1839-1908 Ouida.

Wisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida online

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wanted worsted socks. When he was listening in fancy
to the " sea-maid's song," and weaving thoughts to which
a world still stands reverentially to listen, she was buzzing
behind him, and bidding him go card the wool, and
weeping that, in her girlhood, she had not chosen some
rich glover or ale-taster, instead of idle, useless, wayward
Willie Shakespeare. Poor fellow ! He did not write, I
would swear, without fellow-feeling, and yearning over
souls similarly shipwrecked, that wise saw, "A young man
married is a man that's marred."


YV7HEN a man's eyes meet yours, and his faith trusts
** you, and his heart upon a vague impulse is laid
bare to you, it always has seemed to me the basest treach-
ery the world can hold to pass the gold of confidence
which he pours out to you from hand to hand as common
coin for common circulation.

/CIRCUMSTANCE is so odd and so cruel a thing.
^* It is wholly apart from talent.

Genius will do so little for a man if he do not know
how to seize or seduce opportunity. No doubt, in his
youth, Ambrogib had been shy, silent, out of his art timid,
and in his person ungraceful, and unlovely. So the world
had passed by him turning a deaf ear to his melodies, and
he had let it pass, because he had not that splendid auda-
city to grasp it perforce, and hold it until it blessed him,
without which no genius will ever gain the benediction of
the Angel of Fame.

Which is a fallen Angel, no doubt ; but still, perhaps,
the spirit most worth wrestling with after all ; since
wrestle we must in this world, if we do not care to
lie down and form a pavement for other men's cars of
triumph, as the Assyrians of old stretched themselves
on their faces before the coming of the chariot of their


E of the saddest things perhaps in all the sadness
of this world is the frightful loss at which so much
of the best and strongest work of a man's life has to be
thrown away at the onset. If you desire a name amongst
men, you must buy the crown of it at such a costly price !

True, the price will in the end be paid back to you, no
doubt, when you are worn out, and what you do is as
worthless as the rustling canes that blow together in
autumn by dull river sides : then you scrawl your signa-
ture across your soulless work, and it fetches thrice its
weight in gold.

But though you thus have your turn, and can laugh at
your will at the world that you fool, what can that com-
pensate you for all those dear dead darlings ? those bright
first-fruits, those precious earliest nestlings of your genius,
which had to be sold into bondage for a broken crust,
which drifted away from you never to be found again,
which you know well were a million fold better, fresher,
stronger, higher, better than anything you have begotten
since then ; and yet in which none could be found to
believe, only because you had not won that magic spell
which lies in beinsr known ?

YV7HEN I think of the sweet sigh of the violin melo-
" dies through the white winter silence of Raffae-
lino's eager, dreamy eyes, misty with the student's unut-
terable sadness and delight ; of old Ambrogio, with his
semicircle of children round him, lifting their fresh voices
at his word ; of the little robin that came every day upon
the waterpipe, and listened, and thrilled in harmony, and
ate joyfully the crumbs which the old maestro daily spared
to it from his scanty meal when I think of those hours,
it seems to me that they must have been happiness too.
" Could we but know when we are happy ! " sighs some


poet. As well might he write, " Could we but set the
dewdrop with our diamonds ! could we but stay the rain-
bow in our skies !"

pVERY old Italian city has this awe about it holds
close the past and moves the living to a curious
sense that they are dead and in their graves are dream-
ing ; for the old cities themselves have beheld so much
perish around them, and yet have kept so firm a hold
upon tradition and upon the supreme beauty of great
arts, that those who wander there grow, as it were, be-
wildered, and know not which is life and which is death
amongst them.

THE sun was setting.
Over the whole Valdarno there was everywhere a
faint ethereal golden mist that rose from the water and
the woods.

The town floated on it as upon a lake ; her spires, and
domes, and towers, and palaces bathed at their base
in its amber waves, and rising upward into the rose-hued
radiance of the upper air. The mountains that encircled
her took all the varying hues of the sunset on their pale
heights until they flushed to scarlet, glowered to violet,
wavered with flame, and paled to whiteness, as the opal
burns and fades. Warmth, fragrance, silence, loveliness
encompassed her ; and in the great stillness the bell of
the basilica tolled slowly the evening call to prayer.

