PYGMALION AND THE IMAGE
(After William Morris)
BY F. STORR
In ancient times there lived in Cyprus a sculptor
named Pygmalion. He had won for himself fame
and wealth by his cunning as a worker in marble, and
his carven images of gods and goddesses, of heroes and
heroines, were to be seen in every temple of the island
and in all the palaces of the great. Many an island
maiden cast on him admiring eyes, and would beseech
him to immortalize her features in marble when he was
engaged in sculpturing a naiad for a public fountain,
or an oread for the shrine of the Great Huntress. Yet,
though rich and famous and admired of women,
Pygmalion was sad and dissatisfied. The nobles applauded
and feasted him, but regarded him as an artisan
of low birth and would not admit him to their friendship.
The fairest maidens of Crete seemed to him plain
and common when he compared them with the godlike
forms that his chisel had wrought, and, still more, with
the perfect woman whom his imagination pictured but
even his hand had not the skill to realize.
So it chanced one day that, after wandering listlessly
about the streets, watching the bales of Tyrian purple
piled on the quays, and listening to the chaffering of the
dark-eyed merchants, he hied him home heavy-hearted,
and turned mechanically for relief to the daily work by
which he earned his bread.
He had begun rough-hewing a block of Parian marble,
uncertain at starting what he should make of it;
but as he worked on, the veins in the marble suggested
to him a woman's form, and in careless mood he exclaimed,
"Grant, Lady Venus, that this statue may be
a fulfilment of my dream, an express image, a reflection
on earth of thy celestial beauty. Only grant my
prayer and I vow that the maid shall be dedicated to
thee, and serve thee in thy myrtle grove." So he prayed
carelessly, but the goddess was by and heard his prayer,
and so guided his hand that he wrought more surely and
deftly than he had ever wrought before. As the white
chips flew beneath his touch, a strange joy thrilled his
heart, and withal, a dim sense of trouble, as though he
were pursuing his own shadow, a phantom of his brain
that still eluded his grasp.
So he worked on hour after hour through the day, and
all night he dreamt of his work. So absorbed was he
that for a whole month he forgot his morning plunge in
the river, forgot his stroll through the woods at sunset,
forgot even to water the flowers in his garden close.
And yet, so exquisitely delicate were the added touches
and the smoothing of the marble, that you could have
covered with a penny-piece all that had fallen in the
month from his chisel.
And still he seemed no nearer to his goal; so one
morning, after a restless night, he arose and said to himself,
"Pygmalion, thou art mad; some witch hath laid
her spell upon thee. Rouse thyself while it is yet time;
break the wicked spell; live as thou didst before, and
seek not to attain that perfect beauty that is laid up in
the heavens beyond mortal ken."
With that he took his bow and quiver, passed through
the town and out of the gates to the high woodlands beyond,
to see if he had quite forgotten his old woodcraft.
It was a fine summer morning, and the scent of the
fields was wafted to him on the west wind. All around
him as he passed was astir with life. The tall poplars
rippled and quivered in the sunlight; the bees were busy
in the clover; the swallows darted overhead, and the
swish of the mower's scythe kept time with him as he
At last he sat him down fordone. "The sun," he
mused, "like me, has already passed his zenith and is
hurrying to his rest. All nature is stirring, and each
living thing is pursuing the daily round, its appointed
task. Why am I alone a dreamer of dreams, the idler
of an empty day?"
With that he turned, and, goaded on by a wild desire,
he knew not for what, found himself before he was
aware at his own door.
One moment he lingered at the threshold and said,
"Ah! what should I do if she were gone?" As he uttered
the words he turned red at his own madness to
dream that the goddess might have wrought a miracle
and spirited her away to the myrtle grove, and yet again
he turned deadly pale at the very thought of such a
marvel. So, sighing, he passed into the house, but paused
again before he summoned courage to enter his chamber
where the statue stood.
Nothing was changed. He caught up his chisel and
tenderly essayed to perfect the marvel of the face that
he had wrought. But to touch it now seemed to him a
profanation, and flinging down the idle chisel he cried,
"Alas! why have I made thee that thou should'st mock
me thus? I know that there are many like unto thee,
whose beauty is a snare to draw men into the net; but
these the gods made to punish lust. Thee I made with
a pure heart to worship and adore, and thou wilt not
speak one little word to me."
So saying, he drew back and gazed on the image
through his tears. In truth it was of wondrous beauty,
and could you have seen it, you would have said that
it lacked little to be a living maid. Her unbound hair
half hid the tender curve of her breast; one hand was
outstretched as if to greet a lover, and the other held
a full-blown rose. There was no smile on the parted
lips, and in the wistful eyes there was a look, not of
love, but as of one to whom love's mystery and magic
were already half revealed.
Thus he stood agaze, ashamed of his infatuate folly,
yet with an infinite longing, stronger and stranger than
he had ever felt before.
