STUDIES OF COLERIDGE ILLUSTRATIONS:
METHODOLOGY AND CONSIDERATIONS
Walter B. Crawford
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No4 (Autumn 1994), pp 45-59)
"Extremely rare in literary scholarship generally, and non-existent in Coleridge scholarship, are objective, comparative studies of the way interpretation and criticism of individual Coleridge poems is presented in individual works of graphic art." This statement appears in my discussions of neglected fields of Coleridge study in the Coleridge Bulletin No. 3 (Winter 1990),30-34,45-57, and in the introduction to volume III of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Scholarship, to be published in Spring 1995.
How might one go about preparing for and conducting such a study? What special considerations must be borne in mind?
As an example, let us suppose that you want to undertake a study comparing the text of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with artists' interpretations of that text in their illustrations. I know of no publications of this kind. Indeed, as far as I know, I am the only one who has said much in print about this kind of study. So you will be entering uncharted territory, with endless opportunities for exploring and mapping it. Your journey will be arduous, and if it is to succeed so that others will not have to traverse and chart the same terrain, you will have to plan your trip carefully and then go properly equipped. And when you try to report your findings to the rest of the world, you will have to find - perhaps actually to create - the medium that will enable your
readers to comprehend what you have to present to them.
Your first problem will be one of selection. Your selections will depend on the following considerations:
Indexed in volumes II and III of the Coleridge Bibliography are nearly 2000 illustrations of individual images and passages of The Ancient Mariner, including illustrations published in hundreds of books and perhaps 25-40 separate works of graphic art. Nowhere near all of these illustrations will be available for you to study, but even the number that you are able to find will be far more than you can expect to cover in a single study, even if book–length.
Of the suitable illustrations accessible to you, I would recommend that you start with a small number of contrasting illustrations of a single passage of the poem, illustrations published at roughly equal intervals from the first, in 1837, to the latest, in the 1990s.
Since you will be entering new territory, no one will have analyzed the topography more perceptively or drawn better maps than you will have, but as you advance you will see and understand more, develop more refined methods of analysis, and discover better ways of conveying your perceptions to others. Starting small and proceeding step by step – one article at a time, each on a different passage and different artists presenting different problems of analysis and interpretation - will enable you to make each article better than the preceding ones, and ultimately these articles can be revised and brought together in a book which indeed can show the world how uniquely valuable artists' interpretations of poetry can be if approached with the proper critical tools.
Form of Publication
From the very start, you should have in mind the form of publication that your study will require. If you are to report your findings –analyses and interpretations– in print in a way that readers can truly comprehend them, your published report will have to include suitable large and clear reproductions of the illustrations you discuss, with color illustrations printed in color. You cannot give a reader in words a satisfactory impression of visual art. Seeing is essential, with words to direct the eye. This means, then, (1) that you will have to find a scholarship journal or a book publisher that is able and willing to reproduce illustrations effectively – in suitable size and clarity – along with your text; and (2) that you will need copyright–owners' permission to reproduce the illustrations, if they are still in copyright. Fees might be required in some cases.
Reproductions of Illustrations
In your initial examination of accessible illustrations, you will have learned that considerations of size and quality of original art and of reproductions must be borne in mind.
Usually you will be dealing with book illustrations. Many of these were created in the size in which you see them printed – woodcuts, for example. But many are engravings of an original design, the design often larger than the engravings. Unless you have the rare opportunity to compare the original design with the various engravings of it, you will not know whether the engravers improved or corrupted the original – clarifying, adding, or omitting detail. Take, for example, the case of I.E. Millais' original watercolour design (1856) for Coleridge's Love. What later, better engravings identify as the knight's helmet is unidentifiable both in the original and in the earlier 1857 Dalziel engraving of
this very poor drawing(Coleridge Bibliography,II,C401).
Re-drawings or adaptations of original designs cannot be expected to be faithful in detail, but they can usually be expected not to change the character of the original.
Even a faithful reproduction, such as a photographic reproduction, of a good original may be so small that salient detail is indistinguishable. If you have chosen to include a large (e.g., 3 by 5 feet) oil painting and can examine it directly, you can write a satisfactory analysis of it. But, as is often the case, if the poetically and artistically significant features are very small, they will not show up adequately in even a large quarto full-page reproduction of the whole painting: you will have to reproduce just the key detail.
