THE ARTIST OF THE BEAUTIFUL
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
AN ELDERLY MAN, with his pretty daughter on his arm, was passing
along the street, and emerged from the gloom of the cloudy evening
into the light that fell across the pavement from the window of a
small shop. It was a projecting window; and on the inside were
suspended a variety of watches- pinchbeck, silver, and one or two of
gold- all with their faces turned from the street, as if churlishly
disinclined to inform the wayfarers what o’clock it was. Seated within
the shop, sidelong to the window, with his pale face bent earnestly
over some delicate piece of mechanism, on which was thrown the
concentrated lustre of a shade-lamp, appeared a young man.
"What can Owen Warland be about?" muttered old Peter Hovenden-
himself a retired watchmaker, and the former master of this same young
man, whose occupation he was now wondering at. "What can the fellow be
about? These six months past, I have never come by his shop without
seeing him just as steadily at work as now. It would be a flight
beyond his usual foolery to seek for the Perpetual Motion. And yet I
know enough of my old business to be certain, that what he is now so
busy with is no part of the machinery of a watch."
"Perhaps, father," said Annie, without showing much interest in the
question, "Owen is inventing a new kind of time-keeper. I am sure he
has ingenuity enough."
"Pooh, child! he has not the sort of ingenuity to invent anything
better than a Dutch toy," answered her father, who had formerly been
put to much vexation by Owen Warland’s irregular genius. "A plague
on such ingenuity! All the effect that ever I knew of it was, to spoil
the accuracy of some of the best watches in my shop. He would turn the
sun out of its orbit, and derange the whole course of time, if, as I
said before, his ingenuity could grasp anything bigger than a
"Hush, father! he hears you," whispered Annie, pressing the old
man’s arm. "His ears are as delicate as his feelings, and you know how
easily disturbed they are. Do let us move on."
So Peter Hovenden and his daughter Annie plodded on, without
further conversation, until, in a by-street of the town, they found
themselves passing the open door of a blacksmith’s shop. Within was
seen the forge, now blazing up, and illuminating the high and dusky
roof, and now confining its lustre to a narrow precinct of the
coal-strewn floor, according as the breath of the bellows was puffed
forth, or again inhaled into its vast leathern lungs. In the intervals
of brightness, it was easy to distinguish objects in remote corners of
the shop, and the horse-shoes that hung upon the wall; in the
momentary gloom, the fire seemed to be glimmering amidst the vagueness
of un-enclosed space. Moving about in this red glare and alternate
dusk, was the figure of the blacksmith, well worthy to be viewed in so
picturesque an aspect of light and shade, where the bright blaze
struggled with the black night, as if each would have snatched his
comely strength from the other. Anon, he drew a white-hot bar of
iron from the coals, laid it on the anvil, uplifted his arm of
might, and was seen enveloped in the myriads of sparks which the
strokes of his hammer scattered into the surrounding gloom.
"Now, that is a pleasant sight," said the old watchmaker. "I know
what it is to work in gold, but give me the worker in iron, after
all is said and done. He spends his labor upon a reality. What say
you, daughter Annie?"
"Pray don’t speak so loud, father," whispered Annie. "Robert
Danforth will hear you."
"And what if he should hear me?" said Peter Hovenden; "I say again,
it is a good and a wholesome thing to depend upon main strength and
reality, and to earn one’s bread with the bare and brawny arm of a
blacksmith. A watchmaker gets his brain puzzled by his wheels within a
wheel, or loses his health or the nicety of his eyesight, as was my
case; and finds himself, at middle age, or a little after, past
labor at his own trade, and fit for nothing else, yet too poor to live
at his ease. So, I say once again, give me main strength for my money.
And then, how it takes the nonsense out of a man! Did you ever hear of
a blacksmith being such a fool as Owen Warland, yonder?"
"Well said, uncle Hovenden!" shouted Robert Danforth, from the
forge, in a full, deep, merry voice, that made the roof reecho. "And
what says Miss Annie to that doctrine? She, I suppose, will think it a
genteeler business to tinker up a lady’s watch than to forge a
horse-shoe or make a gridiron!"
Annie drew her father onward, without giving him time for reply.
But we must return to Owen Warland’s shop, and spend more
meditation upon his history and character than either Peter
Hovenden, or probably his daughter Annie, or Owen’s old school-fellow,
Robert Danforth, would have thought due to so slight a subject. From
the time that his little fingers could grasp a pen-knife, Owen had
been remarkable for a delicate ingenuity, which sometimes produced
pretty shapes in wood, principally figures of flowers and birds, and
sometimes seemed to aim at the hidden mysteries of mechanism. But it
was always for purposes of grace, and never with any mockery of the
useful. He did not, like the crowd of school-boy artizans, construct
little windmills on the angle of a barn, or watermills across the
neighboring brook. Those who discovered such peculiarity in the boy,
as to think it worth their while to observe him closely, sometimes saw
reason to suppose that he was attempting to imitate the beautiful
movements of nature, as exemplified in the flight of birds or the
activity of little animals. It seemed, in fact, a new development of
the love of the Beautiful, such as might have made him a poet, a
painter, or a sculptor, and which was as completely refined from all
utilitarian coarseness, as it could have been in either of the fine
arts. He looked with singular distaste at the stiff and regular
processes of ordinary machinery. Being once carried to see a
steam-engine, in the expectation that his intuitive comprehension of
mechanical principle would be gratified, he turned pale, and grew
sick, as if something monstrous and unnatural had been presented to
him. This horror was partly owing to the size and terrible energy of
the Iron Laborer; for the character of Owen’s mind was microscopic,
and tended naturally to the minute, in accordance with his
diminutive frame, and the marvellous smallness and delicate power of
his fingers. Not that his sense of beauty was thereby diminished
into a sense of prettiness. The beautiful Idea has no relation to
size, and may be as perfectly developed in a space too minute for
any but microscopic investigation, as within the ample verge that is
measured by the arc of the rainbow. But, at all events, this
characteristic minuteness in his objects and accomplishments made
the world even more incapable than it might otherwise have been, of
appreciating Owen Warland’s genius. The boy’s relatives saw nothing
better to be done- as perhaps there was not- than to bind him
apprentice to a watchmaker, hoping that his strange ingenuity might
thus be regulated, and put to utili-tarian purposes.
