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An essay by Vernon Lee

Faustus And Helena

Title:     Faustus And Helena
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]


There is a story, well-known throughout the sixteenth century, which tells how Doctor Faustus of Wittemberg, having made over his soul to the fiend, employed him to raise the ghost of Helen of Sparta, in order that she might become his paramour. The story has no historic value, no scientific meaning; it lacks the hoary dignity of the tales of heroes and demi-gods, wrought, vague, and colossal forms, out of cloud and sunbeam, of those tales narrated and heard by generations of men deep hidden in the stratified ruins of lost civilisation, carried in the races from India to Hellas, and to Scandinavia. Compared with them, this tale of Faustus and Helena is paltry and brand-new; it is not a myth, nay, scarcely a legend; it is a mere trifling incident added by humanistic pedantry to the ever-changing mediaeval story of the man who barters his soul for knowledge, the wizard, alchemist, philosopher, printer, Albertus, Bacon, or Faustus. It is a part, an unessential, subordinate fragment, valued in its day neither more nor less than any other part of the history of Doctor Faustus, narrated cursorily by the biographer of the wizard, overlooked by some of the ballad rhymers, alternately used and rejected by the playwrights of puppet-shows; given by Marlowe himself no greater importance than the other marvellous deeds, the juggling tricks and magic journeys of his hero.

But for us, the incident of Faustus and Helena has a meaning, a fascination wholly different from any other portion of the story; the other incidents owe everything to artistic treatment: this one owes nothing. The wizard Faustus, awaiting the hour which will give him over to Hell, is the creation of Marlowe; Gretchen is even more completely the creation of Goethe; the fiend of the Englishman is occasionally grand, the fiend of the German is throughout masterly; in all these cases we are in the presence of true artistic work, of stuff rendered valuable solely by the hand of the artist, of figures well defined and finite, and limited also in their power over the imagination. But the group of Faustus and Helena is different; it belongs neither to Marlowe nor to Goethe, it belongs to the legend. It does not give the complete and limited satisfaction of a work of art; it has the charm of the fantastic and fitful shapes formed by the flickering firelight or the wreathing mists; it haunts like some vague strain of music, drowsily heard in half-sleep. It fills the fancy, it oscillates and transforms itself; the artist may see it, attempt to seize and embody it for evermore in a definite and enduring shape, but it vanishes out of his grasp, and the forms which should have inclosed it are mere empty sepulchres, haunted and charmed merely by the evoking power of our own imagination. If we are fascinated by the Lady Helen of Marlowe, walking, like some Florentine goddess, with embroidered kirtle and madonna face, across the study of the old wizard of Wittemberg; if we are pleased by the stately pseudo-antique Helena of Goethe, draped in the drapery of Thorwaldsen's statues, and speaking the language of Goethe's own Iphigenia, as she meets the very modern Faust, gracefully masqued in mediaeval costume; if we find in these attempts, the one unthinking and imperfect, the other laboured and abortive, something which delights our fancy, it is because our thoughts wander off from them and evoke a Faustus and Helena of our own, different from the creations of Marlowe and of Goethe; it is because in these definite and imperfect artistic forms, there yet remains the suggestion of the subject with all its power over the imagination. We forget Marlowe, and we forget Goethe, to follow up the infinite suggestion of the legend. We cease to see the Elizabethan and the pseudo-antique Helen; we lift our imagination from the book and see the mediaeval street at Wittemberg, the gabled house of Faustus, all sculptured with quaint devices and grotesque forms of apes and cherubs and flowers; we penetrate through the low brown rooms, filled with musty books and mysterious ovens and retorts, redolent with strange scents of alchemy, to that innermost secret chamber, where the old wizard hides, in the depths of his mediaeval house, the immortal woman, the god-born, the fatal, the beloved of Theseus and Paris and Achilles; we are blinded by this sunshine of Antiquity pent up in the oaken-panelled chamber, such as Duerer might have etched; and all around we hear circulating the mysterious rumours of the neighbours, of the burghers and students, whispering shyly of Dr. Faustus and his strange guest, in the beer-cellars and in the cloisters of the old university town. And gazing thus into the fantastic intellectual mist which has risen up between us and the book we were reading, be it Marlowe or Goethe, we cease, after a while, to see Faustus or Helena, we perceive only a chaotic fluctuation of incongruous shapes; scholars in furred robes and caps pulled over their ears, burghers wives with high sugar-loaf coif and slashed boddices, with hands demurely folded over their prayer-books, and knights in armour and immense plumes, and haggling Jews, and tonsured monks, descended out of panels of Wohlgemuth and the engravings of Duerer, mingling with, changing into processions of naked athletes on foaming short-maned horses, of draped Athenian maidens carrying baskets and sickles, and priests bearing oil-jars and torches, all melting into each other, indistinct, confused, like the images in a dream; vague crowds, phantoms following in the wake of the spectre woman of Antiquity, beautiful, unimpassioned, ever young, luring to Hell the wizard of the Middle Ages.

Why does all this vanish as soon as we once more fix our eyes upon the book? Why can our fancy show us more than can the artistic genius of Marlowe and of Goethe? Why does Marlowe, believing in Helen as a satanic reality, and Goethe, striving after her as an artistic vision, equally fail to satisfy us? The question is intricate: it requires a threefold answer, dependent on the fact that this tale of Faustus and Helena is in fact a tale of the supernatural--a weird and colossal ghost-story, in which the actors are the spectre of Antiquity, ever young, beautiful, radiant, though risen from the putrescence of two thousand years; and the Middle Ages, alive, but toothless, palsied, and tottering. Why neither Marlowe nor Goethe have succeeded in giving a satisfactory artistic shape to this tale is explained by the necessary relations between art and the supernatural, between our creative power and our imaginative faculty; why Marlowe has failed in one manner and Goethe in another is explained by the fact that, as we said, for the first the tale was a supernatural reality, for the second a supernatural fiction.