Critical Method - General
Your analyses should be as objective as possible, focusing first on the art and the poetic text in themselves without regard to attendant circumstances. During this stage you must be aware of the different powers and limitations of the unique media of verbal art and of the different kinds of visual art including sculpture. Then when you begin to interpret, you will have to bear in mind the particular artistic tradition in which the artist worked as compared to the literary tradition in which Coleridge worked, the broader cultural milieu in which each worked, and the particular audiences (sophisticated and unsophisticated; high-brow and low-brow; purchasers of unique illuminated manuscripts and of mass-produced paperbacks; etc.) at which artist and Coleridge aimed or which they took for granted.
Studies of this kind involve both the relevant technical concerns and the more subjective concern about how the artist may change what might seem to others the poet's intended
meaning and feeling to something that conforms to the interpreter's taste and attitudes or to what the interpreter considers to be those of the interpreter's expected viewers,listeners, or readers.
Critical Method – Specific
Working in different traditions, and from different personal viewpoints, artists treat poems in a variety of ways, and these different modes of treatment may be evaluated by various criteria. A more–or–less logically ordered discussion of these ways and these criteria cannot be followed exactly, however, in an illustrated comparison of specific verbal texts and illustrations, because many different factors under consideration appear in each text and each illustration. With that caveat, however, what follows is an ordered discussion based generally – omitting nearly all references to examples screened – on the two–projector, two–screen slide–lectures that I have presented over the years.
1. The artist may work outside of the text of the poem...
We like a book for the story it tells us, the way it moves our feelings and stimulates our mind. But we especially like that book if it is physically attractive as well.
A. ...embellishing the physical object – the book or page.
Indeed, sometimes in our later years we remember a childhood favorite as much for its leather or marbled bindings, gold stamping, and evocative illustrations as for its content. Knowing this feeling, artists, book designers, publishers have gone to great lengths to make books appealing to our senses.
B. The decorations may be more or less in harmony with the poem.
More direct art-to-literature relationships may range from the merely decorative to the closely interpretive. Sometimes the artist merely provides an attractive frame for the poet's words. Even this decoration can be either in harmony or not in harmony with the content and spirit of the poem.
C. The artist may respond to the author rather than to the poem.
Besides just embellishing the book as a physical object, artists may also stop short of interpretation by responding not to the literary work but to the author himself, his life and personality, the quality of his mind and imagination.
II. The artist may produce adjunctive art, more or less interpretive, more or less expressive of feeling, mood, or atmosphere.
The most common art-to-poem relationship is that in which the art is adjunctive, that is, more or less closely supportive of the poem's imagery, meaning, and feeling. Adjunctive illustration, especially in the treatment of character or scene, usually attempts to express the feeling, mood, or atmosphere suggested by the poet's words. The means of such expression are extremely varied.
A. The art may visualize the poet's verbal images - natural or fantastical - objects, characters, scenes - single or multiple, simple or complex - giving details denoted or suggested by the poet's words, or details neither denoted nor suggested by the poet.
Most commonly, adjunctive art visualizes the verbal
image, helps us see what the words ask us to imagine. The referent of the image might be a simple, concrete object, and the amount of interpretation might be minimal.
More complex depictions result when the artist presents a scene, more or less complex or dramatic, especially when the scene includes a group of characters, and especially characters of varying degrees of substantiality. The Ancient mariner and his fellow seamen are substantial, but Death and Life–in–Death do not have the same kind of substantiality, and the departing souls of the crew have none.
Visualizations of a character, such as the Ancient Mariner, reflect the artists' conceptions of the character, but some aspects of the visualization might merely reflect the artists' intention to entertain or otherwise please the readers/viewers.
The artist may imitate that which is denoted by the verbal image, usually, of course, adding some details not given by the poet. Often the artist represents in great detail that which is merely suggested by the poet's words. This supplying of unspecified detail is especially common in the treatment of costume and architecture, for example. And often the artist visualizes details neither denoted nor suggested by the poet. (The significance of this latter treatment is dealt with below.)
B. The art may be more or less representational (objective) or abstract, or non–objective.
As might be expected, most adjunctive illustration is predominantly representational. Frequently, however, especially in this century and especially when the expressive aim is foremost, the mode of adjunctive illustration is less representational than it is abstract.
C. The art may contain elements more or less symbolic.
Occasionally– however abstract or representational the mode – the intent is symbolic. Many illustrations do not yield their symbolic import easily.
D. Synthesizing composites have a special kind of complex function.
Now and then an artist will attempt, in a single illustration, both to highlight the main characters and events of a work, and to suggest something of its mood, atmosphere, and emotional quality. Such synthesizing composites–synoptic, symbolic, expressive– sometimes appear as cover designs, endpaper designs, or in anthologies.
