Why is it that what appeals to our imagination in poetry will not please our eyes when painted
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
There is one page (right) in "Letter on the Deaf and Dumb" on which Diderot illustrates the concept of medium specificity down to a T. The text is a response to Charles Batteux's text of Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe.
"Why is it that what appeals to our imagination in poetry will not please our eyes when painted?" Diderot asks. "Perhaps," he answers his own question, "there is one beauty of nature for the painter and another for the poet?" He goes on to announce "I am going to give you a single example of the imitation of one subject in nature by poetry, painting and music."
He does so by citing from two poems from Antiquity, both he says, about a dying woman. The first is Dido in Virgil's Aeneid. The second is actually about an unknown dying person in Lucretius's de Rerum Natura.
- Illa graves oculos conata attollere rursus
- deficit; infixum stridit sub pectore vulnus.
- Ter sese attollens cubitoque annixa levavit,
- ter revoluta toro est oculisque errantibus alto
- quaesivit caelo lucem ingemuitque reperta.
- vita quoque omnis
- Omnibus e nervis atque ossibus exsolvatur
In their English translations:
- Then close ; the death wound gurgles deep
- Thrice on her arm she raised her head,
- Thrice sank exhausted on the bed.
- Stared with blank gaze aloft, around
- For light, and groaned as light she found. --tr. John Conington
- And life break wholly up out of all the sinews and bones.
He then describes the nature of the musical notation shown and compares the music, the painting and the text:
- Now look at the painter's method of expression, and you will recognise the exsolvatur of Lucretius in the legs, the right arm, and the left hand. The painter who can express but a moment in time has not been able to represent so many symptoms of dissolution as the poet, but they are much more affecting; the painter shows us reality, whereas the expressions of the poet and the musician are but symbols. When the musician is an artist, the accompaniment either emphasises and strengthens the melody, or brings in new ideas which the subject demands and which the melody cannot express. Thus the first bars of the bass express a gloomy harmony, made up by a superfluous chord of the seventh, placed as it were outside the ordinary rules and followed by another chord, discordant in sound and of a diminished fifth (g\ The rest will consist of a series of minor sixths and thirds (A), which are descriptive of exhaustion of strength and prepare the mind for its total extinction.
The English translations are by Margaret Jourdain