- The Modern Portrait Poem: From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound by Frances Dickey
Literary history is often told in terms of breaking points and watershed manifestos, and accounts of early twentieth-century literature are particularly susceptible to narratives of rupture and rejection. Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed” underwrote the dominant perception that she and her contemporaries developed an avant-garde sensibility overnight, following their initial encounter with Matisse’s radical experimentation in color, Picasso’s fracturing of pictorial space into cubes, and the prismatic energy of Marinetti’s Futurist aesthetic. Once in contact with these developments in the visual [End Page 573] arts, so the story goes, modernist writers dispensed with nineteenth-century literary conventions to experiment with wholly new modes of representation. Frances Dickey’s The Modern Portrait Poem challenges this reductive history by bringing nineteenth-century painting to bear on early twentieth-century poetry, rightly balancing continuity with rupture to present a refreshingly nuanced portrait of the relationship between the visual and literary arts at the advent of modernism.
At the very moment that the Manifesto of Futurist Painters urged a new generation of European poets to “finish off” the portraitists and other genre painters, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and E. E. Cummings all started their careers as portrait poets on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In 1908, Eliot was inspired by a reproduction of French Impressionist Édouard Manet’s portrait Young Lady in 1866 to write “On a Portrait,” the precursor to his better-known “Portrait of a Lady.” Taking stock of his early poetic output on the last page of Umbra in 1920, Pound divided his work categorically into “Personae and Portraits,” identifying “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and a sequence encompassing “Langue d’Oc” and “Mœurs Contemporaines” as portrait poems. Williams penned a series titled “Pastorals and Self-Portraits” in 1914, succeeded by portraits of women including his own “Portrait of a Lady.” Cummings’s 1922 manuscript for Tulips and Chimneys included twenty-nine poems copied under the heading “PORTRAITS.” Far from “finishing off” the popular Victorian genre, these poets and a myriad others inherited and transformed the nineteenth-century portrait poem, at once identifying their work with a set of recognizable precedents and refashioning portraiture as a contemporary form.
In fact, efforts to modernize the portrait poem began in earnest a half century before Eliot and his contemporaries had turned to the genre, by the poets and painters of the Aesthetic movement that surrounded Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These artists contested and revised the modus operandi of Victorian portraitists, who aspired to reveal the interiority of their subjects through the use of clichéd equivalences in which posture corresponded to personality and minor aspects of demeanor revealed the state of the sitter’s soul. In the 1860s, Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne and Edward Burne-Jones in Britain, along with Manet across the Channel, produced a series of portrait paintings and poems that emphasized surface over depth, subverting Victorian emphasis on Cartesian conceptions of selfhood. Rossetti blurred the facile dichotomy of interior and exterior and introduced a radically divergent phenomenology in his sonnet “Heart’s Hope,” where he refuses the physical/spiritual distinction and signifies a collective consciousness in a direct address to his subject: “Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor / Thee from myself.” Dickey’s analysis follows the modern portrait poem as it evolved along two distinct, yet complementary, trajectories laid out in Rossetti’s sonnet, one of which gives the same prominence to the material self once accorded to the soul, and the second of which explores interiority as shared between groups, figures, or objects. Both modes unite in their examination of the central questions of what it means to be human and how individuals conceive of themselves in relation to others.
The materialist thread linking modernist portraiture to aestheticism is represented in this volume by a real diversity of poets...