Poetic speech and the silence of art

Poetic speech and the silence of art

Sandbank, Shimon

“We see no birds in the paintings of Paolo Uccello”: this is how Italo Calvino’s short text, “The Birds of Paolo Uccello,” begins (3). ‘What has become of the birds that according to Vasari once studded his canvases?” asks Calvino. “Who has scared them away?” And the answer: “Most certainly it is the soldiers, who render the highways of the air impassable with their spears, and with the clash of weaponry silence trillings and chirrupings.” More than one writer had depicted the aged Uccello surrounded by his bird paintings. In his most famous surviving works, however, “what catches the attention is the absence of birds, an absence that lies heavy on the air, alarming, menacing and ominous.”

These surviving paintings presuppose others which may have been painted but have since been lost: “scenes that precede the above–a world all trillings and peckings and beating wings, taken by surprise and scattered to the winds by the invasion of the warriors–and other scenes that follow them: the counteroffensive of the birds, who swoop down in serried flocks and perch on helmets, shoulder plates and elbow guards” (3-4). Calvino’s text is now brimming with eddies of feathers and grasping talons, a horror not unlike Hitchcock’s in The Birds. One cries for help; one casts around for a shield to protect oneself and finds oneself grasping a wing with feathers spread. Finally, even man, having already transformed himself into crustacean by donning armour, is metamorphosed into bird, In the final exchange between crustacean and bird, one does not know “where–and if–man still exists”(4).

The text that began with the absence of birds thus ends with their ubiquitous presence. Obversely, the men who filled the canvas at the beginning have virtually disappeared by the end. They have been assimilated into birds, their breastplates putting forth feathers and their trumpets emitting shrill bird cries. The absence that “lay heavy on the air, menacing and ominous,” has by now swallowed up all presence.

Calvino’s essay is about the way the creative imagination responds to a painting. The paradoxical point he is making is that a writer’s response to a work of art begins with what the work excludes and ends with its destruction. What catches the observer’s attention and triggers a chain of association is not so much Uccello’s battle scenes themselves as that which is absent from them. Proceeding to a full-blown imagining of that absent element, the observer finally reaches a point where it has completely superseded the actual painting.

What I would like to suggest is that poets often respond to paintings in this way. It is a point worth making, because poets who write ekphrastic poems (that is, poems on works of art) are often described as starting from what’s in the painting and as trying to transpose its visual forms to their own verbal medium. The assumption that such transposition is possible is related to the many failed attempts to define so-called parallels or analogues between the “sister arts” of poetry and painting: either in subject matter, where the parallelisms may throw some light on that vague entity called Zeitgeist, but little on either of the two arts themselves; or in form, where terms used literally on one side of the equation are used figuratively on the other, and are therefore nearly useless (linear and painterly, closed and open composition, etc.).(1) Instead, I find it much more helpful to study the relation between poems and paintings in terms of absence and supersession. Ekphrastic poets, I suggest, do not at all do what some critics say they do, namely “ignore themselves and their own sphere of thought and feeling and open up completely to the work of another” (Kranz, Bildgedicht in Europa 60; my translation). Rather, they exploit the lacunae of the visual medium to assert the power of their own.

Not that Calvino’s point is altogether new. His characteristic way of radicalizing his argument is so striking that one tends to lose sight of its rather simple core. In fact, his response to Uccello is basically no different from that of Balzac to a winterscape. Baudelaire describes the episode:

On raconte que Balzac…, se trouvant un jour en face d’un beau rableau, un tableau d’hiver, tout melancolique et charge de frimas, clairseme de cabanes et de paysans chetifs,–apres avoir contemple une maisonnette d’ou montait une maigre fumee, s’ecria: “Que c’est beau! Mais que font-ils dans cette cabane? a quoi pensent-ils, quels sont leurs chagrins? les recoltes ont-elles ete bonnes? ils ont sans doute des echeances a payer?” (579)

Balzac expresses his admiration in a brief exclamation (“Que c’est beau!’) and immediately abandons the painting itself. All the rest of what he has to say refers to what is missing from the painting–the unseen people inside the little cottage–and to what must be missing from it: their thoughts and worries.

