Saturday, March 16, 2019

Imperial Purple

Nero and Agrippina aureus, struck AD 54

NERO


"Save a monster, what can you expect from Agrippina and myself?"


It was Domitius, Nero's father, who made this ingenious remark. He was not a good man; he was not even good-looking, merely vicious and rich. But his viciousness was benign beside that of Agrippina, who poisoned him when Nero's birth ensured the heritage of his wealth.


In all its galleries history has no other portrait such as hers. Caligula's sister, his mistress as well, exiled by him and threatened with death, her eyes dazzled and her nerves unstrung by the impossibilities of that fabulous reign, it was not until Claud, her uncle, recalled her and Messalina disappeared, that the empress awoke. She too, she determined, would rule, and the jus osculi aiding, she married out of hand that imbecile uncle of hers, on whose knee she had played as a child.


The day of the wedding a young patrician, expelled from the senate, killed himself. Agrippina had accused him of something not nice, not because he was guilty, nor yet because the possibility of the thing shocked her, but because he was betrothed to Octavia, Claud's daughter, who, Agrippina determined, should be Nero's wife. Presently Caligula's widow, an old rival of her own, a lady who had thought she would like to be empress twice, and whom Claud had eyed grotesquely, was disencumbered of three million worth of emeralds, with which she heightened her beauty, and told very civilly that it was time to die. So, too, disappeared a Calpurina, a Lepida; women young, rich, handsome, impure, and as such dangerous to Agrippina's peace of mind. The legality of her crimes was so absolute that the mere ownership of an enviable object was a cause for death. A senator had a villa which pleased her; he was invited to die. Another had a pair of those odorous murrhine vases, which Pompey had found in Armenia, and which on their first appearance set Rome wild; he, too, was invited to die.


But, though Agrippina dealt in death, she dealt in seductions too. Rome, that had adored Caligula, promptly fell under his sister's sway. There was a splendor in her eyes, which so many crimes had lit; in her carriage there was such majesty, the pomp with which she surrounded herself was so magnificent, that Rome, enthralled, applauded. Beyond, on the Rhine, a city which is today Cologne, rose in honor of her sovereignty. To her wishes the senate was subservient, to her indiscretions blind. Claud, who meanwhile had been wholly sightless, suddenly showed signs of discernment. A woman, charged with illicit commerce, was brought to his tribunal. He condemned her, of course. "In my case," he explained, "matrimony has not been successful, but the fate that destined me to marry impure women destined me also to punish them." It was then that Agrippina ordered of Locusta that famous stew of poison and mushrooms, which Nero, in allusion to Claud's apotheosis, called the food of the gods. The fate that destined Claud to marry Agrippina destined her to kill him.


It was under her care, between a barber and a ballerine, amid the shamelessness of his stepfather's palace, where any day he could have seen his mother beckon indolently to a centurion and pointing to some lover who had ceased to please, make the gesture which signified Death, that the young Enobarbus—Nero, as he subsequently called himself—was trained for the throne.


He had entered the world like a tiger cub, feet first; a circumstance which is said to have disturbed his mother, and well it might. During his adolescence that lady made herself feared. He was but seventeen when the pretorians called upon him to rule the world; and at the time an ingenuous lad, one who blushed like Lalage, very readily, particularly at the title of Father of the Country, which the senate was anxious to give him; endowed with excellent instincts, which he had got no one knew whence; a trifle petit maitre, perhaps, perfuming the soles of his feet, and careful about the arrangement of his yellow curls, but withal generous, modest, sympathetic—in short, a flower in a cesspool, a youth not over well-fitted to reign. But his mother was there; as he developed so did his fear of her, to such proportions even that he gave certain orders, and his mother was killed. That duel between mother and son, terrible in its intensity and unnameable horror, even the Borgias could not surpass. Tacitus has told it, dramatically, as was his wont, but he told it in Latin, in which tongue it had best remain.


