Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900)
John William Waterhouse
She on the left troubles the afternoon’s repose. That she opens herself to the moment and inclines toward the object of attention, and the soft, girlish rondeur of arms and shoulders and thighs, the one leg tucked casually under the other. I like her better. She lingers in the mind.
But the two are, of course, one nymph. Waterhouse economizes by painting the same model twice, the same who is a naiad at the top of this page, the same whom he painted seven times in Hylas and the Nymphs, and in many other places. She was Waterhouse’s professional nymph. (Though she probably is not Muriel Foster, as so many irresponsible people on the Internet long for her to be, and there is no real evidence that she and Waterhouse ever had any “romantic” relationship. --- She is Eurydice, though, in all her poses, in a thousand women, Eurydice broken and disjecta.) ---(An addendum, later: Peter Trippi, in his Phaidon book on Waterhouse, says there are actually two models in Hylas and the Nymphs, but they sure are similar....)
This relationship between the two nymphs is the basic structural principle of the image, as attested in early studies for the painting, where details change, but the essential is carried through, the motif of similarity within difference.
This is an allegory of poetics. The two nymphs mirror each other in a musical notation of theme and variation. They translate each other. The two are as if one (and the one is as if two, but that is an abyss…). Here, before the still singing head of Orpheus, they bracket the primal chiasmus of simile, the exchange, the give and take of the like, which is a shiver of pleasure within the frame of the unlike.
It is the ground of poetry. It is also the ground of eroticism, this
dis-covery of similarity within difference. Poetics is an erotics of the word. The erotic is a poetics of the encounter (as many have written). J.W. Waterhouse --- so often treated as just another banal Victorian decorator --- is a great Dichter of this stroke of the logos in the darkness.
And to end, these lines from Michel Deguy (translated as well as one can by Wilson Baldridge):
La comparison entretient l’incomparable
La distinction des choses entre elles
Poésie interdit l’identification
Pour la douceur du comme rigoureuse
C’est tout comme
Faire comme si
Comparison looks after the incomparable
The distinction of things among themselves
Poetry forbids identification
For the sweetness, rigorous, of the like
Amounts to the same
To act as though
It were a comme-unity