Peter Hovenden’s opinion of his apprentice has already been
expressed. He could make nothing of the lad. Owen’s apprehension of
the professional mysteries, it is true, was inconceivably quick. But
he altogether forgot or despised the grand object of a watchmaker’s
business, and cared no more for the measurement of time than if it had
been merged into eternity. So long, however, as he remained under
his old master’s care, Owen’s lack of sturdiness made it possible,
by strict injunctions and sharp oversight, to restrain his creative
eccentricity within bounds. But when his apprenticeship was served
out, and he had taken the little shop which Peter Hovenden’s failing
eyesight compelled him to relinquish, then did people recognize how
unfit a person was Owen Warland to lead old blind Father Time along
his daily course. One of his most rational projects was, to connect
a musical operation with the machinery of his watches, so that all the
harsh dissonances of life might be rendered tuneful, and each flitting
moment fall into the abyss of the Past in golden drops of harmony.
If a family-clock was entrusted to him for repair- one of those
tall, ancient clocks that have grown nearly allied to human nature, by
measuring out the lifetime of many generations- he would take upon
himself to arrange a dance or funeral procession of figures across its
venerable face, representing twelve mirthful or melancholy hours.
Several freaks of this kind quite destroyed the young watchmaker’s
credit with that steady and matter-of-fact class of people, who hold
the opinion that time is not to be trifled with, whether considered as
the medium of advancement and prosperity in this world, or preparation
for the next. His custom rapidly diminished- a misfortune, however,
that was probably reckoned among his better accidents by Owen Warland,
who was becoming more and more absorbed in a secret occupation,
which drew all his science and manual dexterity into itself, and
likewise gave full employment to the characteristic tendencies of
his genius. This pursuit had already consumed many months.
After the old watchmaker and his pretty daughter had gazed at
him, out of the obscurity of the street, Owen Warland was seized
with a fluttering of the nerves, which made his hand tremble too
violently to proceed with such delicate labor as he was now engaged
"It was Annie herself!" murmured he. "I should have known by this
throbbing of my heart, before I heard her father’s voice. Ah, how it
throbs! I shall scarcely be able to work again on this exquisite
mechanism tonight. Annie- dearest Annie- thou shouldst give firmness
to my heart and hand, and not shake them thus; for if I strive to
put the very spirit of Beauty into form, and give it motion, it is for
thy sake alone. Oh, throbbing heart, be quiet! If my labor be thus
thwarted, there will come vague and unsatisfied dreams, which will
leave me spiritless tomorrow."
As he was endeavoring to settle himself again to his task, the
shop-door opened, and gave admittance to no other than the stalwart
figure which Peter Hovenden had paused to admire, as seen amid the
light and shadow of the blacksmith’s shop. Robert Danforth had brought
a little anvil of his own manufacture, and peculiarly constructed,
which the young artist had recently bespoken. Owen examined the
article, and pronounced it fashioned according to his wish.
"Why, yes," said Robert Danforth, his strong voice filling the shop
as with the sound of a bass-viol, "I consider myself equal to anything
in the way of my own trade; though I should have made but a poor
figure at yours, with such a fist as this"- added he, laughing, as
he laid his vast hand beside the delicate one of Owen. "But what then?
I put more main strength into one blow of my sledge-hammer, than all
that you have expended since you were a ‘prentice. Is not that the
"Very probably," answered the low and slender voice of Owen.
"Strength is an earthly monster. I make no pretensions to it. My
force, whatever there may be of it, is altogether spiritual."
"Well, but, Owen, what are you about?" asked his old school-fellow,
still in such a hearty volume of tone that it made the artist
shrink; especially as the question related to a subject so sacred as
the absorbing dream of his imagination. "Folks do say, that you are
trying to discover the Perpetual Motion."
"The Perpetual Motion? nonsense!" replied Owen Warland, with a
movement of disgust; for he was full of little petulances. "It never
can be discovered! It is a dream that may delude men whose brains
are mystified with matter, but not me. Besides, if such a discovery
were possible, it would not be worth my while to make it, only to have
the secret turned to such purposes as are now effected by steam and
water-power. I am not ambitious to be honored with the paternity of
a new kind of cotton-machine."
"That would be droll enough!" cried the blacksmith, breaking out
into such an uproar of laughter, that Owen himself, and the
bell-glasses on his work-board, quivered in unison. "No, no, Owen!
No child of yours will have iron joints and sinews. Well, I won’t
hinder you any more. Good night, Owen, and success; and if you need
any assistance, so far as a downright blow of hammer upon anvil will
answer the purpose, I’m your man!"
And with another laugh, the man of main strength left the shop.
"How strange it is," whispered Owen Warland to himself, leaning his
head upon his hand, "that all my musings, my purposes, my passion
for the Beautiful, my consciousness of power to create it- a finer,
more ethereal power, of which this earthly giant can have no
conception- all, all, look so vain and idle, whenever my path is
crossed by Robert Danforth! He would drive me mad, were I to meet
him often. His hard, brute force darkens and confuses the spiritual
element within me. But I, too, will be strong in my own way. I will
not yield to him!"
He took from beneath a glass, a piece of minute machinery, which he
set in the condensed light of his lamp, and, looking intently at it
through a magnifying glass, proceeded to operate with a delicate
instrument of steel. In an instant, however, he fell back in his
chair, and clasped his hands, with a look of horror on his face,
that made its small features as impressive as those of a giant would
"Heaven! What have I done!" exclaimed he. "The vapor! the influence
of that brute force! it has bewildered me, and obscured my perception.
I have made the very stroke- the fatal stroke- that I have dreaded
from the first! It is all over- the toil of months- the object of my
life! I am ruined!"
And there he sat, in strange despair, until his lamp flickered in
the socket, and left the Artist of the Beautiful in darkness.
Thus it is, that ideas which grow up within the imagination, and
appear so lovely to it, and of a value beyond whatever men call
valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact
with the Practical. It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess
a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy;
he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails
him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and
be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects
to which it is directed.
For a time, Owen Warland succumbed to this severe, but inevitable
test. He spent a few sluggish weeks, with his head so continually
resting in his hands, that the townspeople had scarcely an opportunity
to see his countenance. When, at last, it was again uplifted to the
light of day, a cold, dull, nameless change was perceptible upon it.
In the opinion of Peter Hovenden, however, and that order of sagacious
understandings who think that life should be regulated, like
clock-work, with leaden weights, the alteration was entirely for the
better. Owen now, indeed, applied himself to business with dogged
industry. It was marvellous to witness the obtuse gravity with which
he would inspect the wheels of a great, old silver watch; thereby
delighting the owner, in whose fob it had been worn till he deemed
it a portion of his own life, and was accordingly jealous of its
treatment. In consequence of the good report thus acquired, Owen
Warland was invited by the proper authorities to regulate the clock in
the church-steeple. He succeeded so admirably in this matter of public
interest, that the merchants gruffly acknowledged his merits on
‘Change; the nurse whispered his praises, as she gave the potion in
the sick-chamber; the lover blessed him at the hour of appointed
interview; and the town in general thanked Owen for the punctuality of
dinner-time. In a word, the heavy weight upon his spirits kept
everything in order, not merely within his own system, but wheresoever
the iron accents of the church-clock were audible. It was a
circumstance, though minute, yet characteristic of his present
state, that, when employed to engrave names or initials on silver
spoons, he now wrote the requisite letters in the plainest possible
style; omitting a variety of fanciful flourishes, that had
heretofore distinguished his work in this kind.
One day, during the era of this happy transformation, old Peter
Hovenden came to visit his former apprentice.
"Well, Owen," said he, I am glad to hear such good accounts of
you from all quarters; and especially from the town-clock yonder,
which speaks in your commendation every hour of the twenty-four.
Only get rid altogether of your nonsensical trash about the Beautiful-
which I, nor nobody else, nor yourself to boot, could ever understand-
only free yourself of that, and your success in life is as sure as
daylight. Why, if you go on in this way, I should even venture to
let you doctor this precious old watch of mine; though, except my
daughter Annie, I have nothing else so valuable in the world."
"I should hardly dare touch it, sir," replied Owen in a depressed
tone; for he was weighed down by his old master’s presence.
"In time, said the latter, "in time, you will be capable of it."
The old watchmaker, with the freedom naturally consequent on his
former authority, went on inspecting the work which Owen had in hand
at the moment, together with other matters that were in progress.
The artist, meanwhile, could scarcely lift his head. There was nothing
so antipodal to his nature as this man’s cold, unimaginative sagacity,
by contact with which everything was converted into a dream, except
the densest matter of the physical world. Owen groaned in spirit,
and prayed fervently to be delivered from him.
"But what is this?" cried Peter Hovenden abruptly, taking up a
dusty bell-glass, beneath which appeared a mechanical something, as
delicate and minute as the system of a butterfly’s anatomy. "What have
we here! Owen, Owen! there is witchcraft in these little chains, and
wheels, and paddles! See! with one pinch of my finger and thumb, I
am going to deliver you from all future peril."
"For Heaven’s sake," screamed Owen Warland, springing up with
wonderful energy, "as you would not drive me mad- do not touch it! The
slightest pressure of your finger would ruin me for ever.
"Aha, young man! And is it so?" said the old watchmaker, looking at
him with just enough of penetration to torture Owen’s soul with the
bitterness of worldly criticism. "Well; take your own course. But I
warn you again, that in this small piece of mechanism lives your
evil spirit. Shall I exorcise him?"
"You are my Evil Spirit," answered Owen, much excited- "you, and
the hard, coarse world! The leaden thoughts and the despondency that
you fling upon me are my clogs. Else, I should long ago have
achieved the task that I was created for."
Peter Hovenden shook his head, with the mixture of contempt and
indignation which mankind, of whom he was partly a representative,
deem themselves entitled to feel towards all simpletons who seek other
prizes than the dusty one along the highway. He then took his leave
with an uplifted finger, and a sneer upon his face, that haunted the
artist’s dreams for many a night afterwards. At the time of his old
master’s visit, Owen was probably on the point of taking up the
relinquished task; but, by this sinister event, he was thrown back
into the state whence he had been slowly emerging.
But the innate tendency of his soul had only been accumulating
fresh vigor, during its apparent sluggishness. As the summer advanced,
he almost totally relinquished his business, and permitted Father
Time, so far as the old gentleman was represented by the clocks and
watches under his control, to stray at random through human life,
making infinite confusion among the train of bewildered hours. He
wasted the sunshine, as people said, in wandering through the woods
and fields, and along the banks of streams. There, like a child, he
found amusement in chasing butterflies, or watching the motions of
water-insects. There was something truly mysterious in the
intentness with which he contemplated these living playthings, as they
sported on the breeze; or examined the structure of an imperial insect
whom he had imprisoned. The chase of butterflies was an apt emblem
of the ideal pursuit in which he had spent so many golden hours.
