A Virtuoso’s Collection
by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1842)
The other day, having a leisure hour at my disposal, I stepped into a new museum, to which my notice was casually drawn by a small and unobtrusive sign: “To Be Seen Here, A Virtuoso’s Collection.” Such was the simple yet not altogether unpromising announcement that turned my steps aside for a little while from the sunny sidewalk of our principal thoroughfare. Mounting a sombre staircase, I pushed open a door at its summit, and found myself in the presence of a person, who mentioned the moderate sum that would entitle me to admittance.
“Three shillings, Massachusetts tenor,” said he. “No, I mean half a dollar, as you reckon in these days.”
While searching my pocket for the coin I glanced at the doorkeeper, the marked character and individuality of whose aspect encouraged me to expect something not quite in the ordinary way. He wore an old-fashioned great-coat, much faded, within which his meagre person was so completely enveloped that the rest of his attire was undistinguishable. But his visage was remarkably wind-flushed, sunburnt, and weather-worn, and had a most, unquiet, nervous, and apprehensive expression. It seemed as if this man had some all-important object in view, some point of deepest interest to be decided, some momentous question to ask, might he but hope for a reply. As it was evident, however, that I could have nothing to do with his private affairs, I passed through an open doorway, which admitted me into the extensive hall of the museum.
Directly in front of the portal was the bronze statue of a youth with winged feet. He was represented in the act of flitting away from earth, yet wore such a look of earnest invitation that it impressed me like a summons to enter the hall.
“It is the original statue of Opportunity, by the ancient sculptor Lysippus,” said a gentleman who now approached me. “I place it at the entrance of my museum, because it is not at all times that one can gain admittance to such a collection.”
The speaker was a middle-aged person, of whom it was not easy to determine whether he had spent his life as a scholar or as a man of action; in truth, all outward and obvious peculiarities had been worn away by an extensive and promiscuous intercourse with the world. There was no mark about him of profession, individual habits, or scarcely of country; although his dark complexion and high features made me conjecture that he was a native of some southern clime of Europe. At all events, he was evidently the virtuoso in person.
“With your permission,” said he, “as we have no descriptive catalogue, I will accompany you through the museum and point out whatever may be most worthy of attention. In the first place, here is a choice collection of stuffed animals.”
Nearest the door stood the outward semblance of a wolf, exquisitely prepared, it is true, and showing a very wolfish fierceness in the large glass eyes which were inserted into its wild and crafty head. Still it was merely the skin of a wolf, with nothing to distinguish it from other individuals of that unlovely breed.
“How does this animal deserve a place in your collection?” inquired I.
“It is the wolf that devoured Little Red Riding Hood,” answered the virtuoso; “and by his side—with a milder and more matronly look, as you perceive—stands the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus.”
“Ah, indeed!” exclaimed I. “And what lovely lamb is this with the snow-white fleece, which seems to be of as delicate a texture as innocence itself?”
“Methinks you have but carelessly read Spenser,” replied my guide, “or you would at once recognize the ‘milk-white lamb’ which Una led. But I set no great value upon the lamb. The next specimen is better worth our notice.”
“What!” cried I, “this strange animal, with the black head of an ox upon the body of a white horse? Were it possible to suppose it, I should say that this was Alexander’s steed Bucephalus.”
“The same,” said the virtuoso. “And can you likewise give a name to the famous charger that stands beside him?”
Next to the renowned Bucephalus stood the mere skeleton of a horse, with the white bones peeping through his ill-conditioned hide; but, if my heart had not warmed towards that pitiful anatomy, I might as well have quitted the museum at once. Its rarities had not been collected with pain and toil from the four quarters of the earth, and from the depths of the sea, and from the palaces and sepulchres of ages, for those who could mistake this illustrious steed.
“It, is Rosinante!” exclaimed I, with enthusiasm.
And so it proved. My admiration for the noble and gallant horse caused me to glance with less interest at the other animals, although many of them might have deserved the notice of Cuvier himself. There was the donkey which Peter Bell cudgelled so soundly, and a brother of the same species who had suffered a similar infliction from the ancient prophet Balaam. Some doubts were entertained, however, as to the authenticity of the latter beast. My guide pointed out the venerable Argus, that faithful dog of Ulysses, and also another dog (for so the skin bespoke it), which, though imperfectly preserved, seemed once to have had three heads. It was Cerberus. I was considerably amused at detecting in an obscure corner the fox that became so famous by the loss of his tail. There were several stuffed cats, which, as a dear lover of that comfortable beast, attracted my affectionate regards. One was Dr. Johnson’s cat Hodge; and in the same row stood the favorite cats of Mahomet, Gray, and Walter Scott, together with Puss in Boots, and a cat of very noble aspect—who had once been a deity of ancient Egypt. Byron’s tame bear came next. I must not forget to mention the Eryrmanthean boar, the skin of St. George’s dragon, and that of the serpent Python; and another skin with beautifully variegated hues, supposed to have been the garment of the “spirited sly snake,” which tempted Eve. Against the walls were suspended the horns of the stag that Shakespeare shot; and on the floor lay the ponderous shell of the tortoise which fell upon the head of Aeschylus. In one row, as natural as life, stood the sacred bull Apis, the “cow with the crumpled horn,” and a very wild-looking young heifer, which I guessed to be the cow that jumped over the moon. She was probably killed by the rapidity of her descent. As I turned away, my eyes fell upon an indescribable monster, which proved to be a griffin.
“I look in vain,” observed I, “for the skin of an animal which might well deserve the closest study of a naturalist,—the winged horse, Pegasus.”
“He is not yet dead,” replied the virtuoso; “but he is so hard ridden by many young gentlemen of the day that I hope soon to add his skin and skeleton to my collection.”
We now passed to the next alcove of the hall, in which was a multitude of stuffed birds. They were very prettily arranged, some upon the branches of trees, others brooding upon nests, and others suspended by wires so artificially that they seemed in the very act of flight. Among them was a white dove, with a withered branch of olive-leaves in her mouth.
“Can this be the very dove,” inquired I, “that brought the message of peace and hope to the tempest-beaten passengers of the ark?”
