by Washington Allston
Say why in every work of man
Some imperfection mars the plan?
Why join'd in every human art
A perfect and imperfect part?
Is it that life for art is short?
Or is it nature's cruel sport?
Or would she thus a moral teach;
That man should see, but never reach,
The height of excellence, and show
The vanity of works below?
Or consequence of Pride, or Sloth;
Or rather the effect of both?
Whoe'er on life his eye has cast,
I fear, alas, will say the last!
Once on a time in Charon's wherry
Two Painters met, on Styx's ferry.
Good sir, said one, with bow profound,
I joy to meet thee under ground,
And though with zealous spite we strove
To blast each other's fame above,
Yet here, as neither bay nor laurel
Can tempt us to prolong our quarrel,
I hope the hand which I extend
Will meet the welcome of a friend.
Sweet sir! replied the other Shade,
While scorn on either nostril play'd,
Thy proffer'd love were great and kind
Could I in thee a
rival, sir! returned the first,
Ready with rising wind to burst,
Thy meekness, sure, in this I see;
We are not rivals, I agree:
And therefore am I more inclin'd
To cherish one of humble mind,
Who apprehends that one above him
Can never condescend to love him.
Nor longer did their courteous guile,
Like serpent, twisting through a smile,
Each other sting in civil phrase,
And poison with envenom'd praise;
For now the fiend of anger rose,
Distending each death-withered nose,
And, rolling fierce each glassy eye,
Like owlets' at the noonday sky,
Such flaming vollies pour'd of ire
As set old Charon's phlegm on fire.
Peace! peace! the grizly boatman cried,
You drown the roar of Styx's tide;
Unmanner'd ghosts! if such your strife,
'Twere better you were still in life!
If passions such as these you show
You'll make another Earth below;
Which, sure, would be a viler birth,
Than if we made a Hell on Earth.
At which in loud defensive strain
'Gan speak the angry Shades again.
I'll hear no more, cried he; 'no more'
In echoes hoarse return'd the shore.
To Minos' court you soon shall hie,
(Chief Justice here) 'tis he will try
Your jealous cause, and prove at once
That only dunce can hate a dunce.
Thus check'd, in sullen mood they sped,
Nor more on either side was said;
Nor aught the dismal silence broke,
Save only when the boatman's stroke,
Deep-whizzing through the wave was heard,
And now and then a spectre-bird,
Low-cow'ring, with a hungry scream.
For spectre-fishes in the stream.
Now midway pass'd, the creaking oar
Is heard upon the fronting shore;
Where thronging round in many a band,
The curious ghosts beset the strand.
Now suddenly the boat they 'spy,
Like gull diminish'd in the sky;
And now, like cloud of dusky white,
Slow sailing o'er the deep of night,
The sheeted group within the bark
Is seen amid the billows dark.
Anon the keel with grating sound
They hear upon the pebbly ground.
And now with kind, officious hand,
They help the ghostly crew to land.
What news? they cried with one accord
I pray you, said a noble lord,
Tell me if in the world above
I still retain the people's love:
Or whether they, like us below,
The motives of a Patriot know?
And me inform, another said,
What think they of a Buck that's dead?
Have they discerned that, being dull,
I knock'd my wit from watchmen's skull?
And me, cried one, of knotty front,
With many a scar of pride upon't
Resolve me if the world opine
Philosophers are still divine;
That having hearts for friends too small,
Or rather having none at all,
Profess'd to love, with saving grace,
of the human race?
And I, exclaim'd a fourth, would ask
What think they of the Critick's task?
Perceive they now our shallow arts;
That merely from the want of parts
To write ourselves, we gravely taught
How books by others should be wrought?
Whom interrupting, then inquir'd
A fifth, in squalid garb attir'd,
Do now the world with much regard
In mem'ry hold the dirty Bard,
Who credit gain'd for genius rare
By shabby coat and uncomb'd hair?
Or do they, said a Shade of prose,
With many a pimple's ghost on nose,
Th' eccentric author still admire,
Who wanting that same genius' fire,
Diving in cellars underground,
In pipe the spark ethereal found:
Which, fann'd by many a ribbald joke,
From brother tipplers puff'd in smoke,
Such blaze diffused with crackling loud,
As blinded all the staring croud?
And last, with jealous glancing eye,
That seem'd in all around to pry,
A Painter's ghost in voice suppres'd,
Thus questioning, the group address'd;
Sweet strangers, may I too demand,
How thrive the offspring of my hand?
