The Gods and Ritter Tanhûser
The Absentee Immortals
It was in what we call the thirteenth century of the Christian era, of which chronological arrangement, as of the lapse of time and the need for salvation, they were naturally unaware, that the Olympian Divinities blundered once more into our world’s history, in connexion with the Thuringian Minnesinger Tanhûser, who thereby acquired a species of immortality, or (as Christian theologians put it) incurred a kind of damnation, not entirely unlike their own.
The truth about this matter is the following:
–The Gods, as usual, were engaged in active enjoyment of their divine lot, and more especially of the serene bliss which they had tasted ever since their dismissal, several hundreds of years before, from all concern with mortal men, and their retirement to those spheres beyond the Flaming Bounds of Space and Time to which Lucretius had always suggested their relegation. The precise whereabouts of those regions it is, of course, quite hopeless to determine; and perhaps the most enlightening fact we may mention about them is that, while uniting the charms of every possible earthly climate and locality, what they most thoroughly resembled was no place nowhere. Howsoever this may be, the Reader should picture the Gods there assembled, in a landscape just a trifle autumnal in the serenity of its skies, and whose rustling leaves and murmurous waters might, to an attentive mortal ear, have seemed faintly musical with the Elysian dances and the wood-wind solos of Gluck. Let the Reader further recall the solemn yet amiable company of Celestial Beings who are seated, in shapely, but nowise incommodious, Empire chairs on the frieze of the Parthenon, and he will have an adequate though not erroneous notion of the aspect of the banished, or more correctly speaking, the released Olympians. Ceasing to receive at the hands of mortal superstition the gross tribute requiring absorption by tissues and organs of earthly vileness, they had become, in philosophical phrase, pure ideas vested in pure forms, exquisite semblances whose Parian translucency hid no baser parts, and which emitted from an ivory surface just becomingly softened by time, a mild ineffable radiance; their wide-opened eyes beneath smooth brows and their flowerlike lips, nay even the ambrosial curls on their filleted dome-shaped heads uniting (like the instruments of a symphony) in the expression of wise, satisfied and yet just a trifle wistful enjoyment. And they seemed, indeed, to draw in, inhale and taste with every divinely perfect sense the loveliness of themselves and of their surroundings.
With the more than mortal monotony of pure ideas and consummate forms they were discussing the perpetual and ever new subject of their present blessedness; contrasting it (since contrast is essential to all thought and all form) with the imperfections of the Past.
Apollo, the God of lyrism and rhetoric was indeed just a little exaggerating both aspects of the case. He contrasted with the disembodied joys—intense, all pervading and unclutchable like the sunshine—of their present condition the precarious and sometimes odious relations in which the Olympians had formerly stood towards their worshippers. Nowadays they were adored and invoked only by poets and artists, and upon the most dignified and useless occasions—while then! And he painted a masterly picture of the ignominies of tripod-prophecy in answer to futile questions and silly dreams; of the depressing troops of sick persons (he alluded briefly to the case of Admetus, husband of Alkestis) so indecorously unwilling to have done with the miseries of life. He even adverted, in terms at once veiled and vigorous, to the sickening mess of the hecatombs and the sacrificial reek of boiled fat. As he spoke, his words dropped naturally into poetical numbers and musical intervals; moreover, delivering them with the unabashed resonance of the professional lyrist, he entirely drowned the dissenting murmurs of Ares and Herakles, who were protesting rather shamefacedly that the scent of burnt offerings had more than once been grateful to their divine appetite.
“Of course,” remarked Zeus, who always spoke very nearly as loud as Apollo, “it would be unworthy of the father and king of the Gods to suggest that he could have suffered any diminution or opposition to his wishes. Yet eternal justice, which I continue (fortunately) not to enact but to represent, constrains me to point out that Apollo, like his sisters the Muses, has on the whole come off the best of all of us Olympians in the Great Change; they being perpetually invoked without any expectation of assistance by their votaries, so that they have only exchanged one sinecure for another.”
Apollo, however, was far too full of his subject to notice this interruption.
“Hail, race of mortals!” he finally burst out, changing from a faintly accompanied recitative or arioso into a full-fledged aria not unlike the omitted ones in Mozart’s operas, with marvellously executed bravura and leaps from low notes on to higher ones—“Hail, race of mortals, greatest of great Chaos’ offspring, that harnessing thy twin courses or wisdom and song, hast charioted us ever-grateful Immortals out of thine own passion-befogged regions into our true immortality!”
The Gods applauded, for disembodied essences are quite amazingly conventional, and it was an understood thing to go into raptures whenever Apollo put forth his song. But while acquiescing in the main, Athena asked to be allowed a few words not of disparagement, but of analysis, of Apollo’s statements. She had had occasion to observe that in the last few centuries of their (so to speak) earthly existence, the Pythian divinity had unduly sacrificed the severe and sober graces of the Phidian and pre-Phidian style (to which she had for her part scrupulously adhered), adopting in their stead a little of the declamatory manner, the “pathos”—as well as of the florid coiffure of the Hellenistic period, with which lack of restraint she could not help connecting what seemed in her (perhaps pedantic!) eyes a slight tendency to inaccuracy of thought and wording.
“For although it is fortunately true,” she said, “that we Immortals have passed into a higher, a more lucid, state of being since ceasing to fetch and carry for mortal men; yet it is by no means correct to attribute any of the merit of this change to that human race. Since if we have passed into the supreme perfection of pure ideas and forms, this is due merely to that great historical Necessity whose subjective aspect is Logical Thought. We have become what we had to become, fulfilling the formula of our essential nature in response to the essential nature of everything else. And as to the Race of Men, it is a priori evident, and confirmed by one or two little facts come lately to our knowledge through Aphrodite’s new favourite, that this Mortal Race has by no means adopted Lucretius’s good advice to be done with superstition, but on the contrary has obeyed the necessities of its essential nature and become—well, not to put too fine a point upon it, a very poor thing indeed. But remark!” And the Virgin Goddess looked round with caerulean glance full of bewitching logical acumen, as she raised one finger to the level of her impeccably Grecian nose, “But remark that the intense satisfactoriness of the whole matter, as indeed of all matters without distinction, is precisely that their human imperfection and our divine perfection are quite equally perfect inasmuch as answering equally to the rational Necessity of Existence.”
“All that is too learned for me,” said Hera. “But what I do say is that there has been a great improvement in morality; and that is owing to the Race of Mortals, or rather their hussies of daughters, no longer throwing themselves in that shameless manner across the path of the Gods.”
And sighing with relief at the thought of Semele, Leto, Io, Antiope, Leda, Europa, and so many others, she stroked the thunder-grasping hand of Zeus with half maternal forgiveness of his former escapades.
Zeus was a little vexed at the allusion, which he found tactless, so: “Of course, of course,” he answered; “and I have always been for the principle of indissoluble marriage quite as much as you, my dear Hera.” Then, with masculine meanness he sought to divert gossip to another’s disadvantage—“Still, with respect to our morals being so much improved, I don’t want to seem unkind to a charming goddess not present at this moment, but I must point out that if the daughters of mortals have ceased tempting us masculine divinities from our duties (as I regret to say they were occasionally known to do) yet our dear Aphrodite has found it possible to continue throwing herself across the path of mortal men, more by token that she is at present absent from our midst on one of her visits to that hill in Thuringia where she entertains, as we all know, a very mediocre little High Dutch Poet.”
“It is fair to say that she says he is a warrior by profession,” put in Ares, still jealous of his calling though no longer of his love—“and that poetry is the only amusement of his leisure moments; she even said something about his having to pay a secretary to write it down, reading and writing being still rightly considered effeminate accomplishments.” And Ares looked haughtily in the direction of Apollo and Athena, whom he had never ceased disliking.
“We never have expected propriety of conduct from our exquisite Love-Goddess,” said Hera with acid good nature; “nor even, I may add, much good taste in her liaisons; for I remember she was always running after shepherds and such-like and trying to pass them off for the foundling sons of kings.”
“It is possible to be attached to a shepherd without departing from the strictest propriety,”—interrupted Artemis—“it depends altogether upon whether one has any natural tenue.”
But at that very moment Aphrodite suddenly returned and, as if to bear out both the strictures of Artemis and the excuses of Athena, she was weeping the most wonderfully becoming tears.
“Some row with the German Poet,” whispered Hermes, who had retained his business habits of picking up gossip. “I have heard something of the sort from my old friends the dryads, who have had to turn Christian in order to be allowed to inhabit the forests of the Landgrave of Thuringia.”
