The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

Presented by

Public Domain Books


    “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.”


    “And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”


We are told in the first chapter of Genesis that at the close of the sixth day “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." Not merely good, but very good. Yet how few of us appreciate the beautiful world in which we live!

In preceding chapters I have incidentally, though only incidentally, referred to the Beauties of Nature; but any attempt, however imperfect, to sketch the blessings of life must contain some special reference to this lovely world itself, which the Greeks happily called [Greek: chosmos] –beauty.

Hamerton, in his charming work on Landscape, says, “There are, I believe, four new experiences for which no description ever adequately prepares us, the first sight of the sea, the first journey in the desert, the sight of flowing molten lava, and a walk on a great glacier. We feel in each case that the strange thing is pure nature, as much nature as a familiar English moor, yet so extraordinary that we might be in another planet.” But it would, I think, be easier to enumerate the Wonders of Nature for which description can prepare us, than those which are altogether beyond the power of language.

Many of us, however, walk through the world like ghosts, as if we were in it, but not of it. We have “eyes and see not, ears and hear not.” To look is much less easy than to overlook, and to be able to see what we do see, is a great gift. Ruskin maintains that “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I do not suppose that his eyes are better than ours, but how much more he sees with them!

We must look before we can expect to see. “To the attentive eye,” says Emerson, “each moment of the year has its own beauty; and in the same field it beholds every hour a picture that was never seen before, and shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.”

The love of Nature is a great gift, and if it is frozen or crushed out, the character can hardly fail to suffer from the loss. I will not, indeed, say that a person who does not love Nature is necessarily bad; or that one who does, is necessarily good; but it is to most minds a great help. Many, as Miss Cobbe says, enter the Temple through the gate called Beautiful.

There are doubtless some to whom none of the beautiful wonders of Nature; neither the glories of the rising or setting sun; the magnificent spectacle of the boundless ocean, sometimes so grand in its peaceful tranquillity, at others so majestic in its mighty power; the forests agitated by the storm, or alive with the song of birds; nor the glaciers and mountains–there are doubtless some whom none of these magnificent spectacles can move, whom “all the glories of heaven and earth may pass in daily succession without touching their hearts or elevating their minds.” [1]

Such men are indeed pitiable. But, happily, they are exceptions. If we can none of us as yet fully appreciate the beauties of Nature, we are beginning to do so more and more.

For most of us the early summer has a special charm. The very life is luxury. The air is full of scent, and sound, and sunshine, of the song of birds and the murmur of insects; the meadows gleam with golden buttercups, it almost seems as if one could see the grass grow and the buds open; the bees hum for very joy, and the air is full of a thousand scents, above all perhaps that of new-mown hay.

The exquisite beauty and delight of a fine summer day in the country has never perhaps been more truly, and therefore more beautifully, described than by Jefferies in his “Pageant of Summer.” “I linger,’” he says, “in the midst of the long grass, the luxury of the leaves, and the song in the very air. I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little.... In the blackbird’s melody one note is mine; in the dance of the leaf shadows the formed maze is for me, though the motion is theirs; the flowers with a thousand faces have collected the kisses of the morning. Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life. Never could I have enough; never stay long enough.... The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.... These are the only hours that are not wasted-these hours that absorb the soul and fill it with beauty. This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of Nature. If I cannot achieve it, at least I can think it.”

This chapter is already so long that I cannot touch on the contrast and variety of the seasons, each with its own special charm and interest, as

  “The daughters of the year
  Dance into light and die into the shade.” [2]

Our countrymen derive great pleasure from the animal kingdom, in hunting, shooting, and fishing, thus obtaining fresh air and exercise, and being led into much varied and beautiful scenery. Still it will probably ere long be recognized that even from a purely selfish point of view, killing animals is not the way to get the greatest enjoyment from them. How much more interesting would every walk in the country be, if Man would but treat other animals with kindness, so that they might approach us without fear, and we might have the constant pleasure of watching their winning ways. Their origin and history, structure and habits, senses and intelligence, offer an endless field of interest and wonder.

The richness of life is wonderful. Any one who will sit down quietly on the grass and watch a little will be indeed surprised at the number and variety of living beings, every one with a special history of its own, every one offering endless problems of great interest.

“If indeed thy heart were right, then would every creature be to thee a mirror of lifer and a book of holy doctrine.” [3]

The study of Natural History has the special advantage of carrying us into the country and the open air.

Not but what towns are beautiful too. They teem with human interest and historical associations.

