“Lengthening Days” by W.G. Burn-Murdoch

Lengthening Days” is the title of the text that will be discussed in this exhibit. The question that I am interested in is how W.G. Burn-Murdoch’s “Lengthening Days” uses a narrative format as well as natural imagery to express its themes and the Celtic Revival themes of the little magazine “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal” in ways that are different from other texts in this magazine’s “Spring” volume. 

 

W.G. Burn-Murdoch and The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal 

The text of focus for this digital exhibit can be found in the Spring volume of “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal,” released in 1895. Its author, W.G. Burn-Murdoch, had a very diverse career. Aside from his interests in Scottish nationalism and history, as well as writing, art, bagpiping, hunting and whaling, he often went travelling (Swinney 121). Notably, he went on an expedition to the Antarctic, and this was said to have been because of Patrick Geddes, who ran “The Evergreen”, and whose ideas and approaches inspired Burn-Murdoch by leading him to the path of polar science (Swinney 124). Geddes not only influenced Burn-Murdoch’s travels, but also his love of Geddes’ beliefs that were showcased in “The Evergreen” such as the importance of the Celtic Revival movement. Apart from the text Burn-Murdoch contributed to this magazine, he also created two pieces of artwork for it (Swinney 126). Geddes not only inspired the author of this exhibit’s text of focus, but also influenced many others such as Scottish doctor Arthur Brock, as notably, Geddes influenced his medical views and his involvement in the political and social life of Edinburgh, as well as his knowledge of Scottish nationalism (Cantor 5). Geddes also acquainted Burn-Murdoch with others who would turn him towards the path of polar science and help him to go on his Antarctic journey, such as William Speirs Bruce. A possible reason for people’s appreciation for Geddes could be (according to Burn-Murdoch) the fact that Geddes took a holistic approach to his work, meaning his focus was on every part of his research to create a unified whole, including the people he met and their feelings as well as his ideas. (Swinney 123). 

Cover photo in "The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal" Spring Volume
C. H. Mackie, cover. The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal. Vol. 1, 1895, cover page. Yellow Nineties 2.0. Public Domain.

 ”The Evergreen” is a short periodical Edinburgh-based little magazine, consisting of only four volumes, (spring, autumn, summer and winter) which (similar to to other little magazines) strove to be a “complete work of art”, meaning that while it contained art in the form of stories and pictures, every part of the book itself was artistic and aesthetically pleasing, such as the cover and binding. This collective and complete beauty is affiliated with the Arts and Crafts movement as well as the Scottish Glasgow School movement, which was a smaller movement with ideals similar to the ones of the Arts and Crafts movement, but a Scottish version (Claes 438). This little magazine means more than just its aesthetic looks, as it showcases Patrick Geddes’ theories and beliefs, and promotes the Celtic Revival movement (Grilli 39). This was something that Geddes found very important. As previously mentioned, Geddes was known to bring many people together, and prior to starting “The Evergreen” magazine, he started up a community of students, professors, writers, and artists (some affiliated with the Glasgow School of Art) at the University of Edinburgh. They worked to renew the Old Town of Edinburgh and Ramsay Gardens in Edinburgh as well as advance a Scottish Art Nouveau. They encouraged Arts and Crafts collective aesthetics, however, they had a specific focus on Scottish aspects of this-so, while they believed in community and group work, they also very much promoted nature, renewal and the unity of art (Grilli 20). This is something that is shown in “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal” as well as in “Lengthening Days”, as many texts (such as “Lengthening Days”) within the magazine utilize nature imagery and use nature as a topic, and there are a number of works of art (eg. photos, drawings) as well as writings (eg. poems, essays) related to Edinburgh and the Old Town included. 

 

“Lengthening Days” Narrative Meaning and Comparisons 

“Lengthening Days” is a realistic story found closer to the beginning of the Spring volume. It is three pages long and also contains one illustration and three lines that form a song. Most of it is set in nature, while the beginning and end find the characters in civilization, and it contains no dialogue while including a large amount of imagery. This text tells the story of a man who leaves the city to travel North with his wife and spends the period of time from the beginning of spring until the end of summer observing the slow change of the seasons and working on creating a book filled with both writing and artwork. The couple is content with this serene existence in the forest as the seasons slowly change and they hunt for their food, free to admire their surroundings and each other and listen to the melodies the animals sing (as shown by the short song included and translated in this story on page 45), as the man works on his book. They are described as “beautiful” and their food is described as “rich” (Burn-Murdoch 45), and the man ends up completing his book very successfully, as “the people read it with pleasure” (Burn-Murdoch 46) upon their return. Interestingly, the only illustration in

The first page of Lengthening Days by W.G. Burn-Murdoch including text and an image of a man and woman hunting.
W.G. Burn-Murdoch, Lengthening Days. The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal. Vol. 1, 1895, p.44. Yellow Nineties 2.0. Public Domain.