Thus Florence rose before me.

A strange tremor of exceeding joy thrilled through me
as I beheld the reddened shadows of those close-lying
roofs, and those marble heights of towers and of temples.
At last my eyes gazed on her ! the daughter of flowers,


the mistress of art, the nursing mother of liberty and of

I fell on my knees and thanked God. I pity those
who, in such a moment, have not dqne likewise.

HTHERE is nothing upon earth, I think, like the smile
* of Italy as she awakes when the winter has dozed
itself away in the odours of its oakwood fires.

The whole land seems to laugh.

The springtide of the north is green and beautiful, but
it has nothing of the radiance, the dreamfulness, the
ecstasy of spring in the southern countries. The spring^
tide of the north is pale with the gentle colourless sweet-
ness of its world of primroses ; the springtide of Italy is
rainbow-hued, like the profusion of anemones that laugh
with it in every hue of glory under every ancient wall and
beside every hill-fed stream.

Spring in the north is a child that wakes from dreams
of death ; spring in the south is a child that wakes from
dreams of love. One is rescued and welcomed from the
grave ; but the other comes smiling on a sunbeam from

"THE landscape that has the olive is spiritual as no
landscape can ever be from which the olive is
absent ; for where is there spirituality without some hue
of sadness?

But this spiritual loveliness is one for which the human
creature that is set amidst it needs a certain education as
for the power of Euripides, for the dreams of Phasdrus,
for the strength of Michaelangelo, for the symphonies of
Mozart or Beethoven.

The mind must itself be in a measure spiritualised ere
aright it can receive it.


It is too pure, too impalpable, too nearly divine, to be
grasped by those for whom all beauty centres in strong
heats of colour and great breadths of effect ; it floats over
the senses like a string of perfect cadences in music ; it
has a breath of heaven in it ; though on the earth it is
not of the earth ; when the world was young, ere men
had sinned on it, and gods forsaken it, it must have had
the smile of this light that lingers here.

"D AD ? Good ? Pshaw ! Those are phrases. No one
uses them but fools. You have seen the monkeys'
cage in the beast-garden here. That is the world. It is
not strength, or merit, or talent, or reason that is of any
use there ; it is just which monkey has the skill to squeeze
to the front and jabber through the bars, and make his
teeth meet in his neighbours' tails till they shriek and
leave him free passage it is that monkey which gets all
the cakes and the nuts of the folk on a feast-day. The
monkey is not bad ; it is only a little quicker and more
cunning than the rest ; that is all

T T is a kind of blindness poverty. We can only grope
through life when we are poor, hitting and maiming
ourselves against every angle.

art by gold, and it fetters the feet it once
^* winged.

' T S that all you know ? " he cried, while his voice rang

* like a trumpet-call. " Listen here, then, little lady,

and learn better. What is it to be a player ? It is this.


A thing despised and rejected on all sides ; a thing that
was a century since denied what they call Christian burial ;
a thing that is still deemed for a woman disgraceful, and
for a man degrading and emasculate ; a thing that is mute
as a dunce save when, parrot-like, it repeats by rote with
a mirthless grin or a tearless sob ; a wooden doll, as you
say, applauded as a brave puppet in its prime, hissed at
in its first hour of failure or decay ; a thing made up of
tinsel and paint, and patchwork, of the tailor's shreds and
the barber's curls of tow a ridiculous thing to be sure.
That is a player. And yet again, a thing without which
laughter and jest were dead in the sad lives of the popu-
lace ; a thing that breathes the poet's words of fire so that
the humblest heart is set aflame ; a thing that has a magic
on its lips to waken smiles or weeping at its will ; a thing
which holds a people silent, breathless, intoxicated with
mirth or with awe, as it chooses ; a thing whose grace
kings envy, and whose wit great men will steal ; a thing
by whose utterance alone the poor can know the fair fol-
lies of a thoughtless hour, and escape for a little space
from the dull prisons of their colourless lives into the
sunlit paradise where genius dwells that is a player, too !"

'T'HE instrument on which we histrions play is that
* strange thing, the human heart. It looks a little
matter to strike its chords of laughter or of sorrow ; but,
indeed, to do that aright and rouse a melody which shall
leave all who hear it the better and the braver for the hear-
ing, that may well take a man's lifetime, and, perhaps, may
well repay it.

