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The Poetics of Sight


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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CHAPTER 1: Shakespeare Pictures


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Shakespeare Pictures

It goes without saying that the sense we have most need of, to appreciate Shakespeare, is hearing. In the theatre a blind man will gain infinitely more than a deaf man can. What is called Shakespeare’s genius, what has made him a world-classic, is the way he renders life in spoken words: even reading his words is secondary to hearing them, and if we read them silently we need to hear them in our head. The second quarto of Hamlet is said, on its title page, to be ‘enlarged to almost as much again as it was’: it is a long text, and it is possible Shakespeare prepared it specifically for his reading, rather than his hearing, public, including material that was likely to be cut in the theatre. And still all of it is live theatrical speech, and needs to be heard in one’s head as one reads, to live.

It is not that a Shakespeare play, in performance, offered little to see. The props at the Globe may have been few and simple, but care was taken with the costumes, even if the Elizabethan conception of Roman soldiers – with plumes, ribbons and pantaloons – is strange to us. Also words were reinforced with an elaborate visual rhetoric of gesture and posture. To express surprise you raised and opened your arms, to appeal for a boon you knelt and raised clasped hands – praying to a lord as...

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