Pattern matching: Poets in their cups

by ninashiel

Sometimes your brain cross-associates the strangest things. Part of the problem of course is that when you are a literature scholar, you are trained to pick out patterns in texts and analyse how they work together in dialogue – and sometimes, you know that you are making up patterns when there are actually none, but those patterns are too delicious too leave aside without a gentle analytical poking. I once wrote an essay on a ‘Sexuality in Literature’ module about BDSM undertones in Jane Eyre – but no more of that now…

Last week, on the way home from Uni, I had my car radio on and the track that caught my attention was Grouplove’s ‘Lovely Cup’. Now, if you know your ekphrasis, your ears would most likely perk up. At least I like to think I’m not the only whose did.

You’re such a lovely cup/Why don’t you fill me up/All these reasons too hard to explain/So I’ll drink you up my dear/We got it all right here/Here is now, and now is where I want to be.

The very first line immediately brings to mind Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness... from an entirely different text, from an entirely different era. Okay, so one of them is about an ancient mysterious vessel, written by one of the greatest poets in the English language, and the other one firmly belongs to the tradition of the drinking song. But hold on.

First of all, in both texts the speaker addresses the vessel directly; is inspired, if you like, to his words by the item he is gazing upon (or into, in the case of Grouplove).  While Keats waxes lyrical about about the images on the side of the cup and ends up meandering into reflections of eternity and mortality, Grouplove reach the edges of the same area of contemplation in considerably fewer stanzas. Perceived beauty, whether equated with truth by Keats, or as the ‘loveliness’ found in the drinking vessel in the rock song, leads to a sudden realisation of the existence of time, its passing and the still moments that form the flow of time. ‘Here is now, and now is where I want to be,’ Grouplove decide, but in the next stanza the nagging question still arises, ‘What to do when we have more time?’

Heffernan (1993) argues that much of ekphrasis boils down to a gendered struggle between the (male) viewer and his desire to possess the (female) object of his gaze. Keats’s ‘still unravish’d bride’ leaves little to imagination, although my inclination is to suggest that the poet is too awed by the urn to consider himself in any way part of its world – he is, after all, viewing it from the outside. (And I am now having mental images adapted from American Pie – Oh God, oh God.) To Grouplove, in the meantime, the cup is ‘lovely’ and ‘my dear’, and to add to emphasis, ‘you belong to me’ followed by ‘never let you go’. This interpretation, however, is slighly mangled by the fact that one of Grouplove’s members is a woman: Hannah Hooper. Female writers and their work is not something that ekphrastic scholarship has particularly concerned itself with!

To end with a slightly more serious note: Many scholars interested in ekphrasis have focused on the actual description of the artwork in the text. With the brief and light-hearted analysis above I have tried to show that even a text, in which the only description of the artwork is ‘lovely’, can be read ekphrastically. In my study of ekphrasis, I believe that ekphrasis requires extrapolation – free association – from the original object, which arouses not only inspiration for the words of the text, but also emotion evident in the words. It’s not sufficient that we ‘see’ the object in our mind’s eye – we need to also be able to feel it.

Reference: James Heffernan (1993), Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.