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Goldsmith and Charity

by William Wenthe

This modest print by Rembrandt
of a goldsmith finishing a statue
of a woman and two children,
is nothing like the great portraits
that move me, move most of us, I think,
and yet it draws me in—by the way
the goldsmith’s arm supports 
the statue against his hip, exactly
as the woman in the statue holds
a child to her own;
how his other arm curves down
to the hammer in his hands, working
some obscure but necessary matter
of the sculpture’s base; a motion matched
by her hand reaching down to stroke
the naked child who stands,
face in the folds of her robe.

The statue is a classical allegory,
a figure for the word, Charity,
which in Rembrandt’s engraving becomes
what I think of as a parable
of symmetry: the goldsmith
taking into his arms the statue
(just as she takes the children)
is the gesture of the artist
caring for that portion of the world
his art represents.  And I see
how Rembrandt has taken care
to include the goldsmith’s tools: forge
and anvil, apron, calipers and tongs, hatched
in the diligent repetitions of the needle’s trace
on copper.  The goldsmith’s hands
are the calloused thick mitts of one
who has worked a lifetime in fire.
His eyes, lowered, seem closed
in dream, or prayer, focussed on
the hammerstroke—exactly where her eyes,
and the eyes of the held child, turn—
as though the artwork beheld the artisan
hammering from gold the word
whose alchemical ore is dear.


William Wenthe has recent poems in Poetry, Tin House, and Passages North, and critical essays on contemporary poetry in The Yale Review and The Kenyon Review.  His books of poems are Not Till We Are Lost (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) and Birds of Hoboken (Orchises, 1995; reprinted in 2003).  He teaches creative writing and modern poetry at Texas Tech University. (10/2008)

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