As Alexander stood gazing at the transparent loveliness of the Cydnus, the thought of a plunge into those generous depths, of the delicious shock of ice-cold waters amid summer heat, was too much for him; and could he have foreseen the illness that was to result from it, I believe he would have had his bath just the same. With such an example before him, can any one whose pursuits are literary miss a chance of airing his eloquence amid the glories of this spacious hall, wherein gold sheds all its lustre, whose walls are decked with the flowers of art, whose light is as the light of the sun? Shall he who might cause this roof to ring with applause, and contribute his humble share to the splendours of the place — shall such a one content himself with examining and admiring its beauties without a word, and so depart, like one that is dumb, or silent from envy? No man of taste or artistic sensibility, none but a dull ignorant boor, would consent thus to cut himself off from the highest of enjoyments, or could need to be reminded of the difference between the ordinary spectator and the educated man. The former, when he has carried his eyes around and upwards in silent admiration, and clasped ecstatic hands, has done all that can be expected of him; he ventures not on words, lest they should prove inadequate to his subject. With the cultured observer, it is otherwise: he, surely, will not rest content with feasting his eyes on beauty; he will not stand speechless amid his splendid surroundings, but will set his mind to work, and as far as in him lies pay verbal tribute. Nor will his tribute consist in mere praise of the building. It was well enough, no doubt, for the islander Telemachus to express his boyish amazement in the palace of Menelaus, and to liken that prince’s gold and ivory to the glories of Heaven; — his limited experience afforded him no earthly parallel: but here, the very use to which the hall is put, and the distinguished quality of the audience, are an essential part of the praise bestowed upon it.
Nothing, surely, could be more delightful than to find this noble building thrown open for the reception of eloquent praise, its atmosphere laden with panegyric, its very walls reechoing, cavern-like, to every syllable, prolonging each cadence, dwelling on each period; — nay, they are themselves an audience, most appreciative of audiences, that stores up the speaker’s words in memory, and recompenses his efforts with a meed of most harmonious flattery. Even so do the rocks resound to the shepherd’s flute; the notes come ringing back again, and simple rustics think it is the voice of some maid, who dwells among the crags, and from the depths of her rocky haunt makes answer to their songs and their cries.
I feel as if a certain mental exaltation resulted from this magnificence: it is suggestive; the imagination is stimulated. It would scarcely be too much to say that through the medium of the eyes Beauty is borne in upon the mind, and suffers no thought to find utterance before it has received her impress. We hold it for true that Achilles’ wrath was whetted against the Phrygians by the sight of his new armour, and that as he donned it for the first time his lust of battle was uplifted on wings: and why should not a beautiful building similarly be a whet to the zeal of the orator? Luxuriant grass, a fine plane-tree and a clear spring, hard by Ilissus, were inspiration enough for Socrates: in such a spot he could sit bantering Phaedrus, refuting Lysias, and invoking the Muses; never doubting — indelicate old person — but that those virgin Goddesses would grace his retirement with their presence, and take part in his amorous discourse. But to such a place as this we may surely hope that they will come uninvited, We can offer them something better than the shade of a plane-tree, though for that upon Ilissus’ bank we should substitute the golden one of the Persian King. His tree had one claim to admiration — it was expensive: but for symmetry and proportion and beautiful workmanship, nothing of that kind was thrown in; the gold was gold, an uncouth manifestation of solid wealth, calculated to excite envy in the beholder, and to procure congratulations for the possessor, but far from creditable to the artist. The line of the Arsacidae cared nothing for beauty; they did not appeal to men’s taste; not How may I win approval? but How may I dazzle? was the question they asked themselves. The barbarian has a keen appreciation of gold: to the treasures of art he is blind.
But I see about me in this Hall beauties that were never designed to please barbarians, nor to gratify the vulgar ostentation of Persian monarchs. Poverty is not here the sole requirement of the critic: taste is also necessary; nor will the eyes deliver judgement without the assistance of Reason. The eastern aspect, procuring us, as in the temples of old, that first welcome peep of the sun in his new-born glory, and suffering his rays to pour in without stint through the open doors, the adaptation of length to breadth and breadth to height, the free admission of light at every stage of the Sun’s course — all is charmingly contrived, and redounds to the credit of the architect. What admirable judgement has been shown, too, in the structure and decoration of the roof! nothing wanting, yet nothing superfluous; the gilding is exactly what was required to achieve elegance without empty display; it is precisely that little touch of adornment with which a beautiful and modest woman sets off her loveliness; it is the slender necklace about her neck, the light ring upon her finger, the earrings, the brooch, the fillet that imprisons her luxuriant hair, and, like the purple stripe upon a robe, enhances its beauty. Contrast with this the artifices of courtesans, and particularly of the most unlovely among them, whose robes are all of purple, and their necks loaded with golden chains, who hope to render themselves attractive by their extravagance, and by external adornments to supply the deficiencies of Nature; their arms, they think, will look more dazzlingly white if gold glitters upon them, a clumsy foot pass unobserved if hidden in a golden sandal, and the face be irresistible that appears beneath a halo of gold. The modest house, far from resorting to such meretricious charms, uses as little gold as may be; I think she knows that she would have no cause to blush, though she should display her beauty stripped of all adornment.
