68. IT will be seen by reference to the last chapter that our present task is to examine the relation of holders of store to holders of currency; and of both to those who hold neither. In order to do this, we must determine on which side we are to place substances such as gold, commonly known as bases of currency. By aid of previous definitions the reader will now be able to understand closer statements than have yet been possible.

69. The currency of any country consists of every document acknowledging debt, which is transferable in the country.1

This transferableness depends upon its intelligibility and credit. Its intelligibility depends chiefly on the difficulty of forging anything like it;—its credit much on national character, but ultimately always on the existence of substantial means of meeting its demand. (JR note: I do not mean the demand of the holder of a five-pound note for five pounds, but the demand of the holder of a pound for a pound’s worth of something good.)

As the degrees of transferableness are variable, (some documents passing only in certain places, and others passing, if at all, for less than their inscribed value,) both the mass, (Remember this definition: it is of great importance as opposed to the imperfect ones usually given. When first these essays were published, I remember one of their reviewers asking contemptuously, “Is half-a-crown a document?” it never having before occurred to him that a document might be stamped as well as written, and stamped on silver as well as on parchment.) [194/195] and, so to speak, fluidity, of the currency, are variable. True or perfect currency flows freely, like a pure stream; it becomes sluggish or stagnant in proportion to the quantity of less transferable matter which mixes with it, adding to its bulk, but diminishing its purity. [Articles of commercial value, on which bills are drawn, increase the currency indefinitely; and substances of intrinsic value, if stamped or signed without restriction so as to become acknowledgments of debt, increase it indefinitely also. Every bit of gold found in Australia, so long as it remains uncoined, is an article offered for sale like any other; but as soon as it is coined into pounds, it diminishes the value of every pound we have now in our pockets.]LE2

70. Legally authorized or national currency, in its perfect condition, is a form of public acknowledgment of debt, so regulated and divided that any person presenting a commodity of tried worth in the public market, shall, if he please, receive in exchange for it a document giving him claim to the return of its equivalent, (1) in any place, (2) at any time, and (3) in any kind. When currency is quite healthy and vital, the persons entrusted with its management are always able to give on demand either,

A. The assigning document for the assigned quantity of goods. Or,

B. The assigned quantity of goods for the assigning document. [195/196]

If they cannot give document for goods, the national exchange is at fault.

If they cannot give goods for document, the national credit is at fault.

The nature and power of the document are therefore to be examined under the three relations it bears to Place, Time, and Kind.

71. (1.) It gives claim to the return of equivalent wealth in any Place. Its use in this function is to save carriage, so that parting with a bushel of corn in London, we may receive an order for a bushel of corn at the Antipodes, or elsewhere. To be perfect in this use, the substance of currency must be to the maximum portable, credible, and intelligible. Its non-acceptance or discredit results always from some form of ignorance or dishonour: so far as such interruptions rise out of differences in denomination, there is no ground for their continuance among civilized nations. It may be convenient in one country to use chiefly copper for coinage, in another silver, and in another gold,—reckoning accordingly in centimes, francs, or zecchins: but that a franc should be different in weight and value from a shilling, and a zwanzigerLE3 vary from both, is wanton loss of commercial power.

72. (2.) It gives claim to the return of equivalent wealth at any Time. In this second use, currency is the exponent of accumulation: it renders the laying-up of store at the command of individuals unlimitedly possible;—whereas, but for its intervention, all gathering would be confined within certain limits by the bulk of property, or by its decay, or the difficulty of its guardianship. “I will pull down my barns and build greater” [LE: Luke xii. 18], cannot be a daily saying; and all [196/197] material investment is enlargement of care. The national currency transfers the guardianship of the store to many; and preserves to the original producer the right of re-entering on its possession at any future period.

73. (3.) It gives claim (practical, though not legal) to the return of equivalent wealth in any Kind. It is a transferable right, not merely to this or that, but to anything; and its power in this function is proportioned to the range of choice. If you give a child an apple or a toy, you give him a determinate pleasure, but if you give him a penny, an indeterminate one, proportioned to the range of selection offered by the shops in the village. The power of the world’s currency is similarly in proportion to the openness of the world’s fair, and, commonly, enhanced by the brilliancy of external aspect, rather than solidity, of its wares.

