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“Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne”: George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes (1635) as an epitome of a changing mode of literary expression

Pierre Le Duff


Extrêmement répandus en Europe aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles, les emblèmes constituent un genre littéraire mixte qui allie gravures allégoriques et gloses poétiques pour faire naître le sens à travers une lecture simultanée des deux médias. Les emblèmes ont cependant existé sous de nombreuses formes différentes, et le genre emblématique demeure difficile à circonscrire avec précision. Nonobstant ces considérations, le recueil d’emblèmes du poète anglais George Wither constitue une illustration tout à fait unique du genre, à travers laquelle l’auteur témoigne des évolutions profondes que connaissent, à son époque, les considérations épistémologiques sur lesquelles se fondent les emblèmes. De plus, Wither met ses compositions bi-médiales au service d’un projet rhétorique complexe en y joignant un mécanisme étonnant et presque inédit : un jeu de loterie. À travers l’étude de ces éléments, nous tenterons de démontrer que l’œuvre de Wither atteste de la façon dont l’emblème est appréhendé durant la première moitié du XVIIe siècle, tout en présentant une façon nouvelle, ludique et interactive de lire un tel ouvrage.

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1Emblem scholarship has hitherto not been too kind to George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes (1635). Freeman, a pioneer of studies on English emblem books, expressed her views on the work in no uncertain terms:

  • 1 Freeman quotes Wither’s remark in his address “To the Reader” (A2r).

The standard of morality is mediocre; the verse is tedious. Wither, it is true, thought that the rigid plan he had adopted of thirty lines and no more to each emblem “much injured the liberty of my Muse,”1 but it was not so much liberty that his muse needed as restraint. (Freeman 147)

Manning’s assessment half a century later is scarcely more magnanimous:

To call them verses is kind, because they read in many places like rhyming prose. He [Wither] deprives himself of the opportunity to compressed wit, which would leave the reader to absorb the point. Instead, Wither has to tell us at length what the point should be. Exhausting the imagery of the plate, he often then needs – an invitation to further disaster – to find material of his own to fill the page: additional images, anecdotes, allusions. By the end of the emblem we have meandered far from our starting-point. If we have not exactly fallen off William Marshall’s frontispiece allegorical mountain by this stage, we may well have fallen asleep. (Manning 103)

Even Bath, who refrains from assessing the work’s literary or aesthetic virtues and favours a largely impartial and analytical stance, points out that “some of its elements cohere more readily than others” (Bath 111) and that Wither’s relationship to his material is “awkward” (Bath 129).

  • 2 See Anderson; Browning; Daly, “The Arbitrariness of George Wither’s Emblems”; Farnsworth; and Tung.
  • 3 “Symbolics” is my translation of what Spica calls “la symbolique” (31-44), which is, roughly define (...)

2Although some recent articles testify to a renewed interest in Wither’s emblems,2 his place in the English emblem tradition and his own stance with respect to the genre are yet to be fully explored. Daly has devoted an article to Wither’s use of emblematic metalanguage (Daly, “The Arbitrariness of George Wither’s Emblems”) that sought to establish the definitions that the poet assigned to terms such as “emblem” or “hieroglyphic”, but did not examine what those definitions may reveal about Wither’s views on the philosophical and rhetorical foundations upon which emblems, and more generally the early modern practice of symbolics,3 rest. Furthermore, with the exception of a few remarks made by Browning in his 2002 article on interpretative agency in A Collection of Emblemes, there has been, to my knowledge, no attempt at exploring the work’s place in the English emblem tradition, or indeed in the diachronic developments of emblem writing in general.

3And yet, Wither’s emblem book provides a great deal of information with respect to these questions. His ambivalent rhetorical persona, which oscillates freely between playful banter, disdainful abasement of his source materials, and earnest Puritan moralising, frequently inserts meta-emblematic comments into the emblems proper as well as the paratext, and thus testifies to the ongoing epistemological revolution of the seventeenth century and its consequences for the emblem as a literary genre.

  • 4 The “Alciato at Glasgow” website lists twenty-two editions and translations between 1531 and 1621. (...)

4Emblem books are usually considered to have originated with the Emblematum Liber, an illustrated book of commonplaces by the Milanese lawyer Andrea Alciato that was first published in 1531 and that saw numerous editions and translations,4 but the emblematic mode of expression and thought is best understood as part of the collective effort by humanist thinkers to recover the perfect language, the Adamic tongue, granted directly by God to Man, and that was eradicated, so they thought, with the fall of the tower of Babel (Spica 45-90). Under the influence of Pythagoras, and on the basis of Horapollo’s treatise on Egyptian hieroglyphs, humanists such as Achilles Bocchi, Claude Mignault and Abraham Fraunce developed a theory and practice of the “symbol”, a semiology that was to transcend the arbitrariness of common linguistic or pictorial signs and grant humanity access to divine knowledge (see Vuilleumier-Laurens; Spica). As the seventeenth century unfolded however, especially after the publications of Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and Descarte’s Discours de la Méthode (1637), a gradual paradigm shift occurred, one from which emblematics was not exempted. As Spica puts it:

les années 1630-1660 sont inaugurées par la concomitance de parution du Discours de la Méthode et, sous la plume de Jean Baudouin, de la traduction de l’Iconologie de Ripa et de son propre Recueil d’Emblèmes Divers. Véritable ligne de démarcation au-delà de laquelle s’organise un principe de mise en ordre de l’emblème, [...] une théorisation tendant à le rationaliser de plus en plus fortement. (Spica 405)

5Spica’s reference to the time period between 1630 and 1660 is particularly relevant to George Wither’s emblems, as they were published in 1635, but were composed over a period of twenty years starting in 1615 (Wither A1v). The composition of the book therefore occurred during a liminal period, which begs the question of its place with respect to what Spica terms a “line of demarcation” in the emblem tradition.

