- Blurring the Boundaries:Ut pictura poesis and Marvell's Liminal Mower
hast thou mark't how antique Masters limnThe Aly roof, with snuff of Candle dimm,Sketching in shady smoke prodigious tools.1
The connection of Andrew Marvell to the visual arts is not a radical concept; critics have long noted his ability to blend "the conceptual and the pictorial." Rosalie L. Colie believes that Marvell "constantly plays between extremes of art and nature," allowing "his natural scenes to appear in the dress of sophisticated civilization."2 In "Bermudas," the "eternal Spring" (13) enamels everything, with oranges "Like golden Lamps" (18) and jewels; the "Mosaick" (582) of leaves in the wood scene in "Appleton House" resembles "Mexique Paintings" (580); Marvell's poetry casually refers to "landskip," portraits, and statues; he mentions names like Sir Peter Lely and Peter Paul Rubens; he presents a picture salon in "The Gallery"; he partakes of the "Advice to a Painter" tradition in his satirical work; he presents sepulchral sculpture [End Page 526] in "The Nymph Complaining on the Death of Her Fawn"; his verbs call to mind artistic endeavors: "enamels," "embroiders," "bejewels." The list goes on.
Commentators generally lament their inability to classify the man and even his works because of Marvell's unique capacity to blur the boundaries traditionally categorizing personality and literature, poetic and visual arts, resulting in the in-between aspects of his canon. These works come tantalizingly close to expected pastoral, carpe diem, or other conventional modes of poetry and are often compared to visual arts because of their pictorial qualities; however, an even stronger connection to the visual arts in Marvell's lyrics lies in the very indeterminate nature of his poems and the characters that inhabit them: in blurring the boundaries of expected convention, Marvell creates a liminal area similar to Leonardo da Vinci's use of sfumato (smoke-like appearance) in his paintings, intriguing and drawing the reader into the depths of complexity indicated by his poetic shadowing. Just as contemporary styles of English portraiture demonstrate a darkening from bright colors of Elizabethan optimism to a more shadowy chiaroscuro of Jacobean realism, Marvell's poetic portraits evidence his expertise in these changing trends in visual arts. In his profession and in his views of art, of nature, of love, and of himself, the puzzling persona of the Mower perhaps best demonstrates Marvell's ability to blur the lines defining pastoral, an already in-between form linking poetry, landscape, and visual art.
The connection of poetry and the visual arts has a long history, perhaps first articulated in a statement attributed by Plutarch to Simonides of Ceos (ca. 556 B.C.) that "painting is silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks."3 The more famous comment linking the two arts is that of Horace (65 B.C.) in Ars Poetica, a phrase "that has become almost as popular as it has proven ambiguous": "ut pictura poesis" ("A poem is like a picture").4 Though commentators through the ages have disagreed whether painting or poetry is superior and which appeals to the higher parts of the human soul, most must acknowledge that both arts best [End Page 527] stimulate the imagination and most engage the reader in their uncertain aspects, the very traits that caused Plato to condemn the visual arts because they blurred the line between truth and falsehood and remained in a type of "twilight realm" that is neither appearance nor reality.5
In his intricate notebook writings and sketches, Leonardo acknowledges and even encourages the similarity of the literary and visual arts, insisting that accuracy of both literary and visual portrayal depends on this uncertainty of line.6 As he keenly observed, objects as perceived really do not have sharp boundaries, and the greater the distance of the object from the viewer, the less distinct are its outlines. Reality on canvas, as in life, is actually portrayed in the liminal space that is neither light nor dark, an area Leonardo advised should be painted "in the manner of smoke without strokes or marks."7 Thus Leonardo's practice of blurring boundaries, his signature technique of sfumato, produces a liminal area that paradoxically portrays...