Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ashley Sterne Midsummer Musings

In July 1914, Ashley Sterne's comic article "Midsummer Musings" was published in The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 53, pp. 942-944.  As far as I am currently able to determine, this article was his first to be published with a by-line in a prominent London magazine.  The article uses many of the comic devices (e.g., comic lists, digressions, extravaganzas of misfiring erudition) that he would use with finer control and greater humorous effect in later writings.  Still, it's a delight to be carried along with the gaudy linguistic swirls and splashes of Ashley Sterne's early exuberance.

Midsummer Musings

By Ashley Sterne

By a curious coincidence, which I cannot possibly attempt to explain without the assistance of a theodolite, a troglodyte, an artificial horizon and a long-distance logarithm, the twenty-fourth day of June this year falls upon Midsummer Day, just as it did last year.

Pondering over this phenomenal, er – phenomenon, with my head in a bandage of cold tea, and my feet in a bath of mustard and cress – thinking, too, that the almanacksters had possibly worked it out in their heads, and got it all wrong – I took the trouble to tintinnabulate the business end of Woolwich Arsenal (where, I understand, they keep a fully-licensed astronomer doing practically nothing else all day but fixing the dates for the Boat Race, the anniversary of Waterloo, New Year's day, Trinity Law Sittings, the expiration of Fire Insurance, Kent v. Surrey, and other events of an absorbing nature), and to ask if it was all O.K. – which is the Esperanto signal for "mother and child both doing well," – or whether the astronomer person had omitted to carry one from the pence column. I forget the exact answer which I received, but I remember that it was laconic, and contained a reference to Adam.

Anyhow, I have since ascertained that Midsummer Day will be quite en regie – an Italian expression which is perhaps best interpreted by its Ju-jitsu equivalent, kakwx telenta [Greek letters in the original], of which I much regret I am unable to tell you the meaning – and that when it arrives it will be found to have been executed in due form of law, and that the sun will open at 3.37 a.m. to bona-fide travellers, shut at 8.29 p.m., notwithstanding the Early Closing Act, and that high water at London Bridge may be had for the asking at 10.59 a.m. as per advert.

But quite apart from these extraordinary circumstances,Midsummer Day and the season to which it forms such an admirable hors d'oeuvre have interests of their own. The long summer evenings, the beauties of which cause poets to break out into all sorts of freewheel rhapsodies; artists to wallow in a gluttonous debauch of boiled turps and raw sienna; and susceptible youths to forego their suppers, and wander around the more secluded parts of the scenery with their arms full of rapturous maiden, are now at their zenith.

Here, again, is a scientific problem which is not thoroughly comprehended by the man-in-the-street – an individual who, by the by, is paradoxically enough never to be found in the street, but usually in the nearest house of refreshment. But the explanation is very simple, and I can soon make it clear to you. (I only wish I could give you a diagram, lettered A, B, C, and so forth; but a diagram would be totally beyond the scope of the compositor, and – moreover – I am not quite sure how it should be drawn.)

Now, during the sun's journey round the earth (or the earth's journey round the sun, whichever it may be) the sun (or the earth) does not describe a perfectly circular circle round the earth (or the sun), but describes another sort of figure whose name I do not remember. Possibly it is an oblate spheroid. Neither can I tell you why the sun (or the earth) behaves in this undisciplined manner; but such eminent observers as Coperliles, Garibaldi and others are all agreed that it does, so you can just take it from me that the statement is thoroughly justified. Well, while the sun (or the earth) is describing this orbit arrangement, it – whichever it is – keeps getting farther and farther away from each other, with the result that the light from the sun has got a greater distance to go. In other words, the light – notwithstanding that it travels faster than a Yankee "doing" Westminster Abbey or the British Museum – has to work overtime in order to get here before night, and the day has to be longer in consequence.

Having thus explained what was doubtless a mystery to you before, I have very kindly arranged to revert to the original subject under discussion, which, reference to my notes informs me, is Cucumber Peelings. [No, it isn't. Can't you read your own writing? "Midsummer Musings" is the somewhat irritating alliterative title you have chosen. Ed.]