6In her introduction to the work, Freeman suggests that Wither’s emblem book “would have been more up-to-date if it had appeared contemporaneously with the emblem books of Whitney (1586) and Peacham (1612), with which it has much in common,” and that the readership in the 1630s favoured the “new and more popular style, focused upon the relation between the infant Christ and the soul of man” that was found in the emblems of Wither’s immediate contemporary Francis Quarles (Wither vii). Similarly, Bath distinguishes what he calls the “moralising emblem” that is “based on classical and humanist topoi, which conforms most closely to the model instituted and developed by the immediate followers of Alciato” from the “‘religious, ‘spiritual’, ‘devotional’ or ‘meditative’ emblems,” which can best be explained, he argues, within the context of the “seventeenth-century revival of Christian meditation” (Bath 2). Bath therefore places English emblem books on a continuum ranging from “moral emblems” to “religious emblems,” where some, such as the works of Whitney and Peacham, would tend towards the former, and others, notably the works of Quarles and Hawkins, would be much nearer to the latter. The question of Wither’s place on the same is left unanswered, although Bath makes a few comments in passing about the structure of his illustrations:

The new thirty-line verses which represent Wither’s most substantial addition to his source [...] generally begin with a deictic reference to the picture, before proceeding to expound its moral significance and finally commending its application to the life of the individual reader. On a few occasions the verses end with a colloquy, or italicized prayer, thereby completing the three stages of that conventional appeal to memory, understanding and will which normally structured the seventeenth-century meditation [...]. (Bath 118)

7Evidently, Wither’s emblems resist categorisation as either completely “moralising” or “spiritual,” and could therefore be regarded as an epitome of the porous border between the two emblem types. More broadly however, Wither’s views on the genre and his own practice of the same mirror the epistemological shift towards rationalism and empiricism that Spica mentions in the passage quoted above, and his Collection of Emblemes therefore constitutes a cultural milestone worth examining in this respect.

8More specifically, I would like to focus on two rather unique aspects of the work that testify to Wither’s unorthodox approach to emblems. Firstly, Wither’s use of emblematic metalanguage, and more particularly of a term closely connected to the origins of emblem literature, which I propose to regard as an indicator of the state of the genre, and especially of its epistemological foundation, in the first half of the seventeenth century. Secondly, Wither’s addition of a lottery game to his emblems constitutes an innovative way to envision the composition and use of an emblem book.

“Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne”: A Collection of Emblemes and the shift in early modern epistemology

9Wither chose to call his emblem book A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, a title that suggests that the author gathered pictures from multiple sources that were produced at different times. In fact, the two hundred engravings that Wither set out to comment on in English had all appeared in one single work before, the Nucleus Emblematum by the German emblem writer Gabriel Rollenhagen, which was published in two volumes in Magdeburg in 1611 and 1613 (Bath 116-17). It is therefore not to the engravings themselves that Wither is referring, as they were composed roughly at the same time, and are thus all “modern” in this sense, but to the motifs represented in the pictures. Wither does not systematically specify which emblems ought to be regarded as ancient, and which as modern, but one can frequently infer the poet’s categorisation based on his terminology, and his assessment of the inherent usefulness and signifying power, or otherwise, of each individual engraving.

  • 5 Horapollo sought to explain the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs based on the assumption that each p (...)

10When commenting upon an allegorical motif that he believes to have been in use since ancient times for instance, Wither often uses the term “hieroglyphic,” as Daly noted in an article devoted to Wither’s use of emblem terminology in 1999. This testifies to Wither’s knowledge of the close connection between the origins of the emblematic genre and the early humanists’ fascination with hieroglyphs and their interpretation by the fifth-century Egyptian scholar Horapollo (Spica 55; Vuilleumier-Laurens 26).5

11On the instances of this particular term in A Collection of Emblemes, Daly concludes that

“hieroglyph” is evidently a more specialised term [than ‘emblem’] for Wither, but not necessarily in the now accepted sense of motifs of genuine or pseudo-Egyptian origin, ideograms or pictograms, or inorganic combinations of motifs. [...] Wither uses the term for a single motif, taken largely but not exclusively from nature, whose meaning is sanctioned by Christian or ancient tradition. [...] For Wither a hieroglyphic is evidently a sign, usually a single sign rather than a complex or a cluster, with a stable and recognisable meaning. In attaching such adjectives as “old” or “ancient” to the hieroglyph, Wither suggests that their symbolic usage is validated by venerable tradition. (Daly, “George Wither’s Use of Emblem Terminology” 29-30)