Wordsworth was an intense lover of nature; yet does he not tell us, in lines which every Londoner will appreciate, that he knew nothing in nature more fair, no calm more deep, than the city of London at early dawn?

  “Earth has not anything to show more fair;
  Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
  A sight so touching in its majesty:
  This City now doth, like a garment, wear
  The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
  Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
  Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
  All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
  Never did sun more beautifully steep
  In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
  Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
  The river glideth at its own sweet will:
  Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
  And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Milton also described London as

  “Too blest abode, no loveliness we see
  In all the earth, but it abounds in thee.”

But after being some time in a great city, one feels a longing for the country.

  “The meanest floweret of the vale,
  The simplest note that swells the gale,
  The common sun, the air, the skies,
  To him are opening paradise.” [4]

Here Gray justly places flowers in the first place, for when in any great town we think of the country, flowers seem first to suggest themselves.

“Flowers,” says Ruskin, “seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity. Children love them; quiet, tender, contented, ordinary people love them as they grow; luxurious and disorderly people rejoice in them gathered. They are the cottager’s treasure; and in the crowded town mark, as with a little broken fragment of rainbow the windows of the workers in whose heart rest the covenant of peace.” But in the crowded street, or even in the formal garden, flowers always seem, to me at least, as if they were pining for the freedom of the woods and fields, where they can live and grow as they please.

There are flowers for almost all seasons and all places. Flowers for spring, summer, and autumn, while even in the very depth of winter here and there one makes its appearance. There are flowers of the fields and woods and hedgerows, of the seashore and the lake’s margin, of the mountain-side up to the very edge of the eternal snow.

And what an infinite variety they present.

  That come before the swallow dares, and take
  The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
  But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
  Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
  That die unmarried, ere they can behold
  Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
  Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
  The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
  The flower-de-luce being one.” [5]

Nor are they mere delights to the eye; they are full of mystery and suggestions. They almost seem like enchanted princesses waiting for some princely deliverer. Wordsworth tells us that

  “To me the meanest flower that blows can give
  Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Every color again, every variety of form, has some purpose and explanation.

And yet, lovely as Flowers are, Leaves add even more to the Beauty of Nature. Trees in our northern latitudes seldom own large flowers; and though of course there are notable exceptions, such as the Horse-chestnut, still even in these cases the flowers live only a few days, while the leaves last for months. Every tree indeed is a picture in itself: The gnarled and rugged Oak, the symbol and source of our navy, sacred to the memory of the Druids, the type of strength, the sovereign of British trees; the Chestnut, with its beautiful, tapering, and rich green, glossy leaves, its delicious fruit, and to the durability of which we owe the grand and historic roof of Westminster Abbey.

The Birch is the queen of trees, with her feathery foliage, scarcely visible in spring but turning to leaves of gold in autumn; the pendulous twigs tinged with purple, and silver stems so brilliantly marked with black and white.

The Elm forms grand masses of foliage which turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn; and the Black Poplar with its perpendicular leaves, rustling and trembling with every breath of wind, towers over most other forest trees.

The Beech enlivens the country by its tender green in spring, rich green in summer, and glorious gold and orange in autumn, set off by the graceful gray stems; and has moreover, such a wealth of leaves that in autumn there are enough not only to clothe the tree itself but to cover the grass underneath.

If the Beech owes much to its delicate gray stem, even more beautiful is the reddish crimson of the Scotch Pines, in such charming contrast with the rich green of the foliage, by which it is shown off rather than hidden; and, with the green spires of the Firs, they keep the woods warm in winter.

Nor must I overlook the smaller trees: the Yew with its thick green foliage; the wild Guelder rose, which lights up the woods in autumn with translucent glossy berries and many-tinted leaves; or the Bryonies, the Briar, the Traveler’s Joy, and many another plant, even humbler perhaps, and yet each with some exquisite beauty and grace of its own, so that we must all have sometimes felt our hearts overflowing with gladness and gratitude, as if the woods were full of music–as if

  “The woods were filled so full with song
  There seemed no room for sense of wrong.” [6]

On the whole no doubt, woodlands are less beautiful in the winter: yet even then the delicate tracery of the branches, which cannot be so well seen when they are clothed with leaves, has a special beauty of its own; while every now and then hoar frost or snow settles like silver on every branch and twig, lighting up the forest as if by enchantment in preparation for some fairy festival.

I feel with Jefferies that “by day or by night, summer or winter, beneath trees the heart feels nearer to that depth of life which the far sky means. The rest of spirit found only in beauty, ideal and pure, comes there because the distance seems within touch of thought.”