What are the relations between art and the supernatural? At first sight the two appear closely allied: like the supernatural, art is born of imagination; the supernatural, like art, conjures up unreal visions. The two have been intimately connected during the great ages of the supernatural, when instead of existing merely in a few disputed traditional dogmas, and in a little discredited traditional folklore, it constituted the whole of religion and a great part of philosophy. Gods and demons, saints and spectres, have afforded at least one-half of the subjects for art. The supernatural, in the shape of religious mythology, had art bound in its service in Antiquity and the Middle Ages; the supernatural, in the shape of spectral fancies, regained its dominion over art with the advent of romanticism. From the gods of the Iliad down to the Commander in Don Giovanni, from the sylvan divinities of Praxiteles to the fairies of Shakespeare, from the Furies of AEschylus to the Archangels of Perugino, the supernatural and the artistic have constantly appeared linked together. Yet, in reality, the hostility between the supernatural and the artistic is well-nigh as great as the hostility between the supernatural and the logical. Critical reason is a solvent, it reduces the phantoms of the imagination to their most prosaic elements; artistic power, on the other hand, moulds and solidifies them into distinct and palpable forms: the synthetical definiteness of art is as sceptical as the analytical definiteness of logic. For the supernatural is necessarily essentially vague, and art is necessarily essentially distinct: give shape to the vague and it ceases to exist. The task set to the artist by the dreamer, the prophet, the priest, the ghost-seer of all times, is as difficult, though in the opposite sense, as that by which the little girl in the Venetian fairy tale sought to test the omnipotence of the emperor. She asked him for a very humble dish, quite simple and not costly, a pat of butter broiled on a gridiron. The emperor desired his cook to place the butter on the gridiron and light the fire; all was going well, when, behold! the butter began to melt, trickled off, and vanished. The artists were asked to paint, or model, or narrate the supernatural; they set about the work in good conscience, but see, the supernatural became the natural, the gods turned into men, the madonnas into mere mothers, the angels into armed striplings, the phantoms into mere creatures of flesh and blood.

There are in reality two sorts of supernatural, although only one really deserves the name. A great number of beliefs in all mythologies are in reality mere scientific errors--abortive attempts to explain phenomena by causes with which they have no connection--the imagination plays not more part in them than in any other sort of theorising, and the notions that unlucky accidents are due to a certain man's glance, that certain formulae will bring rain or sunshine, that miraculous images will dispel pestilence, and kings of England cure epilepsy, must be classed under the head of mistaken generalizations, not very different in point of fact from exploded scientific theories, such as Descartes' vortices, or the innate ideas of scholasticism. That there was a time when animals spoke with human voice may seem to us a piece of fairy-lore, but it was in its day a scientific hypothesis as brilliant and satisfying as Darwin's theory of evolution. We must, therefore, in examining the relations between art and the supernatural, eliminate as far as possible this species of scientific speculation, and consider only that supernatural which really deserves the name, which is beyond and outside the limits of the possible, the rational, the explicable--that supernatural which is due not to the logical faculties, arguing from wrong premises, but to the imagination wrought upon by certain kinds of physical surroundings. The divinity of the earlier races is in some measure a mistaken scientific hypothesis of the sort we have described, an attempt to explain phenomena otherwise inexplicable. But it is much more: it is the effect on the imagination of certain external impressions, it is those impressions brought to a focus, personified, but personified vaguely, in a fluctuating ever-changing manner; the personification being continually altered, reinforced, blurred out, enlarged, restricted by new series of impressions from without, even as the shape which we puzzle out of congregated cloud-masses fluctuates with their every movement--a shifting vapour now obliterates the form, now compresses it into greater distinctness: the wings of the fantastic monster seem now flapping leisurely, now extending bristling like a griffon's; at one moment it has a beak and talons, at others a mane and hoofs; the breeze, the sunlight, the moonbeam, form, alter, and obliterate it. Thus is it with the supernatural: the gods, moulded out of cloud and sunlight and darkness, are for ever changing, fluctuating between a human or animal shape, god or goddess, cow, ape, or horse, and the mere natural phenomenon which impresses the fancy. Pan is the weird, shaggy, cloven-footed shape which the goat-herd or the huntsman has seen gliding among the bushes in the grey twilight; his is the piping heard in the tangle of reeds, marsh lily, and knotted nightshade by the river side: but Pan is also the wood, with all its sights and noises, the solitude, the gloom, the infinity of rustling leaves, and cracking branches; he is the greenish-yellow light stealing in amid the boughs; he is the breeze in the foliage, the murmur of unseen waters, the mist hanging over the damp sward, the ferns and grasses which entangle the feet, and the briars which catch in the hair and garments are his grasp; and the wanderer dashes through the thickets with a sickening fear in his heart, and sinks down on the outskirts of the forest, gasping, with sweat-clotted hair, overcome by this glimpse of the great god.