“Even so,” said my companion.
“And this raven, I suppose,” continued I, “is the same that fed Elijah in the wilderness.”
“The raven? No,” said the virtuoso; “it is a bird of modern date. He belonged to one Barnaby Rudge, and many people fancied that the Devil himself was disguised under his sable plumage. But poor Grip has drawn his last cork, and has been forced to ‘say die’ at last. This other raven, hardly less curious, is that in which the soul of King George I. revisited his lady-love, the Duchess of Kendall.”
My guide next pointed out Minerva’s owl and the vulture that preyed upon the liver of Prometheus. There was likewise the sacred ibis of Egypt, and one of the Stymphalides which Hercules shot in his sixth labor. Shelley’s skylark, Bryant’s water-fowl, and a pigeon from the belfry of the Old South Church, preserved by N. P. Willis, were placed on the same perch. I could not but shudder on beholding Coleridge’s albatross, transfixed with the Ancient Mariner’s crossbow shaft. Beside this bird of awful poesy stood a gray goose of very ordinary aspect.
“Stuffed goose is no such rarity,” observed I. “Why do you preserve such a specimen in your museum?”
“It is one of the flock whose cackling saved the Roman Capitol,” answered the virtuoso. “Many geese have cackled and hissed both before and since; but none, like those, have clamored themselves into immortality.”
There seemed to be little else that demanded notice in this department of the museum, unless we except Robinson Crusoe’s parrot, a live phoenix, a footless bird of paradise, and a splendid peacock, supposed to be the same that once contained the soul of Pythagoras. I therefore passed to the next alcove, the shelves of which were covered with a miscellaneous collection of curiosities such as are usually found in similar establishments. One of the first things that took my eye was a strange-looking cap, woven of some substance that appeared to be neither woollen, cotton, nor linen.
“Is this a magician’s cap?” I asked.
“By no means,” answered I, putting it aside with my hand. “The day of wild wishes is past with me. I desire nothing that may not come in the ordinary course of Providence.”
“Then probably,” returned the virtuoso, “you will not be tempted to rub this lamp?”
While speaking, he took from the shelf an antique brass lamp, curiously wrought with embossed figures, but so covered with verdigris that the sculpture was almost eaten away.
“It is a thousand years,” said he, “since the genius of this lamp constructed Aladdin’s palace in a single night. But he still retains his power; and the man who rubs Aladdin’s lamp has but to desire either a palace or a cottage.”
“I might desire a cottage,” replied I; “but I would have it founded on sure and stable truth, not on dreams and fantasies. I have learned to look for the real and the true.”
My guide next showed me Prospero’s magic wand, broken into three fragments by the hand of its mighty master. On the same shelf lay the gold ring of ancient Gyges, which enabled the wearer to walk invisible. On the other side of the alcove was a tall looking-glass in a frame of ebony, but veiled with a curtain of purple silk, through the rents of which the gleam of the mirror was perceptible.
“This is Cornelius Agrippa’s magic glass,” observed the virtuoso. “Draw aside the curtain, and picture any human form within your mind, and it will be reflected in the mirror.”
“It is enough if I can picture it within my mind,” answered I. “Why should I wish it to be repeated in the mirror? But, indeed, these works of magic have grown wearisome to me. There are so many greater wonders in the world, to those who keep their eyes open and their sight undimmed by custom, that all the delusions of the old sorcerers seem flat and stale. Unless you can show me something really curious, I care not to look further into your museum.”
“Ah, well, then,” said the virtuoso, composedly, “perhaps you may deem some of my antiquarian rarities deserving of a glance.”
He pointed out the iron mask, now corroded with rust; and my heart grew sick at the sight of this dreadful relic, which had shut out a human being from sympathy with his race. There was nothing half so terrible in the axe that beheaded King Charles, nor in the dagger that slew Henry of Navarre, nor in the arrow that pierced the heart of William Rufus,—all of which were shown to me. Many of the articles derived their interest, such as it was, from having been formerly in the possession of royalty. For instance, here was Charlemagne’s sheepskin cloak, the flowing wig of Louis Quatorze, the spinning-wheel of Sardanapalus, and King Stephen’s famous breeches which cost him but a crown. The heart of the Bloody Mary, with the word “Calais” worn into its diseased substance, was preserved in a bottle of spirits; and near it lay the golden case in which the queen of Gustavus Adolphus treasured up that hero’s heart. Among these relics and heirlooms of kings I must not forget the long, hairy ears of Midas, and a piece of bread which had been changed to gold by the touch of that unlucky monarch. And as Grecian Helen was a queen, it may here be mentioned that I was permitted to take into my hand a lock of her golden hair and the bowl which a sculptor modelled from the curve of her perfect breast. Here, likewise, was the robe that smothered Agamemnon, Nero’s fiddle, the Czar Peter’s brandy-bottle, the crown of Semiramis, and Canute’s sceptre which he extended over the sea. That my own land may not deem itself neglected, let me add that I was favored with a sight of the skull of King Philip, the famous Indian chief, whose head the Puritans smote off and exhibited upon a pole.
“Show me something else,” said I to the virtuoso. “Kings are in such an artificial position that people in the ordinary walks of life cannot feel an interest in their relics. If you could show me the straw hat of sweet little Nell, I would far rather see it than a king’s golden crown.”
“There it is,” said my guide, pointing carelessly with his staff to the straw hat in question. “But, indeed, you are hard to please. Here are the seven-league boots. Will you try them on?”
“Our modern railroads have superseded their use,” answered I; “and as to these cowhide boots, I could show you quite as curious a pair at the Transcendental community in Roxbury.”
