1839-1908 Ouida.

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

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to a crowd of pupils out of the streets, who did what-
soever came before them to do mightily and with rever-

In those days all the servants as well as the sove-
reigns of art were penetrated with the sense of her


It was the mass of patient, intelligent, poetic, and
sincere servitors of art, who, instead of wildly consuming
their souls in envy and desire, cultured their one talent
to the uttermost, so that the mediocrity of that age would
have been the excellence of any other.

Not alone from the great workshops of the great
masters did the light shine on the people. From every
scaffold where a palace ceiling was being decorated with
its fresco, from every bottega where the children of the
poor learned to grind and to mingle the colours, from
every cell where some solitary monk studied to produce
an offering to the glory of his God, from every nook and
corner where the youths gathered in the streets to see
some Nunziata or Ecce Homo lifted to its niche in the
city wall, from every smallest and most hidden home of
art from the nest under the eaves as well as from the
cloud-reaching temples, there went out amidst the
multitudes an ever-flowing, ever-pellucid stream of light,
from that Aspiration which is in itself Inspiration.

So that even to this day the people of Italy have not
forgotten the supreme excellence of all beauty, but are,
by the sheer instinct of inherited faith, incapable of in-
fidelity to those traditions ; so that the commonest crafts-
man of them all will sweep his curves and shade his hues
upon a plaster cornice with a perfection that is the de-
spair of the maestri of other nations.

'""THE broad plains that have been the battleground of so
* many races and so many ages were green and
peaceful under the primitive husbandry of the contadini.
Everywhere under the long lines of the yet uribudded
vines the seed was springing, and the trenches of the
earth were brimful with brown bubbling water left from
the floods of winter, when Reno and Adda had broken
loose from their beds.


Here and there was some old fortress grey amongst
the silver of the olive orchards ; some village with white
bleak house-walls and flat roofs pale and bare against
the level fields ; or some little long-forgotten city once
a stronghold of war and a palace for princes, now a
little hushed and lonely place, with weed-grown ram-
parts and gates rusted on their hinges, and tapestry
weavers throwing the shuttle in its deserted and dis-
mantled ways.

But chiefly it .was always the green, fruitful, weary,
endless plain trodden by the bullocks and the goats,
and silent, strangely silent, as though fearful still of its
tremendous past.

'"THE long bright day draws to a close. The west is
* in a blaze of gold, against which the ilex and the
acacia are black as funeral plumes. The innumerable
scents of fruits and flowers and spices, and tropical seeds,
and sweet essences, that fill the streets at every step
from shops and stalls, and monks' pharmacies, are fanned
out in a thousand delicious odours on the cooling air.
The wind has risen, blowing softly from mountain and
from sea across the plains through the pines of Pisa,
across to the oak-forests of green Casentino.

Whilst the sun still glows in the intense amber of his
own dying glory, away in the tender violet hues of the
east the young moon rises.

Rosy clouds drift against the azure of the zenith, and
are reflected as in a mirror in the shallow river waters.

A little white cloud of doves flies homeward against
the sky.

All the bells chime for the Ave Maria.

The evening falls. . .

Wonderful hues, creamy, and golden, and purple, and
soft as the colours of a dove's throat, spread themselves


slowly over the sky ; the bell tower rises like a shaft of
porcelain clear against the intense azure ; amongst the
tall canes by the river the fire-flies sparkle ; the shores
are mirrored in the stream with every line and curve,
and roof and cupola, drawn in sharp deep shadow ;
every lamp glows again thrice its size in the glass of the
current, and the arches of the bridges meet their own
image there ; the boats glide down the water that is now
white under the moon, now amber under the lights, now
black under the walls, for ever changing ; night draws on,
then closes quite.

But it is night as radiant as day, and ethereal as day
can never be ; on the hills the cypresses still stand out
against the faint gold that lingers in the west ; there is
the odour of carnations and of acacias everywhere.

Noiseless footsteps come and go.

People pass softly in shadow, like a dream.

