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    Ch. 3 - The Merveille

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    Chapter 3
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    The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved
    in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved
    faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was
    an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the
    first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European
    history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy
    and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the
    moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was
    a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the
    unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The
    Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as
    allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common
    enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy,
    and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade
    was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond
    comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry,
    colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its
    women were worth all the rest.

    Mont-Saint-Michel, better than any other spot in the world, keeps
    the architectural record of that ferment, much as the Sicilian
    temples keep the record of the similar outburst of Greek energy,
    art, poetry, and thought, fifteen hundred years before. Of the
    eleventh century, it is true, nothing but the church remains at the
    Mount, and, if studied further, the century has got to be sought
    elsewhere, which is not difficult, since it is preserved in any
    number of churches in every path of tourist travel. Normandy is full
    of it; Bayeux and Caen contain little else. At the Mount, the
    eleventh-century work was antiquated before it was finished. In the
    year 1112, Abbot Roger II was obliged to plan and construct a new
    group in such haste that it is said to have been finished in 1122.
    It extends from what we have supposed to be the old refectory to the
    parvis, and abuts on the three lost spans of the church, covering
    about one hundred and twenty feet. As usual there were three levels;
    a crypt or gallery beneath, known as the Aquilon; a cloister or
    promenoir above; and on the level of the church a dormitory, now
    lost. The group is one of the most interesting in France, another
    pons seclorum, an antechamber to the west portal of Chartres, which
    bears the same date (i 110-25). It is the famous period of
    Transition, the glory of the twelfth century, the object of our
    pilgrimage.

    Art is a fairly large field where no one need jostle his neighbour,
    and no one need shut himself up in a corner; but, if one insists on
    taking a corner of preference, one might offer some excuse for
    choosing the Gothic Transition. The quiet, restrained strength of
    the Romanesque married to the graceful curves and vaulting
    imagination of the Gothic makes a union nearer the ideal than is
    often allowed in marriage. The French, in their best days, loved it
    with a constancy that has thrown a sort of aureole over their
    fickleness since. They never tired of its possibilities. Sometimes
    they put the pointed arch within the round, or above it; sometimes
    they put the round within the pointed. Sometimes a Roman arch
    covered a cluster of pointed windows, as though protecting and
    caressing its children; sometimes a huge pointed arch covered a
    great rose-window spreading across the whole front of an enormous
    cathedral, with an arcade of Romanesque windows beneath. The French
    architects felt no discord, and there was none. Even the pure Gothic
    was put side by side with the pure Roman. You will see no later
    Gothic than the choir of the Abbey Church above (1450-1521), unless
    it is the north fleche of Chartres Cathedral (1507-13); and if you
    will look down the nave, through the triumphal arches, into the
    pointed choir four hundred years more modern, you can judge whether
    there is any real discord. For those who feel the art, there is
    none; the strength and the grace join hands; the man and woman love
    each other still.

    The difference of sex is not imaginary. In 1058, when the triumphal
    columns were building, and Taillefer sang to William the Bastard and
    Harold the Saxon, Roland still prayed his "mea culpa" to God the
    Father and gave not a thought to Alda his betrothed. In the twelfth
    century Saint Bernard recited "Ave Stella Marts" in an ecstasy of
    miracle before the image of the Virgin, and the armies of France in
    battle cried, "Notre-Dame-Saint-Denis-Montjoie." What the Roman
    could not express flowered into the Gothic; what the masculine mind
    could not idealize in the warrior, it idealized in the woman; no
    architecture that ever grew on earth, except the Gothic, gave this
    effect of flinging its passion against the sky.

    When men no longer felt the passion, they fell back on themselves,
    or lower. The architect returned to the round arch, and even further
    to the flatness of the Greek colonnade; but this was not the fault
    of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. What they had to say they
    said; what they felt they expressed; and if the seventeenth century
    forgot it, the twentieth in turn has forgotten the seventeenth.
    History is only a catalogue of the forgotten. The eleventh century
    is no worse off than its neighbours. The twelfth is, in
    architecture, rather better off than the nineteenth. These two
    rooms, the Aquilon and promenoir, which mark the beginning of the
    Transition, are, on the whole, more modern than Saint-Sulpice, or Il
    Gesu at Rome. In the same situation, for the same purposes, any
    architect would be proud to repeat them to-day.

