The Poetics of Sight

by John Harvey (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 309 Pages


«Ut pictura poesis», Horace said, but through the two millennia in which «the sister arts» have been compared, little has been said about the nature of sight itself. What we see in «our mind’s eye» as we read has not been explored, though by following the visual prompts in texts, one can anatomize the process of visualization.
The Poetics of Sight analyses the role of sight in memory, dream and popular culture and demonstrates the structure of a complex sight within the metaphors of Shakespeare, Pope and Dickens; and within the visual metaphors of Picasso, Magritte and Bacon. This book explores the difference between the great and the failed works of the supreme poet-painter, William Blake, and tracks the migrations of the Satiric muse between verbal mockery and scabrous images in Persius, Pope, Gillray and Gogol. It records the rise, and partial decline, of the vividly «seen» novel in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust and Hardy.
The key concept throughout this book is visual metaphor, which in the twentieth century acquired overarching importance: in art from Picasso to Kapoor, in poetry from Eliot to Hughes, in aesthetics from Pound to Derrida. The book closes with a far-reaching definition of visual metaphor and with the great visual metaphor of the human body.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Sight, the Mind’s Eye and Art
  • CHAPTER 1: Shakespeare Pictures
  • CHAPTER 2: The Unequal Art of William Blake
  • CHAPTER 3: Satire and Sight
  • CHAPTER 4: Bleak House to Lighthouse: The Optics of the Novel
  • CHAPTER 5: Metaphor and Modernism
  • A Note on the Pre-Raphaelites and Shakespeare’s Women
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index
  • Also by John Harvey
  • Series Index

| ix →



I Titian, Venus and Music (Venus with an organist), 1547–8, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
II Titian, Venus and Cupid with a Lute-Player, 1555–65, oil on canvas. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
III Benjamin West, Lear in the Storm, 1788, oil on canvas. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
IV James Barry, King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia, 1786–7, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
V William Blake, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, c. 1826, ink, tempera and gold on mahogany. Tate Gallery, London.
VI William Blake, Eve and the Serpent, tempera and gold on copper, 1799–1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
VII John Everett Millais, Trust Me, 1862, oil on canvas. Private collection.
VIII Titian, An Allegory of Prudence, 1565–70, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.
IX Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.


1 Hubert Gravelot, frontispiece to Coriolanus, engraving. Theobald’s edition, 1740.← ix | x →
2 Francis Hayman, frontispiece to Macbeth, engraving. Hanmer’s edition, 1744.
3 Francis Hayman, frontispiece to Coriolanus, engraving. Hanmer’s edition, 1744.
4 Francis Hayman, frontispiece to Measure for Measure, engraving. Hanmer’s edition, 1744.
5 Francis Hayman, the play scene from Hamlet, c. 1745, oil on canvas. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington.
6 François Boitard, frontispiece to King Lear, engraving. Rowe’s edition, 1709.
7 Alexander Johnson, Cordelia, lithograph. C. Heath, ed., The Heroines of Shakespeare (London: David Bogue, 1848).
8 William Blake, first illustration to Tiriel, c. 1789, pen and grey wash. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
9 William Blake, Plate 11 of Urizen, 1818, hand-coloured relief etching (Copy G, etched 1794). Library of Congress.
10 William Blake, The Ancient of Days, c. 1817–27, hand-coloured relief etching (etched 1794). The Whitworth, University of Manchester.
11 Friedrich Pecht, König Lear, engraving. E. Dowden ed., Shakespeare Scenes and Characters (London: Macmillan and Company, 1876).
12 Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1812, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
13 Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet on the Battlements, 1834–43, lithograph. ← x | xi →
14 Eugène Delacroix, The Play Scene, 1834–43, lithograph.
15 Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and the Queen, 1834–43, lithograph.
16 Eugène Delacroix, At the Arras, 1834–43, lithograph.
17 Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Polonius, 1834–43, lithograph.
18 William Blake, Milton, plate 41, 1811, hand-coloured relief etching.
19 William Blake, Jerusalem, plate 47, 1804–20, hand-coloured relief etching. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
20 William Blake, Jerusalem, plate 15, 1804–20, hand-coloured relief etching. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
21 William Blake, frontispiece to The Vision of the Daughters of Albion, c. 1818, hand-coloured relief etching (Copy P, etched 1793). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
22 William Blake, Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils, 1826, engraving. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
23 William Blake, Job’s Nightmare, 1826, engraving. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
24 William Blake, Dante and Virgil Ascending the Mountain of Purgatory, 1824–7, pen, ink and water colours over pencil. Tate Gallery, London.
25 William Blake, God Judging Adam, 1795, relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper. Tate Gallery, London.
26 James Gillray, Disciples Catching the Mantle, 1808, etching.
27 James Gillray, The Apotheosis of Hoche, 1798, etching.
28 James Gillray, Titianus Redivivus, 1797, etching.
29 James Gillray, John Bull and his Dog Faithful, 1796, etching.
30 George Cruikshank, A Strong Proof of the Flourishing State of the Country, 1839, hand-coloured etching.
31 George Cruikshank, Pillars of a Gin Shop, 1833, etching from My Sketch Book.
32 George Cruikshank, The Drunkard’s Children, Plate VIII, 1848, glyphograph.
33 Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’), The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory, 1852, etching. Illustration to Charles Dickens, Bleak House. ← xi | xii →
34 Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’), The Lonely Figure, 1853, etching. Illustration to Charles Dickens, Bleak House.
35 Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, 1448–50, tempera on panel. National Gallery, London.
36 Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, 1851–53, oil on canvas. Manchester Art Gallery.