Meanwhile Aphrodite had alighted from her little car, not unlike an eighteenth century gala sledge, drawn by a fluttering flock of doves. And, covering her gold-powdered hair with the end of her cloak, after the manner of suppliants, she approached the gold and ivory seat of Zeus, and sank down upon its footstool, her translucent alabaster bosom heaving rhythmically with sobs, as she buried her head on the God-Father’s knees.
“Is he dead?” asked Artemis, remembrance of her own dignified behaviour to Hippolytus overcoming her aversion to all Aphrodite’s doings.
“I assure you I have had no hand in it,” protested Ares—“for, as Athena says, I have become a pure idea, which perhaps is more than can be said of you.”
“If he is dead,” said Apollo gently and dramatically—“not that I have any very clear notion who or what he is, but a few distant allusions are quite enough, I will compose a choral lamentation for him, O beloved, bereaved Aphrodite; and the Muses shall perform it publicly under my direction: something in a far more modern style—perhaps indeed in vers libres— than anything I ever inspired about poor old Adonis.”
“He is not dead,” answered the weeping goddess, brushing away Apollo’s offer with some irritation, “and no poetry or music is of the slightest use in the matter, let alone that his own, as he repeatedly tells me, is far better than anyone else’s. Indeed,” she cried, raising her head rather angrily although continuing to clasp Zeus’s knees, “if you had not invented poetry and music and poetical contests and all that sort of thing, none of this trouble would have come upon poor wretched me. He wants to go away from our dear little mountain which I had furnished so tastefully, he wants to leave me just as we were beginning to understand each other so thoroughly, and merely—Oh, it’s too dreadful to think of!—merely to go to a competition of professional poets at a place called the Wartburg somewhere in his country. And I don’t know how I am to prevent him! Far better he should have found some other love, for one could have turned her into a hen or a hedgehog; far better he had been killed by a wild beast, for one could, after all, have brought him to life again half-yearly! But a competition of poets, of High Dutch minstrels! Oh, what shall I do, wretched goddess that I am!”
“A competition of poets!” exclaimed Apollo; “how awfully interesting! How much I should like… Why, dear Aphrodite, tell your young friend that I’ll go in his place and he’ll be sure of the prize.”
Aphrodite shook her head. “It isn’t the prize he wants; the prize is only the glove of the wife of a tyrant of that country, quite old and ill-favoured. What he wants is the fun, he wants just to go, can’t you understand? And he doesn’t want the others to think he has withdrawn from the competition.”
“That, of course, complicates the matter a little,” said Zeus in his sententious way, while the others exclaimed: “A woman’s glove! You mean the woman herself? Surely you have mistaken the word. Perhaps glove is High Dutch for a tripod or a team of horses or a suit of armour. What could a man do with such a thing as a glove?”
“It is a glove,” exclaimed Aphrodite testily; “but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that he insists on going. And if he goes how shall I ever get him back?”
“O Aphrodite, what a poor opinion you have of your attractions!” cried Zeus gallantly.
But Aphrodite merely continued her lamentations.
“And at the same time,” she said, interrupting her sobs with charming effect, “life isn’t worth living with him in the humour he is, grumbling all day, looking so bored (of course he puts it on to annoy me) whenever I have in the dear Graces to dance or send for my son with some of the funny little Cupids those nice Alexandrians made us a present of. What can I do when he falls to sighing and singing dreadful dreary High Dutch tunes, and starts up every now and then at meals, pretending he hears some sort of clashing those people call Bells, which puts him into a state of nervous prostration he calls Remorse? Oh, it is dreadful, dreadful! But if I let him go I am sure all those horrid people with the Bells and the Remorse and the elderly ill-favoured women who make presents of old gloves, will all band together to prevent his returning, however much he may want to, poor silly old dear. Besides, it’s all very well to drop on to that Earth again, but you must know how practically impossible it is for anyone not a god to rise up again once he’s down there. Oh me miserable! Wretched Aphrodite! Accursed be all poets and poetry and whoever invented them!”
“Why not go with him, my dear!” suggested Hera gently, the mad hope of Aphrodite’s total disappearance flashing across her respectable mind.
“I have not forgotten my divine dignity so much as you seem to think,” she fired up. “I might possibly send Iris, or even Eros, among those people. But not even for poor dear little Tanhûser’s sake would I expose myself to the incivility of those Christian creatures.”
Here was Apollo’s opportunity. Affecting an indifference he was very far from feeling:
“Quite right,” he said. “But what would Aphrodite give her big brother Apollo if he offered to go down with her young friend and bring him safely back?”
“O Apollo, darling Sun God, would you really?” And Aphrodite threw herself into the arms of the Pythian, whose draperies and dignity were rather ruffled by the suddenness of her affection.
“Oh,” he protested, straightening his peplos, “pas de quoi, dear Aphrodite. The God of Poetry must always be charmed to do a good turn to the Goddess of Love. Besides, your protégé, however barbarous his language and style, is after all one of my children, and I am therefore bound to protect him.”
Aphrodite had always disliked Apollo a little, and his way of treating the greatest passion of gods and men as only so much raw material for his own tiresome art. So, despite her gratitude, the impulsive Goddess could not help saying:
“I don’t feel sure he’s even so much as heard your name. He says Latin isn’t a language for gentlemen of his birth to learn, and he was quite surprised when I told him that Greek wasn’t the same as Turkish.”
“All that is no obstacle for unprejudiced minds,” suddenly joined in Athena, who had hitherto been a mere interested listener, “and there’s nothing infra dig. when one travels incog. As of course would be the case. Besides, I shall go with Apollo, and make sure that all is done according to the dictates of reason.”
“Oh, will you?” retorted Apollo, much taken aback. “That wasn’t at all my idea.”
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not likely to enter my name for the poetic competition,” answered Athena soothingly, “that isn’t my line. But I confess to some curiosity about the world as it now is and the race this Tan—whatever his name—belongs to. So I am delighted at this opportunity turning up; and you needn’t waste any gratitude on me, dear Aphrodite, for I make it a rule to tell the plain, unvarnished truth when it is disagreeable; and I make no pretence of undertaking this journey for your sake, as Apollo imagines himself to be doing. So come, the sooner, the better. What disguise will you take, Apollo?”
Apollo had thought it all out.
“I will go,” he said,” as an old blind bard. Bards are always blind, and it gives one facilities for looking about. And you? I suppose you will go as Mentor, as usual? For I notice that you independent and fearless females find it convenient to dress up as men whenever anything is up.”
“Never mind how I go,” replied Athena, with testy serenity. “The Goddess who helped Odysseus is never at a loss for needful and even gratuitous departures from literal fact. And now, Aphrodite, call your favourite and let him show us the way to that earth we have so long and so fortunately forsaken.”
“I think this would be an occasion for a little cosmic disturbance,” remarked Zeus, feeling a little left out. And he gave a vigorous pull at his thunderbolt, till the heavens echoed with its roar.
The Return on to Earth
When, however, the matter was broached to Aphrodite’s favourite in person, that discontented and tiresome minstrel expressed much annoyance at not being allowed to depart by himself, and it was only the alternative between the company of Apollo and Athena on his excursion and giving it up entirely and remaining an eternal prisoner in the Hörselberg, which made him signify an ungracious acquiescence. Indeed, he became reconciled to the situation, and fairly civil towards his celestial fellow-travellers, only on Aphrodite’s representation that he would cut a far better figure at the competition of minstrels if thus escorted by two, however disguised, chief dignities of Olympus, than if he appeared at the Wartburg without any retinue whatever. Even thus, however, it turned out that the God and Goddess must run the gauntlet of a dozen captious difficulties and silly whims on the part of Aphrodite’s spoilt minion. He would not hear of the disguises under which Apollo and Athena had intended to preserve a correct and convenient incognito. Mentor he had never heard of, being totally unaware of the bare existence of Homer. And as to a blind bard, or worse still a shepherd (for Apollo had obligingly suggested this alternative in recollection of his position at the Court of Admetus), he vowed that he would not let himself be ridiculous in the eyes of the best-born people of Thuringia by what he went so far as to describe as an escort of tatterdemalions. The precise wording of these discussions was fortunately not followed by Apollo and Athena, who felt themselves severely bound by the etiquette which notoriously forbids classical divinities from understanding anything save Greek and Latin. And Aphrodite who had infringed this rule (like many others) to the extent of learning a little High Dutch off her present favourite, Aphrodite was far too tactful to translate his remarks quite literally.
