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The Iconic Word: The Theological and Rhetorical Sources of a New Ut Pictura Poesis

Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise


Cet article se penche sur la conception humaniste et renaissante de l’adage horatien, Ut Pictura Poesis, et tente de mettre au jour les modalités selon lesquelles la poésie lyrique peut se constituer en objet du regard. La production poétique de Philip Sidney (1554-1586) et de son lointain cousin, George Herbert (1593-1633), témoigne d’une crise des potentialités mimétiques et ekphrastiques de la poésie. Écrite à une époque qui succède à une Réforme marquée par l’iconoclasme en Angleterre et à un moment où commence à se déliter la foi humaniste dans les pouvoirs d’imitation de l’artiste, leur poésie substitue une nouvelle forme de visualité et de matérialité à un art défaillant de la mimésis. Elle permet peut-être de mieux comprendre le sentiment de révérence qui habite encore le lecteur lorsqu’il lui est donné de contempler un poème inscrit dans ce « temple » qu’est l’espace de la page.

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  • 1 “On les a trop facilement rapprochés des poèmes figurés de l’Antiquité et du XVIe siècle et l’on n’ (...)

1The question of the interaction between visual and scriptural cultures is a particular fruitful one when applied to the realm of lyric poetry. In what ways does reading a poem constitute an act of looking? And what is the significance of this visual act? Over time, with the waning of rhyme and the rise of free verse, the most immediate criterion for identifying poetry has become white space. White space can function as a rhythmic or structural marker inside the poem. Its prime effect, however, is to isolate black type on a page, turning the text it forms into an iconic sign, which is at once recognized by the beholder as “poetry” or even as “a poem” before he or she even reads or attempts to decipher its meaning. Poems are shapes of words, of which the pattern-poem is only a case in point, drawing more considerable or explicit attention, thanks to its figurative quality, to its visual materiality. Figure-poetry is of prime interest here because its specific history helps to pose the more general question of the significance of the visuality of poetry at large. The renewed interest among Modernists, whether American Imagists and Objectivists, or French Surrealists, for the pattern-poem, a literary form partly derived from classical Greek altar-poetry in practice amongst fourth century B.C. bucolic poets like Simian of Rhodes, is well-known. Yet, long before the modernist pattern-poem came into being, the rediscovered Greek Anthology had sparked great interest among early modern lyric poets across Europe as well as in England, offering, as Alastair Fowler explains, “in its many technopaegnia or art-games the principal models for figure-poetry” (Fowler 43). That figure poetry should have resulted in so fertile poetical experiments in the age of Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism, as well as at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century, is probably no mere coincidence. Of course, specialists of both periods warn against irrelevant or hasty analogies. In his article on George Herbert’s “The Altar,” Alastair Fowler remarks that the seventeenth century poet’s “consonant form is not quite that of a modernist process-poem” (58). Conversely, the 1965 Pléiade editors of Apollinaire argue that his Calligrammes—part of which were initially entitled, Et moi aussi je suis peintre!—have too often been read in the light of Greek and Renaissance antecedents, unfairly turning them into a demonstration of the author’s learning.1 Yet, in both cases the practice of figure-poetry appears to be linked to a certain consciousness, by both authors and their commentators, of their belonging to an exceptional moment in the history of print. Writing their critical material before the recent heightened interest for the material history of publication and print, Apollinaire’s editors dismiss the parallel with ancient and early modern times. “Mais est-il nécessaire de remonter si loin dans le temps ?” they ask, preferring to look instead towards what they, as the Goncourt brothers before them, believe to be the specific material context of the Modernist era:

Depuis le symbolisme le problème de la disposition typographique du poème est posé et parfois dans des termes que l’avant-garde de 1913 n’aurait pas refusés; c’est ainsi que les Goncourt notent dans leur Journal (27 février 1890): “Aujourd’hui Rodenbach parle ingénieusement de la page imprimée du livre qui, vu les combinaisons des interlignes, des à la ligne, des capitales, des italiques, etc, etc, est arrivée à l’arrangement artistique et, comme il le dit, à l’orchestration de l’affiche.” (Œuvres poétiques 1074)

2In a letter to André Billy (April 1918), Apollinaire himself, inscribing poetry in the context of a form of rivalry between written and image-based as well as musical arts, writes that “[les] Calligrammes […] sont une idéalisation de la poésie vers-libriste et une précision typographique à l’époque où la typographie termine brillamment sa carrière, à l’aurore des moyens nouveaux de reproduction que sont le cinéma et le phonographe” (Œuvres poétiques 1078). Alastair Fowler, as for him, argues that “monumentality” of print at the time of its seventeenth-century spectacular growth and technological advances, when it was still regarded as a relatively new medium, endowed the written word with a “property of self-resembling lastingness.” Yet, simultaneously, because of what he terms its “ostentatiousness” or “opacity,” that is to say, its great typographical diversity, he shows that it was in fact already considered as a “form of graphic art”:

By the seventeenth century, typographers were using impesto of italics and full capitals, to say nothing of hands, rules, fleurons and pilcrows, in such a way as to make the printed page a thoroughly opaque medium. The poem on the page now looked less like a modern poem than early Tudor scribal scribbles had ever done. (41-42)

3This, according to Alastair Fowler, cannot be accounted for by “an attempt to limit the difference of print from script” but was rather a matter of “aesthetic preference” (42). Can print thus truly be said to have been more fanciful and creative a medium in the days of Modernism than in those of Sidney and Herbert? Whatever our answer may be, what I would like to suggest here is that the fascination for the pictorial, or at least visual potential of the letter, at what was respectively felt to be the eve and then dawn of the age of print, may in fact only be a symptom of something more fundamental, that is, two successive, and in some ways comparable—however far removed in time—poetic crises or “breaches” in the mimetic conception of poetry. Paradoxically, it seems that both in the days of Modernism and in the early modern period, the visual quality of poetry, the heightened conscience of its materiality, bespeaks the failure of the most common meaning given to the Horatian adage, Ut pictura poesis (“as is painting, so is poetry” or “a poem is like a painting”), according to which “painting” stands as the paragon of mimesis. My purpose will be, in looking beyond the sole question of print to the theological and rhetorical context in which two early modern poets (first Philip Sidney and then George Herbert) wrote, to show how the materiality of their poetry dramatizes and transcends a failure of mimesis by turning the letter itself into an icon. This early poetic crisis of mimesis and its resolution through a projection of the word into a space of visuality, which cannot be reabsorbed entirely by poetic textuality, can be understood as a prolepsis of sorts to a more recent shift towards what could be called a poetry of the “impress.”

The Sister Arts

4Horace’s famous phrase on the “sister arts,” “ut pictura poesis,” is itself at the center of a misunderstanding. It appears in a passage of the Ars Poetica where the author, far from seeking to found any sort of theory of “pictorial representation in relation to literary ekphrasis” or a “rivalry between artistic disciplines” is much more neutrally dealing with the task of the critical reader in acknowledging and praising the existing variety of types of styles (Trimpi 1-2):

Ut pictura poesis : erit quae, si propius stes,
te capiat magis, et quaedam, si longius abstes.
haec amat obscurum, volet haec sub luce videri,
iudicis argutum quae non formidat acumen ;
haec placuit semel, haec deciens repetita placebit.
(Ars Poetica 361-365)

  • 2 Quoted after H. Rushton Fairclough’s translation.

A poem is like a picture: one strikes your fancy more, the nearer you stand; another, the farther away. This courts the shade, that will wish to be seen in the light, and dreads not the critic insight of the judge. This pleased but once; that, though ten times called for, will always please.2

5Though the analogy had already been made good for a comparative appreciation of poetry and painting in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it is especially in the Renaissance that the formula became extremely popular and that the identification of poetry and painting reached its apex. Reflecting rather Simonedes of Ceos’ idea, as reported by Plutarch in his De Gloria Atheniensium, that “painting is mute poetry and poetry is a speaking picture,” literary theory produced in the wake of the great humanist, Julius Caesar Scaliger’s 1561 Poetices Libre Septem, emphasized the evocative power of poetic words, their vividness, their power in “imitating nature” (Markiewicz). Such seems to be Philip Sidney’s own basic argument in his Apology for Poetry:

Poesy therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis, that is to say a representing, a counterfeiting, a guring forth—to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture—with this end to teach and to delight. (Apology 101)

6When Sidney refers to “imitation,” the word needs to be taken in the Aristotelian sense of a re-presentation or re-creation of nature on a more perfect level, not in the sense of a simple blueprint of reality. Indeed, Sidney, the humanist, has faith in the creative powers of man’s wit:

There is no Art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of Nature as its principal object, without which they could not consist […]. Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite a new form such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like. So that he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the Zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers Poets have done (Apology 99-100)

7In his exceptional ability to re-create nature, the poet is set in contrast to the historian and the philosopher. His work is superior, it is a more convincing form of discourse or rhetoric, precisely because of its ekphrastic quality, as evidenced by the comparison to the “tapestry” in the preceding quote and Sidney’s second reference to Simonedes in the following passage:

[…] no doubt the Philosopher with his learned definition, be it of virtue, vices, matters of public policy, or private government, replenisheth the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom: which notwithstanding, lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of Poesy. (Apology 107)