12If one takes a closer look however, the definition that Wither attaches to the term is more ambiguous than Daly suggests. On the one hand, as Rannou has noted in his PhD thesis devoted to Wither’s entire bibliography, he is heir to sixteenth-century humanist culture (520), and evidently retains some reverence for “old” hieroglyphics. This is expressed most clearly in emblems that, in Wither’s opinion, fall short of possessing the signifying power of such hieroglyphics; for instance, the pictura of emblem II-5 depicts a crowned sceptre surrounded by four birds, which, Wither tells us, is one of those “perplext Inventions (which have nought, / Of Ancient Hieroglyphicks)” (Wither 67). On the other hand, in some emblems the distinction between “emblem” and “hieroglyphic” is blurred, and at times even completely lost. In emblem II-11 for instance, the term “hieroglyphic” refers to a friar holding a book and an anchor, while his mouth is shut by a padlock. The meaning conveyed is relatively clear, especially given the Latin motto “in silentio et spe,” but the composition as a whole is hardly “validated by venerable tradition”. Furthermore, the exact same motif is referred to as an “emblem” further down in the text. The same is true for emblem III-3 (Wither 137), where a sword and a mace are called both “vulgar Emblems” and “Hieroglyphickes of Authority”. Even more notable is Wither’s assertion that the motifs composing the pictura of emblem II-3 – two hands joined above a flaming heart on an altar below a skull – are “moderne Hieroglyphickes” (Wither 99), which, given Daly’s argument, would be an oxymoron.

  • 6 See Sir Thomas Herbert, Some yeares travels into divers parts of Asia and Afrique (1638), p. 338: “ (...)
  • 7 See, for instance, William Hodson’s The divine cosmographer; or, A brief survey of the whole world (...)
  • 8 See Herbert, Some yeares travels, p. 45: “A silken string circles both their bodies as the Hyerogli (...)

13Wither’s seemingly loose use of the term “hieroglyphic” and the lack of clarity in its difference to “emblem” can be accounted for as signs of the diachronic changes that the emblem tradition underwent as the seventeenth century unfolded. Indeed, while sixteenth century theorists such as Valeriano considered that the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians – and by extension, of all ancient civilisations – was enshrined in these “hieroglyphics,” subsequent authors widened the definition of the term, which soon included pictorial alphabets from other countries,6 symbolic representations drawn from Scripture,7 but also even more broadly any sign or symbol standing in for something else.8 It even evolved into a mere pictorial code that emblem and impresa writers could use increasingly as they saw fit. As Spica puts it:

Assez rapidement au cours du XVIIe siècle, l’hiéroglyphique devient un module, et les livres d’hiéroglyphiques servent, comme l’iconologie, autant à dessiner des allégories qu’à concevoir une composition emblématique. Sagement rangé dans ses pages, l’hiéroglyphique est indifféremment emblème ou devise, en attendant d’être l’un et l’autre. (Spica 316)

14Towards the last decades of the seventeenth century, the shift continued, to reach an extreme summed up by Spica in the following terms:

  • 9 The work Spica is referring to is Nicolas Verrien, Livre curieux et utile pour les Sçavants et Arti (...)

Enfin, dans le livre de N. Verrien publié une première fois en 1685 [...], les hiéroglyphiques servent de dénomination commune à toutes les figures qui évoquent, de près ou de loin, une composition décorative. (Spica 318-19)9

15Wither’s use of the term could therefore simply be a tacit acknowledgement of the increasing polysemy with which it was endowed as the seventeenth century unfolded. A similar tendency can be found in the emblematic work of Francis Quarles, Wither’s immediate contemporary. In the preface to his Emblemes (1635), he writes:

Before the knowledge of letters, GOD was knowne by Hieroglyphicks ; And, indeed, what are the Heavens, the Earth, nay every Creature, but Hieroglyphicks and Emblemes of [God’s] Glory? (Emblemes 8)

16Three years later, Quarles published his Hieroglyphickes of the Life of Man (1638); in the terse section “To the Reader” of which he provides a succinct justification of his use of the term: “It is an Aegyptian dish, drest in the English fashion” (1). According to Höltgen, the Hieroglyphickes are in no way or shape more “Aegyptian” than the Emblemes and were even widely considered to be a direct sequel to them, or even part of the same work (Höltgen 256-57). In fact, with the sole exception of the first edition of the Hieroglyphickes in 1638, both works were systematically published in one volume (Höltgen 256). It is unclear whether the title was merely chosen to avoid redundancy with that of the previous work, or whether “hieroglyphic” happened to be the more popular term in the late 1630s, and therefore made for a more promising marketing scheme. At any rate, any formal difference between the two seems to have faded away.

17This shift has implications that extend far beyond the emblematic genre. In her chapter with the suggestive title “Le désenchantement du monde” (443-81), Spica explores how, in the last decades of the seventeenth century, every aspect of human knowledge and enquiry steadily abandoned the symbolic and allegorical mindset and its transcendent and immutable truths to the benefit of mathematical and utilitarian signs designed to “materially embody the things conceived in the mind, rather than revealing them” (Spica 447, my translation). This is true of the natural sciences of course, but also of what would later come to be known as linguistics: instead of a quest for the elusive Adamic language, and instead of the reverence for Egyptian hieroglyphs as the embodiment of absolute knowledge and the hermeneutic key to decipher the Book of Nature, language was gradually apprehended in utilitarian terms, where the arbitrariness of linguistic signs was no longer a problem, as long as they were clear and comprehensible (Spica 453-54).

  • 10 Spica refers to “the end of the seventeenth century” (443, my translation).

18Wither’s emblems are relevant to this shift because, as was mentioned earlier, they were composed over a period of twenty years between ca. 1615 and 1635, much earlier than the period Spica is discussing.10 If the section “To the Reader” is to be believed, some of the emblems had already been written in the mid-1610s, ten years before Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and twenty-two years before the Discours de la Méthode, which would only be published in 1637, two years after A Collection of Emblemes. Wither’s work constitutes what Greenblatt would call a “cultural artifact” (Greenblatt 256), an instance of human expression that bears witness to the “irregular process” that was the “seventeenth-century transition from one ‘world view’ or ‘episteme’ or ‘paradigm” to another” (Browning 47), the hybridity of which Browning underlines.

