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"The naked nymphes, some up, some downe descending, "Small scattering flowres one at another flung,
"With pretty turns their lymber bodies bending-."
I once thought, their bends referred to Cleopatra's eyes, and not to her gentlewomen. Her attendants, in order to learn their mistress's will, watched the motion of her eyes, the bends or movements of which added new lustre to her beauty. See the quota
tion from Shakspeare's 149th Sonnet, p. 235, n. 2.
In our author we frequently find the word bend applied to the eye. Thus, in the first Act of this play :
those his goodly eyes
now bend, now turn," &c.
Again, in Cymbeline :
Although they wear their faces to the bent "Of the king's looks."
Again, more appositely, in Julius Cæsar :
"And that same eye, whose bend doth awe the world." Mr. Mason, remarking on this interpretation, acknowledges that "their bends may refer to Cleopatra's eyes, but the word made must refer to her gentlewomen, and it would be absurd to say that they made the bends of her eyes adornings." Assertion is much easier than proof. In what does the absurdity consist? They thus standing near Cleopatra, and discovering her will by the eyes, were the cause of her appearing more beautiful, in consequence of the frequent motion of her eyes; i. e. (in Shakspeare's language,) this their situation and office was the cause, &c. We have in every part of this author such diction. But I shall not detain the reader any longer on so clear a point; especially as I now think that the interpretation of these words given originally by Dr. Warburton is the true one.
Bend being formerly sometimes used for a band or troop, Mr. Tollet very idly supposes that the word has that meaning here. MALONE.
I had determined not to enter into a controversy with the editors on the subject of any of my former comments; but I cannot resist the impulse I feel, to make a few remarks on the strictures of Mr. Steevens, both on the amendment I proposed in this passage, and my explanation of it; for if I could induce him to accede to my opinion, it would be the highest gratification to me.
His objection to the amendment I have proposed, that of reading in the guise instead of in the eyes, is, that the phrase in the guise cannot be properly used, without adding somewhat to it, to determine precisely the meaning; and this, as a general observation, is perfectly just, but it does not apply in the present case; for the preceding lines,
"Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
and the subsequent line,
A seeming mermaid steers;"
very clearly point out the meaning of the word guise. If you ask in what guise? I answer in the guise of mermaids; and the connection is sufficiently clear even for prose, without claiming any allowance for poetical licence. But this objection may be entirely done away, by reading that guise instead of the guise, which I should have adopted, if it had not departed somewhat farther from the text.
With respect to my explanation of the words, and made their bends adornings, I do not think that Mr. Steevens's objections are equally well founded.
He says that a mermaid's tail is an unclassical image, adopted from modern sign posts. That such a being as a mermaid did never actually exist, I will readily acknowledge: but the idea is not of modern invention. In the oldest books of heraldry you will find mermaids delineated in the same form that they are at this day. The crest of my own family, for some centuries, has been a mermaid; and the Earl of Howth, of a family much more ancient, which came into England with the conqueror, has a mermaid for one of his supporters.
Boyse tells us, in his Pantheon, on what authority I cannot say, that the Syrens were the daughters of Achelous, that their lower parts were like fishes, and their upper parts like women; and Virgil's description of Scylla, in his third Eneid, corresponds exactly with our idea of a mermaid:
Prima hominis facies, et pulchro pectore virgo
Pube tenus, postrema immani corpore pristis.
I have, therefore, no doubt but this was Shakspeare's idea also. Mr. Steevens's observations on the aukward and ludicrous situation of Cleopatra's attendants, when involved in their fishes' tails, is very jocular and well imagined; but his jocularity proceeds from his not distinguishing between reality and deception. If a modern fine lady were to represent a mermaid at a masquerade, she would contrive, I have no doubt, to dress in that character, yet to preserve the free use of all her limbs, and that with ease; for the mermaid is not described as resting on the extremity of her tail, but on one of the bends of it, sufficiently broad to conceal the feet. Notwithstanding the arguments of Malone and Steevens, and the deference I have for their opinions, I can find no sense in the passage as they have printed it. M. MASON.
C. Baldwin, Printer, New Bridge-street, London.
END OF VOL. XII.