At that time the ingenuous lad had disappeared. The cub was full-grown. Besides, he had tasted blood. Octavia, who with her brother, Britannicus, and her sister, Antonia, had been his playmates; who was almost his own sister; whose earliest memories interlinked with his, and who had become his wife, had been put to death; not that she had failed to please, but because a lady, Sabina Poppoea, who, Tacitus says, lacked nothing except virtue, had declined to be his mistress. At the time Sabina was married. But divorce was easy. Sabina got one at the bar; Nero with the axe. The twain were then united. Nero seems to have loved her greatly, a fact, as Suetonius puts it, which did not prevent him from kicking her to death. Already he had poisoned Britannicus, and with Octavia decapitated and Agrippina gone, of the imperial house there remained but Antonia and himself. The latter he invited to marry him; she declined. He invited her to die. He was then alone, the last of his race. Monsters never engender. A thinker who passed that way thought him right to have killed his mother; her crime was in giving him birth.


Therewith he was popular; more so even than Caligula, who was a poet, and as such apart from the crowd, while Nero was frankly canaille—well-meaning at that—which Caligula never was. During the early years of his reign he could not do good enough. The gladiators were not permitted to die; he would have no shedding of blood; the smell of it was distasteful. He would listen to no denunciations; when a decree of death was brought to him to sign, he regretted that he knew how to write. Rome had never seen a gentler prince, nor yet one more splendidly lavish. The people had not only the necessities of life, but the luxuries, the superfluities, too. For days and days in the Forum there was an incessant shower of tickets that were exchangeable, not for bread or trivial sums, but for gems, pictures, slaves, fortunes, ships, villas and estates. The creator of that shower was bound to be adored.


It was that, no doubt, which awoke him. A city like Rome, one that had over a million inhabitants, could make a terrific noise, and when that noise was applause, the recipient found it heady. Nero got drunk on popularity, and heredity aiding where the prince had been emerged the cad, a poseur that bored, a beast that disgusted, a caricature of the impossible in a crimson frame.


"What an artist the world is to lose!" he exclaimed as he died; and artist he was, but in the Roman sense; one that enveloped in the same contempt the musician, acrobat and actor. It was the artist that played the flute while gladiators died and lovers embraced; it was the artist that entertained the vulgar.


As an artist Nero might have been a card. Fancy the attraction—an emperor before the footlights; but fancy the boredom also. The joy at the announcement of his first appearance was so great that thanks were offered to the gods; and the verses he was to sing, graven in gold, were dedicated to the Capitoline Jove. The joy was brief. The exits of the theatre were closed. It was treason to attempt to leave. People pretended to be dead in order to be carried out, and well they might. The star was a fat man with a husky tenorino voice, who sang drunk and half-naked to a protecting claque of ten thousand hands.


But it was in the circus that Nero was at his best; there, no matter though he were last in the race, it was to him the palm was awarded, or rather it was he that awarded the palm to himself, and then quite magnificently shouted, "Nero, Caesar, victor in the race, gives his crown to the People of Rome!"


On the stage he had no rivals, and by chance did one appear, he was invited to die. In that respect he was artistically susceptible. When he turned acrobat, the statues of former victors were tossed in the latrinae. Yet, as competitors were needed, and moreover as he, singly, could fill neither a stage nor a track, it was the nobility of Rome that he ordered to appear with him. For that the nobility never forgave him. On the other hand, the proletariat loved him the better. What greater salve could it have than the sight of the conquerors of the world entertaining the conquered, lords amusing their lackeys?


Greece meanwhile sent him crowns and prayers; crowns for anticipated victories, prayers that he would come and win them. Homage so delicate was not to be disdained. Nero set forth, an army at his heels; a legion of claquers, a phalanx of musicians, cohorts of comedians, and with these for retinue, through sacred groves that Homer knew, through intervales which Hesiod sang, through a year of festivals he wandered, always victorious. It was he who conquered at Olympia; it was he who conquered at Corinth. No one could withstand him. Alone in history he won in every game, and with eighteen hundred crowns as trophies of war he repeated Caesar's triumph. In a robe immaterial as a moonbeam, the Olympian wreath on his curls, the Isthmian laurel in his hand, his army behind him, the clown that was emperor entered Rome. Victims were immolated as he passed, the Via Sacra was strewn with saffron, the day was rent with acclaiming shouts. Throughout the empire sacrifices were ordered. Old people that lived in the country fancied him, Philostratus says, the conqueror of new nations, and sacrificed with delight.


But if as artist he bored everybody, he was yet an admirable impresario. The spectacles he gave were unique. At one which was held in the Taurian amphitheatre it must have been delightful to assist. Fancy eighty thousand people on ascending galleries, protected from the sun by a canopy of spangled silk; an arena three acres large carpeted with sand, cinnabar and borax, and in that arena death in every form, on those galleries colossal delight.


The lowest gallery, immediately above the arena, was a wide terrace where the senate sat. There were the dignitaries of the empire, and with them priests in their sacerdotal robes; vestals in linen, their hair arranged in the six braids that were symbolic of virginity; swarms of Oriental princes, rainbows of foreign ambassadors; and in the centre, the imperial pulvinar, an enclosed pavilion, in which Nero lounged, a mignon at his feet.


In the gallery above were the necklaced knights, their tunics bordered with the augusticlave, their deep-blue cloaks fastened to the shoulder; and there, too, in their wide white togas, were the citizens of Rome.


Still higher the people sat. In the topmost gallery were the women, and in a separate enclosure a thousand musicians answered the cries of the multitude with the blare and the laugh of brass.


Beneath the terraces, behind the barred doors that punctuated the marble wall which circled the arena, were Mauritian panthers that had been entrapped with rotten meat; hippopotami from Sais, lured by the smell of carrots into pits; the rhinoceros of Gaul, taken with the net; lions, lassoed in the deserts; Lucanian bears, Spanish bulls; and, in remoter dens, men, unarmed, that waited.


By way of foretaste for better things, a handful of criminals, local desperadoes, an impertinent slave, a machinist, who in a theatre the night before had missed an effect—these, together with a negligent usher, were tossed one after the other naked into the ring, and bound to a scaffold that surmounted a miniature hill. At a signal the scaffold fell, the hill crumbled, and from it a few hyenas issued, who indolently devoured their prey.


With this for prelude, the gods avenged and justice appeased, a rhinoceros ambled that way, stimulated from behind by the point of a spear; and in a moment the hyenas were disembowelled, their legs quivering in the air. Throughout the arena other beasts, tied together with long cords, quarrelled in couples; there was the bellow of bulls, and the moan of leopards tearing at their flesh, a flight of stags, and the long, clean spring of the panther.


Presently the arena was cleared, the sand reraked and the Bestiarii advanced—Sarmatians, nourished on mares' milk; Sicambrians, their hair done up in chignons; horsemen from Thessaly, Ethiopian warriors, Parthian archers, huntsmen from the steppes, their different idioms uniting in a single cry—"Caesar, we salute you." The sunlight, filtering through the spangled canopy, chequered their tunics with burning spots, danced on their spears and helmets, dazzled the spectators' eyes. From above descended the caresses of flutes; the air was sweet with perfumes, alive with multicolored motes; the terraces were parterres of blending hues, and into that splendor a hundred lions, their tasselled tails sweeping the sand, entered obliquely.


The mob of the Bestiarii had gone. In the middle of the arena, a band of Ethiopians, armed with arrows, knives and spears, knelt, their oiled black breasts uncovered.


Leisurely the lions turned their huge, intrepid heads; to their jowls wide creases came. There was a glitter of fangs, a shiver that moved the mane, a flight of arrows, mounting murmurs; the crouch of beasts preparing to spring, a deafening roar, and, abruptly, a tumultuous mass, the suddenness of knives, the snap of bones, the cry of the agonized, the fury of beasts transfixed, the shrieks of the mangled, a combat hand to fang, from which lions fell back, their jaws torn asunder, while others retreated, a black body swaying between their terrible teeth, and, insensibly, a descending quiet.


At once there was an eruption of bellowing elephants, painted and trained for slaughter, that trampled on wounded and dead. At a call from a keeper the elephants disappeared. There was a rush of mules and slaves; the carcasses and corpses vanished, the toilet of the ring was made; then came a plunge of bulls, mists of vapor about their long, straight horns, their anxious eyes dilated. Beyond was a troop of Thessalians. For a moment the bulls snorted, pawing the sand with their fore-feet, as though trying to realize what they were doing there. Yet instantly they seemed to know, and with lowered heads, they plunged on the point of spears. But no matter, horses went down by the hundred; and as the bulls tired of gorging the dead, they fought each other; fought rancorously, fought until weariness overtook them, and the surviving Thessalians leaped on their backs, twisted their horns, and threw them down, a sword through their throbbing throats.


Successively the arena was occupied by bears, by panthers, by dogs trained for the chase, by hunters and hunted. But the episode of the morning was a dash of wild elephants, attacked on either side; a moment of sheer delight, in which the hunters were tossed up on the terraces, tossed back again by the spectators, and trampled to death.


