The Place Of Diamonds In Literature
( Originally Published 1911 )
THOUGH with the appropriate use of them, there is also much vulgar display of diamonds, and an equally vulgar habit of decrying them as vulgar on that account, writers and poets continue to refer to the gem as one of the chief accompaniments of wealth and station, and as an illustration of the cardinal qualities of humanity, as they have done for ages. It is often employed also in the hyperbolical description of the beauties of nature and of the human eye, though some poets have found it inadequate for the latter purpose. Spencer in his search of heaven and earth for some-thing with which to compare the eyes of chaste beauty, passes the diamond thus, " Nor to the diamond; for they are more tender." But Moore, when he sings of charms so ensnaring that even knowledge of the charmer's faithlessness could not prevail against their potency, enumerates among them:
"Those eyes of hers, that floating, shine
Thomson glorifies the gem in order to make it a second to the eyes of beauty thus:
"The lively diamond drinks thy purest rays,
So also Emerson disparages its brilliancy in comparison with the human eye; he says :
"On prince or bride no diamond stone
In " Dualisms," Tennyson speaks of one of the children as:
" Summer's tanling diamond eyed."
There is a somewhat obscure passage in " The Revolt of Islam," where Shelley, describing the three shapes sculptured about the throne of Laone, says of the third :
"The third image was dressed
Perhaps one reason for the fascination which the gem possesses for most people is that in its play of light one is unconsciously reminded of human passions as they are expressed by the eye. Imagination does not fly far to see in its scintillations, the hard glare of hate, the flash of scorn, or the ardent glances which Cupid sends as arrows from his bow. There is a compelling attraction in the fitful flashes that spring from its polished facets, even for those who profess to despise the bold gem. When the light-sparks leap from diamond clusters on fair hands or fairer bosoms, beauty is glorified, and if music reigns, slumbering memories are roused in a glamour of romance, for the houris of imagination all wear diamonds and their eyes are like them.
Imitations of its good qualities as a stone are used by the poets to illustrate undesirable ones in humanity. Bryant describes a faithless heart as a " False diamond set in flint." Tasso ennobles the quality of hardness, and likens a strong heart to the gem. Godfrey's choice troop, sent by him to get timber from the enchanted forest, return empty-handed and in terror of the demons infesting it. After reciting the horrors encountered there, they say :
"The heart that fearless ventures where they dwell,
He several times refers to the hardness, stability, and strength of the stone, as do other poets, but its brittleness seems to have escaped recognition, for the figures wherein he refers to it, demand toughness as well as hardness. The two knights, sent to rescue Rinaldo from the Enchantress, are provided by the hermit-wizard with a shield of diamond. True, the chief purpose for which it was given appears to have been that it might be used finally as a kind of magic mirror. As a shield simply, it was of doubtful value, for a few sturdy blows rightly placed would have reduced it to splinters. He charges the knights:
"Then with the diamond shield which I provide,
Another recognition by the same poet, of the hardness of the diamond, in which he overlooked its cleavable quality, appears in the description of Sweno's valor in assaulting the barbarians.:
"Not the plate they wore,
Spenser, in " An Hymme of Heavenly Beautie," de-scribes the throne of heaven as:
"More firme and durable than steele or brasse,
It is noticeable that poets do not vary much in their figurative use of a thing. Each places it in similar connections throughout his poems. One illustrates hardness in some form, by the diamond, another brilliancy. With it, one engraves a human quality, the other be-dews the fields, or sprinkles water. Each, when it recurs to him, reproduces his former simile with little variation. Spenser almost always employs it to heighten the splendor of some building to which he would lift imagination. In " The Visions of Bellay " he says of the temple :
"On high hill top I saw a stately frame,
and the tomb is described thus :
"Then did a sharped spyre of Diamond bright,
Shelley did the same. In " Alastor " he sees Nature's caves:
"their starry domes
Similarly the temple is described in his " Revolt of Islam ":
"We came to a vast hall whose glorious roof
These lines betray acquaintance with the Oriental be-lief that the penetration of the earth to its deep places by lightning, was the origin of diamonds.
Tom Moore apparently had a better knowledge of jewels, and connected them with a wider range of ideas than perhaps any other poet. He also beautifies his conception of a fairy palace with diamonds. In " The Sylph's Ball," the gnome takes his sylph bride:
" to his mine — A palace paved with diamonds all —"
and he lays the image of Beauty's queen :
" Upon a diamond shrine."
Reference to it as an adornment of the person excepted, the poets employ the diamond more frequently to heighten their description of water and light than in any other way. Nor could it well be otherwise, for as Bryant says in " Green River : "
" The quivering glimmer of sun and rill With a sudden flash on the eye is thrown,
Like the ray that streams from the diamond-stone."
One who has reveled in the exquisite fairy dance of light and water, in which every movement of each, twins with the grace and beauty of the other to the joyous bewilderment of the onlooker, can understand the despair of the poet for words to carry the impression, and his desperate seizure of the most precious and beautiful thing known, to aid him.
In " After the Tempest," Bryant describes the landscape when Nature, drenched, the clouds and wind-storm gone, basks once more in the hush of repose under a beaming sun. One hears in the lines, the momentary rustle of the flying bird, and feels the splash of liquid diamonds as they fall on hand and cheek :
"The raindrops glistened on the trees around,
The same poet creates about the gem a beautiful and pleasing fancy in " A Winter Piece " :
"Oh ! you might deem the spot
Lowell, " Strewed moss and grass with diamonds bright," and one of Moore's angels, telling in his story of a maiden of Earth, says:
" While playfully around her breaking The waters that like diamonds shone, She moved in light of her own making."
Shelley too, saw :
—" Many a fountain, rivulet and pond, As clear as elemental diamond."
The gem has place in a pretty conceit of Lowell's in " Beaver Brook ":
" The miller dreams not at what cost The quivering millstones hum and whirl, Nor how for every turn are tost Armfuls of diamonds and of pearls."
It is a recognition of the precious if vagrant beauties with which the sun delights the eye wherever waters are broken, or snows crust, and which, because they are without money and without price, are therefore dearer to the hearts of some than the costly gem which Nature has endowed with the same glories permanent and unassailable.
But few references are made to the stone in the Bible. It is mentioned in Exodus as one of the stones set in the High Priest's breastplate. Jeremiah speaks of it as a graver, and Ezekiel includes it among the precious stones worn by the Prince of Tyrus in his glory. Mention is not made of it by the Greeks until about 300 B. C., though Hindu legends disclose a knowledge of it centuries earlier. Pliny gathered what was known and surmised about the stone in his time, and recorded what to-day reads like a cluster of nonsense, though his example is emulated by instructors in the press of the twentieth century.
Probably no one thing has attracted more indiscriminate writing than the diamond. Since the qualities which make it precious became known, writers have used it to " adorn a tale " almost as frequently as fair dames use it to multiply their charms and oftentimes quite as grotesquely. In the early days, before its full brilliancy was developed by cutting, when the natural octahedron, or stones with a natural bright surface only, could be used as jewels, its " unspeakable hardness " was the principal theme upon which writers rung the changes, and about which they let imagination loose. Pliny asserted that not only was it so hard that it successfully resisted when struck by an iron hammer, but that the hammer and anvil were torn asunder by it. To fire, it was invincible and there was but one way to subdue and break it down and that, by first dipping it in fresh, warm, goat's blood. Poets of the first century, Juvenal particularly, allude to it, but not until the latter part of the fifteenth century, when the art of cutting and polishing it was discovered, did it attract writers as generally as other precious stones, better known, and more popular because of their color and greater brilliancy either in the natural state, or by processes to which the diamond would not respond.
When, however, the brilliant possibilities of the diamond were developed, and it became the desire of kings and nobles, then the glories of the great were glorified by telling of the diamonds they wore, and the glory of the diamond was glorified by the fables and superstitions of Pliny and those who followed him. Fable, magic and superstitions, enlarged by reiteration, crept into print, and were established for generations and centuries. The searching light of the first decade of the twentieth century has not yet quite dissipated them, though goat's blood and the hammer and anvil test have been abolished.
Fables about the origin of the diamond are not many. In India it was said that lightning penetrating the earth generated them; it is also believed there that they continue to grow and may be later found in ground which has been already worked over. This idea of slow growth by accretion has appeared in print quite lately and comes from high authority. Pliny wrote that it was engendered in fine gold.
