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An essay by Hans Christian Andersen

The Poet's Symbol

Title:     The Poet's Symbol
Author: Hans Christian Andersen [More Titles by Andersen]

If a man would seek for the symbol of the poet, he need not look farther than "The Arabian Nights' Tales." Scherezade who interprets the stories for the Sultan--Scherezade is the poet, and the Sultan is the public who is to be agreeably entertained, or else he will decapitate Scherezade.

Powerful Sultan! Poor Scherezade!

The Sultan-public sits in more than a thousand and one forms, and listens. Let us regard a few of these forms.

There sits a sallow, peevish, scholar; the tree of his life bears leaves impressed with long and learned words: diligence and perseverance crawl like snails on the hog's leather bark: the moths have got into the inside--and that is bad, very bad! Pardon the rich fulness of the song, the inconsiderate enthusiasm, the fresh young, intellect. Do not behead Scherezade! But he beheads her out of hand, _sans_ remorse.

There sits a dress-maker, a sempstress who has had some experience of the world. She comes from strange families, from a solitary chamber where she sat and gained a knowledge of mankind--she knows and loves the romantic. Pardon, Miss, if the story has not excitement enough for you, who have sat over the needle and the muslin, and having had so much of life's prose, gasp after romance.

"Behead her!" says the dress-maker.

There sits a figure in a dressing gown--this oriental dress of the North, for the lordly minion, the petty prince, the rich brewer's son, &c.;, &c.;, &c.; It is not to be learned from the dressing gown, nor from that lordly look and the fine smile around the mouth, to what stem he belongs: his demands on Scherezade are just the same as the dress-maker's: he must be excited, he must be brought to shudder all down the vertebrae, through the very spine: he must be crammed with mysteries, such as those which Spriez knew how to connect and thicken.

Scherezade is beheaded!

Wise, enlightened Sultan! Thou comest in the form of a schoolboy; thou bearest the Romans and Greeks together in a satchel on thy back, as Atlas sustained the world. Do not cast an evil eye upon poor Scherezade; do not judge her before thou hast learned thy lesson, and art a child again,--do not behead Scherezade!

Young, full-dressed diplomatist, on whose breast we can count, by the badges of honour, how many courts thou hast visited with thy princely master, speak mildly of Scherezade's name! speak of her in French, that she may be ennobled above her mother tongue! translate but one strophe of her song, as badly as thou canst, but carry it into the brilliant saloon, and her sentence of death is annulled in the sweet, absolving _charmant_!

Mighty annihilator and elevator!--the newspapers' Zeus--thou weekly, monthly, and daily journals' Jupiter, shake not thy locks in anger! Cast not thy lightnings forth, if Scherezade sing otherwise than thou art accustomed to in thy family, or if she go without a _suite_ of thine own clique. Do not behead her!

We will see one figure more--the most dangerous of them all; he with the praise on his lips, like that of the stormy river's swell--the blind enthusiast. The water in which Scherezade dipped her fingers, is for him a fountain of Castalia; the throne he erects to her apotheosis becomes her scaffold.

This is the poet's symbol--paint it:


But why none of the worthier figures--the candid, the honest, and the beautiful? They come also, and on them Scherezade fixes her eye. Encouraged by them, she boldly raises her proud head aloft towards the stars, and sings of the harmony there above, and here beneath, in man's heart.

_That_ will not clearly show the symbol:


The sword of death hangs over her head whilst she relates--and the Sultan-figure bids us expect that it will fall. Scherezade is the victor: the poet is, like her, also a victor. He is rich, victorious--even in his poor chamber, in his most solitary hours. There, in that chamber, rose after rose shoots forth; bubble after bubble sparkles on the magic stream. The heavens shine with shooting stars, as if a new firmament were created, and the old rolled away. The world does not know it, for it is the poet's own creation, richer than the king's costly illuminations. He is happy, as Scherezade is; he is victorious, he is mighty. _Imagination_ adorns his walls with tapestry, such as no land's ruler owns; _feeling_ makes the beauteous chords sound to him from the human breast; _understanding_ raises him, through the magnificence of creation, up to God, without his forgetting that he stands fast on the firm earth. He is mighty, he is happy, as few are. We will not place him in the stocks of misconstruction, for pity and lamentation; we merely paint his symbol, dip into the colours on the world's least attractive side, and obtain it most comprehensibly from


See--that is it! Do not behead Scherezade!

[The end]
Hans Christian Andersen's essay: Poet's Symbol