So at last, after a good deal of wrangling, in which Apollo’s intense wish to display himself at the poetical contest alone overcame the conservatism of his views, it was decided that Tanhûser should have his way and present his companions as persons creditable to the retinue of a knight errant. He was indeed quite vexed that Aphrodite did not procure him a brace more Gods whom he might disguise as his squires; but he came at last to the happy thought of representing to the hosts and the guests of the Wartburg that he had suffered shipwreck while returning from the Crusade (which constituted an alibi for his year in the Hörselberg) and lost all his retinue except the two faithful strangers now in his suite. And in order both to silence all inquiries, and extract all possible credit from their company, Tanhûser decided that Apollo should be presented as a learned Greek grammarian lent him as interpreter by the Emperor of Trebizond, while Athena should be habited as a Moorish necromancer, whom he thought it fine to identity with one Klingsor, who enjoyed much vogue in the magical circles of the day. And this by the way (together with certain circumstances to be related anon) explains the otherwise inexplicable historic tradition by which Klingsor, whom the Reader may remember as playing a somewhat disreputable part in the adventures of Parzival, came to have his name entered for the competition, or Minstrel’s War, at the Wartburg. Apollo, having been habited as a somewhat youthful Greek schoolmaster, inkhorn at his belt and goose quill behind his ear; and Athena, after some protesting (but what sacrifice comes amiss to the truly scientific mind?) got up with a long grey beard, a yellow turban and a gabardine embroidered with suns and moons; moreover, Tanhûser having obtained from Aphrodite a bag of silver coins of the Island of Cythera or Cerigo, the party was at last ready to start. Which it did, after a terrible scene of weeping and promises on the part of Aphrodite, from the foot of the Hörselberg, on a fine May morning in the middle of the thirteenth century. Nay, such were the grief and the forebodings of the poor infatuated Goddess that, despite the most strenuous objections of Apollo and Athena, and the undisguised annoyance of Tanhûser himself she accompanied them very conspicuously hidden in a rosy cloud which hung for some time over the Thuringian landscape, and more particularly over the village nearest the Hörselberg. There Tanhûser made his first use of her antique money by mounting himself and his retinue, himself on a tolerably turned out blue roan horse he found at the smith’s, Apollo on a charcoal-burner’s mule which went rather short, and Athena on a comely grey ass accustomed to carry sacks to the neighbouring mill.
“Remember thy promise!” cried Aphrodite from her cloud. For, in order to give the matter a proper mythological cachet, Zeus had insisted that the story of Orpheus and similar others should be imitated, quite needlessly, to the effect that if Tanhûser mentioned his divine sweetheart’s name once, he would incur much criticism, if twice he would be submitted to bodily torments, and if three times, he would lose the Goddess for all eternity. At the moment of Aphrodite recalling this extremely annoying arrangement, and blowing a last kiss to her unworthy favourite, the whole sky was lit up as by an aurora borealis, the air was full of the whir of doves, and a rain of roseleaves, to the astonishment and terror of the whole countryside, fell over the whole region, and especially upon the little cavalcade of the minstrel knight and his celestial attendants disappearing on their horse, mule and donkey, down the wooded Thuringian valley.
The stress of my narrative has led me to forget mentioning in its right place, that before allowing her young friend to depart, Aphrodite had cajoled her ingenious and long-suffering husband into making him an invisible helmet, very handy on occasion and light enough to fold in one’s pocket, which Tanhûser had described as very much worn by the mythical heroes and demi-gods of his own country. This invisible helmet Tanhûser thought it time to put on at a turn of their path, when they came upon the towers and battlemented houses of the Wartburg, high above the still leafless forests of Eisenach. And clapping spurs to the blacksmith’s roan, who naturally became invisible along with his rider, Tanhûser cantered off to get ahead of a bevy of lords and ladies on horseback and in litters, behind whom Apollo and Athena jogged angrily along on the mule that went short and the miller’s grey donkey.
They were, as it turned out, only just in time. And when they arrived in the castle-yard, where the last guests were dismounting, they found themselves in a crowd of the Landgrave’s serving-men, who took their beasts from them not without jeers and a dumbshow signifying a request for largesse, which the impecunious divinities (for Tanhûser had gone off with those coins from Cythera) were unable to satisfy. Until Athena, with the readiness for which she was so universally noted, pretended to drop the yellow silk handkerchief with which she was mopping her divine brow after that ride, and under cover of picking it up, laid hold of a handful of gravel from the castle-yard, which, by virtue of a spell she had had from the much maligned Danae, was converted into so many gold pieces, and distributed, not without judicious economy, to the rabble. Instantly the jeers turned to cheers, all caps flew off and half a dozen particoloured servitors offered themselves, in the civilest manner, to conduct the celestials to the very best seats for the ceremony, throwing open door after door and pushing a number of persons of quality rudely out of the way. That much was plain to Athena and Apollo, but it was not all they wanted. So, with the natural expressiveness of Mediterranean divinities, they pointed first to the castle walls, then to themselves and cried in every tone of interrogation, and in worse and worse Latin:
“Tanhûser! Ubi est amicus noster poeta Tanhûser ? » But without any answer save shaking and scratching of heads and a horrid jabber of what was evidently High Dutch.
“Dash my helmet,” exclaimed Athena, a terrible oath she used only on tremendous occasions; “that miserable traitor has left us in the lurch and got into the place with his invisible cap on! That’s why these fools have never heard of him.”
“Tanhûser be swallowed by everlasting Orcus,” answered Apollo. “It isn’t Tanhûser I have come for, but the poetical competition.”
And turning with eager dignity to the obsequious menials. “Ubi est,” he said, “campus poetici istis certaminis?”
Again there was a consultation among the crowd which had by this time gathered round the Olympians. Apollo’s Latin had been too Ciceronian even for the Clerks in Orders who were keeping company with the footmen.
“Ach!” suddenly exclaimed a voice (and that exclamation was to become familiar to the Immortals). “Ach, Gongorsus! Dominus vult dicere Gongorsus Minnesingorum.”
“Yes, yes,” exclaimed Apollo and Athena in whatever may be the Latin (which the present writer has never been able to discover) for that useful interjection. “Concursus! Concursus!” And Athena, who had an uncommon good memory, remembered that Aphrodite had called Tanhûser a Minnesinger, which was High Dutch for Poet.
The person who had come to the rescue was a portly monk, who plucking Apollo by the sleeve of his rusty schoolmaster’s robe, pushed him through the crowd into a narrow vaulted room, where by the very insufficient light of some tallow candles, three crop-haired personages were busy cutting pens behind an oaken desk.
“Concursus Minnesingorum,” repeated Apollo, trying to adopt the style of these barbarians, “volo concurrere cum aliis minnesingeris,” and added, in a simple though elegant Latin, “Ego sum poeta notissimus toto orbi.”
The three Clerks shook their heads, and only after much confabulation with the monk, and much repetition of “Ach! Ach so: Aha!” they seemed to grasp the situation and began to turn page after page of the ledger before them.
Apollo meanwhile was waxing impatient, for he heard a great sound of voices next door, and was dreadfully afraid of not being in time.
“Concursus! Volo concursum! Ego sum poeta, etc., » he kept exclaiming in desperation. And he threw a gold piece which he had prudently abstracted from Athena, on to the desk. Instantly the ledger was turned towards him and a pen thrust into his hand.
“Nomen,” cried his friend the monk: “Scis tu scribere?” Apollo understood. These Barbarians, he remembered Aphrodite having told him, were usually devoid of the arts of reading and writing, and the queer blotted marks, crosses he believed they were called, on the register were the signatures of the poets who had entered their names for the competition. And he also was to sign his name. But what was his name?
It would be a great deal too marked to sign Phoebus or Pythius or even any of his less well-known appellations; besides, he wanted to remain incog. and have the fun of carrying off the prize without any help from his real position. Meanwhile sign something he must and the precious moments were passing. He had it! There was the name of that necromancer whom Athena was personating. Athena would never attempt to profit by the identification; she was notoriously incapable of putting two lines of poetry together, least of all extempore. So, with a splendid gesture and in magnificent capitals he boldly wrote: Klingsor. Which is the explanation of that name being (so inexplicably) among those of the competing poets of the Wartburg, and perhaps the explanation of one of the other competitors, Wolfram von Eschenbach, having maliciously given it to the disreputable sorcerer in his poem about Parzival, whence it was taken on by Richard Wagner.
