What One Can Invent
By Hans Christian Andersen
There was once a young man who was studying
to be a poet. He wanted to become one by
Easter, to marry, and to live by poetry. To
write poems, he knew, was only 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,
everything had been written and told about.
' Happy people who were born thousands of
years ago ! ' said he. ' They could easily
become immortal ! Happy even, those who were
born hundreds of years ago, for then there
was still something to make a poem about ;
how the world is written out, and what can I
abt ut ? '
He worried about that till he became sick
and ill. Wretched man ! no doctor could help
him, but perhaps the wise woman could ! She
lived in the little house beside the field
gate, which she opened for those riding and
driving: she could open up more than the
gate, she was wiser than
the doctor, who drives in his own carriage
and pays taxes for his rank.
' I must go out to her ! ' said the young
man. The house she lived in was small and
neat, but dreary to behold ; there was
neither tree nor flower ; a bee-hive, which
was very useful, stood outside the door ;
there was a small potato patch, also very
useful ; and a ditch with sloe-bushes which
had flowered and now bore berries, which
draw the mouth together if one tastes them
before they have got frost.
That is a true picture of our unpoetic time,
I see here ! ' thought the young man, and it
was always a thought, a grain of gold, that
he found by the wise woman's door.
' Write it down ! ' said she. ' Crumbs are
also bread ! I know why you come here ; 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 olden times the
wise women were burned, and poets went about
with empty stomachs and holes in their
elbows. The time is good, it is the very
best ! but you have not the right outlook on
the thing. You have not sharpened your
hearing, and you do not say the Lord's
Prayer at night. There is quite a lot of all
kinds of things to write poems about and
tell of, if one can tell. You can glean it
from the plants and fruits of the earth,
draw it from the running and the still
waters, but you must understand it,
understand how to catch a sunbeam. Now try
my spectacles, put my ear-trumpet in your
ear, pray to our Father, and leave off
yourself ! '
The last thing was very difficult, more than
a wise woman ought to ask.
He got the spectacles and the ear-trumpet
and was placed in the middle of the
potato-patch ; she gave him a big potato in
his hand ; sounds came from it ; there came
a song with words, the story of the potato,
interesting an everyday story in ten parts ;
ten lines were enough. And what did the
potato sing ?
It sang about itself and its family ; the
coming of the potatoes to Europe, the
misjudgement they had experienced and
suffered, before they stood acknowledged as
a greater blessing than a lump of gold.
We were distributed by royal command from
the council-houses in all towns ;
notification of our great importance was
given, but people did not believe in it, and
did not even understand how to plant us. One
dug a hole and threw the whole of his bushel
of potatoes into it ; another stuck one
potato here, one there, in the earth and
expected that they would each shoot up a
from which one could shake potatoes. There
came growth, flowers, and watery fruit, but
it all withered away. No one thought of what
lay at the root, the blessing, the potatoes.
' Yes, we have experienced and suffered that
is to say, our ancestors, they and we, it is
all the same thing ! What a story ! '
'Yes, now that will do ! ' said the woman. 'Now
look at the sloe -bush ! '
' We have also,' said the sloe, ' near
relations in the home of the potatoes,
farther north than they grow. Northmen came
there from Norway ; they steered west
through fog and storms to an unknown land,
where, behind ice and snow, they found
plants and vegetables, bushes with
blue-black grapes the sloe -berries ; the
grapes were ripened by the frost, just as we
are. And the country was called " wineland
", " green-land ", " sloe-land " ! '
' That is quite a romantic story ! ' said
the young man.
' Yes. Now come with me ! ' said the wise
woman, and led him to the bee-hive. He
looked into it. What life and stir ! Bees
stood in all the passages and waved their
wings, so that there might be fresh draughts
of air in the whole factory : that was their
business. Now came from outside,
bees born with baskets on their legs ; they
brought pollendust, which was shaken out,
sorted and made into honey and wax. They
flew in and out. The queen-bee wanted to fly
too, but they must all go with her ; it was
not yet time for that : but still she wished
to fly ; so they bit the wings off
her Majesty, and so she had to remain.
' Now get up on the earth -bank ! ' said the
woman, ' Come and look out over the highway,
where people are to be seen ! '
' What a crowd it is ! ' said the young man.
' Story after story ! it whirls and whirls !
I get quite confused. I shall fall backwards
' No, go forward,' said the woman, ' go
right into the crowd, have an eye for it, an
ear for it, and a heart as well ! then you
will soon invent something ; but before you
go, I must have my spectacles and my
ear-trumpet,' and so saying she took them
Now I can't see the least thing ! ' said the
young man, now I hear nothing more ! '
you can't become a poet before Easter,' said
the wise woman.
But when, then ? he asked.
Neither by Easter, nor by Whitsuntide ! You
will not learn how to invent anything.'
What shall I do, then, to earn my bread by
poetry ? '
' You can join in the Shrove-Tuesday sports,
and knock the poets out of the barrel ! To
hit at their writings is as good as hitting
themselves. Only don't let yourself be
abashed ; strike boldly, and so you will get
dumplings with which you can feed both your
wife and yourself.'
' What one can invent ! ' said the young
man, and so he knocked down every other
poet, because he could not be a poet
We have it from the wise woman ; she knows
what one can invent.