There happened to be passing in the street some sturdy
slaves who were bearing bales to the wharf. He hailed
them and offered them a rich reward if they would
help him to move the ponderous statue and set it in
an empty niche beside his bed. When they had departed
he searched his coffers to find gems and jewels wherewith
to deck his lady of marble, but those he possessed
seemed all too poor; so he took with him all his store
of gold and bought from the merchants a necklace of
pearls, and anklets and bracelets set with rare and
precious stones. These he hung upon the cold marble
and cast him down like a pilgrim at a shrine, praying
his saint to accept his poor offering. So he prayed on
till, outworn with passion, he slept at her feet. With
the first dawn he awoke and passed into his garden to
pick fresh flowers to lay upon her shrine. Then he
brought an altar that he had wrought of chased gold
for a great lord's hearth, and lit thereon a fire of cedar
and sandal-wood, and, as the smoke of cassia and frankincense
arose, he prayed and said, "Thou cold and mute
image, not till I die shall I know whether the gods have
sent a lying spirit to make me their sport, but this I
know, that in life I shall love none but thee alone.
Therefore, if thou canst not give me love for love, in
pity take my life and let me rest at last."
Thus he prayed, and the image neither spake nor
moved, but the sweet grave eyes his hands had wrought
gazed down, as if touched with ruth and tenderness, on
his bended head. So all day he worshiped at the shrine;
but on the morrow, as the incense-smoke was curling
round her head, he heard in the street the sound of
minstrelsy, and as if fascinated by the sweet music, he
left his prayer half said and went forth and beheld a
gay train of men and maidens who bore on a car of gold
an image of the Queen of Love that he himself had
wrought in the old forgotten days, now draped for her
solemn festival in a saffron robe broidered with mystic
characters of gold.
So he donned a festal chlamys and joined the glad
procession, who led the goddess back to her temple,
stripped her reverently of her weeds, and laid at her shrine
their offerings of golden grain and honeycomb. By midday
the crowd of worshipers had all departed, and he
was left alone in the dim-lit temple. He drew near the
shrine where stood his masterpiece—how feeble and
faulty now it seemed—and casting incense on the altar
flame, he prayed with stammering lips to his goddess:
"Queen of Heaven, who didst help me of yore, help
me yet again. Have I not prayed, have I not wept, have
I not done thee true service? I have no words to tell
thee my need, but thou knowest all my heart's desire.
Hear me, O Queen!"
And, as he prayed, suddenly the thin flame on the
altar quivered like a live thing, and leapt up till it almost
touched the temple dome, sinking once more into
a feeble flicker.
At this marvel his heart bounded wildly; but as the
flame died down he said to himself, "Is not this another
brain-sick phantom?" and with sad steps and slow he
left the temple to seek his loveless home.
As he stood before the door in the broad light of day
he seemed like one awaking from a dream, yet the bliss
it had brought still lingered on, like the after-glow on an
Alpine height, and he blessed the goddess even for his
dream. So he entered his chamber, wrapped in memories
both sad and sweet, and paused with downcast eyes before
they sought again his marble maid. Then he looked
up, and lo, the niche was bare! and he cried aloud, bewildered
and amazed. A soft, low voice breathed his name.
He turned, and there between him and the setting sun
stood his marble maid, clad in life and new beauty. The
lineaments were the same—the brow, the lips, the tresses
unconfined; but she came appareled in a more precious
habit, for over all the goddess had shed the purple light
of love, and had clothed her in the shining garment that
he had seen that morning laid up in her temple.
Speechless he stood in wonder and amazement, and
once again her silver voice rang out clear:
"Wilt thou not come to me,
O dear companion of my new-found life,
For I am called thy lover and thy wife."
Still he moved not, and spake no word. Then she
reached her hand to him, and looked at him with pleading
eyes. The spell that bound him was broken; he
caught the outstretched hands and drew her to him, felt
the sweet breath he had sought so long in vain, felt the
warm life within her heaving breast, and clasped in his
arms his living love.
And, as they stood there, cheek touching cheek, he
heard her say, "Why art thou silent, O my love? Dost
think, perchance, that this too is a dream? Nay, if thou
lov'st me still, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.
Come with me into thy garden close, and there will I
tell thee all the comfortable words that the Queen of
Love spoke to me, and thou shalt tell me all thy hopes
and fears, thy yearning for a beauty not of earth, thy
sleepless nights, and all thy pain."
So they passed into the garden close, and there beneath
the whispering trees, by the soft moonlight, those
happy lovers told each other the story of their love.
What were the words they said I cannot tell again. This
happened long ago, when the world was young, and they
spoke in a tongue that few if any now can understand.
Yet a poet of our own age has understood and translated
for us the last word that the Queen of Heavenly Love
spoke to her servant Pygmalion:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."