Dionysus in the Euganean Hills, Walter Pater in Memoriam, by Vernon Lee

“Dionysus in the Euganean Hills”

W. H. Pater in Memoriam

From The Contemporary Review, pp. 346- 353.

346 Looking over my notes of travel before the war—how irrecoverably precious that past now seems!—I have just lit upon one dated Auxerre, September, 1910, which has led me to re-read Pater’s imaginary portrait entitled Denys l’Auxerrois. If you recollect –or for your greater pleasure, re-read!—that essay whose pre-Raphaelite mediaevalism removes it almost as far from ourselves as are their bona fide Middle Ages it turns to such delightful Morris-chintz patterns, you will be aware that it sets forth the tragic reappearance of the exiled Dionysus in mediaeval Burgundy. Furthermore, that the author pretends this legend was represented in a series of ancient tapestries seen by him in a country priest’s house of those parts. This introduction allows Pater to prepare his background, even as Morris and Burne-Jones elaborated their borders and lattices of stylised honeysuckles or briar-roses with birds nestling and squirrels nibbling inside them; a descriptive framework, rather, on to whose suggestions of pleasant fruitfulness to embroider that would-be gruesome story, which thereby became akin to the Bacchae than to the Earthly Paradise. Mr Pater’s visit to that particular maison de curé among its vines and hives near the River Yonne I never could have sworn to. Still less was my belief in such a set of tapestries as he alleges having found there. Indeed, knowing how much more literary than visual was all our pre-Raphaelite inspiration, and Pater’s quite especially, it had never entered my head that he could have got his exiled Dionysus from any visible work of art. When suddenly, one day, there, far more plainly and unquestionably than in those apocryphal arrases, there, before my very eyes, was Denys l’Auxerrois.

There meaning in this case Auxerre Cathedral; and more particularly the main wall of the left hand side of the choir, near the transept; and more particularly still, the capital one of its arched niches. These, which forgetting the proper architectural designation, I call arched niches, naturally go all round the choir, and their brackets, three by three between each little column, are carved with vine foliage, with, in several cases, a head emerging from it. The one which struck me first, and made me exclaim “Why, there’s Denys,” is among the largest; a face young, though not so much beardless as clean-shaven, the nose shapely, but not at all classic; cheek bones high, a suggestion of shorn hair, and the general look of a monk or a clerk. It is framed by two branches of vine, with the small, close grapes of northern vineyards, a bird // 347 pecking on one side. The branches unite, or, if it is all one vine, they divide under the youth’s chin, hiding the neck. His irregular mouth is wide open, and so are the eyes under heavy brows. The expression is compounded of simplicity and cunning, befitting a rustic. It is Pater’s Denys, as he first appeared in Auxerre, the gardener and dealer in honey and home baked sweet meats. But behold! Close at hand, on a similar vine-wreath bracket, another Denys and yet another one! The nearest is a smaller and mess characteristic version of the first, as if a popular theme had been repeated by a lesser sculptor; this time the head is conventional, even classical, and the vine-leaves form a cap over the curly hair; the god is revealing his Ovidian nature. On the other side of the one which first caught my attention is a still less realistic, but this time anything but conventionally classic, Denys. For this one had flame-shaped locks fling upwards into the semblance of horns, and a queer look of effort, pain, and wickedness in the prominent eyes and little twisted mouth; such might be an obdurate warlock at the stake! And, as if the saltpetre in the wall knew what the carven image meant, a dark stain has trickled across the ill-omened face. Having seen these three enigmatic effigies of that same man or demon, one notices, on the other side of the choir, two grotesque heads surrounded by vines, into whose leaves their hair and whiskers are growing, while little imps peer out of that uncanny leafage. Here, therefore, we get at the origin of Pater’s wonderful story; Denys l’Auxerrois in his successive human and daemonic manifestations. In this guise did that ambiguous immortal meet our great pre-Raphaelite prose-poet during those rainy days he records himself to have spent in that Burgundian cathedral town.

Now it so happens that I likewise have in my day come across the exiled Dionysus. And it is strange—as strange, in fact, as any legend or myth, and, perhaps, as worth pointing out—how a very few years, less than a lifetime (for Mr Pater was my kind personal friend even while he was writing that story) will change the colours and shapes wherein we embody our imaginative emotion; as many Pasts coming to be created in our mind as there are successive literary generations to recreate them each to its liking. Let this consideration absolve me from the charge of arrogance if I venture to place alongside of that elaborate Morris-embroidery entitled Denys l’Auxerrois my own rough modern sketch, a few random colour-trickles on the paper of a travelling note-book, in the corner of which stands the meaningless pencil memorandum: Diuonysus at Rovolon.

Of course more than one divinity of the Pagans went into exile: first and foremost Venus in Wagner’s opera and the old Wunder-//348 barn ballad: “Frau Venus meine Minne, Ihr seid ein Teufelinne”; Zeus also, who hawks rabbits’ skins in Heine’s shocking story; Apollo, of whom, in a much finer companion-piece to Denys l’Auxerrois, Pater himself fabled a reappearance in mediaeval Picardy; let alone no end of gods and goddesses who lurked in peasant legend, sometimes disguised as local saints, or (as I am told of the mountains south of Rome) carrying off mortal brides in the shape of wild men of the woods even to this day. Exile like this, implying an in-and-out existence of alternate mysterious appearance and disappearance is, therefore, a kind of haunting; the gods who had it partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages, and with the wistful eeriness of all ghosts, merely to think on whom makes our hair, like Job’s, rise up; tragic beings and, as likely as not, malevolent towards living men. Now of all gods Dionysus is the one fittest for such sinister exile. Even on the heyday of Paganism gruesome mysteriousness was half of his stake: a wandering, persecuted divinity, born of horrific and uncouth miracle, addicted to animal incarnations very different from Father Zeus’s trivial masquerades in quest of gallantry; moreover, of whom you were not quite sure (as in the Bacchae) whether he was the priest of the god or the god himself; and, as beseemed his Asiatic origin, inspiring his votaries with bloodthirsty rapture. Of all the gods of the Greek mainland he dwells least in the cheerful statuesque glare of Olympus, or in Olympian annexes, the dazzling marble (or white enamelled) Periklean temples, an ivory and gold masterpiece, attractive to tourists. Poetry had never cleansed him entirely of the pathetic, earthly stains proper to vegetation spirits, as of the peasant’s anguished handling when the rebirth of spring was deferred or else the premature rising sap checked by late frosts. Neither had the cosmopolitan forgetfulness of the city purged away the corrupt, musky scent of the old snake-ancestry hidden beneath the hearth or boundary-stone; nor was the subterranean taint, common to all spirits presiding over the death and rebirth of crops and seasons and of human families, compensated in his case by anything analogous to the sad, but kindly, motherliness of his cognate divinity, Demeter, pure like her cornfield and oven. Whence it came about that his ritual, for all its interludes of obscene frolic and jovial horseplay, contained the germ of tragedy, his priest occupying the high seat in the rock-hewn theatre at Athens; nay, that he has grown to be the symbol of moods which seek deliverance from reality in horror as well as excessive rapture, what Nietzsche has taught us to distinguish as the Dionysiac, as opposed to the Apolline side of art. Was he not the mystery, in human or divine shape, of the unaccountable dreams and trans//349 formations, the sublimations and degradations due to the supreme mysteriousness, one might say, the supreme elemental mystery, of fermentation and its effects? This apartness, this sinister fascination is set forth, one knows not whether in superstitious awe or sceptical disgust, or both together (which would suit the ambiguous Dionysiac nature) by Euripides, in the Bacchae, with its elaborate description of delicate women turn [sic] about suckling and tearing to pieces the cubs of wild beasts; of dewy woodlands strewn with scraps of almost living, nay, human flesh, and its sanctioned, at least nowise purified away, abomination of a mother inspired by the god to lynch her own son in orgiastic madness. But the same intuition of this god’s sinister nature, of that which made Pater recognise him in those mediaeval carvings at Auxerre –is manifest in the more restrained suggestions of the earlier fifth-century vase-painters of Athens.

These incomparable craftsmen, tempting one to think sometimes that, when all is said and done, theirs is the only authentic and intact early Greek art remaining to us—these still just a trifle archaic masters of the red figure on black ground, do not know Dionysus as the nude, languid lad of Praxitelean sculpture, still less in the “plumpy Bacchus,” jocund and debonair of Roman poets and Renaissance art. They show the God of Wine as a full-grown man, still wearing the pointed archaic beard which Apollo and Hermes shave off after the black figure days; moreover, retaining, unlike them, the elaborate, embroidered Ionic garb of pre-Persian times. And if, as is said by Euripides’s unbelieving Pentheus, Dionysus is a seducer of women, though little more than a woman himself, his effeminacy is like that of those beautiful languid Arabs one has seen lolling under awnings, and who strike one as women in disguise, the beard against their jasmine cheeks seeming some kind of ritual half-mask. And as to the “golden tresses,” that one could swear was King Pentheus’s mistake, the utmost in blondness being a superficial reddening of black hair and beard with some Oriental dye. Indeed, one cannot but fancy that these vase-painters intended him for a semi-Asiatic, one come to Greece from Lydia; and, by the way, resembling in person the Lydian King Croesus, as we see him on a wonderful vase, curled and arrayed in embroidered vestments, pouring a libation, throned high on his own ready-kindled pyre; a priestly, ghostlike monarch. Dionysus wears the same Ionic garb, embroidered women’s weeds, you would say; crinkled and clinging, which we know from the Acropolis “Maidens,” and which, in his ritually moving, striding, and sliding figure, take the appearance of ecclesiastic vestments, making one think of youthful bearded deacons of the orthodox rite, seen appearing and disappearing among the extraordinarily //350 sweet incense and the plagal chaunts of some golden-screened Byzantine church. But more than a hieratic, a mystic, nay, an eerie quality, is unmistakeable in these early red-figure representations of Dionysus. He is never concerned with the personages who surround him, never looking at them, or else fixing them with an almost hypnotising stare, a sombre, voluptuous dreamer, taking no part in the riotous or barbarous scenes over which he presides with rapid, aloof movement, more like a sinister strain of music, which compels but is outside those whom it is compelling. We see him thus in a pointed, i. e. socket, amphora found at Vulci, and an ordinary amphora, signed Phintias, from Corneto. But most in what is, to my mind, the loveliest of all vase-paintings, already Phidian but with the restraint and resilience of older drawings, the Munich Krater, showing the youthful Hephaestus, half asleep on his mule, being led into Olympus by a kingly, bearded young Dionysus, moving swift as in some mystic dance, dangerously triumphant.

