Dante’s Divine Comedy, William Blake, 1824-7
by Vernon Lee
Perocchè gente di molto valore
Conobbi che in quel Limbo eran sospesi.
It may seem curious to begin with Dante and pass on to the Children’s Rabbits’ House; but I require both to explain what it is I mean by Limbo; no such easy matter on trying. For this discourse is not about the Pious Pagans whom the poet found in honourable confinement at the Gate of Hell, nor of their neighbours the Unchristened Babies; but I am glad of Dante’s authority for the existence of a place holding such creatures as have just missed a necessary rite, or come too soon for thorough salvation. And I am glad, moreover, that the poet has insisted on the importance—“gente di molto valore”—of the beings thus enclosed; because it is just with the superior quality of the things in what I mean by Limbo that we are peculiarly concerned.
And now for the other half of my preliminary illustration of the subject, to wit, the Children’s Rabbits’ House. The little gardens which the children played at cultivating have long since disappeared, taken insensibly back into that corner of the formal but slackly kept garden which looks towards the steep hill dotted with cows and sheep. But in that corner, behind the shapeless Portugal laurels and the patches of seeding grass, there still remains, beneath big trees, what the children used to call the “Rabbits’ Villa.” ’Tis merely a wooden toy house, with green moss-eaten roof, standing, like the lake dwellings of prehistoric times, on wooden posts, with the tall foxgloves, crimson and white, growing all round it. There is something ludicrous in this superannuated toy, this Noah’s ark on stilts among the grass and bushes; but when you look into the thing, finding the empty plates and cups “for having tea with the rabbits,” and when you look into it spiritually also, it grows oddly pathetic. We walked up and down between the high hornbeam hedges, the sunlight lying low on the armies of tall daisies and seeding grasses, and falling in narrow glints among the white boles and hanging boughs of the beeches, where the wooden benches stand unused in the deep grass, and the old swing hangs crazily crooked. Yes, the Rabbits’ Villa and the surrounding overgrown beds are quite pathetic. Is it because they are, in a way, the graves of children long dead, as dead—despite the grown-up folk who may come and say “It was I”—as the rabbits and guinea-pigs with whom they once had tea? That is it; and that explains my meaning: the Rabbits’ Villa is, to the eye of the initiate, one of many little branch establishments of Limbo surrounding us on all sides. Another poet, more versed in similar matters than Dante (one feels sure that Dante knew his own mind, and always had his own way, even when exiled), Rossetti, in a sonnet, has given us the terrible little speech, which would issue from the small Limbos of this kind: Look in my face: My name is Might-have-been.
Of all the things that Limbo might contain, there is one about which some persons, very notably Churchyard Gray, have led us into error. I do not believe there is much genius to be found in Limbo. The world, although it takes a lot of dunning, offers a fair price for this article, which it requires as much as water-power and coal, nay even as much as food and clothes (bread for its soul and raiment for its thought); so that what genius there is will surely be brought into market. But even were it wholly otherwise, genius, like murder, would out; for genius is one of the liveliest forces of nature: not to be quelled or quenched, adaptable, protean, expansive, nay explosive; of all things in the world the most able to take care of itself; which accounts for so much public expenditure to foster and encourage it: foster the sun’s chemistry, the force of gravitation, encourage atomic affinity and natural selection, magnificent Maecenas and judicious Parliamentary Board, they are sure to do you credit!
Hence, to my mind, there are no mute inglorious Miltons, or none worth taking into account. Our sentimental surmises about them grow from the notion that human power is something like the wheels or cylinder of a watch, a neat numbered scrap of mechanism, stamped at a blow by a creative fiat, or hand-hammered by evolution, and fitting just exactly into one little plan, serving exactly one little purpose, indispensable for that particular machine, and otherwise fit for the dust-heap. Happily for us it is certainly not so. The very greatest men have always been the most versatile: Lionardo, Goethe, Napoleon; the next greatest can still be imagined under different circumstances as turning their energy to very different tasks; and I am tempted to think that the hobbies by which many of them have laid much store, while the world merely laughed at the statesman’s trashy verses or the musician’s third-rate sketches, may have been of the nature of rudimentary organs, which, given a different environment, might have developed, become the creature’s chief raison d’être, leaving that which has actually chanced to be his talent to become atrophied, perhaps invisible.
Be this last as it may—and I commend it to those who believe in genius as a form of monomania—it is quite certain that genius has nothing in common with machinery. It is the most organic and alive of living organisms; the most adaptable therefore, and least easily killed; and for this reason, and despite Gray’s Elegy, there is no chance of much of it in Limbo.
