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In a perhaps not less pious, though less meek spirit, comes a tale a little farther on. Prince Radbot is about to be baptized, he has his foot in the water's brink when he bethinks himself to ask the priest, "where now are all my ancestors who died without baptism?"
"In hell," replied the pious bishop,
That enraged the valiant Degen (blade).
My fathers were valiant men;
The anecdote resembles one well hacknied, but the sentiment is so based on truth, that it might be expressed anywhere.
The Swan plays a distinguished part in Rhine poesy. This bird which the always most discerning Greeks consecrated to the service of genius, rather than birds of frequent song, this most beautiful bird seems always floating before us on the Rhine. In some of these poems the peculiar feeling of delight mixed with expectation you have in looking up stream is made to take shape as the approaching swan. There are two, one a volks lied, the other modern, founded on the same tale and called Schwanen Ritter, Knight of the Swan. It is a tale of a lady left by her father's death under the power of a bad servant, who will only set her free from prison on condition of marrying him. She has no hope but in prayer, and as she beats her breast in anguish, a little silver bell attached to her rosary is made to ring. Its sound is very soft in her chamber, but vibrates loud as thunder in distant lands to call the destined knight to her rescue. This bell was to me a new piece of ballad furniture, and one of beautiful meaning. Looking down from her lonely window, she sees the knight approach in a boat to which a swan is attached by a golden chain, both as pilot and rower. He greets her with a proud calmness, lands, fights the good fight, wins back her inheritance, and becomes her husband.
But he asks for one boon, that she will promise never to inquire his name and birthplace. The usual catastrophe follows; she asks him "at each favorable time" zu jeden frist. He resists her importunities with dignity and pathetic warnings as to what must ensue if she does not rise above this weakness. But she, at last, is so unworthy as to entreat him, if he loves their children, to tell her. He no longer refuses, declares his princely descent, divides among his three sons the fairy accoutrements of sword, horn, and ring, each of which is the pledge of a ducal inheritance. The swan-drawn boat appears, and the frail beauty is left to bear the heavy years of a widowed and degraded life.
The volks lied is the answer of the mother to the questions of the children, orphaned by her fault, and her account of the vision of purity and bliss which once shone before her is answered naturally enough,
So must young children answer, if told by their parents of visions of purity and bliss that had shone on their young eyes, and might have remained the companions of a whole life, had they been capable of self-denial and constancy. But when they hear that eye now so cold and dull has ever seen the silver swan approach on the blue stream, they may well reply
O this is a strange tale, mother.
In the German tales men are as often incable of abstinence and faith to their word, as women. The legends of Nixenquell and Melusine may be balanced against this of Schwanen ritter. The fairness of feeling towards women, so conspicuous when Germany was first known to the Romans, is equally so in all these romances. Men and women are both frail, both liable to incur stain, but also both capable of the deepest religion, truth, and love. The ideal relation between them is constantly described with a delicacy of feeling, of which only the highest minds in other countries are susceptible.
"Swan-rings" are another subject, expressing the thoughts of which the bird is an emblem. Charlemagne has lost the beautiful Svanhild. He cannot be drawn away from the
body. He will not touch food, nor attend to the most urgent business. All expostulations only draw from him a few agonized words, "You are all mistaken: she is not dead, she only sleeps, see how beautiful she is, I cannot leave her till she awakes." On the evening of the third day he sinks, exhausted, into sleep beside the corpse. The good bishop Turpin wishes to have him removed, but finds it impossible; his hold of the cold hand cannot be loosed. Suspicion being aroused, the bishop exercises till he finds in the mouth of Svanhild, one of those rings, on which was engraved the swan. He takes it away, and puts it on his own finger. The king awakes, and at once orders the now disenchanted body to be buried, but turns all the folly of affection to Turpin, on whom he hangs like a child, enumerating all his charms and virtues. The bishop, terrified at being invested with this power of witchcraft, rushes down to the river, and throws the ring in. The monarch, who has followed with hasty steps, gazes wistfully into the blue depths, seeking the magnet, but not able to recover it, fixes near the spot his royal dwelling, and thence Aix arose.
Very grand are the lineaments of Charlemagne as descried in these national memories. The ballads which describe him crossing the Rhine, where the moon has made him a bridge of light, to bless the vines on either shore, rousing the ferry-man to go with his shadowy host to fight the battles of his sometime realm against one as great in mind, but not in soul as himself, and those of his confession, and Eginhard and Emma, paint the noblest picture, and in the fulness of flesh and blood reality. He is a king, indeed, a king of men, in this, that he is most a man, of largest heart, deepest mind, and most powerful nature. See in Eginhard and Emma his meeting with his peers, and way of stating the offence, the fearful yet noble surrender of the self-accused Eginhard, the calm magnanimity with which the inevitable sentence is pronounced, and then his grief for the loss of his child.
Equally natural and sweet is the conduct of the lovers, wandering forth on different sides of the road, the princess now in pilgrim's weeds, not daring to speak to one another for days. Then the kindness of the good woodmen, and the sleep which total weariness found at last in the open forest. There is no violent transition in their lives from a
palace to a hut woven of boughs and twigs. The highest rank there grew up naturally from the lowest, was not severed from it. All ate at the same table, and he whose place was on the Dais knew the savor of the poor man's salt. The life of a noble was splendid, but no way enervating or factitious. It was as easy for the princess Emma to use her husband's helmet for a milk pail, as for Ulysses, or the pious Æneas, to cut down trees and build their ships with their own hands, when thrown upon a foreign coast. It was not distressing, but refreshing, to see people in those times cast down into the lowest adversity. We knew they would not yield, nor lie crushed in the ditch. There was strength in all their members to rise and stride boldly on afoot, since their chariots were taken from them.
In the other ballad the aged monarch has upon his soul a sin so great, that he wants force to name it even to his confessor. The monk reproves his weakness, urges upon him that it ought to be no added pain to speak to man that which he has dared keep in his thoughts to be seen of God. The king admits the truth of this, and tries again, but tears and sobs choke his utterance. The confessor bids him write it then. Alas! he replies, the years when he might have learned to use the pen were wasted in vain pleasures, or spent in knightly toils. It is not too late, cries the zealous monk, I will teach you; and, accordingly, this task-work goes on day after day, till Charlemagne can write "joininghand." Then they come to confession again, and the monk once more urges him to command himself and speak, and he tries, but the effort causes a still more suffocating anguish than before. Then he begins to write, with slow, stiff hand; the monk, from afar, sees the large letters forming on the page, but when he draws near to read the finished scroll, he finds it a blank. He turns to the monarch for an explanation, but the amazement of both is equal, till turning to the page again they find written by a heavenly pen, "Thy sins are forgiven." Thus the sin, so deeply felt, that it would have broke the heart if spoken, was absolved above the region of words to the patient penitent.
In the same tone are stories of the Cathedrals, especially of the bells. The high feelings about this voice of the church, expressed in Schiller's Song of the Bell, have given birth to these stories. One Master, unsuccessful with his 19
bell under the influences of prayer, and his best mood, swears and curses, and is immediately successful; but when the ceremony of consecration came, the bell gave out tones so fearful that it could be used only at times of fire and other calamity. Another Master, summoned from afar on account of his great skill, substituted tin for a part of the silver with which he was entrusted. At the consecration, the emperor pulls the bell-rope but cannot make it stir; he cannot guess what the difficulty is and calls the Master. The Master advances, pale with guilt and fear, pulls the rope, and, at his touch, the clapper falls and kills him.
The ballads about the bishops are worthy those about the churches. From several, all good in different ways, take the following.
The lords of Thum it did not please
He found them in chamber, found them in hall,
But the pious Willegis
Could not be moved to bitterness.
Seeing the wheels upon the wall,
The lords of Thum were full of shame,
Thus came to Willegis
This gentle humility is like that of Manzoni's Borromeo, that expressed in the following like his Cristoforo.
Gunhild lived a still, pious life in her little convent cell,