Literally, an after-image is ‘the impression retained by the retina of the eye, or by any other organ of sense, of a vivid sensation, after the external cause has been removed’. Figuratively, the word is very rich indeed. In the autumn of 1818, Keats, nursing his dying brother Tom and on the threshold of falling in love with Fanny Brawne, borrowed the sonnets of Ronsard, read them closely, and, without the text in front of him, translated one of them. The identity of the foreign sonnet had impressed itself upon him, he worked from the lingering after-image, developing it his own way, and concluding (at the twelfth line, no more were needed) with the astonishing ‘Love poured her beauty into my warm veins’. There is no ‘warm’ in Ronsard’s poem, Keats’s addition obliges us to feel the incoming of love and beauty as a cold shock. The after-image made flesh again! The following spring, Tom dead, Keats, in thrall to Miss Brawne, was reading Cary’s Dante, especially the Inferno, Canto V, the Paolo and Francesca episode. When he slept he dreamed himself into that circle, when he woke he wrote a sonnet out of the dream, out of the translation, conjuring the after-images. Five days later he wrote ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, so full of love and the desolate cold. Keats, self-annihilatingly open to impressions, to identities of people and poems pressing in upon him, suffering afterwards among their after-images, answered back with poems, which is to say with deeds of life, that were all his own.
We had a very abundant response to our call for after-images: poems after photos and pictures; ghostings and reincarnations of other writers; conversions of ancient and foreign forms (conversions of their lingering effects into the here and now); memories one would be loath to lose, memories one might wish to erase. After-images, like exile, wandering, the loss and recovery of speech, will be a continuing ingredient in future issues of MPT. And rightly. First, because it is a good metaphor of the idea and the practice of translation (whether you have the foreign text in front of you while you work or not). Secondly, because in its literal and in its figurative senses the term touches closely on the writing and the reading of poetry itself. A poem is the conversion into an apt and lasting form of perhaps many impressions, many after-images; is itself then an after-image – that works lingeringly on the consciousness and indeed on the active life of its unimagined readers.
The word holds a utopian possibility too. The image lingers after its physical cause has ceased. Like looking at a bright star, actually dead and lightless. Good people, good ideas, good societies linger on as images long after the bad have defeated and eradicated them. Writers are (among other things) the custodians of potent after-images, and can help them back into life, in effective shapes, here and now.
David and Helen Constantine September 2006