Apollo and the Abbess
The monk meanwhile, equally impressed by Apollo’s handsome tips and delighted to air his own monastic Latin, took the God firmly by the shoulder and pushed him through the crowd which occupied the standing room of a vast vaulted hall; and, disregarding both the stifled cries and oaths of those around, and the fact that a stentorian voice was already vociferating High Dutch verses from a dais at the other end, he elbowed his way to the last row of the reserved seats, murmured something to a couple of tonsured personages seated there, and squeezed the astonished God on to a stool behind a column.
When Apollo had recovered from all this pushing and scuffling, to which his godlike habits had ill-suited his excessively sensitive and easily ruffled poet’s nature, he felt utterly dazed and dreadfully depressed. To begin with, he found himself wedged behind two colossal knights in armour, whose hereditary dignity allowed them to keep on plumed head-dresses by the side of which the most outrageous hats of our theatre-going ladies would have been a joke, so that he could at first see only the vault of the ceiling, painted in blue and gold patterns; and occasionally, when one of the colossal vizored and crested helmets leaned whispering towards the other, he could catch a glimpse of the heads and shoulders, and of what he took to be the harps, of a company of men on a dais at the end of the hall. From this dais proceeded, in a silence by no means strictly observed, a faint twanging of strings, and a ceaseless murmur, occasionally rising to a bellow, of horribly guttural, and of course quite unintelligible, words delivered upon two or three intoned notes.
It seemed endless to the God. But at last it ceased. The hall echoed with applause, the two knights in front stamped their iron-shod feet very nearly upon Apollo’s, and rattled their great swords on the pavement, and a general hubbub of male and female voices arose, in which the God could only distinguish what he now knew to be the chief High Dutch remark “Ach”—sometimes accompanied by Nein and sometimes by So, and which evidently expressed surprise, deep thought and heartfelt admiration. Then, after a few minutes there was a blare of trumpets, a herald spoke unintelligible words, and more twanging of the harp preluded a new competitor.
“Dominus Waltherus a Campo Avico,” said a voice suddenly at Apollo’s ear, and he felt himself very gently nudged. The voice was a woman’s, very friendly, and evidently intended to convey to the Stranger from beyond the Alps that a local celebrity was going to begin. Apollo turned towards the speaker. But she was intently gazing into the space between the two crested and plumed helmets; her profile was hidden by a curious head-dress of stiff white and black stuff on either side of it, and Apollo could see nothing of her except that she was robed in black, wore a great gold chain and cross round her neck, leaned upon a curiously shaped staff, not unlike those with whose crooked ends shepherds are wont to catch recalcitrant sheep by the leg; moreover, that the hand which lay on her lap was encased in a thick white glove upon whose forefinger shone an enormous emerald ring. But Apollo was never much interested in his fellow creatures, or, indeed, in anything except poetry and himself; and about poetry and himself he was now most horribly depressed and very nearly on the point of bursting into tears. For why, why had he ever come to this accursed place? How could he ever compete among these High Dutch people who understood no Greek or Latin and only said: “Ach nein,” and “Ach so”?
And as the voice of Dominus Waltherus, whom we know as von der Vogelweide, went on carolling verse after verse to the twang-twang of his little harp, Apollo began to break down under the closeness of the air; in nervous exasperation large tears actually coursed down his cheeks, and, with a suppressed sob he ejaculated: “Eheu! Eheu! Me miser,” and its Greek equivalent.
There was a rustle just as Dominus Waltherus came to an end on a falsetto note; and when Apollo looked up, he found himself before a most unexpected sight. It was a face, apparently made of the most delicate parchment, entirely surrounded by stiff white and black material, and out of which, under a broad hairless forehead, shone two very intelligent and kind little eyes.
At the same time he felt the gloved hand touch his and introduce between his tear-stained fingers a tiny phial.
“Dost thou want salts? Art thou ill, young stranger? Hast thou pains anywhere in thy person?” asked a most gentle voice (the same which had previously murmured the information about Dominus Waltherus) in very funny, but on the whole correct, Latin. Apollo applied the little gold flask somewhat incautiously to his divine nostrils, in consequence of which he was seized by a fit of sneezing, which made the two knights turn half round with much clank of iron and cry hush-sh at the top of their voices. Apollo felt much better, if only because he had attracted a little attention.
“I suppose,” he said, restoring the phial to its owner, while wondering whether it might not have been intended as a votive offering—“I suppose from all the gold you possess about your person, that you are the Venerable Mother of the Despot of this place?”
“My unworthiness does indeed receive the pious title of Venerable,” she answered, rather puzzled at his question, “and of course I am a Reverend Mother. But I am not the mother of anybody here or elsewhere, being bound to celibacy. In fact, I am the Mitred Abbess of Mulda.”
“Your words are full of mystery,” answered Apollo. “How can you be a mother without being the mother of somebody? And what is Abbess in Greek?”
For an instant the great female dignitary (for she was a prince of the Holy Roman Empire) wondered not without horror whether her neighbour was not an escaped lunatic. But no lunatic, she thought, could have such serene brows; moreover, she was frightfully excited at meeting for the first time in her long life a person who apparently knew Greek; it was already delightful to have an opportunity of airing her Latin to one really conversant with that language, and who spoke, as she said to herself, like a god.
”I do not know what Abbess of Mulda would be in Greek,” she said with charming modesty, “for alas, I do not know a word of that wonderful language. But since, O most interesting young stranger, you seem ignorant of the customs and language of our country, I will do my best to satisfy your curiosity in all things.”
And thus it came about that under cover of the next recitation, which was by Dominus Wolframus de Eschenbach, the Mitred Abbess of Mulda carried on a briskly whispered conversation with the strayed Olympian, despite the occasional angry sh-sh of the two knights in front. Avoiding every phrase and expression which was not Ciceronian, she explained herself as a priestess of Jove Optimus Maximus, the head of a college of Vestals chosen among the Noble Virgins of the land, each of whom was required to possess a shield divided in sixteen parts. To which Apollo answered that they doubtless used these shields to execute a war dance, or did they hang them up in the portico of the temple?
And it was now the Abbess’s turn to be puzzled; so, fearful lest further explanations should lead to some barbarism of language, she merely answered that it was doubtless something of the kind, and hastily passed on to what really interested her. This was the fact that, emulous of the fame of the immortal Hroswitha, Abbess of Gandersheim, she also, ever since her earliest youth, had sacrificed to the Muses…
Apollo pricked up his divine ears, shaped like the loveliest rosy shells. “Have you indeed?” he said. “Well then, I may as well tell you that you have most probably been wasting your time. Those Muses, with whom I am more intimately acquainted than is often agreeable, have contrived to make themselves a very—I may say a monstrously exaggerated reputation. And you would do far better to sacrifice to Apollo in person: just an occasional trifle, a young heifer for instance or a chaplet of wool, or some of your own hair, unless indeed, as your appearance would indicate, you have already cut that off as a sacrifice to some other divinity—“
“How wonderfully eloquent you are!” exclaimed the delighted Abbess. “Why you talk like a copy of verses; and one might almost imagine that sacrificing to the Gods was a reality and not a mere flower of rhetoric! Well, in mere pedestrian prose, I meant that I have written plays—you may even have heard of my Hecuba and my Sacrifice of Isaac; I believe they are given in a great many foreign religious houses.”
Apollo was becoming enormously interested. “I see, I see,” he cried, provoking a loud hush-sh from the audience who were hanging on the words of Dominus Wolfram. “You are of the breed of those almost divine women, the Aeolian poetesses of the Islands, who went about crowned with violets and gave lessons in elocution to a numerous chorus of vocal virgins—“
“Yes,” said the Mitred Abbess, “some of my nuns have occasionally performed my plays. They really learned the Latin quite well, poor things, considering they didn’t understand a word of it. We were able to have those on sacred subjects in the Church itself, and the Hecuba and my version of Terence’s Adelphi in the Chapter House. You see Mulda has great ecclesiastical privileges, and the very best company, secular and ecclesiastic, did me the honour of attending.”
