On Flaubert

Far and strange are the refuges in which such an imagination seeks oblivion of the immediate and the ugly. His life was that of a pearl-diver, breathless in the thick element while he groped for the priceless word, and condemned to plunge again and again.

Henry James, from his essay ‘Gustave Flaubert’ (1893).

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More Ways Than One

Barkwell. You shan’t have her at all. Fifteen thousand pounds! – if I thought my Niece would ever think of thee as a Husband now, I’d put one half of her fortune into each pocket, drive to Dover, and leap into the Sea to disappoint thee.

Evergreen. Why we’d fish thee up again, like a pearl oyster, for the sake of your riches. Neither Earth, Sea, or Air, in this happy age, can keep Curiosities from us now.

Hannah Cowley, More Ways Than One (1783), Act V Scene i, extract

Hannah Cowley (1743-1809) was a British playwright and poet. More Ways Than One is loosely based on Moliere’s L’école des femmes (The School for Wives).

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The Legend of the Black Pearls

One day when Amry the diver had come to sell to the court jeweller the pearls for which he had sought under the golden waters of Bahrein, the lovely Anouba, wife of the Caliph, caused her palanquin to stop at the merchant’s door and showed him a beautiful black pearl with golden lights.

“Can you show me a pearl like this?” she said.

The merchant took the pearl, placed it on his silken cushion, and contemplated it, his two hands crossed on his breast like a brahmin in the act of worshipping. But he soon shook his head discouragingly and said: “There are not two pearls like this in the whole world.”

Amry, who had approached, repeated the merchant’s words in a low voice.

“So,” said the lovely Anouba, “you will not even try to gain the twenty thousand sequins which I am offering for this jewel?”

“Princess,” said the merchant, bowing to the ground, “ask me for emeralds as large as pigeons’ eggs, for branching agates, for topaz sparkling like the eyes of the tiger, for rubies of Ceylon which emit tongues of fire in the night. Your humble slave will lay all these treasures at your feet. But the stars will fall in a golden rain on the dome of your palace before another pearl like this one shall have been found.”

While he was speaking, the Princess had been looking from under her veil at Amry, who had remained leaning against a bamboo pillar, his eyes fixed on the pearl.

“Is this man one of your slaves?” she asked the merchant.

Amry proudly raised his head and said: “I am Amry, the pearl fisher; the son of my mother is free.”

“Amry,” said Anouba, “do you wish to gain the twenty thousand sequins?”

“Ask me rather if I wish to die,” replied the fisherman in a solemn voice.

“What do you mean?”

“In the bay of the Island of Bahrein,” replied Amry, “at a depth of two hundred fathoms, there is a bank of coral on which old Phangar, the most famous fisherman in the Gulf, found in his youth the black pearl worn by Prince Mescheb in the hilt of his dagger; but Phangar has never descended again to this abyss, and he grows pale and shivers with terror when he passes in his boat over the bank where he found the precious pearl.”

“What did he see there?” asked the beautiful Anouba, with eager curiosity.

“When Phangar, with his right foot in the loop of the rope, gave the signal to his comrades, and the leaden weight attached to the line dragged him down into the abyss, he went through a layer of emeralds which boiled and surged round him like lava from a volcano. When the line touched the bottom, the shock was so great that he fell on his hands and knees. The keen blades and points of the coral, which burn like red-hot irons, caused his blood to flow from a hundred wounds, but he could not think of these. He set to work, and had already collected some twenty shell-fish in his canvas pocket, when it seemed to him that part of the bank near him rose up, and that a floating mass, greyish in colour, like the corals, was slowly advancing, waving long flexible branches like creepers. One of the branches slid on to his breast and fastened there, but Phangar could not cry out. A gigantic sea-spider was floating two fathoms from his face, fixing upon him its pale green eyes from which darted two rays of light.

“When Phangar’s companions, who had remained in the boat, suddenly felt the signal line grow taut, they hastened to pull it up. The fisherman had lost consciousness and his sides bore the marks of the monster’s embrace. Three days afterwards, when he opened the pearl oysters which he had gathered, he found in one of them a superb black pearl, which he sold for a hundred pieces of gold to Prince Mescheb.”

“Well,” said the Caliph’s wife, “since you know exactly where black pearls are to be found, you must dive in the Bahrein Gulf, kill the monster who guards the treasures and bring back to me the pearl which I desire to possess.”

Amry replied: “I have an old and infirm mother whom I support by my work, I have a bride, an orphan whom I must love and protect … besides, I should risk my life in vain to satisfy your desire, in all the oceans of the world there are not two pearls alike.”

