Dis[man]tling the Blazon: The Relationship of Women and the Poetic Convention
Originally used to signify a shield or a coat of arms, the term ‘blazon’ transformed it meaning through the description of virtues or positive attributes, usually of a woman, in late sixteenth century poetry. ‘Blazon’ can either denote a noun, signifying the actual list of virtues, or a verb, signifying the process of praising, adorning, describing, or boasting of. Through poetry, the word transfigures its meaning depending on its relevance to the subject and its intended purpose. A blazon is frequently performed in relevance to the female form in an erotic admiration. However, through texts such as William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, his Sonnet 130, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, the convention if the blazon is blurred and nuanced in relation to its performer and its recipient, creating the argument that perhaps the blazon is more than just a poetic tradition.
Before it can be determined what exactly a blazon does, it would be poignant to consider what a traditional blazon would entail. Literary and cultural studies scholar Nancy Vickers looks at the original sonneteer, Francesco Petrarch, through a lens that is hypercritical of the execution of his blazons. Petrarch’s oft-portrayed, absent, yet passionately loved Laura, is the object of his sonnets, admired and blazoned within the Petrarchan verse. Vickers claims that Petrarch always described his beloved as “a part of parts of a woman,” as “a collection of extremely beautiful disassociated objects”. This brings forth the question of the necessity for the blazon, and the discovery of why and how it came about. While the traditional blazon embellishes and celebrates in admiration and in awe, it almost literally dismembers a woman to mere parts or “objects.” The purpose for this is almost entirely unclear: why pick apart each bit of a woman to celebrate her? Why is she parts and not a whole? This could be a technique of divide and conquer, through which the beholder divides the beheld into parts easily mapped and easily understood through both looking or through verse, and by doing so masters each of the fragmented territories. The blazon could more innocently be a distribution of attention and reverence across the body rather than focusing on a single part (commonly sexual), leading the blazon to become a more celebratory style of beauty instead of a conquest of man.
Nonetheless, the blazon exists in different forms between poetry and drama. As Petrarch’s blazon first solidified, the lover became an absent character, one who was unattainable and frequently ignorant or unaware of the love. The poetic blazon is lyrical, imaginary, and entirely up to the reader to illustrate within his mind’s eye. Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti is a typical example of a poetic blazon: “If sapphire, lo, her eyes be sapphires plain; If rubies, lo, her hips be rubies sound; If pearls, her teeth be pearls, both pure and round; If ivory her forehead ivory ween; If gold, her locks are finest hold on ground; If silver, her fair hands are silver sheen…” Spenser inventories his love’s attributes, drawing her into an amalgam of precious jewels, reminiscent of Vicker’s criticism of Petrarch’s blazon of Laura. Spenser also compares her to a rose: Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a briar Sweet is the juniper, but sharp his bough…” Spenser here acknowledges the dangerousness of her beauty and compares her to a beautiful but guarded thing, a thorned rose, acknowledging her unattainability and the unrequited nature of his love. In Astrophel and Stella, a sonnet sequence, author Sir Philip Sidney acknowledges the Petrarchan model and rhyme scheme along with the traditional atmosphere of admiration and desire. Sidney’s ninth sonnet exemplifies the blazon by including the adage of the typical Petrarchan love poem. Sidney’s blazon of Stella, however, does not go past her face, an anomaly as the blazon is commonly erotic. There is her golden “covering” (hair), alabaster “front” (forehead), her “door” (lips), “lock” (teeth), and “porches” (cheek). Although this is a typical, albeit miniature, blazon style, there is a certain unconventionality in the tone that Sidney takes. Stella’s mouth only “sometimes” allows grace, and her eyes are dark, reminiscent of a “touch” – a glossy black stone, an image that complicates the typical blazon theory of admiration.
