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An essay by Hans Christian Andersen

Poetry's California

Title:     Poetry's California
Author: Hans Christian Andersen [More Titles by Andersen]

Nature's treasures are most often unveiled to us by accident. A dog's nose was dyed by the bruised purple fish, and the genuine purple dye was discovered; a pair of wild buffalos were fighting on America's auriferous soil, and their horns tore up the green sward that covered the rich gold vein.

"In former days," as it is said by most, "everything came spontaneously. Our age has not such revelations; now one must slave and drudge if one would get anything; one must dig down into the deep shafts after the metals, which decrease more and more;--when the earth suddenly stretches forth her golden finger from California's peninsula, and we there see Monte Christo's foolishly invented riches realized; we see Aladdin's cave with its inestimable treasures. The world's treasury is so endlessly rich that we have, to speak plain and straightforward, scraped a little off the up-heaped measure; but the bushel is still full, the whole of the real measure is now refilled. In science also, such a world lies open for the discoveries of the human mind!

"But in poetry, the greatest and most glorious is already found, and gained!" says the poet. "Happy he who was born in former times; there was then many a land still undiscovered, on which poetry's rich gold lay like the ore that shines forth from the earth's surface."

Do not speak so! happy poet thou, who art born in our time! thou dost inherit all the glorious treasures which thy predecessors gave to the world; thou dost learn from them, that truth only is eternal,--the true in nature and mankind.

Our time is the time of discoveries--poetry also has its new California.

"Where does it exist?" you ask.

The coast is so near, that you do not think that _there_ is the new world. Like a bold Leander, swim with me across the stream: the black words on the white paper will waft you--every period is a heave of the waves.

* * * * *

It was in the library's saloon. Book-shelves with many books, old and new, were ranged around for every one; manuscripts lay there in heaps; there were also maps and globes. There sat industrious men at little tables, and wrote out and wrote in, and that was no easy work. But suddenly, a great transformation took place; the shelves became terraces for the noblest trees, with flowers and fruit; heavy clusters of grapes hung amongst leafy vines, and there was life and movement all around.

The old folios and dusty manuscripts rose into flower-covered tumuli, and there sprang forth knights in mail, and kings with golden crowns on, and there was the clang of harp and shield; history acquired the life and fullness of poetry--for a poet had entered there. He saw the living visions; breathed the flowers' fragrance; crushed the grapes, and drank the sacred juice. But he himself knew not yet that he was a poet--the bearer of-light for times and generations yet to come.

It was in the fresh, fragrant forest, in the last hour of leave-taking. Love's kiss, as the farewell, was the initiatory baptism for the future poetic life; and the fresh fragrance of the forest became sweeter, the chirping of the birds more melodious: there came sunlight and cooling breezes. Nature becomes doubly delightful where a poet walks.

And as there were two roads before Hercules, so there were before him two roads, shown by two figures, in order to serve him; the one an old crone, the other a youth, beautiful as the angel that led the young Tobias.

The old crone had on a mantle, on which were wrought flowers, animals, and human beings, entwined in an arabesque manner. She had large spectacles on, and beside her lantern she held a bag filled with old gilt cards--apparatus for witchcraft, and all the amulets of superstition: leaning on her crutch, wrinkled and shivering, she was, however, soaring, like the mist over the meadow.

"Come with me, and you shall see the world, so that a poet can have benefit from it," said she. "I will light my lantern; it is better than that which Diogenes bore; I shall lighten your path."

And the light shone; the old crone lifted her head, and stood there strong and tall, a powerful female figure. She was Superstition.

"I am the strongest in the region of romance," said she,--and she herself believed it.

And the lantern's light gave the lustre of the full moon over the whole earth; yes, the earth itself became transparent, as the still waters of the deep sea, or the glass mountains, in the fairy tale.

"My kingdom is thine! sing what thou see'st; sing as if no bard before thee had sung thereof."

And it was as if the scene continually changed. Splendid Gothic churches, with painted images in the panes, glided past, and the midnight-bell struck, and the dead arose from the graves. There, under the bending elder tree, sat the mother, and swathed her newly-born child; old, sunken knights' castles rose again from the marshy ground; the drawbridge fell, and they saw into the empty halls, adorned with images, where, under the gloomy stairs of the gallery, the death-proclaiming white woman came with a rattling bunch of keys. The basilisk brooded in the deep cellar; the monster bred from a cock's egg, invulnerable by every weapon, but not from the sight of its own horrible form: at the sight of its own image, it bursts like the steel that one breaks with the blow of a stout staff. And to everything that appeared, from the golden chalice of the altar-table, once the drinking-cup of evil spirits, to the nodding head on the gallows-hill, the old crone hummed her songs; and the crickets chirped, and the raven croaked from the opposite neighbour's house, and the winding-sheet rolled from the candle. Through the whole spectral world sounded, "death! death!"

"Go with me to life and truth," cried the second form, the youth who was beautiful as a cherub. A flame shone from his brow--a cherub's sword glittered in his hand. "I am _Knowledge_," said he: "my world is greater--its aim is truth."

And there was a brightness all around; the spectral images paled; it did not extend over the world they had seen. Superstition's lantern had only exhibited _magic-lantern_ images on the old ruined wall, and the wind had driven wet misty vapours past in figures.

"I will give thee a rich recompense. Truth in the created--truth in God!"

And through the stagnant lake, where before the misty spectral figures rose, whilst the bells sounded from the sunken castle, the light fell down on a swaying vegetable world. One drop of the marsh water, raised against the rays of light, became a living world, with creatures in strange forms, fighting and revelling--a world in a drop of water. And the sharp sword of Knowledge cleft the deep vault, and shone therein, where the basilisk killed, and the animal's body was dissolved in a death-bringing vapour: its claw extended from the fermenting wine-cask; its eyes were air, that burnt when the fresh wind touched it.

And there resided a powerful force in the sword; _so_ powerful, that the grain of gold was beaten to a flat surface, thin as the covering of mist that we breathe on the glass-pane; and it shone at the sword's point, so that the thin threads of the cobweb seemed to swell to cables, for one saw the strong twistings of numberless small threads. And the voice of Knowledge seemed over the whole world, so that the age of miracles appeared to have returned. Thin iron ties were laid over the earth, and along these the heavily-laden waggons flew on the wings of steam, with the swallow's flight; mountains were compelled to open themselves to the inquiring spirit of the age; the plains were obliged to raise themselves; and then thought was borne in words, through metal wires, with the lightning's speed, to distant towns. "Life! life!" it sounded through the whole of nature. "It is our time! Poet, thou dost possess it! Sing of it in spirit and in truth!"

And the genius of Knowledge raised the shining sword; he raised it far out into space, and then--what a sight! It was as when the sunbeams shine through a crevice in the wall in a dark space, and appear to us a revolving column of myriads of grains of dust; but every grain of dust here was a world! The sight he saw was our starry firmament!

Thy earth is a grain of dust here, but a speck whose wonders astonish thee; only a grain of dust, and yet a star under stars. That long column of worlds thou callest thy starry firmament, revolves like the myriads of grains of dust, visibly hovering in the sunbeam's revolving column, from the crevice in the wall into that dark space. But still more distant stands the milky way's whitish mist, a new starry heaven, each column but a radius in the wheel! But how great is this itself! how many radii thus go out from the central point--God!

So far does thine eye reach, so clear is thine age's horizon! Son of time, choose, who shall be thy companion? Here is thy new career! with the greatest of thy time, fly thou before thy time's generation! Like twinkling Lucifer, shine thou in time's roseate morn.

* * * * *

Yes, in knowledge lies Poetry's California! Every one who only looks backward, and not clearly forward, will, however high and honourably he stands, say, that if such riches lie in knowledge, they would long since have been made available by great and immortal bards, who had a clear and sagacious eye for the discovery of truth. But let us remember that when Thespis spoke from his car, the world had also wise men. Homer had sung his immortal songs, and yet a new form of genius appeared, to which a Sophocles and Aristophanes gave birth; the Sagas and mythology of the North were as an unknown treasure to the stage, until Oehlenschlaeger showed what mighty forms from thence might be made to glide past us.

It is not our intention that the poet shall versify scientific discoveries. The didactic poem is and will be, in its best form, always but a piece of mechanism, or wooden figure, which has not the true life. The sunlight of science must penetrate the poet; he must perceive truth and harmony in the minute and in the immensely great with a clear eye: it must purify and enrich the understanding and imagination, and show him new forms which will supply to him more animated words. Even single discoveries will furnish a new flight. What fairy tales cannot the world unfold under the microscope, if we transfer our human world thereto? Electro-magnetism can present or suggest new plots in new comedies and romances; and how many humorous compositions will not spring forth, as we from our grain of dust, our little earth, with its little haughty beings look out into that endless world's universe, from milky way to milky way? An instance of what we here mean is discoverable in that old noble lady's words: "If every star be a globe like our earth, and have its kingdoms and courts--what an endless number of courts--the contemplation is enough to make mankind giddy!"

We will not say, like that French authoress: "Now, then, let me die: the world has no more discoveries to make!" O, there is so endlessly much in the sea, in the air, and on the earth--wonders, which science will bring forth!--wonders, greater than the poet's philosophy can create! A bard will come, who, with a child's mind, like a new Aladdin, will enter into the cavern of science,--with a child's mind, we say, or else the puissant spirits of natural strength would seize him, and make him their servant; whilst he, with the lamp of poetry, which is, and always will be, the human heart, stands as a ruler, and brings forth wonderful fruits from the gloomy passages, and has strength to build poetry's new palace, created in one night by attendant spirits.

In the world itself events repeat themselves; the human character was and will be the same during long ages and all ages; and as they were in the old writings, they must be in the new. But science always unfolds something new; light and truth are everything that is created--beam out from hence with eternally divine clearness. Mighty image of God, do thou illumine and enlighten mankind; and when its intellectual eye is accustomed to the lustre, the new Aladdin will come, and thou, man, shalt with him, who concisely dear, and richly sings the beauty of truth, wander through Poetry's California.

[The end]
Hans Christian Andersen's essay: Poetry's California