19In the same article, Browning analysed Wither’s interpretative independence with respect to the engravings in terms of his reader-oriented stance and his wish to democratise a genre that was previously reserved for the elite (Browning 50). This effort at making emblems accessible and profitable to a broader audience is advertised by Wither himself in his dedications and in his addresses to the reader, as is the general purpose of his work, which is to “please / And profit vulgar Iudgements (by the view, / Of what they ought to follow, or eschew)” (Wither, dedication of book I to the King and Queen). To ensure his readers’ delight, he appended a lottery game to his emblems, which is described as a mere “Morall Pastime” (Wither A2v), and as a necessary concession to booksellers, who allegedly have trouble selling “over-solid and serious Treatises” (Wither A2v). However, on closer examination, the game is more than a mere casual addition to the work. Its place as an integral part of the aesthetic and rhetorical project pursued in A Collection of Emblemes is evidenced in several ways, and, notwithstanding its appearance as a light-hearted game, it raises profound questions about Wither’s stance towards the use of an emblem book to serve a political and philosophical purpose.

Wither’s Lottery: Fortune, satire, and personal responsibility

20Each of the four books of A Collection of Emblemes is followed by an appendix containing fifty-six lottery stanzas: one for each emblem, and six corresponding to blank lots. The last page of the work shows an engraving of two lottery dials in square frames, each of which is equipped with a pointer attached to its centre. The player first spins the pointer on the upper dial until it rests on the number of an emblem, or on one of six blank lots. The pointer on the lower dial is then used to determine in which of the four books the appropriate lottery stanza is to be sought. Wither tells us that his game is to be played collectively, and that each player should read the lottery stanza and the appropriate emblem – unless the lot was a blank – out loud for all to hear.

21In his remarks to the reader, Wither claims that the lottery game was “accidentally composed”, and defensively justifies its inclusion, stating that it “will be as harmelesse as any, if it be used according to [his] Intentions” (“The Occasion, Intention, and use of the Foure Lotteries adjoyned to these foure Books of Emblems”). As was recognised by Ripollés in 2008 however, the lottery, and the idea of Fortune with which it is inextricably connected, play a much more important role in the collection than Wither was, it seems, willing to admit.

  • 11 The figure being carried to heaven by an eagle at the top of the left-hand peak is nearly identical (...)

22Indeed, the lottery is allegorically represented at the very centre of William Marshall’s intricate frontispiece to the book, which depicts a group of pilgrims emerging from a cave at the bottom of the page and setting out to climb one of two peaks at the top. The path to the summit on the left is arduous, but leads to virtue and salvation, while the way towards the right peak is broad and inviting at first, but ends with death and damnation. As the pilgrims reach the crossroads, where the crucial choice between vice and virtue is to be made, each is directed to pick a lot from an ewer under supervision of two allegorical figures, identified by Ripollés as Virtue on the left and Fortune on the right (106). This inclusion is particularly striking and relevant if one considers the frontispiece to be, itself, an emblematic representation of the volume it introduces. The pilgrim, or the allegorical alter ego of the reader, emerges from the grotto at the bottom, where he is represented as a child. Having reached the age of reason, he is ready to make a choice as to his path in life, or, more casually, to choose whether he will heed the advice contained in the emblems. Before he decides either way, the pilgrim is to draw his lot from the ewer, mimicking the reader’s turn at playing the lottery. The fact that the frontispiece is riddled with motifs that echo those found in the emblems is further evidence of the same.11 Furthermore, the volume closes with emblem IV-50, the English motto couplet of which reads “The Garland, He alone shall weare, / Who, to the Goale, doth persevere” (Wither 258), equating the final emblem to the end of the pilgrim’s journey.

23Therefore, the lottery holds a central place – both figuratively and literally – in the reading experience Wither intended to create through his Collection of Emblemes. Ripollés argues that the game mimics the mechanism of Fortune by assigning a lot to the reader by chance, restricting the player’s agency by focusing their attention on a single emblem, yet simultaneously granting them some freedom in the interpretation of the emblematic motifs, as well as the choice to heed the advice, or not (128-29).

24I would like to argue that the lottery’s rhetorical purpose in the work is more complex still, given the game’s relation to the notion of Fortune on the one hand, and the role of the lottery verses in creating a close relationship between Wither and his reader.

  • 12 See for instance Boethius’ description in the Consolatio philosophiae: “You have given yourself ove (...)
  • 13 See Wither 174. The emblem shows Fortuna on a winged sphere, and Wither tells us that “she is blind (...)
  • 14 See the emblem “IN OCCASIONEM” in Alciato’s Emblematum Liber (1531), A8r, https://www.emblems.arts. (...)