But Apollo took no heed of the unintelligible end of her sentence, far too absorbed in his poetical visions and of a vague possibility of reviving his own worship in the old lady’s abbey. He was soon taken up wondering whether his new friend, if divested of her mournful draperies and slightly rejuvenated with a little judicious help from Aphrodite (who after all was deeply in his debt for looking after her detestable favourite) might not pass muster as a Cassandra, or at all events an inspired Pythoness, laurel-crowned and robed in orange; after all, one must not ask too much in these degenerate days… Indeed, his divine fancy so got the better of him that he would never have noticed the end of Dominus Wolfram’s recitation, and the fact that all the audience were noisily leaving the room, if the Abbess had not taken him very graciously by the hand and informed him that during the Grand Pause the Landgrave was offering a slight collation to the better born of his guests; adding that unless they were quick, they might not get much to eat, or not have time to consume it comfortably, since fifteen other poets were down on the programme and the silver trumpets of the heralds would very soon announce the recommencement of the performance.
Holding on to the Mitred Abbess of Mulda, before whom the crowd instantly made way (“A learned young Latin scholar from beyond the Alps”—she introduced Apollo to various mailed and coronetted (sic) personages) Apollo found himself before a table covered with every kind of eatable most provocative of a God’s nausea. But just as he was turning away in horror at the fumes of roast meat (to which he was used only in sacrifices in the open air) what should sufficiently catch his eyes a few yards off, but the figure of Tanhûser, dressed in a handsome embroidered surcoat (he had borrowed it on the score of his captivity among the Infidels from the Landgrave) and ladling out a large glass of hot spiced beer for the Landgrave’s young daughter.
“That,” said the Abbess, looking through her horn eyeglass, “is young Tanhûser opposite– such an interesting young man, and so very deserving! Only think! He was kept nearly a year as the prisoner of the Soldan of Babylonia in the recent crusade! They say he is a most remarkable poet.”
“Crusade!” whispered Apollo fiercely, glancing at Tanhûser. “A pretty crusade he has been! Why he had been living for the last year in a cave with no less a person than…”
“Hush, hush,” cried the Abbess, starting at the name he had pronounced; “even as metaphorical expressions such names are not fit to be mentioned in the ears of a Vestal.”
At that moment Tanhûser’s glance met Apollo’s. But odd as it may appear, while the truant lover of Aphrodite turned quickly aside, not without visible embarrassment, Apollo also evaded his glance and turned, offering his arm to the Abbess in imitation of the other men of the party. After all, he did not want to be bothered with Tanhûser; his one wish being to pursue the delightful acquaintance which fate had sent him.
“Supposing we go back upstairs before the crush?” he said. “Surely you have had enough to eat?”
“How dignified and direct, how without any form of false civility, is the Latin language!” thought the Abbess, and resting upon the God’s arm, and using her crozier as a crutch, she hastily hobbled upstairs, when the silver trumpets sounded the end of the Grand Pause.
This early departure from the banqueting place had the effect foreseen by Apollo. The great hall of the poetical competition was only thinly sprinkled with people, and the God and the Abbess were able to secure seats in the very first row, at a stone’s throw from the minstrels’ platform. It would not be so easy to converse there as it had been further back; but then he would be able to snatch his opportunity when his turn came, or indeed create it for himself if his name had not been properly entered among the competitors. Indeed, Apollo’s spirits had risen so much that he was beginning to consider whether he would sit through all the intolerable, unintelligible jabber of the other poets, and not rather affirm, by a high-handed act, his divine right to precedence…
“If only,” whispered the Abbess spreading her black and white skirts on either side, and leaning her gloved and ringed hands on her pastoral staff, “if only you could see your way to taking holy orders, there is in my gift a vacant benefice of about two hundred crowns besides a hogshead of wine and eggs and pigeons from the serfs, which I should be very happy to present you to. It has a nice little town house (besides the farms) in the Abbey precincts, which would enable me to have the pleasure of seeing you even in bad weather. And,” she added with a charming sigh, “I do so much want to learn a little Greek before I die!”
“Why not?” answered Apollo, rather to himself than to the Abbess, for he was seriously revolving whether this silly adventure might not be the providential opportunity for his reinstatement among the powers worshipped by men (or at least by women) and the end of that regime of Lucretian absenteeism which whatever he was wont to say in its favour, was after all a poor dull thing compared with the processions and sacrifices of former days. “Why not?” he repeated.
But the Abbess’s joyful “Would you really?” was drowned by the sudden blare of the silver trumpets, and the voice of the Landgrave’s escutcheoned herald making silence and announcing “Dominus Tanhûser!”
Athena and the Cardinal
But it is time to tell the Reader what had happened in the meanwhile to Pallas Athena. This intelligent and spirited divinity had found herself completely in her element. There was nothing she enjoyed much more than travelling in foreign countries and mastering the grammar and vocabulary of unknown tongues, so far as that decree of fate concerning the use of only Greek and Latin would allow of her satisfying this passion. And the bare fact of finding herself in a crowd of people who knew nothing about her, and whose manners and words required observation and interpretation, filled her with a sense of enjoyment like that wherewith she had followed the adventures and intrigues of Odysseus. A scientific mind, it has often been remarked, is not without resemblance to that of a detective; and with a glow of enjoyment Athena had remarked and generalized upon the fact that the one man who had hitherto understood a word of Latin had a piece of hair like a half-crown shorn out of the back of his head and was unencumbered by the shirts of mail, helmets and clanking swords of the other masculine spectators. When accordingly she found herself (much to her pleasure) separated from Apollo, she made straight for a group of individuals thus distinguished by what she immediately ascertained to be called (for she always touched unknown objects, smiling delightfully and saying “Quid est nomen hujus?”) a tonsure. Her surmise proved correct. These clerks (“Clericus sum” they had replied) all knew a few words of Latin, and as the Goddess of Wisdom instantly picked up some of the alien expressions with which they larded it, they were very soon engaged in conversation. As, moreover, the fame of her largesse in the castleyard had by this time passed through every group, her new friends immediately offered their services. Did she want a front seat near His Highness the Landgrave? Or a peep into the Green-room where the minstrels were tuning their harps and drinking beer?
“No poets for me,” answered Pallas Athena, her grave intelligence tempered by sprightliness (and the Clerks in Orders did admit that there were too many poets in the world, particularly at the Wartburg on this particular afternoon); “but could you not,” she added, clattering her money in the pocket of her Astrologer’s gown embroidered with suns and moons, “could you not introduce me to one of your wise men? Some prophet, or soothsayer or geometrician or sophist? Or some one who has undergone strange changes of sex or shape, like Teiresias or Proteus?”
There was a few moments’ confabulation, not without the inevitable Ach so! And Ach nein! between the tonsured individuals, who shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders in turn. Meanwhile, taking immediate stock of their slowness of apprehension, the Goddess had cast her eyes around that part of the great vestibule where guests were entering one by one:
“Now that aged man,” she said, pointing with her forefinger, “surely he must be a sage, a man of wonderful adventures, and,” she added, remembering Herakles, Theseus and Odysseus, “the kind of mortal who may have been in Hell?”
The tonsured persons turned stolidly in the direction she was pointing at, and ejaculated, one after the other, Aha! But at the word Hell, the youngest of the clerks had a sudden flash of intelligence.
“Ach so!” he cried, “this eminent person (spectabilis vir) wants to make the acquaintance of the Cardinal.”
“The very thing,” exclaimed the others in chorus. “A sage—a geometrician—a philosopher and—well…!”
And the intelligent one of the party immediately elbowed his way through the incoming crowd in the direction of the personage who had attracted Athena’s far-seeing eye. He had just been helped out of a litter and was extending his hand to be kissed by a number of more or less comely and bedizened ladies. He was of great stature, entirely dressed in carnation-coloured silk trimmed with minever, and on his snow-white head, which he held arrogantly erect above the crowd, he carried a flat scarlet hat with long and very inconvenient ladders of scarlet tassels on either side. With penetrating intellect Athena saw at a glance that a wretched tonsured person could never get a word with such a dignitary, so, beckoning back her messenger, she drew from her finger a ring (which had not been there before) and bade him deliver it to “the Cardinal” with the greetings of Klingsor the Wizard. She was pleased with herself for having chosen a sardonyx engraved with the swastika and other orphic emblems; but she regretted instantly afterwards having made use of the name of Klingsor: that fool Tanhûser was sure to be all wrong about local celebrities in the philosophical line. However, all turned out for the best; and with childish delight Athena saw the red Sage examine the ring through a magnifying glass and make a gesture of acquiescence. With the presence of mind which was one of her divine attributes, she had meanwhile profited by the interval to extract the chief facts about her future acquaintance. “Cardinal,” she was told, meant one who is a hinge of the Church. A hinge of the Church could become Pontifex Maximus, and this particular Cardinal or hinge-man was pretty sure of becoming Pontifex Maximus the very next election. The reason for this certainty was that, besides being the most profound natural philosopher of the age (he had manufactured several earthenware heads which spoke every language) he had also been the private tutor of the Emperor Frederick, and moreover a famous necromancer before he fell a victim to gout. It was moreover rumoured that he did not believe in God or the Devil, and (however contradictory this may seem) it was pretty well ascertained that he had sold himself to the latter for the red hat he now wore. That was why Athena’s request for a philosopher who had been, or might go, to Hell, had instantly pointed him out as the man for her.
