A Study in Victorian Alchemy
Mr. Joseph Temple closed “The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse” with some reluctance. The natural beauty surrounding him had invaded his guarded senses to such an extent that he could not do justice to “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” On the contrary, he had automatically read and re-read the more significant stanzas in this the favorite poem of his favorite poet without responding to the ideas.
Putting the book down on the bench beside him, he took off his reading glasses, wiped them meticulously on his fine cambric handkerchief, then put them into the neat little silver case, where they were always to be found when they, were not bridging his finely shaped nose. From a little blue leather case, he took his far-sighted glasses, wiped them meticulously on his handkerchief, and clipped them onto his nose. This accomplished, he gave himself up to the enjoyment of the beauty that had prevented any responsiveness to Shelley’s poem.
The gentleman looked out over the landlocked harbour to the island which lay across its threshold to the sea. Only with the eyes of his imagination could he have found the ocean beyond, and the physical scene absorbed all of his attention. At his feet grew a tangle of golden-rod and Michaelmas daisies. Pointed firs stood in metallic perfection beside birch trees, with velvet bark like the throats of young does. A mountain ash drooped its crimson fruit, maples burned red in the shadows, and the violet raiment of oak branches, stirring slightly on the breeze, stretched out toward a neighboring pine tree. The waters lapped the granite shore, caressing, receding to caress again, in the ceaseless ebb and flow which is the flux of life. Mr. Temple felt the blood as it coursed through his veins, whilst his breath seemed to expand to the rhythm of the sea. To his nostrils came the scent of autumn; mosses and herbs giving back to him the aromatic perfume they had distilled from the summer’s sun. He looked at the calm blue water reflecting a calmer grey-blue northern sky, his gaze travelled across this mirror to the opposite shore, where he watched the water turn to green under the reflection of the wooded hills. Behind the hills rose mountains pointing bare peaks skyward.
In order to encompass the whole firmament in his gaze, Mr. Temple tipped his head back into his locked hands. Not a cloud broke the perfect arch of blue, but as he looked, the blue began to flush; spars on anchored water-craft were tipped with gold, a barge laden with wood became a glittering mass, its graceless contour dissolved in light. Although Mr. Temple could not see the sun setting behind the mountains at his back, he knew it was a burning orb, slipping quickly below the horizon, for the hills were now crowned with radiance, their feet wrapped in darkness.
From beyond the island which hid the sea, came a sail boat lifted on the last breeze of day. A shaft of light found her sail and travelled in her company. On she came, lithe, the perfection of grace, the intangible symbol of youth and motion. The light left her sail as, tilted to the angle of the wind, it was reflected like a grey wing on the milk-white water. She turned, tacked once, then stopped inanimate. A sailor pulled on the ropes, the gaff slipped down the mast, the iron ring, that held it in place, struck the main-boom with a bang. Mr. Temple started at the sound.
The sail boat had become a thing of wood and canvas. With her bare mast sticking upright, she had lost all her grace and all her mystery. The stubby little barge, near which she had anchored, did not suffer by comparison.
Painfully Mr. Temple recalled a similar metamorphosis in the lady, whom the sail boat, gliding under the enchantment of the breeze and glowing in the play of light, had evoked in his memory. She, too, had suddenly been deprived of her charm. An illness had rendered her as powerless to enamour him as the most commonplace woman he might meet in an ugly street.
This poignant memory closed the gentleman’s eyes. With an effort of the will, he called back to his mind the sail boat which, only a few moments before, had rounded the island from the hidden sea to ensnare his senses. This vision hardly took form, however, before the whirr of wings and the raucous cry of gulls dispelled it. Mr. Temple opened his eyes to see the offending birds steady themselves, dip downwards, then dangle coral feet, close grey wings and plump into the water, as graceless as boats with furled sails.
The magic of Nature’s sensuous appeal had been broken, and Mr. Temple’s guarded senses had renewed their vigil over his imagination. Pointed fir, gnarled pine, mountain ash, reflected black in the grey waters of eventide, stirred him not at all.
Emotion having given way to ideas, he picked up his discarded book and turned avidly, to Shelley’s poem. He did not even trouble to change his eye-glasses. He knew “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” by heart. To have the book open before him was only habit. He repeated now the familiar fines, as if they were new, as if he were conscious for the first time of the spiritual beauty of Shelley’s world of nature.
Ask why the sunlight not forever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain river;
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown;
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past: there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in the sky,
Which through the summer is not heard nor seen As if it could not be, as if it had not been! Thus let thy power, which like the truth Of nature on my passive youth Descended, to my onward life supply Its calm, to one who worships thee,
“Ah, Shelley, caught the real significance of life in these lines, the harmony that envelops us when conflict has been forgotten, when desire has given way to serenity, when summer has passed into autumn. Only these things belong on the right side of the medal. All of the rest is dross.”
