Illus. 37  George Cruikshank, Pillars of a Gin Shop, etching from My Sketch Book, 1833.

THE POETICS OF SIGHT

‘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, Cruikshank, 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.

‘An erudite and vivid history of our aesthetic responses to sight . . . a strong but delicately constructed narrative . . . the argument builds with unfaltering strength and purpose . . . the style is serious, profound, and economical, but also lively, inventive and warmly conversational . . . the lucid structuring of Harvey’s rich erudition and the vivacity of his prose . . . Having enjoyed a series of dazzling conversations, as it feels, we find that we have gained a tightly focused but expansive cultural history of sight, which has given us not just new knowledge but new skills, and which offers us above all a new literary-visual attunement, a refocusing of the mind’s eye.’  Jane Partner, The Cambridge Quarterly

 

‘Immensely enjoyable . . . Harvey wears his immense art historical and literary scholarship lightly.’  Justin Coombes, Journal of Visual Studies

 

Simon Lavery, in Tredynas Days, concluded 'I commend this book: it’ll change the way you read’.

 

Editions: Peter Lang, UK and USA, 2015.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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