The same holds for Calvino’s birds: they could not possibly appear in Uccello’s surviving battle scenes. They may have appeared in scenes that preceded or followed the surviving paintings, but time sequentiality is excluded from painting, and what preceded or followed the scenes we have cannot possibly appear in them. The absence of birds in these scenes is therefore as inevitable as, or even more inevitable than, the absence of thoughts in the winterscape Balzac was admiring. Both birds and thoughts had to be absent by force of the innate limitations of the visual medium.

Thus, Balzac’s starting point, like Calvino’s, is absence. But does Balzac also destroy presence like Calvino? The word seems inadequate in this case. Calvino lets the absent birds oust the present soldiers; Balzac does not let the absent thoughts oust the depicted winter scene, nor are they incompatible with it. The lean peasants, the small cottages, the frost, all suggest them. At the same time, he cannot wait to leave the visual scene behind and turn to the thoughts the painter could not include in it. With his prompt entrance into the sphere of thought and feeling the writer has turned his back on the visible, which, though not destroyed, is superseded.

Thus both writers seem primarily engaged not in transposing to language the form of a visual object, but in superseding it. Only by being left behind could the landscape Balzac saw activate his imagination, or Uccello’s painting produce Calvino’s text.

In the two ekphrastic texts we have examined, the starting point is an absence, a limitation of the visual art. Why should a writer use the limitations of another art to create his own? Does ekphrastic poetry involve a game of power The “creative mind’s desperate insistence upon priority,” in Harold Bloom’s formulation (13), comes naturally to mind. Bloom’s concept of poetic history as made by poets “misreading one another so as to clear imaginative space for themselves” (5) may apply here as well, though the anxiety Bloom stresses is far less obvious in the relation between two different mediums. Rene Girard’s theory of sexual rivalry, in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, seems equally called for, perhaps even more so, since by presenting the Other as model for imitation as well as rival, this theory may do more justice to the paradoxical relation between poet and painter.(2) The ekphrastic poet seems to depend on the pregnant lacunae of art, on its infinitely intriguing silence, just as lie or she seems determined to redeem it by means of poetic speech.

Whatever the psychology of the case, the history of the “sister arts” certainly testifies to a less than harmonious relation between the two. The transformations of the ut pistura poesis topos show that poetry, except for some notable cases such as Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, bas usually been placed above the fine arts, mainly due to its capacity for direct abstraction and hence for more explicitly and thoroughly addressing spiritual matters; thus it is seen as having greater religious, moral, and philosophical value. The visual arts, on the other hand, have been shown to suffer from a number of inherent weaknesses: their limitation to visually perceptible objects, their restriction to a single moment of time and a single place, their inaccessibility to sound and other sensory phenomena, and of course their incapacity for the logical and abstract (Markiewicz, passim).

And yet, the visual impact of painting and its iconic immediacy and suggestive silence have always aroused the envy of poets. Even a Romantic like Coleridge, in a period which is supposed to have been freeing itself from pictorialism, tries over and over again to sketch what he cannot describe in words. “O Christ, it maddens me that I am not a painter or that painters are not I,” he writes in his Notebooks, attempting to describe the appearance of birch trees (1495 f.65). In our own century, the same exemption from abstract meaning, which had been considered a fault, has elevated painting to the rank of ultimate model, and Cezanne’s “thingy” apples to the ideal at which poetry too must aim. William Carlos Williams writes,

…the progression from the sentiment, the thought (philosophy) or the concept to the poem itself, that was the secret meaning inside the term “transition” during the years when the painters following Cezanne began to talk of sheer paint: a picture a matter of pigments upon a piece of cloth stretched on a frame…It is the making of that step, to come over into the tactile qualities, the words themselves beyond the mere thought expressed that distinguishes the modern of that time from the period before the turn of the century. And it is the reason why painting and the poem became so closely allied at that time. It was the work of the painters following Cezanne and the Impressionists that, critically, opened up the age of Stein, Joyce and a good many others. It is in the taking of that step over from feeling to the imaginative object, on the cloth, on the page, that defined the term, the modern term-a work of art, what it meant to them. (Autobiography 380-81)