25Throughout the Renaissance, and until the second half of the seventeenth century, the idea of Fortune underwent several important metamorphoses that were mirrored in emblematic iconography. While medieval representations of Fortuna tended to personify her as an agent who turned her wheel to bring about change that could be drastic, but that remained cyclical and predictable,12 the Renaissance re-appropriated the Roman figure of the Venus-like woman on a sphere, who is no longer the agent, but rather the victim of the instability of her position, usually made more precarious still by her being blindfolded or her eyes being shut.13 As the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries unfolded, the place of Fortune in the early modern episteme began to change again. The mathematical and pragmatic worldview that was mentioned earlier brought with it an interest in the notions of probability and certainty (Shapiro 15-17), both of which stand at odds with unpredictable contingency. The development of Neostoicism initiated by Justus Lipsius and continued by Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon, among others (see McRea) robbed the goddess Fortuna of her fickle power over human beings, suggesting instead, as Bacon put it in his Essayes, that “the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands” (227). What remains is the idea that contingency is not a liability, but an opportunity. While the corresponding figure of Occasio (or her Greek counterpart Kairos) – who has a long strain of hair on the front of her hair, usually floating in the wind, while the back of her head is completely bald – was commonly used in emblems since Alciato,14 it remained distinct from that of Fortuna until the second half of the sixteenth century, which saw these two allegories be increasingly conflated (see Kiefer 193-231). This trend culminated in an idea of modernity that took hold in the final decades of the seventeenth century:

This later and quite different version of modernity interpreted any acceptance of Fortuna’s relevance for human affairs as an obsolete element of a pre-modern mentality, representing precisely the theoretical and practical deficits which modernity had to overcome. To put it bluntly: to become truly modern, the proponents of this quite different version of modernity either explicitly argued – or the cultural and intellectual tendencies of this kind of modernity implicitly presupposed – that Fortuna had to die (Vogt 147).

26In light of this tendency, the importance of the concept of Fortune in A Collection of Emblemes, with regard to the time span over which it was composed and published (ca. 1615-1635), arguably warrants a closer look at the way in which Wither understands the notion and makes use of it, both in the emblems proper and in the lottery verses.

27The emblem that is wholly dedicated to Fortuna (III-40) does, at first glance, rely on the interpretation of the concept that was commonplace in the early to mid-sixteenth century: Fortuna is likened to the Moon, as she shares its changeability: “Vncertaine, Fortunes Favours, bee, / And, as the Moone, so changeth Shee” (Wither 174). The engraving, which was produced for Rollenhagen’s emblem book in the 1610s, already shows signs of the aforementioned conflation between Fortuna and Occasio, as the female figure is represented with a long forelock waving in the wind, and with an otherwise bald head. Wither’s take on the lock of hair, however, still draws a distinction between the two allegories: the lock is not to be seized at the right moment, but is used to hold on to the gifts of good Fortune before they are taken away:

Her Head it hairelesse, all, except before,
To teach thee, that thy care should be the more
To hold her formost kindnesse, alwayes fast
Lest, She doe show thee slipp'ry tricks, at last.
(Wither 174)

28As the emblem unfolds, Wither’s tone grows more sarcastic, mocking not only those who trust that Fortune will always favour them, but even expressing doubt as to the accuracy of the motto:

Moreover (to her credit) I confesse,
This Motto falsly saith, her Ficklenesse
Is like the Moones: For, she hath frown'd on mee
Twelve Moones, at least; and, yet, no Change I see. (Wither 174)

  • 15 For instance, in his address to the reader, Wither states the following about Rollenhagen’s origina (...)
  • 16 Lottery I-20 (55) for instance reads: “Your Fault, we will no nearer touch; / Me thinkes your Emble (...)

29This could, of course, be merely a rhetorical point to undermine the credibility or accuracy of Rollenhagen’s original verse, as Wither does elsewhere in the volume,15 but it must be noted immediately that his own English motto couplet faithfully translates Rollenhagen’s shorter phrase in Latin. In other instances, when Wither disapproves of the original motto of an emblem, he does not hesitate to make a completely different point with his own inscriptio, as is the case, for instance, in emblem I-4, the engraving of which represents Occasio with her usual attributes (standing on a wheel, with her forelock and a razor in her hand), where Rollenhagen’s “Ne tenear” (“so that I not be held”) becomes “Occasions-past are sought in vaine, but oft, they wheele about againe” (Wither 4). In the case of the Fortuna-emblem however, he keeps the original motto, only to deride it in his own subscriptio, adding a humorous reference to his own misfortune and mocking those who would place their trust in unpredictable contingency to improve their social standing. This suggests that Wither does not take the concept too seriously, but intends to instrumentalise it as a rhetorical and satirical tool. This is confirmed by the contents of the lottery stanzas, where the poet’s tone is frequently just as tongue-in-cheek. He often suggests that the lottery game allots emblems according to the player’s principal faults and sins,16 and hardly manages to hide his jubilation at the prospect of the player’s humiliation when they have to read the emblem out loud to the other parties present:

For, if any who are notoriously Guiltie, shall by drawing their Chances, among other companions, be so fitted with Lots, (which may now and then happen) that those Vices be thereby intimated to the by-standers, of which the world knowes them guilty; they do therin make their own Libels; and, may (I hope) be laughed at without blame. If not; I doe here warne all such as are worthily suspected of Haynous crimes and Scandalous conversations, either to forbear these Lotteries; or to excuse me if they be justly shamed by their own Act. (“The Occasion, Intention, and use of the Foure Lotteries adjoyned to these foure Books of Emblems”)

30Throughout the lottery verses, Wither’s remarks on the relationship between Fortune and his game remain highly ambivalent. At times he urges the players not to disregard the power of Fortune, as in lottery I-56, where they are advised not to despise “what, by good Fortune, may bee got” (Wither 62). Lottery II-12 on the other hand dismisses the player’s desire to rely on Fortune, bestowing distinctly Stoic advice on them instead:

Thy Fortune, thou dost long to heare,
And, what thy
Constellations are:
But, why should’st thou desire to know,
What things, the
Planets due foreshow
Seeke, rather,
Wisedome to procure,
And, how, all
Fortunes to indure. (Wither 115)

