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Speaking Pictures

edited by Milton Klonsky
Harmony Books, 333 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Renaissance Imagination: Essays and Lectures

by D.J. Gordon, edited by Stephen Orgel
University of California Press, 338, 75 illus pp., $22.50

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.

Indeed, Gordon’s book might have provided Mr. Klonsky with some needed help, both in the matter of the origins of emblematic images, and, more particularly, of the ways in which they were received and read. But just as Klonsky shuns any systematic analysis of the different bases of likeness between poem and picture in the spirited chronicle which introduces his anthology, so does he tend to mislead us when he invokes a tradition of mystery to account for the origin and dissemination of his textual images. Mr. Klonsky is an amateur scholar and enthusiast who twenty-five years ago discovered Plotinus lurking about in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” (in an article published in Sewanee Review). In his engaging, energetic, historically shaky, and analytically unsatisfying introduction to the present volume, he identifies pictorial poetry as representing “a five-hundred-year-old yet still obscure tradition that, from the start, has been cast inevitably under the spell of Hermes.”

Here Klonsky is referring to the Neoplatonic tradition stemming from the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and its favored mode of forbidden or esoteric knowledge. Certainly this tradition had consequences for the theory and practice of symbolic imagery in the Renaissance, which scholars associated with the Warburg Institute, for example, have been studying for decades. But pictorial poetry has not slumbered beneath its spell, nor has it been as short-lived as a mere five hundred years. Over two thousand is more like it, as we shall see shortly.

It was through the medium of Renaissance Platonism, admittedly, that the so-called Hieroglyphics of Horapollo helped to introduce readers to emblematic thinking. A Greek work of the fifth century AD, it catalogues the “meanings” of Egyptian hieroglyphic pictograms which could no longer be read (and would not be, until the deciphering of the Rosetta stone) and were thus wrongly assumed to be symbolic pictures. It is frequently the case that when the ability to read inscriptions is lost the undeciphered characters often acquire magical or prophetic properties, as in the case of Hebrew letters in medieval Europe, runic letters later on, or even the Tarot trumps, many of them conventional Renaissance emblems, in our day.

These “readings” of Horapollo’s—e.g., a serpent with a tail in its mouth is the universe, a lyre indicates a man who unites others—were of the sort adapted and expanded by Alciati in his original emblem book. Thus the serpent biting his tail became the image of eternity; the lyre a lute, labeled “Foedera” and allegorized partially through the Latin pun on the word “fides” meaning both “trust” and “string,” and so forth. Alciati drew on other, non-Hermetic sources, however: the well-known device of the great Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius of the dolphin wrapped around an anchor, with the meaning “Festina lente” (“make haste slowly”), comes from a Roman coin included in many emblem books. It may be found in mosaic in a Roman house on Delos.

The difficulty of interpreting emblematic pictures was, of course, an important matter not confined to Hermeticism. As D.J.Gordon puts it:

For the device…has to be difficult to read. To read it is a kind of play, and its function is to define the group that can play—to establish the group’s sense of coherence, identity and security. Hence the impresa‘s associations with chivalry, with antiquity, with hieroglyphics, with the shared rituals of ancient mysteries: all are elitist, abstruse, exclusive.

Nevertheless, the entire tradition was by no means totally Hermetic in spirit, and as the emblem literature proliferated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries its aim was increasingly practical, didactic, and popular. “Emblem,” says Francis Bacon, “reduceth conceits intellectual to images sensible, which strike the memory more.” For writers like John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne, nature itself was an emblem book, and every event of experience an impresa or symbol inscribed by the Creator for the human intellect to moralize upon. For them, this instance of the so-called “doctrine of correspondences” connecting the sensible world with meanings or ideas lying beyond it was a commonplace. This sense of the world itself as hieroglyph continues to flourish in the great American writers of the nineteenth century. “Some certain significance lurks in all things,” says Melville in Moby-Dick, “else all things are little worth, and the world itself but an empty cipher.”

Then, too, there is the matter of the shaped or patterned poems which are more than two millennia old and which, on the printed or manuscript page, actually constitute pictures, while still remaining poems with syntax and metrical form, rather than merely explaining pictures (like emblems), or being pictorial in some metaphorical way. They derive from the so-called technopaignia (“artsy games”—as the Latin poet Ausonius called them), the pattern-poems ascribed to Simmias of Rhodes, Theocritus, and later poets. Some of them (an axe, an egg, two altars, the wings of Eros, a syrinx or panpipe) were made available to the Renaissance by being first printed in sixteenth-century editions of the Greek pastoral poets. They were highly intricate and Alexandrian: the egg, for instance, is that of the nightingale, and hence stands for the poem itself; the wings of Eros come together at a gap in the text between two important concepts in the poem’s invocation to Eros as the organizing principle of Creation. The effect is, in English, something like this:

all creatures were kept
far apart, moved they
in Air,

or Chaos.
The swift-flying son
of Kypris and of Achilles….

(The wings were written vertically, to preserve the visual shape.)

But this was hardly Hermetic tradition. Mr. Klonsky gives no indication that he is aware of the classical poems, or of their influence on Renaissance and baroque poets from Stephen Hawes and Mellin de Saint-Gelais to Joseph Beaumont and Joshua Sylvester. There is a vast literature of figured poems in German of the seventeenth century, large black-letter figures written by both sophisticated Nuremberg poets and authors of household books. In the labored patterned grids of medieval scholars like Rabanus Maurus and Alcuin, we find a set of Latin hexameters inscribed in a sort of crossword puzzle grid, with a picture outlined in rubricated or darker letters. When read, they yield yet another message. There are some beautiful and ingenious shaped poems from Italy, and a considerable decorative, rather than iconic, corpus of work in the calligraphic traditions of Islamic literature. Even the Hebrew Bible, in which, by scribal fiat, every letter was exactly in place and could never be changed in manuscript versions, succumbed to this impulse to make images of text, and in certain later medieval European Bibles the textual notes, exempt from the scribal rules, can be found shaped into pictures of animals and flowers with great subtlety.

