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Reading Colour

George, Rilke, Kandinsky, Lasker-Schüler


Rey Conquer

Colour is a problem for poetry, where – unlike in painting, sculpture or film – it
is marked by its absence. This absence raises questions that have often been
overlooked in the study of colour: how do writers navigate the invisibility of
colour in text? What aesthetic commitments do certain attitudes to colour
expose? And how, in the face of its absence, do we read colour?

This ambitious and exciting study addresses these questions, analysing the
use of colour language in the work of Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke,
Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler to tease out how these poets
understood poetic production, and how they negotiated the relations between
poem, reader and world. Covering the poetry, prose, translation, literary and art
criticism and theory of these and other writers central to European literature
at the turn of the twentieth century, Reading Colour sheds new light on poetic
practice of the period, but also uses colour to open up an understanding of
how poetic language works, and to ask how we read poetry.

This book was the winner of the 2018 Early Career Researcher Prize in German
Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the
University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.

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P said, ‘Some Poetry might be read aloud, to make him think.’1

But of course, desire cuts so much deeper than fact.2

William Empson, in the preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, draws attention to a certain ‘illustrative point’ made by the book’s reviewers:

that in learning a foreign language the great thing is to learn to cut out the alternative meanings which are logically possible; you are always liable to bring them up till you have ‘grasped the spirit’ of the language, and then you know they aren’t meant. Of course, I don’t deny that the method [of Seven Types] could lead to a shocking amount of nonsense; in fact, as a teacher of English literature in foreign countries I have always tried to warn my students off the book.3

There is a certain sort of structural ambiguity to colour, which I discussed in the introduction: is it ‘zero meaning’, or is it, as Julia Kristeva proposes, ‘excess meaning’?4 And what of its connotative baggage are we allowed to read in – and what ought we to read in? In the preceding chapters the question has lurked regarding what degree of knowledge of the ‘source culture’ might be sufficient for us to read, correctly, the colour at hand. I have argued for a method that would require no knowledge, in which anything we need to know is in fact provided by the poem itself; and...

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