I mentioned in my previous post on the ‘Enchanted Dreams’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that Edward Hughes was inspired by a number of poems. I’m really interested in the interactions between art and literature, and how poetry and painting are often entwined. For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom were known to Hughes, poetry and painting were ‘sister arts’, mutually inspirational, and their painting is often very literary – sometimes narrative, usually symbolic, often very detailed so that it can be ‘read’. Many of their paintings were directly inspired by poetry, and of course several Pre-Raphaelites wrote poetry too, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poems and paintings go hand in hand.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hughes was inspired by contemporary poets in his work. He tends, however, to take a much less narrative approach than many of the Pre-Raphaelite-affiliated painters, and instead produces something which captures a feeling or a mood, inspired by an image from the painting, perhaps. He is, however, still interested in symbolism, in drawing on a wider web of intertextual references, whilst offering an image that is also very concerned with aesthetics. I find this fascinating: when we read, we ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. When a painting is inspired by a poem, are we seeing the artist’s mind’s eye? How does this affect our reading of the literary work – do we then ‘see’ it differently?
Although I’m very familiar with Christina Rossetti’s work, the ways in which I ‘see’ her poem ‘Amor Mundi’ is very influenced by Hughes’s Oh What’s that in the Hollow…? ‘Amor Mundi’ is inspired by the traditional Rossettian theme that life is a struggle but we should embrace that struggle or risk damnation. The poem is written in a rapidly moving irregular metre, describing a couple following a downhill path which, metaphorically, leads to Hell. Signs appear along the way to warn them – ‘a meteor … dumb, portentous’, ‘a scaled and hooded worm’, and, finally, ‘in the hollow’, ‘a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.’ It is this last omen which Hughes paints; the painting was unpopular when first exhibited, considered macabre and lacking in explanation, but read in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem it is literally a symbol of the fate which awaits us – a memento mori. The couple see the signs, but determinedly ignore them to the last, even when one of them realises the destination of the path. Hughes’s depiction of the body, pale and emaciated, the eyes half closed in death, surrounded by thorny briar roses which ironically echo Burne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, is an imaginative recreation of Rossetti’s image, adding a vicious-looking raven to add to the discomfiting picture. Yet the image also suggests that the body is reclaimed by nature, seeming almost to sink into the earth as the leaves grow over it. The painting is very much in keeping with the poem, which is rich in visual description despite its metaphorical nature.
One of Hughes’s most famous paintings, Night with her Train of Stars, above right, is influenced by a much less famous poem, William Ernest Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori‘ (To my Sister Margaret). Henley is now mostly remembered as the poet of ‘Invictus’, but was a prolific and influential writer, critic and editor in his time. Once again this is a visually rich poem, glowing with colours ‘luminous and serene’. It is descriptive of a time and place, opening with birdsong watching the sun fade: the poem begins by drawing on the senses to appreciate the scene, but it becomes clear by the end of the poem that the senses are fading: this is a poem about death, and the narrator’s desire for a peaceful end which is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The painting, so often reproduced that it can be seen as sentimental or chocolate-box (unfairly, in my view), depicts ‘Night with her train of stars/And her great gift of sleep’ – this is, in essence, the Angel of Death, gently folding an infant in her arms, her finger to her lips as she hushes the cherubim who throng round her. The colours of the painting are as beautiful as those of the poem, indicating a monochromatic scale of blues with the pinpoints of light which Hughes painted so beautifully, and capturing the essence of a peaceful night. Night scatters poppies, symbolising sleep, and it is eternal sleep which she brings.
A very different literary engagement can be found in Hughes’s remarkable portrait, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, inspired by Browning’s poem of the same name. Hughes’s red chalk portrait is minutely detailed, appearing photographic at first sight, which offers a pleasing parallel with the nuanced and equally descriptive poem. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is one of Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologues, in which we learn a great deal about the speaker, through his garrulous explanation of himself and his actions. Brother Lippo is a reluctant monk, who took his vows through necessity rather than conviction, and remains there for a place to live. His character shines through in the poem as he describes his exploits to attempt to excuse himself after being stopped by the police outside a brothel – his amorous adventures and also his painting are explained; and his character is equally present in Hughes’s work. The combination of poem and painting here provides a great back-and-forth of ideas in art and literature. Browning’s monk says that he ‘made a string of pictures of the world/Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,’ when describing his painting, indicating these twin arts of word and paint, art and poetry. He says that he must ‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!’ And it is the soul, perhaps, of a vivacious, energetic monk trying to escape the bondage of the monastery, that Hughes has painted: his Fra Lippo doesn’t look at the viewer, but just past us, as though already moving on to the next thing. Though the young man in the drawing looks in repose, there is a life to his face that suggest he may at any moment begin to regale passers-by.In the poem, he argues his case for realism, for attempting to paint people as they are, for looking closely in order to paint the very essence of life (which reflects the fast-paced realism of Browning’s verse, too), and this is just what Hughes has done, too; he has produced a portrait that the fictional Fra Lippo would have been proud of.