Fragrance in Literature-Walter Prichard Eaton

The Lilac

Walter Prichard Eaton


THE SCENT of lilac in the air
Hath made him drag his steps and pause
Whence comes this scent within the Square,
Where endless dusty traffic roars?
A push-cart stands beside the curb,
With fragrant blossoms laden high;
Speak low, nor stare, lest we disturb
His sudden reverie!

He sees us not, nor heeds the din
Of clanging car and scuffling throng;
His eyes see fairer sights within,
And memory hears the robin’s song
As once it trilled against the day,
And shook his slumber in a room
Where drifted with the breath of May
The lilac’s sweet perfume.

The heart of boyhood in him stirs;
The wonder of the morning skies,
Of sunset gold behind the firs,
Is kindled in his dreaming eyes:
How far off is this sordid place,
As turning from our sight away
He crushes to his hungry face
A purple lilac spray.


Eaton, Walter Prichard (1878–1957), critic and author. Born in Malden, Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard and accepted a position as assistant drama critic on the Tribune before becoming principal drama critic for the Sun and American Magazine. He wrote numerous books on theatre, including The American Stage of ToDay (1908), At the New Theatre and Others (1910), Plays and Players (1916), The Actor's Heritage (1924), and The Theatre Guild: The First Ten Years (1929). In 1933 he accepted the post of Associate Professor of Playwriting at Yale. Although he consistently argued for a progressive, serious drama, Eaton's views were fundamentally conservative, and he welcomed much that now would be unpalatable. His sharp observations and pleasant style made his criticisms eminently readable.
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Books by or about Walter Prichard Eaton


Penguin Persons & Peppermints, by Walter Prichard Eaton

I have just purchased a little bag of peppermints, and returned with them to my rooms above the Square. I did not purchase them at the promptings of a sweet tooth, but of a hungry heart. They take me back into the forgotten Aprils of my life, where I often love to loiter, not from any resentment that I have been unable to emulate Peter Pan and remain a boy forever, but because this great town is drab and dusty and imprisoning, and it is sweet to escape down the green lanes of April, even if only in a memory. A physical sensation—the sound of a voice, a hand patting us to the rhythm of “Tell Aunt Rhody”, an odor—can plunge us deeper and swifter down to the buried places of our memory than any process of deliberate recollection. No robin sings against my window of a morning here—only the noisy sparrows twitter and quarrel, reminding me of the curb market. No lilac sheds its perfume on the still air. I am perforce reduced to peppermints. The taste of peppermints on my tongue, the pungent fragrance of them in my nostrils, have the power,[240] however, to transport me far from this maze of mortared cañons, back across the years, to a land where the robins sang against the spacious sky and a little boy dreamed great dreams.

But the steaming manure pile is not the only sign of spring, nor the hotbeds the only things[158] to be attended to. If they only were, how much easier gardening would be—and how much less exciting! There is always work to be done in the orchard, for instance, some pruning and scraping. I always go into the orchard on the first really warm, spring-like March day, with a common hoe, and scrape a little, not so much for the good of the trees as for the good of my soul. The real scraping for the scale spray was, of course, done earlier. There is a curious, faintly putrid smell to old or bruised apple wood, which is stirred by my scraping, and that smell sweeps over me a wave of memories, memories of childhood in a great yellow house that stood back from the road almost in its orchard, and boasted a cupola with panes of colored glass which made the familiar landscape strange; memories of youth in that same house, too, dim memories “of sweet, forgotten, wistful things.” My early spring afternoons in the orchard are very precious to me now, and when the weather permits I always try to burn the rubbish and dead prunings on Good Friday, the incense of the apple wood floating across the brown garden like a prayer, the precious ashes sinking down to enrich the soil.