74. We have said that the currency consists of orders for equivalent goods. If equivalent, their quality must be guaranteed. The kinds of goods chosen for specific claim must, therefore, be capable of test, while, also, that a store may be kept in hand to meet the call of the currency, smallness of bulk, with great relative value, is desirable; and indestructibility, over at least a certain period, essential. Such indestructibility, and facility of being tested, are united in gold; its intrinsic value is great, and its imaginary value greater; so that, partly through indolence, partly through necessity and want of organization, most nations have agreed to take gold for the only basis of their currencies;—with this grave disadvantage, that its portability enabling the metal to become an active part of the medium of exchange, the stream of the currency itself becomes opaque with gold—half currency and half commodity, in unison of functions which partly neutralize, partly enhance, each other’s force.LE4

75. They partly neutralize, since in so far as the gold is commodity, it is bad currency, because liable to sale; and [197/198] in so far as it is currency, it is bad commodity, because its exchange value interferes with its practical use. Especially its employment in the higher branches of the arts becomes unsafe on account of its liability to be melted down for exchange.

Again. They partly enhance, since in so far as the gold has acknowledged intrinsic value, it is good currency, because everywhere acceptable; and in so far as it has legal exchangeable value, its worth as a commodity is increased. We want no gold in the form of dust or crystal; but we seek for it coined, because in that form it will pay baker and butcher. And this worth in exchange not only absorbs a large quantity in that use,2 but greatly increases the effect on the imagination of the quantity used in the arts. Thus, in brief, the force of the functions is increased, but their precision blunted, by their unison.

76. These inconveniences, however, attach to gold as a basis of currency on account of its portability and preciousness. But a far greater inconvenience attaches to it as the only legal basis of currency. Imagine gold to be only attainable in masses weighing several pounds each, and its value, like that of malachite or marble, proportioned to its largeness of bulk;—it could not then get itself confused with the currency in daily use, but it might still remain as [198/199] its basis; and this second inconvenience would still affect it, namely, that its significance as an expression of debt varies, as that of every other article would, with the popular estimate of its desirableness, and with the quantity offered in the market. My power of obtaining other goods for gold depends always on the strength of public passion for gold, and on the limitation of its quantity, so that when either of two things happens—that the world esteems gold less, or finds it more easily—my right of claim is in that degree effaced; and it has been even gravely maintained that a discovery of a mountain of gold would cancel the National Debt; in other words, that men may be paid for what costs much in what costs nothing. Now, it is true that there is little chance of sudden convulsion in this respect; the world will not so rapidly increase in wisdom as to despise gold on a sudden; and perhaps may [for a little time]LE5 desire it more eagerly the more easily it is obtained; nevertheless, the right of debt ought not to rest on a basis of imagination; nor should the frame of a national currency vibrate with every miser’s panic, and every merchant’s imprudence.

77. There are two methods of avoiding this insecurity, which would have been fallen upon long ago, if, instead of calculating the conditions of the supply of gold, men had only considered how the world might live and manage its affairs without gold at all.3 One is, to base the currency on substances of truer intrinsic value; the other, to base it [199/200 ] on several substances instead of one. If I can only claim gold, the discovery of a golden mountain starves me; but if I can claim bread, the discovery of a continent of cornfields need not trouble me. If, however, I wish to exchange my bread for other things, a good harvest will for the time limit my power in this respect; but if I can claim either bread, iron, or silk at pleasure, the standard of value has three feet instead of one, and will be proportionately firm.LE6 Thus, ultimately, the steadiness of currency depends upon the breadth of its base; but the difficulty of organization increasing with this breadth, the discovery of the condition at once safest and most convenient4 can only be by long analysis, which must for the present be deferred. Gold or silver5 may always be retained in limited use, as a luxury of coinage and questionless standard, of one weight and alloy among all nations, varying only in the die. The purity of coinage, when metallic, is closely indicative of the honesty of the system of revenue, and even of the general dignity of the State. 6 [200/201]

78. Whatever the article or articles may be which the national currency promises to pay, a premium on that article indicates bankruptcy of the government in that proportion, the division of its assets being restrained only by the remaining confidence of the holders of notes in the return of prosperity to the firm. Currencies of forced acceptance, or of unlimited issue, are merely various modes of disguising taxation, and delaying its pressure, until it is too late to interfere with the cause of pressure. To do away with the possibility of such disguise would have been among the first results of a true economical science, had any such existed; but there have been too many motives for the concealment, so long as it could by any artifices be maintained, to permit hitherto even the founding of such a science.

79. And indeed, it is only through evil conduct, wilfully persisted in, that there is any embarrassment, either in the theory or working of currency. No exchequer is ever embarrassed, nor is any financial question difficult of solution, when people keep their practice honest, and their heads cool. But when governments lose all office of pilotage, protection, or scrutiny; and live only in magnificence of authorized larceny, and polished mendicity;LE7 or when the people, choosing Speculation (the s usually redundant in the spelling) instead of Toil, visit no dishonesty with chastisement, that each may with impunity take his dishonest turn;LE8—there are no tricks of financial terminology that will save them; all signature and mintage do but magnify the ruin they retard; [201/202] and even the riches that remain, stagnant or current, change only from the slime of Avernus to the sand of PhlegethonLE9quicksand at the embouchure;—land fluently recommended by recent auctioneers as “eligible for building leases.”

80. Finally, then, the power of true currency is fourfold.

(1.) Credit power. Its worth in exchange, dependent on public opinion of the stability and honesty of the issuer.

(2.) Real worth. Supposing the gold, or whatever else the currency expressly promises, to be required from the issuer, for all his notes; and that the call cannot be met in full. Then the actual worth of the document would be, and its actual worth at any moment is, therefore, to be defined as, what the division of the assets of the issuer would produce for it.

(3.) The exchange power of its base. Granting that we can get five pounds in gold for our note, it remains a question how much of other things we can get for five pounds in gold. The more of other things exist, and the less gold, the greater this power.

(4.) The power over labour, exercised by the given quantity of the base, or of the things to be got for it. The question in this case is, how much work, and (question of questions!) whose work, is to be had for the food which five pounds will buy. This depends on the number of the population, on their gifts, and on their dispositions, with which, down to their slightest humours, and up to their strongest impulses, the power of the currency varies.LE10

81. Such being the main conditions of national currency, we proceed to examine those of the total currency, under the broad definition, “transferable acknowledgment [202/203] of debt;”7 among the many forms of which there are in effect only two, distinctly opposed; namely, the acknowledgments of debts which will be paid, and of debts which will not. Documents, whether in whole or part, of bad debt, being to those of good debt as bad money to bullion, we put for the present these forms of imposture aside (as in analysing a metal we should wash it clear of dross), and then range, in their exact quantities, the true currency of the country on one side, and the store or property of the [203/204] country on the other. We place gold, and all such substances, on the side of documents, as far as they operate by signature;—on the side of store as far as they operate by value. Then the currency represents the quantity of debt in the country, and the store the quantity of its possession. The ownership of all the property is divided between the holders of currency and holders of store, and whatever the claiming value of the currency is at any moment, that value is to be deducted from the riches of the store-holders.LE11

82. Farther, as true currency represents by definition debts which will be paid, it represents either the debtor’s wealth, or his ability and willingness; that is to say, either wealth existing in his hands transferred to him by the creditor, or wealth which, as he is at some time surely to return it, he is either increasing, or, if diminishing, has the will and strength to reproduce. A sound currency therefore, as by its increase it represents enlarging debt, represents also enlarging means; but in this curious way, that a certain quantity of it marks the deficiency of the [204/205] wealth of the country from what it would have been if that currency had not existed.7 In this respect it is like the detritus of a mountain; assume that it lies at a fixed angle, and the more the detritus, the larger must be the mountain; but it would have been larger still, had there been none.

83. Farther, though, as above stated,LE12 every man possessing money has usually also some property beyond what is necessary for his immediate wants, and men possessing property usually also hold currency beyond what is necessary for their immediate exchanges, it mainly determines the class to which they belong, whether in their eyes the money is an adjunct of the property, or the property of the money. In the first case the holder’s pleasure is in his possessions, and in his money subordinately, as the means of bettering or adding to them. In the second, his pleasure is in his money, and in his possessions only as representing it. (In the first case the money is as an atmosphere surrounding the wealth, rising from it and raining back upon it; but in the second, it is as a deluge, with the wealth floating, and for the most part perishing in it.) The shortest distinction between the men is that the one wishes always to buy, and the other to sell. [205/206]

84. Such being the great relations of the classes, their several characters are of the highest importance to the nation; for on the character of the store-holders chiefly depend the preservation, display, and serviceableness of its wealth; on that of the currency-holders, its distribution; on that of both, its reproduction.LE13 We shall, therefore, ultimately find it to be of incomparably greater importance to the nation in whose hands the thing is put, than how much of it is got; and that the character of the holders may be conjectured by the quality of the store; for such and such a man always asks for such and such a thing; nor only asks for it, but if it can be bettered, betters it: so that possession and possessor reciprocally act on each other, through the entire sum of national possession. The base nation, asking for base things, sinks daily to deeper vileness of nature and weakness in use; while the noble nation, asking for noble things, rises daily into diviner eminence in both; the tendency to degradation being surely marked by “ataxia”; that is to say, (expanding the Greek thought),LE14 by carelessness as to the hands in which things are put, consequent dispute for the acquisition of them, disorderliness in accumulation of them, inaccuracy in estimate of them, and bluntness in conception as to the entire nature of possession.

85. The currency-holders always increase in number and influence in proportion to the bluntness of nature and clumsiness of the store-holders; for the less use people can make of things, the more they want of them, and the sooner weary of them, and want to change them for something else; and all frequency of change increases the quantity and power of currency. The large currency-holder himself is [206/207] essentially a person who never has been able to make up his mind as to what he will have, and proceeds, therefore, in vague collection and aggregation, with more and more infuriate passion, urged by complacency in progress, vacancy in idea, and pride of conquest.

While, however, there is this obscurity in the nature of possession of currency, there is a charm in the seclusion of it, which is to some people very enticing. In the enjoyment of real property, others must partly share. The groom has some enjoyment of the stud, and the gardener of the garden; but the money is, or seems, shut up; it is wholly enviable. No one else can have part in any complacencies arising from it. The power of arithmetical comparison is also a great thing to unimaginative people. They know always they are so much better than they were, in money; so much better than others, in money; but wit cannot be so compared, nor character. My neighbour cannot be convinced that I am wiser than he is, but he can, that I am worth so much more; and the universality of the conviction is no less flattering than its clearness. Only a few can understand,—none measure—and few will willingly adore, superiorities in other things; but everybody can understand money, everybody can count it, and most will worship it.

86. Now, these various temptations to accumulation would be politically harmless if what was vainly accumulated had any fair chance of being wisely spent. For as accumulation cannot go on for ever, but must some day end in its reverse—if this reverse were indeed a beneficial distribution and use, as irrigation from reservoir, the fever of gathering, though perilous to the gatherer, might be serviceable to the community. But it constantly happens (so constantly, that it may be stated as a political law having few exceptions), that what is unreasonably gathered is also unreasonably spent by the persons into whose hands it finally falls. Very frequently it is spent in war, or else in a stupefying luxury, twice hurtful, both in being indulged by the rich and [207/208] witnessed by the poor. So that the mal tener and mal dareLE15 are as correlative as complementary colours; and the circulation of wealth, which ought to be soft, steady, strong, far-sweeping, and full of warmth, like the Gulf stream, being narrowed into an eddy, and concentrated on a point, changes into the alternate suction and surrender of Charybdis. Which is indeed, I doubt not, the true meaning of that marvellous fable, “infinite,” as Bacon said of it,LE16 “in matter of meditation.” (Ruskin's note: What follows, to the end of the chapter, was a note only, in the first printing; but for after service, it is of more value than any other part of the book, so I have put it into the main text.)LE17

87. It is a strange habit of wise humanity to speak in enigmas only, so that the highest truths and usefullest laws must be hunted for through whole picture-galleries of dreams, which to the vulgar seem dreams only.LE18 Thus Homer, the Greek tragedians, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Goethe, have hidden all that is chiefly serviceable in their work, and in all the various literature they absorbed and re-embodied, under types which have rendered it quite useless to the multitude. What is worse, the two primal declarers of moral discovery, Homer and Plato, are partly at issue; for Plato’s logical power quenched his imagination, and he became incapable of understanding the purely imaginative element either in poetry or painting: he therefore somewhat overrates the pure discipline of passionate art in song and music, and misses that of meditative art. There is, however, a deeper reason for his distrust of Homer. His [208/209] love of justice, and reverently religious nature, made him dread, as death, every form of fallacy; but chiefly, fallacy respecting the world to come (his own myths being only symbolic exponents of a rational hope). We shall perhaps now every day discover more clearly how right Plato was in this, and feel ourselves more and more wonderstruck that men such as Homer and Dante (and, in an inferior sphere, Milton), not to speak of the great sculptors and painters of every age, have permitted themselves, though full of all nobleness and wisdom, to coin idle imaginations of the mysteries of eternity, and guide the faiths of the families of the earth by the courses of their own vague and visionary arts:LE37 while the indisputable truths of human life and duty, respecting which they all have but one voice, lie hidden behind these veils of phantasy, unsought, and often unsuspected. I will gather carefully, out of Dante and Homer, what, in this kind, bears on our subject, in its due place; the first broad intention of their symbols may be sketched at once.

89. The rewards of a worthy use of riches, subordinate to other ends, are shown by Dante in the fifth and sixth orbs of Paradise;LE38 for the punishment of their unworthy use, three places are assigned ; one for the avaricious and prodigal 'hose souls are lost (Hell, canto 7); one for the avaricious and prodigal whose souls are capable of purification (Purgatory, canto 19); and one for the usurers, of whom none m be redeemed (Hell, canto 17). The first group, the largest in all hell (“gente piu che altrove troppa,” compare Virgil’s “quae maxima turba” [Aeneid, vi. 611]), meet in contrary currents, as the waves of Charybdis, casting weights at each other am opposite sides. This weariness of contention is the chief element of their torture; so marked by the beautiful [209/210] lines beginning “Or puoi, figliuol,” etc.: (but the usurers, who made their money inactively, sit on the sand, equally without rest, however. “Di qua, di la, soccorrien,” etc.) For it is not avarice, but contention for riches, leading to this double misuse of them, which, in Dante’s sight, is the unredeemable sin. The place of its punishment is guarded by Plutus, “the great enemy,” and “la fièra crudele,”LE19 a spirit quite different from the Greek Plutus, who, though old and blind, is not cruel, and is curable, so as to become far-sighted. (ou tufloV all oxu blepwn—Plato’s epithets in first book of the Laws.LE20) Still more does this Dantesque type differ from the resplendent Plutus of Goethe in the second part of Faust, who is the personified power of wealth for good or evil—not the passion for wealth; and again from the Plutus of Spenser, who is the passion of mere aggregation.LE21 Dante’s Plutus is specially and definitely the Spirit of Contention and Competition, or Evil Commerce; because, as I showed before, this kind of commerce “makes all men strangers” [LE: See above, § 59n.; p. 183.]; his speech is therefore unintelligible, and no single soul of all those ruined by him has recognizable features.LE22

On the other hand, the redeemable sins of avarice and prodigality are, in Dante’s sight, those which are without deliberate or calculated operation. The lust, or lavishness, of riches can be purged, so long as there has been no servile consistency of dispute and competition for them. The sin is spoken of as that of degradation by the love of earth; it is [210/211] purified by deeper humiliation—the souls crawl on their bellies; their chant is, “my soul cleaveth unto the dust.”LE23 But the spirits thus condemned are all recognizable, and even the worst examples of the thirst for gold, which they are compelled to tell the histories of during the night, are of men swept by the passion of avarice into violent crime, but not sold to its steady work.

89. The precept given to each of these spirits for its deliverance is—Turn thine eyes to the lucre (lure)LE24 which the Eternal King rolls with the mighty wheels. Otherwise, the wheels of the “Greater Fortune,” of which the constellation is ascending when Dante’s dream begins [LE: Purgatorio, xix. 4–7.]. Compare George Herbert—

Lift up thy head;
Take stars for money; stars, not to be told
By any art, yet to be purchased. [LE: “The Church Porch,” xxix. Ruskin quotes from memory; the first words are “Raise thy head.”]

