Precious Stones - A Chaplet of Pearls
( Originally Published 1880 )
THERE is a magic charm in the PEARL that seems to have fascinated the world in various ages and countries. The modest splendour and purity of the jewel made it the favourite of all others among the Orientals. Chares, of Mitylene, alludes to the Margaritas necklaces as far more highly valued by the Asiatics than those made of gold. The Romans went wild over them, and of all the articles of luxury and ostentation known to them, pearls appear to have been most esteemed. Pompey, as the richest spoils of his victories in Asia, displayed in his procession into Rome, after his triumph over the third continent, among his treasures, thirty-three crowns made of pearls, a temple of the Muses with a dial on the top, and a figure of himself, formed of the same materials. This roused the ire of the Stoic Pliny, but contributed to the popular passion for obtaining these jewels. He remarks of Lollia Paulina (wife of the Emperor Caligula) that she was covered with emeralds and pearls, strung alternately, glittering all over her head, hair, bandeau, necklaces, and fingers, valued at forty millions of sesterces (£400,000).
Servilia, the mother of the famous Brutus, received from Julius Casar a pearl as a present which cost the donor £50,000. The celebrated pearls of Cleopatra, worn as earrings, were valued at £161,457.
The famous feat of swallowing a costly pearl, related of this queen, is recorded to have been tried, somewhat before, by Clodius, son of AEsopus the player, who, having discovered that dissolved pearls possessed the most exquisite flavour, did not confine his knowledge to himself, but gave one apiece to each of his guests to swallow.
In former times, powdered pearls were considered invaluable for stomach complaints !
Caligula wore slippers made of pearls ; and Nero formed of them sceptres for the characters on the stage, and couches for his amours.
The mystery that hung over the origin of the pearl doubtless added to its estimation. Pliny says it was produced by the dews of heaven falling into the open shell at the breeding-time. The quality varied with the amount of dew received, being lustrous if that was pure, dull if it were foul ; cloudy weather spoilt the colour, lightning stopped the growth, but thunder made the shell-fish miscarry, and eject hollow husks, called bubbles (physemata). The same writer twits the ladies for their passionate fondness for pearl earrings. He relates that the shoal of pearl-oysters had a king, distinguished by his age and size, exactly as bees have a queen, wonderfully expert in keeping his subjects out of harm's way ; but if the divers once succeeded in catching him, the next, straying about blindly, fell an easy prey. Though defended by a bodyguard of sharks, and dwelling amongst the rocks of the abyss, they cannot be preserved from ladies' ears.
Mandeville, whose ideas on precious stones are partly taken from Pliny, alluding to the diamond, says, " For right as the fine pearl congeals and grows great by the dew of Heaven, right so doth the true diamond ; and right as the pearl by its own nature takes roundness, so the diamond by virtue of God takes squareness."
Benjamin of Tudela says :—" In these places " (about Kathipha, in the Indian Sea) "the stone called bdellius is found made by the wonderful workmanship of Nature. For on the twenty-fourth of the month Nisan a certain dew falleth down into the waters, which, being gathered, the inhabitants wrap up together, and being fast closed, they cast it into the sea, that it may sink of its own accord to the bottom of the sea ; and in the middle of the month Tisri, two men being let down into the sea by ropes unto the bottom, bring up certain creeping worms, which they have gathered, into the open air, out of which (being broken and cleft) these stones are taken."
Purchas conjectures that the story of pearls by some fabler was thus corrupted to this statement.
Some consider bdellium, which is mentioned in the Scriptures (Genesis and Numbers), as a precious stone, and the Jewish Rabbins, together with some modern commentators, translate it by pear, but it is more than probable that the pearl was as yet unknown in the time of Moses. Most probably, the Hebrew Bedolach is the aromatic gum bdellium, which issues from a tree growing in Arabia, Media, and the Indies.
