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Nether Lochaber
Chapter II


Autumnal Tints—Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—Series Sacra—Sortes Virgiliancr— Charles the First and Lord Falkland—Virgilius the Magician—Thomas of Ercildoune.

With occasional gales of wind and blustering showers [October 1868], that, from their chilliness and snellness, you suspect to be sleet, although you don't like as yet exactly to say so—meteorological phenomena, however, in no way strange or unusual on the back of the autumnal equinox—the weather with us here continues delightfully bright and breezy, and the country looks beautiful. Field and upland are still as freshly green as at midsummer, while the deep, rich russet hues and golden tints of the declining year, gleaming in the fitful sunlight, and intermingling their glories with the still beautifully fresh and unspotted foliage of our hardier trees and shrubs; with the ripe, ruddy bloom of the heather empurpling the moorland and the hill, and a perfect sea of "brackens brown" mantling the mountain side, and fringing, in loving companionship with the birch, the alder, and the hazel, the torrent's brink, as it leaps in foam from rock to rock and dashes downwards with its wild music to the sea,—all this, with a thousand indescribable accessories, scarcely perceptible indeed in the general effect, but all bearing their fitting part in the delightful whole, presents at this season, and never more markedly than this year, a scene that you never tire of gazing at, and declaring again and again, and with all your heart, to be "beautiful exceedingly." As you gaze on such a scene as this, you feel that no painter could paint it; that there is a something in it all too subtile and spiritual to be transferred to canvas by any art whatever. An imitation, indeed, of all that is palpable and tangible about it you may get, and it may be very beautiful perhaps, and a triumph of art in a way; but, even as you gaze in admiration, ready to grant the artist all the praise that is his due, are you not apt, remembering the scene as nature has it, to

"Start, for soul is wanting there?"

But we must not be misunderstood. Painters and painting we love, and have always loved, and should be sorry, indeed, to be considered as in any way dead or indifferent to the power and beauty of the art. Painting, after all, however, and especially landscape painting, is but an imitative art, and the longer we live, and the more we are brought face to face with nature, the more shall we feel that there is a charm, an attractiveness, and a loveliness about her all her own—a something that you feel but cannot describe, that the artist as he gazes feels too, and strives to grasp and instil into his picture, but cannot charm into interminglement with his colours, "charm he never so wisely." Viewed aesthetically, nature in sooth consists not of matter only, but of matter and spirit, and therein is the secret of her surpassing power over us. You may subtly imitate and reproduce exact representations of her more prominent features and general outlines, and the painter, according as he is more or less gifted with the poetic mens divina, may infuse a moral meaning into his work, and a subtile beauty entirely independent of the mere manipulation of his subject—be it landscape, seascape, or cloudscape—and his work may impart instruction as well as pleasure and delight; but, granting all this, there shall still be something awanting even in the finest pictures, that something which we have ventured to call spirit—the spirit that pervades and permeales nature in all her works, that is her life, that may be "spiritually discerned" in her, but cannot be transferred to canvas.

In the collection of Jewish traditions known as the Talmud there is a very pretty story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, that will serve to illustrate our meaning better than the longest dissertation could be. It is to the following effect:—Attracted by his wealth, and wisdom, and power—the fame whereof had gone forth into all lands—the Queen of Sheba, the Beautiful, paid a visit to Solomon, the Wise, at his own court, that she might there admire the splendour of his throne and be instructed of his wisdom. Charmed with the courtesy and gallantry of the accomplished King, delighted with the magnificence and splendour of his court, and amazed at his surpassing wisdom, which, indeed, exceeded all that she had heard reported of it, the Queen still thought that Solomon could be outwitted, and she resolved to have the glory of puzzling and outwitting one so wise. To this end she one day presented herself before the King, bearing in one of her hands a wreath of natural flowers, the most beautiful she could gather, and in the other a similar wreath of artificial flowers, the most beautiful and like unto natural flowers that the cunning of herself and her handmaidens could fashion. Of the two wreaths the hues were of the brightest, and the flowers of the one wreath were as if they had been pulled off the same stalks that bore the flowers of the other. "Tell me now, O King," said the Queen as she stood at some distance from the throne whereon the monarch sate, "Tell me now, O King, which of these wreaths I hold in my hands is fashioned of artiticial flowers, for one of them is so fashioned; and which of them of natural flowers, that grew from out the earth, and imbibed their beauty and their brightness from the sun, for of such of a truth is one of them formed 1" And, lo, the King was perplexed and sorely troubled, for he wist not what answer to make, seeing that the two wreaths were as like one to another as twin sisters at their mother's breast, or twin lilies on the same stalk. And the courtiers of the King, and his princes, and his servants, were sorely grieved that the sagacity of the King should be at fault, and his superhuman wisdom at last fail. But, lo, the spirit of wisdom came upon the King in his perplexity. Observing some bees clustering outside, he ordered the window to be opened, and soon the bees came swarming into the court, and after hovering for a moment about the one wreath, they straightway left it and settled upon the other, which observing, "That," said the King, "that, and not the other, is the wreath of the flowers that grew from out the earth and in the sun, and were not fashioned with hands." And the Queen was mightily surprised at the exceeding wisdom of the King, and did obeisance unto Solomon, laying the wreaths of flowers upon the steps of the ivory throne that was overlaid with gold, and of which there was not the like made in any kingdom. And the courtiers, and the princes, and the servants of the King clapped their hands and cried, " 0 King! live for ever." If we are wise and judge aright, we shall always, like the bees of Solomon, be attracted by nature rather than by art, however beautiful. Our doctrine was never, perhaps, so briefly and pithily enforced as by the Macedonian conqueror on a certain occasion. A courtier one day asked him to listen to him how well he could, whistling, imitate the notes of the nightingale. Alexander declined the proffered musical entertainment with the contemptuous remark, "I have heard the nightingale herself." In wonder that the would-be melodist slunk away abashed; and such be the fate of all mere echoers and imitators when at any time they claim more than is their due, or would have us appraise their pinchbeck at the value of sterling gold. There is an amount of truth, and a hidden meaning and beauty, in Byron's lines, that he was himself perhaps unconscious of in the ribald mood of the moment, when, alluding to the statuary's art, he exclaimed—