The general effect of forests in tropical regions must be very different from that of those in our latitudes. Kingsley describes it as one of helplessness, confusion, awe, all but terror. The trunks are very lofty and straight, and rising to a great height without a branch, so that the wood seems at first comparatively open. In Brazilian forests, for instance, the trees struggle upward, and the foliage forms an unbroken canopy, perhaps a hundred feet overhead. Here, indeed, high up in the air is the real life of the forest. Everything seems to climb, to the light. The quadrupeds climb, birds climb, reptiles climb, and the variety of climbing plants is far greater than anything to which we are accustomed.

Many savage nations worship trees, and I really think my first feeling would be one of delight and interest rather than of surprise, if some day when I am alone in a wood one of the trees were to speak to me. Even by day there is something mysterious in a forest, and this is much more the case at night.

With wood, water seems to be naturally associated. Without water no landscape is complete, while overhead the clouds add beauty to the heavens themselves. The spring and the rivulet, the brook, the river, and the lake, seem to give life to Nature, and were indeed regarded by our ancestors as living entities themselves. Water is beautiful in the morning mist, in the broad lake, in the glancing stream or the river pool, in the wide ocean, beautiful in all its varied moods. Water nourishes vegetation; it clothes the lowlands with green and the mountains with snow. It sculptures the rocks and excavates the valleys, in most cases acting mainly through the soft rain, though our harder rocks are still grooved by the ice-chisel of bygone ages.

The refreshing pour of water upon the earth is scarcely greater than that which it exercises on the mind of man. After a long spell of work how delightful it is to sit by a lake or river, or on the seashore, and enjoy

  “A little murmur in mine ear,
  A little ripple at my feet.” [7]

Every Englishman loves the sight of the Sea We feel that it is to us a second home. It seems to vivify the very atmosphere, so that Sea air is proverbial as a tonic, and makes the blood dance in our veins. The Ocean gives an impression of freedom and grandeur more intense perhaps than the aspect of the heavens themselves. A poor woman from Manchester, on being taken to the seaside, is said to have expressed her delight on seeing for the first time something of which there was enough for everybody. The sea coast is always interesting. When we think of the cliff sections with their histories of bygone ages; the shore itself teeming with seaweeds and animals, waiting for the return of the tide, or thrown up from deeper water by the waves; the weird cries of seabirds; the delightful feeling that with every breath we are laying in a store of fresh life, and health, and energy, it is impossible to over-estimate all we owe to the sea.

It is, moreover, always changing. We went for our holiday this year to Lyme Regis. Let me attempt to describe the changes in the view from our windows during a single day. Our sitting-room opened on to a little lawn, beyond which the ground drops suddenly to the sea, while over about two miles of water were the hills of the Dorsetshire coast–Golden Cap, with its bright crest of yellow sand, and the dark blue Lias Cliff of Black Ven. When I came early down in the morning the sun was rising opposite, shining into the room over a calm sea, along an avenue of light; by degrees, as it rose, the whole sea was gilt with light, and the hills bathed in a violet mist. By breakfast-time all color had faded from the sea–it was like silver passing on each side into gray; the sky was blue, flecked with fleecy clouds; while, on the gentler slopes of the coast opposite, fields and woods, and quarries and lines of stratification begin to show themselves, though the cliffs are still in shadow, and the more distant headlands still a mere succession of ghosts, each one fainter than the one before it. As the morning advances the sea becomes blue, the dark woods, green meadows, and golden cornfields of the opposite coast more distinct, and the details of the cliffs come gradually into view, and fishing-boats with dark sails begin to appear.

Gradually the sun rises higher, a yellow line of shore appears under the opposite cliffs, and the sea changes its color, mapping itself out as it were, the shallower parts turquoise blue, almost green; the deeper ones deep violet.

This does not last long–a thunderstorm comes up. The wind mutters overhead, the rain patters on the leaves, the coast opposite seems to shrink into itself, as if it would fly from the storm. The sea grows dark and rough, and white horses appear here and there.

