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On the Laws of the Poetic Art

On the Laws of the Poetic Art

by Anthony Hecht, National Gallery Of Art (Other)

In these engaging lectures, the eminent poet Anthony Hecht explores the art of poetry in its own right and in relation to the other fine arts. While the problems he treats entail both philosophic and theoretical discussion, he never allows abstract speculation to overshadow his respect for and delight in the written texts that he introduces --or in the specific


In these engaging lectures, the eminent poet Anthony Hecht explores the art of poetry in its own right and in relation to the other fine arts. While the problems he treats entail both philosophic and theoretical discussion, he never allows abstract speculation to overshadow his respect for and delight in the written texts that he introduces --or in the specific examples of painting and music to which he refers. After discussing the links between literature (with special reference to poetry) and painting, and between literature and music, Hecht investigates the theme of paradise and wilderness, especially but not exclusively in The Tempest. He then turns to the question of public and private art: the ways in which all the arts participate in "equivocal and curious balances between private and public modes of discourse," between an exclusive or elitist role and the openly political. Beginning with a discussion of architecture as an illustration of a more general theme of discord and balance, the penultimate lecture probes the inner contradictions of works of art and our reactions to them. The sixth and final piece concerns art and morality, especially the issues involved in public funding of the arts.

In writing this book, Anthony Hecht draws on his years of experience as a practicing poet. His books of poems include A Summoning of Stones, Millions of Strange Shadows, The Venetian Vespers, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hard Hours. Most recently he has written The Hidden Law, a critical study of W. H. Auden.

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From the Publisher

"This book is full of fruitful and fascinating suggestions about our commerce with the variety of art, and the many worlds it inhabits."--John Bayley, The (London) Times

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Bollingen Series
Product dimensions:
6.39(w) x 9.58(h) x 0.75(d)

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Chapter One

WITH A MIXTURE of levity and wry self-mockery that it is impossible to separate, George Santayana once characterized himself with the words, "I am an ignorant man, almost a poet." And what are poor poets to do, following lamely behind him into the thickets and minefields of aesthetic discourse, knowing themselves to be far more ignorant than Santayana? which is not only mortifying, but suggests that they would do well to keep their mouths shut. They might, of course, appeal to ignorance as a positive virtue, and, in the manner of the pastoral poets, affirm that the "silly thoughts" Milton ascribes to the shepherds at the Nativity were precisely an index of their unique wisdom, affording them the first sight of the child, and the first audition of the choiring angels singing of peace on earth. And if they were pedantically inclined, they might go on to derive Milton's word "silly" from the German selig, which means "blessed" or "holy." For my part, I hope to negotiate a cunning passage between the deficits and virtues of ignorance, and like a shrewd Odysseus, with the help of the gods, to find my way among the perils that abound. Even the mostcursory survey of the philosophic literature has shown me that I cannot hope to provide definitive answers, so you will find me relying with all my trust upon what I know as a practicing poet, and what more than forty years of teaching poetry has granted me.

Though my specific purview must, for the most part, be confined to poetry, I will be obliged, for reasons I expect to make clear in a moment, to consider some of the other arts as well, and you shall find me addressing, with what I hope will be a suitable diffidence, some of the problems that attend upon the arts of music, painting, and even architecture.

The very fact that these are joined together under the heading of"arts" declares that they have something in common; the branch of philosophy called "aesthetics" is concerned to spell out as rigorously and definitively as possible what common properties these may be. I shall begin my audacious journey by proposing a few ideas, some of them borrowed, some my own, on this topic.

The familiarity as well as the antiquity of these common properties may be attested to by Plutarch's observation that "Simonides addressed painting as silent poetry, and poetry as speaking painting." Ben Jonson, in his prose discourse on the arts in general and poetry in particular, says

Poetry and Picture are Arts of like nature; and both are busy about imitation. . . . For they both invent, faine, and devise many things, and accommodate all they invent to the use, and service of nature. Yet of the two, the Pen is more noble, then the Pencill. For the one can speak to the Understanding; the other, but to the Sense. They both behold pleasure and profit as their common object; but should abstain from all base pleasures, lest they should err from their end: and while they seek to better men's minds, destroy their manners.

