This week our library speaker-series committee organized a “Favorite Things” showcase, whereby staff chose their favorite collection item (this week’s favorite, at any rate) to present in the form of a three-minute talk. From an Italian artist’s book with a real fish glued to it; to a hand-knitted uterus from the Judy Blume archives; to an album of air-reconnaissance photos captured from the Germans during World War I, the favorites were as eclectic as my co-workers themselves.
What was my favorite thing, you ask? Well, once again, I was powerless to resist the charms of our old friend Robert Herrick, long beloved of this blog. I had initially planned to rework my blog post about what Hesperides had taught me about reading in the original; but the more I stared at its frontispiece, and that amazing profile of Herrick in all his fleshy glory, the more I became smitten with his amazing nose. A glorious schnoz, it is; so protuberant that it even appears as though the putto on the right is about to hang a wreath right onto it—like perhaps it was really the nose that was the genius behind the poetry, and the one that deserves the accolades.
That portrait is so amazing, so ridiculous even, that I actually began to wonder if it was a joke. On Herrick, perhaps, by the portrait’s engraver William Marshall? Or on the reader, by Herrick himself? Does it look ridiculous to us now because the passage of time has made once-serious conventions look silly? Or did the portrait look silly back then, and was it done on purpose? The more I studied that frontispiece, the more mysterious it became. I decided to look into seventeenth-century frontispiece conventions, in the hope of understanding more about the context that created this portrait. And as so often happens when art, literature, and history converge, the more I learned, the deeper things got. So deep, in fact, that this might well be merely the first in a series of posts about the frontispiece in poetry—a far more interesting creature than its diminished descendent, the back-cover author photo.
We begin with a classically-styled bust in a very English-looking version of a Greco-Roman landscape. Wreath-bearing putti are on the wing, ready to festoon our poet with the laurels he undoubtedly deserves. Others dance in a circle that evokes the muses; and even Pegasus is on the scene to lend his authority to our poet’s efforts. The educated viewer would recognize that Pegasus is standing atop Mt. Helicon/Mt. Parnassus and the Castalian spring, the birthplaces of poetry in the classical world. And the Hesperides themselves are the nymphs of evening, who tend gardens where grow golden apples that grant immortality when eaten. And so Herrick asserts himself into a long line of great poets throughout history; these emblems lending validation and authority to his works. Not too different from the histrionic blurbs of today’s back covers, if you think about it. And it’s compounded by the inscription on the plinth beneath the bust: Herrick includes verses in Latin by John Harmar (ca. 1594-1670), which say things like (to paraphrase) “your genius deserves an entire laurel grove” (as opposed to just a wreath), and “your talent is second only to Phoebus”* (god of poetry, amongst other things). Modesty, thy name is Herrick.
But then something interesting crops up: see those lush locks of hair? Certain scholars argue that this is a recognizably Royalist hairstyle, following the fashion of King Charles I and his court**, as opposed to the closely-cropped look that the “roundhead” Puritans preferred. But Hesperides was printed in 1648, when, after years of civil war, the king was imprisoned and the Royalists were in defeat; a position that would culminate in the execution of the king in January 1649. A very dangerous time, then, to be aligning oneself so very publicly with the Royalist cause. And so in the midst of almost every classical allusion relating to poetry, peppered with pretensions to greatness, Herrick takes the opportunity within this portrait to make a very serious statement about loyalty and allegiance, despite the potential danger to himself.
And yet—I just keep coming back to that nose. It’s so big! What does he mean by having a nose that big? Well, there’s another possibility here which suggests that he had a bit of humor about it all. See that epigraph by Ovid on the title-page? Herrick alludes to Ovid throughout Hesperides, as a fellow poet exiled for political reasons during morally-stringent times. And what was Ovid’s full name? Why, Publius Ovidius Naso—and naso, of course, is Latin for nose.
So what began as a simple frontispiece—a big silly nose and a frolic with nymphs—becomes loaded with multiple levels of possible interpretation and meaning. Such is the danger of even opening a book, my friends; every page a rabbit-hole.
* Fowler, Alastair. The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title-Pages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017.
** Pugh, Syrithe. “'Cleanly-Wantonnesse' and Puritan Legislation: The Politics of Herrick's Amatory Ovidianism.” The Seventeenth Century, vol. 21, no. 2 (Autumn 2006).