“Slow thro’ the air
or stretch’d from blade to blade
The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.” Gilbert White
On this day of March 22 in 1773, Gilbert White noted the following in his diary: –
‘Gossamer floats about.’
It will have been noted by now that the esteemed diarist did not often give way to flights of fancy, although he occasionally waxed rhapsodical in poetry to his greatest love—the natural world. To him the ‘new-mown hay’, the moment when ‘love-sick turtles breathe their amorous pain’, and the movements of the ‘swift in rapid giddy ring’, were the stuff of poetry most sublime.
Selborne, Gilbert White’s home
Two years later, on this day of March 22 in 1775, Gilbert White, in one of his more prosaic moments, would merely jot down:
‘Snake appears: toad comes forth. Frogs spawn. Horse-ants come forth.’
To him, this plain-stated, unvarnished truth, was the essence of beauty.
Still, there was, for White, the ethereality of gossamer, ’the wavy net-work’, the dreamy delicate spider webs, the white cottony wisps floating from the willows. It was often noted in his diary, year after year:
‘vast quantities of gossamer’
‘much gossamer flying’
‘the air is full of gossamer’
‘Much gossamer. Bat.’
On Oct. 15, 1788, overcome, he wrote a poem about gossamer:
“slow thro’ the air
The gossamer-floats; or stretch’d from blade to blade
The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”
Dear Gilbert. We love him so.
Earlier than Gilbert White, Shakespeare also wrote of ‘gossamer’. It is a word that has intrigued lexicographers ever since.
‘the gossamer that idles
in the wanton summer air.’
Footnotes to the text read:
[Dyce.”\ In Hannibal and Scipio, 1637, by Nabbes:
‘Fine as Arachne’s web, or gossamer [‘gosshemert.’ Nares],
Whose curls, when garnished by their dressing, shew
Like that spun vapour when ’tis pearl’d with dew?*
English Expositor, 1616: gossomor: ‘Things that flye like cobwebs in the ayre’…
Even in a footnote it is entrancing… ‘like that spun vapor when ’tis pearl’d with dew…’
Too evocative to just leave there.
The writing of Virginia Woolf has been likened to gossamer strands of delicate imagery. Delicate, yes—shaded, subtle; yet the overall effect is a weave of surprisingly sinew-tough prose.
She wrote in The Common Reader: (1925)
‘nothing [proves] a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.’
In this further segment from The Common Reader ‘Notes on An Elizabethan Play’ (which could be subtitled ‘On Being Bored by the Elizabethans’):
‘Is it not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five acts or thirty-two chapters, must somehow be based on Smith, have one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it pleases from reality? We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore “real”.
‘We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it…’
Well; except for the reference to the chameleon the reality she describes is a world away from Gilbert White’s reality, and his delight in a spring day March 19, 1787:
‘Women sow wheat. Gossamer abounds. Sowed a bed of Celeri under a hand-glass.’
Back to Virginia, philosophically sowing wheat:
‘Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective. The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.
Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.’
[note: this reminds me of the amusing scene in Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, which I summarize at my Margery Sharp blog here: “We call them the inferno and Paradiso, and change the prospect to match our humour. One feels a little like God surveying the universe. Your room, I am afraid, commands the seamy side, but you will like the taxi-men and their many children.’”]
It would seem that in this word picture Woolf creates for us of soaring into the empyrean, and likening it to ‘a cloud landscape’, not ‘ultimately satisfactory to human eyes’, she was loosely merging the godlike empyrean realm of classical Greek literature, the ambient aether of Aristotle, (what I like to think of as a sort of collective lint trap of creative ideas floating out in subconscious space), and even Aristophanes’ mockery of the ‘perfect city in the clouds’ i.e. ‘cloud cuckoo land’.
If this suddenly brings to your mind Angela Thirkell, then you are—oddly enough—on the same train of thought as I. It was precisely in such a ‘cloud cuckoo land’, (according to her own reckoning) a land of unreality, and airy nothings—where Thirkell placed her Barsetshire stories. As airy as they are, they have endured and been beloved to many for decades.
It is a ‘trick of strong imagination’, just as Shakespeare said:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination…A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Beebe, the famous naturalist and marine biologist, took deep dives in his famous bathysphere in quite the opposite direction of empyrean space. Perhaps he had never read the Elizabethan playwrights and worried so intelligently over the ‘unintelligible convolutions’ as had Woolf, still he wrote:
‘Boredom is immoral. All a man has to do is see. All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up.’
I feel quite sure that he and Gilbert White would have been in perfect accord; on bats, termites, lovesick turtles, the internet, and ‘the timorous hare.’ Oh, and gossamer.
Looking up. Looking down. (I saw it because…)
Today is March 22, 2014:
‘Much gossamer floats about.’
Notes: There are lovely websites dedicated to the life and works of Gilbert White of Selborne here and here.