And so it is with this Hall. The roof — the head, as I may say — comely in itself, is not without its golden embellishments: yet they are but as the stars, whose fires gleam here and there, pranked in the darkness of the sky. Were that sky all fire, it would be beautiful to us no longer, only terrible. Observe, too, that the gold is not otiose, not merely an ornament among ornaments, put there to flatter the eye: it diffuses soft radiance from end to end of the building, and the walls are tinged with its warm glow. Striking upon the gilded beams, and mingling its brightness with theirs, the daylight glances down upon us
with a clearness and a richness not all its own. Such are the glories overhead, whose praises might best be sung by him who told of Helen’s high-vaulted chamber, and Olympus’ dazzling peak.
And for the rest, the frescoed walls, with their exquisite colouring, so clear, so highly finished, so true to nature, to what can I compare them but to a flowery meadow in spring? Even so the comparison halts. Those flowers wither and decay and shed their beauty: but here is one eternal spring; this meadow fades not, its flowers are everlasting; for no hand is put forth to pluck away their sweetness, only the eye feeds thereon. And what eye would not delight to feed on joys so varied? What orator would not feel that his credit was at stake, and so be fired with ambition to surpass himself, rather than be found wanting to his theme?
The contemplation of beautiful objects is of all things the most inspiring, and not to men only. I think even a horse must feel some increase of pleasure in galloping over smooth, soft fields, that give an easy footing, and ring back no defiance to his hoofs: it is then that he goes his best; the beauty of his surroundings puts him on his mettle; he will not be beaten, if pace counts for anything. And look at the peacock. Spring has just begun; never are flowers a gladder sight than now; it is as if they were really brighter, their hues more fresh, than at other times. Watch the bird, as he struts forth into some meadow: he spreads his feathers, and displays them to the Sun; up goes his tail, a towered circle of flowery plumage; for with him too it is spring, and the meadow challenges him to do his utmost. See how he turns about, and shows forth his gorgeous beauty. As the sun’s rays strike upon him, the wonder grows: there is a subtle transmutation of colours, one glory vanishing and giving place to another. The change is nowhere more apparent than in those rainbow rings at the ends of his feathers: here a slight movement turns bronze to gold, and (such is the potency of light) purple becomes green, because sun is exchanged for shadow. As for the sea, I need not remind you how inviting, how attractive, is its appearance on a calm day: the veriest landlubber must long to be upon it, and sail far away from the shore, as he marks how the light breeze fills the sails and speeds the vessel on its gentle gliding course over the crests of the waves.
The beauty of this Hall has a similar power over the orator, encouraging him, stimulating him to fresh effort, enlarging his ambition. The spell was irresistible: I have yielded to it, and come hither to address you, as though drawn by wryneck’s or by Siren’s charm; nor am I without hope that my words, bald though they be in themselves, may yet borrow something from that atmosphere of beauty in which they are here clothed as in a garment.
Scarcely have I pronounced these last words, when a certain Theory (and a very sound one, too, if we can take its own word for it), which has been interrupting me all along, and doing its best to break my speech off, informs me that there is no truth in my statements, and expresses its surprise at my assertion that gilding and mural decoration are favourable to the display of rhetorical skill. The very contrary, it maintains, is the case. On second thoughts, it may as well come forward and plead its own cause; you, gentlemen, will kindly serve as jury, and hear what it has to say in favour of the cheap and nasty in architecture, considered as rhetorical conditions. My own sentiments on this subject you have already heard, nor is there any occasion for me to repeat them. The Theory is therefore at liberty to speak; I will withdraw for a while, and hold my tongue.
‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ it begins, ‘a splendid tribute has been paid to this Hall by the last speaker; and I for my part am so far from having any fault to find with the building, that I propose to supply the deficiencies of his encomium; for by magnifying its glories, I am so much the nearer to proving my point, which is, its unsuitableness to the purposes of the orator. And first I shall ask your permission to avail myself of his simile of feminine adornments. In my opinion, it is not enough to say that lavish ornament adds nothing to feminine beauty: it actually takes away from it. Dazzled by gold and costly gems, how should the beholder do justice to the charms of a clear complexion, to neck, and eye, and arm, and finger? Sards and emeralds, bracelets and necklaces, claim all his attention, and the lady has the mortification of finding herself eclipsed by her own jewels, whose engrossed admirers can spare no words, and barely a casual glance for herself. The same fate, it seems to me, awaits the orator who exhibits his skill amid these wondrous works of art: his praises are obscured, quite swallowed up, in the splendour of the things he praises. It is as if a man should bring a wax light to feed a mighty conflagration, or set up an ant for exhibition on a camel’s or an elephant’s back. That is one pitfall for the orator. And there is another: the distracting influence of that resonant music that echoes through the Hall, making voluminous answer to his words, nay, drowning them in the utterance; surely as trumpet quells flute, or the sea-roar the boatswain’s pipe, if he presume to contend with the crash of waves, so surely shall the orator’s puny voice be overmastered by this mighty music, and seem like silence.
‘Then again, my opponent spoke of the stimulating, the encouraging effect produced on the speaker by architectural beauty. I should have said that the effect was rather dispiriting than otherwise: the speaker’s thoughts are scattered, and his confidence shaken, as he reflects on the disgrace that must attach to mean words uttered beneath a noble roof. There could be no more crushing ignominy; he is precisely in the position of a warrior in brilliant armour who sets the example of flight, and whose cowardice is only emphasized by his splendid equipment. To this principle I should refer the conduct of Homer’s model orator, who, so far from attaching any importance to externals, affected the bearing of a man that was altogether witless; his design was to bring his eloquence into stronger relief by the studied ungracefulness of his attitude.
‘The orator’s mind, too, is so engrossed with what he sees, that it is absolutely impossible for him to preserve the thread of his discourse; he cannot think of what he is saying, so imperatively do the sights around him claim his attention. It is not to be expected that he will do himself justice: he is too full of his subject. And I might add that his supposed hearers, when they come into such a building as this, are no longer hearers of his eloquence, but spectators of its beauties; he must be a Thamyris, an Amphion, an Orpheus among orators who could gain their attention in such circumstances. Once let a man cross this threshold, and a blaze of beauty envelops his senses; he is all eyes, and to the orator is “as one that marketh not”; — unless, indeed, he be altogether blind, or take a hint from the court of Areopagus, and give audience in the dark. Compare the story of the Sirens with that of the Gorgons, if you would know how insignificant is the power of words in comparison with that of visible objects. The enchantments of the former were at the best a matter of time; they did but flatter the ear with pleasing songs; if the mariner landed, he remained long on their hands, and it has even happened to them to be disregarded altogether. But the beauty of the Gorgons, irresistible in might, won its way to the inmost soul, and wrought amazement and dumbness in the beholder; admiration (so the legend goes) turned him to stone. All that my opponent has just said about the peacock illustrates my point: that bird charms not the ear, but the eye. Take a swan, take a nightingale, and set her singing: now put a silent peacock at her side, and I will tell you which bird has the attention of the company. The songstress may go hang now; so invincible a thing is the pleasure of the eyes. Shall I call evidence? A sage, then, shall be my witness, how far mightier are the things of the eye than those of the ear. Usher, call me Herodotus, son of Lyxes, of Halicarnassus. — Ah, since he has been so obliging as to hear the summons, let him step into the box. You will excuse the Ionic dialect; it is his way.’
Gentlemen of the jury, the Theory hath spoken sooth. Give good heed to that he saith, how sight is a better thing
than bearing; for a man shall sooner trust his eyes than his ears.
‘You hear him, gentlemen? He gives the preference to sight, and rightly. For words have wings; they are no sooner out of the mouth than they take flight and are lost: but the delight of the eyes is ever present, ever draws the beholder to itself. Judge, then, the difficulty the orator must experience in contending with such a rival as this Hall, whose beauty attracts every eye.
