From Goethe’s Ruisdael as Poet (1816)

“It is known as the Cemetery, and that is what it depicts. Even the gravestones in their ruined state point to something more than the past: they are monuments of themselves.

“We see in the background, shrouded by a passing rain shower, the lean ruins of an immense cathedral that once soared heavenwards. A freestanding, spindling gabled wall is threatened by imminent collapse. The area around the convent, surely once cultivated, is now a wilderness, overgrown with shrubs and bushes and dotted here and there with dying and withered trees. The wilderness has invaded the cemetery too, and there is no trace of its former boundaries. Imposing and strange-looking tombs of all kinds, some in the shape of coffins, some marked by large, upright stone slabs, testify to the prominence of this diocese and to the standing and wealth of the families buried here. The deterioration of the tombs themselves is portrayed with great taste and aesthetic restraint, inviting the eye to linger on them. But the viewer is then surprised when he sees, or rather surmises, new and more modest monuments far in the background, and mourners gathering around them; as if the past had nothing to bequeath but mortality.

“Yet the most important idea in this picture also makes the greatest artistic impression. The collapse of immense walls seems to have filled up or obstructed a gently flowing brook, diverting it from the original course, and now it is rushing past the graves in search of a way in this wilderness. A beam of light struggling through the rain shower illuminates a few upright, already damaged tombstones, a gray tree trunk and a stump, but especially the gushing water of the brook cascading over rocks, and finally the foam in the foreground.

“In the future we shall try to find more examples where the artist, proving himself a poet in purity of feeling and clarity of thought, achieves perfect symbolism, and at the same time delights, teaches, refreshes and invigorates us through the health of his mind and his senses.”

Paintings by Ruisdael


2 thoughts on “From Goethe’s Ruisdael as Poet (1816)

  1. Leena

    “where the artist, proving himself a poet in purity of feeling and clarity of thought”–perhaps these words are from a different era where poetry was considered ‘sublimer’ than the other arts.
    But it has always concerned me, the idea of having to compare the artforms and not being able to appreciate them through their own aesthetic. A teacher of mine once said: “Why do you keep talking about wanting to paint? You can achieve painting through architecture: it incorporates everything else within it–architecture is god!”
    For him perhaps, but not for Sadequain who climbed up to the roof of the Frere Hall to paint his mural. Everyone can choose his own god or Muse and then leave his offerings in whichever medium he feels best represents his expressions.

  2. Taimur Khan

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Leena. Happily, I see no contradiction there. Architecture would be to your teacher as poetry to a poet, and so on. I don’t think Goethe considered poetry more sublime than other arts, although biblical tradition has always held the Word above everything else. “In the beginning was the Deed,” says Goethe’s Faust.


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