When my childhood was over, and I had just left school, my father called a council to decide upon my profession. Most of his friends considered that the life of culture was very exacting in toil, time, and money: a life only for fortune’s favourites; whereas our resources were quite narrow, and urgently called for relief. If I were to take up some ordinary handicraft, I should be making my own living straight off, instead of eating my father’s meat at my age; and before long my earnings would be a welcome contribution.
So the next step was to select the most satisfactory of the handicrafts; it must be one quite easy to acquire, respectable, inexpensive as regards plant, and fairly profitable. Various suggestions were made, according to the taste and knowledge of the councillors; but my father turned to my mother’s brother, supposed to be an excellent statuary, and said to him: ‘With you here, it would be a sin to prefer any other craft; take the lad, regard him as your charge, teach him to handle, match, and grave your marble; he will do well enough; you know he has the ability.’ This he had inferred from certain tricks I used to play with wax. When I got out of school, I used to scrape off the wax from my tablets and work it into cows, horses, or even men and women, and he thought I did it creditably; my masters used to cane me for it, but on this occasion it was taken as evidence of a natural faculty, and my modelling gave them good hopes of my picking up the art quickly.
As soon as it seemed convenient for me to begin, I was handed over to my uncle, and by no means reluctantly; I thought I should find it amusing, and be in a position to impress my companions; they should see me chiselling gods and making little images for myself and my favourites. The usual first experience of beginners followed: my uncle gave me a chisel, and told me to give a gentle touch to a plaque lying on the bench: ‘Well begun is half done,’ said he, not very originally. In my inexperience I brought down the tool too hard, and the plaque broke; he flew into a rage, picked up a stick which lay handy, and gave me an introduction to art which might have been gentler and more encouraging; so I paid my footing with tears.
I ran off, and reached home still howling and tearful, told the story of the stick, and showed my bruises. I said a great deal about his brutality, and added that it was all envy: he was afraid of my being a better sculptor than he. My mother was very angry, and abused her brother roundly; as for me, I fell asleep that night with my eyes still wet, and sorrow was with me till the morning.
So much of my tale is ridiculous and childish. What you have now to hear, gentlemen, is not so contemptible, but deserves an attentive hearing; in the words of Homer,
To me in slumber wrapt a dream divine Ambrosial night conveyed,
a dream so vivid as to be indistinguishable from reality; after all these years, I have still the figures of its persons in my eyes, the vibration of their words in my ears; so clear it all was.
Two women had hold of my hands, and were trying vehemently and persistently to draw me each her way; I was nearly pulled in two with their contention; now one would prevail and all but get entire possession of me, now I would fall to the other again, All the time they were exchanging loud protests: ‘He is mine, and I mean to keep him;’ ‘Not yours at all, and it is no use your saying he is.’ One of them seemed to be a working woman, masculine looking, with untidy hair, horny hands, and dress kilted up; she was all powdered with plaster, like my uncle when he was chipping marble. The other had a beautiful face, a comely figure, and neat attire. At last they invited me to decide which of them I would live with; the rough manly one made her speech first.
‘Dear youth, I am Statuary — the art which you yesterday began to learn, and which has a natural and a family claim upon you. Your grandfather’ (naming my mother’s father) ‘and both your uncles practised it, and it brought them credit. If you will turn a deaf ear to this person’s foolish cajolery, and come and live with me, I promise you wholesome food and good strong muscles; you shall never fear envy, never leave your country and your people to go wandering abroad, and you shall be commended not for your words, but for your works.
‘Let not a slovenly person or dirty clothes repel you; such were the conditions of that Phidias who produced the Zeus, of Polyclitus who created the Hera, of the much-lauded Myron, of the admired Praxiteles; and all these are worshipped with the Gods. If you should come to be counted among them, you will surely have fame enough for yourself through all the world, you will make your father the envy of all fathers, and bring your country to all men’s notice.’ This and more said Statuary, stumbling along in a strange jargon, stringing her arguments together in a very earnest manner, and quite intent on persuading me. But I can remember no more; the greater part of it has faded from my memory. When she stopped, the other’s turn came.
‘And I, child, am Culture, no stranger to you even now, though you have yet to make my closer acquaintance. The advantages that the profession of a sculptor will bring with it you have just been told; they amount to no more than being a worker with your hands, your whole prospects in life limited to that; you will be obscure, poorly and illiberally paid, mean-spirited, of no account outside your doors; your influence will never help a friend, silence an enemy, nor impress your countrymen; you will be just a worker, one of the masses, cowering before the distinguished, truckling to the eloquent, living the life of a hare, a prey to your betters. You may turn out a Phidias or a Polyclitus, to be sure, and create a number of wonderful works; but even so, though your art will be generally commended, no sensible observer will be found to wish himself like you; whatever your real qualities, you will always rank as a common craftsman who makes his living with his hands.
‘Be governed by me, on the other hand, and your first reward shall be a view of the many wondrous deeds and doings of the men of old; you shall hear their words and know them all, what manner of men they were; and your soul, which is your very self, I will adorn with many fair adornments, with self-mastery and justice and reverence and mildness, with consideration and understanding and fortitude, with love of what is beautiful, and yearning for what is great; these things it is that are the true and pure ornaments of the soul. Naught shall escape you either of ancient wisdom or of present avail; nay, the future too, with me to aid, you shall foresee; in a word, I will instill into you, and that in no long time, all knowledge human and divine.
‘This penniless son of who knows whom, contemplating but II now a vocation so ignoble, shall soon be admired and envied of all, with honour and praise and the fame of high achievement, respected by the high-born and the affluent, clothed as I am clothed’ (and here she pointed to her own bright raiment), ‘held worthy of place and precedence; and if you leave your native land, you will be no unknown nameless wanderer; you shall wear my marks upon you, and every man beholding you shall touch his neighbour’s arm and say, That is he.
‘And if some great moment come to try your friends or country, then shall all look to you. And to your lightest word the many shall listen open-mouthed, and marvel, and count you happy in your eloquence, and your father in his son. ’Tis said that some from mortal men become immortal; and I will make it truth in you; for though you depart from life yourself, you shall keep touch with the learned and hold communion with the best. Consider the mighty Demosthenes, whose son he was, and whither I exalted him; consider Aeschines; how came a Philip to pay court to the cymbal-woman’s brat? how but for my sake? Dame Statuary here had the breeding of Socrates himself; but no sooner could he discern the better part, than he deserted her and enlisted with me; since when, his name is on every tongue.
‘You may dismiss all these great men, and with them all glorious deeds, majestic words, and seemly looks, all honour, repute, praise, precedence, power, and office, all lauded eloquence and envied wisdom; these you may put from you, to gird on a filthy apron and assume a servile guise; then will you handle crowbars and graving tools, mallets and chisels; you will be bowed over your work, with eyes and thoughts bent earthwards, abject as abject can be, with never a free and manly upward look or aspiration; all your care will be to proportion and fairly drape your works; to proportioning and adorning yourself you will give little heed enough, making yourself of less account than your marble.’
I waited not for her to bring her words to an end, but rose up and spoke my mind; I turned from that clumsy mechanic woman, and went rejoicing to lady Culture, the more when I thought upon the stick, and all the blows my yesterday’s apprenticeship had brought me. For a time the deserted one was wroth, with clenched fists and grinding teeth; but at last she stiffened, like another Niobe, into marble. A strange fate, but I must request your belief; dreams are great magicians, are they not?
Then the other looked upon me and spoke:—‘For this justice done me,’ said she, ‘you shall now be recompensed; come, mount this car’— and lo, one stood ready, drawn by winged steeds like Pegasus — ‘that you may learn what fair sights another choice would have cost you.’ We mounted, she took the reins and drove, and I was carried aloft and beheld towns and nations and peoples from the East to the West; and methought I was sowing like Triptolemus; but the nature of the seed I cannot call to mind — only this, that men on earth when they saw it gave praise, and all whom I reached in my flight sent me on my way with blessings.
When she had presented these things to my eyes, and me to my admirers, she brought me back, no more clad as when my flight began; I returned, methought, in glorious raiment. And finding my father where he stood waiting, she showed him my raiment, and the guise in which I came, and said a word to him upon the lot which they had come so near appointing for me. All this I saw when scarce out of my childhood; the confusion and terror of the stick, it may be, stamped it on my memory.
‘Good gracious,’ says some one, before I have done, ‘what a longwinded lawyer’s vision!’ ‘This,’ interrupts another, ‘must be a winter dream, to judge by the length of night required; or perhaps it took three nights, like the making of Heracles. What has come over him, that he babbles such puerilities? memorable things indeed, a child in bed, and a very ancient, worn-out dream! what stale frigid stuff! does he take us for interpreters of dreams?’ Sir, I do not. When Xenophon related that vision of his which you all know, of his father’s house on fire and the rest, was it just by way of a riddle? was it in deliberate ineptitude that he reproduced it? a likely thing in their desperate military situation, with the enemy surrounding them! no, the relation was to serve a useful purpose.
Similarly I have had an object in telling you my dream. It is that the young may be guided to the better way and set themselves to Culture, especially any among them who is recreant for fear of poverty, and minded to enter the wrong path, to the ruin of a nature not all ignoble. Such an one will be strengthened by my tale, I am well assured; in me he will find an apt example; let him only compare the boy of those days, who started in pursuit of the best and devoted himself to Culture regardless of immediate poverty, with the man who has now come back to you, as high in fame, to put it at the lowest, as any stonecutter of them all.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57