Advances in Literary Study
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 31-37
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
T. S. Eliot’s Ekphrastic Poems
Rosanna Rion
English Department, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Received November 21st, 2013; revised December 23rd, 2013; accepted January 10th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Rosann a Rion. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Co mmons Attri-
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Poems which have been inspired by paintings or mention a pictorial work can be analysed following a
long tradition of studies between painting and poetry. Three of Eliots early poems: The Love Song of
Saint Sebastian, Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning Service and On a Portrait are examples of this kind of ek-
phrastic exercise. There are different kinds of connections between painting and poetry and Eliot uses the
iconological elements for different aims. The painters who interested the poet shared in common the fact
that they represent a bridge between past and future, not a moment of perfect execution but one of great
Keywords: Ekphrasis; Italian Primitives; Mantegna; Manet; Saint Sebastian
In the studies on the connections between word and image
we can find a long theoretical tradition that focuses its attention
on the dialogues between painting and poetry. The word “ek-
phrasis” describes a poetic genre which proposes as reference,
thematic base or topic for reflection a pictorial work. There
have been many poets who have felt fascinated by painting,
because poets, as any other creator, widen their fields of interest
on every art and every sphere of life. This tradition begins with
Horace, who in his Epistola ad Pisones uses the comparison
between both arts as example:
Vt pictura poesis; erit quae, si propius stes,
te capiat magis, et quaedam, si longius abstes;
haec amat obscurum, uolet haec sub luce uideri,
iudicis argutum quae non formidat acumen;
haec placuit semel, haec deciens repetita placebit1.
The Renaissance artists will take this quotation much further
than, in principle, one would expect and will connect painting
and poetry through thematic links, because painting will nour-
ish from literature, with the creation of allegorical paintings and
using myths as a source of inspiration. The narrative aim in
these kinds of paintings will lead to the transposition of literary
norms to the plastic arts. This idea persisted until 1766, when
Lessing published his Laocoonte, where he distinguished the
limits and differences between both arts. According to Lessing,
while poetry integrated temporality, the plastic arts, a nc hored in
spatiality, can only convey a moment “pregnant” of meaning
which can refer to a story, but which is not comparable to a
Painting and poetry have expanded the possible ways of
connection. An ekphrastic poem can just describe a painting,
but it can also take a part of the visual references as a shared
topic or reflect on the painters life or the relation of the painter
with his work.
T. S. Eliot was interested in painting since his academic
years in Harward, where he attended a course on Florentine
painting taught by Professor Edward Waldo Forbes and a
course on history of ancient art by George Henry Chase. During
his stay in Paris, as a student, the city was under constant artis-
tic activity. In 1914, Eliot travelled through Italy and Germany,
where he visited museums and admired works of art which
made a great impact on him. Later on, his friendship with artists
and critics such as Roger Fry and Wydham Lewis acquainted
him with the aesthetic theories of his time as regards to plastic
arts and particularly painting.
Some of Eliot’s poems have connections with pictorial works
and they are the ones which this essay will focus on. Th e aim of
this analysis is to determine the connections between three of
Eliots early poems and some paintings; the poems are: The
Love Song of Saint Sebastian, Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning
Service and On a Portrait. This essay wants to show, as well,
Eliots opinions on some works of art and some artists. Al-
though the paintings referred to are by different authors, they
share some aesthetic characteristics.
Verbal Language and Visual Language
Form and content are inextricable. There is no use of lan-
guage purely ornamental and therefore style communicates
ideology and the material through which we express ourselves
is part of the message. Although it is possible to notice that a
visual work and a text can share a referent, we cannot say that
there is a sort of translation from one media to another, because
As is painting,
so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you
stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark
another, which is not afraid of the critic
s subtle judgment, chooses to
be seen in the light; the o ne has pleased once the o
ther will give pleas
ure if ten times repeated.
every production has its own laws and limits.
