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Enobarbus means the flexure of the fictitious fishes' tails, in which the limbs of the women were necessarily involved, in order to carry on the deception, and which it seems they adapted with so much art as to make them an ornament, instead of a deformity. This conjecture is supported by the very next sentence, where Enobarbus, proceeding in his description, says:
at the helm
"A seeming mermaid steers." M. MASON.
In many of the remarks of Mr. M. Mason I perfectly concur, though they are subversive of opinions I had formerly hazarded. On the present occasion, I have the misfortune wholly to disagree with him.
His deviation from the text cannot be received; for who ever employed the phrase he recommends, without adding somewhat immediately after it, that would determine its precise meaning? We may properly say-in the guise of a shepherd, of a friar, or of a Nereid. But to tell us that Cleopatra's women attended her" in the guise," without subsequently informing us what that guise was, is phraseology unauthorised by the practice of any writer I have met with. In Cymbeline, Posthumus says:
"To shame the guise of the world, I will begin
If the word the commentator would introduce had been genuine, and had referred to the antecedent, Nereides, Shakspeare would most probably have said-" tended her in that guise: "-at least he would have employed some expression to connect his supplement with the foregoing clause of his description. But"in the guise" seems unreducible to sense, and unjustifiable on every principle of grammar.- Besides, when our poet had once absolutely declared these women were like Nereides or Mermaids, would it have been necessary for him to subjoin that they appeared in the form, or with the accoutrements of such beings? for how else could they have been distinguished?
Yet, whatever grace the tails of legitimate mermaids might boast of in their native element, they must have produced but aukward effects when taken out of it, and exhibited on the deck of a galley. Nor can I conceive that our fair representatives of these nymphs of the sea were much more adroit and picturesque in their motions; for when their legs were cramped within the fictitious tails the commentator has made for them, I do not discover how they could have undulated their hinder parts in a lucky imitation of semi-fishes. Like poor Elkanah Settle, in his dragon of green leather, they could only wag the remigium cauda without ease, variety, or even a chance of labouring into a graceful curve. I will undertake, in short, the expence of providing characteristick tails for any set of mimick Nereides, if my opponent will engage to teach them the exercise of these adscititious terminations, so to render them a grace instead of a deformity." In such an attempt
a party of British chambermaids would prove as docile as an equal number of Egyptian maids of honour.
It may be added also, that the Sirens and descendants of Nereus, are understood to have been complete and beautiful women, whose breed was uncrossed by the salmon or dolphin tribes; and as such they are uniformly described by Greek and Roman poets. Antony, in a future scene, (though perhaps with reference to this adventure on the Cydnus,) has styled Cleopatra his Thetis, a goddess whose train of Nereids is circumstantially depicted by Homer, though without a hint that the vertebræ of their backs were lengthened into tails. Extravagance of shape is only met with in the lowest orders of oceanick and terrestrial deities. Tritons are furnished with fins and tails, and Satyrs have horns and hoofs. But a Nereid's tail is an unclassical image adopted from modern sign-posts, and happily exposed to ridicule by Hogarth, in his print of Strolling Actresses dressing in a Barn. What Horace too has reprobated as a disgusting combination, can never hope to be received as a pattern of the graceful: ut turpitur atrum
Desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne.
I allow that the figure at the helm of the vessel was likewise a Mermaid or Nereid; but all mention of a tail is wanting there, as in every other passage throughout the dramas of our author, in which a Mermaid is introduced.
For reasons like these, (notwithstanding, in support of our commentator's appendages, and the present female fashion of bolstered hips and cork rumps, we might read, omitting only a single letter-" made their ends adornings; "—and though I have not forgotten Bayes's advice to an actress-" Always, madam, up with your end,") I should unwillingly confine the graces of Cleopatra's Nereids, to the flexibility of their pantomimick tails. For these, however ornamentally wreathed like Virgil's snake, or respectfully lowered like a lictor's fasces, must have afforded less decoration than the charms diffused over their unsophisticated parts, I mean, the bending of their necks and arms, the rise and fall of their bosoms, and the general elegance of submission paid by them to the vanity of their royal mistress.
The plain sense of the contested passage seems to be-that these ladies rendered that homage which their assumed characters obliged them to pay to their Queen, a circumstance ornamental to themselves. Each inclined her person so gracefully, that the very act of humiliation was an improvement of her own beauty.
The foregoing notes supply a very powerful instance of the uncertainty of verbal criticism; for here we meet with the same phrase explained with reference to four different images-bows, groups, eyes, and tails. STEEVENS.
A passage in Drayton's Mortimeriados, quarto, no date, may serve to illustrate that before us :
"The naked nymphes, some up, some downe descending,
I once thought, their bends referred to Cleopatra's eyes, and not to her gentlewomen. Her attendants, in order to learn their mistress's will, watched the motion of her eyes, the bends or movements of which added new lustre to her beauty. See the quotation from Shakspeare's 149th Sonnet, p. 235, n. 2.
In our author we frequently find the word bend applied to the eye. Thus, in the first Act of this play : those his goodly eyes now bend, now turn," &c.
Again, in Cymbeline:
Although they wear their faces to the bent "Of the king's looks."
Again, more appositely, in Julius Cæsar :
And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world." Mr. Mason, remarking on this interpretation, acknowledges that "their bends may refer to Cleopatra's eyes, but the word made must refer to her gentlewomen, and it would be absurd to say that they made the bends of her eyes adornings." Assertion is much easier than proof. In what does the absurdity consist? They thus standing near Cleopatra, and discovering her will by the eyes, were the cause of her appearing more beautiful, in consequence of the frequent motion of her eyes; i. e. (in Shakspeare's language,) this their situation and office was the cause, &c. We have in every part of this author such diction. But I shall not detain the reader any longer on so clear a point; especially as I now think that the interpretation of these words given originally by Dr. Warburton is the true one.
Bend being formerly sometimes used for a band or troop, Mr. Tollet very idly supposes that the word has that meaning here.
I had determined not to enter into a controversy with the editors on the subject of any of my former comments; but I cannot resist the impulse I feel, to make a few remarks on the strictures of Mr. Steevens, both on the amendment I proposed in this passage, and my explanation of it; for if I could induce him to accede to my opinion, it would be the highest gratification to me.
His objection to the amendment I have proposed, that of reading in the guise instead of in the eyes, is, that the phrase in the guise cannot be properly used, without adding somewhat to it, to determine precisely the meaning; and this, as a general observation, is perfectly just, but it does not apply in the present case; for the preceding lines,
"Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
and the subsequent line,
"A seeming mermaid steers;"
very clearly point out the meaning of the word guise. If you ask in what guise? I answer in the guise of mermaids; and the connection is sufficiently clear even for prose, without claiming any allowance for poetical licence. But this objection may be entirely done away, by reading that guise instead of the guise, which I should have adopted, if it had not departed somewhat farther from the text.
With respect to my explanation of the words, and made their bends adornings, I do not think that Mr. Steevens's objections are equally well founded.
He says that a mermaid's tail is an unclassical image, adopted from modern sign posts. That such a being as a mermaid did never actually exist, I will readily acknowledge: but the idea is not of modern invention. In the oldest books of heraldry you will find mermaids delineated in the same form that they are at this day. The crest of my own family, for some centuries, has been a mermaid; and the Earl of Howth, of a family much more ancient, which came into England with the conqueror, has a mermaid for one of his supporters.
Boyse tells us, in his Pantheon, on what authority I cannot say, that the Syrens were the daughters of Achelous, that their lower parts were like fishes, and their upper parts like women; and Virgil's description of Scylla, in his third Æneid, corresponds exactly with our idea of a mermaid:
Prima hominis facies, et pulchro pectore virgo
I have, therefore, no doubt but this was Shakspeare's idea also. Mr. Steevens's observations on the aukward and ludicrous situation of Cleopatra's attendants, when involved in their fishes' tails, is very jocular and well imagined; but his jocularity proceeds from his not distinguishing between reality and deception. If a modern fine lady were to represent a mermaid at a masquerade, she would contrive, I have no doubt, to dress in that character, yet to preserve the free use of all her limbs, and that with ease; for the mermaid is not described as resting on the extremity of her tail, but on one of the bends of it, sufficiently broad to conceal the feet.
Notwithstanding the arguments of Malone and Steevens, and the deference I have for their opinions, I can find no sense in the passage as they have printed it. M. MASON.