According to the poetic Orientals, every year, on the sixteenth day of the month of Nisan, the pearl-oysters rise to the sea and open their shells, in order to receive the rain which falls at that time, and the drops thus caught become pearls. On this belief the poet Sadi, in his " Bostau," has the following fable
" A drop of water fell one day from a cloud into the sea. Ashamed and confused at finding itself in such an immensity of water, it exclaimed, ` What am I in comparison of this vast ocean ? My existence is less than nothing in this boundless abyss !' While it thus discoursed of itself, a pearl-shell received it in its bosom, and fortune so favoured it that it became a magnificent and precious pearl, worthy of adorning the diadem of kings. Thus was its humility the cause of its elevation, and by annihilating itself, it merited exaltation."
Moore alludes to this pretty fiction in one of his sweetest melodies :
"And precious the tear as that rain from the sky
Sir Walter Scott, in the " Bridal of Triermain," says :
" See these pearls that long have slept ;
Lilly, in " Gallathea" :
Shakespeare (" Richard III.") :
"The liquid drops of tears that you have shed
In Lee's " Mithridates " we have :
"'Twould raise your pity, but to see the tears
Elena Piscopia (1684), of the Corraro family of Venice, had a medal struck in her honour, on the reverse of which is an open shell, receiving the drops of dew from heaven, which form into pearls : the motto was Rore divine—by the divine dew.
Crashaw, in the " Tear," says :
" Such a pearl as this is
Chamberlayne in " Love's Victory " :
" The morning pearls
Milton, in " Paradise Lost," has several allusions to the " orient pearl " :
" Now morn her rosy steps in the Eastern clime
The same simile is beautifully expressed :
"Though from off the bough each morn
Shakespeare has a similar metaphor, when alluding to ____
"The bladed grass as decked with liquid pearl."
Herrick has some fanciful allusions on the same subject ___
" Like to the summer's rain,
In " Oberon's Feast " .
" And now we must imagine first
On Corinna's going a-Maying "
In one of William Drummond's sonnets, we find :—
"The clouds for joy, in pearls weep down their showers."
Pearls have for ages been significant for tears. It is related that Queen Margaret Tudor, consort of James IV. of Scotland, previous to the battle of Flodden Field, had strong presentiments of the disastrous issue of that conflict. One night she had fearful dreams, in which she thought she saw her husband hurled down a great precipice and crushed and mangled at the bottom. In another vision she thought, as she was looking at her jewels, chains, and sparkling coronets of diamonds, they suddenly turned to pearls, " which are the emblems of widowhood and tears."
A few nights before the assassination of Henry IV. of France, his queen dreamed that all the jewels in her crown were changed into pearls, and she was told that they were significant of tears.
Milton, in his " Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester," says :__
"And those pearls of dew she wears
Similes of pearls and tears are frequent in our old writers ; thus Shakespeare in " Midsummer Night's Dream " ___
"And that same dew which sometimes on the buds
In " King John " :
" Draw those heaven-moving pearls from his poor eyes
The metaphor is a favourite one with Lovelace :
" Lucasta wept, and still the bright Enamour'd god of day,
" If tears could wash the ill away,
In Chalkhill's "Thealma and Clearchus," we find of the former ___
" Anon she drops a tear,
Robert Southwell, in "St. Mary Magdalen's Tears," says :—" The angels must bathe themselves in the pure stream of thine eyes, and thy face shall be set with this pearly liquid, that, as out of thy tears were stroken the first sparks of thy Lord's love, so thy tears may be the oil to feed his flames."
Pearls from Glapthorne's " Hollander," (1640)
" Virgins and innocent lovers spotless tears
The old poets, describing the charms of their fair mistresses, are prodigal in the metaphor of pearls. Thus we have Sir Philip Sidney addressing Stella :
" Thinke of that most gratefull time
So Spenser, in his "Sonnets" describes his mistress :
"But fairest she, when so she doth display
And here, by the way, we know that the ancient Arabs, among the many accomplishments they valued, placed eloquence in the foremost rank. Their orations were of two sorts, metrical or prosaic, the one being compared to pearls strung, and the other to loose ones.
