Auntie Toothache

By Hans Christian Andersen

Where did we get this story? Would you like to know? We got it from the tub in which the waste paper is kept.

Many a good and rare old book has found its way to the butterman’s and the grocer’s, not to be read, but to be used as packing paper for starch and coffee, or to wrap up salted herrings, butter, and cheese. Manuscripts and letters also find their way to the tub.

We often throw into the waste-paper tub what ought not to go there.

I know a grocer’s assistant, the son of a butterman; he has risen from serving in the cellar to serving in the front shop, and is a well-read person, his reading consisting of the matter, printed and written, found on the paper he used for packing. He has an interesting collection; and in this are to be found many important official documents from the waste-paper baskets of several busy and absent-minded officials, a few confidential letters from one lady friend to another—bits of scandal which were to go no further, and were not to be mentioned by any one. He is a living salvage-institution for not an inconsiderable portion of our literature, and his collection covers a wide field; he has the run of his parents’ shop and that of his present master, and has there saved many a book, or leaves of a book, well worth reading more than once.

He has shown me his collection of printed and written matter from the waste-paper tub; the most valuable has come from the butterman’s. I noticed a couple of leaves from a large exercise book; the unusually clear and neat handwriting attracted my attention at once.

“That’s what the student wrote,” he said; “the student who lived opposite here and died about a month ago. One can see he must have suffered terribly from toothache. It is very interesting reading. This is only part of what he wrote; there was a whole book and more besides; my parents gave the student’s landlady half a pound of soft soap for it. This is all I have been able to save.”

I borrowed it, I read it, and now I give it to the world.

The title was:

Auntie Toothache
Illustration for Auntie Toothache by Hans Tegner

1.

Aunty used to give me sweets when I was a little boy. My teeth did not suffer; they were not injured; now I am older, and I am a student; still she goes on spoiling me with sweets, and says I am a poet.

I have something of the poet in me, but not enough. Often when I go about the streets, it seems to me as if I am walking in a big library; the houses are the bookshelves; and every floor is a shelf with books. There stands a story of every-day life; next to it a good old comedy, and scientific works in all branches, and here are books of good reading and books of bad reading. Over all this wealth of literature I can dream and philosophize.

There is something of the poet in me, but not enough. No doubt many people have just as much of it in them as I, yet they do not carry a badge or a necktie with the word “Poet” on it. They and I have been endowed with a divine gift, a blessing great enough to satisfy oneself, but altogether too insignificant to be portioned out again to others. It comes like a ray of sunlight, and fills one’s soul and thoughts; it comes like a fragrant breeze, like a melody which one knows but without remembering whence it comes.

The other evening I sat in my room and felt inclined to read, but I had no book, no paper. Just then a leaf, fresh and green, tell from the lime-tree, and the breeze carried it in through the window to me.

I examined the many veins in it; a little insect was crawling across them, as if it were making a thorough study of the leaf. This led me to think of all the wisdom that we men lay claim to; we also crawl about on a leaf, our knowledge being limited only to that; yet we are ready to deliver a lecture on the whole tree—the root, the trunk, and the crown; the great tree—God, the world, and immortality;—and of all this we know only the little leaf.

As I was sitting meditating thus, I received a visit from Aunty Milly.

I showed her the leaf and the insect, and told her of all the thoughts they had awakened in me, whereat her eyes sparkled.

“You are a poet!” she said; “perhaps the greatest we have. If I should live to see this, I would gladly lie down and die. Ever since Rasmussen the brewer’s funeral you have astonished me with your powerful imagination.”

This is what Aunty Milly said, and then she kissed me.

Who was Aunty Milly, and who was Rasmussen the brewer?

From Fairy Tales and Stories, Hans Christian Andersen
New York: The Century Co., 1900

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