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HEART OF MAN
GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY
BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
“Deep in the general heart of man”
TO THE MEMORY OF
DEAR WAS HIS PRAISE, AND PLEASANT ‘TWERE TO ME, ON WHOSE FAR GRAVE TO-NIGHT THE DEEP SNOWS DRIFT; IT NEEDS NOT NOW; TOGETHER WE SHALL SEE
HOW HIGH CHRIST’S LILIES O’ER MAN’S LAURELS LIFT
February 18, 1899.
OF the papers contained in this volume “Taormina” was published in the _Century Magazine_; the others are new. The intention of the author was to illustrate how poetry, politics, and religion are the flowering of the same human spirit, and have their feeding roots in a common soil, “deep in the general heart of men.”
February 22, 1809.
A NEW DEFENCE OF POETRY
What should there be in the glimmering lights of a poor fishing-village to fascinate me? Far below, a mile perhaps, I behold them in the darkness and the storm like some phosphorescence of the beach; I see the pale tossing of the surf beside them; I hear the continuous roar borne up and softened about these heights; and this is night at Taormina. There is a weirdness in the scene–the feeling without the reality of mystery; and at evening, I know not why, I cannot sleep without stepping upon the terrace or peering through the panes to see those lights. At morning the charm has flown from the shore to the further heights above me. I glance at the vast banks of southward-lying cloud that envelop Etna, like deep fog upon the ocean; and then, inevitably, my eyes seek the double summit of the Taorminian mountain, rising nigh at hand a thousand feet, almost sheer, less than half a mile westward. The nearer height, precipice-faced, towers full in front with its crowning ruined citadel, and discloses, just below the peak, on an arm of rock toward its right, a hermitage church among the heavily hanging mists. The other horn of the massive hill, somewhat more remote, behind and to the old castle’s left, exposes on its slightly loftier crest the edge of a hamlet. It, too, is cloud-wreathed–the lonely crag of Mola. Over these hilltops, I know, mists will drift and touch all day; and often they darken threateningly, and creep softly down the slopes, and fill the next-lying valley, and roll, and lift again, and reveal the flank of Monte d’Oro northward on the far-reaching range. As I was walking the other day, with one of these floating showers gently blowing in my face down this defile, I noticed, where the mists hung in fragments from the cloud out over the gulf, how like air-shattered arches they groined the profound ravine; and thinking how much of the romantic charm which delights lovers of the mountains and the sea springs from such Gothic moods of nature, I felt for a moment something of the pleasure of recognition in meeting with this northern and familiar element in the Sicilian landscape.
One who has grown to be at home with nature cannot be quite a stranger anywhere on earth. In new lands I find the poet’s old domain. It is not only from the land-side that these intimations of old acquaintance come. When my eyes leave, as they will, the near girdle of rainy mountain tops, and range home at last upon the sea, something familiar is there too,–that which I have always known,–but marvellously transformed and heightened in beauty and power. Such sudden glints of sunshine in the offing through unseen rents of heaven, as brilliant as in mid-ocean, I have beheld a thousand times, but here they remind me rather of cloud-lights on far western plains; and where have I seen those still tracts of changeful colour, iridescent under the silvery vapours of noon; or, when the weather freshens darkens, those whirlpools of pure emerald in the gray expanse of storm? They seem like memories of what has been, made fairer. One recurring scene has the same fascination for my eyes as the fishers’ lights. It is a simple picture: only an arm of mist thrusting out from yonder lowland by the little cape, and making a near horizon, where, for half an hour, the waves break with great dashes of purple and green, deep and angry, against the insubstantial mole. All day I gaze on these sights of beauty until it seems that nature herself has taken on nobler forms forever more. When the mountain storm beats the pane at midnight, or the distant lightnings awake me in the hour before dawn, I can forget in what climate I am; but the oblivion is conscious, and half a memory of childhood nights: in an instant comes the recollection, “I am on the coasts, and these are the couriers, of Etna.”
The very rain is strange: it is charged with obscure personality; it is the habitation of a new presence, a storm-genius that I have never known; it in born of Etna, whence all things here have being and draw nourishment. It is not rain, but the rain-cloud, spread out over the valleys, the precipices, the sounding beaches, the ocean plain; it is not a storm, but a season. It does not rise with the moist Hyades, or ride with cloudy Orion in the Mediterranean night; it does not pass like Atlantic tempests on great world-currents: it remains. Its home is upon Etna; thence it comes and thither it returns; it gathers and disperses, lightens and darkens, blows and is silent, and though it suffer the clear north wind, or the west, to divide its veils with heaven, again it draws the folds together about its abode. It obeys only Etna, who sends it forth; then with clouds and thick darkness the mountain hides its face: it is the Sicilian winter.
But Etna does not withdraw continuously from its children even in this season. On the third day, at farthest, I was told it would bring back the sun; and I was not deceived. Two days it was closely wrapped in impenetrable gray; but the third morning, as I threw open my casement and stepped out upon the terrace, I saw it, like my native winter, expanding its broad flanks under the double radiance of dazzling clouds spreading from its extreme summit far out and upward, and of the snow-fields whose long fair drifts shone far down the sides. Villages and groves were visible, clothing all the lower zone, and between lay the plain. It seemed near in that air, but it is twelve miles away. From the sea-dipping base to the white cone the slope measures more than twenty miles, and as many more conduct the eye downward to the western fringe–a vast bulk; yet one does not think of its size as he gazes; so large a tract the eye takes in, but no more realizes than it does the distance of the stars. High up, forests peer through the ribbed snows, and extinct craters stud the frozen scene with round hollow mounds innumerable. A thousand features, but it remains one mighty mountain. How natural it seems for it to be sublime! It is the peer of the sea and of the sky. All day it flashed and darkened under the rack, and I rejoiced in the sight, and knew why Pindar called it the pillar of heaven; and at night it hooded itself once more with the winter cloud.
Would you see this land as I see it? Come then, since Etna gives a fair, pure morning, up over the shelving bank to the great eastern spur of Taormina, where stood the hollow theatre, now in ruins, and above it the small temple with which the Greeks surmounted the highest point. It is such a spot as they often chose for their temples; but none ever commanded a more noble prospect. The far-shining sea, four or five hundred feet below, washes the narrow, precipitous descent, and on each hand is disclosed the whole of that side of Sicily which faces the rising sun. To the left and northward are the level straits, with the Calabrian mountains opposite, thinly sown with light snow, as far as the Cape of Spartivento, distinctly seen, though forty miles away; in front expands the open sea; straight to the south runs the indented coast, bay and beach, point after point, to where, sixty miles distant, the great blue promontory of Syracuse makes far out. On the land-side Etna fills the south with its lifted snow-fields, now smoke-plumed at the languid cone; and thence, though lingeringly, the eye ranges nearer over the intervening plain to the well-wooded ridge of Castiglione, and, next, to the round solitary top of Monte Maestra, with its long shoreward descent, and comes to rest on the height of Taormina overhead, with its hermitage of Santa Maria della Rocca, its castle, and Mola. Yet further off, at the hand of the defile, looms the barren summit of Monte Venere, with Monte d’Oro and other hills in the foreground, and northward, peak after peak, travels the close Messina range.
A landscape of sky, sea, plain, and mountains, great masses majestically grouped, grand in contour! Yet to call it sublime does not render the impression it makes upon the soul. Sublime, indeed, it is at times, and dull were he whose heart from hour to hour awe does not visit here; but constantly the scene is beautiful, and yields that delight which dwells unwearied with the soul. One may be seldom touched to the exaltation which sublimity implies, but to take pleasure in loveliness is the habit of one who lives as heaven made him; and what characterizes this landscape and sets it apart is the permanence of its beauty, its perpetual and perfect charm through every change of light and weather, and in every quarter of its heaven and earth, felt equally whether the eye sweeps the great circuit with its vision, or pauses on the nearer features, for they, too, are wonderfully composed. This hill of my station falls down for half a mile with broken declivities, and then becomes the Cape of Taormina, and takes its steep plunge into the sea. Yonder picturesque peninsula to its left, diminished by distance and strongly relieved on the purple waves, is the Cape of Sant’ Andrea, and beside it a cluster of small islands lies nearer inshore. On the other side, to the right of our own cape, shines our port, with Giardini, the village of my fishers’ lights, the beach with its boats, and the white main road winding in the narrow level between the bluffs and the sands. The port is guarded on the south by the peninsula of Schiso, where ancient Naxos stood; and just beyond, the river Alcantara cuts the plain and flows to the sea. At the other extremity, northward of Sant’ Andrea, is the cove of Letojanni, with its village, and then, perhaps eight miles away, the bold headland of Sant’ Alessio closes the shore view with a mass of rock that in former times completely shut off the land approach hither, there being no passage over it, and none around it except by the strip of sand when the sea was quiet. All this ground, with in several villages, from Sant’ Alessio to the Alcantara, and beyond into the plain, was anciently the territory of Taormina.
The little city itself lies on its hill, between the bright shore and the gray old castle, on a crescent-like terrace whose two horns jut out into the air like capes. The northern one of these is my station, the site of the old temple and the amphitheatre; the southern one opposite shows the facade of the Dominican convent; and the town circles between, possibly a mile from spur to spur. Here and there long broken lines of the ancient wall, black with age, stride the hillside. A round Gothic tower, built as if for warfare, a square belfry, a ruined gateway, stand out among the humble roofs. Gardens of orange and lemon trees gleam like oblong parks, principally on the upper edge toward the great rock. If you will climb, as I have done, the craggy plateau close by, which overhangs the theatre and obstructs the view of the extreme end of the town at this point, you will see from its level face, rough with the plants of the prickly-pear, a cross on an eminence just below, and the gate toward Messina.
The face of the country is bare. Here beneath, where the main ravine of Taormina cuts into the earth between the two spurs of the city, are terraces of fruit trees and vegetables, and, wherever the naked rock permits, similar terraces are seen on the castle hill and every less steep slope, looking as if they would slide off. Almond and olive trees cling and climb all over the hillsides, but their boughs do not clothe the country. It is gray to look at, because of the masses of natural rock everywhere cropping out, and also from the substructure of the terraces, which, seen from below, present banks of the same gray stone. The only colour is given by the fan-like plants of the prickly-pear, whose flat, thick-lipped, pear-shaped leaves, stuck with thorns, and often extruding their reddish fruit from the edge, lend a dull green to the scene. This plant grows everywhere, like wild bush, to a man’s height, covering the otherwise infertile soil, and the goats crop it. A closer view shows patches of wild candytuft and marigolds, like those at my feet, and humble purple and blue blossoms hang from crannies or run over the stony turf; but these are not strong enough to be felt in the prevalent tones. The blue of ocean, the white of Etna, the gray of Taormina–this is the scene.
Three ways connect the town with the lower world. The modern carriage road runs from the Messina gate, and, quickly dropping behind the northern spur, winds in great serpentine loops between the Campo Santo below and old wayside tombs, Roman and Arabic, above, until it slowly opens on the southern outlook, and, after two miles of tortuous courses above the lovely coves, comes out on the main road along the coast. The second way starts from the other end of the town, the gate toward Etna, and goes down more precipitously along the outer flank of the southern spur, with Mola (here shifted to the other side of the castle hill) closing the deep ravine behind; and at last it empties into the torrent of Selina, in whose bed it goes on to Giardini. The third, or short way, leaps down the great hollow of the spurs, and yet keeps to a ridge between the folds of the ravine which it discloses on each side, with here and there a contadino cutting rock on the steep hillsides, or a sportsman wandering with his dog; or often at twilight, from some coign of vantage, you may see the goats trooping home across the distant sands by the sea. It debouches through great limestone quarries on the main road. There, seen from below, Taormina comes out–a cape, a town, and a hill. It is, in fact, a long, steep, broken ridge, shaped like a wedge; one end of the broad lace dips into the sea, the other, high on land, exposes swelling bluffs; its back bears the town, its point lifts the castle.
