There was once a young man who was studying to be a poet.
He wanted to become one by Easter, and to marry, and to live
by poetry. To write poems, he knew, only consists in being
able to invent something; but he could not invent anything. He
had been born too late- everything had been taken up before he
came into the world, and everything had been written and told
'Happy people who were born a thousand years ago!' said
he. 'It was an easy matter for them to become immortal. Happy
even was he who was born a hundred years ago, for then there
was still something about which a poem could be written. Now
the world is written out, and what can I write poetry about?'
Then he studied till he became ill and wretched, the
wretched man! No doctor could help him, but perhaps the wise
woman could. She lived in the little house by the wayside,
where the gate is that she opened for those who rode and
drove. But she could do more than unlock the gate. She was
wiser than the doctor who drives in his own carriage and pays
tax for his rank.
'I must go to her,' said the young man.
The house in which she dwelt was small and neat, but
dreary to behold, for there were no flowers near it- no trees.
By the door stood a bee-hive, which was very useful. There was
also a little potato-field, very useful, and an earth bank,
with sloe bushes upon it, which had done blossoming, and now
bore fruit, sloes, that draw one's mouth together if one
tastes them before the frost has touched them.
'That's a true picture of our poetryless time, that I see
before me now,' thought the young man; and that was at least a
thought, a grain of gold that he found by the door of the wise
'Write that down!' said she. 'Even crumbs are bread. I
know why you come hither. You cannot invent anything, and yet
you want to be a poet by Easter.'
'Everything has been written down,' said he. 'Our time is
not the old time.'
'No,' said the woman. 'In the old time wise women were
burnt, and poets went about with empty stomachs, and very much
out at elbows. The present time is good, it is the best of
times; but you have not the right way of looking at it. Your
ear is not sharpened to hear, and I fancy you do not say the
Lord's Prayer in the evening. There is plenty here to write
poems about, and to tell of, for any one who knows the way.
You can read it in the fruits of the earth, you can draw it
from the flowing and the standing water; but you must
understand how- you must understand how to catch a sunbeam.
Now just you try my spectacles on, and put my ear-trumpet to
your ear, and then pray to God, and leave off thinking of
The last was a very difficult thing to do- more than a
wise woman ought to ask.
He received the spectacles and the ear-trumpet, and was
posted in the middle of the potato-field. She put a great
potato into his hand. Sounds came from within it; there came a
song with words, the history of the potato, an every-day story
in ten parts, an interesting story. And ten lines were enough
to tell it in.
And what did the potato sing?
She sang of herself and of her family, of the arrival of
the potato in Europe, of the misrepresentation to which she
had been exposed before she was acknowledged, as she is now,
to be a greater treasure than a lump of gold.
'We were distributed, by the King's command, from the
council-houses through the various towns, and proclamation was
made of our great value; but no one believed in it, or even
understood how to plant us. One man dug a hole in the earth
and threw in his whole bushel of potatoes; another put one
potato here and another there in the ground, and expected that
each was to come up a perfect tree, from which he might shake
down potatoes. And they certainly grew, and produced flowers
and green watery fruit, but it all withered away. Nobody
thought of what was in the ground- the blessing- the potato.
Yes, we have endured and suffered, that is to say, our
forefathers have; they and we, it is all one.'
What a story it was!
'Well, and that will do,' said the woman. 'Now look at the
'We have also some near relations in the home of the
potatoes, but higher towards the north than they grew,' said
the Sloes. 'There were Northmen, from Norway, who steered
westward through mist and storm to an unknown land, where,
behind ice and snow, they found plants and green meadows, and
bushes with blue-black grapes- sloe bushes. The grapes were
ripened by the frost just as we are. And they called the land
'wine-land,' that is, 'Groenland,' or 'Sloeland.''
'That is quite a romantic story,' said the young man.
'Yes, certainly. But now come with me,' said the wise
woman, and she led him to the bee-hive.
He looked into it. What life and labor! There were bees
standing in all the passages, waving their wings, so that a
wholesome draught of air might blow through the great
manufactory; that was their business. Then there came in bees
from without, who had been born with little baskets on their
feet; they brought flower-dust, which was poured out, sorted,
and manufactured into honey and wax. They flew in and out. The
queen-bee wanted to fly out, but then all the other bees must
have gone with her. It was not yet the time for that, but
still she wanted to fly out; so the others bit off her
majesty's wings, and she had to stay where she was.
'Now get upon the earth bank,' said the wise woman. 'Come
and look out over the highway, where you can see the people.'
'What a crowd it is!' said the young man. 'One story after
another. It whirls and whirls! It's quite a confusion before
my eyes. I shall go out at the back.'
'No, go straight forward,' said the woman. 'Go straight
into the crowd of people; look at them in the right way. Have
an ear to hear and the right heart to feel, and you will soon
invent something. But, before you go away, you must give me my
spectacles and my ear-trumpet again.'
And so saying, she took both from him.
'Now I do not see the smallest thing,' said the young man,
'and now I don't hear anything more.'
'Why, then, you can't be a poet by Easter,' said the wise
'But, by what time can I be one?' asked he.
'Neither by Easter nor by Whitsuntide! You will not learn
how to invent anything.'
'What must I do to earn my bread by poetry?'
'You can do that before Shrove Tuesday. Hunt the poets!
Kill their writings and thus you will kill them. Don't be put
out of countenance. Strike at them boldly, and you'll have
carnival cake, on which you can support yourself and your wife
'What one can invent!' cried the young man. And so he hit
out boldly at every second poet, because he could not be a
We have it from the wise woman. She knows WHAT ONE CAN