Tunbridge Wells: ‘Are the Naiads offended?’

July 8, 2014

Back in May, I posted here an extract from my document, The World’s End, which included an extensive discussion about the circumstances surrounding the discovery, in 1606, of the chalybeate spring around which the spa town of Tunbridge Wells grew, as well as a tradition linking it to the story of St Dunstan and the Devil. What I didn’t realise at the time was that just three weeks before, on May 5th, those iron-rich waters – which stain red – had run dry. In fact, it was only through the sharing a couple of days ago of this newspaper report from June 25th that I found out. I hope the waters do flow there again, but I cannot help thinking the drying up of this source, for the first time in over 400 years, is ominous. As one columnist commented here, jokingly: ‘Are the Naiads offended?’

In fact, this question isn’t so frivolous when viewed in the context of a narrative theme I wove into The World’s End: the motif of the Swan Maiden. This genre of stories offered the allegorical framework within which to interpret the discovery and subsequent exploitation of the chalybeate spring. An otherworldly female with bird or animal characteristics, she is captured by a human and becomes his bride. In some mediæval accounts she is identified as the magical founder of feudal dynasties, an example being  the legendary figure, Melusine and her association with the House of Lusignan. In such narratives, a slight or an act of violence against her on the part of the temporal, patriarchal authority by which she has been appropriated precipitates her flight, a departure or withdrawal of favour which brings misfortune to the House.

Heinrich Vogeler Melusine (c1910) Detail from a triptych

Heinrich Vogeler Melusine (c1910) Detail from a triptych

In The World’s End I attempted to trace some ‘psychogeographic regularities’ of social domination, as revealed by Swan Maiden narratives, using James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as an interpretive device, through the application of a kind of ‘SORTES VIRGINIANAE’ (FW 281), in quest of some kind of ‘liberating magic’. For the collapse of the feudal worldview has not banished such domination; rather, it continues in the discourse of ‘the appropriation of nature’, mobilised by the ‘scientific revolution’ and the Aristotelianism of its ‘impossible and fictitious logical segregations of the truth of things’ (Bruno 1583, cited in Yates 1966:252).


Perhaps this is the true import of a dream I had last September about the kind of mundane, cracked saucer left over from a lost tea service, which is used to put potted plants on, with the characteristic accumulated, earthy, tide-marked encrustation of many waterings. In the dream this everyday object was a magical and dangerous vessel, bearing a rusty, dry residue, which was either the congealed ‘blood of the saints’, the blood of a goddess or of the Magdalene, but demanding the addition of water to ‘enliven’ it.


The Abergavenny Arms

I have to say, when I read that the chalybeate spring had dried up, I immediately thought of ‘the dash for gas’ and the irreversible poisoning and disruption of water sources that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would bring about. The scientific revolution has continued apace, but so divorced from the lifeworld is the abstract objectivity of scientism and its corollary, political economy, that such a manifestation of suicide capitalism can be seriously entertained and pushed through.  Fracking truly poses an existential threat to life and wellbeing and the disappearance of the spring at Tunbridge Wells, though not directly attributable to fracking, is just the kind of disaster I can see more of if this process is allowed.

SYRINX: Gods, protectors of innocence,
     Naiads, nymphs of these streams,
     I implore your assistance here.

(Syrinx throws herself in the waters.)

PAN: (following Syrinx into the lake where she has hurled herself)
To what are you exposing yourself? What new prodigies?
     The nymph’s been changed into roses? (the wind rushes through the roses and makes them utter a plaintive sound)
     Alas! what noise! What do I hear? Ah, what new voices!
     The nymph is trying to express her regrets.
     How sweet her murmur is! How attractive is her complaint.
     Let’s not cease complaining with her.
     Let’s reanimate the charming remains
     Of a nymph who was so beautiful.
     She’s still responding to our laments.
     Let’s not cease complaining with her.

(Pan gives the roses to shepherds, to Satyrs, and to Woodland creatures who form a concert with flutes.)

PAN: The eyes that charmed me will never see day any more.
     Was it thus, cruel Love
     That you must avenge yourself on a rebellious beauty?
     Wouldn’t it have sufficed to render yourself conqueror
     And to see her insensitive heart in your fetters,
     Burning with mine in an eternal passion?
     Let all feel my torments.

PAN AND TWO SHEPHERDS: (accompanied by a concert of flutes)
Let’s revive the charming remains
     Of a nymph who was so beautiful.
     She’s still responding to our laments.
     Let’s not stop from complaining with her.

(Argus begins to sigh, Mercury disguised as a shepherd approaches him and ends by putting him to sleep by touching him with his caduceus.)

PAN: Let these plaintive roses be forever loved.

Isis: Libretto by Philippe Quinault (trans. Frank J. Morlock 2003) for Jean-Baptiste Lully’s tragedie lyrique (1677).

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