Le poème d'Erasmus Darwin

En 1789, Josiah Wedgwood avait envoyé à son ami, le savant et poète Erasmus Darwin, la « première copie parfaite » qu'il était parvenu à réaliser en céramique du vase de Portland : Darwin (le futur grand-père de Charles Darwin) avait aussitôt intégré une digression sur la fabrique de Wedgwood, Etruria, et sur le vase de Portland, dans une section, consacrée à la céramique, de l'immense poème qu'il était en train de composer, The Botanic Garden. L'ensemble parut en 1791-1792 dans une édition illustrée de planches de William Blake. Voici cette digression :

Etruria ! next beneath thy magic hands
Glides the quick wheel, the plaistic clay expands,
Nerved with fine touch, thy fingers (as it turns)
Mark the nice bounds of vases, ewers, and urns ;
Round each fair form in lines immortal trace
Uncopied Beauty, and ideal Grace.
And pleased on Wedgwood ray your partial smile,
A new Etruria decks Britannia's isle,
Charm'd by your touch, the flint liquescent pours
Through finer sieves, and falls in whiter showers ;
Charm'd by your touch, the kneaded clay refines,
The biscuit hardens, the enamel shines ;
Each nicer mould a softer feature drinks,
The bold Cameo speaks, the soft Intaglio thinks.
Whether, O Friend of Art ! the gem you mould
Rich with new taste, with antient virtue bold ;
Form the poor fetter'd Slave on bended knee
From Britain's sons imploring to be free ;
Or with fair Hope the brightening scenes improve,
And cheer the dreary wastes at Sydney-cove ;
Or bid Mortality rejoice and mourn
O'er the fine forms on Portland's mystic urn.

© Agnès Vinas

Here by fall'n columns and disjoin'd arcades,
On mouldering stones, beneath deciduous shades,
Sits Humankind in hieroglyphic state,
Serious, and pondering on their changeful state ;
While with inverted torch, and swimming eyes,
Sinks the fair shade of Mortal Life, and dies.

© Agnès Vinas

There the pale Ghost through Death's wide portal bends
His timid feet, the dusky steep descends ;

© Agnès Vinas

With smiles assuasive Love Divine invites,
Guides on broad wing, invites torch uplifted lights.

© Agnès Vinas

Immortal Life, her hand extending, courts
The lingering form, his tottering step supports ;
Leads on to Pluto's realms the dreary way,
And gives him trembling to Elysian day.

Credits : Barbara Mc Manus

Beneath in sacred robes the Priestess dress'd,
The coif close-hooded, and the fluttering vest,
With pointing finger guides the initiate youth,
Unweaves the many-colour'd veil of Truth,
Drives the profane from Mystery's bolted door,
And Silence guards the Eleusinian lore.

Part I, « The Economy of Vegetation », Canto II, lines 291-340

On voit que la lecture d'Erasmus Darwin est nettement allégorique. Une note très développée de 120 pages s'en explique. Elle est illustrée par quatre gravures de William Blake.


Gravure de William Blake, dans la première édition américaine de 1798

The celebrated funereal vase, long in possession of the Barberini family, and lately purchased by the Duke of Portland for a thousand guineas, is about ten inches high and six in diameter in the broadest part. The figures are of most exquisite workmanship in bas relief of white opake glass, raised on a ground of deep blue glass, which appears black except when held against the light. Mr. Wedgwood is of opinion from many circumstances that the figures have been made by cutting away the external crust of white opake glass, in the manner the finest cameo's have been produced, and that it must thence have been the labour of a great many years. Some antiquarians have placed the time of its production many centuries before the christian aera ; as sculpture was said to have been declining in respect to its excellence in the time of Alexander the Great. See an account of the Barberini or Portland vase by M. D'Hancarville, and by Mr. Wedgwood.

Many opinions and conjectures have been published concerning the figures on this celebrated vase. Having carefully examined one of Mr. Wedgwood's beautiful copies of this wonderful production of art, I shall add one more conjecture to the number.

Mr. Wedgwood has well observed that it does not seem probable that the Portland vase was purposely made for the ashes of any particular person deceased, because many years must have been necessary for its production. Hence it may be concluded, that the subject of its embellishments is not private history but of a general nature. This subject appears to me to be well chosen, and the story to be finely told ; and that it represents what in ancient times engaged the attention of philosophers, poets, and heroes, I mean a part of the Eleusinian mysteries.

These mysteries were invented in Aegypt, and afterwards transferred to Greece, and flourished more particularly at Athens, which was at the same time the seat of the fine arts. They consisted of scenical exhibitions representing and inculcating the expectation of a future life after death, and on this account were encouraged by the government, insomuch that the Athenian laws punished a discovery of their secrets with death. Dr. Warburton has with great learning and ingenuity shewn that the descent of Aeneas into hell, described in the Sixth Book of Virgil, is a poetical account of the representations of the future state in the Eleusinian mysteries. Divine Legation, Vol. I. p. 210.

And though some writers have differed in opinion from Dr. Warburton on this subject, because Virgil has introduced some of his own heroes into the Elysian fields, as Deiphobus, Palinurus, and Dido, in the same manner as Homer had done before him, yet it is agreed that the received notions about a future state were exhibited in these mysteries, and as these poets described those received notions, they may be said, as far as these religious doctrines were concerned, to have described the mysteries.

Now as these were emblematic exhibitions they must have been as well adapted to the purposes of sculpture as of poetry, which indeed does not seem to have been uncommon, since one compartment of figures in the shield of Aeneas represented the regions of Tartarus. Aen. Lib. X. The procession of torches, which according to M. De St. Croix was exhibited in these mysteries, is still to be seen in basso relievo, discovered by Spon and Wheler. Memoires sur les Mysteres par De St. Croix. 1784. And it is very probable that the beautiful gem representing the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, as described by Apuleus, was originally descriptive of another part of the exhibitions in these mysteries, though afterwards it became a common subject of ancient art. See Divine Legat. Vol. I. p. 323. What subject could have been imagined so sublime for the ornaments of a funereal urn as the mortality of all things and their resuscitation ? Where could the designer be supplied with emblems for this purpose, before the Christian era, but from the Eleusinian mysteries ?

1. The exhibitions of the mysteries were of two kinds, those which the people were permitted to see, and those which were only shewn to the initiated. Concerning the latter, Aristides calls them « "the most shocking and most ravishing representations ». And Stoboeus asserts that the initiation into the grand mysteries exactly resembles death. Divine Legat. Vol. I. p. 280, and p. 272. And Virgil in his entrance to the shades below, amongst other things of terrible form, mentions death. Aen. VI. This part of the exhibition seems to be represented in one of the compartments of the Portland vase.

Gravure de William Blake, dans la première édition américaine de 1798

Three figures of exquisite workmanship are placed by the side of a ruined column whose capital is fallen off, and lies at their feet with other disjointed stones, they sit on loose piles of stone beneath a tree, which has not the leaves of any evergreen of this climate, but may be supposed to be an elm, which Virgil places near the entrance of the infernal regions, and adds, that a dream was believed to dwell under every leaf of it. Aen. VI. l. 281. In the midst of this group reclines a female figure in a dying attitude, in which extreme languor is beautifully represented, in her hand is an inverted torch, an ancient emblem of extinguished life, the elbow of the same arm resting on a stone supports her as she sinks, while the other hand is raised and thrown over her drooping head, in some measure sustaining it and gives with great art the idea of fainting lassitude. On the right of her sits a man, and on the left a woman, both supporting themselves on their arms, as people are liable to do when they are thinking intensely. They have their backs towards the dying figure, yet with their faces turned towards her, as if seriously contemplating her situation, but without stretching out their hands to assist her.

This central figure then appears to me to be an hieroglyphic or Eleusinian emblem of MORTAL LIFE, that is, the lethum, or death, mentioned by Virgil amongst the terrible things exhibited at the beginning of the mysteries. The inverted torch shews the figure to be emblematic, if it had been designed to represent a real person in the act of dying there had been no necessity for the expiring torch, as the dying figure alone would have been sufficiently intelligible ; - it would have been as absurd as to have put an inverted torch into the hand of a real person at the time of his expiring. Besides if this figure had represented a real dying person would not the other figures, or one of them at least, have stretched out a hand to support her, to have eased her fall among loose stones, or to have smoothed her pillow ? These circumstances evince that the figure is an emblem, and therefore could not be a representation of the private history of any particular family or event.

The man and woman on each side of the dying figure must be considered as emblems, both from their similarity of situation and dress to the middle figure, and their being grouped along with it. These I think are hieroglyphic or Eleusinian emblems of HUMANKIND, with their backs toward the dying figure of MORTAL LIFE, unwilling to associate with her, yet turning back their serious and attentive countenances, curious indeed to behold, yet sorry to contemplate their latter end. These figures bring strongly to one's mind the Adam and Eve of sacred writ, whom some have supposed to have been allegorical or hieroglyphic persons of Aegyptian origin, but of more ancient date, amongst whom I think is Dr. Warburton. According to this opinion Adam and Eve were the names of two hieroglyphic figures representing the early state of mankind ; Abel was the name of an hieroglyphic figure representing the age of pasturage, and Cain the name of another hieroglyphic symbol representing the age of agriculture, at which time the uses of iron were discovered. And as the people who cultivated the earth and built houses would increase in numbers much faster by their greater production of food, they would readily conquer or destroy the people who were sustained by pasturage, which was typified by Cain slaying Abel.

Gravure de William Blake, dans la première édition américaine de 1798

2. On the other compartment of this celebrated vase is exhibited an emblem of immortality, the representation of which was well known to constitute a very principal part of the shews at the Eleusinian mysteries, as Dr. Warburton has proved by variety of authority. The habitation of spirits or ghosts after death was supposed by the ancients to be placed beneath the earth, where Pluto reigned, and dispensed rewards or punishments. Hence the first figure in this group is of the MANES or GHOST, who having passed through an open portal is descending into a dusky region, pointing his toe with timid and unsteady step, feeling as it were his way in the gloom. This portal Aeneas enters, which is described by Virgil, patet atri janua Ditis, Aen. VI. l. 126 ; as well as the easy descent, facilis descensus Averni. Ib. The darkness at the entrance to the shades is humorously described by Lucian. Div. Legat. Vol. I. p. 241. And the horror of the gates of hell was in the time of Homer become a proverb ; Achilles says to Ulysses, « I hate a liar worse than the gates of hell » ; the same expression is used in Isaiah, ch. xxxviii. v. 10. The MANES or GHOST appears lingering and fearful, and wishes to drag after him a part of his mortal garment, which however adheres to the side of the portal through which he has passed. The beauty of this allegory would have been expressed by Mr. Pope, by « We feel the ruling passion strong in death ».

A little lower down in the group the manes or ghost is received by a beautiful female, a symbol of IMMORTAL LIFE. This is evinced by her fondling between her knees a large and playful serpent, which from its annually renewing its external skin has from great antiquity, even as early as the fable of Prometheus, been esteemed an emblem of renovated youth. The story of the serpent acquiring immortal life from the ass of Prometheus, who carried it on his back, is told in Bacon's Works, Vol. V. p. 462. Quarto edit. Lond. 1778. For a similar purpose a serpent was wrapped round the large hieroglyphic egg in the temple of Dioscuri, as an emblem of the renewal of life from a state of death. Bryant's Mythology, Vol II. p. 359. sec. edit. On this account also the serpent was an attendant on Aesculapius, which seems to have been the name of the hieroglyphic figure of medicine. This serpent shews this figure to be an emblem, as the torch shewed the central figure of the other compartment to be an emblem, hence they agreeably correspond, and explain each other, one representing MORTAL LIFE, and the other IMMORTAL LIFE.

This emblematic figure of immortal life sits down with her feet towards the figure of Pluto, but, turning back her face towards the timid ghost, she stretches forth her hand, and taking hold of his elbow, supports his tottering steps, as well as encourages him to advance, both which circumstances are thus with wonderful ingenuity brought to the eye. At the same time the spirit loosely lays his hand upon her arm, as one walking in the dark would naturally do for the greater certainty of following his conductress, while the general part of the symbol of IMMORTAL LIFE, being turned toward the figure of Pluto, shews that she is leading the phantom to his realms.

In the Pamphili gardens at Rome, Perseus in assisting Andromeda to descend from the rock takes hold of her elbow to steady or support her step, and she lays her hand loosely on his arm as in this figure. Admir. Roman. Antiq.

The figure of PLUTO can not be mistaken, as is agreed by most of the writers who have mentioned this vase ; his grisley beard, and his having one foot buried in the earth, denotes the infernal monarch. He is placed at the lowest part of the group, and resting his chin on his hand, and his arm upon his knee, receives the stranger-spirit with inquisitive attention ; it was before observed that when people think attentively they naturally rest their bodies in some easy attitude, that more animal power may be employed on the thinking faculty. In this group of figures there is great art shewn in giving an idea of a descending plain, viz. from earth to Elysium, and yet all the figures are in reality on an horizontal one. This wonderful deception is produced first by the descending step of the manes or ghost; secondly, by the arm of the sitting figure of immortal life being raised up to receive him as he descends ; and lastly, by Pluto having one foot sunk into the earth.

There is yet another figure which is concerned in conducing the manes or ghost to the realms of Pluto, and this is LOVE. He precedes the descending spirit on expanded wings, lights him with his torch, and turning back his beautiful countenance beckons him to advance. The ancient God of love was of much higher dignity than the modern Cupid. He was the first that came out of the great egg of night, (Hesiod. Theog. V. CXX. Bryant's Mythol. Vol. II. p. 348.) and is said to possess the keys of the sky, sea, and earth. As he therefore led the way into this life, he seems to constitute proper emblem for leading the way to a future life. See Bacon's works. Vol. I. p. 568. and Vol. III. p. 582. Quarto edit.

The introduction of love into this part of the mysteries requires a little further explanation. The Psyche of the Aegyptians was one of their most favourite emblems, and represented the soul, or a future life; it was originally no other than the aurelia, or butterfly, but in after times was represented by a lovely female child with the beautiful wings of that insect. The aurelia, after its first stage as an eruca or caterpillar, lies for a season in a manner dead, and is inclosed in a sort of coffin, in this state of darkness it remains all the winter, but at the return of spring it bursts its bonds and comes out with new life, and in the most beautiful attire. The Aegyptians thought this a very proper picture of the soul of man, and of the immortality to which it aspired. But as this was all owing to divine Love, of which EROS was an emblem, we find this person frequently introduced as a concomitant of the soul in general or Psyche. (Bryant's Mythol. Vol. II. p. 386.) EROS, or divine Love, is for the same reason a proper attendant on the manes or soul after death, and much contributes to tell the story, that is, to shew that a soul or manes is designed by the descending figure. From this figure of Love M. D'Hancarville imagines that Orpheus and Eurydice are typified under the figure of the manes and immortal life as above described. It may be sufficient to answer, first, that Orpheus is always represented with a lyre, of which there are prints of four different gems in Spence's Polymetis, and Virgil so describes him, Aen. VI. cythara fretus. And secondly, that it is absurd to suppose that Eurydice was fondling and playing with a serpent that had slain her. Add to this that Love seems to have been an inhabitant of the infernal regions, as exhibited in the mysteries, for Claudian, who treats more openly of the Eleusinian mysteries, when they were held in less veneration, invokes the deities to disclose to him their secrets, and amongst other things by what torch Love softens Pluto.

Dii, quibus in numerum, &c.
Vos mihi sacrarum penetralia pandite rerum,
Et vestri secreta poli, qua lampade Ditem
Flexit amor.

In this compartment there are two trees, whose branches spread over the figures, one of them has smoother leaves like some evergreens, and might thence be supposed to have some allusion to immortality, but they may perhaps have been designed only as ornaments, or to relieve the figures, or because it was in groves, where these mysteries were originally celebrated. Thus Homer speaks of the woods of Proserpine, and mentions many trees in Tartarus, as presenting their fruits to Tantalus ; Virgil speaks of the pleasant groves of Elysium ; and in Spence's Polymetis there are prints of two antient gems, one of Orpheus charming Cerberus with his lyre, and the other of Hercules binding him in a cord, each of them standing by a tree. Polymet. p. 284. As however these trees have all different foliage so clearly marked by the artist, they may have had specific meanings in the exhibitions of the mysteries, which have not reached posterity, of this kind seem to have been the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life, in sacred writ, both which must have been emblematic or allegorical. The masks, hanging to the handles of the vase, seem to indicate that there is a concealed meaning in the figures besides their general appearance. And the priestess at the bottom, which I come now to describe, seems to shew this concealed meaning to be of the sacred or Eleusinian kind.

