by Peter Hitchens
What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.
Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose, perhaps most especially in Holy Writ. In the one-hundred third Psalm, the wind symbolizes the passing nature of the material world, “for as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone and the place thereof shall know it no more.” In the one-hundred fourth, the Almighty “walketh upon the wings of the wind.” Can there be any more potent and memorable passage in scripture than when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and our Lord tells him “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit”? I am quite sure it was a windy night. And I have always seen Nicodemus hurrying through the gusty, narrow streets in the hilltop city, with his cloak drawn over his face, and then the two men sitting together near an open window speaking softly and intensely to each other. And then of course there is that storm on the Sea of Galilee, through which the maker of the World and its weather sleeps contentedly until his terrified disciples shake him awake.
In John Masefield’s poem “The Rider at the Gate,” in which the ghost of Pompey tries in vain to warn Caesar of his approaching murder, a sinister gale blows through every verse. Hinges creak, lamps gutter, the Tiber foams yellow, and I am sure that is why it has stayed in my memory for sixty years. The same goes for another Masefield poem, this time directly about wind: “It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries; I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.” Not so for the Reverend Charles Kingsley, who sneers at the soft South-Westerly wind as “the ladies’ breeze” and praises instead the “wind of God,” the “the black Northeaster, /
Through the snowstorm hurled” that “drives our English hearts of oak seaward round the world.” Well, at least it used to. Now we shelter behind the double glazing and watch television, hoping that no hardier people will take advantage of our decadence while we are slumped on the cushions with our mouths hanging open slightly, gazing at the adventures of others.
When David Copperfield approaches its climax and the resolution of all its mysteries, Charles Dickens (in chapter fifty-five) describes a colossal storm which rages over the whole of England. David first sees it as he takes the coach to Yarmouth; he looks up in alarm and asks the coachman:
“Don’t you think that a very remarkable sky? I don’t remember to have seen one like it.”
“Nor I—not equal to it,” he replied. ‘That’s wind, sir. There’ll be mischief done at sea, I expect, before long.” And there is.
“. . . There had been a wind all day; and it was rising then, with an extraordinary great sound.” The description that follows, which ends in great grief, is of a whole civilization cowering in the face of a power it cannot restrain and does not understand. Gusts of rain are blown so hard by the gale that they feel like showers of steel in the face. Several times the coach is forced by the wind to stop. Dickens’s description of people leaving their houses lest the chimneys fall on them, and of sheets of lead torn from roofs, is once again immediate and alive. He is a master of evoking things, but he is always evoking the past. In this chapter, it feels more like the present. I have seen a much more modern England humbled by wind, with roads closed, the windows of great buildings flying open in the middle of the night, and power lines torn down. And we have it easy in comparison with others. I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war. I do not mean to be callous here. I know these things can be terrible and deadly, and I do not rejoice over the destruction. But it would happen whatever I thought about it, and I do not think it does the human race much harm to notice that even the soft unresisting air it takes for granted can harden into a mighty and uncontrollable force, from which we can only take shelter.
My own island seldom needs to worry too much about tornadoes or hurricanes (though they are not unknown). Our gales are more temperate, and can often be enjoyed without fear. My father, a naval officer who spent many years mostly at sea, from the North Cape of Norway to the Falkland Islands and Cape Horn at the opposite end of the world, loved to feel the wind and suffered its absence as a deprivation. Marooned in later life in the English Midlands, he yearned for the wind amid the feeble wafts and humid sultriness of that excessively sheltered inland landscape. “The air moves!” he would exclaim, scrambling into his coat and heading for the nearest door to the outside world, when it finally came on to blow. It was of course not salty, as it should have been, but it was at least wind. He was like the Dennistons in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, whom I loved at first sight because of their declaration to Jane Studdock: “We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but just Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.” They say this in the midst of a fog, but later the wind blows. “All day the wind had been rising and they found themselves looking out on a sky swept almost clean. The air was intensely cold; the stars severe and bright. High above the last rags of scurrying cloud hung the Moon in all her wildness—not the voluptuous moon of a thousand southern love-songs, but the huntress, the untameable virgin, the spear-head of madness. If that cold satellite had just then joined our planet for the first time, it could hardly have looked more like an omen. The wildness crept into Jane’s blood.”
Wildness indeed. Some people, especially teachers, say the wind makes people (and particularly children) wilder. Some dismiss this as a silly weakness and say sternly that humans should not give way to such things. I only know that a windy day, and better still a windy night, will lift my spirits, and the sound of the wind in leafless winter trees is some of the finest music there is or ever will be, especially the wind in the willows. But perhaps a strong wind has other effects. M.R. James, in “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” describes the horrible fate (on a stormy February night) of a murderer who touches some especially grotesque carvings in the ancient choir stalls. The carvings, it turns out, have a sinister origin, having been cut from a tree once used to hang malefactors. And inside one of the carvings is found this note: “Who that touches me with his Hand, / If a Bloody hand he bear, / I councell him to be ware. / Lest he be fetcht away. Whether by night or day, / But chiefly when the wind blows high / In a night of February.” You never know with M.R. James whether he made these things up or drew them from the life. But I have always been troubled by the words “when the wind blows high.” Is everything just more intense, more thrilling, more dangerous, and more lovely when it does? George Borrow wrote:
There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?
Is there not something strangely captivating about the words “There’s a wind on the heath”? And do we feel in the wind an intimation of the power that moves everything, which we cannot see, which comes from no one knows where, and goes who knows where, and against which we are weak as lambs?
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