‘Gossamer Abundant’

gossamer and iron

“Slow thro’ the air                                         

The gossamer-floats; 

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

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.

spring crocus

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:

’gossamer streams’
gossamer abundant’
gossamer floats’
‘vast quantities of gossamer’
‘much gossamer flying’
‘the air is full of gossamer’

and finally,

‘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.

“Apace the wasting summer flies…”


So Gilbert White of Selborne, England wrote to his niece in 1784.

It is the shorter days and cooler mornings that get me rummaging through my library for certain reading fare–the diarists, the journalists of old, the country observers. Another season is passing, another tick of the universal clock has just echoed; yet there is a comfort in the regularity of natural life as recorded in these yellowed pages. Of this trusty lot of journal keepers the ineffable Mr. Gilbert White of Selborne is a favorite. While he wrote with the same scrupulous care and loving attentiveness to all the seasons, it is when the autumn approaches that I find him the most…well…lively.

I want to know what Gilbert was up to in August of 1788. And here we find him:

1781: August 23, 1781 – ‘Caught 8 hornets with a twig tipped with bird-lime…. No wasps in my garden, nor at the grocer’s, or butcher’s shop.  Five or six hornets will carry off a whole nectarine in the space of a day.’

“What make ye of Parson White in Selborne?” inquired Thomas Carlyle in 1832. One cannot help but note the slightly dismissive snort in this question. Yet Carlyle–who wrote thunderously of kings and controversies, not the mating habits of hirundines–is hardly read these days, while the diaries, carefully composed nature notes, and humble letters of ‘Parson White’ have never been out of print in the over 200 years since they were written. He is as beloved to the English as Jane Austen. He has a besotted following in Japan. His complete diaries are published online. His letters have made it to the ‘Penguin Classics’ distinction. His words penned on November 15th, 1792 regarding the now famous tortoise: ‘Timothy comes out’, still give a thrill of pleasure.

My copy of The Natural History of Selborne is a treasure. But I must admit that I hadn’t given it my complete attention until reading a brilliant little essay on White several years ago. If you’ve never read the work of Helen Bevington before, you’re in for a wonderful discovery. Her description of Gilbert White, in the essay, ‘The Seasonable Mr. White of Selborne’ is part of a larger collection of random essays by Bevington in a book entitled ‘Beautiful, Lofty People’.

A brief excerpt (written circa 1950):

‘The way to be happy in London in the spring,’ (Mrs. Bevington writes) ‘is to spend one’s days in the British Museum, reading the manuscript of the journals of Gilbert White. Except for a small selection, they have never been printed–ten thousand daily records, twenty five years (1768-1793) of the serenest life I’ve ever envied. Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

Of course the journals and diaries of Gilbert White are richly available now, as surely Mrs. Bevington would have rejoiced to know; his diary is online, http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/ and in printed form aplenty.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that I didn’t get to discover him as a secret and startling pleasure while spending a month at the British Library, reading his own journals penned from his own hand. (A picture of his journal here, plus other lovely pictures of Selborne)

That’s fine. I will get my book, pour myself a cup of tea, settle in to my armchair, and open to…

September 11, 1777 – ‘Mrs Snooke’s tortoise devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner: swallows it’s food almost whole.’ 

Ah. The world is restored to peaceful order again. Timothy is rampaging in Mrs. Snooke’s garden with a healthy appetite and all is well.

As Mrs. Bevington notes, ‘Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

‘Oft on some evening, sunny, soft and still; The Muse shall lead thee to the beech-grown hill; To spend in tea the cool, refreshing hour; Where nods in air the pensile, nest-like bower.’ (Mr. Gilbert White)