The Cardinal, when Athena was admitted into his presence, was not in the great hall with the rest of the audience, but in a turret or, as we should say, bow window, projecting from it in such a way as to command a view of the precipitous wooded ravine on the one side, and of the dais of the minstrels on the other, looking down it much as you might from an opera-box. Why he alone should be thus placed, and whether it was a high privilege or a form of ostracism, Athena desisted from asking him, but putting together what she had been told with the awed look of the Grandees whom she had watched receiving him, the acute Goddess came to the conclusion that her new acquaintance despised his fellow men and was looked at by them with a certain terror and aversion. This was the very thing to her liking; besides, the Cardinal was quite alone, as if on purpose to enjoy her conversation.
“Sit down, Jew,” said His Eminence (Athena had carefully inquired after his style). After looking the Goddess up and down and pointing with his chin to a stool opposite the great armchair on which he rested like some splendid scarlet poppy. “Not that you are a Jew,” he added, “for Jews do not speak Latin.”
“Doubtless Your Eminence is conversant with my native Greek,” answered the Goddess with affected humility. There was nothing she enjoyed so much as pretending to be a poor scholar, or a swineherd or beggar—it gave such scope for snubbing people. She guessed that Greek was the one thing which the Cardinal did not know; and his brow was clouded with dissatisfaction.
“I can do many things more to the point,” he answered, “as for instance, have stray Jews and infidels and necromancers on the loose burnt in the market-place for their sauciness.”
This was a bad beginning, but Athena was a match for him.
“I had imagined,” she answered with perfect presence of mind, “that Your Eminence might be better pleased to use a poor wandering wizard in order to show your own superior proficiency in his Art,” and she bowed, touching her knees with her long false beard.
“Have you other stolen goods by you like this ring which you had the incredible audacity to send me?” asked the Cardinal, holding it against the light and scanning the Goddess’s features, for being a wizard, he scented a mystery.
“As many as my Lord Cardinal may choose to accept from his poor slave,” she answered. And holding up her two hands she displayed the fact that their shapeliness was unmarred by ornaments. Then, cracking her finger-joints, she turned them up once more, and behold! They were sparkling with priceless gems.
“Oho!” cried the Cardinal, “two can play at that game.” And beckoning with his forefinger, a magnificent cameo walked straight across the air from the Goddess’s hand to his own and slipped on to it.
“This is indeed a game most diverting to play at in company,” answered Athena; and as she spoke, the Cardinal gave a start, suppressed a terrible cry and pulled off the ring with frantic hurry.
“Damnation!” cried the prince of the Church, shaking it off.
“I fear Your Eminence may have found it a little too warm for this really summer weather,” said Athena. But as the Cardinal held up a burnt finger, she quickly advanced and slipped upon it a little ring made of dittany leaf, which instantly healed it. “Perhaps Your Eminence may now recognize that to whatever use you may care to put your poor servant Klingsor, being burnt is the one thing in which he cannot serve you.”
“The Devil!” exclaimed the Cardinal. And so saying his whole tone and manner changed to the most delightful and dignified cordiality. “Well then, tell me, Klingsor,” he asked, “why in the world does a wise man like you come to this imbecile meeting of poets, which my worldly and spiritual dignity obliges me, for my sins, to attend. Nay worse, how does a greybeard like you take it into his head to compete with these barbarous young rhymesters?”
“Your Eminence is like the late Sphinx, amused to ask your visitors riddles.”
But the Cardinal had drawn from his fur-lined cape a long list of parchment on which, in characters so crabbed as to tax Athena considerably, were written a series of outlandish names:
“Dominus Waltherus de Vogelweide,” read the Cardinal in a stage snuffle.
“Dominus Wolfram de Eschenbach—Dominus Reinmar—Dominus Tanhûser—Dominus Klingsor—“
“Oh!” answered Athena with rapid understanding, “that must be Klingsor minor, a poor young half-brother of mine, who let himself be enticed here by that vagabond Tanhûser. Indeed that is the reason of my presence. The poor fellow has a craze for poetry, and particularly for poetic competitions, ever since he beat (and I am sorry to say behaved rather unhandsomely to) a certain Phrygian flute player in a competition which was not at all fairly conducted, seeing that his own (and I must add, alas! my) sisters were the sole umpires.”
“You are a very queer fish, Klingsor,” said the Cardinal.
“At Your Eminence’s service,” answered Athena.
“Well then,” cried his Eminence in high good humour, “let us two have a little friendly competition. Do you feel as if you would like something better than the Landgrave’s beer after your long journey, eh?” And taking a silver-gilt cup from the table placed in the window recess beside him, he brought it in contact with the arm of his chair, and in the most approved magical manner, filled it with sparkling wine as from a tap.
Athena took it and raised it to her lips.
“Your Eminence’s good health, “she exclaimed. “But as I cannot allow a Cardinal to drink out of a vessel polluted by my plebeian lips, I will, with your permission, send for a clean cup.” And cracking her finger-joints, she instantly caused the appearance, through a pane of the window, of a ravishingly beautiful young winged genius who set before the Cardinal a cup made of a single ruby, and vanished as he had come.
“Bravo, Klingsor!” cried the Cardinal.
And thus the two new acquaintances whiled away the tedious hours of the minstrels’ droning performance with a number of simple, elegant and often quite original necromantic tricks, interspersed with conversation on the deepest philosophical subjects, both natural and metaphysical. Athena had rarely enjoyed herself so much, even in the best days of the subtle and experienced Ulysses.
After this they asked each other riddles and capped one another with geometrical problems. But the greatness of the Cardinal’s intellect showed itself by his statesmanlike memory of even the most trifling facts and his power of attending to all that went on while sustaining the most sublime discussions.
“By the way, Klingsor,” he suddenly remarked, glancing over his shoulder and over the parapet of the kind of opera-box in which they sat. “Didn’t you tell me that your young half-brother had come here in the company of a disreputable person called Tanhûser? Is that the fellow you mean?”
“I have always had the poorest possible opinion of the individual in question,” answered Athena, rather vexed at this frivolous interruption. But remembering all the to-do which Aphrodite had made about Tanhûser, and indeed that he was the cause of her visit to the abode of mortal men, she also turned towards the hall and looked over the balustrade.
What she witnessed repaid her curiosity after a moment or two, and completed some interesting mental notes she had been making about the manners and mentality of the particular Barbarians among whom she found herself. After that blare of trumpets and that herald’s announcement which had, as I said in my last chapter, suddenly startled Apollo, the recreant favourite of Aphrodite walked on to the platform from the minstrels’ Green-room and was received by loud clapping and a chorus of ladies’ exclamations: “Welcome home, Ritter Tanhûser! A hearty welcome to our long lost, pious crusader-poet!”
Tanhûser began striking an attitude, twanging his little harp and intoning a series of lilting, clanging sounds, exactly like all the other minstrels before him. And after a moment Athena was just turning away from the parapet and resuming the interrupted philosophical discussion with the Cardinal, when her ear was suddenly caught by a familiar strain into which Tanhûser had burst in the middle of his recitation. She knew the hateful little jingle, because the infatuated Aphrodite used to go about the divine abodes humming it to herself, and had even tried to elicit the Gods’ admiration by repeating it and translating the words so that they might, she said, enjoy the exquisite naïveté, the graceful humouressness, of the greatest of High Dutch poets. The song was one which Tanhûser had made for her one day in the Hörselberg, and (probably because of the incident I am about to relate) its two verses have come down the centuries to our own day, first in a ballad of the Wunderhorn collection, then incorporated in a poem of Heine, and is doubtless well-known to my Reader:
“Frau Venus meine Minne
Ihr seid eine Teufelinne.”
« Faugh ! » exclaimed Athena to herself, sickened by its familiar vulgarity. “Brute! Fancy compromising a goddess in a mixed assembly, and when that wretched Aphrodite has sworn by the Styx that he would never see her again if he mentioned her name!”