We next examined a collection of swords and other weapons, belonging to different epochs, but thrown together without much attempt at arrangement. Here Was Arthur’s sword Excalibar, and that of the Cid Campeader, and the sword of Brutus rusted with Caesar’s blood and his own, and the sword of Joan of Arc, and that of Horatius, and that with which Virginius slew his daughter, and the one which Dionysius suspended over the head of Damocles. Here also was Arria’s sword, which she plunged into her own breast, in order to taste of death before her husband. The crooked blade of Saladin’s cimeter next attracted my notice. I know not by what chance, but so it happened, that the sword of one of our own militia generals was suspended between Don Quixote’s lance and the brown blade of Hudibras. My heart throbbed high at the sight of the helmet of Miltiades and the spear that was broken in the breast of Epaminondas. I recognized the shield of Achilles by its resemblance to the admirable cast in the possession of Professor Felton. Nothing in this apartment interested me more than Major Pitcairn’s pistol, the discharge of which, at Lexington, began the war of the Revolution, and was reverberated in thunder around the land for seven long years. The bow of Ulysses, though unstrung for ages, was placed against the wall, together with a sheaf of Robin Hood’s arrows and the rifle of Daniel Boone.
“Enough of weapons,” said I, at length; “although I would gladly have seen the sacred shield which fell from heaven in the time of Numa. And surely you should obtain the sword which Washington unsheathed at Cambridge. But the collection does you much credit. Let us pass on.”
In the next alcove we saw the golden thigh of Pythagoras, which had so divine a meaning; and, by one of the queer analogies to which the virtuoso seemed to be addicted, this ancient emblem lay on the same shelf with Peter Stuyvesant’s wooden leg, that was fabled to be of silver. Here was a remnant of the Golden Fleece, and a sprig of yellow leaves that resembled the foliage of a frost-bitten elm, but was duly authenticated as a portion of the golden branch by which AEneas gained admittance to the realm of Pluto. Atalanta’s golden apple and one of the apples of discord were wrapped in the napkin of gold which Rampsinitus brought from Hades; and the whole were deposited in the golden vase of Bias, with its inscription: “TO THE WISEST.”
“And how did you obtain this vase?” said I to the virtuoso.
“It was given me long ago,” replied he, with a scornful expression in his eye, “because I had learned to despise all things.”
It had not escaped me that, though the virtuoso was evidently a man of high cultivation, yet he seemed to lack sympathy with the spiritual, the sublime, and the tender. Apart from the whim that had led him to devote so much time, pains, and expense to the collection of this museum, he impressed me as one of the hardest and coldest men of the world whom I had ever met.
“To despise all things!” repeated I. “This, at best, is the wisdom of the understanding. It is the creed of a man whose soul, whose better and diviner part, has never been awakened, or has died out of him.”
“I did not think that you were still so young,” said the virtuoso. “Should you live to my years, you will acknowledge that the vase of Bias was not ill bestowed.”
Without further discussion of the point, he directed my attention to other curiosities. I examined Cinderella’s little glass slipper, and compared it with one of Diana’s sandals, and with Fanny Elssler’s shoe, which bore testimony to the muscular character of her illustrious foot. On the same shelf were Thomas the Rhymer’s green velvet shoes, and the brazen shoe of Empedocles which was thrown out of Mount AEtna. Anacreon’s drinking-cup was placed in apt juxtaposition with one of Tom Moore’s wine-glasses and Circe’s magic bowl. These were symbols of luxury and riot; but near them stood the cup whence Socrates drank his hemlock, and that which Sir Philip Sidney put from his death-parched lips to bestow the draught upon a dying soldier. Next appeared a cluster of tobacco-pipes, consisting of Sir Walter Raleigh’s, the earliest on record, Dr. Parr’s, Charles Lamb’s, and the first calumet of peace which was ever smoked between a European and an Indian. Among other musical instruments, I noticed the lyre of Orpheus and those of Homer and Sappho, Dr. Franklin’s famous whistle, the trumpet of Anthony Van Corlear, and the flute which Goldsmith played upon in his rambles through the French provinces. The staff of Peter the Hermit stood in a corner with that of good old Bishop Jewel, and one of ivory, which had belonged to Papirius, the Roman senator. The ponderous club of Hercules was close at hand. The virtuoso showed me the chisel of Phidias, Claude’s palette, and the brush of Apelles, observing that he intended to bestow the former either on Greenough, Crawford, or Powers, and the two latter upon Washington Allston. There was a small vase of oracular gas from Delphos, which I trust will be submitted to the scientific analysis of Professor Silliman. I was deeply moved on beholding a vial of the tears into which Niobe was dissolved; nor less so on learning that a shapeless fragment of salt was a relic of that victim of despondency and sinful regrets,—Lot’s wife. My companion appeared to set great value upon some Egyptian darkness in a blacking-jug. Several of the shelves were covered by a collection of coins, among which, however, I remember none but the Splendid Shilling, celebrated by Phillips, and a dollar’s worth of the iron money of Lycurgus, weighing about fifty pounds.
Walking carelessly onward, I had nearly fallen over a huge bundle, like a peddler’s pack, done up in sackcloth, and very securely strapped and corded.
“It is Christian’s burden of sin,” said the virtuoso.
“O, pray let us open it!” cried I. “For many a year I have longed to know its contents.”
“Look into your own consciousness and memory,” replied the virtuoso. “You will there find a list of whatever it contains.”
As this was all undeniable truth, I threw a melancholy look at the burden and passed on. A collection of old garments, banging on pegs, was worthy of some attention, especially the shirt of Nessus, Caesar’s mantle, Joseph’s coat of many colors, the Vicar of Bray’s cassock, Goldsmith’s peach-bloom suit, a pair of President Jefferson’s scarlet breeches, John Randolph’s red baize hunting-shirt, the drab small-clothes of the Stout Gentleman, and the rags of the “man all tattered and torn.” George Fox’s hat impressed me with deep reverence as a relic of perhaps the truest apostle that has appeared on earth for these eighteen hundred years. My eye was next attracted by an old pair of shears, which I should have taken for a memorial of some famous tailor, only that the virtuoso pledged his veracity that they were the identical scissors of Atropos. He also showed me a broken hourglass which had been thrown aside by Father Time, together with the old gentleman’s gray forelock, tastefully braided into a brooch. In the hour-glass was the handful of sand, the grains of which had numbered the years of the Cumaean sibyl. I think it was in this alcove that I saw the inkstand which Luther threw at the Devil, and the ring which Essex, while under sentence of death, sent to Queen Elizabeth. And here was the blood-incrusted pen of steel with which Faust signed away his salvation.
The virtuoso now opened the door of a closet and showed me a lamp burning, while three others stood unlighted by its side. One of the three was the lamp of Diogenes, another that of Guy Fawkes, and the third that which Hero set forth to the midnight breeze in the high tower of Abydos.
“See!” said the virtuoso, blowing with all his force at the lighted lamp.
The flame quivered and shrank away from his breath, but clung to the wick, and resumed its brilliancy as soon as the blast was exhausted.
“It is an undying lamp from the tomb of Charlemagne,” observed my guide. “That flame was kindled a thousand years ago.”
“How ridiculous to kindle an unnatural light in tombs!” exclaimed I. “We should seek to behold the dead in the light of heaven. But what is the meaning of this chafing-dish of glowing coals?”
“That,” answered the virtuoso, “is the original fire which Prometheus stole from heaven. Look steadfastly into it, and you will discern another curiosity.”
I gazed into that fire,—which, symbolically, was the origin of all that was bright and glorious in the soul of man,—and in the midst of it, behold a little reptile, sporting with evident enjoyment of the fervid heat! It was a salamander.
“What a sacrilege!” cried I, with inexpressible disgust. “Can you find no better use for this ethereal fire than to cherish a loathsome reptile in it? Yet there are men who abuse the sacred fire of their own souls to as foul and guilty a purpose.”
The virtuoso made no answer except by a dry laugh and an assurance that the salamander was the very same which Benvenuto Cellini had seen in his father’s household fire. He then proceeded to show me other rarities; for this closet appeared to be the receptacle of what he considered most valuable in his collection.
“There,” said he, “is the Great Carbuncle of the White Mountains.”
I gazed with no little interest at this mighty gem, which it had been one of the wild projects of my youth to discover. Possibly it might have looked brighter to me in those days than now; at all events, it had not such brilliancy as to detain me long from the other articles of the museum. The virtuoso pointed out to me a crystalline stone which hung by a gold chain against the wall.
“That is the philosopher’s stone,” said he.
“And have you the elixir vita which generally accompanies it?” inquired I.
“Even so; this urn is filled with it,” he replied. “A draught would refresh you. Here is Hebe’s cup; will you quaff a health from it?”
My heart thrilled within me at the idea of such a reviving draught; for methought I had great need of it after travelling so far on the dusty road of life. But I know not whether it were a peculiar glance in the virtuoso’s eye, or the circumstance that this most precious liquid was contained in an antique sepulchral urn, that made me pause. Then came many a thought with which, in the calmer and better hours of life, I had strengthened myself to feel that Death is the very friend whom, in his due season, even the happiest mortal should be willing to embrace.
“No; I desire not an earthly immortality,” said I.
“Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material, the sensual. There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of heaven to preserve it from decay and ruin. I will have none of this liquid. You do well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death while bestowing the shadow of life.”
“All this is unintelligible to me,” responded my guide, with indifference. “Life—earthly life—is the only good. But you refuse the draught? Well, it is not likely to be offered twice within one man’s experience. Probably you have griefs which you seek to forget in death. I can enable you to forget them in life. Will you take a draught of Lethe?”
As he spoke, the virtuoso took from the shelf a crystal vase containing a sable liquor, which caught no reflected image from the objects around.
“Not for the world!” exclaimed I, shrinking back. “I can spare none of my recollections, not even those of error or sorrow. They are all alike the food of my spirit. As well never to have lived as to lose them now.”
Without further parley we passed to the next alcove, the shelves of which were burdened with ancient volumes and with those rolls of papyrus in which was treasured up the eldest wisdom of the earth. Perhaps the most valuable work in the collection, to a bibliomaniac, was the Book of Hermes. For my part, however, I would have given a higher price for those six of the Sibyl’s books which Tarquin refused to purchase, and which the virtuoso informed me he had himself found in the cave of Trophonius. Doubtless these old volumes contain prophecies of the fate of Rome, both as respects the decline and fall of her temporal empire and the rise of her spiritual one. Not without value, likewise, was the work of Anaxagoras on Nature, hitherto supposed to be irrecoverably lost, and the missing treatises of Longinus, by which modern criticism might profit, and those books of Livyfor which the classic student has so long sorrowed without hope. Among these precious tomes I observed the original manuscript of the Koran, and also that of the Mormon Bible in Joe Smith’s authentic autograph. Alexander’s copy of the Iliad was also there, enclosed in the jewelled casket of Darius, still fragrant of the perfumes which the Persian kept in it.
Opening an iron-clasped volume, bound in black leather, I discovered it to be Cornelius Agrippa’s book of magic; and it was rendered still more interesting by the fact that many flowers, ancient and modern, were pressed between its leaves. Here was a rose from Eve’s bridal bower, and all those red and white roses which were plucked in the garden of the Temple by the partisans of York and Lancaster. Here was Halleck’s Wild Rose of Alloway. Cowper had contributed a Sensitive Plant, and Wordsworth an Eglantine, and Burns a Mountain Daisy, and Kirke White a Star of Bethlehem, and Longfellow a Sprig of Fennel, with its yellow flowers. James Russell Lowell had given a Pressed Flower, but fragrant still, which had been shadowed in the Rhine. There was also a sprig from Southey’s Holly Tree. One of the most beautiful specimens was a Fringed Gentian, which had been plucked and preserved for immortality by Bryant. From Jones Very, a poet whose voice is scarcely heard among us by reason of its depth, there was a Wind Flower and a Columbine.
As I closed Cornelius Agrippa’s magic volume, an old, mildewed letter fell upon the floor. It proved to be an autograph from the Flying Dutchman to his wife. I could linger no longer among books; for the afternoon was waning, and there was yet much to see. The bare mention of a few more curiosities must suffice. The immense skull of Polyphemus was recognizable by the cavernous hollow in the centre of the forehead where once had blazed the giant’s single eye. The tub of Diogenes, Medea’s cauldron, and Psyche’s vase of beauty were placed one within another. Pandora’s box, without the lid, stood next, containing nothing but the girdle of Venus, which had been carelessly flung into it. A bundle of birch-rods which had been used by Shenstone’s schoolmistress were tied up with the Countess of Salisbury’s garter. I know not which to value most, a roc’s egg as big as an ordinary hogshead, or the shell of the egg which Columbus set upon its end. Perhaps the most delicate article in the whole museum was Queen Mab’s chariot, which, to guard it from the touch of meddlesome fingers, was placed under a glass tumbler.
