Friday, October 09, 2009


Ut Pictura Poesis

Leo Spitzer, "The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' or Content vs. Metagrammar," Comparative Literature 7 (1955) 203-225, reprinted in Anna Hatcher, ed., Essays on English and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), pp. 67-97 (at 72):
It is first of all a description of an urn — that is, it belongs to the genre, known to Occidental literature from Homer and Theocritus to the Parnassians and Rilke, of the ekphrasis, the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art, which description implies, in the words of Théophile Gautier, 'une transposition d'art', the reproduction, through the medium of words, of sensuously perceptible objets d'art ('ut pictura poesis').
In letters to his brother Laurence, A.E. Housman criticized ekphrasis: "Poems on pictures seem to me an illegitimate genre" (December 14, 1894) and "Men were not created to write poems about pictures" (March 31, 1895). But the genre continues to be popular with writers and at least with this reader. Here is Richard Wilbur's Ceremony:
A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, a patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
But ceremony never did conceal,
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.

Let her be some Sabrina fresh from stream,
Lucent as shallows slowed by wading sun,
Bedded on fern, the flowers' cynosure:
Then nymph and wood must nod and strive to dream
That she is airy earth, the trees, undone,
Must ape her languor natural and pure.

Ho-hum. I am for wit and wakefulness,
And love this feigning lady by Bazille.
What's lightly hid is deepest understood,
And when with social smile and formal dress
She teaches leaves to curtsey and quadrille,
I think there are most tigers in the wood.
Wilbur sees much more than I ever could without his help in the picture on which his poem is based, Frédéric Bazille's Réunion de famille:

Another example of ekphrasis I came across recently is Basil Bunting, Ode 2.2:
Three Michaelmas daisies
on an ashtray;
one abets love;
one drops and woos;

one stiffens her petals
the root, the sap
and the bees' play.
Here the objet d'art is a painted ashtray. I've searched here and there among many photographs of Dutch painted ashtrays on the Internet, but I can't find one fitting Bunting's description. He was a smoker, and I wonder if such an ashtray survived among his belongings. The Michaelmas daisy's close relation, Aster novae-angliae, is still in splendid bloom in my garden, now more than a week after Michaelmas.

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