The wind had dropped, and on the hillside one seemed to be in a vast and soundless universe. Far down in the valley a few lights glimmered in the general darkness, but apart from these one might have fancied oneself alone in all the world. Then from some remote farmstead there came the sound of a dog barking. It rang through the night like the distant shout of a friend. It seemed to fill the whole arch of heaven with its reverberations and to flood the valley with the sense of companionship. It brought me news from the farm. The day’s tasks were over, the cattle were settled for the night, the household were at their evening meal, and the watch-dog had resumed his nocturnal charge. His bark seemed to have in it the music of immemorial things—of labour and rest, and all the cheerful routine and comradeship of the fields.
It is only in the country that one enjoys the poetry of natural sounds. A dog barking in a suburban street is merely a disturber of the peace, and I know of nothing more forlorn than the singing of a caged bird in, let us say, Tottenham Court Road. Wordsworth’s Poor Susan found a note of enchantment in the song of the thrush that sang at the corner of Wood Street, off Cheapside. But it was only an enchantment that passed into deeper sadness as the vision of the green pastures which it summoned up faded into the drab reality:
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have passed away from her eyes.
There is something in the life of towns which seems to make the voices of the country alien and sorrowful. They are lost in the tumult, and, if heard, sound only like a reproach against a fretful world, an echo from some Eden from which we have been exiled.
In the large silence of the countryside sounds have a significance and intimacy that they cannot have where life is crowded with activities and interests. In a certain sense life here is richer because of its poverty—because of its freedom from the thousand distractions that exhaust its emotion and scatter its energies. Because we have little we discover much in that little.
Take the sound of church bells. In the city it is hardly more pleasing than the song of the bird in Tottenham Court Road. It does not raise my spirits, it only depresses them. But when I heard the sound of the bells come up from the valley last evening, it seemed like the bringer of a personal message of good tidings. It had in it the rapture of a thousand memories—memories of summer eves and snowy landscapes, of vanished faces and forgotten scenes. It was at once stimulating and calming, and spoke somehow the language of enduring and incommunicable things.
It is, I suppose, the associations of sounds rather than their actual quality which make them pleasant or unpleasant. The twitter of sparrows is, in itself, as prosaic a sound as there is in nature, but I never hear it on waking without a feeling of inward peace. It seems to link me with some incredibly remote and golden morning, and with a child in a cradle waking for the first time to light and sound and consciousness.