This is Paper submited for my MFA Graduate Seminar under the same title. 

Reading about colour and literature, I found myself contemplating the vast difference between the visual aspects of colour and the verbal aspects of colour. The visual aspects of colour are clear and direct. The red in Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red is only and precisely the red in Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red. The matter is settled and un-debatable. The perception of the colour, the change trough time, the trustworthiness of the screen or the paper and other issues might be debated, but that colour is the colour it is and nothing else in the same way I can’t be here and there at the same time or in the same way that it’s cant be Tuesday and Friday at the same time(1).

Colour in the written word seems to have an ambiguity that the visual colour does not seem to have. This ambiguity (especially in literature) serves to enrich the text, rather than impoverish the written language. Let’s look at a an example:

If we had the text….

The man bent over his guitar

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as the are.”

… and decided to make it more accurate; where in, as in painting, we would be able to all see the same colour and went ahead and wrote…

The man bent over his guitar

A shearsman of sorts. The day was 362 C(2).

They said, “You have a 301 C guitar,

You do not play things as the are.”

Even if we had an advanced and profound understanding of colour, in which we could immediately call this colour to mind, much of the power of this passage would be lost. That personal touch in which we can feel the author pulling these lines out of our souls is lost precisely because of the precision of some of the statements. That is one of the virtues of literature. Its value often comes from its ambiguity, from its vagueness and from how personal it can become. We could take this journey into abstraction a bit further and try to translate the passage from human language to something maybe a computer could understand.

$man.angle = ($man.angle + 45 || $man.angle++);

$man = random(0,0.5)*$shearman; $day.color = rgb(69,139,0);

echo “$Man.guitar = rgb(0,0,255);”;

echo “$Man.play !=  $Things”;

Again, if the particular language written above was understood by the reader he might comprehend the message of what was written, but the beauty in the writing itself might be lost. The language above was intended for clarity and precision, while poetry finds its value, many times, in its ambiguity.

That’s why, when someone talks about feeling “blue” we not just talking about the colour blue in itself, as we would see it represented in pigmented form. The words we ascribe for colour take on a meaning of their own, independent from their visual counterparts. Colour in literature and poetry is as much as finding and exploiting these alternate meanings as it is about making reference to the visual form of colour. When we talk about feeling blue, we’re not intending to be precise and we’re not talking about #00f. The word “blue” is used precisely because of its ambiguity. The word “blue” is used precisely because of its multiple interpretations. Finally, I propose that the word “blue” is used because it has taken on a cultural meaning completely separated from the visual colour blue. It is because these colours are able to take on new meanings separated from their usage in visual form, that poets use them. They reference the visual world, but are able to separate from them, take on new meanings and be interpreted in a more personal way.


1. There is, of course, room for debate in these issues and metaphysical questions. Philosophers and physicists could certainly disagree with this statement, but they require a level of abstraction and complexity that these kind words are not currently dealing into.

2. Colors in PANTONE solid coated.