Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 19 of 23)
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honest faith, believe me, than in half the" systems of philosophy, or
words to that effect. The victor had a slave at his ear during his
triumph; the slaves during the Roman Saturnalia, dressed in their
masters' clothes, sat at meat with them, told them of their faults, and
blacked their faces for them. They made their masters wait upon them. In
the ages of faith, an ass dressed in sacerdotal robes was gravely
conducted to the cathedral choir at a certain season, and mass was said
before him, and hymns chanted discordantly. The elder D'Israeli, from
whom I am quoting, writes: "On other occasions, they put burnt old shoes
to fume in the censors: ran about the church leaping, singing, dancing,
and playing at dice upon the altar, while a _boy bishop_ or _pope of
fools_ burlesqued the divine service;" and later on he says: "So late as
1645, a pupil of Gassendi, writing to his master what he himself
witnessed at Aix on the Feast of Innocents, says - 'I have seen in some
monasteries in this province extravagances solemnised which pagans would
not have practised. Neither the clergy nor the guardians indeed go to
the choir on this day, but all is given up to the lay brethren, the
cabbage-cutters, errand boys, cooks, scullions, and gardeners; in a word,
all the menials fill their places in the church, and insist that they
perform the offices proper for the day. They dress themselves with all
the sacerdotal ornaments, but torn to rags, or wear them inside out: they
hold in their hands the books reversed or sideways, which they pretend to
read with large spectacles without glasses, and to which they fix the
rinds of scooped oranges . . . ! particularly while dangling the censers
they keep shaking them in derision, and letting the ashes fly about their
heads and faces, one against the other. In this equipage they neither
sing hymns nor psalms nor masses, but mumble a certain gibberish as
shrill and squeaking as a herd of pigs whipped on to market. The
nonsense verses they chant are singularly barbarous: -

"'Haec est clara dies, clararum clara dierum,
Haec est festa dies festarum festa dierum.'" {269}

Faith was far more assured in the times when the spiritual saturnalia
were allowed than now. The irreverence which was not dangerous then, is
now intolerable. It is a bad sign for a man's peace in his own
convictions when he cannot stand turning the canvas of his life
occasionally upside down, or reversing it in a mirror, as painters do
with their pictures that they may judge the better concerning them. I
would persuade all Jews, Mohammedans, Comtists, and freethinkers to turn
high Anglicans, or better still, downright Catholics for a week in every
year, and I would send people like Mr. Gladstone to attend Mr.
Bradlaugh's lectures in the forenoon, and the Grecian pantomime in the
evening, two or three times every winter. I should perhaps tell them
that the Grecian pantomime has nothing to do with Greek plays. They
little know how much more keenly they would relish their normal opinions
during the rest of the year for the little spiritual outing which I would
prescribe for them, which, after all, is but another phase of the wise
saying - "_Surtout point de zele_." St. Paul attempted an obviously
hopeless task (as the Church of Rome very well understands) when he tried
to put down seasonarianism. People must and will go to church to be a
little better, to the theatre to be a little naughtier, to the Royal
Institution to be a little more scientific, than they are in actual life.
It is only by pulsations of goodness, naughtiness, and whatever else we
affect that we can get on at all. I grant that when in his office, a man
should be exact and precise, but our holidays are our garden, and too
much precision here is a mistake.

Surely truces, without even an _arriere pensee_ of difference of opinion,
between those who are compelled to take widely different sides during the
greater part of their lives, must be of infinite service to those who can
enter on them. There are few merely spiritual pleasures comparable to
that derived from the temporary laying down of a quarrel, even though we
may know that it must be renewed shortly. It is a great grief to me that
there is no place where I can go among Mr. Darwin, Professors Huxley,
Tyndal, and Ray Lankester, Miss Buckley, Mr. Romanes, Mr. Grant Allen and
others whom I cannot call to mind at this moment, as I can go among the
Italian priests. I remember in one monastery (but this was not in the
Canton Ticino) the novice taught me how to make sacramental wafers, and I
played him Handel on the organ as well as I could. I told him that
Handel was a Catholic; he said he could tell that by his music at once.
There is no chance of getting among our scientists in this way.

Some friends say I was telling a lie when I told the novice Handel was a
Catholic, and ought not to have done so. I make it a rule to swallow a
few gnats a day, lest I should come to strain at them, and so bolt
camels; but the whole question of lying is difficult. What _is_ "lying"?
Turning for moral guidance to my cousins the lower animals, whose
unsophisticated nature proclaims what God has taught them with a
directness we may sometimes study, I find the plover lying when she lures
us from her young ones under the fiction of a broken wing. Is God angry,
think you, with this pretty deviation from the letter of strict accuracy?
or was it not He who whispered to her to tell the falsehood - to tell it
with a circumstance, without conscientious scruple, not once only, but to
make a practice of it so as to be a plausible, habitual, and professional
liar for some six weeks or so in the year? I imagine so. When I was
young I used to read in good books that it was God who taught the bird to
make her nest, and if so He probably taught each species the other
domestic arrangements best suited to it. Or did the nest-building
information come from God, and was there an evil one among the birds also
who taught them at any rate to steer clear of priggishness?

Think of the spider again - an ugly creature, but I suppose God likes it.
What a mean and odious lie is that web which naturalists extol as such a
marvel of ingenuity!

Once on a summer afternoon in a far country I met one of those orchids
who make it their business to imitate a fly with their petals. This lie
they dispose so cunningly that real flies, thinking the honey is being
already plundered, pass them without molesting them. Watching intently
and keeping very still, methought I heard this orchid speaking to the
offspring which she felt within her, though I saw them not. "My
children," she exclaimed, "I must soon leave you; think upon the fly, my
loved ones, for this is truth; cling to this great thought in your
passage through life, for it is the one thing needful; once lose sight of
it and you are lost!" Over and over again she sang this burden in a
small still voice, and so I left her. Then straightway I came upon some
butterflies whose profession it was to pretend to believe in all manner
of vital truths which in their inner practice they rejected; thus,
asserting themselves to be certain other and hateful butterflies which no
bird will eat by reason of their abominable smell, these cunning ones
conceal their own sweetness, and live long in the land and see good days.
No: lying is so deeply rooted in nature that we may expel it with a fork,
and yet it will always come back again: it is like the poor, we must have
it always with us. We must all eat a peck of moral dirt before we die.

All depends upon who it is that is lying. One man may steal a horse when
another may not look over a hedge. The good man who tells no lies
wittingly to himself and is never unkindly, may lie and lie and lie
whenever he chooses to other people, and he will not be false to any man:
his lies become truths as they pass into the hearers' ear. If a man
deceives himself and is unkind, the truth is not in him; it turns to
falsehood while yet in his mouth, like the quails in the Wilderness of
Sinai. How this is so or why, I know not, but that the Lord hath mercy
on whom He will have mercy and whom He willeth He hardeneth. My Italian
friends are doubtless in the main right about the priests, but there are
many exceptions, as they themselves gladly admit. For my own part I have
found the _curato_ in the small subalpine villages of North Italy to be
more often than not a kindly excellent man to whom I am attracted by
sympathies deeper than any mere superficial differences of opinion can
counteract. With monks, however, as a general rule, I am less able to
get on: nevertheless I have received much courtesy at the hands of some.

My young friend the novice was delightful - only it was so sad to think of
the future that is before him. He wanted to know all about England, and
when I told him it was an island, clasped his hands and said, "Oh che
Providenza!" He told me how the other young men of his own age plagued
him as he trudged his rounds high up among the most distant hamlets
begging alms for the poor. "Be a good fellow," they would say to him,
"drop all this nonsense and come back to us, and we will never plague you
again." Then he would turn upon them and put their words from him. Of
course my sympathies were with the other young men rather than with him,
but it was impossible not to be sorry for the manner in which he had been
humbugged from the day of his birth, till he was now incapable of seeing
things from any other standpoint than that of authority.

