'Yearning of an Eye' - Sight and Colour

Does everyone see the world in the same colours as me? What if my blue isn’t their blue?

Like the never ending monkey cage (if a monkey is in a cage, but it can never get to the edge of its cage, is it really in a cage at all?), one of those trick philosophical questions we often ask ourselves is, does everyone see the world in the same colours as me? What if my blue isn’t their blue? In reality, only 9% of the population have a colour impairment which means that they see the world differently, and science has made us aware that for most of us, colours are processed in the same way by the retina.

During the 19th century however, these scientific facts were in the process of being discovered. ‘Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light’ by Isaac Newton had been published in 1704, which established the method for refracting light through a prism, and also recognised that objects gain colour because of the way that they absorb and reflect light, rather than colour being inherent to the object. However, the contents of Newton’s work were still being doubted and researched by many major thinkers over a century later, including Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Goethe.

Before the 18th Century, during the Early Modern Period, people believed that objects were perceived differently, that rather than the rays or light from objects hitting the eye, instead the eye gave out rays itself, and as these rays hit objects, we were able to see them. This makes sense of the way that vision is described in poetry and literature before Newton, where these ‘invisible rays’ are often described.

‘And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.’ – ‘Hamlet’

Looking in this theory is a more active than passive process, eyes throughout Shakespeare have a kind of autonomy that makes them even seem quasae-independent of their bodies:

‘Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?’ – ‘King Lear’

Tennyson’s preoccupation with the refraction of light in his poetry therefore becomes, not only a method of description, but also places him in relation to an unfolding scientific debate.

‘Down from the casement over Arthur, smote
Flame-color, vert and azure, in three rays,
One falling upon each of three fair queens,
Who stood in silence near his throne’ – ‘The Coming of Arthur

‘Like those three stars of the airy Giant’s zone,
That glitter burnish’d by the frosty dark;
And as the fiery Sirius alters hue,
And bickers into red and emerald, shone’ – ‘The Princess

However, Tennyson does not completely manage to exorcise the old-fashioned perception of ‘ways of seeing’ from his language, the eyes of his poetry still give out light, or can become dim, even if it is only metaphorically.

‘then echo-like our voices rang;
We sung, tho’ every eye was dim,
A merry song we sand with him
Last year: impetuously we sang’ – ‘In Memoriam

‘And to the want, that hollow’d all the heart,
Gave utterance by the yearning of an eye,
That burn’d upon its object thro’ such tears
As flow but once in life.’ – ‘Love and Duty

Perhaps Tennyson wasn’t quite ready to accept the lack of liberty held by the eye in these new theories, perhaps he couldn’t yet quite bear for it to be something that only receives rather than gives out. It has taken poetry a long time to catch up with these theories on colour and sight, but now, as is typical of the kind of latent depressiveness of post-modern writing, our lack of control over light has become a kind of preoccupation.

‘Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.
As a rule after lunch mother has a nap

and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light.’ – ‘The Glass Essay’, Anne Carson

The light cuts at the speaker of Anne Carson’s semi-autobiographical poem ‘The Glass Essay’, whose very title plays with light, refraction and looking. In Eric Langley’s ‘Glanced’, from his new, and first, collection of poems ‘Raking Light’, he describes light striking his ‘eye’s apple’ and the lack of control over the rays that define what he sees.

‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.
One-eyed Cupid, locked, cocks, and shot

Zeno’s arrow at Zeuxis’ grapes.
Shaft straight. The pointed

parabola arced its homeward hoops on its
wondering way through loop and loop

towards my eye’s apple; its
projectory now arches down to heel to hit

or miss, may kiss the head or glance off
on bow bend or twisted thread.’ – ‘Glanced’, Eric Langley

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