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"Tristram and Iseult": Arnold's Ekphrastic Experiment LawrenceJ. Starsyk Arnold's use of a "ghostlike tapestry" (2. 151) in "Tristram and Iseult" raises numerous aesthetic questions concerning the relationship between verbal and visual representations.1 Murray Krieger's recent study of the ekphrastic tradition reminds us of the subservient position of the image to the word throughout most of the western tradition.2Consigned to silence and thus reliant for its voice on the verbal, the visual representation is, at best, the submissive handmaiden of the word and, at worst, a "dumb enchantment" threatening the imagination.3 The sexually privileged status of the male, typically associated with the word, completes the triumph over the visual, invariably regarded as female.4 Arnold's talking tapestry, a conventional strategy of Gothic literature and a manifestation of persistent classical pictorialism,5 however, departs from the norms of the ekphrastic contest by allowing at least a semblance of equality between his bard and the "stately huntsman" (2. 153). The eternal muteness of most images in the ekphrastic paragone. it can be argued, inevitably results in the empowerment of painted antagonists like Browning's Duchess and Tennyson's Gardener's Daughter who 'speak' despite their narrators' concerted Victorian Review (2002)25 L. Starzyk efforts at verbal monopoly.6 Arnold's huntsman, though, is permitted 19 lines (2. 164-183) of speech in which to exercise uncontested the dominance traditionally considered the word's. What I propose examining here is how Arnold's ekphrastic experiment chronicles, not the poet's understanding of the contest between the sister arts, but his aesthetic dialogue with himself regarding mimesis as revealed in the interplay between word and image.7 The seemingly endless repetitions mforming the poem, symbolized by the tapestry's recapitulation of the narrator's discourse with himself, indicates Arnold's general concern with the nature of repetition or recreation and, specifically, his heightened uncertainty regarding some immutable ground for the recurrent. Arnold's experiment underscores ekphrasis, not as a struggle for political or gendered dominance between the sister arts, but as mutual betrayal by traitorous doubles. * The nature of what the huntsman "seems to say" (2. 163) as he looks down at the dead Tristram and Iseult of Ireland amounts to simple equivalency, he "says," it seems, nothing substantially different from what the bard has already spoken. The tapestry, in fact, appears to function less as an ekphrastic antagonist in theparagone between word and image than as a Visual' echo of what the bard has said. The stately huntsman becomes, in this context, the puppet in the bard's ventriloquistic exercise, "the uproar in the echo" of a disguised Narcissus.8 And this "Piranesi" exercise9 is not confined simply to what is verbally articulated in the second part of the poem; it recapitulates most of the important issues raised in the first part as well: What place is this, and who are they? Who is diat kneeling lady fair? And on his pillows diat pale knight Who seems of marble on a tomb? 26volume 28 number 1 Arnold's Ekphrastic Experiment What, has some glamour made me sleep, And sent me with my dogs to sweep, By night, with boisterous bugle-peal Through some old, seaside knighdy hall, Not in the free greenwood at all? (2. 164-79) The answers to questions of identity and place have been delivered long before the bard introduces the tapestry, ostensibly to sanction the hunter's "bugle blow" (2. 188). The sleeping knight and praying lady will not be disturbed by the bugle blast, the bard replies, since both are dead. The talking tapestry seems, in the end, a rhetorical device employed, at best, to summarize key issues to this point and, at worst, to provide the bard with a conclusion for a section of his song he appears otherwise incapable of ending. A similar lack of artistry characterizes the bard's conclusion of part one of his song. The rhetorical questions he poses simultaneously to close the first part and introduce the second appear to be supererogatory: "What voices are these on the clear night-air? / What lights in the court — what steps on the stair?" (1. 372-3). If the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 25-46
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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