Colourworks: Chromatic Innovation in Modern French Poetry and Art Writing

Colourworks: Chromatic Innovation in Modern French Poetry and Art Writing
Susan Harrow

Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK, 2020
256 pp. illus. 32 col. Trade, £76.50; PDF eBook and EPUB, £61.20
ISBN: 978-1-3501-8220-2; ISBN: 978-1-3501-8221-9; ISBN: 978-1-3501-8222-6.

May 2021

Colourworks is a scholarly, detailed, in-depth investigation into how colour is utilised in both poetry and art writing. It explores the way poets use colour in their creations, and also how their readers respond to and ‘think’ colour. Harrow concentrates on three well-known and brilliant French literary figures: Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and Yves Bonnefoy. She argues that these poets provide us “...with ways of problematizing colour in the exploratory texts of poetry and art writing” (p. 3). She also draws on other textual formats such as journalism, cultural critique, and correspondence.

Harrow chose these three writers because, “... their work represents a major defining current of poetic modernism in its pursuit of innovation, its probing of consciousness, and its exploration of interart and visual values” (p. 3). There is a considerable lacunae in literary scholarship concerning the analysis of colour in writing, I believe Harrow has done a wonderful job in exposing this and providing an excellent resource for further research.

Susan Harrow is a Professor of French at the University of Bristol, UK, has written numerous works on modernist textual and visual culture, and was made an Officer in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 2011 for services to French culture.

The hardcover book is beautifully produced with a section of colour plates with artworks relating to the poet’s work discussed throughout the book. After the informative Introduction there are three parts followed by a Conclusion: Moving Colour Forward, then Notes, Bibliography and Index. Part 1 - Colour Concepts and Practice: Mallarme’s Monochromes. Part 2 - Matter, Metaphor, Metamorphosis: Valery’s Intermittent Colour. Part - 3 Emblematic Chromatics and the Colour of Ethics: Yves Bonnefoy’s Lessons in Things.

As Harrow shows, colour is a seemingly simple word, with obvious connotations is far more complex than we realise. The work of the three writers discussed, challenges “...the traditionalist containments in chromatic symbolism in ways consonant with the anti-telic, fracturing momentum of modernism, and with the resistance of exploratory poetry to the anecdotal and the allegorical, the ornamental and the decorative” (p. 183).

Harrow hopes that her study of colourworks and the textual applications of colour by poets and writers will encourage further study and exploration in other areas of the humanities such as; ethics, the philosophy of the image, gender studies, photographic theory, art history, and ekphrasis. To this end she proposes three related ways of analysing intrinsic embedded colour phenomena: colour concept; colour capacity; colour agency.

Colour in poetic and art writing does not only mean direct usage such as “the charcoal sky” but also oblique reference such as, “the ashen evil sky.” It may be used descriptively “the blue sky” or metaphorically such as “the sunset was like an orange,” given these simple examples I was surprised to find no discussion concerning synaesthesia. This is a little odd when clearly colours have qualities far beyond their chromatic hues; for example, Wednesday is always a ‘green’ day for me! I think some discussion of synaesthesia would have opened the dialogue with neurophysiology (science) as another avenue of exploration to further explore and illuminate the hidden dark secrets of colour. “In the absence of colour words where poetry makes us ‘feel’ or intuit colour without explicitly lexicalizing colour; so we should not underestimate the capacity of the text, especially where it appears, at first blush, to conceal its own chromatic tracks. The colour capacity of texts where colour is recessed or occluded invites us to focus our attention on colour’s untold story” (p. 187).

Harrow points out that the writings of Mallarmé, Valéry, and Bonnefoy are possibly “…inimical to contemporary cultures concern with immediacy,” and that are seen as “difficult” modern poets. She hopes her study will help the “…long term rehabilitation of Valéry as a writer, whose intellectualism and formalism reveal, paradoxically, a more material and sensuous dimension where colour consciousness informs the exploration of corporeality, the senses, and the environment” (p. 189), similarly with Mallarmé and Bonnefoy by the detailed study of these writers with their important sensibility and relationship to colour as a textual device.

This book will be of interest to poets, literary critics, researchers, and teachers in the academy. In Harrow’s own words, “Through and beyond the deep study of colour in the work of Mallarmé, Valéry and Bonnefoy this book will, I hope, reveal its larger ambition; its aim to spark reflection on how poetry researchers, and those concerned with art writing, of diverse provenances and periods, might deepen their engagement with colour ... in the verbal medium “ (p. 11).