Several of the shelves were occupied by specimens of entomology. Feeling but little interest in the science, I noticed only Anacreon’s grasshopper, and a bumblebee which had been presented to the virtuoso by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the part of the hall which we had now reached I observed a curtain, that descended from the ceiling to the floor in voluminous folds, of a depth, richness, and magnificence which I had never seen equalled. It was not to be doubted that this splendid though dark and solemn veil concealed a portion of the museum even richer in wonders than that through which I had already passed; but, on my attempting to grasp the edge of the curtain and draw it aside, it proved to be an illusive picture.
“You need not blush,” remarked the virtuoso; “for that same curtain deceived Zeuxis. It is the celebrated painting of Parrhasius.”
In a range with the curtain there were a number of other choice pictures by artists of ancient days. Here was the famous cluster of grapes by Zeuxis, so admirably depicted that it seemed as if the ripe juice were bursting forth. As to the picture of the old woman by the same illustrious painter, and which was so ludicrous that he himself died with laughing at it, I cannot say that it particularly moved my risibility. Ancient humor seems to have little power over modern muscles. Here, also, was the horse painted by Apelles which living horses neighed at; his first portrait of Alexander the Great, and his last unfinished picture of Venus asleep. Each of these works of art, together with others by Parrhasius, Timanthes, Polygnotus, Apollodorus, Pausias, and Pamphilus, required more time and study than I could bestow for the adequate perception of their merits. I shall therefore leave them undescribed and uncriticised, nor attempt to settle the question of superiority between ancient and modern art.
For the same reason I shall pass lightly over the specimens of antique sculpture which this indefatigable and fortunate virtuoso had dug out of the dust of fallen empires. Here was AEtion’s cedar statue of AEsculapius, much decayed, and Alcon’s iron statue of Hercules, lamentably rusted. Here was the statue of Victory, six feet high, which the Jupiter Olympus of Phidias had held in his hand. Here was a forefinger of the Colossus of Rhodes, seven feet in length. Here was the Venus Urania of Phidias, and other images of male and female beauty or grandeur, wrought by sculptors who appeared never to have debased their souls by the sight of any meaner forms than those of gods or godlike mortals. But the deep simplicity of these great works was not to be comprehended by a mind excited and disturbed, as mine was, by the various objects that had recently been presented to it. I therefore turned away with merely a passing glance, resolving on some future occasion to brood over each individual statue and picture until my inmost spirit should feel their excellence. In this department, again, I noticed the tendency to whimsical combinations and ludicrous analogies which seemed to influence many of the arrangements of the museum. The wooden statue so well known as the Palladium of Troy was placed in close apposition with the wooden head of General Jackson, which was stolen a few years since from the bows of the frigate Constitution.
We had now completed the circuit of the spacious hall, and found ourselves again near the door. Feeling somewhat wearied with the survey of so many novelties and antiquities, I sat down upon Cowper’s sofa, while the virtuoso threw himself carelessly into Rabelais’s easychair. Casting my eyes upon the opposite wall, I was surprised to perceive the shadow of a man flickering unsteadily across the wainscot, and looking as if it were stirred by some breath of air that found its way through the door or windows. No substantial figure was visible from which this shadow might be thrown; nor, had there been such, was there any sunshine that would have caused it to darken upon the wall.
“It is Peter Schlemihl’s shadow,” observed the virtuoso, “and one of the most valuable articles in my collection.”
“Methinks a shadow would have made a fitting doorkeeper to such a museum,” said I; “although, indeed, yonder figure has something strange and fantastic about him, which suits well enough with many of the impressions which I have received here. Pray, who is he?”
While speaking, I gazed more scrutinizingly than before at the antiquated presence of the person who had admitted me, and who still sat on his bench with the same restless aspect, and dim, confused, questioning anxiety that I had noticed on my first entrance. At this moment he looked eagerly towards us, and, half starting from his seat, addressed me.
“I beseech you, kind sir,” said he, in a cracked, melancholy tone, “have pity on the most unfortunate man in the world. For Heaven’s sake, answer me a single question! Is this the town of Boston?”
“You have recognized him now,” said the virtuoso. “It is Peter Rugg, the missing man. I chanced to meet him the other day still in search of Boston, and conducted him hither; and, as he could not succeed in finding his friends, I have taken him into my service as doorkeeper. He is somewhat too apt to ramble, but otherwise a man of trust and integrity.”
“And might I venture to ask,” continued I, “to whom am I indebted for this afternoon’s gratification?”
The virtuoso, before replying, laid his hand upon an antique dart, or javelin, the rusty steel head of winch seemed to have been blunted, as if it had encountered the resistance of a tempered shield, or breastplate.
“My name has not been without its distinction in the world for a longer period than that of any other man alive,” answered he. “Yet many doubt of my existence; perhaps you will do so to-morrow. This dart which I hold in my hand was once grim Death’s own weapon. It served him well for the space of four thousand years; but it fell blunted, as you see, when he directed it against my breast.”
These words were spoken with the calm and cold courtesy of manner that had characterized this singular personage throughout our interview. I fancied, it is true, that there was a bitterness indefinably mingled with his tone, as of one cut off from natural sympathies and blasted with a doom that had been inflicted on no other human being, and by the results of which he had ceased to be human. Yet, withal, it seemed one of the most terrible consequences of that doom that the victim no longer regarded it as a calamity, but had finally accepted it as the greatest good that could have befallen him.
“You are the Wandering Jew!” exclaimed I.
The virtuoso bowed without emotion of any kind; for, by centuries of custom, he had almost lost the sense of strangeness in his fate, and was but imperfectly conscious of the astonishment and awe with which it affected such as are capable of death.
