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The Modern Portrait Poem

From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound

Frances Dickey

Publication Year: 2012

In The Modern Portrait Poem, Frances Dickey recovers the portrait as a poetic genre from the 1860s through the 1920s. Combining literary and art history, she examines the ways Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and J. M. Whistler transformed the genre of portraiture in both painting and poetry. She then shows how their new ways of looking at and thinking about the portrait subject migrated across the Atlantic to influence Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, E. E. Cummings, and other poets. These poets creatively exposed the Victorian portrait to new influences ranging from Manet’s realism to modern dance, Futurism, and American avant-garde art. They also condensed, expanded, and combined the genre with other literary modes including epitaph, pastoral, and Bildungsroman.

Dickey challenges the tendency to view Modernism as a break with the past and as a transition from aural to visual orientation. She argues that the Victorian poets and painters inspired the new generation of Modernists to test their vision of Aestheticism against their perception of modernity and the relationship between image and text. In bridging historical periods, national boundaries, and disciplinary distinctions, Dickey makes a case for the continuity of this genre over the Victorian/Modernist divide and from Britain to the United States in a time of rapid change in the arts.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v


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pp. vi

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pp. vii-viii

The poets discussed in the following pages drew from and collaborated with each other to an extent that belies traditional ideas of originality. On a more modest scale, the same is true of this book, built from the con- tributions of other...

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pp. 1-14

In 1908, T. S. Eliot saw a painting by Manet and described it in one of his first poems, “On a Portrait.” A year and a half later, he began “Portrait of a Lady” in his rooms at Harvard, finishing it in Paris in November, but keeping it to himself...

Part One The Portrait Poem to 1912

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pp. 15

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ONE Portraiture in the Rossetti Circle

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pp. 17-47

The artist engaged on a portrait, is to inscribe the character and not the features,” instructed an 1861 article on portraiture. The artist “must ‘esteem the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or likeness of the aspiring original within.’ ”1 According to this view of portraiture, the artist’s...

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TWO Ezra Pound

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pp. 48-75

Of the american modernist poets, Ezra Pound entered the twentieth century most openly under the sign of Rossetti and English Aestheticism; he was also the most prolific writer of portrait poems. Before the publication of his collected...

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THREE T. S. Eliot

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pp. 76-110

In the fall of 1908, the young T. S. Eliot composed two sonnets for publication in the Harvard Advocate, “Circe’s Palace” and “On a Por- trait.” These poems are remarkable for their skilled integration of the Rossettian picture sonnet...

Part Two Modulations 1912 to 1922

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pp. 110

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FOUR Contraction

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pp. 113-143

The years 1912 and 1913 marked a sea change in many areas of litera- ture and in modern life generally.1 In poetry, a thorough rethinking of form, style, and content were underway. From 1912 to 1922, poets who had learned their craft under...

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FIVE Expansion

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pp. 144-182

In the years following its Imagist contraction, the portrait poem breathed out, multiplying into collections and expanding into longer and more complex forms. From Masters’s book-length Spoon River Anthology in 1915 to the twenty...

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SIX Pastoral Mode

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pp. 193-212

In 1914, William Carlos Williams sent a sequence of “Pastorals and Self-Portraits” to his friend Viola Baxter. Like Eliot’s “On a Portrait” and Pound’s “La Donzella Beata” and “Portrait: from ‘La Mère Inconnue,’ ” these poems were...

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pp. 213-218

In focusing on only a few poets, this study has excluded many portrait poems that deserve attention. Before ending, I turn here briefly to one such group of portraits that point both forward to the rest of the twentieth century, and backward to the...


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pp. 219-244

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 245-252


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pp. 253-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780813932699
E-ISBN-10: 0813932696
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813932637
Print-ISBN-10: 0813932637

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poetry, Modern -- History and criticism.
  • Portraits -- History.
  • Art, Modern -- Influence.
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