Selected Writings of William Sharp, Vol. IV, Travel Sketches

THE LAND OF THEOCRITUS

IF there is no island in the world so famous alike for historical and literary associations and for unequalled beauty as Sicily, there is no part of Sicily so fascinating as that vast region which lies under the dominion of "la Madre Bianca," the White Mother, as the peasants call Ătna, perhaps unconsciously reiterating Pindar's epithet for the greatest mountain of southern Europe, named also by him "The Pillar of Heaven" --Nourisher of the Snow.

It is a fascination that appeals to the poet and painter, to the student and archaeologist, to the lover of the beautiful, and to the ordinary visitor who wanders to the South chiefly for sunshine and the amusement of novel interest.

Even when one has lived many weeks under the shadow of this Queen of Mountains, as Verga, the Sicilian novelist, justly calls the vast upheaval whose base circumference is more than a hundred and fifty miles; which rises two miles skyward in direct uplift from the lava plain; whose head towers above the Ionian and Tyrrhene seas at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet; whose final precipitous cone is itself a thousand feet in height; whose extreme summit--terrible caldron of smoke and flame--has a circuit of three and a half miles; and on whose flanks a score perilous towns, a hundred perilous villages, grow like stemless lilies or multitudinous lichen--even in so brief a time the visitor gifted in any degree with imagination falls under a spell, the more irresistible as its magic is "in the air," is felt by all, is everywhere a potent force. But when one spends months in Sicily, when one comes one year and returns another and another--above all, for those who reside in southern Sicily for half the year--"Madre Mia" becomes an actual personality, terrible or beautiful, and silently worshipped. The Sicilian peasants are pagans at heart in their regard for Mount Ătna. All are sensible of its surpassing beauty, even those who could not put this sentiment into words, or would look upon such expression as idly superfluous, and whose morning and evening or hourly glance at the smoke-tufted summit is akin to that of the sailor at the uncertain way of the wind, or to that of the farmer at the shape and colour of the clouds beyond the top of his elms. But there are few Ătneans who have not a superstitious regard for the terrible and beautiful mountain--as well they may.

I do not know if the Polyphemus legend still survives, though I have heard that the peasants of Aci Reale, Mascali, Piedimonte, and other communes tell in story and chant in folk-song of the flaming one-eyed demon who guards the fires at the heart of the mountain, but whom weariness overcomes every ten years or so, and the result of whose sudden slumber is an outburst, at the vast cone, of furious flame and boiling floods of lava. Possibly one reason why the name is rarely if ever heard is because of superstition. A friend of the writer asked one of the peasants in his employ if he had ever heard of Polyphemus. "No: it is a name that has bad luck (mal' fortuno)," the man answered, gravely.

At Aci Castello--the picturesque castle-guarded hamlet by the shore, with its fantastic sea-set rocks, the scene of the old myth of the mountain boulders hurled by the enraged Cyclops at the deriding Ulysses--I asked an old neatherd if he had heard of Polyphemus. He shook his head; but whether because the name does not survive in its Greek form, or because my foreign Italian was untranslatable in his Sicilian dialect, I could not say. When I pointed to the rocks and spoke of the "antico greco Ulisso," he understood, and unleaning from his long staff, pointed with it to the vast white mass of Ătna towering above the near shelving terraces of lemon and olive, and said simply, "Il vecchio questo ha fatto"--The Old One up there did that.

It is certain, however, whatever of Greek legend and nomenclature has perished, that many of the pagan Hellenic traditions have survived throughout inland Sicily corrupt and blent with Carthaginian, Latin, Norman, Saracenic, Iberian, and other strains--and are reflected in the folk-tales and legendary songs and ballads of the unlettered and therefore unforgetting peasants. At Giardini (the ancient Naxos), for example, the patron saint is Santa Venere (Saint Venus): behind Taormina rises the vast and precipitous Sicilian Venusberg, Monte Venere: the crags of Capo San Andrea and Isola Bella are called the Siren's Rocks, and the caverns the "Gallerie degli Greci antichi"; one on Isola San Nicolo is called the "Letto di Olisso," the haven (lit. bed) of Ulysses, while the local name for the Aci rocks is (when not simply Pietri del' Mar) "Rocche del vecchio Capitano"--i.e. Odysseus. There are two heights at Castrogiovanni (the ancient Enna, or Henna) called "The Sacred Women," whose names ages ago were Demeter and Persephone.

