It is a strange habit of wise humanity to speak in enigmas only, so that the highest truths and usefullest laws must be hunted for through whole picture-galleries of dreams, which to the vulgar seem dreams only. Thus Homer, the Greek tragedians, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Goethe, have hidden all that is chiefly serviceable in their work, and in all the various literature they absorbed and re-embodied, under types which have rendered it quite useless to the multitude. What is worse, the two primal declarers of moral discovery, Homer and Plato, are partly at issue; for Plato's logical power quenched his imagination, and he became incapable of understanding the purely imaginative element either in poetry or painting; he therefore somewhat overrates the pure ,discipline of passionate art in song and music, and misses that of meditative art. There is, however, a deeper reason for his distrust of Homer. His love of justice, and reverently religious nature made him dread as death, every form of fallacy; but chiefly, fallacy respecting the world to come (his own myths being only symbolic exponents of a rational hope). We shall perhaps now every day discover more clearly how right Plato was in this, and feel ourselves more and more wonderstruck that men such as Homer and Dante (and, in an inferior sphere, Milton), not to speak of the great sculptors and painters of every age, have permitted themselves, though fall of all nobleness and wisdom, to coin idle imaginations of the mysteries of eternity, and mould the faiths of the families of the earth by the courses of their own vague and visionary arts: while the indisputable truths respecting human life and duty, respecting which they all have but one voice, lie hidden behind these veils of phantasy unsought and often unsuspected. I will gather carefully, out of Dante and Homer, what of this kind bears on our subject, in its due place; the first broad intention of their symbols may be sketched at once. The rewards of a worthy use of riches, subordinate to other ends, are shown by Dante in the fifth and sixth orbs of Paradise; for the punishment of their unworthy use, three places are assigned; one for the avaricious and prodigal whose souls are lost ("Hell": Canto 7); one for the avaricious and prodigal whose souls are capable of purification ("Purgatory": Canto 19); and one for the usurers, of whom none can be redeemed ("Hell": Canto 17). The first group, the largest in all hell (gente piu che altrove troppa), meet in contrary currents, as the waves of Charybdis, casting weights at each other from opposite sides. This weariness of contention is the chief element of their torture; so marked by the beautiful lines, beginning, "Or puoi, figliuol," etc. (but the usurers, who made their money inactively, sit on the sand, equally without rest, however, "Di qua, di la soccorrien," etc.). For it is not avarice but contention for riches, leading to this double misuse of them, which, in Dante's sight, is the unredeemable sin. The place of its punishment is guarded by Plutus, "the great enemy", and "la fièra crudele" a spirit quite different from the Greek Plutus, who, though old and blind, is not cruel, and is curable, so as to become far-sighted
,—Plato's epithets in first book of the Laws).
Still more does this Dantesque type differ from the resplendent Plutus of Goethe in the second part of "Faust", who is the personified power of wealth for good or evil; not the passion for wealth; and again from the Plutus of Spenser, who is the passion of more aggregation. Dante's Plutus is specially and definitely the spirit of Contention and Competition, or Evil Commerce; and because, as I showed in my last paper, this kind of commerce "makes all men strangers", his speech is unintelligible, and no single soul of all those ruined by him has recognizable features.
|(La sconescente vita—|
Ad ogni conoscenza or li fa bruni).
On the other hand, the redeemable sins of avarice and prodigality are, in Dante's sight, those which are without deliberate or calculated operation. The lust, or lavishness, of riches can be purged, so long as there has been no servile consistency of dispute and competition for them. The sin is spoken of as that of degradation by the love of earth; it is purified by deeper humiliation—the souls crawl on their bellies; their chant, " my soul cleaveth unto the dust". But the spirits here condemned are all recognizable, and even the worst examples of the thirst for gold, which they are compelled to tell the histories of during the night, are of men swept by the passion of avarice into violent crime, but not sold to its steady work. The precept given to each of these spirits for its deliverance is—Turn thine eyes to the lucre (lure) which the Eternal King rolls with the mighty wheels: otherwise, wheels of the "Greater Fortune", of which the constellation is ascending when Dante's dream begins. Compare George Herbert,—
|"Lift up thy head;|
|Take stars for money: stars, not to be told|
By any art, yet to be purchased."
And Plato's notable sentence in the third book of " Polity ":—"Tell them they have divine gold and silver in their souls for ever; that they need no money stamped of men—neither may they otherwise than impiously mingle the gathering of the divine with the mortal treasure, for through that which the law of the multitude has coined, endless crimes have been done and suffered; but in theirs is neither pollution nor sorrow". At the entrance of this place of punishment an evil spirit is seen by Dante, quite other than the "Gran Nemico". The great enemy is obeyed knowingly and willingly; but this spirit—feminine—and called a Siren—is the "Deceitfulness of riches", of the gospels, winning obedience by guile. This is the Idol of Riches, made doubly phantasmal by Dante's seeing her in a dream. She is lovely to look upon, and enchants by her sweet singing, but her womb is loathsome. Now, Dante does not call her one of the Sirens carelessly, any more than he speaks of Charybdis carelessly, and though he had only got at the meaning of the Homeric fable through Virgil's obscure 1 of it, the clue he has given us is quite enough. Bacon's interpretation, "the Sirens, or pleasures", which has become universal since his time, is opposed alike to Plato's meaning and Homer's. The Sirens are not pleasures, but Desires: in the Odyssey they are the phantoms of vain desire; but in Plato's vision of Destiny, phantoms of constant Desire; singing each a different note on the circles of the distaff of Necessity, but forming one harmony, to which the three great Fates put words. Dante, however, adopted the Homeric conception of them, which was that they were demons of the Imagination, not carnal (desire of the eyes; not lust of the flesh); therefore said to be daughters of the Muses. Yet not of the muses, heavenly or historical, but of the muse of pleasure; and they are at first winged, because even vain hope excites and helps when first formed; but afterwards, contending for the possession of the imagination with the muses themselves, they are deprived of their wings, and thus we are to distinguish the Siren power from the Power of Circe, who is no daughter of the muses, but of the strong elements, Sun and Sea; her power is that of frank and full vital pleasure, which, if governed and watched, nourishes men; but, unwatched, and having no "moly", bitterness or delay mixed with it, turns men into beasts, but does not slay them, leaves them, on the contrary, power of revival. She is herself indeed an Enchantress;—pure Animal life; transforming—or degrading—but always wonderful (she puts the stores on board the ship invisibly, and is gone again, like a ghost); even the wild beasts rejoice and are softened around her cave; to men, she gives no rich feast, nothing but pure and right nourishment,—Pramnian wine, cheese and flour; that is corn, milk, and wine, the three great sustainers of life—it is their own fault if these make swine of them; and swine are chosen merely as the type of consumption; as Plato's in the second book of the "Polity", and perhaps chosen by Homer with a deeper knowledge of the likeness of nourishment, and internal form of body.
"Et quel est, s'il vous plaît, cet audacieux animal qui se permet d'être bâti au dedans comme une jolie petite fille?"
"Hélas! Chère enfant, j'ai honte de le nommer, et il ne foudra pas m'en vouloir. C'est . . . c'est le cochon. Ce n'est pas précisément flatteur pour vous; mais nous en sommes tous là, et si cela vous contrarie par trop, il faut aller vous plaindre au bon Dieu qui a voulu que les choses fussent arrangées ainsi: seulement le cochon, qui ne pense qu' à manger, a l'estomac bien plus vaste que nous, et c'est toujours une consolation."("Histoire d'une Bouchée de Pain", Lettre ix.)
But the deadly Sirens are all things opposed to the Circean power. They promise pleasure, but never give it. They nourish in no wise; but slay by slow death. And whereas they corrupt the heart and the head, instead of merely betraying the senses, there is no recovery from their power; they do not tear nor snatch, like Scylla, but the men who have listened to them are poisoned, and waste away. Note that the Sirens' field is covered, not merely with the bones, but with the skins of those who have been consumed there. They address themselves, in the part of the song which Homer gives, not to the passions of Ulysses, but to his vanity, and the only man who ever came within hearing of them, and escaped untempted, was Orpheus, who silenced the vain imaginations by singing the praises of the gods.
It is, then, one of these Sirens whom Dante takes as the phantasm or deceitfulness of riches; but note further, that she says it was her song that deceived Ulysses. Look back to Dante's account of Ulysses' death, and we find it was not the love of money, but pride of knowledge, that betrayed him; whence we get the clue to Dante's complete meaning: that the souls whose love of wealth is pardonable have been first deceived into pursuit of it by a dream of its higher uses, or by ambition. His Siren is therefore the Philotimé of Spenser, daughter of Mammon—
|"Whom all that folk with such contention|
Do flock about, my deare, my daughter is—
Honour and dignitie from her alone
By comparing Spenser's entire account of this Philotimé with Dante's of the Wealth-Siren, we shall get at the full meaning of both poets; but that of Homer lies hidden much more deeply. For his Sirens are indefinite, and they are desires of any evil thing; power of wealth is not specially indicated by him, until, escaping the harmonious danger of imagination, Ulysses has to choose between two practical ways of life, indicated by the two rocks of Scylla and Charybdis. The monsters that haunt them are quite distinct from the rocks themselves, which, having many other subordinate significations, are in the main Labour and Idleness, or getting and spending; each with its attendant monster, or betraying demon. The rock of gaining has its summit in the clouds, invisible and not to be climbed; that of spending is low, but marked by the cursed fig-tree, which has leaves but no fruit. We know the type elsewhere; and there is a curious lateral allusion to it by Dante when Jacopo di Sant' Andrea, who had ruined himself by profusion and committed suicide, scatters the leaves of the bush of Lotto degli Agli, endeavouring to hide himself among them. We shall hereafter examine the type completely; here I will only give an approximate rendering of Homer's words, which have been obscured more by translation than even by tradition—
They are overhanging rocks. The great waves of blue water break round them; and the blessed Gods call them the Wanderers. By one of them no winged thing can pass—not even the wild doves that bring ambrosia to their father Jove—but the smooth rock seizes its sacrifice of them. (Not even ambrosia to be had without Labour. The word is peculiar—as a part of anything offered for sacrifice; especially used of heaven-offering.) It reaches the wide heaven with its top, and a dark-blue cloud rests on it, and never passes; neither does the clear sky hold it in summer nor in harvest. Nor can any man climb it—not if he had twenty feet and hands, for it is smooth as though it were hewn.
And in the midst of it is a cave which is turned the way of hell. And therein dwells Scylla, whining for prey: her cry, indeed, is no louder than that of a newly-born whelp: but she herself is an awful thing—nor can any creature see her face and be glad; no, though it were a god that rose against her. For she has twelve feet, all fore-feet, and six necks, and terrible heads on them; and each has three rows of teeth, full of black death.
But the opposite rock is lower than this, though but a bowshot distant; and upon it there is a great fig-tree, full of leaves; and under it the terrible Charybdis sucks it down, and thrice casts it up again; be not thou there when she sucks down, for Neptune himself could not save thee.
The reader will find the meaning of these types gradually elicited as we proceed.