31At times, Wither openly expresses his ambivalence in the matter, as in lottery I-41:

Whether, meerely, Chance, or no,
Brought this Lot, we doe not know;
But, received, let it be,
As, divinely, sent to thee. (Wither 59)

32But nowhere is the same ambivalence expressed more clearly than in the “Direction, shewing how they who are so disposed shall finde out their Chance in the Lotteries aforegoing,” where Wither briefly explains how the game is to be played, and appends a poem to the instructions, which is worth quoting in full:

If King, Queene, Prince, or any one that springs
From Persons, knowne to be deriv’d from Kings,
Shall seeke, for Sport sake, hence to draw their Lot;
Our Author sayes : that, hee provided not
For such as those : Because, it were too much
For him, to find out Fortunes, fit for such,
Who (as hee thinkes) should, rather, Ayde supply
For him, to mind his evill Fortunes by.
To them, hee, therefore pleased is to give
This noble, and this large Prerogative ;
That, they shall chuse from hence, what Lots they please,
And make them better, if they like not these.
All other Personages of High degree,
That, will professe our Authors friends to be,
This Freedome, likewise, have ; that till, they find
A Lot, which is agreeing to their mind,
They shall have libertie, anewe, to try
Their sought-for Chance : And, ev’ry time, apply
The Morrals they disliked, unto those,
Which are ill-quallifide, among their Foes.
All others, who this Game adventure will,
Must beare their Fortunes, be they Good, or Ill.

  • 17 See, for instance, Wither’s address to James, the Duke of Lennox, in the dedication of Book III: “A (...)
  • 18 “Celle-ci [Fortune] tour à tour nous lance en haut, en bas, comme choses sans poids, nous fait tour (...)
  • 19 “Que la répétition du mot ‘Fortune’, dans le titre comme à l’intérieur de l’ouvrage, ne t’inquiète (...)

33These loopholes granted to the nobility, among whom Wither certainly hoped to secure a patron,17 are obviously consistent with his flattering – not to say obsequious – dedications to the royal couple and several other members of the Caroline court. It is also quite clear however that the Fortune Wither has in mind is not the fickle goddess that Petrarch describes to his patron Azzo da Corregio in the preface to the first book of his De remediis utriusque fortunae.18 In Wither’s work, Fortune is merely an optional feature of the game, that is reserved for readers who are not “of high degree”, much like the concept Petrarch refers to in his preface to the second book of the same work,19 and even then, she merely retains a conceptual existence. Indeed, both allegorically in the Frontispiece and in its real-world counterpart, the Collection of Emblemes, the presence of Fortune has no bearing on the pilgrims’ journey at all. In the absence of the ewer, they would still be tempted by the path of vice, and would still have the opportunity to choose that of virtue instead. They would thus still remain agents of their fate, regardless of their lot. Similarly, the reader can choose to read the emblem he has been allotted by the game, or any other, and he can choose to heed the advice contained therein, or not. The mechanism of the lottery game thus mimics the hand of Fortune, while the game simultaneously underlines her ultimate powerlessness over the virtuous reader, who, like the man depicted in the middle of emblem I-6 (Wither 6), is impervious to the adverse effects of the fickle goddess.

34But Fortune serves a rhetorical purpose in Wither’s work nonetheless. As he makes clear in several passages quoted above, he anticipates – rather gleefully at times – that some of his readers may be humiliated by drawing lots that fit them particularly well given their vices. At the time of publication in 1635, Wither had already experienced at least two prolonged stays in the Marshalsea prison following the publication of satirical works to which people of influence took exception (French 41). By mimicking the erratic and abstract power of Fortune through the lottery, Wither is able to disclaim any intention on his part to mount personal attacks, while simultaneously anticipating that, every now and again, the laws of probability will allow for one of his lottery verses and one of his emblems to serve their satirical purpose by being assigned to an appropriate target, while the blame for the ensuing humiliation will lie either with the target themselves, or with the unseen and impalpable presence of Fortuna.

35Ultimately, Wither’s lottery is truly, as he puts it himself, “a Puppet-play in Pictures” (A1v), where his readers are to believe that their figurative pilgrimage, and the public shaming they might suffer along the way, are guided by the hand of Fortune, when, in fact, the poet quietly pulls the strings, turning the players into unwitting actors of a self-satirising play. Not only is this a unique feature in the English emblem tradition, but it testifies to a great deal of creativity on Wither’s part, who, somewhat irreverently but all the more effectively, makes a venerable literary genre that was formerly reserved for the elites subservient to a highly playful rhetorical purpose.


36However poor, boring, or questionable some deem Wither’s verse in A Collection of Emblemes and elsewhere, the work still richly rewards any sustained attention it is granted. Wither’s meta-emblematic comments and his treatment of Rollenhagen’s pre-existing work bear witness to fundamental changes in the manner in which one of the most popular literary genres of the early modern period was understood and produced, and mirror a far broader shift in the era’s episteme that would permanently alter the worldview of an entire continent. His inclusion of the lottery game epitomises a thoroughly modern understanding of the – arguably hitherto unexplored – rhetorical possibilities of emblems, and of a multi-faceted, playful, and ambivalent relationship to his readers, whom he manages to entice and to satirise at the same time. Instead of fitting neatly into any pre-existing category, Wither’s emblems draw attention to the liminal space between them, the interstice of cultural singularity, or, as Greenblatt and Gallagher so eloquently put it, the “plastered-over cracks” in our “familiar edifices” (52).

