Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Helen Hunt Jackson > Text of Wet The Clay

An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

Wet The Clay

Title:     Wet The Clay
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

Once I stood in Miss Hosmer's studio, looking at a statue which she was modelling of the ex-queen of Naples. Face to face with the clay model, I always feel the artist's creative power far more than when I am looking at the immovable marble.

A touch here--there--and all is changed. Perhaps, under my eyes, in the twinkling of an eye, one trait springs into life and another disappears.

The queen, who is a very beautiful woman, was represented in Miss Hosmer's statue as standing, wearing the picturesque cloak that she wore during those hard days of garrison life at Gaeta, when she showed herself so brave and strong that the world said if she, instead of that very stupid young man her husband, had been king, the throne need not have been lost. The very cloak, made of light cloth showily faced with scarlet, was draped over a lay figure in one corner of the room. In the statue the folds of drapery over the right arm were entirely disarranged, simply rough clay. The day before they had been apparently finished; but that morning Miss Hosmer had, as she laughingly told us, "pulled it all to pieces again."

As she said this, she took up a large syringe and showered the statue from head to foot with water, till it dripped and shone as if it had been just plunged into a bath. Now it was in condition to be moulded. Many times a day this process must be repeated, or the clay becomes so dry and hard that it cannot be worked.

I had known this before; but never did I so realize the significant symbolism of the act as when I looked at this lifeless yet lifelike thing, to be made into the beauty of a woman, called by her name, and cherished after her death,--and saw that only through this chrysalis of the clay, so cared for, moistened, and moulded, could the marble obtain its soul.

And, as all things I see in life seem to me to have a voice either for or of children, so did this instantly suggest to me that most of the failures of mothers come from their not keeping the clay wet.

The slightest touch tells on the clay when it is soft and moist, and can produce just the effect which is desired; but when the clay is too dry it will not yield, and often it breaks and crumbles beneath the unskilful hand. How perfect the analogy between these two results, and the two atmospheres which one often sees in the space of one half-hour in the management of the same child! One person can win from it instantly a gentle obedience: that person's smile is a reward, that person's displeasure is a grief it cannot bear, that person's opinions have utmost weight with it, that person's presence is a controlling and subduing influence. Another, alas! the mother, produces such an opposite effect that it is hard to believe the child can be the same child. Her simplest command is met by antagonism or sullen compliance; her pleasure and displeasure are plainly of no account to the child, and its great desire is to get out of her presence.

What shape will she make of that child's soul? She does not wet the clay. She does not stop to consider before each command whether it be wholly just, whether it be the best time to make it, and whether she can explain its necessity. Oh! the sweet reasonableness of children when disagreeable necessities are explained to them, instead of being enforced as arbitrary tyrannies! She does not make them so feel that she shares all their sorrows and pleasures that they cannot help being in turn glad when she is glad, and sorry when she is sorry. She does not so take them into constant companionship in her interests, each day,--the books, the papers she reads, the things she sees,--that they learn to hold her as the representative of much more than nursery discipline, clothes, and bread and butter. She does not kiss them often enough, put her arms around them, warm, soften, bathe them in the ineffable sunshine of loving ways. "I can't imagine why children are so much better with you than with me," exclaims such a mother. No, she cannot imagine; and that is the trouble. If she could, all would be righted. It is quite probable that she is a far more anxious, self-sacrificing, hard-working mother than the neighbor, whose children are rosy and frolicking and affectionate and obedient; while hers are pale and fretful and selfish and sullen.

She is all the time working, working, with endless activity, on hard, dry clay; and the neighbor, who, perhaps half-unconsciously, keeps the clay wet, is with one-half the labor modelling sweet creatures of Nature's own loveliest shapes.

Then she says, this poor, tired mother, discouraged because her children tell lies, and irritated because they seem to her thankless, "After all, children are pretty much alike, I suppose. I believe most children tell lies when they are little; and they never realize until they are grown up what parents do for them."

Here again I find a similitude among the artists who paint or model. Studios are full of such caricatures, and the hard-working, honest souls who have made them believe that they are true reproductions of nature and life.

"See my cherub. Are not all cherubs such as he?" and "Behold these trees and this water; and how the sun glowed on the day when I walked there!" and all the while the cherub is like a paper doll, and the trees and the water never had any likeness to any thing that is in this beautiful earth. But, after all, this similitude is short and paltry, for it is of comparatively small moment that so many men and women spend their lives in making bad cherubs in marble, and hideous landscapes in oil. It is industry, and it keeps them in bread; in butter, too, if their cherubs and trees are very bad. But, when it is a human being that is to be moulded, how do we dare, even with all the help which we can ask and find in earth and in heaven, to shape it by our touch!

Clay in the hands of the potter is not more plastic than is the little child's soul in the hands of those who tend it. Alas! how many shapeless, how many ill-formed, how many broken do we see! Who does not believe that the image of God could have been beautiful on all? Sooner or later it will be, thank Christ! But what a pity, what a loss, not to have had the sweet blessedness of being even here fellow-workers with him in this glorious modelling for eternity!

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Wet The Clay