It is one of the modern world’s little absurdities that we still have sculptors.
In a world where millions of people babble transient nonsense on Twitter and reality television shows worship the pathetic, there still exist people who use the power of their hands to twist metal and stone into art—often to honor those who society deems valuable.
A sculptor is a fine reminder that, despite how different human society may seem today, the modern world is indeed descended from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans—and some of human sensibility has remained unchanged.
When Stefanie Rocknak’s bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe was unveiled near the Boston Common on Sunday, crowds flocked to grab a photo with the famed writer’s gloomy likeness. If they cannot have the real Poe, then this is the next best thing.
Indeed, the statue’s title, “Poe Returning to Boston,” suggests a living quality to the tribute—his absence was only a misunderstanding, and he has just now gotten around to returning to the cold city that he never very much liked anyway. (His tense relationship with Boston’s literary figures was famous.) His stance, however, suggests something else—his back is to the Frog Pond, his hand swept behind him as if in a dismissive final wave to that which he never expressed the desire to return.
His absence was not a misunderstanding, the stance tells the viewer. He is only here on some literary business, or to visit a friend—probably the least favorite of his friends, too.
And that is the strange trouble with statues—they have no say in where they are placed. Boston was Poe’s birthplace, yes, but it was not the home he chose. In his death, we have chosen it for him.
While Rocknak gave him the stance that he would likely have adopted should he have actually been in Boston, is it wrong to take a man’s likeness and place it where the man himself would not have liked to be?
The last time I spent this much time thinking about sculpture was when I travelled with my family to visit colleges in Washington, DC—what must be the American city most populated by massive statues. I have, of course, no evidence for this, but half the time I felt like I was hanging out with more statues than people. (I wasn’t talking to them or anything, but I saw some people that were. We don’t judge here.)
Upon visiting some of these statues, I was filled not only with awe, but also some minor disgust. These statues—the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials for example—were built to instill reverence in people. But over there—right by Lincoln’s mighty foot!—various tourists in all levels of disarray, a little boy picking his nose, an older woman giving two ice cream cones to already messy children. Surely, I thought, this could not have been what was intended by this Greco-Roman style tribute to the nation’s 16th president.
And what of poor Edgar? No doubt, he will sometimes be left to be a resting place for the birds, children climbing atop him like a jungle gym, the ice cream of wandering tourists dripping onto his immobile feet. These are the modern realities of statues, but I take comfort in the fact that we still build them at all.
This way, a little boy can look into the face of Edgar Allan Poe and wonder—a certain reminder that statues are for the living.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic