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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
White Nights
By Walter Pater (1839–1894)
 
From ‘Marius, the Epicurean’

TO an instinctive seriousness, the material abode in which the childhood of Marius was passed had largely added. Nothing, you felt, as you first caught sight of that coy, retired place,—surely nothing could happen there without its full accompaniment of thought or revery. White-nights!—so you might interpret its old Latin name. “The red rose came first,” says a quaint German mystic, speaking of “the mystery of so-called white things” as being “ever an after-thought,—the doubles, or seconds, of real things, and themselves but half real or material: the white queen—the white witch—the white mass, which, as the black mass is a travesty of the true mass turned to evil by horrible old witches, is celebrated by young candidates for the priesthood, with an unconsecrated host, by way of rehearsal.” So white-nights, I suppose, after something like the same analogy, should be nights not passed in quite blank forgetfulness, but those which we pass in continuous dreaming, only half veiled by sleep. Certainly the place was, in such case, true to its fanciful name in this,—that you might very well conceive, in the face of it, that dreaming, even in the daytime, might come to much there.  1
  The young Marius represented an ancient family, whose estate had come down to him much curtailed through the extravagance of a certain Marcellus two generations before, a favorite in his day of the fashionable world at Rome, where he had at least spent his substance with a correctness of taste which Marius might seem to have inherited from him; as he was believed also to resemble him in a singularly pleasant smile, consistent however, in the younger face, with some degree of sombre expression when the mind within was but slightly moved.  2
  As the means of life decreased, the farm had crept nearer and nearer to the dwelling-house, about which there was therefore a trace of workday negligence or homeliness, not without its picturesque charm for some,—for the young master himself among them. The more observant passer-by would note, curious as to the inmates, a certain amount of dainty care amid that neglect, as if it came in part, perhaps, from a reluctance to disturb old associations. It was significant of the national character, that a sort of elegant gentleman-farming, as we say, was much affected by some of the most cultivated Romans. But it was something more than an elegant diversion, something more of a serious business, with the household of Marius; and his actual interest in the cultivation of the earth and the care of flocks had brought him, at least, intimately near to those elementary conditions of life, a reverence for which the great Roman poet, as he has shown by his own half-mystic preoccupation with them, held to be the ground of primitive Roman religion, as of primitive morals. But then farm life in Italy, including the culture of the vine and the olive, has a peculiar grace of its own, and might well contribute to the production of an ideal dignity of character, like that of nature itself in this gifted region. Vulgarity seemed impossible. The place, though impoverished, was still deservedly dear, full of venerable memories, and with a living sweetness of its own for to-day.  3
  It had been then a part of the struggling family pride of the lad’s father to hold by those ceremonial traditions, to which the example of the head of the State, old Antoninus Pius,—an example to be still further enforced by his successor,—had given a fresh though perhaps somewhat artificial popularity. It was consistent with many another homely and old-fashioned trait in him, not to undervalue the charm of exclusiveness and immemorial authority, which membership in a local priestly college, hereditary in his house, conferred upon him. To set a real value on those things was but one element in that pious concern for his home and all that belonged to it, which, as Marius afterwards discovered, had been a strong motive with his father. The ancient hymn—Jana Novella!—was still sung by his people, as the new moon grew bright in the west; and even their wild custom of leaping through heaps of blazing straw on a certain night in summer was not discouraged. Even the privilege of augury, according to one tradition, had at one time belonged to his race; and if you can imagine how, once in a way, an impressible boy might have an inkling, an inward mystic intimation, of the meaning and consequences of all that,—what was implied in it becoming explicit for him,—you conceive aright the mind of Marius, in whose house the auspices were still carefully consulted before every undertaking of moment.  4
  The devotion of the father, then, had handed on loyally—and that is all many not unimportant persons ever find to do—a certain tradition of life, which came to mean much for the young Marius. It was with a feeling almost exclusively of awe that he thought of his dead father; though at times, indeed, with a not unpleasant sense of liberty,—as he could but confess to himself, pondering, in the actual absence of so weighty and continual a restraint, upon the arbitrary power which Roman religion and Roman law gave to the parent over his son. On the part of his mother, on the other hand, entertaining the husband’s memory, there was a sustained freshness of regret; together with the recognition, as Marius fancied, of some costly self-sacrifice, to be credited to the dead. The life of the widow, languid and shadowy enough but for the poignancy of that regret, was like