Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner Volume 2 by Charles Dudley Warner

Part 5 out of 5

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

excuse for a quarrel with us; so I pocketed the affront, money and
all, and turned away. He appeared to be surprised, and going indoors
presently came out with a bottle of wine and glasses, and followed us
down upon the rocks, pressing us to drink. Most singular conduct; no
doubt drugged wine; travelers put into deep sleep; robbed; thrown
over precipice; diplomatic correspondence, flattering, but no
compensation to them. Either this, or a case of hospitality. We
declined to drink, and the brigand went away.

We sat down upon the jutting ledge of a precipice, the like of which
is not in the world: on our left, the rocky, bare side of St. Angelo,
against which the sunshine dashes in waves; below us, sheer down two
thousand feet) the city of Positano, a nest of brown houses, thickly
clustered on a conical spur, and lying along the shore, the home of
three thousand people,--with a running jump I think I could land in
the midst of it,--a pygmy city, inhabited by mites, as we look down
upon it; a little beach of white sand, a sailboat lying on it, and
some fishermen just embarking; a long hotel on the beach; beyond, by
the green shore, a country seat charmingly situated amid trees and
vines; higher up, the ravine-seamed hill, little stone huts, bits of
ruin, towers, arches. How still it is! All the stiller that I can,
now and then, catch the sound of an axe, and hear the shouts of some
children in a garden below. How still the sea is! How many ages has
it been so? Does the purple mist always hang there upon the waters
of Salerno Bay, forever hiding from the gaze Paestum and its temples,
and all that shore which is so much more Grecian than Roman?

After all, it is a satisfaction to turn to the towering rock of St.
Angelo; not a tree, not a shrub, not a spire of grass, on its
perpendicular side. We try to analyze the satisfaction there is in
such a bald, treeless, verdureless mass. We can grasp it
intellectually, in its sharp solidity, which is undisturbed by any
ornament: it is, to the mind, like some complete intellectual
performance; the mind rests on it, like a demonstration in Euclid.
And yet what a color of beauty it takes on in the distance!

When we return, the bandits have all gone to their road-making: the
suspicious landlord is nowhere to be seen. We call the woman from
the field, and give her money, which she seemed not to expect, and
for which she shows no gratitude. Life appears to be indifferent to
these people. But, if these be brigands, we prefer them to those of
Naples, and even to the innkeepers of England. As we saunter home in
the pleasant afternoon, the vesper-bells are calling to each other,
making the sweetest echoes of peace everywhere in the hills, and all
the piano is jubilant with them, as we come down the steeps at
sunset.

"You see there was no danger," said the giant to his wife that
evening at the supper-table.

"You would have found there was danger, if you had gone," returned
the wife of the giant significantly.

THE MYTH OF THE SIRENS

I like to walk upon the encircling ridge behind Sorrento, which
commands both bays. From there I can look down upon the Isles of the
Sirens. The top is a broad, windy strip of pasture, which falls off
abruptly to the Bay of Salerno on the south: a regular embankment of
earth runs along the side of the precipitous steeps, towards
Sorrento. It appears to be a line of defence for musketry, such as
our armies used to throw up: whether the French, who conducted siege
operations from this promontory on Capri, under Murat, had anything
to do with it, does not appear.

Walking there yesterday, we met a woman shepherdess, cowherd, or
siren--standing guard over three steers while they fed; a scantily-
clad, brown woman, who had a distaff in her hand, and spun the flax
as she watched the straying cattle, an example of double industry
which the men who tend herds never imitate. Very likely her
ancestors so spun and tended cattle on the plains of Thessaly. We
gave the rigid woman good-morning, but she did not heed or reply; we
made some inquiries as to paths, but she ignored us; we bade her
good-day, and she scowled at us: she only spun. She was so out of
tune with the people, and the gentle influences of this region, that
we could only regard her as an anomaly,--the representative of some
perversity and evil genius, which, no doubt, lurks here as it does
elsewhere in the world. She could not have descended from either of
the groups of the Sirens; for she was not fascinating enough to be
fatal.