(One may parenthetically smile at Jonson's partiality in behalf of poetry, but it is worth remembering that the "sense" is not so far divorced from the "understanding" but that in English, German, Italian, and French the word for "see" is a synonym for "understand," as we know when someone says, "I see what you mean.")

Furthermore, regarding the association of the arts, when Bernard Berenson tries to describe what is most admirable about the choicest Venetian painters, he finds himself obliged to resort to the language of the other arts: "the better Venetian paintings present such a harmony of intention and execution as distinguishes the highest achievements of genuine poets. Their mastery over color is the first thing that attracts most people to the painters of Venice. Their coloring not only gives direct pleasure to the eye but acts like music upon the moods, stimulating thought and memory in much the same way as a work by a great composer."

Let me commence my own observations by affirming what may be called the paradoxical nature of the arts, or what Schopenhauer refers to as their inherent "discord." The arts almost invariably express or embody conflicting impulses, not simply in their meanings but in their very natures. They are engaged in the business of going beyond the limits of their means. In so doing they not infrequently resort to poaching on one another's territories, and appropriating techniques and devices that it might be said were not native to them. I will start with illustrations from the art of painting, because I intend to suggest further on the curious ways in which painting and literature, with special reference to poetry, are related. My second lecture will attempt something of the same sort with regard to music.

Kenneth Clark, the art historian, tells us that "Constable said that the best lesson on art he ever had was contained in the words, 'Remember light and shadow never stand still.'" Painting, by its very nature, is only able to present its subject in a state of absolute rest. So Constable's valuable lesson points to the difficulty that he was concerned to overcome or, to put it another way, the deficiency of his metier, which it was his business to remedy. Joshua Reynolds famously declared: "A painter must compensate for the natural deficiencies of his art." Yet this is only the beginning of the problems painters must address. They must also, if they are representational painters, give us the impression of three dimensions while presenting them on a flat plane. This presentation in depth is conferred not only by the technique of perspective, but by what may be called atmospheric depth as well, by chiaroscuro. They may be concerned to persuade us that they are presenting the transient, the evanescent, fleeting impressions that almost evade us, as well as, for example, the veiled luminosity of pearls, the more intricate light that lines the curved walls of a globule of water at rest on a blade of grass, the still more intricate vectors of reflected light, rebounding among solid objects, the weight of brocaded dresses, the dull glint of armor, the delicate agitation of treetops in a mild breeze, the activity of clouds, the dull translucence of thick ice, the very feel of leather, of bark, of silk, or of fruit.

We are shown as well things suddenly or characteristically in motion: wind-ruffled water surfaces or the storms in the paintings of Turner. What should strike us about these effects is that they convey convincingly precisely the fleetness of a passing moment in defiance not only of their natural character, but as a kind of triumph the more to be admired when we pause to realize that nature did not stand still for the artist, and that what we see as a captured instant must have taken that artist hours, and perhaps days, to render. The American artist Raphaelle Peale held an exhibition, in 1785, of"moving pictures" inspired by the Eidophusikon that Philip James de Loutherbourg had presented in London earlier in the 1780s. The intention was, by using colored lights and even sounds, "with changeable effects, imitating nature in. various movements," as Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., reports, to present "such transient conditions and effects as dawn and nightfall, a rain storm with thunder and lightening and rainbow, fire, and rushing and falling water."

This triumph over obstacles is something we admire in other aspects of the artist's work. There are, for example, such works as frescoed ceilings and mosaics that can only properly be seen intelligibly at a great distance, and we must wonder how the artist managed who made them and had, in the nature of things, to be very close to them in their making. This sense of difficulties overcome is at least a part of our pleasure in the artist's performance, and is to be experienced not only in the rendering of nature in motion but in the presentation of human beings. They are sometimes depicted in the midst of motion, sometimes the strenuous action of battle. But consider merely those presentations of them at what may be their most tranquil and serene. They may be presented to us, as Aristotle says in his Poetics, as either better than they are, or as indeed they are, or as worse than they are. Aristotle assigns the last category to the characters of Comedy, and we may locate them in, for example, the satiric pictures of George Grosz, whose initial targets of military corruption and war profiteering enlarge to take in the whole German middle class (fig. 1). And we may recognize them as well in many paintings of various kinds of sinners by Hieronymus Bosch—as, for example, in the tormentors of Christ in the painting The Crowning with Thorns (fig. 2).