/^H, cara mia, when one has run about in one's time
^-^ with a tinker's tools, and seen the lives of the poor,
and the woe of them, and the wretchedness of it all, and


the utter uselessness of everything, and the horrible, in-
tolerable, unending pain of all the things that breathe,
one comes to think that in this meaningless mystery
which men call life a little laughter and a little love are
the only things which save us all from, madness the
madness that would curse God and die.

TT always seems as if that well-spring of poetry and
art which arose in Italy, to feed and fertilise the
world when it was half dead and wholly barren under the
tyrannies of the Church and the lusts of Feudalism ; it
would always seem, I say, as though that water of life
had so saturated the Italian soil, that the lowliest hut
upon its hills and plains will ever nourish and put forth
some flower of fancy.

The people cannot read, but they can rhyme. They
cannot reason, but they can keep perfect rhythm. They
cannot write their own names, but written on their hearts
are the names of those who made their country's great-
ness. They believe in the virtues of a red rag tied to a
stick amidst their fields, but they treasure tenderly the
heroes and the prophets of an unforgotten time. They
are ignorant of all laws of science or of sound, but when
they go home by moonlight through the maize yonder
alight with lucciole, they will never falsify a note, or over-
load a harmony, in their love-songs.

The poetry, the art, in them is sheer instinct ; it is not
the genius of isolated accident, but the genius of inalien-
able heritage.

"P\O you ever think of those artist-monks who have
*~^ strewed Italy with altar-pieces and missal miniatures
till there is not any little lonely dusky town of hers that
is not rich by art ? Do you often think of them ? I do.


There must have been a beauty in their lives a great
beauty though they missed of much, of more than they
ever knew or dreamed of, let us hope. In visions of the
Madonna they grew blind to the meaning of a woman's
smile, and illuminating the golden olive wreath above the
heads of saints they lost the laughter of the children under
the homely olive-trees without.

But they did a noble work in their day ; and leisure for
meditation is no mean treasure, though the modern world
does not number it amongst its joys.

One can understand how men born .with nervous frames
and spiritual fancies into the world when it was one vast
battle-ground, where its thrones were won by steel and
poison, and its religion enforced by torch and faggot,
grew so weary of the never-ending turmoil, and of the
riotous life which was always either a pageant or a
slaughter-house, that it seemed beautiful to them to with-
draw themselves into some peaceful place like this Badia
and spend their years in study and in recommendation of
their souls to God, with the green and fruitful fields before
their cloister windows, and no intruders on the summer
stillness as they painted their dreams of a worthier and
fairer world except the blue butterflies that strayed in on
a sunbeam, or the gold porsellini that hummed at the
lilies in the Virgin's chalice.

FLORENCE, where she sits throned amidst her
meadows white with Lenten lilies, Florence is never
terrible, Florence is never old. In her infancy they fed her
on the manna of freedom, and that fairest food gave her
eternal youth. In her early years she worshipped igno-
rantly indeed, but truly always the day-star of liberty ;
and it has been with her always so that the light shed
upon her is still as the light of morning.


Does this sound a fanciful folly ? Nay, there is a real
truth in it.

The past is so close to you in Florence. You touch it
at every step. It is not the dead past that men bury and
then forget. It is an unquenchable thing ; beautiful, and
full of lustre, even in the tomb, like the gold from the
sepulchres of the ./Etruscan kings that shines on the
breast of some fair living woman, undimmed by the dust
and the length of the ages.

The music of the old greatness thrills through all the
commonest things of life like the grilli's chant through
the wooden cages on Ascension Day ; and, like the song
of the grilli, its poetry stays in the warmth of the common
hearth for the ears of the little children, and loses nothing
of its melody.

The beauty of the past in Florence is like the beauty
of the great Duomo.

About the Duomo there is stir and strife at all times ;
crowds come and go ; men buy and sell ; lads laugh and
fight ; piles of fruit blaze gold and crimson ; metal pails
clash down on the stones with shrillest clangour ; on the
steps boys play at dominoes, and women give their chil-
dren food, and merry maskers grin in carnival fooleries ;
but there in their midst is the Duomo all unharmed and
undegraded, a poem and a prayer in one, its marbles
shining in the upper air, a thing so majestic in its strength,
and yet so human in its tenderness, that nothing can
assail, and nothing equal it.

