We were all blown away by Amanda Gorman’s poetic performance at the US presidential inauguration last month, which got us seriously thinking about poetry and art. There is a long history of literature influencing art, but what about poems? Well my friends, here’s a round up of some of the most gorgeous examples of art influenced by poetry from art history!
The Lady Of Shalott, John William Waterhouse, 1888
Perhaps the most obvious (and also so very beautiful) example of art inspired by poetry, is John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott. The work is inspired by the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a 13th century lyrical ballad which tells the story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman stranded in a tower up the river from Camelot. The poem is inspired by medieval sources and Arthurian subject matter. In the poem, the Lady of Shallot is trapped in a tower, where she is forbidden from looking out into the world, and instead looks through a mirror. However, after seeing Lancelot through the mirror, she looks out of her window and becomes victim of a curse. She then finds a boat and floats down a river to Camelot, where she unfortunately dies before arriving. It is this section that is depicted in Waterhouse’s poem. Both tragic and beautiful:
A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her eyes were darken’d wholly,
And her smooth face sharpen’d slowly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot:
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851
Another example of a beautiful woman floating towards her death from the same era is John Everett Millais’s portrayal of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While not technically a poem, it could be construed as such. The painting is particularly because Millais’s sitter, Elizabeth Siddal, modelled for the painter in a bath tub for hours heated by oil lamp. As a consequence, she caught a severe cold and her father demanded Millais pay him £50 for her medical expenses! But, despite Ms Siddal’s malady, it is a stunning painting, and here are a few lines from the text where Ophelia talks about the flowers that Millais paints in his image:
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace a’ Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets…
Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe), Cy Twombly, 1985
Cy Twombly loved depicting myths by the ancient Romans and Greeks, many of whom wrote in rhyme. His drawings and paintings often include handwritten words quoting poets including Sappho, Homer and Virgil. However, perhaps his most beautiful image of poetry is much more modern. Hero and Leander is inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s poem of the same name, although the subject matter is inspired by a Greek legend. The story comprises two young lovers: Hero and Leander. Each night Leander swims across a stretch of sea to see Hero. The opening two lines say it all:
On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,
In view and opposite two cities stood…
Unfortunately, like the two earlier examples, the story has a tragic ending as Leander dies. It seems that artists have a knack for making tragic poetry beautiful, right?!
Antar and Abla, Lena Kassicieh, 2020
Antarah ibn Shaddad (525-608AD) was a pre-Islamic knight and poet. The son of a slave, his eventual marriage to his cousin Abla is often referred to as the Arab Romeo and Juliet. Antar wrote about his love for Abla in the Mu’allaqat, which were said to have been suspended in the Kaaba. Lena’s colourful illustration and collage brings the enduring love story into the 21st century. Towards the end of his story, Antar is said to have written:
My heart is at rest: it is recovered from its intoxication. Sleep has calmed my eyelids, and relieved them.
Fortune has aided me, and my prosperity cleaves the veil of night, and the seven orders of heaven.
The Poesie Series, Titian, 1551-1562
Titian’s Poesies were commissioned by Prince Philip of Spain in the 16th century. The series of six large scale paintings depict mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which were written between 43 BC and 17 AD. Metamorphoses means transformations in Greek, with Titian choosing to depict the tale of Venus and Adonis, Danae and Diana and Actaeon among others. This painting of Danae was amongst the first to be completed. It tells the story of Danae, who was shut away by her father King Acrisus to stop her from ever giving birth to a son, as he was told by an oracle that his grandson would kill him. However, Jupiter, who is immune from barriers, showers gold over Danae via a skylight and she gives birth to their son Perseus regardless.
Double Entendre, Dina El Sioufi, 2020
The inspiration for this gorgeous painting by Dina El Sioufi mainly comes from lines in Anna Akhmatova’s poetry in the 1960s:
And in the depths of music, I could not find the answer. And then again there was silence, and again the ghosts of summer
This is reflected in the dark serpent charmer figure of Henri Rousseau. The idea is that music is a metaphor for love, beauty and a creative muse, present both in times of beauty, and also during times of great suffering (in this case, Stalin’s Russia), making it become dark, mysterious and even alienated. The two figures represent both the proud contemplative seated woman, and the thinking intellectual woman, two different states confined within different languages: poetry and music. Anna Akhmatova was one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century and was even shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, with perhaps her most famous work, Requiem, being a tragic poem about the Stalinist terror.
Au Naturel, Linder Sterling, 2019
This image is the result of a collaboration between artist Linder Sterling, Pleasure Garden Magazine, photographs from the archive of Flamingo Estate, Chandelier Creative and poet Ella Frears, and is also now the cover of Ella’s book Shine, Darling. The Flamingo Estate was an earthly paradise built high in the hills above Los Angeles in the 1940s. Over the next seven decades, it became the headquarters for a pioneering erotic film company, a creative retreat for photographers and artists, a pirate-radio station, a fanzine publishing company, a political fundraising team, and an unlikely center for cultural self-examination and expanding notions of art. The book of poems – Ella’s debut – is described as a collection of wry, vivid poems, whose power lies in their intimacy.
Between Together and Afar (White #1), Christopher P. Green, 2009
This work was Christopher P. Green’s contribution to Try To Be Better, a book that invited artists to respond to the ‘prompts’ of poet W.S Graham, published by Prototype, London in 2019. Christopher was particularly drawn to the following prompts:
Prompt 1 : “To talk most richly universally the artist talks to himself. — Subject for a poem.”
Prompt 2: “It seemed to me that what I had to say needed the vehicle of a long poem. I needed the dimensions in which I could be to a certain extent DRAMATIC . . . in the sudden shocking bringing together of different and seemingly incompatible textures of narrative and gestures of language . . . the massive montage of one such theme upon another.”
Shown from two viewpoints, this single work is from an ongoing series of paintings started in 2009. With repetition comes reassurance; each new painting enters into a defined lineage, an order. Christopher was interested in the notion of time and gestation. He says the work is ‘about’ time: taking time, and being taken by time. The content of the painting emerges only with time, viewing the paintings also requires time – they change dramatically depending on the conditions under which they are seen.
A Spark In The Emerald Forest, Hana Shahnavaz, 2019
This gorgeous work is inspired by the tale of Khosrow and Shirin, (yet another) tragic love story and poem by Persian poet Nizami. The story is about the love between Sasanian king Khosrow II and Armenian princess Shirin, who eventually becomes queen of Persia. In the story, Khosrow’s son Shiroyeh also falls in love with Shirin and murders his father so that he can marry her. However, Shirin in turn kills herself to avoid marrying Shiroyeh. Hana’s beautiful painting takes its inspiration from this scene:
On the way, he finds Shirin unclothed bathing and washing her flowing hair; Shirin also sees him; but since Khosrow was traveling in peasant clothes, they do not recognize one another. Khosrow arrives in Armenia and is welcomed by Shamira the queen of Armenia – yet he finds out that Shirin is in Mada’in. Again, Shapur is sent to bring Shirin. When Shirin reaches Armenia, Khosrow – because of his father’s death – has to return to Mada’in. The two lovers keep going to opposite places until Khosrow is overthrown by a general named Bahrām Chobin and flees to Armenia.
Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868
We just had to finish with a pre-Raphaelite painting. The British circle of nineteenth century artists had a thing for depicting poetry, and this is a particularly lovely example. This painting by William Holman Hunt was inspired by a poem called Isabella, or the Pot of Basil by John Keats. The poem is inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a young woman called Isabella falls in love with a man called Lorenzo, of whom her family disprove. Isabella’s brothers then murder Lorenzo, whose head Isabella puts in a pot of basil and tends to obsessively. Hunt’s image shows the poem’s heroine with her head resting on the pot of basil lovingly, making something tragic almost beautiful. It is said that Hunt modelled his version of Isabella on his wife Fanny’s likeness, who had recently died from a fever. Keats’s poem reads:
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore
And moistened it with tears unto the core
Text Lizzy Vartanian