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Introduction

I VISITED Naples in the year 1818. On the 8th of December of that year, my
companion and I crossed the Bay, to visit the antiquities which are
scattered on the shores of Baiae. The translucent and shining waters of the
calm sea covered fragments of old Roman villas, which were interlaced by
sea-weed, and received diamond tints from the chequering of the sun-beams;
the blue and pellucid element was such as Galatea might have skimmed in her
car of mother of pearl; or Cleopatra, more fitly than the Nile, have chosen
as the path of her magic ship. Though it was winter, the atmosphere seemed
more appropriate to early spring; and its genial warmth contributed to
inspire those sensations of placid delight, which are the portion of every
traveller, as he lingers, loath to quit the tranquil bays and radiant
promontories of Baiae.

We visited the so called Elysian Fields and Avernus: and wandered through
various ruined temples, baths, and classic spots; at length we entered the
gloomy cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl. Our Lazzeroni bore flaring torches,
which shone red, and almost dusky, in the murky subterranean passages,
whose darkness thirstily surrounding them, seemed eager to imbibe more and
more of the element of light. We passed by a natural archway, leading to a
second gallery, and enquired, if we could not enter there also. The guides
pointed to the reflection of their torches on the water that paved it,
leaving us to form our own conclusion; but adding it was a pity, for it led
to the Sibyl's Cave. Our curiosity and enthusiasm were excited by this
circumstance, and we insisted upon attempting the passage. As is usually
the case in the prosecution of such enterprizes, the difficulties decreased
on examination. We found, on each side of the humid pathway, "dry land for
the sole of the foot."

At length we arrived at a large, desert, dark cavern, which the Lazzeroni
assured us was the Sibyl's Cave. We were sufficiently disappointed--Yet
we examined it with care, as if its blank, rocky walls could still bear
trace of celestial visitant. On one side was a small opening. Whither does
this lead? we asked: can we enter here?--"Questo poi, no,"--said the
wild looking savage, who held the torch; "you can advance but a short
distance, and nobody visits it."

"Nevertheless, I will try it," said my companion; "it may lead to the real
cavern. Shall I go alone, or will you accompany me?"

I signified my readiness to proceed, but our guides protested against such
a measure. With great volubility, in their native Neapolitan dialect, with
which we were not very familiar, they told us that there were spectres,
that the roof would fall in, that it was too narrow to admit us, that there
was a deep hole within, filled with water, and we might be drowned. My
friend shortened the harangue, by taking the man's torch from him; and we
proceeded alone.

The passage, which at first scarcely admitted us, quickly grew narrower and
lower; we were almost bent double; yet still we persisted in making our way
through it. At length we entered a wider space, and the low roof
heightened; but, as we congratulated ourselves on this change, our torch
was extinguished by a current of air, and we were left in utter darkness.
The guides bring with them materials for renewing the light, but we had
none--our only resource was to return as we came. We groped round the
widened space to find the entrance, and after a time fancied that we had
succeeded. This proved however to be a second passage, which evidently
ascended. It terminated like the former; though something approaching to a
ray, we could not tell whence, shed a very doubtful twilight in the space.
By degrees, our eyes grew somewhat accustomed to this dimness, and we
perceived that there was no direct passage leading us further; but that it
was possible to climb one side of the cavern to a low arch at top, which
promised a more easy path, from whence we now discovered that this light
proceeded. With considerable difficulty we scrambled up, and came to
another passage with still more of illumination, and this led to another
ascent like the former.

After a succession of these, which our resolution alone permitted us to
surmount, we arrived at a wide cavern with an arched dome-like roof. An
aperture in the midst let in the light of heaven; but this was overgrown
with brambles and underwood, which acted as a veil, obscuring the day, and
giving a solemn religious hue to the apartment. It was spacious, and nearly
circular, with a raised seat of stone, about the size of a Grecian couch,
at one end. The only sign that life had been here, was the perfect
snow-white skeleton of a goat, which had probably not perceived the opening
as it grazed on the hill above, and had fallen headlong. Ages perhaps had
elapsed since this catastrophe; and the ruin it had made above, had been
repaired by the growth of vegetation during many hundred summers.

The rest of the furniture of the cavern consisted of piles of leaves,
fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance, resembling the inner part
of the green hood which shelters the grain of the unripe Indian corn. We
were fatigued by our struggles to attain this point, and seated ourselves
on the rocky couch, while the sounds of tinkling sheep-bells, and shout of
shepherd-boy, reached us from above.

At length my friend, who had taken up some of the leaves strewed about,
exclaimed, "This is the Sibyl's cave; these are Sibylline leaves." On
examination, we found that all the leaves, bark, and other substances, were
traced with written characters. What appeared to us more astonishing, was
that these writings were expressed in various languages: some unknown to my
companion, ancient Chaldee, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, old as the
Pyramids. Stranger still, some were in modern dialects, English and
Italian. We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to
contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names,
now well known, but of modern date; and often exclamations of exultation or
woe, of victory or defeat, were traced on their thin scant pages. This was
certainly the Sibyl's Cave; not indeed exactly as Virgil describes it, but
the whole of this land had been so convulsed by earthquake and volcano,
that the change was not wonderful, though the traces of ruin were effaced
by time; and we probably owed the preservation of these leaves, to the
accident which had closed the mouth of the cavern, and the swift-growing
vegetation which had rendered its sole opening impervious to the storm. We
made a hasty selection of such of the leaves, whose writing one at least of
us could understand; and then, laden with our treasure, we bade adieu to
the dim hypaethric cavern, and after much difficulty succeeded in rejoining
our guides.

During our stay at Naples, we often returned to this cave, sometimes alone,
skimming the sun-lit sea, and each time added to our store. Since that
period, whenever the world's circumstance has not imperiously called me
away, or the temper of my mind impeded such study, I have been employed in
deciphering these sacred remains. Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has
often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and exciting my imagination to
daring flights, through the immensity of nature and the mind of man. For
awhile my labours were not solitary; but that time is gone; and, with the
selected and matchless companion of my toils, their dearest reward is also
lost to me--

Di mie tenere frondi altro lavoro
Credea mostrarte; e qual fero pianeta
Ne' nvidio insieme, o mio nobil tesoro?

I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline
pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add
links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance
rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine
intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.

I have often wondered at the subject of her verses, and at the English
dress of the Latin poet. Sometimes I have thought, that, obscure and
chaotic as they are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer.
As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form
the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration in St. Peter's; he would put
them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar
mind and talent. Doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered
distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands. My only
excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in
their pristine condition.

My labours have cheered long hours of solitude, and taken me out of a
world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing
with imagination and power. Will my readers ask how I could find solace
from the narration of misery and woeful change? This is one of the
mysteries of our nature, which holds full sway over me, and from whose
influence I cannot escape. I confess, that I have not been unmoved by the
development of the tale; and that I have been depressed, nay, agonized, at
some parts of the recital, which I have faithfully transcribed from my
materials. Yet such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear
to me, and that the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or,
worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real
sorrows and endless regrets, by clothing these fictitious ones in that
ideality, which takes the mortal sting from pain.

I hardly know whether this apology is necessary. For the merits of my
adaptation and translation must decide how far I have well bestowed my time
and imperfect powers, in giving form and substance to the frail and
attenuated Leaves of the Sibyl.


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