Whether, as when in life I flourish'd,
They still by puffs of fame are nourish'd?
Or whether have the world discern'd
The tricks by which my fame was earn'd;
That, lacking in my pencil skill,
I made my tongue its office fill:
That, marking (as for love of truth)
In others' works a limb uncouth,
Or face too young, or face too old,
Or colour hot, or colour cold;
Or hinting, (if to praise betray'd)
'Though coloured well, it yet might
And 'though its grace I can't deny,
Yet pity 'tis so hard and dry.'-
I thus by implication show'd
That mine were wrought in better mode;
And talking thus superiors down,
Obliquely raise my own renown?
In short, I simply this would ask,-
If Truth has stript me of the mask;
And, chasing Fashion's mist away,
Expos'd me to the eye of day-
A Painter false, without a heart,
Who lov'd himself, and not his art?
At which, with fix'd and fishy
The Strangers both express'd amaze.
Good Sir, said they, 'tis strange you dare
Such meanness of yourself declare.
Were I on earth, replied the Shade,
I never had the truth betray'd;
For there (and I suspect like you)
I ne'er had time myself to view.
Yet, knowing that 'bove all creation
I held myself in estimation,
I deem'd that what I
Of every virtue was possess'd.
in colours black and true,
Men see themselves, who never knew
Their motives in the worldly strife,
Or real characters through life.
And here, alas! I scarce had been
A little day, when every sin
That slumber'd in my living breast,
By Minos rous'd from torpid rest,
Like thousand adders, rushing out,
Entwin'd my shuddering limbs about.-
Oh, strangers, hear!-the truth I tell-
That fearful sight I saw was Hell.
And, oh I with what unmeasur'd wo
Did bitterness upon me flow,
When thund'ring through the hissing air,
I heard the sentence of Despair-
'Now never hope from Hell to flee;
Yourself is all the Hell you see!'-
He ceas'd. But still with stubborn pride
The Rival Shades each other eyed;
When, bursting with terrifick sound,
The voice of Minos shook the ground,
The startled ghosts on either side,
Like clouds before the wind, divide;
And leaving far a passage free,
Each, conning his defensive plea,
With many a crafty lure for grace.
The Painters onward hold their pace.
Anon before the Judgement Seat,
With sneer confronting sneer they meet:
And now in deep and awful strain,
Piercing like fiery darts the brain,
Thus Minos spake. Though I am he,
From whom no secret thought may flee;
Who sees it ere the birth be known
To him, that claims it for his own;
Yet would I still with patience hear
What each may for himself declare,
That all in your defence may see
The justice pure of my decree.-
But, hold!-It ill beseems my place
To hear debate in such a case:
Be therefore thou, Da Vinci's shade,
Who when on earth to men display'd
The scattered powers of human kind
In thy capacious soul combin'd;
Be thou the umpire of the strife,
And judge as thou wert still in life.
Thus bid, with grave becoming air,
Th' appointed judge assum'd the chair.
And now with modest-seeming air,
The rivals straight for speech prepare:
And thus, with hand upon his breast,
The Senior Ghost the Judge address'd:
The world, (if ought the world I durst
In this believe) did call me first
Of those, who by the magick play
Of harmonizing colours, sway
The gazer's sense with such surprise,
As make him disbelieve his eyes.
'Tis true that some of vision dim,
Or squeamish taste, or pedant whim,
My works assail'd with narrow spite;
And, passing o'er my colour bright,
Reproach'd me for my want of grace,
And silks and velvets out of place;
And vulgar form, and lame design,
And want of character; in fine,
For lack of worth of every kind
To charm or to enlarge the mind.
Now this, my Lord, as will appear,
Was nothing less than malice sheer,
To stab me, like assassins dark,
Because I did not hit a mark,
At which (as I have hope of fame)
I never once design'd to aim.
For seeing that the life of man
Was scarcely longer than a span;
And, knowing that the Graphic Art
Ne'er mortal master'd but
I wisely deem'd 'twere labour vain,
Should I attempt the
And therefore, with ambition high,
Aspir'd to reach what pleas'd the eye;
Which, truly, sir, must be confess'd,
A part that far excels the rest:
For if, as all the world agree,
'Twixt Painting and fair Poesy
The diff'rence in the mode be found,
Of colour this, and that of sound,
'Tis plain, o'er every other grace,
That colour holds the highest place;
As being that distinctive part,
Which bounds it from another art.
