Aetna

THE eruptions of AEtna have blackened the whole land for miles in every direction. That is the first observation forced upon one in the neighborhood of Catania or Giarre or Bronte. From whatever point of view you look at AEtna, it is always a regular pyramid, with long and gradually sloping sides, broken here and there by the excrescence of minor craters and dotted over with villages ; the summit crowned with snow, divided into peak and cone, girdled with clouds, and capped with smoke, that shifts shape as the wind veers, dominates a blue-black monstrous mass of outpoured lava. From the top of Monte Rosso, a subordinate volcano which broke into eruption in 1669, you can trace the fountain from which ” the unapproachable river of purest fire” that nearly destroyed Catania issued. You see it still bubbling up like a frozen geyser from the flank of the mountain, whence the sooty torrent spreads, or rather sprawls, with jagged edges to the sea. The plain of Catania lies at your feet, threaded by the Simeto, bounded by the promontory of Syracuse and the mountains of Castro Giovanni. This huge amorphous blot upon the landscape may be compared to an ink-stain on a variegated table-cloth, or to the coal-districts marked upon a geological atlas, or to the heathen in a missionary map—the green and red and gray colors standing for Christians and Mohammedans and Jews of different shades and qualities. The lava, where it has been cultivated, is reduced to fertile sand, in which vines and fig trees are planted—their tender green foliage contrasting strangely with the sinister soil that makes them flourish. All the roads are black as jet, like paths leading to coal-pits, and the country-folk on mule-back plodding along them look like Arabs on an infernal Sahara. The very lizards which haunt the rocks are swart and smutty. Yet the flora of the district is luxuriant. The gardens round Catania, nestling into cracks and ridges of the stiffened flood, are marvellously brilliant with spurge and fennel and valerian. It is impossible to form a true conception of flower-brightness till one has seen these golden and crimson tints upon their ground of ebony, or to realize the blueness of the Mediterranean except in contrast with the lava where it breaks into the sea. Copses of frail oak and ash, undergrown with ferns of every sort; cactus-hedges, orange-trees grafted with lemons and laden with both fruits ; olives of scarce two centuries’ growth, and fig-trees knobbed with their sweet produce, overrun the sombre soil, and spread their boughs against the deep blue sea and the translucent amethyst of the Calabrian mountains. Underfoot, a convolvulus with large white blossoms, binding dingy stone to stone, might be compared to a rope of Desdemona’s pearls upon the neck of Othello.

The villages are perhaps the most curious feature of this scenery. Their houses, rarely more than one story high, are walled, paved, and often roofed with the inflexible material which once was ruinous fire, and is now the servant of the men it threatened to destroy. The churches are such as might be raised in Hades to implacable Proserpine, such as one might dream of in a vision of the world turned into hell, such as Baudelaire in his fiction of a metallic landscape might have imagined under the influence of hasheesh. Their flights of steps are built of sharply cut black lava blocks no feet can wear. Their door-jambs and columns and pediments and carved work are wrought and sculptured of the same gloomy masonry. How forbidding are the acanthus-scrolls, how grim the skulls and cross-bones on these portals ! The bell-towers, again, are ribbed and beamed with black lava. A certain amount of the structure is whitewashed, which serves to relieve the funereal solemnity of the rest. In an Indian district each of these churches would be a temple, raised in vain propitiation to the demon of the fire above and below. Some pictures made by their spires in combination with the sad village-hovels, the snowy dome of .Etna, and the ever-smiling sea, are quite unique in their variety of suggestion and wild beauty.

The people have a sorrow-smitten and stern aspect. Some of the men in the prime of life are grand and haughty, with the cast-bronze countenance of Roman emperors. But the old men bear rigid faces of carved basalt, gazing fixedly before them as though at some time or other in their past lives they had met Medusa : and truly Etna in eruption is a Gorgon, which their ancestors have oftentimes seen shuddering, and fled from terror-frozen. The white-haired old women, plying their spindle or distaff, or meditating in grim solitude, sit with the sinister set features of Fates by their doorways. The young people are very rarely seen to smile : they open hard, black, beaded eyes upon a world in which there is little for them but endurance or the fierceness of passions that delight in blood. Strangely different are these dwellers on the sides of Etna from the voluble, lithe sailors of Sciacca or Mazara, with their sunburnt skins and many-colored garments.

