The Poor Poet, 1835
They used to call this sort of thing “genre art,” art of the every day. Hoity-toity folks are often quick to dismiss this style as low-falutin’ hogwash, dripping with sentimentality and bathos. (By the way, this may be the only time in history the words “hoity-toity” and “low-falutin’” were used in the same sentence with “bathos.” That’s worth the price of admission right there.) If we did not know this painting was from 1835 we could easily imagine it gracing the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. So how could it possibly be any good? Well, let’s see if we can figure it out.
The artist is Carl Spitzweg who was himself an established poet in his day, though not so poor as today’s subject. This is one of those cases where it is doubly frustrating to not be able to see the original painting which hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany. The color values swing wildly from web site to web site, but I think this one (also above) is probably the closest to the original.
It is very cold in this garret, and through the window we see white on roofs to tell us it is wintertime. Our subject sits in his bedroll wearing his nightcap and a tattered jacket. A charred collection of his poems sits in the stove, unlit for now. Volumes two and three of his work sit on the floor before the stove awaiting their turn in the fire should it come to that. Desperate times, indeed, when the poet must burn his own work to stay alive. But our fellow fights manfully against his circumstance, burning only a little at a time.
It has been a while since the stove was lit for his hat hangs on the stove pipe. A dark umbrella has been tied into place wide open above his bed, and I suspect there may be a leak in the gable above it which the umbrella blocks. You can barely make out places on the wall where our poet has written tentatively on those days when paper was too dear to come by. It is difficult to tell in this image but there is a sleep mask hanging on the wall above him, a feminine, frilly carnation mask which hints that a lady may once have lived here as well. (To see it more clearly visit the image presented here.) To the right of the mask are lines drawn on the door jamb like those used to mark a child’s height as he grows. Has our poet lost his little family? We do not know, but I think he has. His meager possessions are before us, books mostly, but also a ceramic bowl in which to collect water and wash his face, and perhaps from which to eat his scanty supper. His overcoat hangs on the wall behind the stove, his walking stick leans against the wall. A single towel dries on the line strung catty-corner across the room. We see the boot butler he uses to remove his boots. He owns no more but his quill and his almost empty bottle of ink, tilted so that he can more efficiently use the little that remains.
Is this a sentimental picture? A little something to tug at the heart strings? How could it not be? Look at that face, so focused on the task at hand, lost in creation. Serious man, our little poet. He has sacrificed everything for his art and still he struggles, still he endeavors to create. But remember, our artist was a poet himself, a rather good one. What does he think about our little striver, really? Is that an open book of poetry before him from which he is scavenging ideas? Is that how poets work? No. He’s given us more than a mere poet who has chosen poverty and loneliness for the sake of his art; he’s given us a deluded fool, a poseur who counts syllables on his fingers like a child, who might write a million, million words and always be one word short. As the artist told us, he is a poor poet. He has sacrificed everything good in his life for nothing.
I don’t think we’ll see it on the Saturday Evening Post cover anytime soon.