Y^U know how St. Michael made the Italian? he
* is saying to them, and the clear crystal ring of the
sonorous Tuscan reaches to the farthest corner of the
square. Nay? oh, for shame! Well, then, it was in
this fashion ; long, long ago, when the world was but
just called from chaos, the Dominiddio was tired, as you
all know, and took his rest on the seventh day ; and four
of the saints, George and Denis and Jago and Michael,
stood round him with their wings folded and their swords

So to them the good Lord said : " Look at those odds
and ends, that are all lying about after the earth is set.
rolling. Gather them up, and make them into four living
nations to people the globe." The saints obeyed and set
to the work.

St. George got a piece of pure gold and a huge lump


of lead, and buried the gold in the lead, so that none
ever would guess it was there, and so sent it rolling
and bumping to earth, and called it the English people.

St. Jago got a bladder filled with wind, and put in it
the heart of a fox, and the fang of a wolf, and whilst it
puffed and swelled like the frog that called itself a bull,
it was despatched to the world as the Spaniard.

St. Denis did better than that ; he caught a sunbeam
flying, and he tied it with a bright knot of ribbons, and
he flashed it on earth as the people of France ; only,
alas ! he made two mistakes, he gave it no ballast, and
he dyed the ribbons bloodred.

Now St. Michael, marking their errors, caught a sun-
beam likewise, and many other things too ; a mask of
velvet, a poniard of steel, the chords of a lute, the heart
of a child, the sigh of a poet, the kiss of a lover, a
rose out of paradise, and a silver string from an angel's

Then with these in his hand he went and knelt
down at the throne of the Father. " Dear and great
Lord," he prayed, " to make my work perfect, give me
one thing ; give me a smile of God." And God smiled.

Then St. Michael sent his creation to earth, and called
it the Italian.

But most unhappily, as chance would have it
Satanas watching at the gates of hell, thought to himself,
" If I spoil not his work, earth will be Eden in Italy."
So he drew his bow in envy, and sped a poisoned arrow ;
and the arrow cleft the rose of paradise, and broke the
silver string of the angel.

And to this day the Italian keeps the smile that
God gave in his eyes ; but in his heart the devil's arrow
rankles still.

Some call this barbed shaft Cruelty ; some Super-
stition ; some Ignorance ; some Priestcraft ; maybe its
poison is drawn from all four ; be it how it may, it is


the duty of all Italians to pluck hard at the arrow of hell,
so that the smile of God alone shall remain with their
children's children.

Yonder in the plains we have done much ; the rest
will lie with you, the Freed Nation.

'"THERE is an old legend, he made answer to me,
an old monkish tale, which tells how, in the days
of King Clovis, a woman, old and miserable, forsaken of
all, and at the point of death, strayed into the Mero-
vingian woods, and lingering there, and hearkening to
the birds, and loving them, and so learning from them
of God, regained, by no effort of her own, her youth ;
and lived, always young and always beautiful, a hundred
years ; through all which time she never failed to seek
the forests when the sun rose, and hear the first song ot
the creatures to whom she owed her joy. Whoever
to the human soul can be, in ever so faint a sense, that
which the birds were to the woman in the Merovingian
woods, he, I think, has a true greatness. But I am but
an outcast, you know ; and my wisdom is not of the

Yet it seemed the true wisdom, there, at least, with
the rose light shining across half the heavens, and the
bells ringing far away in the plains below over the white
waves of the sea of olives.

for the people! Altro ! did not Sperone and
^ all the critics at his heels pronounce Ariosto only
fit for the vulgar multitude ? and was not Dante himself
called the laureate of the cobblers and the bakers ?

And does not Sacchetti record that the great man


took the trouble to quarrel with an ass-driver and a
blacksmith because they recited his verses badly ?

If he had not written " only for the people," we might
never have got beyond the purisms of Virgilio, and the
Ciceronian imitations of Bembo.

Dante now-a-days may have become the poet of the
scholars and the sages, but in his own times he seemed
to the sciolists a most terribly low fellow for using his
mother tongue ; and he was most essentially the poet of
the vulgar of the wtlgare eloquio, of the vulgare il-
lustre; and pray what does the " Commedia " mean if not
a canto villereccio, a song for the rustics ? Will you tell
me that ?

Only for the people! Ah, that is the error. Only!
how like a woman that is ! Any trash will do for the
people ; that is the modern notion ; vile roulades in
music, tawdry crudities in painting, cheap balderdash
in print all that will do for the people. So they say

Was the bell tower yonder set in a ducal garden or
in a public place ? Was Cimabue's masterpiece veiled
in a palace or borne aloft through the throngs of the
streets ?