“Lengthening Days” is a simple one that seems to easily flow into the words beside it (perhaps representing the ease of the couple’s experience living with only the nature), and it is a picture of the couple hunting, just as the story says. So, this shows that the couple are thriving and not missing anything or finding this existence away from civilization difficult or dull. This simple tale expresses a theme of the text, which is that a busy life in the city surrounded by different things and new advancements of the time is unnecessary, and a life simply living off the natural elements would not be an existence struggling for survival, but would be a content existence filled with joy and creativity (as shown by the couple’s happiness and the man’s ability to finish his well-liked novel while living apart from civilization). In other words, this is the theme of the needlessness of consumerism.

Relating to this theme, In the 19th century, or the fin-de-siècle period (the time period in which these little magazines were being released), there was an interesting perspective emerging relating to the idea of a type of energy being used up quickly, or dissipating. This is because as society and the civilized world was progressing and growing during this time, more human energy had to be used to keep up with these advancements. This led to concerns of this energy being depleted and wasted through this quick progression in society, or at least the parts of society that may be unnecessary (Saler 62-63). This is related to consumerism and “Lengthening Days” because of this viewpoint that the rapid change that was occurring in the 19th century and is still occurring to this day is unnecessarily complicated and exhausting.  As Burn-Murdoch’s text expresses, a simple life with a focus on the beauty of nature may be enough for a content existence, while the growing culture of rapid consumption may be tiring and harmful. 

The story is surrounded by poems and artwork that also focus on nature (as is a common theme in “The Evergreen”) and the beauty of how it changes depending on the seasons or even day and night. However, “Lengthening Days” is unique because of its simple yet somewhat ambiguous format. While this text is a short story, it is almost written like a poem. It is very short and seems to flow gracefully, as the imagery of the couple’s experience in the natural world is what drives the narrative. It also uses poetic devices such as personification, as nature is personified in the line “Nature their friend putting on her Spring garments” (Burn-Murdoch 45). However, it is more straightforward than most other poems and stories found in the “Spring” volume of “The Evergreen” as it does not even contain a problem-it is just the calm tale of a couple living peacefully and as the man successfully completes his book. The poems found in the same volume are generally more open to interpretation or are not fully understood until the full poem has been read, such as Gabriel Setoun’s “The Crows: A Child Poem” or Fiona Macleod’s “The Bandruidh”. This can make them more difficult to read, and this is also the case with other stories in this volume that are longer and seemingly more complex, such as “Awakenings in History” by V.V. Branford and “Life and its Science” by John Duncan. These texts are also formatted more rigidly, with their photos in the shape of rectangles rather than being more wrapped into the words (as the image incorporated into “Lengthening Days” is). However, as the analysis being made throughout this exhibit aims to share, while these other texts may seem more complex and thematic, looking deeper into Burn-Murdoch’s text reveals that its form and story work to prove its themes about the importance of simplicity and nature.

 

Celtic Revival in the Fin-de-siècle Period and Applications

The “Geddesian” (from Patrick Geddes) point of view that was so influential and can be found throughout “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal” was related to the Celtic Revival culture taking place during the fin-de-siècle period. Some topics of focus related to the Celtic Revival movement are nature, rebirth, renewal and regeneration (Kooistra 106). However, it is not just Celtic Revival themes that are expressed in the text of focus for this exhibit, but also ideas related to the fin-de-siècle movement and aestheticism such as decadence, which can be briefly described as a sort of concern about a cultural change or decline – such as the increased culture of consumption after the industrial revolution that is expressed in “Lengthening Days”. Aestheticism or the Aesthetic Movement was a big part of British culture during the fin-de-siècle period, which, as previously mentioned, was the end of the 19th century. This movement was related to a belief in “art for art’s sake” and the value of beauty (Easby). Burn-Murdoch’s text expresses a love for these ideals as well, as the characters in the narrative really take the time to appreciate the beauty around them, in their surroundings and each other. The text’s imagery also expresses a love and appreciation for beauty found in nature, as shown by lines such as “tiny creeping birds, delicate and bold” (Burn-Murdoch 45). As it notes the changing of the seasons, it especially conveys an enjoyment of the start of spring, as the snow melts and creatures come out and rejoice. This focus on beauty and more specifically the beauty found in the renewal of nature as the seasons pass that “Lengthening Days” showcases is how the text shares its themes that are related to ones that were being expressed through the Aesthetic and Celtic Revival Movements. The way that this specific text is unique is shown through the seemingly simple way it expresses these beliefs and ideals, while also making a statement about consumption.

This knowledge about “Lengthening Days” as well as the context required to understand it was obtained through analysis and research. This work was conducted in order to share information about a little known magazine created in the 1890s and an even less known text within that magazine that is often glossed over when W.G. Burn-Murdoch and Patrick Geddes are discussed. The reason that more people should know about it is because “Lengthening Days” and all Yellow Nineties magazines in general are very interesting and beautiful works of art that express themes that can teach readers about beliefs that were evident during the fin de siècle period.

 

Sources/Links for further research

 

©Copyright 2019 Angela Traikov, Ryerson University

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