Tuesday, 6 May 2014


Lovely photo by Nigel Artingstall
Non-fiction ~ essay/sketch
Published in Pall Mall Gazette, 24th May 1900
1,720 words
(Read 06/05/2014)

It's one of those days that EFB seems to have particularly loved*, when Spring and Summer hang in the balance:
A day it was, in fact, on which to sit and to stroll, to smile without reason, to speak but inanely, still smiling; for sap was effervescent in all living things, and hummed and hissed, in what did duty for the brain, producing nothing whatever worth recording, but only a gay intoxication of happiness, of no value to any but the owner, but worth all the world to him.
The author steps out of his back door, accompanied by his dog, and goes on a nature ramble, with a particular emphasis on the bird life (obviously).  Very charming: EFB at his ... well, at his rambling best.

*Given that he's constantly describing them in his books.

The article is reproduced in full below.  As far as I'm aware, this is the first time it's been made available free of charge to the WWW readership.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

BIRDS by E. F. Benson

To-day Spring hung posed with Summer, an enchanted balance. Even to a laggard stroller the latter predominated, yet if he was tempted to sit down, as often happened (and he as often yielded), it would be just a question as to whether it was still spring, so fresh was the warmth. Idleness and the sun, and all that sang and flowered thereunder were the main point; all else, even the magic of the golf-clubs, was profitless, the winter's weeds outworn. A day it was, in fact, on which to sit and to stroll, to smile without reason, to speak but inanely, still smiling; for sap was effervescent in all living things, and hummed and hissed, in what did duty for the brain, producing nothing whatever worth recording, but only a gay intoxication of happiness, of no value to any but the owner, but worth all the world to him.
It did not matter where the stroller went, so long as he went nowhere in particular, but this was essential. A bed of tulips, looking as if lyddite had burst among them, first occupied him. The hens, moved, so it would appear, by the expansion of the day, had made this unfortunate choice of locality for hidden treasure, and earlier that morning, while yet the in the bathroom, the stroller had thrown two cakes of soap at them. His shots were judged to a nicety in the matter of range, and pitched in the middle of the laager. But the hens only pecked at the soap, and continued to kick up tulips backwards with a scuffling vulgar motion of the leg. And it was characteristic, not so much of the stroller, but of the fine quality of the day, that even at the depressing hour of the bath, he really did not care one daisy what happened to his beautiful tulips.
This is a digression; the whole day was a digression, and to return in an absent-minded way to the point, he strolled out, as has been mentioned, after breakfast, and examined the damage with more particularity. It was worse than he had thought possible, and he did not care at all, for, at the moment, Toby joined him and bounded playfully on a mole-hill.
Now, when a large Welsh collie makes up his mind to do a thing, difficulties are not. So Toby, standing firm on his hind legs, prepared to disintegrate the round world; he scratched at the ground with the rapid regularity of a metronome at 'Presto'. The solid earth did not yield beneath his feet as fast as he wished, and he bit a large piece out of the lawn, and jerked it at the stroller with a sideway movement of the head. In the hole thus made he buried his grey nose and breathed long and heavily. Spouts and geysers of light soil flew from his nostrils, and his tail quivered in rapturous Columbus-ecstasy, for he had discovered a new world. But as a gardener with a malign eye was watching these irregularities a short distance off, the stroller spoke gruffly to the dog, and they went to the orchard. Here the grass grew long and lush underneath the trees, and a foam of white petals lay there; juicy and blue in the grass were the wild hyacinths, and white and fragile the anemones, and the stroller was well content. He picked a cowslip and ate it, stalk and flower; he ate also a primrose that was like hock in colour and in taste, and he ate nine or ten violets. The violets, in the immortal phrase, were 'dim'; no other word will do.
The field below was florally a repetition of the orchard without the apple trees, but hedges of hazel and hawthorn bounded it, and the rapture of birds'-nesting became a fixed idea. To the vulgar and untutored this consists in the finding of the nest and the spoliation of the eggs; but the true nester has a worthier aim. All the ardour of the chase is his. He steals down the hedgerow like a thief; the notes of the male, be he robin, or sparrow, or nightingale, turn him to stone, as if they were a policeman's whistle, so that ~ there is the art of the thing ~ he may observe first the bird itself, with throat throbbing and ruffled in feather, and, secondly, by its position, conjecture and find the nest. For the male, be it known, sits and sings to his mate not alone in courting, but when she lies close on the eggs. What courtesy and fine manners is here! It is as if a bank-clerk went to the kitchen and sang to his wife as she made the roly-poly for his dinner, for the hatching of the eggs is a care as domestic as this; the thing has to be done with patience and brooding. The male is not thinking about his future family, and the ardour of the love-making is past; he is keeping up the spirits of his wife as she does the housework.
