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Tristan & Isolde

John William Waterhouse, "Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion," 1916 [1]

John William Waterhouse, “Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion,” 1916

4,526 words

From D’Annunzio’s novel Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death [2], 1894)

Translated by V. M. Crawford

Giorgio Aurispa had not forgotten a single episode of his first religious pilgrimage towards the Ideal Theatre; he could recall every instant of his extraordinary emotion in that hour when he had first seen on the fair hillside, at the further extremity of a long leafy avenue, the building dedicated to the supreme festival of Art; he could reconstruct the amphitheater in its solemn vastness, girdled by columns and arches, the mystery of the Mystical Gulf. In the shadow and the silence of the enclosure, in the shadow and ecstatic silence of every soul present, a sigh rose up from the invisible orchestra, a moan floated on the air, a gentle voice gave utterance to the first plaintive cry of yearning in solitude, the first vague agony in the foreboding of future suffering. And that sigh, and that moan, and that voice, changing from an undefined suffering to the intensity of an impetuous cry, rose up telling of the pride of a dream, of the terror of a superhuman aspiration, of the fierce and implacable will to possess. With a devouring force, like flames bursting forth from some unsuspected abyss, the yearning grew and spread, and blazed upwards ever higher and higher, fed by the purest essence of a double life. All things were enveloped in the intoxication of the harmonious flame; the whole of the sovereign world vibrated madly in the boundless rapture, and gave forth their most occult joys and sorrows, rising heavenwards in a final consummation. But suddenly the forces of resistance, the anger of strife, quivered and shrieked in that wild upward rush, and the great vital current flung itself suddenly against some invisible obstacle, fell earthwards, smothered in its fall, and did not rise again. In the shadow and the silence of the enclosure, in the shadow and the hushed silence of every soul present, over the Mystical Gulf a sigh breathed, a moan died away, a faint voice spoke of the sadness of eternal solitude, of the yearning towards the eternal night, towards a return to divine oblivion.

And behold, another voice, a living human voice modulated by human lips, young and lusty, tinged with melancholy and irony and menace, sang a song of the sea from the masthead of the vessel that bore to King Mark his fair Irish bride. He sang: “Westward the eye roams, eastward the vessel glides. Freshly blow the breezes towards our native shores. O, daughter of Ireland, why dost thou delay! Must my sails be swelled by thy sighs? Blow, blow, oh wind! Woe, woe, oh maiden of Ireland, my wild love!” It was the warning, the prophetic augury of the sentinel, gay and threatening, tender and mocking, indefinable. And the orchestra remained silent. “Blow, blow, oh wind! Woe, woe, oh maiden of Ireland, my wild love.” The voice floated over the tranquil sea, over the silence, and within her curtains Isolde lay motionless on her couch, plunged in the dark dream of her destiny.

Thus the drama opened. The breath of tragedy by which the prelude had already been stirred, swept and re-swept the orchestra. Suddenly the power of destruction displayed itself in the woman endowed with magic gifts against the man of her choice, doomed by her to death. Her anger broke out with all the fury of the blind elements; she invoked all the terrible forces of earth and heaven against the man whom she could never possess. “Awake at my appeal, oh intrepid will! Arise from thy hiding-place within my heart. Oh, wanton breezes, pay heed to my commands. Shake the slumbering sea from her lethargy; draw forth from the depths implacable greed; show her the prey that I offer. Let “her shatter the ship and engulf the wreck! And to you, oh winds, I give as a reward all that breathes and palpitates within her.” The forebodings of Brangaene respond to the warning of the sentinel. “Alas, alas! What ruin I foresee, oh Isolde!” And the gentle, faithful woman hastened to appease the wild fury. “Oh, tell me the cause of thy sorrow, tell me thy secret, Isolde!” And Isolde: “My heart will burst — draw back the curtains, wide, wide.”

Tristan appeared, standing motionless, with folded arms, his gaze fixed on the distant horizon. From the masthead the sailor began his song afresh, on the rising wave of the orchestra. “Woe, ah woe!” . . . And while the eyes of Isolde, burning with a hidden flame, were fixed on the hero, from out of the Mystical Gulf there rose the death-motive, the mighty and terrible symbol of love and of death, which contains within it all the essence of the tragic romance. And Isolde, with her own lips, pronounced his doom, “Chosen by me, lost to me!” Her passion seemed to have infused into her a homicidal desire, to have roused deep down in the very roots of her being an instinct hostile to life, a craving for dissolution, for annihilation. She grew more and more exasperated, seeking within herself, around herself, some flashing power which would strike and destroy, without leaving any trace. Her hatred grew even more intense at the sight of the hero standing calm and motionless, conscious of the hatred that was being concentrated upon his head, and recognizing the futility of resistance. Her lips curled with bitter sarcasm. “What thinkest thou of the knave?” she inquired of Brangaene, with a strained laugh. She would have made of a hero a dependent, asserting her own supremacy. “Tell him that I command my servant to approach his sovereign, I, Isolde.” Thus she defied him to the supreme struggle; thus she flung down the challenge of force against force. A solemn hush accompanied the steps of the hero towards the threshold of the tent, when the irrevocable hour had struck, when the potion already filled the goblet, and destiny had drawn its thread closely round the two lives. Isolde leaned against her couch as pale as if all the blood in her veins had been consumed by fever, and waited in silence; in silence Tristan appeared on the threshold; both stood erect, drawn up to their full height, but the orchestra betrayed the unspeakable tumult of their hearts.

In that instant was heard once more the wild ascending scale. It seemed as though once again the Mystical Gulf flamed upwards like a furnace, with sonorous flames leaping ever higher and higher. “Sole truce to eternal sorrow, oblivion’s kindly draught. I drink without fear!” And Tristan lifted the goblet to his lips. “For me the half; I drink to thee!” shrieked Isolde, snatching the cup from his hands. Had both drunk their death? Must they both die? An instant of sovereign agony. The death-philter was no other than a love-potion which penetrated them with an unquenchable flame. And motionless, they gazed at one another, seeking in each other’s eyes for a sign of the approach of death, to which both believed themselves condemned. But a new life, incomparably more intense than any they had lived before, flowed through all their veins, throbbed in their temples and their pulses, swelled their hearts in one vast wave. “Tristan!” “Isolde!” They called one another face to face; they were alone; no one remained near them; the past was blotted out, the future was a mist which could only be pierced by the lightning shafts of this unforeseen intoxication. They were alive; they called one another with living voices; they yearned one towards the other with a fatality against which, hencefForth, no power could prevail. “Tristan!” “Isolde!”

And the love-motive burst forth, rising and swelling it panted and sobbed, shrieked and sang on the deep tempest of palpitating harmony. Now plaintive, now joyful, it soared irresistibly towards the heights of undreamt-of ecstasy, towards the summits of supreme voluptuousness. “Freed from the world, I now possess thee, thou who alone dost reign in my heart, oh, highest rapture of love!”

“Hail, hail to King Mark! All hail!” shouted the crew amid the blare of trumpets, saluting the king, who was rowing out from the shore to meet his fair bride. “Hail to Cornwall!”

It was the uproar of vulgar life, the clamor of profane joy, the dazzling splendor of day. The Chosen One, the Lost One, lifted his eyes, in which floated the dark clouds of dreamland, and questioned, “Who is approaching?” “The King.” “What King?” And Isolde, pale and trembling beneath her royal mantle, asked, “Where am I? Am I alive? Must I still live?” Sweet and terrible rose up the love-charm motive, enveloping, embracing them in its passionate ascent. The trumpets resounded, “Hail to King Mark! Hail to Cornwall! All hail to the King!”

But in the second prelude all the sobbing of an overmastering joy, all the yearning of frustrated desire, all the tremors of uncontrollable expectation alternated one with the other, blended, mingled together. The impatience of the woman’s soul communicated its vibrations to the night, to all things breathing and watching through the pure summer night. On all things the intoxicated soul urged the prayer that they should remain vigilant beneath the stars, in order that they might assist at the festival of her love, at the nuptial feast of her joy. Over the ruffled surface of the ocean of harmony floated the death melody, now clearly, now darkly. The waves of the Mystical Gulf, like the breathing of some superhuman breast, heaved and swelled, sank back in order to rise again, to sink once more, to fade gently away.

“Dost hear? To me it seems the clamor has already died away in the distance.” Isolde only heard the sounds which her wishes created. The horns of the nocturnal huntsmen still re-echoed clearly through the forest. “It is the deceitful rustling of the foliage that the wind stirs in its pranks. . . . No horns can give forth so sweet a sound. It is the murmur of the stream bubbling and rippling in the silent night.” She could hear nothing save the insidious sounds which excited in her soul the longing which contrived the old, yet ever new witchcraft. All the murmuring voices, all the insinuating allurements enveloped the breathless watcher, full of suggestions of the coming intoxication, while Brangaene warned and entreated in vain in all the terror of foreboding. “Oh, let the protecting torch yet burn! May its light show thee thy peril!” But nothing could illuminate the blindness of desire. “Were the torch my very life, I would extinguish it without fear. Without fear I extinguish it now.” With a gesture of supreme disdain, proud and intrepid, Isolde flung the torch to the ground, offered her own life and that of her Chosen One to the fatal night, and entered with him into the eternal shadows.

Then the most intoxicating poem of human passion swept triumphantly upwards to the supreme heights, of spasmodic ecstasy. It was the first frenzied embrace, a mingling of bliss and anguish in which the souls, thirsting for communion, encountered the impenetrable barrier of the human form. It was the first regretful moment for the time in which love was non-existent, for the empty and useless past. It was hatred towards the unfriendly light, towards the perfidious day which intensified every sorrow, which encouraged deceitful appearances, which favored pride and hindered tenderness. It was the hymn of the friendly night, the benign darkness, the divine mystery from which sprang the marvels of internal perception, within which bloomed ideal blossoms on stately stems. “Since the sun has hidden himself in our breasts, the stars of joy lighten us with their smiles.”

And in the orchestra all the raptures found expression, all the joys sang, all the sorrows wept to which the human voice has ever given utterance. Up from the symphonic depths the melodies emerged and developed, interrupting one another, replacing one another, mingling, dissolving, melting away, disappearing in order to reappear. A note of unsatisfied yearning growing ever more haunting and acute swept over the instruments, indicative of the vain and ceaseless effort to attain to the unattainable. In the transports of the chromatic progression could be discovered the mad pursuit of an aim that evaded all capture, though hovering near at hand. In the variations of tone, of rhythm, of measure, in the succession of suspensions there was a seeking without intermission, a limitless lust, a ceaseless torment of desire, ever frustrated and never quenched. A motive, symbolizing the eternal yearning, eternally embittered of fallacious possession, recurred again and again with cruel persistency; it swelled and dominated, now illuminating the crest of the harmonic wave, now darkening it with a tragic gloom.

The irresistible power of the love-potion acted upon the soul and the flesh of the two lovers, already consecrated to Death. Nothing could extinguish or modify their fatal ardor; nothing save Death itself. Both had attempted in vain every caress, had summoned in vain all their energies, to unite themselves in one supreme embrace, to possess each other utterly, to become a single being. Their voluptuous sighs were changed into sobs of anguish. An inviolable barrier interposed between them, separated them, kept them estranged and solitary. The barrier lay in their corporeal substance, in their living persons. And in both a secret repulsion sprang up, a craving towards destruction, towards annihilation, a longing both to kill and to die. In their very caresses they realized the impossibility of transcending the material limits of the human senses. Lip joined to lip felt checked in the embrace. “Who would ever succumb to death,” asked Tristan, “save for that which separates us, which withholds Tristan from eternally loving Isolde, from living for her alone through all ages?” Already they were entering the infinite shadows. The outer material world was fading away. “Thus,” exclaimed Tristan, “thus may we die, unwilling to live save through love, inseparable, ever united, without end, without awakening, without fear, nameless, in the arms of love.” The words were heard distinctly above the pianissimo of the orchestra. A fresh ecstasy enwrapped the two lovers and lifted them to the threshold of the marvelous realm of night. Already they enjoyed a foretaste of the transports of dissolution, they felt themselves freed from the weight of matter, already they felt their very substance etherealized and floating on the waves of eternal bliss. “Without end, without awakening, without fear, without a name.”

“Take heed! Take heed! See, the night fades before the day!” warned the invisible Brangaene from her turret. “Take heed!” And the shiver of the morning frost passed over the park, awakening the flowers. The cold light dawned slowly, and concealed the stars which twinkled unceasingly. “Take heed!” In vain the faithful servant gave the warning. They did not listen; they would not, could not, rouse themselves. Beneath the threat of daylight they buried themselves ever more deeply in those shadows through which no shaft of light could penetrate. “May the night envelop us to all eternity!” And a whirlwind of harmony enveloped them, wrapped them round in its emphatic ascensions, transported them to the remote shores that they yearned after, there, where no anxiety restrained the impulse of the human soul, beyond all languor, beyond all suffering, beyond all loneliness, in the infinite serenity of their supreme dream.

“Save thyself, Tristan!” It was the cry of Kurwenal, following on that of Brangaene. It was the unforeseen and brutal attack interrupting the ecstatic embrace, and while the orchestra maintained the love theme, the hunt-motive burst out with a metallic crash. The king and the courtiers appeared. With his flowing mantle Tristan concealed Isolde reclining on the bank of flowers, sheltered her from the light and from curious eyes, affirming his authority by the gesture, establishing his undoubted right. “The dreary day — for the last time!” For the last time, in the calm and firm attitude of a hero he accepted the contrast with external forces; convinced that in the future nothing could alter or arrest the course of his fate. While the over-mastering grief of King Mark found vent in a slow and mournful lament, he remained silent, absorbed in his secret thoughts. And at last he replied to the queries of the King: “I cannot reveal this mystery to you. You can never learn that which you seek to know.”

The love-charm motive enveloped the reply in the obscurity of mystery, in the gravity of an irreparable event. “Wilt thou follow Tristan, O Isolde?” he asked the queen, simply, in the hearing of all. “In the land where Tristan hopes to go the sun never shines. It is the land of shadows, the land of night, whence my mother sent me when, conceived by her in death, I passed from death into light.” . . . And Isolde, “There where Tristan finds his home, there Isolde will follow him. She is ready to follow, gentle and faithful, by the road that he will show her.” And towards that land the dying hero preceded her, wounded by the traitor Melot.

From out of the third prelude there rose a vision of a remote shore, of desolate and arid rocks, in whose hidden cavities the sea moaned ceaselessly, as though in inconsolable grief. A cloud of legends and of mystical poetry enveloped the storm outline of the rock, which appeared as if in an uncertain dawn, or in a deepening twilight. And the sound of the shepherd’s pipes reawakened confused memories of his past life, of things lost in the nights of time.

“The old lament! What does it say?” sighed Tristan. “Where am I?” The shepherd modulated on his slim pipe the imperishable melody that had been transmitted to him by his forefathers through all time, and he remained untroubled in his supreme unconsciousness.

And Tristan, to whose soul the simple notes had revealed the whole truth, murmured, “I did not dwell where I awoke. But where have I wandered? That I cannot tell thee. There I beheld neither sun, nor landscape, nor people; but that which I saw I cannot reveal. I was there, where I have ever been, whither I shall return for ever: in the vast realms of universal night. One single solitary gift is vouchsafed to us there: divine, eternal, never-ending oblivion!” A delirious fever agitated him; the love-potion still worked evil in his innermost fibers. “Ah, that which I suffer thou canst not suffer! This unquenchable yearning that devours me, these implacable flames that consume me. . . . Ah, would that I could tell thee, would that thou couldst understand!”

And the unconscious shepherd piped his melody again and again. It was always the same tune, the same notes; they told of the life that was no more, they spoke of things lost far away. “Old and mournful melody,” said Tristan, “with thy pathetic notes thou didst penetrate to me on the evening breeze in the far distant time when the child heard of the death of his father. In the grey dawn, even more mournful, thou didst seek me when the son learnt the fate of his mother. When my father begot me and died, when my mother gave me life in death, the ancient melody struck upon their sad and languid ears. One day it questioned me, and behold, it questions me still. For what destiny was I born? For what destiny? The ancient melody repeats it again and again: To yearn and to die! To die of yearning! . . . Ah! No! No! That is not thy meaning. . . . To yearn, to yearn, to yearn even until death, but not to die of yearning!” Even more ruthlessly, more actively, the love-potion gnawed his very vitals. His whole being writhed in unendurable spasms. The orchestra crackled like a funeral pyre. At intervals the pain overwhelmed him with all the force of a thunderbolt, adding fresh fuel to the flames. Sudden spasms shook him; horrible groans escaped him; suppressed sobs burst from his lips. “The potion! The potion! The terrible potion. With what madness I feel it mounting from the heart to the brain! Henceforward there is no hope for me; no gentle death can release me from the torture of my desire. Nowhere, alas, nowhere can I find peace. The night flings me back upon the day, and the eye of the sun gloats on my ceaseless misery. Ah! how the blazing sun scorches and consumes me! And nowhere a refreshing shade from this withering heat. What balm could afford relief to my ghastly tortures?” He bore in his veins and in his very marrow the desire of all men, of the whole human species, built up from generation to generation, aggravated by the sins of all the fathers and all the sons, by the passions of all, by the anguish of all. Within his blood the germs of all the concupiscences of the flesh flourished anew, there mingled every form of impurity, together with the most subtle and acute poisons which, from time immemorial, the sinuous purple lips of woman have infused into her eager male victims. He was the inheritor of eternal evil. “This terrible love-potion, which has given me over to torment, I, I myself composed it. With the ardour of my father, with the transports of my mother, with all the tears of love shed in days gone by, with laughter and with sobs, with passion and with wounds, I, I myself mingled the poison of the potion. And I quaffed it in a long draught of delight. . . . Cursed be the potion! Cursed be he who composed it!”

