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List Of Contents | Contents of Saunterings, by Charles Dudley Warner
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Heaven.  The first two have something in common, the almost mystic
union of sky and sea and shore, a soft atmospheric suffusion that
works an enchantment, and puts one into a dreamy mood.  And yet there
are decided contrasts.  The superabundant, soaking sunshine of
Sorrento is of very different quality from that of the Isle of Wight.
On the island there is a sense of home, which one misses on this
promontory, the fascination of which, no less strong, is that of a
southern beauty, whose charms conquer rather than win.  I remember
with what feeling I one day unexpectedly read on a white slab, in the
little inclosure of Bonchurch, where the sea whispered as gently as
the rustle of the ivy-leaves, the name of John Sterling.  Could there
be any fitter resting-place for that most, weary, and gentle spirit?
There I seemed to know he had the rest that he could not have
anywhere on these brilliant historic shores.  Yet so impressible was
his sensitive nature, that I doubt not, if he had given himself up to
the enchantment of these coasts in his lifetime, it would have led
him by a spell he could not break.

I am sometimes in doubt what is the spell of Sorrento, and half
believe that it is independent of anything visible.  There is said to
be a fatal enchantment about Capri.  The influences of Sorrento are
not so dangerous, but are almost as marked.  I do not wonder that the
Greeks peopled every cove and sea-cave with divinities, and built
temples on every headland and rocky islet here; that the Romans built
upon the Grecian ruins; that the ecclesiastics in succeeding
centuries gained possession of all the heights, and built convents
and monasteries, and set out vineyards, and orchards of olives and
oranges, and took root as the creeping plants do, spreading
themselves abroad in the sunshine and charming air.  The Italian of
to-day does not willingly emigrate, is tempted by no seduction of
better fortune in any foreign clime.  And so in all ages the swarming
populations have clung to these shores, filling all the coasts and
every nook in these almost inaccessible hills with life.  Perhaps the
delicious climate, which avoids all extremes, sufficiently accounts
for this; and yet I have sometimes thought there is a more subtle
reason why travelers from far lands are spellbound here, often
against will and judgment, week after week, month after month.

However this may be, it is certain that strangers who come here, and
remain long enough to get entangled in the meshes which some
influence, I know not what, throws around them, are in danger of
never departing.  I know there are scores of travelers, who whisk
down from Naples, guidebook in hand, goaded by the fell purpose of
seeing every place in Europe, ascend some height, buy a load of the
beautiful inlaid woodwork, perhaps row over to Capri and stay five
minutes in the azure grotto, and then whisk away again, untouched by
the glamour of the place.  Enough that they write "delightful spot"
in their diaries, and hurry off to new scenes, and more noisy life.
But the visitor who yields himself to the place will soon find his
power of will departing.  Some satirical people say, that, as one
grows strong in body here, he becomes weak in mind.  The theory I do
not accept: one simply folds his sails, unships his rudder, and waits
the will of Providence, or the arrival of some compelling fate.  The
longer one remains, the more difficult it is to go.  We have a
fashion--indeed, I may call it a habit--of deciding to go, and of
never going.  It is a subject of infinite jest among the habitues of
the villa, who meet at table, and who are always bidding each other
good-by.  We often go so far as to write to Naples at night, and
bespeak rooms in the hotels; but we always countermand the order
before we sit down to breakfast. The good-natured mistress of
affairs, the head of the bureau of domestic relations, is at her
wits' end, with guests who always promise to go and never depart.
There are here a gentleman and his wife, English people of decision
enough, I presume, in Cornwall, who packed their luggage before
Christmas to depart, but who have not gone towards the end of
February,--who daily talk of going, and little by little unpack their
wardrobe, as their determination oozes out.  It is easy enough to
decide at night to go next day; but in the morning, when the soft
sunshine comes in at the window, and when we descend and walk in the
garden, all our good intentions vanish.  It is not simply that we do
not go away, but we have lost the motive for those long excursions
which we made at first, and which more adventurous travelers indulge
in.  There are those here who have intended for weeks to spend a day
on Capri.  Perfect day for the expedition succeeds perfect day,
boatload after boatload sails away from the little marina at the base
of the cliff, which we follow with eves of desire, but--to-morrow
will do as well.  We are powerless to break the enchantment.