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Primary Sources

Bacon, Francis. Essayes and counsels, civil and moral. London, 1664.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. W. V. Cooper. Ex-classics Project (, 2009.

Quarles, Francis. Emblemes. London, 1635.

Quarles, Francis. Hieroglyphickes of the Life of Man. London, 1638.

Wither, George. A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, Quickened with Metricall Illustrations, both Morall and Divine: And disposed into Lotteries, That Instruction, and Good Counsell, may bee furthered by an Honest and Pleasant Recreaction, 1635. Introd. Rosemary Freeman. Columbia: The Newberry Library by the University of South Carolina Press, 1975.

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Miranda. “Mirroring mentalities in George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes.” Emblematica – An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies 20 (2013): 63-80.

Bath, Michael. Speaking Pictures – English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture. New York: Longman, 1994.

Browning, Rob. “To Serve my Purpose: Interpretative Agency in George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes.” Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Proceedings of the Eighth Citadel Conference on Literature. Charleston, South Carolina, 2002. Ed. Yvonne Bruce. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 47-71.

Daly, Peter M. “George Wither’s Use of Emblem Terminology.” Aspects of Renaissance and Baroque Symbol Theory 1500-1700. Ed. Peter M. Daly & John Manning. New York: AMS Press, 1999. 27-38.

Daly, Peter M. “The Arbitrariness of George Wither’s Emblems: A Reconsideration.” The Art of the Emblem, Essays in Honor of Karl Josef Höltgen. Ed. Michael Bath, John Manning & Alan R. Young. New York: AMS Press, 1993. 201-34.

Farnsworth, Jane. “An Equall and a Mutuall Flame – George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635) and Caroline Court Culture.” Deviceful Settings – The English Renaissance Emblem and its Contexts, Selected papers from the international Emblem Conference, Pittsburgh, 1993. Ed. Michael Bath & Daniel Russell. New York: AMS Press, 1999. 83-96.

Freeman, Rosemary. English Emblem Books. New York: Octagon Books, 1948.

French, J. M. “George Wither.” PhD Thesis. Harvard University, 1928.

Gallagher, Catherine &, Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Kiefer, Frederick. Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy. Southern California: The Huntington Library, 1983.

McRea, Adriana. Constant Minds: Political Virtue and the Lipsian Paradigm in England, 1584-1650. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Pétrarque. Contre la bonne et la mauvaise fortune. Traduit du latin et préfacé par Anne Duprat. Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2001.

Rannou, André. “George Wither (circa 1590-1667) – Critique et témoin de son temps.” PhD thesis. Université de Lille III, 1980-1981.

Ripollés, Carmen. “By Meere Chance – Fortune’s Role in George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes.” Emblematica – An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies 16 (2008): 103-32.

Shapiro, Barbara J. Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

Spica, Anne-Elisabeth. Symbolique humaniste et emblématique. Paris: Champion, 1996.

Tung, Mason. “George Wither’s Persona: A Study of the Making of A Collection of Emblemes (1635).” Emblematica – An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies 18 (2010): 53-79.

Vogt, Peter. “The Death of Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity”. The End of Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity. Ed. Arndt Bredencke & Peter Vogt. Oldenburg: De Gruyter, 2017. 125-50.

Vuilleumier-Laurens, Florence. La raison des figures symboliques à la Renaissance et à l’Âge Classique. Genève: Droz, 2000.

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1 Freeman quotes Wither’s remark in his address “To the Reader” (A2r).

2 See Anderson; Browning; Daly, “The Arbitrariness of George Wither’s Emblems”; Farnsworth; and Tung.

3 “Symbolics” is my translation of what Spica calls “la symbolique” (31-44), which is, roughly defined, the science of the creation and interpretation of symbols.

4 The “Alciato at Glasgow” website lists twenty-two editions and translations between 1531 and 1621. (, last accessed 12 August 2019)

5 Horapollo sought to explain the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs based on the assumption that each pictogram or ideogram would stand in a symbolic relation to the corresponding signified. For instance, he states that “to denote a people obedient to their king, they depict a BEE, for this is the only one of all creatures which has a king whom the rest of the tribe of bees obey, as men serve their king. And they intimate from the honey’s [sweetness] and the force of the creature’s sting that [the king] should be both lenient and firm in [...] his administration” (Cory 82). While the meaning of the hieroglyph is generally correct, it is now known since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the work of Young and Champollion (Cory vii) that the pictograms are, in most cases, merely standing in for sounds or syllables, and not for entire concepts. It is worth noting that the only surviving text is a Greek translation by a certain Philip, who probably edited the text in several places (Cory ix).

6 See Sir Thomas Herbert, Some yeares travels into divers parts of Asia and Afrique (1638), p. 338: “[The Chinese] use not letters but Characters, or Hyerogliphicks, of which they have above 40000”, or the reference to a “Mexican hieroglyphic” on page 26 of Samuel Purchas’s Purchas his pilgrimes In fiue bookes. (1625).

7 See, for instance, William Hodson’s The divine cosmographer; or, A brief survey of the whole world (1640), p. 91: “This qualitie is so eminent in the Dove, that our Saviour there singled it out for an hieroglyphick of Simplicity”, or Thomas Goodwin’s encouragement to Zerubbabel that he should finish the temple (1642), p. 7: “[...] this Candlestick thus lighted, betokened the full perfecting and finishing the Temple, and restoring the worship of God within it, unto its full perfection of beauty and brightnesse, (as the Psalmist speaks.) And so the Angel interprets it, This is the word of the Lord, ver. 6. that is, this Hieroglyphique contains this word and mind of God in it, that maugre all opposition, Zerubbabel should bring forth the head or top stone that should finish the Temple, so ver. 7. and 9.”