8Philip Sidney’s Defense or Apology, as the two titles of his work indicate, is a rhetorical treatise written in support of a nascent English poetry more than it is a literary handbook or even literary theory in a stricter sense. Poetry – in its broader understanding of literary writing – is placed above other forms of discourse. The author’s purpose is not to define a hierarchy between the visual and verbal arts for he is only concerned with discourse. However, in the “Renaissance,” as has been made apparent notably by Lee Rensselaer’s works, the art of rhetoric served as a basis for the elaboration of new theories of visual arts, whether painting or architecture, such as Alberti’s, because it gave them the eloquence and pedagogical legitimacy needed to become “humanist” tools for teaching. Leonardo had, as for him, wittingly reversed Simonedes’ formula, arguing that “If you call painting mute poetry, poetry can also be called blind painting” (Da Vinci 18). In any case, the implicit statement in Sidney’s Apology is that poetry is not only grand in so far as it is a form of discourse, but that it is superior to other discourses because it is not “blind,” for it re-presents nature by improving it with its capacity for vividness and decorum. Yet, Sidney’s Apology is a much more ambivalent text, especially when it comes to lyric poetry, than the analogies to pictorial art imply. In his references to music, for instance, Sidney in part deconstructs the humanist understanding of poetry as mimesis he seems to be setting forth through his references to Aristotle, Horace or Simonedes, defining in effect the more modest art of the “right poet” he considers himself to be as opposed to the ancient vates.

Astrophil and Stella

9In his popular sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella,which was to influence the poets of his own as well as the next generation, Philip Sidney again seems to undo in part his defense of the mimetic powers of poetry, admitting instead the muteness and ineffectiveness of his own words in the melancholy love music of sonnet 61: “Oft with true sighs, oft with uncalled teares, / Now with slow words, now with dumbe eloquence, / I Stella’s eyes assayll, invade her eares” (1-3). Astrophil and Stella, contrary to Sidney’s Arcadia, does not include forms of experimenting with pattern-poems or acrostics. Nor does it seek to integrate typographic innovations of the printing press, since it was meant for safeguarded forms of manuscript circulation or “scribal publication” and was only published posthumously. However, it is of prime interest here because it is a text that constantly draws attention to its own materiality, to the fact that it is an object of ink and paper, and an object to be physically gazed upon.

10In the first sonnet of his sequence, the poet sets out to look in his heart, where the loved Stella happens to dwell, and to draw inspiration from that image to write his poetry. In other words, his sonnets are initially conceived of as a “copy” or “imitation” of the image of Stella enshrined in his heart, a locus he also calls Stella’s “Temple” (sonnet 40). In sonnet 7, Stella’s “dark eyes” are described in pictorial terms evocative of the technique of chiaroscuro Sidney had been a witness to when travelling in Italy. Stella becomes the “chiefe work” of “Nature,” the greatest painter of all:

When Nature made her chiefe work, Stella’s eyes,
In colour blacke, why wrapt she beams so bright?
Would she in beamie black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest lustre, mixt of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest if no vaile those brave gleames did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight? (1-8)

11However, his sonnets repeatedly betray a failure of his attempts in the art of imitation, as in sonnet 80, for instance, when his “praise” falls “short of [Stella]”. As the poet remains incapable of actually depicting the loved one, Sidney’s sonnets often turn instead into self-portraits of a poet seen to be spilling ink and blotting pages—two gestures that cannot be reduced to the simple reactivation of the Renaissance topos of humility, but that serve to measure the disparity between the loved one and her impossible representation. “My verie inke turnes straight to Stella’s name,” the poet writes in sonnet 19, “and yet my words, as them my pen doth frame, / Avise themselves that they are vainely spent” (6-8). Analyzing sonnet 19, as well as sonnet 50, in which the poet reflects on the act of writing Stella’s name, Christine Sukic explains that the very materiality of the poet’s writing is paradoxically consonant with the effacement, not the figuring forth, of Stella as a person: “cette matérialité semble dématérialiser Stella au lieu de lui donner corps. Elle n’est plus qu’un nom écrit sur la feuille, un mot qu’il trace en tête de page et de poème” (334). Looking at sonnet 50 in particular, it appears that it is precisely at the moment of a breakdown of the process of mimesis, which the poet had first set out to undertake by using the “fullnesse of [his] thoughts of [her] / […] Till in words [her] figure be exprest” (1, 4), that the poem materializes visually. Turning away from his initial, unattainable project and taking stock of his inability, the poet soon focuses more humbly on his lines as a material object, with the use of the deictic “these”:

With sad eyes I their weake proportion see,
To portrait that which in this world is best.
So that I cannot chuse but write my mind,
And cannot chuse but pout out what I write,
While those poor babes their death in birth do find:
And now my pen
these lines had dashed quite,
But that they stopt his furie from the same,
Because their forefront bare sweet
Stella’s name. (7-14, my emphasis in l. 12)