If therefore, with reproof severe
I've galled my pigmy Rival here,
'Twas only, as your Lordship knows,
Because his foolish envy chose
To rank his classic forms of mud
Above my wholesome flesh and blood.
Thus ended parle the Senior Shade.
And now, as scorning to upbraid,
Contemptuous, eying him the while,
His Rival thus: 'Twere vain, my Lord,
To wound a gnat by spear or sword;
, of greater might,
Would meet this
in equal fight,
'Twere fit that I in size should be
As mean, diminutive, as he;
Of course, disdaining to reply,
I pass the wretch unheeded by.
But since your Lordship deigns to know
What I in my behalf may show,
With due submission, I proclaim,
That few on earth have borne a name
More envied or esteem'd than mine,
For grace, expression, and design,
For manners true of every clime,
And composition's art sublime.
In academick lore profound,
I boldly took that lofty ground,
Which, as it rais'd me near the sky,
Was thence for vulgar eyes too high;
Or, if beheld, to them appear'd
By clouds of gloomy darkness blear'd.
Yet still that misty height I chose,
For well I knew the world had those,
Whose sight, by learning clear'd of rheum,
Could pierce with ease the thickest gloom.
Thus, perch'd sublime, 'mid clouds I wrought,
Nor heeded what the vulgar thought.
What, though with clamour coarse and rude
They jested on my colours crude;
Comparing with malicious grin,
My drapery to bronze and tin,
My flesh to brick and earthen ware,
And wire of various kinds my hair;
Or (if a landscape-bit they saw)
My trees to pitchforks crown'd with straw;
My clouds to pewter plates of thin edge,
And fields to dish of eggs and spinage;
Yet this, and many a grosser rub,
Like fam'd Diogenes in tub,
I bore with philosophic nerve,
Nay, gladly bore; for, here observe,
'Twas that which gave to them offense,
Did constitute my excellence.
I see, my Lord, at this you stare:
Yet thus I'll prove it to a hair.-
As Mind and Body are distinct,
Though long in social union link'd,
And as the only power they boast,
Is merely at each other's cost;
If both should hold an equal station,
They'd both be kings without a nation:
If therefore, one would paint the Mind
In partnership with Body join'd,
And give to each an equal place,
With each an equal truth and grace,
'Tis clear the picture could not fail
To be without or head or tail.
And therefore as the Mind alone
I chose should fill my graphick throne,
To fix her pow'r beyond dispute,
I trampled Body under foot:
That is, in more prosaick dress,
As I the passions would express,
And as they ne'er could be portray'd
Without the subject Body's aid,
I show'd no more of that than merely
Sufficed to represent them clearly:
As thus-by simple means and pure
Of light and shadow, and contour:
But since what mortals call complexion,
Has with the mind no more connexion
Than ethicks with a country dance,
I left my col'ring all to chance;
Which oft (as I may proudly state)
With Nature war'd at such a rate,
As left no mortal hue or stain
Of base, corrupting flesh, to chain
The Soul to Earth; but, free as light,
E'en let her soar till out of sight.
Thus spake the champion bold of mind;
And thus the Colourist rejoin'd:
In truth, my Lord, I apprehend,
If I by
with him contend,
My case is gone; far he, by gift
Of what is call'd the
, can shift
The right for wrong, with such a sleight,
That right seems wrong and wrong the right;
Nay, by his twisting logick make
A square the form of circle take.
I therefore, with submission meet,
In justice do your Grace intreat
To let awhile your judgment pause,
may plead our cause.
Let Merc'ry then to Earth repair,
The works of both survey with care,
And hither bring the best of each,
And save us further waste of speech.
Such fair demand, the Judge replied,
Could not with justice be denied.
Good Merc'ry, hence! I fly, my Lord,
The Courier said. And, at the word,
High-bounding, wings his airy flight
So swift his form eludes the sight;
Nor aught is seen his course to mark,
Save when athwart the region dark
His brazen helm is spied afar,
Bright-trailing like a falling star.
And now for minutes ten there stole
A silence deep o'er every soul-
When, lo! again before them stands
The courier's self with empty hands.
Why, how is this? exclaim'd the twain;
Where are the
, sir? Explain!
Good sirs, replied the God of Post,
I scarce had reached the other coast,
When Charon told me, one he ferried
Inform'd him they were dead and buried:
Then bade me hither haste and say,
Their ghosts were now upon the way.
