In this funny and deep story, Hans Christian Andersen delights us with his satire of arrogant artists — and his philosophy of artistic creation.
In a poet’s room, where his inkstand stood on the table, the remark was once made: “It is wonderful what can be brought out of an inkstand. What will come next? It is indeed wonderful.”
“Yes, certainly,” said the inkstand to the pen and to the other articles that stood on the table; “that’s what I always say. It is wonderful and extraordinary what a number of things come out of me. It’s quite incredible, and I really never know what is coming next when that man dips his pen into me. One drop out of me is enough for half a page of paper—and what cannot half a page contain?”
“From me all the works of the poet are produced—all those imaginary characters whom people fancy they have known or met, and all the deep feeling, the humor, and the vivid pictures of nature. I myself don’t understand how it is, for I am not acquainted with nature, but it is certainly in me. From me have gone forth to the world those wonderful descriptions of charming maidens, and of brave knights on prancing steeds; of the halt and the blind—and I know not what more, for I assure you I never think of these things.”
“There you are right,” said the pen, “for you don’t think at all. If you did, you would see that you can only provide the means. You give the fluid, that I may place upon the paper what dwells in me and what I wish to bring to light. It is the pen that writes. No man doubts that; and indeed most people understand as much about poetry as an old inkstand.”
“You have had very little experience,” replied the inkstand. “You have hardly been in service a week and are already half worn out. Do you imagine you are a poet? You are only a servant, and before you came I had many like you, some of the goose family and others of English manufacture. I know a quill pen as well as I know a steel one. I have had both sorts in my service, and I shall have many more as long as he comes—the man who performs the mechanical part—and writes down what he obtains from me. I should like to know what will be the next thing he gets out of me.”
“Inkpot!” retorted the pen, contemptuously.
Late in the evening the poet returned home. He had been at a concert given by a famous violin player, and felt deeply touched and moved by the artist’s music.
What a richness of tone the player had produced from his instrument! Sometimes the notes sounded like tinkling water drops or rolling pearls, sometimes like the birds twittering in chorus, and then again, rising and swelling, like the wind through the fir trees. The poet felt his own heart was weeping; but the weeping was like a melody, born of a woman’s splendid voice. The sounds seemed to come not only from the strings but from every part of the instrument. What a wonderful performance! It was a difficult piece, and yet the bow appeared to glide across the strings so easily that one would think anyone could do it. The violin and the bow seemed independent of their master who guided them; it was as if soul and spirit had been breathed into the instrument, and the audience forgot the performer in the beautiful sounds he created.
Yet not so the poet; he remembered him and wrote down his thoughts on the subject: “How foolish it would be for the violin and the bow to boast of their performance, and yet we men often commit that folly. The poet, the artist, the man of science in his laboratory, the general—we all do it, and yet we are only the instruments which the Almighty uses. To Him alone the honor is due. We have nothing in ourselves of which we should be proud.” Yes, this is what the poet wrote. He wrote it in the form of a parable and called it “The Master and the Instruments.”
“That is what you get, madam,” said the pen to the inkstand when the two were alone again. “Did you hear him read aloud what I had written down?”
“Yes, what I gave you to write,” retorted the inkstand. “That was a cut at you, because of your conceit. To think that you could not understand that you were being quizzed! I gave you a cut from within me. Surely I must know my own satire.”
“Ink pitcher!” cried the pen.
“Writing stick!” retorted the inkstand. And each of them felt satisfied that he had given a good answer. It is pleasing to be convinced that you have settled a matter by your reply; it is something to make you sleep well. And they both slept well over it.
But the poet did not sleep. Thoughts rose within him, like the tones of the violin, falling like pearls or rushing like the storm wind through the forest. He understood his own heart in these thoughts; they were as a ray from the mind of the Great Master of all minds.
“To Him be all the honor.”
Translation in the public domain, taken from the Project Gutenberg website.
Read by Beatriz Becker.