But the storm is soon over. The clouds break, the rain stops, the sun shines once more, the hills opposite come out again. They are divided now not only into fields and woods, but into sunshine and shadow. The sky clears, and as the sun begins to descend westwards the sea becomes one beautiful clear uniform azure, changing again soon to pale blue in front and dark violet beyond: and once more as clouds begin to gather again, into an archipelago of bright blue sea and deep islands of ultramarine. As the sun travels westward, the opposite hills change again. They scarcely seem like the same country. What was in sun is now in shade, and what was in shade now lies bright in the sunshine. The sea once more becomes a uniform solid blue, only flecked in places by scuds of wind, and becoming paler towards evening as the sun sinks, the cliffs which catch his setting rays losing their deep color and in some places looking almost as white as chalk, while at sunset they light up again for a moment with a golden glow, the sea at the same time sinking to a cold gray. But soon the hills grow cold too, Golden Cap holding out bravely to the last, and the shades of evening settle over cliff and wood, cornfield and meadow.

These are but a part, and a very small part, of the changes of a single day. And scarce any two days are alike. At times a sea-fog covers everything. Again the sea which sleeps to-day so peacefully sometimes rages, and the very existence of the bay itself bears witness to its force.

The night, again, varies like the day. Sometimes shrouded by a canopy of darkness, sometimes lit up by millions of brilliant worlds, sometimes bathed in the light of a moon, which never retains the same form for two nights together.

If Lakes are less grand than the sea, they are in some respects even more lovely. The seashore is comparatively bare. The banks of Lakes are often richly clothed with vegetation which comes close down to the water’s edge, sometimes hanging even into the water itself. They are often studded with well-wooded islands. They are sometimes fringed with green meadows, sometimes bounded by rocky promontories rising directly from comparatively deep water, while the calm bright surface is often fretted by a delicate pattern of interlacing ripples, or reflects a second, softened, and inverted landscape.

To water again we owe the marvellous spectacle of the rainbow–"God’s bow in the clouds.” It is indeed truly a heavenly messenger, and so unlike anything else that it scarcely seems to belong to this world.

Many things are colored, but the rainbow seems to be color itself.

    “First the flaming red
  Sprang vivid forth; the tawny orange next,
  And next delicious yellow; by whose side
  Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
  Then the pure blue that swells autumnal skies,
  Ethereal play’d; and then, of sadder hue
  Emerged the deeper indigo (as when
  The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost),
  While the last gleamings of refracted light
  Died in the fainting violet away.” [8]

We do not, I think, sufficiently realize how wonderful is the blessing of color. It would have been possible, it would even seem more probable, that though light might have enabled us to perceive objects, this could only have been by shade and form. How we perceive color it is very difficult to comprehend, and yet when we speak of beauty, among the ideas which come to us most naturally are those of birds and butterflies, flowers and shells, precious stones, skies, and rainbows.

Our minds might have been constituted exactly as they are, we might have been capable of comprehending the highest and sublimest truths, and yet, but for a small organ in the head, the world of sound would have been shut out from us; we should have lost the sounds of nature, the charms of music, the conversation of friends, and have been condemned to perpetual silence: and yet a slight alteration in the retina, which is not thicker than a sheet of paper, not larger than a finger nail,–and the glorious spectacle of this beautiful world, the exquisite variety of form, the glory and play of color, the variety of scenery, of woods and fields, and lakes and hills, seas and mountains, the glory of the sky alike by day and night, would all have been lost to us.

Mountains, again, “seem to have been built for the human race, as at once their schools and cathedrals; full of treasures of illuminated manuscript for the scholar, kindly in simple lessons for the worker, quiet in pale cloisters for the thinker, glorious in holiness for the worshipper. And of these great cathedrals of the earth, with their gates of rock, pavements of cloud, choirs of stream and stone, altars of snow, and vaults of purple traversed by the continual stars.” [9]

All these beauties are comprised in Tennyson’s exquisite description of Oenone’s vale–the city, flowers, trees, river, and mountains.

  “There is a vale in Ida, lovelier
  Than all the valleys of Ionian hills.
  The swimming vapor slopes athwart the glen,
  Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
  And loiters, slowly drawn. On either hand
  The lawns and meadow-ledges midway down
  Hang rich in flowers, and far below them roars
  The long brook falling thro’ the clov’n ravine
  In cataract after cataract to the sea.
  Behind the valley topmost Gargarus
  Stands up and takes the morning; but in front
  The gorges, opening wide apart, reveal
  Troas and Ilion’s column’d citadel,
  The crown of Troas.”

