Front Page Titles (by Subject) EXTRACTS FROM THE TOUR IN SICILY. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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EXTRACTS FROM THE TOUR IN SICILY. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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EXTRACTS FROM THE TOUR IN SICILY.
[Written in 1827.]
The MS. of the tour in Sicily makes a small quarto volume of 350 pages. To give the reader a notion of this first literary performance of Tocqueville, we furnish at random a few extracts taken word for word from the MS., without introducing any reflections or comments.
Tocqueville left Naples with his brother Edward in the beginning of March, 1827. He had scarcely set sail when he encountered a violent storm.
“The ship,” he says, “in which we embarked, was a little brigantine of seventy-five tons. . . . . We sailed on slowly, with the magnificent Bay of Naples before our eyes, and the receding stir of life in that populous city still sounding in our ears. We passed along the shore of Herculaneum. Soon we descried the hill which conceals Pompeii. Night had come on when we neared the cliffs of Capri. On waking the next morning, we had still those precipitous rocks in view, and they continued so all day; they seemed to pursue us like some dreadful remembrance.
“Capri resembles the nest of a bird of prey; it is the fitting abode for a tyrant. Thither it was that Tiberius drew in his victims from all parts of the Roman empire; but thence also (and there is some consolation in the thought), oppressed by the infirmities of a disgraceful old age, completely disabused even as to the enjoyments which he had hoped to find in the sight of human sufferings, and disgusted with his monstrous pleasures, he at length allowed the truth to escape from the bottom of his cruel heart. From Capri is dated his letter to the senate, in which he says:—‘Why do I write to you, conscript fathers? What have I to tell you? May the gods cause me to waste away more miserably even than they now do, if I know!’
“Towards evening, the calm which had stopped us was succeeded by a west wind, and we were forced to tack. At morning we were out of sight of land. All day we struggled against a foul wind. The sea began gradually to swell. The sun had just set; I was sitting in the cabin, with my head resting on my hand, observing the horizon, which from time to time was covered by a black cloud. The white foam of the waves stood out in the distance against this dark background. I saw that a storm was coming, though I did not think it was so close at hand. Soon we began to pitch deeply, and the spray broke over the deck in every direction. Lightning rent the sky, and distant, hollow thunder announced the storm. I have often enjoyed watching the approach of a thunderstorm in the night. There is to me something sublime and attractive in the preceding calm,—in the sort of solemn expectation pervading the whole creation at the instant of the impending crisis; but whoever has not beheld a similar scene on the open sea, has not witnessed the most awful sight in nature.
“At the first clap of thunder for one moment the ship was in agitation. The captain’s voice was heard from the poop, and the monotonous cry of the sailors announced a new manœuvre. The wind rose with frightful suddenness. The thunder came nearer—every flash for one moment illuminated the whole sky, and immediately afterwards we were plunged in perfect darkness. I could have conceived nothing like the violent commotion of the sea. It resembled the seething of a huge caldron. I shall all my life remember the deep impression I felt when, in an instant of calm, I heard near me a low sound of voices repeating verses of a Psalm. I looked whence the voices came, and I found that it was from under a sail, where ten or twelve poor passengers had found shelter. Is there any philosopher so convinced of his own theories as not to have been tempted to do the like at the sight of this terrible display of Almighty power?
“The storm was now almost over our heads. Several times we had seen the bolt fall into the sea not far from us; every moment we feared to be capsized. Suddenly a sea caught the ship on her side, and threw her on her beam ends. The wave tore up the benches and poured into the cabins; frightful cries arose on every side, and a dog that had hid itself among some barrels howled the most dismal accompaniment. The alarm was sharp, but lasted only for a minute; the vessel righted herself.
“Torrents of rain greatly diminished the danger of the storm; and although the sea still ran high, we all thought that we might venture to retire to rest in spite of the flood by which we were inundated. The night must have appeared long to everyone. As for us, when after two hours of a sleep, at every instant interrupted by the violent motions of the ship and by the whistling of the wind in the rigging, we woke up thoroughly, we felt that the sea was far from having gone down. As the sun rose, however, with dazzling brightness, I thought that all danger was over, and, in high spirits, I put my head out of our cabin; the sailors, some hanging to the rigging, and others leaning against the masts, seemed all to be absorbed in the contemplation of one object. Anxiety was painted on every face, and the rigidity of their looks was more terrifying than the uproar of the night. I then examined the sky; on the west a violent wind seemed to be carrying over our heads a huge cloud, charged with rain, and I saw clearly that another storm was at hand. I then tried to discover what was the distant object which so struck the eyes of our crew; at length I saw rise up, through the mist, indistinct shapes of high mountains, extending from north to south, and barring our course; whilst the storm, which was beginning, and the fury of the waves increasing every moment, were driving us in that direction. I crawled along the deck, for no living creature could have moved on foot without being instantly washed overboard, and holding on by one thing after another, at last I reached the wheel of the rudder, which the captain himself held; I asked him if he thought there was danger.
“The man fixed his fierce eye on me, and roughly answered Credo cosi, ‘I think so;’ and would not say another word. As I was returning to the cabin an old sailor caught me by the sleeve, and grinding his teeth, said to me, ‘It was your hurry to leave that made us quit the port. You will soon see what will be the consequence to you and all of us.’ The night before I had seen these very men full of courage and hope, springing from one cable to another, and though between fire and water, crying out as they passed, ‘It is nothing, gentlemen; only a squall,’ E niente signori, una burasca. But this time, I own, I thought that all was over with us. I went back to the cabin; I informed Edward of the state of affairs, adding that we must be ready to snatch the first chance of escape, though I then saw none. At that instant a sailor came to beg a dole for the souls in purgatory. We then remembered the religion we were born in, and to which our earliest thoughts had been directed; we said a short prayer, and sat down at the door of our cabin. I folded my arms and thought over the few years of my past life. I frankly own that, at that moment, when I thought myself on the eve of appearing before the supreme Judge, the object of human life seemed to me to be quite different from what I had always considered it. The pursuits, which till then I had esteemed the most important, now seemed to be infinitely trifling; whilst the giant Eternity, enlarging every instant, hid behind him all other objects. I then bitterly lamented that I was not armed with a conscience prepared for every event; I felt that such a help would have been of more avail than human courage against a danger that I could neither struggle with nor boldly face. But the hardest part was when I came to think of those whom we were leaving behind in this world. When I pictured to myself the moment when the public news of the catastrophe would reach their ears, I felt tears rise to my eyes, and I instantly turned my thoughts to something else that I might not lose the strength which I believed that I was on the point of needing. The cloud burst over us with great violence; the waves became prodigious; in a few minutes we came in sight of several islands. I then learnt that in the night the storm had thrown us forty leagues out of our course into the midst of the Lipari Islands.”
The ship, though freighted for Palermo, could not make it, on account of the contrary winds; but the little port of Olivieri hove in sight.
“It will be easily believed,” continues Tocqueville, “that we were terribly impatient to quit the wooden walls within which we had spent such miserable hours. But, in this country, where the police regulations against travellers are stringent in proportion to their laxity against thieves, all locomotion seemed to be studiously impeded. We were ordered to stay in the ship till the next day, at noon, at which hour it would be the pleasure of the custom-house officers to pay us a visit.
“On the 12th of March, after their search, we landed at last, on a little beach close to us. We jumped out on the grass, shouting joyfully, ‘At last, Sicily, we have you!’
“We immediately began to scamper over the surrounding country. A more enchanting scene was never presented to poor creatures who still fancied they felt the rolling of the vessel under their feet. We did not see the coast edged with those long strips of barren sand which sadden the gaze on the borders of the ocean, and indeed harmonize so well with the misty skies of its coasts. Here the waves washed the turf. Scarce thirty paces from the shore we saw enormous aloes, and long rows of Indian figs, and shrubs in bloom. We had left winter behind in Italy. Here spring, with all its bright colours and sweet odours, met our view. Two musket-shots off rose a village amidst the olive and fig trees. On a green hill opposite were the ruins of a castle. Then the valley, covered with flowers and verdure, mounted rapidly, and assumed a wide triangular figure towards the south. Thus Sicily first presented itself to our view, from the coast of Olivieri. . . . . Then we first learnt that neither the beauty nor the natural wealth of a country constitutes the well-being of its inhabitants. The first thing that struck us was the total absence of glass windows.
“. . . . On the 13th of March, before daybreak, we set off. The caravan proceeded in this order:—A soldier, carrying a musket, with a dagger in his sash, and a cotton cap on his head, opened the march, mounted on a powerful horse. . . . . After him we came in single file; some on horseback, and others rather uncomfortably perched on parts of the baggage. Three young peasants, bare-footed, with the copper hue of Moors, ran continually from one end to the other urging on our mules; now and then uttering the wild cry which is peculiar to Sicily, and every instant repeating their favourite curse, Kasso. . . . .”
The troop proceeded in this way over part of the island, and reached Palermo.
“. . . . The first object that strikes the eye on approaching the town is the Monte Pellegrino, whose square and isolated mass shelters Palermo from the north-westerly winds, and makes the sirocco still more oppressive. Fifteen years ago the people believed, it is said, that if Napoleon made himself master of Sicily, he would cause this mountain to be thrown into the sea. Nothing, perhaps, can better paint the kind of supernatural power which that man was able to acquire over the minds of his contemporaries.
“. . . . On the 17th of March we left Palermo. . . . After going on for two hours through these lonely scenes, the guide signed to us to look at something a long way off on the top of a hill. We were amazed at seeing a Greek temple, standing upright and alone, and in the most complete preservation. It was Segestum. Although since our arrival in Italy we had become accustomed to the sight of ruins of every age, and of every description, and had been enabled by their terrible example to appreciate the fragility of all human works, till now it had not been our fate to meet with (as it were) the corpse of a dead city in the midst of a desert. We had never been so thoroughly and so deeply impressed. We stood as if fixed to the spot; we tried to group round these splendid remains of ancient magnificence other temples, palaces, and porticoes. We wished that we could have restored to the soil the fertility that made Segestum so powerful from its foundation; and then we rejoiced in the absence of petty modern houses in the neighbourhood of this antique colossus.
“. . . . We soon reached the steep banks of a torrent. It is the Xanthus; farther on flows the Simoïs. Why do these Trojan names—the ruins of this Trojan town—and, in general, the relics of this classical antiquity—interest us more than the vestiges of more modern times, even than events which nearly concern us?
“. . . . After quitting Selinonte, we went sometimes over tracts of sand, sometimes across valleys without trees or inhabitants. . . .
“It may be said, though at first it seems hardly credible, that in Sicily there are no villages, but only towns, and these very numerous. One is astonished, after travelling for twenty or thirty miles in almost a desert, suddenly to come upon a town of 20,000 inhabitants, for which one has been prepared by no highroads nor distant sound. Here is to be found the little that exists of industry and comfort, as in a paralytic body the heat retires gradually towards the heart. It is not impossible to assign a cause for this irregular state of things. The only great landed proprietors in Sicily are the nobles, and especially the ecclesiastical bodies; these two classes are far from any thought of improvement, and have long been used to the amount of rents paid to them. The nobles squander theirs in Palermo or Naples, without thinking of their Sicilian property, except to sign the receipt they send thither. We were told that there are many who have never even been to their estates. As for the monks, a race naturally given up to routine, they spend their usual income quietly, without caring to increase it. Meanwhile the people, having little or no interest in the soil, and no market for the produce, gradually leave the country. It is known how few inhabitants are enough to cultivate badly an immense extent of land. The environs of Rome are an evidence of this.
“The visitor who should confine himself to the coast of Sicily, might easily believe her to be rich and flourishing, though there is not a more wretched country in the world; he would consider it populous whilst the fields are deserted, and will remain so till the sub-division of property and an outlet for produce, give the people a sufficient interest in the soil to call them back. . . . . ”
After visiting Sciacca and Siculiano, the travellers proceeded towards Girgenti . . . . . “. . . . . From this point is seen the immense enclosure, formed by the walls of Girgenti (Agrigentum). We estimated it at not less than from twelve to fifteen miles round. Almost all the remains of antiquity are ranged along the natural wall which overlooks the sea. First, we saw the Temple of Juno Lucina, of which the frieze and several columns have fallen. We then went on to the Temple of Concord. I have never seen anything in such extraordinary preservation. Nothing is wanting: pediment, friezes, and interior, all have been spared by time. It has done more, it has given the whole an admirable tint; to us who gaze upon this temple after a lapse of about 2,500 years, it probably is a finer object than it presented to its builders. Both these temples resemble exactly that of Segestum, except that they are smaller; the columns have the same proportions, the lines the same simplicity, the accessories the same arrangement.
“It is remarkable that the Greeks, whose imagination was so versatile, should never have thought of varying in any manner the architectural system they had once adopted. I may be wrong; but this seems to me to show such a stedfast conviction of the really great and beautiful, as could have belonged only to a people so extraordinarily gifted with general artistic capacities.
“On the same line with these temples, but farther on, are the remains of that of Jupiter Olympius. The most remarkable feature of these remains is, that they must have belonged to a building larger than any that has been left us by the ancients. In general, the Greeks, and even the Romans, who had so much grandeur in their genius, and in their conduct of worldly affairs, yet in art never fell into a taste for the gigantic. They considered, and with truth, that it is more difficult to produce the very fine than the very big; and almost impossible to produce at once the very fine, and the very big.”
Our travellers proceeded from Girgenti to Catania, across the fertile plain of the Lestrigones.
“When we reached Catania,” continues Tocqueville, “we determined to start that very evening for Nicolosi, and attempt in the night the feat of ascending Etna. . . . We started at four for Nicolosi. . . . . . . . On leaving the town, our path lay through a few cultivated fields; and then we reached an old deposit of lava, still barren and of horrid aspect. From thence is the best view of Catania surrounded by groves. . . . . .
“Soon we left the lava, and found ourselves immediately in the midst of a kind of enchanted country which anywhere would be striking; but in Sicily it is ravishing. Orchard succeeds orchard, surrounding cottages and pretty villages; no spot is lost; everywhere there is an appearance of prosperity and plenty. In most fields I observed corn, vines, and fruit-trees growing and thriving together. As I went on, I asked myself what was the cause of this great local prosperity? It cannot be attributed only to the richness of the soil, for the whole of Sicily is so fertile as to require less cultivation than most countries. The first reason for the phenomenon that occurred to me was this: Etna being situated between two of the largest towns in Sicily, Catania and Messina, finds on both sides a market for its produce, which does not exist in the centre, nor on the south coast. The second reason, which I was slow in admitting, seemed to me finally to be more conclusive. The land round Etna being subject to frightful ravages, the nobles and the monks grew disgusted with it, and the people became the proprietors. It is now sub-divided almost without any limit. Each cultivator has an interest, however small, in the soil. This is the only part of Sicily where the peasant is a proprietor.
“But whence comes it that this extreme division of property, which so many sensible people consider an evil in France, must be regarded as a blessing, in fact a great blessing, in Sicily? This will be easily understood. I quite acknowledge that in an enlightened country where the climate is favourable to labour, and every class desires to grow rich, as for instance in England, the extreme division of property may be hurtful to agriculture, and therefore to internal prosperity, because it deprives men who would have the will and the power to turn them to account of a great means of improvement, and even of employment; but on the other hand, when the object is to excite and awaken an unhappy people half paralysed, to whom rest is a pleasure; where the higher classes are sunk into hereditary sloth and vice, I know of no better way than to parcel out the land. If then I were king of England, I should favour large properties, and if I were ruler of Sicily, I should encourage as much as possible small estates; but as I am neither the one nor the other, I hasten back to my journal. . . .
“It was dark when we reached Nicolosi; at eleven at night they knocked at our door to tell us to get ready. . .
“As soon as we were in the air, our first care was to examine the state of the weather. We were glad to find that the wind had fallen, and that we could see the stars, but there was no moon. Profound darkness surrounded us. However, we soon discovered that we were riding over vast tracts of volcanic ashes, in which the feet of our mules sank deep. Soon afterwards it seemed as if we were becoming entangled in the windings of a great stream of lava. At last we came upon the wooded region. . . .
“Here we fell into a deep silence. This nocturnal march in the midst of one of the most ancient forests in the world; the strange effects of light produced by our lantern on the knotted trunks of the oaks; the fabulous traditions which seemed to be called up by all around us; even the rustling of the leaves under our feet; all transported us to an unreal world. . . .
“At last we reached the foot of the last cone of Etna. We distinguished the most minute details, and we thought that we were close to the crater. In this we were mistaken, as will presently be shown. We were another hour in gaining the points that we had thought so close to us; and an hour of the most fatiguing walking that I ever had in my life. First we clambered for about twenty minutes up an icy slope covered with irregularities, so sharp and slippery that we could scarcely keep our footing; then we reached the last peaks, formed by successive falls of ashes, and consequently very steep. On this shifting ground, which inclines as rapidly as a roof, one cannot take a step without sinking in deeply, and often slipping back above six feet. I had already experienced the unpleasantness of such an ascent in my visit to Mount Vesuvius. But here it was much worse; to the difficulty of advancing on such a road was joined that of breathing at such a height; and each of these obstacles was increased by the other. We then found ourselves at about 11,000 feet above Catania. The air was rare and yet not light. Volcanic emanations filled it with sulphurous vapours. Every ten or fifteen steps we were obliged to stop. We then threw ourselves on the ashes, and for a few seconds we felt the most extraordinary palpitations of the heart. My head felt as if it were screwed in a tight iron cap. Edward owned to me that he did not feel certain of reaching the summit.
“We were making one of these forced halts when the guide, clapping his hands, exclaimed, in a tone which I seem still to hear—“Il sole, il sole” (the sun). We turned instantly towards the east; clouds covered the sky, yet the sun’s disk, which was like a shield of red-hot iron, pierced through every obstacle, and showed itself half above the Ionian sea. Red and violet tints were diffused over the waves, and gave to the mountains of Calabria, opposite to us, a blood-red and violet hue. It was a sight such as can be beheld but once in a lifetime; an aspect of nature in stern and awful beauty that penetrates and crushes you with a sense of your own insignificance. This grandeur was mingled with something of singular sadness and mournfulness. The immense star gave out only a dubious light. He seemed to drag himself rather than mount to the upper sky. Even so, said we to each other, will he, no doubt, rise on the last day.
“This sight restored our failing strength. We made tremendous efforts, and in a few seconds reached the edge of the crater. It was with a sort of terror that we looked into it. . . . A vapour, white as snow, whirled and tumbled with unceasing noise in the depth which it concealed; it rose to the edge of the enormous basin, and then stopped, sank, and rose again; only a small quantity escaped, but that was enough to form a cloud which covered a quarter of the sky, and in which we were, against our will, often enveloped.
“The sun had scarcely cleared the waves of the sea when he hid himself in a bank of clouds, from which he soon emerged in splendour.
“The sea extended all round us, and Sicily narrowed to a point before our eyes. Etna projected its shadow as far as the environs of Trapani, and covered nearly the whole island with its immense cone. But the shadow was not at rest; like a living creature it appeared in perpetual motion. From minute to minute it contracted, and as it retreated whole provinces came in view. The island seemed to us to be rather rugged than mountainous. In the midst of its numberless hills we saw a blue line wind about—that was a river; a small white plate denoted a lake; something shining in the sun was a town. As for the poor human creatures, they could only have been perceived by the eye of Him who formed with the same ease an insect and Mount Etna.
“Here then, at last, we said, is Sicily, the object of our journey, the topic of our conversation for so many months; here is the whole country spread out beneath our feet. By turning round we can travel all over it in an instant; our eyes can pierce into every nook; scarcely any part escapes us, and yet it is far from reaching the horizon. We had just come from Italy; we had trodden on the ashes of the greatest men that ever lived, and inhaled the dust of their monuments; we were full of the grandeurs of history. But here something of another kind addressed the imagination: every object that struck us, the crowd of thoughts that rushed into our minds, carried us back to primitive times. We came close to the earliest ages of the world, those ages of simplicity and innocence before men were saddened by the remembrance of the past, or terrified by the uncertainty of the future; when satisfied with present happiness, and confident of its duration, they gathered the fruits freely bestowed by the earth, and almost as pure as the gods themselves, met everywhere with the footsteps of their deities, and lived, as it were, among them. It is here that fable shows us the first men. This is the home of the divinities of Grecian mythology. Near this spot Pluto tore Proserpine from her mother’s arms; in the wood we had just passed through, Ceres halted in her rapid pursuit, and, tired with her fruitless search, seated herself on a rock; and, though a goddess, wept, say the Greeks, because she was a mother. Apollo tended his flocks in these valleys; these groves, which reach to the coast, echoed to Pan’s flute; nymphs strayed beneath their shade, and inhaled their perfume. Here Galatæa fled from Polypheme; and Acis, on the eve of falling under his rival’s strokes, still charmed these shores, and left to them his name. The lake of Hercules, and the rocks of the Cyclops, are visible in the distance.
“Land of gods and heroes! Poor Sicily, what has become of thy brilliant chimæras? . . . .”
A few days afterwards, Tocqueville left Sicily to visit the Lipari islands, and chiefly the volcano of Stromboli. He explores and describes it; but when wishing to return to Sicily, he is detained by a contrary wind. This impediment lasts several days, and in this desert spot, to which he is chained without knowing how long his captivity may continue, his mind receives a variety of impressions, which he thus describes:—
“There was in our position on this burning rock, surrounded by the sea, and cut off from the whole world, a feeling of desertion and isolation which fell like a dead weight on our imagination.
“When we had in some degree recovered from this impression, we tried to employ the leisure, of which we had more than of anything else, and we should have then been glad to give away the time which one often would willingly buy so dear. . . . .
“One day I was sitting on the sands, with my head on my hands, looking out on the sea, and turning over carelessly in my mind the saddest thoughts. I had long been looking at a boat coming in; it annoyed me, for it was full of people singing at the top of their voices as they drew near. It was a poor fisherman’s family, husband, wife and children; it comprehended at least three generations. They all rowed, and the boat soon touched the land. The father and the elder ones jumped into the water, and dragged the boat upon the beach. Just then I saw come out of one of the huts on the coast a half-naked child, about two or three years old; he hurried along, crawling on all fours, and shouting for joy.
“This baby became the object of general attention. As soon as a middle-aged woman who had just stepped out of the boat caught sight of him, she ran to embrace him, and raising him in her arms, covered him with kisses, and said to him a thousand things which I could not understand. He was soon surrounded by all the party, each had something to say to him; he was passed from one to the other; the men set their fish before him, and made him touch the scales; the children all brought him some trifle from their recent expedition, and even the little ones of all took pains to put bracelets of shells on his arm, and then ran away quite delighted. He was evidently the last-born of the family.
“Till now I had never understood the misery of banishment, and the reality of those instincts which, however far one may be from one’s country, draw one towards it in spite of obstacles and dangers.
“The recollection of France and of all that is comprehended in that one word, pounced upon me as its prey. The longing that I had to see her again was so vehement, as to be far beyond any wish that I had ever formed for any thing, and I know not what sacrifice I would not have made to find myself instantly on her shores.
“The happiness of living in one’s own country, like all other happiness, is not felt while it is possessed. But let exile or misfortune come upon you, and then leave memory to do its work. You will then learn to value things aright; or rather you will learn nothing, for their value depends on things no longer existing for you.
“In a foreign land there is an element of sadness often mixed even with pleasure, and then many things, which when at home you forgot to notice, many that use had rendered indifferent, insipid, and even tiresome, recur to your mind in banishment, not wearing the same look as when they were present, but bright and vivid, and full of charms which you only now perceive. They could not make you happy, but they now have power enough to make you miserable.
“I remember, before the period of which I am now speaking, once thinking of the risk of imprisonment, for which the experience of the last forty years has shown that it was not absurd to prepare oneself before hand; I had succeeded in forming an almost agreeable idea of a place which is in general so much dreaded. I fancied that a man who was shut up with books, pens, and paper, must find easy means of passing away the time pleasantly enough. Besides, there is a multiplicity of studies which the hurry of public life will not admit of pursuing effectually. And then I wondered at the numbers of people, who, from the years during which they were imprisoned, ought to have written volumes, yet have come out having done nothing at all.
“The days that we spent at Stromboli served to explain to me the phenomenon, and showed me my error. Although time was our greatest foe, we never could make up our minds to fight against it, by employing ourselves. Indeed, in the flattering picture that I had drawn of a prison, I had left out of the account the prevalent anxiety for the future, the indefinite duration of the present, and especially the want of a certain object. You cannot command the mind to work as you do a labourer to dig or delve. There must be a cause, a motive to set it in action; and the term of imprisonment may be lengthened, or it may end the next day. What is the use of beginning what one is not sure of finishing, a work which, perhaps, will never be useful or agreeable to oneself any more than to others? And then time crushes you by its slow progress; a long perspective of similar hours and days discourages you. It always requires an effort to begin. Why should this effort be made now rather than an hour hence, to-day rather than to-morrow? Who is there to urge you? Where is the exciting cause? Ennui, that overpowering kind of ennui which is not produced by idleness alone, but by the influence of a painful position, benumbs the faculties, makes the heart sink, extinguishes the imagination, and at last one dies, like a miser starved in the midst of his riches. . . . . ”
However, just when the travellers had begun to think that they were to be for ever chained by adverse fate to the rock of Stromboli, a favourable wind came to their rescue and enabled them to proceed.
In one part of his narrative, Tocqueville brings on the stage two persons more or less imaginary,—a Sicilian (Don Ambrosio) and a Neapolitan (Don Carlo); he draws their portraits, and records their conversations; and in their dialogue gives the sum of his own opinions on Naples and Sicily. . . . “They were both,” he says, “in the prime of life; but in other respects so different that they might seem to have been born on opposite shores of the ocean. . . .”
“The first impression produced by Don Ambrosio was that of a debased nature. He presented such a mixture of strength with weakness, of courage with cowardice, of pride with meanness, that the sight of him filled us with pity. Discontent and vexation were expressed in his countenance; yet his animated looks and occasional flashes of intelligence led us to conclude that mirth and joy would not have been strangers to him had he dared to yield himself with confidence to their influence. I doubt whether his physiognomy would ever have been good, at whatever time Heaven had given him birth; but the long endurance to which he seemed to have been subjected had heaped up in his mind a load of indignation and resentment which weighed on him the more that he appeared to see no hope of ever shaking it off.
“However unfavourable might be the impression produced by this man, the appearance of his companion was still more repulsive. Every feature, every movement, every word, announced that complacent corruption the worst and most hideous of all.
“Amid the degradation of the first, something of the dignity natural to man remained erect. It was absolutely wanting in the second; his look expressed at once presumption and weakness. In a word, he was a child, but a depraved child.
“There was one point of resemblance, however, between these two men. Both seemed to have acquired a long habit of duplicity; but in the Sicilian it was more like the bitter fruit of slavery and want; while the Neapolitan seemed to deceive simply because fraud was the shortest and easiest road to his ends.
“These two men, though so different, were born under the same sky, subjects of the same king, and under the same laws.
“Soon after we met them, Don Carlo (the Neapolitan) spoke first, and addressed his companion in a mocking tone:—
“ ‘What is this, Don Ambrosio? either I greatly deceive myself, or we seem to be entering on a beaten track. If this vast plain were not untilled, we might almost begin to think ourselves in a civilized country.’
“The Sicilian did not answer, and the other went on:—
“ ‘Own that we must be, as I am, under some stern necessity; or, like these strangers, possessed by an evil spirit of travelling, to abandon the enchanting skies of Naples, and come to lose ourselves in your deserts.’
“ ‘Don Carlo,’ answered the Sicilian, with a gloomy and constrained air, ‘pray do not let us open such a subject, which naturally must be disagreeable to us both. You know that Sicily was not always what she now is. There was a time—remote, I own—when a single town of ours contained more inhabitants than the whole island does in these days of wretchedness and mourning. Then the Sicilians led the van of the human race. Our ships spread even to the shores of the ocean. Our arts, our imagination, and our manners, civilized our neighbours; the fertility of our soil, and the bravery of our soldiers, were celebrated throughout the world; gold ran in the streets of our fortunate cities . . . .”
“Here Don Ambrosio was interrupted by a burst of laughter from the Neapolitan: he bit his lip, and was silent.
“ ‘Yes; there was some truth in what you say in the time of Dionysius the Tyrant,’ replied his companion. . . . ‘But why make so much noise about advantages which are yours no longer? Two or three thousand years ago, indeed, your plains were highly cultivated; now they are barren and deserted. Your towns were large and rich, but now they are small and mean. You used to cover the seas with vessels, but at present your harbours are silting up. Formerly you shone in arts and mental accomplishments; but at this day you are in want of the simple necessaries of life; and what country in the world is more ignorant than Sicily? Finally, you have no soldiers; you would be only too happy if you had hands enough to till your ground!’
“The storm that had long been gathering in the Sicilian’s heart burst out at these last words.
“ ‘It is too hard,’ he cried, ‘to hear the authors of our greatest misfortunes boast before our faces of the fruits of their atrocious machinations. Who is to blame for the unheard of calamities which oppress us? Whom are we to accuse of causing the gradual decay and final ruin of a whole nation? Whom, if not you? And it is you who to-day come to sport with our ruins, to joke in the midst of a desert which you have created, to insult a misery which is your own work! Since Sicily has fallen under your dominion, not by your own conquest, but by a conquest which another made for you, since treaties handed her over to your kingdom, have we ever found in you—I will not say fellow-citizens (although you ought always to have shown yourselves such), but masters who, looking to their own interest, should have sought for it in promoting ours? Without our sad example, would it be possible to imagine, that through a long course of years a whole nation could have been subjected to a system of oppression so disastrous at once to the subject and the prince as to make each useless to the other?’
“ ‘Are you not yourselves,’ quickly rejoined the Neapolitan, ‘your own most cruel oppressors? Did tyranny—if tyranny it be—ever find more despicable instruments fitted to her hand? Are your public functionaries Neapolitans? No—invariably Sicilians. They are Sicilians, none but Sicilians, who offer their necks to the yoke of Naples, and bless it, provided that they are allowed in turn to inflict it upon unhappy Sicily. They are Sicilians who occupy your tribunals and make a public sale of justice! If our desire was to deprave you, you have certainly surpassed our hopes. Your aristocracy has surpassed its rulers! I think that it may justly boast of being the most dissolute in Europe.’
“ ‘Our aristocracy,’ replied Don Ambrosio, ‘is no longer Sicilian. You deprived its members of all interest in public affairs long before you struck the last blow at our constitution. You have drawn them over in a body to Naples. There you have destroyed their primitive energy and national character; you have plunged them into luxury, bastardized their principles, substituting courtly ambition for the desire of reputation, and the influence of court favour for that of merit and valour . . . .’
“Whilst Don Ambrosio was speaking, the Neapolitan’s countenance grew darker and darker. It was evident that the violence of the attack had succeeded in disturbing even the apathy of his nature. As the Sicilian pronounced his last sentence, Don Carlo gave him a look which expressed with more energy than one would have given him credit for,—insolence and the most insulting contempt.
“He thus interrupted him:—
“ ‘Well,’ cried he, with a bitter laugh; ‘as you find our yoke so heavy, why do you delay to break it? Why not sound the tocsin in your fields? What do you wait for? Assemble yourselves! March! But, no; you never will believe that oppression has reached its height; and down to your last posterity you will put off vengeance to the morrow; but, were you even bold enough to raise the standard of revolt, how easily would Naples smash your weak efforts! Recollect, remember 1820. Where are your ships, your troops? Your youths detest the profession of arms. There are no Sicilians in our army. . . . .’
“ ‘That is true,’ replied Don Ambrosio, in a hoarse and constrained tone, ‘all that is but too true; what would be the use of concealing it? . . . . and yet we were not born to be slaves. Our history proves it, and no nation has ever given more terrible lessons to its oppressors. Freedom is still fermenting in our inmost souls. We are far from that lowest degradation in which vengeance is lost sight of, and no different state of things is even thought of. The energy of our national character is not extinguished; its germ lives in every heart, and alone may raise us from our abasement and restore to us our ancient virtues. It is true that we do not defile before you at your reviews; but we never have been seen to fly before the enemy’s sword had left its sheath. Is there a wretch so degraded as not to prefer tilling the land of his ancestors to serving in your army? Distorted by oppression, that hidden strength reveals itself only by criminal acts; as for you, you have nothing but vices. By refusing justice to us, or still better, by selling it to us, you have taught us to consider assassination a right. Perhaps the time will come when political interests will again be conflicting in Europe, and kings will no longer feel obliged to support each other. Some day, France or England will extend a helping hand, and open her arms to us. Now we flatter you, Neapolitans; but then, beware of being amongst us singly!’
“Deep silence followed these words. The boldness which a moment before had animated the looks of Don Carlo, had vanished. He crossed over the way, went up to the Sicilian, and said a few words to him in a low tone, and with a caressing air. At this the other was struck with surprise. But soon, estimating the imprudence of his speech by the effect it produced on his companion, he seemed alarmed in his turn. We saw him force a smile, and turn what had escaped him into a joke. Thus these two men, divided by hostile passions, joined in one common feeling—fear.”
Tocqueville finished this narrative, of which we have given here only a few morsels, with a thought which deserves to be reported. In the simplest and most unassuming manner he touches the main-spring of human existence, and by this one observation takes a place among the men destined to give their lives, at a later time, a value and a purpose.
“It will be perhaps thought strange,” he says, “that we could have endured such a way of life for so long, doing so much, sleeping so little, and never taking a thorough rest. The only explanation that I can give of this phenomenon is this: we willed it, not feebly, or as, for instance, one wills in a sort of general way the good of one’s neighbour, but firmly and resolutely. The aim, it is true, did not correspond with the effort, and it was a test, on our part, of strength and perseverance. But if the aim was trifling, we acted as if it had not been so, and we attained it. As for me, and with these words I will conclude this narrative, I ask of God but one favour. It is that He may grant me to find myself, on some future day, willing in the same manner something worth the exertion.”