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The Artist vs. the Poet


The question has often been asked—What is the relative difficulty in the attainment of a position of supreme height in the two fields—Art and Literature? Is it as grand, is it as difficult, to become a great artist, as it is to become a great poet? and what is the relative influence of each? Would two minds of equal power, one using the medium of the brush for expression, the other the pen, receive the same amount of recognition from the public, were their efforts alike successful? And would they make an equal impression upon the thought of the age?

To the second of these questions there seems to be, logically one answer that it is purely a matter of individual taste. To the master-mind of Goethe, the two fields of labor appeared equally grand. His genius could not judge between them, and that he became a poet instead of an artist, was, as we all know, the result of mere accident. In deciding the third question, no one gift has ever made a great artist, in the true sense of the word. His work has been the result of a full development of the ideal, the perceptive, the reflective, the mechanical and, in the highest instances, of the moral organs of the brain. In addition to the ideal, the perceptive and assimilating faculties, then, an artist must possess those that will also give him rare technical skill. His thoughts can not be at once transferred to canvas, but must, oftentimes, wait upon a slow manipulative process. He must have the power to hold fast his thought, while guiding it through some slow, or while inventing some new, mode of expression. In fact, the entire scope ---the fulness of the human intellect-is necessary for the achievement of such work as that done by Michael Angelo, Kaulbach and Gustave Dore.

Take the first and the last of the three artists we have mentioned, and see not only how vast were the stores of knowledge they employed, but also how deep and far their thoughts reached into the problems of existence. Their works demonstrate for us that true art is never the result of ambition, that feverish desire for popularity, such as marks the greater part of our modern art work; but, that it is either the outgrowth of admiration in the presence of nature; deep-felt emotion, under the questionings of life and fate, or the desire to express some message, or give answer to questions, thrust upon us from out the domain of the unknown.

There is a prominent fact in regard to the universal talents of artists, and that is, not only are they often fine painters, sculptors and architects at one and the same time, but they are often excellent poets besides. Michael Angelo is a noble example of this, as designer of St. Peter's Cathedral, sculptor of the statue of Moses, painter of the "Last Judgment" and writer of some of the most exquisite sonnets of his time. Something akin to this is seen in the works of the French artist Dore. In invention he appeared inexhaustible; in comprehension, limitless. - Look what a vast scope, what a range of thought is expressed in his life's work! Entering thoroughly into the minds of the greatest authors of modern times, see how he interprets them for us! See how he takes his stand by the side of Dante, in his marvelous illustrations to the “Divine Comedy ;” and by Milton, in those to “Paradise Lost!" Look in succession at the grandeur of the illustrations to the “Idyls of the King;" the weird, unearthly scenes in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner;" the solemn, rich landscapes of "Atala" and the awful, almost heart-chilling, interpretations of the “Raven” of Edgar A. Poe. From the deepest tragedy he can pass at will to the broadest, the most subtle humor, as the “Don Quixote" amply shows. His sympathy with child-life is none the less marked than his other qualities, and of all artists who has so perfectly mastered the principles of the grotesque ? In sculpture he was as eminently successful. Not a sculptor of France, but would be proud could he but claim the designing of that awe-inspiring group of “Love and Fate.” In whatever direction his hand and brain were employed, like wonders were achieved. Through all the range of literature, can a name be found that suggests more varied qualities of mind, or one of broader scope?

To follow this subject further.
William Blake, who made the famous illustrations to the

“Book of Job,” was a poet of great ability; as witness the exquisite verses called “The Garden of Love." Washington Allston, the American painter, was, also, the author of several poems likely to live through many coming years, and D. Gabriel Rossetti, of the English school, is as fine a poet as he is a painter. His “Blessed. Damozel” takes rank with all poems of a similar nature, while many of his minor poems are marked by the highest genius. Rare, indeed, is it that the poet can turn with like success, to walk in the realms of art.

A desire to dim the golden aureola of the poet—what base ingratitude! To attempt it—what presumptuous folly! My thought is not to exalt the artist to the lowering of the poet, nor to make critical comparisons between the respective merits of poetry and the painter's or the sculptor's art. That, indeed, were odious. My aim is to point out the artist's intellectual capacity; his position in the world as a worker, a thinker and a teacher.