In this constant renewal of the impressions on the fancy, in this unceasing shaping and reshaping of its creations, consisted the vitality of the myths of paganism, from the scorching and pestilence-bearing gods of India to the divinities shaped out of tempest and snowdrift of Scandinavia; they were constantly issuing out of the elements, renewed, changed, ever young, under the exorcism not only of the priest and of the poet, but of the village boor; and on this unceasing renovation depended the sway which they maintained, without ethical importance to help them, despite philosophy and Christianity. Christianity, born in an age of speculation and eclecticism, removed its divinities, its mystic figures, out of the cosmic surroundings of paganism; it forbade the imagination to touch or alter them, it regularised, defined, explained, placed the Saviour, the Virgin, the saints and angels, into a kind of supersensuous world of logic, logic adapted to Heaven, and different therefore from the logic of earth, but logic none the less. Christianity endowed them with certain definite attributes, not to be found among mortals, but analogous in a manner to mortal attributes; the Christian supernatural system belongs mainly to the category of mistaken scientific systems; its peculiarities are due, not to overwrought fancy, but to overtaxed reason. Thus the genuine supernatural was well-nigh banished by official Christianity, regulated as it was by a sort of congress of men of science, who eliminated, to the best of their powers, any vagaries of the imagination which might show themselves in their mystico-logic system. But the imagination did work nevertheless, and the supernatural did reappear, both within and without the Christian system of mythology. The Heaven of theology was too ethical, too logical, too positive, too scientific, in accordance with the science of the Middle Ages, for the minds of humanity at large; the scholars and learned clergy might study and expound it, but it was insufficient for the ignorant. The imagination reappeared once more. To the monk arose out of the silence and gloom of the damp, lichen-grown crypt, out of the foetid emanations of the charnal-house, strange forms of horror which lurked in his steps and haunted his sleep after fasting and scourging and vigils; devils and imps horrible and obscene, which the chisel of the stonecutter vainly attempted to reproduce, in their fluctuating abomination, on the capitals and gargoyles of cloister and cathedral. To the artisan, the weaver pent up in some dark cellar into which the daylight stole grey and faint from the narrow strip of blue sky between the overhanging eaves, for him, the hungry and toil-worn and weary of soul, there arose out of the hum of the street above, out of the half-lit dust, the winter damp and summer suffocation of the underground workshop, visions and sounds of sweetness and glory, misty clusters of white-robed angels shedding radiance around them, swaying in mystic linked dances, mingling with the sordid noises of toil seraphic harmonies, now near, now dying away into distance, voices singing of the sunshine and flowers of Paradise. And for others, for the lean and tattered peasant, with the dull, apathetic resignation of the starved and goaded ox or horse, sleeping on the damp clay of his hut and eating strange flourless bread, and stranger carrion flesh, there came a world of the supernatural, different from that of the monk or the artisan, at once terrifying and consoling; the divinities cast out by Christianity, the divinities for ever newly begotten by nature, but begotten of a nature miserably changed, born in exile and obloquy and persecution, fostered by the wretched and the brutified; differing from the gods of antiquity as the desolate heath, barren of all save stones and prickly furze and thistle, differs from the fertile pasture-land; as the forests planted over the cornfield, whence issue wolves, and the Baron's harvest-trampling horses, differ from the forests which gave their oaks and pines to Tyrian ships; divinities warped, and crippled, grown hideous and malignant and unhappy in the likeness of their miserable votaries.

This is the real supernatural, born of the imagination and its surroundings, the vital, the fluctuating, the potent; and it is this which the artist of every age, from Phidias to Giotto, from Giotto to Blake, has been called upon to make known to the multitude. And there had been artistic work going on unnoticed long before the time of any painter or sculptor or poet of whom we have any record; mankind longed from the first to embody, to fix its visions of wonder, it set to work with rough unskilful fingers moulding into shape its divinities. Rude work, ugly, barbarous, blundering scratchings on walls, kneaded clay vessels, notched sticks, nonsense rhymes; but work nevertheless which already showed that art and the supernatural were at variance, the beaked and clawed figures outlined on the wall were compromises between the man and the beast, but definite compromises, so much and no more of the man, so much and no more of the beast; the goddess on the clay vessels became a mere little owl; the divinities even in the nonsense verses were presented now as very distinct cows, now as very distinct clouds, or very distinct men and women; the vague, fluctuating impressions oscillating before the imagination like the colours of a dove's wing, or the pattern of a shot silk, interwoven, unsteady, never completely united into one, never completely separated into several, were rudely seized, disentangled by art; part was taken, part thrown aside; what remained was homogeneous, definite, unchanging; it was what it was and could never be aught else.

Goethe has remarked, with a subjective simplicity of irreverence which is almost comical, that as God created man in his image, it was only fair that man, in his turn, should create God in his image. But the decay of pagan belief was not, as Hegel imagines, due to the fact that Hellenic art was anthropomorphic. The gods ceased to be gods not merely because they became too like men, but because they became too like anything definite. If the ibis on the amulet, or the owl on the terra-cotta, represents a more vital belief in the gods than does the Venus of Milo or the Giustiniani Minerva, it is not because the idea of divinity is more compatible with an ugly bird than with a beautiful woman, but because whereas the beautiful woman, exquisitely wrought by a consummate sculptor, occupied the mind of the artist and of the beholder with the idea of her beauty, to the exclusion of all else, the rudely-engraven ibis, or the badly-modelled owlet, on the other hand, served merely as a symbol, as the recaller of an idea; the mind did not pause in contemplation of the bird, but wandered off in search of the god: the goggle eyes of the owl and the beak of the ibis were soon forgotten in the contemplation of the vague, ever transmuted visions of phenomena of sky and light, of semi-human and semi-bestial shapes, of confused half-embodied forces; in short, of the supernatural. But the human shape did most mischief to the supernatural, merely because the human shape was the most absolute, the most distinct of all shapes: a god might be symbolised as a beast, but he could only be pourtrayed as a man; and if the portrait was correct, then the god was a man, and nothing more. Even the most fantastic among pagan supernatural creatures, those strange monsters who longest kept their original dual nature--the centaurs, satyrs, and tritons--became, beneath the chisel of the artist, mere aberrations from the normal, rare, and curious types like certain fair-booth phenomena, but perfectly intelligible and rational; the very Chimaera, she who was to give her name to every sort of unintelligible fancy, became, in the bas-reliefs of the story of Bellerophon a mere singular mixture between a lion, a dog, and a bird--a cross-breed which happens not to be possible, but which an ancient might well have conceived as adorning some distant zoological collection. How much more rationalised were not the divinities in whom only a peculiar shape of the eye, a certain structure of the leg, or a definite fashion of wearing the hair remained of their former nature. Learned men, indeed, tell us that we need only glance at Hera to see that she is at bottom a cow; at Apollo, to recognise that he is but a stag in human shape: or at Zeus, to recognise that he is, in point of fact, a lion. Yet it remains true that we need only walk down the nearest street to meet ten ordinary men and women who look more like various animals than do any antique divinities, and who can yet never be said to be in reality cows, stags, or lions. The same applies to the violent efforts which are constantly being made to show in the Greek and Latin poets a distinct recollection of the cosmic nature of the gods, construing the very human movements, looks, and dress of divinities into meteorological phenomena, as has been done even by Mr. Ruskin, in his Queen of the Air, despite his artist's sense, which should have warned him that no artistic figure, like Homer's divinities, can possibly be at the same time a woman and a whirlwind. The gods did originally partake of the character of cosmic phenomena, as they partook of the characters of beasts and birds, and of every other species of transformation, such as we may watch in dreams; but as soon as they were artistically embodied, this transformation ceased, the nature had to be specified in proportion as the form became distinct; and the drapery of Pallas, although it had inherited its purple tint from the storm-cloud, was none the less, when it clad the shoulders of the goddess, not a storm-cloud, but a piece of purple linen. "What do you want of me?" asks the artist. "A god," answers the believer. "What is your god to be like?" asks the artist. "My god is to be a very handsome warrior, a serene heaven, which is occasionally overcast with clouds, which clouds are sometimes very beneficial, and become (and so does the god at those moments) heavy-uddered cows; at others, they are dark, and cause annoyance, and then they capture the god, who is the light (but he is also the clouds, remember), and lock him up in a tower, and then he frees himself, and he is a neighing horse, and he is sitting on the prancing horse (which is himself, you know, and is the sky too), in the shape of two warriors, and also----" "May Cerberus devour you!" cries the artist. "How can I represent all this? Do you want a warrior, or a cow, or the heavens, or a horse, or do you want a warrior with the hoofs of a horse and the horns of a cow? Explain, for, by Juno, I can give you only one of these at a time."

