‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town…’
‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922)
Arthurian legend tells of the sunken land of Lyonesse. One of the earliest literary references to Lyonesse appears in the 15th Century Arthurian tale ‘Le Morte Darthur’ by Sir Thomas Malory. In Malory’s version of the legend Lyonesse is imagined to have once formed a land bridge between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles- the birthplace of the hero Tristan. During the 19th and early 20th Century as the Arthurian legend enjoyed a revival the legend of Lyonesse was directly referenced by in a number of works by writers of romantic and fantastic fiction. These works include ‘Idylls of the King’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1856-1885), ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) and ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922). In addition although not directly referenced the image of a Lyonesse-like ‘foundered town’ or sunken city appears in a number of other works of this period ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ by Lord Dunsany (1915) and also in ‘What the Moon Brings’ (1923) ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927) and ‘The Call of Cthulu’ (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft.
In the ‘Idylls of the King’ (1856-1885) Alfred, Lord Tennyson re-imagines the Arthurian legend in a series of twelve narrative poems picturing Lyonesse as a ‘land of old’ brought up from the ‘abyss’ and returning to the depths from whence it came.
‘Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse–
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea’.
There seems to be an air of divine judgement in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse with an image of the land emerging from fire and falling back into the depths of the earth. This image brings to mind the destruction by fire and brimstone of the infamous biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are also echoes of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse, note the corresponding imagery of abyss, mountains and sea in this section of Milton’s poem.
‘They view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss
Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,
Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes
And surging waves, as Mountains to assault
Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole’.
The poet also evokes a feeling of great antiquity with the sunken land descending ‘Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt’. Even the ‘moaning sea’ seems to lament its descent beneath the waves.
Tristram of Lyonesse by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) is a lengthy narrative poem which ends in tragedy with the hero slain and his lover dying of a broken heart. The poem depicts Lyonesse as the watery grave of the hero Tristram and his lover Iseult.
‘For the strong sea hath swallowed wall and tower,
And where their limbs were laid in woful hour
For many a fathom gleams and moves and moans
The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones
In the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine:
Nor where they sleep shall moon or sunlight shine
Nor man look down for ever: none shall say,
Here once, or here, Tristram and Iseult lay:
But peace they have that none may gain who live.
And rest about them that no love can give,
And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea’.
The submerging of Lyonesse and the dead lover’s tomb beneath ‘The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones’ is arguably a metaphor for the eternal peace of death- the ‘peace they have that none may gain who live’. At the same time there is a sense of desecration created by the reference to ‘the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine’ suggesting a certain unhallowed quality to their burial place beneath the’ light and sound and darkness of the sea.’
Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ (1915) makes no direct reference to Lyonesse but uses the metaphor of drowned cities to show the futility of trying to use art to create a surrogate immortality, picturing ’the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh’-
‘All we who write put me in mind of sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships.
When we break up under the heavy years and go down into eternity with all that is ours our thoughts like small lost rafts float on awhile upon Oblivion’s sea. They will not carry much over those tides, our names and a phrase or two and little else.
They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.
See now Oblivion shimmering all around us, its very tranquility deadlier than tempest. How little all our keels have troubled it. Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale; and, like a whale, feeds on the littlest things–small tunes and little unskilled songs of the olden, golden evenings–and anon turneth whale-like to overthrow whole ships.
See now the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh; already their kings and queens are in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries that hide the sodden bulk of sunken Tyre and make a darkness round Persepolis.
For the rest I dimly see the forms of foundered ships on the sea-floor strewn with crowns.
Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.
There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen’.
Note how Dunsany pictures oblivion as the sea ’shimmering all around us’ and imagines that ‘Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale.’ The great civilisations of Tyre and Persepolis with all their glory are now submerged by time ‘ in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries.’
‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922) mirrors Swinburne’s vision of Lyonesse as a watery grave with its carver ‘Caged in his stone-ribbed side.’
‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town,
The Nereids pluck their lyres
Where the green translucency beats,
And with motionless eyes at gaze
Make ministrely in the streets.
And the ocean water stirs
In salt-worn casement and porch.
Plies the blunt-nosed fish
With fire in his skull for torch.
And the ringing wires resound;
And the unearthly lovely weep,
In lament of the music they make
In the sullen courts of sleep:
Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’.
De la Mare’s description of Lyonesse relies on the juxtaposition of opposites for its effect. The ‘Sabbath eve’ with its silent Christian belfries contrasts with the image of the pagan Nereids or sea nymphs of classical mythology who ‘pluck their lyres.’ The rhythm of the ‘green translucency beat’ of the sea contrasts with the ‘motionless eye’ of the Nerieds. The ‘ocean water’ is an elemental contrast with ‘the blunt-nosed fish/With fire in his skull.’ The image of ‘marble flowers’ is a paradoxical juxtaposition of organic with inorganic matter. There is a wavelike rhythm in this repetitious juxtaposition which heightens the impression of submergence beneath the sea. In ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ the ‘foundered town’ can be seen as a metaphor for time obscuring the works of the artist in similar terms to Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’. The final lines of the poem depict the irony of human creation outliving their creator.
‘Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’.
In ‘What the Moon Brings’ by H. P. Lovecraft (1923) the ‘foundered town’ makes another appearance but unlike ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ where it is the eternal aspects of death which are considered Lovecraft dwells on the ephemeral aspects of decay and the drowned city pictured is a kind of shallow grave of’ all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…’
‘Upon that sea the hateful moon shone, and over its unvocal waves weird perfumes breeded. And as I saw therein the lotos-faces vanish, I longed for nets that I might capture them and learn from them the secrets which the moon had brought upon the night. But when that moon went over to the west and the still tide ebbed from the sullen shore, I saw in that light old spires that the waves almost uncovered, and white columns gay with festoons of green seaweed. And knowing that to this sunken place all the dead had come, I trembled and did not wish again to speak with the lotos-faces…
…So I watched the tide go out under that sinking moon, and saw gleaming the spires, the towers, and the roofs of that dead, dripping city. And as I watched, my nostrils tried to close against the perfume-conquering stench of the world’s dead; for truly, in this unplaced and forgotten spot had all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…
…Nor had my flesh trembled without cause, for when I raised my eyes I saw that the waters had ebbed very low, shewing much of the vast reef whose rim I had seen before. And when I saw that the reef was but the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon whose monstrous forehead now shown in the dim moonlight and whose vile hooves must paw the hellish ooze miles below, I shrieked and shrieked lest the hidden face rise above the waters, and lest the hidden eyes look at me after the slinking away of that leering and treacherous yellow moon.
And to escape this relentless thing I plunged gladly and unhesitantly into the stinking shallows where amidst weedy walls and sunken streets fat sea-worms feast upon the world’s dead’.
In contrast to the melancholic mood of De la Mare where ‘the unearthly lovely weep,/In lament of the music they make ‘ the mood of ‘What the Moon Brings’ is one of horror where low tide exposes ‘dead dripping city’ on a reef which is ‘the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon’.
There are further echoes of de la Mare’s Lyonesse in Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927) which has references to submerged ‘ruins’ ‘walls ‘spires’ and ‘phosphorescent fish.’
‘On the fifth day the sailors were nervous, but the captain apologized for their fears, saying that the ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory, and that when the water was clear one could see so many moving shadows in that deep place that simple folk disliked it. He admitted, moreover, that many ships had been lost in that part of the sea; having been hailed when quite close to it, but never seen again.
That night the moon was very bright, and one could see a great way down in the water. There was so little wind that the ship could not move much, and the ocean was very calm. Looking over the rail Carter saw many fathoms deep the dome of the great temple, and in front of it an avenue of unnatural sphinxes leading to what was once a public square. Dolphins sported merrily in and out of the ruins, and porpoises revelled clumsily here and there, sometimes coming to the surface and leaping clear out of the sea. As the ship drifted on a little the floor of the ocean rose in hills, and one could clearly mark the lines of ancient climbing streets and the washed-down walls of myriad little houses.
Then the suburbs appeared, and finally a great lone building on a hill, of simpler architecture than the other structures, and in much better repair. It was dark and low and covered four sides of a square, with a tower at each corner, a paved court in the centre, and small curious round windows all over it. Probably it was of basalt, though weeds draped the greater part; and such was its lonely and impressive place on that far hill that it may have been a temple or a monastery. Some phosphorescent fish inside it gave the small round windows an aspect of shining, and Carter did not blame the sailors much for their fears. Then by the watery moonlight he noticed an odd high monolith in the middle of that central court, and saw that something was tied to it. And when after getting a telescope from the captain’s cabin he saw that that bound thing was a sailor in the silk robes of Oriab, head downward and without any eyes, he was glad that a rising breeze soon took the ship ahead to more healthy parts of the sea’.
In the final work considered ‘The Call of Cthulu’ (1928) Lovecraft describes ‘ the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters’ which unlike the drowned city in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ is not content to accept its doom (or divine judgement) but whose dread inhabitant Cthulu threatens to ‘rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway’.
‘They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him’.
One interpretation of ‘R’lyeh under the waters’ is as a metaphor for the unconscious mind and the irrational- with the rise of Cthulu as a kind of Freudian tsunami threatening to submerge the dry land of the rational mind. (The image can also be understood in the context of the theme of dystheism which permeates Lovecraft’s works).
‘Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47°9′, W. Longitude l23°43′, come upon a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror–the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration..’
Although R’lyeh is sunken it is not even in a clear state of being submerged. It is landscape of paradoxes a ‘coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry’ i.e. not land not sea not organic (‘weedy’) or a construction (‘cyclopean masonry’) but a mixture of all of these elements. The inhabitants did not fly from the stars but ‘seeped down’ in manner suggestive of bodily fluids. There is a sense of the ‘foundered town’ as a psycho-geography, a mind plagued by Freudian nightmares of a phallic ‘great stone pillar sticking out of the sea’ which ‘sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive.’
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