Relation Of Poetry And Painting

“I read that once in Affrica A princely wight did raine, Who had to name Cophetua, As poets they did faine: From natures laws he did decline, For sure he was not of my mind. He cared not for women kinde, But did them all disdaine. But, marke, what hapened on a day, As he out of his window lay, He saw a beggar all in gray, The which did cause him paine.”

—From PERCY’s Reliques.

The absurd old ballad continues that King Cophetua, thus smitten, cast about within himself what he might best do, since a king may not wed with a beggar maid:

“For now he meanes to crave her love, And now he seekes which way to proove How he his fancie might remoove, And not this beggar wed.”

But at length, tempted by love to take his own life if she be not his wife,

“The king with curteous comly talke This beggar doth embrace: The beggar blusheth scarlet red, And straight againe as pale as lead, But not a word at all she said, She was in such amaze.”

The tale concludes with a hint of their peril to the unromantic:

“He that did lovers lookes disdaine, To do the same was glad and faine, Or else he would himselfe have Blaine”

Not often, perhaps, has the Romantic furnished both Poetry and Painting such a charming theme as this, depicted so well by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in his masterpiece accompanying this chapter. For the beggar maid he chose as model his beautiful daughter, it is reported, and her eerie face and elfin charm are characteristic of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite School. This favorite picture, painted in 1884, now hangs in the Tate Gallery, London, where its color and composition attract equally with the fanciful subject. The sheen of the king’s armor glistens, and the beggar maid, in modest blue and gray, sits upon the purple cushions of the throne while the king lays at her feet his splendid crown.

Of Burne-Jones it has been said that this picture ” expresses most elaborately his intricate technique, and there, too, is his tenderest scheme of color.” Though except in his youthful mood, Burne-Jones was not a Pre-Raphaelite, yet in him, perhaps, is best exemplified the subtle relation of Poetry and Painting, which marked their work. In the Pre-Raphaelites there was a return to the simple sincere aims of the early Renaissance, and Botticelli has been called the ” Great Master ” to whom Burne-Jones stands nearest.

Many painters of the Renaissance were poets as well. A conspicuous example was Michelangelo. In addition to being a great sculptor and leading painter, he was also the foremost poet of his day in Florence, that city of poetry and art. A sonnet dedicated to his dear friend Vittoria Colonna is of interest. She, too, was a poet, the daughter of a noble family and early married to the Marquis of Pescara. In one of her letters to Michelangelo she addresses him as ” Magnificent Master.” Of this friendship between the two we do not know much of the circumstances, but that it was a very rare and delicate one we cannot doubt, for there is a letter still extant in which Michelangelo writes, that he regrets that when he visited her after death he had kissed her hands only.

And Walter Pater, who gives this incident, adds: ” We know how Goethe escaped from the stress of sentiments too strong for him by making a book about them; and for Michelangelo, to write down his passionate thoughts at all to make sonnets about them, was already in some measure to command and have his way with them.”

Temperament has always voiced itself in art and poetry.


The might of one fair face sublimes my love, For it hath weaned my heart from low desires; Nor death I heed, nor purgatorial fires. Thy beauty, antepast of joys above, Instructs me in the bliss that saints approve; For oh ! how good, how beautiful, must be The God that made so good a thing as thee, So fair an image of the heavenly Dove. Forgive me if I cannot turn away From those sweet eyes that are my earthly heaven, For they are guiding stars, benignly given To tempt my footsteps on the upward way; And if I dwell too fondly in thy sight, I live and love in God’s peculiar light.


In the Corcoran Gallery at Washington hangs a painting, not famous, but very interesting because it shows us the lovers Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna, viewing together a work of art exhibited before the celebrated Pope Julius II., and on the Pontiff’s other hand we observe the seraphic figure of the painter Raphael.

The interdependence of art and literature is suggested here, for how much enjoyment a knowledge of history and letters adds, in helping us to understand the associations of such a picture. Though learning may not be essential to the appreciation of most painting which depends rather for its enjoyment upon drawing, color, and feeling yet certain principles underlie, in the main, both poetry and art. The inspiration of both rests in the expression of an exalted love.

It was the province of the Romantic to rediscover that man is more than mere intellect; that he possesses imagination and emotions. In a glowing, though futile, attempt to define Romanticism, a French writer says : ” Romanticism, my dear sir! No, of a surety, it is neither the disregard of the unities, nor the alliance of the comic and tragic, nor anything in the world expressible by words. In vain you grasp the butterfly’s wing; the dust which gives it its color is left upon your fingers. Romanticism is the star that weeps, it is the wind that wails, it is the night that shudders, the bird that flies and the flower that breathes perfume: it is the sudden gush, the ecstasy grown faint, the cistern beneath the palms, rosy hope with her thousand loves, the angel and the pearl, the white robe of the willows. It is the infinite and the starry.” . .

The scholarly Diderot, though he preceded the Romanticists, foreshadows their purpose: ” The taste for the fine arts presupposes a certain scorn of fortune, I know not what neglect of domestic affairs, a certain derangement of the mind, a madness which varies from day to day.

Again he says: ” It is a fine thing, economic science; but it will brutalize us. . . . Look well to it, and you will see that the flood which is bearing us on-ward is not that of genius.”

He suggests, also, though inversely, the aesthetic value of Art and Poetry to a nation when he writes that ” philosophy, poesy, the sciences and the fine arts are tending to their decline at that moment when, with a nation, the minds, turned toward subjects of self interest, are occupying themselves with administration, with commerce, with agriculture, imports, exports, and finance.”

A recent critic of Painting says : ” On the element of desire all art is more or less dependent, and the desire of the French genius is clearly towards painting and sculpture, as the desire of the German is towards music and that of the English towards poetry. . . . The cur-rents of modern French art are currents of one great democratic movement, the tendency towards freedom of thought and of form. This tendency is well termed ` romantic ‘; for the spirit of freedom, the spirit of illimitable aspiration, is exactly opposed to the classic qualities of order and restraint, while the infinite wonder, the sense of the mystery of life, is the antithesis of a pseudo-classic complacency.”

It may be noted, in passing, that in the old days of classic Greek sculpture painting in our modern sense scarcely existed. That is, the object of painting was then to celebrate the kings. It was classical, decorative; it lacked perspective; it was not democratic, not for the people, as the greatest art to-day must be. Painting is, therefore, a Romantic, rather than a classic, art.

Schelling’s famous definition of architecture as ” frozen music ” suggests the Romantic. It was of the Gothic he was speaking.

In England Ruskin, as the defender of the Pre-Raphaelites, became the prophet of Romanticism. ” Art,” says Ruskin, ” is great in exact proportion to the love of beauty shown by the painter, provided that love of beauty forfeit no atom of truth. And Ruskin is defending Romance, again, when he speaks of ” chivalry, to the original purity and power of which we owe the defense alike of faith, of law, and of love.”

It was the purpose of the Pre-Raphaelite English poets and painters to go back for inspiration to the work of the time when art had not ceased to be simple, sincere, and religious. The great poets of the school were the Rossettis, William Morris, Edward FitzGerald in a sense, and Swinburne in his earlier mood. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones in his youthful work, and, later on, George Frederick Watts, became its best-known painters. Ruskin styled Rossetti ” the chief intellectual force in a modern Romantic School of England.”

Walter Pater defines the romantic character in art as consisting in ” the addition of strangeness to beauty ” The desire of beauty being a fixed element in every organization, it is the addition of curiosity to this desire of beauty that constitutes, the romantic temper.”

These poets and painters suggest beautiful pictures and experiences, such as William Morris sings, in ” The Nymph’s Song to Hylas “:

“I know a little garden-close Set thick with lily and red rose, Where I would wander if I might From dewy dawn to dewy night, And have one with me wandering.”

Observe the figurative ” lily and red rose,” purity and passion. Such symbolism characterizes their poems and painting: the doves, so often present, typify the Holy Spirit; the lily, in its special significance of purity or spirituality, occurs in Rossetti’s ” Blessed Damozel “:

“She had three lilies in her hand.”

Longfellow even earlier used the figure in one of his most popular songs, “Maidenhood “:

“Bear a lily in thy hand, Gates of brass cannot withstand One touch of that magic wand!”

Perhaps the lily symbolizes, also, eternal life, as did the Egyptian lotus, returning yearly from the dank bed of the Nile.

FitzGerald’s ” Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam ” was a literary production of the Romantic School that went a-begging for a long time, until Rossetti discovered it, and with its wider publication brought fame to the English poet, and even more, perhaps, to Omar, who became almost better known in England than in his own land, Persia.

Elihu Vedder, an American painter of the Romantic, magnificently illustrated it. In the National Gallery at Washing-ton, one of this exquisite series may be seen, ” The Cup of Death,” picturing the lines:

” So when that Angel of the darker Drink At last shall find you by the river-brink, And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul Forth to your lips to quaff you shall not shrink!”

In two other fields of literature have Painting and Poetry sought adequate expression: in the Bible stories, lives of prophets and saints, and in phases of Chivalry, especially the Arthurian leg-end. Innumerable examples of the Bible tale may be found in works of the Renaissance, the painters vying with one another in making live again on canvas the gracious characters of both Old and New Testament.

Modern Romantic mysticism is most popularly represented, perhaps, in Holman Hunt’s allegorical picture, ” The Light of the World “—Christ knocking at the door of the human heart. ” Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” This picture, in Keble College, Oxford, is said to have produced the greatest effect of any religious painting of the century.

A glance at some of Burne-Jones’ titles will suggest the range of Bible story:

The Annunciation,” ” The Star of Bethlehem,” a beautiful water color ” The Nativity,” ” The Good Shepherd,” ” Christ and St. Mary Magdalene,” ” The Tree of Life.” The last is a cartoon for a mosaic at the American Church, Rome. The Saviour’s cross becomes the Tree of Life; His arms are outstretched in blessing over the redeemed Adam and Eve who stand in adoration on either side. Two cherub children are clinging to Eve, and beside her are springing up the lilies of purity. From Old Testament subjects of Burne-Jones, most famous is, of course, the six Days of Creation. In each of the series an Angel holds an iridescent globe with the revelation of that day. The number of angel faces in every picture suggests its place in the series. Other themes are ” Moses and the Burning Bush,” ” Abraham’s Sacrifice,” and King’s Daughters,” an early work.

In this connection the mural decorations called the ” Pageant of Religion,” by Sargent, in the Boston Public Library, rank with the best of modern religious art. The ” Prophets ” have even been compared with those of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Mythology has inspired many romantic pictures. From Burne Jones, again, may be cited ” Cupid’s Forge,” ” Flora,” ” Sybilla Delphica,” ” Danae and the Brazen Tower,” The Mirror of Venus,” ” The- Baleful Head ” from the legend of Perseus and ” The Wine of Circe.”

Chaucerian tales suggested other pictures. Among these are ” The Heart of the Rose,” ” The Briar Wood “—an early version of the Sleeping Beauty—” Love Leading the Pilgrim,” and the well-known ” Prioress’ Tale ” a decoration for a cabinet. Burne Jones’ beautiful illustrations for Chaucer were published in I 897.

A famous series of ” The Quest of the San Graal ” was designed by Burne Jones for the Arras Tapestry at Stanmore Hall, England. He pictured many other Arthurian scenes in painting and fresco, including ” The Merciful Knight,” ” The Beguiling of Merlin,” and his last great work, the vast ” Arthur in Avalon ” in 1894.

Tennyson’s ” Idylls of the King ” gave impetus to the Arthurian revival, which culminated, perhaps, in the frescoes of ” The Quest of, the Holy Grail” by Edwin Austin Abbey, in the Boston Public Library. Of this series, Van Dyke says that it ” has the power and poetry of a realized ideal.”

The harmony of a mystical poem is suggested by other highly romantic Burne Jones pictures. Among them are ” Le Chant d’Amour ” (Song of Love) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Roston; ” Spes ” (the well known ” Hope “), ” Fides” (Faith), ” The Pelican ” in which the mother bird tears her own breast that she may feed her starving brood, a purely mythical legend of the pelican.

Fascinating as becomes the study of such analogies, the greatest art does not depend on literature for its strength.

Poetry and Art have, however, a further very subtle relation in what may be termed Romantic word painting. A re-cent beautitful prose poem suggests many graceful pictures. It is a Melodeclamation, by Mr. Nicholas Douty,1 from the Russian of Ivan Turgenieff, recited to music from A. Arensky:

“O Realm of Delight! O Land of azure, of Light, of Youth and Happiness! I saw you once in dreams.

There were several of us on board a pretty graceful boat, White as the breast of a swan, the sail bellied out under a lively breeze. I did not know my companions, but I realized unconsciously That they were young, gay and happy, like myself.

I dismissed them from my mind, I saw about me only the shoreless azure sea, Covered with shimmering, glimmering, gold tipped waves, And above me, too, another sea, infinite and blue, also, Through which, triumphantly laughing, shone the friendly sun.

Birds flew about us, snow-drops and roses Bathed their petals in the pearly foam, Through which we noiselessly glided.

Sweet tones, the soft tender voices of women Mingled with the perfume of the flowers, And all about us, the heavens, the sea, the whisper of the sail above, the murmur of the waves below, All things spoke of Love, and Love’s delight. And the woman that I loved was there, Sailing with us, invisible, yet near.

In a moment I saw the light of her eyes, I heard the music of her laughter. Her hand seized mine, And carried me away into Paradise.

O Realm of Delight! I saw you once in dreams.