Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sleeping Poets

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


  1. How dreamy he appears! This artistry has me spellbound.... Keats is and forever will be one of my favorite poets...


  2. I can well imagine your reaction to seeing a famous movie star, when I was a little girl I saw our royal family coming out of church in Windsor and felt much the same.

    The face of Keats looks very sensitive and mysterious, how clever.

  3. How fabulously haunting. I'm adding The Somnambulists to my list right now.

  4. I adore Keats....

    Yet, it feels to me that 'sleeping' portraits only give you a slightly broader view than paintings or photographs... So much of who someone is is depicted through their (open!) eyes....

  5. Oh, how strange and mysterious. I must look for this book.

  6. I'm a huge fan of Keats, and I love the way she has captured his image here. Thanks for sharing this!

    By the way, I, too, saw John Wayne when I was a girl! I grew up in a major shipbuilding town, and he came to town one summer to christen one of the ships. It was back in the early 70's, and I was just a little kid, but I have never forgotten it. He was so much larger than life, wasn't he?

    xo Gigi

  7. I have to agree with tlc about the eyes. Although there is a softness to his face. Love the poem.

  8. A very gentle face, but I too miss the eyes.

    Keats was such a romantic, and his face portrays a lovely sensitivity.

  9. Very interesting. Holographic and eerie.

  10. This book sounds amazing! I love the Keats Grave painting! LOVE IT!

  11. Hello P&E,

    I'm afraid, to me, this looks more like a death mask than someone simply sleeping and so Willows word "haunting" is appropriate. Though it is clever what can be achieved these days.

  12. I'm not able to sit and read an entire book of poetry...but prefer to read one poem at a time, letting it sink in slowly....Today I get to do this with Keats...Lovely!...The photo?...haunting...kind of creepy to me...

  13. I agree with all - truly amazing. I loved reading about your mother's run in with John Wayne. His presence must of been larger than life itself. For a child multiply that by 1000.

    Huge fan of Keats as well. Lovely post!

  14. I find that mask rather creepy Pamela. However, I do love the poetry of Keats. Do you know "On a favourite cat drowned in a tub of goldfishes." ? It is one of my favourites.

  15. HI
    Thanks for your lovely comments, It would be fantastic to have some American cousins at the French Textiles event, maybe another time.
    I love Keats too to quote him
    "nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced"
    R X

  16. I do not remember ever seen a portrait of Keats but seeing Keats here on your blog gave me a strange feeling! Yes, a mysterious face!!


  17. I always find Keats' works heartbreaking in their beauty specially in view of the fact that he was quite aware he would live but a very short time....

  18. Are you planning on seeing "Bright Star?"
    Somehow those "blue plaques" that they have in England always make me want one, stating who slept here and who lived where and how they shaped the world alive and asleep.

  19. Ooo what a fascinating book. I love Wuthering Heights and wish Emily Bronte's other book (unfinished) had been kept.

    How wonderful it would've been to have met these great word-artists and really talk to them. I can understand the wish to get as close as possible using modern methods.

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  21. How extraordinary! I was just reading this poem last night and looking at Keat's death mask for the first time. Marveling at the intimacy of it and here I see it again!


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