But, would the Beautiful Idea ever be yielded to his hand, like the
butterfly that symbolized it? Sweet, doubtless, were these days, and
congenial to the artist’s soul. They were full of bright
conceptions, which gleamed through his intellectual world, as the
butterflies gleamed through the outward atmosphere, and were real to
him for the instant, without the toil and perplexity, and many
disappointments, of attempting to make them visible to the sensual
eye. Alas, that the artist, whether in poetry or whatever other
material, may not content himself with the inward enjoyment of the
Beautiful, but must chase the flitting mystery beyond the verge of his
ethereal domain, and crush its frail being in seizing it with a
material grasp! Owen Warland felt the impulse to give external reality
to his ideas, as irresistibly as any of the poets or painters, who
have arrayed the world in a dimmer and fainter beauty, imperfectly
copied from the richness of their visions.
The night was now his time for the slow progress of recreating
the one Idea, to which all his intellectual activity referred
itself. Always at the approach of dusk, he stole into the town, locked
himself within his shop, and wrought with patient delicacy of touch,
for many hours. Sometimes he was startled by the rap of the
watchman, who, when all the world should be asleep, had caught the
gleam of lamplight through the crevices of Owen Warland’s shutters.
Daylight, to the morbid sensibility of his mind, seemed to have an
intrusiveness that interfered with his pursuits. On cloudy and
inclement days, therefore, he sat with his head upon his hands,
muffling, as it were, his sensitive brain in a mist of indefinite
musings; for it was a relief to escape from the sharp distinctness
with which he was compelled to shape out his thoughts, during his
From one of these fits of torpor, he was aroused by the entrance of
Annie Hovenden, who came into the shop with the freedom of a customer,
and also with something of the familiarity of a childish friend. She
had worn a hole through her silver thimble, and wanted Owen to
"But I don’t know whether you will condescend to such a task," said
she, laughing, "now that you are so taken up with the notion of
putting spirit into machinery."
"Where did you get that idea, Annie?" said Owen, starting in
"Oh, out of my own head," answered she, "and from something that
I heard you say, long ago, when you were but a boy, and I a little
child. But, come! will you mend this poor thimble of mine?"
"Anything for your sake, Annie," said Owen Warland- "anything! even
were it to work at Robert Danforth’s forge."
"And that would be a pretty sight!" retorted Annie, glancing with
imperceptible slightness at the artist’s small and slender frame.
"Well; here is the thimble."
"But that is a strange idea of yours," said Owen, "about the
spiritualization of matter!"
And then the thought stole into his mind, that this young girl
possessed the gift to comprehend him, better than all the world
beside. And what a help and strength would it be to him, in his lonely
toil, if he could gain the sympathy of the only being whom he loved!
To persons whose pursuits are insulated from the common business of
life- who are either in advance of mankind, or apart from it- there
often comes a sensation of moral cold, that makes the spirit shiver,
as if it had reached the frozen solitudes around the pole. What the
prophet, the poet, the reformer, the criminal, or any other man,
with human yearnings, but separated from the multitude by a peculiar
lot, might feel, poor Owen Warland felt.
"Annie," cried he, growing pale as death at the thought, "how
gladly would I tell you the secret of my pursuit! You, methinks, would
estimate it rightly. You, I know, would hear it with a reverence
that I must not expect from the harsh, material world."
"Would I not! to be sure I would!" replied Annie Hovenden,
lightly laughing. "Come; explain to me quickly what is the meaning
of this little whirligig, so delicately wrought that it might be a
plaything for Queen Mab. See; I will put it in motion."
"Hold," exclaimed Owen, hold!"
Annie had but given the slightest possible touch, with the point of
a needle, to the same minute portion of complicated machinery which
has been more than once mentioned, when the artist seized her by the
wrist with a force that made her scream aloud. She was affrighted at
the convulsion of intense rage and anguish that writhed across his
features. The next instant he let his head sink upon his hands.
"Go, Annie," murmured he, "I have deceived myself, and must
suffer for it. I yearned for sympathy- and thought- and fancied- and
dreamed- that you might give it me. But you lack the talisman,
Annie, that should admit you into my secrets. That touch has undone
the toil of months, and the thought of a lifetime! It was not your
fault, Annie- but you have ruined me!"
Poor Owen Warland! He had indeed erred, yet pardonably; for if
any human spirit could have sufficiently reverenced the processes so
sacred in his eyes, it must have been a woman’s. Even Annie
Hovenden, possibly, might not have disappointed him, had she been
enlightened by the deep intelligence of love.
The artist spent the ensuing winter in a way that satisfied any
persons, who had hitherto retained a hopeful opinion of him, that he
was, in truth, irrevocably doomed to inutility as regarded the
world, and to an evil destiny on his own part. The decease of a
relative had put him in possession of a small inheritance. Thus
freed from the necessity of toil, and having lost the steadfast
influence of a great purpose- great, at least, to him- he abandoned
himself to habits from which, it might have been supposed, the mere
delicacy of his organization would have availed to secure him. But
when the ethereal portion of a man of genius is obscured, the
earthly part assumes an influence the more uncontrollable, because the
character is now thrown off the balance to which Providence had so
nicely adjusted it, and which, in coarser natures, is adjusted by some
other method. Owen Warland made proof of whatever show of bliss may be
found in riot. He looked at the world through the golden medium of
wine, and contemplated the visions that bubble up so gaily around
the brim of the glass, and that people the air with shapes of pleasant
madness, which so soon grow ghostly and forlorn. Even when this dismal
and inevitable change had taken place, the young man might still
have continued to quaff the cup of enchantments, though its vapor
did but shroud life in gloom, and fill the gloom with spectres that
mocked at him. There was a certain irksomeness of spirit, which, being
real, and the deepest sensation of which the artist was now conscious,
was more intolerable than any fantastic miseries and horrors that
the abuse of wine could summon up. In the latter case, he could
remember, even out of the midst of his trouble, that all was but a
delusion; in the former, the heavy anguish was his actual life.