Tanhûser who had perhaps been indulging overmuch in strong, spiced drinks in the Green-room, was in a state of visible elation, and evidently counted upon his lyric having the same success with mortals as with his infatuated immortal mistress. So not satisfied with giving it once to the astonished ears of his fellow-countrymen, he worked it into some kind of longer composition, to which it acted as refrain. The first time it passed apparently unnoticed; but when it suddenly reappeared at the end of a second couplet, Athena noticed a murmur and as slight concerted gesticulation run through the semicircle of Minnesingers, both those who had been heard, and those whose turn was still to come, seated on the dais behind Tanhûser. And when at the end of yet another couplet Tanhûser trolled out at the top of his voice:
“Frau Venus meine Minne
Ihr seid eine Teufelinne.”
there was a crash and scuffle and hubbub, the whole body of minstrels springing up, over-turning stools and tables, and attacking the luckless Tanhûser from all sides, hitting him with their sheathed swords in cadence and yelling rhythmically:
“Forfeit! Forfeit! Beer! Beer! He shall pay us our Beer!”
“Well done!” Athena could not prevent herself exclaiming. “Sacrilege! Kill the sacrilegious dog,” for she did not notice that the Knights had not drawn their blades but were belabouring the fallen minstrel with the scabbard and all.
“I am glad,” she said, turning to the Cardinal, “to see that these young Barbarians have some sense of propriety when it is a case of the immortal Gods.”
“Do not believe it,” answered the Cardinal, amused at this mistake: “the horseplay of these ignoramuses is merely because he has infringed a students’ rule, which forbids classical allusions under penalty of a beating and beer money if repeated three times.”
By this time the whole masculine part of the audience had risen to their feet, and were making a frightful uproar, stamping and hitting their swords on the ground rhythmically and joining in that cadenced yell: “No Classical Allusions! Forfeit, Forfeit! Beer! Beer!” while the other Minnesingers danced wildly round the discomfited Tanhûser, banging him with their swords and repeating their barbaric cries. The whole assembly, weary with so many hours of silence and poetry, seemed to have gone mad, and even the ladies, standing on their chairs, waved their handkerchiefs and sang shrilly: “He is forfeit! No Classical Allusions! Beer! Beer!”
Nor did the hubbub and horseplay seem likely to end till the Cardinal, rising from his seat and leaning against the parapet of the balcony-shaped window, lifted his hand on high and on the sudden silence which he made, said in loud tones, so distinct and solemn that Athena contrived to understand every word:
“Your Highness the Landgrave! Knights and Ladies all! I propose that this defaulting minstrel should be put in a basket and let down into the castle moat which is, I hope, full of tadpoles, in just punishment of his shameful disregard of all Minnesingers’ laws; to which, as representative of our Holy Mother Church, I add eternal damnation of his soul as one of the most intolerable bores that have ever risen, even among poets.”
A shout of applause greeted this speech, Tanhûser was carried off, cat’s-cradle, by the most stalwart of the competing minstrels; and the Cardinal turning to the supposed Klingsor said: “And now, my learned friend, let us return to the consideration of the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid.”
Athena bowed. But casting an eye through the window which overhung the castle rock, along whose precipitous side poor Tanhûser was at this moment being let down in a basket for sousing in the stagnant moat below, her more than mortal eyes became aware of a more than mortal sight: in the afternoon sky, which was taking on the beryl tint of evening, and alongside the planet Venus which had just pierced it with its beam, there hovered a little rosy cloud, with a handful of rose petals. And in it, quite small but perfectly distinct, an exquisite female figure stood wringing her hand and tearing her hair as, slowly, slowly, the little feather ball of pink vapour rose higher and higher and disappeared at last in the pellucid zenith.
“Thank goodness!” Athena said to herself, “there is an end of Tanhûser so far as we are concerned.”
The End of the Poetical Competition
Apollo let himself be warned by the wretched Tanhûser’s misadventure. In a society, or rather among ruffians, such that a poet could be treated with such brutal indignity for alluding to a mythological figure, it was obviously out of the question for a God to come forward and recite Greek Sapphics or Latin hexameters. Luckily, as it is very well-known, classical divinities have resources denied to poor mortal poets. So it was with perfect self possession that, when the herald announced “Dominus Klingsor,” Apollo, disdaining to pass through those vile Barbarians’ Green-room, suddenly appeared upon the dais, no one could tell how or whence. Being provided with no instrument of his own, the God of Music quietly picked up the harp which poor Tanhûser had dropped when he fell ignominiously under his fellow minstrels’ vulgar blows. It had suffered in the fray; and Apollo, advancing, to what ought to have been the footlights, in his black grammarian’s gown, held it on high to show its broken strings, and made a gesture of deprecation, so youthfully modest and at the same time so majestic that the whole assembly, which by this time felt rather ashamed of its recent uproariousness, broke into a respectful murmur of expectancy and admiration. Here was a poet, they thought, who was original enough to do without that silly conventional twanging. Perhaps, who knows? he would not even attempt to sing, but, being a foreigner, be satisfied to tell them some nice little prose fable about merchants’ wives and monks or talking animals. Those Welsch fabliaux were somewhat risqués, but at bottom so harmless!
But the unknown poet did not so much as open his very beautiful mouth. He took the broken harp between his two hands and passed his fingers across imaginary strings, combing, as it were, the empty air. And as he did so, a sound issued from beneath them, faint at first, then louder, until, while remaining pianissimo, it filled the whole hall: a rustling as if some one were gently and steadily shaking yards and yards of silk; a sound lulling and yet disquieting, which put to sleep and brought restless dreams; a sound which most of that audience had never heard before, but those who had done so in distant crusades and pilgrimages, had never forgotten: the sound of a tideless sea breaking against the rocks. And with it there gradually mingled another sound, watery also, which slaked the ear’s thirst after that salt and feverish lapping of the waves: the babble of brooks along stony channels upon rocky weirs and in mountain pools. And with it came the creaking of dry reeds and the heavy swaying of evergreen branches. Then from all around, so low that you doubted at first whether it was or it was not, came the cool, silvery sawing of thousands of crickets in dewy grass; and breaking into it, the distant harmoniously clattering chorus of tiny leaf frogs. Then came the downy note of an owl; and the far softer, liquid note of a toad. These various sounds made their appearance one after another without interference, opening out and remaining as the constellations and galaxies open out and remain in a starlight night; and as they go to make up the shining void of night, so these sounds made up an audible stillness, till, even as the heavens throb with intermeshed stars, so that silence throbbed with interwoven delicate faint sounds. And just as the golden orb of the moon rising behind a hill bursts suddenly forth and blots out the fainting stars, so also there rose through that hushed invisible orchestra the metallic magnificence of a great nightingale’s song. But a nightingale such as had never been heard in the thickets of Thuringia, even by Walther von der Vogelweide: the nightingale of antique lands.
The audience, when they afterwards tried to describe what had happened, were full of contradictory versions. Some admitted to have slept, and some to have seen strange seas in their dreams, blue and with white buildings shimmering on rocky headlands. Many vowed that they had remained awake with eyes fixed on the foreign minstrel’s face, the like of which they had never seen before, for he was a beardless youth and yet inexpressibly venerable. And these maintained that he had sung a song of spring, only quite different from the fashionable minstrels’ harping upon green grass and budding flowers; and that they had understood every thing he had told them, although they could not, for the life of them, remember afterwards a word, or even in what language he had sung, for his song had been somehow not words, but the things themselves. And many also maintained that he had not sung at all, and that his lips had never been parted except with an odd and somewhat alarming smile.
Be this as it may, this much is certain, that when his song, or his silence, had ceased; when, in short, that audible vision of a May night had come to an end, they were filled with an intolerable sense of panic: their limbs like lead, or shaking with fever; their hair dank and dripping ice; and their tongues dry and speechless in parched and closed-up throats. And while thus they sat there helpless under that terrible, yet delicious spell, they had all seen the foreign minstrel thrown down the borrowed harp with a crash which made the whole castle quake and rock, tear off his scholar’s gown and display a white and shining body barely draped in a white and shining cloak, his figure growing and growing with flamelike blond locks under a green wreath, until he touched the ceiling and vanished into a flaring furnace of rays and with a noise as of a thousands aeolian harps resounding in the wind. The whole place reeled; and blinded by that portentous sight, they groped about clutching one another in the darkness and yelling:
“A Demon! A Demon! Stop the Warlock!” And many affirmed on their oath that, only a minute later they had indeed seen a witch fly out on a blazing besom, and more precisely through the turret window where the Cardinal was seated.