Theoretic tradition on linguistic analysis has offered varied
and productive tools to interpret literary texts, while reflection
on the visual field has encountered more difficulties. Icono-
logical studies have traditionally focussed their attention on
thematic aspects and have provided us with critical texts of
great erudition and beauty, as we can see, for example, in the
classical work of Erwin Panofsky (take as an example his study
of the evolution of Cupido’s image following different literary
trends and changes in the idea of love in the course of time in
Studies on iconology, 1939) which set the basis for other schol-
ars. In recent times a new approach has proved successful in the
analysis of some abstract paintings: the apophatic aesthetics.
The tradition of European mysticism has provided us with the
idea of the negative hermeneutics, or the experience of the sa-
cred deprived of any image, which finds its expression in the
apophatic aesthetics: In what measure the languages of negativ-
ity have contributed in the twentieth century to a greater com-
prehension of the experience of nothingness, which has ap-
peared with modern nihilism, and to what extent it has become
an imperious need in the field of the arts is something which
can only be accounted for by a morphology of those languages.
The massive presence of negativity in the discourses is due,
mainly, to the growing experience of nihilism […]. Twentieth
century poetry has contributed to the understanding of the ex-
perience of nothingness as the fundamental experience of our
time which spiritual indigence shows, paradoxically, a sym-
bolic and sacramental capacity of hosting mystery which had
been exclusive of religious discourses (Vega, 2005: p. 49). In
the case of Eliot, The Waste Land (1922) is a good example of
this apophatic aesthetics; following the biblical tradition for the
lament for lost cities, it becomes, as the very end indicates with
the words “Shantih, shantih, shanty”, a prayer from the spiritual
Today, most of the discourses on the connection between lit-
erature and image have to do with cinema, but here again, we
find we have not got an appropriate theoretical apparatus. The
idea of using the methodology of linguistic analysis for the
visual field, the “linguistic imperialism” (Gilman, 1989), cannot
cover the visual world in all its semantic density and its com-
plexity. Cristian Metz (1981) was one of the first to admit that
the expression “cinematographic language” was, in principle,
metaphorical, and the when compared with natural language,
the difference were as significant as the similarities, pointing to
the fact that, unlike with languages, it is not possible to deter-
mine a minimal unit of expression in the visual world that
would work satisfactorily.
The connections between word and image need their own
categories. Basically, images can cooperate or interfere with the
text, cooperate because we understand their intention as com-
plementary and they can reinforce the textual meaning and, on
the other hand, they can interfere because we can understand
them as expressing something different from the text. We have
to bear in mind, though, that complementation is never innocent
and it acquires meanings of its own although, in general, it
shares the same referent, while interference compels us to deci-
pher a dded meanings. These two categories do not cover all the
possible connections between word and image, as we can see
for example that in visual poetry we can only achieve meaning
by reading word and image together and that both parts do not
have semantic coherence on their own.
The vision of a harmonious combination of word and image
was not shared by Roland Barthes (1964) who made clear that
words parasite images and can never reinforce them because, in
the transit from one structure to another, there are always sec-
ondary meanings.
We find a relevant distinction when we analyze the process
through which word an image acquire meaning. While the word
is always an abstract generalisation, the image brings about
meaning by a specific particularisation. Although they follow
different paths, they both need a context in order to be under-
stood. If images owe more to other images, that is, to an icono-
logical tradition, than to nature and, according to phenomenol-
ogy, we only perceive what we can identify, we need a prag-
matic vision which we can use in as many relevant aspects as
possible to understand both ways of communication.
Rhetorical devices can describe both means of expression, al-
though there are always aspects other than pure formalism that
will determine our perception and interpretation. This theory
has had a long tradition and has been followed by Barthes
(1970), Eco (1979) or Zunzunegui (1998). We should bear in
mind, though, that we cannot assign a particular effect or inten-
tion to a specific rhetorical device, be it verbal or visual. The
constant reinterpretations which visual and verbal expressions
are subject to are due to the changes in historical and social
contexts. T. S. Eliot thinks about this reinterpretation in con-
nection with the function of criticism in each historical moment.
Any artistic form tells us about its time, and it defines and is
defined by aspects wider than those from their own field.
