Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Grottoes of Capri
By Bayard Taylor (18251878)
[By-Ways of Europe. 1869.]
I HAVE purposely left the Blue Grotto to the last, as for me it was subordinate in interest to almost all else that I saw. Still it was part of the inevitable programme. One calm day we had spent in the trip to Anacapri, and another, at this season, was not to be immediately expected. Nevertheless, when we arose on the second morning afterwards, the palm-leaves hung silent, the olives twinkled without motion, and the southern sea glimmered with the veiled light of a calm. Vesuvius had but a single peaceful plume of smoke, the snows of the Apulian Mountains gleamed rosily behind his cone, and the fair headland of Sorrento shone in those soft, elusive, aerial grays which must be the despair of a painter. It was a day for the Blue Grotto, and so we descended to the marina.
On the strand, girls with disordered hair and beautiful teeth offered shells and coral. We found mariners readily, and, after a little hesitation, pushed off in a large boat, leaving a little one to follow. The tramontana had left a faint swell behind it, but four oars carried us at a lively speed along the shore. We passed the ruins of the baths of Tiberius (the Palazzo a Mare), and then slid into the purple shadows of the cliffs, which rose in a sheer wall five hundred feet above the water. Two men sat on a rock, fishing with poles; and the boats further off the shore were sinking their nets, the ends of which were buoyed up with gourds. Pulling along in the shadows, in less than half an hour we saw the tower of Damecuta shining aloft, above a slope of olives which descended steeply to the sea. Here, under a rough, round bastion of masonry, was the entrance to the Blue Grotto.
We were now transshipped to the little shell of a boat which had followed us. The swell rolled rather heavily into the mouth of the cave, and the adventure seemed a little perilous, had the boatmen been less experienced. We lay flat in the bottom; the oars were taken in, and we had just reached the entrance, when a high wave, rolling up, threatened to dash us against the iron portals. Look out! cried the old man. The young sailor held the boat back with his hands, while the wave rolled under us into the darkness beyond; then, seizing the moment, we shot in after it, and were safe under the expanding roof. At first, all was tolerably dark: I only saw that the water near the entrance was intensely and luminously blue. Gradually, as the eye grew accustomed to the obscurity, the irregular vault of the roof became visible, tinted by a faint reflection from the water. The effect increased the longer we remained; but the rock nowhere repeated the dazzling sapphire of the sea. It was rather a blue-gray, very beautiful, but far from presenting the effect given in the pictures sold at Naples. The silvery, starry radiance of foam or bubbles on the shining blue ground was the loveliest phenomenon of the grotto. To dip ones hand in the sea, and scatter the water, was to create sprays of wonderful, phosphorescent blossoms, jewels of the Sirens, flashing and vanishing garlands of the Undines.
A chamber, and the commencement of a gallery leading somewhere,probably to the twelfth palace of Tiberius, on the headland of Damecuta,were to be distinguished near the rear of the cavern. But rather than explore further mysteries, we watched our chance and shot out, after a full-throated wave, into the flood of white daylight. Keeping on our course around the island, we passed the point of Damecuta,making a chord to the arc of the shore,to the first battery, beyond which the Anacapri territory opened fairly to view. From the northern to the northwestern cape the coast sinks, like the side of an amphitheatre, in a succession of curving terraces, gray with the abundant olive. Two deep, winding ravines, like the wadies of Arabia, have been worn by the rainfall of thousands of years, until they have split the shore-wall down to the sea. Looking up them, we could guess the green banks where the violets and anemones grew, and the clumps of myrtle that perfumed the sea breeze.
Broad and grand as was this view, it was far surpassed by the coast scenery to come. No sooner had we passed the pharos, and turned eastward along the southern shore of the island, than every sign of life and laborious industry ceased. The central mountain-wall, suddenly broken off as it reached the sea, presented a face of precipice a thousand feet high, not in a smooth escarpment, as on the northern side, but cut into pyramids and pinnacles of ever-changing form. Our necks ached with gazing at the far summits, piercing the keen blue deeps of air. In one place the vast gable of the mountain was hollowed into arches and grottoes, from the eaves of which depended fringes of stalactite; it resembled a Titanic cathedral in ruins. Above the orange and dove-colored facets of the cliff, the jagged topmost crest wore an ashen tint which no longer suggested the texture of rock. It seemed rather a soft, mealy substance, which one might crumble between the fingers. The critics of the realistic school would damn the painter who should represent this effect truly.
Under these amazing crags, over a smooth, sunny sea, we sped along towards a point where the boatman said we should find the Green Grotto. It lies inside a short, projecting cape of the perpendicular shore, and our approach to it was denoted by a streak of emerald fire flashing along the shaded water at the base of the rocks. A few more strokes on the oars carried us under an arch twenty feet high, which opened into a rocky cove beyond. The water being shallow, the white bottom shone like silver; and the pure green hue of the waves, filled and flooded with the splendor of the sun, was thrown upon the interior facings of the rocks, making the cavern gleam like transparent glass. The dance of the waves, the reflex of the netted sunbeams, threw ripples of shifting gold all over this green ground; and the walls and roof of the cavern, so magically illuminated, seemed to fluctuate in unison with the tide. It was a marvelous surprise, making truth of Undine and the Sirens, Proteus and the foam-born Aphrodite. The brightness of the day increased the illusion, and made the incredible beauty of the cavern all the more startling, because devoid of gloom and mystery. It was an idyl of the sea, born of the god-lore of Greece. To the light, lisping whisper of the waves,the sound nearest to that of a kiss,there was added a deep, dim, subdued undertone of the swell caught in lower arches beyond; and the commencement of that fine posthumous sonnet of Keats chimed thenceforward in my ears:
After this, although the same enormous piles of rock overhung us, there were no new surprises. The sublimity and the beauty of this southern coast had reached their climax; and we turned from it to lean over the gunwale of the boat, and watch the purple growth of sponges through the heaving crystal, as we drew into the cove of the piccola marina. There Augusto was waiting our arrival, the old fisher was ready with a bench, and we took the upper side of Capri.
My pen lingers on the subject, yet it is time to leave. When the day of our departure came, I wished for a tramontana, that we might be detained until the morrow; but no, it was a mild sirocco, setting directly towards Sorrento, and Antonio had come over, although, this time, without any prediction of a fine day. At the last fatal and prosaic moment, when the joys that are over must be paid for, we found Don Michele and Manfred as honest as they had been kind and attentive. Would we not come back some time? asked the Don. Certainly we will.
When the sail was set, and our foamy track pointed to the dear isle we were leaving, I, at least, was conscious of a slight heart-ache. So I turned once more and cried out, Addio Capri! but the stern Tiberian rocks did not respond, Ritornate, and so Capri passed into memory.