And when we raise our eyes from earth, who has not sometimes felt “the witchery of the soft blue sky;” who has not watched a cloud floating upward as if on its way to heaven, or when

  “Sunbeam proof, I hang like a roof
  The mountain its columns be.” [10]

And yet “if, in our moments of utter idleness and insipidity, we turn to the sky as a last resource, which of its phenomena do we speak of? One says, it has been wet; and another, it has been windy; and another, it has been warm. Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south, and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves? All has passed, unregretted as unseen; or if the apathy be ever shaken off, even for an instant, it is only by what is gross, or what is extraordinary; and yet it is not in the broad and fierce manifestations of the elemental energies, not in the clash of the hail, nor the drift of the whirlwind, that the highest characters of the sublime are developed.” [11]

But exquisitely lovely as is the blue arch of the midday sky, with its inexhaustible variety of clouds, “there is yet a light which the eye invariably seeks with a deeper feeling of the beautiful, the light of the declining or breaking day, and the flakes of scarlet cloud burning like watch-fires in the green sky of the horizon.” [12] The evening colors indeed soon fade away, but as night comes on,

    “How glorious the firmament
  With living sapphires! Hesperus that led
  The starry host, rode brightest; till the moon
  Rising in clouded majesty, at length,
  Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light,
  And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw.” [13]

We generally speak of a beautiful night when it is calm and clear, and the stars shine brightly overhead; but how grand also are the wild ways of Nature, how magnificent when the lightning flashes, “between gloom and glory;” when

  “From peak to peak, the rattling crags among
  Leaps the live thunder.” [14]

In the words of Ossian–

  “Ghosts ride in the tempest to-night;
  Sweet is their voice between the gusts of wind,
  Their songs are of other worlds.”

Nor are the wonders and beauties of the heavens limited by the clouds and the blue sky, lovely as they are. In the heavenly bodies we have before us “the perpetual presence of the sublime.” They are so immense and so far away, and yet on soft summer nights “they seem leaning down to whisper in the ear of our souls.” [15]

“A man can hardly lift up his eyes toward the heavens,” says Seneca, “without wonder and veneration, to see so many millions of radiant lights, and to observe their courses and revolutions, even without any respect to the common good of the Universe.”

Who does not sympathize with the feelings of Dante as he rose from his visit to the lower regions, until, he says,

  “On our view the beautiful lights of heaven
  Dawned through a circular opening in the cave,
  Thence issuing, we again beheld the stars.”

As we watch the stars at night they seem so still and motionless that we can hardly realize that all the time they are rushing on with a velocity far far exceeding any that man has ever accomplished.

Like the sands of the sea, the stars of heaven have ever been used as an appropriate symbol of number, and we know that there are some 75,000,000, many, no doubt, with planets of their own. But this is by no means all. The floor of heaven is not only “thick inlaid with patines of bright gold,” but is studded also with extinct stars, once probably as brilliant as our own sun, but now dead and cold, as Helmholtz tells us our sun itself will be some seventeen millions of years hence. Then, again, there are the comets, which, though but few are visible to us at once, are even more numerous than the stars; there are the nebulae, and the countless minor bodies circulating in space, and occasionally visible as meteors.

Nor is it only the number of the heavenly bodies which is so overwhelming; their magnitude and distances are almost more impressive. The ocean is so deep and broad as to be almost infinite, and indeed in so far as our imagination is the limit, so it may be. Yet what is the ocean compared to the sky? Our globe is little compared to the giant orbs of Jupiter and Saturn, which again sink into insignificance by the side of the sun. The sun itself is almost as nothing compared with the dimensions of the solar system. Sirius is calculated to be a thousand times as great as the Sun, and a million times as far away. The solar system itself travels in one region of space, sailing between worlds and worlds, and is surrounded by many other systems as great and complex as itself; and we know that even then we have not reached the limits of the Universe itself.

There are stars so distant that their light, though traveling 180,000 miles in a second, yet takes years to reach us; and beyond all these are other systems of stars which are so far away that they cannot be perceived singly, but even in our most powerful telescopes appear only as minute clouds or nebulae. It is, indeed, but a feeble expression of the truth to say that the infinities revealed to us by Science,–the infinitely great in the one direction, and the infinitely small in the other,–go far beyond anything which had occurred to the unaided imagination of Man, and are not only a never-failing source of pleasure and interest, but seem to lift us out of the petty troubles and sorrows of life.

[1] Beattie.

[2] Tennyson.

[3] Thomas a Kempis.

[4] Gray.

[5] Shakespeare.

[6] Tennyson.

[7] Trench.

[8] Thomson.

[9] Ruskin.

[10] Shelley.

[11] Ruskin.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Wordsworth.

[14] Swinburne.

[15] Symonds.



[Buy at Amazon]
At Amazon