III. Literature–related art may be evaluated by various criteria.
For the most part, we can judge adjunctive illustration as we do any visual art: quality of composition; drawing; management of space, line, darkness and light, and color; unity of effect; the intangibles of imagination; and so on. But because adjunctive illustration is adjunctive to, supportive of, the poem, other criteria may also be brought to bear.
A. Accuracy– faithfulness to the facts of the poem
In the first place, we can expect it to be faithful to whatever facts of the poem it is intended to visualize. The commonest mistake in Coleridge illustration, the one committed by the first illustrator of The Ancient Mariner, and condemned by Henry Nelson Coleridge in his review of the poet's 1834 Poetical Works, and therefore –no doubt– by the poet himself, is to show the Mariner as already an old man during his ghastly adventure. But other mistakes appear as
B. Quality of interpretation
Comparisons of two or more visual treatments of the same poetic passage will show up interesting differences of interpretation. These differences, however, may or may not signify relative value – one may be no better – either as art or as interpretation – than the others, only different.
C. Suitability for intended audience
Some differences result from arbitrary demands or limitations imposed by considerations of market or audience. It is only fair to judge a set of illustrations for a children's edition, for example, by what is effective – comprehensible and attractive – for children. The best treatments are forthright, neither condescending nor precious. But visual Bowdlerizing might have been appropriate and effective at a particular time in a particular artistic tradition.
D. Quality of expressiveness
Differences in expressiveness often tend to be considered differences in value – other things being equal. But "other things" are rarely equal, and the elements in a work of visual art which contribute to expressiveness are many, and subtly interrelated, so that even here value judgments are not as simply made as it might seem.
E. Effectiveness of visualization of the supernatural
Artists have tried many ways to meet one of the most difficult challenges of the poem – how to treat the supernatural elements. One of the most illuminating comparative exercises is to compare some of the many visual
renditions of the Mariner's description of the spectre bark and its crew. All too often the artists' attempts to put the figure of Life-in–Death before our outward eyes, rather than leaving her to the imaginative perception of our inward eye, result in a woman who is not very obviously a nightmare "who thicks man's blood with cold"!
The very abstractness of some artists' attempts makes them more successful than most, because in looking at them the viewer is less tempted to perceive them as flesh and blood creatures and so is led more to attend to the felt idea of the scene in which they appear.
F. Unified effect – as a set– of all of an artist's illustrations for a single literary work
Although we have so far mostly considered illustrations singly, often an artist will produce several or many for a single poem. In such cases the set must be considered as a whole. The 1910 Willy Pogany and the 1943 Mervyn Peake are two quite different examples, unified and expressive, of the numerous sets of illustrations of The Ancient Mariner.
IV. Artists' interpretations inevitably result in certain kinds of distortion.
Not even the most extensive effort to illustrate a poem can avoid some distortion of the poem–as–a–whole. Often there is significant import that cannot be represented to the eye or even suggested by visual means.
A. Necessary selection stresses the given, minimizes the omitted.
Moreover, artists are not translators: they are necessarily selective. The effect of this selectivity, on the one hand, is
always critical and interpretive since it emphasizes what is given – visualized – and minimizes what is omitted. On the other hand, the effect is sometimes distortive since it may stress the peripheral, and slight the central, elements in the poem or in a part of the poem.
B. Visualizing similes emphasize the peripheral.
One kind of distortion by emphasis on the peripheral is the visualizing of a simile, which introduces pictorial elements only secondarily relevant to the poem. The effect of this kind of illustration is somewhat like that of the old "beauties" criticism. But there are " beauties" in a good poem, and few of us can refrain from pointing them out.
Four similes in The Ancient Mariner have especially appealed to artists. The most popular, with artists as well as with storytellers in words, is that of the "frightful fiend," a simile that provides a favourite allusion for writers trying to convey a sense of fear and dread.
V. The best poem–related art can stand alone, like "history" painting.
So far we have been looking at and evaluating adjunctive illustration strictly in relation to the poem that prompted its creation. However,the best poem–related art is also capable of standing alone, significant as art to someone who knows nothing of the related poem or of the fact of the art's relation to the poem. When such art is indeed "about" the poem, when its subject is matter from the poem, it is like other so–called "history" painting, story–telling painting, the best of which can stand alone as independent art.
VI. Poem–related art may be like impressionistic criticism.
Poem- related art may be similar to what is called "impressionistic" criticism in literary criticism, when its subject is not the literary work but the artist's personal responses and thus the artist's own psyche, his own vision as prompted by or modified by the poem. A great deal of art today – in the present Romantic Period in which we live – is not "about" its ostensible subject but "about" the artists' responses to the subject- not the poet's feelings but the artists' feelings about the poet's feelings.
Fundamentally of this kind are most of the drawings in A Portfolio of Twenty Drawings Commemorating the Bicentenary of the Birth of Coleridge, with Forewords on Coleridge Illustration by Walter B. Crawford and Richard Oden (1972).
Ray Bravo's response to Coleridge's Dejection Ode, titled by the explicitly emotive line, "O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood," is more abstract than representational. Even so, none of the images in Bravo's drawings visualize verbal images in the poem. It is the mood that he is after, the "wan and heartless mood" which Coleridge described at length. It is as if Bravo by this drawing is saying to the poet: "I know what you mean! This is how that mood feels to me!"
Even when these modern drawings include recognizable
visualizations of images from the poems, as in the kaleidoscopic panel by
Douglas Roy, the visualizations reflect more about the artist than about the
poem or poet.
Art of this kind often incorporates non – objective elements, minimizing representational visualization of the
verbal images in order, presumably, to sharpen the focus on the felt idea of the poem and the reader's esthetic experience of it. This would seem to be the case with the pencilled miniatures by James Endicott, merely titled "Coleridge Theme." But closer examination shows among the non-objective elements a wide variety of objective details: parts of buildings and other man-made objects; bits of landscape; foliage, flowers, feathers; heads, faces, hands. Still, the overall effect of these montage-like sketches is highly emotive and suggestive, even though the images - most of them, at least - are not recognizable as visualizations of images in the poems.
An artist's visual response to a poem might be wholly non-objective, of course, but I have seen no examples of that kind prompted by Coleridge.
In his foreword to the Coleridge Bicentenary Portfolio, Richard Oden, Professor of Art, expresses a modern view when he says that an illustrator collaborating with a poet is engaging him in a duet similar to that by which a vocalist and a poet bring opera into being.
Professor Oden goes on to make the important point that the full experience of an illustrated poem requires the co-presence in the mind of both the verbal and the visual art. Only after we have seen the drawings in their detail, and have read the words of the poet in detail, are we ready for the second-generation experience which is the full experience of the illustrated poem.
VII. The artist may produce an integrated verbal / calligraphic / pictorial construct different from either the poem or the art alone.
A. The words of the poem, when seen, have an important calligraphic dimension.
The verbal poem itself can be seen as visual art when it flows from the pen of the calligrapher. To quote Professor Oden again, " A written word is an exhibition of drawing the twenty-six letters, in which centuries of graphic refinement are made manifest. The core shapes of letters may harmonize and expedite delivery of the spelled content," or they may " generate visual noise" and impede that delivery.
When the verbal poem prepared by the calligrapher or by the artist-typographer is united with drawing or painting, another art-to-literature relationship is exemplified. Coleridge himself was aware of this class when he wrote that "in a fine Book, with costly plates, &c &c, each page should be, or have the semblance of being, something per se.
B. The experience of such a construct is a second-generation experience different from the experience of either the poem or the art alone.
In this kind of book, the art and the words co-exist as integral parts of a third kind of entity, a visual-verbal construct as different from either the poem alone or the art alone as opera is different from either spoken drama alone or instrumental music alone. It is the 1910 edition by Willy Pogany which achieves most completely for Coleridge-related art the standard that Coleridge himself suggested - though it is not as elegant an artifact as the 1909 or 1913 Sangorski illuminated manuscripts. Both productions are visual performances of the poem which are esthetic objects in their own right, to be judged only by their own self-generated standards.
Some of the more useful commentaries on the poetry-art relationship annotated in volume III of the Coleridge
Bibliography are as follows:
The critical note, "Menzio e Coleridge," by Paolo Fossatti in F.Fossatti (1988), discussing the relation between an illustrator's art and the literary text, finds Menzio's drawings illustrative of The Ancient Mariner in the highest sense– not literal reflections of the facts and occasions supplied by Coleridge, not limited by the formal architecture of the poem, but refractions of the figurative elements, projections of shadows of feeling, having the same impact as the poem. Coleridge's poem is like a musical score, which Menzio interprets in a visual medium. The illustrated book is something different, something more than just words or art by themselves.
For other discussions of a particular artist's treatment of The Ancient Mariner, see the critiques
of the Calder illustrations in the annotations on
Not to be overlooked is the treatment of Coleridge's poem in popular art. See The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Emerson (Knockabout Comics,1989), which uses the entire poem, with humorous touches throughout, pictorial and verbal, from subtle to slapstick. The frontispiece is unique among the many hundreds of illustrations of the poem. Emerson's is surely the best production of its kind to date.