The Emblematic Traditions

First sometime before the group reached the above letter, Murray Brown wrote:

I agree with Noel Chevalier's observations that the silken vs the iron fetters, the snares, and the caged bird metaphors are very interesting usages and also quite troubling. I have been thinking about them for a long time (I know Ellen Moody has been too). I have, in fact, an article forthcoming on this very topic in the winter issue of Studies in the Novel. As we continue reading through this increasingly complex text, these metaphors will also increase in complexity -- according to the agendas of those who use them, in duplicity as well. I have found that many, if not most of these metaphors arrive in eighteenth-century usage by way of emblematic sources--emblems that have through the course of time become proverbial (or in some cases emblems that restate, amplify, or otherwise refigure extant proverbs or Proverbs). There are many random usages--such as Anna's rather unfortunate comment that if one were to believe all the good reports about Mr. Lovelace, he would come out with so much advantage as to wash a blackamoor white. I paraphrase. So does she--it's from Geoffrey Whitney's A CHOICE OF EMBLEMES--an Elizabethan work. These random emblematic allusions or usages are secondary relative to larger and more developed families of emblematic tropes, such as the caged-bird, the lily (which is often conjoined with the rose and the sunflower), and the heart. Language based on these figures rebounds attempts to reify them on Clarissa's body. We will hear for a long long while of the snares and the cages--of the pretty warblers, of the young hens put to table, of goshawks, and the like. Lovelace will bring this metaphor to bear on Clarissa--first rhetorically--when he equates women with birds and the similar treatment they receive at his hand--but then he will literally cage the heroine in a barred room. It is most pathetic to see her behave as the bird/woman Lovelace feels justified in torturing. He forces this reification upon her. The same may be said of most (if not all) of the many hearts we have so far witnessed. I think that this language--the central trope of sentimentality--is most certainly the offspring of the dozens and dozens of emblem books devoted to various aspects (sacred and profane) of the heart as it is represented in these sources--most notably in Christopher Harvey's SCHOLA CORDIS, Quarles' EMBLEMES, in Herbert and Donne as well. It is here that Lovelace forces his most shocking attempt at reification: the actual possession of Clarissa's heart--not the metaphoric heart, that represents her love, but her actual organ. I realize that "possessing the heart" of a loved one was not all that unusual; yet, even so, it must strike all readers ancient and modern as macabre in this instance (by the way, Fielding has great fun with the language of the heart in JOSEPH ANDREWS, cf.III, xi).

I do go on. At any rate, the same may be observed of the silken and/or iron fetters--and also of the yoke (another related trope). It is most interesting to see this emblematic rhetoric used for centrifugal and centripetal purposes.

On a related matter (and since I am on to rhetoric), I am not in the least impressed by Uncle Tony. Was there ever such a fool? I sat here this evening with clenched teeth while he set up his straw women and knocked them to pieces--as though Clarissa was up all night playing cards--as though she could be charged with any of the weaknesses he lays generally at the feet of all "the Sex." And poor brow-beaten Mrs. Harlowe! Bullied into submission by a lifetime with James Sr., she is next faulted for showing Lovelace a gesture of common courtesy--as though any male Harlowe would not demand as much himself in similar circumstances--and in church of all places. Shame on them all.

I am not certain I can bear reading this novel again.

Finally, after Lovelace's allusions to Othello, am I merely imagining Uncle Antony's letter is filled with the foreboding "nothing" of King Lear?


To this I replied when we came to the song of the night bird of wisdom:

On Murray Brown's interesting commentary on emblems in Clarissa (and his forthcoming article), I'd like to add a kind of footnote. There is another tradition of emblems of birds caught and killed and caged, sometimes by fowlers, sometimes by other birds, sometimes by fierce animals; this tradition can be traced in the popular fable books of the time; e.g., Sir Roger L'Estrange has many in his two enormous books, Aesp's Fables (1692), and then Fables and Stories Moralized(1699); the type reaches a kind of perfection in La Fontaine's fables, many of which were translated into English and mixed with other fables in various anonymous books; and Lovelace himself is a great one for finding analogies between human behavior and animals; he is the cock (pun intended & by him too) to Clarissa's hen; a lot of them are about prestige and pecking order as well as sex. Some of his bravura passages are in just this bein. I would guess Richardson knew L'Estrange as well as anyone.