The better to emphasise the ambiguous and even sinister character of Dionysus, I have already contrasted him with the other vegetation-divinity who knew little of Olympian, almost Lucretian, absenteeism, and retained something of the obscure and unintelligible of primeaval ritual, one might almost say the bogey quality of rustic art: namely, Demeter. I want to dilate on the contrast between these two divinities, because it helps to explain the evil ambiguousness of Euripides’, and even those early draughtsmen’s, Dionysus by which, far more than the mere vine-wreaths, Pater identified those disquieting effigies on the Auxerre brackets with an exiled, suffering (and, in Pater’s mild manner), decidedly terrifying mediaeval Bacchus. As already remarked, both the goddess and the god had, as indeed Pater was one of the first to show, a common status apart, that of earth spirits as distinguished from Olympians; with, hanging about them, somewhat of the winter hardships and anxieties which Hesiod attributes to his wretched husbandman; let alone some of the dread mystery of the forefathers whom the tribesman needed to placate because he had banished these dead folk to below ground. The difference comes in with the contrasted nature and functions of the crop over which the goddess and the god respectively presided. For all her sorrows and her relation to the Queen of Hades, Demeter has the midday radiance and delicate, wholesome scent of the ripening cornfield and the purity of the aromatic flame with which the oven glows, so that the family and the stranger at the gates may have their daily bread.

It is very different with Dionysus. His gift is not that which supports life. It is the miraculous superfluity whereof poets never // 351 tire of repeating that it consoles for life’s miseries, gives the rein to the hopes and fancies, the ecstasies and barbarities which humdrum existence has said No to. But if we would understand Dionysus, we must remember that the fumes which cling about him are heady in much more than this metaphysical sense; and that, almost as much as the drinking of wine, its very making is fraught with strangeness. It is an underground process, like the germination of the seed, yet not a mere inference which we forget in the visible green wonder of the corn in spring. The subterranean vicissitudes of the grape are manifest to all the sense and in a manner nowise reassuring; moreover, they constitute a dark human rite as well as a mystery of Nature. Wine comes into being in places consecrated to that purpose by men, and oddly reminiscent of those which men have consecrated to their dead, rock-hewn caves, reminding you of such sepulchres as those of the Volumnii by the Umbrian Tiber; or else crypts of masonry, their vastness hidden rather than revealed by flickering lamps of clay or the smoky flare of such torches as are still used for funerals. Into these tomb-like places the grapes are brought; the grapes we have watched for weeks swelling violet or amber or ambrosial rosy against the blue sky, where they seem to float among the sun-shot leaves; live things tended and cherished beyond all other fruits, yet one day, the forerunner of autumn tempest, torn brutally from the ravaged elms and maples, squeezed into hods and trays like open coffins, carried in wattled bullock carts as solemn as hearses, away from the herb-scented sunshine, engulfed into the subterranean darkness. There, hurled into the huge vats, they are trampled, like the enemies of the Lord, by red-stained men who, when they climb back over the steep side of that vessel, will often reel or faint with those fumes which hang for days (and even more, nights) about the farms and vintners’ streets, breeding a cloud of gnats, the sour-sweet fumes of the must. That much is well known from literary descriptions of the vintage. One needs have lived through autumns in the South to know that the accompanying sounds are a great deal more weird and unaccountable. When you enter at midday one of those cellars, climb up the sides of a vat, and peer for a second into its seething darkness, you are willing to explain them by the bubbling of the must, the strain of oaken timbers and iron hoops under the violence of fermentation, adding for further explanation the queer echoes of these vaults. But when evening is come, and you are walking, bats whirling round in the green autumn twilight, on the paved terrace of some old Italian country-house, you are startled, and overcome once more by doubt, not unmingled with dread, when those sounds rise suddenly through the cellar-bars with a whiff of must; groans and heart-// 352 broken wailings and half-choked sobs, as of human captives, or rather, demons.