A MAN, be he bramble or vine, likes to grow in the
** open air in his own fashion ; but a woman, be she
flower or weed, always thinks she would be better under
glass. When she gets the glass she breaks it generally ;
but till she gets it she pines.

YV7HEN they grew up in Italy, all that joyous band,

" Arlecchino in Bergamo, Stenterello in Florence,

Pulcinello in Naples, Pantaleone in Venice, Dulcamara


in Bologna, Beltramo in Milan, Brighella in Brescia
masked their mirthful visages and ran together and
jumped on that travelling stage before the world, what
a force they were for the world, those impudent mimes !

"Only Pantomimi?" When they joined hands with
one another and rolled their wandering house before
St. Mark's they were only players indeed ; but their
laughter blew out the fires of the Inquisition, their fools'
caps made the papal tiara look but paper toy, their
wooden swords struck to earth the steel of the nobles,
their arrows of epigram, feathered from goose and
from falcon, slew, flying, the many-winged dragon of

They were old as the old Latin land, indeed.

They had mouldered for ages in Etruscan cities, with
the dust of uncounted centuries upon them, and been
only led out in Carnival times, pale, voiceless, frail ghosts
of dead powers, whose very meaning the people had long
forgotten. But the trumpet-call of the Renaissance
woke them from their Rip Van Winkle sleep.

They got up, young again, and keen for every frolic
Barbarossas of sock and buskin, whose helmets were
caps and bells, breaking the magic spell of their slumber
to burst upon men afresh ; buoyant incarnations of the
new-born scorn for tradition, of the nascent revolts of
democracy, with which the air was rife.

" Only Pantomimi ? " Oh, altro !

The world when it reckons its saviours should rate
high all it owed to the Pantomimi, the privileged Panto-
mimi who first dared take license to say in their quips
and cranks, in their capers and jests, what had sent all
speakers before them to the rack and the faggots.

Who think of that when they hear the shrill squeak
of Pulcinello in the dark bye-streets of northern towns,
or see lean Pantaleone slip and tumble through the
transformation-scene of some gorgeous theatre?


Not one in a million.

Yet it is true for all that. Free speech was first due to
the Pantomimi. A proud boast that. They hymn Tell
and chant Savonarola and glorify the Gracchi, but I
doubt if any of the gods in the world's Pantheon or the
other world's Valhalla did so much for freedom as those
merry mimes that the children scamper after upon every

VW'E nre straws on the wind of the hour, too frail
and too brittle to float into the future. Our
little day of greatness is a mere child's puff-ball, inflated
by men's laughter, floated by women's tears ; what breeze
so changeful as the one, what waters so shallow as the
other? the bladder dances a little while; then sinks,
and who remembers?

"P\O you know the delicate delights of a summer morn-
*^ ing in Italy ? morning I mean between four and
five of the clock, and not the full hot mid-day that means
morning to the languid associations of this weary century.

The nights, perfect as they are, have scarcely more
loveliness than the birth of light, the first rippling
laughter of the early day.

The air is cool, almost cold, and clear as glass. There
is an endless murmur from birds' throats and wings, and
from far away there will ring from village or city the
chimes of the first mass. The deep broad shadows lie
so fresh, so grave, so calm, that by them the very dust
is stilled and spiritualised.

Softly the sun comes, striking first the loftier trees and
then the blossoming magnolias, and lastly the green low-
liness of the gentle vines ; until all above is in a glow of


new-born radiance, whilst all beneath the leaves still is
dreamily dusk and cool.

The sky is of a soft sea-blue ; great vapours will float
here and there, iris-coloured and snow-white. The stone
parapets of bridge and tower shine against the purple of
the mountains, which are low in tone, and look like
hovering storm-clouds. Across the fields dun oxen pass
to their labour ; through the shadows peasants go their
way to mass ; down the river a raft drifts slowly, with the
pearly water swaying against the canes ; all is clear,
tranquil, fresh as roses -washed with rain.

