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Jonson and the Emblematic Tradition: Ralegh, Brant, the Poems, The Alchemist, and WoIpone Robert C. Evans Ben Jonson's debts to Renaissance emblem writers have been explored by various scholars. Alan R. Young, for instance, has helpfully noted much of this previous research while contributing valuable insights of his own.' One might therefore assume that little remains to be said about Jonson the emblematic artist and that the work of previous scholars is both abundant and easily accessible. Yet these assumptions seem misguided. Young's article , for example, seems the only explicit, comprehensive discussion of Jonson and emblems to be recently published. And because most commentary on Jonson and emblems deals with the masques rather than with the great plays or poems, we find ourselves in a curious position: No one would deny the relevance of emblems and iconography to the masques, but these are not Jonson 's most enduring works. If the masques inevitably strike many readers as rather minor and dated, then it might seem easy to conclude that emblematic thinking had only a peripheral and limited impact on Jonson's best writing. My purposes here, then, are various. First, I hope to suggest some ways in which Jonson's emblematic artistry is not confined to the masques (or to such masque-like plays as Cynthias Revels ). In particular, I wish to suggest the emblematic nature of much of Jonson's non-dramatic poetry. I thereby hope to suggest that emblem scholarship and iconographie studies may also have more bearing on the great plays than we sometimes assume. As test cases, I hope to look closely at The Alchemist and Volpone to see how Jonson may have been influenced (consciously or not) by the emblematic tradition (including Sebastian Brant's The Ship of Fools) and also to see how Renaissance habits of emblematic thinking may have conditioned the reactions of the plays' original audiences. Furthermore, I hope to cite some previously unexamined archival evidence and to build on Young's fine article by reviewing previous scholarship. I hope that the 108 Robert C. Evans109 present essay, then, will prove useful both as an overview and as a stimulus to further study. I The very term 'emblematic' can be defined either narrowly or broadly, and it has been used both ways in previous scholarship . In a narrow sense the term refers to the tradition associated with Andreas Alciatus, whose Emblematum Liber, first published in 1531, was often translated, reprinted, expanded, annotated, and read. Emblems in this sense consist of a picture, inscription, and explanatory poem; ideally all three coalesce, producing a complex unity. Alciatus' possible influence on Jonson has not been much explored; the Italian's name, for instance, appears neither in the index to the standard edition nor in the highly useful Ben Jonson Companion.2 Alciatus does crop up occasionally in Jonson scholarship, and I hope to assemble some of these references . However, discussion of Jonson's emblematic artistry usually focuses on such acknowledged sources as Ripa and Conti . Even more broadly, such discussion considers the pictorial, iconographie, or other visual aspects of Jonson's writing, including visual imagery, stage properties, and actual costuming. In using the terms 'emblem' and 'emblematic' here, I hope to be flexible but not flabby—exploring the influence of emblems in the Alciatan sense without confining myself to rigid, predetermined definitions. In general, I wish to look at visual and verbal links in Jonson's art and to focus particularly on moments when the two seem tightly tied. Such links are perhaps nowhere firmer than in the notable but relatively neglected poem "The mind of the Frontispice to a Booke" (Und. 24). Written to accompany and explicate the illustrated title-page of Sir Walter Ralegh's History of the World (1614), Jonson's poem might seem almost too tightly tied to a picture and might therefore seem uninteresting as a poem. However , close examination not only suggests its poetic richness and structural complexity but also implies, in general, how fruitfully Jonson's verbal imagination could respond to visual stimuli.3 The combined frontispiece, title, and poem function almost as an emblem in the strict Alciatan sense. The engraved title cuts the picture...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 108-132
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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