the process is the artwork

Belov’d in vain

Narcissus by Carvaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

“Narcissism” a) Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. b)  Psychology: extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type (ref).

The word is derived from the greek myth of Narcissus which has been retold in many versions. Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus (in verse) from Metamorphoses is probably be the best known interpretation.

John William Waterhouse. Echo and Narcissus. 1903.

John William Waterhouse. Echo and Narcissus. 1903.

Below: from Bulfinch’s Mythology, a classic work of popularized mythology:

“ECHO was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favorite of Diana, and attended her in the chase. But Echo had one failing; she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would have the last word. One day Juno was seeking her husband, who, she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among the nymphs. Echo by her talk contrived to detain the goddess till the nymphs made their escape. When Juno discovered it, she passed sentence upon Echo in these words: “You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of—reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first.”

This nymph saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he pursued the chase upon the mountains. She loved him and followed his footsteps. O how she longed to address him in the softest accents, and win him to converse! but it was not in her power. She waited with impatience for him to speak first, and had her answer ready. One day the youth, being separated from his companions, shouted aloud, “Who’s here?” Echo replied, “Here.” Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one called out, “Come.” Echo answered, “Come.” As no one came, Narcissus called again, “Why do you shun me?” Echo asked the same question. “Let us join one another,” said the youth. The maid answered with all her heart in the same words, and hastened to the spot, ready to throw her arms about his neck. He started back, exclaiming, “Hands off! I would rather die than you should have me!” “Have me,” said she; but it was all in vain. He left her, and she went to hide her blushes in the recesses of the woods. From that time forth she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her form faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away. Her bones were changed into rocks and there was nothing left of her but her voice. With that she is still ready to reply to any one who calls her, and keeps up her old habit of having the last word.

Narcissus’s cruelty in this case was not the only instance. He shunned all the rest of the nymphs, as he had done poor Echo. One day a maiden who had in vain endeavored to attract him uttered a prayer that he might some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and granted the prayer.

There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the shepherds never drove their flocks, nor the mountain goats resorted, nor any of the beasts of the forest; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came one day the youth, fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water; he thought it was some beautiful water-spirit living in the fountain. He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes, those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of health and exercise over all. He fell in love with himself. He brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest, while he hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image. He talked with the supposed spirit: “Why, beautiful being, do you shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me. When I stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and answer my beckonings with the like.” His tears fell into the water and disturbed the image. As he saw it depart, he exclaimed, “Stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you.” With this, and much more of the same kind, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost his color, his vigor, and the beauty which formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo. She kept near him, however, and when he exclaimed, “Alas! alas!” she answered him with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts Echo smote hers also. They prepared a funeral pile and would have burned the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus.”

– Thomas Bulfinch. Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes. 1913. XIII. b. Echo and Narcissus (ref).

Salvador Dalí. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. 1937.

Salvador Dalí. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. 1937.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
The Transformation of Echo

Fam’d far and near for knowing things to come,
From him th’ enquiring nations sought their doom;
The fair Liriope his answers try’d,
And first th’ unerring prophet justify’d.
This nymph the God Cephisus had abus’d,
With all his winding waters circumfus’d,
And on the Nereid got a lovely boy,
Whom the soft maids ev’n then beheld with joy.

The tender dame, sollicitous to know
Whether her child should reach old age or no,
Consults the sage Tiresias, who replies,
“If e’er he knows himself he surely dies.”
Long liv’d the dubious mother in suspence,
‘Till time unriddled all the prophet’s sense.

Narcissus now his sixteenth year began,
Just turn’d of boy, and on the verge of man;
Many a friend the blooming youth caress’d,
Many a love-sick maid her flame confess’d:
Such was his pride, in vain the friend caress’d,
The love-sick maid in vain her flame confess’d.

Once, in the woods, as he pursu’d the chace,
The babbling Echo had descry’d his face;
She, who in others’ words her silence breaks,
Nor speaks her self but when another speaks.
Echo was then a maid, of speech bereft,
Of wonted speech; for tho’ her voice was left,
Juno a curse did on her tongue impose,
To sport with ev’ry sentence in the close.
Full often when the Goddess might have caught
Jove and her rivals in the very fault,
This nymph with subtle stories would delay
Her coming, ’till the lovers slip’d away.
The Goddess found out the deceit in time,
And then she cry’d, “That tongue, for this thy crime,
Which could so many subtle tales produce,
Shall be hereafter but of little use.”
Hence ’tis she prattles in a fainter tone,
With mimick sounds, and accents not her own.

This love-sick virgin, over-joy’d to find
The boy alone, still follow’d him behind:
When glowing warmly at her near approach,
As sulphur blazes at the taper’s touch,
She long’d her hidden passion to reveal,
And tell her pains, but had not words to tell:
She can’t begin, but waits for the rebound,
To catch his voice, and to return the sound.

The nymph, when nothing could Narcissus move,
Still dash’d with blushes for her slighted love,
Liv’d in the shady covert of the woods,
In solitary caves and dark abodes;
Where pining wander’d the rejected fair,
‘Till harrass’d out, and worn away with care,
The sounding skeleton, of blood bereft,
Besides her bones and voice had nothing left.
Her bones are petrify’d, her voice is found
In vaults, where still it doubles ev’ry sound.

The Story of Narcissus

Thus did the nymphs in vain caress the boy,
He still was lovely, but he still was coy;
When one fair virgin of the slighted train
Thus pray’d the Gods, provok’d by his disdain,
“Oh may he love like me, and love like me in vain!”
Rhamnusia pity’d the neglected fair,
And with just vengeance answer’d to her pray’r.

There stands a fountain in a darksom wood,
Nor stain’d with falling leaves nor rising mud;
Untroubled by the breath of winds it rests,
Unsully’d by the touch of men or beasts;
High bow’rs of shady trees above it grow,
And rising grass and chearful greens below.
Pleas’d with the form and coolness of the place,
And over-heated by the morning chace,
Narcissus on the grassie verdure lyes:
But whilst within the chrystal fount he tries
To quench his heat, he feels new heats arise.
For as his own bright image he survey’d,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade;
And o’er the fair resemblance hung unmov’d,
Nor knew, fond youth! it was himself he lov’d.
The well-turn’d neck and shoulders he descries,
The spacious forehead, and the sparkling eyes;
The hands that Bacchus might not scorn to show,
And hair that round Apollo’s head might flow;
With all the purple youthfulness of face,
That gently blushes in the wat’ry glass.
By his own flames consum’d the lover lyes,
And gives himself the wound by which he dies.
To the cold water oft he joins his lips,
Oft catching at the beauteous shade he dips
His arms, as often from himself he slips.
Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.

What could, fond youth, this helpless passion move?
What kindled in thee this unpity’d love?
Thy own warm blush within the water glows,
With thee the colour’d shadow comes and goes,
Its empty being on thy self relies;
Step thou aside, and the frail charmer dies.

Still o’er the fountain’s wat’ry gleam he stood,
Mindless of sleep, and negligent of food;
Still view’d his face, and languish’d as he view’d.
At length he rais’d his head, and thus began
To vent his griefs, and tell the woods his pain.
“You trees,” says he, “and thou surrounding grove,
Who oft have been the kindly scenes of love,
Tell me, if e’er within your shades did lye
A youth so tortur’d, so perplex’d as I?
I, who before me see the charming fair,
Whilst there he stands, and yet he stands not there:
In such a maze of love my thoughts are lost:
And yet no bulwark’d town, nor distant coast,
Preserves the beauteous youth from being seen,
No mountains rise, nor oceans flow between.
A shallow water hinders my embrace;
And yet the lovely mimick wears a face
That kindly smiles, and when I bend to join
My lips to his, he fondly bends to mine.
Hear, gentle youth, and pity my complaint,
Come from thy well, thou fair inhabitant.
My charms an easy conquest have obtain’d
O’er other hearts, by thee alone disdain’d.
But why should I despair? I’m sure he burns
With equal flames, and languishes by turns.
When-e’er I stoop, he offers at a kiss,
And when my arms I stretch, he stretches his.
His eye with pleasure on my face he keeps,
He smiles my smiles, and when I weep he weeps.
When e’er I speak, his moving lips appear
To utter something, which I cannot hear.

“Ah wretched me! I now begin too late
To find out all the long-perplex’d deceit;
It is my self I love, my self I see;
The gay delusion is a part of me.
I kindle up the fires by which I burn,
And my own beauties from the well return.
Whom should I court? how utter my complaint?
Enjoyment but produces my restraint,
And too much plenty makes me die for want.
How gladly would I from my self remove!
And at a distance set the thing I love.
My breast is warm’d with such unusual fire,
I wish him absent whom I most desire.
And now I faint with grief; my fate draws nigh;
In all the pride of blooming youth I die.
Death will the sorrows of my heart relieve.
Oh might the visionary youth survive,
I should with joy my latest breath resign!
But oh! I see his fate involv’d in mine.”

This said, the weeping youth again return’d
To the clear fountain, where again he burn’d;
His tears defac’d the surface of the well,
With circle after circle, as they fell:
And now the lovely face but half appears,
O’er-run with wrinkles, and deform’d with tears.
“Ah whither,” cries Narcissus, “dost thou fly?
Let me still feed the flame by which I die;
Let me still see, tho’ I’m no further blest.”
Then rends his garment off, and beats his breast:
His naked bosom redden’d with the blow,
In such a blush as purple clusters show,
Ere yet the sun’s autumnal heats refine
Their sprightly juice, and mellow it to wine.
The glowing beauties of his breast he spies,
And with a new redoubled passion dies.
As wax dissolves, as ice begins to run,
And trickle into drops before the sun;
So melts the youth, and languishes away,
His beauty withers, and his limbs decay;
And none of those attractive charms remain,
To which the slighted Echo su’d in vain.

She saw him in his present misery,
Whom, spight of all her wrongs, she griev’d to see.
She answer’d sadly to the lover’s moan,
Sigh’d back his sighs, and groan’d to ev’ry groan:
“Ah youth! belov’d in vain,” Narcissus cries;
“Ah youth! belov’d in vain,” the nymph replies.
“Farewel,” says he; the parting sound scarce fell
From his faint lips, but she reply’d, “farewel.”
Then on th’ wholsome earth he gasping lyes,
‘Till death shuts up those self-admiring eyes.
To the cold shades his flitting ghost retires,
And in the Stygian waves it self admires.

For him the Naiads and the Dryads mourn,
Whom the sad Echo answers in her turn;
And now the sister-nymphs prepare his urn:
When, looking for his corps, they only found
A rising stalk, with yellow blossoms crown’d.

– Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al (ref.)

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