I like to look upon these islets or rocks of the Sirens, barren and
desolate, with a few ruins of the Roman time and remains of the
Middle-Age prisons of the doges of Amalfi; but I do not care to
dissipate any illusions by going to them. I remember how the Sirens
sat on flowery meads by the shore and sang, and are vulgarly supposed
to have allured passing mariners to a life of ignoble pleasure, and
then let them perish, hungry with all unsatisfied longings. The
bones of these unfortunates, whitening on the rocks, of which Virgil
speaks, I could not see. Indeed, I think any one who lingers long in
this region will doubt if they were ever there, and will come to
believe that the characters of the Sirens are popularly misconceived.
Allowing Ulysses to be only another name for the sun-god, who appears
in myths as Indra, Apollo, William Tell, the sure-hitter, the great
archer, whose arrows are sunbeams, it is a degrading conception of
him that he was obliged to lash himself to the mast when he went into
action with the Sirens, like Farragut at Mobile, though for a very
different reason. We should be forced to believe that Ulysses was
not free from the basest mortal longings, and that he had not
strength of mind to resist them, but must put himself in durance; as
our moderns who cannot control their desires go into inebriate
asylums.

Mr. Ruskin says that "the Sirens are the great constant desires, the
infinite sicknesses of heart, which, rightly placed, give life, and,
wrongly placed, waste it away; so that there are two groups of
Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is fatal." Unfortunately
we are all, as were the Greeks, ministered unto by both these groups,
but can fortunately, on the other hand, choose which group we will
listen to the singing of, though the strains are somewhat mingled;
as, for instance, in the modern opera, where the music quite as often
wastes life away, as gives to it the energy of pure desire. Yet, if
I were to locate the Sirens geographically, I should place the
beneficent desires on this coast, and the dangerous ones on that of
wicked Baiae; to which group the founder of Naples no doubt belonged.

Nowhere, perhaps, can one come nearer to the beautiful myths of
Greece, the springlike freshness of the idyllic and heroic age, than
on this Sorrentine promontory. It was no chance that made these
coasts the home of the kind old monarch Eolus, inventor of sails and
storm-signals. On the Telegrafo di Mare Cuccola is a rude
signal-apparatus for communication with Capri,--to ascertain if wind
and wave are propitious for entrance to the Blue Grotto,--which
probably was not erected by Eolus, although he doubtless used this
sightly spot as one of his stations. That he dwelt here, in great
content, with his six sons and six daughters, the Months, is nearly
certain; and I feel as sure that the Sirens, whose islands were close
at hand, were elevators and not destroyers of the primitive races
living here.

It seems to me this must be so; because the pilgrim who surrenders
himself to the influences of these peaceful and sun-inundated coasts,
under this sky which the bright Athena loved and loves, loses, by and
by, those longings and heart-sicknesses which waste away his life,
and comes under the dominion, more and more, of those constant
desires after that which is peaceful and enduring and has the saving
quality of purity. I know, indeed, that it is not always so; and
that, as Boreas is a better nurse of rugged virtue than Zephyr, so
the soft influences of this clime only minister to the fatal desires
of some: and such are likely to sail speedily back to Naples.

The Sirens, indeed, are everywhere; and I do not know that we can go
anywhere that we shall escape the infinite longings, or satisfy them.
Here, in the purple twilight of history, they offered men the choice
of good and evil. I have a fancy, that, in stepping out of the whirl
of modern life upon a quiet headland, so blessed of two powers, the
air and the sea, we are able to come to a truer perception of the
drift of the eternal desires within us. But I cannot say whether it
is a subtle fascination, linked with these mythic and moral
influences, or only the physical loveliness of this promontory, that
lures travelers hither, and detains them on flowery meads.

Book of the day: