Hans Christian Andersen: Art, not arms, rules the world. War, an allegory.
Hans Christian Andersen
From The Improvisatore (1835)
Translated by Mary Howitt
I seized her guitar; she gave me the word “Immortality.” I rapidly thought over the rich subject, struck a few chords, and then began my poem as it was born in my soul. My genius led me over the sulphur-blue Mediterranean to the wildly fertile valleys of Greece. Athens lay in ruins; the wild fig-tree grew above the broken capitals, and the spirit heaved a sigh; then onwards to the days of Pericles, when a rejoicing crowd was in motion under the proud arches. It was the festival of beauty; women, enchanting as Lais, danced with garlands through the streets, and poets sang aloud that beauty and joy should never pass away. But now every noble daughter of beauty is dust, mingled with dust, the forms forgotten which had enchanted a happy generation: and, whilst my genius wept over the ruins of Athens, there arose before me from the earth glorious images, created by the hand of the sculptor, mighty goddesses slumbering in marble raiment; and my genius recognised the daughters of Athens, beautifully exalted to divinity, which the white marble preserves for future generations. “Immortality,” sang my genius, “is beauty, but not earthly power and strength,” and wafting itself across the sea to Italy, to the city of the world, it gazed silently from the remains of the Capitol over ancient Rome. The Tiber whirled along its yellow waters, and where Horatius Cocles once combated, boats now pass along, laden with wood and oil, for Ostia. Where Curtius sprang from the forum into the flaming gulph, the cattle now lie down in the tall grass. Augustus and Titus! proud names, which now the ruined temple and arch alone commemorate! Rome’s eagle, the mighty bird of Jupiter, is dead in its nest. Rome, where is thy immortality? There flashed the eye of the eagle. Excommunication goes forth over ascending Europe. The overturned throne of Rome was the chair of St. Peter; and kings came as barefoot pilgrims to the holy city – Rome, mistress of the world! But in the light of centuries was heard the toll of death – death to all that the hand can seize upon, that the human eye can discern! But can the sword of St. Peter really rust? The eagle flies forth from the east to the west. Can the power of the Church decline? Can the impossible happen? Rome still stands proudly in her ruins with the gods of antiquity and her holy pictures which rule the world by eternal art. To thy mount, O Rome! will the sons of Europe come as pilgrims for ever; from the east and from the west, from the cold north will they come hither, and in their hearts acknowledge, – “Rome, thy power is immortal! ”
“And may not I, too, mount with him into the chariot of Fortune?” asked my mother, half in jest, but uttered at the same moment a loud cry, for a large eagle flew so near us down into the lake that the water at the same moment splashed into our faces from the force with which he struck it with his great wings. High up in the air his keen glance had discovered a large fish, which lay immovable as a reed upon the surface of the lake; with the swiftness of an arrow he seized upon his prey, stuck his sharp talons into the back of it, and was about to raise himself again, when the fish, which, by the agitation of the waters, we could see was of great size, and almost of equal power to his enemy, sought on the contrary, to drag him below with him. The talons of the bird were so firmly fixed into the back of the fish, that he could not lelease himself from his prey, and now, therefore, began between the two such a contest that the quiet lake trembled in wide circles. Now appeared the glittering back of the fish, now the bird struck the water with his broad wings, and seemed to yield. The combat lasted for some minutes. The two wings lay for a moment still, outspread upon the water, as if they rested themselves; then they were rapidly struck together, a crack was heard, the one wing sank down, whilst the other lashed the water to foam, and then vanished. The fish sunk beneath the waves with his enemy, where a moment afterwards they must both die.