To primitive men they must have expressed the death-agonies of the trampled grape, of the lacerated fibres of the mother-vat in the cruel miracle of the wine’s double birth, sanctioning the dreadful stories which were retailed about the rites of the wine-god: how Orpheus was lynched by the Thracian maenads, and how Queen Agave mistook her own son for a wild beast and tore him to pieces in the polluted glens of Cithaeron.

Be this archaeological matter as it may, this much is certain, that to those lamentations of the vat’s travail, fitfully rising with fumes of fermentation as I paced up and down the villa terrace during autumn evenings, is due that I also have come across the exiled Dionysus, though in a shape less human, but only the more mythical, than that described in Pater’s Denys l’Auxerrois.

It happened, appropriately enough—and appropriateness is half of every myth’s genesis—among the Euganean hills, haunted by legends of ancient enchantments and by the poetry of Shelley, those volcanic clustering cones mimicking the congregated domes of Venetian churches as they are fitfully revealed across the lagoon burnished by afterglow. It was at a village, or hamlet rather, called Rovolon. Rambling by myself one October afternoon past a certain little dismantled (and my friends say haunted) Venetian villa, whose benches and gateposts, against the unclipped hornbeam hedges, look, from a distance, vaguely like altars and statues, I followed a mountain road, twisting among rocks like the tail of Mantegna’s dragon; and presently found myself at Rovolon. I had never before got so far, only seen its extinguisher-shaped steeple from across the deep valleys, the church itself and few surrounding houses hidden in the russet chestnut slope and the sunny haze or evening mists of the great wooded volcanic hill. The tiny church, when I got up to it, was not without due Venetian grace. And in it I found the remains of some recent festival: frayed crimson velvet banners and carved and gilded lanterns and cressets propped, along with a folded, wine-coloured silk canopy, against the columns of the nave. Also a row of those great wax-lights, with silver handles through their middles, such as are being carried in Bellini’s procession through St Mark’s, and also in Carpaccio’s Miracle of the True Cross. Outside, in front of a dilapidated Venetian palace turned into a wineshop, hung garlands and rose triumphal arches of bay and arbutus, rusted already by sun and rain, their sweet, faded scent mingling with that of must and of wine-soaked oaken vessels which hangs everywhere in the damp autumn air, carried by bullock-wains which creak slowly up and down the hill-roads. The vintage, doubtless, it was which had // 353 emptied the village of its few inhabitants, at all events of those belonging to my own time and kind. For I grew aware that the recent procession had not really been in honour of the wax-doll Madonna enthroned in her brocade farthingale cut out of the wedding-dress of some Venetian lady. Its central figure, as the little crowd wound along in the flare and resinous smoke of the torches which serve also for funerals, was surely some Dionysus solemnly striding, as shown on that Attic mixing-bowl: the priestly, bearded divinity in Ionic feminine weeds, his wreathing tresses reddened with henna to match the russet vines still hanging from the elms; the god about to be trampled to death in the vat, but ready to resurrect like the sun at the winter solstice, when the new wine shall be clarified with choice grapes dried intact upon matting, made fit for mortals to drink; as the poets say, happy oblivion of the winter’s harshness and the unkindness of human fate. And round Dionysus, as he appeared to me before the village church of Rovolon, there rose such chaunted lamentations as would be the translation into archaic musical modes of the pipings and wailings and groans which arose, of autumn evenings, from under the terrace-flags what time the grape juice ferments in the vast cellars below.

I loitered till the return of the living inhabitants, in that festively garlanded, dilapidated village. And it was borne in on me why, for all his revellings, the wine-god was also a god of death, who presided over the latest (save for the olive) harvest of the declining year; the spirit, undeniably, of decaying leaves, wet moss, mists and autumn melancholy, of the languor of tepid scirocos and the tragedy of crimson sunsets crumbling on to leaden horizons. Just such a sunset was coming to an end as I tore myself away from that shrine of the exiled Dionysus. It was turning chilly as I descended that Mantegnesque high road to where, across the valley, the first lights were appearing reassuringly in my friend’s house. That turned the twilight into dusk. And as I once more skirted the dismantled and haunted little Venetian villa lying half-way, the marble gateposts and benches against the high untrimmed hedges looked more than ever like mysterious statues and altars.


1 Response to Dionysus in the Euganean Hills, Walter Pater in Memoriam, by Vernon Lee

  1. tzanjo says:

    Thanks for posting!

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