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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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Introduction: Sight, the Mind’s Eye and Art


Among my early memories, I enter an upstairs room and see an old, white-haired man lying in bed with the sheet up to his mouth, very still. I scarcely recognize him. My father sits in a chair in the far corner of the room, his chin in his hand, but he looks up and sees me. In another early memory, I come to the door of my parents’ bedroom, and I see them, kneeling side by side with their elbows on the bed, and their hands clasped in prayer. My father, who is nearer to me, looks unhappy: I can see they are praying, and in trouble. In another memory I am falling downstairs, close to the bottom, and looking up I see my father leaning over the banister watching me fall. And in another, I am urgently bundled under a table, I think in our living room.

I mention these memories, which are among my very earliest, because they are visual. They are images, and in my mind they are a little like photographs – in the sense for instance that they are close to being ‘stills’. Obviously in the first my eye moves from the old man (my dying grandfather) to my father, but there is no before or after to that. In the second, presumably I withdrew silently, after seeing my parents, but I remember only the brief period in which I discovered them praying. I was in rapid movement falling down the stairs,...

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