So spring comes and goes in the garden, busy and beautiful, ceaseless work and ceaseless wonder. But there is a moment in its passage, as yet unmentioned, which I have kept for the[167] close because to me it is the subtle climax of the resurrection season. It usually comes in April for us, though sometimes earlier. The time is evening, always evening, just after supper, when a frail memory of sunset still lingers in the west and the air is warm. I go out hatless upon the veranda, thinking of other things, and suddenly I am aware of the song of the frogs! There are laughing voices in the street, the tinkle of a far-off piano, the pleasant sounds of village life come outdoors with the return of spring; and buoying up, permeating these other sounds comes the ceaseless, shrill chorus of the frogs, seemingly from out of the air and distance, beating in waves on the ear. Why this first frog chorus so thrills me I cannot explain, nor what dim memories it wakes. But the peace of it steals over all my senses, and I walk down into the dusk and seclusion of my garden, amid the sweet odors of new earth and growing things, where the song comes up to me from the distant meadow making the garden-close sweeter still, the air yet more warm and fragrant, the promise of spring more magical. The garden then is very intimate and dear, it brings me into closer touch with the awakening earth about me, and all the years I dwelt a prisoner in cities are but as the shadow of a dream.

I wonder if other wayfarers through New England greet, as I do, with special affection the old house on the bend of the road? It is so characteristic of an earlier civilization, so suggestive of a vanished epoch—and withal so picturesque! Even if you are unfortunate enough to “tour” in a motor-car, which of course is far from the ideal way to savor the countryside, still you cannot miss the old house on the bend, even though you do miss the feel of the land, the rise and dip of the road, the fragrance of the clematis by the wall, the already fading gold of the evening primroses when you start off after breakfast.

But I wander as aimlessly as the enchanted visitor to Sewanee, and am by way of forgetting that it was Spring I set out to recapture with my pen—as if one could recapture the vanished[26] Aprils! It was April, to be sure, early April, very cold in the Berkshires, with great, dirty drifts of snow still lingering on the northern sides of walls and hedges, and ice on the pools of a morning. Down here on the Cumberland plateau the trees were still bare, too, and the mornings chill, though you could easily find a blade of grass “big enough to blow,” and the brown thrashers sang in the dooryards. But there came a day when the sun rose misty and hot, and I wandered out through the woods, by a dim, sandy cart track, missing the solemn evergreen note of our northern forests but happy in the fragrance of life reviving under last year's leaves—that peculiar odor of the woods in Spring. The little brown brook at Thumping Dick was softly vocal, and it, too, smelled of leaves. After a time I reached a point which jutted out directly over the tops of the trees growing on the débris pile below. These trees were as tall as masts, and as straight, though they were hardwoods, and from my rocky perch I looked through their upper tracery of budding twigs, as through a veil of faint green and red, out on the brown and green plains of Tennessee shining in the sun, or left and right across the canons of the coves to the stately procession of receding headlands. Then I cast about for a way down into one of the coves, and presently came upon a footpath.

How much hope goes into a hotbed in late March, or early April! How much warmth the friendly manure down under the soil sends up by night to germinate the seeds, though the weather go back to winter outside—as it invariably does in our mountains! Last year, for example, we had snow on the ninth of April, and again on the twenty-third and twenty-ninth, while the year[156] before, on the ninth, six inches fell. In the lowland regions gardening is easier, perhaps, but yet there is a certain joy in this fickle spring weather of ours,—the joy of going out in the morning across a white garden and sweeping the snow from hotbed mats, lifting the moist, steaming glass, and catching from within, strong against your face, the pungent warmth and aroma of the heated soil and the delicate fragrance of young seedlings. How fast the seeds come—some of them! Others come so slowly that the amateur gardener is in despair, and angrily decides to try a new seed house next year. The vegetable frames are sown in rows—celery, tomatoes, cauliflowers, lettuce, radishes, peppers, coming up in tiny green ribbons, the radishes racing ahead. The flower frames, however, are sown in squares, each about a foot across, and each labeled and marked off with a thin strip of wood. These are the early plantings of the annuals, for we cannot sow out-of-doors till the first or even the second week in May in our climate. Sometimes, indeed, we do not dare to sow even in the frames till well into April. The asters are usually up first, racing the weeds. The little squares make, in a week or so, a green checker-board, each promising its quota of color to the garden, and very soon the early cosmos, thinned to the strongest plants, has shot up like a miniature forest, towering over the lowlier seedlings, sometimes bumping[157] its head against the glass before it can be transplanted to the open ground in May. But most prolific, most promising, and most bothersome, are the squares labeled “antirrhinum,” coral red, salmon pink, white, dark maroon, and so on; tiny seeds scattered on the ground and sprinkled with a little sand, they come up by the hundred, and each seedling has to go into a pot before it goes into the ground.

