Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry often focuses on the sense of sight, and most ‘images’ in poetry are visual images. Some poets, though, have taken this focus on sight one stage further and actually explored what it means to see, and to experience ‘visions’ of various kinds. Below we introduce ten of the greatest poems about sight, and ‘vision’ in its various guises.
John Milton, ‘On His Blindness’. We begin this list of classic poems about seeing and sight with a poem that’s actually about losing the ability to see: John Milton’s celebrated sonnet about his loss of vision, in the early 1650s. It begins:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide …
William Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning …
‘Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!’ Seeing is linked to feeling in this sonnet by one of Romanticism’s foremost poets, as he describes the scene he witnesses from Westminster Bridge in central London one early morning.
John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien …
This is another Romantic poem, and another sonnet, this time by John Keats (1795-1821), who describes his experience of first reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s epic poetry. The emphasis throughout is on ‘looking’ and perceiving: not only Keats ‘looking into’ the volume of Chapman’s work, but an astronomer observing a previously undiscovered planet, or a Spanish Conquistador standing on Darien in Panama and viewing the Pacific for the first time. (Famously, Keats mixes up his explorers here: it would have been Balboa in Darien, as Cortes focused on North America.)
Emily Dickinson, ‘Best Things dwell out of Sight’. So far, the emphasis in this selection of classic poems has been on the benefits and wonders of seeing the world around us – or, in Milton’s case, on losing the ability to see that world. But what if the best things are out of sight, hidden away? This is what this short poem by the master of miniature detail, Emily Dickinson, so brilliantly captures. It’s quoted here in full:
Best Things dwell out of Sight
The Pearl—the Just—Our Thought.
Most shun the Public Air
Legitimate, and Rare—
The Capsule of the Wind
The Capsule of the Mind
Exhibit here, as doth a Burr—
Germ’s Germ be where?
Thomas Hardy, ‘I Look into My Glass’.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!’
This is a different ‘seeing’ poem from Wordsworth’s. In this short poem, looking and seeing are linked to the gulf between what the poet sees and what he feels, as Hardy views his ageing face in the mirror and laments that he still has the same powerful, passionate feelings he had as a young man, even though his body has aged and weakened.
Oscar Wilde, ‘A Vision’. Another sonnet here (a Petrarchan one) from one of the high priests of decadence, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Wilde’s speaker experiences a vision which culminates in the three great tragedians of ancient Greece:
I cried to Beatricé, ‘Who are these?’
And she made answer, knowing well each name,
‘Æschylos first, the second Sophokles,
And last (wide stream of tears!) Euripides.’
Marjorie Pickthall, ‘Vision’. Pickthall (1883-1922) was Canadian, although she was born in London. She was regarded by some as the greatest Canadian poet of her generation. ‘Vision’ is an explicitly religious poem, in which the speaker experiences a divine vision of a knightly Christ:
He makes the air so keen and strange,
The stars so fiercely bright;
The rocks of time, the tides of change,
Are nothing in his sight.
Dorothy Parker, ‘Sight’. Although she’s best-known for her caustic wit and her one-liners, the American writer Dorothy Parker wrote poetry with a darker side, often dealing in issues relating to death and self-extinction. Here, she links these dark thoughts with the insomniac’s sinister vision of the night turning into dawn.
Langston Hughes, ‘I Look at the World’. The pre-eminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes (1901-67) describes the world as he sees it as a black American poet: he is filled with hope that he can make the world he sees into the world he dreams of. The ‘world that’s in my mind’ can be realised, even if it doesn’t yet exist…
Simon Armitage, ‘A Vision’. Simon Armitage, who was born in Yorkshire in 1963, is one of the most popular and widely studied living English poets. His poem ‘A Vision’ was first published in his 2006 collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid. The poem focuses on the contrast between our idealistic hopes and plans for the future and the somewhat less perfect reality, which often falls short of our expectations. Specifically, Simon Armitage uses the example of town planning and the ways in which the reality of the town, once built, failed to live up to the perfection embodied by the miniature model of the new town. We can see this right from the first three words of Armitage’s poem: ‘The future was’. Oddly, the future is described using a past-tense verb, ‘was’. This past tense (or the tenseness of dreams long passed) is reinforced by that grim ‘once’ at the end of the first line.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.