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The Old Indifference
by [?]

It was an old belief of the poets and the common people that nature was sympathetic towards human beings at certain great crises. Comets flared and the sun was darkened at the death of a great man. Even the death of a friend was supposed to bow nature with despair; and Milton in Lycidas mourned the friend he had lost in what nowadays seems to us the pasteboard hyperbole:

The willows and the hazel copses green
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.

It may be contended that Milton was here speaking, not of nature, but of his vision of nature; and certainly one cannot help reading one’s own joys and sorrows into the face of the earth. When the lover in Maud affirms:

A livelier emerald twinkled in the grass,

he states a fact. He utters a truth of the eye and heart. The wonder of the world resides in him who sees it. The earth becomes a new place to a man who has fallen in love or who has just returned to it from the edge of the grave. It is as though he saw the flowers as a stranger. Larks ascending make the planet a ball of music for him. He may well begin to lie about nature, for he has seen it for the first time. Experience is not long in warning him, however, that it is he and not the world that has changed. He meets a funeral in the midsummer of his happiness, and larks sing the same songs above the fields whether it is the lover or the mourner that goes by. The continuity of nature is not broken either for our gladness or our grief. Mr Hardy frequently introduces the mournful drip of rain into his picture of men and women unhappily mated. But the rain is not at the beck and call of the unhappy. The unhappy would still be unhappy though they were in a cherry orchard on the loveliest morning of the year. The happy would still be happy though St Swithin’s Day were streaming in floods down the window-panes. Who does not know what it is to be happy watching the rain-drops racing down the glass and hearing the gutter chattering like a hedgeful of sparrows or tinkling like a bell? Who is there, on the other hand, who has not found, and been perplexed to find, the world going on its way in full song and bloom on a day that has seemed to him to darken all human experience? Burns’s reproach to the indifferent earth has often been quoted as an expression of this realisation that nature does not mind:

How can ye sing, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu’ o’ care?

Nature, we discover, passes us and our sorrows by. We are of little account to the race of birds. We are of little account, for that matter, to the race of men. The end of Hamlet is not the end even of a kingdom. Fortinbras comes upon the scene, and life goes on. Our mournings are only interruptions. The ranks of the procession close up and little is changed. Even the funeral of a king is as a rule less an occasion for grief than a spectacle for the curious. The crowd may have filled the streets all night, but they did not forget to bring their sandwiches and whisky-flasks with them. The theatres and the tea-shops and the public-houses will be as full as ever the next day. And for the death of a great author not even the sweet-shops will be closed. The funeral ceremonies over the dead body of Herbert Spencer drew a smaller crowd than would gather to see a dog that had been run over in the street.

We were never before so conscious of the indifference of Nature to human tragedy as since the outbreak of the war. Here, one would think, was a tragedy that all but threatened to crack the globe. One would imagine that the sides of Nature must be in pain with it and the earth in peril of being hurled out of her accustomed path round the sun. Yet the sparrows in the Surrey valleys have not heard of it, and the sea-birds know nothing of it, save that occasionally they are bewildered to find a submarine rising from the waters instead of the porpoise for whose presence they had hoped. It is said that the pheasants in a Sussex wood awoke and screamed on Sunday night during the barrage fire around London. But this was egotism on the part of the pheasants. The pheasants of Wiltshire did not have their sleep broken, and so were not troubled about the sufferings of Londoners. Wordsworth assured Toussaint L’Ouverture: