BOOK II. OLD AND YOUNG.
20. CHAPTER XX.
To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a
knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes,
and traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts,
Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world.
But let them conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic
broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly
on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English
and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on
art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature
turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles,
fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave
the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain;
a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic
acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous
preoccupation with her personal lot. The weight of unintelligible
Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background
for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea
had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas,
palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all
that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy
of a superstition divorced from reverence; the dimmer but yet eager
Titanic life gazing and struggling on walls and ceilings; the long
vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous
light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals,
sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing
forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an
electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache
belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion.
Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense,
and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking
of them, preparing strange associations which remained through
her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images
which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze;
and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life
continued to see the vastness of St. Peter's, the huge bronze canopy,
the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets
and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was
being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease
of the retina.