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The Poetics of Sight

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John Harvey

«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.

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Acknowledgements

Extract

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 differ- ent 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 produc- tive exchange, on literary and visual questions, with colleagues, students, friends and with my wife Julietta Harvey.

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