It’s a bright cold day in April, 1946. London is still a shambles. George Orwell’s wife, Eileen, died last year during a routine operation, leaving him to raise their adopted son, nine-month-old Richard.
Orwell is suffering from the tuberculosis that will kill him in less than four years. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been sloshing about in his brain for several years now–hardly a cheerful subject for extended meditation–and next month he’ll head off to a primitive farmhouse, lent by a friend, on the remote Scottish island of Jura, to begin the difficult process of giving birth to Winston Smith.
But he has been writing feverishly since Eileen died, and he has a few last articles to get done before he leaves. One, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” appears today in Tribune, a weekly socialist newspaper that will still be in print in the 21st century:
Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something — some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature — has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time — at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.
At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.
Orwell goes on to describe the toads spawning (“I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets.”) and other more conventional indicators of spring. He then stops to consider whether it’s wrong to enjoy spring, the world being what it is, but decides that it’s not:
I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable. . . .
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
* * *
“It seems like the world is coming apart faster than we can fix it,” my son said the other day.
And it does.
We can crawl into our caves, nail the blankets over the entrance, curl up in a ball and start rocking. Or we can stop to enjoy the toads and frogs (they give a long concert now every night where I live), the tulips and daffodils (they’ve just come up, here on my high mountain), the apple and cherry trees in resplendent blossom.
They’re beautiful in themselves. And I, for one, trust that, as Carl Sandburg said of babies, the effulgent beauty of another spring is God’s opinion that life should go on.