This is no excuse for the optimistic extermination of distinguished men. It is indeed most difficult to kill genius, but there are a hundred ways of killing its possessors; and with them as much of their work as they have left undone. What pictures might Giorgione not have painted but for the lady, the rival, or the plague, whichever it was that killed him! Mozart could assuredly have given us a half-dozen more Don Giovannis if he had had fewer lessons, fewer worries, better food; nay, by his miserable death the world has lost, methinks, more even than that—a commanding influence which would have kept music, for a score of years, earnest and masterly but joyful: Rossini would not have run to seed, and Beethoven’s ninth symphony might have been a genuine a “Hymn to Joy” if only Mozart, the Apollo of musicians, had, for a few years more, flooded men’s souls with radiance. A similar thing is said of Rafael; but his followers were mediocre, and he himself lacked personality, so that many a better example might be brought.
These are not useless speculations; it is as well we realise that, although genius be immortal, poor men of genius are not. Quite an extraordinarily small amount of draughts and microbes, of starvation bodily and spiritual, of pin-pricks of various kinds, will do for them; we can all have a hand in their killing; the killing also of their peace, kindliness and justice, sending these qualities to Limbo, which is full of such. And now, dear reader, I perceive that we have at last got Limbo well in sight and, in another minute, we may begin to discern some of its real contents.
The Paladin Astolfo, as Ariosto relates, was sent on a winged horse up to the moon; where, under the ciceroneship of John the Evangelist, he saw most of the things which had been lost on earth, among others the wits of many persons in bottles, his cousin Orlando’s, which he had come on purpose to fetch, and, curiously enough, his own, which he had never missed.
The moon does well as storehouse for such brilliant, romantic things. The Limbo whose contents and branches I would speak of is far less glorious, a trifle humdrum; sometimes such as makes one smile, like that Villa of the Rabbits in the neglected garden. ’Twas for this reason, indeed, that I preferred to clear away at once the question of the Mute Inglorious Miltons, and of such solemn public loss as comes of the untimely death of illustrious men. Do you remember, by the way, reader, a certain hasty sketch by Cazin, which hangs in a corner of the Luxembourg? The bedroom of Gambetta after his death: the white bed neatly made, empty, with laurel garlands replacing him; the tricolor flag, half-furled, leaned against the chair, and on the table vague heaped-up papers; a thing quite modest and heroic, suitable to all similar occasions—Mirabeau say, and Stevenson on his far-off island—and with whose image we can fitly close our talk of genius wasted by early death.
I have alluded to happiness as filling up much space in Limbo; and I think that the amount of it lying in that kingdom of Might-have-been is probably out of all proportion with that which must do duty in this actual life. Browning’s Last Ride Together—one has to be perpetually referring to poets on this matter, for philosophers and moralists consider happiness in its causal connection or as a fine snare to virtue—Browning’s Last Ride Together expresses, indeed, a view of the subject commending itself to active and cheerful persons, which comes to many just after their salad days; to wit, what a mercy that we don’t often get what we want most. The objects of our recent ardent longings reveal themselves, most luridly sometimes, as dangers, deadlocks, fetters, hopeless labyrinths, from which we have barely escaped. This is the house I wanted to buy, the employment I fretted to obtain, the lady I pined to marry, the friend with whom I projected to share lodgings. With such sudden chill recognitions comes belief in a special providence, some fine Greek-sounding goddess, thwarting one’s dearest wishes from tender solicitude that we shouldn’t get what we want. In such a crisis the nobler of us feel like the Riding Lover, and learn ideal philosophy and manly acquiescence; the meaner snigger ungenerously about those youthful escapes; and know not that they have gained safety at the price, very often, of the little good—ideality, faith and dash—there ever was about them: safe smug individuals, whose safety is mere loss to the cosmos. But later on, when our characters have settled, when repeated changes have taught us which is our unchangeable ego, we begin to let go that optimist creed, and to suspect (suspicion turning to certainty) that, as all things which have happened to us have not been always advantageous, so likewise things longed for in vain need not necessarily have been curses. As we grow less attached to theories, and more to our neighbours, we recognise every day that loss, refusal of the desired, has not by any means always braced or chastened the lives we look into; we admit that the Powers That Be showed considerable judgment in disregarding the teachings of asceticism, and inspiring mankind with innate repugnance to having a bad time. And, to return to the question of Limbo, as we watch the best powers, the whole usefulness and sweetness starved out of certain lives for lack of the love, the liberty or the special activities they prayed for; as regards the question of Limbo, I repeat, we grow (or try to grow) a little more cautious about sending so much more happiness—ours and other folk’s—to the place of Might-have-been.
