Looking and perception in nineteenth century poetry
The thesis examines a series of nineteenth century poets whose poems are concerned with complex relations of looking and perception, and concentrates on Shelley and the poets he influenced: Browning, Rossetti, Swinburne, and Hardy. It focusses on poems dealing with the visual arts and aesthetic modes of perception, and concludes with a study of Walter Pater - an unrecognised follower of Shelley - and his notions of artistic character. An emphasis on the way face and bodily form are scrutinised, in poems concerning painting, sculpture and portraiture, leads to the hypothesis that the way the poet pictures essence or character through corporeal form is correlative to the essence or character of his own poetry. The particular spatial relations and visual representations of the poetry provide an index to specific patterns of reading. At the heart of this examination is a Shelleyan conception of the "unsculptured image", the characterising force and pre-given perspective of a poet's poem, which has a primary shaping effect on his language and representations, and continues to exert itself in the poem's reading. As this "image" is an imaginative rather than purely linguistic force, the analyses of selected poems avoid reduction to considerations of language and rhetoric alone, seeking rather to engage with the question of what constitutes a writer's own essence or particularity and what gives a strong poem its compulsive power. The thesis draws on the work of the French literary critic Maurice Blanchot to inform its ideas of poetic space and depth, and to produce an understanding of the poetic text very different from that given by a classical reading; and so alter the way one perceives the poem as literary object. In addition to this, certain nineteenth century and earlier aesthetic writings, and the prose works of the poets themselves, establish the critical basis of the arguments advanced. The thesis also endeavours to follow through the arguments of traditional scholarship in order to provide critique on distinctions or departures made. Chapter I examines Shelley's 'On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery'; Chapter II deals with portraiture in Browning's 'My Last Duchess' and Rossetti's The Portrait'; Chapter III turns to the sculpture of the hermaphrodite in Swinburne's early lyric 'Hermaphroditus'; Chapter IV looks at Thomas Hardy's poems about sketches and shades; Chapter V is an epilogue in which the work of Walter Pater draws together the ideas developed in the rest of the thesis.