What One Can Invent
By Hans Christian Andersen (1870)
There was once a young man who was studying to be a poet. He wanted to become one by Easter, to marry, and to live by poetry. To write poems, he knew, was only to invent something, but he could not invent anything. He had been born too late, everything had been taken up before he came into the world, everything had been written and told about.
‘ Happy people who were born thousands of years ago ! ‘ said he. ‘ They could easily become immortal ! Happy even, those who were born hundreds of years ago, for then there was still something to make a poem about ; how the world is written out, and what can I write poetry abt ut ? ‘
He worried about that till he became sick and ill. Wretched man ! no doctor could help him, but perhaps the wise woman could ! She lived in the little house beside the field gate, which she opened for those riding and driving: she could open up more than the gate, she was wiser than the doctor, who drives in his own carriage and pays taxes for his rank.
‘ I must go out to her ! ‘ said the young man. The house she lived in was small and neat, but dreary to behold ; there was neither tree nor flower ; a bee-hive, which was very useful, stood outside the door ; there was a small potato patch, also very useful ; and a ditch with sloe-bushes which had flowered and now bore berries, which draw the mouth together if one tastes them before they have got frost.
That is a true picture of our unpoetic time, I see here ! ‘ thought the young man, and it was always a thought, a grain of gold, that he found by the wise woman’s door.
‘ Write it down ! ‘ said she. ‘ Crumbs are also bread ! I know why you come here ; you cannot invent anything, and yet you want to be a poet by Easter ! ‘
‘ Everything has been written down ! ‘ said he ; our time is not the old time ! ‘
No ! ‘ said the woman, ‘ in olden times the wise women were burned, and poets went about with empty stomachs and holes in their elbows. The time is good, it is the very best ! but you have not the right outlook on the thing. You have not sharpened your hearing, and you do not say the Lord’s Prayer at night. There is quite a lot of all kinds of things to write poems about and tell of, if one can tell. You can glean it from the plants and fruits of the earth, draw it from the running and the still waters, but you must understand it, understand how to catch a sunbeam. Now try my spectacles, put my ear-trumpet in your ear, pray to our Father, and leave off thinking of yourself ! ‘
The last thing was very difficult, more than a wise woman ought to ask.
He got the spectacles and the ear-trumpet and was placed in the middle of the potato-patch ; she gave him a big potato in his hand ; sounds came from it ; there came a song with words, the story of the potato, interesting an everyday story in ten parts ; ten lines were enough. And what did the potato sing ?
It sang about itself and its family ; the coming of the potatoes to Europe, the misjudgement they had experienced and suffered, before they stood acknowledged as a greater blessing than a lump of gold.
We were distributed by royal command from the council-houses in all towns ; notification of our great importance was given, but people did not believe in it, and did not even understand how to plant us. One dug a hole and threw the whole of his bushel of potatoes into it ; another stuck one potato here, one there, in the earth and expected that they would each shoot up a perfect tree, from which one could shake potatoes. There came growth, flowers, and watery fruit, but it all withered away. No one thought of what lay at the root, the blessing, the potatoes.
‘ Yes, we have experienced and suffered that is to say, our ancestors, they and we, it is all the same thing ! What a story ! ‘
‘Yes, now that will do ! ‘ said the woman. ‘Now look at the sloe -bush ! ‘
‘ We have also,’ said the sloe, ‘ near relations in the home of the potatoes, farther north than they grow. Northmen came there from Norway ; they steered west through fog and storms to an unknown land, where, behind ice and snow, they found plants and vegetables, bushes with blue-black grapes the sloe -berries ; the grapes were ripened by the frost, just as we are. And the country was called ” wineland “, ” green-land “, ” sloe-land ” ! ‘
‘ That is quite a romantic story ! ‘ said the young man.
‘ Yes. Now come with me ! ‘ said the wise woman, and led him to the bee-hive. He looked into it. What life and stir ! Bees stood in all the passages and waved their wings, so that there might be fresh draughts of air in the whole factory : that was their business. Now came from outside, bees born with baskets on their legs ; they brought pollendust, which was shaken out, sorted and made into honey and wax. They flew in and out. The queen-bee wanted to fly too, but they must all go with her ; it was not yet time for that : but still she wished to fly ; so they bit the wings off her Majesty, and so she had to remain.
‘ Now get up on the earth -bank ! ‘ said the woman, ‘ Come and look out over the highway, where people are to be seen ! ‘
‘ What a crowd it is ! ‘ said the young man. ‘ Story after story ! it whirls and whirls ! I get quite confused. I shall fall backwards ! ‘
‘ No, go forward,’ said the woman, ‘ go right into the crowd, have an eye for it, an ear for it, and a heart as well ! then you will soon invent something ; but before you go, I must have my spectacles and my ear-trumpet,’ and so saying she took them both.
Now I can’t see the least thing ! ‘ said the young man, now I hear nothing more ! ‘
Well, then, you can’t become a poet before Easter,’ said the wise woman.
But when, then ? he asked.
Neither by Easter, nor by Whitsuntide ! You will not learn how to invent anything.’
What shall I do, then, to earn my bread by poetry ? ‘
‘ You can join in the Shrove-Tuesday sports, and knock the poets out of the barrel ! To hit at their writings is as good as hitting themselves. Only don’t let yourself be abashed ; strike boldly, and so you will get dumplings with which you can feed both your wife and yourself.’
‘ What one can invent ! ‘ said the young man, and so he knocked down every other poet, because he could not be a poet himself.
We have it from the wise woman ; she knows what one can invent.