The fascination of the whole Ătnean region is threefold. There is the spell of the past. Perhaps no other region of the same extent can vie in this respect with the Sicilian coast from Messina and Taormina to Syracuse and Girgenti, from Porto Empedocle to Palermo, from CŔfalu to where Scylla and Charybdis still watch the tormented waters of the once dreaded strait. The memory is strained with the multitude of reminiscence. A crowd of famous heroes and tyrants, deliverers and oppressors, poets and dramatists and historians, Greeks, Asiatics, Romans, and Normans--from Hiero and Dionysius to King Roger, from Timole˘n to Garibaldi, from Empedocles and Pythagoras and Pindar, Plato and Ăschylus and Theocritus--compel, or rather tyrannise, the imagination. Then there is the magic of omnipresent beauty--of beauty in ceaseless variety, but stranger, more picturesque, more barbarian, more fantastic, more vividly Southern, than is to be seen elsewhere. Finally there is the fascination of Mount Ătna. This is the magnet which attracts everything in Sicily. As one of her poets (Rapisardi) says, "the very lemon boughs of Mascali, the orange branches of Aci, the roses and lilies on the breasts of Catania, rejoice when Ătna is serene, shrink and darken when the great Mother frowns." In Sicilian poetry Ătna plays as dominant a part as in Japanese painting and poetry "the peerless mountain, FusiyÓma." Allusion to it is the natural culmination of any emotional expression--as when in one of the famous Sicilian novelist Verga's stories a dying peasant is about to confess to a score of crimes, but suddenly, with radiant face, points to the white and terrible splendour of Ătna, and sighing, "La Montagna," sinks back and says no more. Let me find room for one characteristic poem by a Sicilian, Giovanni Cesareo--quoting, however, only the first and last Italian stanzas:*

Io nacqui dove il ciel ride sereno
Sopra l' isola bella, occhio de' mari
Dove si mescon candide,
Scintillando a mattini umidi e chiari,
L' onde del Ionio e l' onde del Tirreno.

        * * *     *   

OĚtu, che sei pi¨ bianca dell a spuma,
Vieni: la vela dell' amor ci attende:
I liti azzurri fremono
Odorando; dall' erta il gregge pende,
E l' Etna immane all' orizzonto fuma.

*"Occidentali." (Milan: 1887.)

I was born where the radiant sky domes the Beautiful Island, the eye of Ocean: where all lovely lights, by misty morns or clear, forever blend the Ionian and the Tyrrhene waves.

In the sunflood the country-sides quiver with light, murmurous in the white dust of moontide: silent, on the barren rocks, the cactus-fronds sleep outlined against green mountain-ranges.

In the enchanted bays, curved crescents of moving light, are mirrored the marble walls of ancient towns; and along the flower-starred slopes one may hear the forlorn sighing of old shores, by forgotten Moorish fragments, in the shadow of the orange-trees.

O Thou, who art whiter than foam of the sea, come! The veil of Love awaits us! The azure shores quiver, fragrant: on the hill-pastures the flocks hang still as flowers: from Etna, leaning vast against the sky, a breath of smoke!

It is interesting to turn from the modern singer to the song of an earlier Sicilian, Theocritus, made perhaps on thmne-clad Hybla, or on an Ătnean hill-pasture where once Galatea dreamed of her beloved Acis, or in the shadow of ancient olives, such as those which, near Syracuse, mark the legendary site of the grave of Ăschylus, or as those in that orchard on the way to Euryelos called by a living Syracusan poet the Garden of Plato; or, mayhap, under some such group of vast caruba-trees as those which, between Tauromenion--the Taormina of to-day--and the Hill of Venus, are still vaguely associated with a vanished marble seat whence Pythagoras dreamed across the Ionian Sea:

DAPHNIS

Ah, sweetly lows the calf, and sweetly the heifer, sweetly sounds the neatherd with his pipe, and sweetly also I!  My bed of leaves is strown by the cool water and thereon are heaped fair skins from the while calves that were all browsing upon the arbutus. . . .

MENALCAS

Ătna, mother mine, I too dwell in a beautiful cavern in the chamber of the rock, and, lo, all the wealth have I that we behold in dreams; ewes in plenty and she-goats abundant, their fleeces are strown beneath my head and feet.

