Various.

Oxford Mountaineering Essays online

. (page 4 of 11)
Online LibraryVariousOxford Mountaineering Essays → online text (page 4 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


from Phœnician control, descend into the bourgeois rut of semi-divine
nonentity. He proceeded to marry a nymph, who bore him seven other
nymphs, of whom Maia, mother of Hermes, is alone conspicuous. These
nymphs lived together on Mount Cyllene until forced to fly from Orion,
whom they escaped by the conventional stage-device of metamorphosis,
becoming first doves (πελείαδες) and then the constellation of the
Pleiades.

Mr. Bury[33] traces a connection between the epithet ὀρειᾶν as applied
to the Pleiades and the name Ὠαρίων, translating

ἐστι δ’ ἐοικὸς
ὀρειᾶν γε Πελειάδων
μὴ τήλοθεν Ὠαρίων’ ἀνεῖσθαι.

by ‘It is meet that the rising of the Mountain Hunter should not be
far from the Mountain Pleiades.’ This would be unique among Greek
references to the mountains if the remotest etymological connection
could be traced between Ὠαρίων and ὄρος; but this is rather a B in
‘Both’ derivation, and it may be mentioned for what it is worth that
the name Orion is otherwise explained for us by Ovid.[34]

One alone of the Pleiad nymphs is justified, to a follower of Mr.
Bury, in her mountain abode. If we accept Ἀλκυόνη as a personification
of ἄλκη,[35] we must certainly allow her to enthrone herself on the
highest peaks of the ancient world, provided, of course, that she was
not so presumptuous as to sit on her father.

It is clear, therefore, that the Greeks owed the introduction of
the mountain into the Titan story to the Phœnicians’ description of
Teneriffe, and that they elaborated the myth with very little regard
for geography and none at all for consistency. In spite of Mr. Bury’s
gallant salvage work, we must confess that the mountain element is lost
from the story as soon as it is left in the hands of the Greeks, who
treat it as a hen treats the duckling she has hatched: an adaptable
duckling, for as a metamorphosis story it has made a very good chicken,
though in the process it shames its proper parents.

In Theocritus we find an exception to the absence of mountain
personification in Menalkas’ Αἴτνα, μᾶτερ ἔμα,[36] but it stands alone:
the Cyclops, who was quite as much the child of Ætna, seems to regard
the mountain merely as an ice-box providing him with cool water: -

ψυχρὸν ὕδωρ, τό μοι ἁ πολυδένδρεος Αἴτνα
λευκᾶς ἐκ χίονος πότον ἀμβρόσιον προίητι.[37]

It would be hard, in speaking of the snows of a mountain, to find a
less appropriate epithet than πολυδένδρεος.

There is little else in Theocritus about the mountains except that
Daphnis

χιὼν ὥς τις κατετάκετο μακρὸν ὑφ’ Αἷμον.
ἢ Ἄθω ἢ Ῥοδόπαν ἢ Καύκασον ἐσχατόωντα.[38]

If we compare Pindar’s descriptions of the mountains with those of any
other Greek poet, it is not hard to make ourselves believe that he
knew something of their secrets. But as soon as we set these passages
side by side with the rest of his own work, we see them sink back into
insignificance. He wrote four or five great mountain lines, but for
each of these he wrote ten for the valleys, fifty for the stars, a
hundred for the sea.

Still, we cannot often find a mountain honoured in Greek with such an
epithet as ὑψιμέδων,[39] usually applied to Zeus alone; and Pindar also
makes the first mention of the ‘age’ of the hills: -

Φλιοῦντος ὑπ’ ὠγυγίοις ὄρεσι.[40]

It is not clear why a hill should in general be considered older than
a plain: they are said to have emerged from the Deluge within quite a
short time of each other. But it would be pedantic to summon scientists
and insist on accuracy at the cost of such hoary phrases as ‘the
eternal hills,’ which are still the delight of those pessimists who
habitually allude to mankind as ἐφημέριδες.

Among Pindar’s descriptive phrases we may notice ἔμβολον Ἀσίας, of the
headland of Caria. The word, to a Greek, could not but suggest its
naval use, the ‘prow’ of Asia riding unmoved upon the waves.

Actual references to mountaineering are so rare that we are tempted to
find an exception in

καὶ πάγον
Κρόνου προσεφθέγξατο· πρόσθε γὰρ
νώνυμνος, ἇς Οἰνόμαος ἆρχε, βρέχετο πολλᾷ
νιφάδι[41]

by supposing it to be the only surviving record of a first ascent by
the Theban Heracles, who claimed in consequence the right to name
the summit ascended. Paley would add to the dangers and credit of
the expedition by finding in ‘βρέχετο πολλᾷ νιφάδι’ ‘a curious and
noteworthy tradition of a glacial or post-glacial period!’

But all other mountain scenes in Pindar, whether adorned with glaciers
or not, pale before the description of the eruption of Ætna: -

τᾶς ἐρεύγονται μὲν ἀπλάτου πυρὸς ἁγνόταται
ἐκ μυχῶν παγαί· ποταμοὶ δ’ ἁμέραισιν μὲν προχέοντι ῥόον καπνοῦ
αἴθων’, ἀλλ’ ἐν ὄρφναισιν πέτρας
φοίνισσα κυλινδομένα φλὸξ ἐς βαθεῖαν φέρει πόντου πλάκα σὺν πατάγῳ.
κεῖνο δ’ Ἁφαίστοιο κρουνοὺς ἑρπετὸν
δεινοτάτους ἀναπέμπει· τέρας μὲν θαυμάσιον προσιδέσθαι, θαῦμα δὲ καὶ
παρεόντων ἀκοῦσαι.[42]
Pind. _Pyth._ i. 15.

We need not enjoy this description any the less for feeling that Pindar
is not thinking of Ætna the mountain, nor even of Ætna the volcano,
but only of the eruption, which is not in his eyes an eruption of Ætna
but of the monstrous breath of Typhoeus. The mountain is dismissed
with little more than the usual trite epithets - κίων οὐρανία, νιφοέσσα,
πάνετες χιόνος ὀξείας τιθήνα,[43] of which the last phrase conveys an
even more false suggestion than the similar χιονοτρόφος κιθαίρων.[44]

Although references to the mountains are even more rare in drama, this
particular eruption is ‘foretold’ by Prometheus: -

ἐκραγήσονταί ποτε
ποταμοὶ πυρὸς δάπτοντες ἀγρίαις γνάθοις
τῆς καλλικάρπου Σικελίας λευροὺς γύας·
τοιόνδε Τυφὼς ἐξαναζέσει χόλον
θερμῆς ἀπλήστου βέλεσι πυρπνόου ζάλης
καίπερ κεραυνῷ Ζηνὸς ἠνθρακωμένος.[45]
Æsch. _P.V._ 367.

Here Ætna has neither part nor lot in the eruption: Typhoeus is made
responsible for the whole, in spite of the fact that he has already
been reduced to ashes.

The mountains which form the setting of the Prometheus Vinctus are
regarded solely as a bleak, inhospitable, and, above all, inhuman,
background for the sufferings of the Titan. It is amazing to us that
when he is left alone and calls upon the forms of nature around, only
the mountains have no place in the circle of silent witnesses to whom
he cries: -

ὦ δῖος αἰθὴρ καὶ ταχύπτεροι πνοαί,
ποταμῶν τε πηγαί, ποντίων τε κυμάτων
ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα, παμμῆτόρ τε Γῆ
καὶ τὸν πανόπτην κύκλον Ἡλίου καλῶ.

The rushing of winged winds, the sources of the rivers, the
multitudinous laughter of the distant sea, Earth, the Mother of All,
and the all-seeing orb of the Sun - all these are to look upon his
torments; but the mountains are degraded by their omission below the
very springs which rise upon them.

It may be suggested, as an explanation, that motion formed an essential
part of the Greek idea of beauty; for motion is the outward and visible
sign of life. We may observe that the words δῖος αἴθηρ make the air
for a moment the medium of thought, expressed in which ‘wind’ is the
pure and abstract idea of motion.

Prometheus, then, calls for sympathy there alone where motion (or, in
the case of Earth, motherhood) gives promise of life and sympathy.

It is interesting, in view of the fact that brightness was also an
element in the Greek conception of beauty, to notice that no phase of
the sea so combines these two qualities of brightness and motion as its
‘multitudinous laughter.’ The path of gold of the rising sun may be
brighter, a storm more swift in motion, but the perfect combination of
the two ideals is here described.

It is natural that brightness or light should be held in such honour,
but it is more surprising that beauty should be associated with motion
in many cases in which the connection seems to us extremely remote.

The winds are the most conspicuous case of this: the Greeks personified
more winds than they could name points of the compass, and Greek
poetry is almost as full of the winds as of the sea.