What's interesting to me to add to Murray's analysis as a partial aside, is that I have found women poets (not men) pick up these fables and in particular the image of the helpless bird (in a cage, hitting itself against a mirror, against a wall, attacked variously) with whom they identify. There are several such fables from La Fontaine imitated by Ann Finch. Aphra Behn picked up more than one in her sharp biting way & in her book of fables the female animal wins by stealth; I can't find one with birds this morning, but here's one in a typical mood with typical moral:

A maid who by a lion was adored Consents to love, but first she him implored To quit his nails and teeth; the monarch yields, Which done with ease she her fond lover kills.
But to go further into the century, closer in time & spirit to Clarissa, there's Henrietta Knightley (sometimes called Lady Luxborough). "The Bullfinch in Town," which those who have it can find in Lonsdale,18th Century Women Poets, No 152 (first line: "Hark to the blackbird's pleasing note") ; the mood and movement into the country or retreat of the closing stanzas is much more common (than Astrea's) to other poems by women using this fable tradition:
And while, to please some courtly fair,
He one dull tune with labour learns,
A well-gilt cage remote from air,
And faded plumes, is all he earns!
Go, hapless captive! still repeat
The sounds which nature never taught;
Go, listening fair! and call them sweet,
Because you know them dearly bought.
Unenvied both! go hear and sing
Your studied music o'er and o'er;
Whilst I attend th'inviting spring,
In fields where birds unfettered soar.
Our "proof" that Richardson knew this "tradition" is his use of Elzabeth Carter's Ode to Wisdom for Clarissa; again it's in Lonsdale, No. 112; first stanza for those looking elsewhere here's the first line which the first stanza in which wisdom is a bird (an owl) which we are to identify in several ways with Clarissa:
The solitary bird of night
Through the pale shades now wings his flight,
And quits the time-shook tower;
Where, sheltered from the blaze of day,
In philosophic gloom he lay,
Beneath his ivy bower.

The full poem includes stanzas like:

She loves the cool, the silent eve,
Where no false shows of life deceive,
Beneath the lunar ray.
Here Folly drops each vain disguse,
Nor sports her gaily-colour'd dyes,
As in the glare of day...
From envy, hurry, noise, and strife,
The dull impertinence of life,
In thy retreat I rest:
Pursue thee to the peaceful groves
Where Plato's sacred sprit roves ... (Elizabeth Carter was a specialist in Greek, translated Epictetus)

Two interesting things (beyond the connections to Clarissa herself and her situation) in connection with Murray's Christian emblems: 1) Lovelace is a male, not a female; yet some readers have suggested there is something "feminine" about him, and his reversal of this "tradition" of fable material (if it can also be this, which I'm suggesting) is interesting and would hold a lurid fascination for readers of the time; 2) the fable tradition of birds in particular loses its strictly moral or conventionally pious applications and becomes sexual and psychological in its meanings.

Richardson's text is very rich, with labyrinthine (not to say serpentine, a favorite word of Hogarth's) connections.

Ellen Moody

To which Murray Brown wrote again:

I am concerned with a more discriminating notion of emblematics, that is, rhetoric which depends upon meditative emblembooks, for example. You're completely right about Margaret Anne Doody's book, A NATURAL PASSION, but there is more to CLARISSA's emblems than just Drexillius (sp?) or George Wither. Each of CLARISSA's main characters--and quite a few minor ones--plug into this language in different ways--the hearts, the lily, the caged bird are not only the three most popular emblematic motifs in the novel, they are among the most popular motifs in the emblem tradition. CLARISSA's characters struggle over their meaning and their application. What is most frightening about Lovelace's usage is that he attempts to reify them, to actualize them. His insane plan to possess Clarissa's disembodied heart is just one example.

Richardson would probably greatly resent my comparing him to Father Harlowe, but we should also recall that it's Richardson that requires we peep at the heroine(s) through keyholes.


Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Clary sets an 'Ode to Wisdom' to Music: A Gothic Dream-Tracery

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