Thus, in proportion as the gods were subjected to artistic manipulation, whether by sculptor or poet, they lost their supernatural powers. A period there doubtless was when the gods stood out quite distinct from nature, and yet remained connected with it, as the figures of a high relief stand out from the background; but gradually they were freed from the chaos of impressions which had given them birth, and then, little by little, they ceased to be gods; they were isolated from the world of the wonderful, they were respectfully shelved off into the region of the ideal, where they were contemplated, admired, discussed, but not worshipped even like their statues by Praxiteles and their pictures by Parrhasius. The divinities who continued to be reverenced were the rustic divinities and the foreign gods and goddesses; the divinities which had been safe from the artistic desecration of the cities, and the divinities which were imported from hieratic, unartistic countries like Egypt and Syria; on the one hand, the gods shaped with the pruning-knife out of figwood, and stained with ochre or wine-lees, grotesque mannikins, standing like scarecrows, in orchard or corn-field, to which the peasants crowded in devout procession, leading their cleanly-dressed little ones, and carrying gifts of fruit and milk, while the listless Tibullus, fresh from sceptical Rome, looked on from his doorstep, a vague, childish veneration stealing over his mind; on the other hand, the monstrous goddesses, hundred-breasted or ibis-headed, half hidden in the Syrian and Egyptian temples, surrounded by mysterious priests, swarthy or effeminate, in mitres and tawny robes, jangling their sistra and clashing their cymbals, moving in mystic or frenzied dances, weird, obscene, and unearthly, to the melancholy drone of Phrygian or Egyptian music, sending a shudder through the atheist Catullus, and filling his mind with ghastly visions of victims of the great goddess, bleeding, fainting, lashed on to madness by the wrath of the terrible divinity. These were the last survivors of paganism, and to their protection clung the old gods of Greece and Rome, reduced to human level by art, stripped naked by sculptor and poet and muffling themselves in the homely or barbaric garments of low-born or outlandish usurpers; art had been a worse enemy than scepticism: Apelles and Scopas had done more mischief than Epicurus.

Christian art was, perhaps, more reverent in intention, but not less desecrating in practice; even the Giottesques turned Christ, the Virgin, and the Saints, into mere Florentine men and women; even Angelico himself, although a saint, was unable to show Paradise except as a flowery meadow, under a highly gilded sky, through which moved ladies and youths in most artistic but most earthly embroidered garments; and Hell except as a very hot place where men and women were being boiled and broiled and baked and fried and roasted by very comic little weasel-snouted fiends, which on a carnival car would have made Florentines roar with laughter. The real supernatural was in the cells of fever-stricken, starved visionaries; it was in the contagious awe of the crowd sinking down at the sight of the stained napkin of Bolsena; in that soiled piece of linen was Christ, and God, and Paradise; in that and not in the panels of Angelico and Perugino, or in the frescoes of Signorelli and Filippino.

Why? Because the supernatural is nothing but ever-renewed impressions, ever-shifting fancies; and that art is the definer, the embodier, the analytic and synthetic force of form. Every artistic embodiment of impressions or fancies implies isolation of those impressions or fancies, selection, combination and balancing of them; that is to say, diminution--nay, destruction of their inherent power. As, in order to be moulded, the clay must be separated from the mound; as, in order to be carved, the wood must be cut off from the tree; as, in order to be re-shaped by art, the mass of atoms must be rudely severed; so also the mental elements of art, the mood, the fancy must be severed from the preceding and succeeding moods or fancies; artistic manipulation requires that its intellectual, like its tangible materials, cease to be vital, but the materials, mental or physical, are not only deprived of vitality and power of self-alteration; they are combined in given proportions, the action of the one on the other destroys in great part the special power of each; art is proportion, and proportion is restriction. Last of all, but most important, these isolated, no longer vital materials, neutralised by each other, are further reduced to insignificance by becoming parts of a whole conception; their separate meaning is effaced by the general meaning of the work of art; art bottles lightning to use it as white colour, and measures out thunder by the beat of the chapel-master's roll of notes. But art does not merely restrict impressions and fancies within the limits of form; in its days of maturity and independence it restricts yet closer within the limits of beauty. Partially developed art, still unconscious of its powers and aims, still in childish submission to religion, sets to work conscientiously, with no other object than to embody the supernatural; if the supernatural suffers in the act of embodiment, if the fluctuating fancies which are Zeus or Pallas are limited and curtailed, rendered logical and prosaic even in the wooden pre-historic idol or the roughly kneaded clay owlet, it is by no choice of the artist--his attempt is abortive, because it is thwarted by the very nature of his art. But when art is mature, things are different; the artist, conscious of his powers, instinctively recognising the futility of aiming at the embodiment of the supernatural, dragged by an irresistible longing to the display of his skill, to the imitation of the existing and to the creation of beauty, ceases to strain after the impossible and refuses to attempt anything beyond the possible. The art, which was before a mere insufficient means, is now an all-engrossing aim; unconsciously, perhaps, to himself, the artist regards the subject merely as a pretext for the treatment; and where the subject is opposed to such treatment as he desires, he sacrifices it. He may be quite as conscientious as his earliest predecessor, but his conscience has become an artistic conscience, he sees only as much as is within art's limits; the gods, or the saints, which were cloudy and supernatural to the artist of immature art, are definite and artistic to the artist of mature art; he can think, imagine, feel only in a given manner; his religious conceptions have taken the shape of his artistic creations; art has destroyed the supernatural, and the artist has swallowed up the believer. The attempts at supernatural effects are almost always limited to a sort of symbolical abbreviation, which satisfies the artist and his public respecting the subject of the work, and lends it a traditional association of the supernatural; a few spikes round the head of a young man are all that remains of the solar nature of Apollo; the little budding horns and pointed ears of the satyr must suffice to recall that he was once a mystic fusion of man and beast and forest; a gilded disc behind the head is all that shows that Giotto's figures are immortals in glory; and a pair of wings is all that explains that Perugino's St. Michael is not a mere dainty mortal warrior; the highest mysteries of Christianity are despatched with a triangle and an open book, to draw which Raphael might employ his colour-grinder, while he himself drew the finely-draped baker's daughter from Trastevere.