In mute amaze the Painters stood.
But soon upon the Stygian flood,
Behold! the spectre-pictures float,
Like rafts behind the towing boat:
Now reach'd the shore, in close array,
Like armies drill'd in Homer's day,
When marching on to meet the foe,
By bucklers hid from top to toe,
They move along the dusky fields,
A grizly troop of painted shields:
And now, arrived in order fair,
A gallery huge they hang in air.
The ghostly croud with gay surprize
Began to rub their stony eyes:
Such pleasant lounge, they all averr'd,
None saw since he had been interr'd;
And thus, like connoisseurs on Earth,
Began to weigh the pictures' worth:
But first (as deem'd of higher kind)
Examin'd they the works of
Pray what is this? demanded one.-
That, sir, is Phoebus, alias, Sun:
A classick work you can't deny;
The car and horses in the sky,
The clouds on which they hold their way,
Proclaim him all the God of Day.
Nay, learned sir, his dirty plight
More fit beseems the God of Night.
Besides, I cannot well divine
How mud like this can ever shine.-
Then look at that a little higher.-
I see 'tis Orpheus, by his lyre.
The beasts that listening stand around,
Do well declare the force of sound:
But why the fiction thus reverse,
And make the power of song a curse?
The ancient Orpheus soften'd rocks,
Yours changes living things to blocks.-
Well, this you'll sure acknowledge fine,
Parnassus' top with all the Nine.
is beauty, soul and fire,
And all that human wit inspire!-
Good sir, you're right; for being stone,
They're each to blunted wits a hone.
And what is that? inquir'd another.-
That, sir, is Cupid and his Mother.-
What, Venus? sure it cannot be:
That skin begrim'd ne'er felt the sea;
That Cupid too ne'er knew the sky;
For lead, I'm sure, could never fly.-
I'll hear no more, the Painter said,
Your souls are, like your bodies, dead!
With secret triumph now elate,
His grinning Rival 'gan to prate.
Oh, fie! my friends; upon my word,
You're too severe: he should be
can ne'er to glory reach,
Without the usual aid of
If thus howe'er, you seal his doom,
What hope have I unknown to Rome?
But since the
be your dominion,
I beg to hear your just opinion.
This picture then-which some have thought
By far the best I ever wrought-
Observe it well with critick ken;
'Tis Daniel in the Lion's Den.-
'Tis flesh itself! exclaim'd a Critick.
But why make Daniel paralytick?
His limbs and features are distorted.
And then his legs are badly sorted.
'Tis true, a miracle you've hit,
But not as told in Holy Writ;
For there the miracle was braving,
, the Lion's craving;
But yours (what ne'er could man befall)
That he should
live with none at all
And pray, inquir'd another spectre,
What Mufti's that at pious lecture?
That's Socrates, condemned to die;
He next, in sable, standing by,
Is Galen, come to save his friend,
If possible, from such an end;
The other figures, group'd around,
His Scholars, wrapt in woe profound.-
And am I like to this portray'd?
Exclaim'd the Sage's smiling Shade.
Good Sir, I never knew before
That I a Turkish turban wore,
Or mantle hemm'd with golden stitches,
Much less a pair of satin breeches;
But as for him in sable clad,
Though wond'rous kind, 'twas rather mad
To visit one like me forlorn,
So long before himself was born.
And what's the next? inquir'd a third;
A jolly blade upon my word!-
'Tis Alexander, Philip's son,
Lamenting o'er his battles won;
That now his mighty toils are o'er,
The world has nought to conquer more.
At which, forth stalking from the host,
Before them stood the Hero's Ghost-
Was that, said he, my earthly form,
The Genius of the battle-storm?
From top to toe the figure's Dutch!
Alas, my friend, had I been such,
Had I that fat and meaty skull,
Those bloated cheeks, and eyes so dull,
That driv'ling mouth, and bottle nose,
Those shambling legs, and gouty toes;
Thus form'd to snore throughout the day,-
And eat and drink the night away;
I ne'er had felt the fev'rish flame
That caus'd my bloody thirst for fame;
Nor madly claim'd immortal birth,
Because the vilest brute on Earth:
And, oh! I'd not been doom'd to hear,
Still whizzing in my blister'd ear,
The curses deep, in damning peals,
That rose from 'neath my chariot wheels,
When I along the embattled plain
With furious triumph crush'd the slain:
I should not thus be doom'd to see,
In every shape of agony,
The victims of my cruel wrath,
For ever dying, strew my path;
The grinding teeth, the lips awry,
The inflated nose, the starting eye,
The mangled bodies writhing round,
Like serpents, on the bloody ground;
I should not thus for ever seem
A charnel house, and scent the steam
Of black, fermenting, putrid gore,
Rank oozing through each burning pore;
Behold, as on a dungeon wall,
The worms upon my body crawl,
The which, if I would brush away,
Around my clammy fingers play,
And, twining fast with many a coil,
In loathsome sport my labor foil.