12The deictics “this” and “these” in fact permeate Sidney’s sonnet collection. They have multiple functions: first, when used as adjectives, that of quite simply making moments and objects vivid or more present in the reader’s imagination. This usage could be related to the evocative processes of ekphrasis and hypotyposis: “This night while sleepe begins with heavy wings / To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought / Doth fall to stray […] / The first that straight my fancie’s error brings / Unto my mind, is Stella’s image […]” (sonnet 38, 1-3, 5-6). Very often in Philip Sidney’s sonnets, however, “this” appears in pronoun form to introduce the concluding part of the poem or a phrase that is to be meditated by the speaker and the reader as it reaches out to the latter. Such is the case of the two consecutive sonnets 21 and 22, which end respectively as follows:

Sure you say well, your wisdome’s golden mine
Dig deepe with learning’s spade, now tell me
Hath this world ought so faire as Stella is? (21, 12-14, my emphasis on l. 13)
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parcht,
Her daintiest bare went free; the cause was
The Sunne which others burn’d, did her but kisse. (22, 12-14, my emphasis)

13Sometimes, the “reader” is no other than the addressee, Stella herself: “For Grammer says (ô this dear Stella weighe,) / For Grammer says (to Grammer who says nay) / That in one speech two Negatives affirme” (sonnet 63, 12-14, my emphasis). This second, frequent use of the deictic alone indicates an overlapping of the cataphoric function of “this,” introducing a new element and making it present, and its reflexive potential, as the poem moves away from an initial goal of re-presenting nature to a reflection on a truth of its own. Finally, “this” bespeaks the utter isolation of textual matter from its referent as it becomes more purely reflexive. In sonnet 7 (quoted above), which began with a fairly technical description of Nature’s paintbrush strokes in the portrayal of her masterpiece (i.e., Stella), the true reason for the blackness of Stella’s eyes turns out to be that they iconically contain the blackness of the lover and mourner who suffers from his passionate, unrequited love: “Both so and thus, she minding Love should be / Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed, / To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed” (my emphasis). “This mourning weed,” when read referentially, designates the “colour blacke” of Stella’s eyes. Yet, at the same time, it seems that Stella as such has been completely erased from what had started out as her painting but has become nothing else than a mirror in which the poet contemplates his own death. Furthermore, because of the generalization in the ultimate line of the poem, extending the state of suffering to a plurality of lovers, “this mourning weed” almost seems to hint reflexively at the blackness of the poet’s own ink – a form of bleeding. The speaker, who has nothing but “this” left to fill the void space from which Stella herself continually retreats, spells out her absence in black ink for all fellow mourners and readers, performing a gesture reminiscent of religious ritual. The spilled ink is at once an avowal of the poet’s powerlessness and a sacramental object endowed with the power of commemorating a loss. It thus already designates the poetic page as a sacred space through its very imperfection.

George Herbert’s Devotional Poetry

  • 3 All references to Herbert’s poetry are from Helen Wilcox’s edition. The poems are quoted by title a (...)

14In George Herbert’s devotional poetry, the paradoxical process by which the materiality, or visuality, of the poem signals in fact the breakdown of the potentials for mimesis, becomes much more explicit yet because of the “sacred” quality of his verse. George Herbert, a distant cousin of Sidney’s, belonging to what was both a Protestant and poetic coterie organized around Mary Sidney’s son, William, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, wove numerous echoes to Astrophil and Stella as well as to the Sidneys’ paraphrase of the Psalms into his own poetical monument, The Temple (1633). Like Philip Sidney’s, his poetical sequence—which is no longer made up of sonnets only—opens with the image of his own heart in the famous “Altar” poem: “A broken Altar, Lord, thy servant rears, / Made of a heart and cemented with tears” (1-2).3 Of course, the object he seeks to “re-present” or “imitate” is no longer Stella, but the one and only God. The second poem in the central part of The Temple, “The Church,” gives us a long “speaking picture” of Christ in the form of a prosopopeia as the persona is Christ himself, speaking from the cross. He depicts himself through a sum of biblical references and common symbols of patristic writing, all of which are nonetheless given great vividness thanks to the use of the first person account of his ordeal and the constant recourse to hypotyposis. Yet the burden of the poem in itself already preempts any attempt on the part of the poet to “imitate” Christ’s sufferings. “Was ever grief like mine?” is the rhetorical question Christ asks again and again at the end of sixty-one stanzas of the poem, answering it only twice at the end of the two remaining stanzas: “Never was grief like mine.” This impossible imitatio christi is confirmed several times later on in the sequence and is even explicitly equated with the question of poetic mimesis when the poet, apparently speaking in his own voice in “The Thanksgiving,” asks: “But how then shall I imitate thee, and / Copie thy fair, though bloudie hand?” (15-16). After going through a long list of potential actions that could call God’s attention to him—“Shall I weep bloud?” (5); “Shall I be scourged, flouted, boxed, sold?” (7); “Shall I then sing” (11); “Shall thy strokes be my stroking?” (13); “I’le build a spittle, or mend common wayes” (33); “I will use the works of thy creation” (35); “My musick shall find thee” (39)—the poet ends up in the last lines acknowledging his failure, signaled by an aposiopesis given in the form of silent dashes: “Then for thy passion— I will do for that— / Alas, my God, I know not what” (49-50). Such a failure bespeaks in fact the author’s Calvinist understanding of salvation, according to which Christ’s sacrifice is both historically and absolutely unique. It stands beyond any form of imitation and man can in no way be saved by his works or even by his godly intentions. There is no “contriv[ing]” in the face of “predestination” (31). At the same time, the material references to the act of writing poetry in “The Thanksgiving” (“copie ,” “posie,” “musick”…) underline the fact that the only thing all the ink the poet has spilled can actually “measure out” is the utter gap which separates him from his divine model.

