The relationship between painting and poetry, how poets and painters turn to one another for inspiration, has continued to be of interest for sometime. There are many examples of how art can inspire the writing of poetry, and the responses can take many forms.
The historian Plutarch (c.46–120 A.D.) in his essay on the Glory of Athens quoted Simonides, a Greek poet, as saying “painting is silent poetry and poetry, painting that speaks.” Using art to inspire poetry is conjured up vividly in Homer’s famous description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. It appears before the mind’s eye (an ekphrastic poem, from the Greek word ekphrasis, translated simply as description) as a visual representation, but also something that means so much more in feeling and depth.
A well-known ekphrastic poem by John Keats (1795-1821) is ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, where the stillness, the timelessness of great art, is contrasted with the inevitable disappointments of human experience. Since the death of its maker, an anonymous craftsman, the urn has been fostered by time and silence. The poem appeared first in the Annals of the Fine Arts in January 1820.
Keats also moved in a circle of friends which included artists and critics such as B. R. Haydon, Joseph Severn and William Hazlitt. It was the artist, Haydon, who took Keats to see the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in March 1817. The Marbles had arrived in England in several shiploads from The Parthenon in Athens between 1803 and 1812. Keats wrote two sonnets soon after seeing them. Decades later William Holman Hunt’s first Pre-Raphaelite work exhibited at the Royal Academy was inspired by Keats’s poem The Eve of St Agnes.
The nineteenth century also saw the influential French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) publish his important essay entitled ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (published in 1863). Baudelaire asks the artist to capture “that indefinable something we may be allowed to call modernity…. the transient, the fleeting and the contingent”. The painter Edouard Manet was his friend and was influenced by the poet. Baudelaire can be seen in Manet’s painting Music in the Tuileries Garden, along with the writer Théophile Gautier and the composer Jacques Offenbach.
Closer to our own time, a critic writing in 2009 about Gwen John’s painting A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris said that it was as close to a love poem as a painting can get.
Gwen John herself said “my room is so delicious after a whole day outside it seems to me that I am not myself except in my room.”
There have also been some artists who have been both poet and painter: a fusion of both skills and expression. Michelangelo started writing poetry at a fairly early age, but later in life, from 1532 until 1547 he wrote some two hundred poems.
William Blake (1757-1827) wrote, engraved and printed his first book of poems, combining great poetry with vibrant images. He was largely unrecognised during his lifetime. Worldly success was of little consequence to him. He was dedicated to his work and lived in a world of imagination and the spirit rather than the material world. Blake would have seen a real tiger at the Tower of London, and as a child he had seen images of tigers. The illustration for his poem ‘The Tyger’ was once described as having the expression of a stuffed toy. Blake’s illuminated books are unique in that he printed both his texts and illustrations which he subsequently coloured by hand. It has been strongly suggested that Dylan Thomas would have had access to the Everyman edition of Blake’s poems published in 1927. He would then have seen the frontispiece to Blake’s Gates of Paradise, and been influenced by the illustration. For example in I See the Boys Of Summer, where in the third section of the poem he writes ‘Man in his maggot’s barren./And boys are full and foreign in the pouch.”
Blake was probably ahead of his time, and two centuries after his first and only exhibition flopped, Tate Britain recreated it in 2009. As Blake wrote ‘The eye sees more than the heart knows.’
David Jones (1895- 1974) also belongs to that line of poet-painter. His epic prose-poem of the First World War, In Parenthesis was first published in 1937 by T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber. Eliot regarded it as “as a work of genius.” Jones’s art ranged from paintings, engravings and sculpture to inscriptions and lettering.
A painter who appreciated poetry was Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). In a letter to his brother Theo he mentions Longfellow, and reading poetry with a friend. He also wrote in the same letter “I have not read Hyperion yet, but I have heard that it is very beautiful…..”
R. S. Thomas’s (1913-2000) collection Between Here and Now published in 1981 opens with 33 poems, each one a response to Impressionist paintings which hang in the Louvre, including paintings by Jongkind, Degas, Monet, Vincent and others. In 1985 he brought out another collection entitled Ingrowing Thoughts, it contains 21 poems, inspired by twentieth century artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Paul Nash.
The Fall of Icarus by the Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel (c.1525–1569) was based on the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. The painting was admired by the poet W.H. Auden (1907-73) and it inspired him to write the poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Bruegel was a pioneer of landscape painting, of hunts, festivals, dances, with great powers of observation, and minute depiction of detail. The painting was bought in 1912 by the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden would have seen the painting in December 1938: he understood how the artist showed everyday life going on steadily, unconscious that Icarus is falling to his death.
Ceri Richards (1903-1971) held his first solo exhibition at the Glynn Vivian in 1930. Dylan Thomas’s death in 1953 keenly affected him and although he had met the poet only once he felt a profound affinity with Dylan, the man and his work. This can be seen in his work based on Thomas’s poem to his father ‘Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night’. In 1960 Richards’s first major retrospective was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and two years later he represented the UK at the Venice Biennale, winning the Einaudi painting prize. He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1958 to 1965.
Like Richards, John Ormond (1923-1990) was born in Dunvant, Swansea. He was a poet and a gifted documentary film-maker at the BBC. He created films on Dylan Thomas, Ceri Richards and R.S. Thomas. He also worked for Picture Post. In his poem ‘Certain Questions for Monsieur Renoir’ he is inspired by Renoir’s painting La Parisienne. The woman in the painting is an actress, a favourite model he used between 1874 and 1876. The brightness of the painting giving it an unique vibrancy and charm. Gwendoline Davies bought the painting in 1913 and bequeathed it to the National Museum of Wales.
This is just a brief glimpse through an open window at the relationship between the world of art and poetry: how close it has been and how the relationship continues to flourish.
The following two poems are my own representation in words of three twentieth century works of art. I have also included the front cover of my latest collection, The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions) with Mary Lloyd-Jones’s painting Lost Voices.
WOMAN IN AN ARCH OF TREES
after the painting by Evan Walters
I have walked a path
that resembles the way she goes,
time’s leafy screens
with those dark trees
arched closer straining to hear
words which are said
but never recalled
on a journey such as this;
I see her now
about to wave,
coming towards me,
that small windows of dappled light
still open to guide the mind.
LA CATHÉDRALE ENGLOUTIE III
After the painting by Ceri Richards
The submerged, latent cathedral of Breton
Ys emerges ghostly from
the glassy trenches of the sea,
the rush of foam blinks
with frothy tongues of weed,
a primal force
restless and ill at ease.
Glaze of moon,
glare of vertigo sun,
the shifting, drowned elements
transform the eddying
masonry of pillars,
distorted windows and gothic
arches assimilating heights and depths
known to humankind
in globes of phosphorescent light.
The flame of Debussy’s music
like a cypress tree
probes and kindles
the earthly air,
consumes the lighted vase of life
before a strident tempo is heard
as unanswered questions
towards a quivering
territory of fragile beauty.