What he said to me about knowing that Handel was a Catholic by his music,
put me in mind of what another good Catholic once said to me about a
picture. He was a Frenchman and very nice, but a _devot_, and anxious to
convert me. He paid a few days' visit to London, so I showed him the
National Gallery. While there I pointed out to him Sebastian del
Piombo's picture of the raising of Lazarus as one of the supposed
masterpieces of our collection. He had the proper orthodox fit of
admiration over it, and then we went through the other rooms. After a
while we found ourselves before West's picture of "Christ healing the
Sick." My French friend did not, I suppose, examine it very carefully,
at any rate he believed he was again before the raising of Lazarus by
Sebastian del Piombo; he paused before it, and had his fit of admiration
over again: then turning to me he said, "Ah! you would understand this
picture better if you were a Catholic." I did not tell him of his


An excursion which may be very well made from Faido is to the Val Piora,
which I have already more than once mentioned. There is a large hotel
here which has been opened some years, but has not hitherto proved the
success which it was hoped it would be. I have stayed there two or three
times and found it very comfortable; doubtless, now that Signer Lombardi
of the Hotel Prosa has taken it, it will become a more popular place of

I took a trap from Faido to Ambri, and thence walked over to Quinto; here
the path begins to ascend, and after an hour Ronco is reached. There is
a house at Ronco where refreshments and excellent Faido beer can be had.
The old lady who keeps the house would make a perfect Fate; I saw her
sitting at her window spinning, and looking down over the Ticino valley
as though it were the world and she were spinning its destiny. She had a
somewhat stern expression, thin lips, iron-grey eyes, and an aquiline
nose; her scanty locks straggled from under the handkerchief which she
wore round her head. Her employment and the wistful far-away look she
cast upon the expanse below made a very fine _ensemble_. "She would have
afforded," as Sir Walter Scott says, "a study for a Rembrandt, had that
celebrated painter existed at the period," {276} but she must have been a
smart-looking, handsome girl once.

She brightened up in conversation. I talked about Piora, which I already
knew, and the _Lago Tom_, the highest of the three lakes. She said she
knew the _Lago Tom_. I said laughingly, "Oh, I have no doubt you do.
We've had many a good day at the _Lago Tom_, I know." She looked down at

In spite of her nearly eighty years she was active as a woman of forty,
and altogether she was a very grand old lady. Her house is scrupulously
clean. While I watched her spinning, I thought of what must so often
occur to summer visitors. I mean what sort of a look-out the old woman
must have in winter, when the wind roars and whistles, and the snow
drives down the valley with a fury of which we in England can have little
conception. What a place to see a snowstorm from! and what a place from
which to survey the landscape next morning after the storm is over and
the air is calm and brilliant. There are such mornings: I saw one once,
but I was at the bottom of the valley and not high up, as at Ronco. Ronco
would take a little sun even in midwinter, but at the bottom of the
valley there is no sun for weeks and weeks together; all is in deep
shadow below, though the upper hill-sides may be seen to have the sun
upon them. I walked once on a frosty winter's morning from Airolo to
Giornico, and can call to mind nothing in its way more beautiful:
everything was locked in frost - there was not a watershed but was sheeted
and coated with ice: the road was hard as granite - all was quiet, and
seen as through a dark but incredibly transparent medium. Near Piotta I
met the whole village dragging a large tree; there were many men and
women dragging at it, but they had to pull hard, and they were silent; as
I passed them I thought what comely, well-begotten people they were.
Then, looking up, there was a sky, cloudless and of the deepest blue,
against which the snow-clad mountains stood out splendidly. No one will
regret a walk in these valleys during the depth of winter. But I should
have liked to have looked down from the sun into the sunlessness, as the
old Fate woman at Ronco can do when she sits in winter at her window; or
again, I should like to see how things would look from this same window
on a leaden morning in midwinter after snow has fallen heavily and the
sky is murky and much darker than the earth. When the storm is at its
height, the snow must search and search and search even through the
double windows with which the houses are protected. It must rest upon
the frames of the pictures of saints, and of the sisters "grab," and of
the last hours of Count Ugolino, which adorn the walls of the parlour. No
wonder there is a _S. Maria della Neve_, - a "St. Mary of the Snow;" but I
do wonder that she has not been painted.

