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a framed portrait of Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen

Born
April 2, 1805, Odense, Denmark
Died
August 4, 1875, Copenhagen, Denmark
Occupation
Novelist, short story writer, fairy tales writer
Nationality
Danish
Genres
Children’s literature, travelogue

Psyche

AT the dawn of day through the red atmosphere shines a large star, morning’s clearest star; its ray quivers upon the white wall, as if it would there inscribe what it had to relate—what in the course of a thousand years it has witnessed here and there on our revolving earth.

Listen to one of its histories:

Lately (its lately is a century ago to us human beings) my rays watched a young artist; it was in the territory of the Pope, in the capital of the world—Rome. Much has changed there in the flight of years, but nothing so rapidly as the change which takes place in the human form between childhood and old age. The imperial city was then, as now, in ruins; fig-trees and laurels grew among the fallen marble pillars, and over the shattered bath-chambers, with their gold-enameled walls; the Colosseum was a ruin; the bells of the churches rang, incense perfumed the air, processions moved with lights and splendid canopies through the streets. The Holy Church ruled all, and art was patronized by it. At Rome lived the world’s greatest painter, Raphael; there also lived the first sculptor of his age, Michael Angelo. The Pope himself paid homage to these two artists, and honored them by his visits. Art was appreciated, admired, and recompensed. But even then not all that was great and worthy of praise was known and brought forward.

In a narrow little street stood an old house; it had formerly been a temple, and there dwelt a young artist. He was poor and unknown; however, he had a few young friends, artists like himself, young in mind, in hopes, in thoughts. They told him that he was rich in talent, but that he was a fool, since he never would believe in his own powers. He always destroyed what he had formed in clay; he was never satisfied with any thing he did, and never had any thing finished so as to have it seen and known, and it was necessary to have this in order to make money.

“You are a dreamer,” they said, “and therein lies your misfortune. But this arises from your never having lived yet, not having tasted life, enjoyed it in large exhilarating draughts, as it ought to be enjoyed. It is only in youth that one can do this. “Look at the great master, Raphael, whom the Pope honors and the world admires: he does not abstain from wine and good fare.”

“He dines with the baker’s wife, the charming Fornarina,” said Angelo, one of the liveliest of the young group.

They all talked a great deal, after the fashion of gay young men. They insisted on carrying the youthful artist off with them to scenes of amusement and riot—scenes of folly they might have been called—and for a moment he felt inclined to accompany them. His blood was warm, his fancy powerful; he could join in their jovial chat, and laugh as loud as any of them; yet what they called “Raphael’s pleasant life” vanished from his mind like a morning mist. He thought only of the inspiration that was apparent in the great master’s works. If he stood in the Vatican near the beautiful forms the masters of a thousand years before had created out of marble blocks, then his breast heaved; he felt within himself something so elevated, so holy, so grand and good, that he longed to chisel such statues from the marble blocks. He wished to give a form to the glorious conceptions of his mind; but how, and what form? The soft clay that was moulded into beautiful figures by his fingers one day was the next day, as usual, broken up.

Once, as he was passing one of the rich palaces, of which there are so many at Rome, he stepped within the large open entrance court, and saw arched     corridors adorned with statues, inclosing a little garden full of the most beautiful roses. Great white flowers, with green juicy leaves, shot up the marble basin, where the clear waters splashed, and near it glided a figure, that of a young girl, the daughter of the princely house—so delicate, so light, so lovely! He had never beheld so beautiful a woman. Yes—painted by Raphael, painted as Psyche, in one of the palaces of Rome! Yes—there she stood as if living!

She also lived in his thoughts and heart. And he hurried home to his humble apartment, and formed a Psyche in clay; it was the rich, the high-born young Roman lady, and for the first time he looked with satisfaction on his work. It was life itself—it was herself. And his friends, when they saw it, were loud in their congratulation. This work was a proof of his excellence in art: that they had themselves already known, and the world should now know it also.

Clay may look fleshy and lifelike, but it has not the whiteness of marble, and does not last so long. His Psyche must be sculptured in marble, and the expensive block of marble required he already possessed: it had lain for many years, a legacy from his parents, in the courtyard. Broken bottles, decayed vegetables, and all manner of refuse, had been heaped on it and soiled it, but within it was white as the mountain snow. Psyche was to be chiseled from it.

