Posted by: siobhananderson | November 30, 2010

Whimsical and Emblematic/Figured Writing

While reading Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland I was particularly struck by the passage in which the Mouse recounts his “tail”.  The use of emblematic or figured poetry fits in perfectly with the whimsical and fantastical nature of the story of Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand it brings out the more mathematical nature of many of the stories and games found within the book. Carroll as a not just a writer, but as a logician seems to have left puzzles throughout the story and I was interested to read in the side notes by Gardner about the two high school students in New Jersey that made the discovery that in one of the original texts, this Mouse’s tale actually looked as if each stanza was in the shape of a mouse. Though personally I prefer the one that is used in our version for its obvious play with the words “tale” and “tail”, yet I searched for other examples of emblematic writing and found that George Herbert also was a fan of this kind of structure:

(Poem #567Easter Wings

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
                  Decaying more and more,
                       Till he became
                         Most poore:

                         With Thee
                       O let me rise,
                  As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
      And still with sicknesses and shame
                  Thou didst so punish sinne,
                       That I became
                         Most thinne.

                         With Thee
                       Let me combine,
                  And feel this day Thy victorie;
      For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

— George Herbert

One can see that the subject of the poem aligns perfectly with the form, as the stanzas mirror the shape of Angel’s Wings. Another form of emblematic writing that was taking place at the time was what is now being called in fact, a kind of “old school” version of modern text lingo. The following link is from Aol news and it follows an exhibit that took place in the British Library last November called  “Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices.”


It includes a very funny essay written by an unknown poet, that uses a lot of the lingo we use more commonly today.



  1. I also found the figured poetry to be very interesting. I think it adds a touch of whimsy to a work that might otherwise be too cold and dry. Ha. What I found to be even more interesting, though, was the short concealed-rhyme letter in the annotations on page 64:

    My best love to yourself,—to your Mother
    My kindest regards—to your small,
    Fat, impertinent, ignorant brother
    My hatred—I think that is all.

    The annotation says this comes from a letter that appears to be prose but is actually verse. Read this as written, and try to hear the rhyme. Though it appears to be a rhyme, it is incredibly difficult to read it that way. In fact, to read it so it rhymes really butchers the flow of the text, which seems very counter-intuitive.

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