    The Aquilon, though a hall or gallery of importance in its day,
    seems to be classed among crypts. M. Camille Enlart, in his "Manual
    of French Archaeology" (p. 252) gives a list of Romanesque and
    Transition crypts, about one hundred and twenty, to serve as
    examples for the study. The Aquilon is not one of them, but the
    crypt of Saint-Denis and that of Chartres Cathedral would serve to
    teach any over-curious tourist all that he should want to know about
    such matters.

    Photographs such as those of the Monuments Historiques answer all
    the just purposes of underground travel. The Aquilon is one's first
    lesson in Transition architecture because it is dated (1112); and
    the crypt of Saint-Denis serves almost equally well because the Abbe
    Suger must have begun his plans for it about 1122. Both have the
    same arcs doubleaux and arcs-formerets, though in opposite
    arrangement. Both show the first heavy hint at the broken arch.
    There are no nervures--no rib-vaulting,--and hardly a suggestion of
    the Gothic as one sees it in the splendid crypt of the Gros Fillers
    close at hand, except the elaborately intersecting vaults and the
    heavy columns; but the promenoir above is an astonishing leap in
    time and art. The promenoir has the same arrangement and columns as
    the Aquilon, but the vaults are beautifully arched and pointed, with
    ribs rising directly from the square capitals and intersecting the
    central spacings, in a spirit which neither you nor I know how to
    distinguish from the pure Gothic of the thirteenth century, unless
    it is that the arches are hardly pointed enough; they seem to the
    eye almost round. The height appears to be about fourteen feet.

    The promenoir of Abbot Roger II has an interest to pilgrims who are
    going on to the shrine of the Virgin, because the date of the
    promenoir seems to be exactly the same as the date which the Abbe
    Bulteau assigns for the western portal of Chartres. Ordinarily a
    date is no great matter, but when one has to run forward and back,
    with the agility of an electric tram, between two or three fixed
    points, it is convenient to fix them once for all. The Transition is
    complete here in the promenoir, which was planned as early as 1115.
    The subject of vaulting is far too ambitious for summer travel; it
    is none too easy for a graduate of the Beaux Arts; and few
    architectural fields have been so earnestly discussed and disputed.
    We must not touch it. The age of the "Chanson de Roland" itself is
    not so dangerous a topic. Our vital needs are met, more or less
    sufficiently, by taking the promenoir at the Mount, the crypt at
    Saint-Denis, and the western portal at Chartres, as the trinity of
    our Transition, and roughly calling their date the years 1115-20, To
    overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and
    the passion of every second-rate scholar. Tourists want as few dates
    as possible; what they want is poetry. Yet a singular coincidence,
    with which every classroom is only too familiar, has made of the
    years--15 a curiously convenient group, and the year 1115 is as
    convenient as any for the beginning of the century of Transition.
    That was the year when Saint Bernard laid the foundations of his
    Abbey of Clairvaux. Perhaps 1115, or at latest 1117, was the year
    when Abelard sang love-songs to Heloise in Canon Fulbert's house in
    the Rue des Chantres, beside the cloister of Notre Dame in Paris.
    The Abbe Suger, the Abbe Bernard, and the Abbe Abelard are the three
    interesting men of the French Transition.

