The Sea Fogs

Page 02

Under the full moon, or under the early sun which slowly withers it away, the great silver sea with its dark islands of redwood seemed to me the most wonderful of things. With my wonder and delight, perhaps making them more poignant, was the fear lest the glory should mount too high, and lay its attractive hand on my beloved. The fog has been dear to me ever since. I have often grumbled at it when I was in it or under it, but when I have seen it from above, that first thrill of wonder and delight has come back to me - always. Whether on the Berkeley hills I see its irresistible columns moving through the Golden Gate across the bay to take possession of the land, or whether I stand on the height of Tamalpais and look at the white, tangled flood below, -

"My heart leaps up when I behold."

It remains to me -

"A vision, a delight and a desire."

When the beauty of the fog first got hold of me, I wondered whether any one had given literary expression to its supreme charm. I searched the works of some of the better-known California poets, not quite without result. I was familiar with what seem to me the best of the serious verses of Bret Harte, the lines on San Francisco, - wherein the city is pictured as a penitent Magdalen, cowled in the grey of the Franciscans, - the soft pale grey of the sea fog. The literary value of the figure is hardly injured by the cold fog that the penitence of this particular Magdalen has never been of an enduring quality. It is to be noted that what Harte speaks of is not the beauty of the fog, but its sobriety and dignity.

Sill, with his susceptibility to the infinite variety of nature and with the spark of the divine fire which burned in him, refers often to some of the effects of the fog, such as the wonderful sunset colors on the Berkeley hills in summer. But I find only one direct allusion to the beauty of the fog itself: -

[1]"There lies a little city in the hills; White are its roofs, dim is each dwelling's door, And peace with perfect rest its bosom fills.

"There the pure mist, the pity of the sea, Comes as a white, soft hand, and reaches o'er And touches its still face most tenderly."

In 1887 I had not read "The Silverado Squatters." Part of it had been published in Scribner's Magazine. It was only in the following year that I got hold of the book and found an almost adequate expression of my own feeling about the sea fogs. Stevenson did not know all their beauty, for he was not here long enough, but he could tell what be saw. In other words, he had a gift which is denied to most of us.

Silverado is now a quite impossible place for squatting. When I first tried to enter, I found it so given over to poison-oak and rattlesnakes that I did not care to pursue my investigations very far. I did not know at that time that I was quite immune from the poison of the oak and that the California rattlesnake was quite so friendly and harmless an animal as John Muir has since assured us that be is. The last time that I passed Silverado, it was accessible only by the aid of a gang of wood-choppers.

Curiously, the last great fog effect that I have seen was almost the same which Stevenson has described. Last summer we had been staying for a month with our friends who have a summer home about three miles beyond Stevenson's "toll-house." It is, I believe, the most beautiful country-seat on this round earth, and its free and gentle hospitality cannot be surpassed. We left this delightful place of sojourning between three and four o'clock in the morning to catch the early train from Calistoga. Our steep climb up to the toll-house was under the broad smile of the moon, which gradually gave way to the brilliant dawn. When we passed the toll-house, the whole Napa Valley should have been revealed to us, but it was not. The fog had surged through it and had hidden it. What we saw was better than the beautiful Napa Valley. I should like to tell what we saw, but I cannot, - "For what can the man do who cometh after the king?"

[1] This exquisite little poem is unaccountably omitted from the Household (and presumably complete) Edition of Sill's poems issued by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1906.

The Sea Fogs Page 03

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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In the South Seas