This essay will look into three of Eliot’s early poems and
will go into depth on the iconological references. Although the
references have been acknowledged in the bibliography on the
author, there is no reflection as to why he chose them and their
significance. A complete iconological study of Eliot’s poems is
still to be written and the aim of this essay is to constitute a
contribution towards that goal.
The Love Song of Saint Sebastian
This early poem written in 1914 was part of the notebook
which Eliot sold to the New York lawyer John Quinn in 1922,
with the explicit desire that it should remain unpublished.
Eliots interest in Saint Sebastian comes from the pictorial
world as well as from religion. During his stay in Harvard, Eliot
attended courses on the history of art and read religious and
mystical texts which influenced him and his poetic production.
The Hindi Bhagavad Gita or Ascent to Mount Carmel by Saint
John of the Cross are works which Eliot used as quotations in
some of his poems, like The Waste Land or Fo ur Quartets, and
which allowed the poet to express his hope in an ascetic attitude
as well as his view on the cultural desolation which worried
him so much.
Although 1927 was the year when Eliot became a member of
the Anglican Church, it is during the time when he wrote The
Love Song of Saint Sebastian when he began to think in depth
about his religious beliefs. In the letters to his friend Aiken2
from 1914 (in one of the he sends the poem) we can witness the
desperate way in which the poet expresses his spiritual doubts
and it is also from them that we learn about the impact which
the vision of several pictorial works from the 15th century por-
traying Saint Sebastian made on him: one of them was by
Mantegna (Ca d’Oro, Venice), another attributed to Antonello
Correspondence Eliot-Aiken, quoted in L. Gordon, Eliots Early Years
1977, p. 61.
de Mesina (Bergamo), a third one by Hans Memling (Brussels).
Eliot mentions the erotism of the works and comments that
there is nothing homosexual about them.
The painting by Mantegna is the one that most scholars men-
tion as the one which inspired Eliot’s poem. In the poem the
ekphrastic exercise is different from the usual descriptive po-
The Love Song of St. Sebastian
I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte
And then put out the light
To follow where you lead,
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight
You would take me in without shame
Because I should be dead
And when the morning came
Between your breasts should lie my head.
I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your earls curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all t he w o r ld.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.
In a letter to Paul Elmer More, Eliot write s: I am one whom
his sense of void tends to drive towards ascetism or sensuality”
(apud Gordon, 1977: p. 62) and this mixture of ascesis and
sensuality is, precisely, what we find expressed in the poem.
The allegory of human and sensual love as a mirror of the di-
vine love to his church or his people is here distorted by the
pleasure for pain and the annihilation instinct. Saint John of the
Cross, author well known by Eliot, warns about the dangers in
the mystical path, about the deviations and illnesses of the soul,
and the poet is living a time of search and doubt which corre-
sponds with this context. On the other hand, the literary model
of the idealized woman from the dolce stil novo, which Eliot
admired, finds in this poem the opposite goal to the Florentine
poetry and, instead of leading the soul to salvation, takes the
poetic subject to degradation and destruction, in the way of a
Belle dame sans merci .
Child’s interpretation of the poem (1997: p. 84), as of a po-
etical subject who flagellates himself in order to gain entrance
into a woman’s bed, sets the poem in the context of desire and
possession to such an extent that the erotic intensity allows no
possibility to transcend the sensual. Eliot’s comments on Saint
Sebastians pictorial representations focus also in the physical
beauty and the impact of pain coming from them. Dramatic
quality is one of the values that scholars have acknowledged to
Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, but criticism on the painter and his
contemporaries experienced a great change at the time when the
poem was written. The quatrocento painters were described as
“the Italian primitive”, and this name implied that the artist who
appeared later were the ones who would overcome the technical
and expressive limitations of those “primitive” ones. But art
critics, such as Roger Fry, friend of Eliot, worked to give new
value to the image of the painters from the quatrocento and to
convey the revolutionary idea that art was not an evolutionary
process of constant improvement, but that every movement
responded according to their priorities, and those have not al-
ways been the virtuosi ty of perspective or the rea lism that later
on was describes as the paradigm of perfection: “they [artists
from the 15th century] refused t o acce pt facts as they ca me fro m
nature, except to the extend in which they could be subject to
the generalizing power of their art. Facts should be assimilated
to form before being accepted in the system” (Fry, 1920: p.