The artist is generally quick in his appreciation of the work of his contemporary poet; much of his work is often done to interpret him. But after we have examined the sympathy felt by the artist for the writer-his struggles in establishing new standards of taste-let us look at the reverse side. There we will find an almost total absence of reciprocity in appreciation or aid. Wordsworth, keenest-eyed of modern poets, was apparently dead to the work of the best landscape painters of his day. Sir George Beaumont, that self-elected -dictator of the fine arts, receives recognition from him, vide “Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle in a Storm.” The work of B. R. Haydon, Esq., calls forth a sonnet, and there is also a sonnet called “Upon the Sight of a Beautiful Picture,” but in spite of this, he seems to have been ignorant of the fact that the landscape painters of England had begun to approach and interpret nature in a manner such as had never been done before, and were struggling against the affected taste of the age, as regards landscape, as he himself, and Scott, and Byron, and Shelley were compelled to do.

Few of all the men that are supreme in literature understand those who are supreme in art. What did Scott, with all of his word-painting, know of the genius of Turner? Victor Hugo, judging by his written words, can think of no one in art but Angelo and Rembrandt, and even makes constantly false allusions to the work of the latter, such as "Rembrandt painting with a palette all bedaubed in the sun's rays,” a most faulty expression, for although Rembrandt does indeed put a ray of light stealing in somewhere in his pictures, it is not their main point. His palette, it should rather be said, was bedaubed with night, for his pictures are the mystery of darkness.

Byron understood but little of art; of painting he said: "Of all the arts, depend upon it, it is the most false and affected." Sculpture he understood a little better, paying it several tributes in verse, the best known of which are those addressed to the Dying Gladiator, in “Childe Harold.” Shelley upon the subject of art may be said to be silent, at least in verse; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, truthful and just as she generally is, when she speaks of painting, is all at sea, with the rest of them.

The great lights of literature pay homage, in words immortal, to other great lights in the firmament of literature. Not an artist has breathed who has had such encomiums as those that have been laid at the feet of Shakespeare. Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Goethe, Carlyle, have each offered words of praise. Nor must we forget, last though not least, the stupendous offering of Victor Hugo, whose marvelous summary of Shakespeare's genius—his place in the gallery of immortelles—is without a parallel for force and power. Raffaelle, Angelo, Titian, Correggio, Da Vinci—these, perhaps, have been extolled the highest. And, later, Turner, the English landscape painter, in whose praise Ruskin, the art seer, penned his fervid descriptions, pouring forth his panegyrics "with that almost Roman severity of conception and expression which enables him to revel in the most gorgeous language, without ever letting it pall upon the reader's taste by affection of over lusciousness," placing Turner side by side with Veralum and Shakespeare, “equal stars in the annals of the light of England. By Shakespeare, humanity was unsealed to you; by Veralum, the principles of nature; by Turner, her aspect, lifting the veil from the face of nature”—but then Ruskin is also an artist.

Art has not the same chance of reaching the hearts of the many, that poetry has. There are thousands—nay, tens of thousands of homes in which there is a well-selected library of books, giving a perfect conception of the various life-work of the most

eminent authors of all ages, but in which there may not be a single work of art that would give an adequate conception of even one great artist of even the present age. To get the same knowledge of art it would be necessary for the possessor of such a library to visit the art centers—the many galleries of England, France, Italy and Germany, and even there, under ordinary circumstances, the knowledge of art obtained by him would be but fragmentary, compared with the lasting impressions made by the calm and deliberate reading of authors, year after year, at home.

Early impressions influence us through life. And here the poet and the artist may be said to stand equal. Youth is the age of poetical impressions, but the young are also fond of pictures. The means to gratify both passions are generally near at hand, though not in equal proportions. As shown in the foregoing paragraph, the book of poetry is easily reached; the good work of art not so much so. It naturally follows that literature is better understood by the young than art, and that the poet is nearer to the hearts of the peole than the artist. In the seclusion of the library, or by the winter fireside, we can commune with the spirit of Milton; look with him upon the awful scenes of pandemonium, or the blissful glades of Paradise. With him we can stoop to the depths, or rise to the heights; but with England's ideal painter, Martin, we have no such privilege; the very nature of his work debars him from us. We can not look upon his large canvases of “Satan in Council,” the “Plains of Heaven,” or the “Bower of Eve," and yet, after all disparagements, those are glorious productions. It is only the few who are familiar with those works, and consequently by the few only are they understood and appreciated.

The same comparisons can be made between Germany's greatest poet and painter-Goethe and Kaulbach. Those were men of equal merit in their respective fields, but their work is by no means equally well known. We are all familiar with the drama of "Faust,” the “Sorrows of Werter,” and all those other outpourings of Goethe's genius. Yet how many, outside of Germany at least, are familiar with the cartoons of Kaulbach—any of the works of his mighty mind and skillful hand? Still, what could excel for grandeur of conception his "Hunnen Schlacht”Battle of the Huns, or, for analysis of human nature, that haunting picture called “The Mad House?” His design for the frieze

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