Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XXXIII

Paradise on Earth…

Narcissus and the Lover’s Malady…

In Medieval Moral Allegory…

Narcissus and “Pleasurable Thought”

     At this point “the dance was ended”, and we see immediately and unambiguously that of which it is the preamble:

                                for the most
Departed with their sweethearts to make love,
Shaded beneath the secret-keeping boughs.
Foolish were he who envied not such a life
As there they led!  It lusty was, God knows!
He who might have a chance to live that way
Might well deprive himself of other boons;
For there’s no better paradise on earth
Than any place where lover finds a maid
Responding freely to his heart’s desire.

The dreamer has stumbled into the Playboy Mansion and once again imagines that he has found Paradise.  But since the Christian Paradise is hardly a place to which you gain entrance by living a life of carnal pleasure, nor has it much to do with the contempory jihadist fantasy about 144,000 virgins “responding freely to one’s heart’s desire”, it is unlikely in the extreme that Guillaume de Lorris could have shared his dreamer’s risible enthusiasm.  The fact, moreover, that the love-making takes place in the shade, “beneath the secret-keeping boughs”, reminds us that after eating of the fruit, Adam and Eve hid themselves amongst the trees from the sight of God.  If this is Paradise, then, it is the Paradise of the Fall and its aftermath.

Following the dance, the dreamer goes on a tour through the garden, noting the profusion of exotic trees, flowers, and little furry creatures, and noticing also that the God of Love is stalking him like a hunter pursuing his prey.  At last, he reaches what he calls “the fairest spot of all where flowed a spring beneath a spreading pine”, and around the fountain, a marble border, and incised into the marble as if on a tombstone, the epitaph/warning, “Here it was that fair Narcissus wept himself to death.”

At this point, naturally, the poet/dreamer recounts the myth of Narcissus, cleaving closely to the usual medieval source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  He begins,

Narcissus was a youth whom Love once caught
Within his snare and caused such dole and woe
That in his grief he rendered up his ghost.

The dreamer goes on to narrate how Echo, the fine Lady whose love Narcissus spurned, so pined for him that she wasted away to nothing but her own voice and died.  Before expiring, she begged the gods to grant her last request:  that Narcissus should be made to feel the same torment of unrequited love as she had suffered.  And so one day, returning from the hunt, tired, hot, and thirsty, Narcissus came upon a clear fountain which lay in the shadow of a magnificent pine tree.  Kneeling down to drink, he saw in the waters a beautiful image:

Enraptured, he gazed upon the crystal spring
Until he fell in love with his own face;
And at the last he died for very woe.
That was the end of that; for when he knew
Such passion must go e’er unsatisfied,
Although he was entangled in Love’s snare…
He lost his reason in but little space,
For very ire, and died.

Narcissus, having lost his reason, died of the same lover’s malady as did Echo, save that his passio was all the more irrational for being incited by his own beauty.


In medieval, as in classical mythography, Narcissus is an exemplum of the folly of self-love.  In Arnulph of Orleans’ twelfth-century commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we read that

Narcissus is said to have loved his shadow because he placed his own excellence above all other things.  Whence he was turned into a flower, that is, into a useless thing, for he soon perished like a flower.

But in a way that was well understood in medieval moral psychology, any love of merely physical beauty or delight is a form of self-love, inasmuch as what it aims at is self-satisfaction.  Thus, in Cliges,Chretien de Troyes compares his hero with Narcissus for falling in love with Fenice at first sight, with the implication that what Cliges loves is an image he has created within his own mind.  Similarly, in his fourteenth-century treatise, Li ars d’amour, Jehan le Bel condemns some loves “because the profit and delight on account of which they are cultivated are not in the persons loved but in the lovers”.  This is especially true of love that arises from carnal delight “for then the objects of love are not loved, except by accident, but the delight alone is loved”.

In Narcissus’ brooding over his own reflection in the well and dying for love of an insubstantial image, the medieval reader would thus have seen an excellent example of the danger of what John the Scot, Andreas Capellanus, and Chaucer’s Parson called “pleasurable thought” or “excessive meditation”, the crucial second stage of sin.  But even if he hasn’t read these authorities, the dreamer clearly recognizes what an unhappy fate Narcissus suffered in being caught in the snare of Cupid.  His coming upon the place where Narcissus died and being reminded of his story at the very moment when he is himself being hunted by Cupid seems, clearly enough, to be a timely warning he ought to heed.

After reading the inscription, the dreamer at first sensibly draws back, “lest I like Narcissus might in these water gaze”, he says.  But he quickly accuses himself of cowardice, and then precisely repeats the actions that led to Narcissus’ tragedy:

I then approached
And kneeled before the fountain to observe
How coursed the water o’er the pebbled floor
That bright as silver fine appeared to me.
‘Twas the last word in fountains!  None more fair
In all the world is found.

Here is a man of who can find the silver lining in any cloud.