What Williams here calls the “coming over into the tactile qualities,” much more natural to painting than to poetry, could only enhance the position of painting as both model and rival. No wonder a collection of essays on painting by twentieth-century poets reveals as one of its leitmotifs poets’ envy of painters:

STEPHEN SPENDER “When they paint, painters are exercising some of the qualities essential to good writing. Apart from the most obvious of these–the organizing power of the visual imagination–they observe what Blake called ‘minute particulars.’ They create images and they store memories. For all these things writers may envy them” (J.D. McClatchy 140).

HOWARD NEMEROV “The poet walks through the museum and among so many and so diverse conceptions and manners of treatment he sees, he hears, especially two things: silence and light…His own art, in the comparison, begins to seem the merest pitifullest chatter, compounded of impatience and opinion” (McClatchy 178-79).

ROBERT CREELEY “There is no ‘answer’ to anything. A painter (possibly a musician) can assert this more effectually, more relevantly, than any other ‘artist.’ He can be present all at one time, which no writer can quite be–because he has to ‘go on'” (McClatchy 221).

CHARLES TOMLINSON “We live in the center of a physical poetry,’ says Wallace Stevens. This is surely the basic fact which would make a poet want to paint or, if he couldn’t do that, to comprehend the painter’s way of regarding the physical poetry they both share…When words seem too abstract, then I find myself painting the sea with the very thing it is composed of–water…” (McClatchy 266, 268).

JAMES MERRILL “The writer will always envy the painter. Even those who write well about painting, he will envy for having learned to pay close attention to appearances” (McClatchy 312).

Minute particulars, appearances, physicality, silence, lack of answer–these, then, are some features contemporary poets find worthy of imitation and envy in painting. Though randomly picked up from McClatchy’s collection, all have to do with the transition Williams talks about from the semantic to the tactile, a transition poets feel is easier in the wordless visual medium. In Archibald Macleish’s famous “Ars Poetica,” it is in terms of wordlessness and motionlessness that the non-semantic poem, the poem that ‘is” rather than “means,” is defined.

Williams, who seriously tries to turn his convictions into practice, is unexpectedly an exception among ekphrastic poets. He seems readier than many of his fellow ekphrastic poets to pursue his envy to a constructive conclusion and get as close as possible to the tactile qualities of the paintings he writes about, free from “sentiment, thought or concept.” His much-admired “Pictures from Brueghel” show an astounding resistance to meanings beyond the immediate appearances of Brueghel’s paintings. Even in a poem pregnant with mythical meaning like “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (4), he insists on juxtaposing the spring landscape with the drowning Icarus in purely spatial and visual terms: “near the edge of the sea” versus “off the coast.”

A measure of the unbridgeable gap between the media, however, is that even Williams cannot help imposing some concepts on the “sheer paint’ of Brueghel’s canvas. An ironic “unsignificantly” and “quite unnoticed” is added to the final reference to Icarus’s fall, expressing, however minimally, outrage at the indifference of the world to its dreamers:

Unsignificantly off the coast there was

a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning

Williams also puts “when Icarus fell” at the beginning of the poem, thus making clear what he judges to be the philosophical (though not visual) center of the picture; in addition, he presents the entire plot of the picture in the past tense, thus taking us back from the purely perceptual present to the remembered myth and its philosophical implications.

Thus, in the final analysis Williams too does what is inaccessible to painting and open only to language. He judges, ironizes, moves in time. He too fills out the absences of art, falling short of the ideal (described by Merrill in the above-quoted passage) of that “rare person who can look at anything for more than a few seconds without turning to language for support.”

