This preface was scanned and converted to html by George P. Landow]
ON visiting those disinterred remains of an ancient city which, more perhaps than either the delicious breeze or the cloudless sun, the violet valleys and orange-groves of the South, attract the traveller to the neighborhood of Naples; on viewing, still fresh and vivid, the houses, the streets, the temples, the theatres of a place existing in the haughtiest age of the Roman Empire, — it was not unnatural, perhaps, that a writer who had before labored, however unworthily, in the art to revive and to create, should feel a keen desire to people once more those deserted streets, to repair those graceful ruins, to reanimate the bones which were yet spared to his survey, to traverse the gulf of eighteen centuries, and to wake to a second existence the City of the Dead!
And the reader will easily imagine how sensibly this desire grew upon one whose task was undertaken in the immediate neighborhood of Pompeii, — the sea that once bore her commerce, and received her fugitives, at his feet, and the fatal mountain of Vesuvius, still breathing forth smoke and fire, constantly before his eyes! [Bulwer-Lytton's note: Nearly the whole of this work was written in Naples last winter (1832-33).
I was aware from the first, however, of the great difficulties with which I had to contend. To paint the manners, and to exhibit the life of the Middle Ages, required the hand of a master genius; yet, perhaps, that task was slight and easy in comparison with the attempt to portray a far earlier and more unfamiliar period. With the men and customs of the feudal time we have a natural sympathy and bond of alliance; those men were our own ancestors, — from those customs we received our own; the creed of our chivalric fathers is still ours; their tombs yet consecrate our churches; the ruins of their castles yet frown over our valleys. We trace in their struggles for liberty and for justice our present institutions ; and in the elements of their social state we behold the origin of our own.
But with the classical age we have no household and familiar associations. The creed of that departed religion, the customs of that past civilization, present little that is sacred or attractive to our Northern imaginations; they are rendered yet more trite to us by the scholastic pedantries which first acquainted us with their nature, and are linked with the recollection of studies which were imposed as a labor, and not cultivated as a delight.
Yet the enterprise, though arduous, seemed to me worth attempting; and in the time and the scene I have chosen much may be round to arouse the curiosity of the reader, and enlist his interest in the descriptions of the author. It was the first century of our religion; it was the most civilized period of Rome; the conduct of the story lies amidst places whose relics we yet trace; the catastrophe is among the most awful which the tragedies of ancient history present to our survey.
From the ample materials before me, my endeavor has been to select those which would be most attractive to a modern reader: the customs and superstitions least unfamiliar to him, — the shadows that, when reanimated, would present to him such images as, while they represented the past, might be least uninteresting to the speculations of the present. It did indeed require a greater self-control than the reader may at first imagine, to reject much that was most inviting in itself; but which, while it might have added attraction to parts of the work, would have been injurious to the symmetry of the whole. Thus, for instance, the date of my story is that of the short reign of Titus, when Rome was at its proudest and most gigantic eminence of luxury and power. It was, therefore, a most inviting temptation to the, author to conduct the characters of his tale, during the progress of its incidents, from Pompeii to Rome. What could afford such materials tor description, or such field for the vanity of display, as that gorgeous city of the world, whose grandeur could lend so bright an inspiration to fancy, — so favorable and so solemn a dignity to research? But, in choosing for my subject, — my catastrophe, — the Destruction of Pompeii, it required but little insight into the higher principles of art to perceive that to Pompeii the story should be rigidly confined.
Placed in contrast with the mighty pomp of Rome, the luxuries and gaud of the vivid Campanian city would have sunk into insignificance. Her awful fate would have seemed but a petty and isolated wreck in the vast seas of the imperial sway; and the auxiliary I should have summoned to the interest of my story, would only have destroyed and overpowered the cause it was invoked to support. I was therefore compelled to relinquish an episodical excursion so alluring in itself, and, confining my story strictly to Pompeii, to leave to others the honor of delineating the hollow but majestic civilization of Rome.
The city whose fate supplied me with so superb and awful a catastrophe supplied easily, from the first survey of its remains, the characters most suited to the subject and the scene: the half-Grecian colony of Hercules, mingling with the manners of Italy so much of the costumes of Hellas, suggested of itself the characters of Glaucus and Ione. The worship of Isis, its existent fane with its false oracles unveiled; the trade of Pompeii with Alexandria; the associations of the Sarnus with the Nile, — called forth the Egyptian Arbaces, the base Calenus, and the fervent Apæcides. The early struggles of (Christianity with the heathen superstition suggested the creation of Olinthus; and the burned fields of Campania, long celebrated for the spells of the sorceress, naturally produced the Saga of Vesuvius. For the existence of the Blind Girl, I am indebted to a casual conversation with a gentleman well known amongst the English at Naples for his general knowledge of the many paths of life. Speaking of the utter darkness which accompanied the first recorded eruption of Vesuvius, and the additional obstacle it presented to the escape of the inhabitants, he observed that the blind would be the most favored in such a moment, and find the easiest deliverance. In this remark originated the creation of Nydia.
The characters, therefore, are the natural offspring of the scene and time. The incidents of the tale are equally consonant, perhaps, to the then existing society; for it is not only the ordinary habits of life, the feasts and the forum, the baths and the amphitheatre, the commonplace routine of the classic luxury, which we recall the past to behold, — equally important, and more deeply interesting, are the passions, the crimes, the misfortunes, and reverses that might have chanced to the shades we thus summon to life. We understand any epoch of the world but ill if we do not examine its romance. There is as much truth in the poetry of life as in its prose.
As the greatest difficulty in treating of an unfamiliar and distant period is to make the characters introduced "live and move" before the eye of the reader, so such should doubtless be the first object of a work of the present description; and all attempts at the display of learning should be considered but as means subservient to this, the main requisite of fiction. The first art of the poet (the creator) is to breathe the breath of life into ins creatures, — the next is to make their words and actions appropriate to the era in which they are to speak and act. The last art is, perhaps, the better effected by not bringing the art itself constantly before the reader, — by not crowding the page with quotations, and the margin with notes. The intuitive spirit which infuses antiquity into ancient images is, perhaps, the true learning which a work of this nature requires; without it, pedantry is offensive, — with it, useless. No man who is thoroughly aware of what prose fiction has now become, — of its dignity, of its influence, of the manner in which it has gradually absorbed all similar departments of literature, of its power in teaching as well as amusing, — can so forget its connection with history, with philosophy, with politics, its utter harmony with poetry and obedience to truth, as to debase its nature to the level of scholastic frivolities; he raises scholarship to the creative, and does not bow the creative to the scholastic.
With respect to the language used by the characters introduced, I have studied carefully to avoid what has always seemed to me a fatal error in those who have attempted, in modern times, to introduce the beings of a classical age.1 Authors have mostly given to them the stilted sentences, the cold and didactic solemnities of language which they find in the more admired of the classical writers. It is an error as absurd to make Romans in common life talk in the periods of Cicero, as it would be in a novelist to endow his English personages with the long-drawn sentences of Johnson or Burke. The fault is the greater, because while it pretends to learning, it betrays in reality the ignorance of just criticism: it fatigues, it wearies, it revolts, — and we have not the satisfaction, in yawning, to think, that we yawn eruditely. To impart anything like fidelity to the dialogues of classic actors, we must beware (to use a university phrase) how we "cram" for the occasion! Nothing can give to a writer a more stiff and uneasy gait than the sudden and hasty adoption of the toga. We must bring to our task the familiarized knowledge of many years; the allusions, the phraseology, the language generally, must flow from a stream that has long been full; the flowers must be transplanted front a living soil, and not bought second-hand at the nearest market- place. This advantage — which is, in fact, only that of familiarity with our subject — is one derived rather from accident than merit, and depends upon the degree in which the classics have entered into the education of our youth and the studies of our maturity. Yet, even did a writer possess the utmost advantage of this nature which education and study can bestow, it might be scarcely possible so entirely to transport himself to an age so different from his own, but that he would incur some inaccuracies, some errors of inadvertence or forgetfulness. And when, in works upon the manners of the ancients, — works even of the gravest character, composed by the profoundest scholars, — some such imperfections will often be discovered, even by a critic in comparison but superficially informed, it would be far too presumptuous in me to hope that I have been more fortunate than men infinitely more learned, in a work in which learning is infinitely less required. It is for this reason that I venture to believe that scholars themselves will be the most lenient of my judges. Enough if this book, whatever its imperfections, should be found a portrait, — unskilful, perhaps, in coloring, faulty in drawing, but not altogether unfaithful to the features and the costume of the age which I have attempted to paint. May it be (what is far more important) a just representation of the human passions and the human heart, whose elements in all ages are the same!
Last modified 4 March 2016