With that for bouquet the first part of the performance was at an end. By way of interlude, the ring was peopled with acrobats, who flew up in the air like birds, formed pyramids together, on the top of which little boys swung and smiled. There was a troop of trained lions, their manes gilded, that walked on tight-ropes, wrote obscenities in Greek, and danced to cymbals which one of them played. There were geese-fights, wonderful combats between dwarfs and women; a chariot race, in which bulls, painted white, held the reins, standing upright while drawn at full speed; a chase of ostriches, and feats of haute ecole on zebras from Madagascar.


The interlude at an end, the sand was reraked, and preceded by the pomp of lictors, interminable files of gladiators entered, holding their knives to Nero that he might see that they were sharp. It was then the eyes of the vestals lighted; artistic death was their chiefest joy, and in a moment, when the spectacle began and the first gladiator fell, above the din you could hear their cry "Hic habet!" and watch their delicate thumbs reverse.


There was no cowardice in that arena. If by chance any hesitation were discernible, instantly there were hot irons, the sear of which revivified courage at once. But that was rare. The gladiators fought for applause, for liberty, for death; fought manfully, skilfully, terribly, too, and received the point of the sword or the palm of the victor, their expression unchanged, the face unmoved. Among them, some provided with a net and prodigiously agile, pursued their adversaries hither and thither, trying to entangle them first and kill them later. Others, protected by oblong shields and armed with short, sharp swords, fought hand-to-hand. There were still others, mailed horsemen, who fought with the lance, and charioteers that dealt death from high Briton cars.


As a spectacle it was unique; one that the Romans, or more exactly, their predecessors, the Etruscans, had devised to train their children for war and allay the fear of blood. It had been serviceable, indeed, and though the need of it had gone, still the institution endured, and in enduring constituted the chief delight of the vestals and of Rome. By means of it a bankrupt became consul and an emperor beloved. It had stayed revolutions, it was the tax of the proletariat on the rich. Silver and bread were for the individual, but these things were for the crowd.


During the pauses of the combats the dead were removed by men masked as Mercury, god of hell; red irons, that others, masked as Charon, bore, being first applied as safeguard against swoon or fraud. And when, to the kisses of flutes, the last palm had been awarded, the last death acclaimed, a ballet was given; that of Paris and Venus, which Apuleius has described so well, and for afterpiece the romance of Pasipha? and the bull. Then, as night descended, so did torches, too; the arena was strewn with vermilion; tables were set, and to the incitement of crotals, Lydians danced before the multitude, toasting the last act of that wonderful day.


It was with such magnificence that Nero showed the impresario's skill, the politician's adroitness. Where the artist, which he claimed to be, really appeared, was in the refurbishing of Rome.

In spite of Augustus' boast, the city was not by any means of marble. It was filled with crooked little streets, with the atrocities of the Tarquins, with houses unsightly and perilous, with the moss and dust of ages; it compared with Alexandria as London compares with Paris; it had a splendor of its own, but a splendor that could be heightened.


Whether the conflagration which occurred at that time was the result of accident or design is uncertain and in any event immaterial. Tacitus says that when it began Nero was at Antium, in which case he must have hastened to return, for admitting that he did not originate the fire, it is a matter of agreement that he collaborated in it. In quarters where it showed symptoms of weakness it was by his orders coaxed to new strength; colossal stone buildings, on which it had little effect, were battered down with catapults.


Fire is a perfect poet. No designer ever imagined the surprises it creates, and when, at the end of the week, three-fourths of the city was in ruins, the beauty that reigned there must have been sublime. That it inspired Nero is presumable. The palace on the Palatine, which Tiberius embellished and Caligula enlarged, had gone; in its place rose another, aflame with gold. Before it Neropolis extended, a city of triumphal arches, enchanted temples, royal dwellings, shimmering porticoes, glittering roofs, and wide, hospitable streets. It was fair to the eye, purely Greek; and on its heart, from the Circus Maximus to the Forum's edge, the new and gigantic palace shone. Before it was a lake, a part of which Vespasian drained and replaced with an amphitheatre that covered eight acres. About that lake were separate edifices that formed a city in themselves; between them and the palace, a statue of Nero in gold and silver mounted precipitately a hundred and twenty feet—a statue which it took twenty-four elephants to move. About it were green savannahs, forest reaches, the call of bird and deer, while in the distance, fronted by a stretch of columns a mile in length, the palace stood—a palace so ineffably charming that on the day of reckoning may it outbalance a few of his sins. Even the cellars were frescoed. The baths were quite comfortable; you had waters salt or sulphurous at will. The dining halls had ivory ceilings from which flowers fell, and wainscots that changed at each service. The walls were alive with the glisten of gems, with marbles rarer than jewels. In one hall was a dome of sapphire, a floor of malachite, crystal columns and red-gold walls.


