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149 Nympholepsy, Mythopoesis, and John Addington Symonds Rosly n Jolly • The meaning of the word nympholepsy has drifted in recent years towards a narrowly erotic sense. In 1989, the Oxford English Dictionary defined nympholepsy as“a state of rapture supposed to be inspired in men by nymphs; hence, an ecstasy or frenzy of emotion, esp. that inspired by something unattainable.” In 2004, this meaning was supplemented by a further sense of “passion or desire aroused in men by young girls.” In the nineteenth century, the latter, sexual meaning was unknown, and nympholepsy signified a much wider and more general desire. In fact, it named a spiritual condition that was one of the most important legacies of the European classical heritage to Romantic and Victorian writers: the yearning for a mythopoeic connection with the natural world, coupled with the alienated sense that such a connection was no longer possible. Just as Nabokov was largely responsible for the late twentieth-century understanding of nympholepsy as a specific kind of sexual desire or disorder, it was Byron who established the characteristically nineteenth-century usage of the term to denote an aesthetic, emotional, or spiritual longing for unattainable beauty, love, or harmony.The first nineteenth-century example given by the Oxford English Dictionary is Byron’s description, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, of the goddess Egeria as “a young Aurora of the air, / The nympholepsy of some fond despair” (181; IV.115). In his stanzas on Egeria, Byron turned the classical idea of the madness induced in men by the sighting of a nymph into a metaphor for the condition of alienated modernity.This Byronic understanding of nympholepsy was further developed by the Victorian essayist, historian, and travel writer John Addington Symonds. In two essays of southern travel,“The Cornice” (1874) and “Amalfi, Paestum, Capri” (1879),” mythological encounters between men and nymphs provide focal points for Symonds’s meditations on the ancient mythopoeic connection with nature and the unattainability of that connection in the modern world. Byron’s stanzas on the springs of Egeria outside Rome in Canto IV, stanzas 115–19, constitute one of several exercises in the interpretation of a genius loci that take place in the course of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage. Byron calls the victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 150 nymph Egeria “the meek-eyed genius of the place” (181; IV.116), choosing not to represent her directly in the poem but rather to have her inferred as the immanent spirit of this place of tangled ivy, lush bowers,“summer-birds” and sweet-hued flowers (181; IV.117). According to legend, Egeria had a mortal lover, King Numa, whom she instructed in the wisdom that made him a famous lawgiver. In his meditation on her reputed dwelling-place, Byron makes clear that he regards Egeria as an idea of human making, a “sweet creation” of human emotion, “the nympholepsy of some fond despair” (181; IV.115). The desire symbolized by Egeria can only be understood in relation to the lack which prompts that desire. In Byron’s imagination, the nymph embodies a purifying, renewing love, an ideal “Love” (182; IV.119), which, over the next seven stanzas, is contrasted with the actual conditions of human passion. Byron’s survey of the world’s mismatched,“[e]nvenomed” (184; IV.125), disenchanted lovers has obvious autobiographical resonances and produces its own emotional landscape: Alas! our young affections run to waste, Or water but the desart; whence arise But weeds of dark luxuriance, tares of haste, Rank at the core, though tempting to the eyes, Flowers whose wild odours breathe but agonies, And trees whose gums are poison; such the plants Which spring beneath her steps as Passion flies O’er the world’s wilderness, and vainly pants For some celestial fruit forbidden to our wants. (182; IV.120) Egeria’s bower of“Love” provides the implicit contrast to these fleurs du mal of “Passion,” and symbolizes an unattainable ideal equivalent to the desired“celestial fruit forbidden to our wants.” For the figure of Egeria is the key to Byron’s unravelling of the whole process of nympholeptic yearning that underwrites stanzas 120–26.“Thou wert a beautiful thought, and softly bodied...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 149-163
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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