Francis Quarles was not an innovator. Most of his works are in genres that were already riding a wave of popularity when he wrote—in fact, genres that had just become popular. He had a special knack for seeing the basic principles governing such genres and for creating works that adhered to these aesthetic principles with stark simplicity and without deep-felt personal involvement of the sort that is now regarded as the hallmark of, for example, the Metaphysical poets, the poets among Quarles’s fellows who have enjoyed the highest critical prestige among later generations. Of course, it is not to be doubted that Quarles had deeply felt religious and political beliefs, but the popular success he enjoyed in his own day was a direct consequence of his inability to express more than surface impressions and clichés—or, to put the most positive face on his achievement—of his willingness to circumscribe his literary compositions by those surface impressions and clichés that express the popular imagination. It was with considerable truth that in the second half of the seventeenth century an antiquary described Quarles as “the sometime darling of our plebeian judgment.”
Quarles’s popularization of the emblem is of great historical interest. The enormous sales of emblem books in the seventeenth century are at first hard to understand. Certainly the special attraction of such works for the Puritans was as an alternative to the images that their religious beliefs proscribed inside churches, and Quarles was phenomenally popular with this group despite his avowed royalism and his support of episcopacy. For other readers, emblems were expressions of the fashionable baroque sensibility.
Emblems are, indeed, more important to the history of poetry than the fleeting popularity of emblem books during the seventeenth century would suggest. The emblematic frame of mind was fundamental to the age, informing many of the works of its major poets, and especially those of such Metaphysicals as Herbert. In fact, to understand Metaphysical imagery it is necessary to know something of the emblem tradition. Quarles’s abiding historical significance is as the exemplary writer of emblem books. It is, however, important to remember that the works of Quarles always illustrate and synthesize trends; they capitalize on rather than inaugurate fashions. Herbert wrote emblematically but not because he had read Quarles. It was Quarles who read—and in his way popularized—Herbert. Although Herbert was certainly influenced by emblem books, Quarles’s own emblem books were not published until after Herbert’s death.
The art of the emblem consists of the successful marshaling of three things: a motto or scriptural text, a picture, and a poem or epigram. Emblem books had been published in English before Quarles, but his were the first English emblem books to be based exclusively on biblical texts, even though similar Continental works had been circulating and their popularity with English audiences had, in fact, inspired Quarles to produce his works. The shift in popularity from secular to religious emblems at the end of the sixteenth century has been chronicled by Mario Praz.
The emblem poet chooses a motto; he commissions an engraving to provide a literalist illustration of the motto; but from the modern point of view, he creates only the epigram commenting on the significance of the motto and making use of the imagery of the picture. In the case of Emblemes and Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man, Quarles’s contribution was, in fact, somewhat less. According to Gordon S. Haight, all but ten of the mottoes and illustrations in Emblemes, for example, were derived from two Continental emblem books, although the illustrations were redrawn and newly engraved—in somewhat less than inspired fashion. Quarles’s poems in Emblemes are not, however, mere translations of the anonymous Typus mundi (1627) and of Herman Hugo’s Pia Desideria (1624; Pia Desideria: Or, Divine Addresses, in Three Books, 1686). As Rosemary Freeman points out, the similarities between Quarles’s emblem poems and those of his sources are for the most part only such as inevitably occur when two authors treat the same subject.
In fact, Quarles’s poems tend to overwhelm his illustrations and take on a life beyond the scope of true emblems. The poor quality of the engravings aside, Alexander Pope’s jibe in The Dunciad (1728-1743) that “the pictures for the page atone,” that “Quarles is sav’d by beauties not his own,” is thus somewhat wide of the mark. Poetry so interrelated with illustration could not, of course, retain its popularity when fashions in the visual arts changed.
Quarles nevertheless achieved some critical respectability in the nineteenth century as a result of his skillful metrics. Since then, fashions in content have changed....
(The entire section is 2031 words.)