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The Hall of Fantasy

From "Mosses From An Old Manse"

It has happened to me, on various occasions, to find myself in a
certain edifice which would appear to have some of the
characteristics of a public exchange. Its interior is a spacious
hall, with a pavement of white marble. Overhead is a lofty dome,
supported by long rows of pillars of fantastic architecture, the
idea of which was probably taken from the Moorish ruins of the
Alhambra, or perhaps from some enchanted edifice in the Arabian
tales. The windows of this hall have a breadth and grandeur of
design and an elaborateness of workmanship that have nowhere been
equalled, except in the Gothic cathedrals of the Old World. Like
their prototypes, too, they admit the light of heaven only through
stained and pictured glass, thus filling the hall with many-colored
radiance and painting its marble floor with beautiful or grotesque
designs; so that its inmates breathe, as it were, a visionary
atmosphere, and tread upon the fantasies of poetic minds. These
peculiarities, combining a wilder mixture of styles than even an
American architect usually recognizes as allowable,--Grecian,
Gothic, Oriental, and nondescript,--cause the whole edifice to give
the impression of a dream, which might be dissipated and shattered
to fragments by merely stamping the foot upon the pavement. Yet,
with such modifications and repairs as successive ages demand, the
Hall of Fantasy is likely to endure longer than the most substantial
structure that ever cumbered the earth.

It is not at all times that one can gain admittance into this
edifice, although most persons enter it at some period or other of
their lives; if not in their waking moments, then by the universal
passport of a dream. At my last visit I wandered thither unawares
while my mind was busy with an idle tale, and was startled by the
throng of people who seemed suddenly to rise up around me.

"Bless me! Where am I?" cried I, with but a dim recognition of the

"You are in a spot," said a friend who chanced to be near at hand,
"which occupies in the world of fancy the same position which the
Bourse, the Rialto, and the Exchange do in the commercial world.
All who have affairs in that mystic region, which lies above, below,
or beyond the actual, may here meet and talk over the business of
their dreams."

"It is a noble hall," observed I.

"Yes," he replied. "Yet we see but a small portion of the edifice.
In its upper stories are said to be apartments where the inhabitants
of earth may hold converse with those of the moon; and beneath our
feet are gloomy cells, which communicate with the infernal regions,
and where monsters and chimeras are kept in confinement and fed with
all unwholesomeness."

In niches and on pedestals around about the hall stood the statues
or busts of men who in every age have been rulers and demigods in
the realms of imagination and its kindred regions. The grand old
countenance of Homer; the shrunken and decrepit form but vivid face
of AEsop; the dark presence of Dante; the wild Ariosto; Rabelais's
smile of deep-wrought mirth, the profound, pathetic humor of
Cervantes; the all-glorious Shakespeare; Spenser, meet guest for an
allegoric structure; the severe divinity of Milton; and Bunyan,
moulded of homeliest clay, but instinct with celestial fire,--were
those that chiefly attracted my eye. Fielding, Richardson, and
Scott occupied conspicuous pedestals. In an obscure and shadowy
niche was deposited the bust of our countryman, the author of Arthur

"Besides these indestructible memorials of real genius," remarked my
companion, "each century has erected statues of its own ephemeral
favorites in wood."

"I observe a few crumbling relics of such," said I. "But ever and
anon, I suppose, Oblivion comes with her huge broom and sweeps them
all from the marble floor. But such will never be the fate of this
fine statue of Goethe."

"Nor of that next to it,--Emanuel Swedenborg," said he. "Were ever
two men of transcendent imagination more unlike?"

In the centre of the hall springs an ornamental fountain, the water
of which continually throws itself into new shapes and snatches the
most diversified lines from the stained atmosphere around. It is
impossible to conceive what a strange vivacity is imparted to the
scene by the magic dance of this fountain, with its endless
transformations, in which the imaginative beholder may discern what
form he will. The water is supposed by some to flow from the same
source as the Castalian spring, and is extolled by others as uniting
the virtues of the Fountain of Youth with those of many other
enchanted wells long celebrated in tale and song. Having never
tasted it, I can bear no testimony to its quality.

"Did you ever drink this water?" I inquired of my friend.

"A few sips now and then," answered he. "But there are men here who
make it their constant beverage,--or, at least, have the credit of
doing so. In some instances it is known to have intoxicating

"Pray let us look at these water-drinkers," said I.