15More generally, in George Herbert’s anti-humanist conception of the world (in the sense that man is utterly powerless), imitation, not only of Christ but also of nature, is rendered impossible because of man’s fallenness and of his warped perception. Primal sin has blinded him to all forms of resemblance. Whereas the embroidered “tapestry”—a man made artifice and one of the variants of painting in the theory of Ut Pictura Poesis—serves, in Philip Sidney’s Apology, to illustrate how apt poetry is at imitating, teaching and delighting, it becomes an emblem of treacherous illusion in Herbert’s poems “Vanitie” (II) and “Dotage,” where he respectively denounces “false embroideries” (4) and “embroider’d lyes” (5). In “Jordan” (II), an eighteen-liner written in reference to Sidney’s opening sonnet in Astrophil and Stella, the poet depicts himself at a loss how to write and how to re-present the sun, to be understood as an emblem for both nature and God the Son: “I often blotted what I had begunne / This was not quick enough, and that was dead. / Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne” (9-11). At the end of “Jordan” (II), the poet hears a kind voice speak to him, suggesting to him that “There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d: Copie out onely that, and save expense” (17-18). Whereas Astrophil, “Biting his trewand pen” and “beating [his] selfe for spite,” is addressed by his muse and encouraged to look within his breast at the picture or image of the loved one (“‘Foole,’ said my Muse to me, ‘looke in thy heart and write’”, sonnet 1, 14), Herbert’s source for imitation arguably becomes the original scriptural rendering of God’s love, that is, the Bible. In other words, the only thing that can still be copied is God’s “readie penn’d” Word, the whole of nature having been obscured by the Fall. Even this verbal model, however, is often illegible, as the poet reminds us in the “Flower”—“Thy word is all, if we could spell” (21, my emphasis), here again echoing Sidney, who, in the “Second song” of Astrophil and Stella on the stealing of the kiss, exclaims:

Yet those lips so sweetly swelling
Do invite a stealing kiss:
Now will I but venture this,
Who will read must first learn spelling. (21-24)

  • 4 See Margaret Aston’s study of English iconoclasm, England’s Iconoclasts, and especially figures 18a (...)

16That Herbert’s sole source for a possible imitation should preexist in scriptural form, precluding any sort of ekphrastic art of poetry inspired from the analogy with painting, will come as no surprise to those who have read his pastoral manual, The Country Parson, and who know how much Herbert both actually valued the Word and disclaimed the presence of pictorial art in churches. In chapter XIII of The Country Parson, devoted to the upkeep and proper furnishing of churches, Herbert specifies that “there be fit, and proper texts of Scriptures every where painted, and that all the painting be grave, reverend, not with light colours, or foolish anticks” (Works 246). Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, Reformation iconoclasm had of course led to the destruction of sacred art in churches, and the very walls of these buildings had become the locus of a battle against the image in substituting biblical verses—most often those verses that bespoke the lawlessness of the image, such as the Decalogue—for the previous pictures. These verses could be painted directly on the wall, especially above the communion table, or transcribed on wooden panels, evocative of those that had been used for pictorial triptychs,4 thus becoming an iconic substitute in themselves, an object worthy of being beheld, and whose purpose would become both to “instruct” and to “delight.”

  • 5 Quoted after the Authorized Version, 1611.

