Poets, image and ego

Poets, image and ego


The Romantic poets

There was a shift in sensibility in the Romantic movement which emphasised individualism and the sense of the self. This was carried to an extreme with the cult of the poet as genius. The poets indulged this through self-fashioning. The best-known image of a Romantic poet is Lord Byron in an Albanian dress up, fresh faced with lipstick lips, wrapped in a bright technicoloured turban and wearing a thin wave of a moustache.[i] Thomas Phillips was the painter, Byron the Napoleonic art director. Byron argued with his portrait painters wanting to look more Romantic.

Thomas Phillips’ portrait, 1813, copy, NPG, London.

George Sanders, Richard Westall, James Holmes and George Henry Harlow also painted the poet. Do we recall Byron’s pox, his appetite for sex with children? His deformed foot? Their image fashioning parallels today’s media stars, and their encouragement of narcissism.

One of the few portraits of the poet Shelley, was painted in Rome in 1819 by an art student, Amelia Curran. It was his death by drowning that inspired the myth of the divine but doomed poet. Louis Fournier’s celebrated painting “The Cremation of Shelley”, 1889) shows a handsome corpse on a funeral pyre, not a bloated, faceless, piece of meat after ten days in the water.

Louis Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley, 1889, Walker Art Gallery

Walt Whitman

‘I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself’ Walt Whitman’s opening line to Leaves of Grass.

He didn’t put his name on the title page of Leaves of Grass (published July 4, 1855), he put his portrait there one hand in a trouser pocket, the other on his hip, confident and ready, an American of the land and its people.

Samuel Hollyer, engraving of Walt Whitman, age 37 from a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (original lost), 1854.

Of the day the original daguerreotype was taken, Whitman recalled:”I was sauntering along the street: the day was hot: I was dressed just as you see me there. A friend of mine—Gabriel Harrison (you know him? ah! yes!—he has always been a good friend!)—stood at the door of his place looking at the passers-by. He cried out to me at once: ‘Old man!—old man!—come here: come right up stairs with me this minute’—and when he noticed that I hesitated cried still more emphatically: ‘Do come: come: I’m dying for something to do.’ This picture was the result.’ [ii]

I don’t believe a word of it. He was a self-mythologiser, like so many artists and writers.

Ed Folsom notes, ‘Walt Whitman was fascinated, as no doubt we all are, with photographic images of himself. From the early 1840s (within a couple of years after the daguerreotype process first came to America) until within a year of his death, Whitman sat for photographers, collected and commented on the results, admired certain poses and disliked others, had hundreds of copies of his favourite ones made, tolerated the middling ones, and burned some of the bad ones.’[iii]‘If I could get a book to suit me, into which I could put the pictures to suit me, I would be happy. I wonder if it could be done?’ Walt Whitman mused to his chronicler, Horace Traubel in 1889. These were all photographs of himself, posing. Well over 120 images have survived.

Whitman ended the preface to Leaves of Grass (first ed.). ‘The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.’ He was an optimist. ‘There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done.’ He mistakenly thought the future was ripe for poetry. The utopian socialist Henri de St Simon first coined the term avant-garde in the1830s: ‘It is we artists who will serve you as avant-garde . . . What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a truly priestly function, and of marching forcefully in the van of all the intellectual faculties!’ In oral cultures poems were cultivated as tools and techniques of memory and bards were valued as archivists, priests, propagandists, and entertainers. Our role has diminished, but there is still a place at the table for language wranglers.

His favourite portrait was the famous butterfly photograph in the Miami Herald, 1883.

Walt Whitman told Traubel, ‘Yes – that was an actual moth. The picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals.’[iv] It was actually a cardboard butterfly mass produced for Easter with a hymn inside the wings. ‘The first begotten of the dead / For us He rose, our Glorious Head, / Immortal life to bring.’

A more recent poet, the punk John Cooper Clarke was having his photograph taken for a newspaper: ‘Make me look handsome, David. I know I’ve fucked you around and you hate my guts, but please. Please. And not just good for me age. Good.’ [v]

I dislike having my photograph taken, and have no interest in fame, posterity, film rights, but here I am.


My first camera, Uni, 1974-5.
First year of creating the garden, 2010
Writing a poem, 2008


[i] William Hazlitt thought the likeness, ‘too smooth, and . . . as it were, ‘barbered ten times o’er,’ both in the face and the expression.’ Frances Wilson, ‘Portrait of the artist as an icon’. TLS, 29 July, 2005.

[ii] Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, October 19, 1888.

[iii] Ed Folsom, ‘This heart’s geography map: The Photographs of Walt Whitman’, (His poem ‘Out From Behind This Mask’ describes the image of his own face in a photograph as ‘This heart’s geography’s map’.)

[iv] Walt Whitman and the fake butterfly The Book Haven, Cynthia Haven’s blog for the written word,

[v] Simon Hattenstone, ‘[John Cooper Clarke: ‘It’s diabolical how poor I am’,’ Guardian, 29 May 2012 Photographer David Levene. ‘I love Charles Baudelaire. Him and Shakespeare are the only people I think are better than me. I swear to Christ, I think I’m better than every fucker.’

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