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Library Catalog No. COWL1667

“To the Royal Society.” Prefatory verses for Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal-Society of London. London: Printed by T. R. for J. Martyn at the Bell without Temple-bar, and J. Allestry at the Rose and Crown in Duck-lane, Printers to the Royal Society, 1667. B1r–B3v.

by Abraham Cowley

e-Copyright © 2004–2017 < http://she-philosopher.com/library.html >

First Issued:  March 2004
Reissued:  20 August 2012
Revised (substantive):  5 March 2013

Part I: Editor’s Introduction for Cowley’s poem to the Royal Society

decorative initial ATRANSCRIPTION of the complete text of Cowley’s ode “To the Royal Society,” published as the prefatory verses to Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), is provided here in HTML format, because of its early modeling of scientific inquiry as a he-philosophy, as presaged by Margaret Cavendish when she complained the year before that

... though the Muses, Graces and Sciences are all of the female gender, yet they were more esteemed in former ages, then they are now; nay, could it be done handsomely, they would now turn them all from Females into Males; so great is grown the self-conceit of the Masculine, and the disregard of the Female sex.

(Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To which Is Added the Description of a New Blazing World, 1666, III, “Upon the Opinions of Some Ancient Philosophers,” 2)

and for its commentary on the visual nature of verbal expression (Cowley’s “From Words, which are but Pictures of the Thought, / ... To Things, the Minds right Object”).

Like Cowley, other 17th-century literati ruminated on the dialectical relationship between visual and verbal language, captured in the Horatian proverb

Ut pictora poesis.
[Just as painting is, so is poetry.]

(from Horace’s Ars Poetica, Epistole, II.3.361)

Most critics of the arts (visual, verbal, and even mechanical/industrial), from the Renaissance through the 18th century, built on this Horatian principle, which started out as a poetry/painting analogy (e.g., from Lodovico Dolce’s Dialogo della pittura intitolato Aretino of 1557, proclaiming every learned writer a painter: “There will not be lacking some of those who will question that the poet is a speaking painter and, on the contrary, that the painter is a mute poet ...”), but soon extended to rhetoric and architecture. Following Quintilian and Cicero, authors such as the 17th-century French art critic, Roland Fréart, Sieur de Cambray, and his English translator, John Evelyn, paired eloquence with several visual arts, including design, all of which were linked to human psychology and the creation of right “proportions in the Mind.” Moreover, the principle of ut pictora poesis informed scholars’ classifications of the arts & sciences, and underlay most thinking about the relationships between fields of study.

By the 17th century, it was commonplace to draw a close parallel “Betwixt Poetry & Painting,” as did the poetaster and playwright, Richard Flecknoe, in 1656, when identifying his own versifications of “Grotesque & fantastick figures” and human “follies, abuses, and vices” with the visual representations of Flemish painter and printmaker, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525–1569):

Betwixt Poetry & Painting there is neer relation, Poetry being but a speaking Picture, as Painting a silent Poem. So have you Poets and Painters excellent in their several kindes. For your Virgil, or Heroique Poet, a Raphael, and Titian. For your Horace, or Lyrique, a Holbeen, and Vandick, representing particular persons to the life; as for your Burlesque, or Drolling Poem, a Brughel, and (in his kinde) Callot, representing Grotesque & fantastick figures. In which way there has been fewer excellent than in any other, as being the most witty and ingenious, your other putting you too much on the gravity, to be alwaies witty, and having somewhat else to sustaine the dignity of the person when that failes; but here wit is all, which failing once, the work presently falls flat, and the Author has nothing left for his support, whose part ’tis to sustain the matter, and not the matter him.
     Of this kinde is the Poem I present thee here ....

(Richard Flecknoe, The Diarium, or Journall: Divided into 12. Jornadas in Burlesque Rhime, or Drolling Verse …, 1656, A3r–A3v)

A complicated interrelationship between verbal and visual played through most early-modern theorizing about the image and image-making, raising issues about representation and verisimilitude and ethical visual communication which still dog us today (e.g., the age-old debate over the didactic power of “veiled” communication, ekphrastic images, and enargeia — the rhetorical technique used to make a reader “see” a verbal text, in the Horatian tradition of literary pictorialism — is relevant to the work of modern-day information designers). Indeed,

Because the Renaissance poet or artist took ut pictura poesis so seriously, argued David Rosand, the modern critic should appreciate the stance as revealing the Renaissance creator’s “cultural sense of himself”: “Ut pictura poesis was clearly more than academic rhetoric to the Renaissance poet; it was rather an active principle, indeed, a creative challenge.”

(Watson, Achille Bocchi and the Emblem Book as Symbolic Form, 86–7)

I have been assembling materials for an IN BRIEF topic on “Pictures of the Thought: Visual Poesie and vocal Painting” for some time now, and Cowley’s ode “To the Royal Society” is one more piece in what has turned out to be a very interesting puzzle.

Tail-piece from William Cuningham's _The Cosmographical Glasse_ (London, 1559)

NOTE: The digital edition of Cowley’s text (in Part II) has not yet been updated. It retains the original format and styling of the first issue of the HTML transcript in 2004. To learn more about 2012 changes to e-publication formats, visit She-philosopher.com’s “A Note on Site Design” page.

Part II: digital edn. of Library Cat. No. COWL1667 pointer

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