One day it happened (the clear star tells nothing of this, for it did not see what passed, but we know it) a distinguished Roman party came to the narrow humble street. The carriage stopped near it. The party had come to see the young artist’s work, of which they had heard by accident. And who were these aristocratic visitors? Unfortunate young man! All too happy young man, he might also well have been called. The young girl herself stood there in his studio; and with what a smile when her father exclaimed, “But it is you, you yourself to the life!” That smile could not be copied, that glance could not be imitated—that speaking glance which she cast on the young artist! It was a glance that fascinated, enchanted, and destroyed.

“The Psyche must be finished in marble,” said the rich nobleman. And that was a life-giving word to the inanimate clay and to the heavy marble block, as it was a life-giving word to the young man.

“When the work is finished I will purchase it,” said the noble visitor.

It seemed as if a new era had dawned on the humble studio; joy and sprightliness enlivened it now, and ennui fled before constant employment. The bright morning star saw how quickly the work advanced. The clay itself became as if animated with a soul, for even in it stood forth, in perfect beauty, each now well-known feature.

“Now I know what life is!” exclaimed the young artist, joyfully; “it is love. There is glory in the excellent, rapture in the beautiful. What my friends call life and enjoyment are corrupt and perishable—they are bubbles in the fermenting dregs, not the pure heavenly altar-wine that consecrates life.” The block of marble was raised, the chisel hewed large pieces from it; it was measured, pointed, and marked. The word proceeded; little by little the stone assumed a form, a form of beauty—Psyche—charming as God’s creation in the young female. The heavy marble became lifelike, dancing, airy, and a graceful Psyche, with the bright smile so heavenly and innocent, such as had mirrored itself in the young sculptor’s heart.

The star of the rose-tinted morn saw it, and well understood what was stirring in the young man’s heart—understood the changing color on his cheek, the fire in his eye—as he carved the likeness of what God had created.

“You are a master, such as those in the time of the Greeks,” said his delighted friends. “The whole world will soon admire your Psyche.”

“My Psyche!” he exclaimed. “Mine! Yes, such she must be. I too am an artist like these great ones of by-gone days. God has bestowed on me the gift of genius, which raises its possessor to a level with the high-born.”

The sculptor's triumph.

The sculptor’s triumph.

And he sank on his knees, and wept his thanks to God, and then forgot Him for her for her image in marble. The figure of Psyche stood there, as if formed of snow, blushing rosy red on the morning sun.

In reality he was to see her, living, moving, her whose voice had sounded like the sweetest music. He was to go to the splendid palace to announce that the marble Psyche was finished. He went thither, passed through the open court to where the water poured, splashing from dolphins into the marble basin, around which the white flowers clustered, and the roses shed their fragrance. He entered the large lofty hall, whose walls and roof were adorned with armorial bearings and heraldic designs. Well-dressed, pompous-looking servants strutted up and down like sleigh-horses with their jingling bells; others of them, insolent-looking fellows, were stretched at their ease on handsomely–carved wooden benches; they seemed the masters of the house. He told his errand, and was then conducted up the white marble stairs, which were covered with soft carpets. Statues were ranged on both sides; he passed through handsome rooms with pictures and bright mosaic floors. For a moment he felt oppressed by all this magnificence and splendor—it nearly took away his breath. But he speedily recovered himself; for the princely owner of the mansion received him kindly, almost cordially, and, after they had finished their conversation, requested him, when bidding him adieu, to go to the apartments of the young Signora, who wished also to see him. Servants marshaled him through superb saloons and suits of rooms to the chamber where she sat, elegantly dressed and radiant in beauty.

She spoke to him. No Miserere, no tones of sacred music, could more have melted the heart and elevated the soul. He seized her hand and carried it to his lips; never was rose so soft. But there issued a fire from that rose—a fire that penetrated through him and turned his head; words poured forth from his lips, which he scarcely knew himself, like the crater pouring forth glowing lava. He told her of his love. She stood amazed, offended, insulted, with a haughty and scornful look, an expression which had been called forth instantaneously by his passionate avowal of his sentiments toward her. Her cheeks glowed, her lips became quite pale; her eyes flashed fire, and were yet as dark as ebon night.

The repulse.

The repulse.

"Madman!" she exclaimed; "begone! away!" And she turned angrily from him, while her beautiful countenance assumed the look of that petrified face of old with the serpents clustering around it like hair.      Like a sinking lifeless thing he descended into the street; like a sleep-walker he reached his home. But there he awoke to pain and fury; he seized his hammer, lifted it high in the air, and was on the point of breaking the beautiful marble statue, but in his distracted state of mind he had not observed that Angelo was standing near him. The latter caught his arm, exclaiming, "Have you gone mad? What would you do?"

They struggled with each other. Angelo was the younger of the two, and, drawing a deep breath, the young sculptor threw himself on a chair.

"What has happened?" asked Angelo. "Be yourself and speak."

But what could he tell? what could he say? And when Angelo found that he could get nothing out of him he gave up questioning him.

"Your blood thickens in this constant dreaming. Be a man like the rest of us, and do not live only in the ideal: you will go deranged at this rate. Take wine until you feel it get a little into your head; that will make you sleep well. Let a pretty girl be your doctor; a girl from the Campagna is as charming as a princess in her marble palace. Both are the daughters of Eve, and not to be distinguished from each other in Paradise. Follow your Angelo! Let me be your angel, the angel of life for you! The time will come when you will be old, and your limbs will be useless to you. Why, on a fine sunny day, when every thing is laughing and joyous, do you look like a withered straw that can grow no more? I do not believe what the priests say, that there is a life beyond the grave. It is a pretty fancy, a tale for children—pleasant enough if one could put faith in it, I, however, do not live in fancies only, but in the world of realities. Come with me! Be a man!”

The revelers.

The revelers.

And he drew him out with him; it was easy to do so at that moment. There was a heat in the young artist’s blood, a change in his feelings; he longed to throw off all his old habits, all that he was accustomed to—to throw off his own former self—and he consented to accompany Angelo.

On the outskirts of Rome was a hostelry much frequented by artists. It was built amidst the ruins of an old bath-chamber; the large yellow lemons hung among their dark bright leaves, and adorned the greatest part of the old reddish-gilt walls. The hostelry was a deep vault, almost like a hole in the ruin. A lamp burned within it before a picture of the Madonna; a large fire was blazing in the stove roasting, boiling, and frying were going on there); on the outside, under lemon and laurel trees, stood two tables spread for refreshments.

Kindly and joyously were the two artists welcomed by their friends. None of them ate much, but they all drank a great deal; that caused hilarity. There was singing, and playing the guitar; Saltarello sounded, and the merry dance began. A couple of young Roman girls, models for the artists, joined in the dance, and took part in their mirth—two charming Bacchantes! They had not, indeed, the delicacy of Psyche—they were not graceful lovely roses—but they were fresh, hardy, ruddy carnations.

How warm it was that day! Warm even after the sun had gone down—heat in the blood, heat in the air, heat in every look! The atmosphere seemed to be composed of gold and roses—life itself was gold and roses.

“Now at last you are with us! Let yourself be borne on the stream around you and within you.”

“I never before felt so well and so joyous,” cried the young sculptor. You are right, you are all right; I was a fool, a visionary. Men should seek for realities, and not wrap themselves up in phantasies.”

Amidst songs and the tinkling of guitars, the young men sallied forth from the hostelry, and took their way, in the clear starlit evening, through the small streets; the two ruddy carnations, daughters of the Capagna, accompanied them. In Angelo’s room, amidst sketches and folios scattered about, and glowing voluptuous paintings, their voices sounded more subdued, but not less full of passion. On the floor lay many a drawing of the Campagna’s daughters in various attractive attitudes: they were full of beauty, yet the originals were still more beautiful. The six-branched chandeliers were burning, and the light glared on the scene of sensual joy.

“Apollo! Jupiter! Into your heaven and happiness am I wafted. It seems as if the flower of life has in this moment sprung up in my heart.”

Yes, it sprang up, but it broke and fell, and a deadening hideous sensation seized upon him. It dimmed his sight, stupefied his mind; perception failed, and all became dark around him.

He gained his home, sat down on his bed, and tried to collect his thoughts. “Fie!” was the exclamation uttered by his own mouth from the bottom of his heart. “Wretch! begone! away!” And he breathed a sigh full of the deepest grief.

“Begone! away!” These words of hers—the living Psyche’s words—were re-echoed in his breast, re-echoed from his lips. He laid his head on his pillow; his thoughts became confused, and he slept.

At the dawn of day he arose, and sat down to reflect. What had happened? Had he dreamt it all—dreamt her words—dreamt his visit to the hostelry, and the evening with the flaunting carnations of the Campagna? No, all was reality—a reality such as he had never before experienced.

