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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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A Note on the Pre-Raphaelites and Shakespeare’s Women

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Few if any artistic movements have been as devoted to any single author, as the PreRaphaelites were to Shakespeare. The ‘Brotherhood’ was in any case notable for its literary interests. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was poet as well as artist, and constantly illustrated his great namesake. Edward Burne-Jones endlessly represented Malory, and the corpus of Arthurian legend. He did not, it is true, select subjects from Shakespeare, but the earlier generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters – Holman Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, and their associate Ford Maddox Brown – constantly had. This is not to say that Shakespeare was the author whom the Pre-Raphaelites loved before all others: if any author had that dignity, it was the more recent poet, who died tragically young, John Keats. But Shakespeare, also, had a supreme importance. At an early stage in the gatherings of the ‘Brothers’ – in August 1848 – Holman Hunt and Rossetti compiled a list of ‘Immortals’, and the first three names, in this list of fifteen, were Jesus Christ, Shakespeare, and the author of the Book of Job.1

To illustrate the animation and the radiance with which the Pre-Raphaelites re-created Shakespeare, I shall pause on Holman Hunt’s canvas of 1850–1, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus: hoping the reader may be willing to conjure both this, and the following images, from the internet, where the hyper-distinct jewel-like richness of Pre-Raphaelite colouring is clear.2 Hunt’s use of his ‘wet white’ technique – enhancing luminosity by applying colour on a still-wet white undercoat – is apparent in...

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