"I've seen much finer women, ripe and real,
Than all the nonsense of their stone ideal."

It is astonishing how difficult of thorough eradication are certain superstitions, if once established amongst a people. Once let the popular mind become inoculated with error in this shape, and although times may change and the manners of the people may alter, though a new tongue even shall have succeeded the language in which the error was imbibed, and knowledge have spread and civilisation have steadily progressed, yet there the superstition still lurks, frightened it may be at the outward light, and, owl-like, ashamed to appear in the brightness of the blessed sunshine of unclouded truth, but ever ready, nevertheless, under favourable circumstances, to manifest itself, and assert its sway over its votaries, like certain fabled mediaeval philters and potions that when administered are said to have lurked for years and years in the human system, till, under certain conditions, their subtle properties were called into active operation, and the desired effect was produced. A short time ago we spent an evening in the company of a gentleman from the south of Scotland, a distinguished antiquary and archaeologist, and of wonderful skill in everything connected with the folk-lore of Scotland, whether of the past or present. In the course of conversation, " over the walnuts and the wine," our friend surprised us not a little by informing us that even at this day, in certain parts of the south-western districts of Scotland, the Sortes Sacrce are frequently resorted to by the people when they are in doubt or perplexity about anything of sufficient importance in their opinion to warrant their having recourse to this ancient mode of divination. The Sortes Sacrce are founded upon the more ancient Sortes Virgiliance—Virgilian Lots, a method of divination which had at least the merit of being extremely simple, and not necessarily occupying much of the votary's time. What may be called the literary oracle, as distinguished from vocal oracles, was consulted in this wise: The operator having before him a copy of Virgil—thesortes were generally confined to the AEneid—opened the volume ad aperturam lihti, anywhere, at random, when the first passage that accidentally struck the eye was carefully read and pondered with as little reference as possible to its immediate context, and a meaning extracted from it which was supposed to indicate the issue of the event in hand, and which was to be considered inevitable and irrevocable as the fates had so decreed. A man with the knowledge thus obtained could not by any precaution or change of conduct avert the impending doom, good or evil; he could only put his house in order, and so arrange matters the best way he could; that if evil came it might be borne with dignity and patience; if good, that it might be enjoyed with moderation and devout gratitude to the gods. It is said that at the outbreak of the troubles that culminated in the Commonwealth, Charles I. and Lord Falkland found themselves on a certain day in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, when the latter jocularly proposed that they should inform themselves of their future fortunes by means of the Sortes Virgiliance; and certainly, read by the light of after events, it must be confessed that the passages stumbled upon seem singularly ominous of the fate that overtook both. The passage read by the Martyr King was from the fourth book of the AEneid, and is as follows :—

Which Dryden, if with rather too much amplification, still very beautifully translates thus :—


Lord Falkland's eye fell on the following lines in the eleventh book:—

—which the same translator has rendered as follows :—

How the most pious man of his age, and one of the best kings that ever adorned a. throne, suffered death at the hands of his rebellious subjects is well known. Poor Lord Falkland—a young nobleman of the most estimable character ; a poet and man of letters, so fond of books that he used to say that " he pitied unlearned gentlemen in a rainy day "—fell gallantly fighting for the royal cause in the battle of Newbury, before he had yet completed his thirty-fourth year. It is curious to find the eminent poet Abraham Cowley, a good man too—of whom at his death Charles II. was heard to say that " Mr. Cowley had not left a better man behind in England," —it is curious, we say, to find him on a certain occasion seriously referring to the Virgilian Lots, and, what is more, avowing his firm belief in them ! During the Commonwealth, Cowley was in Paris, where he acted as secretary to the Earl of St. Albans (then Lord Jermyn), and had a good deal to do with the negotiations that eventually led to the Restoration. In one of his letters, speaking of the Scotch treaty then in agitation, he says—seriously, observe, and in an official document—"The Scotch treaty is the only thing now in which we are vitally concerned. I am one of the last hopers, and yet cannot now abstain from believing that an agreement will be made ; all people upon the place incline to that union. The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible, the king is persuaded of it. And, to tell you the truth (which I take to be an argument above all the rest), Virgil has told the same thing to that purpose." He had evidently consulted the Virgilian Lots, and a passage presenting itself that could somehow be twisted so as to point to a favourable issue to the Scotch business in hand, he accepts the oracle, and in all seriousness announces his belief in it ! "When we find a man of refinement and culture and high moral character like Cowley crediting such nonsense, can we much wonder at the lengths to which fanaticism and superstition carried people in those unhappy times? To understand why Virgil, of all the ancient poets, Roman or Greek, was selected as the oracle in this mode of divination, we must remember that the Mantuan bard had the credit amongst his countrymen of having been a sorcerer or necromancer and prophet as well as a poet, something like the British Merlin, or our own Thomas the Rhymer and Michael Scott, only more famous, perhaps. Would the reader suppose, for example, that the theory of volcanic action is all a myth, and that it is to the magic of Virgil, and to nothing else, that the south of Italy is indebted for all the earthquakes and subterranean convulsions that have afflicted it for centuries 1 Yet so it is, if wo are to credit all the stories of " Virgilius the Magician " that were current during the Middle Ages. The celebrated Benedictine monk, Bernard de Montfaucon, author of Antiquite Expliqufe one of the most learned and curious works in existence, repeats the story as it was told and credited in the Dark Ages. The following is from an old translation, quoted by Scott in his notes to the Lay of the Last Minstrel, in illustration of the magical spells attributed to the Ladye of Branksome Tower. Virgil it seems, among other things, was famous for his gallantries. On one occasion he fell in love with and carried away the daughter of a certain "Soldan," and the story proceeds:—"Than he thoughte in his mynde how he myghie marye hyr, and thoughte in his mynde to founde in the middes of the see a fayer towne, with great landes belongynge to it and so he did by his cunnynge, and called it Napells (Naples). And the foundacyon of it was of egges, and in that town of ISTapells he made a tower with iiii. corners, and in the toppe he set an apell upon an yron yarde, and no man culde pull away that apell without he brake it; and thoroughe that yren set he a bolte, and in that bolte set he an egge, and he henge the apell by the stauke upon a cheyne, and so hangeth it still. And when the egge styrreth so should the town of iSTapells quake; and when the egge brake, then shulde the town sinke. When he made an ende, he lette calls it Kapells." Thomas of "Ercildoune," and he of "Balivearie," and the two Merlins,—for there were two of them, the Merlin of the Arthurian legends, and Merdwynn Wylet, or Merlin the Wild, who seems to have been a Scotchman, and whose grave is still pointed out beneath an aged thorn-tree at Drumelzier in Tweeddale,—these were accounted great magicians and "pretty fellows in their day;" but what were they to Virgilius the earthquaker, who at least attained to such an enviable state of independence, that he is represented as frequently playing at pitch and toss with the "devyl," and cheating and outwitting that crafty potentate as if he were the veriest greenhorn! The Sortes Sacrce were just the Sortes Virgiliance, with this difference, that in the former case, instead of a copy of Virgil, the New Testament was used in the process of divination. The oracle is consulted in this case, according to our information, by the introduction at random of the wards end of a key (some allusion probably to the Apostolic keys) between the leaves of the closed volume, which is then opened at that place, and from the first verse that arrests the eye the desired knowledge is extracted. On inquiry, we find that this superstition was still occasionally practised in the Highlands of Scotland some fifty years ago, though we would fain hope and believe that it is now unknown. It is curious that it should still be frequently resorted to in the south-western districts. It seems to have been a very general as well as a very ancient mode of divination. Hoffman, in his Lexicon Universale, tyc., informs us that it was practised by the Jewish Rabbins with their sacred books, as well as by the Pagans from very early times, and was common amongst the Christians of the Middle Ages. We are informed by a gentleman, wrho spent many years in the East, that the Mahometans frequently resort to this method of divination, taking the Koran as their oracle.


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