This compliment-not compliment style calls to mind Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, commonly called the “anti-blazon.” From “my mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” to “my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground” (as opposed to in the heavens with the goddesses), Shakespeare uses negatives to oddly insult the focus of his sonnet. But both Sidney and Shakespeare still utilize the blazon, not to insult, but to define their beloveds as more realistic than any other women “belied with false compare”. Sidney and Shakespeare decide that earthly beauty, of a “heavenly guest” and a woman who “treads on ground” rather than a goddess in the sky, is just as passion-inducing. Sidney concludes that nothing as far as Stella’s eyes can see is more beautiful than she is, whereas Shakespeare swears that his love is “as rare” than any others who lie to their beloveds or compare them falsely. While he does compare his love to unfavorable things there is no question that his love is both strong and passionate still. In the poetic tradition, readers are forced to imagine a golden-locked, blue-eyed woman. The visual aspect of poetry is necessary in validating the beloved’s beauty. However, in drama, there is an impossibility of the absence of the beloved, as the actors are presented in physical bodies for the performances of the blazons. There is a difference in the actual demonstration of the blazon; whereas Petrarch writes for his unrequited lover, actors either speak to their lovers or about their lovers in front of an audience of spectators. The immediacy of the physical presence introduces a third party: those to whom the beloved is displayed. The form of the blazon idealizes a figure that an audience member does not have to imagine, and the physical existence presents a straightforward interaction between the loved and the lover.
Whereas in poetry the reader is the middleman, the audience directly witnesses an emblazoning of a character by another in drama. Nevertheless, the theater has taken the question of blazon in stride and manipulated it in many ways. Olivia of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night appropriates the blazon in a freewheeling complication of gender roles and mastery versus submission. However, while the traditional blazon is to or for a certain person, Olivia blazons herself in a strategy of mockery. “I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth” (1.5.230-235). Olivia sorts through her facial features in an “inventory,”, both taking ownership of her own features whilst labeling them in a marketing fashion. Her reference to her will could have a double, or a triple, meaning: will as in her own free will; will as in the legal document written prior to death; or will from the subtitle of the play Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. She recognizes sovereignty at this moment, which unbeknownst to her, is a short-lived segment of bodily autonomy, as her own body will be put on display in the following act. Olivia satirizes the significance of worth based on her attributes, in a way mocking the blazon itself, but then employs the same pattern when speaking of Cesario. “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit Do give thee fivefold blazon” (1.5.279-280). Besides the irony of Viola cross-dressing as a fake Cesario, making a female still the recipient of the blazon, Olivia harks back to the original meaning of the word. The blazon she refers to, juxtaposed with a dramatic blazon, is the shield mentioned in the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only is Olivia listing Cesario’s physical attributes, but she is referencing the significance of physical attributes. His appearance is a blazon, a trumpet, of his status and birth. The use of the blazon as a signifier of his place in society acknowledges the coat of arms featured on the original blazons, indicating a person’s family and heritage. This moment between Cesario and Olivia also brings about a certain sense of clarity in the sense that the gender questions that have been posed and deepened throughout the play are suspended. There is little confusion of, or perhaps little care for, who belongs to which gender affiliation. Olivia is simply admiring a person, performing a blazon on “him,” – creating an exchange between the beholder and the beheld in an appreciation of beauty. Is this not exactly what the blazon is meant for? Furthermore, Cesario embodies the idea of the remote, absent lover, as Cesario is not actually a real person. A disguise of Viola, Cesario is fictional, making Viola a vehicle by which Olivia expresses a love that is most certainly unrequited simply by the fact that Cesario does not exist.
In the second act, Maria introduces audiences to a different interpretation of the blazon – one used to her advantage over unsuspecting and vulnerably smitten Malvolio. “I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated” (2.3.145-147). In this passage, Maria outlines the exact desire of Malvolio to be admired by Olivia, and performs an unintentional blazon of his attributes after having just called him something quite different: “The devil a puritan that he ism or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass that cons state without book and utters it by great swaths; the best persuaded of himself, so crammed as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him” (2.3.136-140). In a strange juxtaposition of Malvolio’s flaws and his values, Maria both mocks and celebrates the blazon, regardless of her intentions. Because Malvolio’s fantasy of Olivia’s love is so great, it is easy for Maria to manipulate him, and he falls vulnerable to the device of the feigned blazon. The letter, perfected with Olivia’s seal, begins with “to the unknown beloved” (2.5.86), harking back to the clandestine emotions the lover has for his beloved, like Petrarch to his unknown beloved, Laura.