one long service to the departed soul; its many annual observances centring about the funeral urn—a tiny, delicately carved marble house, still white and fresh—in the family chapel, wreathed always with the richest flowers from the garden: the dead, in those country places, being allowed a somewhat closer neighborhood to the old homes they were supposed still to protect, than is usual with us, or was usual in Rome itself,—a closeness which, so diverse are the ways of human sentiment, the living welcomed, and in which the more wealthy, at least in the country, might indulge themselves. All that, Marius followed with a devout interest, sincerely touched and awed by his mother’s sorrow. After the deification of the emperors, we are told, it was considered impious so much as to use any coarse expression in the presence of their images. To Marius the whole of life seemed full of sacred presences, demanding of him a similar collectedness. The severe and archaic religion of the villa, as he conceived it, begot in him a sort of devout circumspection, lest he should fall short at any point of the demand upon him of anything in which deity was concerned: he must satisfy, with a kind of sacred equity, he must be very cautious not to be wanting to, the claims of others, in their joys and calamities,—the happiness which deity sanctioned, or the blows in which it made itself felt. And from habit, this feeling of a responsibility towards the world of men and things, towards a claim for due sentiment concerning them on his side, came to be a part of his nature not to be put off. It kept him serious and dignified amid the Epicurean speculations which in after years much engrossed him, when he had learned to think of all religions as indifferent; serious, among many fopperies, and through many languid days: and made him anticipate all his life long, as a thing towards which he must carefully train himself, some great occasion of self-devotion like that which really came, which should consecrate his life, and it might be the memory of it among others; as the early Christian looked forward to martyrdom at the end of his course, as a seal of worth upon it.  5
  The traveler, descending from the slopes of Luna, even as he got his first view of the Port-of-Venus, would pause by the way to read the face, as it were, of so beautiful a dwelling-place, lying well away from the white road, at the point where it began to decline somewhat steeply to the marsh-land below. The building of pale red and yellow marble, mellowed by age, which he saw beyond the gates, was indeed but the exquisite fragment of a once large and sumptuous villa. Two centuries of the play of the sea-wind were in the velvet of the mosses which lay along its inaccessible ledges and angles. Here and there the marble plates had slipped from their places, where the delicate weeds had forced their way. The graceful wildness which prevailed in garden and farm gave place to a singular nicety about the actual habitation, and a still more scrupulous sweetness and order reigned within. The old Roman architects seem to have well understood the decorative value of the floor—the real economy there was, in the production of rich interior effect, of a somewhat lavish expenditure upon the surface they trod on. The pavement of the hall had lost something of its evenness; but though a little rough to the foot, polished and cared for like a piece of silver, looked, as mosaic-work is apt to do, its best in old age. Most noticeable among the ancestral masks, each in its little cedar chest below the cornice, was that of the wasteful but elegant Marcellus, with the quaint resemblance in its yellow waxen features to Marius, just then so full of animation and country color. A chamber, curved ingeniously into oval form, which he had added to the mansion, still contained his collection of works of art; above all, the head of Medusa, for which the villa was famous. The spoilers of one of the old Greek towns on the coast had flung away or lost the thing, as it seemed, in some rapid flight across the river below, from the sands of which it had been drawn up in a fisherman’s net, with the fine golden laminæ still clinging here and there to the bronze. It was Marcellus also who had contrived the prospect tower of two stories, with the white pigeon-house above it, so characteristic of the place. The little glazed windows in the uppermost chamber framed each its dainty landscape: the pallid crags of Carrara, like wildly twisted snowdrifts above the purple heath; the distant harbor with its freight of white marble going to sea; the lighthouse temple of Venus Speciosa on its dark head-land, amid the long-drawn curves of white breakers. Even on summer nights the air there had always a motion in it, and drove the scent of the new-mown hay along all the passages of the house.  6
