Elisabeth Morris

In their season

There is a scene in Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” in which the great doctor, wishing to show his power, asks a duchess what dainty she most desires. It being then mid-winter, she considerately chooses “a dish of ripe grapes.” Nothing daunted, Faustus produces the grapes, and the duke exclaims, “Believe me, Master Doctor, this makes me to wonder above the rest, that being in the dead time of winter, and in the month of January, how you should come by these grapes,” while the delighted duchess chimes in, “Believe me, Master Doctor, they be the best grapes that e’er I tasted in my life before.”

The passage often comes to my mind as I glance at the show windows of some “high-class” grocery, and realize that if the play were rewritten strictly up to date Faustus would have to produce something much more spectacular than grapes in January in order to rouse even a passing comment.

I wish it were not so. Not that I begrudge the duchess her grapes, or Faustus his chance to show off. They meant no harm. But against the tendency that they represent I protest. “That they should bring forth their fruits in due season.” This embodies an older idea, and to my mind a better one. I am not prepared to defend everything in the original plan of the world—many things have been and many things can be improved. But this part of the arrangement always seemed to me, in its main outlines, very good.

“In their season.” That, to my mind, means strawberries in June and blueberries in July and huckleberries in August. And when I encounter strawberries in January, blueberries in March, and raspberries in December I feel deeply irritated. I do not want all my seasons jogging my elbow at once. It makes me think of a certain sort of boarding-house table, under “liberal” management, where every day one is given six different vegetables, and mostly the same six. Far better one each day for; six days, and a chance between to forget it.

I like my spring mud in March, my roses in June, my apples in September, my sleet and snow in January all things in their own place. The time for winter seems to me to be the winter-time, and spring-time, I am profoundly convinced, is the time for spring. For one of the most joyous things about spring is that it comes after winter. Cayenne on the tongue, it is said, gives zest to champagne. Reversing the temperatures, winter gives zest to spring. What can it mean, I wonder, to countries who do not have to tussle through a New England winter? And, conversely, should we enjoy the coziness and intimacy of winter if we had not had the great, wide summer to play in first?

Children understand these matters. Look how they take their sports! When the winds of March bluster round our house-corners, it is the time for kites—kites they must have. The cloud-swept skies are full of them—green diamond kites, red and yellow Japanese kites, big modern box kites, old-fashioned brown paper kites with long waggling tails, sensitively responsive to every stimulus. For a brief season they live overhead, riding still and calm, or performing wild antics, according to the wind or their own inherent nature.

Then their time is past, leaving its traces only in the sorry remnants that nest in the tree- tops or dangle forlornly from the telegraph wires. And after them comes marbles—or is it jack-stones? and then tops, and then roller-skates, and then—? but this is no child’s almanac; I may have the series all wrong, but I have digested the principle, and I should never expect to find a well-regulated child using jack-stones in the top season, or spinning tops in kite time.

It is not so with us older people. And I have been as bad as any. There was a time when I thought it a rather clever thing to take spring by violence. I brought out pussy willows in December—it is a common enough offense. And when they had gone through all their stages, from silver kitten-paws to pink kitten-noses, then to fluffy yellow or green caterpillars, and finally had shed all these and sent out long pale shoots and masses of white roots, I was embarrassed to know what to do with them. I could not throw live green things like that out in January snowdrifts. I could not plant them, I did not want to keep them in a jar until April. Finally I threw them in the fire and left the room quickly.

I tried again with dogwood. I picked it in January, and by the end of February it was in blossom. It was beautiful, of course, and I was rather proud—I don t know whether my enjoyment of the results came more from love of beauty or from pride. But after the blossoms had shriveled, there were still March and April. Whenever I passed a dog wood tree, I felt, somehow, uncomfortable. I had had my dogwood. These little dabs at spring simply took the edge off, like a nap just before bedtime.

This, I fancy, is almost always true. There is no greater pleasure than that of watching the seasons—any season, whether of vegetables or of people—observe their own times and develop their own qualities. Moreover, in the opposite habit, the habit that Faustus exemplified and most of our modern institutions encourage, there lurks a real danger. It is the danger that things will be valued, not in proportion to their real goodness or charm, but in proportion to the difficulty of obtaining them. Faustus’s grapes had a certain natural value as grapes, but they had also an artificial value as grapes in January. In his case this meant, the Devil. In our more modern situation, it means a hothouse or a cold-storage plant, and the establishment that goes with it; or it means the equivalent of this in money—which we may or may not call the Devil, according to the way we happen to look at such matters.

Faustus was proud of his Devil, and we are proud of our hothouses or their equivalent, and in the meantime the goodness of grapes as grapes is apt to become a secondary matter—not, perhaps, to the duchess, who merely ate the grapes, but to Faustus. He was not above showing off, neither was the Devil, neither are any of us, though we are usually above seeming to show off, having lost the naiveté of the old doctor and his Mephisto; and this desire blurs our appreciation of grapes as grapes, and of other things. It may, indeed, carry us so far that we shall find ourselves cherishing and exhibiting ugliness, because it is hard to get, and growing in different to any beauty that is not rare.

It is not only the fruits and vegetables that are getting mixed up. The seasons in people’s lives seem to be losing some of their individual character, so that we never know just what we are going to get. In some ways this is a gain. For example, the definite putting away of childish things was not an unalloyed good. The complete shutting-off of the child from the confidence of the adult, the complete alienation of the adult from the interests of the youth, these are not habits to cling to. And yet it is a fact that life ought to bring us its various experiences with a certain regard to their seasonableness, and when we see little children going to “problem-plays,” and grown-ups spending their mornings over cards and their evenings over picture-puzzles, one is tempted to think that something is wrong. Jaques would have to revise his summary of the seven ages of man, and still more of woman, rather thoroughly to make it pass muster now. There seems to be very little springtime in the lives of to-day; it is mostly summer and Indian summer, while winter—quiet, hospitable, intimate, stay-at-home winter—is getting left out entirely.

If we don’t look out, we shall infect Nature. She is a sensitive creature, highly “suggestible,” as the psychologists put it. Some one has maintained that it was purely at the suggestion of the impressionists that she perpetrated London fogs and purple cabbages. She may do other things. There is no telling what she may not do. In imagination I look out upon a world where babes in tailor-made suits play bridge through snow-bound July evenings, where old ladies in pinafores skip about picking daisies in December. But let us not too wildly anticipate! Let us bring ourselves up sharply before it is too late. Let us consider whether we do not, after all, get the most out of things, whether they be grapes or kites or snowstorms or enthusiasm, by taking them in their season.

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “In their season.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 25 Jun 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/season/>.

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