This historical change of perspective will lead, also, to back
up in the theoretical field the ideas that Matisse or Picasso de-
fended from their artistic production, such as the defence of
African sculpture or other artistic forms described as primitive
and undervalued as examples of aesthetic expressions of their
own right. Regarding literary criticism it will be Eliot, precisely,
the one who will propose a similar theory in the field of writing,
as he expresses in “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1922)
(apud Eliot, 1953: p. 21):
He must be aware that the mind of Europethe mind of
his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be
much more important than his own private mind—is a
mind which changes, and that this change is a develop-
ment which abandons nothing en route, which does not
superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock
drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this de-
velopment, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is
not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement.
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) is also called “the archaeo-
logical painter” because he was the first to include Roman ar-
chaeological elements as part of his pictorial landscapes. His
interest in antiquity and his sense of history made him very
interesting for Eliot, just as it did his meaning as a link between
past and future. The Roman ruins in Mantegna’s paintings are
due to his interest in archaeology as well as to his intention to
show the triumph of Christianity over paganism, triumph which
was also Eliots desire as he expressed in writings such as
Christianity and Culture (1948). The painting in the Ca d’Oro
(panel, 68 × 30 cm) with a figure in contrapposto, (one of the
several which the artist painted on Saint Sebastian) has an in-
scription: Nihil nisi divinvm stabile est. Coetera fvmvs” (Noth-
ing except the divine can be stable. The rest is smoke), which
reminds us that human life and suffering are temporary and
which we also find in the epigraph of the poem Burbank with a
Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar. The change Saint Sebastian
undergoes form the human to the divine takes place in a second
according the Christian faith, but Eliot, influenced by Bud-
dhism and with many religious doubts, mixes Greek mythology,
Christianity, and Buddhism in the poem The Death of Saint
Narcissus, written in 1014 and in which the iconological refer-
ence to Saint Sebastian is clearly identifiable:
The Death of Sain Narcissus
Come under the shadow of this gray rock
Come in under the shadow of this gray rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or
Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:
I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs
And the gray shadow on his lips.
He walked once between the sea and the high cliffs
When the wind made him aware of his limbs smoothly
passing each other
And of his arms crossed over his breast.
When he walked over the meadows
He was stifled and soothed by his own rhythm.
By the river
His eyes were aware of the pointed corners of his eyes
And his hands aware of the pointed tips of his fingers.
Struck down by such knowledge
He could not live men’s ways, but became a dancer before
If he walked in city streets
He seemed to tread on faces, convulsive thighs and knees.
So he came out under the rock.
First he was sure that he had been a tree,
Twisting its branches among each other
And tangling its roots among each other.
Then he knew that he had been a fish
With slippery white belly held tight in his own fingers,
Writhing in his own clutch, his ancient beauty
Caught fast in the pink tips of his new beauty.
Then he had been a young girl
Caught in the woods by a drunken old man
Knowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness,
The horror of his own smoothness,
And he felt drunken and old.
So he became a dancer to God,
Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows
He danced on the hot sand
Until the arrow s came.
As he embraced them his white skin surrendered itself
to the redness of blood, and satisfied him.
Now he is green, dry and stained
With the shadow in his mouth.
In the poem, Narcissus experiences Saint Sebastian’s mar-
tyrdom and goes through different states of consciousness
through a series of metamorphosis. The problem of identity, in
fact, had interested Eliot since the time of this doctoral thesis in
Harvard: Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Phi-
lolophy of F. H. Bradley.
Another poet who wrote an ekphrastic poem on Saint Sebas-
tian is Rilke, and the comparison with Eliot’s poem is going to
provide evidence of how they both focussed on very different
traits and followed opposite aesthetical aims.
