Choose one piece of writing you would like to develop further – Chosen piece: George Wither’s emblems

In week 3 of this Renaissance course, our task was to choose one of the pieces by George Wither (pages 1004- 1011 of the anthology). I looked briefly at the first one (ILLVSTR. XLV), commenting upon the ways in which the poem and the image compliment each other.

Within the course of this assignment, I intend to look at this piece in a bit more detail and look at another emblem that I feel offers a contrast. I also plan on looking a little at historical context, the writer George Wither and some of his most famous pieces.

The initial emblem I am going to focus on is circular and within shows a baby leaning on a skull, a snake and vast amounts of trees and vegetation. I chose this emblem to focus on mainly because of the striking images used within it, especially the baby and the skull. This particular contrast is really eye-catching as babies are seen to represent new life while skulls are normally associated with death.

So, what is an emblem?

An emblem is an image with accompanying text. In an emblem there is usually a connection between the image and the language. The themes of emblems are often symbolic and can often be unfamiliar to us as they represent a) historical ideas b) a way of reading that we are not used to.

Emblems differ from books today, as they are not meant to be read quickly. The reader is supposed to become absorbed within an emblem, so as they can respond to it in their own unique way. “An emblem is something like a riddle, a “hieroglyph” in the Renaissance vocabulary — what many readers considered to be a form of natural language.”(Source: www.emblem.libraries.psu.edu)

Who was George Wither?

* George Wither lived from 1588 until 1667

* He was born in Hampshire and educated at Oxford

* He was a major general, who fought during the English Civil War.

* He went to prison several times because of the nature of his works. These included ‘Abuses, Script and Whipt’ (1613) and ‘Wither’s Motto’ (1621).

* His later work was less controversial, and best known was probably his 1634/35 book, ‘A Collection of Emblems’. This was based in the style Aliciati, an

Italian poet, who is said to be the creator of this genre.

* This particular book is where the emblem I am going to look at in more detail comes from.

Like I said earlier, the emblem I am focussing on shows a baby leaning on a skull, surrounded by a snake and with trees in the background. The poem that accompanies this emblem relates very much to the symbols I have mentioned.

The main theme I picked up on from the poem and the image being side by side was the idea of nature and particularly life. Therefore the words used such as “Earth”, “Water”, “Cloud” and “Airy Vapour”, compliment the image of a living baby, a living snake and living vegetation very well. However the image of the skull, which is usually one associated with death, is complimented also by the poem, in that the words “Mortality” and “Deaths-head” are used.

I obtained the images above and left from an emblems website (www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/SES/). I have included them to emphasis that snakes, nature and humans were commonly used in 16th century emblems due to their strong symbolic values. The one that particularly caught my attention was the second one that shows the snake surrounding what looks like a mermaid. This idea of a circle made from a snake with its tail in its mouth is suggested in both the image (explicitly) and in the poem, “The Snake, her Taile devouring, doth implie the Revolution”.

In line with the poems themes, life and death, the image of the snake seems to be suggestive of the cycle of life, the way as soon as someone dies another is born and this could be why the baby is juxtaposed beside the skull. It also made me think that perhaps Wither is suggesting there is an afterlife, that the unbroken circle being made by the snake symbolises a form of eternal life.

Within this poem we can see Wither has included rhyming couplets and he has also used archaic language. I think the regular rhyme makes the poem sound better when it is read aloud as it sounds natural, as though all the words belong where they are (some poems can sound as though they have been too heavily constructed in order to rhyme and as a result sound unnatural). However I feel the archaic language makes it harder for a modern audience to relate to the poem, as the slight variation in spelling can make us unsure of the pronunciation of certain words when we are reading. What does assist the reader in his or her understanding of the poem is the clear relationship between the image and the text.

The rhyming couplets seen in Wither’s emblem poem lead me to look at a number of other poems by the same writer to see if they were a recurring technique he used. The poems I looked at included ‘The Choice’, ‘The Lover’s Resolution’, ‘I Loved a Lass’ and ‘A Widow’s Hymn’. Unsurprisingly this was a poetic device that I noticed in each of these poems and seems to be a strong characteristic of Wither.

With regards to punctuation, I liked the fact that there was only a small amount of full stops, as this allowed the ideas to flow on throughout the lines. However there were sufficient commas so one could pause naturally for breath when reading the poem aloud.

I felt the piece I concentrated on linked quite well with George Wither’s third piece (ILLVSTER. XXVIL) that similarly showed a skull. Instead of the main themes being life and death, they are time and death (therefore they are quite similar in that time is something which is a major part of life). Like I said death is a key feature in this piece, being represented by a skull, while a winged hourglass represents time (I think this also relates to death, as wings are often associated with angels).

Looking back at this section of work aroused my interest in not just Renaissance symbols but also more contemporary ones. Within our society today it is the symbols from dreams that interest me particularly. To conclude this piece of work I am going to discuss the meanings of the symbols seen in the emblems I have looked at by Wither, according to Edwin Raphael’s ‘The Complete Book of Dreams’.

Snakes: Dreaming of snakes is said to signify danger and/or impending imprisonment. It can also be said to denote sickness and hatred, or deception by a lover. Sometimes it is read as a sign of sin or temptation

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