The Dance of Death in the Twentieth Century: Poems

The Dance of Death in the Twentieth Century: Poems

The Dance of Death in the Twentieth Century: Poems

The Dance of Death in the Twentieth Century: Poems

Excerpt

The English dance of death, the French danse macabre, or the German Totentanz, pictorial or sculpural representations of death as a skeleton or a shrunken corpse, characterized by a grim humor, originated early in the fourteenth century. The verses accompanying the pictures in the printed forms were sometimes satirical, and in the famous Holbein and Rowlandson Series some of the subjects are of medical interest, notably the quack doctor; the good man, death and the doctor; the undertaker and the quack; the suicide, and the nursery, as well as the portrayal of the skeletons, which are not too bad, anatomically.

Hans Holbein, the younger, 1497-1549, son of a famous painter, with the same name, was a noted painter in his own right. Also, he made designs for various purposes, including woodcuts, especially the set of forty-one for his best known book, the original "Dance of Death", published anonymously at Lyon in 1538, under the title of Les simulachres et historieés faces de la mort,... The subjects depicted were drawn from Luther's Bible, with a scriptural quotation and a quatrain in French for each woodcut.

Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827, the noted English caricaturist, was largely employed by Rudolph Ackermann, the art publisher of London. It is probably due to this association that the English Dance of Death appeared in London, in 1815, through the efforts of William Combe, with illustrations by Rowlandson, issued by Ackermann. It was first issued in parts, but was finally collected into two volumes. The colored drawings are bold and now famous as satire.

In Holbein's small book ( 1538), the quatrains are descriptive of the woodcuts; in Combe's large book the caricatures illustrate the verse.

In this book, the quotations from Luther's Bible and the French verses have been omitted. In their places, facing each illustration, Merrill Moore has added poems of his own manufacture, in modern spirit, yet each one in some way, directly or indirectly, may be considered applicable to the scene as Holbein depicted it. This applicability is flexible; it is not supposed to be exact. Some­ times the relationship is obvious; sometimes it is subtle but it is always there.

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