“Your doom is indeed a fearful one!” said I, with irrepressible feeling and a frankness that afterwards startled me; “yet perhaps the ethereal spirit is not entirely extinct under all this corrupted or frozen mass of earthly life. Perhaps the immortal spark may yet be rekindled by a breath of heaven. Perhaps you may yet be permitted to die before it is too late to live eternally. You have my prayers for such a consummation. Farewell.”
“Your prayers will be in vain,” replied he, with a smile of cold triumph. “My destiny is linked with the realities of earth. You are welcome to your visions and shadows of a future state; but give me what I can see, and touch, and understand, and I ask no more.”
“It is indeed too late,” thought I. “The soul is dead within him.”
Struggling between pity and horror, I extended my hand, to which the virtuoso gave his own, still with the habitual courtesy of a man of the world, but without a single heart-throb of human brotherhood. The touch seemed like ice, yet I know not whether morally or physically. As I departed, he bade me observe that the inner door of the hall was constructed with the ivory leaves of the gateway through which Aeneas and the Sibyl had been dismissed from Hades.
First published in Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion (May 1842)
Collected in Mosses from an Old Manse (1842)
the donkey which Peter Bell cudgelled… A reference to Peter Bell by William Wordsworth. Peter comes across a donkey gazing into the river Swale. He tries to ride it away, beating it furiously, but the donkey refuses to leave its dead master, whose body is floating in the river. See the end of Part 1, starting at line 381, until Part 2, line 585. ↩
the message of peace and hope… In the biblical flood narrative from Genesis, after the forty days of rain are over, Noah sends forth first a raven, then a dove, which return to the ark, having found nowhere to land. A week later Noah sends the dove out again. This time the dove returns with an olive branch, signifying that the waters are receding. Noah sends the dove out again; it doesn’t return, because it found a place to land. See Genesis Chapter 8, verses 6-12. ↩
the same that fed Elijah… In the Old Testament First Book of Kings, after the prophet Elijah confronts the evil King Ahab, the Lord tells Elijah to flee Israel and hide by the brook Cherith, where he is fed by ravens. See I Kings Chapter 17, verses 1-7. Note that while this is the most common version of the story, some scholars have argued that ravens is a mistranslation of a Hebrew word that can also be understood to mean Arabs. This reading matches a little better with the continuation of the story, when the brook dries up and Elijah is instead fed by a Phoenician widow (that is, a non-Hebrew human). ↩
the soul of King George I…. The story goes that after King George I died, a raven flew into the window of his long time mistress Melusine, the Duchess of Kendal. She believed the bird was George’s soul, and she kept the bird as a pet for the rest of her life. Read about Melusine (and the raven) here. ↩
…the soul of Pythagoras. Today we mostly know Pythagoras for his theorem on right triangles and his epiphany in the bathtub, but he was also notable for his ideas on metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. I don’t think anyone ever wrote that Pythagoras’ soul transmigrated to a peacock (or vice-versa). One can also find online several (unsubstantiated) claims about Pythagoras writing that Homer transmigrated to a peacock. I’m not sure that’s true, either. The source of both these stories seems to be this passage from the first century AD philosopher Cornutus. See also [Skutch, 1959] (JSTOR link). ↩
Dr. Franklin’s cap of asbestos… I couldn’t find an asbestos cap, but I did find an asbestos purse and a lot of references to the “coonskin cap” that Benjamin Franklin wore in France to play up the French stereotype of Americans as frontiersmen. ↩
Cornelius Agrippa’s magic glass… Cornelius Agrippa was a scholar, proto-feminist, theologian, and occultist best known in occult circles for his work De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy, 1531-1533). There is no historical evidence that he was a necromancer or an adherent of “the black arts.” However, there were legends. At least one of the stories of his magic glass can be traced to Thomas Nashe’s The Adventures of Jack Wilton (1593). See William Godwin’s 1834 Lives of the Necromancers, page 196, for three magic glass anecdotes. ↩
the iron mask… I was originally going to just link to the fictional work by Alexandre Dumas, but then I discovered there was a historical Man in the Iron Mask, though the mask was actually black velvet. His identity is unknown to this day. ↩
the spinning-wheel of Sardanapalus… Sardanapalus was a probably apochryphal king of Assyria. The Greek historian Diodorus wrote that Sardanapalus painted his face and dressed in women’s clothes, and often spent the day spinning “fine wool and purple” with his concubines. See this edition of The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, Vol 1, page 119. ↩
King Stephen’s famous breeches… A reference to a verse in the Irish folk song “The Old Cloak” which is quoted by Iago in Othello, Act II, Scene 3, 87-94 (starting line 1220 in the linked version). If the verse refers to an actual anecdote about the historical King Stephen, I doubt any one remembers anymore. ↩
The heart of the Bloody Mary… Queen Mary I of England, first female regent of England and half-sister of her successor, Queen Elizabeth I. Called “Bloody Mary” by her enemies for her persecution of Protestants. Not to be confused with Mary Queen of Scots, also Catholic and an enemy of Elizabeth (I always conflate the two). Mary I is quoted as saying “When I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Calais’ lying in my heart,” referring to England’s loss of Calais to French forces in 1558. Obviously Hawthorne (the descendant of Puritans) didn’t think much of “Bloody Mary” either, though I have to say Puritan hands were pretty bloody, too, both in Britain and New England. ↩
Gustavus Adolphus… King of Sweden from 1611 to 1632, credited with transforming Sweden into a great military power. To quote his Wikipedia entry, “After his death, Gustavus’s wife initially kept his body, and later his heart, in the castle of Nyköping for over a year. His remains (including his heart) are now at Riddarholm Church in Stockholm.” ↩
Major Pitcairn’s pistol… John Pitcairn was the officer in charge of the British troops at what became known as the Battle of Lexington. I’m not aware of (and couldn’t find) any explicit tradition that he fired the first shot that set off the skirmish, but his lack of control over his troops probably contributed to the start of the violence. ↩
bow of Ulysses… In the Odyssey, Ulysses returns home in disguise after twenty years and discovers his home taken over by several men, all demanding that his wife Penelope marry one of them. Penelope fends off the suitors by saying she will only marry a man who can string her husband’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (there were holes in each axe head, where the head was attached to the handle). None of the competitors could even bend the bow to string it. Finally Ulysses (still in disguise as a beggar) strings the bow, shoots the arrow throguh the axe heads, throws off his disguise, and slays all the suitors. ↩
golden thigh of Pythagoras… The early 4th century Life of Pythagoras, by the philosopher Iamblicus, relates how Abaris, a Hyperborean priest of Apollo, presents Pythagoras with a sacred golden dart, because he believed Pythagoras to be Apollo. In return, Pythagoras shows Abaris his golden thigh, as a sign of Pythagoras’ divine nature. See Iamblicus’ Life of Pythagoras, translated by Thomas Taylor (1918), p 49. ↩
Thomas the Rhymer… Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, better known as Thomas the Rhymer, was a thirteenth century Scottish laird and poet with a reputation for prophesy. The ballad “Thomas Rhymer” tells how the Queen of Elfland carried Thomas to her domain, where he received the gift of prophesy. In one version of the ballad (Version A of the three versions collected by Francis James Child), the Queen gifts Thomas with “a pair of shoes of velvet green” before sending him home. ↩
Circe’s magic bowl… The best known story about Circe is from the Odyssey, when she turns Ulysses’ crew into swine. I assume “the magic bowl” refers to the vessel of enchanted wine that she handed to Ulysses when she tried (and failed) to play the same trick on him. Hawthorne retold the story as “Circe’s Palace” in his children’s book, Tanglewood Tales (1854). ↩
Dr. Parr’s [pipe]… In his time, the reputation of writer and schoolmaster Samuel Parr (1747-1825) was comparable to Samuel Johnson’s. His fondness for tobacco seems to have been a big part of his image. ↩
Niobe… Niobe offended the goddess Leto by boasting of her fourteen children, compared to Leto’s mere two (the twins Apollo and Artemis). In revenge, Apollo and Artemis murder all but one of Niobe’s children, along with her husband (in some versions; in others, he commits suicide). Niobe grieved so much at this that Zeus turned her into stone–the real life Weeping Rock on Mount Sipylus. But even as stone, Niobe’s grief was so great that she continues to weep. Here’s a version of the story, from Myths and Legends of All Nations (1914), translated from the German of Gustav Schwab by Logan Marshall. ↩
Lot’s Wife… In Genesis Chapter 19, Lot protects two foreigners from being assaulted by the people of Sodom. The two strangers were actually angels sent by God to test the goodness of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. Spoiler: the cities failed. The angels send Lot and his family out of the city before God destroys it, telling them not to look back. But Lot’s wife looks back, and turns into a pillar of salt (verse 26). ↩
Egyptian darkness… This doesn’t seem to be a direct literary or historical reference. One hypothesis is that Hawthorne recruited items for “A Virtuoso’s Collection” from his friends, and that Hawthorne’s future wife, Sophia Peabody, suggested the phrase. [George Lathrop, Introduction to The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1897), page 9]. Another possibility is that Hawthorne saw the phrase “Egyptian darkness” in the account of the trial of Lady Frances, Countess of Somerset for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in Cobbett’s Complete State Trials (vol. 2, p. 961; better link at Hathi Trust). Alfred Reid suggested that the Overbury murder was an inspiration for The Scarlet Letter, and points out that Hawthorne was fond of browsing the State Trials. [The Sources of The Scarlet Letter, PhD Dissertation, 1952. See page 31.] Blacking is a black dye used for shoe polish, or for polishing iron grates. ↩
the Splendid Shilling… The Splendid Shilling is a burlesque of Miltonic blank verse by eighteenth-century English poet John Philips (1676-1709; one “L”), not the nineteenth-century Canadian poet John Arthur Phillips (1842-1907) or the nineteenth-century British geologist John Arthur Phillips (1822-1887). Many online poetry archives misattribute The Splendid Shilling to John Arthur Phillips. ↩
Christian’s burden of sin… Pilgrim’s Progress is a 17th century Christian allegory by the Puritan John Bunyan, considered by some to be the first novel written in English. From the first paragraph: “I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.” The man is named Christian, the burden is the Burden of Sin, and the book is the Bible. The first part of the novel details Christian’s journey from his hometown, “City of Destruction,” to “Celestial City.” ↩
Caesar’s mantle… The mantle Caesar wore when Brutus stabbed him. Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2, starting line 1715. ↩
Joseph’s coat of many colors… In Genesis 37, Joseph is the favorite son of Isaac/Jacob. Joseph’s father gives Joseph a coat of many colors (verse 3). This gift, along with dreams that Joseph has of his family bowing down to him, make Joseph’s brothers jealous. They take revenge by throwing him down a pit (or a well, in some translations), and telling their father that Joseph died. (Spoiler: he didn’t.) ↩
Goldsmith’s peach-bloom suit… Another reference to Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith, probably based on a anecdote that James Boswell told about Goldsmith in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Boswell calls it a “bloom-coloured coat;” when James Prior references the anecdote in his 1837 Life of Oliver Goldsmith, he calls it a “peach-coloured coat.” ↩
President Jefferson’s scarlet breeches… Thomas Jefferson apparently liked red, usually red waistcoats; but see the quotes about red breeches from his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, from Isaac Granger Jefferson, and from George Tucker, here. ↩
John Randolph’s red baize hunting-shirt… John Randoph was a Congressman and Senator from Virginia and U.S. Minister to Russia under Andrew Jackson. The April 13, 1826 Boston Commercial Gazette reported that Randolph, at the time a Senator, arrived at the Senate chamber carrying a red flannel hunting shirt, and moved that the Senate adjourn for the day (Good Friday). He then donned the hunting shirt as the Senate considered his motion. [Hurst, Thomas Neal, “kind of armour, being peculiar to America” The American Hunting Shirt. Honors BA Thesis, College of William and Mary, 2013, pp 36-37.] ↩
Cumaean Sibyl… The priestess/prophetess of Apollo at Cumae, Greece. From Wikipedia: “Although she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years. She attained this longevity when Apollo offered to grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity; she took a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. Later, after she refused the god’s love, he allowed her body to wither away because she failed to ask for eternal youth. Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in a jar (ampulla). Eventually only her voice was left.” [Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XIV:101-153] ↩