The physical bias of much modern poetry, then, does not exempt poets from the urge to lend their visual objects the differentia specifica of the verbal. A salient case in point is Rilke. His Dingdichtung, inspired by Cezanne and Rodin, is often seen as a heroic attempt–perhaps the heroic attempt beside Gerard Manley Hopkins’s–to subject poetic language to the physical “inscape” of things (Hartman 95). His famous sonnet on the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with all its seeming glorification of a purely physical presence, insistently dismisses the physical:

We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (61)

This poem throughout focuses on absence, on what the torso lacks: its lack of head, of genitals, of arms. Rilke attributes the statue’s impact to these gaps in the visual, to what is invisible and non-physical–the mysterious interiorization of the gaze. The poem’s end, with its famous moral call to a change of life, is altogether beyond the physical.

Formally, this sonnet is miles apart from Calvino’s “The Birds of Uccello.” Nevertheless, they share a certain deep structure. Rilke’s starting point, like Calvino’s, is absence. Though the two absences are different in kind–Calvino’s absence of birds derives from an inherent limitation of the visual medium, its inability to present time-sequentiality, while Rilke’s absence of head, arms, and genitals is contingent, a result of the ravages of time–both serve as springboards to a destruction of the physical presence of the work of art concerned. Both Rilke’s defaced stone and Calvino’s painted soldiers are destroyed by the imaginative extensions of absence: the eyes that owing to the head’s absence have been interiorized into the body; the birds that, having been scattered and absent, now swoop down in counteroffensive. Both writers have deleted their visual objects so as to clear imaginative space for themselves, as Harold Bloom would put it.

In addition, they have reaffirmed the traditional topos of the resilience of poetry, in contrast to art. “You shall shine more bright in these contents,” Shakespeare assures the beloved, referring to his sonnets, “than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.” Rilke shows how the statue’s physical deterioration results in an enduring spiritual resilience, like poetry; it has become

eunuch, but, as Hopkins puts it in a letter to Bridges, “it is for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Now as immaterial as a poem, the statue has overcome art’s inability to deal with spiritual matters and actually become a poem.(3)

One is reminded of Gertrude Stein’s frivolous but profound “pictures,” described in a lecture she delivered during her 1934 American tour. “I always…liked,” she says, “looking out of windows in museums. It is more complete, looking out of windows in museums, than looking out of windows anywhere else” (91). But then, during a long hot summer in Italy, she “began to sleep and dream in front of oil paintings.” She still looked out of the windows of the museums, but it was no longer necessary. “There were very few people in the galleries in Italy in the summers in those days and there were long benches and they were red and they were comfortable at least they were to me and the guardians were indifferent or amiable and I would really lie down and sleep in front of the pictures. You can see that it was not necessary to look out of the windows.”

Is that not what Calvino and Rilke are doing? They look out of windows or sleep and dream, but they must do it in a museum in front of paintings. Uccello and the torso must be there for Calvino and Rilke to turn their backs on and dream. Even in a time of “physical poetry,” ekphrastic poets thus half turn their back to the physical painting. Rather than engaging exclusively in carrying the forms of art over to poetry, they concentrate on the absences of art to the advantage of poetry. An ekphrastic poem therefore remains what M.J. Kurrik, in an entirely different context, calls “a presence based on absences.” It is “from the perspective of what it excludes” that the ekphrastic poet reads his visual object, and “the perception of absence” is what “institutes [his] creative act” (1,x,5)

Among the absences of art, that of sound is particularly significant to poets, whose very medium, language, is embodied in the sounds of speech. How is the silence of art treated in ekphrastic poetry?

The pregnant silence of paintings and statues often enables poets to endow them with another, largely absent, element: mental phenomena. Thoughts or feelings may be suggested in painting and sculpture through visual clues, but in the final analysis only language can render them in all their nuances (Merriman 162).

The silence of Rodin’s The Thinker enables the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral to indulge in the Thinker’s thoughts, in what she imagines to be his meditation of death:

Con el menton caido sobre la mano ruda, el pensador se acuerda que es carne de la huesa, carne fatal, delante del destino desnuda, carne que odia la muerte, y temblo de belleza. (Kranz, Bildgedicht 62)

Mistral reads The Thinker from a double perspective of exclusion: the exclusion of voice, which leaves open the Thinker’s thoughts, and the exclusion of the thoughts themselves which, though suggested by facial expression and body language, cannot possibly be represented directly, and remain open to many interpretations.

Unlike Rilke’s torso, Rodin’s statue is not eliminated to be replaced by inwardness. Its inwardness having been suggested by its physical presence, it harmonizes with, rather than supersedes, it. Sinking chin, coarse hand, muscles, cracked skin–rather than being negated, these serve as an objective correlative to a missing inwardness restored by the poem. At the same time, they are doubly reduced: through being relegated to the status of correlative or sign, and by being confined, qua signs, to a single meaning.

This reduction, however, is far milder than the total negation of presence the silence of art can produce. A poet may reject the visual clues the painter offers, or choose to follow them in a partial or idiosyncratic manner. In a sonnet by Manuel Machado on Manet’s The Balcony (Kranz, Bildgedicht 316),(4) what the painting foregrounds and illuminates, i.e. the two ladies on the balcony, is largely ignored by the poet, who focuses instead on the dark background and the thoughts of the silent man standing there, oblivious to present goings-on, daydreaming of future joys. Similarly, in a quatrain on Durer’s Melancolia, the poet William Watson dismisses sea, earth, and heaven, which occupy half of Durer’s work, as irrelevant to the interior life of silent Melancholy, whose inner ‘fantom’ alone is supposed to hold her fixed gaze (Kranz, Meisterwerke 339). The elimination of physical detail is particularly striking in an emblematic picture like this, which naturally calls, on the contrary, for a thorough iconological interpretation of its physical detail.(5)

Quite often, however, as in Mistral’s Rodin, the silence of art is used in a way that follows and supports physical presence, though at the expense of complexity. A witty mannerist device often used in this context is the thematization of art’s silence: the device by which a painting’s silence, deriving of course from a limitation inherent to the medium, is misread as belonging to the specific theme presented. Thus Laokooon’s silence, or that of Michelangelo’s Slave, is interpreted as deriving from heroic stoicism;(6) Mona Lisa’s silence is attributed to her sphinx-like nature or her experience of the world;(7) Michelangelo’s Night, in the Medici Chapel, is said to be mute by nature, not by art.(8) The silence of art in such cases is not exploited to smuggle in absent thoughts, but is wittily misread as a positive trait of the work’s theme.

The same device is also applied to another absence, that of movement. The reason why Michelangelo’s Moses does not jump up from his seat, says one poet, is that he is in control of his passions (Kranz, Meisterwerke 275). And his Night is said in another poem to be immobile because night is immobile (303). Similarly, the lovers’ immobility on the verge of sailing to Cythera, in Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythere, is thematized by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud into their wish to be ever on the way, never to arrive:

Ils ne vont pas plus loin que leur geste charmant, Car pour leur tendre coeur toute la poesie De I’amoureux voyage est dans l’embarquement. (Kranz, Meisterwerke 389) The misreading that constitutes this device, taking an exclusion for an intended inclusion, is double-edged. On the one hand it seems to testify to a generosity on the part of the poet, who, instead of exploiting an absence in the visual medium to promote his own, interprets it to serve the artist’s purpose. On the other hand, this service depends on the poet’s discretion, and he knows it. Not only is Watteau himself unable to give us more than the vaguest visual clue, let alone directly tell us that his lovers’ immobility has to do with a wish never to arrive; he can hardly make it clear, as it turns out, in a Dutch poem on the same painting, whether they are sailing to the island or back from it (Kranz, Meisterwerke 392-93). There is a dismissal of art as such in the poet’s refusal to acknowledge its limitations, its own terms, when pretending to regard its exclusions as intended by the artist. In fact, intentions remain as inaccessible to art as ever. Being wordless, it can never be precise about them.

