Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mark Twain and the Lion Monument (Lucerne, Switzerland)

As a child, I read Mark Twain's humourous tale of travelling through mainland Europe in A Tramp Abroad, influencing my will to travel later in life. Writing recently of the extraordinary Lion Monument with its poignant story of bravery by the Swiss Guards defending the French royal family, I was reminded of Twain's wonderful account of the sculpture, even providing commentary on pointless souvenirs over 100 years ago. Twain writes:

The commerce of Lucerne consists mainly in gimcrackery of the souvenir sort; the shops are packed with Alpine crystals, photographs of scenery, and wooden and ivory carvings. I will not conceal the fact that miniature figures of the Lion of Lucerne are to be had in them. Millions of them. But they are libels upon him, every one of them. There is a subtle something about the majestic pathos of the original which the copyist cannot get. Even the sun fails to get it; both the photographer and the carver give you a dying lion, and that is all. The shape is right, the attitude is right, the proportions are right, but that indescribable something which makes the Lion of Lucerne the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world, is wanting.

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff—for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion—and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.


Sherry Ott said...

I love his take on the concept of 'fakes'...beautiful!

Heather Dugan (Footsteps) said...

Great post, Mark. I hadn't read Twain's description before. He manages to mingle a sort of elegance with his irony.

Mark H said...

@sherry: I do too. He captures the essence so well and to think it is 130 years ago that it was written.

@heather: He writes so well.

Anil said...

Such a great character and writer. I always have dreamed about taking just one trip with him. I'm curious what compelled the nuances on each of his trips. I suppose we all get a taste of that through his writing.

Vera Marie Badertscher said...

Can't wait to read your post for A Traveler's Library about the book that influenced your travel. LOVE that book!

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Cape Town Accommodation says:
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Mark H said...

@anil: To have travelled with him would have been a remarkable experience with his unique views on what he sees and his skills to observe the minutae of life around around him.

@vera: Finally managed the review on your site.

@capetown accom: Welcome to Travel Wonders

Anonymous said...

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