    The promenoir, then, shall pass for the year 1115, and, as such, is
    an exceedingly beautiful hall, uniting the splendid calm and
    seriousness of the Romanesque with the exquisite lines of the
    Gothic. You will hardly see its equal in the twelfth century. At
    Angers the great hall of the Bishop's Palace survives to give a
    point of comparison, but commonly the halls of that date were not
    vaulted; they had timber roofs, and have perished. The promenoir is
    about sixty feet long, and divided into two aisles, ten feet wide,
    by a row of columns. If it were used on great occasions as a
    refectory, eighty or a hundred persons could have been seated at
    table, and perhaps this may have been about the scale of the Abbey's
    needs, at that time. Whatever effort of fancy was needed to place
    Duke William and Harold in the old refectory of 1058, none whatever
    is required in order to see his successors in the halls of Roger II.
    With one exception they were not interesting persons. The exception
    was Henry II of England and Anjou, and his wife Eleanor of Guienne,
    who was for a while Regent of Normandy. One of their children was
    born at Domfront, just beyond Avranches, and the Abbot was asked to
    be godfather. In 1158, just one hundred years after Duke William's
    visit, King Henry and his whole suite came to the Abbey, heard mass,
    and dined in the refectory. "Rex venit ad Montem Sancti Michaelis,
    audita missa ad magis altare, comedit in Refec-torio cum baronibus
    suis." Abbot Robert of Torigny was his host, and very possibly
    William of Saint-Pair looked on. Perhaps he recited parts of his
    "Roman" before the King. One may be quite sure that when Queen
    Eleanor came to the Mount she asked the poet to recite his verses,
    for Eleanor gave law to poets.

    One might linger over Abbot Robert of Torigny, who was a very great
    man in his day, and an especially great architect, but too
    ambitious. All his work, including the two towers, crumbled and fell
    for want of proper support. What would correspond to the cathedrals
    of Noyon and Soissons and the old clocher and fleche of Chartres is
    lost. We have no choice but to step down into the next century at
    once, and into the full and perfect Gothic of the great age when the
    new Chartres was building.

    In the year 1203, Philip Augustus expelled the English from Normandy
    and conquered the province; but, in the course of the war the Duke
    of Brittany, who was naturally a party to any war that took place
    under his eyes, happened to burn the town beneath the Abbey, and in
    doing so, set fire unintentionally to the Abbey itself. The
    sacrilege shocked Philip Augustus, and the wish to conciliate so
    powerful a vassal as Saint Michel, or his abbot, led the King of
    France to give a large sum of money for repairing the buildings. The
    Abbot Jordan (1191-1212) at once undertook to outdo all his
    predecessors, and, with an immense ambition, planned the huge pile
    which covers the whole north face of the Mount, and which has always
    borne the expressive name of the Merveille.

    The general motive of abbatial building was common to them all.
    Abbeys were large households. The church was the centre, and at
    Mont-Saint-Michel the summit, for the situation compelled the abbots
    there to pile one building on another instead of arranging them on a
    level in squares or parallelograms. The dormitory in any case had to
    be near a door of the church, because the Rule required constant
    services, day and night. The cloister was also hard-by the church
    door, and, at the Mount, had to be on the same level in order to be
    in open air. Naturally the refectory must be immediately beneath one
    or the other of these two principal structures, and the hall, or
    place of meeting for business with the outside world, or for
    internal administration, or for guests of importance, must be next
    the refectory. The kitchen and offices would be placed on the lowest
    stage, if for no other reason, because the magazines were two
    hundred feet below at the landing-place, and all supplies, including
    water, had to be hauled up an inclined plane by windlass. To
    administer such a society required the most efficient management. An
    abbot on this scale was a very great man, indeed, who enjoyed an
    establishment of his own, close by, with officers in no small
    number; for the monks alone numbered sixty, and even these were not
    enough for the regular church services at seasons of pilgrimage. The
    Abbot was obliged to entertain scores and hundreds of guests, and
    these, too, of the highest importance, with large suites. Every
    ounce of food must be brought from the mainland, or fished from the
    sea. All the tenants and their farms, their rents and contributions,
    must be looked after. No secular prince had a more serious task of
    administration, and none did it so well. Tenants always preferred an
    abbot or bishop for landlord. The Abbey was the highest
    administrative creation of the Middle Ages, and when one has made
    one's pilgrimage to Chartres, one might well devote another summer
    to visiting what is left of Clairvaux, Citeaux, Cluny, and the other
    famous monasteries, with Viollet-le-Duc to guide, in order to
    satisfy one's mind whether, on the whole, such a life may not have
    had activity as well as idleness.

    This is a matter of economics, to be settled with the keepers of
    more modern hotels, but the art had to suit the conditions, and when
    Abbot Jordan decided to plaster this huge structure against the side
    of the Mount, the architect had a relatively simple task to handle.
    The engineering difficulties alone were very serious; The
    architectural plan was plain enough. As the Abbot laid his
    requirements before the architect, he seems to have begun by fixing
    the scale for a refectory capable of seating two hundred guests at
    table. Probably no king in Europe fed more persons at his table than
    this. According to M. Corroyer's plan, the length of the new
    refectory is one hundred and twenty-three feet (37.5 metres). A row
    of columns down the centre divides it into two aisles, measuring
    twelve feet clear, from column to column, across the room. If tables
    were set the whole length of the two aisles, forty persons could
    have been easily seated, in four rows, or one hundred and sixty
    persons. Without crowding, the same space would give room for fifty
    guests, or two hundred in all.

    Once the scale was fixed, the arrangement was easy. Beginning at the
    lowest possible level, one plain, very solidly built, vaulted room
    served as foundation for another, loftier and more delicately
    vaulted; and this again bore another which stood on the level of the
    church, and opened directly into the north transept. This
    arrangement was then doubled; and the second set of rooms, at the
    west end, contained the cellar on the lower level, another great
    room or hall above it, and the cloister at the church door, also
    entering into the north transept. Doorways, passages, and stairs
    unite them all. The two heavy halls on the lowest level are now
    called the almonry and the cellar, which is a distinction between
    administrative arrangements that does not concern us.

    Architecturally the rooms might, to our untrained eyes, be of the
    same age with the Aquilon. They are earliest Transition, as far as a
    tourist can see, or at least they belong to the class of crypts
    which has an architecture of its own. The rooms that concern us are
    those immediately above: the so-called Salle des Chevaliers at the
    west end; and the so-called refectory at the east. Every writer
    gives these rooms different names, and assigns them different
    purposes, but whatever they were meant for, they are, as halls, the
    finest in France; the purest in thirteenth-century perfection.

    The Salle des Chevaliers of the Order of Saint Michael created by
    Louis XI in 1469 was, or shall be for tourist purposes, the great
    hall that every palace and castle contained, and in which the life
    of the chateau centred. Planned at about the same time with the
    Cathedral of Chartres (1195-1210), and before the Abbey Church of
    Saint-Denis, this hall and its neighbour the refectory, studied
    together with the cathedral and the abbey, are an exceedingly
    liberal education for anybody, tourist or engineer or architect, and
    would make the fortune of an intelligent historian, if such should
    happen to exist; but the last thing we ask from them is education or
    instruction. We want only their poetry, and shall have to look for
    it elsewhere. Here is only the shell--the dead art--and silence. The
    hall is about ninety feet long, and sixty feet in its greatest
    width. It has three ranges of columns making four vaulted aisles
    which seem to rise about twenty-two feet in height. It is warmed by
    two huge and heavy cheminees or fireplaces in the outside wall,
    between the windows. It is lighted beautifully, but mostly from
    above through round windows in the arching of the vaults. The
    vaulting is a study for wiser men than we can ever be. More than
    twenty strong round columns, free or engaged, with Romanesque
    capitals, support heavy ribs, or nervures, and while the two central
    aisles are eighteen feet wide, the outside aisle, into which the
    windows open, measures only ten feet in width, and has consequently
    one of the most sharply pointed vaults we shall ever meet. The whole
    design is as beautiful a bit of early Gothic as exists, but what
    would take most time to study, if time were to spare, would be the
    instinct of the Archangel's presence which has animated his
    architecture. The masculine, military energy of Saint Michael lives
    still in every stone. The genius that realized this warlike emotion
    has stamped his power everywhere, on every centimetre of his work;
    in every ray of light; on the mass of every shadow; wherever the eye
    falls; still more strongly on all that the eye divines, and in the
    shadows that are felt like the lights. The architect intended it
    all. Any one who doubts has only to step through the doorway in the
    corner into the refectory. There the architect has undertaken to
    express the thirteenth-century idea of the Archangel; he has left
    the twelfth century behind him.