Sankt Sebastian
Wie ein Liegender so steht er; ganz
hingehalten von dem großen Willen.
Weitentrückt wie Mütter, wenn sie stillen,
und in sich gebunden wie ein Kranz.
Und die Pfeile kommen: jetzt und jetzt
und als sprängen sie aus seinen Lenden,
eisern bebend mit den freien Enden.
Doch er lächelt dunkel, unverletzt.
Einmal nur wird seine Trauer groß,
und die Augen liegen schmerzlich bloß,
bis sie etwas leugnen, wie Geringes,
und als liessen sie verächtlich los
die Vernichter eines schönen Dinges3.
In Rilke’s Saint Sebastian the description follows the ico-
nology which has always been connected to the Saint. Both
poems talk about beauty but, where Eliot sees only physical
beauty, Rilke discovers also the beauty of sacrifice. In Eliot,
passion destroys the poetical character and his object of desire
in his attempt to attain complete possession. In Rilke the doubt
which seized the poetical character has no strength in front of
the religious conviction; nevertheless, it is there, deeply human,
as Eliot himself sustains in the Grantile Review, 24, No3 (1962)
when he says that the man who doubts takes the problem of his
faith seriously (apud Gordon, 1977: p. 72).
Eliots poem is so far from convention that the title “love
song” is not justification sufficient for the deviations in which
he entangles the character, and it could be interpreted as a
blasphemy. But within the chaos and the religious search which
Eliot was experiencing at the time, blasphemy is only another
way of connection with the divine: During his first years in
London, Eliot wrote blasphemous poems, but he explained later
on that genuine blasphemy springs from the partial belief of a
mind in an unusual and peculiar state of spiritual illness. Blas-
phemy can even be a way to affirm faith” (Gordon, 1977: p.
On the other hand, and in spite of connections, links and
loans between poetry and philosophy, both discourses are radi-
cally different, and the poet’s convictions and ideology do not
represent the essence of his poetry. Eliot, in an article about
Goethe (1955) in On Poets and Poetry, criticises professor
Hellers theories because he wanted to generalize the philoso-
phical mission of poetry and it is Rilke, precisely, the poet who
Eliot uses to exemplify how inadequate that attitude is.
Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning Service
Eliots admiration for Dante’s simplicity of style entails his
aim of searching for a language which, in spite of the complex-
ity of the moment of modernity that he lives and which poetry
cannot but show, is not fascinated by words which turn poems
into an elitist product. Nevertheless, in his poem Mr. Eliots
Sunday Morning Service (1918) we find a deliberately pompous
vocabulary, which serves as criticism against theological lucu-
(He stands like someone lying down,/pr
opped up by his own huge
will./Off somewhere else, like mothers when they nurse,/and bound in
himself like a wreath./ And the a rrows arrive: now, and now,/as if th ey
sprang out of his thighs,/iron and trembling at the ends. And still/he
smiles darkly, he
s not hurt.//Just once a sadness suddenly looms
large,/and his eyes grow na
ked with pain/
until they deny something,
not worth the trouble,/filling with scorn as they come to relinquish/
those who would kill a beautiful thing.
The lexical game between fertility and sterility shows the
uselessness of the religious discussions in which some doctors
of the church have spent their efforts. For Eliot, there is a part
of discourse which religious speculation has generated that has
only had as an effect the fact that the common man feels further
and further from the church. Sweeny, the character in the poem
who represents the uneducated man, highlights an especially
painful contrast because his personality (developed also in other
poems) is completely brutal.
In the poem we find two pictorial references: a fresco form
the Umbrian school about the Baptism of Christ and a scene
from Purgatory. Both images may not correspond with any
existing work, but we will look at different hypothesis which
have been proposed.
Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning Service
Look, look, master, here comes two religions caterpillars.
The Jew of Malta.
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes.
In the beginning was the Word.
In the beginning was the Word.
Superfetation of [Greek text inserted here],
And at the mensual turn of time
Produced enervate Origen.
A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned
But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.
The sable presbyters approach
The avenue of penitence;
The young are red and pustular
Clutching piaculative pence.