Those, on the other hand, who are made to look "better" than they are may be made so by the kind of flattery we assume is employed when the sitter is of royal blood, or is in a position of great power or wealth. Consider, for example, John Singer Sargent's painting The Wyndham Sisters (fig. 3) in the Metropolitan, as well as The Acheson Sisters (fig. 4) at Chatsworth. These ladies are represented as lovely, but denied any individuality or character; they are shown to us as essentially ornamental and aristocratic, not unlike the white flowers in the painting of the Wyndhams, to which those ladies are obviously meant to be compared. The paintings are something in the nature of elaborate compliments by a gallant and talented, though suitably remote, impersonal, and gentlemanly admirer.

Most of the presidential portraits in the White House are craven in their servility, the notable exceptions being the earliest, by the greatest artists of the greatest presidents, including Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington. But portraits are astonishing in the variety of their meanings and uses, apart from politics and propaganda. An artist like Holbein, who often embellished his portraits with the explicit age of the sitter, presented the viewer with a kind of documentary and precise fixative in which we glimpse someone preserved at an instant in the midst of the flux of time (fig. 5). We immediately are prompted to ask ourselves: what will the subject's future wife think of him in this moment of his youth? What will his children think, or his grandchildren? As time goes on his descendants will become remote enough to view his portrait almost as impartially as any gallery visitor. But the very precision of that inscription of his age still invites our thoughts about what he might have looked like when younger, or what he would become when greatly advanced in years. That little notation, "in his twenty-eighth year," resembles the inscriptions we may find in family photograph albums, where, in some unfamiliar hand, a picture is labeled "Far Rockaway, Summer, 1932." A whole departed era, along with a penumbra of personal history, is evoked in this way.

And the portraitist may also make subjects into something like iconic figures who are no longer simply persons, but take on an almost allegorical grandeur of symbolic weight. This is what happens, I think, to Whistler's mother in the painting he called Arrangement in Grey and Black, a title that, in its belligerent aestheticism, virtually ignores the human presence it might be expected to describe (fig. 6). But the person depicted is little short of the personification of patience, resignation, and endurance, just as the memorial statue to the deceased wife of Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery by Augustus Saint-Gaudells has ceased to be the embodiment of its subject, and has taken on the personification of Grief, or Ultimate Serenity (fig. 7). In fact, the Saint-Gaudens statue may achieve its effect in what amounts to the opposite way from Whistler's portrait. Whistler painted a particular woman whom he made allegorical or symbolic; Saint-Gaudens may not have worked either from a photograph or from a recollection of his subject, and the figure in his sculpture may initially seem no more than an allegorical figure. But she is presented with much of her face hooded by enveloping drapery. Clover Adams committed suicide by drinking the chemicals of a photography darkroom; the sculpted figure suggests an absolute and silent withdrawal from the world, and may therefore be more personal and representative than it at first appears. The painting depersonalizes a real person; the statue personalizes the impersonal.

As for Aristotle's third category of men depicted as they actually are, "warts-and-all" portraits such as Cromwell's, these may in the end be the most penetrating and illuminating on a human level, and they are most movingly to be seen in some of the portraits by Rembrandt, including his self-portraits. We are not, of course, to assume that painting is always inspired by what is conventionally called beauty. John Constable wrote, "The sound of water escaping from mill-dams . . . willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things. . . . Those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful."

Still lifes, too, can carry overtones and meaning beyond the simple representation of the objects presented, and sometimes they are expressly symbolic, as, for example, astrolabes and compasses are symbolic of learning, musical instruments of the arts, and food of our quotidian need for nourishment. But simple kitchen appurtenances can be rendered with such devotional attention as to amount almost to what the poet W. H. Auden defines as prayer. Auden wrote, "Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—be it on a landscape or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other [by which Auden means, in the case of painting, the subject] has to say to him, he is praying." We recognize this "prayer" in what we loosely call the astonishing "fidelity" of certain kinds of painterly effect, though in truth it has nothing to do with fidelity, being as much a matter of illusion as, for example, Cubist painting. But a painter's success at presenting the sensation of the slime of fish, the softness of fur, the visual complexity of a bossed and knobbled glass goblet, half filled with wine, and lit with the convex diminished image of a distant mullioned window—these attest to a superior attention to the world we all inhabit, along with an ability to translate that world into a pigmented, precise record.