And he fell back on the couch, exhausted, lifeless, only to live on in the spirit world, to feel once more his burning wounds, to see once more in the hallucination of his brain the sovereign image in the act of crossing the seas. “She comes, she comes, gently lulled on great waves of inebriating blossoms, floating towards the shore. With her smile she pours out upon me a divine consolation; she brings me the supreme refreshment” . . . Thus he evoked, thus he saw with eyes which were forever shut to the light of day, the Enchantress, the wonder-worker, the healer of wounds. “She comes! She comes! Dost thou not see her, Kurwenal, not yet see her?” And the tumultuous waves of the Mystical Gulf swept up once more from their depths in a confused medley all the previous melodies, mingling them, developing them, engulfing them as in a whirlpool, flinging them once again on the surface, crushing them to fragments; the melodies that had expressed the terrors of the decisive conflict on the deck of the ship, those in which had been heard the gurgle of the beverage poured out into the golden goblet, and the tingling of the arteries invaded by the liquid fire; those which told of the mysterious breathing of the summer night, tempting to endless passion; all the melodies, with all the images, with all the memories. And over that vast shipwreck the death-motive, high, overmastering, implacable, drifted at intervals, repeating the awful sentence: “To yearn, to yearn, to yearn even unto death, but not to die of yearning.”

“The ship is casting anchor! Isolde, Isolde is here! She springs to land!” shouted Kurwenal from the roof of the turret. And in the delirium of his joy, Tristan tore the bandages from his wounds, incited his own blood to flow in torrents, to inundate the earth, to incarnadine the world. At the approach of Isolde and of Death, he seemed to hear the light. “Do I not hear the light?” A great interior glow suffused his being; from all the atoms of his substance rays of sunlight sprang, and spread themselves in harmonious and luminous waves over the universe. The light was music — the music light.

And at this moment the Mystical Gulf, in very truth, seemed to throw out rays of light. The harmonious notes of the orchestra seemed to repeat those distant planetary sounds which in past ages vigilant watchers fancied they could discern in the silence of the night. Little by little the long vibrations of terror, the long sobs of agony, the moans of vain longing, the outbursts of ever-frustrated desire, and all the varied emotions of human misery were allayed and died away. Tristan had crossed the threshold of the “marvelous realms,” and had entered at length upon the eternal night. And Isolde, prostrate on the lifeless remains, felt at length that the burden that oppressed her was fading slowly away. The death-melody, which had become ever more clear and more solemn, consecrated their marriage in death. Then, like ethereal threads, the slender notes wove round the living woman diaphanous veils of purity. Thus there began a species of joyous ascension of jeweled steps on the wings of a hymn. “See how sweetly he smiles. Do you not see? His smile is radiant as the stars. Can you not see? Can you not hear? Do I alone hear this new melody, infinitely tender and consoling, which rises up from the depths of his being, enveloping me, penetrating me, enrapturing me?” The Irish enchantress, the awe-inspiring maker of potions, the hereditary arbiter of secret terrestrial powers, she who from the deck of the ship had invoked the storm and the whirlwind, she who had chosen as the object of her love the strongest and the noblest of heroes in order to poison and to destroy him, she who had closed the path of glory and of victory to a “conqueror of the world,” she the poisoner, the murderess, was transfigured by the power of death into a being of light and of joy, cleansed from all impure stain, free from all degrading bond, breathing and living in union with the soul of the universe.

“Maybe these sounds which murmur ever more clearly in my ear are the soft breezes of the air. Shall I breathe them, drink them, fling myself into them, drown myself gently in the vapors, in the perfumes?” Everything seemed to dissolve within her, to melt away, to return to its original essence, to the numberless elements of the ocean from which forms spring up, into which forms disappear, in order to renew themselves, to be born again. In the Mystical Gulf the transformations and the transfigurations, from note to note, from harmony to harmony, followed in an endless succession. It seemed as though everything was being decomposed, everything was giving out its secret essences, everything was being metamorphosed into immaterial symbols. Colors which have never been discovered in the petals of the most exquisite of earthly flowers, perfumes of almost imperceptible delicacy floated in the air. Visions of hidden paradises flashed past, germs of future worlds sprang into life. And the wild intoxication rose even higher and higher; the great Choir drowned the solitary human voice. Transfigured, Isolde entered triumphantly into the marvelous realms. “To lose oneself in the infinite throbbing of the world’s soul, to plunge into it, to fade away, without consciousness! Highest bliss!”