Generalizing is dangerous work. Of course, there may be authors in whom it would start the process. But I have never known one. Even in so exceptional a case as this—of course, the usual friendly suggestion has no real meat of fiction in it at all—something is lacking to fire the imagination. It is exactly as if your nose were called upon to sense, or your retina to image, an odor or a scene described to you and not directly experienced. Your brain accepts the description, but there is no warmth in the reaction, no tingle of life. Just so, it would almost seem, the conception for a story, a poem, no doubt for a picture, too, or a strain of music, is something less, or more, than merely mental; it is in some subtle way sensory, as if the brain had fingers which must themselves touch the thing directly to get the feel of it. Is it not, perhaps, this fact which has caused so many artists, consciously or unconsciously, to believe in “inspiration”?

Summer or winter, wet or dry, that drawer always stuck. It had but one handle,—a ring in the middle. First one side would come out too far, and you would knock it back and pull again. Then the other side would come out too far, and you would knock that back. Then both sides, by diabolical agreement, would suddenly work as on greased ways, and you stood with an astonishingly shallow drawer dangling[187] from your finger, its long-accumulated contents spread on the floor. The shock usually sent down two derbies and a bonnet to add to the confusion. When you had gathered up the litter and stuffed it back, wondering how so small a space ever held so much, the still harder task confronted you of putting the drawer in its grooves again. Sometimes you succeeded; more often you left it “for mother to do”—that depended on your temper and the time of your train. The drawer was a charnel-house of gloves and mittens and veils. When you cut your finger you were sent to it to get a “cot”, and it had a peculiar smell of its own, the smell of the hat-tree drawer. A whiff of old gloves still brings that odor back to me, out of childhood, stirring memories of little garments worn long ago, of a great blue cape that was a pride to my father's heart and a wound to my mother's pride,—but most of all of lost temper and incipient profanity caused by the baulky drawer.

Peppermints, too, are intimately connected with the religious experiences of my childhood; or, perhaps I should say, with the religious observances of my childhood. Our minister's whiskers always interested me more than his discourses. As I nibble a peppermint from the bag before me—lingeringly, for the supply is being fast depleted—and the frail yet pungent odor fills my nostrils, I am once more in that half-filled church, on a Sabbath morning in early Spring, dozing through the sermon, with my head tumbling sleepily now and then against my father's shoulder. Slowly the scene comes back, in every least detail, the smallest sights and sounds of that morning all here, but all thin and faint and frail, spun of the gossamer web of memory. Can I hold them till they are set down? I shall have to eat another precious white lozenge from my bag.
My cheek had bumped my father's shoulder again when I caught a sudden whiff of peppermint drops and raised my head just in time to see an old lady across the aisle whisk her dress down over her petticoat pocket. For a few moments I watched her in envy, for her mouth was moving ever so little and I could fancy the delicious taste. But how could she enjoy the candy and not make her mouth go more than that, I wondered. I did not shut my eyes again, but sat very still against my father's arm and let my eyes wander around the church.

Noble New Englander! And perhaps my own peppermint feasts are not so much memorial banquet, after all, as ceremonial rites in honor of my native land. For I cannot think of this great city of New York as my home, I cannot fit into the rushing, roaring cogs and grooves of its machinery without a protest, without a hope that some day I may hear the wheels no longer roar at their cruel revolutions. Thus my peppermints speak to me of home, of quiet, of certain green places and a lilac hedge; there is about them the taste and odor of the ideal. They are for the future as well as for the past. Perhaps in some subtle way they do after all have potency for beauty. I fancy that some day I too shall stow away bags of them amid my worthless precious junk, and when prying hands disturb the dust the nostrils of a youngster now unborn will be greeted by a frail yet pungent aroma. I can only trust that he will know well what it is.

