Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hoarse Murmurs of the Main

Secure of Fate, while Cymon ploughs the Sea,
And steers to Candy with his conquer'd Prey,
Scarce the third Glass of measur'd Hours was run,
When like a fiery Meteor sunk the Sun,
The Promise of a Storm ;  the shifting Gales
Forsake by Fits and fill the flagging Sails :
Hoarse Murmurs of the Main from far were heard,
And Night came on, not by degrees prepar'd,
But all at once ; ....



A question that I imagine taxes many people is: "Should I bother to read Dryden's Fables?" For myself, I've put it off for forty years, but last night the book fell open at "Cymon and Iphigenia" and I became gradually entranced, not least by this thrilling presage of a storm at sea.

Dryden follows Boccaccio's story from the Decameron, so far as the events, places and names are concerned, but his poetry lights various mischievous trains that are absent from the prose. In the first part of the story (see below), Cymon is inspired by love and becomes a model gentleman. Unfortunately Iphigenia is betrothed to another, so Cymon attacks the ship in which she's being taken away and removes the bride. Then follows the storm, leading to his recapture by his Rhodian enemies and Iphigenia's restoration to her promised husband. Happily Cymon is given a second chance, when it turns out that Lysimachus, the governor of Rhodes, also wants to abduct a bride (the two women are going to be married to two Rhodian brothers at a joint ceremony). This time they are successful, Cymon kills the two brothers and all ends happily.

Boccaccio doesn't trouble to mention the women's views in the matter. But Dryden persistently foregrounds the morality, or immorality, of the story. He tells us that Iphigenia would indeed prefer to marry Cymon; on the other hand he says that Cassandra, though not disapproving of Lysimachus, loved the brother she was about to marry. He uses the term "rape", (i.e. the classical rape of e.g. the Sabine Women, meaning bride-seizure), to describe what Cymon and Lysimachus do. His heroes also debate "force": a gentlemanly accomplishment in itself, and a proof of love. The idea of rape in a modern sense lurks at the edges of the story: certainly for us, and probably for Dryden's readers too.

Without spelling it out, the narrative (like its introductory lines) responds to Collier's "A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage" (1698) -- he was one of its targets. At the same time, this involves a reconsideration of cavalier gentlemanliness as being above the law; an idea, though never stated so baldly, that animates Clarendon's history and Restoration drama alike. By the time of the Fables Dryden was no longer in a position to manipulate public opinion; it must have been a kind of liberation. He didn't need to be conclusive. He certainly hadn't stopped thinking.


Lord Leighton's Cymon and Iphigenia

[Image source: Wikimedia. Leighton's 1884 painting, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.]

"Cymon and Iphigenia" was once a popular subject for painters: invariably this means the scene, early in the story, when a cloddish Cymon (a sad disappointment to his aristocrat father) discovers and falls in love with the sleeping Iphigenia, and is consequently inspired to become a belated prodigy of gentlemanly accomplishments. The subject was a great pretext for voyeurism (along with Diana and Actaeon, The Judgement of Paris, etc).

The Eclectic Light Company has an excellent illustrated post about the artistic treatments, which I won't spoil by repeating, but I couldn't resist including Lord Leighton's painting, lit by the last glow of a red sunset while a full moon rises behind. It's just as sexy as earlier treatments, even though Leighton's Iphigenia is clothed.

I've also added a later Rubens, a disquieting heap of naked bodies (the ELC post contains Rubens' earlier painting of the same subject); and James Gillray's 1796 travesty, probably commenting on parliament's failure to ban the slave trade in that year.

Rubens/Wouters: Landscape with Cymon and Iphigenia

[Painting by Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Wouters, from the 1630s. Image source: Wikimedia.]


James Gillray's Cymon and Iphigenia

[Image source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/351992]

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