From this perilous state, he was redeemed by an incident which more
than one person witnessed, but of which the shrewdest could not
explain nor conjecture the operation on Owen Warland’s mind. It was
very simple. On a warm afternoon of Spring, as the artist sat among
his riotous companions, with a glass of wine before him, a splendid
butterfly flew in at the open window, and fluttered about his head.
"Ah!" exclaimed Owen, who had drunk freely, "are you alive again,
child of the sun, and playmate of the summer breeze, after your dismal
winter’s nap! Then it is time for me to be at work!"
And leaving his unemptied glass upon the table, he departed, and
was never known to sip another drop of wine.
And now, again, he resumed his wanderings in the woods and
fields. It might be fancied that the bright butterfly, which had
come so spiritlike into the window, as Owen sat with the rude
revellers, was indeed a spirit, commissioned to recall him to the
pure, ideal life that had so etherealised him among men. It might be
fancied, that he went forth to seek this spirit, in its sunny
haunts; for still, as in the summer-time gone by, he was seen to steal
gently up, wherever a butterfly had alighted, and lose himself in
contemplation of it. When it took flight, his eyes followed the winged
vision, as if its airy track would show the path to heaven. But what
could be the purpose of the unseasonable toil, which was again
resumed, as the watchman knew by the lines of lamp-light through the
crevices of Owen Warland’s shutters? The townspeople had one
comprehensive explanation of all these singularities. Owen Warland had
gone mad! How universally efficacious- how satisfactory, too, and
soothing to the injured sensibility of narrowness and dullness- is
this easy method of accounting for whatever lies beyond the world’s
most ordinary scope! From Saint Paul’s days, down to our poor little
Artist of the Beautiful, the same talisman had been applied to the
elucidation of all mysteries in the words or deeds of men, who spoke
or acted too wisely or too well. In Owen Warland’s case, the
judgment of his townspeople may have been correct. Perhaps he was mad.
The lack of sympathy- that contrast between himself and his neighbors,
which took away the restraint of example- was enough to make him so.
Or, possibly, he had caught just so much of ethereal radiance as
served to bewilder him, in an earthly sense, by its intermixture
with the common day light.
One evening, when the artist had returned from a customary
ramble, and had just thrown the lustre of his lamp on the delicate
piece of work, so often interrupted, but still taken up again, as if
his fate were embodied in its mechanism, he was surprised by the
entrance of old Peter Hovenden. Owen never met this man without a
shrinking of the heart. Of all the world, he was most terrible, by
reason of a keen understanding, which saw so distinctly what it did
see, and disbelieved so uncompromisingly in what it could not see.
On this occasion, the old watchmaker had merely a gracious word or two
"Owen, my lad," said he, "we must see you at my house tomorrow
The artist began to mutter some excuse.
"Oh, but it must be so," quoth Peter Hovenden, "for the sake of the
days when you were one of the household. What, my boy, don’t you
know that my daughter Annie is engaged to Robert Danforth? We are
making an entertainment, in our humble way, to celebrate the event."
"Ah!" said Owen.
That little monosyllable was all he uttered; its tone seemed cold
and unconcerned, to an ear like Peter Hovenden’s; and yet there was in
it the stifled outcry of the poor artist’s heart, which he
compressed within him like a man holding down an evil spirit. One
slight out-break, however, imperceptible to the old watchmaker, he
allowed himself. Raising the instrument with which he was about to
begin his work, he let it fall upon the little system of machinery
that had, anew, cost him months of thought and toil. It was
shattered by the stroke!
Owen Warland’s story would have been no tolerable representation of
the troubled life of those who strive to create the Beautiful, if,
amid all other thwarting influences, love had not interposed to
steal the cunning from his hand. Outwardly he had been no ardent or
enterprising lover; the career of his passion had confined its tumults
and vicissitudes so entirely within the artist’s imagination, that
Annie herself had scarcely more than a woman’s intuitive perception of
it. But, in Owen’s view, it covered the whole field of his life.
Forgetful of the time when she had shown herself incapable of any deep
response, he had persisted in connecting all his dreams of
artistical success with Annie’s image; she was the visible shape in
which the spiritual power that he worshipped, and on whose altar he
hoped to lay a not unworthy offering, was made manifest to him. Of
course he had deceived himself; there were no such attributes in Annie
Hovenden as his imagination had endowed her with. She, in the aspect
which she wore to his inward vision, was as much a creation of his
own, as the mysterious piece of mechanism would be were it ever
realized. Had he become convinced of his mistake through the medium of
successful love; had he won Annie to his bosom, and there beheld her
fade from angel into ordinary woman, the disappointment might have
driven him back, with concentrated energy, upon his sole remaining
object. On the other hand, had he found Annie what he fancied, his lot
would have been so rich in beauty, that out of its mere redundancy
he might have wrought the Beautiful into many a worthier type than
he had toiled for. But the guise in which his sorrow came to him,
the sense that the angel of his life had been snatched away and
given to a rude man of earth and iron, who could neither need nor
appreciate her ministrations; this was the very perversity of fate,
that makes human existence appear too absurd and contradictory to be
the scene of one other hope or one other fear. There was nothing
left for Owen Warland but to sit down like a man that had been
He went through a fit of illness. After his recovery, his small and
slender frame assumed an obtuser garniture of flesh than it had ever
before worn. His thin cheeks became round; his delicate little hand,
so spiritually fashioned to achieve fairy task-work, grew plumper than
the hand of a thriving infant. His aspect had a childishness, such
as might have induced a stranger to pat him on the head- pausing,
however, in the act, to wonder what manner of child was here. It was
as if the spirit had gone out of him, leaving the body to flourish
in a sort of vegetable existence. Not that Owen Warland was idiotic.
