top of page

On light

I Shall Be ReleasedAbby Walker
00:00 / 02:49

Yue Zi

Pink Light, 2023

yue zi

Edward Hopper

Morning Sun, 1951

In Hopper’s Morning Sun we see a woman in profile, knees to chest, pink dress pushed high to her hips, arms crossed over legs, on a bed with a pillow and a blue sheet. She is drenched in light, the bed is drenched in light; she both illuminates and reflects. Shadows scatter across and fall behind her in patches.


In all of his depictions of women, Hopper relied on his wife, Jo, as his only model. However, she wasn’t Jo in these paintings but just a paradigm of a woman, or even just any woman, and Hopper muted her features in order to reduce her so. At the time of Jo’s posing for Morning Sun she was nearly 70, but the woman we see on the bed is young.

Hopper relied on Jo for more than her service as his model or muse; Jo was a painter herself, and an actress, and she compromised her career throughout her relationship with Hopper to make possible his professional success. Tomas and Sabina in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being experience freedom and represent lightness, and Tereza bound to her system of values experiences and represents heaviness and weight. Like Jo, Tereza is committed to her partner; her commitment to her relationship with Tomas gives Tomas the freedom to pursue other women without fear of losing Tereza.

Jo’s sacrifices and compromises make possible Hopper’s experiences of lightness too. Hopper’s freedom depends on Jo’s sacrifices and is only possible because Jo is burdened. Jo seems bound further by her fixture in so many of Hopper’s paintings, where he has physically located and trapped her in enclosed spaces, like in this bed where she will bask and look, arms over legs, in perpetuity, where the stream of light pouring in from the window will permanently recur. These burdens he has endowed Jo with, personally and aesthetically, seem like they could suffocate her, but maybe they also fulfill her— Kundera writes: “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

And here, how clearly we can see that Hopper imbues Jo with lightness. She swims in it, both illuminates and reflects it. She is decades younger than she must have appeared in that bed on that day that he painted. The tension in Kundera’s question of which to choose—weight or lightness—is an ambiguity that Jo has been made to reflect on indefinitely, as Hopper has permanently bound her to the light of the morning sun.


Omar Zakaria

Windy Summer Evening, 2023

Sam Illingworth Interviewed by Elena DeBre

Sam Illingworth is a physicist and poet, based out of the UK, who has dedicated his life to merging his two fields. To him, the theme of light lends itself particularly to being looked at from a multidimensional perspective. Here is our Q&A together, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.




As someone who is at once literary and scientific, what do you think about when you look at beautiful refractions of light?



I can think both poetically about the way a sunset looks and also the way it would be recorded in equations.  So could Ada Lovelace, a famous poet and scientist. Ada was Lord Byron's daughter, but her mother didn't want her to become a poet, so she gave her this amazing science education. But when Ada discovered what a rainbow was, and how it worked, she rebelled against it. Her discovery of the science behind the rainbow set her down this path of discovery towards being a mathematician and computer scientist. And then she wrote this really beautiful poem about the rainbow.



Why do you think studies of light has captured human attention, across disciplines and centuries?



The whole nature of light is just so strange, this duality of particles versus waveform that, going deep into quantum physics, at some point science doesn't even have the right words to describe. I think that that's where poetry can play a really powerful part.



How do you think about and describe light?



I would describe light in terms of its refractive index, in terms of speed, in terms of its interactions with the environment. We have mathematical equations and formulas to do that. But, then, there is also the way that light affects us at a personal level, at a metaphysical level, at a spiritual level. Light has both wave and particle properties, it travels at incredible speed, but it also evokes wonder and mystery that is beyond the purely measurable.



How do you think poetry and science work together to illuminate topics as intangible as light?



Scientists aim to quantify light while poets emphasize its qualitative aspects. However, the two approaches can work together - poetry can convey the strangeness revealed by science's probing of light, while science can provide imagery that poetry draws on. Together they give us a richer view - we need both the equations describing light's behavior and the metaphors conjuring its ephemeral beauty.

So while their approaches differ, science and poetry both help expand our mental horizons when grappling with profound and elusive phenomena like light. Science aims to pin down its factual nature, while poetry evokes its mysterious essence - but ultimately, they both seek deeper understanding and appreciation of things that resist easy explanation. By combining rigorous analysis and imaginative vision, we can come to better know the unknowable.



Take a look at Ada Lovelace’s poem for an example of how the technical and transcendent essence of light can be captured and a photo by Sam of an original copy of Lovelace’s poem:

The Rainbow

Ada Lovelace (1851-1852)  


Bow down in hope, in thanks, all ye who mourn:

Whene’er that peerless arch of radiant hues,

Surpassing earthly tints, the storm subdues:

Of nature’s strife and tears, ‘tis heaven-born,

To soothe the sad, the sinning, and forlorn;

A lovely, loving token, to infuse

The hope, the faith, that Power divine endues

With latent good the woes by which we’re torn.

‘Tis like a sweet repentance of the skies,

To beckon all by sense of sin opprest.

Revealing harmony from tears and sighs;

A pledge that deep implanted in the breast,

A hidden light may burn that never dies,

But bursts thro storms in purest hues exprest.

Screen Shot 2023-08-28 at 9.33.53 AM.png

Carla Decombes

Waking Up on Accident, 2023

bottom of page