Books: Sweeney among the screaming popes

As a new Francis Bacon exhibition opens in London, David Sylvester talks about the painter's love of poetry
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I asked Bacon whether he felt he might have worked in a medium other than painting, he said he might make a film of all the images that had crowded into his brain and not been used. But he wondered whether he would be able to find the images if he were not working in paint; he doubted whether in another medium "things would come to me as easily as they are thrown down to me in my painting". "That does seem to mean that painting is your medium." "I certainly couldn't have been a poet." "What makes you think that?" "Well, because, much as I love poetry, much as it has influenced me, I don't feel, myself, that that is the way my imagination works."

His very interviews, however, show how well his imagination did work verbally. In their description of his aims and methods they are not especially accurate - often because he didn't want them to be - but they evoke the creative process marvellously through telling cadences and a vivid, unexpected use of words. "You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game." Or: "To me the mystery of painting today is how can appearance be made. I know it can be illustrated, I know it can be photographed. But how can this thing be made so that you catch the mystery of appearance within the mystery of the making?"

Such turns of phrase didn't always come on the spur of the moment. Right up to the end of his life there was sometimes a telephone call at eight in the morning trying out some formulation of a thought. He had obviously been working on it and wanted to get the wording just right. That is not the behaviour of a man who is not something of a poet. It is true that being "something of a poet" does not involve the energy or care that it takes to be a poet, but the phrase does at least put Bacon firmly in the ranks of those brought up in Ireland for whom the use of language is equivalent to driving a racing car rather than taking a bus to get from one place to another.

As to his love of the poetry of others, I suspect that it resembled his love of other people's painting. He had a short attention span, was quick to take what he needed from something that touched him. He never looked at a painting in a gallery for more than a few minutes, though he was possibly more patient with reproductions. He famously never bothered during a long stay in Rome to visit the Palazzo Doria to see the Velasquez Innocent X that he loved. Reproductions had given him what he needed: not the physical presence but the idea. And he was used to loving artists for a small proportion of their work: most of Picasso bored him; so did most of Rembrandt.

So I think he was always probably more moved by a great line than a great canto, and, when reading plays, more by a great speech than a great scene. I suspect that in his passion for Aeschylus in translation he did not read the whole plays or even substantial parts of them so much as re-read or recall the quotations so wonderfully translated in Stanford's Aeschylus in his Style, such as "Dust is mud's thirsty sister" and "The reek of human blood smiles out at me". And I suspect that again with Racine (which he read in French) and even with Shakespeare, he read fragments.

It may have contributed to his preference for Eliot among modern poets that Eliot is such a master of compression and fragmentation. On the face of it, we might suppose that Bacon's love for Yeats would have surpassed his love for Eliot, that no quality in Eliot would have moved him as much as the majestic colloquialism of Yeats's language or his constant realisation of Bacon's own avowed ambition "to make the animal thing come through the human". But he had an addiction to Eliot that overcame the defects and the qualities that he must have found really hard to take, largely because of his militant anti-Christianity. It could not have been easy for Bacon to achieve enough suspension of disbelief to be able to say: "I often read the Four Quartets, and I think perhaps they're even greater poetry than The Waste Land, though they don't move me in the same way."

Eliot, of course, was as remote from him temperamentally as he was ideologically. But there was an obsession they shared: the Oresteia. Eliot's obsession was manifest in "Sweeney among the Nightingales", in one of the epigraphs to Sweeney Agonistes and above all in The Family Reunion, where the hero is tormented by the Furies called up by his guilt over his belief that he has murdered his wife. In the Bacon triptych of 1973 showing three moments in the death of George Dyer (above), the foreground of the central panel is filled by the silhouette or shadow of a phantasm which is surely (in Bacon's iconography) a Fury and can be interpreted as confronting the beholder of the scenes, the first of whom was the person who brought them into being. Bacon confessed that this and other triptychs arising from Dyer's death were a conscious attempt to exorcise his guilt over the part he felt he had played in bringing it about. And it does seem more than likely that writing The Family Reunion served a similar purpose: pace Ackroyd's objections to the banality of the equation, the guilt of the play's hero must surely be a reflection of the author's personal feelings over the part he had played in destroying his wife Vivien's life.

The exhibition 'Francis Bacon: The Human Body', curated by David Sylvester, opens at the Hayward Gallery, SE1, on 5 Feb (to be reviewed next week).