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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 4: Bleak House to Lighthouse: The Optics of the Novel


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Bleak House to Lighthouse: The Optics of the Novel

Whether in epic poems, Norse sagas, or medieval romances, extended narratives have always had moments when a sight becomes crucial. In Njal’s Saga Gunnar looks back, as he is leaving his homestead to avoid the growing feud, and his farm looks so beautiful to him, with its meadows mown and its cornfields white for harvest, that he turns back – and the prophesied killings and his own death follow. Again in the early European novel, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the greatest impact may belong to a sight. ‘Going towards my Boat,’ Robinson Crusoe relates, ‘I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition; I listen’d, I look’d round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing’ (11). His shock is described with the breathless immediacy we associate with a later style of fiction, and the sight of Crusoe catching sight of the footprint is perhaps the most common illustration to fiction.1

In the early novel, nonetheless, moments when we visualize are occasional. Fielding and Sterne may compare a character to a figure by Hogarth, but often appearances are not described. Or if they are described, the description may be elaborated geometrically, and still be hard to see....

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