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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 2: The Unequal Art of William Blake


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The Unequal Art of William Blake

For the study of the visual poetics, both of words and of images, few creative figures are more relevant than William Blake. There have been many authors who drew or painted, and a number of painters who also wrote, but very few have been judged major innovators alike in their texts and in their images – as has Blake. One result of this is that the poet within Blake makes the poetic part of visual art easier to see, while the visual artist in him illuminates the visual potentialities of poetry.

At the same time, in both arts, Blake is a profoundly problematic figure. As Karl Kroeber has recorded, he has come to have a large influence in the contemporary world, demonstrable in fiction, poetry, film and music. This is a great change for an artist who, in his lifetime, was not only neglected but thought by some to be mad, and even in the twentieth century it was possible for Ezra Pound to call him ‘dippy William’.1 These contrasts are compatible with his being a figure of extraordinary originality, but the situation is further complicated by the fact that both his visual and his literary output are, undeniably, extremely uneven. While his short poems may have a unique pithy brilliance, swathes of his ‘prophetic’ verse are unreadable for many. And though he produced remarkable images that may be visual classics for ever, one...

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