Sunday, December 12, 2010

`Tender, Ravishing, Almost Human Happiness'

A seasonally appropriate passage from The Diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert, culminating with a heart-piercing image. Kilvert dates it “Septuagesima Sunday, St. Valentine’s Eve [1870]”:

“Preached at Clyro [Wales] in the morning (Matthew xiv, 30). Very few people in Church, the weather fearful, violent deadly E. wind and the hardest frost we have had yet. Went to Bettws in the afternoon wrapped in two waistcoats, two coats, a muffler and a mackintosh, and was not at all too warm. Heard the Chapel bell pealing strongly for the second time since I have been here and when I got to the Chapel my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh. There was a large christening party from Llwyn Gwilym. The baby was baptized in ice which was broken and swimming about in the Font.”

This is the prose of a man attuned equally to body and spirit. The humor is quiet and never pleads for laughs. Kilvert catalogs his elaborate winter wardrobe with deadpan precision, like a comic vaudeville act, and observes he “was not at all too warm.” Nature’s revenge on a preacher: “I could hardly open my mouth.” It’s the baby christened in freezing water, with the detail of ice “swimming about in the Font,” that strikes us as both shocking and stirring, an artifact from a sturdier, long-gone world.

The alignment of child and ice reminded me of Nabokov’s “Christmas,” a story written in Russian in 1925, translated by the author and published in English in Details of a Sunset (1976). Sleptsov’s young son has died in Petersburg and the father returns to his country manor after the body is interred in the family vault. It’s Christmas Eve. The snow is deep and the windows are frosted: “He was amazed to be still alive, and able to perceive the brilliance of the snow and feel his front teeth ache from the cold.”

Sleptov looks at his son’s butterfly collection, his net, spreading boards and “an English biscuit tin that contained a large exotic cocoon which had cost three rubles. It was papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf. His son had remembered it during his sickness, regretting that he had left it behind, but consoling himself with the thought that the chrysalid inside was probably dead.”

Sleptov takes the tin to his warm room and the cocoon bursts open. The final two paragraphs are unbearably beautiful, concluding with this sentence:

“And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.”

1 comment:

Stephanie Dolen said...

thanks for the great post! Nature makes me so very happy, walks with my dog, feeding the ducks and observing the beautiful colorful butterflies in my area.
people forget the simple things in life to be thanksful and happy for.