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Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture.

Michael Bath. "Medieval and Renaissance Library.) London and New York: Longman, 1994. 25 pls. + xiv + 311 pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling].

This survey of the English emblem tradition, the most thorough since Rosemary Freeman's English Emblem Books appeared in 1948, is readably brief but not in the least superficial. A significant contribution to the field, it examines the place of the emblem not only in the context of Renaissance culture, but also in the larger context of the history of western semiotics. To accomplish these ends, it combines two methods: the first involves close analysis of the works of canonical English emblematists such as Wither, Peacham, Hall, Whitney and Quarles (and some of the less canonical, such as the Jesuit, Henry Hawkins); while the second method broadly examines the evolution of emblems in England in the context of classical epistemology and rhetoric, of medieval aesthetics and theology, of Renaissance syncretism, and-- when such terminology is relevant and helpful -- of modern semiotics and structuralism. The book's central argument, clear and carefully crafted, focuses on the emblematists' concern with one of the most controversial issues in semiotics since Plato's Cratylus, i.e., whether the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary or intrinsic. Since the emblem was perceived by Renaissance writers as either a function of wit by which the mind imposed connections on signifier and signified, or as an art which revealed "inherent meanings" infused by God into creation, the emblematist's stance with regard to hieroglyphs and other signs of a supposed natural language is the most trustworthy indicator of the emblem writer's philosophical and hermeneutic assumptions. Since debate about the kind of artifice language represents has never ended, Bath can draw analogies between early modern and late twentieth-century epistemology, noting that if these Renaissance controversies look back to Plato, they also look forward to Post-Saussurean linguistics.

The book is also useful to any student of Renaissance English literature because the author is careful to point out connections between the evolving English emblem tradition and important literary developments. Discussing Thomas Palmer's early manuscript Two Hundred Poosies, for example, Bath reveals the interesting fact that, since in the English tradition the word posie (to mean emblem) antedates the term emblem itself, important semantic relationships exist between the term posies (mottoes used on shields and in impresas) and two important cognates: poesie (well-made verse) and posy ("the gathered flowers of rhetorical florilegia") Such semantic connections have important consequences, for they suggest how and why these arts influenced each other. Thus when Gascoigne's Hundred Sundrie Flowers of 1573, not an emblem book but an anthology of sententious verse, was reprinted in 1575 as The Posies, the change in title makes clearer the link between English emblems and the early poetry anthologies that would greatly influence later Elizabeth verse. Such a connection proceeds from the close similarity between the subject matter of the emerging emblem tradition and the moral and epigrammatic concerns of the much older tradition of the English plain style lyric. Other significant connections are made between the evolution of the English emblem and the works of Byrd, Sidney, Jonson, Shakespeare and Milton; in addition, as one would expect, attention is paid to the relationship between the art of the emblem and seventeenth-century meditative poets, particularly Herbert. The book's final chapter examines the putative decline of emblem books after 1700, pointing out how they survived in ways previously unnoted by adaptation to the aesthetics of engraving, neoclassicism, and the sublime and the Romantic traditions, until the emblem book underwent a revival in the Victorian period because of its usefulness to the didactic piety of nineteenth-century Protestantism. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and an index.
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Author:Meehan, Brian
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:613
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