My mother still talks of the time we saw John Wayne. Perched like royalty atop a block-long convertible rolling slowly down the street under a hot July sky. He was the Grand Marshall of our city’s Independence Day parade. And he was shockingly three-dimensional. Having him close enough to touch was a bit unnerving for a little girl who had only seen the man on the movie screen. So, these people are real, I thought. Hmmm. Another mystery to decipher.
They are the names as familiar as those of our own family. Names like Elizabeth and Mary - Shakespeare, Bronte, Keats. We know them only through their writings and their deeds, and rarely do we see them as corporeal beings. And honestly, how could we, ensnared as they are in the two-dimensional world of the painting and the page?
But recently, a good friend sent me a remarkable image. By using digital techniques, Edinburgh photographer, Joanna Kane, has created a series of enigmatic portraits from a famous collection of phrenological heads. She has published a book of this work entitled The Somnambulists. Through her artistry, Kane has managed to bring to “life” the faces behind the famous words of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats in a work that is both beautiful and revelatory. We seem to see sleeping poets.
I read a good bit of the poetry of John Keats on my recent trip to the beach. Here is one of my favourites. It seems even more lyrical now as I gaze upon the face of the man himself.
On Leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour
Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half discovered wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
’Tis not content so soon to be alone.
Painting above: Keats' Grave in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Rome, 1873
by William Bell Scott