17George Herbert expresses a pronounced taste for such inscriptions in churches as well as in the parson’s home, which, together with the “ostentatiousness of print” I have already mentioned, may account for his use of figure-poetry, his broader experiencing with the lay-out and his preference for short poetical forms. Herbert actually belonged to what could be called a “scripturephilic” age when words, verses, sayings, and short poems called “posies,” could be written on walls, engraved on window panes or, as Puttenham reminds us, “[painted] now a dayes vpon the backe sides of our fruite trenchers of wood, or [used] as devises in rings and armes” (47). An anonymous volume of “wittie conceights” published in 1584 sets up a list of “Certaine worthie sentences, very meete to be written about a Bed-chamber, or to be set up in any convenient place in a house” (Welspring 90). One of George Herbert’s later poems in the Temple is precisely entitled “Posie” and deals with the poet’s personal motto taken from Genesis 32.10, where Jacob confesses that he is “not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant”5:

Let wits contest,
And with their words and posies windows fill:
Lesse then the least
Of all thy mercies
, is my posie still.
This on my ring,
This by my picture, in my book I write:
Whether I sing,
Or say, or dictate, this is my delight.
Invention rest,
Comparisons go play, wit use thy will:
Lesse then the least
Of all Gods mercies
, is my posie still.

  • 6 It is a matter of debate whether Herbert intended the use of italics in this poem and in others for (...)
  • 7 On the practice of early modern answer poems within the context of coterie poetry, see Arthur F. Ma (...)

18As in Philip Sidney’s sonnets, the deictic “this” crops up here in the second stanza, and again it is used for its multiple functions of referring back to a pre-existing reality (i.e., the “readie penned” piece of scripture taken from Genesis), of introducing a new “lesson” or topic of meditation for the reader, and of pointing to the materiality of a text whose shortness and use of italics make it highly visual.6 Moreover, it should be noted that the “reported” biblical words which the poet claims to use as a sort of signature or stamp and whose iconic function is highlighted by the play on typography in the first printed edition of The Temple (1633), make up for the absence of any other form of poetry. Indeed, Herbert conceives of his “Posie” as an answer poem, while simultaneously refusing to engage in any contest coterie poem7: “Let wits contest”; “comparisons go play”… In identifying himself with the phrase “less than the least of all God’s mercies,” Herbert acknowledges a form of fundamental poetic failure. His is an incomplete, silent, humble and very material art of the “posie” that we should be careful not to confuse with Puttenham’s “Art of Poesie,” understood as a noble, human achievement that can compete with the imitative powers of painting through metaphor or comparison. At the end of his poem George Herbert even dismisses “invention,” a term that needs to be understood in its early modern sense of the choice of one’s topic, that is to say, the first step in any art of rhetoric or any poetics based on the notion of mimesis.

19The fairly naïve idea of the Goncourt brothers, according to which the printing press would have reached its full visual potentialities only at the end of the nineteenth century, reflects a broader misunderstanding of the way “the word” in general may have been looked at in the early modern period. A common assumption, which has been proved wrong for quite a while already by Frances Yates in her seminal study of the arts of memory in the Renaissance and of their strong visual component, is that the development of the press and the wide dissemination of print necessarily made other forms of visual memory obsolete. In Herbert’s days, it seems that the line between memoria ad res and memoria ad verbum was in fact extremely permeable. Words were not mere signifiers but were also iconic objects that could function as loci for memory in the same way as rooms or objects in Simonides’ system. John Willis’s The Art of Memorie, So Far Forth as it dependeth vpon places and Idea’s, published in London in 1621, is a perfect illustration of this confusion between word- and picture-based memory. At the beginning of his treatise, Willis explains that memory consists in placing “ideas,” or mental images, in “Places of Repositories.” In keeping with the classical tradition, he imagines his own “imaginary house or building” for which he also gives us an illustration (see illustration below):

Let there supposed a building of the best Canestone to stand before vs, the inside where of is in length twelve yards, in breadth six yards, & in height seuen yards, and the roofe there of flat […], hauing no wall at all vpon the hither side which is towards vs, but the whole house lying wide ope to our view. […] Futhermore let there be imagined a grooue or gutter to be cut in the middle of the marble stage […] whereby it is exactly diuided into two equall parts : And that vpon the further end of the said gutter there is erected a Corinthian round pillar. (in Marotti 2-4)

Fig. 1 John Willis, The Arte of Memorie, 1621. “A Repositorie.”

Fig. 1 John Willis, The Arte of Memorie, 1621. “A Repositorie.”

20Though the open building looks very much like an empty stage, divided into two spaces by a “Corinthian round pillar,” it could almost represent the two pages of an open book.