Again Mr. Temple looked out across the landlocked harbour. This time his eyes saw it as a great silver mask of unchanging calm, on which he might gaze forever as a worshipper. The literary bondage was thus completed, Mr. Temple’s senses having gone to sleep, fatigued perhaps by the unusual activities through which they had passed.
Refreshed in spirit he got up from the bench, closed his book and pressed it affectionately into his pocket.
With their last faint twitterings, birds were drowsing in-to slumber. Night was coming on apace. A luminous blur, like mist, rose from the water to stretch out long fingers into the forest and point the way. By the help of these indications, Mr. Temple found the path, lost it frequently, and frequently also, he stopped to wait for another indication of light in the darkness. The farther he left the water behind him, the more unrelieved became the blackness of the forest. At length he reached the road and had the sky for his guide.
Out in the open, he began to think of the heroines he had known in books, and how much more enduring was their charm than that of the ladies he had met in real life. “Emma, for instance—could anyone ever be so alluring as she? Lucky Mr. Knightley!” Then he recalled his excursion into Russian fiction. Lured on by the purity of Liza’s character, he could just see her now, sitting in the garden with Lavretsky in the moonlight, clad in her nightdress, a creature of the spirit, the vessel of a noble love. He had read also Turgenief’s “Fathers and Children.” He relived now the recoil of horror Madame Odintzoff had inspired in him. “How could a lady have been so gross, how could a writer capable of producing ‘A Nobleman’s Nest’ so bemean himself as to write that scene between Madame Odintzoff and Batzaroff ? ‘Fathers and Children’ is only fit to be bound in a yellow jacket and sold at Parisian book-stalls with Zola.” He smiled as he recalled with what pleasure he had returned to his old favorites by Miss Austen and the Misses Bronte, his loyalty to his own standards strengthened by the Russian experience.
While Mr. Temple was climbing up the ridge, the grey twilight sky deepened into the purple tones of night. At a steep turn in the road, he stepped off the highway to enjoy a panorama. He gazed out over a bewildering mass of islands and headlands to the open sea. Such a vision would have sent Ulysses to his boat to unfurl the sails, or, the wind failing, it must have set the oars in motion to carry him through the Pillars of Hercules. Mr. Joseph Temple breathed deeply, turned away from the scene, thinking with a sense of relief of the satisfying beauty of Virgil’s seascapes.
The sea was behind the gentleman as he climbed higher up the ridge. The mental passage he had travelled to reach Virgil’s seascapes opened into a recollection of his schooldays, of the boredom which had accompanied his first attempts to scan and translate the Aeneid; of how he had disliked the Latin professor, who had insisted on reading to his unwilling students long passages of the poem. And then Mr. Temple recalled how he had turned to Virgil in mature years, as a solace for disillusionment, and had found there the spiritual food which still remained his sustenance. Next, his mind turned to the curious chance resemblance between the picture of Phaedra in the “Boys’ Edition of Greek Classics,” and Miss Nestle, the first teacher he had had in primary school. Although he had re-read “Hippolytus” many times, Phaedra could never appear wicked to him. Somehow, she was permanently chaperoned for him by Miss Nestle.
As Mr. Temple was himself a Victorian, he could not muse on the queer alchemy which had rendered Phaedra innocuous to adolescents, and which had transmuted Dido into a hospitable, homey lady who, having given lodgings to a weary stranger, had set him on his windy way again, correctly clad in a muffler. Either one of these accomplishments was of sufficient importance to stamp any Age with greatness, and yet this son of the Victorian tradition accepted them without attempting to value them, ignorant even that he belonged to The Golden Age of Alchemy. Besides, Mr. Temple had no gift for aptitude. Therefore, instead of musing on these significant things, his mind returned to “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and he repeated it in full.
Engrossed in this pale loveliness of poetry, Mr. Temple climbed higher, unconscious that he was nearing the summit of the ridge, as he was unconscious that his youth had matured into middle age, and the latter had passed, without his ever seriously challenging the limitations which the Victorian code imposed upon him. The headlands and islands that lay between him and the wide sea had never been rounded, except in unrelated flights of imagination. They stood as sentinels of his ordered world. His boat rode at anchor in the serene beauty of the landlocked harbour, sheltered from any, wind that might arise to unfurl its sail, and carry him beyond the island that lay across the threshold to the sea. No material agency of wood and canvas, no physical agency of wind would avail for Mr. Temple’s destined voyage across the Hidden Se That voyage could only be propelled by invisible wings.
The top of the climb had been reached, and turning a bare shoulder of the mountain, the gentleman watched, with a feeling of intrusion, the young moon as she sank unresisting into the embrace of night.