The Psyche

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Translated by Fanny Fuller.

(1863)

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A large star beams in the dawn of morning in the red sky--the clearest star of the morning--its rays tremble upon the white wall, as if they wished to write down and relate, the scenes which they had witnessed during many centuries.

Listen to one of these stories!

A short time ago--(this not long ago is with us men--centuries)--my rays followed a young artist; it was in the realm of the Pope, in the city of the world, in Rome. Many changes have been made, but the imperial palace, was, as it is to-day, a ruin; between the overthrown marble columns and over the ruined bath-rooms, whose walls were still decorated with gold, grew fig and laurel trees. The Colosseum was a ruin; the church bells rang, the incense arose and processions passed through the streets with tapers and gorgeous canopies. The Church was holy, and art was lofty and holy also. In Rome dwelt Raphael, the greatest painter of the world, here also dwelt Michael Angelo, the greatest sculptor of the age; even the Pope did homage to them both, and honoured them with his visits. Art was recognized, honoured and rewarded. All greatness and excellence is not seen and recognized.

In a little narrow street, stood an old house, which had once been a temple; here dwelt a young artist; he was poor, he was unknown; it is true that he had young friends, artists also, young in feelings, in hopes, and in thoughts. They told him, that he was rich in talents and excellence but that he needed confidence in himself. He was never satisfied with his work and either destroyed all that he modeled or left it unfinished; this is not the proper course to adopt, if one would be known, appreciated and live.

"You are a dreamer," said they, "this is your misfortune! You have not yet lived, you have not inhaled life in large healthy draughts, you have not yet enjoyed it. One should do this in youth and become a man! Look at the great master Raphael whom the Pope honours and the world admires,--he takes wine and bread with him."

"He dines with the baker's wife, the pretty Fornarina!" said Angelo, one of the merry young friends.

Yes, they all appealed to his good sense and to his youth.

They wished to have the young artist join them in their merry-makings, in their extravagances and in their mad tricks; he would do so for a short time, for his blood was warm, his imagination strong; he could take his part in their merry conversation, and laugh as loudly as the others; and yet "the merry life of Raphael," as they named it, vanished from him like the morning mist, when he saw the godlike lustre which shone forth from the paintings of the great masters, or when he stood in the Vatican and beheld the forms of beauty, which the old sculptors had fashioned from blocks of marble, centuries ago. His breast swelled, he felt something so lofty, so holy, so elevated within him, yes, something so great and good, that he longed to create and chisel like forms from marble blocks. He desired to give expression to the feelings which agitated his heart; but how and in what shape? The soft clay allowed itself to be modeled into beautiful figures by his fingers, but on the following day, dissatisfied, he destroyed all he had created.

One day he passed by one of the rich palaces, of which Rome has so many; he stood a moment at the large open entrance, and gazed into a little garden, full of the most beautiful roses, which was surrounded by archways, decorated with paintings. Large, white callas, with their green leaves, sprouted forth from marble shells, into which splashed clear water; a form glided by, a young girl, the daughter of this princely house, so elegant, so light, so charming! He had never seen so lovely a woman. Hold! yes, once, one made by Raphael, a painting of Psyche, in one of the palaces of Rome. There she was but painted, here she breathed and moved.

She lived in his thoughts and in his heart; he went home to his poor lodgings and formed a Psyche out of clay; it was the rich, young Roman girl, the princely woman, and he gazed at his work with satisfaction, for the first time. This had a signification--it was She. When his friends looked upon it, they exclaimed with joy, that this work was a revelation of his artistic greatness, which they had always recognized, but which now should be recognized by the whole world.

Clay is natural, flesh like, but it has not the whiteness, the durability of marble; the Psyche must obtain life from the block of marble--and he had the most precious piece of marble. It had been the property of his parents, and had been lying many years, in the court yard; bits of broken bottles, remains of artichokes were heaped over it and it was soiled, but its interior was white as the mountain snow; the Psyche should rise forth from it.

One day, it so happened--it is true, that the clear stars do not relate it, for they did not see it, but we know it--that a distinguished Roman party, came to view the young artist's work, of which they had casually heard. Who were the distinguished visitors? Poor young man! All too happy young man, one may call him also. Here in his room stood the young girl herself--with what a smile--when her father said: "You are that, living!" One cannot picture the look, one cannot render the look, the strange look with which she glanced at the young artist; it was a look which elevated, ennobled and--destroyed.

"The Psyche must be executed in marble!" said the rich man. This was a word of life, for the dead clay and for the heavy block of marble; it was also a word of life for the young man who was overcome by emotion. "I will buy it, as soon as the work is completed!" said the princely man.

It seemed as though a new era had dawned in the poor work-room; occupation, life and gayety, lighted it up. The beaming morning star saw how the work progressed. Even the clay had been endowed with a soul, since she had been there, and he bent entranced over the well known features.

"Now I know what life is," he exclaimed with delight, "it is love! it is the elevation of the heart to the divine, it is rapture for the beautiful! What my friends call life and enjoyment, is perishable, like bubbles in the fermenting lees, not the pure, heavenly wine of the altar, the consecration of life!"

The marble block was erected, the chisel hewed away large pieces; the labourer's part was done, marks and points placed, until little by little, the stone became a body, a shape of beauty--the Psyche--as charming as was the woman made by God. The massive stone became a soaring, dancing, airy, light and graceful Psyche, with a heavenly, innocent smile, the smile that had been mirrored in the young sculptor's heart.

The star, in the rosy-tinted morning saw, and partly understood what was agitating the mind of the young man; it understood as well, the varying colour of his checks and the glance of his eye, whilst he created, as though inspired by God.

"You are a master like those in the days of the Greeks," said his enchanted friends, "the world will soon admire your Psyche!"

"My Psyche," he repeated, "mine, yes, that she must be! I am also an artist like the great departed ones! God has granted gifts of mercy to me, and has elevated me to the highly born!"

He sank, weeping, on his knees and offered up his thanks to God--but forgot him again for her, for her portrait in marble, for the Psyche form, that stood before him, as though cut out of snow, blushing, in the morning sun.

He should see her, the living, floating one, in reality; she, whose words sounded like music. He would himself carry the tidings, that the marble Psyche was completed, to the rich palace. He arrived, passed through the open court-yard, where the water splashed from dolphin's mouths into marble shells, where callas bloomed and fresh roses blossomed. He stepped into the large, lofty hall, whose walls and ceilings were gorgeous with brilliant colours, with paintings and armorial bearings. Well dressed and haughty servants, holding up their heads, (like sleigh horses with their bells,) were pacing up and down; some of them had even stretched themselves out comfortably and insolently on the carved wooden benches; they appeared to be the masters of the house. He named his business, and was conducted up the marble steps, which were covered with soft carpets. On each side stood statues. Then he came to richly decorated apartments, hung with paintings and with mosaic floors.

This pomp, this splendour made him breathe a little heavily, but he soon felt reassured; for the old prince, received him kindly, almost cordially. After they had spoken, as he was taking leave, he begged him to visit the young Signora, for she also wished to see him. The servants led him through magnificent chambers and corridors to her apartments, of which she was the glory and splendour.

She spoke with him! No Miserere, no church song could have melted the heart more, or have more elevated the soul, than did the music of her voice. He seized her hand and pressed it to his lips--no rose is so soft, but a fire proceeds from this rose--a fire streams through him and his breast heaves; words streamed from his lips, but he knew not what he said. Does the crater know that it throws forth burning lava? He told her his love. She stood there, surprised, insulted, proud, yes, scornful; with an expression on her face as though a damp, clammy frog had suddenly touched her. Her cheeks coloured, her lips grew pale, her eyes were on fire, and still black as the darkness of night.

"Frantic creature! Away, away!" said she, as she turned her back upon him. Her face of beauty seemed turned to stone, like unto the Medusa's head with its serpent locks. He descended to the street, a weak, lifeless thing; he entered his room like a night-walker, and in the rage of his grief, he seized his hammer, brandished it high in the air and sought to destroy the beautiful marble form. He did not observe--so excited was he--that Angelo, his friend, stood near him, and arrested his arm with a firm grasp.

"Have you become mad? What would you do?" They struggled with each other. Angelo was the stronger, and with a deep drawn breath, he threw the young artist on a chair.

"What has occurred?" asked Angelo, "Collect yourself! Speak!"

What could he say? What could he tell? As Angelo could not seize the thread of his discourse, he let it drop.

"Your blood grows thick with this eternal dreaming! Be human, like others and live not in the clouds! Drink, until you become slightly intoxicated, then you will sleep well! The young girl from the Campagna, is as beautiful as the princess in the marble palace, they are both daughters of Eve, and can not be distinguished one from the other in Paradise! Follow your Angelo! I am your good angel, the angel of your life! A time will come when you are old, when the body will dwindle and some beautiful sunshiny day, when everything laughs and rejoices, you will lie like a withered straw! I do not believe what the priests say, that there is a life beyond the grave! It is a pretty fancy, a fairy tale for children, delightful to think upon. I do not live in imagination, but in reality! Come with me! Become a man!"

He drew him away, he could do this now, for there was a fire in the young artist's blood, a change in his soul; an ardent desire to tear himself away from all his wonted ways, from all accustomed thoughts; to forget his old self--and to-day he followed Angelo.

In the suburbs, lay an osteria, which was much frequented by artists; it was built in the ruins of a bathing chamber. Amongst the dark shining foliage, hung large yellow lemons which covered a portion of the old reddish-yellow wall. The osteria was a deep vault, almost like a hollow in the ruins; within, a lamp burned before the image of the Madonna; a large fire flamed on the hearth, for here they roasted, cooked and prepared the dishes for the guests. Without, under the lemon and laurel trees, stood tables ready set.

They were received merrily and rejoicingly by their friends; they ate little and drank much and became gay; they sang, and played on the guitar; the Saltarello sounded and the dance began. Two Roman girls, models of the young artists, joined in the dance and merriment; two pretty Bacchante! They had no Psyche forms, they were not delicate beautiful roses, but fresh, healthy flaming pinks.

How warm it was on this day, even warm at sundown! Fire in the blood, fire in the air, fire in every glance. The air swam in gold and roses, life was gold and roses.

"Now you have at last joined us! Allow yourself to be carried away by the current within and without you!"

"I never felt so well and joyous before!" said the young artist. "You are right, you are all of you right. I was a fool, a dreamer; man belongs to reality and not to fancy!"

The young man left the osteria, in the clear starry evening, with song and tinkling guitars, and passed through the narrow streets. The daughters of the Campagna, the two flaming pinks, were in their train.

In Angelo's room, the voices sounded more suppressed but not less fiery, amongst the scattered sketches, the outlines, the glowing, voluptuous paintings; amongst the drawings on the floor there was many a sketch of vigorous beauty, like unto the daughters of the Campagna, yet they themselves were much more beautiful. The six-armed lamp glowed brightly, and the human forms warmed and shone like gods.

"Apollo! Jupiter! I elevate myself to your heaven, to your glory! Methinks, that the flower of my life has unfolded within my heart!" Yes, it did unfold--it withered and fell to pieces; a stunning, loathsome vapour arose, dazzling the sight, benumbing the thoughts, extinguishing his sensual, fiery emotions, and all was dark. He went home, sat down on his bed, and thought. "Fie!" sounded from his lips, from the bottom of his heart. "Miserable wretch! away! away!"--and he sighed sorrowfully.

"Away! Away!" These, her words, the words of the living Psyche, weighed upon him, and flowed from his lips. He bowed his head upon the pillows, his thoughts became confused and he slept.

At the dawn of day he started up.--What was this? Was it a dream? Were her words, the visit to the osteria, the evening with the purple red pinks of the Campagna but a dream?--No, all was reality; he had not known this before.

The clear star beamed in the purple-tinted air, its rays fell upon him, and upon the marble Psyche; he trembled whilst he contemplated the image of immortality, his glance even appeared impure to him. He threw a covering over it, he touched it once more in order to veil its form, but he could not view his work.

Still, sombre, buried in his own meditations, he sat there the whole day; he took no heed of what passed around him, no one knew what was agitating this human heart. Days passed by, weeks passed by; the nights were the longest. One morning, the twinkling star saw him rise from his couch--pale--trembling with fever; he walked to the marble statue, lifted the cover, gazed upon his work with a sorrowful, deep, long look, and then almost sinking under the weight, he drew the statue into the garden. There was a sunken, dried-up well, within it, into which he lowered the Psyche, threw earth upon it and covered the fresh grave with small sticks and nettles.

"Away! Away," was the short funereal service.

The star in the rosy red atmosphere saw this, and two heavy tears trembled on the deathly pale cheeks of the fever sick one--sick unto death, as they called him.

The lay brother Ignatius came to him as a friend and as a physician. He came, and with the consoling words of religion, he spoke of the peace and happiness of the church, of the sins of man, of the mercy and peace of God.

The words fell like warm sun beams on the moist, fermenting ground; they dispersed and cleared away the misty clouds, from the troubled thoughts which had held possession of him; he gazed upon his past life; everything had been a failure, a deception--yes, had been. Art was an enchantress, that but leads us into vanity, into earthly pleasures. We become false to ourselves, false to our friends, false to our God. The serpent speaks ever in us: "Taste and thou shalt become like unto God."

Now, for the first time, he appeared to understand himself, to have discovered the road to truth, to peace.

In the church was God's light and brightness, in the monk's cell was found that peace, which enables man to obtain eternal bliss.

Brother Ignatius supported him in these thoughts, and the decision was firmly made--a worldling became a servant of the church;--the young artist took leave of the world, and entered the cloister.

How joyfully, how cordially the brothers greeted him! How festive the ordination! It seemed to him that God was in the sunshine of the church, and beamed within it, from the holy pictures and from the shining cross. He stood in the evening sunset, in his little cell, and opened his window and gazed in the spring-time over old Rome--with her broken temples, her massive, but dead Colosseum; her blooming acacias, her flourishing evergreens, her fragrant roses, her shining lemons and oranges, her palm trees fanned by the breeze--and felt touched and satisfied. The quiet, open Campagna extended to the blue snow-topped mountains, which appeared to be painted on the air. Everything breathed beauty and peace. The whole--a dream!

Yes, the world here was a dream, and the dream ruled the hours and returned to hours again. But the life of a cloister is a life of many, many long years.

Man is naturally impure and he felt this! What flames were these, that at times glowed through him? Was it the power of the Evil One, that caused these wild thoughts to rage constantly within him? He punished his body, but without effect. What portion of his mind was that, which wound itself around him, pliable as a serpent, and which crept about his conscience under a loving cloak and consoled him! The saints pray for us, the holy Virgin prays for us, Jesus himself gave his blood for us!

Was it a childlike feeling, or the levity of youth, that had induced him to give himself up to grace, and which made him feel elevated above so many? For had he not cast away the vanity of the world, was he not a son of the church?

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

"Man," said he, "yes, it is you! Are you happy now? You have sinned against God, and cast his gifts of mercy away from you; you have gambled away your vocation for this world. Read the parable of the entrusted pledge. The Master who related it, spoke but truth! What have you won and found after all? Do not make a dream life for yourself! Make a religion for yourself, as all do. Suppose all is but a dream, a fancy, a beautiful thought!"

"Get thee from behind me, Satan!" said the monk, and forsook Angelo.