I said this to an Italian once, and he said the reason was probably
this - that St. Mary of the Snow was not developed till long after Italian
art had begun to decline. I suppose in another hundred years or so we
shall have a _St. Maria delle Ferrovie_ - a St. Mary of the Railways.

From Ronco the path keeps level and then descends a little so as to cross
the stream that comes down from Piora. This is near the village of
Altanca, the church of which looks remarkably well from here. Then there
is an hour and a half's rapid ascent, and at last all on a sudden one
finds oneself on the _Lago Ritom_, close to the hotel.

The lake is about a mile, or a mile and a half, long, and half a mile
broad. It is 6000 feet above the sea, very deep at the lower end, and
does not freeze where the stream issues from it, so that the magnificent
trout with which it abounds can get air and live through the winter. In
many other lakes, as, for example, the _Lago di Tremorgio_, they cannot
do this, and hence perish, though the lakes have been repeatedly stocked.
The trout in the _Lago Ritom_ are said to be the finest in the world, and
certainly I know none so fine myself. They grow to be as large as
moderate-sized salmon, and have a deep-red flesh, very firm and full of
flavour. I had two cutlets off one for breakfast, and should have said
they were salmon unless I had known otherwise. In winter, when the lake
is frozen over, the people bring their hay from the farther Lake of
Cadagna in sledges across the Lake Ritom. Here, again, winter must be
worth seeing, but on a rough snowy day Piora must be an awful place.
There are a few stunted pines near the hotel, but the hillsides are for
the most part bare and green. Piora in fact is a fine breezy open upland
valley of singular beauty, and with a sweet atmosphere of cow about it;
it is rich in rhododendrons and all manner of Alpine flowers, just a
trifle bleak, but as bracing as the Engadine itself.

The first night I was ever in Piora there was a brilliant moon, and the
unruffled surface of the lake took the reflection of the mountains. I
could see the cattle a mile off, and hear the tinkling of their bells
which danced multitudinously before the ear as fire-flies come and go
before the eyes; for all through a fine summer's night the cattle will
feed as though it were day. A little above the lake I came upon a man in
a cave before a furnace, burning lime, and he sat looking into the fire
with his back to the moonlight. He was a quiet moody man, and I am
afraid I bored him, for I could get hardly anything out of him but "Oh
altro" - polite but not communicative. So after a while I left him with
his face burnished as with gold from the fire, and his back silver with
the moonbeams; behind him were the pastures and the reflections in the
lake and the mountains and the distant ringing of the cowbells.

Then I wandered on till I came to the chapel of S. Carlo; and in a few
minutes found myself on the _Lugo di Cadagna_. Here I heard that there
were people, and the people were not so much asleep as the simple
peasantry of these upland valleys are expected to be by nine o'clock in
the evening. For now was the time when they had moved up from Ronco,
Altanca, and other villages in some numbers to cut the hay, and were
living for a fortnight or three weeks in the chalets upon the _Lago di
Cadagna_. As I have said, there is a chapel, but I doubt whether it is
attended during this season with the regularity with which the parish
churches of Ronco, Altanca, &c., are attended during the rest of the
year. The young people, I am sure, like these annual visits to the high
places, and will be hardly weaned from them. Happily the hay will be
always there, and will have to be cut by some one, and the old people
will send the young ones.

As I was thinking of these things, I found myself going off into a doze,
and thought the burnished man from the furnace came up and sat beside me,
and laid his hand upon my shoulder. Then I saw the green slopes that
rise all round the lake were much higher than I had thought; they went up
thousands of feet, and there were pine forests upon them, while two large
glaciers came down in streams that ended in a precipice of ice, falling
sheer into the lake. The edges of the mountains against the sky were
rugged and full of clefts, through which I saw thick clouds of dust being
blown by the wind as though from the other side of the mountains.

