DEEDS NOT WORDS
As he wrote—as he wrote his best, while the shafts of the spirit lightened in his brain—Heine would sometimes feel a mysterious figure standing behind him, muffled in a cloak, and holding, beneath the cloak, something that gleamed now and then like an executioner’s axe. For a long while he had not perceived that strange figure, when, on visiting Germany, after fourteen years’ exile in Paris, as he crossed the Cathedral Square in Cologne one moonlight night, he became aware that it was following him again. Turning impatiently, he asked who he was, why he followed him, and what he was hiding under his cloak. In reply, the figure, with ironic coolness, urged him not to get excited, nor to give way to eloquent exorcism:
“I am no antiquated ghost,” he continued. “I’m quite a practical person, always silent and calm. But I must tell you, the thoughts conceived in your soul—I carry them out, I bring them to pass.
“And though years may go by, I take
no rest until I transform
your thoughts into reality. You think; I act.
“You are the judge, I am the gaoler,
and, like an obedient
servant, I fulfil the sentence which you have ordained, even if
it is unjust.
“In Rome of ancient days they carried
an axe before the
Consul. You also have your Lictor, but the axe is carried
“I am your Lictor, and I walk perpetually
with bare executioner’s
axe behind you—I am the deed of your thought.”
No artist—no poet or writer, at all events—could enjoy a more consolatory vision. The powerlessness of the word is the burden of writers, and “Who hath believed our report?” cry all the prophets in successive lamentation. They so naturally suppose that, when truth and reason have spoken, truth and reason will prevail, but, as the years go by, they mournfully discover that nothing of the kind occurs. Man, they discover, does not live by truth and reason: he rather resents the intrusion of such quietly argumentative forms. When they have spoken, nothing whatever is yet accomplished, and the conflict has still to begin. The dog returns to his own vomit; the soul convicted of sin continues sinning, and he that was filthy is filthy still. Thence comes the despair of all the great masters of the word. The immovable world admires them, it praises their style, it forms aesthetic circles for their perusal, and dines in their honour when they are dead. But it goes on its way immovable, grinding the poor, enslaving the slave, admiring hideousness, adulating vulgarity for its wealth and insignificance for its pedigree. Grasping, pleasure-seeking, indifferent to reason, and enamoured of the lie, so it goes on, and the masters of the word might just as well have hushed their sweet or thunderous voices. For, though they speak with the tongue of men and angels, and have not action, what are they but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal?