Sunday, July 16, 2006


What Song the Sirens Sang

These are excerpts from Norman Douglas, Siren Land (1911; rev. 1923).

Chapter II (Uplands of Sorrento):
Duty has become the Moloch of modern life.

An old Hebrew, who taught the pleasures of a virtuous life after exhausting those of a voluptuous one, said: Go to the ant; he forgot to remember that the ant sleeps for half the year. Man alone is a perennial drudge. Yet many of us would do well to mediterraneanise ourselves for a season, to quicken those ethic roots from which has sprung so much of what is best in our natures. To dream in Siren land, pursuing the moods and memories as they shift in labyrinthine mazes, like shadows on a woodland path in June; to stroll among the hills and fill the mind with new images upon which to browse at leisure, casting off outworn weeds of thought with the painless ease of a serpent and un-perplexing, incidentally, some of those "questions of the day" of which the daily papers nevertheless know nothing -- this is an antidote for many ills. There is repose in Siren land; there is none of that delirious massing-together in which certain mortals, unable to stand alone, can lean up against one another and so gain, for a moment, a precarious condition of equipoise.
Chapter III (The Siren Islets):
In these days, when life is so complicated as to lose all homogeneity and unity of purpose, when our fine edges are worn off by never-ending trivialities and meannesses, I often think that planting trees and reclaiming the waste places of earth are among the few occupations that still commend themselves to gentler natures -- pleasure and instruction for oneself, health and profit to posterity.
Chapter VII (The Cove Of Crapolla):
The name Crapolla has been derived from "akron Apollinis," as though a temple of Apollo had stood here. But this is pure Cicerone-etymology -- the origin of the word is the same as that of Capri, and in old deeds it is actually called Capreola. What Capri means is not quite certain; it is neither Greek nor Phoenician; there are places with similar names all over Italy and half a dozen Capri's and Caprile's within a few miles of here. Quaranta deduces it from a Tyrrhenian root signifying rocky or stony. Why not? When, nearly two centuries ago, Greek etymology could no longer explain all local names and traditions, the enlightened took refuge in Semiticism, and thus there grew up the ponderous Shem-Ham-and-Japheth literature of Martorelli and his disciples, which we have outgrown in its turn. Nowadays, the conveniently obscure Tyrrhenian language helps to solve old difficulties. But it makes new ones.
Chapter XI (On Leisure):
Everything which distinguishes man from animals is the result of leisure.

[T]he whole Iliad is nothing but a vendetta.
Chapter XIII (The Headland of Minerva):
Vengeance is mine, said the Jewish god who liked to keep all the good things for himself.
It must have been these decoying arts which induced Servius to think that "according to the truth" the Sirens were ladies of questionable reputation. This is going too far. You ungentlemanly old fellow, what maggot has got into your grammarian's brain?
In the final quotation, Douglas refers to Servius' commentary on Vergil's Aeneid 5.684:
In myth, the Sirens numbered three, and were part maidens, part birds, the daughters of the river Achelous and the muse Calliope. One of them made music with her voice, the second with the flute, and the third with the lyre. At first they dwelled near Pelorus, later on the Capri islands, and they enticed those who were enchanted by their song into shipwrecks. In truth, they were prostitutes. Because they enticed those who passed by into poverty, they were imagined to bring shipwrecks on them. By disdaining them, Ulysses caused them to die.

Sirenes secundum fabulam tres, parte virgines fuerunt, parte volucres, Acheloi fluminis et Calliopes musae filiae. harum una voce, altera tibiis, alia lyra canebat: et primo iuxta Pelorum, post in Capreis insulis habitaverunt, quae inlectos suo cantu in naufragia deducebant. secundum veritatem meretrices fuerunt, quae transeuntes quoniam deducebant ad egestatem, his fictae sunt inferre naufragia. has Vlixes contemnendo deduxit ad mortem.

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