I suppose all of us have heard the phrase which this post uses for its title. For most, when we hear it, it signals lovely days, gentle days, days of peace and grace and good will between all.
But I don’t know how many of us recall where the phrase comes from, or why, originally, such good, warm, and gentle days were called “halcyon” or why they are always associated with goodness and peace. Certainly I didn’t until I read one of Ruskin’s Oxford lectures of the early 1870s, a series of ten talks he published as The Eagle’s Nest in 1872 (for more on this collection, see the P.S. at the end of this post).
The story of the halcyon is grounded in a Greek myth. (Ruskin always held that the greatest myths were true in the best and deepest sense, and always pointed to the central concerns of our lives.) Here’s how he explained the story, a story which in the end is about home, to his students.
The halcyon was the daughter of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Among the daughters of history, she was among the most loving. As it happened, as he wandered on his epic way, a very lost Odysseus came to Aeolus’s house and, soon, they became friends. Aeolus, feeling sorry for Odysseus’s plight, hoping to help him find his way home, gave him a present, a bag containing all the winds. These could be released at this or that time to help Odysseus and his crew return to Greece, particularly to Ithaca, their true home. Unfortunately, one night, some in the crew, surmising the mysterious bag might be full of gold (which, in a way, it was), purloined it and opened it, at which moment all the winds escaped, disappearing toward all points of the compass at once.
Hearing this, Aeolus had no choice but to go and find his winds. Not long after he left, her beloved father gone, the halcyon fell into despair and, to rectify things, set out on her own to find him and bring him home. Recognizing her remarkable devotion to and love of her father, to help the halcyon in her quest and as special recognition of her laudable qualities, she was given a set of lovely wings by other gods so that she could search the seas easily and, should her quest prove long, make her nest on the sea. To ensure her safety at this delicate moment, the gods decreed that whenever and wherever the halcyon made her nest, the sea, however raging it might be, would become gentle and her days would be spent in peace and sweetness. As she searched, the halcyon was transformed into the mythic bird of the story and, ever after, such precious days, especially when they arrived unexpectedly, would be known by the name, “halcyon.” Alas, now (our “now,” Ruskin’s “now”), such days seem to us to be but “fancies”–or, at best, memories “of another time”–almost impossible to imagine, and, surely, we believe, impossible to regain.
Using this story as his backdrop, Ruskin read what’s below to his students as he neared the end of his “halcyon” lecture. The passage is a little long, but rewards much, as I hope you’ll agree after you’ve read it. At its core, it’s about making home, whether literally, as in Odysseus’s case, or figuratively (and, also, literally), in our own. From a slightly different viewpoint, it’s another way of getting us to think about the subject of our last post, “What’s Wrong–And How to Fix It.” He said:
People are always expecting to get peace in heaven. But…whatever peace they get there will be ready made. Whatever…peace they can be blessed for must be made here on earth, [and it comes,] not from the taking up of arms against, but the building of nests amidst, its “sea of troubles.” Difficult enough you think? Perhaps. But I do not see that many of us try. We complain of the want of many things. We want votes; we want liberty; we want amusement; we want money. Which of us feels, or knows, he wants peace?
There are two ways of getting it, if you do want it.
The first is wholly in your own power: To make yourselves nests of pleasant thoughts. [Like the halcyon’s,] these are nests on the sea… But, [nested] there, they are] safe beyond all others. Only they need much art in the building!
None of us yet knows–for none of us have yet been taught in early youth–what fairy palaces we may build of beautiful thoughts as proof against all adversity! Bright fancies, satisfied memories, noble histories, faithful sayings, treasure houses of precious and restful thoughts which care cannot disturb, nor pain make gloomy, nor poverty take away from us. Houses built without hands: for our souls to live in!
And in actual life–let me assure you [of this]…the first “wisdom of calm” is to plan, and resolve to labor for, the comfort and beauty of a home such as, if we obtain it, we would quit no more. Not a compartment of a model house, not the number of so-and-so Paradise Row, but a cottage all our own, with its little garden, its pleasant view, its surrounding fields, its neighboring stream, its healthy air, and clean kitchen, parlors, and bedrooms. Less than this, no man should be content with for his nest. More than this, few should seek. But if it seem to you impossible or wildly imaginary that such houses should ever be obtained for the greater part of [us]–again believe me!–the obstacles which are in the way of our obtaining them are the things which it must be now of all true science, true art, and true literature to overcome.
Science does its duty not in telling us the causes of spots on the sun, but in explaining to us the laws of our own life, and the consequences of their violation. Art does its duty not in filling monster galleries with frivolous, or dreadful…pictures, but in completing the comforts and refining the pleasures of daily occurrence, and familiar service. And literature does its duty not in wasting our hours in political discussion, or in idle fiction, but in raising our fancy to the height of what may be noble, honest, and felicitous in actual life–in giving us, though we ourselves may be poor and unknown, the companionship of the wisest fellow spirits of every age and country, and in aiding the communication of clear thoughts and faithful purposes among distant nations which will at last breathe calm upon the sea of lawless passion, and change the winter of the world into halcyon days …
Today, we call the halcyon a Kingfisher. Here’s a rather sweet picture of one.
Of course, over the centuries, the story of the Halcyon has been variously interpreted. For example, there was a recent British television series which used the name. Looking at the ad for the show, I am not sure that this was quite what Mr. Ruskin had in mind in his last paragraph above.
We’ll talk about the second way of getting peace in a later post.
In the interim, may your days be halcyon and your homes lovely, pleasant nests in the midst of our current sea of troubles.
P.S.: In the past I’ve suggested various ways to buy some of Ruskin’s books on the web. But it is also possible to download a very great many of them for free (all are now in the public domain). The iTunes Store has almost every title I’ve mentioned in posts past and present. In case you are not an iTunes person, almost any Ruskin title can be found simply by googling (ah, the words we moderns invent!) any title in your search engine. Here’s what turned up at the top of the list when I googled The Eagle’s Nest: Ruskin: The Eagle’s Nest. Once you open on the site, you are given various options (“PDF format”, “Kindle”–with or without images–always chose with!!–and more) for downloading the book to your device or computer. They take up hardly any space!