2016年8月11日 星期四

A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression


A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight,
and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned
itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud
shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its
floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with
the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was
clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of
an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its
astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived
hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a
furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down,
he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant
rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time
no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere
complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner
retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms
scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight
to a cause of shaking and dread.

In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into
darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and
nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at
such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen,
its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding
hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true
tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night
showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be
perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds
and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure
sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens
precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in
the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each
advanced half-way.

The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other
things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and
listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but
it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the
crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one
last crisis--the final overthrow.

It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it
with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of
flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious
only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the
present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve
a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness,
emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The
qualifications which frequently invest the façade of a prison with far
more dignity than is found in the façade of a palace double its size
lent to this heath a sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of
the accepted kind are utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily
with fair times; but alas, if times be not fair! Men have oftener
suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason
than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard
Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently
learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called
charming and fair.

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox
beauty is not approaching its last quarter. The new Vale of Tempe
may be a gaunt waste in Thule; human souls may find themselves in
closer and closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness
distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it
has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a
sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping
with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately,
to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the
vineyards and myrtle-gardens of South Europe are to him now; and
Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to
the sand-dunes of Scheveningen.

The most thorough-going ascetic could feel that he had a natural right
to wander on Egdon: he was keeping within the line of legitimate
indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these.
Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of
all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the
level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the
solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was
often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then
Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and
the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and
it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild
regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about
in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of
after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's
nature--neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace,
unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal
singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with
some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look
out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical
possibilities.

This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday.
Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary
wilderness--"Bruaria." Then follows the length and breadth in
leagues; and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of
this ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area
of Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. "Turbaria
Bruaria"--the right of cutting heath-turf--occurs in charters relating
to the district. "Overgrown with heth and mosse," says Leland of the
same dark sweep of country.

Here at least were intelligible facts regarding
landscape--far-reaching proofs productive of genuine satisfaction.
The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had
been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of
vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural
and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable
one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A
person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or
less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human
clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.

To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between
afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the
world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the
whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around
and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the
stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and
harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had
an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a
particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the
moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea
changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people
changed, yet Egdon remained. Those surfaces were neither so steep as
to be destructible by weather, nor so flat as to be the victims of
floods and deposits. With the exception of an aged highway, and a
still more aged barrow presently to be referred to--themselves almost
crystallized to natural products by long continuance--even the
trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade,
but remained as the very finger-touches of the last geological change.


The above-mentioned highway traversed the lower levels of the heath,
from one horizon to another. In many portions of its course it
overlaid an old vicinal way, which branched from the great Western
road of the Romans, the Via Iceniana, or Ikenild Street, hard by.
On the evening under consideration it would have been noticed that,
though the gloom had increased sufficiently to confuse the minor
features of the heath, the white surface of the road remained almost
as clear as ever.