Herrick sings :
"Some ask'd how pearls did growe, and where,
And Lovelace, in his " Lucasta : "
Shakspeare, in " King Lear," says :
" Those happy smilets
The author of the " Honeymoon" writes :
"No deeper rubies than compose thy lips,
In Lawrence's " Arnalte and Lucenda " we have :
"Her lips like rubies, which by art are join'd,
Herrick's " Hymn to Venus ":
"Goddess, I do love a girl,
Thomas Carew, in the " Compliment," alludes to ___
" Teeth of pearl, the double guard
William Cartwright (1650):
" Whether those orders of thy teeth now sown
The occult virtues of the pearl were highly esteemed in the early ages. They were supposed to be brought forth by being boiled in meat, when they healed the quartan ague ; bruised, and taken with milk, they were good for ulcers, and cleared the voice. They also comforted the heart, and rendered their possessor chaste. Powdered pearls were considered as an in-valuable medicine in several complaints. The Greeks and Romans wore pearls made into crowns as amulets. Pope Adrian, wishing to secure all virtues in his favour, wore amulets composed of a number of things, including a sun-baked toad and pearls.
Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, writing of the island of Chipanga, says : " The inhabitants have pearls in abundance, which are of a rose colour. When a dead body is burnt, they put one of these pearls in the mouth."
In old India the red pearls were highly esteemed, and formed one of the seven precious objects which it was incumbent to use in the adornment of Buddhistic reliquaries, and to distribute at the building of a Dagopa.
The famous Venetian traveller, Polo, also mentions a famous " rosary " of pearls and rubies belonging to the King of Malabar, " who wears round his neck a necklace entirely of precious stones, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and the like, insomuch that this collar is of great value. He wears also, hanging in front of his chest, from the neck downwards, a fine silk thread, strung with one hundred and four large pearls and rubies of great price. The reason why he wears this cord with the one hundred and four great pearls and rubies is (according to what they tell), that every day, morning and evening, he has to say one hundred and four prayers to his idols. Such is their religion and their custom. And thus did all the kings, his ancestors, before him, and they bequeathed the string of pearls to him who should do the like. The prayer that they say daily consists of these words, `Pacauta, Pacauta, Pacauta,' and this they repeat one hundred and four times.
" The king aforesaid also wears on his arms three golden bracelets, thickly set with pearls of great value, and anklets also of like kind he wears on his legs, and rings on his toes likewise. So let me tell you, what this king wears, between gold, and gems, and pearls, is worth more than a city's ransom. And 'tis no wonder, for he hath great store of such gear ; and besides, they are found in his kingdom. Moreover, nobody is permitted to take out of the kingdom a pearl weighing more than half a saggio, unless he manages to do it secretly. This order has been given because the king desires to reserve all such to himself; and so, in fact, the quantity he has is almost incredible. Moreover, several times every year he sends his proclamation through the realm, that if any one who possesses a pearl or stone of great value will bring it to him, he will pay for it twice as much as it cost. Everybody is glad to do this, and thus the king gets all into his own hands, giving every man his price."
" In all the portraits of the Sassanian monarch " (observes the Rev. Mr. King), "the eye is immediately struck by the huge pearl hanging from the right ear, the artist evidently considering it an essential point in his image of the sovereign. This reminds us of the romantic tale, related by Procopius, of that pearl of unrivalled magnitude, obtained at the urgent entreaty of King Perozes, by the daring diver, from the guardianship of the enamoured shark, but with the sacrifice of his own life. How vividly does he bring before us the final catastrophe, when disappeared for ever from the world this inestimable miracle of nature : when the great king, resplendent in all his jewels, at the head of his mail-clad chivalry, charged the flying hordes of the Ephthalite Huns, and in the very moment of falling into the vast pitfall, into which he had been entrapped by their feigned retreat (which engulfed him, his son, and his bravest nobles), tore from his right ear this glory of his reign, and cast it before himself into the abyss, there to be eternally lost, amidst the hideous chaos of crushed man and horse—comforted in death with the assurance of thus cheating the foe of the most glorious trophy of the victory. Nor could the Huns, although stimulated to the search by the enormous offers of his Byzantian rival in similar ostentation, the Emperor Anastasius (who promised five hundred weight of gold pieces to the finder), ever succeed in recovering from the pit of death the so highly coveted jewel."
This species of idolatry for a "precious " pearl in ancient times has its counterpart in modern history.
" Some time before I went to Moscow," observes Kohl, in his " Russia," "there died in a convent, whither he had retreated, after the custom of the pious wealthy ones of his nation, a rich merchant, whose house had large establishments in Moscow, Constantinople, and Alexandria, and extensive connections throughout the East. Feeling the approach of age, he had by degrees given up the toils of business to his sons. His wife was dead, and the only beloved object, which even in the cloister was not divided from him, was one large, beautiful oriental pearl. This precious object had been purchased for him by some Persian or. Arabian friend at a high price, and enchanted by its water, magnificent size and colour, its perfect shape and lustre, he would never part with it, however enormous the sum offered for it. Perhaps, in the contemplation of its peerless beauty, as it lay before him in his leisure hours, he recalled the events of his early life, and the glories of the East, as he had formerly beheld them with his own eyes. He fairly worshipped the costly globule. He himself inhabited an ordinary cell in the convent ; but this object of his love was bedded on silk in a golden casket. It was shown to few ; many favourable circumstances and powerful recommendations were necessary to obtain such a favour. One of my Moscow friends who had succeeded in introducing himself, and had received a promise that he should behold the pearl of pearls, informed me of the style and manner of the ceremony. On the appointed day, he went with his friends to the convent, and found the old man awaiting his guests at a splendidly-covered breakfast table, in his holiday clothes. Their reception had something of solemnity about it. The old man afterwards went into his cell, and brought out the casket in its rich covering. He first spread a piece of white satin on the table, and then, unlocking the casket, let the precious pearl roll out before the enchanted eyes of the spectators. No one dared to touch it, but all burst into acclamations, and the old man's eyes gleamed like his pearl. It was, after a short time, carried back to its hiding-place.
"During his last illness, the old humourist never let his pearl out of his hand, and after his death it was with difficulty taken from his stiffened fingers. It found its way afterwards to the imperial treasury."
Giovanni of Austria, wife of Francesco de Medici, took, as her device, the sun shining upon a pearl just emerged from the ocean, with the motto, " Tu splendorum, tu vigorem " (" Thou [givest] brightness, thou strength ")-that is, as the pearl derives all its whiteness, brilliancy, and firmness, from the sun, so from heaven alone she looked for strength, virtue, and grace.
Margaret of Austria (1530), among other devices, had a pearl shining from its cell, with the motto, "Deus Matura Corona." ("About to bring glory to the crown").
In one of Thomas Carew's most striking elegiac poems we find the following lines on " Lady S., wife to Sir W. S."
" She was a cabinet
The work on " Filial Piety " so much esteemed in China, is said to have been written by Confucius, and that when he informed the gods of its completion, they showed their approval of it by causing a large rainbow to span the sky, and gradually to descend towards the earth in the shape of a huge pearl.
One of the finest passages in that rich cluster of poetic gems, the " Lucasta " of Lovelace, is in the dedication of that work ___
" And as at Loretto's shrine
He thus admonishes Chloe :
" Its use and rate values the gem :
Dryden remarks :
" Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow :
In conclusion, I may remind the reader of one of the happiest similes in connection with the subject of this chapter ; they are the words of Touchstone, in " As You Like It " :