Under the penitential gates
Sustained by staring Seraphim
Where the souls of the devout
Burn invisible and dim.
Along the garden-wall the bees
With hairy bellies pass between
The staminate and pistilate,
Blest office of the epicene.
Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning Service can be found in the
Collected Poems and, therefore, has had more attention from
scholars. One of the elements which has not been pointed out,
though, is the strange adjective that qualifies Christ’s feet in the
poem: “unoffending”, but the topic of representing feet in reli-
gious painting has its own tradition and has been cause of im-
portant discussions; let us remember Caravaggio’s Saint
Mathew and the Angel which was rejected by the priests from
Saint Louis of the French in Rome because: “the saint, when
crossing the legs, showed that big fat naked foot” (Marangoni,
1973: p. 54).
The Umbrian school developed its activity during the 15th
century and among the most renowned painters that belonged to
it we can mention: Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Pe-
rugino or Pinturrichio. The workshop activity included col-
laborative paintings; very often between master and apprentice
and, because of that, many paintings share authorship. Southam
(1981), when he comments the poem, suggests that the quoted
work could be the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca,
which Eliot could have seen in the National Gallery in London,
but this painting does not correspond with the exact icono-
graphical description that the poem offers: the painting in Piero
della Francesca does not show the nimbus over Christ’s head or
the representation of God the Father. In my opinion, the Bap-
tism by Perugino and Pinturrichio in the Sistine Chapel is a
more plausible possibility. Also, is there any better place than
the Vatican to talk about theological discussions? Because un-
doubtedly, the poem refers to a Catholic church.
Although now we can appreciate the vivid colours in the
paintings, it was not until the period (1980-1994) that the
Sistine Chapel was restored, and this fact seems to contribute to
connect the poem and Perugino and Pinturrichio’s painting as
the description coincides with the deterioration described in the
Another possible pictorial referent could be the Baptism of
Christ by Verrochio (Uffizi, Florence), because the artists was
Perugino’s master and, undoubtedly, marked the style of the
Umbrian school. In this work commissioned by the monks from
San Salvi, Leonardo might have contributed, as he was an ap-
prentice of Verrrocchio at the time, painting one of the angels
(the one kneeling). This painting could have attracted Eliot
because of its connotations as turning point between two mo-
ments radically different in the history of art, as it means the
beginning of the end of the Italian Primitive and their way of
understanding art. Eliot was very critical about leonardo’s work,
desmitifying his aura of perfection and undermining its central
place in tradition as paradigm of pictorial quality, as we read in
“Hamlet and his Problems” 1919: “…probably more people
have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it inter-
esting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art.
It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature”.
The process through which the accepted criticism is put in
question can be also found in other countries. Marcel Ducamp
also attacked the Tuscan genius with an iconoclastic gesture
when he painted a moustache to the “Mona Lisa”, the more
mysthified work by Leonardo.
But rather than determining whether Eliot refers to an exist-
ing painting or not, the more relevant fact that connects these
lines to the pictorial world is the task of the poet to collaborate
to put into value 15th century Italian painting. If Roger Fry, in
his criticism, shows the validity and independence of the Quat-
trocento aesthetics, Eliot helps to this aim by including a picto-
rial school from the time as part of his poetic world.
Another painting the poem refers to is the entrance to the
Purgatory and it has a referent in Dante’s Divine Comedy. But,
although the authorship or existence of the Baptism of Christ
painting described in the poem is difficult to determine, in the
case of the Door to the Purgatory it is less likely to be a real
painting. However, the relevant point is the use Eliot makes of
this iconographic reference, and in Mr. Eliots Sunday Morning
Service the ekphrastic exercise helps the poet to contribute to a
decadent and melancholic atmosphere which fills the whole
On a Portrai t
Edouard Manet painted La femme au perroquet in 1866 and
it was exhibited in the 1868 salon. The work received negative
criticism by the art critics and was only defended by those who
admired the painter and understood the modernity of his art and
his respect for tradition; they were great minds of his time like
Baudelaire, Mallarmè and Zola.
The model who posed for the painting was Victorine Mouren,
who appears also in the two paintings by Manet which caused
scandal: Déjeuner sur lherbe and Olimpia. In these two cases
critic ism arose from the mixture of the imitation of the classics
and the new way in which Manet translate them to modernity,
but La femme au perroquet is attacked because of its lack of
dramatic effect and lack of poetical quality and the attitude of
indifference which the face of the model expresses.
Manet himself tried to explain his intentions: “it is sincerity
what provides works with a what may seem a protestation,
when the painter has only tried to express his impression. He
didn’t mean to demolish tradition or to create a new kind of
painting. He has just wanted to be himself” (apud Orienti, 1982:
p. 6).
The poem On a portrait is a classical ekphrastic exercise
based on Manet’s painting. What the poet feels attracted to is,
precisely, that indolence which the painting expresses, and
Eliots poem focuses in the distance between the painting and
the observer.
On a Portrait
Among a crowd of tenuous dreams, unknown
To us of restless brain and weary feet,
Forever hurrying, up and down the street,
She stands at evening in the room alone.
Not like a tranquil goddess carved of stone
But evanescent, as if one should meet
A pensive lamia in some wood-retreat,
An immaterial fancy of one’s own.
No meditations glad or ominous
Disturb her lips, or move the slender hands;
Her dark eyes keep their secrets hid from us,
Beyond the circle of our thoughts she stands.
The parrot on the bar, a silent spy,
Regards her with a patient curious eye.
The poem was written in January 1909, when Manet was
again put into question, this time by voices from the avant-
garde who did not want to admit their debt to him and who felt
uncomfortable about Manet’s admiration for classics like
Velázquez, El Greco or Goya. Here we find again a key figure
in the transformation of the artistic trends, in the transition from
one movement to another, who nourishes from the past and
steps into the future, and who is more himself than others con-
vinced of their originality.
Another artist who was suffering the attacks from the critics
was the poet Swinburne, admired by Eliot (although not uncon-
ditionally, as can be observed in “Swinburne as a poet” 1920).
Before the Mirror ia an ekphrastic poem that Swinburne wrote
on the painting Symphony in White by Whistler, in which the
poet asks himself the same questions as Eliot when trying to
discover the thoughts of the lady represented and feels the im-
possibility to be in “the other’s” place.
The pictorial references Eliot is interested in for the compo-
sition of his ekphrastic poems have an element in common:
they belong to painters who represent a bridge between differ-
ent artistic periods. That moment of change, of respect for the
past and first steps towards something different, is similar to the
one the poet lived through his work. A relevant aspect is the
will to assert the value of painters who were either being recon-
sidered, like Mantegna, or had fallen into discredit because they
annoyed the artists with rupturist ideas, like Manet. Both artists
share with Eliot their respect and admiration for the past,
Mantegna including Roman ruins his paintings and Manet
openly expressing interest for Velázquez.
The connections between painting and poetry in Eliot’s work
have different intensities. While in On a Po rtrait we can appre-
ciate a classical ekphrastic exercise where the description play-
ed a leading role, in The Love Song of Saint Sebastian the pic-
torial referent is not so close to the poem. In fact, it is in The
Death of Saint Narcissus where the iconological elements at-
tributed to Saint Sebastian can be found. On a Port ra i t , inspire d
in Lady with a Parrot by Manet, can be interpreted very differ-
ently if the iconological element is not taken into account;
David Moody (1994: p. 18) connects the poem with the Gio-
conda and says that the poetical voice has the attitude on curi-
osity of the parrot, but this interpretation does not coincide with
Eliots critical point of view about Leonardo’s work. Another
scholar, Martin Scofield (1988: p. 41) sees the poem as a pre-
raphaelite portrait, and states that the parrot represents the ma-
teriality as opposed to the lady, who represents spirituality. But,
following Gordon’s biography, who tells us about the attention
Eliot paid to Manet’s painting, we can understand the element
of radical modernity in the lady’s attitude of boredom and in-
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