In all these cases the artist refused to grapple with the supernatural, and dismissed it with a mere stereotyped symbol, not more artistic than the names which he might have engraved beneath each figure. Religious associations were thus awakened without the artist, whether of the time of Pericles or of the time of Leo X., giving himself further trouble; the diffusion of religious ideas and feeling spared art from being religious. Let us, therefore, in order to judge fairly of what art can or cannot do for the supernatural, seek for one of the very rare instances in which the artist has had no symbolical abbreviations at his disposal, and has been obliged, if he would awaken any idea in the mind of the spectator, to do so by means of his artistic creations. The number of such exceptional instances is extremely limited in the great art of antiquity and the Renaissance, when artistic subjects were almost always traditionally religious or plainly realistic, and consequently intelligible at first sight. There is, however, an example, and that example is a masterpiece. It is the engraving by Agostino Veneziano, after a lost drawing by Raphael, generally called "Lo Stregozzo," and representing a witch going to the Sabbath. Through a swampy country, amidst rank and barren vegetation, sweeps the triumphal procession--strange, beautiful, and ghastly; a naked boy dashes headlong in front, bestriding a long-haired he-goat, and blowing a horn, little stolen children packed behind on his saddle; on he dashes, across the tufts of marsh-lily and bulrush, across the stagnant-pools of water, clearing the way and announcing his mistress the witch. She thrones, old, parched, lank, high on the top of an unearthly car, made of the spine and ribs of some antediluvian creature, with springs and traces of ghastly jaw and collar and thigh bones, supported on either side by galloping skeletons, skeletons made up of skeletons, of all that is strangest in the bones and beaks of beasts and birds, on which ride young fauns and satyrs. To her chariot, by a yoke of human bones, are harnessed two stalwart naked youths, and two others sustain its plough-like end; grand, magnificently moving figures, bounding forward like wild horses, the unearthly carriage swinging and creaking as they go. And, as they go, brushing through the high, dry, maremma-grass, the witch cowers on her chariot, clutching in one hand a heap of babies, in the other a vessel filled with fire, whose smoke, mingling with her long, dishevelled hair, floats behind, sweeping through the rank vegetation, curling and eddying into vague, strange semblances of lions, apes, chimaeras. Forward dashes the outrunner on his goat, onward bound the naked litter-bearers; up gallop the fauns and satyrs on the fleshless, monstrous carcases; up and down sways the creaking, cracking chariot of bones; one moment more, and the wild, splendid, hideous triumph will have swept out of sight, leaving behind only trampled marsh-plants and a trail of fantastic, lurid smoke among the ruffled, moaning reeds and grasses.

Such is Raphael's Stregozzo. It is a master-piece of drawing and of pictorial fancy, it is perhaps the highest achievement of great art in the direction of the supernatural: for Duerer is often hideous, Rembrandt always obscure, and the moderns, like Blake and Dore, distinctly run counter to the essential nature of art in their attempts after vagueness. When once told the subject of the print, by Agostino Veneziano, our imagination easily flies off on to the track of the supernatural; but, in so doing, it leaves the work behind, and on return to it we experience a return to the natural. If, on the other hand, we are not told the subject of the print, we very possibly see nothing supernatural in it: there are splendid figures worthy of Michael Angelo, and grotesque fancies, in the shape of the skeletons and coach of bones, worthy of Leonardo; as a whole, the print is striking, beautiful, and problematic, but it falls short of the effect which would be produced by the mere words "a witch riding through a marsh on a chariot of bones," if left to insinuate themselves into the imagination. Of the really supernatural, there is in it but one touch: and that in the only part of the drawing which is left vague; it is the confused shapes assumed by the eddying smoke among the rushes. All the rest is outside the region of the supernatural: it is problematic in subject, but clear, harmonious, and beautiful in treatment; the imagination may wander off from it, but in its presence it must remain passive. With this masterpiece we would fain compare a picture which seems to deal with a cognate subject; a picture as suggestive as it is absolutely artistically worthless. We saw it once, many years ago, among a heap of rubbishy smudges at a picture-dealer's in Rome, and we have never forgotten it--a picture painted by some German smearer of the early sixteenth century; very ugly, stupid, and unattractive; ill drawn, ill composed, of a uniform hard, vulgar brown. It represented, with no attempt at perspective, a level country spread out like a map, dotted here and there with little spired and turretted towns, also a castle or two, a few trees and some rivers, disposed with a child's satisfaction with their mere indication, as much as to say--"here is a town, there is a castle." Some peasants were represented working in the fields, a little train of horsemen coming out of a castle, and near one of the chess-board castles a grass plot with half-a-dozen lit stakes, to which tiny figures were carrying faggots, while men-at-arms and burghers, no bigger than flies, looked on. In the foreground of the great flat expanse lay a boor, a fellow dressed like a field-labourer, in heavy sleep on the ground. Round him on the grass were marked curious circles, and in them was moving a strange figure, in cloak and helmet, with clawed wings and horns, leering horridly, moving round on tiptoe, his arms outstretched, as if gradually encircling the sleeper in order to pounce upon him; despite the complete absence of artistic skill, the gradual inevitable approach of the demon, the irresistible network of circles with which he was surrounding his prey, was perfectly indicated. Above, in the sky, two figures, half demon, half dragon, floated leisurely, like a moored boat, as if a guard of the devil below. What is the exact subject of this picture? No one can tell; but its meaning is intense for the imagination, it has the frightful suggestiveness of some old book on witchcraft, prosaic and curt; of a page opened at random of Sprenger's Malleus Malificarum. Yes; over the plain, the towns, and castles, monotonous and dull, the fiends are hovering; even over the stakes where their votaries are being burnt; and see, the peasant asleep in the field, with his spade and hoe beside him, is being surrounded by magic circles, by the invisible nets of the demon, who prowls round him like a kite ready to pounce on to its quarry.