And Plato’s notable sentence in the third book of the Polity: “Tell them they have divine gold and silver in their souls for ever; that they need no money stamped of men—neither may they otherwise than impiously mingle the gathering of the divine with the mortal treasure, for through that which the law of the multitude has coined, endless crimes have been done and suffered; but in theirs is neither pollution nor sorrow” [LE: Republic, iii. 416 E.]

90. At the entrance of this place of punishment an evil spirit is seen by Dante, quite other than the “Gran Nemico.” The great enemy is obeyed knowingly and willingly; but the spirit—feminine—and called a Siren [LE: Purgatorio, xix. 19.] —is the “Deceitfulness of riches,” apath ploutou of the Gospels [LE: Matthew xiii. 22.], winning obedience by guile. This is the Idol of riches, made doubly phantasmal by Dante’s seeing her in a dream. She is lovely [211/212] to look upon, and enchants by her sweet singing, but her womb is loathsome. Now, Dante does not call her one of the Sirens carelessly, any more than he speaks of Charybdis carelessly; and though he had got at the meaning of Homeric fable only through Virgil’s obscure tradition of it [LE: in Æneid, v. 864 seq.], the clue he has given us is quite enough. Bacon’s interpretation, “the Sirens, or pleasures” [LE: The title of ch. xxxi. in his De Sapientia Veterum], which has become universal since his time, is opposed alike to Plato’s meaning and Homer’s. The Sirens are not pleasures, but Desires: in the Odyssey they are the phantoms of vain desire; LE25 but in Plato’s Vision of Destiny, phantoms of divine desire; singing each a different note on the circles of the distaff of Necessity, but forming one harmony, to which the three great Fates put words.LE26 Dante, however, adopted the Homeric conception of them,LE27 which was that they were demons of the Imagination, not carnal; (desire of the eyes; not lust of the flesh [LE: Ezekiel xxiv. 16; 1 John ii. 16.];) therefore said to be daughters of the Muses. Yet not of the Muses, heavenly or historical, but of the Muse of pleasure; and they are at first winged, because even vain hope excites and helps when first formed; but afterwards, contending for the possession of the imagination with the Muses themselves, they are deprived of their wings.

91. And thus we are to distinguish the Siren power from [212/213] the power of Circe, who is no daughter of the Muses, but of the strong elements, Sun and Sea;LE28 her power is that of frank, and full vital pleasure, which, if governed and watched, nourishes men; but, unwatched, and having no “moly,” bitterness or delay, mixed with it, turns men into beasts, but does not slay them,—leaves them, on the contrary, power of revival. She is herself indeed an Enchantress;—pure Animal life; transforming—or degrading—but always wonderful (she puts the stores on board the ship invisibly, and is gone again, like a ghost [LE: Odyssey, x.571–74.]); even the wild beasts rejoice and are softened around her cave; the transforming poisons she gives to men are mixed with no rich feast, but with pure and right nourishment,—Pramnian wine, cheese, and flour [LE: Odyssey, x. 235.]; that is, wine, milk, and corn, the three great sustainers of life—it is their own fault if these make swine of them; (see Appendix V.) and swine are chosen merely as the type of consumption; as Plato’s uwn poliV, in the second book of the Polity [LE: Republic, 372.], and perhaps chosen by Homer with a deeper knowledge of the likeness in variety of nourishment, and internal form of body.

―Et quel est, s’il vous plait, cet audacieux animal qui se permet d’être bâti au dedans comme une jolie petite fille?

―Hélas! chère enfant, j’ai honte de le nommer, et il ne faudra pas m‘en vouloir. C’est . . . c’est le cochon. Ce n’est pas précisément flatteur pour vous; mais nous en sommes tout là, et si cela vous contrarie par trop, il faut aller vous plaindre au bon Dieu qui a voulu que les choses fussent arrangées ainsi: seulement le cochon, qui ne pense qu‘à manger, a l‘estomac bien plus vaste que nous et c’est toujours une consolation.”—(Jean Macé, Histoire d‘une Bouchée de Pain, Lettre ix.5)

