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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 3: Satire and Sight


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Satire and Sight

From its foundation in 1768 the Royal Academy of Arts in London had offered places in its Schools for talented youths of poor family. William Blake won a place there in 1779. In the Academy’s register his profession is given as engraver, so it is likely that as well as hearing the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds – which he later annotated so vigorously – he attended the instruction given by the engraver Francesco Bartolozzi, who was a founding member of the Academy. Probably he studied together with another young Londoner of poor family born in the same year as Blake (1757), who had entered the Schools a year earlier, in 1778 – James Gillray. Gillray is known to have studied under Bartolozzi, and both Blake and Gillray went on to make their living as engravers. For though ‘the engraver’ had a secondary status as artist, the profession promised a steady income and was a wise career-choice if one lacked wealthy patrons.

Gillray and Blake were contemporaries, fellow-students, and fellow-engravers, and both spent much of their life in London. No record of communication between them survives (though it is also true that very little of Blake’s correspondence survives from before 1800). In any event their talents took very different directions. Blake responded directly to the Romantic enthusiasms of the time, and became a visionary and, in his politics, a revolutionary radical. Gillray responded with more irony, and became a...

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