This is especially marked in the Iliad, where anything which shows the
movement of the wind, whether snow, the sea, a cornfield, mist, or
clouds, is described again and again, while still air is only mentioned
in a few scattered passages.

In one of these snow is described falling through a calm[46] to
represent the same showers of stones which had just been compared to
snow driven by a tempest; so it is evident that no importance attaches
to the calmness, but both passages convey the sense of motion, though
in a slightly different degree.

In another very remarkable passage Homer makes use of stationary clouds
round a mountain-top as a type of steadfastness: -

ἀλλ’ ἔμενον νεφέλῃσιν ἐοικότες, ἅς τε Κρονίων
νηνεμίης ἔστησεν ἐπ’ ἀκροπόλοισιν ὄρεσσιν
ἀτρέμας, ὄφρ’ εὕδῃσι μένος Βορέαο καὶ ἄλλων
ζαχρηῶν ἀνέμων, οἵ τε νέφεα σκιόεντα
πνοιῇσιν λιγυρῇσι διασκιδνᾶσιν ἀέντες·
ὣς Δαναοὶ Τρῶας μένον ἔμπεδον οὐδὲ φέβοντο.[47]
_Il._ v. 522.

But for the most part the mists and the clouds, and even the sea, must
be stirred to motion by the wind before they are considered worthy of a
Greek poet’s attention.

The allusions to the wind-stirred sea are innumerable; the eddies of
war are often compared to a whirlwind; the misty clouds are broken
apart by the wind to reveal, now the dark waves of the sea, now the
black peaks of a mountain: -

ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἀφ’ ὑψηλῆς κορυφῆς ὄρεος μεγάλοιο
κινήσῃ πυκινὴν νεφέλην στεροπηγερέτα Ζεύς,
ἔκ τ’ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι, οὐρανόθεν δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ.[48]
_Il._ xvi. 297.

But here the unmoved rock is merely a background of darkness, in
contrast to the light of the clouds, as in the Prometheus it is a
background of stillness to the motion of the drama.

We have also, in the theory that motion was essentially connected with
the ancient ideal of beauty, some explanation of the fact that rounded
heights, clothed with leafy woods where the wind could

‘fling
Their placid green to silver of delight.’

seemed more beautiful to the Greeks than scarps of naked rock; and it
is natural that the poets of such an ideal, superficial though it may
seem to us, should pass by the silent majesty of Ætna with careless
customary epithets until the fires within burst their bounds and poured
ostentatiously to the sea in ‘eddies of blood-red flame.’

It would seem that the Greeks felt fear and awe alone of the great
mountains, as was natural; for they had no intimate knowledge of them,
nor ever sought in the mountains the emotions reserved for those
who match their strength against the great forces of nature. These
sensations, in the Greek, were inspired by the sea. But for us the
spell of the mountains has grown stronger than that of the waves, for
the days are gone in which the sea alone was the home of peril and
mystery. We follow the spirit of the Greeks, not the letter of their
song; for though they sang of the sea, it was of her freedom and
strength, of her secrets and dangers, and of these much has passed from
her. Though we may still cross the seas on which the _Argo_ sailed, the
greater part of their romance is dead, and the Admiralty charts are its
epitaph. Scylla and Charybdis are mapped; there is, for the vandal to
read, a latitude and a longitude of Tyre.

We have still with us the seas of romance, of the Sagas, of the
Odyssey, of the Ancient Mariner; we may still look from

‘Magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faëry lands forlorn.’

But these are armchair adventures, fireside voyages: these we must
share with the cripple and the old. We who are young may find in the
mountains new worlds of adventure and romance of which the Greeks knew
nothing; but though the beauties, the perils, the rewards are changed,
the spirit is the same. No sea hero of the Greeks would be long a
stranger among mountaineers: where now but in the mountains should
Odysseus wander, πολύτλας, πολύμητις, first in every quest of perilous
glory, crowning the hopes of long years of wanderers?

Our mountain-worship is then no new creed, nor artificial dogma, but a
new epiphany of the spirit of Hellas; and the spirit will be the same,
even though the men of later ages find their romance beneath the seas
whereon the Greeks sought it, or above the mountains in which our quest
is set.