And all this, moreover, within the confines of a frame. The frame, indeed, may constitute one of the most challenging parts of the painter's achievement, since nothing in our visual experience is framed; and yet a good painting persuades us that everything relevant is contained within the borders of the painting itself, and whatever remains outside is either more of the same or is trivial by comparison. The framed limits of a painting may be thought roughly to correspond to what in drama Aristotle calls the "plot." "A well-constructed plot cannot either begin or end at any point one likes," Aristotle asserts, and it is because the genius knows just how to tailor the action of the drama that Aristotle singles out Sophocles for particular praise.

It remains for me to say at least a brief word about nonrepresentational art, since the kinds I have so far mentioned clearly have a relationship to literary and poetic domains. There are, of course, many varieties of nonrepresentational painting. These may sometimes suggest an undecipherable calligraphy, a puzzle that, like a mandala, can produce, upon prolonged inspection, something very much like a trance state. But I shall, for my own purposes, address myself to the work of Mark Rothko. His characteristic paintings, canvases composed of square or rectangular areas of pure color, resting softly upon one another, as sky or cloud may be thought to rest upon the earth at some indistinct horizon, are all emphatically free from any real suggestion of representation, and seem almost to have been painted in obedience to the biblical proscription against the making of graven images. Indeed, his eloquent murals for the Rothko Chapel at Houston, made of fading and strengthening luminosities, seem, as Robert Hughes has astutely suggested, deeply religious (fig. 8). Hughes writes that "in their slow construction, their faith in the absolute communicative power of colour, and their exquisite sense of nuance, they should perhaps be seen as a prolongation into the late twentieth century of a line drawn between Mallarme and Monet—the subtle, atomistic consciousness of Symbolism. . . . This, however, was not enough for Rothko," Hughes continues. "He was not only a Jew but a Russian Jew, obsessed with the moral possibility that his art could go beyond pleasure and carry the full burden of religious meaning—the patriarchal weight, in fact, of the Old Testament." Yet having come this near to a religious assessment of the paintings in the chapel, Hughes seems oddly to withdraw and reject his own suggestions as he remarks about these murals: "All the world has drained out of them, leaving only a void. Whether it is The Void, as glimpsed by mystics, or simply an impressively theatrical emptiness, is not easily determined, and one's guesses depend on one's expectation. In effect, the Rothko Chapel is the last silence of Romanticism . . . art, in a convulsion of pessimistic inwardness, is meant to replace the world."

With a diffidence born of my respect for Mr. Hughes and his great learning, I wish to dissent from his final judgment. That, of course, is not easy to do because, as he himself acknowledges, the intent of these paintings "is not easily determined." Nevertheless, it seems to me that art replaces the world only in the most effete and trifling kinds of aestheticism, and such a doctrine, along with pessimistic inwardness, would in no way conform to any serious religious feeling. It seems to me instead that the paintings, designed specifically for this chapel, allude to the God who, in speaking to Moses, in Exodus 33:20, declares: "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me and live."

These preliminary observations have been meant to suggest how paintings may take on almost literary qualities, and I have not even bothered to mention those narrative paintings or historical tableaux with which you are likely to be especially familiar. It is virtually impossible to depict any part of the story of the synoptic Gospels without recalling in some degree the specific literary texts on which such paintings are based. And you will doubtless have anticipated the drift of my discourse by recalling how vivid the "visual" element in poetry can often be. I want to proceed to exemplify that with a particular instance, but before I do so it seems to me worth remembering that often enough modern poets and critics have succumbed to a simplistic doctrine, pronounced, with all the truculence of a challenging manifesto, by William Carlos Williams: "No ideas but in things." A great deal not only of modern poetry but of modern literary criticism as well seems to endorse this view. T. S. Eliot's famous formulation about the "objective correlative" was but another way of saying that the poet's emotions, feelings, and thoughts must find a suitable embodiment in the concretions of the world. In his famous essay "The Metaphysical Poets," he wrote:

Temlyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. . . . The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected. In one or two passages of Shelley's Triumph of Life, in the second Hyperion, there are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.

