Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 28

Aristophanes in London

Non duco contentionis funern, dum constet inter nos, quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrioniam. — Petronius Arbiter.

I do not draw the rope of contention,1 while it is agreed amongst us, that almost the whole world practises acting.

All the world’s a stage. — Shakespeare.

En el teatro del mundo

Todos son représentantes. — Calderon.

Tous les comédiens ne sont pas au théâtre.

French Proverb.

Rain came, and thaw, followed by drying wind. The roads were in good order for the visitors to the Aristophanic comedy. The fifth day of Christmas was fixed for the performance. The theatre was brilliantly lighted, with spermaceti candles in glass chandeliers for the audience, and argand lamps for the stage. In addition to Mr. Gryll’s own houseful of company, the beauty and fashion of the surrounding country, which comprised an extensive circle, adorned the semicircular seats; which, however, were not mere stone benches, but were backed, armed, and padded into comfortable stalls. Lord Curryfin was in his glory, in the capacity of stage-manager.

The curtain rising, as there was no necessity for its being made to fall,2 discovered the scene, which was on the London bank of the Thames, on the terrace of a mansion occupied by the Spirit-rapping Society, with an archway in the centre of the building, showing a street in the background. Gryllus was lying asleep. Circe, standing over him, began the dialogue.

CIRCE

Wake, Gryllus, and arise in human form.

GRYLLUS

I have slept soundly, and had pleasant dreams.

CIRCE

I, too, have soundly slept — Divine how long.

GRYLLUS

Why, judging by the sun, some fourteen hours.

CIRCE

Three thousand years»

GRYLLUS

That is a nap indeed.

But this is not your garden, nor your palace.

Where are we now?

CIRCE

Three thousand years ago,

This land was forest, and a bright pure river

Ran through it to and from the Ocean stream.

Now, through a wilderness of human forms,

And human dwellings, a polluted flood

Rolls up and down, charged with all earthly poisons,

Poisoning the air in turn.

GRYLLUS

I see vast masses

Of strange unnatural things.

CIRCE

Houses, and ships,

And boats, and chimneys vomiting black smoke,

Horses, and carriages of every form,

And restless bipeds, rushing here and there

For profit or for pleasure, as they phrase it.

GRYLLUS

Oh, Jupiter and Bacchus! what a crowd,

Flitting, like shadows without mind or purpose,

Such as Ulysses saw in Erebus.

But wherefore are we here?

CIRCE

There have arisen

Some mighty masters of the invisible world,

And these have summoned us.

GRYLLUS

With what design?

CIRCE

That they themselves must tell. Behold they come,

Carrying a mystic table, around which

They work their magic spells. Stand by, and mark.

[Three spirit-rappers appeared, carrying a table, which they

placed on one side of the stage:]

1. Carefully the table place,

Let our gifted brother trace

A ring around the enchanted space

2. Let him tow’rd the table point

With his first fore-finger joint,

And with mesmerised beginning

Set the sentient oak-slab spinning.

3. Now it spins around, around,

Sending forth a murmuring sound,

By the initiate understood

As of spirits in the wood.

ALL.

Once more Circe we invoke.

CIRCE

Here: not bound in ribs of oak,

Nor, from wooden disk revolving,

In strange sounds strange riddles solving,

But in native form appearing,

Plain to sight, as clear to heating.

THE THREE

Thee with wonder we behold.

By thy hair of burning gold,

By thy face with radiance bright,

By thine eyes of beaming light,

We confess thee, mighty one,

For the daughter of the Sun.

On thy form we gaze appalled.

CIRCE

Cryllus, loo, your summons called.

THE THREE

Hira of yore thy powerful spell

Doomed in swinish shape to dwell;

Vet such life he reckoned then

Happier than the life of men,

Now, when carefully he ponders

All our scientific wonders,

Steam-driven myriads, all in motion,

On the land and on the ocean,

Going, for the sake of going,

Wheresoever waves are flowing,

Wheresoever winds are blowing;

Converse through the sea transmitted,

Swift as ever thought has flitted;

All the glories of our time,

Past the praise of loftiest rhyme;

Will he, seeing these, indeed,

Still retain his ancient creed,

Ranking, in his mental plan,

Life of beast o’er life of man?