So we passed among the fantastic pillars till we came to a spot
where a number of persons were clustered together in the light of
one of the great stained windows, which seemed to glorify the whole
group as well as the marble that they trod on. Most of them were
men of broad foreheads, meditative countenances, and thoughtful,
inward eyes; yet it required but a trifle to summon up mirth,
peeping out from the very midst of grave and lofty musings. Some
strode about, or leaned against the pillars of the hall, alone and
in silence; their faces wore a rapt expression, as if sweet music
were in the air around them, or as if their inmost souls were about
to float away in song. One or two, perhaps, stole a glance at the
bystanders, to watch if their poetic absorption were observed.
Others stood talking in groups, with a liveliness of expression, a
ready smile, and a light, intellectual laughter, which showed how
rapidly the shafts of wit were glancing to and fro among them.

A few held higher converse, which caused their calm and melancholy
souls to beam moonlight from their eyes. As I lingered near them,--
for I felt an inward attraction towards these men, as if the
sympathy of feeling, if not of genius, had united me to their
order,--my friend mentioned several of their names. The world has
likewise heard those names; with some it has been familiar for
years; and others are daily making their way deeper into the
universal heart.

"Thank Heaven," observed I to my companion, as we passed to another
part of the hall, "we have done with this techy, wayward, shy, proud
unreasonable set of laurel-gatherers. I love them in their works,
but have little desire to meet them elsewhere."

"You have adopted all old prejudice, I see," replied my friend, who
was familiar with most of these worthies, being himself a student of
poetry, and not without the poetic flame. "But, so far as my
experience goes, men of genius are fairly gifted with the social
qualities; and in this age there appears to be a fellow-feeling
among them which had not heretofore been developed. As men, they
ask nothing better than to be on equal terms with their fellow-men;
and as authors, they have thrown aside their proverbial jealousy,
and acknowledge a generous brotherhood."

"The world does not think so," answered I. "An author is received
in general society pretty much as we honest citizens are in the Hall
of Fantasy. We gaze at him as if he had no business among us, and
question whether he is fit for any of our pursuits."

"Then it is a very foolish question," said he. "Now, here are a
class of men whom we may daily meet on 'Change. Yet what poet in
the hall is more a fool of fancy than the sagest of them?"

He pointed to a number of persons, who, manifest as the fact was,
would have deemed it an insult to be told that they stood in the
Hall of Fantasy. Their visages were traced into wrinkles and
furrows, each of which seemed the record of some actual experience
in life. Their eyes had the shrewd, calculating glance which
detects so quickly and so surely all that it concerns a man of
business to know about the characters and purposes of his fellow-
men. Judging them as they stood, they might be honored and trusted
members of the Chamber of Commerce, who had found the genuine secret
of wealth and whose sagacity gave them the command of fortune.

There was a character of detail and matter of fact in their talk
which concealed the extravagance of its purport, insomuch that the
wildest schemes had the aspect of everyday realities. Thus the
listener was not startled at the idea of cities to be built, as if
by magic, in the heart of pathless forests; and of streets to be
laid out where now the sea was tossing; and of mighty rivers to be
stayed in their courses in order to turn the machinery of a cotton-
mill. It was only by an effort, and scarcely then, that the mind
convinced itself that such speculations were as much matter of
fantasy as the old dream of Eldorado, or as Mammon's Cave, or any
other vision of gold ever conjured up by the imagination of needy
poet or romantic adventurer.

"Upon my word," said I, "it is dangerous to listen to such dreamers
as these. Their madness is contagious."

"Yes," said my friend, "because they mistake the Hall of Fantasy for
actual brick and mortar, and its purple atmosphere for
unsophisticated sunshine. But the poet knows his whereabout, and
therefore is less likely to make a fool of himself in real life."

"Here again," observed I, as we advanced a little farther, "we see
another order of dreamers, peculiarly characteristic, too, of the
genius of our country."

These were the inventors of fantastic machines. Models of their
contrivances were placed against some of the pillars of the hall,
and afforded good emblems of the result generally to be anticipated
from an attempt to reduce day-dreams to practice. The analogy may
hold in morals as well as physics; for instance, here was the model
of a railroad through the air and a tunnel under the sea. Here was
a machine--stolen, I believe--for the distillation of heat from
moonshine; and another for the condensation of morning mist into
square blocks of granite, wherewith it was proposed to rebuild the
entire Hall of Fantasy. One man exhibited a sort of lens whereby he
had succeeded in making sunshine out of a lady's smile; and it was
his purpose wholly to irradiate the earth by means of this wonderful

"It is nothing new," said I; "for most of our sunshine comes from
woman's smile already."

"True," answered the inventor; "but my machine will secure a
constant supply for domestic use; whereas hitherto it has been very

Another person had a scheme for fixing the reflections of objects in
a pool of water, and thus taking the most life-like portraits
imaginable; and the same gentleman demonstrated the practicability
of giving a permanent dye to ladies' dresses, in the gorgeous clouds
of sunset. There were at least fifty kinds of perpetual motion, one
of which was applicable to the wits of newspaper editors and writers
of every description. Professor Espy was here, with a tremendous
storm in a gum-elastic bag. I could enumerate many more of these
Utopian inventions; but, after all, a more imaginative collection is
to be found in the Patent Office at Washington.

Turning from the inventors we took a more general survey of the
inmates of the hall. Many persons were present whose right of
entrance appeared to consist in some crotchet of the brain, which,
so long as it might operate, produced a change in their relation to
the actual world. It is singular how very few there are who do not
occasionally gain admittance on such a score, either in abstracted
musings, or momentary thoughts, or bright anticipations, or vivid
remembrances; for even the actual becomes ideal, whether in hope or
memory, and beguiles the dreamer into the Hall of Fantasy. Some
unfortunates make their whole abode and business here, and contract
habits which unfit them for all the real employments of life.
Others--but these are few--possess the faculty, in their occasional
visits, of discovering a purer truth than the world call impart
among the lights and shadows of these pictured windows.

And with all its dangerous influences, we have reason to thank God
that there is such a place of refuge from the gloom and chillness of
actual life. Hither may come the prisoner, escaping from his dark
and narrow cell and cankerous chain, to breathe free air in this
enchanted atmosphere. The sick man leaves his weary pillow, and
finds strength to wander hither, though his wasted limbs might not
support him even to the threshold of his chamber. The exile passes
through the Hall of Fantasy to revisit his native soil. The burden
of years rolls down from the old man's shoulders the moment that the
door uncloses. Mourners leave their heavy sorrows at the entrance,
and here rejoin the lost ones whose faces would else be seen no
more, until thought shall have become the only fact. It may be
said, in truth, that there is but half a life--the meaner and
earthier half--for those who never find their way into the hall.
Nor must I fail to mention that in the observatory of the edifice is
kept that wonderful perspective-glass, through which the shepherds
of the Delectable Mountains showed Christian the far-off gleam of
the Celestial City. The eye of Faith still loves to gaze through

"I observe some men here," said I to my friend, "who might set up a
strong claim to be reckoned among the most real personages of the

"Certainly," he replied. "If a man be in advance of his age, he
must be content to make his abode in this hall until the lingering
generations of his fellow-men come up with him. He can find no
other shelter in the universe. But the fantasies of one day are the
deepest realities of a future one."

"It is difficult to distinguish them apart amid the gorgeous and
bewildering light of this ball," rejoined I. "The white sunshine of
actual life is necessary in order to test them. I am rather apt to
doubt both men and their reasonings till I meet them in that
truthful medium."

"Perhaps your faith in the ideal is deeper than you are aware," said
my friend. "You are at least a democrat; and methinks no scanty
share of such faith is essential to the adoption of that creed."

Among the characters who had elicited these remarks were most of the
noted reformers of the day, whether in physics, politics, morals, or
religion. There is no surer method of arriving at the Hall of
Fantasy than to throw one's-self into the current of a theory; for,
whatever landmarks of fact may be set up along the stream, there is
a law of nature that impels it thither. And let it be so; for here
the wise head and capacious heart may do their work; and what is
good and true becomes gradually hardened into fact, while error
melts away and vanishes among the shadows of the ball. Therefore
may none who believe and rejoice in the progress of mankind be angry
with me because I recognized their apostles and leaders amid the
fantastic radiance of those pictured windows. I love and honor such
men as well as they.

It would be endless to describe the herd of real or self styled
reformers that peopled this place of refuge. They were the
representatives of an unquiet period, when mankind is seeking to
cast off the whole tissue of ancient custom like a tattered garment.
Many of then had got possession of some crystal fragment of truth,
the brightness of which so dazzled them that they could see nothing
else in the wide universe. Here were men whose faith had embodied
itself in the form of a potato; and others whose long beards had a
deep spiritual significance. Here was the abolitionist, brandishing
his one idea like an iron flail. In a word, there were a thousand
shapes of good and evil, faith and infidelity, wisdom and nonsense,
--a most incongruous throng.

Yet, withal, the heart of the stanchest conservative, unless he
abjured his fellowship with man, could hardly have helped throbbing
in sympathy with the spirit that pervaded these innumerable
theorists. It was good for the man of unquickened heart to listen
even to their folly. Far down beyond the fathom of the intellect
the soul acknowledged that all these varying and conflicting
developments of humanity were united in one sentiment. Be the
individual theory as wild as fancy could make it, still the wiser
spirit would recognize the struggle of the race after a better and
purer life than had yet been realized on earth. My faith revived
even while I rejected all their schemes. It could not be that the
world should continue forever what it has been; a soil where
Happiness is so rare a flower and Virtue so often a blighted fruit;
a battle-field where the good principle, with its shield flung above
its head, can hardly save itself amid the rush of adverse
influences. In the enthusiasm of such thoughts I gazed through one
of the pictured windows, and, behold! the whole external world was
tinged with the dimly glorious aspect that is peculiar to the Hall
of Fantasy, insomuch that it seemed practicable at that very instant
to realize some plan for the perfection of mankind. But, alas! if
reformers would understand the sphere in which their lot is cast
they must cease to look through pictured windows. Yet they not only
use this medium, but mistake it for the whitest sunshine.

"Come," said I to my friend, starting from a deep revery, "let us
hasten hence, or I shall be tempted to make a theory, after which
there is little hope of any man."

"Come hither, then," answered he. "Here is one theory that swallows
up and annihilates all others."

He led me to a distant part of the hall where a crowd of deeply
attentive auditors were assembled round an elderly man of plain,
honest, trustworthy aspect. With an earnestness that betokened the
sincerest faith in his own doctrine, he announced that the
destruction of the world was close at hand.

"It is Father Miller himself!" exclaimed I.

"No less a man," said my friend; "and observe how picturesque a
contrast between his dogma and those of the reformers whom we have
just glanced at. They look for the earthly perfection of mankind,
and are forming schemes which imply that the immortal spirit will be
connected with a physical nature for innumerable ages of futurity.
On the other hand, here comes good Father Miller, and with one puff
of his relentless theory scatters all their dreams like so many
withered leaves upon the blast."

"It is, perhaps, the only method of getting mankind out of the
various perplexities into which they have fallen," I replied. "Yet I
could wish that the world might be permitted to endure until some
great moral shall have been evolved. A riddle is propounded. Where
is the solution? The sphinx did not slay herself until her riddle
had been guessed. Will it not be so with the world? Now, if it
should be burned to-morrow morning, I am at a loss to know what
purpose will have been accomplished, or how the universe will be
wiser or better for our existence and destruction."

"We cannot tell what mighty truths may have been embodied in act
through the existence of the globe and its inhabitants," rejoined my
companion. "Perhaps it may be revealed to us after the fall of the
curtain over our catastrophe; or not impossibly, the whole drama, in
which we are involuntary actors, may have been performed for the
instruction of another set of spectators. I cannot perceive that
our own comprehension of it is at all essential to the matter. At
any rate, while our view is so ridiculously narrow and superficial
it would be absurd to argue the continuance of the world from the
fact that it seems to have existed hitherto in vain."

"The poor old earth," murmured I. "She has faults enough, in all
conscience, but I cannot hear to have her perish."

"It is no great matter," said my friend. "The happiest of us has
been weary of her many a time and oft."

"I doubt it," answered I, pertinaciously; "the root of human nature
strikes down deep into this earthly soil, and it is but reluctantly
that we submit to be transplanted, even for a higher cultivation in
heaven. I query whether the destruction of the earth would gratify
any one individual, except perhaps some embarrassed man of business
whose notes fall due a day after the day of doom."