Other, though not many, cities have histories as noble,
treasuries as vast ; but no other city has them living and
ever present in her midst, familiar as household words,
and touched by every baby's hand and peasant's step, as
Florence has.

Every line, every rood, every gable, every tower, has
some story of the past present in it. Every tocsin that
sounds is a chronicle ; every bridge that unites the two


banks of the river unites also the crowds of the living
with the heroism of the dead.

In the winding dusky irregular streets, with the outlines
of their logge and arcades, and the glow of colour that
fills their niches and galleries, the men who " have gone
before " walk with you ; not as elsewhere mere gliding
shades clad in the pallor of a misty memory, but present,
as in their daily lives, shading their dreamful eyes against
the noonday sun or setting their brave brows against the
mountain wind, laughing and jesting in their manful mirth
and speaking as brother to brother of great gifts to give
the world. All this while, though the past is thus close
about you the present is beautiful also, and does not
shock you by discord and unseemliness as it will ever do
elsewhere. The throngs that pass you are the same in
likeness as those that brushed against Dante or Calva-
canti ; the populace that you move amidst is the same
bold, vivid, fearless, eager people with eyes full of dreams,
and lips braced close for war, which welcomed Vinci and
Cimabue and fought from Montaperto to Solferino.

And as you go through the streets you will surely see
at every step some colour of a fresco on a wall, some
quaint curve of a bas-relief on a lintel, some vista of
Romanesque arches in a palace court, some dusky interior
of a smith's forge or a wood-seller's shop, some Renaiss-
ance seal-ring glimmering on a trader's stall, some lovely
hues of fruits and herbs tossed down together in a Tre
Cento window, some gigantic mass of blossoms being
borne aloft on men's shoulders for a church festivity of
roses, something at every step that has some beauty or
some charm in it, some graciousness of the ancient time,
or some poetry of the present hour.

The beauty of the past goes with you at every step in
Florence. Buy eggs in the market, and you buy them
where Donatello bought those which fell down in a broken
heap before the wonder of the crucifix. Pause in a narrow



bye-street in a crowd and it shall be that Borgo Allegri,
which the people so baptized for love of the old painter
and the new-born art. Stray into a great dark church nt
evening time, where peasants tell their beads in the vast
marble silence, and you are where the whole city flocked,
weeping, at midnight to look their last upon the face of
their Michael Angelo. Pace up the steps of the palace of
the Signoria and you tread the stone that felt the feet of
him to whom so bitterly was known " conf e duro calle,
lo scendere e'l salir per faltriii scale." Buy a knot of
March anemoni or April arum lilies, and you may benr
them with you through the same city ward in -which the
child Ghirlandajo once played amidst the gold and silver
garlands that his father fashioned for the young heads of
the Renaissance. Ask for a shoemaker and you shall
find the cobbler sitting with his board in the same old
twisting, shadowy street way, where the old man Toscan-
elli drew his charts that served a fair-haired sailor of
Genoa, called Columbus. Toil to fetch a tinker through
the squalor of San Niccolo, and there shall fall on you
the shadow of the bell-tower where the old sacristan
saved to the world the genius of the Night and Day.
Glance up to see the hour of the evening time, and there,
sombre and tragical, will loom above you the walls of the
communal palace on which the traitors were painted by
the brush of Sarto, and the tower of Giotto, fair and fresh
in its perfect grace ns though angels had builded it in the
night just past, " and 1 ella toglie ancora e terza e nona?
as in the noble and simple days before she brake the
" cerchia antlca."

Everywhere there are flo\vers, r and breaks of songs, and
rills of laughter, and wonderful eyes that look as if they
too, like their Poets, had gazed into the heights of heaven
and the depths of hell.

And then you will pass out at the gates beyond the
city walls, and all around you there will be a radiance


and serenity of light that seems to throb in its intensity
and yet is divinely restful, like the passion and the peace
of love when it has all to adore and nothing to desire.

