Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Modern Portrait Poem: From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Modern Portrait Poem: From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound

Article excerpt

The Modern Portrait Poem: From Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound

by Frances Dickey

University of Virginia Press, 2012. 260 pages

Early on in this accomplished and wide-reaching study, Frances Dickey distinguishes between the late Victorian poetic tropes of "persona" and "portrait." But leave it to Oscar Wilde to muddle such a fine distinction. Putting his best lines, as he usually did, in the mouth of one of his characters (personae),Wilde's Basil Hallward (portraitist) declares that:

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul. (Dorian)

Wilde is, of course, playing with the kind of witty reversal that was already in 1890 one of his signatures. But rhetorical or tropical reversals work only when the conventional sense is so well established it doesn't need explaining: the reversal works precisely because it summons rather than banishes truism. By 1890 this expectation that the portrait offers a window into the soul of the sitter was already a venerable tradition, one that Dickey traces back to William Cowper's ekphrastic portrait "On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture" (1798). In other words, Wilde was here reaffirming rather than breaking with tradition.

By the time Wilde published Dorian Gray two other conceptions of the portrait were challenging the ethically comforting expectation that its real subject was metaphysical. Dickey traces both through the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His painting Bocca Baciata (1859), she asserts, "inaugurated a new style of flat, decorative female portraiture challenging the assumption that appearance should or could reveal the sitter's soul" (12). What's exciting here isn't Rossetti's recognition of artistic limit but Dickey's characterization of that conception as a moral and ethical challenge: "could or should." In Rossetti's hands, the portrait is "a self-sufficient object of beauty, assimilating the soul of the sitter, to her body and both to the material artwork, emphasizing surface and formal condensation."

Soon afterwards, this emphasis on surface found verbal expression in two Rossetti poems, both called "The Portrait," one a sonnet and the other a dramatic monologue. The sonnet "treats the portrait as a self-sufficient object of beauty" (12). What happens with the dramatic monologue is more complex--and in her reading of this portrait poem Dickey implicitly suggests an important link between Rossetti's poetry and that of Robert Browning. Rossetti's dramatic monologue "responds to a painted portrait as an uncanny mirror in which past and present, Beloved and self mingle, undermining the traditional dualism of portraiture." Dickey considers the significance of Rossetti giving two formally distinct poems the same title, and her reasoning demonstrates the clarity of mind that marks this volume:

   The verbal condensation of the sonnet's length restrictions and the
   Petrarchan conventions of itemization and self-reference push
   Rossetti's shorter poem toward its thing-like self-absorption. By
   contrast, the measure of the poet's success in dramatic monologue
   is to sustain the utterance and make it plausible as speech, rather
   than keep it within a prescribed length. The dramatic monologue
   remains constantly aware of its own status as a speech act in a
   social context, constructing a self and negotiating with the
   expectations and beliefs of an imagined auditor. The form entails
   not brevity and closure but a messy realism and proliferating
   points of view.

Here then, to put it another way, are the two directions that the modern portrait poem has taken away from the Romantic expectation that a great portrait captures the soul of the sitter. …

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