    Lest there be any confusion on the point, let me state immediately that I am perfectly aware that Eliot's formulation about the "objective correlative" does not come from his essay on the Metaphysicals, but appears instead in the celebrated dismissal of Hamlet. There he says, "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." Emotions generated by sensory experience strongly resemble Donne's capacity to "feel his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose." They also point to that quality of concretion that has often been prized both by poets and by their critics.

John Crowe Ransom, for example, who is not usually thought to share the views of Eliot, nevertheless wrote of the Imagists (whose very name constituted a radical position with regard to the goals of poetry):

The Imagists were important figures in the history of our poetry, and they were both theorists and creators. It was their intention to present things in their thinginess, of Dinge in their Dinglichkeit; and to such an extent had the public lost its sense of Dinglichkeit that their redirection was wholesome. What the public was inclined to seek in poetry was ideas, whether large ones or small ones, grand ones or pretty ones, certainly ideas to live by and die by, but what the Imagists identified with the stuff of poetry was, simply, things.

Later in this essay Ransom goes on to explain that "the way to obtain the true Dinglichkeit of a formal dinner or a landscape or a beloved person is to approach the object as such, and in humility; then it unfolds its nature which we are unprepared for if we have put our trust in the simple idea which attempted to represent it." And what Ransom is saying here bears a strong resemblance to what Gerard Manley Hopkins, borrowing his terminology from the scholastic language of Duns Scotus, called haecceitas: the thinginess of a thing—its absolute unique singularity, distinct from what medieval philosophers called an "essence," which they used as a term applied to universals. Hopkins's own term for haecceitas was "inscape" (as Ransom's was "texture"), and Ransom would have inclined to subscribe to Hopkins's assertion that "all words mean either things or the relations of things."

It is little short of remarkable to find something so near to an apparent consensus among such diverse poets, whose actual practice in the art could not have more firmly distinguished them from one another. And there is, I think, a special shrewdness in Ransom's identification of the taste, the appetite, the poetic tendency they were all trying to oppose. It is one to which I shall return in my final lecture: it is the pietistic notion that it is the office of poetry to provide spiritual uplift, ideas to live and die by, elevating maxims, the cloudier the better, and the more disembodied the safer. It was an approved Victorian taste, and has its strong advocates in the world today.

But it is worth recalling now, in the midst of the various triumphs of concretion, and the almost universal endorsement of Dr. Williams's slogan "No ideas but in things, " that there is a fine body of excellent poetry, some of it of the very first class, that comes close to being devoid of any imagery. Not only does it lack the "things" that modern doctrine seems to find indispensable, but it also contrives to avoid the pitfalls of moral platitudes for which a popular appetite is always salivating. Let me suggest a few such poems from various poetic periods. First, two of Shakespeare's most impressive somlets: "Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing," and "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame. " Robert Frost's "Provide, Provide. " The fifth section of T. S. Eliot's "East Coker. " Thomas Wyatt's "Forget Not Yet. " These poems, and many others like them, are not devoid of metaphors, or even an occasional image, but such images are incidental to their chief effect, which is largely rhetorical. Let me offer a particularly happy instance of the kind of success this poetry can enjoy when well performed by a modern practitioner. The poet from whom I quote is J. V. Cunningham, and his poem is called "For My Contemporaries."

How time reverses
The proud in heart
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

Despise me not,
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

This is poetry ill what is called "the plain style": carefully wrought, unornamented, spare, and graceful. It bears a kinship to Latin epigrams and certain kinds of satiric verse that were popular in the eighteenth century. Of Cunningham the critic Yvor Winters wrote that he is "the most distinguished poet writing today and one of the finest in the language." If Winters was given to extravagance in this view, he was nevertheless defending a kind of poetry that had been slighted by the modern prejudice in favor of those concretions that tended to turn poets in the direction of painting.