21Though John Willis first suggests to his reader that he should set commonplace images also found in emblem books in “his places of repositorie” (“A woman holding a broken pillar, for Fortitude,” for example), he dwells much longer upon what he calls “scriptile ideas,” that is to say, short verbal segments that one must picture as if they were written on large boards on the opposite wall:

A phrase and a short sentence of one line in length must be supposed to be written in a table of three foot broad and one foote high, and the chiefe word therein, which is to be accounted, that which most expresseth the subiect thereof, (whether it stand in the beginning, middle, or end) to be written after the manner of words written alone; that is the first letter to be a great Romane capitall letter and the transcendencies of the small letters therein very large. (38-39)

22John Willis’ art of memorie constitutes a strange detour through visualization when writing down a word in a notebook seems the safest way to remember it. Yet his method brings to light the iconic nature of the word, its material quality or “texture,” which George Herbert precisely chooses to use to both signal and compensate for the failure of poetic mimesis.

23Coming back to one of Herbert’s best known poems, the “Altar,” which opens up the sequence of the middle part of The Temple, we may now perhaps better understand one of the central paradoxes of the poem: the speaker at once claims to be rearing a “broken altar” and yet lets his poem take on the perfect shape of an altar (see illustration from the 1st edition below. Figure 2).

Fig. 2 : George Herbert, “The Altar,” The Temple, 1633

Fig. 2 : George Herbert, “The Altar,” The Temple, 1633
  • 8 In the William’s manuscript, the words that were later printed in capital letters figure in a large (...)
  • 9 In the Country Parson, Herbert seems to give his preference to the communion table over the altars (...)

24Here, as in other poems, the author uses a variety of fonts8 as well as the demonstrative determinant. With Herbert’s views on theology, Church polity and ritual in mind, it might come as a surprise to find him “rearing” an “Altar” rather than a “communion table” at the beginning of his sequence.9 But this “Altar” is, from the start, an immaterial one, that on which the author places his broken heart. Secondly, Herbert’s “Altar” is by no means an instance of imitation. It has no referent, so to speak. If there is any referential “Altar” at all, it is only the one we see on the page, “this Altar” (16, my emphasis), whose sole materials are ink and letters, at once metaphorically and reflexively designated as “these stones” (14, my emphasis). Though the failure of poetry is perhaps less conspicuous in this particular piece than in other of Herbert’s poems, we may however note that “this frame” (11, my emphasis), that is, the material, printed shape of the altar, is conceived of as the substitute form for the poet’s future muteness: “That if I chance to hold my peace, / These stones to praise thee may not cease” (13-14). In the final interchange of pronouns at the end of the poem (“O let thy blessed Sacrifice be mine, / And sanctifie this Altar to be thine”), Herbert suggests that the visual integrity of the altar is in fact transcendent to his own “broken altar” and comes rather as a redeeming gift of God, than it results from the imitative art of the poet who has only a broken heart for model.

25Though George Herbert is regularly anthologized for his rare pattern-poems, “The Altar” and “Easter-wings,” many of his other poems are also visual in more abstract ways. His few figure-poems perhaps only serve as hints of what is actually going on in almost each and every one of the pieces in The Temple. The speaker of “Deniall,” for example, also claims that his “verse” is “broken” (3) and that it is only through God’s grace that, in the end, his poem is made complete and his rhyme is “mend[ed]”:

O cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
Deferre no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my minde may chime,
And mend my ryme. (26-30)

  • 10 This final rhyme is missing in all but the last stanza.
  • 11 Temple” is to be understood here in its etymological sense of a reserved, cut out space.

26If one gazes at the whole poem, despite the various indentations used for the beginning of each line within one same stanza, what one sees is not the disorderly, “Untun’d, unstrung” (22) music of the poet, but a complete, geometrical shape, rounded off by a final, full rhyme.10 The abstract figure that is drawn on the temple of the page11 transcends the failed attempt at mimesis that takes place throughout the linear course of the poem. The abstract figure, in which the human reader discerns a shape without being able to identify what it may be imitating, then becomes the visual and undecipherable representation of God’s grace. The visuality of the poem is its own transcendence.

27In Philip Sidney’s love poetry, and then even more so in Herbert’s devotional verse, the strong emphasis that is laid on the materiality and visuality of the poem is in fact inseparable from the recognition, on the part of the poet, of a failure of mimesis and of the ekphrastic powers involved in the humanist conception of poetry. It is perhaps no wonder if new interest in figure-poetry would arise in the days of Cubism and other Modernist movements in painting that also questioned the relevance of mimetic art. If there is any sort of Ut Pictura Poesis in George Herbert, then the “paintings” that his poems resemble probably draw closer to the abstract. They present, rather than they re-present, something that cannot be “figured forth” according to the rules of mimesis. The enigmatic figure that is drawn on each page of George Herbert’s Temple is the fruit of a particular theological, rhetorical, and historical context, yet it can perhaps help us account for the sense of awe which, to this day, we may still feel when we set eyes upon iconic words and when we immediately know that their basic linguistic, referential meaning has already been transcended by their graphic inscription on the sacred space of the page.