Summer or winter, wet or dry, that drawer always stuck. It had but one handle,—a ring in the middle. First one side would come out too far, and you would knock it back and pull again. Then the other side would come out too far, and you would knock that back. Then both sides, by diabolical agreement, would suddenly work as on greased ways, and you stood with an astonishingly shallow drawer dangling[187] from your finger, its long-accumulated contents spread on the floor. The shock usually sent down two derbies and a bonnet to add to the confusion. When you had gathered up the litter and stuffed it back, wondering how so small a space ever held so much, the still harder task confronted you of putting the drawer in its grooves again. Sometimes you succeeded; more often you left it “for mother to do”—that depended on your temper and the time of your train. The drawer was a charnel-house of gloves and mittens and veils. When you cut your finger you were sent to it to get a “cot”, and it had a peculiar smell of its own, the smell of the hat-tree drawer. A whiff of old gloves still brings that odor back to me, out of childhood, stirring memories of little garments worn long ago, of a great blue cape that was a pride to my father's heart and a wound to my mother's pride,—but most of all of lost temper and incipient profanity caused by the baulky drawer.

But, to the barber's soothing snip, snip, snip, and the gentle tug of the comb, I dreamed of the barber shops of my boyhood, and of Clarkie Parker's in particular. Clarkie's shop was in Lyceum Hall block, one flight up—a huge room, with a single green upholstered barber's chair between the windows, where one could sit and watch the town go by below you. The room smelled pungently of bay rum. Barber shops don't smell of bay rum any more. Around two sides were ranged many chairs and an old leather couch. The chair-arms were smooth and black with the rubbing of innumerable hands and elbows, and behind them, making a dark line along the wall, were the marks where the heads of the sitters rubbed as they tilted back. Nor can I forget the spittoons,—large shallow boxes, two feet square,—four of them, full of sand. On a third side of the room stood the basin and water-taps, and beside them a large black-walnut cabinet, full of shelves. The shelves were full of mugs, and on every mug was a name, in gilt letters, generally Old English. Those mugs were a town directory of our leading citizens. My father's mug was on the next to the top shelf, third[231] from the end on the right. The sight of it used to thrill me, and at twelve I began surreptitiously to feel my chin, to see if there were any hope of my achieving a mug in the not-too-distant future.

In his day, in the land where he came from, peppermints were almost a symbol of life's best things—of grandmothers and other dear old ladies who kept cookies in cool stone crocks in sweet-smelling “butt'ries” (sometimes foolishly called pantries by those who put on airs); of Christmastides when to the joy of peppermint sticks was added the unspeakable delight of sucking barley toys,—red dogs, golden camels that lost their humps and elephants that lost their trunks as the tongue went succulently 'round and 'round them; of the wonderful village “notion” store, presided over by a terrible female person with a deep bass voice, who asked you over the counter as you entered, “Which side, young man?” It was bad enough to be called “Bubbie”, but to be called “young man” in this ironic bass was almost insufferable. Yet you bore it nobly, for the sake of the pound of shot for your air-gun or the blood-alley or the great pink and white peppermints, two for a cent, that reposed[241] in a glass jar on the left side of the shop. Was Miss Emily so terrible a person, I wonder now? She was always looked upon a little askance by the ladies of our village because she was “so masculine”. But if she did not conceal a softness for children under her stern exterior why did she keep a stock of so many things dear to the childish heart, from paper soldiers (purchased by the yard) to sleds and shot? Perhaps that fantastic stock of hers was her curious expression of the Eternal Motherly. After she died, every year on the 30th of May the “Vet'rans,” as they marched two by two in annually dwindling lines about the cemetery, placed a fresh print flag and a basket of geraniums on her grave, because she had sent a substitute to the War. To us youngsters this substitute used to explain why she kept shot for sale; she was by nature a bellicose person, and, we were sure, her great grief was her sex.