Gravure de William Blake, dans la première édition américaine de 1798

3. The figure on the bottom of the vase is on a larger scale than the others, and less finely finished, and less elevated, and as this bottom part was afterwards cemented to the upper part, it might be executed by another artist for the sake of expedition, but there seems no reason to suppose that it was not originally designed for the upper part of it as some have conjectured. As the mysteries of Ceres were celebrated by female priests, for Porphyrius says the ancients called the priestesses of Ceres, Melissai, or bees, which were emblems of chastity. Div. Leg. Vol. I. p. 235. And as, in his Satire against the sex, Juvenal says, that few women are worthy to be priestesses of Ceres. Sat. VI. the figure at the bottom of the vase would seem to represent a PRIESTESS or HIEROPHANT, whose office it was to introduce the initiated, and point out to them, and explain the exhibitions in the mysteries, and to exclude the uninitiated, calling out to them, « Far, far retire, ye profane ! » and to guard the secrets of the temple. Thus the introductory hymn sung by the hierophant, according to Eusebius, begins, « I will declare a secret to the initiated, but let the doors be shut against the profane ». Div. Leg. Vol. I. p. 177. The priestess or hierophant appears in this figure with a close hood, and dressed in linen, which fits close about her ; except a light cloak, which flutters in the wind. Wool, as taken from slaughtered animals, was esteemed profane by the priests of Aegypt, who were always dressed in linen. Apuleus, p. 64. Div. Leg. Vol. I. p. 318. Thus Eli made for Samuel a linen ephod. Samuel i. 3.

Secrecy was the foundation on which all mysteries rested, when publicly known they ceased to be mysteries ; hence a discovery of them was not only punished with death by the Athenian law ; but in other countries a disgrace attended the breach of a solemn oath. The priestess in the figure before us has her finger pointing to her lips as an emblem of silence. There is a figure of Harpocrates, who was of Aegyptian origin, the same as Orus, with the lotus on his head, and with his finger pointing to his lips not pressed upon them, in Bryant's Mythol. Vol. II. p. 398, and another female figure standing on a lotus, as if just risen from the Nile, with her finger in the same attitude, these seem to have been representations or emblems of male and female priests of the secret mysteries. As these sort of emblems were frequently changed by artists for their more elegant exhibition, it is possible the foliage over the head of this figure may bear some analogy to the lotus above mentioned.

This figure of secrecy seems to be here placed, with great ingenuity, as a caution to the initiated, who might understand the meaning of the emblems round the vase, not to divulge it. And this circumstance seems to account for there being no written explanation extant, and no tradition concerning these beautiful figures handed down to us along with them.

Another explanation of this figure at the bottom of the vase would seem to confirm the idea that the basso relievos round its sides are representations of a part of the mysteries, I mean that it is the head of ATIS. Lucian says that Atis was a young man of Phrygia, of uncommon beauty, that he dedicated a temple in Syria to Rhea, or Cybele, and first taught her mysteries to the Lydians, Phrygians, and Samothracians, which mysteries he brought from India. He was afterwards made an eunuch by Rhea, and lived like a woman, and assumed a feminine habit, and in that garb went over the world teaching her ceremonies and mysteries. Dict. par M. Danet, art. Atis. As this figure is covered with clothes, while those on the sides of the vase are naked, and has a Phrygian cap on the head, and as the form and features are so soft, that it is difficult to say whether it be a male or female figure, there is reason to conclude,

  1. that it has reference to some particular person of some particular country ;
  2. that this person is Atis, the first great hierophant, or teacher of mysteries, to whom M. De la Chausse says the figure itself bears a resemblance. Museo. Capitol. Tom. IV. p. 402.

In the Museum Etruscum, Vol. I. plate 96, there is the head of Atis with feminine features, clothed with a Phrygian cap, and rising from very broad foliage, placed on a kind of term supported by the paw of a lion. Goreus in his explanation of the figure says that it is placed on a lion's foot because that animal was sacred to Cybele, and that it rises from very broad leaves because after he became an eunuch he determined to dwell in the groves. Thus the foliage, as well as the cap and feminine features, confirm the idea of this figure at the bottom of the vase representing the head of Atis the first great hierophant, and that the figures on the sides of the vase are emblems from the ancient mysteries.

I beg leave to add that it does not appear to have been uncommon amongst the antients to put allegorical figures on funeral vases. In the Pamphili palace at Rome there is an elaborate representation of Life and of Death, on an ancient sarcophagus. In the first Prometheus is represented making man, and Minerva is placing a butterfly, or the soul, upon his head. In the other compartment Love extinguishes his torch in the bosom of the dying figure, and is receiving the butterfly, or Psyche, from him, with a great number of complicated emblematic figures grouped in very bad taste. Admir. Roman. Antiq.