Mr. Klonsky prints emblems from the major English books—those of Geoffrey Whitney, Henry Peacham, George Wither—and patterned poems of both abstract (e.g., lozenge-shaped) and iconic (May Swenson’s wave poem) types. He moves on to post-seventeenth-century poems with, or about, pictures generally: it is here that we find some Blake, poorly reproduced and inadequately glossed, illustrations of texts by Calvert and Samuel Palmer, Turner verses to go with a picture, etc. But why no Rossetti? Surely the sonnets for pictures—those of his own and by Old Masters—are of central interest here. Klonsky makes no distinction between illustration and its inverse—the poem which urges the reader to contemplate a particular artist’s representation, rather than an image or object, and to moralize upon it. Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas” summoned up by a painting of Sir George Beaumont, Auden’s poem on Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus—these are pictorial verse of another order.

The question of concrete poetry is a vexing one. The kind of picture assembled from words or parts of words, in which format, rather than syntax, governs the relations between the elements of the picture and its “meaning,” cannot truly be said to be poetry at all. Concrete poems cannot be read aloud, for example, nor can they be quoted or inscribed save in facsimile. In contemporary anthologies it is common to find them misplaced on adjoining pages with some calligrams by Apollinaire or Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” (both of which Mr. Klonsky gives in English versions) or Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer.”

In Klonsky’s collection they more properly follow their true originals, the dadaist and futurist typographical collages. Still, it is too bad that there are no poems of Christian Morgenstern included here, and that the elegant and cartoonlike concrete pages by Ian Hamilton Finlay (his pear-shaped image made up of the words “au pair girl” in lower-case sans-serif, for example) and by the founder of the concrete poetry “movement,” Eugen Gomringer, are lost in so many tedious or silly ones by hands visually too prolix. One is grateful for the little masterpiece of e. e. cummings:










in which the word “loneliness” is made to drop down the page, bracketing the fall of the leaf (which, here “depicted,” is its emblem) between the letters “l” which pun visually on the identity of the twelfth letter of the lower-case Roman alphabet with the first arabic numeral in so many typefaces.

This collection is primarily a sampler, and it may be churlish in such an instance to quibble about omissions or near-misses in the case of some of the choices. Still, rather than Ben Jonson’s verses on the title page of Coryat’s Crudities, his even more schematic delineation of the elements of the “frontispiece” (in its original meaning of “façade”) of Raleigh’s History of the World might have been better, or even Burton’s own glossing of the images on the title page of his Anatomy of Melancholy. Gregory Corso’s splendid fold-out “Bomb” would have been a fine choice for a shaped poem.

Entirely missing are inscriptions, in which the format does the work of poetic form—Valéry’s inscriptions around the Trocadéro, for example, which had to be written, letter by counted letter, like a magazine picture caption. Nor do we find Saul Steinberg’s aphoristic words in landscapes. John Sparrow’s comprehensive Visible Words (1969), a “study of inscriptions in and as books and works of art,” ought certainly to have appeared in Mr. Klonsky’s bibliography, even if it did not suggest a further range of variation for him. (Sparrow discussed everything from engraved Latin inscription as a kind of poetic form to the role of inscribed texts in pictures.)

Interesting forerunners of concrete poetry can be found in the speaking pictures of heraldic devices and coats-of-arms: a splendid example for Mr. Klonsky of this sort of thing might have been the device with which Sir Philip Sidney rode in a tournament in the summer of 1581. Having lost all hope of inheriting a major fortune with the birth of a son late in life to his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, he appeared at a tilt, as Camden reported, bearing “SPERAVI” thus dashed through, to shew his hope therein was dashed.”

Some other objections are more than quibbles:2 the quality of the reproductions, particularly of some of the Renaissance emblems and some of the Blake, is very poor (in the first instance, weak facsimiles may have been used as the photographing copies). There are some arbitrary juxtapositions of text and picture, and some misattributions (a terse, contemporary arrow-shaped poem that buries its point in a target is wrongly credited to Edwin Morgan, the author of a jingle on the same page).

But despite these defects, as well as the tendentious Hermetic reading of iconological tradition which Mr. Klonsky so energetically forces on his material, this is a lively, amusing, provocative volume. It will be far more to the taste of, and stimulating for, the reader both of poems and pictures than recent collections of antilinguistic, graphic, almost pop “poems” which have claimed a kind of new relevance in the midst of current aesthetic assaults on the tyranny of signification and of syntax.

  1. 1

    The Illusion of Power: Political Theatre in the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1975).

  2. 2

    In any event, Mr. Klonsky should certainly have consulted, and taken other examples from, Berjouhi Bowler’s fine The Word as Image (1970); Henkel and Schöne’s vast, thematically arranged Emblemata (1968) ought to have appeared in his bibliography, as should A. Leide’s Dichtung als Spiel (1963).

    Readers interested in emblem literature may consult handsome facsimiles of the books of Whitney, Peacham, Wither, et al. in the series published by the Scholar Press. The most comprehensive edition of Alciati, with additional commentaries and an encyclopedic index, has been published in facsimile in the monumental series “The Renaissance and the Gods” by Garland Publishing, an extremely ambitious and valuable project, edited by Stephen Orgel, bringing together excellent facsimiles of Renaissance mythographic and iconographic treatises. For broader aspects of the poem-picture problem, Jean H. Hagstrum’s The Sister Arts (University of Chicago Press, 1975) and Chapter XII of this reviewer’s Vision and Resonance (Oxford University Press, 1975) may be useful.

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