The Marble Faun Volume 1 (Chapter 13)

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Chapter 13

About this period, Miriam seems to have been goaded by a weary
restlessness that drove her abroad on any errand or none. She went one
morning to visit Kenyon in his studio, whither he had invited her to
see a new statue, on which he had staked many hopes, and which was now
almost completed in the clay. Next to Hilda, the person for whom
Miriam felt most affection and confidence was Kenyon; and in all the
difficulties that beset her life, it was her impulse to draw near Hilda
for feminine sympathy, and the sculptor for brotherly counsel.

Yet it was to little purpose that she approached the edge of the
voiceless gulf between herself and them. Standing on the utmost verge of
that dark chasm, she might stretch out her hand, and never clasp a hand
of theirs; she might strive to call out, "Help, friends! help!" but, as
with dreamers when they shout, her voice would perish inaudibly in
the remoteness that seemed such a little way. This perception of an
infinite, shivering solitude, amid which we cannot come close enough to
human beings to be warmed by them, and where they turn to cold, chilly
shapes of mist, is one of the most forlorn results of any accident,
misfortune, crime, or peculiarity of character, that puts an individual
ajar with the world. Very often, as in Miriam's case, there is an
insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate
communion, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart,
which finds only shadows to feed upon.

Kenyon's studio was in a cross-street, or, rather, an ugly and dirty
little lane, between the Corso and the Via della Ripetta; and though
chill, narrow, gloomy, and bordered with tall and shabby structures,
the lane was not a whit more disagreeable than nine tenths of the Roman
streets. Over the door of one of the houses was a marble tablet, bearing
an inscription, to the purport that the sculpture-rooms within had
formerly been occupied by the illustrious artist Canova. In these
precincts (which Canova's genius was not quite of a character to render
sacred, though it certainly made them interesting) the young American
sculptor had now established himself.

The studio of a sculptor is generally but a rough and dreary-looking
place, with a good deal the aspect, indeed, of a stone-mason's workshop.
Bare floors of brick or plank, and plastered walls,--an old chair
or two, or perhaps only a block of marble (containing, however, the
possibility of ideal grace within it) to sit down upon; some hastily
scrawled sketches of nude figures on the whitewash of the wall. These
last are probably the sculptor's earliest glimpses of ideas that may
hereafter be solidified into imperishable stone, or perhaps may remain
as impalpable as a dream. Next there are a few very roughly modelled
little figures in clay or plaster, exhibiting the second stage of the
idea as it advances towards a marble immortality; and then is seen the
exquisitely designed shape of clay, more interesting than even the
final marble, as being the intimate production of the sculptor himself,
moulded throughout with his loving hands, and nearest to his imagination
and heart. In the plaster-cast, from this clay model, the beauty of
the statue strangely disappears, to shine forth again with pure white
radiance, in the precious marble of Carrara. Works in all these stages
of advancement, and some with the final touch upon them, might be found
in Kenyon's studio.

Here might be witnessed the process of actually chiselling the marble,
with which (as it is not quite satisfactory to think) a sculptor in
these days has very little to do. In Italy, there is a class of men
whose merely mechanical skill is perhaps more exquisite than was
possessed by the ancient artificers, who wrought out the designs of
Praxiteles; or, very possibly, by Praxiteles himself. Whatever of
illusive representation can be effected in marble, they are capable of
achieving, if the object be before their eyes. The sculptor has but to
present these men with a plaster-cast of his design, and a sufficient
block of marble, and tell them that the figure is imbedded in the stone,
and must be freed from its encumbering superfluities; and, in due time,
without the necessity of his touching the work with his own finger,
he will see before him the statue that is to make him renowned. His
creative power has wrought it with a word.

In no other art, surely, does genius find such effective instruments,
and so happily relieve itself of the drudgery, of actual performance;
doing wonderfully nice things by the hands of other people, when it may
be suspected they could not always be done by the sculptor's own. And
how much of the admiration which our artists get for their buttons
and buttonholes, their shoe-ties, their neckcloths,--and these, at our
present epoch of taste, make a large share of the renown,--would be
abated, if we were generally aware that the sculptor can claim no credit
for such pretty performances, as immortalized in marble! They are not
his work, but that of some nameless machine in human shape.

Miriam stopped an instant in an antechamber, to look at a half-finished
bust, the features of which seemed to be struggling out of the stone;
and, as it were, scattering and dissolving its hard substance by the
glow of feeling and intelligence. As the skilful workman gave stroke
after stroke of the chisel with apparent carelessness, but sure effect,
it was impossible not to think that the outer marble was merely an
extraneous environment; the human countenance within its embrace must
have existed there since the limestone ledges of Carrara were first
made. Another bust was nearly completed, though still one of Kenyon's
most trustworthy assistants was at work, giving delicate touches,
shaving off an impalpable something, and leaving little heaps of marble
dust to attest it.

"As these busts in the block of marble," thought Miriam, "so does our
individual fate exist in the limestone of time. We fancy that we carve
it out; but its ultimate shape is prior to all our action."

Kenyon was in the inner room, but, hearing a step in the antechamber, he
threw a veil over what he was at work upon, and came out to receive his
visitor. He was dressed in a gray blouse, with a little cap on the top
of his head; a costume which became him better than the formal garments
which he wore whenever he passed out of his own domains. The sculptor
had a face which, when time had done a little more for it, would offer a
worthy subject for as good an artist as himself: features finely cut, as
if already marble; an ideal forehead, deeply set eyes, and a mouth much
hidden in a light-brown beard, but apparently sensitive and delicate.

"I will not offer you my hand," said he; "it is grimy with Cleopatra's

"No; I will not touch clay; it is earthy and human," answered Miriam.
"I have come to try whether there is any calm and coolness among
your marbles. My own art is too nervous, too passionate, too full of
agitation, for me to work at it whole days together, without intervals
of repose. So, what have you to show me?"

"Pray look at everything here," said Kenyon. "I love to have painters
see my work. Their judgment is unprejudiced, and more valuable than that
of the world generally, from the light which their own art throws on
mine. More valuable, too, than that of my brother sculptors, who never
judge me fairly,--nor I them, perhaps."

To gratify him, Miriam looked round at the specimens in marble or
plaster, of which there were several in the room, comprising originals
or casts of most of the designs that Kenyon had thus far produced. He
was still too young to have accumulated a large gallery of such things.
What he had to show were chiefly the attempts and experiments, in
various directions, of a beginner in art, acting as a stern tutor to
himself, and profiting more by his failures than by any successes of
which he was yet capable. Some of them, however, had great merit; and
in the pure, fine glow of the new marble, it may be, they dazzled the
judgment into awarding them higher praise than they deserved. Miriam
admired the statue of a beautiful youth, a pearlfisher; who had got
entangled in the weeds at the bottom of the sea, and lay dead among the
pearl-oysters, the rich shells, and the seaweeds, all of like value to
him now.

"The poor young man has perished among the prizes that he sought,"
remarked she. "But what a strange efficacy there is in death! If we
cannot all win pearls, it causes an empty shell to satisfy us just as
well. I like this statue, though it is too cold and stern in its moral
lesson; and, physically, the form has not settled itself into sufficient

In another style, there was a grand, calm head of Milton, not copied
from any one bust or picture, yet more authentic than any of them,
because all known representations of the poet had been profoundly
studied, and solved in the artist's mind. The bust over the tomb in
Grey Friars Church, the original miniatures and pictures, wherever to
be found, had mingled each its special truth in this one work; wherein,
likewise, by long perusal and deep love of the Paradise Lost, the Comus,
the Lycidas, and L'Allegro, the sculptor had succeeded, even better than
he knew, in spiritualizing his marble with the poet's mighty genius. And
this was a great thing to have achieved, such a length of time after the
dry bones and dust of Milton were like those of any other dead man.

There were also several portrait-busts, comprising those of two or three
of the illustrious men of our own country, whom Kenyon, before he left
America, had asked permission to model. He had done so, because he
sincerely believed that, whether he wrought the busts in marble or
bronze, the one would corrode and the other crumble in the long lapse
of time, beneath these great men's immortality. Possibly, however, the
young artist may have underestimated the durability of his material.
Other faces there were, too, of men who (if the brevity of their
remembrance, after death, can be augured from their little value in
life) should have been represented in snow rather than marble. Posterity
will be puzzled what to do with busts like these, the concretions and
petrifactions of a vain self-estimate; but will find, no doubt, that they
serve to build into stone walls, or burn into quicklime, as well as if
the marble had never been blocked into the guise of human heads.

But it is an awful thing, indeed, this endless endurance, this almost
indestructibility, of a marble bust! Whether in our own case, or that of
other men, it bids us sadly measure the little, little time during which
our lineaments are likely to be of interest to any human being. It
is especially singular that Americans should care about perpetuating
themselves in this mode. The brief duration of our families, as
a hereditary household, renders it next to a certainty that the
great-grandchildren will not know their father's grandfather, and that
half a century hence at furthest, the hammer of the auctioneer will
thump its knock-down blow against his blockhead, sold at so much for the
pound of stone! And it ought to make us shiver, the idea of leaving
our features to be a dusty-white ghost among strangers of another
generation, who will take our nose between their thumb and fingers (as
we have seen men do by Caesar's), and infallibly break it off if they
can do so without detection!

"Yes," said Miriam, who had been revolving some such thoughts as the
above, "it is a good state of mind for mortal man, when he is content to
leave no more definite memorial than the grass, which will sprout kindly
and speedily over his grave, if we do not make the spot barren with
marble. Methinks, too, it will be a fresher and better world, when it
flings off this great burden of stony memories, which the ages have
deemed it a piety to heap upon its back."

"What you say," remarked Kenyon, "goes against my whole art. Sculpture,
and the delight which men naturally take in it, appear to me a proof
that it is good to work with all time before our view."

"Well, well," answered Miriam, "I must not quarrel with you for flinging
your heavy stones at poor Posterity; and, to say the truth, I think you
are as likely to hit the mark as anybody. These busts, now, much as I
seem to scorn them, make me feel as if you were a magician.. You turn
feverish men into cool, quiet marble. What a blessed change for them!
Would you could do as much for me!"

"O, gladly!" cried Kenyon, who had long wished to model that beautiful
and most expressive face. "When will you begin to sit?"

"Poh! that was not what I meant," said Miriam. "Come, show me something

"Do you recognize this?" asked the sculptor.

He took out of his desk a little old-fashioned ivory coffer, yellow
with age; it was richly carved with antique figures and foliage; and had
Kenyon thought fit to say that Benvenuto Cellini wrought this precious
box, the skill and elaborate fancy of the work would by no means have
discredited his word, nor the old artist's fame. At least, it was
evidently a production of Benvenuto's school and century, and might
once have been the jewel-case of some grand lady at the court of the De'

Lifting the lid, however, no blaze of diamonds was disclosed, but
only, lapped in fleecy cotton, a small, beautifully shaped hand, most
delicately sculptured in marble. Such loving care and nicest art had
been lavished here, that the palm really seemed to have a tenderness
in its very substance. Touching those lovely fingers,--had the jealous
sculptor allowed you to touch,--you could hardly believe that a virgin
warmth would not steal from them into your heart.

"Ah, this is very beautiful!" exclaimed Miriam, with a genial smile.
"It is as good in its way as Loulie's hand with its baby-dimples, which
Powers showed me at Florence, evidently valuing it as much as if he
had wrought it out of a piece of his great heart. As good as Harriet
Hosmer's clasped hands of Browning and his wife, symbolizing the
individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives! Nay, I do not
question that it is better than either of those, because you must
have wrought it passionately, in spite of its maiden palm and dainty

"Then you do recognize it?" asked Kenyon.

"There is but one right hand on earth that could have supplied
the model," answered Miriam; "so small and slender, so perfectly
symmetrical, and yet with a character of delicate energy. I have watched
it a hundred times at its work; but I did not dream that you had won
Hilda so far! How have you persuaded that shy maiden to let you take her
hand in marble?"

"Never! She never knew it!" hastily replied Kenyon, anxious to vindicate
his mistress's maidenly reserve. "I stole it from her. The hand is a
reminiscence. After gazing at it so often, and even holding it once for
an instant, when Hilda was not thinking of me, I should be a bungler
indeed, if I could not now reproduce it to something like the life."

"May you win the original one day!" said Miriam kindly.

"I have little ground to hope it," answered the sculptor despondingly;
"Hilda does not dwell in our mortal atmosphere; and gentle and soft as
she appears, it will be as difficult to win her heart as to entice down
a white bird from its sunny freedom in the sky. It is strange, with all
her delicacy and fragility, the impression she makes of being utterly
sufficient to herself. No; I shall never win her. She is abundantly
capable of sympathy, and delights to receive it, but she has no need of

"I partly agree with you," said Miriam. "It is a mistaken idea, which
men generally entertain, that nature has made women especially prone to
throw their whole being into what is technically called love. We have,
to say the least, no more necessity for it than yourselves; only we have
nothing else to do with our hearts. When women have other objects
in life, they are not apt to fall in love. I can think of many women
distinguished in art, literature, and science,--and multitudes whose
hearts and minds find good employment in less ostentatious ways,--who
lead high, lonely lives, and are conscious of no sacrifice so far as
your sex is concerned."

"And Hilda will be one of these!" said Kenyon sadly; "the thought makes
me shiver for myself, and and for her, too."

"Well," said Miriam, smiling, "perhaps she may sprain the delicate wrist
which you have sculptured to such perfection. In that case you may hope.
These old masters to whom she has vowed herself, and whom her slender
hand and woman's heart serve so faithfully, are your only rivals."

The sculptor sighed as he put away the treasure of Hilda's marble hand
into the ivory coffer, and thought how slight was the possibility
that he should ever feel responsive to his own the tender clasp of the
original. He dared not even kiss the image that he himself had made: it
had assumed its share of Hilda's remote and shy divinity.

"And now," said Miriam, "show me the new statue which you asked me
hither to see."

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