From the first to the fifteenth century little was writ-ten of the diamond but fable, and that a development of Pliny with nonsensical outcroppings of belief in its magic influences. The principal writers were Isidorus, Bishop of Seville in the seventh century ; Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes, in the eleventh century, and Mohammond Ben Mansur in the twelfth.
During this period, the imaginations of ignorance and folly, fostered by those who profited by them, crystallized into various forms of superstition. Following the idea of stones in the Jewish High Priest's breastplate representing the twelve tribes of Israel, the Romish Church was awarded twelve Apostle Stones. The diamond not being amenable to the uses of Apostle Stones, was not included in the list, but it was given a place in the more generally applicable lists of birthstones, of which several came into existence, the more widely accepted being what are known now as the Polish and the Jewish. These in turn have been welded of late for business reasons into one, and a new modern list formed, in which the cheaper stones are discarded or combined with others more expensive and ancient authority is made to countenance the more precious varieties which jewelers prefer to sell. To give effect to the idea, a string of doggerel, bad enough to be ancient, has been bound to the months and stones, and it has been so widely circulated of late as to be established in the trade and the popular mind as authoritative. Behind every superstition somewhere, interested motives are to be found hiding.
Of these birthstones, the diamond is awarded to April, and is said to typify purity and to preserve peace. Undoubtedly it has preserved peace under many threatening conditions.
Various magic powers and medicinal virtues have at different times been ascribed to the gem. One said it warded off mania; another that it was an antidote for poisons, though the exact method of applying or administering it has not been preserved with the prescription. One writer claimed that if it were placed upon the forehead of a woman while she slept, it would cause her to reveal the secrets of her heart. One less imaginative, but wiser and more practical, said that, placed upon a woman's hand it brought felicity. Some probably confounding the ancient superstition about the pearl, averred that the diamond brought tears to its possessor, but of all the absurd things which have been said and written about it, purity, peace and April, as the proper accompaniments of the gem, have survived and remain a popular fancy today.
With the cutting and polishing of the stone in the fifteenth century, a new place was found for it in literature. As a gem it became more valued and far more generally desired. With its increased importance came greater interest in it. Chroniclers of events among the great gave it more attention. Scientists were attracted to speculate upon its nature, genesis, and qualities. Artisans sought to improve it. Men of commerce gave more regard to it as a thing pregnant with profit. The newly developed beauties awakened the imagination of poets and romancers, and all of them began to include it more frequently in their writings.
A jeweler often hears from those who bring to him old gold jewelry for sale, the commendation, " I know this is good because it is very old." If he is experienced, this amuses him, for he knows that the jewelers of old cheated their public to an extent impossible now. Their gold chains, many of them, had barely enough gold in them to save the name, they were of such low grade. But that did not suffice ; the ends of the chain were decorated with lion's heads, or other fancy designs which could be swelled out to hold much lead, for the trimmings, as they were called, were made of very thin shells of gold and filled with the cheap and heavy metal. So also were the bars and swivels. Thus equipped for profit, the loaded chain was thrown into the scale and weighed as gold. In all ages, the measure of the seller's honesty has been the knowledge of the buyer.
Where ignorance abounds, rascality thrives, and there was abundant ignorance in the olden times about jewelry and jewels.
Most of our current newspaper and magazine literature about precious stones, is a rehash of ancient fables written by men who knew little of the things they wrote about. They gathered their information largely from the advertisements of dealers, who endowed their wares with any virtue which might assist in selling them. And these dealers were doubtless assisted by men in authority and high place. Even in these days, if one would place a spring-water on the market, he must first secure the recommendation of a physician, and that is to be had for a fee. The vendor of every nostrum has letters by the thousand from grateful dupes, who think they have been benefited by swallowing it, and know they would like to see their letters of acknowledgment in print. Ministers have been known to sing the praises of gold mines in which they had an interest that cost them nothing. Lords of high degree and smaller fry are constantly lending their names to doubtful enter-prises, for a consideration. It is but fair to presume, therefore, that in a stage of the same old human race, where ignorance was even more rife than now, apostle and birth stones, charms, amulets, and antidotes, were established in the public faith, not by an apparent demonstration of fact, but by the reiterations of those who were seeking profit, aided by others whose place or profession inspired confidence.