Or to this, written perhaps by Syracusan waters, or by that, beautiful shore where now the picturesque ruined castle of Roger the Norman faces the Scogli de' Ciclopi, as the people often still call the seaward-hurled rocks of the Cyclops Polyphemus, or by the.wild lava blocks of the Naxian promontory, where they lie piled beyond the orange groves of Alcantara, the ancient Alcesines:

The halcyons will lull the waves, and lull the deep, and the south wind, and the last that stirs the seaweeds on the higher shores, the halcyons that are dearest to the green-haired mermaids, of all the birds that take their prey from the salt sea. Let all things smile on (my friend) Ageanax sailing to Mytilene, and may he come to a friendly haven. On that day I will go crowned with anise, or with a rosy wreath, or a garland of white violets, and the fine wine of Ptelea I will dip from the bowl as I lie by the fire, while one shall roast beans for me, in the embers. And elbow-deep shall the flowery bed be thickly strewn, with fragrant leaves and with asphodel, and with curled parsley; and softly will I drink, toasting Ageanax with lips clinging to the cup, and draining it even to the lees.

At every place on this haunted shore or by these inland hills and valleys of Ătna one may hear the voice of Theocritus, whether it be disguised as Daphnis or Menalcas or Thyrsis. "Thyrsis of Ătna am I, and this is the voice of Thyrsis . . . by the great stream of the river Anapus, on the height of Ătna, by the sacred water of Acis."

Certainly it ought to be on the lemon-fragrant heights above Aci Reale on the southern slope of Ătna, or upon the shore facing the Cyclopean rocks themselves, that one should read the Sixth Idyl, where Daphnis and Damoetas sing of the one-eyed Cyclops and his love for Galatea. And lying there on an afternoon, with the Cyclopean isles rising out of the deep azure calm of one of the few still days of February, one reader of Theocritus realised to the full that the Sicilian poet must have had in mind not Polyphemus, but Ătna--the true one-eyed Cyclops of Sicily--when he wrote the close of this idyl; for deep in the blue Ionian sea was outlined beyond the farther rock the vast head of Ătna, with his forest beard, his ridges of snow, his one eye browed with snow-white drifted smoke:

For, in truth, I am not so hideous as they say! But lately I was looking into the sea, when all was calm: beautiful seemed my beard, beautiful my one eye, and the sea reflected the gleam of my teeth whiter than the Parian stone.

Or, again, high on the southern mountain slope above Belpasso, looking down upon the three azure but perilous meres of Paterno (the ancient Hybla Minor), Biancavilla (where, it is said, a rude Greek dialect informs the corrupt Sicilian-Italian), and Aderno (the ancient Hadranum, with its famous Temple of Hadranos guarded by a thousand hounds, and where the Greek Garibaldi, Timole˘n, received his "sign from heaven")--with, to the north, Bronte between its malarious lake and the wild lands beyond, where, a thousand years ago, the Hellenic chieftain Maniaces and the Norwegian viking Harald Hardradr routed the Saracens; and, to the west, the mountains of ancient Henna, the land of Demeter and Persephone: here, high on this sunswept slope, where nature's green tides for ever struggle to overcome the inferno of black, tormented lava, is, surely, a fit place whereat to re-read with new delight that ever-charming Eleventh Idyl. This is the idyl which Theocritus himself tells us was to comfort the poet-physician Nicias, by reminding him that even Polyphemus (the Theocritan Cyclops, truly a very different being from the Homeric monster) found surcease in song from the pain of love. It was on these slopes that, when young, the amorous Cyclops tended, as a gift for Galatea, eleven crescent-browed fawns. He sang his pain out on the wind of the west, while ignoring his own wisdom: Milk the ewe that thou hast; why pursue the thing that shuns thee? After reading this, one of the loveliest of the Theocritan poems, one may turn to a near spring--pure from the days of the ancients, as the peasants say--and drink of the clear water "that for me deepwooded Ătna sends down from the white snow a draught divine! But if the wild Libeccio or west wind should suddenly arise, or the gray scirocco come out of the south-east, then one, glancing at the terrible head of the great mountain, may quote rather, "He may love, not with apples, not roses, but with fatal frenzy."