‘But my weightiest argument I have kept till now: you, gentlemen, throughout the hearing of this case, have been gazing with admiration on roof and wall, scanning each picture in its turn. I do not reproach you: you have done what every man must do, when he beholds workmanship so exquisite, subjects so varied. Here are works whose perfect technique, applied as it is to the illustration of all that is useful in history and mythology, holds out an irresistible challenge to the judgement of the connoisseur. Now I would not have your eyes altogether glued to those walls; I would fain have some share of your attention: let me try, therefore, to give you word-pictures of these originals; I think it may not be uninteresting to you to hear a description of those very objects which your eyes view with such admiration. And you will perhaps count it a point in my favour, that I, and not my antagonist, have hit upon this means of doubling your pleasure. It is a hazardous enterprise, I need not say — without materials or models to put together picture upon picture; this word-painting is but sketchy work.
‘On our right as we enter, we have a story half Argive, half Ethiopian. Perseus slays the sea-monster, and sets Andromeda free; it will not be long ere he leads her away as his bride; an episode, this, in his Gorgon expedition. The artist has given us much in a small space: maiden modesty, girlish terror, are here portrayed in the countenance of Andromeda, who from her high rock gazes down upon the strife, and marks the devoted courage of her lover, the grim aspect of his bestial antagonist. As that bristling horror approaches, with awful gaping jaws, Perseus in his left hand displays the Gorgon’s head, while his right grasps the drawn sword. All of the monster that falls beneath Medusa’s eyes is stone already; and all of him that yet lives the scimetar hews to pieces.
‘In the next picture, a tale of retributive justice is dramatically set forth. The painter seems to have taken his hint from Euripides or Sophocles; each of them has portrayed this incident. The two young men are friends: Pylades of Phocis, and Orestes, who is thought to be dead. They have stolen into the palace unobserved, and together they slay Aegisthus Clytemnestra has already been dispatched: her body lies, half-naked, upon a bed; all the household stand aghast at the deed; some cry out, others look about for means of escape. A fine thought of the painter’s: the matricide is but slightly indicated, as a thing achieved: with the slaying of the paramour, it is otherwise; there is something deliberate in the manner in which the lads go about their work.
‘Next comes a more tender scene. We behold a comely God, and a beautiful boy. The boy is Branchus: sitting on a rock, he holds out a hare to tease his dog, who is shown in the act of jumping for it. Apollo looks on, well pleased: half of his smile is for the dog’s eagerness, and half for the mischievous boy.
‘Once more Perseus; an earlier adventure, this time. He is cutting off Medusa’s head, while Athene screens him from her sight. Although the blow is struck, he has never seen his handiwork, only the reflection of the head upon the shield; he knows the price of a single glance at the reality.
‘High upon the middle wall, facing the door, a shrine of Athene is modelled. The statue of the Goddess is in white marble. She is not shown in martial guise; it is the Goddess of War in time of peace.
‘We have seen Athene in marble: next we see her in painting. She flies from the pursuit of amorous Hephaestus; it was to this moment that Erichthonius owed his origin.
‘The next picture deals with the ancient story of Orion. He is blind, and on his shoulder carries Cedalion, who directs the sightless eyes towards the East. The rising Sun heals his infirmity; and there stands Hephaestus on Lemnos, watching the cure.
‘Then we have Odysseus, seeking by feigned madness to avoid joining the expedition of the Atridae, whose messengers have already appeared to summon him. Nothing could be more convincing than his plough-chariot, his ill-assorted team, and his apparent unconsciousness of all that is going forward. But his paternal feeling betrays him. Palamedes, penetrating his secret, seizes upon Telemachus, and threatens him with drawn sword. If the other can act madness, he can act anger. The father in Odysseus is revealed: he is frightened into sanity, and throws aside the mask.
‘Last of all is Medea, burning with jealousy, glaring askance, upon her children, and thinking dreadful thoughts. See, the sword even now is in her hand: and there sit the victims, smiling; they see the sword, yet have no thought of what is to come.
‘Need I say, gentlemen, how the sight of all these pictures draws away the attention of the audience upon them, and leaves the orator without a single hearer? If I have described them at length, it was not in order to impress you with the headstrong audacity of my opponent, in voluntarily thrusting himself upon an audience so ill-disposed. I seek not to call down your condemnation nor your resentment upon him, nor do I ask you to refuse him a hearing: rather I would have you assist his endeavours, listen to him, if you can, with closed eyes, and remember the difficulty of his undertaking; when you, his judges, have become his fellow workers, he will still have much ado to escape the imputation of bringing discredit upon this magnificent Hall. And if it seem strange to you that I should plead thus on my antagonist’s behalf, you must attribute it to my fondness for this same Hall, which makes me anxious that every man who speaks in it should come off creditably, be he who he may.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52