Enough! the frighted Painter cried,
And hung his head in fallen pride.
Not so the other. He, of stuff
More stubborn, ne'er would cry enough;
But like a soundly cudgell'd oak,
More sturdy grew at every stroke,
And thus again his ready tongue
With fluent logick would have rung:
My Lord, I'll prove, or I'm a liar-
Whom interrupting then with ire,
Thus check'd the Judge: Oh, proud yet mean!
And canst thou hope from me to screen
Thy foolish heart, and o'er it spread
A veil to cheat th' omniscient dead?
And canst thou hope, as once on Earth,
Applause to gain by specious worth;
Like those that still by sneer and taunt
Would prove pernicious what they want;
And claim the mastership of Art,
Because thou only know'st a
Had'st thou from Nature, not the Schools
Distorted by pedantic rules,
With patience wrought, such logic vain
Had ne'er perverted thus thy brain:
For Genius never gave delight
By means of what offends the sight:
Nor hadst thou deem'd, with folly mad,
Thou could'st to Nature's beauties
taking from her that which gives
The best assurance that she lives;
By imperfection give attraction,
And multiply them by subtraction.
Did Raffaelle thus, whose honour'd ghost
Is now Elysium's fairest boast?
Far diff'rent He. Though weak and lame
In parts that gave to others fame,
Yet sought not
by such defect
To swindle praise for
charms, that only
The dazzled eye to those of Mind.
By Heaven impressed with Genius' seal,
An eye to see, and heart to feel,
His soul through boundless Nature rov'd,
And seeing felt, and feeling lov'd.
But weak the power of mind at will
To give the hand the painter's skill;
For mortal works, maturing slow,
From patient care and labour flow:
And hence restrain'd, his youthful hand
Obey'd a master's dull command;
But soon with health his sickly style
From Leonardo learn'd to smile;
And now from Bonarroti caught
A nobler Form; and now it sought
Of colour fair the magic spell,
And trac'd her to the Friar's cell.
No foolish pride, no narrow rule
Enslav'd his soul; from every School,
Whatever fair, whatever grand,
His pencil, like a potent wand,
Transfusing, bade his canvass grace.
Progressive thus, with giant pace.
And energy no toil could tame,
He climb'd the rugged mount of Fame:
And soon had reach'd the summit bold,
When Death, who there delights to hold
His fatal watch, with envious blow
Quick hurl'd him to the shades below.
Thus check'd the Judge the champion vain
; and thus in strain,
By anger half and pity mov'd,
The ghostly Colourist reprov'd.
And what didst
aspire to gain,
dar'd'st the will of Jove arraign,
That bounded thus within a span
The little life of little man;
With shallow art deriving thence
Excuses for thy indolence?
'Tis cant and hypocritic stuff!
The life of man is long enough:
For did he but the half improve
He would not quarrel thus with Jove.
But most I marvel (if it be
That aught may wond'rous seem to me)
That Jove's high Gift, your noble Art,
Bestow'd to raise Man's grov'ling heart,
Refining with ethereal ray
Each gross and selfish thought away,
Should pander turn of paltry pelf,
Imprisoning each within himself;
Or like a gorgeous serpent, be
Your splendid source of misery,
And, crushing with his burnish'd folds,
Still narrower make your narrow souls.
But words can ne'er reform produce,
In Ignorance and Pride obtuse.
Then know, ye rain and foolish Pair!
Your doom is fix'd a yoke to bear
Like beasts on Earth; and, thus in tether,
Five Centuries to paint together.
If, thus by mutual labours join'd,
Your jarring souls should be combin'd,
The faults of each the other mending,
The powers of both harmonious blending;
Great Jove, perhaps, in gracious vein,
May send your souls on Earth again;
Yet there One only Painter be;
For thus the eternal Fates decree:
One Leg alone shall never run,
Nor two Half-Painters make but One.
Last updated May 31, 2019