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 this later tradition. Mr. Klonsky’s next sort of pictorial poem is the poem that is typographically “shaped” or arranged on the page so as to present a conventional or mimetic image (Lewis Carroll’s mouse-tail-shaped tale of the mouse in Alice in Wonderland, its more serious predecessors such as George Herbert’s altar-shaped poem and his “Easterwings”). These might be considered emblems whose symbolic picture is represented not by a woodcut or an engraving, but by the typographic image on the page.
But Mr. Klonsky’s next category is more questionable. This is the contemporary, so-called “concrete poem,” itself a branch of graphic rather than of linguistic art (see figure 2); it is arguable whether it can be called poetry at all. He also includes verses that were illustrated, either before or after, by their authors (Blake, Jean Arp, Edward Lear); poems written in description or invocation of particular pictures (Turner’s poems composed for his own paintings); pictures made up of written characters or words (futurist and dada posterlike assemblages); and such anomalies as totally nonemblematic poems by John Clare and Christopher Smart (a pleasure to have, but not necessarily in this context), and a Rube Goldberg drawing (ditto).
The differences among types of pictorial poems are, unfortunately, not schematically mapped out in the anthology itself. But by hanging these disparate texts and images in one gallery, Mr. Klonsky invites us to consider the range of ways in which poems can be like pictures. The range is wide, as is the case also with the ways in which pictures can be like poems. In the history of our art and literature, both texts and images have continually been framed by convention or genre so as to seem to stand for each other.
Art historians have been concerned with problems of iconology for many decades, and among literary critics and historians a knowledge of emblem books is essential for an understanding of poetic imagery in the sixteenth century Renaissance mythological paintings can bring together details and stories from various texts (and from other pictures) just as mythological poems do. Similarly, Petrarch’s Trionfi (“Triumphs”), written in the fourteenth century, describes allegorical pageants that had never been seen, but could thenceforth be drawn and engraved and painted. Descriptions, like those of Philostratus, of celebrated—or even of imaginary—paintings became a rhetorical exercise in the Alexandrian period during the third century: it is this tradition which in our day flowered in poems like W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” the moralized painting rather than what Erwin Panofsky named the paysage moralisé.
Poems can be about things depicted in particular pictures, or they can be about the pictures themselves. Poems can also be arranged typographically or in manuscript to look like, or actually to constitute, pictorial representations. Or, more abstractly, we can observe that the basic building-blocks of poetic language have names that evoke the pictorial: “poetic image” and—as Erich Auerbach has elaborately demonstrated—“figure” liken tropes of language to visual representations. Literary criticism has associated with pictures individual poems, and the stuff from which they are made, since classical times.
The famous phrase asserting the association is Horace’s: ut pictura poesis (“a poem is like a painting”). In his poem on the art of poetry, the similarity is carefully delineated: poems are like pictures in that some have a large, some a narrower scale (or, as we still say of novels, “canvas”), or in that some love obscurity and some wish to be seen in the light of critical scrutiny. In an opening anecdote, Horace employs the notion of a crazy painter putting a picture together the wrong way in order to derive an idea, which is very like our concept of “composition” and is equally applicable to linguistic, musical, or visual works.
By the Renaissance, ut pictura poesis came to be understood as asserting a general likeness between the two arts, or even a family of likenesses. Thus Ben Jonson, in retailing a remark of the poet Simonides, observed that “poetry was a speaking picture, painting a mute poesy, for both invent, feign and devise many things, and accommodate all they invent to the use and service of nature.” Art historians such as Rensselaer W. Lee and literary scholars like Jean H. Hagstrum have investigated some of the ramifications of this idea, and the ways in which those ramifications blossom in both art and literature after the Renaissance. If it was true of romanticism that all its art, as Pater put it, aspired to the condition of music, then literary modernism, at least the modernism that was centered on early twentieth-century Paris, modeled its revisionism, its view of the recent past, on the ways modern painters regarded their predecessors.
In general, then, modern scholars have continued to expand upon Horace’s tag, asking to what degree all pictures are in some way illustrative of some text, patently or implicitly, and, conversely, to what degree any poetic image or conceit is an invocation of some implicit picture, rather than primarily a linguistic trope. Writers such as Mario Praz, Edgar Wind, and E.H. Gombrich have gone deeply into the latter question, and Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong have been concerned with showing the relation of word and spectacle in the court masque, that epitome of the speaking, moving picture in Stuart England.
Perhaps the very best introduction to a whole range of problems surrounding the relation of word and picture is to be found in an essay entitled “Roles and Mysteries” by D.J.Gordon. This scholar’s brilliant and original studies in Renaissance imagery over the past thirty-five years have dealt with literary and pictorial symbolism both in public, political masque and pageantry, and in the most private and esoteric of systems. “Roles and Mysteries,” originally a lecture and now published for the first time, starts out with a glance at the Rubens ceiling of Banqueting House in Whitehall painted for Charles I, and a detailed look at a masque by William Davenant glorifying the same monarch. In the course of the essay, the reader is led to consider the nature of emblems and devices, problems of public readings of inner meanings, and even some basic semiological theory (about which Gordon takes effective issue with E.H.Gombrich) concerning the supposed primacy of image over word in the development of Renaissance symbolism.
This essay and two more—one detailed study of Rubens’s Whitehall ceiling, and another splendid introduction, this time to Renaissance mythographic interpretation—are included in a collection of Gordon’s studies edited by Professor Stephen Orgel. The Renaissance Imagination includes discussions of court masques by Ben Jonson and Chapman, a definitive piece called “Poet and Architect: The Intellectual Setting of the Quarrel between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones,” an account of the conceptual milieu which generated Palladio’s Olympic Theater at Vicenza, and a remarkably trenchant essay on Coriolanus which focuses on the semantic fields of such easily glossed-over words as “name,” “fame,” and “voice.” In general, these studies are concerned not with modern literary criticism of poetic drama. Rather they deal with the emblematic theater of masque and spectacle, the world of symbol through which a King
might move, an image among images, in that late Renaissance world where the relationship between image and what was imaged, sign and what was signified, was still patient of ambiguous readings, and in part powerful by very reason of that ambiguity. Here a king might move delicately but potently between fiction, representation, enaction, identification or participation.
And, as Gordon continues, “If we persist, in a later mode, in being scandalized about boundaries between the sacred and profane, or the ‘real’ and the ‘feigned,’ we can never understand or feel the power of such great public images; nor can we feel it if, in a modern, sentimental way, we prefer to forget that great hard-headedness is needed for the organization and administration of mysteries.”
Professor Orgel has done a magnificent job of rescuing much of Gordon’s work from relative inaccessibility. Himself a leading Renaissance scholar—he has written on and edited Jonson’s masques, coproduced with Roy Strong the masterful edition of Inigo Jones, and, most recently, written a powerful little book on Stuart political spectacle1—he has gathered, recast from notes, translated (one essay appeared originally in French), annotated, and arranged this handsome and exceedingly useful volume (including seventy-five plates). A full discussion of the importance of The Renaissance Imagination lies outside the scope of this review; but for its contributions to the matter of ut pictura poesis alone, for such analyses as those of the meanings of emblematic costume in Jonson’s masques and in Chapman’s addition to Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and for the ways in which it connects “speaking pictures” (both literal and figurative) with the traditions of mythography that were so important to the vital presence of antiquity in the Renaissance, it stands as a central text.
The Illusion of Power: Political Theatre in the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1975).↩
The Illusion of Power: Political Theatre in the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1975).↩