After the days of oral tradition came the writer. Naturally imaginative, desirous of supplying that which the people would read, and therefore inclined to elaborate, rather than try out a tradition long fondly received, he gathered the fables and superstitions of his time, endowed them with a halo of mystery and romance, and without asserting the truth of manifest absurdities, presented them so linked with age and the ghosts of past knowledge and wisdom, that the people received at their hands as facts, fables which had not even a foundation in fact. Oftentimes he went farther, and himself declared the grotesque little images carved out of immature imaginations by wily traders, blatant astrologers, venal priests, and the like, to be veritable living truths. And the people, seeing that they were awkward wooden things without similitude or the breath of life, nevertheless believed. They do yet, for now, one may read that diamonds live and will sweat in the presence of poisons; not given as an example of the marvelous effrontery and credulity of past ages, but with the assertion that it is a fact which has been many times demonstrated. If one breathes upon a cold diamond, a mist will immediately appear upon the surface of it, whether poison be present or not. It is yet told that the diamond in Aaron's breastplate became dark when a guilty man charged with crime was brought before him, and sparkled more brilliantly if the prisoner was innocent, and that it became the color of blood when the sins of the people should be punished. Of old, churches were responsible for many of the lies which masqueraded as truth. Wretched priesthoods, more interested in maintaining a subservient laity than in spreading the sublime truths of their churches, sought by every means to frighten and lure. Precious stones, having a strong hold on the imaginations of people generally, were used among other things to intimidate and awe, and so to the stones in the High Priest's breast-plate, teachers of the law ascribed magic powers. Priests and saints of the Roman Church founded legends of the emerald cup of the last supper, and the miraculous virtues of the sapphire, etc. To uphold the tyrannical power of rulers, jewels of kings were endowed with the power to heal, as for instance, the Sapphire of Edward the Confessor. It seems probable, however, that these beliefs were of gradual growth, becoming more influential as time and constant repetition and enlargement of the story gave force to the claim. Any absurdity continually asseverated will finally be accepted by a large number of people as a matter of fact.
But not alone are ulterior motives blamable for the foolish superstitions about precious stones. As there are individuals in every age who in attempting to grasp the mysteries of existence lose their hold on facts within the compass of their understanding, and floundering, clutch myths as answers to their unanswerable questions, so in the ebb and flow of thought throughout the ages, mankind passes again and again by waves from the depths of gross and brutal unreason to mysticism. As a comet passing myriads of miles away, back through its sublime orbit to infinite space, was a writing on the wall of this poor Earth's domain to the ignorant, so the change of color in the turquoise by chemical re-action was accepted as a sign of approaching calamity. These are the imaginations of ignorance. From this stage men passed to one of greater enlightenment, in which the beautiful qualities of precious stones reminded them of spiritual things, and they made of them symbols. To the poetic imagination, the ruby symbolized the blood-red passion of love, and the emerald, chastity. So qualities of the mind and person, months in the year, sacred names and religious ordinances, were associated with the different beautiful stones which came to be accepted as their symbols. But the wave swept on to the mysticism of the Jewish Cabala and gnosticism. By the influence of that age, stones were in-vested with occult powers; diamonds conferred spiritual insight and promoted peace and purity; the topaz, by quenching the hot blood of sensuality, preserved its wearer from lustful desire, and so on.
With the eighteenth century came a succeeding wave of calm reasoning and scientific research. Since then it is dawning upon us that the wonders of fact are greater than the imaginations of ignorance; that the marvels of Nature's processes are more delightful than the magic of the esoteric.
Now the diamond has a large place in the literature of commerce and science. Because it came to prominence and general knowledge later than most other precious stones, and after the age of superstition and gnosticism, not as much reference to it is bequeathed to us from the dark ages. Talismans, amulets, and occult powers are connected with other stones which were more widely known and traded in when the diamond was yet the companion of the lords of men only. Newly invented stories of magic cannot long survive twentieth century light; the mummified beliefs of past ages alone can be safely exposed occasionally to vivify trade, and satisfy the child-craving of the human heart for fairy tales. Were a dealer to recommend the purchase of a diamond because it would perspire in the presence of poisons, the prospective customer would leave him in disgust, but the same statement in a daily paper, endorsed by the name of some wise (?) man of an unwise age centuries back, would not be without influence. Print has been so clothed with authority that, yellow journalism notwithstanding, the public still fail to recognize a lie in that garb.
Although the wide diffusion of the knowledge of facts now, will not permit the old time recklessness of misstatement in one direction, it has opened a new opportunity and another form of credulity, of which sensational writers are taking advantage. The wonderful developments of science of late have prepared the public mind to believe any wild statement if given as a scientific fact. Let a 'scientist state that radium affects the color of precious stones, and in a few weeks, magazines, trade journals, and the daily papers, teem with articles describing in detail the process by which rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, can, by association with radium, be made out of ordinary corundum. In a month they have changed the simple transformation of a few colors, into the transmutation at will of minerals, for many elements of which some of these stones are formed do not exist in corundum. So also if one announces that he can make diamond out of something other than the one thing (carbon) which a diamond is, the absurdity is hawked from San Francisco to St. Petersburg; chiefly between the first place and New York.
The literature of advertising is sufficiently extensive and important to be worthy of notice. The character of it in the Middle Ages was in accordance with the age.
When a dealer advertises diamonds to-day he appeals chiefly to the commercial instinct. In the old days appeal was made to superstition. But withal, there was infused in it an element of poetry entirely lacking now. And there is evidence that poets were hired to sing the praises of his beautiful treasures, by the old time dealer. After descanting upon the natural glories of the stone, its magic virtues were enumerated with such liberality, that no disease of the body or the mind could entirely escape. To surround it with a rosy mist of romance, he told, without caring much for facts, of the mysterious far-away lands from which it came. One great writer informed his readers that the most precious sapphire came from the land of the Turk and an inferior kind from Libya, which was the Africa of the Greeks. The diamond, being uncommon and little known in those days, escaped much of the puffery given to other gems, but when later it came to more general knowledge, many of the virtues hitherto ascribed to others were transferred to it. Many pages would be filled were all the things it could do enumerated. It would banish bad dreams due to stomach trouble ; promote purity and peace; ensure harmony between man and wife; strengthen wedded love. In all this there was doubt-less an element of truth, for men find to-day, that the sage advice with which the ancient dealer in precious stones closed his homily, " to give the diamond freely," is conducive to peace and harmony.
Jewelers were the quacks of the Middle Ages. For about every ill that human flesh is heir to, they had a specific, and as the claims they made were founded entirely upon imagination, it often happened that one stone was advertised by various dealers as a remedy for many ills, and each disease had as many stones which would surely cure. This was pleasant for the sick, as they could have a choice of beautiful remedies for their money and it is convenient for the writer of today for he can attach almost any fancy to a precious stone, and be sure of warrant for it somewhere in ancient lore.
Now romance and poetry have faded from the advertisement. With swarms of young men and women, barely out of their teens, parading our streets with dress-suit cases plastered over with marks of Cairo and Calcutta; with newspaper columns carrying the prosaic facts of output, prices, and values of diamonds and diamond-mine shares; with fast steamships linking the cities of the west with the ports of the tawny east, and railroads taking a traveling world through the jungles of India and Africa, the haze is lifted, and the things we see are shorn of the dear imaginings old-time eyes thought they saw in its sunny vaporings. India, Africa, and Cathay, are pounds, shillings and pence to the Englishman; dollars and cents to the American now, and they who deal in the things which came therefrom have taken the cue. There is little variety in the song they sing; the refrain is always the same, " The diamond I offer you for one hundred dollars is worth one hundred and ten, and when the syndicate raises the price of rough five per cent., it will be worth so much more." The description one dealer gives of the stone he is offering to sell for one hundred dollars, if true, would make it cheap to an importer at twice the amount; another, oblivious of several profits added to the first cost, writes his diamond up as a good investment ; all alike ignore the poetry and romance, the beauty of the wonderful crystal, the exquisite adaptation of art to Nature's requirements in the cutting and polishing of it, and degrade the companion of royalty and beauty to the sign of dollars.
And because the diamond-advertising literature of the day reeks so with the spirit of the bargain counter, and the gem flashes so commonly from the unclean hands of politics, vice and graft, the noblest product of Nature's gigantic laboratory is by association, oftentimes made vulgar.