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The Blessed Ambient
“The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (Advertiser; October 2, 1909) : 22
link (hathitrust)   / same (University of Michigan scan, google) : link

      One of the dearest possessions among those we cling none the less tightly to for not being able to touch materially is a sense of the vast and pleasant possibilities lying in the not too distant ambient. The future is such a recognized charlatan that to lay one’s trust in it bespeaks a lack of experience or a forgetfulness of surprisingly unexpected sprawls in the past. But the ambient, which is the agreeably shadowed thicket lying just beyond the exposed dusty, trampled space on which we stand, contains more engaging pleasures than Cranborne Chase in the days when it was filled with hairbells and smugglers. It is on the ambient we keep our upper gaze when our stamping-ground is absorbing but suffocating, it is to the ambient that we occasionally make dauntless scampering excursions, and it is from there, with a beautiful invariability which shows the ambient to be completely trustworthy, that the doublets and hose of life issue forth, letting themselves be bravely seen, and accommodatingly giving us glimpse of a dingle as they make their way back into the woods through waving underbrush. With a thing so near, so full of the exciting unknown, and so difficult to peer into clearly, it would be strange indeed if we were not in a continual flutter at its imminent disclosures. Sometimes the ambient is this coming Saturday, sometimes it is the car ahead, and always to all well-minded persons it is the byway they have never until that day taken. A genuine belief in this lovely neighborhood, sometimes known as the near distance — such a delectable phrase, implying the existence of a place where the distance is still its wonderful shimmering self and yet has somehow been made near, losing in the process not one of its hazy beckoning qualities — explains a great many things that up to now have puzzled inquiring minds. That vague, secret, swelling happiness that comes without cause and makes us feel a wholly delightful something has just been told us, which we cannot put into words or quite recall the point of, but are on no account to tell to any one else — this is plainly attributable, to any one with a logical habit of thought, and a nodding acquaintance with the sources of happiness, to that deeply conniving locality of the ambient. The person with the vague but perfectly satisfactory feeling of delight saw something white meaningfully waved in the thicket to the right. It was not sharply outlined; in fact, it might have been almost anything from the trappings of a whilte palfrey undoubtedly waiting for her, to a — well, to a cloud hung up to dry in preparation for a summer day building for her benefit. Shadowy signallings, but sent to the right person and quite enough to prove beyond the possibility of doubt that — ahem! — that something peculiarly amiable is taking place somewhere or other.
      It is a poor soul with anticipatory feelings worn to a shred who does not set out for a function known of old for its unchanging stupidity with a quickened heart-beat and a feeling that, though never before on this one night, it will surely be a short cut to the ambient. If she is once more mistaken, which for some reason that on one has ever discovered is most likely, her hostess should not be surprised to have her leave early and ought to understand perfectly her exclamation of, “I’ve made a mistake; this road does not come out where I thought it did.” If the hostess is a person of even slightly helpful disposition, she will bear no ill-will, but drop a hint as to the nearest sign-post and see her guest on her way to a second attempt.
      It occasionally happens, though it cannot at all be counted upon, that the ambient is stumbled upon which it was not so much as in one’s thoughts. A walk by oneself across a field and down a lane when the sky is gray and the air weeping may be through the heart of the ambient, and palpitating adventures occur. A little girl catches her dress on a briar it is loosened by you; you fear for her fate if redoubtable you had not appeared just at that moment. Two ants are discovered with different views as to the direction in which a dead fly should be carried; they fight it out on the top of a grass blade, struggling mightily; you bet on both sides, taking your own odds, and, after a terrifying but bloodless conflict, your right hand wins, and its victorious ant goes off up a stalk of spearment tugging the fly, and the protesting other ant after it. You have just recovered from this when you see a fox-terrier, out on its lawful occasions, dash madly after something. You do not know what, but from the excessively competent air of the terrier you think he got it. In the air swallows are taking their evening flights, and you notice with surprise that some birds swoop with so much more style than others, on particularly doing it in excellent form. You follow it with your eye, stumbling pleasantly over tufted hillocks. There are a number who fly with charming finish and suavity, not a break in the gait, and with all that light-hearted ease of the professional. You warm genially at finding yourself a judge of flying and climb a stile, only to discover yourself in a lane lined with sloes [prunus spinosa, blackthorn]. Their blue-black ripeness throws a great responsibility upon you, but you meet it nobly and pick all the laden sprays your arm will encircle, trusting that some one else will go through the later stages. Taking the longest way home, you experience that happy glow that comes with muddy boots and a certain knowledge of being late for dinner. On the way you talk with amazing cleverness, indulging in repartee that startles even you, to the delight of your companion, whom you are at a loss to name but like tremendously, in spite of his nonexistence. It is only fair to add that he talks well, too. Now with such a walk as this there can be no mistaking. It was, of course, in the choicest spots of the ambient. So many many things happened to you and of so interesting a nature. Really vital, one or two of them, especially the combat with the ants, the aid and encouragement you have them, the perspicacity you showed in betting on the stronger of the two. Oh, it was a remarkable walk, only, as some one may contradict you and baldly say he sees nothing ambientish about it, you will not tell a soulf of anything that happened.
      There are one or two mournful facts connected with this subject which it is only honest to touch upon. First, those charming, tantalizing people who live in the ambient and who leave us so desolate when they return to it. Sometimes they sit next to us at the play or worry over baggage in the same custom-house. They have all the hall marks of highly developed ambientism about them. They way in which they chuckle over the climaxes and calm the douanier gives you a greater insight into the manners of the ambient than anything else could do. You watch them in preference to the stage or your own clamoring porters, and you hope for a time that they have come out of the ambient for good, are even going to live rather near you from now on; but there luggage is all labelled in a way that depresses you and back they go, not even having noticed that you are an occasional sojourner in their country. These little happenings, though they try one’s patience sorely, do not make you relinquish your interest in the magic places. It is your absolute sureness of their existence and, above all, of their nearness, that makes so many things deliciously worth while. Turning corers suddenly, for instance — that intoxicating pastime would be an ordinary action devoid of all meaning if there were not the chance that it might throw one across the dusty spaces on to the very border of the ambient, and so with tables d’hôte, with their pell-mell possibilities, railway accidents, and rings at the door-bell. It may be some one you do not know; you cannot be sure, but, anyway, the chance is there. That, after all, is what the ambient is positively abristle with — chance, and so many of them are in your favor. If one is anything of a sportsman or of a flighty disposition or possessed of the precisely proper degree of madness there is always open to him the blessed game of ambienting.