Why is there no need to write the word witchcraft beneath this picture? Why can this nameless smearer succeed where Raphael has failed? Because he is content to suggest to the imagination, and lets it create for itself its world of the supernatural; because he is not an artist, and because Raphael is; because he suggests everything and shows nothing, while Raphael creates, defines, perfects, gives form to that which is by its nature formless.

If we would bring home to ourselves this action of art on the supernatural, we must examine the only species of supernatural which still retains vitality, and can still be deprived of it by art. That which remains to us of the imaginative workings of the past is traditional and well-nigh effete: we have poems and pictures, Vedic hymns, Hebrew psalms, and Egyptian symbols; we have folklore and dogma; remnants of the supernatural, some labelled in our historic museums, where they are scrutinised, catalogue and eye-glass in hand; others dusty on altars and in chapels, before which we uncover our heads and cast down our eyes: relics of dead and dying faiths, of which some are daily being transferred from the church to the museum; art cannot deprive any of these of that imaginative life and power which they have long ceased to possess. We have forms of the supernatural in which we believe from acquiescence of habit, but they are not vital; we have a form of the supernatural in which, from logic and habit, we disbelieve, but which is vital; and this form of the supernatural is the ghostly. We none of us believe in ghosts as logical possibilities, but we most of us conceive them as imaginative probabilities; we can still feel the ghostly, and thence it is that a ghost is the only thing which can in any respect replace for us the divinities of old, and enable us to understand, if only for a minute, the imaginative power which they possessed, and of which they were despoiled not only by logic, but by art. By ghost we do not mean the vulgar apparition which is seen or heard in told or written tales; we mean the ghost which slowly rises up in our mind, the haunter not of corridors and staircases, but of our fancies. Just as the gods of primitive religions were the undulating, bright heat which made mid-day solitary and solemn as midnight; the warm damp, the sap-riser and expander of life; the sad dying away of the summer, and the leaden, suicidal sterility of winter; so the ghost, their only modern equivalent, is the damp, the darkness, the silence, the solitude; a ghost is the sound of our steps through a ruined cloister, where the ivy-berries and convolvulus growing in the fissures sway up and down among the sculptured foliage of the windows, it is the scent of mouldering plaster and mouldering bones from beneath the broken pavement; a ghost is the bright moonlight against which the cypresses stand out like black hearse-plumes, in which the blasted grey olives and the gnarled fig-trees stretch their branches over the broken walls like fantastic, knotted, beckoning fingers, and the abandoned villas on the outskirts of Italian towns, with the birds flying in and out of the unglazed windows, loom forth white and ghastly; a ghost is the long-closed room of one long dead, the faint smell of withered flowers, the rustle of long-unmoved curtains, the yellow paper and faded ribbons of long-unread letters ... each and all of these things, and a hundred others besides, according to our nature, is a ghost, a vague feeling we can scarcely describe, a something pleasing and terrible which invades our whole consciousness, and which, confusedly embodied, we half dread to see behind us, we know not in what shape, if we look round.

Call we in our artist, or let us be our own artist; embody, let us see or hear this ghost, let it become visible or audible to others besides ourselves; paint us that vagueness, mould into shape that darkness, modulate into chords that silence--tell us the character and history of those vague beings ... set to work boldly or cunningly. What do we obtain? A picture, a piece of music, a story; but the ghost is gone. In its stead we get oftenest the mere image of a human being; call it a ghost if you will, it is none. And the more complete the artistic work, the less remains of the ghost. Why do those stories affect us most in which the ghost is heard but not seen? Why do those places affect us most of which we merely vaguely know that they are haunted? Why most of all those which look as if they might be haunted? Why, as soon as a figure is seen, is the charm half-lost? And why, even when there is a figure, is it kept so vague and mist-like? Would you know Hamlet's father for a ghost unless he told you he was one? and can you remember it long while he speaks in mortal words? and what would be Hamlet's father without the terrace of Elsinore, the hour, and the moonlight? Do not these embodied ghosts owe what little effect they still possess to their surroundings, and are not the surroundings the real ghost?