The Val del Bove—a vast chasm in the flank of Etna, where the very heart of the volcano has been riven and its entrails bared —is the most impressive spot of all this region. The road to it leads from Zafferana (so called because of its crocus-flowers) along what looks like a series of black moraines, where the lava tor-rents pouring from the craters of .Etna have spread out, and reared themselves in stiffened ridges against opposing mountain buttresses. After toiling for about three hours over the dismal waste, a point between the native rock of Ætna and the dead sea of lava is reached, which commands a prospect of the cone with its curling smoke surmounting a caldron of some four thousand feet in depth and seemingly very wide. The whole of this space is filled with billows of blackness, wave on wave, crest over crest, and dike by dike, precisely similar to a gigantic glacier, swarthy and immovable. The resemblance of the lava-flood to a glacier is extraordinarily striking. One can fancy one’s self standing on the Belvedere at Macugnaga, or the Tacul point upon the Mer de Glace, in some nightmare, and finding to one’s horror that the radiant snows and river-breeding ice-fields have been turned by a malignant deity to sullen, stationary cinders. It is a most hideous place, like a pit in Dante’s Hell, disused for some unexplained reason, and left untenanted by fiends. The scenery of the moon, without atmosphere and without life, must be of this sort; and such, rolling round in space, may be some planet that has survived its own combustion. When the clouds, which almost al-ways hang about the Val del Bove, are tumbling at their awful play around its precipices, veiling the sweet suggestion of distant sea and happier hills that should be visible, the horror of this view is aggravated. Breaking here and there, the billows of mist disclose forlorn tracts of jet-black desolation, wicked, unutterable, hateful in their hideousness, with patches of smutty snow above, and downward-rolling volumes of murky smoke. Shakespeare, when he imagined the damned spirits confined to ” thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice,” divined the nature of a glacier; but what line could he have composed adequate to shadow forth the tortures of a soul condemned to palpitate forever between the ridges of this thirsty and intolerable sea of dead fire? If the world-spirit chose to assume for itself the form and being of a dragon, of like substance to this, impenetrable, invulnerable, unapproachable, would be its hide. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to picture these lava-lakes glowing, as they must have been when first outpoured, the bellowing of the crater, the heaving and surging of the solid earth, the air obstructed with cinders and whizzing globes of molten rock. Yet in these throes of devilish activity, the Val del Bove would be less insufferable than in its present state of suspension, asleep, but threatening, ready to regurgitate its flame, but for a moment inert.

An hour’s drive from Nicolosi or Zafferana, seaward, brings one into the richest land of ” olive and aloe and maize and vine ” to be found upon the face of Europe. Here, too, are laughing little towns, white, prosperous, and gleeful, the very opposite of those sad stations on the mountain-flank. Every house in Aci Reale has its court-yard garden filled with orange-trees and nespole and fig-trees and oleanders. From the grinning corbels that support the balconies hang tufts of gem-bright ferns and glowing clove-pinks. Pergolas of vines, bronzed in autumn, and golden green like chrysoprase beneath an April sun, fling their tendrils over white walls and shady loggie. Gourds hang ripening in the steady blaze. Far and wide stretches a landscape rich with tilth and husbandry, boon Nature paying back to men tenfold for all their easy toil. The terrible great mountain sleeps in the distance, innocent of fire. I know not whether this land be more delightful in spring or autumn. The little flamelike flakes of brightness upon vines and fig-trees in April have their own peculiar charm. But in November the whole vast flank of }Etna glows with the deep-blue tone of steel; the russet woods are like a film of rust; the vine-boughs thrust living carbuncles against the sun. To this season, when the peculiar earth-tints of }Etna, its strong purples and tawny browns, are harmonized with the decaying wealth of forest and of orchard, I think the palm of beauty must be given in this land.

The sea is an unchangeable element of charm in all this landscape. Aci Castello should be visited, and those strange rocks, called the Ciclopidi, forced by volcanic pressure from beneath the waves. They are made of black basalt like the Giant’s Causeway; and on their top can be traced the caps of calcareous stone they carried with them in the fret and fury of their upheaval from the sea-bed. Samphire, wild fennel, cactus, and acanthus clothe them now from crest to basement where the cliff is not too sheer. By the way, there are few plants more picturesque than the acanthus in full flower. Its pale lilac spikes of blossom stand waist-high above a wilderness of feathering, curving, delicately indented, burnished leaves—deep, glossy, cool, and green.

This is the place for a child’s story of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who fed his flocks among the oak woods of Etna, and who, strolling by the sea one summer evening, saw and loved the fair girl Galatea. She was afraid of him, and could not bear his shaggy-browed round rolling eye. But he forgot his sheep and goats, and sat upon the cliffs and piped to her. Meanwhile she loved the beautiful boy Acis, who ran down from the copse to play with her upon the sea-beach. They hid together froth Polyphemus in a fern-curtained cavern of the shore. But Polyphemus spied them out and heard them laughing together at their games. Then he grew wroth, and stamped with his huge feet upon the earth, and made it shake and quiver. He roared and bellowed in his rage, and tore up rocks and flung them at the cavern where the children were in hiding, and his eye shot fire beneath the grisly penthouse of his wrinkled brows. They, in their sore distress, prayed to heaven ; and their prayers were heard : Galatea became a mermaid, so that she might swim and sport like foam upon the crests of the blue sea; and Acis was changed into a stream that leaped from the hills to play with her amid bright waters. But Polyphemus, in punishment for his rage and spite and jealousy, was forced to live in the mid-furnaces of Etna. There he growled and groaned and shot forth flame in impotent fury ; for though he remembered the gladness of those playfellows, and sought to harm them by tossing red-hot rocks upon the shore, yet the light sea ever laughed, and the radiant river found its way down from the copsewood to the waves. The throes of Ætna in convulsion are the pangs of his great giant’s heart, pent up and sick with love for the bright sea and gladsome sun ; for, as an old poet sings :

There’s love when holy heaven doth wound the earth ; And love still prompts the land to yearn for bridals : The rain that falls in rivers from the sky, Impregnates earth : and she brings forth for men The flocks and herds and life of teeming Ceres.

To which let us add :

But sometimes love is barren, when broad hills, Rent with the pangs of passion, yearn in vain, Pouring fire tears adown their furrowed cheeks, And heaving in the impotence of anguish.

There are few places in Europe where the poetic truth of Greek mythology is more apparent than here upon the coast between Aetna and the sea. Of late, philosophers have been eager to tell us that the beautiful legends of the Greeks, which contain in the colored haze of fancy all the thoughts afterwards expressed by that divine race in poetry and sculpture, are but decayed phrases, dead sentences, and words whereof the meaning was forgotten. In this theory there is a certain truth ; for mythology stands midway between the first lispings of a nation in its language and its full-developed utterances in art. Yet we have only to visit the scenes which gave birth to some Hellenic myth, and we perceive at once that, whatever philology may affirm, the legend was a livng poem, a drama of life and passion transferred from human experience to the inanimate world by those early myth-makers, who were the first and the most fertile of all artists. Persephone was the patroness of Sicily, because amid the billowy corn-fields of her mother, Demeter, and the meadow flowers she loved in girl-hood are ever found sulphurous ravines and chasms breathing vapor from the pit of Hades. What were the Cyclops—that race of one-eyed giants—but the many minor cones of ‘Etna? Observed from the sea by mariners, or vaguely spoken of by the natives, who had reason to dread their rage, these hillocks became lawless and devouring giants, each with one round burning eye. Afterwards the tales of Titans who had warred with Zeus were realized in this spot. Typhoeus or Enceladus made the mountain heave and snort; while Hephaestus not unnaturally forged thunderbolts in the central caverns of a volcano that never ceased to smoke. To the student of art and literature, mythology is chiefly interesting in its latest stages, when, the linguistic origin of special legends being utterly forgotten, the poets of the race played freely with its rich material. Who cares to be told that Achilles was the sun, when the child of Thetis and the lover of Patroclus has been sung for us by Homer ? Are the human agonies of the doomed house of Thebes made less appalling by tracing back the tale of OEdipus to some prosaic source in old astronomy ? The incest of Jocasta is the subject of supreme tragic art. It does not improve the matter, or whitewash the imagination of the Greeks, as some have fondly fancied, to unravel the fabric wrought by Homer and by Sophocles into its raw material in Arian dialects. Indeed this new method of criticism bids fair to destroy for young minds the human lessons of pathos and heroism in Greek poetry, and to create an obscure conviction that the greatest race of artists the world has ever produced were but dotards, helplessly dreaming over distorted forms of speech and obsolete phraseology.

Let us bid farewell to AEtna from Taormina. All along the coast between Aci and Giardini the mountain towers distinct against a sunset sky—divested of its robe of cloud, translucent and blue as some dark sea-built crystal. The Val del Bove is shown to be a circular crater in which the lava has boiled and bubbled over to the fertile land beneath. As we reach Giardini, the young moon is shining, and the night is alive with stars so large and bright that they seem leaning down to whisper in the ears of our soul. The sea is calm, touched here and there on the fringes of the bays and headlands with silvery light ; and impendent crags loom black and sombre against the feeble azure of the moonlit sky. Quale per incertam lunam et sub luce maligna : such is our journey, with .Etna, a gray ghost, behind our path, and the reflections of stars upon the sea, and glow-worms in the hedges, and the mystical still splendor of the night, that, like Death, liberates the soul, raising it above all common things, simplifying the outlines of the earth as well as our own thoughts to one twilight hush of aerial tranquillity. It is a strange compliment to such a landscape to say that it recalls a scene from an opera. Yet so it is. What the arts of the scene-painter and the musician strive to suggest is here realized in fact; the mood of the soul created by music and by passion is natural here, spontaneous, pre-pared by the divine artists of earth, air, and sea.

Was there ever such another theatre as this of Taormina? Turned to the south, hollowed from the crest of a promontory one thousand feet above the sea, it faces AEtna with its crown of snow ; below, the coast sweeps onward to Catania and the distant headland of Syracuse. From the back the shore of Sicily curves with delicately indented bays towards Messina; then come the straits, and the blunt mass of the Calabrian mountains terminating Italy at Spartivento. Every spot on which the eye can rest is rife with reminiscences. It was there, we say, looking northward to the straits, that Ulysses tossed between Scylla and Charybdis; there, turning towards the flank of Etna, that he met with Polyphemus and defied the giant from his galley. From yonder snow-capped eyrie, the rocks were hurled on Acis. And all along that shore, after Persephone was lost, went Demeter, torch in hand, wailing for the daughter she could no more find among Sicilian villages. Then, leaving myths for history, we re-member how the ships of Nikias set sail from Reggio, and coasted the forelands at our feet, past Naxos, on their way to Catania and Syracuse. Gylippus afterwards in his swift galley took the same course ; and Dion, when he came to destroy his nephew’s empire. Here, too, Timoleon landed, resolute in his firm will to purge the isle of tyrants.

What scenes, more spirit-shaking than any tragic shows—pageants of fire and smoke, and mountains in commotion—are witnessed from these grassy benches, when the earth rocks, and the sea is troubled, and the side of Etna flows with flame, and night grows horrible with bellowings that forebode changes in empires !

Quoties Cyclopum effervere in agros Vidimus undantem ruptis fornacibus Atnam, Flammarumque globos liquefactaque volvere saxa.

The stage of these tremendous pomps is very calm and peace-f al now. Lying among acanthus-leaves and asphodels bound together by wreaths of white and pink convolvulus, we only feel that this is the loveliest landscape on which our eyes have ever rested or can rest. The whole scene is a symphony of blues—gemlike lapis-lazuli in the sea, aerial azure in the distant head-lands, light-irradiated sapphire in the sky, and impalpable vapor-mantled purple upon }Etna. The gray tones of the neighboring cliffs, and the glowing brickwork of the ruined theatre, through the arches of which shine sea and hill-side, enhance by contrast these modulations of the one prevailing hue. Etna is the dominant feature of the landscape—than which no other mountain is more sublimely solitary, more worthy of Pindar’s praise, “The pillar of heaven, the nurse of sharp eternal snow.” It is A AEtna that gives its unique character of elevated beauty to this coast scenery, raising it to a grander and more tragic level than the landscape of the Cornice and the Bay of Naples.