Through the purplish haze of the early morning shone the clear star; its rays fell upon him and upon the marble Psyche. He trembled as he gazed on the imperishable image; he felt that there was impurity in his look, and he threw a covering over it. Once only he removed the veil to touch the statue, but he could not bear to see his own work.

Quiet, gloomy, absorbed in his own thoughts, he sat the live-long day. He noticed nothing, knew nothing of what was going on about him, and no one knew what was going on within his heart.

The refuge of the church.

The refuge of the church.

Days, weeks passed; the nights were the longest. The glittering star saw him one morning, pale, shaking with fever, arise from his couch, go to the marble figure, lift the veil from it, gaze for a moment with an expression of deep devotion and sorrow on his work, and then, almost sinking under its weight, he dragged the statue out into the garden. In it there was a dried-up, dilapidated, disused well, which could only be called a deep hole; he sank his Psyche in it, threw in earth over it, and covered the new-made grave with brushwood and nettles.

“Begone! away!” was the short funeral service.

The star witnessed this through the rose-tinted atmosphere, and its ray quivered on two large tears upon the corpse-like cheeks of the young fever-stricken man—death-stricken they called him on his sick-bed.

The monk Ignatius came to see him as a friend and physician—came with religion’s comforting words, and spoke to him of the Church’s happiness and peace, of the sins of mankind, the grace and mercy of God.

And his words fell like warm sunbeams on the damp spongy ground; it steamed, and the misty vapors ascended from it, so that the thoughts and mental images which had received their shapes from realities were cleared, and he was enabled to take a more just view of man’s life. The delusions of guilt abounded in it, and such there had been for him. Art was a sorceress that lured us to vanity and earthly lusts. We are false toward ourselves, false toward our friends, false toward our God. The serpent always repeats within us, “Eat thereof; then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods!”

He seemed now for the first time to understand himself, and to have found the way to truth and rest. On the Church shone light from on high; in the monk’s cell dwelt that peace amidst which the human tree might grow to flourish in eternity.

Brother Ignatius encouraged these sentiments, and the artist’s resolution was taken. A child of the world became a servant of the Church: the young sculptor bade adieu to all his former pursuits, and went into a monastery.

How kindly, how gladly, was he received by the Brothers! What a Sunday fĂȘte was his initiation! The Almighty, it seemed to him, was in the sunshine that illumined the church. His glory beamed from the holy images and from the white cross. And when he now, at the hour of the setting sun, stood in his little cell, and, opening the window, looked out over the ancient Rome, the ruined temples, the magnificent but dead Colosseum—when he saw all this in the spring-time, when the acacias were in bloom, the evergreens were fresh, roses bursting from their buds, citrons and orange-trees shining, palms waving—he felt himself tranquilized and cheered as he had never been before. The quiet open Campagna extended toward the misty snow-decked hills, which seemed painted in the air. All, blended together, breathed of peace, of beauty, so soothingly, so dreamily—a dream the whole.

Yes, the world was a dream here. A dream may continue for an hour, and come again at another hour; but life in a cloister is a life of years, long and many.

He might have attested the truth of this saying, that from within comes much which taints mankind. What was that fire which sometimes blazed throughout him? What was that source from which evil, against his will, was always welling forth? He scourged his body, but from within came the evil yet again. What was that spirit within him, which, with the pliancy of a serpent, coiled itself up, and crept into his conscience under the cloak of universal love, and comforted him? The saints pray for us, the holy mother prays for us, Jesus Himself has shed His blood for us. Was it weakness of mind or the volatile feelings of youth that caused him sometimes to think himself received into grace, and made him fancy himself exalted by that—exalted over so many? For had he not cast from him the vanities of the world? Was he not a son of the Church?

One day, after the lapse of many years, he met Angelo, who recognized him.

“Man!” exclaimed Angelo. “Yes, surely it is yourself. Are you happy now? You have sinned against God, for you have thrown away His gracious gift, and abandoned your mission into this world. Read the parable the confided talent. The Master who related it spoke the truth. What have you won or found? Have you not allotted to yourself a life of dreams? Is your religion not a mere coinage of the brain? What if all be but a dream—pretty yet fantastic thoughts?”

“Away from me, Satan!” cried the monk, as he fled from Angelo.