"It is a devil, a devil personified! I saw him to-day," murmured the monk, "I reached him but a finger, and he took my whole hand! No," sighed he, "the wickedness is in myself; it is also in this man, but he is not tormented by it; he walks with elevated brow, he has his enjoyment; I but clutch at the consolation of the church for my welfare! But if this is only consolation! If all here consists of beautiful thoughts and but resemble those which beguiled me in the world? Is it but a deception like unto the beauty of the red evening clouds and like unto the blue wave-like beauty of the distant mountains! Seen near, how changed! Eternity, art thou like unto the great infinite, calm ocean, which beckons to us, calls us, fills us with presentiments, and if we venture upon it, we sink, we vanish--die--cease to be?--

"Deceit! away! away!"

He sat tearless on his hard couch, desolate, kneeling--before whom? Before the stone cross which was placed in the wall? No, habit alone caused his body to bend.

The deeper he read within himself, the darker all appeared to him. "Nothing within, nothing without! Life thrown away!" This thought, crushed him--expunged him.

"I dare confide to none the doubts which consume me! My prisoner is my secret and if it escape I am lost!"

The power of God, wrestled within him.

"Lord! Lord!" he exclaimed in his despair, "be merciful, give me faith! I cast thy gifts of mercy from me and my vocation for this world! I prayed for strength and thou hast not given it to me. Immortality! The Psyche in my breast--away! away!--Must it be buried like yon Psyche, the light of my life? Never to arise from the grave!"

The star beamed in the rosy red atmosphere, the star which will be lost and will vanish, whilst the soul lives and emits light. Its trembling ray fell upon the white wall, but it spoke not of the glory of God, of the grace, the eternal love which beams in the breast of every believer.

"Can the Psyche never die?--Can one live with consciousness?--Can the impossible take place?--Yes! Yes! My being is inexplicable. Inconceivable art thou, oh Lord! A wonder of might, glory and love!"

His eyes beamed, his eyes closed. The peal of the church bells passed over the dead one. He was laid in holy ground and his ashes mingled with the dust of strangers.

Years afterwards, his bones were exhumed and stood in a niche in the cloisters, as had stood those of the dead monks before him; they were dressed in the brown cowl, a rosary of beads placed in his hand, the sun shone without, incense perfumed within, and mass was read.--

Years rolled by.

The bones and legs fell asunder. They stood up the skulls, and with them, formed the whole outside wall of a church. There he stood in the burning sunshine; there were so many, many dead, they did not know their names, much less his.

See, something living moved in the sunshine in the two eye sockets; what was that? A brilliant lizard was running about in the hollow skull, slipping in and out of the large, empty sockets. This was now the life in the head, where once elevated thoughts, brilliant dreams, love for art and the magnificent had been rife; from which hot tears had rolled and where the hope of immortality had lived. The lizard leaped out and disappeared; the skull crumbled away and became dust to dust.--

Centuries passed. Unchanged, the star, clear and large, beamed on as it had done for centuries. The atmosphere shone with a red rosy hue, fresh as roses, flaming as blood.

Where there had once been a little street with the remains of an old temple, now stood a convent; a grave was dug in the garden, for a young nun had died, and she was to be lowered in the earth at this early hour of the morning. The spade struck against a stone which appeared of a dazzling whiteness--the white marble came forth--it rounded into a shoulder;--they used the spade with care, and a female head became visible--butterfly wings. They raised from the grave, in which the young nun was to be laid on this rosy morning, a gloriously beautiful Psyche-form, chiseled from white marble.

"How magnificent! How perfect a master work!" they said. "Who can the artist be?" He was unknown. None knew him, save the clear star, which had been beaming for centuries; it knew the course of his earthly life, his trials, his failings; it knew that he was: "but a man!" But he was dead, dispersed as dust must and shall be; but the result of his best efforts, the glory which pointed out the divine within him, the Psyche, which never dies, which surpasses in brightness, all earthly renown, this remained, was seen, acknowledged, admired and beloved.

The clear morning star in the rosy tinted sky, cast its most radiant beams upon the Psyche, and upon the smile of happiness about the mouth and eyes of the admiring ones, who beheld the soul, chiseled in the marble block.

That which is earthly passes away, and is forgotten; only the star in the infinite knows of it. That which is heavenly surpasses renown; for renown, fame and earthly glory die away, but--the Psyche lives forever!


THE END.

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