At this point, however, some ekphrastic poems perform an astounding volte face. Precisely by being wordless, they say, art is able; not only to express spiritual truths, but to do it better than words. Silence comes nearer the spirit than the “merest pitifullest chatter” that is poetry. Language’s superiority to art in expressing the non-visible is reversed into an inferiority. Now the visual medium can do it better, not by force of its physical presence, but by the way it excludes sound and noise.

This infinitely pregnant silence of art has been our starting point: it is that which attracts poets to art in the first place. But rivalry is at work here too. The silence that poets are after is different from, more than, the silence of art. In Mallarme’s “Sainte,” the stained-glass image of Saint Cecilia is both evoked and eliminated by poetic speech, but poetic speech too is eliminated in its turn to clear space, not for the visual silence that has been left behind, but for another silence, the silence into which words reach after speech. The “musicienne du silence” the poem finally achieves is not the stained-glass saint, but that which is absent from all stained-glass windows and rises musically out of, and beyond, words.

The unheard melodies of Mallarme’s saint cannot but remind us of Keats’s urn. His “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” perhaps the greatest ekphrastic poem, is also one of the most profound studies of the relation between art and poetry from the perspective of absence, or rather of two absences: of sound and of movement. These two limitations of the visual medium are here reversed into its triumph. It is, however, a double-edged triumph, deeply marred by exclusion.

Silence dominates the first one-and-a-half stanzas. The urn is

bride of quietness, a foster child of silence. It is “still”–that is, again, silent, or, if taken as adverb, still unravished by (one suspects) the poet, who will soon and inevitably “ravish” the urn’s “ditties of no tone” by his insistent voice. He would have preferred to pipe to the spirit, not to the sensual ear, but is doomed to the latter. His frantic questions concerning the illustrations on the urn–what legend, what men, what maidens, what struggle, what pipes–enact the verbal rape of art’s silence. But they also bring out art’s impotence in comparison with speech. For it can answer none of these questions. There is a silence in art which is not only numinous (“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought”), but also infinitely sad, ever frustrating man’s thirst for being “told,” for the absent voice:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

The second absence, motionlessness, dominates the second half of stanza 2 and the entire third stanza. Here again a limitation seems to be turned inside out and become triumph. Art’s exclusion of movement and time becomes timelessness, in the sense of eternity. Impotence becomes power.(9) But, as has often been shown, there is too much insisting (“Ah happy, happy…And happy…More happy… more happy, happy”). There is also an odd use of “cannot” where “need not” seems the better choice: “thou canst not leave/Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare”; “she cannot fade”; “happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves.” Since it is bad for one to leave one’s song, for trees to be bare, for a girl to fade, or for boughs to shed their leaves, shouldn’t the exemption from all these be presented as privilege (“thou need not leave thy song” etc.) rather than incapacity?

One obvious answer is that timelessness is an incapacity inasmuch as it precludes consummation. Keats, it has been often said, wants both timelessness and time, both fulfillment and exemption from decay. “All human passion far above” could also be read ironically, as a backhanded compliment: love as depicted on the urn is deathless, but only because it is lifeless. The problem with this answer is that it applies to “never canst thou kiss,” which signifies an incapacity to consummate one’s love, but not to “she cannot fade,” where the incapacity would strangely mean an incapacity to grow old. Therefore, I think the incapacity so often repeated here has to do with art’s incapacity to articulate change. Both the lack of consummation and the exemption from aging derive from the innate limitation of art. Its claim to eternity only hides the absence that lies behind it. Its song, youth, and leaves cannot choose but to be eternal.

The frustration that counterbalances art’s triumph is lent great emotional force in the fourth stanza. A third limitation is now ascribed to art: its confinement to a single place. If the green altar towards which the procession is heading may or may not be depicted on the urn, the town it has left is certainly not. Would it otherwise be described as being ‘by river or sea shore,/or mountain-built”? Having been left behind, it is excluded from the scene. Unlike silence and immobility, this limitation cannot be reversed into achievement. The eternal silence echoing in those empty streets is the negative side of art’s eternity and silence, an exclusion of change and voice which is an exclusion of life.

