That a midsummer night, so short and bright, should contain the longest and loveliest of dreams, is one of Shakespeare's many insights into the nature of love.
In the world of Oberon and Titania there is no real darkness, but only illusions. Evening twilight is already dawn, and shadows are sharper than the things that make them. Time and space have become malleable, and charms and cordials soften the link between cause and effect. This is the world of young love, to which we return in our dreams, glad that we survived it, but sorry that it has gone.
There is another great work of art devoted to dreams of midsummer, and that is Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Here, too, young lovers plan their escape; here, too, the bumbling tradesmen of the town are caught in the web of magic. But there is a new twist to the story. The widower Hans Sachs - poet and cobbler - observes the young lovers. He is in love with the girl and unwilling as yet to renounce her. He sits in the evening air and takes up his cobbler's tools, determined to be sensible. But the scent of elderflower wafts over him, life stirs in his limbs, and the soft cushion of horns, conveying the gentleness of the midsummer evening, gives way to a questioning motive, full of pain and hesitation.
I think of this motive as the elderflower motive and to me it expresses the real meaning of midsummer - the point of transition between growing and declining, between old life and new, between anticipation and remembrance. Get those things in the wrong order and not all the cordials in Puck's pocket can put you right - such is Hans Sachs's conclusion. And I agree with him.
There is one cordial, however, that always sets me right at this time of year, and that, too, comes from the elderflower. Here is how Sophie makes it:
Boil two pints of water, stir in 4lb of sugar and, when it has dissolved, allow to cool a little before pouring over about 20 flower heads, picked fresh from the hedgerow. Add 78 grams of citric acid (available from any chemist) and the grated rind of two lemons. Slice the lemons and add them to the mixture. Leave overnight before straining into bottles. Dilute with water and drink whenever tempted by something stronger.
The joy of picking those flowers, which otherwise go to waste, is matched by the joy of reusing wine bottles. But the joy of drinking something so clean and refreshing, so full of the taste of growth and anticipation, is even greater.
The elderflower that set Hans Sachs on the path of renunciation sets me, too, on that path - and under its influence I can give up alcohol and its illusions for days (well, hours at least) on end. Elderflower is not the elixir of youth, but the cordial that helps me to renounce it.