Sound and Life


As I was once walking along a country road I heard to one side, across a field and through a screen of birches, the pleasant clang of hammer and anvil from a farmer’s smithy, and pausing awhile in the rural quiet, listening to so humanly ancient a sound, I began to meditate on the history of sounds in human life, of how certain characteristic sounds had accompanied certain ages of history, and of how such sounds had vanished out of life, some, perhaps, to reappear, and others to be heard no more. Quickened by the neighboring clang, my mind imagined in its own ear a sound familiar to many centuries, the tapping of the armorer’s hammer, and I wondered in what walled and old-fashioned city it had last been obscurely heard; and I thought, too, of the sound of arrows loosed by a great company of bowmen, and wondered in what heraldic battle the air had last filled with that arched and formidable humming.

In the beginning the world must have been very pleasantly still. The ancient quiet of earth, which is but a vulnerable fragment of the pure silence of space, had not yet gone to hide, like a spirit, in lonely places. Those vast, fantastic fragments that are the continents we know, each ringed with the timeless cadences and confusions of the sea, were full of that inland peace which begins where the ocean murmur dies away. The first sounds to visit human ears were those which are perhaps destined to be the last; that to which we listen Adam heard. Spacing the quiet, men heard the lovely sounds of earth — rain in the deep woods on drying, late-summer leaves, the stir of trees at sunrise that have been still all night, the fiery snap of lightning, the song of a bird by a lake. A small and local sound of stone struck upon stone, that sharp, complete, integral click without vibration, must have been the first true ‘made’ sound to part the ancient leaves, to be, for ages too vast for centuries to count, the tokening sound of man. Metal with its lengthening vibration then confused the stone, more voices jargoned (for this early world, it would seem, was filling up) the crowd din, and cries of archaic war arose, and presently beginning sounds of the arts and trades intruded with the numbered years.

So began the pageant, with silences and sounds that have not died. For all our noises, the first quiet is nearer than we know. The inland stillness is a sea: if our sounds trouble it like fountains, like fountains they fall back and are no more; if it be gone to hide like a spirit, it can return like an armed man, and there were cities on the war front thus retaken. The voices of earth are likewise ours, harassed and lessened only in so far as they rise from the kingdom of creatures, but still chiefest oracles and gods. Secluded tribes still practise the arts of stone, and I have myself heard the attendant sound; there are yet people who make and use the most primitive of metal implements. For beginnings are often like the roots of trees, remaining below and unchanged in their nature, while there are change and development from them overhead.

What vanished sounds, what fine ghosts of the ear, rise from the known years! Screaming upon their axles, in a storm of dust and hoofs, the war chariots charge the Biblical plain; the measured plash of oars in banks rises from some galley bound for Ostia, the heavy wooden pound of the quartermaster’s timing mace heard muffled from below decks; behind Pentelic colonnades, the stringed music of lost instruments mingles with a vast chanting before the gods. One hears the hiss of the snakes of Greek fire from Byzantine citadels, bells ringing against thunderstorms in Gothic cities; the popgun sound of Renaissance artillery, the rumble of the first coaches on the first good roads, and the howl of wind in the rigging of an eighteenth-century man-of-war in foul weather at anchor in the downs.

They are all gone; men will hear them no more; and in our own day the last sounds of the handicrafts descend, fighting gallantly, toward the same oblivion. It may be that they will hold their ultimate own, and presently mount, passing on their upward way the whole huge childishness of modern noise down-tumbling. What contemporary sound, one pauses to ask, will summon up our own strange years? The universal grind of gears when traffic starts again at a light, the demoniac tattoo of a riveter? In my own mind, it is something more subtle, more like the dry, merciless, electrical tick one hears in the pressured silence of a power room, a small sound, obedient, without life, and astronomically alien to the bones of man.

There is one sound which catches the exact note of the nineteenth century — that era of rather simple machinery, growing populations, optimism, and more facts which has now so largely collapsed, hammered by the war and disintegrated by the motor. It is the whistle of a locomotive at nightfall in the country. The sound is still the same piercing larum it has always been; it has authority, its own self-confidence, and it is to-day almost elegiac and old-fashioned.

Perhaps there are far more old sounds alive than we know. All kinds of antique noises are still vigorous in that most conservative of all kingdoms, the sea, and in the country are a world of sounds so honorably old and so closely interwoven with the pattern of life that they are no more on the defensive than the wind in the trees. A few weeks ago, during haying time, I listened to the sounds rising from the fields, and marked them the same I had heard in boyhood. From a wide swale under bordering trees rose the old, pleasant rattle of the mowing machine; I heard the clicking song of whetstone and scythe, the swish of some blade on the grindstone and the grindstone’s treadle squeak; and late in the hot afternoon the gray, weathered rack passed us, fragrant and full-laden, creaking the same remembered creak, the same remembered groan.

Sound is more of life than we know. It is an inheritance and a thought, a mood and a power. Now inherent and determined, now create and mutable, it accompanies each life and age, resolved into one unperceived and enormous music. It is very much the earth’s, being as much a part of landscape as the sky, even as the changing pitch of a brook along its course is part of the integrity of the moment in time and the water. A whole way of life which has not given us one sweet and memorable sound may be justly suspect. Such a culture is only a kind of island in history, a weedy acre or two removed from the wide stream of the rhythm and tradition of man, doubtful soil in which the wise will note a proprietary print of cloven hoofs. The running stream will pass it, behind a bend and trees it will disappear, and Time will gather it into his illusion, and presently there will be ancient quiet again, and sounds born living of the spirit of man.