Art and poetry



Art and Poetry


“When William Dyce visited Rome, he was astonished: ‘In truth, to me Rome was a kind of living poem, which the soul read unceasingly, with the soothed sense which poetry inspires’.1 In comparison with the bracing climate and rather more austere architecture of Aberdeen where Dyce had grown up, the warmth, colour and sheer magnificence of the Eternal City was overwhelming. To describe it as ‘a kind of living poem’, however, suggests not just the visual artist’s acute perception of the city’s distinctive appearance, but also a deep sensitivity to the overall tone, history and special atmosphere. Dyce first travelled there in 1825, a year after the poet Lord Byron’s death. Born in 1806, Dyce was only a few years younger than the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, so recently buried at the Protestant Cemetery when Dyce made his initial visit to Rome. He was thus part of an era in which the very idea of ‘poetry’ was broad enough to encompass any imaginative response to the world, enabling Shelley to include Raphael beside Homer, Tasso and Bacon in stirring references to the ‘greatest poets’ of all time.2Artists of the Romantic period could rise as readily as writers to the ideals articulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, in praise of Wordsworth’s poetry:

It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.3

For Dyce to describe Rome as a ‘living poem’ would not have seemed odd to those nurtured on the grand ideals of the Romantic period, and although subsequent decades saw a diminishing faith in poetry, and indeed much else, the influence of Coleridge, Wordsworth and other stars of Dyce’s formative firmament continued to be felt. John Ruskin, for example, presenting a Victorian readership with Modern Painters (1843–60), still drew inspiration from Wordsworth, including more quotations from the elderly poet laureate than any other source. The third volume, published in 1856, was prefaced by lines from Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), lamenting the modern tendency to neglect the soul, which Ruskin considered as relevant to readers of the mid-century as to those four decades before. Modern painters, he suggested, should look to Wordsworth for inspiration in the fullest, most spiritual sense. Dyce’s own analogy between the experience of visiting Rome and the ‘soothed sense which poetry inspires’ could only have been made by a poetry lover, and throughout his artistic career he frequently chose subjects with literary dimensions. From his early sketch of Puck 1825 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen) to his late portrait of George Herbert at Bemerton c.1860 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), Dyce demonstrated his interest in poetry; but even works less obviously indebted to specific sources often suggest a deeply literary sensibility. As the Art-Union observed approvingly in 1844, he was one of the few modern British painters who considered it ‘as much their duty to read and think as to draw and paint’.”

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