No Return to Phoebus or Pan

John Addington Symonds, Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece:

“This shore would stand for Shelley’s Island of Epipsychidion, or the golden age which Empedocles describes, when the mild nations worshipped Aphrodite with incense and the images of beasts and yellow honey, and no blood was spilt upon her altars—­when ’the trees flourished with perennial leaves and fruit, and ample crops adorned their boughs through all the year.’  This even now is literally true of the lemon-groves, which do not cease to flower and ripen.  Everything fits in to complete the reproduction of Greek pastoral life.  The goats eat cytisus and myrtle on the shore; a whole flock gathered round me as I sat beneath a tuft of golden green euphorbia the other day, and nibbled bread from my hands.  The frog still croaks by tank and fountain, ‘whom the Muses have ordained to sing for aye,’ in spite of Bion’s death.  The narcissus, anemone, and hyacinth still tell their tales of love and death.  Hesper still gazes on the shepherd from the mountain-head.  The slender cypresses still vibrate, the pines murmur.  Pan sleeps in noontide heat, and goat-herds and wayfaring men lie down to slumber by the roadside, under olive-boughs in which cicadas sing.  The little villages high up are just as white, the mountains just as grey and shadowy when evening falls.  Nothing is changed—­except ourselves.  I expect to find a statue of Priapus or pastoral Pan, hung with wreaths of flowers—­the meal cake, honey, and spilt wine upon his altar, and young boys and maidens dancing round.  Surely, in some far-off glade, by the side of lemon-grove or garden, near the village, there must be still a pagan remnant of glad Nature-worship.  Surely I shall chance upon some Thyrsis piping in the pine-tree shade, or Daphne flying from the arms of Phoebus.  So I dream until I come upon the Calvary set on a solitary hillock, with its prayer-steps lending a wide prospect across the olives and the orange-trees, and the broad valleys, to immeasurable skies and purple seas.  There is the iron cross, the wounded heart, the spear, the reed, the nails, the crown of thorns, the cup of sacrificial blood, the title, with its superscription royal and divine.  The other day we crossed a brook and entered a lemon-field, rich with blossoms and carpeted with red anemones.  Everything basked in sunlight and glittered with exceeding brilliancy of hue.  A tiny white chapel stood in a corner of the enclosure.  Two iron-grated windows let me see inside:  it was a bare place, containing nothing but a wooden praying-desk, black and worm-eaten, an altar with its candles and no flowers, and above the altar a square picture brown with age.  On the floor were scattered several pence, and in a vase above the holy-water vessel stood some withered hyacinths.

As my sight became accustomed to the gloom, I could see from the darkness of the picture a pale Christ nailed to the cross with agonising upward eyes and ashy aureole above the bleeding thorns.  Thus I stepped suddenly away from the outward pomp and bravery of nature to the inward aspirations, agonies, and martyrdoms of man—­from Greek legends of the past to the real Christian present—­and I remembered that an illimitable prospect has been opened to the world, that in spite of ourselves we must turn our eyes heavenward, inward, to the infinite unseen beyond us and within our souls.  Nothing can take us back to Phoebus or to Pan.  Nothing can again identify us with the simple natural earth.”

2 thoughts on “No Return to Phoebus or Pan

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s