The other day I was in a garden amid which a fragmentary part of the ancient Naxian aqueduct lies, and a girl, who had been drawing water at a well, was turning aside, with her amphora poised delicately on her shapely head. I asked her name, which was a grandiloquent one, --Pompilia. In the south, names such as Pompilia, CŠsar, Pompeo, Ottaviano, Venus, &c., abound; at Mola, for example, the hill-crest town that overhangs Taormina, there is a youth called CŠsar Augustus and a muleteer named Timoleone, and at Taormina itself the forename of the mild young hair-dresser is Orestes! But the peculiar Sicilian accent of the dark-eyed water-drawer had for a moment twisted the name in my too ready thought to Bombyca. It sufficed, however, to evoke a delightful memory of that charming idyl where the reaper Milon laughingly mocks his comrade Battus, love-worn "because of a slim girl," Bombyca, she who was wont to pipe to the reapers on the farm of one Hippocoon. Perhaps, I thought, this very garden may have been part of Hippocoon's farm: perhaps the old gardener, with his red flap-turned cap, was a descendant of Polybotas, Bombyca's father; and the girl yonder, poising her amphora, Battus's sweetheart herself. She was beautiful enough to suggest the thought, with her great dark eyes gleaming under her yellow-kerchiefed head, and her slender body swaying from the lithe hips as she ascended the little stony terrace that did duty as a road. "They call thee a gypsy, gracious Bombyca, and lean, and sunburnt; 'tis only I that call thee honey-pale. Yea, and the violet is swart, and swart the lettered violet, but yet these flowers are chosen the first in garlands. Ah, gracious Bombyca, thy feet are fashioned like carven ivory, thy voice is drowsy sweet, and thy ways, I cannot tell of them."

There are perhaps few more admired in the idyl lines of Theocritus than those addressed to his friend Diophantus, which describe so realistically the toilsome life of two old fishermen. But there are also as vivid lines in the famous first idyl of Thyrsis and Daphnis, and, again, in this connection there is a most interesting allusion in the fragment of the Berenice quoted by AthenŠus:

And if any man that hath his livelihood from the salt sea, and whose nets serve him for ploughs, prays for wealth, and luck in fishing let him sacrifice at midnight, to this goddess, the sacred fish that they call, "silver-white," for that it is brightest of sheen of all--then let the fisher set his nets, and he shall draw them full from the sea--

interesting because the fishermen on the Ionian coast of Sicily still call a fish of the mullet species "argente-bianco," "silver-white." One hot day at the end of January the present writer and two friends rowed round the caverned cliffs of Capo San Andrea, below Taormina, past the Grotto della Sirena, or Cave of Ulysses, where a deep thunder revealed the force of the sea-swell, which in vast azure and green depths surged rhythmically in and out; and as we rounded Isola San Nicolo and came into the purple azure calm and moored to the rocks close by the singular antique sea-wall which connects San Nicolo and the headland of San Andrea (beneath which the Ionian Sea surges with titanic force whenever the scirocco or the Mezzogiorno blows, or when the ocean-swell predicts a coming storm --a sea-wall about whose origin and even whose certain purpose no two authorities agree), we saw first a solitary figure, perched in an apparently unscalable and inescapable "coign of vantage," leaning with poised trident intent to spear one of the great palamili (a kind of white salmon which frequents the Ionian waters, and especially near rocky coasts) swimming in the marvellously transparent depths just underneath; and then, as we came into the azure stillness of the little bay, behold, no other than Theocritus's old fisherman himself, or his latter-day lineal descendant at least!

Beyond, an ancient fisherman and a rock are fashioned, a rugged rock, whereon with might and main the old man drags a great net for his cast, as one, that labours stoutly. Thou wouldst say that he is fishing with all the might of his limbs, so big the sinews swell all about his neck, greyhaired though he be, but his strength is as the strength of youth. Now divided but a little space from the sea-worn old man is a vineyard laden well with fire-red clusters, and on the rough wall a little lad watches the vineyard, sitting there.

The ancient fisherman, the rugged rock, the rock-set vineyard, a brown-legged lad sitting singing on the broken wall a popular Sicilian ballad about a villainous hero of the Mafia, one Musulino--and the greyhaired old man struggling "might and main " with the intricacies and dragging weight of a huge net: every feature of the picture is repeated, as though Theocritus had been a Tauromenian, and had viewed this very scene at this very spot--the spot, it is said, where the Ionian Greeks who were the pioneers of the Hellenic emigrants to Sicily first landed.

Another great though less known poet--a Latin, not a Greek--may have looked often on a like scene; for Cornelius Severus, the panegyrist of Cicero and author of Ătna (a beautiful Sicilian poem inspired by the Mother Mountain, and long attributed to Virgil--in some still extant editions of whose works, indeed, it appears as authentically the master's), was a native of Taormina, and is, indeed, her chief literary glory, though, strange to say, his memory remains unhonoured by any street dedication amid the prolific classical nomenclature which aptly and inaptly distinguishes the ancient hill-town.

