Reading the Visual - 17th century poetry and visual culture

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

I. Introduction

II. Ut Pictura Poesis - As Painting so is Poetry

III. Visual Culture

IV. John Donne - Portrait, Painting and Poetry

V. John Donne - Reading the Visual

VI. Conclusion

Works Cited

Figures and Illustrations

I. Introduction

The first artifacts of human endeavors to create lasting signs of existence were cave-paintings, older than any existing written word. The human urge to cultivate a tradition of images lasted throughout the millennia and still forms our society today. Long before the cultivation of oral traditions, before the first tablets bore inscriptions and the first books were printed, the visual started to shape human culture. Today, especially in the cultural studies, there is no doubt about the influence of images on society. Recent studies about the function of images and pictures in mass media like television, newspapers, websites and entertainment media substantiate this thesis. And even cognitive scientists confirm that humans perceive their environment mainly through visio-spatial cognition. Given the fact that we live in a visual culture we must assume that most of our cultural products can be regarded under the aspect of seeing. Traditionally only arts like painting, film, photography and performance were regarded under this aspect. But the field of theory has broadened, allowing us to include other forms of cultural products into our analysis. The literary art historian Norman Bryson emphasized that by means of analysis of visual elements the products of a culture become legible. They allow us to comprehend not only the culture but the culture’s self-conception as well.( Hurley 23) For modern literary criticism it has become quite common to include the visual aspects of literary work into critical consideration, even though most textual media are not predominantly regarded as visual. Even the most scathing critics must admit that literary works, like novels and especially poems, have a rich variety of images and pictures formed in the readers mind by means of words. If we talk about the imagery of poetry or the fine-drawn portrait of a novel character we already use the language of visual art and extend the level of meaning to the visual. The images and imagery an author creates during the process of writing are strongly connected to experiences of visuality similar to the ones of painters. If we pay attention to the author’s (or painter’s) biography we should examine the visual influences in his1 environment as well. Thus we are able to uncover a new level of subtext in literary works. This kind of approach at least contributes to our understanding of the artist, his practices, his products and the cultural aspects of his time. If we acknowledge the significance of visuality for a culture we are able to apply this theory even to previous centuries to gain additional levels of meaning, from text that have been read over centuries but not “seen” before. An era well documented in terms of literary work and visual culture is the time of Renaissance. The literary work and art of this summit of European culture was going to have an impact on centuries to come. Especially the literary work of the Metaphysical poet John Donne seems profitable for an analysis. He actively participated in the visual culture of late Renaissance, more than most of his contemporary writers and artists.

One ambition of this assignment is to focus on the theory of comparing poetry2 and painting in terms of practices and synthesis in order to extend this theory to visual culture and its influence on artists and practices in their specific cultural context. The ambition is to show in how far an analysis of visual elements in late Renaissance culture contributes to our understanding of the cultural products of that era. To introduce the field of work I’d like to present a selection of theories connecting poetry and visual arts. Considering the enormous spectrum of visual art I’d like to focus on painting and draw a comparison to poetry. The idea is to oppose poetry and painting to find common practices and effects in order to substantiate the theory that both forms of art share common ground. The mutual influence, the shared vocabulary and language, and the similar working methods are of special interest here. In transition to late Renaissance visual culture and the work and life of John Donne, a short excursus will be necessary to have a closer look at the meaning of visuality for a culture. It is essential to our understanding of John Donne’s poetry that it is a product of society and culture as well as it is of art. Social and cultural currents in Renaissance are equally important for the process of creation as are the experiences of the individual. Based on this theoretical background I’d like to establish a connection between the self-portraits John Donne commissioned during his lifetime and the influence of contemporary painters and art collectors. The chapter will allow us a deeper insight into Donne’s affection for visual arts and image. Above that it allows us to go even further and explore the meaning of performance, staging and courtly festivals as part of the visual culture surrounding the poet. In conclusion of the preceding chapters I’d like to apply the results on the textual-level of Donne’s work. I’m going to concentrate my attention especially on elements in his poetry referring to visuality, image, picture and painting but also references to eyes, sight, seeing and imagining. Even though I’m aware of the fact that not all elements in Donne’s poetry can be reduced to his participation in a visual culture, I believe that this approach serves as a useful tool to understand author and work beyond hermeneutic textual analysis. According to this the result of this assignment won’t give a binary answer to the question which scientific approach serves better for the purpose. It is my ambition to examine the possibilities of a visual approach to 17th century poetry and culture and to present a gradual result about if and how this approach is useful for textual analysis.

II. Ut Pictura Poesis - As Painting so is Poetry

The painter in the grand manner must be a poet; I do not say that he must write poetry, for one may do that without being a poet; but I say that not only must he be filled with the same spirit that animates poetry, but he must of necessity know its rules, which are the same as those of paintingPainting must do for the eyes what poetry does for the ears. (qtd. in Rogers 41)