"At last," Nero murmured, "I am lodged like a man."


No doubt. Yet in a mirror he would have seen a bloated beast in a flowered gown, the hair done up in a chignon, the skin covered with eruptions, the eyes circled and yellow; a woman who had hours when she imitated a virgin at bay, others when she was wife, still others when she expected to be a mother, and that woman, a senatorial patent of divinity aiding, was god—Apollo's peer, imperator, chief of the army, pontifix maximus, master of the world, with the incontestable right of life and death over every being in the dominions.


It had taken the fresh-faced lad who blushed so readily, just fourteen years to effect that change. Did he regret it? And what should Nero regret? Nothing, perhaps, save that at the moment when he declared himself to be lodged like a man, he had not killed himself like one. But of that he was incapable. Had he known what the future held, possibly he might have imitated that apotheosis of vulgarity in which Sardanapalus eclipsed himself, but never could he have died with the good breeding and philosophy of Cato, for neither good breeding nor philosophy was in him. Nero killed himself like a coward, yet that he did kill himself, in no matter what fashion, is one of the few things that can be said in his favor.


Those days differed from ours. There were circumstances in which suicide was regarded as the simplest of duties. Nero did his duty, but not until he was forced to it, and even then not until he had been asked several times whether it was so hard to die. The empire had wearied of him. In Neropolis his popularity had gone as popularity ever does; the conflagration had killed it.


Even as he wandered, lyre in hand, a train of Lesbians and pederasts at his heels, through those halls which had risen on the ruins, and which inexhaustible Greece had furnished with a fresh crop of white immortals, the world rebelled. Afar on the outskirts of civilization a vassal, ashamed of his vassalage, declared war, not against Rome, but against an emperor that played the flute. In Spain, in Gaul, the legions were choosing other chiefs. The provinces, depleted by imperial exactions, outwearied by the increasing number of accusers, whose accusations impoverishing them served only to multiply the prodigalities of their Caesar, revolted.


Suddenly Nero found himself alone. As the advancing rumor of rebellion reached him, he thought of flight; there was no one that would accompany him. He called to the pretorians; they would not hear. Through the immensity of his palace he sought one friend. The doors would not open. He returned to his apartment; the guards had gone. Then terror seized him. He was afraid to die, afraid to live, afraid of his solitude, afraid of Rome, afraid of himself; but what frightened him most was that everyone had lost their fear of him. It was time to go, and a slave aiding, he escaped in disguise from Rome, and killed himself, reluctantly, in a hovel.


"Qualis artifex pereo!"* he is reported to have muttered. Say rather, qualis maechus.**

- Edgar Saltus

* "What an artist the world is losing!"
** what a thief.


Source:

Imperial Purple by Edgar Saltus, 1892. 

Nero and Agrippina aureus, struck AD 54.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Man Carrying the Burdens of Time. An Allegory of the Three Ages of Man, studio of Jacob de Backer, c.1571-c.1591.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Where the tides ebb and flow

Illustration by Sidney Sime


I dreamt that I had done a horrible thing, so that burial was to be denied me either in soil or sea, neither could there be any hell for me.

I waited for some hours, knowing this. Then my friends came for me, and slew me secretly and with ancient rite, and lit great tapers, and carried me away.

It was all in London that the thing was done, and they went furtively at dead of night along grey streets and among mean houses until they came to the river. And the river and the tide of the sea were grappling with one another between the mud-banks, and both of them were black and full of lights. A sudden wonder came in to the eyes of each, as my friends came near to them with their glaring tapers. All these things I saw as they carried me dead and stiffening, for my soul was still among my bones, because there was no hell for it, and because Christian burial was denied me.

