Nature ; she hath done her part. You steam down the glassy river under a glorious sky; mountain after mountain is left behind, each nobler in outline or richer in foliage than that before, and as day gives place—

"That the sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath, Its ardours of rest and of love, And the crimson pall of eve may fall From the depth of heaven above,"

the fragrance of the hawthorn blossom attracts you to the window, and across breadths of sloping verdure your eye travels to the thunder-scarred peaks of Arran, and returning, ranges round an amphitheatre of beauty which for once satisfies the eye with seeing. The eye, and why not the heart? Whence this secret feeling of dissatisfaction? Whence this murmur from within, which there is nothing around to justify or excite? Is it not again the feeling of contrast, but now rather the sense of the contrast between what is without and what is within? All is harmony and peace without; within, is there not something, however slight, of discord or dissonance? All is purity and loveliness around, but the immortal spirit feels the moral dust and defilement from those seven days of labour, and cannot bathe without some hesitation in the pure fountain of nature. All outside is perfect in beauty; we too were once perfect in beauty and complete in God, and the heart travels back swiftly and spontaneously to the holy Age of gold which heathen poets saw afar off, and were sad —sad for that sore change which we too feel in this hour of loveliness around and sorrow within.

Who is there of human kind that has not felt feelings such as these? There is not a summer holiday but they rise in ten thousand minds, of all sorts and conditions of men. Yet, slight and transient and common as they are, they are feelings that go right to the heart of all religion; whether we take religion as the mere seeking and yearning towards the First Good, First Fair, in whom alone the finite and imperfect being finds satisfaction ; or as that renewing of the broken bond, in which the soul, recognising its guilt and moral ruin and alienation from God, seeks once more to be brought into harmony with the universe and with the God of the universe.

Paulo minora canamus. It cannot be denied that the too habitual indulgence of such feelings tends to a morbid sentimentalism, and is to be avoided. Those who hold with the quaint old poet, that "nothing's so dainty sweet as lovely melancholy," are exceedingly apt to get a love for the "bitter-sweet" sorrow which the imagination distils from the contemplation of nature's loveliness. Wordsworth acutely remarks this as a characteristic of young men. The old man, who is nearing the "days of darkness," and has had ample experience of the real troubles and trials of life, is under no temptation to indulge in gratuitous sorrow. He loves rather to sit in the sun, and warm his chilled limbs in the beams whose force he feels daily less and less; to look on the bright faces and smiles of children, and on all fair and lovely things, and so to fan in his breast the remembrance of the fire that burned there in former days. But

"In youth, we love the darksome lawn,
Brushed by the owlet's wing;
Then twilight is preferred to dawn,
And autumn to the spring.

"Sad fancies do we then affect,
In luxury of disrespect,
To our own prodigal excess
Of too familiar happiness."

This, however, is only the affectation of melancholy, to be snubbed semper, ubique, et ab omnibus; while my remarks have reference rather to the irresistible presence and intrusion of a very real melancholy, in the midst of the most Paradisiac beauty that this earth affords. There is such an intrusion; and the fact (for fact it is), that it applies chiefly, or equally, to young men, ought not to surprise us. "The riddle of the painful earth" presents itself to young men far more powerfully than to any others. Boys do not think of these things, or of anything; and men are too much mixed up in the world and its details to think of it or of life as a whole. Youth, the ancients used to say, is dear to the gods; and that very curious commentator, Lord Bacon, in speaking of the verse, " The young men shall see visions, and the old men shall (only) dream dreams," remarks that "the imaginations of young men do stream into their minds more divinely." It were nearer a full explanation of that pensiveness of which we are speaking, to say, that youth is the time when the infinite aspiration and hunger of the human being comes out. The child cries for the moon, and finding that it is not given him at once and without qualification, he doubles his fist in his face, and begins to cry. Fifteen years after, he begins to cry for the universe; and finding that his demand, Who will show me any good? is not at once met, he again sulks, and will not be comforted. You offer him sweatmeats and playthings of all kinds: youth, health, pleasure, business, love, ambition, activity, repose,—all are presented to him, and the unreasonable youngster pouts and rages, and sighs for he knows not what. Ah! it is absurd; yet not without a deep meaning, which all who laugh at it may not be capable of perceiving. For who of the Fathers is it who has said, 'Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee!" Truly light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun shining in mid-summer beauty on hill and river; yet there are thousands who cannot enjoy that scene without hearing behind and within them a voice which says, "While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light." Is it unwise to listen to a voice so full of grace as well as majesty? Is it to be regretted that such a voice should be heard even in highest summer?

Let us turn to another poet yet living, whose poems whoso loves, loves them the more as years pass over him, and who also has taken up this particular subject. On the Third Sunday after Easter, Mr. Keble sits on a violet bank under a cloudless sky, and finding to his surprise, that instead of being light-hearted, "the languid sweetness seems to choke his breath," and induce a more than usual melancholy, he scolds himself thus :—

"Shame on the heart that dreams of blessings gone,
Or wakes the spectral forms of woe and crime,
When Nature sings of joy and hope alone,
Beading her cheerful lesson in her own sweet time."

Then feeling, rather than expressing, the too deep and mournful answer which the human heart is ready to return to his appeal, he brings forward the great and sufficient Reason of joy for this world, so long as summer and winter shall alternate their reign:—

"Nor let the proud heart say, In her self-torturing hour,
The travail pangs must have their way,
The aching brow must lower.
To us long since the glorious Child is born,
Our throes should be forgot, or only seem
Like a sad vision told for joy at morn,—
For joy that we have waked and found it but a dream."