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APOLLINAIRE, Guillaume. Œuvres poétiques, ed. Marcel Adéma and Michel Décaudin. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1965.

ASTON, Margaret. England’s Iconoclasts : Laws against Images. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1988.

DA VINCI, Leonardo. Treatise on Painting, trans. A. Philip Mc Mahon, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956.

FOWLER, Alastair. “‘Cut without hands’: Herbert’s Christian Altar,” in Presenting Poetry: Composition, Publication, Reception, ed. Howard Erskire-Hill and Richard A. McCabe. Cambridge: CUP, 1995. 41-51.

HERBERT, George. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox. Cambridge: CUP, 2007.

HERBERT, George. The Works of George Herbert, ed. F.E. Hutchinson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1941.

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MILLER-BLAISE, Anne-Marie. « ‘The name of Psalmes will speak for me’: Le rôle des psaumes dans la conception sidnéienne de la musique de la poésie », Études Épistémè 18 (2010). 34-50. URL:

PUTTENHAM, George. The Arte of English Poesie [1589]. London: Scolar Press, Menston, 1969.

RENSSELAER, W. Lee. “Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting.” The Art Bulletin 22:4 (1940). 197-269.

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YATES, Frances. The Art of Memory. London: Routledge, 1966.

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1 “On les a trop facilement rapprochés des poèmes figurés de l’Antiquité et du XVIe siècle et l’on n’a voulu y voir qu’un produit de son érudition”, Adéma and Décaudin explain (Œuvres poétiques 1074).

2 Quoted after H. Rushton Fairclough’s translation.

3 All references to Herbert’s poetry are from Helen Wilcox’s edition. The poems are quoted by title and line number.

4 See Margaret Aston’s study of English iconoclasm, England’s Iconoclasts, and especially figures 18a, 18b and 18c, 364-366.

5 Quoted after the Authorized Version, 1611.

6 It is a matter of debate whether Herbert intended the use of italics in this poem and in others for reported speech. See Greg Miller’s chapter “Scribal and Print Publication,” in George Herbert’s Holy Patterns, 39-56. The Temple was printed posthumously and the autograph manuscript it was most probably based on is lost. The copyist of the only complete, extant manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 307, commonly referred to as “the Bodleian manuscript”) does not include italics. In an earlier, incomplete manuscript of The Temple, bearing corrections in Herbert’s own hand (London, Dr. Williams’ Library, Gordon Square, Jones B 62, commonly referred to as “the William’s manuscript”), there is in other poems a play on the sizes of font. The italics in the first printed edition seem to make clearer, for a wider readership, the exact status of the quoted or reported words. Whether Herbert wished for these italics or not (quite common in fact in print at the time), the visual quality of the poem, with its use of specific indentation, and the process of pointing to its materiality with the deictic “this” remain striking features.

7 On the practice of early modern answer poems within the context of coterie poetry, see Arthur F. Marotti. John Donne, Coterie Poet.

8 In the William’s manuscript, the words that were later printed in capital letters figure in a larger font than the rest of the poem.

9 In the Country Parson, Herbert seems to give his preference to the communion table over the altars that had been dismantled during the Reformation (Works 246).

10 This final rhyme is missing in all but the last stanza.

11 Temple” is to be understood here in its etymological sense of a reserved, cut out space.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 John Willis, The Arte of Memorie, 1621. “A Repositorie.”
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 2 : George Herbert, “The Altar,” The Temple, 1633
Fichier image/jpeg, 805k
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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, « The Iconic Word: The Theological and Rhetorical Sources of a New Ut Pictura Poesis », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 21 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 24 juillet 2017. URL :

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise

Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise est maître de conférences en littérature anglaise et histoire culturelle des XVIe et XVIIe siècles à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Elle a publié des articles sur Shakespeare, John Donne, Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, Philip Sidney et Mary Sidney. Elle est l’auteur du Verbe fait image (PSN, 2010), dans lequel elle étudie le rapport entre l’iconoclasme anglais et la poétique iconique de George Herbert. Membre junior de l'Institut Universitaire de France, elle dirige un project collectif sur les interactions entre la culture matérielle et la littérature dans l'Europe de la première modernité.
Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise is a senior lecturer in early modern English literature and cultural studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. She has published articles on the works of Shakespeare, John Donne, Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, Philip Sidney, and Mary Sidney. She is the author of Le Verbe fait image (PSN, 2010), which focuses on the relation between English iconoclasm and the iconic poetics of George Herbert. As a junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France, she is currently directing a collective project on the interactions between material culture and early modern European literature.

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