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Poussin, 'Landscape with a Calm', 1650-51

Poussin, ‘Landscape with a Calm’, 1650-51

The man with the goats has seen this light before.
He enjoys it, takes it seriously, but does not turn on his heel
To get a better view. His dog awaits instructions.
People like him have stepped into the same river twice.

I grant you (imagine this barked by a Labrador) that blues and yellows
Sometimes turn things aside from the way they are normally.
For instance, the grass on the low escarpment by the south approach
Is pulled sideways by the sun most afternoons, as if good grazing
Could go on forever, like lava or glacier ice, but cooling, slowing,
Green as grass, maybe, but grass mashed by a pumice
Into an eternal dry paste. Epidermis, cosmetic,
Shadow on the eyes of a face.

The two women in the windows of the high castle
Could care less about green. The world comes to them
Essentially as sound, warmth, a flooding of low energies into oddly shaped receptacles.
Bagpipe music (finally tolerable). Birch leaves. The smell of stubble fires being doused.

Don’t assume that men on galloping horses are in a hurry.

It’s the same old story (the stock figure speaks): Goats do not take a lot of managing,
The dog is underemployed fifty per cent of the time,
But there are always sufficient local shenanigans for us
To be on the wrong side of the river when the sun goes down.
Numbers of times I have measured the last mile and a half
Against the inclination of shadow on the washhouse roof
And decided not.

I do not believe that aromas, even of ash, can be therapy
Any more than the bust in the innermost room of the castle,onyx, email,
Waiting for the Dark Ages, offering them its Roman nose.
Art is not a set of survival skills. The city in the water
Is enough of a stereotype, the city on the hill having failed us.

To be specific, look at the sky. Not the same blue everywhere
But not changeable, not empty, not the blue of a house by the sea.
Not a philosopher’s thinking away of particulars,
Or a painter’s pressing the flesh and having ether be up front;
Sky blue, but sky seemingly touched by something not of this world,
A brush or a glove, until it looks the same way for a week.

* * *

This poem excerpt was taken from TJ Clark, The Sight of Death, Yale University Press, 2006, 40-41

JE Millais, ‘Speak! Speak!’, 1895
Oil on Canvas, 1676 x 2108 mm
Tate, London

Millais’ works are well known for his precision and painstaking attention to detail. Painted over four decades after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Speak! Speak! (1895) demonstrates a noticeable change in the artist’s handling of his materials, and a radical departure from his earlier roots. While many parts of the painting still demonstrate his precision, such as the bound letters on the bedside table, the roman lamp, and the woman’s jewels, the majority of the work comprises loose brushstrokes. Furthermore, the greater part of the painting is engulfed in darkness, illuminated from a single light source.

Unlike the unfolding stories present in his earlier works, the subject matter of Speak! Speak! is deliberately ambiguous. The scene is thought to depict a young Roman who has, after spending the night reading letters from his lost love, awoken to find her standing before him as she appeared on their wedding night.[1] The man starts up in his bed, reaching out a hand towards her, as if – as the title suggests – begging her to speak. To the left, a dimly lit doorway is left open, and a turquoise patch of paint in the upper left corner suggests an open window, revealing a night sky outside. This allows in enough light to illuminate an ascending spiral staircase, from which the ghostly figure is presumed to have come. To the right there is a bedside table, upon which there is a bundle of letters bound with a red ribbon, and a single candle placed next to a mirror, lighting up the room. The candle gives off smoke to the right, which forms a skull-like shape.

A question is left unanswered: is this woman a ghost? The title, ‘Speak! Speak!’ is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Horatio addresses the ghost of the dead king, which could allude to the dialogue taking place in this painting.[2] In addition to this there are several clues in the way the woman is painted that could affect our interpretation: one remarkable aspect of the woman is the way in which she is lit. Despite the dimness of the room and the candle as a single light source, she is completely illuminated in the darkness. What is more, Millais has painted her with particular colours that cannot be found anywhere else in the painting. On close inspection, her skin and dress comprise not only white, but blues, greens and purples. His application of the paint in small daubs almost resembles the Impressionist approach to create the illusion of flickering light, and adds greatly to the illusion of the woman’s glowing form. These colours ultimately endow her with a ‘cold’ appearance, as opposed to the man whose flesh is painted with reds and oranges and is noticeably ‘hot’ in comparison. Is this the distinction between hot-blooded, living flesh and a cold, ghostly apparition? Or is it simply due to the man being closer in proximity to the burning candle?

This painting addresses the border between what is real and what is not. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not she is made up of living flesh, because despite the way she pulls back the curtains, there is no physical contact made between the two figures that could answer this question. The only hint of contact between them comes from the shadow cast by the man’s arm, which brushes the woman’s hand. However the shadow itself has no substance, and could therefore serve as an allusion to the woman herself. Finally it is impossible to ignore the skull formed by the billows of smoke to the right of the painting, which serves a somewhat ephemeral memento mori.

There is of course another potential reading of the female figure: perhaps she is neither living nor ghostly, but a figment of the man’s imagination. Kate Flint has suggested the possibility of the woman being a psychological hallucination, ‘caused by some internal disturbance in the man’s mind’, and later implies that paintings such as this can address issues surrounding the relationship between hallucination and vision.[3] Some contemporary reviews even addressed this, suggesting she is a symptom of another ailment, with one critic writing that the man is in a high fever, while another sees her as a ‘result of indigestion’.[4]

Whatever the physical state of the woman, her presence is haunting. Painted towards the end of the artist’s life, we glimpse the ageing and increasing frailness of his body through the strokes of his brush. Speak! Speak! bears the lamentations of a life near its end, and is wholly underlain by images of ageing, death and decay.


[1] J. G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 2. (London: 1899), 304

[2] W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene I, Line 51 in P. Edwards (ed.) Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (Cambridge: 2003), p.89

[3] K. Flint, The Victorians and Visual Imagination (Cambridge: 2000), 261-2

[4] R. J. Slade, ‘The Royal Academy’ in Art Journal (London: June 1895), 164; ‘The Spring Art Exhibitions’ in London Society, vol. 67, no. 402, (London: June 1895), 616

* * *

This excerpt comes from a larger body of work produced in collaboration with the University of Bristol and Tate Britain between November 2011 and January 2012.

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