Then methought I heard the expostulating cry of a multitude against
the consummation prophesied by Father Miller. The lover wrestled
with Providence for his foreshadowed bliss. Parents entreated that
the earth's span of endurance might be prolonged by some seventy
years, so that their new-born infant should not be defrauded of his
lifetime. A youthful poet murmured because there would be no
posterity to recognize the inspiration of his song. The reformers,
one and all, demanded a few thousand years to test their theories,
after which the universe might go to wreck. A mechanician, who was
busied with an improvement of the steam-engine, asked merely time to
perfect his model. A miser insisted that the world's destruction
would be a personal wrong to himself, unless he should first be
permitted to add a specified sum to his enormous heap of gold. A
little boy made dolorous inquiry whether the last day would come
before Christmas, and thus deprive him of his anticipated dainties.
In short, nobody seemed satisfied that this mortal scene of things
should have its close just now. Yet, it must be confessed, the
motives of the crowd for desiring its continuance were mostly so
absurd, that unless infinite Wisdom had been aware of much better
reasons, the solid earth must have melted away at once.

For my own part, not to speak of a few private and personal ends, I
really desired our old mother's prolonged existence for her own dear

"The poor old earth!" I repeated. "What I should chiefly regret in
her destruction would be that very earthliness which no other sphere
or state of existence can renew or compensate. The fragrance of
flowers and of new-mown hay; the genial warmth of sunshine, and the
beauty of a sunset among clouds; the comfort and cheerful glow of
the fireside; the deliciousness of fruits and of all good cheer; the
magnificence of mountains, and seas, and cataracts, and the softer
charm of rural scenery; even the fast-falling snow and the gray
atmosphere through which it descends,--all these and innumerable
other enjoyable things of earth must perish with her. Then the
country frolics; the homely humor; the broad, open-mouthed roar of
laughter, in which body and soul conjoin so heartily! I fear that
no other world call show its anything just like this. As for purely
moral enjoyments, the good will find them in every state of being.
But where the material and the moral exist together, what is to
happen then? And then our mute four-footed friends and the winged
songsters of our woods! Might it not be lawful to regret them, even
in the hallowed groves of paradise?"

"You speak like the very spirit of earth, imbued with a scent of
freshly turned soil," exclaimed my friend.

"It is not that I so much object to giving up these enjoyments on my
own account," continued I, "but I hate to think that they will have
been eternally annihilated from the list of joys."

"Nor need they be," he replied. "I see no real force in what you
say. Standing in this Hall of Fantasy, we perceive what even the
earth-clogged intellect of man can do in creating circumstances
which, though we call them shadowy and visionary, are scarcely more
so than those that surround us in actual life. Doubt not then that
man's disembodied spirit may recreate time and the world for itself,
with all their peculiar enjoyments, should there still be human
yearnings amid life eternal and infinite. But I doubt whether we
shall be inclined to play such a poor scene over again."

"O, you are ungrateful to our mother earth!" rejoined I. "Come what
may, I never will forget her! Neither will it satisfy me to have
her exist merely in idea. I want her great, round, solid self to
endure interminably, and still to be peopled with the kindly race of
man, whom I uphold to be much better than he thinks himself.
Nevertheless, I confide the whole matter to Providence, and shall
endeavor so to live that the world may come to an end at any moment
without leaving me at a loss to find foothold somewhere else."

"It is an excellent resolve," said my companion, looking at his
watch. "But come; it is the dinner-hour. Will you partake of my
vegetable diet?"

A thing so matter of fact as an invitation to dinner, even when the
fare was to be nothing more substantial than vegetables and fruit,
compelled us forthwith to remove from the Hall of Fantasy. As we
passed out of the portal we met the spirits of several persons who
had been sent thither in magnetic sleep. I looked back among the
sculptured pillars and at the transformations of the gleaming
fountain, and almost desired that the whole of life might be spent
in that visionary scene where the actual world, with its hard
angles, should never rub against me, and only be viewed through the
medium of pictured windows. But for those who waste all their days
in the Hall of Fantasy, good Father Miller's prophecy is already
accomplished, and the solid earth has come to an untimely end. Let
us be content, therefore, with merely an occasional visit, for the
sake of spiritualizing the grossness of this actual life, and
prefiguring to ourselves a state in which the Idea shall be all in

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Short Stories