    The refectory, which has already served for a measure of the Abbot's
    scale, is, in feeling, as different as possible from the hall. Six
    charming columns run down the centre, dividing the room into two
    vaulted aisles, apparently about twenty-seven feet in height.
    Wherever the hall was heavy and serious, the refectory was made
    light and graceful. Hardly a trace of the Romanesque remains. Only
    the slight, round columns are not yet grooved or fluted, and their
    round capitals are still slightly severe. Every detail is lightened.
    The great fireplaces are removed to each end of the room. The most
    interesting change is in the windows. When you reach Chartres, the
    great book of architecture will open on the word "Fenestration,"--
    Fenestre,--a word as ugly as the thing was beautiful; and then, with
    pain and sorrow, you will have to toil till you see how the
    architects of 1200 subordinated every other problem to that of
    lighting their spaces. Without feeling their lights, you can never
    feel their shadows. These two halls at Mont-Saint-Michel are
    antechambers to the nave of Chartres; their fenestration, inside and
    out, controls the whole design. The lighting of the refectory is
    superb, but one feels its value in art only when it is taken in
    relation to the lighting of the hall, and both serve as a simple
    preamble to the romance of the Chartres windows.

    The refectory shows what the architect did when, to lighten his
    effects, he wanted to use every possible square centimetre of light.
    He has made nine windows; six on the north, two on the east, and one
    on the south. They are nearly five feet wide, and about twenty feet
    high. They flood the room. Probably they were intended for glass,
    and M. Corroyer's volume contains wood-cuts of a few fragments of
    thirteenth-century glass discovered in his various excavations; but
    one may take for granted that with so much light, colour was the
    object intended. The floors would be tiled in colour; the walls
    would be hung with colour; probably the vaults were painted in
    colour; one can see it all in scores of illuminated manuscripts. The
    thirteenth century had a passion for colour, and made a colour-world
    of its own which we have got to explore.

    The two halls remain almost the only monuments of what must be
    called secular architecture of the early and perfect period of
    Gothic art (1200-10). Churches enough remain, with Chartres at their
    head, but all the great abbeys, palaces and chateaux of that day are
    ruins. Arques, Gaillard, Montargis, Coucy, the old Louvre, Chinon,
    Angers, as well as Cluny, Clairvaux, Citeaux, Jumieges, Vezelay,
    Saint-Denis, Poissy, Fontevrault, and a score of other residences,
    royal or semi-royal, have disappeared wholly, or have lost their
    residential buildings. When Viollet-le-Duc, under the Second Empire,
    was allowed to restore one great chateau, he chose the latest,
    Pierrefonds, built by Louis d'Orleans in 1390. Vestiges of Saint
    Louis's palace remain at the Conciergerie, but the first great royal
    residence to be compared with the Merveille is Amboise, dating from
    about 1500, three centuries later. Civilization made almost a clean
    sweep of art. Only here, at Mont-Saint-Michel, one may still sit at
    ease on the stone benches in; the embrasures of the refectory
    windows, looking over the thirteenth-century ocean and watching the
    architect as he worked out the details which were to produce or
    accent his contrasts or harmonies, heighten his effects, or hide his
    show of effort, and all by means so true, simpler and apparently
    easy that one seems almost competent to follow him. One learns
    better in time. One gets to feel that these things were due in part
    to an instinct that the architect himself might not have been able
    to explain. The instinct vanishes as time creeps on. The halls at
    Rouen or at Blois are more easily understood; the Salle des
    Caryatides of Pierre Lescot at the Louvre, charming as it is, is
    simpler still; and one feels entirely at home in the Salle des
    Glaces which filled the ambition of Louis XIV at Versailles.

