I had planned on posting some rather melancholy thoughts on our culture’s endangered future, but thought instead to end the week on a more hopeful note. (Expect dire things next week!) So, instead, let’s close the last week before the unofficial start of summer with this marvelous picture, the Beguiling of Merlin, by Pre-Raphaelite master Edward Burne-Jones, painted between 1872 and 1877.
With one-hundred-plus years of distance between us and our Victorian betters, it is easy to dismiss them as seemingly antiquated, stuffy or (cardinal sin of our age!) somehow repressed. Actually, these misconceptions have little to do with the reality of Victoria’s age and her people.
The Victorians were actually an extremely modern people: dedicated to exploration, adventure, technology, experimentation and the scientific method. (It is no mistake that detective fiction found its greatest expression in Sherlock Holmes, a romanticist’s view of the perfect scientific reasoner.) However – and here is the great paradox – there was also a deep and vibrant strain of nostalgia to be found in the Victorians, and this sentiment colored their art and culture.
Nostalgia has a rather bad name today; it is associated with backwards thinking, slowed development or an escape from reality. Disdain for nostalgia has recently given rise to the most loathsome locution in the modern lexicon of slang: “old timey.” This is a meaningless phrase that often leaves your correspondent reaching for the nearest weapon (or heaviest dictionary) – and its practice should not be encouraged.
For the Victorians, nostalgia was not a mere wistfulness for the past; rather, it became a type of romanticism. By imagining (or re-imagining) a better, greater past, the Victorians found a way of connecting with that best part of themselves, and also creating a template by which to measure future accomplishments. This wasn’t an escape from reality as much as a redefinition of it – becoming a sort of secular religion that defined them as a people. Whether it was an idealization of the English countryside or veneration for the age of Wordsworth (or Johnson), the Victorians connected with the imagined shades of their forebears and listened to their lessons.
One of the most persistent strains of Victorian nostalgia was for the great age of King Arthur. Arthurian romance was the theme of their great poets, novelists, and, of course, painters.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (itself a sort of extended exercise in self-improving nostalgia) was greatly drawn to the myth of Arthur. The Beguiling of Merlin is taken from one of the key moments in the legend. Merlin, Arthur’s conscience and advisor, is trapped by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, within the confines of a great hawthorn bush. Nimue reads from her book of spells – and the great wizard will be imprisoned for all time, never able again to aid the great English king.
The Beguiling of Merlin is a cautionary tale: Merlin is consumed with lust for Nimue, but she refuses to become his lover until he teachers her the secrets of sorcery. Once he has done so, she uses her new-found powers against him and, in the process, starts a cycle of events that will destroy Camelot. The power of Victoria’s empire – which controlled a great deal of the world and its resources and people – would never be used against the powerless for base reasons without dire consequences. How effectively the Victorians abided by this lesson is open to debate.
Artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was primarily a watercolorist before turning to oils. His lover was Maria Zambaco (1843-1914), who was a favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelites and whose image can be found in many great pictures, including works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Whistler.
Let’s take a moment to savor this magnificent picture. The length of the picture is, to my eye, essential to its success, because it is used to delineate both the strength of Nimue and the languor of Merlin. Nimue’s body twists to glance at Merlin, and her body language is all carless mastery and undisguised contempt. Indeed, she seems about to walk away, book of spells in her hand, as if the great wizard offered no challenge at all. Indeed, it is only in her face that Nimue holds a hint of sympathy – her face shows all the regret that her body cannot express. Oceans of heartache and unnecessary tragedy can be found in her delicate profile.
Merlin lies in the hawthorn, powerless. His arms lay limply at his side, his fingers lank and uncontrolled. His face, too, seems affected by the paralysis of Nimue’s enchantment, but look at his eyes. He looks at Nimue with all the hurt of betrayal, all the disappointment of failed love. Those eyes, which can see visions of the future, know that he will be imprisoned there, and his own folly the cause of nationwide catastrophe.
The drapery of the figures is magnificent – look at how Burne-Jones uses Nimue’s robes to capture the movement of her legs. The robe twists at the waist, with her body, and the fingers holding the book are delicate and beautifully rendered.
Delicate, too, are Merlin’s feet, which are drawn with great sensitivity. They are off the ground – indeed, Merlin will never meaningfully connect with this earth again. The gray of his hair draws attention to the white of his haunting eyes – and cups the V-shaped shadow in his neck, framing his face.
About the whole picture is a supreme delicacy of touch, a refinement of purpose that is mesmerizing. As usual, Burne-Jones’ sense of color is astonishing. The hawthorn is a pinkish, bluish white – but one never feels springtime, only death. Nimue’s enchanted hawthorn may be the most beautiful coffin ever depicted in western art.
Let’s share, for a moment, the nostalgic urge of the Victorians. Think, for a moment, of the great wizard still in some great wooded vastness of England, repentant still for his many wrongs, but also still aware of the great gifts he could bestow upon his people. Perhaps the magic of Nimue is not for eternity, and another Arthur will return to us with Merlin in tow, guided by wisdom, honesty and a sense of justice.