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Faustus And Helena
by [?]

NOTES ON THE SUPERNATURAL IN ART.

There is a story, well-known throughout the sixteenth century, which tells how Doctor Faustus of Wittemberg, having made over his soul to the fiend, employed him to raise the ghost of Helen of Sparta, in order that she might become his paramour. The story has no historic value, no scientific meaning; it lacks the hoary dignity of the tales of heroes and demi-gods, wrought, vague, and colossal forms, out of cloud and sunbeam, of those tales narrated and heard by generations of men deep hidden in the stratified ruins of lost civilisation, carried in the races from India to Hellas, and to Scandinavia. Compared with them, this tale of Faustus and Helena is paltry and brand-new; it is not a myth, nay, scarcely a legend; it is a mere trifling incident added by humanistic pedantry to the ever-changing mediaeval story of the man who barters his soul for knowledge, the wizard, alchemist, philosopher, printer, Albertus, Bacon, or Faustus. It is a part, an unessential, subordinate fragment, valued in its day neither more nor less than any other part of the history of Doctor Faustus, narrated cursorily by the biographer of the wizard, overlooked by some of the ballad rhymers, alternately used and rejected by the playwrights of puppet-shows; given by Marlowe himself no greater importance than the other marvellous deeds, the juggling tricks and magic journeys of his hero.

But for us, the incident of Faustus and Helena has a meaning, a fascination wholly different from any other portion of the story; the other incidents owe everything to artistic treatment: this one owes nothing. The wizard Faustus, awaiting the hour which will give him over to Hell, is the creation of Marlowe; Gretchen is even more completely the creation of Goethe; the fiend of the Englishman is occasionally grand, the fiend of the German is throughout masterly; in all these cases we are in the presence of true artistic work, of stuff rendered valuable solely by the hand of the artist, of figures well defined and finite, and limited also in their power over the imagination. But the group of Faustus and Helena is different; it belongs neither to Marlowe nor to Goethe, it belongs to the legend. It does not give the complete and limited satisfaction of a work of art; it has the charm of the fantastic and fitful shapes formed by the flickering firelight or the wreathing mists; it haunts like some vague strain of music, drowsily heard in half-sleep. It fills the fancy, it oscillates and transforms itself; the artist may see it, attempt to seize and embody it for evermore in a definite and enduring shape, but it vanishes out of his grasp, and the forms which should have inclosed it are mere empty sepulchres, haunted and charmed merely by the evoking power of our own imagination. If we are fascinated by the Lady Helen of Marlowe, walking, like some Florentine goddess, with embroidered kirtle and madonna face, across the study of the old wizard of Wittemberg; if we are pleased by the stately pseudo-antique Helena of Goethe, draped in the drapery of Thorwaldsen’s statues, and speaking the language of Goethe’s own Iphigenia, as she meets the very modern Faust, gracefully masqued in mediaeval costume; if we find in these attempts, the one unthinking and imperfect, the other laboured and abortive, something which delights our fancy, it is because our thoughts wander off from them and evoke a Faustus and Helena of our own, different from the creations of Marlowe and of Goethe; it is because in these definite and imperfect artistic forms, there yet remains the suggestion of the subject with all its power over the imagination. We forget Marlowe, and we forget Goethe, to follow up the infinite suggestion of the legend. We cease to see the Elizabethan and the pseudo-antique Helen; we lift our imagination from the book and see the mediaeval street at Wittemberg, the gabled house of Faustus, all sculptured with quaint devices and grotesque forms of apes and cherubs and flowers; we penetrate through the low brown rooms, filled with musty books and mysterious ovens and retorts, redolent with strange scents of alchemy, to that innermost secret chamber, where the old wizard hides, in the depths of his mediaeval house, the immortal woman, the god-born, the fatal, the beloved of Theseus and Paris and Achilles; we are blinded by this sunshine of Antiquity pent up in the oaken-panelled chamber, such as Duerer might have etched; and all around we hear circulating the mysterious rumours of the neighbours, of the burghers and students, whispering shyly of Dr. Faustus and his strange guest, in the beer-cellars and in the cloisters of the old university town. And gazing thus into the fantastic intellectual mist which has risen up between us and the book we were reading, be it Marlowe or Goethe, we cease, after a while, to see Faustus or Helena, we perceive only a chaotic fluctuation of incongruous shapes; scholars in furred robes and caps pulled over their ears, burghers wives with high sugar-loaf coif and slashed boddices, with hands demurely folded over their prayer-books, and knights in armour and immense plumes, and haggling Jews, and tonsured monks, descended out of panels of Wohlgemuth and the engravings of Duerer, mingling with, changing into processions of naked athletes on foaming short-maned horses, of draped Athenian maidens carrying baskets and sickles, and priests bearing oil-jars and torches, all melting into each other, indistinct, confused, like the images in a dream; vague crowds, phantoms following in the wake of the spectre woman of Antiquity, beautiful, unimpassioned, ever young, luring to Hell the wizard of the Middle Ages.