The French painter, art commentator and playwright, Antoine Coypel, summarized what I like to see as the starting point of this assignment: the interaction and mutual influence of painting and poetry. In the calligraphy of ancient China and Japan (see fig.1) we discover the art of painted scripture or written painting. A distinction between poetry and painting is not necessary since the representation contains and combines both forms. The meaning of the word calligraphy signifies that writing (graphe) and drawing (also graphe) create beauty (kallos) on the basis of equivalence. The Chinese and Japanese calligraphers regarded themselves as writers not painters of pictures.(Rogers 46)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The modern distinction between poetry as something written and painting as something visual didn’t exist in the art of calligraphy. Especially the Japanese form of calligraphy called ashide demonstrates the transition from sign and meaning to picture and representation. It combines illustrations of landscapes with written or painted characters resembling reeds or leaves, thus contributing meaning and aesthetic to the representation.(Rogers 45) The idea behind this short excursus is to substantiate a theory of resemblance of painting and poetry, since the discussion has been resumed, in the centuries to follow, by both artists and literary critics. Coleridge for instance points to the fact that both painter and writer depend on the material element, the letter written with ink and the brush-stroke with paint, to create permanence.(Rogers 47) The fixation of signs inherited by painting and poetry allows them to reproduce the world in form and meaning, in picture and word. Most striking when talking about poetry and painting is the resemblance in language and vocabulary. Expressions like delineate, portrait, landscape, draw, sketch and palette apply for both art forms. Turgenev said to have sketched the characters for Fathers and Sons, describing the creative process during which he invented and framed the personality of his characters. Washington Irving couldn’t have been more obvious in his references when he titled his Sketch Book and chose the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon.(Rogers 42) The shared language extends beyond the artist to the recipient or critic, using similar descriptions for written and visual art. If we can refer to a novel, a poem or a painting with words like colorful, fine-drawn, portrait, intensity, melancholic etc. we realize the strong similarities not only in the synthesis but also in the perception of poetic and visual art.

The analogy is simple but helps to understand that visual art and poetry are not as far apart as one might think. One of the most influential painters of the 20th century, Picasso, once said: “after all the arts are all the same; you can write a picture in words just as you can paint sensations in a poem.” (Rogers 46) It is important though to be aware of the fact that painting and poetry are not exchangeable. Indeed a resemblance can be found on the levels of form, language, perception and synthesis, but the cultural product (painting or poem) is bound to the context and conditions of its creation, namely the artist’s individual experience and his craftsmanship. Just to be clear, there is no sense in arguing that Picasso could have written like Henry James or vice versa. Poetry and Painting can at most explain and sustain each other and appear as complementary arts.(Rogers 46)

The analogy between visual art and writing was emphasized again in the late 20th century in form of Concrete Poetry (Konkrete Poesie see fig.2) using letters and words not only for their content but giving them form beyond the literal meaning. This kind of visual poetry is a good example for the obliteration of boundaries between written and visual art. The example on the right shows a word in its meaning, the representation in form of letters and the action it signifies. Concrete Poetry visualizes three levels of perceptional processes thus leaving a vacuum of interpretation and irritating the viewer. Above that it dissolves the distinction between writing and painting and evokes the question whether one is looking at a picture or a text. Interesting about this kind of poetry is that many of its representatives are not artists in a traditional sense but linguists and philologists. This kind of linkage between the spheres of language and painting follows a tradition that can be traced back to the calligraphy of ancient China and Japan I mentioned before. In the middle ages the artists Michelangelo, famous for his sculptures and paintings, also wrote poetry.( Pater 73)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The author Iwan Sergejewitsch Turgenev was known to have a facility for drawing portraits with pen and ink. He used his imagination to draw a quick outline of a human profile, lifelike and with an eye for individuality and personality. The probably most important French author of modern times, Victor Hugo, was an ingenious painter and his works (e.g. Old House or Le Gai Chateau) convey a permanent artistic value.(Rogers 42-43) The Canadian-born British painter and author Wyndham Lewis commented his approach to painting and writing by saying that: “The habit of thinking of things in plastic and pictorial terms must have its influence on the writer’s art, when you practice both as I do. First of all I see! The first - and last - thing that I do is to use my eyes.” (Rogers 43) Again the visual dominates the process of imagination and illustrates in the mind what later becomes written or painted art. This theory becomes even clearer when looking at the work of William Blake and the book prints called Illuminated Books (see fig.3). Blake used the method of relief etching to create books which contained both painting and poetry in a perfect synergy of orthographic and pictorial aesthetics. For Blake the words painter and poet no longer existed in a separate meaning, since his art developed the spheres of writing and painting to a level of equivalence, which made the former distinctions redundant. Blake’s source of inspiration was the vision which is synonymous to imagination for him and refers to the visual aspects of his art as well as to the representation of the written word. These considerations about similarities and analogies between poetry and painting are going to contribute to our understanding of the work and life of John Donne in the later chapters. The choice of examples given above is supposed to substantiate an approach to poetry by means of images and visuality. Above that it serves as background for a more detailed analysis of John Donne’s poetry and especially the closer examination of his portraits. Before we engage the concept of visual culture I’d like to have a more detailed look at the transformational element in the artistic process, leading from imagination to realization.


1 In this assignment I’m going to abstain from a provision for masculine and feminine terms since they significantly disturb the reading process.

2 Rogers defines poetry as all works of art using words as a medium (Rogers 9) to etch: “to make (a drawing, design, etc.) on metal, glass, etc. by the action of an acid, esp. by coating the surface with wax and letting acid eat into the lines or areas laid bare with a special needle.” (Webster’s 488)

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Reading the Visual - 17th century poetry and visual culture
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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visual culture, 17th century poetry, John Donne, Metaphysics
Quote paper
M.A. Robert Kampf (Author), 2008, Reading the Visual - 17th century poetry and visual culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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