In the last stanza we are back, it seems, to triumph. Art will always remain a friend to man, teaching him beauty. The negative silence of the fourth stanza renews in “silent form” its original extra-verbal power (or rather extra-rational, for it teases us “out of thought”). But the stanza is notoriously ambiguous. Life–men and maidens, pastoral–becomes cold marble in art. The urn’s final message is authoritative, almost patronizing, but is its beauty the whole truth? It has left out motion and decay: can truth leave them out and be truth? The quotation marks at the end, whether applying to the entire last two lines or only to a part, confine the beauty–truth equation to art’s own not necessarily absolute perspective. The urn may believe the overlapping of truth and beauty to be all we need to know on earth, but is it? The poem has prepared us to doubt it.

What on the face of it is a poem that selflessly celebrates the visual medium above its own seems now to deconstruct its message. The flowery tale crumbles into a desolate lack of all tellers; silence, the mother of art, into the silence of emptiness.

Keats’s ode seems to have very little to do with the Calvino text from which I started. It neither begins with what the urn excludes nor ends with its destruction. The content of the urn’s decorations, on the contrary, fills the poem and is enthusiastically asserted. On another level, however, the poem does something not dissimilar to Calvino’s essay. Heaping stillness on quietness on silence in its first two lines, it makes the absence of voice its insistent starting point. As it proceeds, another absence, motionlessness, becomes the only perspective from which other figures on the urn are perceived. The youth singing beneath the trees is evoked, not as a youth singing, but as a youth who cannot leave his song. And the same holds for the lover who can never kiss, etc. And then comes the little town which is not there, imagined from the perspective of being ever empty, ever a non-town.

Like Calvino, Keats lets absence take over. What finally prevails is the melody that is not heard, change that is left out, the town that is left behind. Keats too, presumably singing a hymn to art, reads his urn from the perspective of its omissions. But the urn is also there. If Keats sleeps and dreams, he does so in the presence of the urn, whether real or fictitious. Ekphrastic poetry wants to supersede art, but first needs the art it wants to supersede. There is a double movement of attraction and supersession, dependence and negation. I have dealt with the second half of the story only. The status of the ekphrastic poem as a poem not quite self-sufficient, but calling for its completion by an external visual text, is the other half. But this would call for another paper.

Hebrew University, Jerusalem

1 For a detailed critique of such practices, see Merriman.

2 The applicability of Girard’s theory to the relation between poets and painters is suggested by Heffernan 36, n.42.

3 Interestingly. Rilke’s sonnet “Fruher Apollo,” the counterpart to the “Archaischer Torso” in that it opens the first part of Neue Gedichte as the Torso opens the second part, describes a different Apollo from the perspective of another absence, that of the future: it is Apollo in the process of preparing to produce poetry. In “Fruher Apollo,” a statue is about to produce a poem; in the “Torso,” it is transformed into a poem.

4 See Kranz’s juxtaposition of Machado’s poem with Rilke’s very different poem on the same painting, “Dame auf einem Balkon.” R.S. Thomas’s “Manet: The Balcony”(31) offers another interesting comparison.

5 Cf. Theophile Gautier’s eight-page “Melancholia,” discussed by Kranz in Meisterwerke 321-24.

6 By Erasmus Darwin, Byron, and C.F. Meyer (Kranz, Meisterwerke 114-15, 118-19, 275).

7 By Edward Dowden and Kurt Tucholsky (Kranz, Meisterwerke 158, 185).

8 By Marino (Kranz, Meisterwerke 303).

9 The reversal of art’s incapacity to express movement into an expression of eternity is central also to Wordsworth’s sonnet “Upon the Sight of a Beautiful Picture.” Wordsworth praises art’s “subtle power” to “stay yon cloud”; he could have equally deplored the fact that art has no other choice but to “stay” it.


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