CIRCE

Speak, Gryllus.

GRYLLUS

It is early yet to judge:

But all the novelties I yet have seen

Seem changes for the worse.

THE THREE

If we could show him

Our triumphs in succession, one by one,

‘Twould surely change his judgment: and herein

How might’st thou aid us, Circe!

CIRCE

I will do so:

And calling down, like Socrates, of yore,

The clouds to aid us, they shall shadow forth,

In bright succession, all that they behold,

From air, on earth and sea. I wave my wand:

And lo! they come, even as they came in Athens,

Shining like virgins of ethereal life.

The Chorus of Clouds descended, and a dazzling array of

female beauty was revealed by degrees through folds of misty

gauze. They sang their first choral song:

CHORUS OF CLOUDS3

Clouds ever-flowing, conspicuously soaring,

From loud-rolling Ocean, whose stream4 gave us birth

To heights, whence we look over torrents down-pouring

To the deep quiet vales of the fruit-giving earth —

As the broad eye of Æther, unwearied in brightness,

Dissolves our mist-veil in glittering rays,

Our forms we reveal from its vapoury lightness,

In semblance immortal, with far-seeing gaze.

Shower-bearing Virgins, we seek not the regions

Whence Pallas, the Muses, and Bacchus have fled,

But the city, where Commerce embodies her legions,

And Mammon exalts his omnipotent head.

All joys of thought, feeling, and taste are before us,

Wherever the beams of his favour are warm:

Though transient full oft as the veil of our chorus,

Now golden with glory, now passing in storm.

Reformers, scientific, moral, educational, political, passed in succession, each answering a question of Gryllus. Gryllus observed, that so far from everything being better than it had been, it seemed that everything was wrong and wanted mending. The chorus sang its second song.

Seven competitive examiners entered with another table, and sat down on the opposite side of the stage to the spirit-rappers. They brought forward Hermogenes5 as a crammed fowl to argue with Gryllus. Gryllus had the best of the argument; but the examiners adjudged the victory to Hermogenes. The chorus sang its third song.

Circe, at the request of the spirit-rappers, whose power was limited to the production of sound, called up several visible spirits, all illustrious in their day, but all appearing as in the days of their early youth, ‘before their renown was around them.’ They were all subjected to competitive examination, and were severally pronounced disqualified for the pursuit in which they had shone. At last came one whom Circe recommended to the examiners as a particularly promising youth. He was a candidate for military life. Every question relative to his profession he answered to the purpose. To every question not so relevant he replied that he did not know and did not care. This drew on him a reprimand. He was pronounced disqualified, and ordered to join the rejected, who were ranged in a line along the back of the scene. A touch of Circe’s wand changed them into their semblance of maturer years. Among them were Hannibal and Oliver Cromwell; and in the foreground was the last candidate, Richard Coeur-deLion. Richard flourished his battle-axe over the heads of the examiners, who jumped up in great trepidation, overturned their table, tumbled over one another, and escaped as best they might in haste and terror. The heroes vanished. The chorus sang its fourth song.

CHORUS

As before the pike will fly

Dace and roach and such small fry;

As the leaf before the gale,

As the chaff beneath the flail;

As before the wolf the flocks,

As before the hounds the fox;

As before the cat the mouse,

As the rat from falling house;

As the fiend before the spell

Of holy water, book, and bell;

As the ghost from dawning day —

So has fled, in gaunt dismay,

This septemvirate of quacks

From the shadowy attacks

Of Coeur-deLion’s battle-axe.