Throw sunshine on to them, and what remains? Thus we have wandered through the realm of the supernatural in a manner neither logical nor business-like, for logic and business-likeness are rude qualities, and scare away the ghostly; very far away do we seem to have rambled from Dr. Faustus and Helen of Sparta; but in this labyrinth of the fantastic there are sudden unexpected turns--and see, one of these has suddenly brought us back into their presence. For we have seen why the supernatural is always injured by artistic treatment, why therefore the confused images evoked in our mind by the mere threadbare tale of Faustus and Helena are superior in imaginative power to the picture carefully elaborated and shown us by Goethe. We can now understand why under his hand the infinite charm of the weird meeting of antiquity and the Middle Ages has evaporated. We can explain why the strange fancy of the classic Walpurgis-night, in the second part of Faust, at once stimulates the imagination and gives it nothing. If we let our mind dwell on that mysterious Pharsalian plain, with its glimmering fires and flamelets alone breaking the darkness, where Faust and Mephistopheles wandering about meet the spectres of antiquity, shadowy in the gloom--the sphinxes crouching, the sirens, the dryads and oreads, the griffons and cranes flapping their unseen wings overhead; where Faust springs on the back of Chiron, and as he is borne along sickens for sudden joy when the centaur tells him that Helen has been carried on that back, has clasped that neck; when we let our mind work on all this, we are charmed by the weird meetings, the mysterious shapes which elbow us; but let us take up the volume and we return to barren prose, without colour or perfume. Yet Goethe felt the supernatural as we feel it, as it can be felt only in days of disbelief, when the more logical we become in our ideas, the more we view nature as a prosaic machine constructed by no one in particular, the more poignantly, on the other hand, do we feel the delight of the transient belief in the vague and the impossible; the greater the distinctness with which we see and understand all around us, the greater the longing for a momentary half-light in which forms may appear stranger, grander, vaguer than they are. We moderns seek in the world of the supernatural a renewal of the delightful semi-obscurity of vision and keenness of fancy of our childhood; when a glimpse into fairyland was still possible, when things appeared in false lights, brighter, more important, more magnificent than now. Art indeed can afford us calm and clear enjoyment of the beautiful--enjoyment serious, self-possessed, wide-awake, such as befits mature intellects; but no picture, no symphony, no poem, can give us that delight, that delusory, imaginative pleasure which we received as children from a tawdry engraving or a hideous doll; for around that doll there was an atmosphere of glory. In certain words, in certain sights, in certain snatches of melody, words, sights, and sounds which we now recognise as trivial, commonplace, and vulgar, there was an ineffable meaning; they were spells which opened doors into realms of wonder; they were precious in proportion as they were misappreciated. We now appreciate and despise; we see, we no longer imagine. And it is to replace this uncertainty of vision, this liberty of seeing in things much more than there is, which belongs to man and to mankind in this childhood, which compensated the Middle Ages for starvation and pestilence, and compensates the child for blows and lessons, it is to replace this that we crave after the supernatural, the ghostly--no longer believed, but still felt. It was from this sickness of the prosaic, this turning away from logical certainty, that the men of the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of this century, the men who had finally destroyed belief in the religious supernatural, who were bringing light with new sciences of economy, philology, and history--Schiller, Goethe, Herder, Coleridge--left the lecture-room and the laboratory, and set gravely to work on ghostly tales and ballads. It was from this rebellion against the tyranny of the possible that Goethe was charmed with that culmination of all impossibilities, that most daring of ghost stories, the story of Faustus and Helena. He felt the seduction of the supernatural, he tried to embody it--and he failed.

The case was different with Marlowe. The bringing together of Faustus and Helena had no special meaning for the man of the sixteenth century, too far from antiquity and too near the Middle Ages to perceive as we do the strange difference between them; and the supernatural had no fascination in a time when it was all permeating and everywhere mixed with prose. The whole play of Dr. Faustus is conceived in a thoroughly realistic fashion; it is tragic, but not ghostly. To Marlowe's audience, and probably to Marlowe himself, despite his atheistic reputation, the story of Faustus's wonders and final damnation was quite within the realm of the possible; the intensity of the belief in the tale is shown by the total absence of any attempt to give it dignity or weirdness. Faustus evokes Lucifer with a pedantic semi-biblical Latin speech; he goes about playing the most trumpery conjuror's tricks--snatching with invisible hands the food from people's lips, clapping horns and tails on to courtiers for the Emperor's amusement, letting his legs be pulled off like boots, selling wisps of straw as horses, doing and saying things which could appear tragic and important, nay, even serious, only to people who took every second cat for a witch, who burned their neighbours for vomiting pins, who suspected devils at every turn, as the great witch-expert Sprenger shows them in his horribly matter-of-fact manual. We moderns, disbelieving in devilries, would require the most elaborately romantic and poetic accessories--a splendid lurid back-ground, a magnificent Byronian invocation of the fiend. The Mephistophilis of Marlowe, in those days when devils still dwelt in people, required none of Goethe's wit or poetry; the mere fact of his being a devil, with the very real association of flame and brimstone in this world and the next, was sufficient to inspire interest in him; whereas in 1800, with Voltaire's novels and Hume's treatises on the table, a dull devil was no more endurable than any other sort of bore. The very superiority of Marlowe is due to this absence of weirdness, to this complete realism; the last scene of the English play is infinitely above the end of the second part of Faust in tragic grandeur, just because Goethe made abortive attempts, after a conscious and artificial supernatural, while Marlowe was satisfied with perfect reality of situation. The position of Faustus, when the years of his pact have expired, and he awaits midnight, which will give him over to Lucifer, is as thoroughly natural in the eyes of Marlowe as is in the eyes of Shelley the position of Beatrice Cenci awaiting the moment of execution. The conversation between Faustus and the scholars, after he has made his will, is terribly life-like: they disbelieve at first, pooh-pooh his danger; then, half-convinced, beg that a priest may be fetched; but Faustus cannot deal with priests. He bids them, in agony, go pray in the next room. "Aye, pray for me, pray for me, and what noise soever you hear, come not unto me, for nothing can save me.... Gentlemen, farewell; if I live till morning, I'll visit you; if not, Faustus is gone to hell." Faustus remains alone for the one hour which separates him from his doom; he clutches at the passing time, he cries to the hours to stop with no rhetorical figure of speech, but with a terrible reality of agony:

Let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul.

Time to repent, time to recoil from the horrible gulf into which he is being sucked; Christ, will Christ's blood not save him? He would leap up to heaven and cling fast, but Lucifer drags him down. He would seek annihilation in nature, be sucked into its senseless, feelingless mass ... and, meanwhile, the time is passing, the interval of respite is shrinking and dwindling. Would that he were a soulless brute and might perish, or that at least eternal hell were finite--a thousand, a hundred thousand years let him suffer, but not for ever and without end! Midnight begins striking. With convulsive agony he exclaims as the rain patters against the window:

O soul, be changed into small water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found.

