Venetian Melancholy

IT is one of those evenings charged with an inexplicable melancholy, what the French call ” indicible tristesse.” Outside upon the broad canal of the Giudecca, fog-horns are calling from sea-going steamers, and now and then the weird sting of a siren, like a writhing sound serpent or a banshee’s cry, shivers from nowhere, no whither, through the opaque mist. Is it from our nerves, or from something altered and set wrong in Nature, some unwholesome wind, some depression preceding thunderstorm or earthquake, that this sense of a profound gloom settles down quite unexpectedly? Then all life seems wasted: the heart is full of hidden want! We know not what we desire; but an atmosphere of wistfulness is everywhere. What we have achieved, what we possess, shows dull, flat and unprofitable. Only what we have not, or lies beyond the scope of possibilities, gleams before the soul’s gaze like a bright particular star.

November 1. There has been a succession of sad sumptuous autumn days, the lagoons asleep, gently heaving in long undulations beneath the immense dome of varied greys, modulating from the warmest violets to the coldest slaty hues; mournful pageants of sunset, hanging roses and flakes of crimson fire over the whole expanse of heaven’s pavilion.

November 2. We go out in the gondola, Angelo, Vittorio and I, every afternoon, and moor ourselves to a palo beyond the Porto del Lido, there where the new breakwater is being made, and one looks toward the open sea with flocks of many-tinted fishing boats in the far offing. Here we sit and smoke and talk a little. I read, and wine from Poggio Gherardo gurgles through the thin neck of a Tuscan flask. The expanse of water is quite smooth, with just an indefinable sense of ebb and flow. All phases of the sky are repeated on the glassy surface; and after the long windless days we have lately been enjoying, the water itself has run crystal clear. One can look right down to the grassy weeds and to the bottom; and where light glints through upon an oar or whitened stake, gemmy patches of aquamarine tints (such as Tiepolo loved to splash for highest colour-accents on his blues), yield infinite if tranquil pleasure to the eye. Then comes the sunset: and all the furnace of the west has long since smouldered into ashes above Padua before we regain our home on the Zattere.

November 3. We rowed as usual to our palo, and let our-selves be lost, like a speck, in that immensity of sky and water. Not sea—there is little feeling of the true sea here. Only messages exchanged between the Adriatic and Venetian by incoming or outgoing vessels. Low lines of long shallow islands broken here and there by church towers and tufted with stunted trees, remind us that this is no more than an outlying piece of mainland, covered by sheets of brackish water. There is a peculiar melancholy in this advanced guard of the continent, where the rivers of the Alps and Lombardy are gradually gaining on the sea, depositing their silt through centuries. I remember experiencing the same sadness on the lagoons at Tunis, where Carthage has been utterly erased, as possibly Venice will be one day also. You forget the rival mistress of the world with Rome, and only feel the desert and the solemn expanse of lake. Towards evening rosy shoals of cloud float across the sky, and take a keener hue on the sheeny deeps beneath, while between the heavens and their reflections sail ponderous battalions of flamingoes making a third series of rose-tinted cloudlets. Melancholy and gorgeous colour-richness are combined in a singular degree throughout the landscape of lagoons.

November 4. I will try to catch the special note of a sun-set I saw yesterday from our customary station. Peculiar qualities of life and movement are given to these Venetian lagoons by the continual passage through them of considerable rivers, the Brenta and Sile. Also by the fact that there is a small tide in the Adriatic. It is not dead water like that of a land locked lake, but water subject to complex conditions of influx and outflow of salt currents combined with the perpetual course of inland torrents debouching through channels delved by them in the soft mud of the basin at points of least resistance and easiest access to the gaps between the belting islands. The lagoon then though it in no way resembles the sea, has a character of change and varying motion which makes it interesting without disturbing its unrivalled excellence as a reflecting surface.

The tide, at half-past three, was running out like a steady stream, making our moored boat throb with a rhythmic shudder seaward. Then came a pause, and then a different tremor. New shivers in a contrary direction thrilled the keel, and we felt that the pulse of the lagoon was turning landward. It is difficult to avoid shades of language appropriate to vital processes while speaking of this alteration in the tide. How can we think of it as the mechanical effect of gravitation upon fluid masses, when we remember how much of animal and vegetable life over the whole of that huge area is waiting on the subtle changes? To the sense of weeds and molluscs, sponges, crustaceans, and worms, ebb and flow must be equivalent to the systole and diastole of a mighty heart. We wrong the logic of our heads perhaps, but we get closer to Nature by indulging mythological illusions, and making our nerves sensitive to what for these creatures are the conditions of existence. Then, too, have not we emerged from them, and does not, perhaps, their sympathy with natural and diurnal changes survive in all the operations of our sentient imagination? The sky was one vast dome of delicately graduated greys, dove-breasted, ashen, violet, blurred-blue, rose-tinted, tawny, all drenched and drowned in the prevailing tone of sea-lavender. The water heaving, undulating, swirling at no point stationary, yet without a ripple on its vitreous pavement, threw back those blended hues, making them here and there more flaky and distinct in vivid patches of azure or of crimson. Not very far away, waiting for a breeze to carry them toward Torcello, lay half a dozen fishing boats with sails like butterflies a-tremble on an open flower: red, orange, lemon, set by some ineffable tact of Nature just in the right place to heighten and accentuate her symphony of tender tints. The sun was nowhere visible. No last rays flamed from the horizon, illuminating, as they sometimes do, that fretwork of suspended vapours with a sudden glory of mingled blood and fire. We knew that he had set, for a cindery pallor overspread the world; and we turned homeward, splashing the silent waters with the cadence of our oars. But soon, as though some celestial quarrel between planetary or sidereal powers had ended, and heaven were washed with tears of reconciliation and repentance, the roof of clouds dissolved into immeasurable air. Luna, just risen, full and radiant, sailed in a sky of brilliant blue. The colour was intense and omnipresent: so blue, so blue: bathing thin mists which lay along the face of the lagoon : tingeing pearly mackerel clouds lazily afloat above. White-sailed ships, like sheeted phantoms, swam past us through the twilight. The churches of Venice, S. Giorgio, Redentore, Salute, loomed, large and dusky silhouettes, emergent from the clinging vapours. Whenever the moistened lead upon their roofs and cupolas caught moonlight, it shone with silver. The concave of the sky mirrored in the concave of the water formed one sphere of azure mystery, moving through which was like being in the heart of some pale milky sapphire. Only at intervals, along the quays, lamps, dilated into globes, with golden reflections sagging down along the bluish water, broke and gave value to the dominant chord. Deep-tongued bells from far and near thrilled the whole scene translating its motif of colour into congenial qualities of sound.

November 5. Why do ye toil hither and thither upon paths laborious and peril-fraught? Seek what ye are seeking: but it is not there where ye are seeking it. Ye are seeking a life of blessedness in the realm of death. It is not there. Stirred to the depths by those miracles, my soul seemed to know what she was wanting, and at the same time knew that even to desire it was vanity; to possess it would be dust and ashes. The pains of thought, the sickness of the Soul, the thirst for things impossible, are soothed by communion with Nature. What can be more tranquillising than this breadth of sea and sky, the cool caressing lisp of those inflowing waters, the simplicity of yonder overarching cloud-pavilion? The day is dying imperceptibly. There is no question of a melodramatic display of colour. The vapours of the plain already hide the sun’s disc. I gaze forward into the profound blues of the eastern heavens. And then, with-out turning my head westward, I become aware that some change is taking place above the fields of Lombardy. For that vast gulf of blue, which erewhile was opaque and dull like indigo, is gradually growing transparent, warming into amethyst, assuming hues of iris, violet, and hyacinth. Flame seems filtering down into it from the zenith. The willows and acacia trees upon the shore of S. Erasmo are passing from the dull green of distant foliage into the brilliancy of chrysoberyl, the fervour of chrysophase, the pallucidity of jade. It is not easy to detach one’s gaze from this spectacle; yet turn I must and peer into the west. Between Fusiana and Malghera the cloud-canopy has lifted, leaving a blank space of sky above the buried sun. This is luminous with crimson, orange, citron, flecked with stationary lakes of molten gold : a great white planet swims suspended in their midst. The refraction of that light upon the eastern horizon caused the blues to blush. So, having fed my eyes with red and yellow fire, I turn again, and now the purples of the east, by contrast with those other hues, appear intolerable in their ardour and intensity of colour. The cold azure sucks our sense of vision into depths of incandescent fluor-spar: and just athwart the core of that cerulean pyre floats a barge piled high with hay, the sombre green of which has also caught the glow, and burns.

November 6. There has been a total eclipse of the moon. We were returning after sunset from our accustomed post. The sun, this time, sank like a round vermilion ball into the plain of Padua. The sky was hard and clear. Like a flawless topaz the west shone, with all the buildings of the city cut out in solid shapes of purple darkness against that background. There was no mystery, no illusion, except in the daffodils and saffrons of the heaving waterfloor. Behind S. Pietro di Castello peered up a little jagged notch of white light, like an abnormal planet splintered out of shape. This was the eclipsed moon rising. But the earth’s shadow gradually passed away, and the azure splendours of that previous evening were renewed, pitched in a key of higher clarity.

November 7. This summer of S. Martin is overpoweringly beautiful; a gradual dying of the year in tranquil pomps and glowing pageants. Every evening on the lagoon brings a new spectacle of ethereal and subtly coloured loveliness. So musical, so melancholy, so far diviner, than the blare and glory of the springtime. It is infinitely sweet and sad, this whisper of the fading autumn bestowing all its stored up passion and fruitage in dim twilight hours. Immeasurable breadth, unfathomable mystery, illimitable repose of coming slumber. I read in a book today that it must have taken one hundred millions of years to form the earth’s crust, and the crust has only an average of twenty miles in depth. Inside, all is still and molten rock and raging gases in combustion. One hundred millions of years to form a thin surface of elastic stuff for plants, beasts, and men and cities to exist on. And of all that time the history of our race, ascertained by documents, has only occupied five thousand years at most.

Ah! what is man, and why does he disquietude his soul and think so much about his destiny?

” Creatures of a day “? What is a man and what is a man not? Dreaming so, I sweep along the jetty of S. Niccolo di Lido through the sunset, with Angelo in front and Vittorio upon the poop. We pass a laden boat. On the boat, erect, sturdily rowing, is a young man, whose face, fronting the mellow spaces of the west, seems in its perfect and peculiar beauty to be ” the programme of all good.” A whole life of exquisite emotion and superb energy expressed there. A God-created inimitable thing. A masterpiece of Nature, to frame which all the rest seems made. I am a soul, he is a soul: we shall never meet: each of us has some incalculable doom, and neither of us knows what that doom is. What I really know is that in this intense momentary vision resides the most poignant of all stings to wake me into passionate indifference to time and chance and change, the laws which clip me round and stifle me. It falls away and fades, and he becomes a memory which leaves an unextinguished smart.

November 8. All those beautiful pomps and pageants have been again engulfed in sea-fog, and I listen this night to the complaining fret of boats moored close beneath my windows, the dreary hootings of sea-going vessels, the shrill, thin eldritch scream of sirens. Moments come in the hyper-sensitive life of artistic natures, come unbidden and uncaused, when we are assailed by desolate intimations of the inutility of all things, the vanity of our existence, the visionary fabric of the universe, the incomprehensibility of self, the continuous and irreparable flight of time when our joys and sorrows, our passion and our shame, our endeavours to achieve and our inertia of languor, seem but a mocking film, an iridescent scum upon the treacherous surface of a black and bottomless abyss of horrible inscrutability. At these times, like Pascal, we fain would set a screen up to veil the ever present gulf that yawns before our physical and mental organs of perception. Alas for those who, feeling the realities of beauty and emotion so acutely having such power at times to render them by words or forms for others, must also feel with poignant intensity the grim and transitory nature of the ground on which we tread, of the flesh and clothes us round, of the desires that fret our brains, the duties we perform, the thoughts that keep our will upon the stretch through months of unremunerative labour.

It is easy to stigmatise these moods as morbid. It is clear that yielding to them would entail paralysis of energy, decreptitude, disease. It is not certain that recording them serves any useful purpose. Yet they are real, a serious factor in the experience of sentient and reflective personalities. Duly counterpoised by strenuous activity and steady self-effectuation, they constitute for the artist and the thinker what might be compared to a ” retreat ” for the religious. They force a man to recognise his own incalculable littleness in the vast sum of things.

They teach him to set slight store on his particular achievement. They make him understand that seeming-bitter sentence of the Gospel, ” Say, we are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do.” Also they have the minor value of dissipating vain glamours of fame or blame, of popular applause or public condemnation, of vulgar display and petty rivalries with others. Emerging from them, the man, made wiser and saner, proceeds to work at that which lieth nearest to his hand to do.

Michelangelo, than whom none ever laboured with more single-hearted purpose and with haughtier constancy in his appointed field of art, professed a special dedication to the thought of death.

” This thought,” he said, ” is the only one which makes us know our proper selves, which holds us together in the bond of our own nature, which saves us from being stolen away by kinsmen, friends, great men of parts, by avarice, ambition, and those other faults and vices which filch one from himself. Keep him distraught and dispersed, without permitting him to retire into himself and to reunite his scattered parts.” Such then are the uses of what the world calls melancholy, ” Sweet dainty melancholy.” Thanksgiving to the places where moods like these are nobly, beautifully nurtured, and where their very presence in the soul is the purgation of its baser passions.