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CLEMENCY AND COMMON SENSE.
A CURIOSITY OF LITERATURE; WITH A MORAL.
ARTICLE IN THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, DECEMBER, 1865.
"Instabile est regnum quod non clementia firmat."
"Incidis in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdim."
ERE are two famous verses, both often quoted,
and one a commonplace of literature. That they have passed into proverbs attests their merit both in substance and in form. Something more than truth is needed for a proverb. And so, also, something more than form is needed. Both must concur. The truth must be expressed in such form as to satisfy the requirements of Art.
Most persons, who have not occasionally indulged in such diversions, if asked where these verses are to be found, would say at once that it was in some familiar poet of school-boy days. Both have a sound as of something heard in childhood. The latter is Virgilian in tone and movement. More than once I have heard it insisted that it was by Virgil. But nobody is able to find it there, although the opposite dangers are represented in the voyage of Æneas:
"Dextrum Scylla latus, lævum implacata Charybdis
1 Ene's, Lib. III. 420, 421.
Another poet shows the peril without the contrast:
"Scylla, et Charybdis Sicula contorquens freta
Thinking of the historical proverb, I am reminded of the eminent character who first showed it to me in the heroic poem where it appears. I refer to the late Dr. Maltby, Bishop of Durham, who had been a favorite pupil of Dr. Parr, and was unquestionably among the best scholars of England. His amenity was equal to his scholarship. I was his guest at Auckland Castle early in the autumn of 1838. Conversation turned much upon books and the curiosities of study. One morning, after breakfast, the learned Bishop came to me with a small volume in his hand, printed in the Italian character, and remarking, "You seem to be interested in such things," he pointed to this much quoted verse. It was the Latin epic, " Alexandreïs, sive Gesta Alexandri Magni," by Philippus Gualterus, a mediæval poet of France.
Of course the fable of Scylla and Charybdis is ancient; but this verse cannot be traced to antiquity. For the fable Homer is our highest authority, and he represents the Sirens as unfriendly accessories, playing their part to tempt the victim.
These fronting terrors belong to mythology and to geography. Mythologically, they were two voracious monsters, dwelling opposite to each other, Charybdis on the coast of Sicily, and Scylla on the coast of Italy. Geographically, they were dangers to the navigator in the narrow strait between Sicily and Italy. Charybdis was a whirlpool, where ships were often sucked to de
1 Seneca, Hercules Etæus, 235, 236.
struction; Scylla was a rock, on which ships were often dashed to pieces.
Ulysses in his wanderings encountered these terrors, but by prudence and the counsels of Circe he was enabled to steer clear between them, although the Sirens strove to lure him on the rock. The story is too long; but there are passages like pictures, and they have been illustrated by the genius of Flaxman. The first danger on the Sicilian side is described in the Odyssey:
"Beneath, Charybdis holds her boisterous reign
'Midst roaring whirlpools, and absorbs the main;
Endeavoring to shun this peril, the navigator encounters the other:
"Here Scylla bellows from her dire abodes,
Tremendous pest, abhorred by man and gods!
Six horrid necks she rears, and six terrific heads;
Not far off were the Sirens, who strove by their music to draw the navigator to certain doom:
"Their song is death, and makes destruction please.
Unblest the man whom music wins to stay
Nigh the cursed shore and listen to the lay:
Forewarned, the wise Ulysses took all precautions against the fatal perils. Avoiding the Sicilian whirlpool, he did not run upon the Italian rock or yield to the voice of the charmer. And yet he could not renounce the opportunity of hearing the melody. Stuff
1 Odyssey, tr. Pope, Book XII. 129–132.
2 Ibid., 107-114.
3 Ibid., 52-56.
ing the ears of his companions with wax, so that they could not be entranced by the Sirens, or comprehend any countermanding order which his weakness might induce him to utter, he had himself tied to the mast, -like another Farragut, and directed that the ship should be steered straight on. It was steered straight on, although he cried out to stop. His deafened companions heard nothing of the song or the countermand,
"Till, dying off, the distant sounds decay."
The dangers of both coasts were at length passed, not without the loss of six men, "chiefs of renown," who became the prey of Scylla. But the Sirens, humbled by defeat, dashed themselves upon the rocks and disappeared forever.
Few stories have been more popular. It was natural that it should enter into poetry and suggest a proverb. St. Augustine uses it, when he says, " Ne iterum, quasi fugiens Charybdim, in Scyllam incurras."1 Milton more than once alludes to it. Thus, in the exquisite "Comus,” he shows these opposite terrors subdued by another power: "Scylla wept
And chid her barking waves into attention,
And fell Charybdis murmured soft applause." 2
In the "Paradise Lost," while portraying Sin, the terrible portress at the gates of Hell, the poet repairs to this story for illustration:
"Far less abhorred than these,
Vexed Scylla, bathing in the sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore." 3
And then again, when picturing Satan escaping from pursuit, he shows him
1 In Joannis Evangelium Tract. XXXVI. § 9.
2 Comus, 257-259.
8 Book II. 659-661.
And more endangered, than when Argo passed
Charybdis, and by the other whirlpool steered." 1
But, though frequently employing the story, Milton did not use the proverb, and here transforms at least one of the dangers.
Not only the story, but the proverb, was known to Shakespeare, who makes Launcelot use it in his plain talk with Jessica: "Truly, then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother: thus, when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother: well, you are gone both ways."2 Malone, in his note, written in the last century, says: "Alluding to the well-known line of a modern Latin poet, Philippe Gualtier, in his poem entitled 'Alexandreïs.' To this testimony of Malone's, another editor, George Steevens, whose early bibliographical tastes excited the praise of Dibdin, adds: "Several translations of this adage were obvious to Shakespeare. Among other places, it is found in an ancient poem entitled 'A Dialogue between Custom and Veritie, concerning the use and abuse of Dauncing and Minstrelsie':
"While Silla they do seem to shun,
In Charibd they do fall.'"
But this proverb had already passed into tradition and speech. That Shakespeare should, seize and use it was natural. He was the universal absorbent.
It did not require a Shakespeare to appropriate it. Brantôme, who wrote rather from hearing than study, so that his style is a record of contemporary language,
1 Book II. 1016-1020.
2 Merchant of Venice, Act III. Sc. 5.