“There is a devil, a personified devil! I saw him today,” groaned the monk. “I only held out a finger to him, and he seized my whole hand! Ah, no!” he sighed. “In myself there is sin, and in that man there is sin; but he is not crushed by it—he goes with brow erect, and lives in happiness. I seek my happiness in the consolations of religion. If only they were consolations—if all here, as in the world I left, were but pleasing thoughts! They are delusions, like the crimson skies of evening, like the beautiful sea-blue tint on the distant hills. Close by these look very different. Eternity, thou art like the wide, interminable, calm-looking ocean: it beckons, calls us, fills us with forebodings, and if we venture on it, we sink, we disappear, die, cease to exist! Delusions! Begone! away!

And tearless, lost in his own thoughts, he sat upon his hard pallet: then he knelt. Before whom? The stone cross that stood on the wall? No, habit alone made him kneel there.

And the deeper he looked into himself the darker became his thoughts. “Nothing within, nothing without—a lifetime wasted!” And that cold snow-ball of thought rolled on, grew larger, crushed him, destroyed him.

“To none dare I speak of the gnawing worm within me; my secret is my prisoner. If I could get rid of it, I would be Thine, O God!”

And a spirit of piety awoke and struggled within him.

“Lord! Lord!” he exclaimed in his despair.

“Be merciful, grant me faith! I despised and abandoned Thy gracious gift—my mission into this world. I was wanting in strength; Though hadst not bestowed that on me. Immortal fame—Psyche—still lingers in my heart. Begone! away! They shall be buried like yonder Psyche, the brightest gem of my life. That shall never ascend from its dark grave.”

The star in the rose-tinted morn shone brightly—the star that assuredly shall be extinguished and annihilated, while the spirits of mankind live amidst celestial light. Its trembling rays fell upon the white wall, but it inscribed no memorial there of the blessed trust in God, of the grace, of the holy love, that dwell in the believer’s heart.

“Psyche within me can never die—it will live in consciousness! Can what is inconceivable be? Yes, yes! For I myself am inconceivable. Thou art inconceivable, O Lord! The whole of Thy universe is inconceivable—a work of power, of excellence, of love!”

His eyes beamed with the brightest radiance for a moment, and then became dim and corpse-like. The church bells rang their funeral peal over him—the dead; and he was buried in earth brought from Jerusalem, and mingled with the ashes of departed saints.

Some years afterward the skeleton was taken up, as had been the skeletons of the dead monks before him; it was attired in the brown cowl, with a rosary in its hand, and it was placed in a niche among the human bones which were found in the burying-ground of the monastery. And the sun shone outside, and incense perfumed the air within, and masses were said.

Year again went by.

The bones of the skeletons had fallen from each other, and become mixed together. The skulls were gathered and set up—they formed quite an outer wall to the church. There stood also his skull in the burning sunshine: there were so many, many death’s heads, that no one knew now the names they had borne, nor his. And see! In the sunshine there moved something living within the two eye-sockets. What could that be? A motley-colored lizard had sprung into the interior of the skull, and was passing out and in through the large empty sockets of the eye. There was life now within that head, where once grand ideas, bright dreams, love of art, and excellence had dwelt—from whence hot tears had rolled, and where had lived the hope of immortality. The lizard sprang forth and vanished; the skull mouldered away, and became dust in dust.

Where once had been a narrow street, with the ruins of an ancient temple, stood now a convent. A grave was to be dug in the garden, for a young nun had died, and at an early hour in the morning she was to be buried. In digging the grave the spade knocked against a stone. Dazzling white it appeared—the pure marble became visible. A round shoulder first presented itself; the spade was used more cautiously, and a female head was soon discovered, and then the wings of a butterfly. From the grave in which the young nun was to be laid they raised, in the red morning light, a beautiful statue—Psyche carved in the finest marble. “How charming it is! how perfect! —an exquisite work, from the most glorious period of art!” it was said. Who could have been the sculptor? No one knew that—none knew him except the clear star that had shone for a thousand years; it knew his earthly career, his trails, his weakness. But he was dead, returned to the dust. Yet the result of his greatest effort, the most admirable, which proved his vast genius—Psyche—that never can die; that might outlive fame. That was seen, appreciated, admired, and loved.

The clear star in the rosy-streaked morn sent its glittering ray upon Psyche, and upon the delighted countenances of the admiring beholders, who saw a soul created in the marble block.

All that is earthly returns to earth, and is forgotten; only the star in the infinite vault of heaven bears it in remembrance. What is heavenly obtains renown from its own excellence; and when even renown shall fade, Psyche shall still live.

Psyche.

Psyche.