8 See Herbert, Some yeares travels, p. 45: “A silken string circles both their bodies as the Hyerogliphic or bond of Wedlock”, or Ben Jonson’s The Fountain of self-loue (1601), p. 23 “Sir, shall I say to you for that Hat? be not so sad, be not so sad; tis a Relique I could not so easily haue departed with, but as the Hierogliphick of my affection [...].”

9 The work Spica is referring to is Nicolas Verrien, Livre curieux et utile pour les Sçavants et Artistes, composé de trois Alphabets de chiffres simples, doubles et triples, fleuronnez et au premier trait. Accompagné d’un très grand nombre de devises, Emblêmes, Medailles et autres figures Hieroglyphiques. Ensemble plusieurs supportset Cimiers pour les ornemens des Armes. Avec une Table tres ample, par le moyen de laquelle on trouvera facilement tous les noms imaginables (Paris, 1685).

10 Spica refers to “the end of the seventeenth century” (443, my translation).

11 The figure being carried to heaven by an eagle at the top of the left-hand peak is nearly identical to the pictura of emblem III-22, where Ganymede represents the virtuous soul being lifted up by God (156). The lovers foolishly enjoying a glass of wine before the temple of Venus on the right side of the picture were simply copied into the frontispiece by Marshall from the pictura of emblem II-6 (68), where they sit on the left, as is the case for the temple itself, which appears in the background of the same engraving. The two figures fighting with swords and daggers on the right side of the picture, next to the dark silhouette plummeting from the mountain, are very closely modelled on the two gentlemen duelling in emblem I-27 who, to make matters worse, are quarrelling over a “Strumpet” (27).

12 See for instance Boethius’ description in the Consolatio philosophiae: “You have given yourself over to Fortune's rule, and you must bow yourself to your mistress's ways. Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune. As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on like the surge of Euripus’s tides, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face. She hears no wretch’s cry, she heeds no tears, but wantonly she mocks the sorrow which her cruelty has made. This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair, 'tis thus she shews her might” (Boethius 18).

13 See Wither 174. The emblem shows Fortuna on a winged sphere, and Wither tells us that “she is blinde [...] to put in minde, / How blindly and how heedlessly she throwes / Her Largesse, where her Bounty, she bestowes” and that “She stands upon a Ball; that, wee may learne, / Of outward things, the tottering, to discerne.”

14 See the emblem “IN OCCASIONEM” in Alciato’s Emblematum Liber (1531), A8r, (last accessed 20 August 2019), as well as Corrozet’s emblem “L’ymage d’Occasion” in his Hecatomgraphie (1540), (last accessed 20 August 2019), or Boissard’s emblem “Qui perd l’occasion, tard se repend” in Emblèmes latins... (1588), (last accessed 20 August 2019), among many others.

15 For instance, in his address to the reader, Wither states the following about Rollenhagen’s original work: “The Verses were so meane, that, they were afterward cut off from the Plates; And the Collector of the said Emblems (whether hee were the Versifier or the Graver), was neither so well advised in the Choice of them, nor so exact in observing the true Proprietied belonging to every Figure, as he might have beene” (A1v).

16 Lottery I-20 (55) for instance reads: “Your Fault, we will no nearer touch; / Me thinkes your Emblem blabs too much”, and lottery III-13 (187) asserts that “This Lot, those persons, alwayes finds, / That have high thoughts, and loftie minds, / Or such, as have an itch to learne, That, which doth nothing them concerne.”

17 See, for instance, Wither’s address to James, the Duke of Lennox, in the dedication of Book III: “And if your Excellence (when you behold / The Ground whereon I first became so bold / To make this Entrance) shall vouchsafe to daigne / Those Favours which, I dare not think to gaine / By Meer-deserving; you may then, perchance, / My Willingnesse, to Ablenesse advance: / And reap in Mee (when ripened they are grown) / Some timely fruits, of that, which you have sown.”

18 “Celle-ci [Fortune] tour à tour nous lance en haut, en bas, comme choses sans poids, nous fait tourner en rond et s’amuse de nous. Qu’elle l’emporte, passe encore, mais elle nous prend pour des jouets” (Pétrarque 20).

19 “Que la répétition du mot ‘Fortune’, dans le titre comme à l’intérieur de l’ouvrage, ne t’inquiète pas. Tu m’as souvent entendu dire ce que je pense de la Fortune. Mais j’ai cru nécessaire ici, à l’intention des gens surtout les moins instruits, de me servir d’un terme qu’ils connaissent bien et dont ils ont l’habitude; tout en sachant fort bien ce que l’on a pu dire contre celui-ci – et surtout Saint Jérôme, qui résuma cela dans une seule formule: nec Fatum nec Fortuna, ‘il n’y a ni Fatalité ni Fortune’” (Pétrarque 127-28).

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Pierre Le Duff, « “Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne”: George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes (1635) as an epitome of a changing mode of literary expression »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierre Le Duff

Pierre Le Duff is a doctoral student at the University of Strasbourg, where he teaches English, literature, and literary history. He is currently working on his PhD dissertation, titled “Persona, Patronage, and ‘Self-Fashioning’: George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635) as an Epitome of Early Modern English Culture” under the co-supervision of Professors Monica Chesnoiu-Matei and Jean-Jacques Chardin.

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