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Imaginary portraits, p.17

Imaginary Portraits, page 17


Imaginary Portraits

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doubtful weather. The tribune, thethrone itself, were made ready in the presence-chamber, with hangingsin the grand-ducal colours, laced with gold, together with a speech andan ode. Late at night, at last, the wagon was heard rumbling into thecourtyard, with the guest arrived in safety, but, if one must confessone's self, perhaps forbidding at first sight. From a comfortlessportico, with all the grotesqueness of the Middle Age, supported bybrown, aged bishops, whose meditations no incident could distract, OurLady looked out no better than an unpretending nun, with nothing to saythe like of which one was used to hear. Certainly one was notstimulated by, enwrapped, absorbed in the great master's doings; only,with much private disappointment, put on one's mettle to defend himagainst critics notoriously wanting in sensibility, and against one'sself. In truth, the painter wham Carl most unaffectedly enjoyed, thereal vigour of his youthful and somewhat animal taste finding here itsproper sustenance, was Rubens--Rubens reached, as he is reached at hisbest, in well-preserved family portraits, fresh, gay, ingenious, as ofprivileged young people who could never grow old. Had not he, too,brought something of the splendour of a "better land" into thosenorthern regions; if not the glowing gold of Titian's Italian sun, yetthe carnation and yellow of roses or tulips, such as [128] might reallygrow there with cultivation, even under rainy skies? And then, aboutthis time something was heard at the grand-ducal court of certainmysterious experiments in the making of porcelain; veritable alchemy,for the turning of clay into gold. The reign of Dresden china was athand, with one's own world of little men and women more delightfullydiminutive still, amid imitations of artificial flowers. The young Dukebraced himself for a plot to steal the gifted Herr Boettcher from hisenforced residence, as if in prison, at the fortress of Meissen. Whynot bring pots and wheels to Rosenmold, and prosecute his discoveriesthere? The Grand-duke, indeed, preferred his old service of goldplate, and would have had the lad a virtuoso in nothing less costlythan gold--gold snuff-boxes.

  For, in truth, regarding what belongs to art or culture, as elsewhere,we may have a large appetite and little to feed on. Only, in thethings of the mind, the appetite itself counts for so much, at least inhopeful, unobstructed youth, with the world before it. "You are theApollo you tell us of, the northern Apollo," people were beginning tosay to him, surprised from time to time by a mental purpose beyondtheir guesses--expressions, liftings, softly gleaming or vehementlights, in the handsome countenance of the youth, and his effectivespeech, as he roamed, inviting all about him to share the [129] honey,from music to painting, from painting to the drama, all alike florid instyle, yes! and perhaps third-rate. And so far consistently throughouthe had held that the centre of one's intellectual system must beunderstood to be in France. He had thoughts of proceeding to thatcountry, secretly, in person, there to attain the very impress of itsgenius.

  Meantime, its more portable flowers came to order in abundance. Thatthe roses, so to put it, were but excellent artificial flowers,redolent only of musk, neither disproved for Carl the validity of hisideal nor for our minds the vocation of Carl himself in these matters.In art, as in all other things of the mind, again, much depends on thereceiver; and the higher informing capacity, if it exist within, willmould an unpromising matter to itself, will realise itself byselection, and the preference of the better in what is bad orindifferent, asserting its prerogative under the most unlikelyconditions. People had in Carl, could they have understood it, thespectacle, under those superficial braveries, of a really heroic effortof mind at a disadvantage. That rococo seventeenth-century Frenchimitation of the true Renaissance, called out in Carl a boundlessenthusiasm, as the Italian original had done two centuries before. Heput into his reception of the aesthetic achievements of Lewis theFourteenth what young France had felt when Francis the First broughthome the great [130] Da Vinci and his works. It was but himself truly,after all, that he had found, so fresh and real, among those artificialroses.

  He was thrown the more upon such outward and sensuous products ofmind--architecture, pottery, presently on music--because for him, withso large intellectual capacity, there was, to speak properly, noliterature in his mother-tongue. Books there were, German books, butof a dulness, a distance from the actual interests of the warm,various, coloured life around and within him, to us hardly conceivable.There was more entertainment in the natural train of his own solitarythoughts, humoured and rightly attuned by pleasant visible objects,than in all the books he had hunted through so carefully for thatall-searching intellectual light, of which a passing gleam of interestgave fallacious promise here or there. And still, generously, he heldto the belief, urging him to fresh endeavour, that the literature whichmight set heart and mind free must exist somewhere, though courtlibrarians could not say where. In search for it he spent many days inthose old book-closets where he had lighted on the Latin ode of ConradCeltes. Was German literature always to remain no more than a kind ofpenal apparatus for the teasing of the brain? Oh! for a literature setfree, conterminous with the interests of life itself.

  In music, it might be thought, Germany had [131] already vindicated itsspiritual liberty. One and another of those North-german towns werealready aware of the youthful Sebastian Bach. The first notes had beenheard of a music not borrowed from France, but flowing, as naturally assprings from their sources, out of the ever musical soul of Germanyitself. And the Duke Carl was a sincere lover of music, himselfplaying melodiously on the violin to a delighted court. That newGermany of the spirit would be builded, perhaps, to the sound of music.In those other artistic enthusiasms, as the prophet of the French dramaor the architectural taste of Lewis the Fourteenth, he had contributedhimself generously, helping out with his own good-faith the inadequacyof their appeal. Music alone hitherto had really helped him, and takenhim out of himself. To music, instinctively, more and more he wasdedicate; and in his desire to refine and organise the court music,from which, by leave of absence to official performers enjoying theirsalaries at a distance, many parts had literally fallen away, like thefavourite notes of a worn-out spinet, he was ably seconded by a devotedyouth, the deputy organist of the grand-ducal chapel. A member of theRoman Church amid a people chiefly of the Reformed religion, Duke Carlwould creep sometimes into the curtained court pew of the LutheranChurch, to which he had presented its massive golden crucifix, tolisten to the chorales, the execution of which he [132] had managed totime to his liking, relishing, he could hardly explain why, thosepassages of a pleasantly monotonous and, as it might seem, unendingmelody--which certainly never came to what could rightly be called anending here on earth; and having also a sympathy with the cheerfulgenius of Dr. Martin Luther, with his good tunes, and that ringinglaughter which sent dull goblins flitting.

  At this time, then, his mind ran eagerly for awhile on the project ofsome musical and dramatic development of a fancy suggested by that oldLatin poem of Conrad Celtes--the hyperborean Apollo, sojourning, in therevolutions of time, in the sluggish north for a season, yet Apollostill, prompting art, music, poetry, and the philosophy whichinterprets man's life, making a sort of intercalary day amid thenatural darkness; not meridian day, of course, but a soft derivativedaylight, good enough for us. It would be necessarily a mystic piece,abounding in fine touches, suggestions, innuendoes. His vague proposalwas met half-way by the very practical executant power of his friend orservant, the deputy organist, already pondering, with just a satiricflavour (suppressible in actual performance, if the time for thatshould ever come) a musical work on Duke Carl himself; Balder, anInterlude. He was contented to re-cast and enlarge the part of thenorthern god of light, with a now wholly serious intention. But still,[133] the near, the real and familiar, gave precision to, or actuallysuperseded, the distant and the ideal. The soul of the music was but atransfusion from the fantastic but so interesting creature close athand. And Carl was certainly true to his proposed part in that hegladdened others by an intellectual radiance which had ceased to meanwarmth or animation for himself. For him the light was still to seek inFrance, in
Italy, above all in old Greece, amid the precious thingswhich might yet be lurking there unknown, in art, in poetry, perhaps invery life, till Prince Fortunate should come.

  Yes! it was thither, to Greece, that his thoughts were turned duringthose romantic classical musings while the opera was made ready. That,in due time, was presented, with sufficient success. Meantime, hispurpose was grown definite to visit that original country of the Muses,from which the pleasant things of Italy had been but derivative; tobrave the difficulties in the way of leaving home at all, thedifficulties also of access to Greece, in the present condition of thecountry.

  At times the fancy came that he must really belong by descent to asouthern race, that a physical cause might lie beneath this strangerestlessness, like the imperfect reminiscence of something that hadpassed in earlier life. The aged ministers of heraldry were set towork (actually
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