ECHO AND NARCISSUS
BY THOMAS BULFINCH
Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods
and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland
sports. She was a favorite of Diana, and attended her
in the chase. But Echo had one failing; she was fond
of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would have
the last word. One day Juno was seeking her husband,
who, she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among
the nymphs. Echo by her talk contrived to detain the
goddess till the nymphs made their escape. When Juno
discovered it, she passed sentence upon Echo in these
words: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with
which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose
you are so fond of—reply. You shall still have the last
word, but no power to speak first."
This nymph saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he
pursued the chase upon the mountains. She loved him,
and followed his footsteps. O, how she longed to address
him in the softest accents, and win him to converse!
but it was not in her power. She waited with impatience
for him to speak first, and had her answer ready. One
day the youth, being separated from his companions,
shouted aloud, "Who's here?" Echo replied, "Here."
Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one, called out,
"Come." Echo answered, "Come." As no one came,
Narcissus called again, "Why do you shun me?" Echo
asked the same question. "Let us join one another,"
said the youth. The maid answered with all her heart
in the same words, and hastened to the spot, ready to
throw her arms about his neck. He started back, exclaiming,
"Hands off! I would rather die than you
should have me!" "Have me," said she; but it was
all in vain. He left her, and she went to hide her blushes
in the recesses of the woods. From that time forth she
lived in caves and among the mountain cliffs. Her form
faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away.
Her bones were changed into rocks, and there was nothing
left of her but her voice. With that she is still ready
to reply to any one who calls her, and keeps up her old
habit of having the last word.
Narcissus' cruelty in this case was not the only instance.
He shunned all the rest of the nymphs, as he had
done poor Echo. One day a maiden, who had in vain endeavored
to attract him, uttered a prayer that he might
some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no
return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and
granted the prayer.
There was a clear fountain, with water like silver,
to which the shepherds never drove their flocks, nor the
mountain goats resorted, nor any of the beasts of the
forest; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or
branches; but the grass grew fresh around it, and the
rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came one day
the youth fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He
stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the
water; he thought it was some beautiful water-spirit living
in the fountain. He stood gazing with admiration
at those bright eyes, those locks curled like the locks of
Bacchus or Apollo, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck,
the parted lips, and the glow of health and exercise over
all. He fell in love with himself. He brought his lips near
to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved
object. It fled at the touch, but returned again
after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could
not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or
rest, while he hovered over the brink of the fountain
gazing upon his own image. He talked with the supposed
spirit: "Why, beautiful being, do you shun me?
Surely, my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs
love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me.
When I stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you
smile upon me and answer my beckonings with the like."
His tears fell into the water and disturbed the image. As
he saw it depart, he exclaimed, "Stay, I entreat you!
Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you."
With this, and much more of the same kind, he cherished
the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost
his color, his vigor, and the beauty which formerly had
so charmed the nymph Echo. She kept near him, however,
and when he exclaimed, "Alas, alas!" she answered
him with the same words. He pined away and
died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it
leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters.
The nymphs mourned for him, especially the water-nymphs;
and when they smote their breasts, Echo smote
hers also. They prepared a funeral pile, and would have
burned the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but
in its place a flower, purple within, and surrounded with
white leaves, which bears the name and preserves the
memory of Narcissus.
Milton alludes to the story of Echo and Narcissus in
the Lady's song in "Comus." She is seeking her brothers
in the forest, and sings to attract their attention:
"Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that liv'st unseen
Within thy aëry shell
By slow Meander's margent green,
And in the violet-embroidered vale,
Where the love-lorn nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad song mourneth well;
Canst thou not tell me of a gentle pair
That likest thy Narcissus are?
O, if thou have
Hid them in some flowery cave,
Tell me but where,
Sweet queen of parly, daughter of the sphere,
So may'st thou be translated to the skies,
And give resounding grace to all heaven's harmonies."
Milton has imitated the story of Narcissus in the account
which he makes Eve give of the first sight of herself
reflected in the fountain:—
"That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back;
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love. There had I fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me: 'What thou seest,
What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself;'" &c.
"Paradise Lost," Book IV.
No one of the fables of antiquity has been oftener
alluded to by the poets than that of Narcissus. Here
are two epigrams which treat it in different ways. The
first is by Goldsmith:—
"On a Beautiful Youth, Struck Blind By Lightning"
"Sure 'twas by Providence designed,
Rather in pity than in hate,
That he should be like Cupid blind,
To save him from Narcissus' fate."
The other is by Cowper:—
"On An Ugly Fellow"
"Beware, my friend, of crystal brook
Or fountain, lest that hideous hook,
Thy nose, thou chance to see;
Narcissus' fate would then be thine,
And self-detested thou would'st pine,
As self-enamored he."