Could he in corporeal might,

Plain to feeling as to sight,

Rise again to solar light,

How his arm would put to flight

All the forms of Stygian night

That round us rise in grim array,

Darkening the meridian day:

Bigotry, whose chief employ

Is embittering earthly joy;

Chaos, throned in pedant state,

Teaching echo how to prate;

And ‘Ignorance, with looks profound,’

Not ‘with eye that loves the ground,’

But stalking wide, with lofty crest,

In science’s pretentious vest.

And now, great masters of the realms of shade,

To end the task which called us down from air,

We shall present, in pictured show arrayed,

Of this your modern world the triumphs rare,

That Gryllus’s benighted spirit

May wake to your transcendent merit,

And, with profoundest admiration thrilled,

He may with willing mind assume his place

In your steam-nursed, steam-borne, steam-killed,

And gas-enlightened race.

CIRCE

Speak, Gryllus, what you see,

I see the ocean,

And o’er its face ships passing wide and far;

Some with expanded sails before the breeze,

And some with neither sails nor oars, impelled

By some invisible power against the wind,

Scattering the spray before them, But of many

One is on fire, and one has struck on rocks

And melted in the waves like fallen snow.

Two crash together in the middle sea,

And go to pieces on the instant, leaving

No soul to tell the tale, and one is hurled

In fragments to the sky, strewing the deep

With death and wreck. I had rather live with Circe

Even as I was, than flit about the world

In those enchanted ships which some Alastor

Must have devised as traps for mortal ruin.

Look yet again.

Now the whole scene is changed.

I see long chains of strange machines on wheels,

With one in front of each, purring white smoke

From a black hollow column. Fast and far

They speed, like yellow leaves before the gale,

When autumn winds are strongest. Through their windows

I judge them thronged with people; but distinctly

Their speed forbids my seeing.

SPIRIT-RAPPER

This is one

Of the great glories of our modern time,

* Men are become as birds,’ and skim like swallows

The surface of the world.

GRYLLUS

For what good end?

SPIRIT-RAPPER

The end is in itself — the end of skimming

The surface of the world.

GRYLLUS

If that be all,

I had rather sit in peace in my old home:

But while I look, two of them meet and clash,

And pile their way with ruin. One is rolled

Down a steep bank; one through a broken bridge

Is dashed into a flood. Dead, dying, wounded,

Are there as in a battle-field. Are these

Your modern triumphs? Jove preserve me from them.

SPIRIT-RAPPER

These ills are rare. Millions are borne in safety

Where ore incurs mischance. Look yet again.

GRYLLUS

I see a mass of light brighter than that

Which burned in Circe’s palace, and beneath it

A motley crew, dancing to joyous music.

But from that light explosion comes, and flame;

And forth the dancers rush in haste and fear

From their wide-blazing hall.

SPIRIT-RAPPER

Oh, Circe! Circe!

Thou show’st him all the evil of our arts

In more than just proportion to the good.

Good without evil is not given to man.

Jove, from his urns dispensing good and ill,

Gives all unmixed to some, and good and ill

Mingled to many — good unmixed to none.6

Our arts are good. The inevitable ill

That mixes with them, as with all things human,

Is as a drop of water in a goblet

Full of old wine.

GRYLLUS

More than one drop, I fear,

And those of bitter water.

CIRCE

There is yet

An ample field of scientific triumph:

What shall we show him next?

SFIRIT-RAPPER

Pause we awhile,

He is not in the mood to feel conviction

Of our superior greatness. He is all

For rural comfort and domestic ease,

But our impulsive days are all for moving:

Sometimes with some ulterior end, but still

For moving, moving, always. There is nothing

Common between us in our points of judgment.

He takes his stand upon tranquillity,

We ours upon excitement. There we place

The being, end, and aim of mortal life,

The many are with us: some few, perhaps,

With him. We put the question to the vote

By universal suffrage. Aid us, Circe I

On tajismanic wings youi spells can waft

The question and reply Are we not wiser,

Happier, and better, than the men of old,

Of Homer’s days, of Athens, and of Rome?