But the twelfth stroke sounds; Lucifer and his crew enter; and when next morning the students, frightened by the horrible tempest and ghastly noises of the night, enter his study, they find Faustus lying dead, torn and mangled by the demon. All this is not supernatural in our sense; such scenes as this were real for Marlowe and his audience. Such cases were surely not unfrequent; more than one man certainly watched through such a night in hopeless agony, conscious, like Faustus, of pact with the fiend--awaiting, with earth and heaven shut and bolted against him, eternal hell.

In this story of Doctor Faustus, which, to Marlowe and his contemporaries, was not a romance but a reality, the episode of the evoking of Helen is extremely secondary in interest. To raise a dead woman was not more wonderful than to turn wisps of straw into horses, and it was perhaps considered the easier of the two miracles; the sense of the ordinary ghostly is absent, and the sense that Helen is the ghost of a whole long-dead civilisation, that sense which is for us the whole charm of the tale, could not exist in the sixteenth century. Goethe's Faust feels for Helen as Goethe himself might have felt, as Winckelmann felt for a lost antique statue, as Schiller felt for the dead Olympus: a passion intensely imaginative and poetic, born of deep appreciation of antiquity, the essentially modern, passionate, nostalgic craving for the past. In Marlowe's play, on the contrary, Faustus and the students evoke Helen from a confused pedantic impression that an ancient lady must be as much superior to a modern lady as an ancient poem, be it even by Statius or Claudian, must be superior to a modern poem--it is a humanistic fancy of the days of the revival of letters. But, by a strange phenomenon, Marlowe, once realising what Helen means, that she is the fairest of women, forgets the scholarly interest in her. Faustus, once in presence of the wonderful woman, forgets that he had summoned her up to gratify his and his friends' pedantry; he sees her, loves her, and bursts out into the splendid tirade full of passionate fancy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!
Her lips suck forth my soul! See, where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
Oh! thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azure arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

This is real passion for a real woman, a woman very different from the splendid semi-vivified statue of Goethe, the Helen with only the cold, bloodless, intellectual life which could be infused by enthusiastic studies of ancient literature and art, gleaming bright like marble or a spectre. This Helena of Marlowe is no antique; the Elizabethan dramatist, like the painter of the fifteenth century, could not conceive the purely antique, despite all the translating of ancient writers, and all the drawing from ancient marbles. One of the prose versions of the story of Faustus, contains a quaint account of Helen, which sheds much light on Marlowe's conception:

This lady appeared before them in a most rich gowne of purple velvet, costly imbrodered; her haire hanged downe loose, as faire as the beaten gold, and of such length that it reached downe to her hammes; having most amorous cole-black eyes, a sweet and pleasant round face, with lips as red as a cherry; her cheeks of a rose colour, her mouth small, her neck white like a swan; tall and slender of personage; in summe, there was no imperfect place in her; she looked around about with a rolling hawk's eye, a smiling and wanton countenance, which neerehand inflamed the hearts of all the students, but that they persuaded themselves she was a spirit, which make them lightly passe away such fancies.

This fair dame in the velvet embroidered gown, with the long, hanging hair, this Helen of the original Faustus legend, is antique only in name; she belongs to the race of mediaeval and modern women--the Lauras, Fiammettas, and Simonettas of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Lorenzo dei Medici; she is the sister of that slily sentimental coquette, the Monna Lisa of Leonardo. The strong and simple women of Homer, and even of Euripides, majestic and matronly even in shame, would repudiate this slender, smiling, ogling beauty; Briseis, though the captive of Achilles' spear, would turn with scorn from her. The antique woman has a dignity due to her very inferiority and restrictedness of position; she has the simplicity, the completeness, the absence of everything suggestive of degradation, like that of some stately animal, pure in its animal nature. The modern woman, with more freedom and more ideal, rarely approaches to this character; she is too complex to be perfect, she is frail because she has an ideal, she is dubious because she is free, she may fall because she may rise. Helen deserted Menelaus and brought ruin upon Troy, therefore, in the eyes of Antiquity, she was the victim of fate, she might be unruffled, spotless, majestic; but to the man of the sixteenth century she was merely frail and false. The rolling hawk's eye and the wanton smile of the old legend-monger would have perplexed Homer, but they were necessary for Marlowe; his Helen was essentially modern, he had probably no inkling that an antique Helen as distinguished from a modern could exist. In the paramour of Faustus he saw merely the most beautiful woman, some fair and wanton creature, dressed not in chaste and majestic antique drapery, but in fantastic garments of lawn, like those of Hero in his own poem:

The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;
Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove
Where Venus, in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;
Her kirtle blue....
Upon her head she wore a myrtle wreath
From whence her veil reached to the ground beneath;
Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves
Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives.

Some slim and dainty goddess of Botticelli, very mortal withal, long and sinuous, tightly clad in brocaded garments and clinging cobweb veils, beautiful with the delicate, diaphanous beauty, rather emaciated and hectic, of high rank, and the conscious, elaborate fascination of a woman of fashion--a creature whom, like the Gioconda, Leonardo might have spent years in decking and painting, ever changing the ornaments and ever altering the portrait; to whom courtly poets like Bembo and Castiglione might have written scores of sonnets and canzoni to her hands, her eyes, her hair, her lips, a fanciful inventory to which she listened languidly under the cypresses of Florentine gardens. Some such being, even rarer and more dubious for being an exotic in the England of Elizabeth, was Marlowe's Helen; such, and not a ghostly figure, descended from a pedestal, white and marble-like in her unruffled drapery, walking with solid step and unswerving, placid glance through the study, crammed with books, and vials, and strange instruments, of the mediaeval wizard of Wittenberg. Marlowe deluded himself as well as Faustus, and palmed off on to him a mere modern lady. To raise a real spectre of the antique is a craving of our own century; Goethe attempted to do it and failed, for what reasons we have seen; but we have all of us the charm wherewith to evoke for ourselves a real Helena, on condition that, unlike Faustus and unlike Goethe, we seek not to show her to others, and remain satisfied if the weird and glorious figure haunt only our own imagination.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Faustus And Helena