It is impossible to keep up the third person longer, the stroller vanishes; and I had not gone two yards down the right-hand hedge when a sparrow scolded her way out. Now, the sparrow is common, but whether the colour of its eggs is common or not, I do not care, for I like to look at them. So, peering through the tender green of the hawthorn, I saw three authentic pieces of blue sky, and as the sparrow is a bold lady, I felt one. The blue sky was warm, even as the day. Soon it would break, and mouth and veiled eyes take its place, in the working of the great spring miracle.
But independently of the colour of the eggs, it is always worth while to look in a hedge-sparrow's nest, for it is a favourite with the cuckoo, though how the long-tailed bird gets through the close-woven hedge to deposit the egg there passes the wit of man to say. And I do not think that even a woman could tell why she is so complaisant as to hatch this foreign substance. Yet year by year the woods thereby are resonant. O lady sparrow, let us give you your due.
But my search down this hedge was not exhaustive, for two hundred yards further was the great hunting ground. This, incidentally, is the property of the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway, and trespassers will be prosecuted. Now, the birds, who know everything, of course know this, and the banks and bushes are populous to the point of overcrowding. They have observed the habits of the grunting trains, and are aware that they seldom leave the line. They are aware also that the smaller and more dangerous folk, who can walk in any direction, come not here, and in consequence you will find ten nests where you would find not one in the hedgerows. Let us then give the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway its due, even as unto the lady sparrow. Also, they have never yet prosecuted me.
A hoarse, scolding voice was the first attraction, and, localizing it, I saw a blue-tit in the most violent passion. At first I thought it was just angry in general, but it soon became clear that this was definite, well-directed rage, and that I was the object. Now, this was rude, and opposed to the spirit of the day, and I told him that such language was unbecoming to a gentleman and titmouse. I should not speak so to him; there were limits to what a man should permit himself to say. But these remarks but aggravated him the more (for I take it that he knew he was in the wrong), and hopping down a branch or two of the tree which overhung the hedge, he said it all over again. Suddenly from just in front of my face a second voice joined in, and peering into the hedge I saw the round nest, covered with white lichen, and out of the hole near the top looked a little white mask of twittering rage. The lady was far angrier than her husband. She could barely articulate; horror, contempt, and disgust choked her utterance. So, as I make a point of not arguing with angry females, I went on.
This painful interview with such unreasonable folk was disconcerting, and I sat down awhile to recapture with the aid of Toby, tobacco and a penny underneath the wheels of a passing train, the smiling inanity which had been mine. And, in truth, it was not difficult. Here ran a sunny cutting; the flat margin on each side the line was starred with clusters of primroses, and up the bank was a flush of bluebells. In a copse close by a nightingale whistled liquidly four times, and broke into the froth and bubble of the song, which none can hear unmoved. The careless rapture of the thrush is there, and a passion which the thrush knows not. And, heretical as it may sound, I listen to him with greater wonder, not by night, but by day, when a thousand other birds sing with him, orchestra to that enchanting solo. Seventeen notes he has, and no note in the world may equal any of them. But, “unfortunately, madam,” as Heine says, “the nightingale's song is too long to set down here; it is as long as the world itself.” Youth, joy, passion, and all with insouciance, these are the dry bones of it. So even Heine would find other difficulties besides its length in the setting of it down.
So I crept nearer and yet nearer, restraining Toby's pursuit of interesting smells, and climbed over the fence and into the copse, thick with flowers, the fresh green of larch and hazel and innumerable chirrupings, till the song sounded quite close above me. There he sat, slim and brown, with swollen throat a-quiver, the eternal type of love and spring. Singing I found him, still singing I left him; and for me, in the album of the inward eye, there will ever hereafter be a new picture to turn to, the brown embowered bird singing on this May morning which God made.

Reproduced from The Pall Mall Gazette, 24/05/1900

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