Andrea del Sarto was spoken of in Italy as the "faultless painter." Yet, like every great worker, he realized that he fell far short of his ideals and ambitions. He took that falling short, that failure, however, as evidence of life to come. So Browning makes him say:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
As a mother once sat by the cradle of her child, five spirits approached her and proffered her a gift for the child. The first said, "I am health, and whom I touch shall never know pain or sickness." The second said, "I am wealth, and whom I touch shall never know poverty or want." The third said, "I am fame, and whom I touch shall have immortal fame." The fourth said, "I am love, and whom I touch shall have a friend in life's darkest hour." But the fifth said, "Whom I touch shall be forever faithful to his dreams and his ideals." When the wise mother heard the fifth spirit, she laid hold upon his garment and besought him to touch her child.
But that is only a dream, a legend. There is no one, outside of ourselves, who can touch us and make us faithful to our dreams and our ideals. The only one who can do that is ourselves.
As in some old ruin you will come upon the fragments of a delicately traced capital or massive archway which proclaims the original beauty and splendor of what is now but a heap of rubbish, so in the life of the worst sinner or criminal, where now only sin and bestiality reign, you may discover the fragments of a different kind of man—a man who measured up to the best that you yourself know, a man who entertained hopes just as radiant as your own, who set before him aims just as high as your own, who hung high the golden shields of a pure and honest life and promised that he would reverence them to the end.
Brass for gold! That tells the story of the decline of Judah. It tells the story, too, of what so often happens in the kingdom of a man's life. One day the walls of the palace of his soul, like those of the House in the Wood, are hung with bright shields beaten out of the pure gold of honorable ambition and lofty principles. Then comes the struggle of life, the invasion of sordid motives, the temptations to ease and self-indulgence,
The hardening of the heart that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth.
The Danish theologian and philosopher Kierkegaard has a parable of a wild duck. With his mates this duck was flying in the springtime northward across Europe. On the flight he happened to come down in a barnyard in Denmark where there were tame ducks. He ate and enjoyed some of their corn, and stayed— first for an hour, and then for a day, and then for a week, and then for a month, and, finally, because he liked the good fare and the safety of the barnyard, stayed all summer. But one autumn day when his wild mates were winging their way southward again they passed over the barnyard, and their mate heard their cries. It stirred him with a strange thrill of joy and delight; and, flapping his wings, he rose in the air to join his old comrades in their flight to the land of summer.
But, alas, he found that his good fare had made him so soft and heavy that he could rise no higher than the eaves of the barn. So he sank back again to the barnyard, and said to himself, "Oh, well, my life is safe here and the fare is good." Every spring, and again every autumn, when the wild ducks flew over his barnyard and he heard their honking cry, his eye gleamed for a moment and he began to lift his wings and would fain have joined his mates. But at length the day came when the wild ducks flew over him and uttered their cry and he paid not the slightest attention to them.
What a parable that is of how the soul can forget its high ideals and standards and be content with lower things!
In one of the galleries of Paris there stands a notable statue. The sculptor, like so many great artists, was a very poor man, and lived and did his work in a garret. One night the beautiful statue was finished. The sculptor surveyed it in pride and affection for a time, and then lay down to sleep upon his bed. But that night a killing frost fell over Paris. The sculptor awoke in his chilly room and thought of the statue he had just finished—how the water would freeze in the pores and destroy the dream of his life. With that thought, without a moment's hesitation he got up from his bed; and, taking the bed clothes, he draped them carefully about the statue. In the morning the sculptor was dead, but the statue lives on. Some things must die if we are to be faithful to our standards and our ideals and keep our shields of gold.
Let each man think himself an act of God,
His mind a thought, his life a breath of God;
And let each try, by great thoughts and good deeds,
To show the most of Heaven he hath in him.—Philip James Bailey
The fact that his two pet bantam hens laid very small eggs troubled little Johnny. At last he was seized with an inspiration. Johnny's father, upon going to the fowl-run one morning, was surprised at seeing an ostrich egg tied to one of the beams, with this injunction chalked above it:
"Keep your eye on this and do your best."