Evening lands

In Brief

As Stephen imagines the gypsy couple walking "Across the sands of all the world," he imbues them with qualities of lyric revery. They are "followed by the sun's flaming sword," suggesting the angelic guard placed at the gates of Eden after the first couple's fall from grace. They also move "to the west, trekking to evening lands," the language now evoking Percy Bysshe Shelley's closet drama Hellas (1821), which envisions the journey west from Turkey to Greece as a dawning of universal hope—a kind of recovery of Eden.

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Genesis describes how God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden in which they had transgressed his command: "So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (3:24).

Shelley's Hellas is set during the war for Greek independence. It centers on the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud, who is achieving victories over the Greek revolutionaries but is troubled by a recurring nightmare that his cause is futile. Between the speaking parts, a chorus of "Greek captive women" sing, and near the end of the drama they envision the end of war, the liberation of Greece, and the renewal of the world's Golden Age:

If Greece must be
A wreck, yet shall its fragments reassemble,
And build themselves again impregnably
In a diviner clime . . .

Darkness has dawned in the East
On the noon of time:
The death-birds descend to their feast
From the hungry clime.
Let Freedom and Peace flee far
To a sunnier strand,
And follow Love's folding-star
To the Evening land! . . .

Hesperus flies from awakening night,
And pants in its beauty and speed with light
Fast-flashing, soft, and bright.
Thou beacon of love! thou lamp of the free!
Guide us far, far away,
To climes where now veiled by the ardour of day
Thou art hidden
From waves on which weary Noon
Faints in her summer swoon,
Between kingless continents sinless as Eden,
Around mountains and islands inviolably
Pranked on the sapphire sea. . . .

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. (1002-65)

In the final lines of Shelley's play, as the Chorus foresee "A brighter Hellas" renewing its glorious past, they proclaim that "A new Ulysses leaves once more / Calypso for his native shore" (1066, 1076-77). The entire play, then, sees the movement west from Turkey to Greece as a homecoming, a return from exile. Stephen's sentence strikes similar notes: the gypsies walking west, away from the sun's "flaming sword" but toward "evening lands," simultaneously embody the despair of exile and the hope of homecoming.

At the end of Proteus, Stephen consoles himself by thinking that his own life's journey is moving "To evening lands. Evening will find itself." Pragmatically, he may be supposing that he will find a bed to sleep in on the morning of June 17. More ambitiously, he may be hoping that his apostasy will find its spiritual justification in a work of Hellenic beauty.

JH 2016
Oil on canvas painting of the expulsion from Eden by Eugène Delacroix, held in the Bibliothèque de Palais Bourbon, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1819 oil portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Gates of Eden, by Noah Bradley. Source: noahbradley.deviantart.com.