But so strong has the painterly partiality become in our modern era among poets that one could make a virtual anthology of poems based precisely on particular paintings. Such poems would include Auden's based on Breughel's Fall of Icarus, Robert Lowell's sonnet on Titian's painting of Charles V, W. D. Snodgrass's several poems based on paintings by Matisse, Vuillard, Manet, Monet, and van Gogh, Donald Justice's "Anonymous Drawing," based on a Renaissance work recorded with nothing less than Renaissance accuracy, Richard Wilbur's poem about A Dutch Courtyard, which is now in the National Gallery, as well as his poem about Degas—poems, moreover, by Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Dr. Williams himself, and too many others to list. In addition to poems based on particular paintings or drawings there are those more generally influenced by the work of visual artists, not only painters but photographers and cinematographers. Gustave Flaubert, for example, was much impressed by the accomplishments of early photographers, and this capacity to render the visible world with great precision must have influenced the following brief passage from early in the third chapter of Madame Bovary.

One day he got there about three o'clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long, fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders.

After the fashion of country folks she asked him to have something to drink. He said no; she insisted, and at last laughingly offered to have a glass of liquor with him. So she went to fetch a bottle of curacao from the cupboard, reached down two small glasses, filled one of them to the brim, poured scarcely anything into the other, and, having clinked glasses, carried hers to her mouth. As it was almost empty she bent back to drink, her head thrown back, her lips pouting, her neck on the strain. She laughed at getting none of it, while with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of her glass.

It could be claimed that these two paragraphs constitute an epitome of the entire novel—or at least of Emma's endless craving for experiences that were never to be hers because they were unreal and belonged entirely to the realm of her imagination. Be that as it may, the visual vividness of the passage is especially striking. I do not know of any statement regarding this yearning, this restless ambition to render the visible world in words, that is more persuasive and arresting than the one in Joseph Conrad's preface to his novel The Nigger of the "Narcissus."

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence. . . . The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness7 or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus:—My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

The philistines Conrad identifies as wanting to be improved or consoled were just those very moralists against whom Dr. Williams, his contemporaries, and his disciples were in revolt. They are as busy among us today as they were in Victorian times. But I must draw your attention now particularly to Conrad's description of his task, a matter usually thought quite ordinary when it is thought of at all, but despite that, no less miraculous when it is achieved: "by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything." To set before your eyes an assortment of the characters of the alphabet, disposed and divided according to an established code, meant to make them correspond to the way we talk to one another, and to be able to derive from this coded arrangement not merely the sound of a voice (though that is a great deal), nor the feel of a dramatic situation (though that is a great deal more), but the visual appearance of something quite apart from and beyond the inked letters on the white page, ought at least periodically to astonish us, even as we remember that it was the Latin poet Horace who declared, "Poetry is like painting. . . . Some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you're further off. . . . One gives pleasure once, one will please if you look it over ten times. And this alliance, or, if you like, affinity between the two arts was represented in allegorical form in a painting by Angelica Kauffmann titled Poetry Embracing Painting (fig 9).

A testimony to the importance of direct ocular experience and its incontestable empirical value to the artist is described in the story I have read somewhere that J. M. W. Turner, in his eagerness to see and fully to experience a storm at sea, asked a sea captain on whose storm-beleaguered ship he was a passenger to bind him, like Odysseus, to the mainmast, so that nothing of the sea and the ship's behavior should escape his notice. There is no question that his magnificent paintings of such storms are anything but literal renderings (fig. (10)). Yet it is not improbable to think of them as originating in firsthand experience. This firsthand experience is not devoid of a full emotional component, which in Turner's case involves something bordering on reverence and awe. But we never are allowed to doubt that whatever majesty may be conveyed by these paintings, they began in simple, straightforward inspection And that very kind of fidelity is the subject of Elizabeth Bishop's poem titled "Sandpiper."

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glasses over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

What People are Saying About This

Anthony Hecht's new book speaks with that irresistible authority that comes only from a true artist who has spent a lifetime reflecting on his medium. And yet this profound and engaging volume is not only about poetry. It is a magisterial exploration of the nature of art itself.

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