He could talk, and not irrationally. Somewhat of a babbler, indeed,
did people begin to think him; for he was apt to discourse at
wearisome length, of marvels of mechanism that he had read about in
books, but which he had learned to consider as absolutely fabulous.
Among them he enumerated the Man of Brass, constructed by Albertus
Magnus, and the Brazen Head of Friar Bacon; and, coming down to
later times, the automata of a little coach and horses, which, it
was pretended, had been manufactured for the Dauphin of France;
together with an insect that buzzed about the ear like a living fly,
and yet was but a contrivance of minute steel springs. There was a
story, too, of a duck that waddled, and quacked, and ate; though,
had any honest citizen purchased it for dinner, he would have found
himself cheated with the mere mechanical apparition of a duck.
"But all these accounts," said Owen Warland, "I am now satisfied,
are mere impositions."
Then, in a mysterious way, he would confess that he once thought
differently. In his idle and dreamy days he had considered it
possible, in a certain sense, to spiritualize machinery; and to
combine with the new species of life and motion, thus produced, a
beauty that should attain to the ideal, which Nature has proposed to
herself, in all her creatures, but has never taken pains to realize.
He seemed, however, to retain no very distinct perception either of
the process of achieving this object, or of the design itself.
"I have thrown it all aside now," he would say. "It was a dream,
such as young men are always mystifying themselves with. Now that I
have acquired a little common sense, it makes me laugh to think of it.
Poor, poor, and fallen Owen Warland! These were the symptoms that
he had ceased to be an inhabitant of the better sphere that lies
unseen around us. He had lost his faith in the invisible, and now
prided himself, as such unfortunates invariably do, in the wisdom
which rejected much that even his eye could see, and trusted
confidently in nothing but what his hand could touch. This is the
calamity of men whose spiritual part dies out of them, and leaves
the grosser understanding to assimilate them more and more to the
things of which alone it can take cognizance. But, in Owen Warland,
the spirit was not dead, nor past away; it only slept.
How it awoke again, is not recorded. Perhaps, the torpid slumber
was broken by a convulsive pain. Perhaps, as in a former instance, the
butterfly came and hovered about his head, and reinspired him- as,
indeed, this creature of the sunshine had always a mysterious
mission for the artist- reinspired him with the former purpose of
his life. Whether it were pain or happiness that thrilled through
his veins, his first impulse was to thank Heaven for rendering him
again the being of thought, imagination, and keenest sensibility, that
he had long ceased to be.
"Now for my task," said he. "Never did I feel such strength for
it as now."
Yet, strong as he felt himself, he was incited to toil the more
diligently, by an anxiety lest death should surprise him in the
midst of his labors. This anxiety, perhaps, is common to all men who
set their hearts upon anything so high, in their own view of it,
that life becomes of importance only as conditional to its
accomplishment. So long as we love life for itself, we seldom dread
the losing it. When we desire life for the attainment of an object, we
recognize the frailty of its texture. But, side by side with this
sense of insecurity, there is a vital faith in our invulnerability
to the shaft of death, while engaged in any task that seems assigned
by Providence as our proper thing to do, and which the world would
have cause to mourn for, should we leave it unaccomplished. Can the
philosopher, big with the inspiration of an idea that is to reform
mankind, believe that he is to be beckoned from this sensible
existence, at the very instant when he is mustering his breath to
speak the word of light? Should he perish so, the weary ages may
pass away- the world’s whole life- sand may fall, drop by drop- before
another intellect is prepared to develope the truth that might have
been uttered then. But history affords many an example, where the most
precious spirit, at any particular epoch manifested in human shape,
has gone hence untimely, without space allowed him, so far as mortal
judgment could discern, to perform his mission on the earth. The
prophet dies; and the man of torpid heart and sluggish brain lives on.
The poet leaves his song half sung, or finishes it, beyond the scope
of mortal ears, in a celestial choir. The painter- as Allston did-
leaves half his conception on the canvas, to sadden us with its
imperfect beauty, and goes to picture forth the whole, if it be no
irreverence to say so, in the hues of Heaven. But, rather, such
incomplete designs of this life will be perfected nowhere. This so
frequent abortion of man’s dearest projects must be taken as a
proof, that the deeds of earth, however etherealized by piety or
genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of
the spirit. In Heaven, all ordinary thought is higher and more
melodious than Milton’s song. Then, would he add another verse to
any strain that he had left unfinished here?
But to return to Owen Warland. It was his fortune, good or ill,
to achieve the purpose of his life. Pass we over a long space of
intense thought, yearning effort, minute toil, and wasting anxiety,
succeeded by an instant of solitary triumph; let all this be imagined;
and then behold the artist, on a winter evening, seeking admittance to
Robert Danforth’s fireside circle. There he found the Man of Iron,
with his massive substance, thoroughly warmed and attempered by
domestic influences. And there was Annie, too, now transformed into
a matron, with much of her husband’s plain and sturdy nature, but
imbued, as Owen Warland still believed, with a finer grace, that might
enable her to be the interpreter between Strength and Beauty. It
happened, likewise, that old Peter Hovenden was a guest, this evening,
at his daughter’s fireside; and it was his well-remembered
expression of keen, cold criticism, that first encountered the
"My old friend Owen!" cried Robert Danforth, starting up, and
compressing the artist’s delicate fingers within a hand that was
accustomed to gripe bars of iron. "This is kind and neighborly, to
come to us at last! I was afraid your Perpetual Motion had bewitched
you out of the remembrance of old times."
"We are glad to see you!" said Annie, while a blush reddened her
matronly cheek. "It was not like a friend to stay from us so long."
