1801: Among the Papers of the Envoy to Constantinople

By Richard Howard b. 1929 Richard Howard

The writer had settled in England in 1771 on Garrick’s invitation to superintend scene-painting at Drury Lane. The Envoy to Constantinople was the seventh Earl of Elgin, who arranged for the Parthenon frieze to be conveyed to England in 1803.

May it please Lord Elgin, Earl of Kincardine,   
to consider the undersign’d, sole author   
and inventor of the Eidophusikon,

for the position so lately rejected
by Mr. Turner. On giving the measure
of its Effects—calm & storm both, sunset

or moonlight, the accurate imitation
of Nature’s sounds: approaching thunder, the dash   
of waves on a pebbly beach, the distant gun—

my Device was pronounc’d by no less a judge
than Richard Wilson, R.A.—the same who cried out   
at the sight of Terni Cascade, “O well done,

water, by God!”—was pronounc’d, I say, by him   
“highly successful in agitated seas,”   
by reason of the high finish carrying

severally their satellites of color   
into the very center of the Pictures.
As it happens, your Lordship, I visited

the same Joseph Turner known to your Lordship   
(I believe) only this week, and found a man   
pacing to and fro before his pale muslin

on which the sick and wan Sun, in all the doubt   
of darkness, was not allow’d to shed one ray,   
but tears. Even as he work’d, pouring wet paint

onto paper till it was saturated,
then tore, then scratch’d, then scrubb’d in a frenzy   
at the sheet, the Whole being chaos, until

as if by enchantment, the Scene appear’d then,   
great ships gone to pieces in order to fling   
magical oranges on the waves—but I

digress: even as he shew’d me two books fill’d   
with studies from Nature, several tinted
on the spot—which he found, he said, much the most

valuable to him—this Turner discuss’d
the present urgency of your Lordship’s need   
for an artist who might draw Antiquities,

with suitable finish, before Removal,
by your Lordship’s design, from Athens. He said   
he could not, himself, endure the Ideal,

but enjoy’d and look’d for only litter—why   
even his richest vegetation is confus’d,
he delights in shingle, debris and mere heaps

of fallen stone. Upon communicating
the intelligence that your Lordship’s stipend   
must include assistance to Lady Elgin

in decorating fire-screens and the like,
the man turn’d back in some heat to his labor   
upon what I took to be that mysterious

forest below London Bridge, where great ships ride,   
sails filling or falling, disorder’d too   
by the stress of anchorage, all beautiful

though wild beneath the Daemonic pressure   
of his inquiry (with so much of the trowel,   
surely a touch more finishing might be borne!).

Enough of Turner, I have not to speak here
of him, though what I saw was but the scribbling
of Painting, surely. What I would say is this:

I venture to suggest in myself a man
your Lordship, and my Lady, most certainly,   
might rely upon for accurate Service,

work of a conclusive polish, not a sketch.   
There is, may I make so bold, a point at which   
in Turner’s Picturesque, as Fuseli says,

two spiders, caressing or killing each other,   
must have greatly the advantage, in roughness   
of surface and intricacy of motion,

over every athletic or am’rous   
Symplegma left by the Ancients. I do not
wish to speak further of the man who renounc’d

your Lordship’s commission to copy marbles,   
muttering (though plain to hear), “Antiquities
be damn’d, by Thames’ shore we will die,” and went on

raking at the sea with his untidy thumb;   
but only to call your Lordship’s kind notice   
and gracious favor, for the appointed task,

to the creator of the Eidophusikon,
these many years a loyal British subject,   
Yours, &c.
       PHILIPPE-JACQUES DE LOUTHERBOURG

Richard Howard, “1801: Among the Papers of the Envoy to Constantinople” from Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Howard. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Richard Howard b. 1929

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Painting & Sculpture, Arts & Sciences

Poetic Terms Dramatic Monologue

 Richard  Howard

Biography

A distinguished poet, critic and translator, Richard Howard holds a unique place in contemporary American letters. Howard is credited with introducing modern French fiction—particularly examples of the Nouveau Roman—to the American public; his translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1984) won a National Book Award in 1984. A selection of Howard's critical prose was collected in the volume Paper Trail: Selected . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Painting & Sculpture, Arts & Sciences

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Dramatic Monologue

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.