And as I looked, I saw that this was not dust, but people coming in
crowds from the other side, but so small as to be visible at first only
as dust. And the people became musicians, and the mountainous
amphitheatre a huge orchestra, and the glaciers were two noble armies of
women-singers in white robes, ranged tier above tier behind each other,
and the pines became orchestral players, while the thick dust-like cloud
of chorus-singers kept pouring in through the clefts in the precipices in
inconceivable numbers. When I turned my telescope upon them I saw they
were crowded up to the extreme edge of the mountains, so that I could see
underneath the soles of their boots as their legs dangled in the air. In
the midst of all, a precipice that rose from out of the glaciers shaped
itself suddenly into an organ, and there was one whose face I well knew
sitting at the keyboard, smiling and pluming himself like a bird as he
thundered forth a giant fugue by way of overture. I heard the great
pedal notes in the bass stalk majestically up and down, as the rays of
the Aurora that go about upon the face of the heavens off the coast of
Labrador. Then presently the people rose and sang the chorus "Venus
Laughing from the Skies;" but ere the sound had well died away, I awoke,
and all was changed; a light fleecy cloud had filled the whole basin, but
I still thought I heard a sound of music, and a scampering-off of great
crowds from the part where the precipices should be. After that I heard
no more but a little singing from the chalets, and turned homewards. When
I got to the chapel of S. Carlo, I was in the moonlight again, and when
near the hotel, I passed the man at the mouth of the furnace with the
moon still gleaming upon his back, and the fire upon his face, and he was
very grave and quiet.


The history of the sanctuary of S. Michele is briefly as follows: -

At the close of the tenth century, when Otho III. was Emperor of Germany,
a certain Hugh de Montboissier, a noble of Auvergne, commonly called
"Hugh the Unsewn" (_lo sdruscito_), was commanded by the Pope to found a
monastery in expiation of some grave offence. He chose for his site the
summit of the Monte Pirchiriano in the valley of Susa, being attracted
partly by the fame of a church already built there by a recluse of
Ravenna, Giovanni Vincenzo by name, and partly by the striking nature of
the situation. Hugh de Montboissier, when returning from Rome to France
with Isengarde his wife, would, as a matter of course, pass through the
valley of Susa. The two - perhaps when stopping to dine at S.
Ambrogio - would look up and observe the church founded by Giovannia
Vincenzo: they had got to build a monastery somewhere; it would very
likely, therefore, occur to them that they could not perpetuate their
names better than by choosing this site, which was on a much-travelled
road, and on which a fine building would show to advantage. If my view
is correct, we have here an illustration of a fact which is continually
observable - namely, that all things which come to much, whether they be
books, buildings, pictures, music, or living beings, are begotten of
others of their own kind. It is always the most successful, like Handel
and Shakespeare, who owe most to their forerunners, in spite of the
modifications with which their works descend.

Giovanni Vincenzo had built his church about the year 987. It is
maintained by some that he had been bishop of Ravenna, but Clareta gives
sufficient reason for thinking otherwise. In the "Cronaca Clusina" it is
said that he had for some years previously lived as a recluse on the
Monte Caprasio, to the north of the present Monte Pirchiriano; but that
one night he had a vision, in which he saw the summit of Monte
Pirchiriano enveloped in heaven-descended flames, and on this founded a
church there, and dedicated it to S. Michael. This is the origin of the
name Pirchiriano, which means [Greek text], or the Lord's fire.

Avogadro is among those who make Giovanni Bishop, or rather Archbishop,
of Ravenna, and gives the following account of the circumstances which
led to his resigning his diocese and going to live at the top of the
inhospitable Monte Caprasio. It seems there had been a confirmation at
Ravenna, during which he had accidentally forgotten to confirm the child
of a certain widow. The child, being in weakly health, died before
Giovanni could repair his oversight, and this preyed upon his mind. In
answer, however, to his earnest prayers, it pleased the Almighty to give
him power to raise the dead child to life again; this he did, and having
immediately performed the rite of confirmation, restored the boy to his
overjoyed mother. He now became so much revered that he began to be
alarmed lest pride should obtain dominion over him; he felt, therefore,
that his only course was to resign his diocese, and go and live the life
of a recluse on the top of some high mountain. It is said that he
suffered agonies of doubt as to whether it was not selfish of him to take
such care of his own eternal welfare, at the expense of that of his
flock, whom no successor could so well guide and guard from evil; but in
the end he took a reasonable view of the matter, and concluded that his
first duty was to secure his own spiritual position. Nothing short of

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 19 of 23)