Taormina has cause, certainly, to be proud of the imposing record of her great citizens and famous (or infamous) rulers and visitors, from Pythagoras and Pindar to Goethe and Freeman, from Andromachos to Humboldt, from Timole˘n to Garibaldi. "All the world comes to Taormina" is quite as true--to the patriotic Taorminesias that all roads lead to Rome. Alas, the ancient Tauromenion is fallen into decay. The once proud city, raised on an older Sikelian town by migrant Ionians from the despoiled city of Naxos far below, is now, both in extent and beauty, but the broken image of its past. From the lava-strewn promontory of Capo Schis˛, the site of Naxos--the shore, now lined with wild mulberry-trees, where was once the long approach to the beautiful Temple of Apollo Acragŕtŕs--one may indeed obtain a glimpse of how ancient Tauromenion must have appeared to the Greeks and Carthaginians, Romans and Saracens; for rock and sea and sky do not change, and Taormina is pre-eminently a rock-set and sea-girt and sky-companioned town.   The magnificent Theatre, too, crowning its eastern heights, has survived from age to age. Moreover, the greater Greek city overflowed down the eastern and south eastern slopes, and so would not be visible from Naxos.

From Andromachos and Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse who destroyed Naxos, from the infamous Agathocles and the great Timole˘n, to Tyndari˘n, who induced Pyrrhus to come to Sicily and to land his Oriental host on the Tauromenion shore; from Pythagoras, the wisest of men, who in the course of his long and extraordinary life, spent in all the known lands of antiquity, visited Taormina and reformed its laws,* to Strabo, the famous peripatetic geographer, and to Diod˘rus Siculus,

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* It was while at Taormina that Pythagoras had the strange psychical experience of knowing himself to be in two places at once (the other was the ancient town in Magna GrŠcia, now known as Metaponto in Calabria), and here also that with his "subtle music" he cured the madness of a youth who had become frenzied through love (guarito per forza di musica i furori bestiali di un giovanetto innamorato, as his erudite Italian biographer relates).

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the Pausanias of Sicily; from Pindar to Theocritus, who, according to an erudite if not very authentic Sicilian monographist, "loved well the black kids and singing shepherds and the rare Euganea of Taormina";* from Empedocles--whose traditional rude tower (at a height on Ătna of 9600 feet) is still, as the "Torre del Filosofo," shown beyond the last ridges of that terrible Valle del Bove, a vast sombre wilderness which can be entered from the east only, "an abyss some three miles in width, and bounded on three sides by perpendicular cliffs from 2000 to 4000 feet high"--to Cornelius Severus, born in the little hill-town itself, the Latin poet-celebrant of Ătna, the younger brother of Virgil, as he is lovingly called by Cesareo, both because of his Virgilian music and from his long association with the great master: from the building of the famous Greek Theatre (little of which has survived in the magnificent Roman ruin which is

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*The famous wine of Taormina, called Euganea, was praised by Pliny, and long selected for sacred festivals at Rome.

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now the universal attraction to Taormina) by Andromachos, whom Plutarch calls the greatest Greek prince of his day (the builder of the theatre and forum, the vast serpentine aqueduct and the temples of Apollo Archagŕtŕs and Dionysius--and also, it is said, the author of the old Sikelian town's extant name, from Mount Tauro behind) to the days when it was crowded with native and foreign Hellenes to witness the dramas of Ăschylus--who may well have "assisted," as the French say, for the ancient Naxos was but a brief coast voyage from Syracuse, where the greatest of tragedians spent so many years, and in a field close by which he met in his old age his strange death--of Sophocles, and of Euripides. Alas, these great names are now but empty sounds in Sicily. Nowhere survives the spirit which prompted the Syracusans in the moment of their crushing triumph over the Athenian Armada --and, with the ruin of Athens that followed, the passing of the Hellenic dominion of the world--to grant freedom to the few famished captives, among the thousands perishing in the dreadful hollow pits of precipitous quarries, who could recite "scenes" of verses of Euripides.

But there is no end to classical reminiscence, historic interest, and present charm in all this marvellous southern coast of Sicily, of which Taormina is the popular centre. From the roof-top terrace above the antique Naumachia where I write I see not only the whole of picturesque Taormina and Pindar's "Ătna, Pillar of Heaven," but all that was ancient Tauromenion; eastward the coast mountains of Messina, the Straits, Calabria from Reggio to Cape Spartivento, forty miles away; and southward Aci Reale, Catania, the long line of Mount Hybla, the promontory of EpipolyŠ, and Syracuse--with flooding memories of a hundred familiar names, heroes and poets and historians. Above, Monte Venere, the Hill of Venus, has already a star; flute-notes, like those of the shepherds of Pan, come floating from the lentisk thickets; and I realise that this twentieth-century garment is but a diaphanous robe wherethrough one beholds again the vanished pagan world.

 


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