    If any lingering doubt remains in regard to the professional
    cleverness of the architect and the thoroughness of his study, we
    had best return to the great hall, and pass through a low door in
    its extreme outer angle, up a few steps into a little room some
    thirteen feet square, beautifully vaulted, lighted, warmed by a
    large stone fireplace, and in the corner, a spiral staircase leading
    up to another square room above opening directly into the cloister.
    It is a little library or charter-house. The arrangement is almost
    too clever for gravity, as is the case with more than one
    arrangement in the Merveille. From the outside one can see that at
    this corner the architect had to provide a heavy buttress against a
    double strain, and he built up from the rock below a square corner
    tower as support, into which he worked a spiral staircase leading
    from the cellar up to the cloisters. Just above the level of the
    great hall he managed to construct this little room, a gem. The
    place was near and far; it was quiet and central; William of Saint-
    Pair, had he been still alive, might have written his "Roman" there;
    monks might have illuminated missals there. A few steps upward
    brought them to the cloisters for meditation; a few more brought
    them to the church for prayer. A few steps downward brought them to
    the great hall, for business, a few steps more led them into the
    refectory, for dinner. To contemplate the goodness of God was a
    simple joy when one had such a room to work in; such a spot as the
    great hall to walk in, when the storms blew; or the cloisters in
    which to meditate, when the sun shone; such a dining-room as the
    refectory; and such a view from one's windows over the infinite
    ocean and the guiles of Satan's quicksands. From the battlements of
    Heaven, William of Saint-Pair looked down on it with envy.

    Of all parts of the Merveille, in summer, the most charming must
    always have been the cloisters. Only the Abbey of the Mount was rich
    and splendid enough to build a cloister like this, all in granite,
    carved in forms as light as though it were wood; with columns
    arranged in a peculiar triangular order that excited the admiration
    of Viollet-le-Duc. "One of the most curious and complete cloisters
    that we have in France," he said; although in France there are many
    beautiful and curious cloisters. For another reason it has value.
    The architect meant it to reassert, with all the art and grace he
    could command, the mastery of love, of thought and poetry, in
    religion, over the masculine, military energy of the great hall
    below. The thirteenth century rarely let slip a chance to insist on
    this moral that love is law. Saint Francis was preaching to the
    birds in 1215 at Assisi, and the architect built this cloister in
    1226 at Mont-Saint-Michel. Both sermons were saturated with the
    feeling of the time, and both are about equally worth noting, if one
    aspires to feel the art.

    A conscientious student has yet to climb down the many steps, on the
    outside, and look up at the Merveille from below. Few buildings in
    France are better worth the trouble. The horizontal line at the roof
    measures two hundred and thirty-five feet. The vertical line of the
    buttresses measures in round numbers one hundred feet. To make walls
    of that height and length stand up at all was no easy matter, as
    Robert de Torigny had shown; and so the architect buttressed them
    from bottom to top with twelve long buttresses against the thrust of
    the interior arches, and three more, bearing against the interior
    walls. This gives, on the north front, fifteen strong vertical lines
    in a space of two hundred and thirty-five feet. Between these lines
    the windows tell their story; the seven long windows of the
    refectory on one side; the seven rounded windows of the hall on the
    other. Even the corner tower with the charter-house becomes as
    simple as the rest. The sum of this impossible wall, and its
    exaggerated vertical lines, is strength and intelligence at rest.

    The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity
    of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death,
    Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The
    priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or
    in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was
    welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy,
    almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as
    well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an
    evident, obvious, sacred harmony. Even the discord of war is a
    detail on which the Abbey refuses to insist. Not till two centuries
    afterwards did the Mount take on the modern expression of war as a
    discord in God's providence. Then, in the early years of the
    fifteenth century, Abbot Pierre le Roy plastered the gate of the
    chatelet, as you now see it, over the sunny thirteenth-century
    entrance called Belle Chaise, which had treated mere military
    construction with a sort of quiet contempt. You will know what a
    chatelet is when you meet another; it frowns in a spirit quite alien
    to the twelfth century; it jars on the religion of the place; it
    forebodes wars of religion; dissolution of society; loss of unity;
    the end of a world. Nothing is sadder than the catastrophe of Gothic
    art, religion, and hope.

    One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an
    assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than
    ever was expressed by other art; and when the idea is absorbed,
    accepted, and perhaps partially understood, one may move on.
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