92. But the deadly Sirens are in all things opposed to the Circean power. They promise pleasure, but never give [213/214 ] it. They nourish in no wise; but slay by slow death. And whereas they corrupt the heart and the head, instead of merely betraying the senses, there is no recovery from their power; they do not tear nor scratch, like Scylla, but the men who have listened to them are poisoned, and waste away. Note that the Sirens’ field is covered, not merely with the bones, but with the skins,LE29 of those who have been consumed there. They address themselves, in the part of the song which Homer gives, not to the passions of Ulysses, but to his vanity, and the only man who ever came within hearing of them, and escaped untempted, was Orpheus, who silenced the vain imaginations by singing the praises of the gods.LE30

93. It is, then, one of these Sirens whom Dante takes as the phantasm or deceitfulness of riches; but note further, that she says it was her song that deceived Ulysses.LE31 Look back to Dante’s account of Ulysses’ death, and we find it was not the love of money, but pride of knowledge,LE32 that betrayed him; whence we get the clue to Dante’s complete meaning: that the souls whose love of wealth is pardonable have been first deceived into pursuit of it by a dream of its higher uses, or by ambition. His Siren is therefore the Philotimé of Spenser, daughter of Mammon—

Whom all that folk with such contention Do flock about, my deare, my daughter is—
Honour and dignitie from her alone
Derived are.” [LE: The Faerie Queene, ii. 7, 48.] [214/215]

By comparing Spenser’s entire account of this Philotimé with Dante’s of the Wealth-Siren, we shall get at the full meaning of both poets; but that of Homer lies hidden much more deeply. For his Sirens are indefinite; and they are desires of any evil thing; power of wealth is not specially indicated by him, until, escaping the harmonious danger of imagination, Ulysses has to choose between two practical ways of life, indicated by the two rocks of Scylla and Charybdis. The monsters that haunt them are quite distinct from the rocks themselves, which, having many other sub-ordinate significations, are in the main Labour and Idleness, or getting and spending; each with its attendant monster, or betraying demon. The rock of gaining has its summit in the clouds, invisible, and not to be climbed; that of spending is low, but marked by the cursed fig-tree, which has leaves, but no fruit [LE: For the fig-tree of Charybdis, see below, p. 290.]. We know the type elsewhere [LE: See Matthew xxi. 19; Mark xi. 13; and for the parable, Luke xiii. 6.]; and there is a curious lateral allusion to it by Dante when Jacopo di Sant’ Andrea, who had ruined himself by profusion and committed suicide, scatters the leaves of the bush of Lotto degli Agli, endeavouring to hide himself among them [LE: Inferno, xiii. 115 seq.]. We shall hereafter examine the type completely;LE33 here I will only give an approximate rendering of Homer’s words, which have been obscured more by translation than even by tradition.LE34

94. “They are overhanging rocks. The great waves of blue water break round them; and the blessed Gods call them the Wanderers. “By one of them no winged thing can pass—not even the wild doves that bring ambrosia to their father Jove—but the smooth rock seizes its sacrifice of them.” (Not even ambrosia to be had without Labour. The word is peculiar—as a part of anything is offered for sacrifice; especially [215/216] used of heave-offering.LE35) “It reaches the wide heaven with its top, and a dark-blue cloud rests on it, and never passes; neither does the clear sky hold it, in summer nor in harvest. Nor can any man climb it—not if he had twenty feet and hands, for it is as smooth as though it were hewn. “And in the midst of it is a cave which is turned the way of hell. And therein dwells Scylla, whining for prey; her cry, indeed, is no louder than that of a newly-born whelp: but she herself is an awful thing—nor can any creature see her face and be glad; no, though it were a god that rose against her. For she had twelve feet, all fore-feet, and six necks, and terrible heads on them; and each has three rows of teeth, full of black death. ―But the opposite rock is lower than this, though but a bow-shot distant; and upon it there is a great fig-tree, full of leaves; and under it the terrible Charybdis sucks down the black water. Thrice in the day she sucks it down, and thrice casts it up again; be not thou there when she sucks down, for Neptune himself could not save thee.” (Thus far went my rembling note, in Fraser’s Magazine. LE36 The Editor sent me a compliment on it—of which I was very proud; what the Publisher thought of it, I am not informed;LE37 only I know that eventually he stopped the papers. I think a great deal of it myself, now, and have put it all in large print accordingly, and should like to write more; but will, on the contrary, self-denyingly, and in gratitude to any reader who has got through so much, end my chapter.)

Last modified 14 March 2019