A figure poem is printed or written in a shape which reflects the subject of the poem. It is also called visual or pattern poetry and has had a long tradition originating in classical Greek literature where the genre had the name of technopaegnia. Meleager of Gadar’s anthology of technopaegnia included a famous piece by Simias of Rhodes which was a poem turned in the form of an egg. Not only was The Egg shaped like an egg but it had to be read in an egg-like order; the last verse was to be savored after the first and then the second and the second last, until the center was finally reached. Other classical poets who wrote technopaegnia included Theocritus, Dosiados, Vestianus and Optatianus and the latter’s work is believed to have inspired Hrabanus Maurus (c784-856), Archbishop of Mainz, a Carolingian poet and theologian, whose famous work In Praise of the Holy Cross was the first printed figure poem being published in 1503.
The first mention of the word technopaegnia in the Renaissance is by Fortunius Licetus (1577–1654), the Italian humanist, whom we saw was the author of a book on hieroglyphics. He edited several volumes on the classical writers of technopaegnia as did his contemporary Albert Molnár (1574-1634) a Hungarian writer most famous for his translation of the Psalms into the vernacular Hungarian. Molnar’s work was Lusus poetici, Games of the poets (1614), an anthology of Latin technopaegnia.
In prose writing, the tradition of the technopaegnia was often manifested in chapter endings which were shaped like vases, cups or urns. A number of the epigrams from the Greek Anthology were published as figure poems in the shape of urns. This was considered appropriate since the origin of the epigram was as an epitaph on funerary monuments. There was considerable cross-fertilization between emblem books and figure poems. One example is the unique manuscript emblem book made for Duke Philip II of Pomerania-Stettin in which the pictures were made of lines of minute quotations from the Psalms.
Pierio Valeriano, whose most celebrated work was the Hieroglyphica which we reviewed above, also wrote a pear-shaped figure poem in his Amorum libri quinque, or Five books of love, published in 1549 which was intended as a pun on his own name. The Poematum Liber, Ara Christiani Religioni, or the book of Poems, Altars of the Christian Religion by Richard Willis of 1573 is one of the most interesting books of visual poetry and was intended for the use of schoolboys at Winchester College in England. A little later in 1591, Andrew Willet wrote an emblem book, Sacrorum Emblematum Centuria Una, A Century of Sacred Enblems, and his introductory dedication to the Queen Elizabeth was a poem shaped like a tree. To add to the conceit the first and last letters of each line spell out the phrase ‘Elizabetham Reginam Div nobis servet Iesus incolumen. Amen. Elizabeth Queen, long may Jesus keep us safe. Amen.’
A few emblem books had some or all of their poems in the form of figures. Examples are those of Francis Quarles, Hieroglyphiques of the Life of Man published in 1635 and Christopher Harvey’s, Schola Cordis, the School of the Heart of 1647. In his Ova Paschalia, Easter Eggs, of 1634 Stengelius constructed each emblem in the shape of an egg as are all the poetic references. An emblem from this book is said to be the inspiration for a scene in Gullivers Travels. There were however some contemporary commentators who thought the writers of figure poetry went too far to be regarded as serious artists. Gabriel Harvey (1550-1630), one of the most outspoken literary men of his generation, writes derisively of ‘this odd riminge with many other triflinge and childishe toyes to make verses, that shoulde in proportion represente the form and figure of an egg, an ape, a winge and sutche ridiculous and madd gugawes and crockchettes, and of late foolishely reuiuid.’ And another writer who met with contemporary derision was the poet Edward Benlowes (1602-76) of whom it was said that ‘as for altars and pyramids in poetry, he has outdone all men that way; for he has made a gridiron and a frying pan in verse, that, besides the likeness in shape, the very tone and sound of the words did perfectly represent the noise that is made by those utensils.’
A subspecies of the figure poem was the proteus poem, a term coined by J.C.Scaliger in his Ars Poetica, of 1561. This was where the word order of a line in a poem was changed and transposed to a further line without losing meaning or grammatical sense. The masterpiece of this genre was probably reached by Erycius Putaneus in his Pietatis Thaumata of 1617 where he rewrote 1,022 times a line from the Epigrammatum of Bernard Bauhuis 'tot tibi sunt dotes, Virgo, quot sidera coelo'(Thou has as many virtues, O Virgin, as there are stars in heaven), each line in a different word order but retaining the meaning and the correct scansion.
In spite of these criticisms, the genre was clearly in the tradition of the age; it had the imprimatur of George Puttenham who in his Art of English Poesie of 1589 had outlined the shapes that were acceptable poetic usage. The practice added yet another dimension to the literary art form and came to its apogee in the 17th Century with the poems of the English poet George Herbert. Peter Daly, (Daly 1998 142) quoting the dictum of Horace on the closeness of painting and poetry perceived by classical artists, says of figure poems that they are ‘the pinnacle of ut picta poesis poetry.’ And as Dick Higgins says in his masterwork on the subject: ‘all these pieces can be viewed as a theological meditation, a piece to be viewed symbolically and metaphorically’.