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The Inner Ear

To all of us journeymen in this great whirling London mill, it
happens sooner or later that the clatter and roar of its ceaseless
wheels—a thing at first portentous, terrifying, nay, not to be
endured—becomes a part of our nature, with our clothes and our
acquaintances ; till at last the racket and din of a competitive
striving humanity not only cease to impinge on the sense, but
induce a certain callosity in the organ, while that more sensitive
inner ear of ours, once almost as quick to record as his in the fairy
tale, who lay and heard the grass-blades thrust and sprout, from lack
of exercise drops back to the rudimentary stage. Hence it comes
about, that when we are set down for a brief Sunday, far from the
central roar, our first sensation is that of a stillness corporeal,
positive, aggressive. The clamorous ocean of sound has ebbed to
an infinite distance ; in its place this other sea of fullest silence
comes crawling up, whelming and flooding us, its crystalline waves
lapping us round with a possessing encirclement as distinct as that
of the other angry tide now passed away and done with. The
very Spirit of Silence is sitting hand in hand with us, and her touch
is a real warm thing.

And yet, may not our confidence be premature ? Even as we
bathe and steep our senses refreshingly in this new element, that


                        74 The Inner Ear

inner ear of ours begins to revive and to record, one by one, the
real facts of sound. The rooks are the first to assert themselves. All
this time that we took to be so void of voice they have been volubly
discussing every detail of domestic tree-life, as they rock and sway
beside their nests in the elm-tops. To take in the varied chatter
of rookdom would in itself be a full morning’s occupation, from
which the most complacent might rise humble and instructed.
Unfortunately, their talk rarely tends to edification. The element
of personality —the argumentum ad hominem— always crops up so
fatally soon, that long ere a syllogism has been properly unrolled,
the disputants have clinched on inadequate foothold, and flopped
thence, dishevelled, into space. Somewhere hard by, their jackdaw
cousins are narrating those smoking-room stories they are so fond
of, with bursts of sardonic laughter at the close. For theology or
the fine arts your jackdaw has little taste ; but give him something
sporting and spicy, with a dash of the divorce court, and no Sunday
morning can ever seem too long. At intervals the drum of the
woodpecker rattles out from the heart of a copse ; while from
every quarter birds are delivering each his special message to the
great cheery-faced postman who is trudging his daily round over-
head, carrying good tidings to the whole bird-belt that encircles the
globe. To all these wild, natural calls of the wood, the farmyard
behind us responds with its more cultivated clamour and cackle ;
while the very atmosphere is resonant of its airy population, each
of them blowing his own special trumpet. Silence, indeed ! why,
as the inner ear awakes and develops, the solid bulk of this sound-
in-stillness becomes in its turn overpowering, terrifying. Let the
development only continue, one thinks, but a little longer, and the
very rush of sap, the thrust and foison of germination, will join in
the din, and go far to deafen us. One shrinks, in fancy, to a dwarf
of meanest aims and pettiest account before this army of full-blooded,


                        By Kenneth Grahame 75

shouting soldiery, that possesses land and air so completely, with
such an entire indifference, too, towards ourselves, our conceits,
and our aspirations.

Here it is again, this lesson in modesty that nature is eternally
dinning into us ; and the completeness of one’s isolation in the
midst of all this sounding vitality cannot fail to strike home
to the most self-centred. Indeed, it is evident that we are
entirely superfluous here ; nothing has any need of us, nor
cares to know what we are interested in, nor what other people
have been saying of us, nor whether we go or stay. Those rooks
up above have their own society and occupations, and don’t wish to
share or impart them ; and if haply a rook seems but an insignifi-
cant sort of being to you, be sure that you are quite as insignificant
to the rook. Nay, probably more so ; for while you at least allot
the rook his special small niche in creation, it is more than doubtful
whether he ever troubles to ” place ” you at all. He has weightier
matters to occupy him, and so long as you refrain from active
interference, the chances are that for him you simply don’t exist.

But putting birds aside, as generally betraying in their startled,
side-glancing mien some consciousness of a featherless unaccount-
able tribe that may have to be reckoned with at any moment,
those other winged ones, the bees and their myriad cousins, simply
insult one at every turn with their bourgeois narrowness of non-
recognition. Nothing, indeed, could be more unlike the wary
watchful marches of the bird-folk than the bustling self-centred
devotion to business of these tiny brokers in Nature’s busy
mart. If you happen to get in their way, they jostle up against
you, and serve you right ; if you keep clear of the course, they
proceed serenely without so much as a critical glance at your
hat or your boots. Snubbed, hustled, and ignored, you feel, as you
retire from the unequal contest, that the scurrying alarm of bird


                        76 The Inner Ear

or beast is less hurtful to your self-respect than this complacent
refusal of the insect to admit your very existence.

In sooth, we are at best poor fusionless incapable bodies ;
unstable of purpose, veering betwixt hot fits and chill, doubtful at
times whether we have any business here at all. The least we
can do is to make ourselves as small as possible, and interfere as
little as may be with these lusty citizens, knowing just what they
want to do, and doing it, at full work in a satisfactory world that
is emphatically theirs, not ours.

The more one considers it, the humbler one gets. This
pleasant, many-hued, fresh-smelling world of ours would be every
whit as goodly and fair, were it to be rid at one stroke of us
awkward aliens, staggering pilgrims through a land whose customs
and courtesies we never entirely master, whose pleasant places we
embellish and sweeten not at all. We, on the other hand, would
be bereft indeed, were we to wake up one chill morning and find
that all these practical capable cousins of ours had packed up and
quitted in disgust, tired of trying to assimilate us, weary of our
aimlessness, our brutalities, our ignorance of real life.

Our dull inner ear is at last fully awake, fully occupied. It
must be a full three hundred yards away, that first brood of duck-
lings, fluffily proud of a three-days-old past; yet its shrill peep-
peep reaches us as distinctly as the worry-worry of bees in the
peach-blossom a foot from our head. Then suddenly— the clank
of a stable-bucket on the tiles, the awakening of church-bells—
humanity, with its grosser noises, is with us once more, and at
the first sound of it, affrighted, the multitudinous drone of the
under-life recedes, ebbs, vanishes ; Silence, the nymph so shy and
withdrawn, is by our side again, and slips her hand into ours.

MLA citation:

Grahame, Kenneth. “The Inner Ear.” The Yellow Book, vol. 5, April 1895, pp. 73-76. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.