They took me down a stairway that was green with slimy things, and so came slowly to the terrible mud. There, in the territory of forsaken things, they dug a shallow grave. When they had finished they laid me in the grave, and suddenly they cast their tapers to the river. And when the water had quenched the flaring lights the tapers looked pale and small as they bobbed upon the tide, and at once the glamour of the calamity was gone, and I noticed then the approach of the huge dawn; and my friends cast their cloaks over their faces, and the solemn procession was turned into many fugitives that furtively stole away.

Then the mud came back wearily and covered all but my face. There I lay alone with quite forgotten things, with drifting things that the tides will take no farther, with useless things and lost things, and with the horrible unnatural bricks that are neither stone nor soil. I was rid of feeling, because I had been killed, but perception and thought were in my unhappy soul. The dawn widened, and I saw the desolate houses that crowded the marge of the river, and their dead windows peered into my dead eyes, windows with bales behind them instead of human souls. I grew so weary looking at these forlorn things that I wanted to cry out, but could not, because I was dead. Then I knew, as I had never known before, that for all the years that herd of desolate houses had wanted to cry out too, but, being dead, were dumb. And I knew then that it had yet been well with the forgotten drifting things if they had wept, but they were eyeless and without life. And I, too, tried to weep, but there were no tears in my dead eyes. And I knew then that the river might have cared for us, might have caressed us, might have sung to us, but he swept broadly onwards, thinking of nothing but the princely ships.

At last the tide did what the river would not, and came and covered me over, and my soul had rest in the green water, and rejoiced and believed that it had the Burial of the Sea. But with the ebb the water fell again, and left me alone again with the callous mud among the forgotten things that drift no more, and with the sight of all those desolate houses, and with the knowledge among all of us that each was dead.

In the mournful wall behind me, hung with green weeds, forsaken of the sea, dark tunnels appeared, and secret narrow passages that were clamped and barred. From these at last the stealthy rats came down to nibble me away, and my soul rejoiced thereat and believed that he would be free perforce from the accursed bones to which burial was refused. Very soon the rats ran away a little space and whispered among themselves. They never came any more. When I found that I was accursed even among the rats I tried to weep again.

Then the tide came swinging back and covered the dreadful mud, and hid the desolate houses, and soothed the forgotten things, and my soul had ease for a while in the sepulture of the sea. And then the tide forsook me again.

To and fro it came about me for many years. Then the County Council found me, and gave me decent burial. It was the first grave that I had ever slept in. That very night my friends came for me. They dug me up and put me back again in the shallow hold in the mud.

Again and again through the years my bones found burial, but always behind the funeral lurked one of those terrible men who, as soon as night fell, came and dug them up and carried them back again to the hole in the mud.

And then one day the last of those men died who once had done to me this terrible thing. I heard his soul go over the river at sunset.

And again I hoped.

A few weeks afterwards I was found once more, and once more taken out of that restless place and given deep burial in sacred ground, where my soul hoped that it should rest.

Almost at once men came with cloaks and tapers to give me back to the mud, for the thing had become a tradition and a rite. And all the forsaken things mocked me in their dumb hearts when they saw me carried back, for they were jealous of me because I had left the mud. It must be remembered that I could not weep.

And the years went by seawards where the black barges go, and the great derelict centuries became lost at sea, and still I lay there without any cause to hope, and daring not to hope without a cause, because of the terrible envy and the anger of the things that could drift no more.

Once a great storm rode up, even as far as London, out of the sea from the South; and he came curving into the river with the fierce East wind. And he was mightier than the dreary tides, and went with great leaps over the listless mud. And all the sad forgotten things rejoiced, and mingled with things that were haughtier than they, and rode once more amongst the lordly shipping that was driven up and down. And out of their hideous home he took my bones, never again, I hoped, to be vexed with the ebb and flow. And with the fall of the tide he went riding down the river and turned to the southwards, and so went to his home. And my bones he scattered among many isles and along the shores of happy alien mainlands. And for a moment, while they were far asunder, my soul was almost free.

Then there arose, at the will of the moon, the assiduous flow of the tide, and it undid at once the work of the ebb, and gathered my bones from the marge of sunny isles, and gleaned them all along the mainland's shores, and went rocking northwards till it came to the mouth of the Thames, and there turned westwards its relentless face, and so went up the river and came to the hole in the mud, and into it dropped my bones; and partly the mud covered them, and partly it left them white, for the mud cares not for its forsaken things.

Then the ebb came, and I saw the dead eyes of the houses and the jealousy of the other forgotten things that the storm had not carried thence.

And some more centuries passed over the ebb and flow and over the loneliness of things for gotten. And I lay there all the while in the careless grip of the mud, never wholly covered, yet never able to go free, and I longed for the great caress of the warm Earth or the comfortable lap of the Sea.

Sometimes men found my bones and buried them, but the tradition never died, and my friends' successors always brought them back. At last the barges went no more, and there were fewer lights; shaped timbers no longer floated down the fairway, and there came instead old wind-uprooted trees in all their natural simplicity.

At last I was aware that somewhere near me a blade of grass was growing, and the moss began to appear all over the dead houses. One day some thistledown went drifting over the river.

For some years I watched these signs attentively, until I became certain that London was passing away. Then I hoped once more, and all along both banks of the river there was anger among the lost things that anything should dare to hope upon the forsaken mud. Gradually the horrible houses crumbled, until the poor dead things that never had had life got decent burial among the weeds and moss. At last the may appeared and the convolvulus. Finally, the wild rose stood up over mounds that had been wharves and warehouses. Then I knew that the cause of Nature had triumphed, and London had passed away.

The last man in London came to the wall by the river, in an ancient cloak that was one of those that once my friends had worn, and peered over the edge to see that I still was there. Then he went, and I never saw men again: they had passed away with London.

A few days after the last man had gone the birds came into London, all the birds that sing. When they first saws me they all looked sideways at me, then they went away a little and spoke among themselves.

"He only sinned against Man," they said; "it is not our quarrel."

"Let us be kind to him," they said.

Then they hopped nearer me and began to sing. It was the time of the rising of the dawn, and from both banks of the river, and from the sky, and from the thickets that were once the streets, hundreds of birds were singing. As the light increased the birds sang more and more; they grew thicker and thicker in the air above my head, till there were thousands of them singing there, and then millions, and at last I could see nothing but a host of flickering wings with the sunlight on them, and little gaps of sky. Then when there was nothing to be heard in London but the myriad notes of that exultant song, my soul rose up from the bones in the hole in the mud and began to climb heavenwards. And it seemed that a lane-way opened amongst the wings of the birds, and it went up and up, and one of the smaller gates of Paradise stood ajar at the end of it. And then I knew by a sign that the mud should receive me no more, for suddenly I found that I could weep.

At this moment I opened my eyes in bed in a house in London, and outside some sparrows were twittering in a tree in the light of the radiant morning; and there were tears still wet upon my face, for one's restraint is feeble while one sleeps. But I arose and opened the window wide, and stretching my hands out over the little garden, I blessed the birds whose song had woken me up from the troubled and terrible centuries of my dream.

- Lord Dunsany


Source:


Markest thou what sentry is seated in the doorway? what shape guards the threshold?

Jan Brueghel the Younger, Aeneus and the Sybil in the Underworld, 1630's.

Aeneas looks swiftly back, and sees beneath the cliff on the left hand a wide city, girt with a triple wall and encircled by a racing river of boiling flame, Tartarean Phlegethon, that echoes over its rolling rocks. In front is the gate, huge and pillared with solid adamant, that no warring force of men nor the very habitants of heaven may avail to overthrow; it stands up a tower of iron, and Tisiphone sitting girt in bloodstained pall keeps sleepless watch at the entry by night and day. Hence moans are heard and fierce lashes resound, with the clank of iron and dragging chains. Aeneas stopped and hung dismayed at the tumult.

'What shapes of crime are here? declare, O maiden; or what the punishment that pursues them, and all this upsurging wail?'

Then the soothsayer thus began to speak:

'Illustrious chief of Troy, no pure foot may tread these guilty courts; but to me Hecate herself, when she gave me rule over the groves of Avernus, taught how the gods punish, and guided me through all her realm. Gnosian Rhadamanthus here holds unrelaxing sway, chastises secret crime revealed, and exacts confession, wheresoever in the upper world one vainly exultant in stolen guilt hath till the dusk of death kept clear from the evil he wrought. Straightway avenging Tisiphone, girt with her scourge, tramples down the shivering sinners, menaces them with the grim snakes in her left hand, and summons forth her sisters in merciless train. Then at last the sacred gates are flung open and grate on the jarring hinge. Markest thou what sentry is seated in the doorway? what shape guards the threshold? More grim within sits the monstrous Hydra with her fifty black yawning throats: and Tartarus' self gapes sheer and strikes into the gloom through twice the space that one looks upward to Olympus and the skyey heaven. Here Earth's ancient children, the Titans' brood, hurled down by the thunderbolt, lie wallowing in the abyss. Here likewise I saw the twin Aloïds, enormous of frame, who essayed with violent hands to pluck down high heaven and thrust Jove from his upper realm. Likewise I saw Salmoneus in the cruel payment he gives for mocking Jove's flame and Olympus' thunders. Borne by four horses and brandishing a torch, he rode in triumph midway through the populous city of Grecian Elis, and claimed for himself the worship of deity; madman! who would mimic the storm-cloud and the inimitable bolt with brass that rang under his trampling horse-hoofs. But the Lord omnipotent hurled his shaft through thickening clouds (no firebrand his nor smoky glare of torches) and dashed him headlong in the fury of the whirlwind. Therewithal Tityos might be seen, fosterling of Earth the mother of all, whose body stretches over nine full acres, and a monstrous vulture with crooked beak eats away the imperishable liver and the entrails that breed in suffering, and plunges deep into the breast that gives it food and dwelling; nor is any rest given to the fibres that ever grow anew. Why tell of the Lapithae, of Ixion and Pirithoüs? over whom a stone hangs just slipping and just as though it fell; or the high banqueting couches gleam golden-pillared, and the feast is spread in royal luxury before their faces; couched hard by, the eldest of the Furies wards the tables from their touch and rises with torch upreared and thunderous lips. Here are they who hated their brethren while life endured, or struck a parent or entangled a client in wrong, or who brooded alone over found treasure and shared it not with their fellows, this the greatest multitude of all; and they who were slain for adultery, and who followed unrighteous arms, and feared not to betray their masters' plighted hand. Imprisoned they await their doom. Seek not to be told that doom, that fashion of fortune wherein they are sunk. Some roll a vast stone, or hang outstretched on the spokes of wheels; hapless Theseus sits and shall sit for ever, and Phlegyas in his misery gives counsel to all and witnesses aloud through the gloom, Learn by this warning to do justly and not to slight the gods. This man sold his country for gold, and laid her under a tyrant's sway; he set up and pulled down laws at a price; this other forced his daughter's bridal chamber and a forbidden marriage; all dared some monstrous wickedness, and had success in what they dared. Not had I an hundred tongues, an hundred mouths, and a voice of iron, could I sum up all the shapes of crime or name over all their punishments.'


Source:

The Aeneid of Virgil, translated by J.W. Mackail, M.A., London, MacMillan and Co., 1885.




Thursday, September 21, 2017

Hermes

Souls on the Banks of Acheron by Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1898


Whether the dead be enclosed in sculptured stone sarcophagi, or sealed in the hollow of metal or clay urns, or encased upright, gilded and decorated in blue, with brain and viscera removed, swathed in linen bands, yet will I conduct them in a company and guide them on their way with my controlling wand.

We advance down a swift path that eye of man hath not seen. Harlots press close against virgins, murderers against philosophers, mothers against those that refused to bear children, and priests against perjurers. For they repent them of their sins, were they those of the imagination or of the deed. And having never been free upon earth, since they were there trammelled by customs and laws, or their own beliefs, they fear isolation and cling to each other for help. She that slept naked in the tiled chambers among the men is consoling a young girl who died before her nuptial eve, — yet dreaming imperiously of her love. One that was wont to murder on the highways, his face grimed with ashes and soot, places his hand on the brow of a thinker who wished to regenerate the world and preached death. The woman who loved her children and suffered through them buries her face in the bosom of an hetaira who, by intent, was without issue. The long-robed man that was persuaded he believed in his God and constrained himself to kneel often, now weeps on the shoulder of a cynic who broke every law of the flesh and spirit before the eyes of the world. So sustains the one the other along the route, journeying under the yoke of memory.

Then they come to the bank of Lethe where I range them along the shore of the silent-flowing water. Some plunge therein their heads containing evil thoughts, others the hands that wrought evil. Rising therefrom, the water of Lethe has effaced all remembrance.

Therewith they stand aloof from one another, and each smiles believing he is free.

- Marcel Schwob




Source:

Mimes, with a prologue and epilogue by Marcel Schwob, tr. A, Lenalie, p. Thomas B. Mosher, 1901.