  1. from the OED :

    ambient, B. sb. [The adj. used absol.]
    1. A canvasser, suitor, or aspirant.
    1649... What Fair-like confluences have we there seen of zealous ambients?
    2. An encompassing circle of sphere.
    1614, The aire. . being a perpetual ambient and ingredient
    1657, They are broad, asperated about their ambient.
    1864, Atoms or molecules have extensive atmospheres or ambients of some kind.
    3. Astrol. The ambient air or sky.
    1868 Geo. Eliot Sp. Gypsy 193 For the ambient, Though a cause regnant, is not absolute.

  2. “He [Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886)] was the first Italian composer of opera to show, from the start of his career, a mastery of modern instrumentation. In his orchestral writing, which at its best is poetic, evocative and delicately nuanced, he evidenced a sensitivity to dramatic atmosphere — from the sombre Slav colouring of I Lituani (Milan 1872) to the garish orientalism of Il figliuol prodigo (Milan 1880) — which some critics have felt to rival the ‘ambientism’ of his most distinguished pupil, Puccini.
          Unashamedly, however, Ponchielli attached the deepest importance to lyricism...”

    ex David R. B. Kimbell, Italian Opera (1984) : 564     (link to snippet)

    ex “I’ll have to wander all alone — Jacques Derrida on Gilles Deleuze” (December 1, 2009)
    here somewhere : link

  3. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a contemporary, comes to (this) mind —

    “Flying, rushing through the ambient, incandescent, summer silent...”

    Between the Acts (1941) : 21 (p15 Harvest pb)

27 August 2022