The Millions

Stories in Formaldehyde: The Strange Pleasures of Taxonomizing Plot

Somewhere within the storerooms of London’s staid, gray-faced Tate Gallery (for it’s currently no longer on exhibit) is an 1834 painting by J.M.W. Turner entitled “The Golden Bough.” Rendered in that painter’s characteristic sfumato of smeared light and smoky color, Turner’s composition depicts a scene from Virgil’s epic Aeneid wherein the hero is commanded by that seventh-century-old prophetic crone, the Sibyl of Cumae, to make an offering of a golden bough from a sacred tree growing upon the shores of crystalline blue Lake Avernus to the goddess Prosperina, if he wishes to descend to Hades and see the shadow of his departed father. “Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led/Along the waste dominions of the dead,” translated John Dryden in 1697, using his favored totemistic Augustinian rhyming couplets, as Aeneas descends further into the Underworld, its entrance a few miles west of Naples. As imagined by Turner, the area around the volcanic lake is pleasant, if sinister; bucolic, if eerie; pastoral, if unsettling. A dapple of light marks the portal whereby pilgrims journey into perdition; in the distance tall, slender trees topped with a cap of branches jut up throughout the landscape. A columned temple is nestled within the scrubby hills overlooking the field. The Sibyl stands with a scythe so that the vegetable sacrifice can be harvested, postlapsarian snakes slither throughout, and the Fates revel in mummery near hell’s doorway. Rather than severe tones of blood red and sulfurous black, earthy red and cadaverous green: Turner opted to depict Avernus in soft blues and greys, and the result is all the more disquieting. Here, the viewer might think, is what the passage between life and death must look like—muted, temperate, serene, barely even noticeable from one transition to the next.

As with the best of Turner’s paintings, with his eye to color the visual equivalent of perfect pitch, it is the texture of hues that renders, if not some didactic message about his subject, a general emotional sense, a sentiment hard to describe and registering at a pitch that can be barely heard and yet alters one’s feelings in the moment. Such was the sense conveyed by the Scottish folklorist who borrowed the artist’s title for his landmark 1890 study describing on his first page how the painting is “suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape.” This scene, Frazer enthuses, “is a dream-like vision of the little woodland…[where] Dian herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.” An influential remnant of a supremely Victorian enthusiasm for providing quasi-scientific gloss to the categorization of’s written two decades before, might call ). First viewing Turner’s canvas, and the rationalist Frazer was moved by the painting’s mysteriousness, the way in which the pool blue sky and the shining hellmouth trade in nothing as literal as mere symbolism, but wherein the textured physicality—the roughness of the hill and the ominous haze of the clouds, dusk’s implied screaming cicadas and the cool of the evening—conveys an ineffable feeling. Despite pretensions to an analysis more logical, Frazer intimates the numinous (for, how couldn’t he?). “Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough?” he writes.

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