Friday, October 8, 2010

Spitzweg: The Poor Poet

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

German chemist-turned-artist Carl Spitzweg loved living in high places. Moving into an apartment in Munich in 1833, he wrote, "The view is magnificent ... all around a vast mountain chain of roofs, studded with chimneys and attic windows like castles and ruins ... and the sky so close - it is unrivaled."

If not for the fallen snow, such a view would be visible from his Poor Poet's window, which provides the only source of light in this painting's chilly little garret.

Much like today, it was possible to earn a living as a painter in 19th century Munich but not as a poet. The tophat hanging conspicuously on the stone-cold stovepipe says two things: the man goes about as a regular, law-abiding royalist, and his chosen profession keeps his stove so cold he can hang his hat on it as he huddles under the blankets, an umbrella secured to the beams to fend off any drips from the snow melting on the roof.

The image speaks to a perennial wish - to withdraw from the world's ever-increasing bustle into our own private dream-space through the magic of art.

There's amusing irony in the disparity between the visible book title "Gradus ad Parnassum," with its suggestion of conveyance to the airy home of the Muses (the mythical Mount Parnassus) and the poet's actual circumstances.

Many assume the poet is using his fingers to count syllables. A note on one of the preliminary sketches left by the artist mentions a flea - I prefer to think the man has paused in his pursuit of poesy to squash the life out of an offending member of this bothersome tribe.

We owe much of this painting's popularity to its constant reproduction as the perfect embodiment of the genre painting of the Biedermeier era - pictures crafted for the homes of the growing middle class that (still) shine a gently satirical light on reality.

Spitzweg's also the one who gave us one of our best beloved images of the hopeless reader - The Book-Worm.

With all this talk of poetry and reading, I'd like to share a poem that New Hampshire poet, puppeteer, and photographer Andrew Periale says took a little inspiration from reading my post on Ariadne, Theseus, the Minotaur, and King Minos's labyrinth. It's still in draft form, but he's graciously allowed me to post it as is:


Who placed my hand in October

While my head loitered in July?

your body was a surprise, a farm stand

on some where-the-hell road, offering harvest

while I battle hornworm and

obsess over still green tomatoes

perfect, round, leaves with no spots

or yellowing, I thought I loved them

then you offered me a brandywine—

flesh soft and pink in its uneven, undulating skin

a voice calls from deep niche of lizard brain

home it moans at last and I look back at

neat rows of muscular zucchini, tanned, hard peaches,

see an angular labyrinth of my own design

you take my hand, massaging a hoof back to fingers,

offer me respite among impossibly huge pumpkins

and I feel the great horns shrink back into my skull

You are weed and toad, spider and chaos

But what smells, what flavor! Blind! I shout, I’ve

Snatch a bouquet of basil and sink to one knee

Forever tumbling out of my mouth

Like fruit from a cornucopia

Much joy in ripe, you gush, but not forever

You’ll learn to conserve, save seed,

I survey the tables deep in jam jars, pickles

Time capsules, I think, these are diaries, histories.

piles of peppers, red and blue potatoes, patty pans

pleasure in the eating, yes, but full of seed, You, too,

She murmurs, you are full of future, let us put some by

And grabs my hand and leads me to the house

Ripe, I think, so sweet and fleeting, as a “v” of geese

With fanfare angles south ahead of cold Canadian air


  1. this is marvelous..
    and I feel the great horns shrink back into my skull
    You are weed and toad, spider and chaos.

  2. Thanks for the article, it explained the painting really good.