VISUAL POETICS
Kristen Olson

Inquiry into the nature of the act of perceiving becomes important in any discussion of artistic creativity. The Renaissance represents a cultural moment that was especially rich visually, and yet also demonstrates a significant investment in rhetoric and the crafting of textual forms. Rhetoric represents the attempt to systematize the manipulation of perception, and my presentation raised the concerns that focused on intersections between the visual and the verbal in early modern poetics, in particular, moments in poetry in which visual depiction or pictorialization is replaced by linguistic figuration. The complex "linguistic" structure of the emblem is fundamental to considering how words and images might draw on or borrow from each other, and I am particularly interested in poets such as Herbert, Quarles, and Harvey who seem to map out this space between word and picture. When early modern poems integrate visual modes of perception—image grammar in which meaning is determined through the relation of one object to another—into their textual representations, they convert textual diegesis into mimesis: the act of rhetorical "figuration" expands the signifying potential of the thematic statement being made from a diegestic description to a mimetic enactment of the idea, allowing the reader to experience the textual moment as they would a visual one. Accordingly, when poets such as Milton and Shakespeare employ rhetorical figures such as the chiasmus, they often do so not simply to embellish a poem's meaning, but to direct it.

In my dissertation discussion of The Phoenix and Turtle I suggest that the manifold uses Shakespeare makes of visuality in this somewhat obscure occasional poem clarify the central conflict it explores: the duality inherent in the persona of Elizabeth I between the "body politic" and the "body natural", and the historical implications of her impending death at the time of the poem's composition, an event which will leave English history with no lineal successor. The gender duality that characterizes the queen's image borne out not only in her personal appearances, speeches, and public letters but also in the portraiture iconography present throughout her reign is translated into the paradoxical condition of love within The Phoenix and Turtle; Shakespeare takes a problem well-developed in terms of visual understanding through various manifestations of Elizabeth I's image and translates this problem into a poetic context through chiastic structure, a linguistic figuration of paradox. Throughout the poem, chiastic structures are superimposed on one another, and this dynamic extends outward to the structure of the poem as a whole wherein Shakespeare develops layers of self-oppositional structures, translating the visual paradoxes embodied in representations of the queen's image into poetic structures that likewise embody dialogical opposition, presenting this problem of paradox "to the eye" of its reader. Moreover, the structural contrasts The Phoenix and Turtle is able to portray, as a poem, are the subject of central interest for my overall discussion of visual perception. The mimetic effect of the chiastic figure allows the poem to enact its problem, thereby manifesting a fusion of visual and verbal representation.

Illustration: Elizabeth, 1825. From the original by Zucchero. Drawn by Wm. Derby; engraved by T.A. Dean.


Parallel Texts: Shakespeare Publishing History
Visual Poetics
Approximating Early Modern Art: An Accommodation
Everyday Shakespeares: Confronting Othello at the Mall
Picturing Desdemona: Verbal Imagery, Iconography, and Screen

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