  Something pensive, spell-bound,—and as but half real, something cloistral or monastic, as we should say,—united to that exquisite order, made the whole place seem to Marius, as it were, (sacellum) the peculiar sanctuary of his mother, who still in real widowhood provided the deceased Marius the elder with that secondary sort of life which we can give to the dead, in our intensely realized memory of them; the “subjective immortality,” as some now call it, for which many a Roman epitaph cries out plaintively to widow or sister or daughter, still alive in the land of the living. Certainly, if any such considerations regarding them do reach the shadowy people, he enjoyed that secondary existence,—that warm place still left, in thought at least, beside the living,—the desire for which is actually, in various forms, so great a motive with most of us. And Marius the younger, even thus early, came to think of women’s tears, of women’s hands to lay one to rest, in death as in the sleep of childhood, as a sort of natural want. The soft lines of the white hands and face, set among the many folds of the veil and stole of the Roman widow, busy upon her needle-work, or with music sometimes, defined themselves for him as the typical expression of maternity. Helping her with her white and purple wools, and caring for her musical instruments, he won, as if from the handling of such things, an urbane and feminine refinement, qualifying the freshness of his country-grown habits,—the sense of a certain delicate blandness, which he relished, above all, on returning to the “chapel” of his mother, after long days of open-air exercise, in winter or stormy summer. For poetic souls in old Italy felt, hardly less strongly than the English, the pleasures of winter; of the hearth, with the very dead warm in its generous heat, keeping the young myrtles in flower, though the hail is beating hard without. One important principle, of fruit afterwards in his Roman life, that relish for the country fixed deeply in him; in the winters especially, when the sufferings of the animal world come so palpably before even the least observant. It fixed in him a sympathy for all creatures; for the almost human sicknesses and troubles of the flocks, for instance. It was a feeling which had in it something of religious veneration for life, as such,—for that mysterious essence which man is powerless to create in even the feeblest degree. One by one, at the desire of his mother, the lad broke down his cherished traps and springes for the hungry wild birds on the salt-marsh. A white bird, she told him once, looking at him gravely, a bird which he must carry in his bosom across a crowded public place—his own soul was like that! Would it reach the hands of his good genius on the opposite side, unruffled and unsoiled? And as his mother became to him the very type of maternity in things,—its unfailing pity and protectiveness,—and maternity itself the central type of all love, so that beautiful dwelling-place gave singular reality and concreteness to a peculiar ideal of home, which through all the rest of his life he seemed, amid many distractions of spirit, to be ever seeking to regain.  7
  And a certain vague fear of evil, constitutional in him, enhanced still further that sentiment of home, as a place of tried security. His religion, that old Italian religion, in contrast with the really light-hearted religion of Greece, had its deep undercurrent of gloom, its sad, haunting imageries, not exclusively confined to the walls of Etrurian tombs. The function of the conscience, not always as the prompter of a gratitude for benefits received, but oftenest as his accuser before those angry heavenly masters, had a large place in it; and the sense of some unexplored evil ever dogging his footsteps made him oddly suspicious of particular places and persons….  8
  Thus the boyhood of Marius passed; on the whole more given to contemplation than to action. Less prosperous in fortune than at an earlier day there had been reason to expect, and animating his solitude, as he read eagerly and intelligently, with the traditions of the past, he lived much already in the realm of the imagination, and became betimes, as he was to continue all through life, something of an idealist; constructing the world for himself in great measure from within, by the exercise of meditative power. A vein of subjective philosophy, with the individual for its measure of all things, there was to be always in his intellectual scheme of the world and of conduct, with a certain incapacity wholly to accept other men’s values of things. And the generation of this peculiar element in his temper he could trace up to the days when his life had been so like the reading of a romance to him. Had the Romans a word for unworldly? The beautiful word umbratilis comes nearest to it, perhaps; and in that precise sense, might describe the spirit in which he prepared himself for the sacerdotal function hereditary in his family,—the sort of mystic enjoyment he had in the abstinence, the strenuous self-control and ascêsis, which such preparation involved. Like the young Ion in the beautiful opening of the play of Euripides, who every morning sweeps the temple floor with such a fund of cheerfulness in his service, he was apt to be happy in sacred places, with a susceptibility to their peculiar influences which he never outgrew; so that often in after-times, quite unexpectedly, this feeling would revive in him, still fresh and strong. That first, early, boyish ideal of priesthood, the sense of dedication, survived through all the distraction of the world,—when all thought of such vocations had finally passed from him,—as a ministry, in spirit at least, towards a sort of hieratic beauty and orderliness in the conduct of life. And now what relieved in part this over-tension of soul was the lad’s pleasure in the country and the open air; above all, the ramble to the coast, over the marsh with the dwarf roses and wild lavender, and the delightful signs, one after another,—the abandoned boat, the ruined flood-gates, the flock of wild birds,—that one was approaching the sea; the long summer day of idleness among its vague scents and sounds. And it was characteristic of him that he relished especially the grave, subdued, northern notes in all that; the charm of the French or English notes, as we might term them, in the luxuriant Italian landscape.  9
 
 
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