VOICES WITHOUT

Ay. No. Ay, ay. No. Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay,

We are the wisest race the earth has known,

The most advanced in all the arts of life,

In science and in morals.

Two urns by Jove’s high throne have ever stood,

The source of evil one, and one of good;

From thence the cup of mortal man he fills,

Blessings to these, to those distributes ills,

To most he mingles both: the wretch decreed

To taste the bad, unmixed, is curst indeed;

Pursued by wrongs, by meagre famine driven,

He wanders, outcast both of earth and heaven.

— Pope.

SPIRIT-RAPPER

The ays have it.

What is that wondrous sound, that seems like thunder

Mixed with gigantic laughter?

CIRCE

It is Jupiter,

Who laughs at your presumption; half in anger,

And half in mockery. Now, my worthy masters,

You must in turn experience in yourselves

The mighty magic thus far tried on others.

The table turned slowly, and by degrees went on spinning

with accelerated speed. The legs assumed motion, and it

danced off the stage. The arms of the chairs put forth

hands, and pinched the spirit-rappers, who sprang up and ran

off, pursued by their chairs. This piece of mechanical

pantomime was a triumph of Lord Curryfin’s art, and afforded

him ample satisfaction for the failure of his resonant

vases.

CIRCE

Now, Gryllus, we may seek our ancient home

In my enchanted isle.

GRYLLUS

Not yet, not yet.

Good signs are toward of a joyous supper.

Therein the modern world may have its glory,

And I, like an impartial judge, am ready

To do it ample justice. But, perhaps,

As all we hitherto have seen are shadows,

So too may be the supper.

CIRCE

Fear not, Gryllus.

That you will find a sound reality,

To which the land and air, seas, lakes, and rivers,

Have sent their several tributes. Now, kind friends,

Who with your smiles have graciously rewarded

Our humble, but most earnest aims to please,

And with your presence at our festal board

Will charm the winter midnight, Music gives

The signal: Welcome and old wine await you.

THE CHORUS

Shadows to-night have offered portraits true

Of many follies which the world enthrall.

‘Shadows we are, and shadows we pursue’:

But, in the banquet’s well-illumined hall,

Realides, delectable to all,

Invite you now our festal joy to share.

Could we our Attic prototype recall,

One compound word should give our bill of fare: 7

But where our language fails, our hearts true welcome bear.

Miss Gryll was resplendent as Circe; and Miss Niphet., as leader of the chorus, looked like Melpomene herself, slightly unbending her tragic severity into that solemn smile which characterised the chorus of the old comedy. The charm of the first acted irresistibly on Mr. Falconer. The second would have completed, if anything had been wanted to complete it, the conquest of Lord Curryfin.

The supper passed off joyously, and it was a late hour of the morning before the company dispersed.

1 A metaphor apparently taken from persons pulling in opposite directions at each end of a rope. I cannot see, as some have done, that it has anything in common with Horace’s Tortum digna sequi potius quant ducere funern: ‘More worthy to follow than to lead the tightened cord’: which is a metaphor taken from a towing line, or any line acting in a similar manner, where one draws and another is drawn. Horace applies it to money, which he says should be the slave, and not the master of its possessor.

2 The Athenian theatre was open to the sky, and if the curtain had been made to fall it would have been folded up in mid air, destroying the effect of the scene. Being raised from below, it was invisible when not in use.

3 The first stanza is pretty closely adapted from the strophe of Aristophanes. The second is only a distant imitation of the antistrophe.

4 In Homer, and all the older poets, the ocean is a river surrounding the earth, and the seas are inlets from it.

5 See chapter xv.

6 This is the true sense of the Homeric passage:—

(Greek passage)

Homer: ii. xxiv.

There are only two distributions: good and ill mixed, and unmixed ill. None, as Heyne has observed, receive unmixed good. Ex dolio bonorum. . . .

. . . nemo meracius accipit: hoc memorare omisit. This sense is implied, not expressed. Pope missed it in his otherwise beautiful translation.

7 As at the end of the Ecclesusæ

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24