Only the Abbess of Mulda, when obliged to satisfy the inquisitiveness of her Confessor, reluctantly added that just before the foreign minstrel had cast Tanhûser’s broken harp upon the ground, and thereby begun the series of extraordinary events just narrated, he had set an evergreen garland on his head, and taking some leaves from it, scattered them in the direction where she was seated, accompanying them with certain Latin words of uncertain import. More it was never possible to extract from her Right Reverence. But it was noticed that she wrote no more verse; and that, between the pages of her breviary some faded leaves, scented and which crackled in the fire, were discovered at her demise, in the odour of sanctity, a few years afterwards.
Now as to that witch whom sundry affirmed to have seen flying from out of the Cardinal’s turret-window, the real state of the case was very simple.
Athena and the Cardinal had been far too engrossed in a discussion upon the Nature of All Things (de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis), and more especially upon whether Achilles never catching up the celebrated Tortoise should or should not be regarded as finally decisive of the transcendental existence of time and space, to have been at all aware of the silent performance of Apollo, or even of the hubbub which followed its close and his disappearance. The Cardinal had indeed noticed the earthquake and taken the occasion to air a theory of his own explaining that inconvenient phenomenon by the collision of the Moon and the planet Mars under the sea. And this led His Eminence to confide to his learned friend the shocking Epicurean heresy of which he was suspected (and for which the Poet Dante subsequently found him chin-deep in a flaming marble sarcophagus of handsome workmanship); adding, however, that he was duly aware of the importance of religious beliefs among other persons, to the maintenance of which he would see once he was elected to the throne of Pontifex Maximus.
“I shall then,” he playfully added, “try whether my dear friend Klingsor is really as non-combustible as he boasts. But as that moment has fortunately not yet come, I shall meantime, and as soon as I get home, give myself the pleasure of presenting him with a little theological treatise which I have found it convenient to publish anonymously.” And he rapidly sketched out the main argument of that terrible treatise, “Of the Three Impostors” (De tribus Impostoribus) erroneously attributed to the Emperor Frederick II of damnable memory. “And as to the divinities of the Greeks and Romans,” concluded the Cardinal, “I don’t mind telling you, my learned gossip Klingsor, that with all respect for the superiority of Antiquity in all matters, I have never given a brass farthing for the existence of many of them, except Venus and Bacchus of whom I had some pleasant experience in my youth, and now perhaps, alas, of Father Cronos.”
“Venus! Bacchus!” burst out Athena, indignation overcoming all habit of dissimulation. “You dissolute and impious old red-gowned ignoramus! You have believed only in them, have you? It is indeed time that you learn from the wrath of a very different divinity how shamefully your sacrilegious ignorance has misled you.”
So saying, she rose to her shining feet, and carefully loosening the fastenings of her yellow necromancer’s gabardine, displayed beneath it the snake-enlaced Gorgon’s head which covered her divine and virgin bosom in a terrible but tasteful pattern.
“Patet dea!” was all the wretched Cardinal could ejaculate, showing thereby his profound scholarship even at the moment that he was stricken with complete palsy, which was made an excuse for refusing him that tiara of Pontifex Maximus, to secure which he had, as was most notorious, sold his unbelieving soul to the Devil.
But the Goddess, her face cleared of the false beard, and her ambrosial locks covered by a sphinx-crested helmet no longer hidden under the old yellow turban, struck the window with her diamond-tipped spear, and in a serene storm of wide-playing sheet-lightning, flew out of the castle and away towards the familiar flaming bounds of Space and Time.
Chapter VI—and Last
The Blossoming of the Staff
The rest of the story of Tanhûser and the Poets’ Competition at the Wartburg is so well known in our day that it would be unnecessary to insist upon it, were it not for one point upon which an erroneous impression has been handed on by the Mediaeval Balladmongers, an impression most uncritically endorsed by the somewhat Pan-German prejudices of Richard Wagner.
That indiscreet mention of Aphrodite having (though not for the reasons usually alleged) cost the unhappy Tanhûser his chance at the Minstrel’s Competition and also all possibility of proposing to the Landgrave’s niece, or as some say, daughter, the Cardinal’s jesting malediction began to prey upon the poor knight’s spirits, more especially as he found that Aphrodite, bound by her oath upon the Styx, was genuinely unable to communicate with him except from the top of a rose-coloured cloud. Partly from this idée fixe, which soon took maniacal proportions, and also from a more reasonable desire to avoid the monotonous jokes of his fellow minstrels, Tanhûser made up his mind to join a very select pilgrimage to Rome. There he had the honour of being presented to His Holiness Pope Urban IV, who took much innocent pleasure in the recital of the poor fellow’s lamentable story. But when Tanhûser began, as usual, with his very transparent allusions to Venus (for the poor man was unable to master the more difficult Greek name of the Goddess) and confessed his morbid terror of what would happen to him in the next world, Pope Urban, at first considerably embarrassed how to rid himself of such a maniac, had the happy and characteristic inspiration of making him a present of a walking stick, advising him to use it forthwith to pilgrimage back home, where, added the wise and kindly pontiff, he might employ the rest of his life in cultivating that dry piece of wood, as His Holiness had observed so many amateur gardeners do with much soothing effect on their spirits, watching whether it might not be got to bud and put forth leaves. And this hopeful answer of Pope Urban’s was communicated, instantly on his return home, by Tanhûser to his former sweetheart Aphrodite, who vouchsafed him a last interview, but only, as is well known, from the height of the usual rose-coloured cloud which hovered, never to reappear again till the days of Wagner, in the evening sky over the forests and castles of Thuringia.
* * * * * * * * * * * * “And what is it you want me to do for you now?” asked Zeus rather testily, for the whole business, particularly the journey of Apollo and Athena and his consequent diminished party in the Lucretian Empyrean, had rubbed him the wrong way. “I hope you aren’t going to suggest any more of these adventures which savour overmuch of the baser existence we Gods have, thanks to Lucretius, so happily left behind.”
“Don’t be cross, darling father of Gods,” begged Aphrodite clasping his knees, which always acted like tickling a cat under the chin; “don’t be cross and do this one little thing for me, like a dear, and I’ll never bother you again.”
“Well, what is it? Some other underbred fancy of this foolish protégé of yours, who really does compromise you in a manner most unsuitable to a Goddess.”
“It is for him, I admit it,” answered Aphrodite with well-feigned bashfulness and real sorrow, “but it is, alas, the last favour we can bestow upon him, for the wretch has gone into what they call a monastery, and shaved his head, making himself positively frightful to look at. But he has one last fancy—for it appears people mayn’t have fancies in monasteries. It is something connected with a foolish superstition about what he calls being saved (as if he hadn’t been safe enough so long as I was there!). See: make this to bud and put forth leaves, dear Zeus; it is the last pleasure I can do my poor dear little friend.” And sobbing gently Aphrodite drew from out of her exquisitely folded and looped sleeve something not unlike the hazel wand of a water seeker.
“There—make this to green again, dear Father Zeus, for the sake of your poor, poor little forsaken Aphrodite.”
“Tut, tut!” said Zeus, who could never stand a lady’s tears, least of all Aphrodite’s. “And what is this foolish dry stick to bud into, I wonder? Ah, of course! I have it!” And running his exquisitely vigorous divine fingers along the thin grey wood, he caused its dry knots to swell, to bud, to bring forth aromatic leaves, and even, O wonder! delicate white blossoms filled with glittering stamens.
“The myrtle consecrate to Aphrodite, presented by her affectionate old father,” he said, and handed it to her with a gentle nod of his Olympian curls.
But Aphrodite, having taken it, warmed the flowery branch with her kisses and moistened it with her tears, and then, with a lovely reluctant gesture, flung it beyond the flaming bounds of Space and Time. The enchanted myrtle branch descended slowly earthwards through the pellucid evening air wherein the evening star shone beryl-green.
Then, when it had disappeared into the purlieus of earth, there seemed, after a while, to rise in answer a faint, faint clashing of brass.
“They are delighted with their miracle, of course,” remarked Apollo somewhat savagely, for he was still a little ruffled by the business of that poetic competition.
“They are poor superstitious bodies,” answered Athena, “but superstitious is merely one of many historical phenomena and to be accepted as such.”
But as regards Aphrodite, she said no more, and merely wept at the knee of Zeus. For she had really been very much attracted to Tanhûser, whose name was never mentioned again among the Immortal Gods.