It is well and truly said. It is the sufficient answer for every one who is able to believe and adopt it, and no other answer is sufficient. The same law of gravity that binds the massive earth to the sun, guides the course of a tear down an infant's cheek. So the same truth which enables a dying man to tread on the neck of the great Enemy, and makes him more than conqueror in the mysterious conflict of our nature,—even that same truth, understood and felt, if not expressly contemplated, is necessary to make one enjoy a holiday. You must be at peace with yourself, and with all things. You must have a charter from the Lord of the manor, that you may walk abroad in His glorious fields unperturbed. You must acquaint yourself with God, if you would taste His works. You may have around you many worldly cares, and deep responsibilities, and pressing anxieties; yet still, if you have this deep and central peace, you have that which the world did not give, and which on this bright and happy holiday it shall not be able to take away. You have a right to your joy: there was One who bought it with His sorrow. All things whisper peace to your heart; and because the Son of peace is there, your peace remains and your joy shall be full.

It may seem to some an ungracious proceeding to find solemn teaching in summer sunshine and flowers, and to convert a holiday into a homily. I think very much otherwise. It is to me the most gracious and blessed of all the many ways in which God stretches forth His hands to His evil children, excepting of course the actual proclamation of His gospel in word and sacrament. His voice comes in the thunder and in the fire; in fierce spasms of conscience, and dark premonitions of death. But it comes also more purely and peacefully, nor, I think, less powerfully, in His gifts of earthly gladness. Even the pure light of early morning, falling direct from heaven, fresh and new, like the snow which has never been on our earth before, and succeeded moment after moment by inexhaustible floods of a celestial radiance, every square foot of which would be of priceless value, were it not God's common gift,—at how many hearts does it knock every morning, reminding us that the night is far spent, and the day is at hand, and "Whoso followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the fight of life!" So, too, with summer, and its recurrent gladness and splendour. It is said that affliction is a means to lead men to God ; but He who will have all men to be saved will try joy also, and there is no glad and glorious day in nature's festive season which does not stir thousands of human hearts more or less with those whispered thoughts which we have been considering; thoughts which, as I said before, go at once to the heart of all that is awful and blessed in the destiny of man. God, as the apostle tells us, hath never left Himself without witness; but it is surely of His goodness that He has chosen for part of this witness His great ordinance of Beauty.

Let us therefore accept His ordinance, and meet Him where He has chosen to meet with us. The gospel command is, "Rejoice evermore;" and it is re-enforced by every summer day that dawns. I have heard some preachers, and seen some people, who visibly shrunk from pressing this command to joy, as if under a feeling that men might too readily comply with it. There is small danger of that. We are a sad-hearted race, and half our mirth is to hide our want of joy. Indeed I know nothing that goes home more touchingly to a man's heart, and reveals to him more the destitution and emptiness of his nature, than this great and high command of God to be glad. How should we sing this song in a foreign land? Wherewithal should we be glad,—we who are guilty and sad, and filled with the home-sickness of exiled humanity! Nevertheless, even such a message has God sent to us, that His banished may return to Him, and sent it by His Son! Therefore He means it: and this summer of 1860, radiant with hues of heaven, is His authentic messenger and herald, binding upon us His great command. Some of us have lived through many summers, teased with anxieties, amused with trifles, living small and futile lives. What might those years have been ! How blessed, pure, and prosperous! How near to God; how loving to men! How high and holy; filled with what light, and beauty, and joy! Once more the summer comes. It may be to us like those that went before, and, like them, be swept into the waste of years. But it may be—what may it not be to us? Why should it not be to some of us the beginning of years, from which eternity shall date its cycles?

Those also who have felt long ago the discord that exists between the beauty of God's creation and the unlovely spirit of man, and who have found in personal and living union to Christ the great cure and reconcilement, even they will do well, ere this season depart, to consider how they are to make the most of it. The angels of God sometimes come to us, but leave no blessing behind, because we were not prepared to receive them aright. Now, each summer, as it comes round, does convey a specially gracious message to all who are Christ's. It is like that Shining One who brought to Christiana a letter from the King ; when she "took it, and opened it, it smelt after the manner of the best perfume ; also it was written in letters of gold; and she blushed and trembled, and her heart began to wax warm with desires to know from whence he came, and what was his errand to her." But do Christians know nothing of summer sadness? I suspect they beyond all men have a quick and sharp sense of it. With the man whose conscience is tender, and whose heart is loyal to God, a very little thing will poison a very glorious summer day. Therefore let us watch against little things, and when we go to» the country, or set out for a day of enjoyment, let us wash our hands in innocency, and keep our garments pure and white, that we may not shame-the splendour all around, where high feast is spread in our Father's house. People sometimes allow themselves to do just the reverse of this. They do things and speak words and follow courses when travelling, or when in the country, which they would be ashamed to do at home. It is, to say the least, an unwise course. They are throwing away days and hours that might be rich with blessing; tossing nuggets of heaven's purest gold into the irrevocable deep. But let all who hope to "summer high in bliss upon the hills of God," live as those who have this hope in Him, and greet every summer as His Angel sent yearly to meet us, his hands filled with golden gifts.

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