If I were given the chance to choose another era into which to have been born, I’m pretty sure that culturally, the mid- to late-19th century would have suited me fine. Well, provided I were given the resources to avoid having to live in grinding poverty, succumb to fatal diseases, and be an Englishman. In truth, it took me a long time to realize that I was perhaps born a century too early, and a simple list of my cultural interests outside of the 20th and 21st centuries make it so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how stupid I was to miss it!
Top Five Musicians: Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.
Top Five Poets: Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson.
Top Five Painters: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Arnold Bocklin, Thomas Cole, John Collier, Casper David Friedrich, and John William Waterhouse.
Top Five Writers: Han Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mark Twain.
Now not all of the above are 19th century – and consider that your “Quiz of the Week” to find out which are more early 2oth – but the majority certainly are. Add to this the fact that my collection of Freudiana takes up three shelves and you can see that on balance, I appear to be a hopeless Romantic, in the full 19th century meaning of the word.
You could say that I am enchanted by the era. It’s no surprise that I’ve already talked about the romanticism of vampires and that both Lara Croft and Xena Warrior Princess are guilty pleasures. But why should that be? What have these fictional characters got to do with the word enchant?
Well, the obvious link is that it also the root of the word enchantress, defined by the OED as a “female who employs magic; a witch, sorceress.” And perhaps the most iconic and well-known enchantress is Circe, who appears as a major character in Homer’s Odyssey, and gets a minor mention in Hesiod’s Theogeny. In the myth, Circe tried to use her magic to enchant Odysseus, but by using a drug given to him by Hermes, he was able to resist her charms. However, the same could not be said for Circe who fell in love with him and eventually let him and his men leave.
J.W. Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (Latin for envious) came close to having me banned from the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide when I committed the heinous crime of trying to take a photograph. My error was to use a camera since that what caught the attention of one of the fine art Gestapo, who were conveniently ignoring all the spotty-faced yakking kids on a school outing happily clicking their cell phones at all and everything. Unless he thought I was an international art thief planning my heist, I have yet to work out what possible harm I could have caused.
The word enchant derives from the Latin incantare, which in turn comes from the prefix in- meaning upon or against, followed by cantare, to sing. The word incantation, meaning a magic spell or charm comes from the same root. In his 1377 The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, William Langland wrote;
The frere with his phisik this folke hath enchaunted
By the 16th century, the word had extended its verbiness and become an adjective. In Spenser’s Faire Queene, he said;
When Britomart with sharp avizefull eye
Beheld the lovely face of Artegall
Tempred with sternesse and stout maiestie,
She gan eftsoones 6 it to her mind to call
To be the same which, in her fathers hall
Long since in that enchaunted glasse she saw.
Coleridge was also enchanted by “enchanted” and used the word in Kubla Khan (an etymologized version of which can be found on this very blog).
But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Tennyson used the masculine form of the noun in the story of Merlin and Vivian in Idylls of the King:
And Vivien ever sought to work the charm
Upon the great Enchanter of the Time,
As fancying that her glory would be great
According to his greatness whom she quenched.
In the poem, Merlin is eventually spellbound by Vivian as she casts a charm on him and imprisons him in an oak tree.
Enchant has certainly worked hard at crossing the parts-of-speech boarders by moving from verb to adjective to noun and even to adverb! For a very brief period in the 13th century, magic was referred to using the noun, enchantery, and we also see the first appearance of enchantment at around the same time, although this form of the word has continued to also mean “alluring or overpowering charm; enraptured condition; (delusive) appearance of beauty” up until today.
Shakespeare (who else?) appears to have been the first to coin the use of the word as an adverb in the passage;
Yet hee’s gentle, neuer school’d, and yet learned, full of noble deuise, of all sorts enchantingly beloued
And only last month in Vogue magazine, in a review of Oscar de la Renta’s latest collection, writer Indigo Clarke said that there was;
An enchantingly ladylike extravaganza like no other during New York Fashion Week…, Oscar de la Renta’s preternatural ability to make antiquated styles relevant in a modern context is continually inspiring.
As a final example of the dangers of enchantment, consider once more Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca and his brush with the sirens. These seductresses of the sea were said to lure sailors to their doom by singing the most beautiful and hypnotic songs and causing their prey to crash against rocks and drown. Artist John William Waterhouse, a slave to feminine enchantment, painted Ulysses and the Sirens in 1891, and The Siren around 1900.
If you click on the paintings and look at the faces of all the sirens, you’ll see that Waterhouse was indeed enchanted by a vision of one woman, whose image appears over and over in his paintings.
Male artists seem to be prone to enchantment. It could be said of Quentin Tarantino, the director, that he was enchanted by Uma Thurman, who has appeared in a number of his movies and with whom he maintains a professional relationship.
But men and their Muses… that’s another story.