Some of it certainly does seem beyond our control, a fatal matter of constitution. I am not speaking of the results of vice or stupidity; this talk of Limbo is exclusively addressed to the very nicest people.
A deal of the world’s sound happiness is lost through Shyness. We have all of us seen instances. They often occur between members of the same family, the very similarity of nature, which might make mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, into closest companions, merely doubling the dose of that terrible reserve, timidity, horror of human contact, paralysis of speech, which keeps the most loving hearts asunder. It is useless to console ourselves by saying that each has its own love of the other. And thus they walk, sometimes side by side, never looking in one another’s eyes, never saying the word, till death steps in, death sometimes unable to loosen the tongue of the mourner. Such things are common among our reserved northern races, making us so much less happy and less helpful in everyday life than our Latin and Teuton neighbours; and, I imagine, are commonest among persons of the same blood. But the same will happen between lovers, or those who should have been such; doubt of one’s own feeling, fear of the other’s charity, apprehension of its all being a mistake, has silently prevented many a marriage. The two, then, could not have been much in love? Not in love, since neither ever allowed that to happen, more’s the pity; but loving one another with the whole affinity of their natures, and, after all, being in love is but the crisis, or the beginning of that, if it’s worth anything.
Thus shyness sends much happiness to Limbo. But actual shyness is not the worst. Some persons, sometimes of the very finest kind, endowed for loving-kindness, passion, highest devotion, nay requiring it as much as air or warmth, have received, from some baleful fairy, a sterilising gift of fear. Fear of what they could not tell; something which makes all community of soul a terror, and every friend a threat. Something terrible, in whose presence we must bow our heads and pray impunity therefrom for ourselves and ours.
But the bulk of happiness stacked up in Limbo appears, on careful looking, to be an agglomeration of other lost things; justice, charm, appreciation, and faith in one another, all recklessly packed off as so much lumber, sometimes to make room for fine new qualities instead! Justice, I am inclined to think, is usually sent to Limbo through the agency of others. A work in many folios might be written by condensing what famous men have had said against them in their days of struggle, and what they have answered about others in their days of prosperity.
The loss of charm is due to many more circumstances; the stress of life indeed seems calculated to send it to Limbo. Certain it is that few women, and fewer men, of forty, preserve a particle of it. I am not speaking of youth or beauty, though it does seem a pity that mature human beings should mostly be too fat or too thin, and lacking either sympathy or intellectual keenness. Charm must comprise all that, but much besides. It is the undefinable quality of nearly every child, and of all nice lads and girls; the quality which (though it can reach perfection in exceptional old people) usually vanishes, no one knows when exactly, into the Limbo marked by the Rabbits’ Villa, with its plates and tea-cups, mouldering on its wooden posts in the unweeded garden.
More useful qualities replace all these: hardness, readiness to snatch opportunity, mistrust of all ideals, inflexible self-righteousness; useful, nay necessary; but, let us admit it, in a life which, judged by the amount of dignity and sweetness it contains, is perhaps scarce necessary itself, and certainly not useful. The case might be summed up, for our guidance, by saying that the loss of many of our finer qualities is due to the complacent, and sometimes dutiful, cultivation of our worse ones!
For, even in the list of virtues, there are finer and less fine, nay virtues one might almost call atrocious, and virtues with a taint of ignominy. I have said that we lose some of our finer qualities this way; what’s worse is, that we often fail to appreciate the finest qualities of others.
And here, coming to the vague rubric appreciation of others, I feel we have got to a district of Limbo about which few of us should have the audacity to speak, and few, as a fact, have the courage honestly to think. What do we make of our idea of others in our constant attempt to justify ourselves? No Japanese bogie-monger ever produced the equal of certain wooden monster-puppets which we carve, paint, rig out and christen by the names of real folk—alas, alas, dear names sometimes of friends!—and stick up to gibber in our memory; while the real image, the creature we have really known, is carted off to Limbo! But this is too bad to speak of.
Let us rather think gently of things, sad, but sad without ignominy, of friendships stillborn or untimely cut off, hurried by death into a place like that which holds the souls of the unchristened babies; often, like them, let us hope, removed to a sphere where such things grow finer and more fruitful, the sphere of the love of those we have not loved enough in life.
But that at best is but a place of ghosts; so let us never forget, dear friends, how close all round lies Limbo, the Kingdom of Might-have-been.
Essay first published in Writing For Life, 1904. Via
About the Author:
Vernon Lee (14 October 1856 – 13 February 1935) was a British writer.