TTO the art of the stage, as to every other art, there
are two sides : the truth of it, which conies by
inspiration that is, by instincts subtler, deeper, and
stronger than those of most minds ; and the artifice of
it, in which it must clothe itself to get understood by the

It is this latter which must be learnt ; it is the
leathern harness in which the horses of the sun must run
when they come down to race upon earth.

"COR in Italy life is all contrast, and there is no laugh
and love-song without a sigh beside them ; there is
no velvet mask of mirth and passion without the marble
mask of art and death near to it. For everywhere the
wild tulip burns red upon a ruined altar, and everywhere
the blue borage rolls its azure waves through the silent
temples of forgotten gods.

r T l O enter Bologna at midnight is to plunge into the
depths of the middle ages.


Those desolate sombre streets, those immense dark
arches, dark as Tartarus, those endless arcades \vhere
scarce a footfall breaks the stillness, that labyrinth of
marble, of stone, of antiquity ; the past alone broods over
them all.

As you go it seems to you that you see the gleam of a
snowy plume and the shine of a straight rapier striking
home through cuirass and doublet, whilst on the stones
the dead body falls, and high above over the lamp-iron,
where the. torch is flaring, a casement uncloses, and a
woman's voice murmurs, with a cruel little laugh, " Cosa
fatta capo ha ! "

There is nothing to break the spell of that old-world

Nothing to recall to you that the ages of Bentivoglio
and of Visconti have fled for ever.

The mighty Academy of Luvena Juris is so old, so old,
so old ! the folly and frippery of modern life cannot
dwell in it a moment ; it is as that enchanted throne
which turned into stone like itself whosoever dared to
seat himself upon its majestic heights.

For fifteen centuries Bologna has grimly watched and
seen the mad life of the world go by ; it sits amidst the
plains as the Sphynx amidst her deserts.

IT is women's way. They always love colour better
than form, rhetoric better than logic, priestcraft
better than philosophy, and flourishes better than fugues.
It has been said scores of times before I said it.

Nay, he pursued, thinking he had pained me, you
have a bright wit enough, and a beautiful voice, though
you sing without knowing very well what you do sing.
But genius you have not, look you ; say your thanksgiving
to the Madonna at the next shrine we come to ; genius
YOU have not.


What is it ?

Well, it is hard to tell ; but this is certain, that it puts
peas unboiled into the shoes of every pilgrim who really
gets up to its Olivet.

Genius has all manner of dead dreams and sorrowful
lost loves for its scallop-shells ; and the palm that it
carries is the bundle of rods wherewith fools have beaten
it for calling them blind.

Genius has eyes so clear that it sees straight down
into the hearts of others through all their veils of sophis-
try and simulation ; but its own heart is pierced often
to the quick for shame of what it reads there.

It has such long and faithful remembrance of other
worlds and other lives which most minds have forgotten,
that beside the beauty of those memories all things of
earth seem poor and valueless.

Men call this imagination or idealism ; the name
does not matter much ; whether it be desire or remem-
brance, it comes to the same issue ; so that genius, going
ever beyond the thing it sees in infinite longing for some
higher greatness which it has either lost or otherwise
cannot reach, finds the art, and the humanity, and the
creations, and the affections which seem to others so ex-
quisite most imperfect and scarcely to be endured.

The heaven of Phaedrus is the world which haunts
Genius where there shall not be women but Woman, not
friends but Friendship, not poems but Poetry ; everything
in its uttermost wholeness and perfection ; so that there
shall be no possibility of regret nor any place for desire.

For in this present world there is only one thing
which can content it, and that thing is music ; because
music has nothing to do with earth, but sighs always
for the lands beyond the sun.

And yet all this while genius, though sick at heart;
and alone, and finding little in man or in woman, in human
art or in human nature, that can equal what it remembers
or, as men choose to say, it imagines is half a child


too, always : for something of the eternal light which
streams from the throne of God is always shed about it,
though sadly dimmed and broken by the clouds and
vapours that men call their atmosphere.

Half a child always, taking a delight in the frolic of
the kids, the dancing of the daffodils, the playtime of the
children, the romp of the winds with the waters, the loves
of the birds in the blossoms. Half a child always, but
always with tears lying close to its laughter, and always
with desires that are death in its dreams.

No ; you have not genius, cara mia. Say your grazie
at the next shrine we pass.

