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Travelling for culture: the Grand Tour
Travelling for culture: the Grand Tour

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4.2 Objects and the creation of stories

Having read Rilke’s poem, now’s the time to try writing your own response to the statue.

Activity 10

Can you write a descriptive passage of no more than 100 words based on what you imagine about the torso? You could use any existing knowledge or experience of ancient cultures to help you, or if you’ve never studied Greece or Rome before, see where your imagination takes you! For example, do you think it’s a (damaged) representation of a god or of an athlete participating in ancient games? Does it embody an ideal of (male) beauty, or perhaps create awe (a mix of fear and wonder) in the viewer? It is important to note that, for the purposes of this Creative Writing activity, you are not bound by facts and the histories of material objects. You are simply being invited to respond to what you see. When you’re ready, move on to the discussion.

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Discussion

Here is an example response:

When I look at this almost limbless body, what I see is an ideal of manhood: a strong, finely-toned trunk with sculpted abdominal definition. I imagine that the model for such a sculpture might well have been an athlete of great prowess, as the representation exudes vigour and strength. The provenance of the statue is not clear to me but it seems to be modelled on a classical ideal. From a twenty-first-century perspective, the anatomy of the nude figure appears correct, though the pubic area is missing.

There are different ways to describe or react to the image and your reflection might be quite different from the example reflection. It’s just an attempt to draft a short descriptive passage that nevertheless starts to wonder about the function of the statue and where it came from.

You might be asking yourself why someone would want to describe or react to a statue. There are of course many answers to such a question, ranging from the professional to the emotional. You might, for example, be an audio-describer trying to give to a partially sighted person a clear sense of what they cannot see in detail, or you might be a visitor to a gallery and be struck by a particular statue’s beauty and want to write about it to family or friends. How you write about it will depend on why you are writing about it.

Activity 11

Now read a second draft of the example response in the previous activity:

The perfection of your marbled, stylised exterior is what first stands out: a perfectly chiselled, finely wrought torso signalling your masculine prowess. You exude strength and virility. Yet you are forever stuck in this pose, a beautiful, near-limbless trunk of worked alabaster, a tribute not just to some Greek ideal but to the conceit and skill of your maker. Were you sculpted to order to decorate a temple precinct or were you a model athlete whose Olympian splendour distinguished itself and demanded to be recorded?

I wonder what you would say, noble statue, if you could talk, what tales you would tell. Would you speak of martial deeds or of epic contests? Perhaps you were just brawn, something to be gazed at, a male equivalent of the beautiful Venus de Milo, lacking skills of elocution and rhetoric? We shall never know. Your history must be pieced together from fragments and from ancient texts. Are you the ancient equivalent of a twenty-first-century gym junkie? A Mr Universe? A winner on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent? Who knows.

Today you stand before a crowd of twenty-first-century onlookers, both virtual and real. I wonder what you make of us.

What changes have been made from the first draft in the previous activity and what might it have been trying to achieve in responding in this less descriptive way?

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Discussion

You may have thought that this revised draft was trying to move away from ‘static’ description towards more ‘interaction’ and ‘dialogue’ with the statue. You will see that the statue was addressed directly in the second paragraph and there was a hint of speculation: it asked the statue questions but in a way these are rhetorical questions, since it is known that the statue will not respond. Nevertheless, it speculated on what the sculpture might signify to present-day viewers, as well as to viewers in the past. So it’s beginning to move away from what is available to see directly and is beginning to indulge in speculation and in fictions. It also turns the tables in the final paragraph where it wonders what the statue thinks of us, those viewing it. In short, moving towards a more creative response.

In this exploration of Creative Writing, then, you have had an opportunity to do two things that are important to work in this field: you have had a go at writing yourself, responding to a prompt, and you have been encouraged to reflect on how other writers respond to similar prompts, building on your encounter with Byron in the last section. The brief consideration of Rilke’s poem is just one example of how writers often draw on material from antiquity, exploring the past and gathering inspiration in a similar way to the Grand Tourists, and reimagining its stories and people, whether in ancient or modern-day contexts. Poets, in particular, seem to have an affinity with incomplete material (unfinished texts, missing sections) and/or statues that have been partially destroyed. The fragment or the fragmentary becomes for many writers the beginning of a new tale or piece of poetry. It is often what is missing, or the gaps in our knowledge, that inspire writers.

As you have seen, the culture of classical antiquity can be for writers today a rich legacy and a vital source of inspiration, as it was for the Grand Tourists that you’ve been reading about earlier in this course. Writers may ‘raid’ the past for ideas and translate what they have encountered to different settings, reworking examples from the past for modern-day audiences and, perhaps, finding themselves landing in unexpected places!