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The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter
Is there a better piece of writing about the pleasures of rain? Jeremy Fisher is a domestic there-and-back-again story based on a traditional, rural, English form of epicurean values. It's a books about upper-middle-class characters, but not a book that believes that social status matters. Happiness is living without the constraints of other people's needless rules. It's also a paean to common sense against silly old wives’ tales.
‘Mr Jeremy liked getting his feet wet; nobody ever scolded him, and he never caught a cold!’
Despite these occasional authorial interferences, Potter's technique relies on evoking sympathy through description. Most people who write about the rain go to desperately boring lengths to make profundities and metaphors. Those of us who can't think of a better day than one where it rains steadily might prefer writing like this:
‘He was quite pleased when he looked out and saw large drops of rain, splashing in the pond —’
What an expert use of a dash. Somehow it catches the feeling of standing and watching the rain better than any words. That's all the text on that page, and it's followed by some direct speech about digging worms. The real pleasure of life, the tale suggests, is in the small, unimportant things that happen to you, and in the little jobs you can do for yourself.
Mr Jeremy Fisher is not unambitious, however. After the trout upends his boat, Jeremy not only takes a stoical attitude — his reaction to near disaster, and the loss of his things, is to say, ‘What a mercy that was not a pike!’ — but says he won't dare to go fishing again. The three pitfalls that strike him in the river, rising in magnitude and consequence, cannot be new . Going to the pond was always a risk. We know from the fact that he has grasshopper and ladybird sauce in the larder that he did not have to go fishing for supper. His loss of the rod, basket, and goloshes, don't depress him. It was an adventure worth taking, because he can still go home, his home, where he can live as he pleases, for supper with his friends.
Just as Elizabeth David somewhere talks about the pleasure of lunching alone on an omelette, a salad, and a small glass of wine, Jeremy has the solitary pleasure of eating a butterfly sandwich and waiting until the shower is over. So much English literature is about sex, death, or irony, and often all three. There's a brush with death in the tale. But sex and irony and absent. We are in the presence of sincerity, unsentimental, not over wrought for literary effect. Nothing moral is sacrificed to style. Only a great writer can get so much value out of words like macintosh and goloshes.
This is the plain style, put to superb use the way Elizabeth Bishop later used it. (Both writers make skilled use of unliterary words like ‘tremendous’.) The plain style means we are not hostage to the silly rules we were taught at school and get pestered by at work, like not repeating a word, or not using too many adjectives. It avoids the ornate. Getting the plain style right is hard work. Potter is that rare genius who knows how to use semi-colons as part of this technique. Great prose like this isn't easy to over appreciate like florid, stylised writing is. The plain style is only effective when form and content are perfectly matched. The pictures do a lot of work, of course, but this is a tale where we are not patronised or distracted by the writing. Rather we are trusted to appreciate meaningful, slightly melancholy, sentences like this one.
‘The rain trickled down his back, and for nearly an hour he stared at the float.’1
Too many writers would adorn that sentence to the point where it conveyed nothing more than the small pleasure of clever language, rather than the greater and deeper pleasure of recognising that our lives are full of such moments as these.
'The brimming world.' A micro-anthology of poems about rain
A micro-anthology of poems about rain.
Pairs well with: The Fish (audio), and Filling Station (audio), both by Elizabeth Bishop
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The second clause here sounds so beautiful because it is an anapestic hexameter (six lots of di-di-dum rhythm — see below). This has the steady rhythm of gentle rain, and because anapests have more unstressed syllables than iambs (which go di-dum) it perfectly invokes the slowly creeping boredom of the failed fishing expedition. What a perfect piece of writing.
and for near-ly an hou-r he stared at the float