2018 has been a banner year for toads. There are always toads on our property, but this year I have seen far more than any other year. There must have been especially good conditions when the toads bred, the tadpoles hatched, or the tiny toads crept out of the water, or, perhaps, all three. Toads bring to mind Shakespeare and Orwell. In ninth or tenth grade we read As You Like It, and we were forced to commit to memory the Duke Senior’s speech:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
As You Like It Act 2, scene 1, 12–17
The toad has no magical stone, of course, whatever its reputation in Renaissance England, but exile to Arden Forest brought the peace and tranquility that permitted the duke to appreciate nature. I still am able to recite this speech from memory, and other bits of poetry and prose forced on me by the pedagogy of the era. I have no complaints about this, because my appreciation of the selections has grown over the years.
The toad also appears in one of my favorite of all books, The Wind in the Willows, in the form of the self-indulgent, headstrong, and irrepressible Mr. Toad. In this quintessentially English child’s story, written by a Scot, Kenneth Grahame. Mr. Toad provides both excitement and comic relief, as his excesses draw him and his friends into constant danger. Unlike many others who fit this description, Toad is kindhearted, and by no means a bad egg.
Orwell in his essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, chose to recognize the toad as the herald of springtime, though here in America we are more likely to hear spring’s arrival in the songs of the tiny frogs, we call spring peepers.
In the summer between ninth and tenth grades, I was fortunate to attend a summer session at Andover. English and math were the subjects I studied, and my English teacher was a young guy named Kraft. Trying to improve our writing, Mr. Kraft introduced us to Orwell through his essay, Politics and the English Language. In those days, everyone with a political point of view read it, except perhaps, for totalitarians. Orwell decried the muddle that careless usage creates, and the obfuscation of meaning in political language in particular. Ever since reading this essay, in which Orwell suggests some common sense rules for clear writing, I have strongly recommended it to adults and students alike.
The essay is a cautionary note, and I think that in present day America, everyone ought to give it a read. Political debate today uses words and expressions that are charged with passion, but otherwise almost meaningless. I leave it to the reader to pick his or her own favorites. There is no dearth.