The author wishes to express his thanks to the following sources of illustrative material and/or permission to reproduce it:

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: 9; Cambridge University Library: 1–4, 6, 26–9; Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: II, 21; used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington: 5; Manchester Art Gallery: 36; the Whitworth, University of Manchester: 10; Photo © The National Gallery, London 2015: VIII, 35; Museo del Prado, Madrid: I; Photo © Tate, London 2015: IV, V, IX, 12, 24–5; Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London: VI; Library of Congress, Washington, DC: 9; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection: 8, 19–20, 22–3; Yale University Art Gallery: front cover.


My first thanks must be to Barrie Bullen, for inviting me to articulate at book length an argument I had been developing, while working on different authors and artists, touching not merely the linguistic but the distinctly poetic processes that may operate as we shape, both verbally and through images, the sights we observe and the sights we invent. I do believe there is an issue for aesthetics here which has been relatively neglected in the broad advance of visual culture studies. I am grateful for the patience and goodwill of the distinguished Blake scholar Professor Joe Viscomi, who kindly read and commented on my own heterodox discussion of Blake. Dr Ilona Roth has generously advised me on the implications for visual perception of advances in cognitive psychology. Particular points in the argument have been made over the years in lectures in Cambridge and elsewhere on literature, visual art and visual culture, and I cannot say when they were first made. My first attempt on the art of William Blake was in an article, ‘Blake’s Art’, in The Cambridge Quarterly, VII/2, in 1977, and on Shakespeare pictures in an article, ‘Shakespeare and the Ends of Time’, in The Cambridge Review, CXVI/2327, in 1996. Especially I am grateful – otherwise there would be no book – for innumerable occasions of productive exchange, on literary and visual questions, with colleagues, students, friends and with my wife Julietta Harvey.

| 1 →

Introduction: Sight, the Mind’s Eye and Art

Among my early memories, I enter an upstairs room and see an old, white-haired man lying in bed with the sheet up to his mouth, very still. I scarcely recognize him. My father sits in a chair in the far corner of the room, his chin in his hand, but he looks up and sees me. In another early memory, I come to the door of my parents’ bedroom, and I see them, kneeling side by side with their elbows on the bed, and their hands clasped in prayer. My father, who is nearer to me, looks unhappy: I can see they are praying, and in trouble. In another memory I am falling downstairs, close to the bottom, and looking up I see my father leaning over the banister watching me fall. And in another, I am urgently bundled under a table, I think in our living room.


XIV, 309
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Visual metaphor William Blake Optics of the Novel Modernism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 309 pp., 9 coloured ill., 36 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

John Harvey (Author)

John Harvey is a literary critic and novelist. He is a Doctor of Letters of Cambridge University and a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he has lectured in the English Faculty since 1970. In 2000 he was appointed University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture. He is the author of Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators, Men in Black and The Story of Black.


Title: The Poetics of Sight
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
336 pages