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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Picture of Satan and his Thrall

By Washington Allston (1779–1843)

[Born in Georgetown, S. C., 1779. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1843. Monaldi: A Tale. Written about 1822. Published in 1841.]

AFTER waiting some time for my conductor’s return, and finding little worth looking at besides the Lanfranc, I turned to leave the chapel by the way I had entered; but, taking a wrong door, I came into a dark passage, leading, as I supposed, to an inner court. This being my first visit to a convent, a natural curiosity tempted me to proceed, when, instead of a court, I found myself in a large apartment. The light (which descended from above) was so powerful, that for nearly a minute I could distinguish nothing, and I rested on a form attached to the wainscoting. I then put up my hand to shade my eyes, when—the fearful vision is even now before me—I seemed to be standing before an abyss in space, boundless and black. In the midst of this permeable pitch stood a colossal mass of gold, in shape like an altar, and girdled about by a huge serpent, gorgeous and terrible; his body flecked with diamonds, and his head, an enormous carbuncle, floated like a meteor on the air above. Such was the Throne. But no words can describe the gigantic Being that sat thereon—the grace, the majesty, its transcendent form; and yet I shuddered as I looked, for its superhuman countenance seemed, as it were, to radiate falsehood; every feature was in contradiction—the eye, the mouth, even to the nostril—whilst the expression of the whole was of that unnatural softness which can only be conceived of malignant blandishment. It was the appalling beauty of the King of Hell. The frightful discord vibrated through my whole frame, and I turned for relief to the figure below; for at his feet knelt one who appeared to belong to our race of earth. But I had turned from the first, only to witness in this second object its withering fascination. It was a man apparently in the prime of life, but pale and emaciated, as if prematurely wasted by his unholy devotion, yet still devoted—with outstretched hands, and eyes upraised to their idol, fixed with a vehemence that seemed almost to start them from their sockets. The agony of his eye, contrasting with the prostrate, reckless worship of his attitude, but too well told his tale: I beheld the mortal conflict between the conscience and the will—the visible struggle of a soul in the toils of sin. I could look no longer.

As I turned, the prior was standing before me. “Yes,” said he, as if replying to my thoughts, “it is indeed terrific. Had you beheld it unmoved, you had been the first that ever did so.

“There is a tremendous reality in the picture that comes home to every man’s imagination: even the dullest feel it, as if it had the power of calling up that faculty in minds never before conscious of it.”