A JOURNEY

BY

HUGH KINGSMILL LUNN
(New College)




IV. A JOURNEY


Every right-minded reader loves a few books in defiance of his own
critical canons. One cannot be for ever brooding over the best that
is known and thought in the world. Such an uncanonical book to me is
Ouida’s _Moths_. It was in Dresden, towards the end of May 1908, that
I read it for the first time. Summer was in the air, a German summer
of blue skies and lazy white clouds drifting to the south. In April,
when I arrived, I liked Dresden well enough, was prepared to stop there
quietly till October, learning German. But as the cold weather passed,
each day left me more restless, cramped by the monotonous, speckless
streets, irked by a vision of the summer Alps, a shining mountain wall
beyond the southern horizon. The spirit of romance was upon me, that
heedless of realistic truth invests with ideal charm whatever is far
off. To such a mood Ouida appealed strongly. For she was perhaps the
last of those romantics who created out of the dust and dreariness
of eighteenth-century Europe a fairyland of beauty. Germany to her
was still the mystic land, dreaming of the Middle Ages; Italy still
Mignon’s Italy, a place of orange groves and pillared palaces. In the
ardour of her revolt against the naturalist school she often, no doubt,
became grotesque. Her landscapes are as gloriously unreal as the heroes
and heroines who move through them. But what of that? Unreality has its
own charm, and even its own truth.

Certainly that May in Dresden I read with uncavilling love all that she
had to tell of Ischl, in the Austrian Alps, on whose mountains you may
shoot, if you will, the golden eagle and the vulture. And with envy and
longing I read how Vere and Correze retreated from the world to an old
house, simple yet noble, with terraces facing the Alps of the Valais.
Here on the hills above Sion the air is pure and clear as crystal,
strong as wine, the cattle maiden sings on the high grass slopes, and
the fresh-water fisherman answers her from his boat on the lake below.
In vain I reminded myself that one does not shoot golden eagles, and
that the Valaisan peasants, bent by ceaseless labour almost out of
human semblance, have neither the leisure nor the wish to carol songs
to one another. The divine unreason of romance was too strong for me,
quickening and giving colour to a prosaic discontent with a studious
life in a too orderly German town.

And so it came about, exactly when and how I forget, that I decided to
go to Switzerland: a simple decision, yet thrilling enough to me just
free from ten years of school discipline. The German family with which
I was staying had fixed on a Bavarian village, Oberkreuzberg by name,
for their summer holidays. It seemed to me that this village would be a
convenient base from which to make a hurried dash of two or three days
to the Alps. Bavaria, however, was a bigger place than I had thought,
and Oberkreuzberg, when I arrived there one evening in the middle of
July, seemed desolatingly apart from the world. And though, as the
days passed, I grew to love the place, this sense of detachment did
not weaken. Oberkreuzberg was set on a spur of the highest mountain in
the Bavarian Forest. From the church that crowned the hill the houses
fell sharply away to the south on either side of the straggling main
street. In all directions, except the north, the outlook was bounded
only by the horizon. To the east were the low-lying Bohemian hills,
to the south the Danube, and the plain beyond, where Munich lies, and
farther still the mountains of Tyrol, visible to the naked eye, so the
villagers said, on a clear winter day. And to the south-west, visible
to me alone, hung the chain of the Swiss Alps. The wide prospect made
the village seem not less but more obscure. To those locked in a narrow
valley, however desolate, the world lies on the other side of the
hills. But between Oberkreuzberg and the world lay expanses stretching
away to dim horizons.

The villagers took a frank delight and interest in me that further
strengthened my feeling of distance from ordinary life. Stray Germans
from the north, burghers from Munich, came with each summer, but
hitherto no Englishman had visited the village. My arrival was an
event. Indeed, Herr Göckeritz, the genial old Saxon with whom I stayed
in Dresden, told me that it had been mentioned in a sermon as a token
of Oberkreuzberg’s spreading fame. I was a reversed Haroun-al-Raschid,
important because unknown. The village children followed me about
curiously, and when I shut myself in my room clamoured outside till
appeased with largesse of pfennig pieces. On the grass in front of my
window lay logs ready for building purposes, and the Annas, Marias,
and Babettes of the village, small bare-legged girls, used to disport
themselves there every afternoon, chasing each other from log to log
with reckless agility. In the fields near by I could see their elders
working, bent battered peasants.

Outside the village were scattered some large boulders, and on the
flat top of one of these I would spend an hour or two each afternoon,
reading and meditating. The blue distances troubled me with the vague
longings which had stirred to song many a little German poet in the
days before Bismarck. The melodies of their heart’s unrest are mere
sentimental vapourings to the modern critic. What does it all mean,
he asks, this talk of wandering, knapsack on back, into the wide
world to seek the blue flower of romance on the blue hills of the
horizon? In the same spirit Leslie Stephen, the high-priest of orthodox
mountain-worship, found Byron’s Swiss poetry cheap and insincere. As
a hard-headed agnostic, suspicious of emotion not founded on fact, he
resented no doubt such verse as: -

‘The fish swam by the castle wall,
And they seemed joyous each and all.
The eagle rode the rising blast,
Methought he never flew so fast.’

This eagle, flying past Chillon to the mountains of Ouida’s Ischl, rode
a purely romantic blast, and was visible only to romantic eyes. The
orthodox climber, however, does not care for romance. His love of the
mountains is based, like domestic love, on knowledge and understanding.
It is reasoned, almost respectable. But the visions of Byron and of the
German Romantics have the magic of first love, passionately adoring
what is unknown and out of reach. It is profitless to weigh romance
against reason. I can only say that I never loved the mountains better
than in those long afternoons when they shone before my spirit, hidden
from the eyes of my body.

Cynara, when she reads these pages, will dismiss all this talk of
yearnings, spiritual unrest, and what not as literary verbiage. And
indeed I might never have left Bavaria, had it not been for memories
of the previous summer at Champex, where I had rowed and climbed and
quarrelled with Cynara, and where Cynara’s sister, who cultivated a
conscientious contempt for men in general, and myself in particular,
had stung my young soul by insisting that there were in me the
makings of a blameless curate. This summer they had gone to Saas
Fee, and Cynara wrote to me from there, praising the place ardently,
and ending her letter with the careless-cruel hope that I would like
Bavaria. Like Bavaria! And the letter had reached me on the damp,
dark evening of my arrival at Oberkreuzberg. The need for a personal
protest reinforcing my desire towards the Alps settled any lingering
hesitation. I had four pounds with me. Before leaving Dresden I wrote,
in the hope of increasing this sum, an essay for a competition in
the _Saturday Westminster_. The subject was, ‘On making a Fool of
Oneself,’ and I treated the theme with a humour which at the time
seemed quite delicious. In retrospect I am astonished that they gave
me an honourable mention. Cruder methods of raising money proved more
successful, and a generous uncle solved all material difficulties.

Two evenings before I started I went with Herr Göckeritz after supper
to one of the village inns. The landlord played the zither, and Herr
Göckeritz, after telling a few anecdotes rather broad than long, sang a
little wistful ditty of a poor fiddler wandering through the world in
sunshine and rain, with no friend but his fiddle: -

‘Und wenn einst vor der letzten Tür
Mein letztes Lied verklang,
Und wenn an meiner Geige mir
Die letzte Saite sprang,
Ach, nur ein Plätzchen gönnt mir dann
An stiller Friedhofswand,
Wo von der Wandrung ruhen kann
Der arme Musikant.’

The whole essence of that lovable absurd German romanticism is in these
lines. They haunted me on my journey, and long after, and even now have
power to quicken the memory of those days. As we walked home beneath a
quiet starry sky I told Herr Göckeritz that I was going to Switzerland.
His only comment was an offer to lend me some money. Life is like that.

It was shortly before five o’clock in the morning that I set out on
my journey. For economy’s sake I had decided to walk to a station
fifteen miles away, thus saving, as I later realised, a little more
than sixpence. My clothes were in a Gladstone bag which I hung over
my shoulders, pulling the straps into position with a handkerchief
tied across my chest. And so, a curious figure, I swung down a path
that led to the main road through a little wood. Before entering the
wood I turned round for a last look at the village. It seemed in the
still dawn a living thing, sad, and lonely, and patient, like its
inhabitants. For the moment I felt sorry to go. It was unlikely that
Saas Fee would welcome me with wonder and delight. It was probable
that neither Cynara nor Cynara’s sister would regard me with the
affectionate awe of Maria, Anna, and Babette. However, I did not return.

The memory of that walk has become like the memory of a dream. When I
think of it I understand those words of Sir Thomas Browne: ‘My life has
been a miracle of thirty years; which to relate were not a history,
but a piece of poetry, and would sound like a fable.’ He was thinking,
I fancy, not of any events suitable as titles for the chapters in a
biography, but of stray incidents unrelated to the main course of his
life. Such stray incidents have a magical quality. They might have
happened, you feel, to a stranger in some forgotten age, so unattached


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryVariousOxford Mountaineering Essays → online text (page 4 of 11)