By Robert Palfrey Utter
Robert Palfrey Utter was born in 1875, in Olympia, Washington. He graduated from Harvard (I am sorry there are so many Harvard men in this book: I didn’t know they were Harvard men until too late) in 1898 and took his Ph.D. there in 1906. After a varied experience, including editorial work on the Youth’s Companion, reporting on the New York Evening Post, ranching in Mexico and graduate study at Harvard, he went to Amherst, 1906-18, as associate professor of English. He was on the faculty of the A. E. F. University at Beaune, France, 1919; and in 1920 became associate professor of English at the University of California.
Mr. Utter has contributed largely to the magazines, and has published Guide to Good English (1914), Every-Day Words and Their Uses (1916), and Every-Day Pronunciation (1918).
Former students of his at Amherst have told me of the lasting stimulus his teaching has given them: that he can beautifully practise what he preaches of the art of writing, this essay shows.
FROM a magazine with a rather cynical cover I learned very recently that for pond skating the proper costume is brown homespun with a fur collar on the jacket, whereas for private rinks one wears a gray herringbone suit and taupe-colored alpine. Oh, barren years that I have been a skater, and no one told me of this! And here’s another thing. I was patiently trying to acquire a counter turn under the idle gaze of a hockey player who had no better business till the others arrived than to watch my efforts. “What I don’t see about that game,” he said at last, “is who wins?” It had never occurred to me to ask. He looked bored, and I remembered that the pictures in the magazine showed the wearers of the careful costumes for rink and pond skating as having rather blank eyes that looked illimitably bored. I have hopes of the “rocker” and the “mohawk”; I might acquire a proper costume for skating on a small river if I could learn what it is; but a bored look—why, even hockey does not bore me, unless I stop to watch it. I don’t wonder that those who play it look bored. Even Alexander, who played a more imaginative game than hockey, was bored—poor fellow, he should have taken up fancy skating in his youth; I never heard of a human being who pretended to a complete conquest of it.
I like pond skating best by moonlight. The hollow among the hills will always have a bit of mist about it, let the sky be clear as it may. The moonlight, which seems so lucid and brilliant when you look up, is all pearl and smoke round the pond and the hills. The shore that was like iron under your heel as you came down to the ice is vague, when you look back at it from the center of the pond, as the memory of a dream. The motion is like flying in a dream; you float free and the world floats under you; your velocity is without effort and without accomplishment, for, speed as you may, you leave nothing behind and approach nothing. You look upward. The mist is overhead now; you see the moon in a “hollow halo” at the bottom of an “icy crystal cup,” and you yourself are in just such another. The mist, palely opalescent, drives past her out of nothing into nowhere. Like yourself, she is the center of a circle of vague limit and vaguer content, where passes a swift, ceaseless stream of impression through a faintly luminous halo of consciousness.
If by moonlight the mist plays upon the emotions like faint, bewitching music, in sunlight it is scarcely less. More often than not when I go for my skating to our cosy little river, a winding mile from the mill-dam to the railroad trestle, the hills are clothed in silver mist which frames them in vignettes with blurred edges. The tone is that of Japanese paintings on white silk, their color showing soft and dull through the frost-powder with which the air is filled. At the mill-dam the hockey players furiously rage together, but I heed them not, and in a moment am beyond the first bend, where their clamor comes softened on the air like that of a distant convention of politic crows. The silver powder has fallen on the ice, just enough to cover earlier tracings and leave me a fresh plate to etch with grapevines and arabesques. The stream winds ahead like an unbroken road, striped across with soft-edged shadows of violet, indigo, and lavender. On one side it is bordered with leaning birch, oak, maple, hickory, and occasional groups of hemlocks under which the very air seems tinged with green. On the other, rounded masses of scrub oak and alder roll back from the edge of the ice like clouds of reddish smoke. The river narrows and turns, then spreads into a swamp, where I weave my curves round the straw-colored tussocks. Here, new as the snow is, there are earlier tracks than mine. A crow has traced his parallel hieroglyph, alternate footprints with long dashes where he trailed his middle toe as he lifted his foot and his spur as he brought it down. Under a low shrub that has hospitably scattered its seed is a dainty, close-wrought embroidery of tiny bird feet in irregular curves woven into a circular pattern. A silent glide towards the bank, where among bare twigs little forms flit and swing with low conversational notes, brings me in company with a working crew of pine siskins, methodically rifling seed cones of birch and alder, chattering sotto voce the while. Under a leaning hemlock the writing on the snow tells of a squirrel that dropped from the lowest branch, hopped aimlessly about for a few yards, then went up the bank. Farther on, where the river narrows again, a flutter-headed rabbit crossing at top speed has made a line seemingly as free from frivolous indirection as if it had been defined by all the ponderosities of mathematics. There is no pursuing track; was it his own shadow he fled, or the shadow of hawk?
The mist now lies along the base of the hills, leaving the upper ridges almost imperceptibly veiled and the rounded tops faintly softened. The snowy slopes are etched with brush and trees so fine and soft that they remind me of Dürer’s engravings, the fur of Saint Jerome’s lion, the cock’s feathers in the coat of arms with the skull. From behind the veil of the southernmost hill comes a faint note as
From undiscoverable lips that blow
An immaterial horn.
It is the first far premonition of the noon train; I pause and watch long for the next sign. At last I hear its throbbing, which ceases as it pauses at the flag station under the hill. There the invisible locomotive shoots a column of silver vapor above the surface of the mist, breaking in rounded clouds at the top, looking like nothing so much as the photograph of the explosion of a submarine mine, a titanic outburst of force in static pose, a geyser of atomized water standing like a frosted elm tree. Then quick puffs of dusky smoke, the volley of which does not reach my ear till the train has stuck its black head out of fairyland and become a prosaic reminder of dinner. High on its narrow trestle it leaps across my little river and disappears between the sandbanks. Far behind it the mist is again spreading into its even layers. Silence is renewed, and I can hear the musical creaking of four starlings in an apple tree as they eviscerate a few rotten apples on the upper branches. I turn and spin down the curves and reaches of the river without delaying for embroideries or arabesques. At the mill-dam the hockey game still rages; the players take no heed of the noon train.
From undiscoverable lips that blow
An immaterial horn.
Their minds and eyes are intent on a battered disk of hard rubber. I begin to think I have misjudged them when I consider what effort of imagination must be involved in the concentration of the faculties on such an object, transcending the call of hunger and the lure of beauty. Is it to them as is to the mystic “the great syllable Om” whereby he attains Nirvana? I cannot attain it; I can but wonder what the hockey players win one-half so precious as the stuff they miss.