True. I was talking about the long evenings, one of the chief attractions of which is undoubtedly the luscious sunsets which we are permitted to enjoy without paying a shilling to go in. No man has ever yet gazed upon a shot-silk sunset without promptly bursting to commemorate it in some way, either in a poem, or in a picture, or in a statue,or in a letter to one or other of the daily papers that encourages its readers to write on such widely-diversified topics as "Who killed cock robin?" or "What are the wild waves saying?" – thus obtaining gratis a large amount of material they would have to pay an expensive and highly-trained journalist to fill.

To test the truth of this assertion for yourself you have only to visit some locality specially noted for the superbity of its sunscapes. On the top story of Edinburgh Rock you may see Mr. John Masefield or Mr. Laurence Housman dictating iambics to his typist, and walking up and down in a frenzied fever of many degrees best Fahrenheit in a fruitless endeavour to find a legitimate rhyme to "purple." Reclining on a bonny, bonny bank of Ben Lomond you may see Sir Edward Elgar rapidly recording his impressions in the shape of a duo concertante for two vermicelli, entitled Chanson de Crepuscule.  Or, perched on the topmost rung of some highly-pinnacled Alp you may observe Mr. Waterhouse slapping on to canvas trowelfuls of ultramarine, gamboge, tapiochre, and other expensive pigments, which will ultimately be exhibited at the Royal Academy under the title of "The lowing chamois winds slowly home to tea."

And here I would point out the great advantage which the artist possesses over the poet and the musician in depicting sunsets; for if, as a sunset, it does not meet with the success which he anticipated, the artist still has another chance of saving it from the fate of becoming a wedding-present, since he has only to turn the picture upside down, when, ipso facto, it represents a sunrise.  But the poet or the musician cannot achieve a similar result by standing his work on its head, or by rendering it backwards; for such is the nature of modern poetry and modern music that it makes little or no difference which way up it is, or in which direction it is interpreted.

But in addition to the source of inspiration which these elongated evenings afford to the rhymesmith, the tunester and the paintmonger, they throw a romantic glamour over the common incidents of everyday life. Imogen and Algernon, for instance, sitting in the former's father's garden with their thumbs interlocked; watching the last lark leave its watery lodgings for a final flutter before spending the night standing on one leg; gazing with rapt rapture at a ubiquitous bat that is pursuing an abortive search for worms – or whatever it may be upon which bats feed; following with eager attention a clanging crow clinking its clamorous course to the confines of some cacophonous crowery; Imogen and Algernon – I repeat, in case you have forgotten of whom I am speaking – reveal hitherto unsuspected beauties of feature and nobilities of character in one another which are not visible in the incandescent-mantled towers of the former's father's residence.

On the other hand, many a blemish which in the garish glare of day would be quite visible at Greenwich passes unheeded in the softly twiling twilight, or is merely issued to the public in a much bowdlerised edition. Thus the touch of Algernon's moustache, as he breathes passionate extensions of the predicate into Imogen's yearning ear, does not seem so tooth-brushy amid the mellow red and gold of a June evening as it does amid the harsh bric-a-brac of an august morning-room. Similarly, the quaint poker-work texture of Imogen's complexion, with its rich hoard of russet freckles, loses nothing by being viewed in a half-light; and what in the lurid lustre of high noon is unmistakably a mole of great intensity becomes transformed under the benign glow of a subsiding sun, kindly assisted by a few of the more punctual planets,into an alluring dimple.

And lastly, there is the enthralling entertainment afforded by that tiresome nocturnal fowl, the nightingale. Whether this is one of the attractions, or one of the repulsions, of a midsummer night's dream must be left to the decision of those who have suffered stiff neck and quinzy through hanging out of window half the night listening to it. My own experience is that a little nightingale, like a little knowledge, goes a long way; and that to be kept awake from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. by a surfeit of them indulging in complicated Handel Festivals is to court early and urgent admission to a sound-proof asylum for those of tender ears.  Were I given the choice, I would sooner endure being deprived of rest by a gale in the night than by the nightingale, for Philomel is a burdensome bird, I wot.  Eh, what?

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