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stevenson moral emblem

With storms a-weather, rocks a-lee,
The dancing skiff puts forth to sea.
The lone dissenter in the blast
Recoils before the sight aghast.
But she, although the heavens be black,
Holds on upon the starboard tack,
For why? although to-day she sink,
Still safe she sails in printer's ink,
And though to-day the seamen drown,
My cut shall hand their memory down.


Poem 1, Moral Emblems 2, in Robert Louis Stevenson, Moral Emblems & other Poems (Written and Illustrated with Woodcuts by Robert Louis Stevenson / First Printed at the Davos Press by Lloyd Osbourne and with a Preface by the Same / London / Chatto & Windus, 1921).


The emblem form remains alive in our day. It does so implicitly in advertising, where image, copy and logo are the basic structure. And it does so more or less explicitly in works by artists as diverse as Ian Hamilton Finlay and the late David Wojnarowicz. Here are a few titles; annotations will materialize when time permits.

Bertolt Brecht. War Primer [Kriegsfibel, 1955], translated and edited with an Afterword and notes by John Willett (London, Libris: 1998)

Hugh Buchanan and Peter Davidson. The Eloquence of Shadows | Emblemata Nova : A Book of Emblems (Fife: Thirdpart, 1994)
reviewed by Alastair Fowler in Emblematica 9:1 (Summer 1995): 201-203

Alice Cholmondeley. Emblems Revised by J.J. Nettleship, Edited by Reginald Cholmondeley (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1875).

W.A. Dwiggins. A Bakers' Dozen of Emblems (promotional specimen book for his and Mergenthaler Linotype's Electra, 1935)

M.C. Escher. XXIV Emblemata dat zijn zinne-beelden, with maxims in verse by A.E. Drijfhout and woodcuts by Escher (Bussum: Van Dishoeck, 1932)

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley. Heroic Emblems, introduction and commentaries by Stephen Bann (Calais, Vermont: Z Press, 1977)

Ralfka Gonzalez and Ana Ruiz. My First Book of Proverbs | Mi Primer Libro de dichos (Emeryville: Children's Book Press, 1995)
described here

Susan Howe (pictures by Susan Bee). Bed Hangings (New York: Granary Books, 2001)
described (and illustrated) here

Megan Jenkinson. Under the Aegis: The Virtues, with essays by Marina Warner, Elizabeth Eastmond, Dougal Blyth and Tom Stevenson, Marcus Wilson, Denis L. Drysdall and Laurence Simmons, edited by Peter Shand (Auckland: Fortuna Press, 1995)
reviewed by Daniel Russell in Emblematica vol 11 (2001): 442-447

Jess (Collins), his various "translations" and Emblems for Robert Duncan (San Jose Museum of Art, 1990), also in Zyzzyvz 5:3 (1989)

Edward Lucie-Smith. Borrowed Emblems (London: Turret Books, 1967) (incorporates imagery from the second (emblematic) part of Théodore de Bèze, Les Vrais Pourtraits Des Hommes Illustres (1581)

Elaine Reichek
another interview

Reinventing the Emblem. Contemporary Artists Recreate a Renaissance Idea. An exhibition curated by Allison B. Leader, catalogue edited by Leslie K. Baier, with essays by Allison B. Leader and Richard S. Field, 20 January - 26 March 1995, Yale University Art Gallery
reviewed by Daniel Russell in Emblematica 9:1 (Summer 1995): 203-206

Albert Szabo. Mechanism + Meaning (assemblages of typewriter components, other elements, and aphorisms). Inventions + Interventions is title of catalogue for exhibition at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, June 25-July 31, 2001

On the Stevenson emblems exampled above, see Wendy R. Katz, "'Mark, Printed on the Opposing Page': Robert Louis Stevenson's Moral Emblems" in Emblematica 2:2 (Fall 1987): 337-354.

Note that this emblem lacks a motto. Yet the materiality of the page and ink employed (and explicitly mentioned) here, function as a missing yet palpable third term.

Katz's analysis of this particular emblem echoes some of the argument in Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence (1997). Blumenthal connects viewing a shipwreck with theorizing: »Shipwreck, as seen by a survivor, is the figure of an initial philosophical experience« (12).

2 feb 04