I confess to the fancy that there is some subtle influence working
this sea-change in us, which the guidebooks, in their enumeration of
the delights of the region, do not touch, and which maybe reaches
back beyond the Christian era.  I have always supposed that the story
of Ulysses and the Sirens was only a fiction of the poets, intended
to illustrate the allurements of a soul given over to pleasure, and
deaf to the call of duty and the excitement of a grapple with the
world.  But a lady here, herself one of the entranced, tells me that
whoever climbs the hills behind Sorrento, and looks upon the Isle of
the Sirens, is struck with an inability to form a desire to depart
from these coasts.  I have gazed at those islands more than once, as
they lie there in the Bay of Salerno; and it has always happened that
they have been in a half-misty and not uncolored sunlight, but not so
draped that I could not see they were only three irregular rocks, not
far from shore, one of them with some ruins on it.  There are neither
sirens there now, nor any other creatures; but I should be sorry to
think I should never see them again.  When I look down on them, I can
also turn and behold on the other side, across the Bay of Naples, the
Posilipo, where one of the enchanters who threw magic over them is
said to lie in his high tomb at the opening of the grotto.  Whether
he does sleep in his urn in that exact spot is of no moment.  Modern
life has disillusioned this region to a great extent; but the romance
that the old poets have woven about these bays and rocky promontories
comes very easily back upon one who submits himself long to the
eternal influences of sky and sea which made them sing.  It is all
one,--to be a Roman poet in his villa, a lazy friar of the Middle
Ages toasting in the sun, or a modern idler, who has drifted here out
of the active currents of life, and cannot make up his mind to
depart.




MONKISH PERCHES

On heights at either end of the Piano di Sorrento, and commanding it,
stood two religious houses: the Convent of the Carnaldoli to the
northeast, on the crest of the hill above Meta; the Carthusian
Monastery of the Deserto, to the southwest, three miles above
Sorrento.  The longer I stay here, the more respect I have for the
taste of the monks of the Middle Ages.  They invariably secured the
best places for themselves.  They seized all the strategic points;
they appropriated all the commanding heights; they knew where the sun
would best strike the grapevines; they perched themselves wherever
there was a royal view.  When I see how unerringly they did select
and occupy the eligible places, I think they were moved by a sort of
inspiration.  In those days, when the Church took the first choice in
everything, the temptation to a Christian life must have been strong.

The monastery at the Deserto was suppressed by the French of the
first republic, and has long been in a ruinous condition.  Its
buildings crown the apex of the highest elevation in this part of the
promontory: from its roof the fathers paternally looked down upon the
churches and chapels and nunneries which thickly studded all this
region; so that I fancy the air must have been full of the sound of
bells, and of incense perpetually ascending.  They looked also upon
St. Agata under the hill, with a church bigger than itself; upon more
distinct Massa, with its chapels and cathedral and overlooking feudal
tower; upon Torca, the Greek Theorica, with its Temple of Apollo, the
scene yet of an annual religious festival, to which the peasants of
Sorrento go as their ancestors did to the shrine of the heathen god;
upon olive and orange orchards, and winding paths and wayside shrines
innumerable.  A sweet and peaceful scene in the foreground, it must
have been, and a whole horizon of enchantment beyond the sunny
peninsula over which it lorded: the Mediterranean, with poetic Capri,
and Ischia, and all the classic shore from Cape Misenum, Baiae, and
Naples, round to Vesuvius; all the sparkling Bay of Naples; and on
the other side the Bay of Salerno, covered with the fleets of the
commerce of Amalfi, then a republican city of fifty thousand people;
and Grecian Paestum on the marshy shore, even then a ruin, its
deserted porches and columns monuments of an architecture never
equaled elsewhere in Italy.  Upon this charming perch, the old
Carthusian monks took the summer breezes and the winter sun, pruned
their olives, and trimmed their grapevines, and said prayers for the
poor sinners toiling in the valleys below.

The monastery is a desolate old shed now.  We left our donkeys to eat
thistles in front, while we climbed up some dilapidated steps, and
entered the crumbling hall.  The present occupants are half a dozen
monks, and fine fellows too, who have an orphan school of some twenty
lads.  We were invited to witness their noonday prayers.  The
flat-roofed rear buildings extend round an oblong, quadrangular
space, which is a rich garden, watered from capacious tanks, and
coaxed into easy fertility by the impregnating sun.  Upon these roofs
the brothers were wont to walk, and here they sat at peaceful

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