What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass across them, they sound like beautiful music.

His fate resembles that of the unhappy men who were slowly roasted over a gentle fire by the tyrant Phalaris—their screams reaching his ears did not terrify him; they sounded like sweet music.

People flock around the poet, saying, “do sing again.” By which they mean, “would that new sufferings torment your soul, would that your lips remain as skilled as before, would that your cries reach our ears. Your music is delightful.” And the critics support them, saying, “Well done, and so must it be according to the laws of aesthetics.”

A critic resembles a poet, as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips. I would rather be a swineherd on the isle of Amager and be understood by swine than be a poet, misunderstood by men.

Aside from my numerous acquaintances, I have yet one very intimate friend—my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I ever had—no wonder I return the love!

Of all ridiculous things, the most ridiculous is to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work. And so, whenever I see a fly settling, in the decisive moment, on the nose of such a person of affairs; or if he is spattered with mud from a carriage which drives past him in still greater haste; or the drawbridge opens up before him, or a tile falls down and knocks him dead, then I laugh heartily.

And who, indeed, could help laughing?

What do these busy folks achieve? Are they not like the woman in the house on fire who, in her confusion, carried out the fire-tongs? What things of greater account, do you suppose, they will rescue from life’s great conflagration?

Let others complain that the times are wicked. I complain that they are paltry, for they are without passion. The thoughts of men are thin and frail like lace, and they themselves are feeble, like young female lace-makers. The desires of their hearts are too puny to be sinful.

It might, for a worm, be a sin to harbor such thoughts, but not for a man who is formed in the image of God. Their lusts are staid and sluggish, their passions sleepy. They do their duty, these sordid minds. Nevertheless, they permit themselves, as did the money-changers, to trim the coins just a little, thinking that even if our Lord keeps tabs on them, with care, they can safely fool him.

Fye upon them! My soul returns again and again to the Old Testament and Shakespeare. There, at least, one feels that one is dealing with men and women; there one hates and loves, there one murders one’s enemy and curses his issue through all generations—there one sins.

According to the legend, Parmeniscus lost his ability to laugh in the Trophonian cave. He recovered it again on the island of Delos at the sight of a shapeless block, which was exhibited as the image of the goddess Leto. The same occurred to me. When I was very young, in some Trophonian cave, I forgot how to laugh. But when I grew older and opened my eyes and contemplated the real world, I had to laugh and have not ceased laughing ever since.

I beheld that the meaning of life was to make a living; its goal, to become Chief Justice; that the delights of love consisted in marrying a woman with ample means; that it was the blessedness of friendship to help one another in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what most people supposed it to be; that it showed enthusiasm to make a speech, and it showed courage to risk being fined 10 dollars; that it was good manners to say “may it agree with you” after a repast; that it showed piety to partake of the communion once a year.

I saw that and laughed.

A strange thing happened to me in a dream. I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled. As a special dispensation, I was granted the favor to have one wish.

“Do you wish for youth,” said Mercury, “or for beauty, or power, or a long life, or do you wish for the most beautiful woman or any other of the many fine things we have in our treasure trove? Choose, but only one thing!”

For a moment, I was at a loss. Then I addressed the gods in this wise: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing—that I may always have laughter on my side.”

Not one god made answer, but all began to laugh.

From this, I concluded that my wish had been granted. I presumed that the gods knew how to express themselves eloquently, for it would surely have been inappropriate for them to answer gravely, “Your wish has been granted.”

~ Soren Kierkegaard