"Well, Owen," inquired the old watchmaker, as his first greeting,
"how comes on the Beautiful? Have you created it at last?"
The artist did not immediately reply, being startled by the
apparition of a young child of strength, that was tumbling about on
the carpet; a little personage who had come mysteriously out of the
infinite, but with something so sturdy and real in his composition
that he seemed moulded out of the densest substance which earth
could supply. This hopeful infant crawled towards the newcomer, and
setting himself on end- as Robert Danforth expressed the posture-
stared at Owen with a look of such sagacious observation, that the
mother could not help exchanging a proud glance with her husband.
But the artist was disturbed by the child’s look, as imagining a
resemblance between it and Peter Hovenden’s habitual expression. He
could have fancied that the old watchmaker was compressed into this
baby-shape, and looking out of those baby-eyes, and repeating- as he
now did- the malicious question: "The Beautiful, Owen! How comes on
the Beautiful? Have you succeeded in creating the Beautiful?"
"I have succeeded," replied the artist, with a momentary light of
triumph in his eyes, and a smile of sunshine, yet steeped in such
depth of thought, that it was almost sadness. "Yes, my friends, it
is the truth. I have succeeded!"
"Indeed!" cried Annie, a look of maiden mirthfulness peeping out of
her face again. "And is it lawful, now, to inquire what the secret
"Surely; it is to disclose it, that I have come," answered Owen
Warland. "You shall know, and see, and touch, and possess the
secret! For, Annie- if by that name I may still address the friend
of my boyish years- Annie, it is for your bridal gift that I have
wrought this spiritualized mechanism, this harmony of motion, this
Mystery of Beauty! It comes late, indeed; but it is as we go onward in
life, when objects begin to lose their freshness of hue, and our souls
their delicacy of perception, that the spirit of Beauty is most
needed. If- forgive me, Annie- if you know how to value this gift,
it can never come too late!"
He produced, as he spoke, what seemed a jewel-box. It was carved
richly out of ebony by his own hand, and inlaid with a fanciful
tracery of pearl, representing a boy in pursuit of a butterfly, which,
elsewhere, had become a winged spirit, and was flying heavenward;
while the boy, or youth, had found such efficacy in his strong desire,
that he ascended from earth to cloud, and from cloud to celestial
atmosphere, to win the Beautiful. This case of ebony the artist
opened, and bade Annie place her finger on its edge. She did so, but
almost screamed, as a butterfly fluttered forth, and, alighting on her
finger’s tip, sat waving the ample magnificence of its purple and
gold-speckled wings, as if in prelude to a flight. It is impossible to
express by words the glory, the splendor, the delicate gorgeousness,
which were softened into the beauty of this object. Nature’s ideal
butterfly was here realized in all its perfection; not in the
pattern of such faded insects as flit among earthly flowers, but of
those which hover across the meads of Paradise, for child-angels and
the spirits of departed infants to disport themselves with. The rich
down was visible upon its wings; the lustre of its eyes seemed
instinct with spirit. The firelight glimmered around this wonder-
the candles gleamed upon it- but it glistened apparently by its own
radiance, and illuminated the finger and outstretched hand on which it
rested, with a white gleam like that of precious stones. In its
perfect beauty, the consideration of size was entirely lost. Had its
wings overreached the firmament, the mind could not have been more
filled or satisfied.
"Beautiful! Beautiful!" exclaimed Annie. "Is it alive? Is it
"Alive? To be sure it is," answered her husband. "Do you suppose
any mortal has skill enough to make a butterfly- or would put
himself to the trouble of making one, when any child may catch a score
of them in a summer’s afternoon? Alive? certainly! But this pretty box
is undoubtedly of our friend Owen’s manufacture; and really it does
At this moment, the butterfly waved its wings anew, with a motion
so absolutely lifelike that Annie was startled, and even awe-stricken;
for, in spite of her husband’s opinion, she could not satisfy
herself whether it was indeed a living creature, or a piece of
"Is it alive?" she repeated, more earnestly than before.
"Judge for yourself," said Owen Warland, who stood gazing in her
face with fixed attention.
The butterfly now flung itself upon the air, fluttered round
Annie’s head, and soared into a distant region of the parlor, still
making itself perceptible to sight by the starry gleam in which the
motion of its wings enveloped it. The infant, on the floor, followed
its course with his sagacious little eyes. After flying about the
room, it returned, in a spiral curve, and settled again on Annie’s
"But is it alive?" exclaimed she again; and the finger, on which
the gorgeous mystery had alighted, was so tremulous that the butterfly
was forced to balance himself with his wings. "Tell me if it be alive,
or whether you created it?"
"Wherefore ask who created it, so it be beautiful?" replied Owen
Warland. "Alive? Yes, Annie; it may well be said to possess life,
for it has absorbed my own being into itself; and in the secret of
that butterfly, and in its beauty- which is not merely outward, but
deep as its whole system- is represented the intellect, the
imagination, the sensibility, the soul, of an Artist of the Beautiful!
Yes, I created it. But"- and here his countenance somewhat changed-
"this butterfly is not now to me what it was when I beheld it afar
off, in the day-dreams of my youth."
"Be it what it may, it is a pretty plaything," said the blacksmith,
grinning with childlike delight. "I wonder whether it would condescend
to alight on such a great clumsy finger as mine? Hold it hither,
By the artist’s direction, Annie touched her finger’s tip to that
of her husband; and, after a momentary delay, the butterfly
fluttered from one to the other. It preluded a second flight by a
similar, yet not precisely the same waving of wings, as in the first
experiment. Then ascending from the blacksmith’s stalwart finger, it
rose in a gradually enlarging curve to the ceiling, made one wide
sweep around the room, and returned with an undulating movement to the
point whence it had started.
"Well, that does beat all nature!" cried Robert Danforth, bestowing
the heartiest praise that he could find expression for; and, indeed,
had he paused there, a man of finer words and nicer perception could
not easily have said more. "That goes beyond me, I confess! But what
then? There is more real use in one downright blow of my
sledge-hammer, than in the whole five years’ labor that our friend
Owen has wasted on this butterfly!"
Here the child clapped his hands, and made a great babble of
indistinct utterance, apparently demanding that the butterfly should
be given him for a plaything.
Owen Warland, meanwhile, glanced sidelong at Annie, to discover
whether she sympathized in her husband’s estimate of the comparative
value of the Beautiful and the Practical. There was, amid all her
kindness towards himself, amid all the wonder and admiration with
which she contemplated the marvellous work of his hands, and
incarnation of his ideal a secret scorn; too secret, perhaps, for
her own consciousness, and perceptible only to such intuitive
discernment as that of the artist. But Owen, in the latter stages of
his pursuit, had risen out of the region in which such a discovery
might have been torture. He knew that the world, and Annie as the
representative of the world, whatever praise might be bestowed,
could never say the fitting word, nor feel the fitting sentiment which
should be the perfect recompense of an artist who, symbolizing a lofty
moral by a material trifle- converting what was earthly to spiritual
gold- had won the Beautiful into his handiwork. Not at this latest
moment was he to learn that the reward of all high performance must be
sought within itself, or sought in vain. There was, however, a view of
the matter, which Annie, and her husband, and even Peter Hovenden,
might fully have understood, and which would have satisfied them
that the toil of years had here been worthily bestowed. Owen Warland
might have told them, that this butterfly, this plaything, this
bridal-gift of a poor watchmaker to a blacksmith’s wife, was, in
truth, a gem of art that a monarch would have purchased with honors
and abundant wealth, and have treasured it among the jewels of his
kingdom, as the most unique and wondrous of them all! But the artist
smiled and kept the secret to himself.
"Father," said Annie, thinking that a word of praise from the old
watchmaker might gratify his former apprentice, "do come and admire
this pretty butterfly!"
"Let us see," said Peter Hovenden, rising from his chair, with a
sneer upon his face that always made people doubt, as he himself
did, in everything but a material existence. "Here is my finger for it
to alight upon. I shall understand it better when once I have
But, to the increased astonishment of Annie, when the tip of her
father’s finger was pressed against that of her husband, on which
the butterfly still rested, the insect drooped its wings, and seemed
on the point of falling to the floor. Even the bright spots of gold
upon its wings and body, unless her eyes deceived her, grew dim, and
the glowing purple took a dusky hue, and the starry lustre that
gleamed around the blacksmith’s hand became faint, and vanished.
"It is dying! it is dying!" cried Annie, in alarm.
"It has been delicately wrought," said the artist, calmly. "As I
told you, it has imbibed a spiritual essence- call it magnetism, or
what you will. In an atmosphere of doubt and mockery, its exquisite
susceptibility suffers torture, as does the soul of him who
instilled his own life into it. It has already lost its beauty; in a
few moments more, its mechanism would be irreparably injured."
"Take away your hand, father!" entreated Annie, turning pale. "Here
is my child; let it rest on his innocent hand. There, perhaps, its
life will revive, and its colors grow brighter than ever."
Her father, with an acrid smile, withdrew his finger. The butterfly
then appeared to recover the power of voluntary motion; while its hues
assumed much of their original lustre, and the gleam of starlight,
which was its most ethereal attribute, again formed a halo round about
it. At first, when transferred from Robert Danforth’s hand to the
small finger of the child, this radiance grew so powerful that it
positively threw the little fellow’s shadow back against the wall. He,
meanwhile, extended his plump hand as he had seen his father and
mother do, and watched the waving of the insect’s wings with infantine
delight. Nevertheless, there was a certain odd expression of sagacity,
that made Owen Warland feel as if here were old Peter Hovenden,
partially, and but partially, redeemed from his hard scepticism into
"How wise the little monkey looks!" whispered Robert Danforth to
"I never saw such a look on a child’s face," answered Annie,
admiring her own infant, and with good reason, far more than the
artistic butterfly. "The darling knows more of the mystery than we
As if the butterfly, like the artist, were conscious of something
not entirely congenial in the child’s nature, it alternately
sparkled and grew dim. At length, it arose from the small hand of
the infant with an airy motion, that seemed to bear it upward
without an effort; as if the ethereal instincts, with which its
master’s spirit had endowed it, impelled this fair vision
involuntarily to a higher sphere. Had there been no obstruction, it
might have soared into the sky, and grown immortal. But its lustre
gleamed upon the ceiling; the exquisite texture of its wings brushed
against that earthly medium; and a sparkle or two, as if stardust,
floated downward and lay glimmering on the carpet. Then the
butterfly came fluttering down, and, instead of returning to the
infant, was apparently attracted towards the artist’s hand.
"Not so, not so!" murmured Owen Warland, as if his handiwork
could have understood him. "Thou hast gone forth out of thy master’s
heart. There is no return for thee!"
With a wavering movement, and emitting a tremulous radiance, the
butterfly struggled, as it were, towards the infant, and was about
to alight upon his finger. But, while it still hovered in the air, the
little Child of Strength, with his grandsire’s sharp and shrewd
expression in his face, made a snatch at the marvellous insect, and
compressed it in his hand. Annie screamed! Old Peter Hovenden burst
into a cold and scornful laugh. The blacksmith, by main force,
unclosed the infant’s hand, and found within the palm a small heap
of glittering fragments, whence the Mystery of Beauty had fled for
ever. And as for Owen Warland, he looked placidly at what seemed the
ruin of his life’s labor, and which yet was no ruin. He had caught a
far other butterfly than this. When the artist rose high enough to
achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to
mortal senses became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit
possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality.