The Language of Vision and the Sister Arts

  • Tom Jones


In this chapter I shall begin to indicate the role Berkeley’s philosophy can play in a reading of Pope’s work by placing Pope’s poems on the sister arts of poetry and painting in the context of Berkeley’s work on vision. I will begin with Pope’s presentation of the sister arts in the ‘Epistle to Mr Jervas’. The linguistic background to the sister arts comparison is often presented as dependent on a pseudo-Lockean view that describes words as signs for ideas, with ideas being pictures in the mind of things in the world. From this position, eighteenth- and twentieth-century critics and theorists of painting and poetry talk about painting as a universal language, and say that poetry, in the hands of an exceptional practitioner such as Pope, attains the universality of pictorial signs by including imitative sonic and syntactic effects in its descriptions of the world. These imitative and iconic effects in Pope, however, do not often have reference to things in the world. Most of the iconic descriptions in Pope are descriptions of artificial images, images created by humans through poetry or painting, or both. The iconic passages of An Essay on Criticism and the description of Achilles’ shield in Iliad XVIII are not pictures of things in the world but pictures of pictures of things that may never have been in the world. The extreme artificiality of Pope’s iconic poetry pushes the picture theory of language to something of a crux.


Visual World Mental Picture Universal Language Visual Phenomenon Pictorial Effect 
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  1. 1.
    Winifried Nöth’s distinction between exophoric and endophoric iconicity, between verbal forms miming their meaning, and verbal forms miming other verbal forms, provides a linguistic parallel to the poetic phenomenon I am trying to describe. See ‘Semiotic Foundations of Iconicity in Language and Literature’, in The Motivated Sign: Iconicity in Language and Literature 2, ed. Olga Fischer and Max Nänny (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2001), pp. 17–28, pp. 21–4.Google Scholar
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  3. 3.
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  4. 4.
    Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2000), p. 194. The note to Locke contains a misprint, referring to II.xxviii.2–8, when II.xxix.2–8 was intended. My thanks to Professor Gibson-Wood for pointing this out. William McGowan, ‘Berkeley’s Doctrine of Signs’, in George Berkeley: Critical Assessments, ed. Walter Creery, 3 vols (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), I, 111–25, I, 114, also attributes to Locke the theory that ideas are copies of things in a manner that is very pertinent to my argument: In Locke’s epistemological dualism, as traditionally understood, ideas are only representations or copies, however inadequate, of what we should know. The defectiveness of the argument lies not in a failure to show that ideas can be pictures, images, representations, self-portraits, or the like of original corporeal qualities … but in its failure to show the pos-sibility of the understanding using its own ideas as signs in this or any other way.Google Scholar
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    Harte imitates 11. 360–1: ‘And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,/Where Denham’s Strength, and Waller’s Sweetness join.’ He also, in the penultimate line quoted, alludes to Denham’s Coopers Hill, a famous couplet of which describing the Thames (‘Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,/Strong without rage, without ore-flowing full.’ [11. 191–2], The Poetical Works of Sir John Denham, ed. Theodore Howard Banks (New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1928, p. 77)) is taken as a model of imitative versification by other Restoration and Augustan poets, even to the point where Swift describes Apollo saying he can not bear to hear ‘The mimicry of “deep yet clear”.’ ‘Apollo’s Edict’, 1.49, in Jonathan Swift, The Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 231.Google Scholar
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    See Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Poets, ed. Arthur Waugh, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906), ‘Life of Pope’, II, 314; Selected Prose Works of G.E. Lessing, ed. Edward Bell, trans. E.C. Beasley and Helen Zimmern (London: George Bell, 1905), Laokoon, pp. 90–1.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
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  18. 30.
    Pope makes comparative annotations on two books on the geography of Rome. See Maynard Mack, Collected in Himself: Essays Critical, Biographical, and Bibliographical on Pope and Some of His Contemporaries (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Press, 1982), p. 440.Google Scholar
  19. 32.
    For a more sceptical approach to Berkeley’s introduction of the analogy with language see Jules David Law, The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I.A. Richards (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 99–100, where he states that the analogies with language ‘simply reproduce rather than clarify those relationships that the language model is introduced to explain’.Google Scholar
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    See Benjamin Rand, Berkeley and Percival: The Correspondence of George Berkeley, afterwards Bishop of Cloyne, and Sir John Percival, afterwards Earl of Egmont (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), p. 110, Berkeley to Percival, 7 March 1712/3; The Guardian, ed. John Calhoun Stephens (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1982), ‘Introduction’, pp. 26, 28, for the attribution of numbers to Pope and Berkeley; David Berman, George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 77, reassesses Berkeley’s contributions to the journal.Google Scholar
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    The Prose Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Norman Ault and Rosemary Cowler, 2 vols (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936–86), I, 141–3. See I, lxx–lxxi for Ault’s attribution of the piece to Pope.Google Scholar
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    A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, ed. Jonathan Dancy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), I.8, p. 105.Google Scholar
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    Arthur Williams, ‘Pope’s Epistle to Mr. Jervas: The Relevance of its Contexts’, British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 8 (1985), 51–7, suggests Pope argues that Rome can be reconstructed by writers cultivating personal and social virtues, p. 52. He contrasts this epistle with that addressed to Addison.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  25. 42.
    Pat Rogers, ‘Time and Space in Windsor Forest’, in The Art of Alexander Pope, ed. Howard Erskine-Hill and Anne Smith (London: Vision, 1979), pp. 40–51, notes that early eighteenth-century poems often claim to describe the physical appearance of a landscape whilst actually describing the history of a landscape.Google Scholar
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    Colen Campbell, The Third Volume of Vitruvius Britannicus; Or, The British Architect (London: The Author and Joseph Smith, 1725), p. 7.Google Scholar
  28. 48.
    See Nigel Everett, The Tory View of Landscape (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1994), pp. 11–26, for a balanced assessment of Pope’s presentation of benevolent land ownership and improvement. Everett also discusses Berkeley’s works on vision in relation to landscape, pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
  29. 49.
    Julian Ferraro, ‘From Text to Work: The Presentation and Representation of Epistles to Several Persons’, in Alexander Pope: World and Word, ed. Howard Erskine-Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1998), Proceedings of the British Academy 91, pp. 113–34, pp. 119–25, points out the various negative descriptions of Burlington, noting the fact that in a draft of the poem it was Burlington’s vanity that made good the effects of the false management of Timon’s villa.Google Scholar

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© Tom Jones 2005

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  • Tom Jones

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