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Art Gratia Artis–Longfellow’s “Nuremberg”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Margaret Fuller had limited respect for Longfellow, saying things roughly the equivalent of those who dismiss Norman Rockwell as a talented illustrator. One of her quibbles with the poet lay in his tendency to translate, either literally or figuratively, the things of foreign climes for the American readership. How odd then that perhaps her most fulsome praise of Longfellow comes as he writes a poem from Germany.

InNuremberg are charming passages. Indeed, the whole poem is one of the happiest specimens of Mr. L.’s poetic feeling, taste and tact in making up a rosary of topics and images.

Like most of Longfellow’s output, “Nuremberg” is charming, tripping easily off the tongue. But in reading those lines, I find myself stuck on a couple of the poet’s illustrations, namely Nuremberg residents Albrecht Durer and Hans Sachs.

Not thy Councils, not thy Kaisers, win for thee the world’s regard;
But thy painter, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Sachs thy cobbler bard.

In both of these figures, Longfellow seems to find artistic heroes, the sort of creators whom Emerson or Keats champions. Consider his coverage of Durer:

Here, when Art was still religion, with a simple, reverent heart,
Lived and labored Albrecht Dürer, the Evangelist of Art;

Hence in silence and in sorrow, toiling still with busy hand,
Like an emigrant he wandered, seeking for the Better Land.

Emigravit is the inscription on the tomb-stone where he lies;
Dead he is not, but departed, — for the artist never dies.

How intriguing that “Art” carries a capital letter but “religion” does not. Indeed, if I read the poet correctly, I am to understand that Art itself was a religion, yet my understanding of Durer’s work would definitely subordinate art to faith. In the second line quoted above, again, Longfellow inverts what I would understand to be the proper order of things. Durer was far more the artist of evangelism than the Evangelist of Art.  A couple of lines later, Durer’s tombstone is considered. Apparently, in Longfellow’s view, Durer’s epitaph is irrelevant. “Emigravit,” suggests that the artist buried within has departed, yet the poet would keep him there, “for the artist never dies.” Had he not departed, one imagines the painter of the Reformation rolling over in that grave.

The same can be said for the “cobbler-poet” Hans Sachs. What has Longfellow to say of this figure?

Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, laureate of the gentle craft,
Wisest of the Twelve Wise Masters, in huge folios sang and laughed.

He then goes on to speak of Sachs’ old home, now converted to a tavern. Does he do Sachs justice? A notable poet, indeed, Sachs was, like Durer an artist of the Reformation, someone risking reputation and possibly life in the advance of something far more significant and enduring than mere artistic expression.

Virtually every image that Longfellow captures during his tour of Nuremberg originates with a Christian passion but is stripped down to a celebration of the human spirit. I would argue that both Fuller and Longfellow are entitled to their humanism, but for either of them to read that humanism back into the lives of those who championed a perilous religious freedom strikes me as dishonest and unkind.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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