Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 4

[+] | [-] | reset
 

Chapter IV

In a year or two more came Waterloo and the European peace.  Then Mr George Pontifex went abroad more than once.  I remember seeing at Battersby in after years the diary which he kept on the first of these occasions.  It is a characteristic document.  I felt as I read it that the author before starting had made up his mind to admire only what he thought it would be creditable in him to admire, to look at nature and art only through the spectacles that had been handed down to him by generation after generation of prigs and impostors.  The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy.  “My feelings I cannot express.  I gasped, yet hardly dared to breathe, as I viewed for the first time the monarch of the mountains.  I seemed to fancy the genius seated on his stupendous throne far above his aspiring brethren and in his solitary might defying the universe.  I was so overcome by my feelings that I was almost bereft of my faculties, and would not for worlds have spoken after my first exclamation till I found some relief in a gush of tears.  With pain I tore myself from contemplating for the first time ‘at distance dimly seen’ (though I felt as if I had sent my soul and eyes after it), this sublime spectacle.”  After a nearer view of the Alps from above Geneva he walked nine out of the twelve miles of the descent: “My mind and heart were too full to sit still, and I found some relief by exhausting my feelings through exercise.”  In the course of time he reached Chamonix and went on a Sunday to the Montanvert to see the Mer de Glace.  There he wrote the following verses for the visitors’ book, which he considered, so he says, “suitable to the day and scene”:—

Lord, while these wonders of thy hand I see,
My soul in holy reverence bends to thee.
These awful solitudes, this dread repose,
Yon pyramid sublime of spotless snows,
These spiry pinnacles, those smiling plains,
This sea where one eternal winter reigns,
These are thy works, and while on them I gaze
I hear a silent tongue that speaks thy praise.

Some poets always begin to get groggy about the knees after running for seven or eight lines.  Mr Pontifex’s last couplet gave him a lot of trouble, and nearly every word has been erased and rewritten once at least.  In the visitors’ book at the Montanvert, however, he must have been obliged to commit himself definitely to one reading or another.  Taking the verses all round, I should say that Mr Pontifex was right in considering them suitable to the day; I don’t like being too hard even on the Mer de Glace, so will give no opinion as to whether they are suitable to the scene also.

Mr Pontifex went on to the Great St Bernard and there he wrote some more verses, this time I am afraid in Latin.  He also took good care to be properly impressed by the Hospice and its situation.  “The whole of this most extraordinary journey seemed like a dream, its conclusion especially, in gentlemanly society, with every comfort and accommodation amidst the rudest rocks and in the region of perpetual snow.  The thought that I was sleeping in a convent and occupied the bed of no less a person than Napoleon, that I was in the highest inhabited spot in the old world and in a place celebrated in every part of it, kept me awake some time.”  As a contrast to this, I may quote here an extract from a letter written to me last year by his grandson Ernest, of whom the reader will hear more presently.  The passage runs: “I went up to the Great St Bernard and saw the dogs.”  In due course Mr Pontifex found his way into Italy, where the pictures and other works of art—those, at least, which were fashionable at that time—threw him into genteel paroxysms of admiration.  Of the Uffizi Gallery at Florence he writes: “I have spent three hours this morning in the gallery and I have made up my mind that if of all the treasures I have seen in Italy I were to choose one room it would be the Tribune of this gallery.  It contains the Venus de’ Medici, the Explorator, the Pancratist, the Dancing Faun and a fine Apollo.  These more than outweigh the Laocoon and the Belvedere Apollo at Rome.  It contains, besides, the St John of Raphael and many other chefs-d’oeuvre of the greatest masters in the world.”  It is interesting to compare Mr Pontifex’s effusions with the rhapsodies of critics in our own times.  Not long ago a much esteemed writer informed the world that he felt “disposed to cry out with delight” before a figure by Michael Angelo.  I wonder whether he would feel disposed to cry out before a real Michael Angelo, if the critics had decided that it was not genuine, or before a reputed Michael Angelo which was really by someone else.  But I suppose that a prig with more money than brains was much the same sixty or seventy years ago as he is now.