The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits
Once everyone knew what a real poet ought to look like. Half a century ago the beautiful, doomed profile of Rupert Brooke seemed to define all that was heartbreaking in a generation of lyricism extinguished by what Sir David Piper calls “a fate that knew what it was up to.” When Henry James heard of the death of Brooke at twenty-eight, he murmured, “Of course, of course.” Ironically for the question of the relation between looks and books, a far better poet of the period, Wilfred Owen, survives in depressingly conventional photographs of a young soldier who looks incapable of reading his own poetry, let alone composing it.
Piper’s book takes as its theme “unashamedly [sic] the likenesses of poets, what poets have looked like, what poets have thought they ought to look like, and the not infrequent discrepancy between the two. And what the poets’ public or even the public at large have thought poets ought to look like.” It is about images and icons, only peripherally about painting itself, and it is more interested in poets than in poetry. To purists who feel that poet’s lives and personalities have little to do with what they write, it may be meaningless. To less austere readers with wider curiosities it is absorbing, for many of us who care about poetry share Piper’s wish to know what its makers look like, not to mention the relation between the poets and their times.
As director successively of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, and now the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, David Piper has written many books of formal art history, but early in his career he wrote novels, and since then he has produced such engaging and personal, even idiosyncratic, works as his study of his favorite buildings in London and a long treatise on the British face. All this contributes directly to the ease with which he writes of the background of the poets and their portraits. What might have been either merely a coffee-table book or a desiccated study of a sideline of art history becomes in his hands a fascinating exploration of popular belief in the connection between two major arts. The book is lighthearted in the best sense, for he has the rare ability of writing with humor and common sense about matters of which he is an acknowledged master, and he never confuses profundity with lugubriousness.
Literary portraiture and biography spring from similar frustrating impulses. Portraits aim at preserving the transient appearance of people whose works are unchanging, biography tries to reach backward from posterity to recover an understanding of an artist who is ultimately irretrievable. But both assume a deep connection between personality and the creation of art, and for that reason are often mutually informing. At their most irresponsible, biographers may derive wholly imaginary traits of character from an accidental curve of a lip, a passing expression, or the cut of an eyelid, but that need not be so,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.