The water will be broad and gold, and darkened here
and there into shadows of porphyrine amber. Amidst
the grey and green of the olive and acacia foliage there
will arise the low pale roofs and flat-topped towers of
innumerable villages.

Everywhere there will be a wonderful width of amethy-
stine hills and mystical depths of seven-chorded light.
Above, masses of rosy cloud will drift, like rose-leaves
leaning on a summer wind. And, like a magic girdle
which has shut her out from all the curse of age and
death and man's oblivion, and given her a youth and
loveliness which will endure so long as the earth itself
endures, there will be the circle of the mountains, purple
and white and golden, lying around Florence.

A MIDST all her commerce, her wars, her hard work,
** her money-making, Florence was always domin-
ated and spiritualised, at her noisiest and worst, by a
poetic and picturesque imagination.

Florentine life had always an ideal side to it ; and
an idealism, pure and lofty, runs through her darkest
histories and busiest times like a thread of gold through
a coat of armour and a vest of frieze.

The Florentine was a citizen, a banker, a workman,
a carder of wool, a weaver of silk, indeed ; but he was
also always a lover, and always a soldier ; that is, always
half a poet. He had his Carbccio and his Ginevra as
well as his tools and his sacks of florins. He had his
sword as well as his shuttle. His scarlet giglio was the
flower of love no less than the blazonry of battle on his
standard, and the mint stamp of the commonwealth on
his coinage.


Herein lay the secret of the influence of Florence :
the secret which rendered the little city, stretched by her
river's side, amongst her quiet meadows white with arums,
a sacred name to all generations of men for all she dared
and all she did.

" She amassed wealth," they say : no doubt she did
and why ?

To pour it with both hands to melt in the foundries
of Ghiberti to bring it in floods to cement the mortar
that joined the marbles of Brunelleschi ! She always
spent to great ends, and to mighty uses.

When she called a shepherd from his flocks in the
green valley to build for her a bell-tower so that she
might hear, night and morning, the call to the altar, the
shepherd built for her in such fashion that the belfry has
been the Pharos of Art for five centuries.

Here is the secret of Florence supreme aspiration.

The aspiration which gave her citizens force to live
in poverty, and clothe themselves in simplicity, so as to
be able to give up their millions of florins to bequeath
miracles in stone and metal and colour to the Future.
The aspiration which so purified her soil, red with carnage,
black with smoke of war, trodden continuously by hurry-
ing feet of labourers, rioters, mercenaries, and murderers,
that from that soil there could spring, in all its purity
and perfection, the paradise-blossom of the Vita Nuova.

Venice perished for her pride and carnal lust ; Rome
perished for her tyrannies and her blood-thirst ; but
Florence though many a time nearly strangled under
the heel of the Empire and the hand of the Church
Florence was never slain utterly either in body or soul ;
Florence still crowned herself with flowers even in her
throes of agony, because she kept always within her that
love impersonal, consecrate, void of greed which is
the purification of the individual life and the regenera-
tion of the body politic. "We labour for the ideal," said


the Florentines of old, lifting to heaven their red flower
de luce and to this day Europe bows before what they
did and cannot equal it.

" But she had so many great men, so many mighty
masters ! " I would urge, whereon Pascarel would glance
on me with his lightest and yet utmost scorn.

" O wise female thing, who always traces the root to
the branch and deduces the cause from the effect ! Did
her great men spring up full-armed like Athene, or was
it the pure, elastic atmosphere of her that made her
mere mortals strong as immortals ? The supreme
success of modern government is to flatten down all men
into one uniform likeness, so that it is only by most
frightful, and often destructive, effort that any originality
can contrive to get loose in its own shape for a moment's
breathing space ; but in the Commonwealth of Florence
a man, being born with any genius in him, drew in
strength to do and dare greatly with the very air he

Moreover, it was not only the great men that made
her what she was.

It was, above all, the men who knew they were not
great, but yet had the patience and unselfishness to do
their appointed work for her zealously, and with every
possible perfection in the doing of it.

It was not only Orcagna planning the Loggia, but
every workman who chiselled out a piece of its stone,
that put all his head and heart into the doing thereof.
It was not only Michaelangelo in his studio, but every
poor painter who taught the mere a, b, c, d of the craft

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 21 of 39)