The Renaissance Imagination: Essays and Lectures
Poems are like pictures. But some poems are more like pictures than others. Milton Klonsky’s delightful, provocative, but somewhat confusing book is an annotated anthology of what he calls “pictorial poetry,” mostly in English, from the sixteenth century to the present. By pictorial poems he means very different sorts of texts. The first and most important of these is the Renaissance emblem poem. Indeed Klonsky’s own concept of the pictorial and its role in linguistic texts derives from the emblem poem, which probably partly accounts for his beginning his selection in the sixteenth century, instead of in Hellenistic times.
Emblem books were all modeled on the original Latin Emblemata of the Venetian lawyer Andrea Alciati published in 1531. This consisted of a collection of woodcuts of objects, of figures and scenes from classical mythology, and of persons representing some moral quality. Each was labeled with its “meaning”—a moral concept, a virtue, a vice, or, in subsequent emblem books, a proverb or a classical tag—and each was interpreted by a set of verses printed beneath the picture.
These poems depended upon elaborate chains of metaphor, called in Italian concetti and in English “conceits” (“concepts”), which connected the picture with its meaning. Some of these readings or allegorizations seem obvious to us now: a falling tower represents pride (as if every collapsing structure were a Tower of Babel), for example. Others are not: a serpent biting its own tail is an emblem of eternity, a pitcher pouring water into another full of wine “means” temperance, and so forth. Alciati’s handbook of visual significances became very popular in the sixteenth century, went into many editions, and was adapted and translated into Italian, French, English, and other vernacular languages, with new or borrowed engravings.
The first English emblem book was Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586), and was followed by Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612), George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), and the less typical, but for several centuries the best known, Emblemes and Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man of Francis Quarles. In the seventeenth century, emblems appeared to divide into two sorts, the depicted object or personification with a meaning, and the genre scene which illustrated some proverb in a more homely and less poetic manner. The former remained more of a Catholic, southern tradition, the second, specifically Dutch and Protestant. We find emblems in painting, sculpture, prints, and drawings up through the eighteenth century. But these are not included in Speaking Pictures: Mr. Klonsky is mainly concerned with words, with how and why the poems accompanying them draw a moral from the scene.
In addition to examples from Renaissance emblem books, Mr. Klonsky reprints in facsimile some later examples of emblem tradition which either parody or otherwise ironically adapt the form (Blake’s The Gates of Paradise), or domesticate it for children (Bunyan’s A Book for Boys and Girls, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Moral Emblems)—but there is something arch about …