Anouba looked at the fisherman for a moment between the folds of her yashmak, and said to him: “Come to the Palace to-morrow at the fifth hour.”

Then she returned to her palanquin.

The next day, Amry, clothed in his festal robes, went to the Caliph’s Palace. A black mute, who was awaiting him at the door of the gardens, led him to the Princess’s apartment. Anouba, still veiled, was reclining on cushions. She made a sign to the black man, who bowed low and vanished.

“Approach,” said the Princess to the fisherman.

The latter took two steps forward and knelt before her.

“You say,” Anouba continued, “that nature cannot produce two pearls alike; behold!”

Her arm, loaded with sounding bracelets, passed across her face, and the silk gauze which had veiled it fell away.

Amry uttered a cry of admiration and remained motionless as a statue. It was not with mere mortal eyes that the Princess seemed to gaze at him, but rather with two black diamonds set in the face of an enchantress, polished like ivory, whiter and purer than a lily bathed in the rays of the moon. The brilliance which had dazzled Amry was gradually dimmed, as though veiled by a cloud, and he saw no more than two soft, gazelle-like orbs, suffused with an intoxicating warmth, which looked into his very heart.

Anouba opened her lips to speak; but Amry, stretching his arms towards her, whispered in a broken voice: “I will go and seek the pearl in the depths of the abyss of Bahrein, and I will leave my flesh and my blood on the jagged points of the corals, as I leave here my heart and my soul!”

The next day, at the earliest dawn, Amry took his boat and steered for the place where he knew the treasure was to be found. When he had descended to the depths of the sea he hastened to fill his canvas pocket with the finest shell-fish. He was about to return to the surface, when he saw in a fissure of a rock, an oyster of extraordinary size. He seized it. But, at the same moment a monster which he had not previously seen, darted towards him and twined itself round him, seeking to suffocate him. Amry struggled with all his might, he felt life flowing from him from numerous wounds; at last, with a supreme effort, he freed his right hand and plunged his dagger between the eyes of the gigantic spider.

He pulled the signal cord and his comrades hastened to draw him up; but when he reached the light of day he lost so much blood through his eyes, nose and mouth, that he fainted and only regained consciousness several hours later, in the palace of the Caliph’s wife, who had caused him to be brought thither.

When he came to himself, he was greatly surprised to find himself in this strange place, and above all to see the lovely Princess, with unveiled face, alone in his company.

“Well,” she said in her melodious voice, “have you been succesful?”

“Yes,” replied Amry, “the monster has drunk my blood, but I killed him, and here is the treasure which he was guarding in the depths of the sea.” He held out to her the open oyster in which lay a marvelous pearl, more beautiful even then that owned by Prince Mescheb.

The Princess uttered a cry of admiration and remained in an ecstasy before this incomparable work of nature.

“Tell me, what is it you desire?” she said to him; “if you wish it, my fortune is yours.”

But Amry, prostrate at her feet, replied:

“Princess, keep your riches, Amry would not know what to do with them. You have taken from him his heart and his soul; the poor fisherman cannot hope for your love, so he prefers to die.”

And quicker than thought, he plunged his dagger into his heart.

Arabian text, 10th century

One of the historic texts cited on Leonard Rosenthal’s classic collection on the history of pearls, Au Royaume de la Pearle (1919), illustrated by Edmund Dulac in the 1920 edition. According to the notes in an English edition, the citation for this Arabian text is M. Devic, Adja ib Al-Hind (The Marvels of India). Alphonse Lemerre, Paris.

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Concerning the Great Province of Maabar, which is called India the Greater, and is on the Mainland

When you leave the Island of Seilan and sail westward about 60 miles, you come to the great province of MAABAR which is styled INDIA THE GREATER; it is best of all the Indies and is on the mainland.

You must know that in this province there are five kings, who are own brothers. I will tell you about each in turn. The Province is the finest and noblest in the world.

At this end of the Province reigns one of those five Royal Brothers, who is a crowned King, and his name is SONDER BANDI DAVAR. In his kingdom they find very fine and great pearls; and I will tell you how they are got.

You must know that the sea here forms a gulf between the Island of Seilan and the mainland. And all round this gulf the water has a depth of no more than ten or twelve fathoms, and in some places no more than two fathoms. The pearl-fishers take their vessels, great and small, and proceed into the gulf where they stop from the beginning of April till the middle of May. They go first to a place called Bettelar, and then go sixty miles into the Gulf. Here they cast anchor and shift from their large vessels into small boats. You must know that the many merchants who go divide into various companies, and each of these must engage a number of men on wages, hiring them for April and half of May. Of all the produce they have first to pay the king, as his royalty, the tenth part. And they must also pay those men who charm the great fishes to prevent them from injuring the divers whilst engaged in seeking pearls under water, one-twentieth of all that they take. These fishcharmers are termined Abraiaman; and their charm holds good for that day only, for at night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will. These Abraiaman know also how to charm beasts and birds and every living thing. When the men have got into the small boats they jump into the water and dive to the bottom, which may be at a depth of from four to twelve fathoms, and there they remain as long as they are able. And there they find the shells that contain the pearls, and those they put into a net bag tied round the waist, and mount up to the surface with them, and then dive anew. When they can’t hold their breath any longer they come up again, and after a little down they go once more, and so they go on all day. These shells are in fashion like oysters or sea-hoods. And in these shells are found pearls, great and small, of every kind, sticking in the flesh of the shell-fish. In this manner pearls are fished in great quantities, for thence in fact come the pearls which are spread all over the world. And I can tell you the King of that State hath a very great receipt and treasure from his dues upon those pearls.

The Travels of Marco Polo (Il Milione), volume II, chapter XVI (1298)

Marco Polo visited the Gulf of Manaar pearl fisheries around 1294. 

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The Genii

Malignant tyrants! with vindictive ire,
The ocean heaving as your steps retire,
You trace the bark along the yielding main,
And smile, indignant – where your power was vain.
Hence, like the lightning’s flash, you rapid sweep
O’er the wild waters of the Atlantic deep,
Thro’ the long course of Orellana run,
To climes illumin’d by their parent fun;
Where, o’er Pacific seas, the tempests blow,
You rear your coral palaces below;
On crystal pedestals the emeralds raise,
And bid the sapphires on their summits blaze.
Your wat’ry reign no wanderer annoys,
Nor dares you deep retreats, or gloomy joys,

Save the poor Negro, on his dangerous way,
Thro’ the deep caverns of Panama’s bay,
While the black billows thro’ their fissures swell,
From fractur’d rocks to wrest the pearly shell.
As o’er the cliffs, he holds his slippery road,
To drag the treasures from their dark abode,
Your jealous eyes, tremendous rulers! spy
The fated victim you have doom’d to die.
Thus, when, all fainting with the tedious toil,
His weak frame loaded with the fever’d spoil,
He springs on high the surface to regain,
Repair his sinking strength, and breathe again;
From some wild gulf, that pours the sweeping storm,
The furious shark uprears his scaly form,
In awful hunger, rolls his flaming eyes;
The luckless sufferer turns, and shrieks, and dies.

Anne Bannerman, ‘The Genii’ (1800) , extract

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Jo’s Boys

‘If you feel this, I can give you no better advice than to go on loving and studying our great master,’ she said slowly; but Josie caught the changed tone, and felt, with a thrill of joy, that her newfriend was speaking to her now as to a comrade. ‘It is an education in itself, and a lifetime is not long enough to teach you all his secret. Have you the patience, courage, strength, to begin at the beginning, and slowly, painfully, lay the foundation for future work? Fame is a pearl many dive for and only a few bring up. Even when they do, it is not perfect, and they sigh for more, and lose better things in struggling for them.’

Louisa May Alcott, Jo’s Boys (1886)

The words are spoken by the actress Miss Cameron, who is speaking of Shakespeare.

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The Spectator

Since on this Subject I have already admitted several Quotations which have occurred to my Memory upon writing this Paper, I will conclude it with a little Persian Fable. A Drop of Water fell out of a Cloud into the Sea, and finding it self lost in such an Immensity of fluid Matter, broke out into the following Reflection: ‘Alas! What an insignificant Creature am I in this prodigious Ocean of Waters; my Existence is of no Concern to the Universe, I am reduced to a Kind of Nothing, and am less then the least of the Works of God.’ It so happened, that an Oyster, which lay in the Neighbourhood of this Drop, chanced to gape and swallow it up in the midst of this humble Soliloquy. The Drop, says the Fable, lay a great while hardning in the Shell, ’till by Degrees it was ripen’d into a Pearl, which falling into the Hands of a Diver, after a long Series of Adventures, is at present that famous Pearl which is fixed on the Top of the Persian Diadem.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, no. 293 (Tuesday, 5 February 1712), final lines

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