""THEREFORE, in those days men, giving themselves
* leave to be glad for a little space, were glad with
the same sinewy force and manful singleness of purpose
as made them in other times laborious, self-denying,
patient, and fruitful of high thoughts and deeds.

Because they laboured for their fellows, therefore they
could laugh with them ; and because they served God,
therefore they dared be glad.

In those grave, dauntless, austere lives the Carnival's
jocund revelry was as one golden bead in a pilgrim's
rosary of thorn-berries.

They had aimed highly and highly achieved ; therefore
they could go forth amidst their children and rejoice.

But we in whom all art is the mere empty Shibboleth
of a ruined religion whose priests are all dead ; we
whose whole year-long course is one Dance of Death
over the putridity of our pleasures ; we whose solitary
purpose it is to fly faster and faster from desire to satiety,
from satiety to desire, in an endless eddy of fruitless effort;
we whose greatest genius can only raise for us some
inarticulate protest of despair against some unknown
God ; we have strangled King Carnival and killed him,



and buried him in the ashes of our own unutterable
weariness and woe.

, I believe it was all true enough.
There were mighty Pascarelii in the olden days.
But I am very glad that I was not of them ; except,
indeed, that I should have liked to strike a blow or two
for Guido Calvacanti and have hindered the merry-
making of those precious rascals who sent him out to
die of the marsh fever.

Great ?

No ; certainly I would not be great. To be a
great man is endlessly to crave something that you
have not ; to kiss the hands of monarchs and lick the
feet of peoples. To be great ? Who was ever more
great than Dante, and what was his experience ? the
bitterness of begged bread, and the steepness of palace

Besides, given the genius to deserve it, the up-shot
of a life spent for greatness is absolutely uncertain.
Look at Machiavelli.

After having laid down infallible rules for social and
public success with such unapproachable astuteness
that his name has become a synonym for unerring
policy, Machiavelli passed his existence in obedience
and submission to Rome, to Florence, to Charles, to
Cosmo, to Leo, to Clement.

He was born into a time favourable beyond every
other to sudden changes of fortune ; a time in which
any fearless audacity might easily become the stepping-
stone to a supreme authority and yet Machiavelli,
whom the world still holds as its ablest statesman in
principle never in practice rose above the level of
a servant of civil and papal tyrannies, and, when his
end came, died in obscurity and almost in penury.


Theoretically, Machiavelli could rule the universe ;
but practically he. never attained to anything finer than
a more or less advantageous change of masters. To
reign doctrinally may be all very well, but when it only
results in serving actually, it seems very much better to
be obscure and content without any trouble.

" Fumo di gloria non vale fumo di pipa."

I, for one, at any rate, am thoroughly convinced
of that truth of truths.

I hearkened to him sorrowful ; for to my ignorant
eyes the witch candle of fame seemed a pure and per-
fect planet ; and I felt that the planet might have ruled
his horoscope had he chosen.

Is there no glory at all worth having, then? I mur-

He stretched himself where he rested amongst the
arum-whitened grass, and took his cigaretto from his
mouth :

Well, there is one, perhaps. But it is to be had
about once in five centuries.

You know Or San Michele? It would have been
a world's wonder had it stood alone, and not been
companioned with such wondrous rivals that its own
exceeding beauty scarce ever receives full justice.

Where the jasper of Giotto and the marble of
Brunelleschi, where the bronze of Ghiberti and the
granite of Arnolfo rise everywhere in the sunlit air to
challenge vision and adoration, or San Michele fails
of its full meed from men. Yet, perchance, in all the
width of Florence there is not a nobler thing.

It is like some massive casket of silver oxydised
by time ; such a casket as might have been made to
hold the Tables of the Law by men to whose faith
Sinai was the holy and imperishable truth.

I know nothing of the rule or phrase of Architec-


ture, but it seems to" me surely that that square-set
strength, as of a fortress, towering against the clouds,
and catching the last light always on its fretted parapet,
and everywhere embossed and enriched with foliage,
and tracery, and the figures of saints, and the shadows
of vast arches, and the light of niches gold-starred and
filled with divine forms, is a gift so perfect to the whole
world, that, passing it, one should need say a prayer
for great Taddeo's soul.

Surely, nowhere is the rugged, changeless, moun-

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 22 of 39)