The Muse of the New Century
By Hans Christian Andersen (1861)
The Muse of the New Century, as our children’s children, perhaps even a more distant generation, though not we, shall know her, when will she reveal herself ? In what form will she appear ? What will she sing ? What chords of the soul will she touch ? To what elevation will she lift the age she lives in ?
So many questions in our busy time ! a time in which Poetry stands almost solitary and alone, and in which one knows with certainty that much of the ‘ immortal ‘ verse, written by poets of the present day, will perhaps in the future exist only in charcoal inscriptions on prison walls, seen and read by a few inquisitive souls.
Poetry must join in the bustle too, at least take some share in the war of parties, where blood or ink flows.
‘ That is a one-sided opinion,’ many will say ; ‘ Poetry is not forgotten in our time.’
No, there are still people, who on their free days feel a desire for Poetry and, when they perceive this spiritual grumbling in the nobler part of their being, certainly do send to the bookseller and buy a whole threepennyworth of poetry, of the kind that is most recommended. Some are quite content with as much as they can get for nothing, or are satisfied with reading a fragment on the paper bag from the grocer’s ; that is a cheaper way, and in our busy time some regard must be paid to cheapness. The desire is felt for what we have, and that is enough ! The poetry of the future, like the music of the future, belongs to the stories of Don Quixote ; to speak about it is just like talking about voyages of discovery in Uranus.
The time is too short and valuable for the play of fancy ; and if we are to speak quite sensibly, what is Poetry ? These rhymed outpourings of feelings and thoughts are merely the movements and vibrations of the nerves. All enthusiasm, joy, pain, even the material striving, are the learned tell us vibrations of the nerves. Each of us is a stringed instrument.
But who touches these strings ? Who makes them vibrate and tremble ? The Spirit, the invisible divine Spirit, which lets its emotion, its feeling, sound through them, and that is understood by the other stringed instruments, so that they also sound in harmonious tones or in the strong dissonances of opposition. So it has been, and so it will be, in the progress which humanity makes in the consciousness of freedom.
Every century, every thousand years, one may say, finds in Poetry the expression of its greatness ; born in the period that is closing, it steps forward and rules in the period that is coming.
In the midst of our busy time, noisy with machinery, she is thus already born, the Muse of the New Century. We send her our greeting. Let her hear it, or read it some day, perhaps among the charcoal inscriptions we spoke of above.
The rockers of her cradle stretched from the farthest point which human foot had trod on North Polar expeditions to the utmost limit of human vision in the ‘ black coal-sack ‘ of the Polar sky. We did not hear the sound of the cradle for the clattering of machines, the whistling of railway engines, the blasting of real rocks and of the old fetters of the mind.
She has been born in the great factory of the present age, where steam exerts its power, where ‘ Master Bloodless ‘ and his workmen toil by day and night.
She has in her possession the great loving heart of woman, with the Vestal’s flame and the fire of passion. She received the lightning flash of intellect, endowed with all the colours of the prism, changing from century to century, and estimated according to the colour most in fashion at the time. The glorious swan-plumage of fancy is her ornament and strength ; science wove it, and primitive forces gave it power to soar.
She is the child of the people on the father’s side, sound in mind and thought, with seriousness in her eye and humour on her lips. Her mother is the nobly-born, highly educated daughter of the French refugee with recollections of the gilded rococo period. The Muse of the New Century has blood and soul in her from both of these.
Splendid christening gifts were laid upon her cradle. Like bonbons were strewed there in abundance the hidden riddles of Nature, and their answers ; from the diver’s bell were shaken marvellous trinkets from the depths of ocean. As a coverlet there was spread over her a copy of the map of the heavens, that suspended ocean with its myriads of islands, each of them a world. The sun paints pictures for her ; photography supplies her with playthings.
Her nurse has sung to her of Eyvind Skalda-spiller and Firdusi, of the Minnesingers and of what Heine in youthful wantonness sang of his own poetic soul. Much, too much, her nurse has told her ; she knows the old ancestral mother Edda’s horror-waking sagas, where curses sweep along with blood-stained wings. All the Arabian Nights she has heard in a quarter of an hour.
The Muse of the New Century is still a child, yet she has leaped out of her cradle ; she is full of will, without knowing what she desires.
She still plays in her great nursery, which is full of arttreasures and rococo. Greek Tragedy, and Roman Comedy, stand there, hewn in marble ; the popular songs of the nations hang like dried plants on the walls ; print a kiss on them, and they swell again into freshness and fragrance.
She is surrounded by eternal harmonies from the thoughts of Beethoven, Gluck, Mozart, and all the great masters, expressed in melody. On her bookshelf are laid away many who in their time were immortal, and there is still room for many more, whose names we hear sounding along the telegraph-wire of immortality.
A terrible amount she has read, far too much, for she has been born in our time ; much must be forgotten again, and the Muse will know how to forget.
She thinks not of her song, which will live on into a new millennium, as the books of Moses live, and Bidpai’s fable of the fox’s craft and success. She thinks not of her mission, of her great future ; she is still at play, amid the strife of nations which shakes the air, which produces sound -figures with the pen and with the cannon, runes that are hard to read.
She wears a Garibaldi hat, yet reads her Shakespeare, and thinks for a moment, ‘ He can still be acted when I am grown up ! Let Calderon rest in the sarcophagus of his works, with his inscription of fame.’ As for Holberg, the Muse is cosmopolitan, she has bound him up in one volume with Moliere, Plautus, and Aristophanes, but reads Moliere most.
She is free from the restlessness which drives the chamois of the Alps, yet her soul longs for the salt of life as the chamois does for that of the mountain. There dwells in her heart a restfulness, as in the legends of Hebrew antiquity, that voice from the nomad on the green plains in the still starry nights ; and yet in song her heart swells more strongly than that of the inspired warrior from the Thessalian mountains in the days of ancient Greece.
How is it with her Christian faith ? She has learned the great and little table of Philosophy ; the elementary substances have broken one of her milk-teeth, but she has got a new set now. In her cradle she bit into the fruit of knowledge, ate it and became wise, so that Immortality flashed upon her as the most inspired idea of the human mind.
When will the new century of Poetry arise ? When will the Muse be recognized ? When will she be heard ?
One beautiful morning in spring she will come rushing on her dragon, the locomotive, through tunnels and over viaducts, or over the soft strong sea on the snorting dolphin, or through the air on the great bird Roc, and will descend in the land from which her divine voice will first hail the human race. Where ? Is it from the land of Columbus, the land of freedom, where the natives became hunted game and the Africans beasts of burden, the land from which we heard the song of Hiawatha ? Is it from the Antipodes, the gold nugget in the South Seas the land of contraries, where our night is day, and black swans sing in the mimosa forests ? Or from the land where Memnon’s pillar rang and still rings, though we understood not the song of the sphinx in the desert ? Is it from the coal-island, where Shakespeare is the ruler from the times of Elizabeth?
Is it from the land of Tycho Brahe, where he was not allowed to remain, or from the fairy-land of California, where the Wellingtonia rears its head as king of the forests of the world.
When will the star shine, the star on the forehead of the Muse the flower on whose leaves are inscribed the century’s expression of the beautiful in form, in colour, and in fragrance ?
‘ What is the programme of the new Muse ? ‘ say the skilled parliamentarians of our time. ‘ What does she want to do ? ‘
Rather ask what she does not want to do !
She will not come forward as the ghost of the age that is past. She will not construct dramas out of the cast-off glories of the stage, nor will she conceal defects in dramatic architecture by means of specious draperies of lyric verse. Her flight before our eyes will be like passing from the car of Thespis to the amphitheatre of marble. She will not break honest human talk in pieces, and patch it together again like an artificial chime of bells with ingratiating tinkles borrowed from the contests of the troubadours. She will not set up verse as a nobleman and prose as a plebeian ; they stand equal in melody, in fullness, and in strength. She will not sculpture the old gods out of Iceland’s saga-blocks ; they are dead, there is no feeling for them in the new age, no kinship with them. She will not invite the men of her time to lodge their thoughts in the taverns of French novels ; she will not deaden them with the chloroform of commonplace tales. She will bring an elixir of life ; her song in verse and in prose will be short, clear, and rich. The heart-beats of the nations are each but one letter in the great alphabet of evolution, but she will with equal affection take hold of each letter, form them into words, and link the words into rhythms for her hymn of the present time.
And when will the fullness of time have come ?
It is long for us, who are still behind here ; it is short for those, who flew on ahead.
Soon the Chinese Wall will fall, the railways of Europe reach the secluded cultures of Asia the two streams of culture meet. Then perhaps the waterfall will foam with its deep resounding roar ; we old men of the present will shake at the mighty tones, and hear in them a Ragnarok, the fall of the ancient gods ; we forget that times and races here below must disappear, and only a slight image of each, enclosed in the capsule of a word, will swim like a lotus -flower on the stream of eternity, and tell us that they all are and were flesh of our flesh, though in different raiment. The image of the Jews shines out from the Bible, that of the Greeks from the Iliad and Odyssey, and ours ?
Ask the Muse of the New Century, at Ragnarok, when the new Grimle arises glorified and made intelligible.
All the power of steam, all the forces of the present, were levers. Master Bloodless and his busy workmen, who seem to be the powerful rulers of our time, are only servants, black slaves who adorn the palace-hall, bring forth the treasures, lay the tables for the great feast at which the Muse, with the innocence of a child, the enthusiasm of a maid, and the calmness and knowledge of a matron, raises the marvellous lamp of Poetry, the rich,full heart of man with the flame of God in it.
Hail to thee, Muse of the new century of Poetry. Our greeting soars up and is heard, even as the worm’s hymn of gratitude is heard, the worm which is cut asunder by the ploughshare when a new spring dawns and the plough cleaves the furrows, cutting us worms asunder, so that blessing may grow for the new generation that is to come.
Hail to thee, Muse of the New Century!