the lamp of Diogenes… The greek philosopher Diogenes supposedly carried a lamp in the day, claiming to be searching for a human (as opposed to an unthinking beast). This is usually rendered as “searching for an honest man.” ↩
undying lamp from the tomb of Charlemagne… Charlemagne, of course, was the legendary Frankish king, and first ruler of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. I couldn’t find any legends of an undying lamp in his tomb. There is a beautiful corona lucis (a type of chandelier; literally, “crown of lights”) hanging over what at the time was (or was believed to be) Charlemagne’s resting place, in Aachen Cathedral. ↩
Sybil’s books… From Wikipedia: “The story of how King Tarquinius bought [the Sybilline Books] from the Cumaean Sibyl was a famous legend. She offered to sell Tarquin a collection of nine books of prophecy, but he refused the price, so she burnt three. After that she offered to sell the six remaining books for the same price. He refused again and she burnt another three. Finally he bought these three remaining books for this price so they would not be destroyed, and put them in the temple of Jupiter in Rome.” ↩
Trophonius… From theoi.com: “Trophonius was a man who was swallowed up by the earth and transformed into the oracular demigod or daimon (spirit) of a cave near the town of Lebadeia in Boiotia. His name means “Nourisher of the Mind” from the Greek tropheô [nourish, raise, bring up (as in ‘bring up a child’)] and noos.[mind, intellect]” Several myths about Trophonius are detailed here. ↩
Alexander’s copy of the Iliad… Reportedly, Alexander the Great “constantly laid Homer’s Iliad…with his dagger under his pillow, declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge.” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 8.2. Translator: John Evelyn the Younger as part of John Dryden’s Plutarch’s Lives by Several Hands) ↩
the jewelled casket of Darius… “Among the treasures and other booty that was taken from Darius, there was a very precious casket, which being brought to Alexander for a great rarity, he asked those about him what they thought fittest to be laid up in it; and when they had delivered their various opinions, he told them he should keep Homer’s Iliad in it.” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 26.2. Translator: John Evelyn the Younger as part of John Dryden’s Plutarch’s Lives by Several Hands) [Different translation, with section numbering] ↩
all those red and white roses… Refers to Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I Act II Scene IV, where various lords gather in the Temple-garden and pick red (Lancaster) or white (York) roses to designate the side they will take in the upcoming War of the Roses. ↩
Psyche’s vase of beauty… Psyche was a beautiful mortal woman who became Cupid’s wife, as told in the myth Cupid and Psyche. This myth belongs to the class of folktales of type 425 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther taxonomy (Search for the Lost Husband), with motifs of “losing spouse for breaking taboo,” and “winning back husband by accomplishing tasks.” One of Psyche’s tasks in her search for Cupid is to go down to the Underworld and bring back to Aphrodite a vase (or a box, in the linked version) of Persephone’s (Proserpine’s) beauty. No peeking! Of course, she peeks—shades of Pandora’s box. But not to worry, the tale has a happy ending. ↩
the girdle of Venus… Venus had a magic girdle (or cestus), made by her husband Hephaestus, that caused men (and gods) to fall passionately in love with the wearer. See here for classical references to the girdle of Venus/Aphrodite. ↩
Shenstone’s schoolmistress… A reference to “The School-Mistress, a Poem” by William Shenstone (1714-1763): “In ev’ry Mart that stands on Britain’s Isle, / In ev’ry Village less reveal’d to Fame, / Dwells there, in Cottage known about a Mile, / A Matron old, whom we School-Mistress name; / Who boasts unruly Brats with Birch to tame:” ↩
Countess of Salisbury’s garter… The Order of the Garter was founded by Edward III circa 1348. Supposedly Edward III founded the Order after the Countess of Salisbury‘s garter slipped during a court ball. Edward retrieved the garter, chastising the courtiers who laughed at the Countess’s embarassment. ↩
a roc’s egg… The roc is a legendary giant bird of prey from Middle Eastern mythology. In the fifth voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad’s crew finds a giant roc’s egg, which his passengers break open to eat the chick inside. The infuriated parent rocs then sink Sinbad’s ship by dropping boulders on it. ↩
celebrated painting of Parrhasius… “[Parrhasius], it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew [to them]. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis…haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake…he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.” [Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, Book XXXV, Chapter 36)] ↩
the famous cluster of grapes… See note above. ↩
the picture of the old woman… The story goes that an old woman commissioned a painting of Aphrodite from Zeuxis, but insisted on being the model for the goddess. Zeuxis is said to have died laughing at the resulting portrait. ↩
Apelles… Apelles was a 4th century BC painter, mostly known to us via Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (primarily Book XXXV, Chapter 36). Pliny claims that Alexander, by public edict, allowed only Apelles to paint his portrait (Plutarch makes the same claim about Lysippus). Pliny also writes of a pictorial contest where each artist painted a horse. The paintings were shown to actual horses, who only neighed when they saw the horse painted by Apelles. Apelles also began a painting of Venus for the people of Cos, but died before finishing it. ↩
the frigate Constitution… The USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides,” was launched in 1797 and is the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world still afloat. In 1834 Captain Jesse Elliot, commander of the Boston Navy Yard, had a figurehead of President Andrew Jackson installed on the bow, a controversial move given Jackson’s unpopularity in Boston at the time. Jackson’s head was sawed off and stolen by one Samuel Dewey, who eventually returned it to the Secretary of the Navy. ↩
the ivory leaves of the gateway… In the Aeneid, by Virgil, the hero Aeneas asks the Cumean Sibyl to guide him to the Underworld to speak with his father, Anchises. The Sibyl guides Aeneas both to and through Hades (as Virgil similarly guides Dante through Hell, in The Divine Comedy), where they eventually encounter Anchises, who answers his son’s questions, and foretells the founding of Rome. Afterwards, Anchises guides Aeneas and the Sibyl back out of the Underworld:
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass’d,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro’ the gate of iv’ry, he dismiss’d
His valiant offspring and divining guest.
— Aeneid, end of Book VI; Translated by John Dryden
Note that the virtuoso has only the ivory leaves of the gate, through which pass “deluding lies.”