This is the Taorminian land. What a quietude hangs over it! How poor, how mean, how decayed the little town now looks amid all this silent beauty of enduring nature! It could not have been always so. This theatre at my feet, hewn in the living rock, flanked at each end by great piers of massive Roman masonry, and showing broken columns thick strewn in the midst of the broad orchestra, tells of ancient splendour and populousness. The narrow stage still stands, with nine columns in position in two groups; part are shattered half-way up, part are yet whole, and in the gap between the groups shines the lovely sea with the long southern coast, set in the beauty of these ruins as in a frame. Here Attic tragedies were once played, and Roman gladiators fought. The enclosure is large, much over a hundred yards in diameter. It held many thousands. Whence came the people to fill it? I noticed by the roadside, as I came up, Saracenic tombs. I saw in the first square I entered those small Norman windows, with the lovely pillars and the round arch. On the ancient church I have observed the ornamentation and mouldings of Byzantine art. The Virgin with her crown, over the fountain, was paltry enough, but I saw that this was originally a mermaid’s statue. A water-clock here, a bath there; in all quarters I come on some slight, poor relics of other ages; and always in the faces of the people, where every race seems to have set its seal, I see the ruins of time. These echoes are not all of far-off things. That lookout below was a station of English cannon, I am told; and the bluff over Giardini, beyond the torrent, takes its name from the French tents pitched there long ago. The old walls can be traced for five miles, but now the circuit is barely two. I wonder, as I go down to my room in the Casa Timeo, what was the past of this silent town, now so shrunken from its ancient limits; and who, I ask myself, Timeo?
I thought when I first saw the inaccessibility of this mountain-keep that I should have no walks except upon the carriage road; but I find there are paths innumerable. Leap the low walls where I will, I come on unsuspected ways broad enough for man and beast. They ran down the hillsides in all directions, and are ever dividing as they descend, like the branching streams of a waterfall. Some are rudely paved, and hemmed by low walls; others are mere footways on the natural rock and earth, often edging precipices, and opening short cross-cuts in the most unexpected places, not without a suggestion of peril, to make eye and foot alert, and to infuse a certain wild pleasure into the exercise. The multiplicity of these paths is a great boon to the lover of beauty, for here one charm of Italian landscape exists in perfection. Every few moments the scene rearranges itself in new combinations, as on the Riviera or at Amalfi, and makes an endless succession of lovely pictures. The infinite variety of these views is not to be imagined unless it has been witnessed; and besides the magic wrought by mere change of position, there is also a constant transformation of tone and colour from hour to hour, as the lights and shadows vary, and from day to day, with the unsettled weather.
Yet who could convey to black-and-white speech the sense of beauty which is the better part of my rambles? It is only to say that here I went up and down on the open hillsides, and there I followed the ridges or kept the cliff-line above the fair coves; that now I dropped down into the vales, under the shade of olive and lemon branches, and wound by the gushing streams through the orchards. In every excursion I make some discovery, and bring home some golden store for memory. Yesterday I found the olive slopes over Letojanni–beautiful old gnarled trees, such as I have never seen except where the nightingales sing by the eastern shore of Spezzia. I did not doubt when I was told that those orchards yield the sweetest oil in the world. It was the lemon harvest, and everywhere were piles of the pale yellow fruit heaped like apples under the slender trees, with a gatherer here and there; for this is always a landscape of solitary figures. To-day I found the little beach of San Nicolo, not far from the same place. I kept inland, going down the hollow by the Campo Santo, where there is a cool, gravelly stream in a dell that is like a nook in the Berkshire hills, and then along the upland on the skirts of Monte d’Oro, till by a sharp turn seaward I came out through a marble quarry where men were working with what seemed slow implements on the gray or party-coloured stone. I passed through the rather silent group, who stopped to look at me, and a short distance beyond I crossed the main road, and went down by a stream to the shore. I found it strewn with seaside rock, as a hundred other beaches are, but none with rocks like these. They were marble, red or green, or shot with variegated hues, with many a soft gray, mottled or wavy-lined; and the sea had polished them. Very lovely they were, and shone where the low wave gleamed over them. I had wondered at the profusion of marbles in the Italian churches, but I had not thought to find them wild on a lonely Sicilian beach. Once or twice already I had seen a block rosy in the torrent-beds, and it had seemed a rare sight; but here the whole shore was piled and inlaid with the beautiful stone.
I have learned now that Taormina is famous for these marbles. Over thirty varieties were sent to the Vienna Exhibition, and they won the prize. I got this information from the keeper of the Communal Library, with whom I have made friends. He recalls to my memory the ship that Hieron of Syracuse gave to Ptolemy, wonderful for its size. It had twenty banks of rowers, three decks, and space to hold a library, a gymnasium, gardens with trees in them, stables, and baths, and towers for assault, and it was provided by Archimedes with many ingenious mechanical devices. The wood of sixty ordinary galleys was required for its construction. I describe it because its architect, Filea, was a Taorminian by birth, and esteemed in his day second only to Archimedes in his skill in mechanics; and in lining the baths of this huge galley he used these beautiful Taorminian marbles. My friend the librarian told me also, with his Sicilian burr, of the wine of Taormina, the Eugenaean, which was praised by Pliny, and used at the sacred feasts of Rome; but now, he said sadly, the grape had lost its flavour.
The sugar-cane, which nourished in later times, is also gone. But the mullet that is celebrated in Juvenal’s verse, and the lampreys that once went to better Alexandrian luxury, are still the spoil of the fishers, the shrimps are delicate to the palate, and the marbles will endure as long as this rock itself. The rock lasts, and the sea. The most ancient memory here is of them, for this is the shore of Charybdis. It is stated in Sallust and other Latin authors, as well as by writers throughout the Middle Ages, that all which was swallowed up in the whirlpool of the straits, after being carried beneath the sea for miles, was finally cast up on the beach beneath the hill of Taormina.
The rock and the sea were finely blended in one of my first discoveries in the land, and in consequence they have seemed, to my imagination, more closely united here than is common. On a stormy afternoon I had strolled down the main road, and was walking toward Letojanni. I came, after a little, to a great cliff that overhung the sea, with room for the road to pass beneath; and as I drew near I heard a strange sound, a low roaring, a deep-toned reverberation, that seemed not to come from the breaking waves, loud on the beach: it was a more solemn, a more piercing and continuous sound. It was from the rock itself. The grand music of the rolling sea beneath was taken up by the hollowed cliff, and reechoed with a mighty volume of sound from invisible sources. It seemed the voice of the rock, as if by long sympathy and neighbourhood in that lonely place the cliff were interpenetrated with the sea-music, and had become resonant of itself with those living harmonies heard only in the Psalmist’s song. It seemed a lyre for the centuries; and I thought over how many a conqueror, how many a race, that requiem had been lifted upon it as they passed to their death on this shore. I came back slowly in the twilight, and was roused from my reverie by the cold wind breathing on me as I reached the top of the hill, pure and keen and frosted like the bright December breezes of my own land. It was the kiss of Etna on my cheek.
Will you hear the legend of Taormina?–for in these days I dare not call it history. Noble and romantic it is, and age-long. I had not hoped to recover it; but my friend the librarian has brought me books in which patriotic Taorminians have written the story celebrating their dear city. I was touched by the simplicity with which he informed me that the town authorities had been unwilling to waste on a passing stranger these little paper-bound memorials of their city. “But,” he said, “I told them I had given you my word.” So I possess these books with a pleasant association of Sicilian honour, and I have read them with real interest. As I turned the pages I was reminded once more how impossible it is to know the past. The past survives in human institutions, in the temperament of races, and in the creations of ideal art; but only in the last is it immortal. Custom and law are for an age: race after race is pushed to the sea, and dies; only epic and saga and psalm have one date with man, one destiny with the breath of his lips, one silence at the last with them. Least of all does the past survive in the living memories of men. Here and there the earth cherishes a coin or a statue, the desert embalms some solitary city, a few leagues of rainless air preserve on rock and column the lost speech of Nile; so the mind of man holds in dark places, or lifts to living fame, no more than ruins and fragments of the life that was. I have been a diligent reader of books in my time; and here in an obscure corner of the Old-World I find a narrative studded with noble names, not undistinguished by stirring deeds, and, save for the great movements of history and a few shadowy figures, it is all fresh to my mind. I have looked on three thousand years of human life upon this hill; something of what they have yielded, if you will have patience with such a tract of time, I will set down.
My author is Monsignore Giovanni di Giovanni, a Taorminian, who flourished in the last century. He was a man of vast erudition, and there is in his pages the Old-World learning which delights me. He was born before the days of historic doubt. He tells a true story. To allege an authority is with him to prove a fact, and to cite all writers who repeat the original source is to render truth impregnable. Rarely does he show any symptom of the modern malady of incredulity. _Scripta littera_ is reason enough, unless the fair fame of his city chances to be at stake. He was really learned, and I do wrong to seem to diminish his authority. He was a patient investigator of manuscripts, and did important service to Sicilian history. The simplicity I have alluded to affects mainly the ecclesiastical part of his narrative. A few statements also in regard to the prehistoric period might disturb the modern mind, but I own to finding in them the charm of lost things. In my mental provinces I welcome the cave-man, the flint-maker, the lake-dweller, and all their primitive tribes to the abode of science; but I feel them to be intruders in my antiquity. I was brought up on quite other chronologies, and I still like a history that begins with the flood. I will not, however, ask any one of more serious mind to go back with Monsignore and myself to the era of autochthonous Sicily, when the children of the Cyclops inhabited the land, and Demeter in her search for Proserpina wept on this hill, and Charybdis lay stretched out under these bluffs watching the sea. It is precise enough to say that Taormina began eighty years before the Trojan War. Very dimly, it must be acknowledged, the ancient Sicani are seen arriving and driven, like all doomed races, south and west out of the land, and in their place the Siculi flourish, and a Samnite colony voyages over the straits from Italy and joins them. Here for three centuries these sparse communities lived along these heights in fear of the sea pirates, and warred confusedly from their mainhold on Mount Taurus, or the Bull, so called because the two summits of the mountain from a distance resemble a bull’s horns; and they left no other memory of themselves.
Authentic history begins toward the end of the eighth century before our era. It is a bright burst; for then, down by yonder green-foaming rock, the young Greek mariners leaped on the strand. This was their first land-fall in Sicily; that rock, their Plymouth; and here, doubtless, the alarmed mountaineers stood in their fastness and watched the bearers of the world’s torch, and knew them not, bringing daybreak to the dark island for evermore, but fought, as barbarism will, against the light, and were at last made friends with it–a chance that does not always befall. Then quickly rose the lowland city of Naxos, and by the river sprang up the temple to Guiding Apollo, the earliest shrine of the Sicilian Greeks, where they came ever afterward to pray for a prosperous voyage when they would go across the sea, homeward. They were from the first a fighting race; and decade by decade the cloud of war grew heavier on each horizon, southward from Syracuse and northward from Messina, and swords beat fiercer and stronger with the rivalries of growing states–battles dimly discerned now. A single glimpse flashes out on the page of Thucydides. He relates that when once the Messenians threatened Naxos with overthrow, the mountaineers rushed down from the heights in great numbers to the relief of their Greek neighbours, and routed the enemy and slew many. This is the first bloodstain, clear and bright, on our Taorminian land. Shall I add, from the few relics of that age, that Pythagoras, on the journey he undertook to establish the governments of the Sicilian cities, wrought miracles here, curing a mad lover of his frenzy by music, and being present on this hill and at Metaponto the same day–a thing not to be done without magic? But at last we see plainly Alcibiades coasting along below, and the ill-fated Athenians wintering in the port, and horsemen going out from Naxos toward Etna on the side of Athens in the death-struggle of her glory. And then, suddenly, after the second three hundred years, all is over, the Greek city betrayed, sacked, destroyed, Naxos trodden out under the foot of Dionysius the tyrant.
Other fortune awaited him a few years later when he came again, and our city (which, one knows not when, had been walled and fortified) stood its first historic siege. Dionysius arrived in the dead of winter. Snow and ice–I can hardly credit it–whitened and roughened these ravines, a new ally to the besieged; but the tyrant thought to betray them by a false security in such a season. On a bitter night, when clouds hooded the hilltop, and mists rolled low about its flanks, he climbed unobserved, with his forces, up these precipices, and gained two outer forts which gave footways to the walls; but the town roused at the sound of arms and the cries of the guards, and came down to the fray, and fought until six hundred of the foe fell dead, others with wounds surrendered, and the rest fled headlong, with Dionysius among them, hard pressed, and staining the snow with his blood as he went. This was the city’s first triumph.
Not only with brave deeds did Taormina begin, but, as a city should, with a great man. He was really great, this Andromachus. Do you not remember him out of Plutarch, and the noble words that have been his immortal memory among men? “This man was incomparably the best of all those that bore sway in Sicily at that time, governing his citizens according to law and justice, and openly professing an aversion and enmity to all tyrants.” Was the defeat of Dionysius the first of his youthful exploits, as some say? I cannot determine; but it is certain that he gathered the surviving exiles of Naxos, and gave them this plateau to dwell upon, and it was no longer called Mount Taurus, as had been the wont, but Tauromenium, or the Abiding-place of the Bull. A few years later Andromachus performed the signal action of his life by befriending Timoleon, as great a character, in my eyes, as Plutarch records the glory of. Timoleon had set out from Corinth, at the summons of his Greek countrymen, to restore the liberty of Syracuse, then tyrannized over by the second Dionysius; and because Andromachus, in his stronghold of Taormina, hated tyranny, Plutarch says, he “gave Timoleon leave to muster up his troops there and to make that city the seat of war, persuading the inhabitants to join their arms with the Corinthian forces and to assist them in the design of delivering Sicily.” It was on our beach that Timoleon disembarked, and from our city he went forth to the conquest foretold, by the wreath that fell upon his head as he prayed at Delphi, and by the prophetic fire that piloted his ship over the sea. The Carthaginians came quickly after him from Reggio, where he had eluded them, for they were in alliance with the tyrant; and from their vessels they parleyed with Andromachus in the port. With an insolent gesture, the envoy, raising his hand, palm up, and turning it lightly over, said that even so, and with such ease, would he overturn the little city; and Andromachus, mocking his hand-play, answered that if he did not leave the harbour, even so would he upset his galley. The Carthaginians sailed away. The city remained firm-perched. Timoleon prospered, brought back liberty to Syracuse, ruled wisely and nobly, and gave to Sicily those twenty years of peace which were the flower of her Greek annals. Then, we must believe, rose the little temple on our headland, the Greek theatre where the tongue of Athens lived, the gymnasium where the youths grew fair and strong. Then Taormina struck her coins: Apollo with the laurel, with the lyre, with the grape; Dionysus with the ivy, and Zeus with the olive; for the gods and temples of the Naxians had become ours, and were religiously cherished; and with the rest was struck a coin with the Minotaur, our symbol. But of Andromachus, the founder of the well-built and fairly adorned Greek city that then rose, we hear no more–a hero, I think, one of the true breed of the founders of states. But alas for liberty! A new tyrant, Agathocles, was soon on the Syracusan throne, and he won this city by friendly professions, only to empty it by treachery and murder; and he drove into exile Timaeus, the son of Andromachus. Timaeus? He, evidently, of my Casa Timeo. I know him now, the once famed historian whom Cicero praises as the most erudite in history of all writers up to his time, most copious in facts and various in comment, not unpolished in style, eloquent, and distinguished by terse and charming expression. Ninety years he lived in the Greek world, devoted himself to history, and produced many works, now lost. The ancient writers read him, and from their criticism it is clear that he was marked by a talent for invective, was given to sharp censure, and loved the bitter part of truth. He introduced precision and detail into his art, and is credited with being the first to realize the importance of chronology and to seek exactness in it. He never saw again his lovely birthplace, and I easily forgive to the exile and the son of Andromachus the vigour with which he depicted the crimes of Agathocles and others of the tyrants. In our city, meanwhile, the Greek genius waning to its extinction, Tyndarion ruled; and in his time Pyrrhus came hither to repulse the ever invading power of Carthage. But he was little more than a shedder of blood; he accomplished nothing, and I name him only as one of the figures of our beach.
The day of Greece was gone; but those two clouds of war still hung on the horizon, north and south, with ever darker tempest. Instead of Syracuse and Messina, Carthage and the new name of Rome now sent them forth, and over this island they encountered. Our city, true to its ancient tradition, became Rome’s ever faithful ally, as you may read in the poem of Silius Italicus, and was dignified by treaty with the title of a confederate city; and of this fact Cicero reminded the judges when in that famous trial he thundered against Verres, the spoiler of our Sicilian province, and with the other cities defended this of ours, whose people had signalized their hatred of the Roman praetor by overthrowing his statue in the market-place and sparing the pedestal, as they said, to be an eternal memorial of his infamy. From the Roman age, however, I take but two episodes, for I find that to write this town’s history were to write the history of half the Mediterranean world. When the slaves rose in the Servile War, they intrenched themselves on this hill, and in their hands the city bore its siege by the Roman consul as hardily as was ever its custom. Cruel they were, no doubt, and vindictive. With horror Monsignore relates that they were so resolved not to yield that, starving, they ate their children, their wives, and one another; and he rejoices when they were at last betrayed and massacred, and this disgrace was wiped away. I hesitate. I cannot feel regret when those whom man has made brutal answer brutally to their oppressors. I have enough of the old Taorminian spirit to remember that the slaves, too, fought for liberty. I am sorry for those penned and dying men; their famine and slaughter in these walls were least horrible for their part in the catastrophe, if one looks through what they did to what they were, and remembers that the civilization they violated had stripped them of humanity. After the slave, I make room–for whom else than imperial Augustus? Off this shore he defeated Sextus Pompey, and he thought easily to subdue the town above when he summoned it. But Taormina was always a loyal little place, and it would not yield without a siege. Then Augustus, sitting down before it, prayed in our temple of Guiding Apollo that he might have the victory; and as he walked by the beach afterward a fish threw itself out of the water before him–an omen, said the diviners, that even so the Pompeians, who held the seas, after many turns of varied fortune, should be brought to his feet. Pompey returned with a fleet, and in these waters again the battle was fought and Augustus lost it, and the siege was raised. But when a third time the trial of naval strength was essayed, and the cause of the Pompeians ruined, Augustus remembered the city that had defied him, sent its inhabitants into exile, and planted a Roman colony in its place. Latin was now the language here. The massive grandeur of Roman architecture replaced the old Greek structures. The amphitheatre was enlarged and renewed in its present form, villas of luxury bordered the coasts as in Campania, and coins were struck in the Augustan name.
The Roman domination in its turn slowly moved to its fall; and where should the new age begin more fitly than in this city of beginnings? As of old the Greek torch first gleamed here, here first on Sicilian soil was the Cross planted. The gods of Olympus had many temples about the hill slopes, shrines of venerable antiquity even in those days; but if the monkish chronicles be credited, the new faith signalized its victory rather over three strange idolatries,–the worship of Falcone, of Lissone, and of Scamandro, a goddess. I refuse to believe that the citizens were accustomed to sacrifice three youths annually to Falcone; and as for the other two deities, little is known of them except that their destruction marked the advent of the young religion. Pancrazio was the name of him who was destined to be our patron saint through the coming centuries. He was born in Antioch, and when a child of three years, going with his father into Judea, he had seen the living Christ; now, grown into manhood, he was sent by St. Peter to spread the gospel in the isles of the sea. He disembarked on our beach, and forthwith threw Lissone’s image into the waves, and with it a holy dragon which was coiled about it like a garment and was fed with sacrifices; and he shattered with his cross the great idol Scamandro: and so Taormina became Christian, welcomed St. Peter on his way to Rome, and entered on the long new age. It was here, as elsewhere, the age of martyrs–Pancrazio first, and after him Geminiano, guided hither with his mother by an angel; and then San Nicone, who suffered with his one hundred and ninety-nine brother monks, and Sepero and Corneliano with their sixty; the age of monks–Luca, who fled from his bridal to live on Etna, with fasts, visions, and prophecies; and, later, simple-minded Daniele, the follower of St. Elia, of whom there is more to be recorded; the age of bishops, heard in Roman councils and the palace of Byzantium, of whom two only are of singular interest–Zaccaria, who was deprived, evidently the ablest in mind and policy of all the succession, once a great figure in the disputes of East and West; and Procopio, whom the Saracens slew, for the Crescent now followed the Cross.
The ancient war-cloud had again gathered out of Africa. The Saracens were in the land, and every city had fallen except Syracuse and Taormina. For sixty years the former held out, and our city for yet another thirty, the sole refuge of the Christians. Signs of the impending destruction were first seen by that St. Elia already mentioned, who wandered hither, and was displeased by the manners and morals of the citizens. I am sorry to record that Monsignore believed his report, for only here is there mention of such a matter. “The citizens,” says my author, “lived in luxury and pleasure not becoming to a state of war. They saw on all sides the fields devastated, houses burnt, wealth plundered, cities given to the flames, friends and companions killed or reduced to slavery, yet was there no vice, no sin, that did not rule unpunished among them.” Therefore the saint preached the woe to come, and, turning to the governor, Constantine Patrizio, in his place in the cathedral, he appealed to him to restrain his people. “Let the philosophy of the Gentiles,” he exclaimed, “be your shame. Epaminondas, that illustrious _condottiere_, strictly restrained himself from intemperance, from every lust, every allurement of pleasure. So, also, Scipio, the Roman leader, was valorous through the same continence as Epaminondas; and therefore they brought back signal victory, one over the Spartans, the other over the Carthaginians, and both erected immortal trophies.” He promised them mercy with repentance, but ended threateningly: “So far as in me lies I have clearly foretold to you all that has been divinely revealed to me. If you believe my words, like the penitents of Nineveh, you shall find mercy; if you despise my admonitions, bound and captive you shall be reduced to the worst slavery.” He prophesied yet more in private. He went to the house of a noble citizen, Crisione, who esteemed him as a father, and, lying in bed, he said to him: “Do you see, Crisione, the bed in which I now lie? In this same bed shall Ibrahim sleep, hungry for human blood, and the walls of the rooms shall see many of the most distinguished persons of this city all together put to the edge of the sword.” Then he left the house and went to the square in the centre of the city, and, standing there, he lifted his garments above the knee. Whereupon simple Daniele, who always followed him about, marvelling asked, “What does this thing mean, father?” The old man had his answer ready, “Now I see rivers of blood running, and these proud and magnificent buildings which you see exalted shall be destroyed even to the foundations by the Saracens.” And the monk fled from the doomed city, like a true prophet, and went overseas.
The danger was near, but perhaps not more felt than it must always have been where the prayer for defence against the Saracens had gone up for a hundred years in the cathedral. The governor, however, had taken pains to add to the strength of the city by strong fortifications upon Mola. Ahulabras came under the walls, but gave over the ever unsuccessful attempt to take the place, and went on to ruin Reggio beyond the straits. When it was told to his father Ibrahim that Tabermina, as the Saracens called it, had again been passed by, he cried out upon his son, “He is degenerate, degenerate! He took his nature from his mother and not from his father; for, had he been born from me, surely his sword would not have spared the Christians!” Therefore he recalled him to the home government, and came himself and sat down before the city. The garrison was small and insufficient, but, says my author, following old chronicles, “youths, old men, and children, without distinction of age, sex, or condition, fearing outrage and all that slavery would expose them to, all spontaneously offered themselves to fight in this holy war even to death: with such courage did love of country and religious zeal inspire the citizens.” Ibrahim had other weapons than the sword. He first corrupted the captains of the Greek fleet, who were afterward condemned for the treason at Byzantium. Then, all being ready, he promised some Ethiopians of his army, who are described as of a ferocious nature and harsh aspect, that he would give them the city for booty, besides other gifts, if they would devote themselves to the bold undertaking. The catastrophe deserves to be told in Monsignore’s own words:
“This people, accustomed to rapine, allured by the riches of the Taorminians and the promises of the king, with the aid of the traitors entered unexpectedly into the city, and with bloody swords and mighty cries and clamour assailed the citizens. Meanwhile King Ibrahim, having entered with all his army by a secret gate under the fortress of Mola, thence called the gate of the Saracens, raged against the citizens with such unexpected and cruel slaughter that not only neither the weakness of sex, nor tender years, nor reverence for hoary age, but not even the abundance of blood that like torrents flowed down the ways, touched to pity that ferocious heart. The soldiers, masters of the beautiful and wealthy city, divided among them the riches and goods of the citizens according as to each one the lot fell; they levelled to the ground the magnificent buildings, public or private, sacred or profane, all that were proudest for amplitude, construction, and ornament; and that not even the ruins of ancient splendour should remain, all that had survived they gave to the flames.”
This city, which the Saracens destroyed, is the one the Taorminians cherish as the culmination of their past. In the Greek, the Roman, and the early Christian ages it had flourished, as both its ruins and its history attest, and much must have yet survived from those times; while its station as the only Christian stronghold in the island would naturally have attracted wealth hither for safety. In this first sack of the Saracens, the ancient city must have perished, but the destruction could hardly have been so thorough as is represented, since some of the churches themselves, in their present state, show Byzantine workmanship.
There remains one bloody and characteristic episode to Ibrahim’s victory. The king, says the Arab chronicler, was pious and naturally compassionate, but on this occasion he forgot his usual mildness. In the midst of fire and blood he ordered the soldiers to search the caverns of the hills, and they dragged forth many prisoners, among whom was the Bishop Procopio. The king spoke to him gently and nobly, “Because you are wise and old, O Bishop, I exhort you with soft words to obey my advice, and to have foresight for your own safety and that of your companions; otherwise you shall suffer what your fellow-citizens have suffered from me. If you will embrace my laws, and deny the Christian religion, you shall have the second place after me, and shall be more dear to me than all the Agarenes.” The prelate only smiled. Then, full of wrath, the king said: “Do you smile while you are my prisoner? Know you not in whose presence you are?” “I smile truly,” came the answer, “because I see you are inspired by a demon who puts these words into your mouth.” Furious, the king called to his attendants, “Quick, break open his breast, tear out his heart, that we may see and understand the secrets of his mind.” While the command was being executed, Procopio reproved the king and comforted his companions. “The tyrant, swollen with rage, and grinding his teeth,” says the narrative, “barbarously offered him the torn-out heart that he might eat it.” Then he bade them strike off the bishop’s head (who, we are told, was already half dead), and also the heads of his companions, and to burn the bodies all together. And as St. Pancrazio of old had thrown the holy dragon into the sea, so now were his own ashes scattered to the winds of heaven; and Ibrahim, having accomplished his work, departed.
Some of the citizens, however, had survived, and among them Crisione, the host of St. Elia. He went to bear the tidings to the saint; and being now assured of the gift of prophecy possessed by the holy man, asked him to foretell his future. He met the customary fate of the curious in such things. “I foresee,” said the discomfortable saint, “that within a few days you will die.” And to make an end of St. Elia with Crisione, let me record here the simple Daniele’s last act of piety to his master. It is little that in such company he fought with devils, or that after he had written with much labour a beautiful Psalter, the old monk bade him fling it and worldly pride together over the cliff into a lake. Such episodes belonged to the times; and, after all, by making a circuit of six miles he found the Psalter miraculously unwet, and only his worldly pride remained at the lake’s bottom. But it was a mind singularly inventive of penance that led the dying saint to charge poor Daniele to bear the corpse on his back a long way over the mountains, merely because, he said, it would be a difficult thing to do. Other survivors of the sack of Taormina, more fortunate than Crisione, watched their opportunity, and, at a moment when the garrison was weak, entered, seized the place, fortified it anew, and offered it to the Greek emperor once more. He could not maintain war with the Saracens, but by a treaty made with them he secured his faithful Taorminians in the possession of the city. After forty years of peace under this treaty it was again besieged for several months, and fell on Christmas night. Seventeen hundred and fifty of its citizens were sent by the victors into slavery in Africa. Greek troops, however, soon retook the city in a campaign that opened brilliantly in Sicily only to close in swift disaster; but for five years longer Taormina sustained continual siege, and when it fell at last, with the usual carnage of its citizens and the now thrice-repeated fire and ruin of Saracenic victory, we may well believe that, though it remained the seat of a governor, little of the city was left except its memory. Its name even was changed to Moezzia.
The Crescent ruled undisturbed for a hundred years, until the landing of Count Roger, the Norman, the great hero of mediaeval Sicily, who recovered the island to the Christian faith. Taormina, true to its tradition, was long in falling; but after eighteen years of desultory warfare Count Roger sat down before it with determination. He surrounded it with a circumvallation of twenty-two fortresses connected by ramparts and bridges, and cut off all access by land or sea. Each day he inspected the lines; and the enemy, having noticed this habit, laid an ambush for him in some young myrtles where the path he followed had a very narrow passage over the precipices. They rushed out on him, and, as he was unarmed and alone, would have killed him, had not their cries attracted one Evandro, a Breton, who, coming, and seeing his chief’s peril, threw himself between, and died in his place. Count Roger was not forgetful of this noble action. He recovered the body, held great funeral services, and gave gifts to the soldiers and the church. The story appealed so to the old chronicler Malaterra, that he told it in both prose and verse. After seven months the city surrendered, and the iron cross was again set up on the rocky eminence by the gate. It is a sign of the ruin which had befallen that the city now lost its bishopric and was ecclesiastically annexed to another see.
Taormina, compared with what it had been, was now a place of the desert; but not the less for that did the tide of war rage round it for five hundred years to come. It was like a rock of the sea over which conflicting billows break eternally. I will not narrate the feudal story of internecine violence, nor how amidst it all every religious order set up monasteries upon the beautiful hillsides, of whose life little is now left but the piles of books in old bindings over which my friend the librarian keeps guard, mourning the neglect in which they are left. Among both the nobles and the fathers were some examples of heroism, sacrifice, and learning, but their deeds and virtues may sleep unwaked by me. The kings and queens who took refuge here, and fled again, Messenian foray and Chiaramontane faction, shall go unrecorded. I must not, however, in the long roll of the famous figures of our beach forget that our English Richard the Lion-hearted was entertained here by Tancred in crusading days; and of notable sieges let me name at least that which the city suffered for its loyalty to the brave and generous Manfred when the Messenians surprised and wasted it, and that which with less destruction the enemies of the second Frederick inflicted on it, and that of the French under Charles II, who, contrary to his word, gave up the surrendered city to the soldiery for eight whole days–a terrible sack, of which Monsignore has heard old men tell. What part the citizens took in the Sicilian Vespers, and how the Parliament that vainly sought a king for all Sicily was held here, and in later times the marches of the Germans, Spaniards, and English–these were too long a tale. With one more signal memory I close this world-history, as it began, with a noble name. It was from our beach yonder that Garibaldi set out for Italy in the campaign of Aspromonte; hither he was brought back, wounded, to the friendly people, still faithful to that love of liberty which flowed in the old Taorminian blood.
I shut my books; but to my eyes the rock is scriptured now. What a leaf it is from the world-history of man upon the planet! Every race has splashed it with blood; every faith has cried from it to heaven. It is only a hill-station in the realm of empire; but in the records of such a city, lying somewhat aside and out of common vision, the course of human fate may be more simply impressive than in the story of world-cities. Athens, Rome, Constantinople, London, Paris, are great centres of history; but in them the mind is confused by the multiplicity and awed by the majesty of events. Here on this bare rock there is no thronging of illustrious names, and little of that glory that conceals imperial crime, the massacre of armies, and the people’s woe. Again I use the figure: it is like a rock of the sea, set here in the midst of the Mediterranean world, washed by all the tides of history, beat on by every pitiless storm of the passion of man for blood. The torch of Greece, the light of the Cross, the streaming portent of the Crescent, have shone from it, each in its time; all governments, from Greek democracy to Bourbon tyranny, have ruled it in turn; Roman law and feudal custom had it in charge, each a long age: yet civilization in all its historic forms has never here done more, seemingly, than alleviate at moments the hard human lot. And what has been the end? Go down into the streets; go out into the villages; go into the country-side. The men will hardly look up from their burdens, the women will seldom stop to ask alms, but you will see a degradation of the human form that speaks not of the want of individuals, of one generation, or of an age, but of the destitution of centuries stamped physically into the race. There is, as always, a prosperous class, men well to do, the more fortunate and better-born; but the common people lead toilsome lives, and among them suffering is widespread. Three thousand years of human life, and this the result! Yet I see many indications of a brave patriotism in the community, an effort to improve general conditions, to arouse, to stimulate, to encourage–the spirit of free and united Italy awakening here, too, with faith in the new age of liberty and hope of its promised blessings. And for a sign there stands in the centre of the poor fishing-village yonder a statue of Garibaldi.
The rain-cloud is gone. The days are bright, warm, and clear, and every hour tempts me forth to wander about the hills. It is not spring, but the hesitancy that holds before the season changes; yet each day there are new flowers–not our delicate wood flowers, but larger and coarser of fibre, and it adds a charm to them that I do not know their names. The trees are budding, and here and there, like a wave breaking into foam on a windless sea, an almond has burst into blossom, white and solitary on the gray slopes, and over all the orchards there is the faint suggestion of pale pink, felt more than seen, so vague is it–but it is there. I go wandering by cliff or sea-shore, by rocky beds of running water, under dark-browed caverns, and on high crags; now on our cape, among the majestic rocks, I watch the swaying of the smooth deep-violet waters below, changing into indigo as they lap the rough clefts, or I loiter on the beach to see the fishers about their boats, weather-worn mariners, and youths in the fair strength of manly beauty, like athletes of the old world: and always I bring back something for memory, something unforeseen.
I have ever found this uncertainty a rare pleasure of travel. It is blessed not to know what the gods will give. I remember once in other days I left the beach of Amalfi to row away to the isles of the Sirens, farther down the coast. It was a beautiful, blowing, wave-wild morning, and I strained my sight, as every headland of the high cliff-coast was rounded, to catch the first glimpse of the low isles; and there came by a country boat-load of the peasants, and in the bows, as it neared and passed, I saw a dark, black-haired boy, bare breast, and dreaming eyes, motionless save for the dipping prow–a figure out of old Italian pictures, some young St. John, inexpressibly beautiful. I have forgotten how the isles of the Sirens looked, but that boy’s face I shall never forget. It is such moments that give the Italy of the imagination its charm. Here, too, I have similar experiences. A day or two ago, when the bright weather began, I was threading the rough edge of a broken path under the hill, and clinging to the rock with my hand. Suddenly a figure rose just before me, where the land made out a little farther on a point of the crag, so strange that I was startled; but straightway I knew the goatherd, the curling locks, the olive face, the garments of goatskin and leather on his limbs. It came on me like a flash–_eccola_ the country of Theocritus!
I have never seen it set down among the advantages of travel that one learns to understand the poets better. To see courts and governments, manners and customs, works of architecture, statues and pictures and ruins–this, since modern travel began, is to make the grand tour; but though I have diligently sought such obvious and common aims, and had my reward, I think no gain so great as that I never thought of, the light which travel sheds upon the poets; unless, indeed, I should except that stronger hold on the reality of the ideal creations of the imagination which comes from familiar life with pictures, and statues, and kindred physical renderings of art. This latter advantage must necessarily be more narrowly availed of by men, since it implies a certain peculiar temperament; but poetry, in its less exalted forms, is open and common to all who are not immersed in the materialism of their own lives, and whatever helps to unlock the poetic treasures of other lands for our possession may be an important part of life. I think none can fully taste the sweetness, or behold the beauty, of English song even, until he has wandered in the lanes and fields of the mother-country; and in the case of foreign, and especially of the ancient, poets, so much of whose accepted and assumed world of fact has perished, the loss is very great. I had trodden many an Italian hillside before I noticed how subtly Dante’s landscape had become realized in my mind as a part of nature. I own to believing that Virgil’s storms never blew on the sea until once, near Salerno, as I rode back from Paestum, there came a storm over the wide gulf that held my eyes enchanted–such masses of ragged, full clouds, such darkness in their broad bosoms broken with rapid flame, and a change beneath so swift, such anger on the sea, such an indescribable and awful gleaming hue, not purple, nor green, nor red, but a commingling of all these–a revelation of the wrath of colour! The waves were wild with the fallen tempest; quick and heavy the surf came thundering on the sands; the light went out as if it were extinguished, and the dark rain came down; and I said, “‘Tis one of Virgil’s storms.” Such a one you will find also in Theocritus, where he hymns the children of Leda, succourers of the ships that, “defying the stars that set and rise in heaven, have encountered the perilous breath of storms. The winds raise huge billows about their stern, yea, or from the prow, or even as each wind wills, and cast them into the hold of the ship, and shatter both bulwarks, while with the sail limits nil the gear confused and broken, and the wide sea rings, being lashed by the gusts and by showers of iron hail.”
I must leave these older memories, to tell, so far as it is possible in words, of that land of the idyl which of all enchanted retreats of the imagination is the hardest for him without the secret to enter. Yet here I find it all about me in the places where the poets first unveiled it. Once before I had a sight of it, as all over Italy it glimpses at times from the hills and the campagna. Descending under the high peak of Capri, I heard a flute, and turned and saw on the neighbouring slopes the shepherd-boy leading his flock, the music at his lips. Then the centuries rolled together like a scroll, and I heard the world’s morning notes. That was a single moment; but here, day-long is the idyl world. I read the old verses over, and in my walks the song keeps breaking in. The idyls are full of streams and fountains, just such as I meet with wherever I turn, and the water counts in the landscape as in the poems. It is always tumbling over rocks in cascades, brawling with rounded forms among the stones of the shallow brooks, bubbling in fountains, or dripping from the cliff, or shining like silver in the plain. The run that comes down from Mola, the torrent under the olive and lemon branches toward Letojanni, the more open course in the ravine of the mill down by Giardini, the cimeter of the far-seen Alcantara lying on the campagna in the meadows, and that further _fiume freddo_, the cold stream,–“chill water that for me deep-wooded Etna sends down from the white snow, a draught divine,”–each of these seems inhabited by a genius of its own, so that it does not resemble its neighbours. But all alike murmur of ancient song, and bring it near, and make it real.
On the beach one feels most keenly the actuality of much of the idyls, and finds the continuousness of the human life that enters into them. No idyl appeals so directly to modern feeling, I suspect, as does that of the two fishermen and the dream of the golden fish. Go down to the shore; you will find the old men still at their toil, the same implements, the same poverty, the same sentiment for the heart. Often as I look at them I recall the old words, while the goats hang their heads over the scant herbage, and the blue sea breaks lazily and heavily on the sands.
“Two fishers, on a time, two old men, together lay and slept; they had strewn the dry sea-moss for a bed in their wattled cabin, and there lay against the leafy wall. Beside them wore strewn the instruments of their toilsome bands, the fishing-creels, the rods of reed, the hooks, the sails bedraggled with sea-spoil, the lines, the weels, the lobster-pots woven of rushes, the seines, two oars, and an old cobble upon props. Beneath their heads was a scanty matting, their clothes, their sailors’ caps. Here was all their toil, here all their wealth. The threshold had never a door nor a watch-dog. All things, all, to them seemed superfluity, for Poverty was their sentinel; they had no neighbour by them, but ever against their narrow cabin gently floated up the sea.”
This is what the eye beholds; and I dare not say that the idyl is touched more with the melancholy of human fate for us than for the poet. Poverty such as this, so absolute, I see everywhere at every hour. It is a terrible sight. It is the physical hunger of the soul in wan limbs and hand, and the fixed gaze of the unhoping eyes–despair made flesh. How long has it suffered here? and was it so when Theocritus saw his fishers and gave them a place in the country of his idyls? He spreads before us the hills and fountains, and fills the scene-with shepherds, and maidens, and laughing loves, and among the rest are these two poor old men. The shadow of the world’s poverty falls on this paradise now as then. With the rock and sea it, too, endures.
A few traces of the old myths also survive on the landscape. Not far from here, down the coast, the rocks that the Cyclops threw after the fleeing mariners are still to be seen near the shore above which he piped to Galatea. Some day I mean to take a boat and see them. But now I let the Cyclops idyls go, and with them Adonis of Egypt, and Ptolemy, and the prattling women, and the praises of Hiero, and the deeds of Herakles; these all belong to the cities of the pastoral, to its civilization and art in more conscious forms; but my heart stays in the campagna, where are the song-contests, the amorous praise of maidens, the boyish boasting, the young, sweet, graceful loves. Fain would I recover the breath of that springtime; but while from my foot “every stone upon the way spins singing,” make what speed I can, I come not to the harvest-feast. Bees go booming among the blossoms, and the flocks crop their pasture, and night falls with Hesperus; but fruitless on my lips, as at some shrine whence the god is gone, is Bion’s prayer: “Hesperus, golden lamp of the lovely daughter of the foam–dear Hesperus, sacred jewel of the deep blue night, dimmer as much than the moon as thou art among the stars preeminent, hail, friend!” Dead now is that ritual. Now more silent than ever is the country-side, missing Daphnis, the flower of all those who sing when the heart is young. Sweet was his flute’s first triumph over Menaleas: “Then was the boy glad, and leaped high, and clapped his hands over his victory, as a young fawn leaps about his mother”; but sweeter was the unwon victory when he strove with Damoetas: “Then Damoetas kissed Daphnis, as he ended his song, and he gave Daphnis a pipe, and Daphnis gave him a beautiful flute. Damoetas fluted, and Daphnis piped; the herdsmen, and anon the calves, were dancing in the soft green grass. Neither won the victory, but both were invincible.” And him, too, I miss who loved his friend, and wished that they twain might “become a song in the ears of all men unborn,” even for their love’s sake; and prayed, “Would, O Father Cronides, and would, ye ageless immortals, that this might be, and that when two generations have sped, one might bring these tidings to me by Acheron, the irremeable stream: the loving-kindness that was between thee and thy gracious friend is even now in all men’s mouths, and chiefly on the lips of the young.” Hill and fountain and pine, the gray sea and Mother Etna, are here; but no children gather in the land, as once about the tomb of Diocles at the coming in of the spring, contending for the prize of the kisses–“Whoso most sweetly touches lip to lip, laden with garlands he returneth to his mother. Happy is he who judges those kisses of the children.” Lost over the bright furrows of the sea is Europa riding on the back of the divine bull as Moschus beheld her–“With one hand she clasped the beast’s great horn, and with the other caught up the purple fold of her garment, lest it might trail and be wet in the hoar sea’s infinite spray”; and from the border-land of mythic story, that was then this world’s horizon, yet more faintly the fading voice of Hylas answers the deep-throated shout of Herakles. Faint now as his voice are the voices of the shepherds who are gone, youth and maiden and children; dimly I see them, vaguely I hear them; at last there remains only “the hoar sea’s infinite spray.” And will you say it was in truth all a dream? Were the poor fisherman in their toil alone real, and the rest airy nothings to whom Sicily gave a local habitation and a name? It was Virgil’s dream and Spenser’s; and some secret there was–something still in our breasts–that made it immortal, so that to name the Sicilian Muses is to stir an infinite, longing tenderness in every young and noble heart that the gods have softened with sweet thoughts.
And here I shut in my pages the one laurel leaf that Taormina bore. She, too, in her centuries has had her poet. Perhaps none who will see these words ever gave a thought to the name and fame of Cornelius Severus. Few of his works remain, and little is known of his life. He is said to have been the friend of Pollio, and to have been present in the Sicilian war between Augustus and Sextus Pompey. He wrote the first book of an epic poem on that subject, so excellent that it has been thought that, had the entire work been continued at the same level, he would have held the second place among the Latin epic poets. He wrote also heroic songs, of which fragments survive, one of which is an elegy upon Cicero, which Seneca quotes, saying of him, “No one out of so many talented men deplored the death of Cicero better than Cornelius Severus.” Some dialogues in verse also seem to have been written by him. These fragments may not he easily obtained. But take down your Virgil; and, if it be like this of mine which I brought from Rome, you will find at the very end, last of the shorter pieces ascribed to the poet, one of the length of a book of the “Georgics,” called “Etna.” This is the work of Cornelius Severus. An early death took from him the perfection of his genius and the hope of fame; but happy was the fortune of him who wrote so well that for centuries his lines were thought not unworthy of Virgil, whose name still shields this Taorminian verse from oblivion.
It is my last day at Taormina. I have seen the sunrise from my old station by the Greek temple, and watched the throng of cattle and men gathered on the distant beach of Letojanni and darkening the broad bed of the dry torrent that there makes down to the sea, and I wished I were among them, for it is their annual fair; and still I dwell on every feature of the landscape that familiarity has made more beautiful. The afternoon I have dedicated to a walk to Mola. It is a pleasant, easy climb, with the black ancient wall of the city on the left, where it goes up the face of the castle-rock, and on the right the deep ravine, closed by Monte Venere in the west. All is very quiet; a silent, silent country! There are few birds or none, and indeed I have heard no bird-song since I have been here. Opposite, on the other side of the wall of the ravine, are some cows hanging in strange fashion to the cliff, where it seems goats could hardly cling; but the unwieldy, awkward creatures move with sure feet, and seem wholly at home, pasturing on the bare precipice. I cannot hear the torrent, now a narrow stream, deep below me, but I see the women of Mola washing by the old fountain which is its source. There is no other sign of human life. The fresh spring flowers, large and coarse, but bright-coloured, are all I have of company, and the sky is blue and the air like crystal. So I go up, ever up, and at last am by the gate of Mola, and enter the stony-hearted town. A place more dreary, desolate to the eye, is seldom seen. There are only low, mean houses of gray stone, and the paved ways. If you can fancy a prison turned inside out like a glove, with all its interior stone exposed to the sunlight, which yet seems sunlight in a prison, and silence over all–that is Mola. The ruins of the fortress are near the gate on the highest point of the crag. Within is a barren spot–a cistern, old foundations, and some broken walls. Look over the battlement westward, and you will see a precipice that one thinks only birds could assail; and, observing how isolated is the crag on all sides, you will understand what an inaccessible fastness this was, and cannot be surprised at its record of defence.
Perhaps here was the oldest dwelling-place of man upon the hill, and it was the securest retreat. Monsignore, indeed, believes that Ham, the son of Noah, who drove Japhet out of Sicily, was the first builder; but I do not doubt its antiquity was very great, and it seems likely that this was the original Siculian stronghold before the coming of the Greeks, and the building of the lower city of Taormina. The ruins that exist are part of the fortress made by that governor who lost the city to the Saracens, to defend it against them on this side; and here it stood for nigh a thousand years, like the citadel itself, an impregnable hold of war. It seldom yielded, and always by treachery or mutiny; for more than once, when Taormina was sacked, its citadel and Mola remained untaken and unconquerable on their extreme heights. I shall not tell its story; but one brave man once commanded here, and his name shall be its fame now, and my last tale of the Taorminian past.
He was Count Matteo, a nobleman of the days when the Messenians revolted against the chancellor of Queen Margaret. He was placed over this castle; and when a certain Count Riccardo was discovered in a conspiracy to murder the chancellor, and was taken captive, he was given into Matteo’s charge, and imprisoned here. The Messenians came and surprised the lower city of Taormina, but they could not gain Mola nor persuade Matteo to yield Riccardo up to them. So they thought to overcome his fidelity cruelly. They took his wife and children, who were at Messina, threw them into a dungeon, and condemned them to death. Then they sent Matteo’s brother-in-law to treat with him. But when the count knew the reason of the visit he said: “It seems to me that you little value the zeal of an honest man who, loyal to his office, does not wish, neither knows how, to break his sworn faith. My wife and children would look on me with scornful eyes should I be renegade; for shame is not the reward that sweetens life, but burdens it. If the Messenians stain themselves with innocent blood, I shall weep for the death of my wife and sons, but the heart of an honest citizen will have no remorse.” Then he was silent. But treachery could do what such threats failed to accomplish. One Gavaretto was found, who unlocked the prison, and Riccardo was already escaping when Matteo, roused at a slight noise, came, sword in hand, and would have slain him; but the traitor behind, “to save his wages,” struck Matteo in the body, and the faithful count fell dead in his blood. I thought of this story, standing there, and nothing else in the castle’s filled with bloom; then the infinite beauty, slowly fading, withdrew the scene, and sweetly it parted from my eyes.
Yet once more I step out upon the terrace into the night. I hear the long roar of the breakers; I see the flickering fishers’ lights, and Etna pale under the stars. The place is full of ghosts. In the darkness I seem to hear vaguely arising, half sense, half thought, the murmur of many tongues that have perished here, Sicanian and Siculian and the lost Oscan, Greek and Latin and the hoarse jargon of barbaric slaves, Byzantine and Arabic confused with strange African dialects, Norman and Sicilian, French and Spanish, mingling, blending, changing, the sharp battle-cry of a thousand assaults rising from the low ravines, the death-cry of twenty bloody massacres within these walls, ringing on the hard rock and falling to silence only to rise more full with fiercer pain–century after century of the battle-wrath and the battle-woe. My fancy shapes the air till I see over the darkly lifted, castle-rock the triple crossing swords of Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman in the age-long duel, and as these fade, the springing brands of Byzantine, Arab, and Norman, and yet again the heavy blades of France, Spain, and Sicily; and ever, like rain or snow, falls the bloody dew on this lone hill-wide. “Oh, wherefore?” I whisper; and all is silent save the surge still lifting round the coast the far voices of the old Ionian sea. I have wondered that the children of Etna should dwell in its lovely paradise, as I thought how often, how terribly, the lava has poured forth upon it, the shower of ashes fallen, the black horror of volcanic eruption overwhelmed the land. Yet, sum it all, pang by pang, all that Etna ever wrought of woe to the sons of men, the agonies of her burnings, the terrors of her living entombments, all her manifold deaths at once, and what were it in comparison with the blood that has flowed on this hillside, the slaughter, the murder, the infinite pain here suffered at the hands of man. O Etna, it is not thou that man should fear! He should fear his brother-man.
The stars were paling over Etna, white and ghostly, as I came out to depart. In the dark street I met a woman with a young boy clinging to her side. Her black hair fell down over her shoulders, and her bosom was scantily clothed by the poor garment that fell to her ankles and her feet. She was still young, and from her dark, sad face her eyes met mine with that fixed look of the hopeless poor, now grown familiar; the child, half naked, gazed up at me as he held his mother’s hand. What brought her there at that hour, alone with her child? She seemed the epitome of the human life I was leaving behind, come forth to bid farewell; and she passed on under the shadows of the dawn. The last star faded as I went down the hollow between the spurs. Etna gleamed white and vast over the shoulder of the ravine, and, as I dipped down, was gone.
A NEW DEFENCE OF POETRY
There was an old cry, Return to Nature! Let us rather return unto the soul. Nature is great, and her science marvellous; but it is man who knows it. In what he knows it is partial and subsidiary. Know thyself, was the first command of reason; and wisdom was an ancient thing when the sweet influences of the Pleiades and the path of Arcturus with his sons were young in human thought. These late conquests of the mind in the material infinities of the universe, its exploring of stellar space, its exhuming of secular time, its harnessing of invisible forces, this new mortal knowledge, its sudden burst, its brilliancy and amplitude of achievement, thought winnowing the world as with a fan; the vivid spectacle of vast and beneficent changes wrought by this means in human welfare, the sense of the increase of man’s power springing from unsuspected and illimitable resources,–all this has made us forgetful of truth that is the oldest heirloom of the race. In the balances of thought the soul of man outweighs the mass that gravitation measures. Man only is of prime interest to men; and man as a spirit, a creature but made in the likeness of something divine. The lapse of aeons touches us as little as the reach of space; even the building of our planet, and man’s infancy, have the faint and distant reality of cradle records. Science may reconstruct the inchoate body of animal man, the clay of our mould, and piece together the primitive skeleton of the physical being we now wear; but the mind steadily refuses to recognize a human past without some discipline in the arts, some exercise in rude virtue, and some proverbial lore handed down from sire to son. The tree of knowledge is of equal date with the tree of life; nor were even the tamer of horses, the worker in metals, or the sower, elder than those twin guardians of the soul,–the poet and the priest. Conscience and imagination were the pioneers who made earth habitable for the human spirit; they are still its lawgivers and where they have lodged their treasures, there is wisdom. I desire to renew the long discussion of the nature and method of idealism by engaging in a new defence of poetry, or the imaginative art in any of its kinds, as the means by which this wisdom, which is the soul’s knowledge of itself, is stored up for the race in its most manifest, enduring, and vital forms. It is, by literary tradition and association, a proud task. May I not take counsel of Spenser and be bold at the first door? Sidney and Shelley pleaded this cause. Because they spoke, must we be dumb? or shall not a noble example be put to its best use in trying what truth can now do on younger lips? The old hunt is up in the Muses’ bower; and I would fain speak for that learning which has to me been light. I use this preface not unwillingly in open loyalty to studies on which my youth was nourished, and the masters I then loved whom the natural thoughts of youth made eloquent; my hope is to continue their finer breath, as they before drank from old fountains; but chiefly I name them as a reminder that the main argument is age-long; it does not harden into accepted dogma; and it is thus ceaselessly tossed because it belongs in that sphere of our warring nature where conflict is perpetual. It goes on in the lives as well as on the lips of men. It is a question how to live as well as how to express life. Each race uses its own tongue, each age its dialect; but, change the language as man may, he ever remains the questioner of his few great thoughts.
The defenders of the soul inherit an old cause that links them together in a long descent; but the battle is always to a present age. Continually something is becoming superfluous, inapplicable, or wanting in the work of the past. Victory itself makes arms useless, and consigns them to dark closets. New times, new weapons, is the history of all warfare. The doubt of the validity of the ideal, never absent from any intellectual period, is active on all sides, and in more than one quarter passes into denial. Literature and the other arts of expression suffer throughout the world. To that point is it come that those of the old stock who believe that the imagination exercises man’s faculty at its highest pitch, and that the method of idealism is its law, are bid step down, while others more newly grounded in what belongs to literature possess the city; but seeing the shrines interdicted, the obliteration of ancient names, the heroes’ statues thrown down, shall we learn what our predecessors never knew–to abdicate and abandon? I hear in the temples the footsteps of the departing gods–
Di quibus imperium hoc steterat;
but no; for our opponents are worse off than those of whom it was said that though one rose from the dead they would not believe,–Plato, being dead, yet speaks, Shakspere treads our boards, and (why should I hesitate?) Tennyson yet breathes among us though already immortal. That which convinced the master minds of antiquity and many in later ages is still convincing, if it be attended to; the old tradition is yet unbroken; therefore, because I was bred in this faith, I will try to set forth anew in the phrases of our time the eternal ground of reason on which idealism rests.
The specific question concerns literature and its method, but its import is not mainly literary. Life is the matter of literature; and thence it comes that all leading inquiries to which literature gives rise probe for their premises to the roots of our being and expand in their issues to the unknown limits of human fate. It is an error to think of idealism as a thing remote, fantastic, and unsubstantial. It enters intimately into the lives of all men, however humble and unlearned, if they live at all except in their bodies. What is here proposed is neither speculative, technical, nor abstruse; it is practical in matter, universal in interest, and touches upon those things which men most should heed. I fear rather to incur the reproach of uttering truisms than paradoxes. But he does ill who is scornful of the trite. To be learned in commonplaces is no mean education. They make up the great body of the people’s knowledge. They are the living words upon the lips of men from generation to generation; the real winged words; the matter of the unceasing reiteration of families, schools, pulpits, libraries; the tradition of mankind. Proverb, text, homily,–happy the youth whose purse is stored with these broad pieces, current, in every country and for every good, like fairy gifts of which the occasion only when it arises shows the use. It is with truth as with beauty,–familiarity endears and makes it more precious. What is common is for that very reason in danger of neglect, and from it often flashes that divine surprise which most enkindles the soul. Why must Prometheus bring fire from heaven to savage man? Did it not sleep in the flint at his feet? How often, at the master stroke of life, has some text of Holy Scripture, which lay in the mind from childhood almost like the debris of memory, illuminated the remorseful darkness of the mind, or interpreted the sweetness of God’s sunshine in the happy heart! Common as light is love, sang Shelley; and equally common with beauty and truth and love is all that is most vital to the soul, all that feeds it and gives it power; if aught be lacking, it is the eye to see and the heart to understand. Grain, fruit and vegetable, wool, silk and cotton, gold, silver and iron, steam and electricity,–were not all, like the spark, within arm’s reach of savage man? The slow material progress of mankind through ages is paralleled by the slow growth of the individual soul in laying hold of and putting to use the resources of spiritual strength that are nigh unto it. The service of man to man in the ways of the spirit is, in truth, an act as simple as the giving of a cup of cold water to him who is athirst.
Can there be any surprise when I say that the method of idealism is that of all thought? that in its intellectual process the art of the poet, so far from being a sort of incantation, is the same as belongs to the logician, the chemist, the statesman? It is no more than to say that in creating literature the mind acts; the action of the mind is thought; and there are no more two ways of thinking than there are two kinds of gravitation. Experience is the matter of all knowledge. It is given to the mind as a complex of particular facts, a series, ever continuing, of impressions outward and inward. It is stored in the memory, and were memory the only mental faculty, no other knowledge than this of particular facts in their temporal sequence could be acquired; the sole method of obtaining knowledge would be by observation. All literature would then be merely annals of the contents of successive moments in their order. Reason, however, intervenes. Its process is well known. In every object of perception, as it exists in the physical world and is given by sensation to our consciousness, there is both in itself and in its relations a likeness to other objects and relations, and this likeness the mind takes notice of; it thus analyzes the complex of experience, discerns the common element, and by this means classifies particular facts, thereby condensing them into mental conceptions,– abstract ideas, formulas, laws. The mind arrives at these in the course of its normal operation. As soon as we think at all, we speak of white and black, of bird and beast, of distance and size,–of uniformities in the behaviour of nature, or laws; by such classification of qualities, objects, and various relations, not merely in the sensuous but in every sphere of our consciousness, the mind simplifies its experience, compacts its knowledge, and economizes its energies. To this work it brings, also, the method of experiment. It then interferes arbitrarily with the natural occurrence of facts, and brings that to pass which otherwise would not have been; and this method it uses to investigate, to illustrate what was previously known, and to confirm what was surmised. Its end, whether through observation or experiment, is to reach general truth as opposed to matter-of-fact, universals more or less embracing as opposed to particulars, the units of thought as opposed to the units of phenomena. The body of these constitutes rational knowledge.
Nature then becomes known, not as a series of impressions on the retina of sense merely, but as a system seized by the eye of reason; for the senses show man the aspect worn by the world as it is at the moment, but reason opens to him the order obtaining in the world as it must be at every moment; and the instrument by which man rises from the phenomenal plane of experience to the necessary sphere of truth is the generalizing faculty whose operation has just been described. The office of the reason in the exercise of this faculty is to find organic form in that experience which memory preserves in the mass,–to penetrate, that is, to that mould of necessity in the world which phenomena, when they arise, must put on. The species once perceived, the mind no longer cares for the individual; the law once known, the mind no longer cares for the facts; for in these universals all particular instances, past, present, and to come, are contained in their significance. All sciences are advanced in proportion as they have thus organized their appropriate matter in abstract conceptions and laws, and are backward in proportion as there remains much in their provinces not yet so coordinated and systematized; and in their hierarchy, from astronomical physics downward, each takes rank according to the nature of the universals it deals with, as these are more or less embracing.
The matter of literature–that part of total experience which it deals with–is life; and, to confine attention to imaginative literature where alone the question of idealism arises, the matter with which imaginative literature deals is the inward and spiritual order in man’s breast as distinguished from the outward and physical order with which science deals. The reason as here exercised organizes man’s experience in this great tract of emotion, will, and meditation, and so possesses man of true knowledge of himself, just as in the realm of science it possesses him of true knowledge of the physical world, or, in psychology and metaphysics, of the constitution and processes of the mind itself. Such knowledge is, without need of argument, of the highest consequence to mankind. It exceeds, indeed, in dignity and value all other knowledge; for to penetrate this inward or spiritual order, to grasp it with the mind and conform to it with the will, is not, as is the case with every other sort of knowledge, the special and partial effort of selected minds, but the daily business of all men in their lives. The method of the mind here is and must be the same with that by which it accomplishes its work elsewhere, its only method. Here, too, its concern is with the universal; its end is to know life–the life with which literature deals–not empirically in its facts, but scientifically in its necessary order, not phenomenally in the senses but rationally in the mind, not without relation in its mere procession but organically in its laws; and its instrument here, as through the whole gamut of the physical sciences and of philosophy itself, is the generalizing faculty.
One difference there is between scientific and imaginative truth,–a difference in the mode of statement. Science and also philosophy formulate truth and end in the formula; literature, as the saying is, clothes truth in a tale. Imagination is brought in, and by its aid the mind projects a world of its own, whose principle of being is that it reembodies general or abstract truth and presents it concretely to the eye of the mind, and in some arts gives it physical form. So, to draw an example from science itself, when Leverrier projected in imagination the planet Uranus, he incarnated in matter a whole group of universal qualities and relations, all that go to make up a world, and in so doing he created as the poet creates; there was as much of truth, too, in his imagined world before he found the actual planet as there was of reality in the planet itself after it swam into his ken. This creation of the concrete world of art is the joint act of the imagination and the reason working in unison; and hence the faculty to which this act is ascribed is sometimes called the creative reason, or shaping power of the mind, in distinction from the scientific intellect which merely knows. The term is intended to convey at once the double phase, under one aspect of which the reason controls imagination, and under the other aspect the imagination formulates the reason; it is meant to free the idea, on the one hand, from that suggestion of abstraction implied by the reason, and to disembarrass it, on the other, of any connection with the irrational fancy; for the world of art so conceived is necessarily both concrete, correspondent to the realities of experience, and truthful, subject to the laws of the universe; it cannot contain the impossible, it cannot amalgamate the actual with the unreal, it cannot in any way lie and retain its own nature. The use of this rational imagination is not confined to the world of art. It is only by its aid that we build up the horizons of our earthly life and fill them with objects and events beyond the reach of our senses. To it we are indebted for our knowledge of the greater part of others’ lives, for our idea of the earth’s surface and the doings of foreign nations, of all past history and its scene, and the events of primaeval nature which were even before man was. So far as we realize the world at all beyond the limit of our private experience of it, we do so by the power of the imagination acting on the lines of reason. It fills space and time for us through all their compass. Nor is it less operative in the practical pursuits of men. The scientist lights his way with it; the statesman forecasts reform by it, building in thought the state which he afterward realizes in fact; the entire future lives to us–and it is the most important part of life–only by its incantation. The poet acts no otherwise in employing it than the inventor and the speculator even, save that he uses it for the ends of reason instead of for his private interest. In some parts of this field there is, or was once, or will be, a physical parallel, an actuality, containing the verification of the imagined state of things; but so, for the poet, there is a parallel, a conception of the reason just as normal, which is not the less real because it is a tissue of abstract thought. In art this governance of the imagination by the reason is fundamental, and gives to the office of the latter a seeming primacy; and therefore emphasis is rightly placed on the universal element, the truth, as the substance of the artistic form. But in the light of this preliminary description of the mental processes involved, let us take a nearer view of their particular employment in literature.
Human life, as represented in literature, consists of two main branches, character and action. Of these, character, which is the realm of personality, is generalized by means of type, which is ideal character; action, which is the realm of experience, by plot, which is ideal action. It is convenient to examine the nature of these separately. A type, the example of a class, contains the characteristic qualities which make an individual one of that class; it does not differ in this elementary form from the bare idea of the species. The traits of a tree, for instance, exist in every actual tree, however stunted or imperfect; and in the type which condenses into itself what is common in all specimens of the class, these traits only exist; they constitute the type. Comic types, in literature, are often simple abstractions of some single human quality, and hence easily afford illustrations. The braggart, the miser, the hypocrite, contain that one trait which is common to the class; and in their portrayal this characteristic only is shown. In proportion as the traits are many in any character, the type becomes complex. In simple types attention is directed to some one vice, passion, or virtue, capable of absorbing a human life in to itself. This is the method of Jonson, and, in tragedy, of Marlowe. As human energy displays itself more variously in a life, in complex types, the mind contemplates human nature in a more catholic way, with a less exclusive identification of character with specific trait, a more free conception of personality as only partially exhibited; thus, in becoming complex, types gather breadth and depth, and share more in the mystery of humanity as something incompletely known to us at the best. Such are the characters of Shakspere.
The manner in which types are arrived at and made recognizable in other arts opens the subject more fully and throws light upon their nature. The sculptor observes in a group of athletes that certain physical habits result in certain moulds of the body; and taking such characteristics as are common to all of one class, and neglecting such as are peculiar to individuals, he carves a statue. So permanent are the physical facts he relies upon that, centuries after, when the statue is dug up, men say without hesitation–here is the Greek runner, there the wrestler. The habit of each in life produces a bodily form which if it exists implies that habit; the reality here results from the operation of physical laws and can be physically rendered; the type is constituted of permanent physical fact. There are habits of the soul which similarly impress an outward stamp upon the face and form so certainly that expression, attitude, and shape authentically declare the presence of the soul that so reveals itself. In the Phidian Zeus was all awe; in the Praxitelean Hermes all grace, sweetness, tenderness; in the Pallas Athene of her people who carved or minted her image in statue, bas-relief, or coin, was all serene and grave wisdom; or, in the glowing and chastened colours of the later artistic time, the Virgin mother shines out, in Fra Angelico all adoration, in Bellini all beatitude, in Raphael all motherhood. The sculptor and the painter are restricted to the bodily signs of the soul’s presence; but the poet passes into another and wider range of interpretation. He finds the soul stamped in its characteristic moods, words, actions. He then creates for the mind’s eye Achilles, Aeneas, Arthur; and in his verse are beheld their spirits rather than their bodies.
These several sorts of types make an ascending series from the predominantly physical to the predominantly spiritual; but, from the present point of view, the arts which embody their creations in a material form should not be opposed to literature which employs the least interrelation of sensation, as if the former had a physical and the last a spiritual content. All types have one common element, they express personality; they have for the mind a spiritual meaning, what they contain of human character; they differ here only in fulness of representation. The most purely physical types imply spiritual qualities, choice, will, command,–all the life which was a condition precedent to the bodily perfection that was its flower; and, though the eye rests on the beautiful form, it may discern through it the human soul of the athlete as in life; and, moreover, the figure may be represented in some significant act, or mood even, but this last is rare. The more plainly spiritual types, physically rendered, are most often shown in some such mood or act expressive in itself of the soul whose habit lives in the form it has moulded. It is not that the plastic and pictorial arts cannot spiritualize the stone and the canvas as well as humanize it bodily; equally with the poetic art they reveal character, but within narrower bounds. The limitation of these arts in embodying personality is one of scope, not of intention; and though it springs out of their use of material forms, it does so in a peculiar way. It is not the employment of a physical medium of communication that differentiates them, for a physical medium of some sort is the only means of exchange between mind and mind; neither is it the employment of a physical basis, for all art, being concrete, rests on a physical basis–the world of imagination is exhaled from things that are. The physical basis of a drama, for instance, is manifest when it is enacted on the stage; but it is substantially the same whether beheld in thought or ocularly.
The fact is that the limitation of sculpture and painting and their kindred arts results from their use of the physical basis of life only partially, and not as a whole as literature uses it. They set forth their works in the single element of space; they exclude the changes that take place in time. The types they show are arrested, each in its moment; or if a story is told by a series of representations, it is a succession of such moments of arrested life. The method is that of the camera; what is given is a fixed state. But literature renders life in movement; it revolves life through its moments as rapidly as on the retina of sense; its method is that of the kinetoscope. It holds under its command change, growth, the entire energy of life in action; it can chase mood with mood, link act to act. It alone can speak the word, which is the most powerful instrument of man. Hence the types it shows by presenting moods, words, and acts with the least obstruction of matter and the slightest obligation to the active senses, are the most complete. They have broken the bonds of the flesh, of moment and place. They exhibit themselves in actions; they speak, and in dialogue and soliloquy set forth their states of mind lying before, or accompanying, or following their actions, thus interpreting these more fully. Action by itself reveals character; speech illumines it, and casts upon the action also a forward and a backward light. The lapse of time, binding all together, adds the continuous life of the soul. This large compass, which is the greatest reached by any art, rests on the wider command and more flexible control which literature exercises over that physical basis which is the common foundation of all the arts. Hence it abounds in complex types, just as other arts present simple types with more frequency. All types, however, in so far as they appeal to the mind and interpret the inward world, under which aspect alone they are now considered, have their physical nature, materially or imaginatively, even though it be solely visible beauty, in order to express personality.
The type, in the usage of literature, must be further distinguished from the bare idea of the species as it has thus far been defined. It is more than this. It is not only an example; it is an example in a high state of development, if not perfect. The best possible tree, for instance, does not exist in nature, owing to a confused environment which does not permit its formation. In literature a type is made a high type either by intensity, if it be simple, or by richness of nature, if it be complex. Miserliness, braggadocio, hypocrisy, in their extremes, are the characters of comedy; a rich nature, such as Hamlet, showing variety of faculty and depth of experience, is the hero of more profound drama. This truth, the necessity of high development in the type, underlay the old canon that the characters of tragedy should be of lofty rank, great place, and consequence in the world’s affairs, preferably even of historic fame. The canon erred in mistaking one means of securing credible intensity or richness for the many which are possible. The end in view is to represent human qualities at their acme. In other times as a matter of fact persons highly placed were most likely to exhibit such development; birth, station, and their opportunities for unrestrained and conspicuous action made them examples of the compass of human energy, passion, and fate. New ages brought other conditions. Shakspere recognized the truth of the matter, and laid the emphasis where it belongs, upon the humanity of the king, not on the kingly office of the man. Said Henry V: “I think the king is but a man as I am; the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his appetites are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with like wing.” Such, too, was Lear in the tempest. And from the other end of the scale hear Shylock: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, appetites, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Rank and race are accidents; the essential thing is that the type be highly human, let the means of giving it this intensity and richness be what they may.
It is true that the type may seem defective in the point that it is at best but a fragment of humanity, an abstraction or a combination of abstracted qualities. There was never such an athlete as our Greek sculptor’s, never a pagan god nor Virgin Mother, nor a hero equal to Homer’s thought, so beautiful, brave, and courteous, so terrible to his foe, so loving to his friend. And yet is it not thus that life is known to us actually? does not this typical rendering of character fall in with the natural habit of life? What man, what friend, is known to us except by fragments of his spirit? Only one life, our own, is known to us as a continuous existence. Just as when we see an orange, we supply the further side and think of it as round, so with men we supply from ourselves the unseen side that makes the man completely and continuously human. Moreover, it is a matter of common experience that men, we ourselves, may live only in one part, and the best, of our nature at one moment, and yet for the moment be absorbed in that activity both in consciousness and energy; for that moment we are only living so; now, if a character were shown to us only in the moments in which he was living so, at his best and in his characteristic state as the soldier, the priest, the lover, then the ideal abstraction of literature would not differ from the actuality of our experience. In this selfsame way we habitually build for ourselves ideal characters out of dead and living men, by dwelling on that part of their career which we most admire or love as showing their characteristic selves. Napoleon is the conqueror, St. Francis the priest, Washington the great citizen, only by this method. They are not thereby de-humanized; neither do the ideal types of imagination fail of humanization because they are thus fragmentarily, but consistently, presented.
The type must make this human appeal under all circumstances. Its whole meaning and virtue lie in what it contains of our common humanity, in the clearness and brilliancy with which it interprets the man in us, in the force with which it identifies us with human nature. If it is separated from us by a too high royalty or a too base villany, it loses intelligibility, it forfeits sympathy, it becomes more and more an object of simple curiosity, and removes into the region of the unknown. Even if the type passes into the supernatural, into fairyland or the angelic or demoniac world, it must not leave humanity behind. These spheres are in fact fragments of humanity itself, projections of its sense of wonder, its goodness, and its evil, in extreme abstraction though concretely felt. Fairy, angel, and devil cease to be conceivable except as they are human in trait, however the conditions of their nature may be fancied; for we have no other materials to build with save those of our life on earth, though we may combine them in ways not justified by reason. In so far as these worlds are in the limits of rational imagination, they are derived from humanity, partial interpretations of some of its moods, portions of itself; and the beings who inhabit them are impaired for the purposes of art in the degree to which their abstract nature is felt as stripping them of complete humanity. For this reason in dealing with such simple types, being natures all of one strain, it has been found best in practice to import into them individually some quality widely common to men in addition to that limited quality they possess by their conception. Some touch of weakness in an angel, some touch of pity in a devil, some unmerited misfortune in an Ariel, bring them home to our bosoms; just as the frailty of the hero, however great he be, humanizes him at a stroke. Thus these abstract fragments also are reunited with humanity, with the whole of life in ourselves.
Types, then, whether simple or complex, whether apparently physical or purely spiritual, whether given fragmentary or as wholes of personality, express human character in its essential traits. They may be narrow or broad generalizations; but if to know ourselves be our aim, those types, which show man his common and enduring nature, are the most valuable, and rank first in importance; in proportion as they are specialized, they are less widely interpretative; in proportion as they escape from time and place, race, culture, and religion, and present man eternal and universal in his primary actions, moods, and passions, they appeal to a greater number and with more permanence; they become immortal in becoming universal. To preserve this universality is the essence of the type, and the degree of universality it reaches is its measure of value to men. It is immaterial whether it be simple as Ajax or complex as Hamlet, whether it be the work of imagination solely as in Hercules, or have a historical basis as in Agamemnon; its exemplary rendering of man in general is its substance and constitutor its ideality.
Action, the second great branch of life, is generalized by plot. It lies, as has been said, in the region of experience. Character, though it may be conceived as latent, can be presented only energetically as it finds outward expression. It cannot be shown in a vacuum. It embodies or reveals itself in an act; form and feature, as expressive of character, are the record of past acts. This act is the link that binds type to plot. By means of it character enters the external world, determining the course of events and being passively affected by them. Plot takes account of this interplay and sets forth its laws. It is, therefore, more deeply engaged with the environment, as type is more concerned with the man in himself. It is, initially, a thing of the outward as type is a thing of the inward world. How, then, does literature, through plot, reduce the environment in its human relations to organic form?
The course of events, taken as a whole, is in part a process of nature independent of man, in part the product of his will. It is a continuous stream of phenomena in great multiplicity, and proceeding in a temporal sequence. Science deals with that portion of the whole which is independent of man, and may be called natural events, and by discerning causal relations in them arrives at the conception of law as a principle of unchanging and necessary order in nature. Science seeks to reduce the multiplicity and heterogeneity of facts as they occur to these simple formulas of law. Science does not begin in reality until facts end; facts, ten or ten thousand, are indifferent to her after the law which contains them is found, and are a burden to her until it is found. Literature, in its turn, deals with human events; and, in the same way as science, by attending to causal relations, arrives at the conception of spiritual law as a similarly permanent principle in the order of the soul. This causal unity is the cardinal idea of plot which by definition is a series of events causally related and conceived as a unit, technically called the action. Plot is thus analogous to an illustrative experiment in science; it is a concrete example of law,–it is law operating.
The course of events again, so far as they stand in direct connection with human life, may be thought of as the expression of the individual’s own will, or of that of his environment. The will of the environment may be divided into three varieties, the will of nature, the will of other men, and the will of God. In each case it is will embodied in events. If these ideas be all merged in the conception of the world as a totality whose course is the unfolding of one Divine will operant throughout it and called Fate or Providence, then the individual will, through which, as through nature also, the Divine will works, is only its servant. Action so conceived, the march of events under some heavenly power working through the mass of human will which it overrules in conjunction with its own more comprehensive purposes, is epic action; in it characters are subordinate to the main progress of the action, they are only terms in the action; however free they may be apparently, considered by themselves, that freedom is within such limits as to allow entire certainty of result, its mutations are included in the calculation of the Divine will. The action of the Aeneid is of this nature: a grand series of destined events worked out through human agency to fulfil the plan of the ruler of all things in heaven and earth. On the other hand, if the course of events be more narrowly attended to within the limits of the individual’s own activity, as the expression primarily and significantly of his personal will, then the successive acts are subordinate to the character; they are terms of the character which is thereby exhibited; they externalize the soul. Action, so conceived, is dramatic action. If in the course of events there arises a conflict between the will of the individual and that of his environment, whether nature, man, or God, then the seed of tragedy, specifically, is present; this conflict is the essential idea of tragedy. In all these varieties of action, the scene is the external world; plot lies in that world, and sets forth the order, the causal principle, obtaining in it.
It is necessary, however, to refine upon this statement of the matter. The course of external events, in so far as it affects one person, whether as proceeding from or reacting upon him, reveals character, and has meaning as an interpretation of inward life. It is a series outward indeed, but parallel with the states of will, intellect, and emotion which make up the consciousness of the character; and it is interesting humanly only as a mirror of them. It is not the murderous blow, but the depraved will; not the pale victim, but the shocked conscience; not the muttered prayer, the frantic penance, the suicide, but remorse working itself out, that hold our attention. Plot here manifests the law of character outwardly; but the human reality lies within, and to be seen requires the illumination which only our own hearts can give. All fiction is such a shadowing forth of the soul. The constancy, the intimacy, the profundity with which Shakspere felt this, from the earliest syllables of his art, and the frequency with which he dwells upon it, mark a characteristic of genius. Says Richard II:–
“‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within; And those external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief That swells in silence in the tortured soul; There lies the substance.”
So Theseus, of the play of the rude artisans of Athens, excusing all art: “The best in this kind are but shadows.” So Hamlet; so Prospero.
Action is vital in us, and has a double order of phenomena; so far as these are physical, their law is one of the physical world, and interests us no more than other physical laws; so far as they belong in the inward world of self-consciousness, their law is spiritual, and has human interest as being operant in a soul like our own. The external fact is seized by the eye as a part of nature; the internal fact is of the unseen world, and is beheld only in the light which is within our own bosoms–it is spiritually discerned. On the stage plainly this is the case. So far as the actions are for the eye of sense alone they are merely spectacular; so far as they express desires and energies, they are dramatic, and these we do not see but feel according as our experience permits us so to comprehend them. We contemplate a world of emotion there in connection with the active energy of the will, a world of character in operation in man; we feed it from our life, interpret it therefrom, build it up in ourselves, suffering the illusion till absorbed in what is arising in our consciousness under the actor’s genius we become ourselves the character. The greatest actor is he who makes the spectator play the part. So far is the drama from the scene that it goes on in our own bosoms; there is the stage without any illusion whatsoever; the play in vital for the moment in ourselves.
And what is true of the stage is true of life. It is only through our own hearts that we look into the hearts of others. We interpret the external signs of sense in terms of personality and experience known only within us; the life of will, head, and heart that we ascribe to our nearest and dearest friends is something imagined, something never seen any more than our own personality. Thus our knowledge of them is not only fragmentary, as has been said; it is imaginative even within its limits. It is, in reality as well as in art, a shadow-world we live in, believing that within its sensuous films a spirit like unto ourselves abides,–the human soul, though never seen face to face. To enter this substantial world behind the phenomena of human life as sensibly shown in imagination, to know the invisible things of personality and experience, and to set them forth as a spiritual order, is the main end of ideal art. Though in plot the outward order is brought into the fullest prominence, and may seem to occupy the field, yet it is significantly only the shadow of that order within.
In thus presenting plot as the means by which the history of a single soul is externalized, one important element has been excluded from consideration. The causal chain of events, which constitutes plot, has a double unity, answering to the double order of phenomena in action as a state of mind and a state of external fact. Under one aspect, so much of the action as is included in any single life and is there a linked sequence of mental states, has its unity in the personality of that individual. Under the other aspect, the entire action which sets forth the relations of all the characters involved, of their several courses of experience as elements in the working out of the joint result, has its unity in the constitution of the universe,–the impersonal order, that structure of being itself, which is independent of man’s will, which is imposed upon him as a condition of existence, and which he must accept without appeal. This necessity, to give it the best name, to which man is exposed without and subjected within, is in its broadest conception the power that increases life, and all things are under its sway. Its sphere is above man’s will; he knows it as immutable law in himself as it is in nature; it is the highest object of his thoughts. Its workings are submitted to his observation and experiment as a part of the world of knowledge; he sees its operation in individuals, social groups, and nations, and sets it forth in the action of the lyric, the drama, and the epic as the law of life. In its sphere is the higher unity of plot by virtue of which it integrates many lives in one main action. Such, then, is the nature of plot as intermediary between man and his environment, but deeply engaged in the latter, and not to be freed from it even by a purely spiritualistic philosophy; for though we say that, as under one aspect plot shadows forth the unseen world of the soul’s life, so under the other it shadows forth the invisible will of God, we do not escape from the outward world. Sense is still the medium by which only man knows his brother man and God also as through a glass darkly,–
“The painted veil which those who live call life.”
It separates all spirits, the beautiful but dense element in which the pure soul is submerged.
It is necessary only to summarize the characteristics of plot which are merely parallel to those of type already illustrated. Plot may be simple or complex; it may be more or less involved in physical conditions in proportion as it lays stress on its machinery or its psychology; it must be important, as the type must be high, but important by virtue of its essential human meaning and not of its accidents; it is a fragment of destiny only, but in this falls in with the way life in others is known to us; if it passes into the superhuman world, it must retain human significance and be brought back to man’s life by devices similar to those used in the type for the same purpose; it rises in value in proportion to the universality it contains, and gains depth and permanence as it is interpretative of common human fate at all times and among all men; it may be purely imaginary or founded on actual incidents; and its exemplary interpretation of man’s life is its substance, and constitutes its ideality.
In the discussion of type and plot, the concrete nature of the world of art, which was originally stated to be the characteristic work of the creative reason, or imagination acting in conformity with truth, has been assumed; but no reason has been given for it, because it seemed best to develop first with some fulness the nature of that inward order which is thus projected in the forms of art. It belongs to the frailty of man that he seizes with difficulty and holds with feebleness the pure ideas of the intellect, the more in proportion as they are removed from sense; and he seeks to support himself against this weakness by framing sensible representations of the abstract in which the mind can rest. Thus in all lands and among savage tribes, as well as in the most civilized nations, symbols have been used immemorially. The flag of a nation has all its meaning because it is taken as a physical token of national honour, almost of national life itself. The Moslem crescent, the Christian cross, have only a similar significance, a bringing near to the eye of what exists in reality only for the mind and heart. A symbol, however, is an arbitrary fiction, and stands to the idea as a metaphor does to the thing itself. In literature the parable of the mustard seed to which the kingdom of heaven was likened, exemplifies symbolical or metaphorical method; but the tale of the court of Arthur’s knights, ideal method; between them, and sharing something of both, lies allegorical method. Idolatry is the religion of symbolism, for the image is not the god; Christianity is the religion of idealism, for Christ is God incarnate. Idealism presents the reality itself, the universal truth made manifest in the concrete type, and there present and embodied in its characteristics as they are, not merely arbitrarily by a fiction of thought, symbolically or allegorically.
The way in which type concretes truth is sufficiently plain; but it may be useful, with respect to plot, to draw out more in detail the analogy which has been said to exist between it and an illustrative scientific experiment. If scientific law is declared experimentally, the course of nature is modified by intent; certain conditions are secured, certain others eliminated; a selected train of phenomena is then set in motion to the end that the law may be illustrated, and nothing else. In a perfect experiment the law is in full operation. In plot there is a like selection of persons, situations, and incidents so arranged as to disclose the working of that order which obtains in man’s life. The law may be simple and shown by means of few persons and incidents in a brief way, as in ancient drama, or complex and exhibited with many characters