24 MAY 1940, Page 14



IT was April the nineteenth and day had just broken when I awoke. A grey, blank and uninteresting light filled the space between the curtains. The sparroWs were setting up their usual chatter-cheep for all the world as if my house were situated amid a northern metropolis and not on a hilltop between the French Alps and the Mediterranean and in sight of both. " Surely," I said to myself, " this babble is the most plebeian sound discoverable among the hosts of the air." I had hardly so concluded when I discerned among this Daily Mirror chorus another voice. Was it that of a linnet?—I had seen a couple of pairs about the garden two days earlier. But no ; after a few seconds I recognised it for what it was : the voice of a nightingale, the first of the year.

I listened to it—in so far as it could be discerned among the noise of that rabble—with great satisfaction. The bird did not sing brilliantly, the early birds hereabouts seldom do— but gently, poignantly and with ecstasy. For some ten minutes I lay listening to the song, enjoying and pondering the thoughts it suggested to me and then the devil—who is never far off when innocent enjoyment is permitted to a mortal—popped up and enquired (in the serious tone and with the long face which deceives so many of us) how I had the face to lie in bed luxuriating in the fancies caused by so negligible an event when Europe, etc., etc., etc. I pointed out to him that I couldn't, as a matter of fact, do very much about Europe in any case and certainly nothing at all at that somewhat remote hour of the morning.

But he wasn't satisfied and reduced me to such a state of exasperation that a few minutes later I abandoned the nightingale, took refuge in passive resistance and, rolling myself in the bedclothes, determinedly and successfully composed myself to slumber. I do not however believe in letting any devil—and more especially the self-righteous variety—have the last word. Accordingly at breakfast I let my paper lie and I addressed my faculties to the matter and routed (so I consider) the gloomy imp with certain reflections. These reflections I now confide to print, in order that other persons so troubled— for this particular devil is at present very active—may find themselves armed with the traditional ink-pot.

To begin with, satisfaction at the return of the nightingale does not for those so fortunately situated as to hear the bird (or even read about it) exclude interest in and concern for European events. Let us keep our sense of proportion. To me as artist, the return of the nightingale is an event of importance because it brings certain qualities of thought into my mind. And to an artist, as to many reflective persons who are not artists, the varying quality of thought is the substance of life. To me the nightingale is not merely luscinia, a little brown bird measuring some six inches and a quarter from beak-tip to tail-tip. It is a spiritual presence and, as such, one of the Great Powers.

When this bird began to sing among the trivial chorus I was thereby reminded of the position and eternal task of the artist, who, prompted by a power unknown, feels that he was born for one purpose only, which is, though empires fall, to declare the mysterious rapture wherewith the spectacle of existence fills him. In making this declaration lies his whole lasting happiness, as also the justification for an existence and way of life which often seems—quite erroneously, of course— a deal too easy and even sell-indulgent to his fellows. So singing, the nightingale put me in better heart to endure what I must endure and to enjoy what there is to be enjoyed.

A moment later, musing on the artist and his position, as the bird continued his song, the memory of great artists I had known—Delius, Elgar, Yeats—came into my mind and I found comfort and encouragement in the fact that so far from being dead these persons were singularly alive to me in their works, much more alive in fact than many of my acquaintance. And I reflected that, though friendship with them had been a personal advantage to me, yet thousands of persons who had never enjoyed that advantage in the flesh vs ere enabled by these masters' creations to enjoy an extraordinary intimacy with these creators in the spirit. Such reflections may seen trite on paper but, all song being one, the voice of the nightingale gave them a singular force. They were followed by others of a more general nature. For age-old commonplaces are only common- places when they effect no lodgement in the heart, and the bird, singing unseen among the lilac-leaves, had power to bring them home to such habitation.

Thinking of Delius, I recalled the faint smile and the felicity upon the serene face of the dying composer when I quoted from Meredith's Spirit of Earth in Autumn : ' Into the breast that gives the rose, shall I with shuddering fall? ' Yes, Nature renews herself—did not the perfume of the lilac, which a week ago bad been flowerless, rise to me through the window?— and in the warp and woof of that gigantic thread you and I and the bird are only the briefest of threads. But that web is not mere dry tissue. An element, at once mysterious and formidable, animates the whole, and death is but Nature's means of having life with more variety, since no lilac has exactly the same number of small starry flowers, nor leaves that hang in the same position, nor does it harbour a nightingale with exactly the same quality of song.

This variety in unity the mysterious element sometimes informs with a beautiful individual voice, be it that of bird or artist. What purpose nature has in giving this voice the quality which we call " beauty " remains unknown. But for us the effect is sure : we hear in a voice, having that quality, a hymn to being. This hymn, so inexplicable in the face of present manifest mischance and inevitable ultimate extinction, makes a mockery of all philosophies which are not rational- isations of a similar impulse and aids in reconciling us to our position as exceedingly fugitive beings amid the dark backward and abysm of time and the depths of the ether faintly sprinkled with spectral universes. The voice of the nightingale returned is therefore the voice of pagan moral health. As such it persuades us of the validity of the faith which (in Goethe's words) assures us that " life itself is the answer to life's riddle." And for me the return of the spirit voicing this faith is so definitely an event I do not find negligible that I take leave to muse upon it before I prop my newspaper against the coffee pot and consider events which make a deal more noise.