Olivia is a Petrarchan lover in many ways, though her reconfiguration and reapplication of the blazon complicates the traditional relationship between the lover and the beloved. The female characters in Twelfth Night perform the blazons on male characters: Cesario sincerely and Malvolio facetiously. This begs the question of power. Who has the upper hand, the lover or the beloved? To return to the theory of divide and conquer, he who performs the blazon separates his lover into easily comprehensible parts. The blazon, therefore, is not only a poetic convention about desire, but also about romantic and social advantage over another. If the traditional forms of blazon are penned by men, and the entirety of Twelfth Night is a complexity of gender intricacies and nuances, this intensely complicates the definition of the blazon. The play serves primarily as a satire on the popularized ideas of love and romance according to Petrarch. This, coupled with the notion of gender fluidity, enlightens the true meaning of a satire: comedy with undeniable truth. The blazons remind audiences of the social convention they hold, ironically, as homosexual relationships are unwittingly pursued – another reminder of social conventions.
Though the blazon is poised to make fun of the Petrarchan conventions on a backdrop of forbidden relationships, it has serious undertones worth recognition and consideration. Though Olivia truly does love Cesario, as we can tell from her blazon of admiration, she easily confuses him with Sebastian. The play apparently involves love, yet superficially. In juxtaposing traditional blazons with the “anti-blazons” of Shakespeare and Spenser, as readers we are forced to recognize the actuality of what it means to love publicly, either through drama or literature, and the implications involved with admiration versus actuality. The blazon is not only a poetic convention, but also a tradition of gender roles, power, and the social structure of love.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2005. Print. Vickers, Nancy. Dianna Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme. Print.
 Oxford English Dictionary  Vickers, Nancy. Dianna Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme, 94  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1086-1087.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1184  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1202  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1202  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1210  The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B, 1210
“Antithesis Is Essential in Petrarchan Rhetoric”: Analysis of Sonnets from the Golden Age of Spanish Poetry
The introduction of the Italianate sonnet form into Spanish poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries brought with it both the versification and elements of one of the most influential collections of poetry of all time – Francisco de Petrarca’s II Canzoniere. In sonnets of the Golden Age, we find the typical linguistic juxtaposition of the lover suffering from dilectoso male (‘beautiful agony’) in his poetic idealization of a single lady, an antithesis carried over from the influence of Petrarch. Antithesis can also be found however in the sonnets’ contrast between sensual and spiritual love, which are presented as irreconcilable opposites: we find poetic voices in turmoil, as sexual desire and spiritual worship are incompatible with one another according to Plato’s philosophy of love. Even the use of conceits which seek to reverse the Petrarchan idea of noble suffering and resignation to a fate of dissatisfaction in Quevedo’s sonnets arguably provides an essential antithetical contribution to the development of Petrarchan rhetoric as a whole. With its Baroque and Neo-Stoical influences, the literary environment of the 16th and 17th centuries provided opportunity for the expansion of what began as a literary technique into a theme in itself.
In the original sonnets of Petrarch, we find many examples of antithesis used as a literary technique which give expression to the speaker’s suffering balanced against his willingness to endure it for the sake of the ennobling power of love. In Sonnet 132, the accumulating questions of the octave amount to a typical portrayal of the dilectoso male: ‘Se bona, onde l’effecto aspro mortale? Se ria, onde sí dolce ogni tormento?’ Similarly in Sonnet 134, the accumulation of ‘et’ (‘and’) and caesuras structurally support the speaker’s claim he cannot speak and yet still cries out. From these examples and numerous others, we can see that antithesis is the central literary technique Petrarch uses to express the inner torment of the speaker, and that this is supported by the sonnet form which allows for a condensed paradox within stanzas of a limited length. Quevedo’s Es hielo abrasador (It is burning ice) exemplifies this very well with its anaphora and antithesis of nouns which are sometimes even reversed in adjectival form, e.g. ‘Es hielo abrasador, es fuego helado’ (‘It is burning ice, it is icy fire’). The sonnet has a clear progression from the contradictory images of love in the octave to the removed voice of the speaker reflecting that love is contradictory in itself. Thus, Quevedo recognizes and employs the Petrarchan antithesis to create a commentary on love rather than a lament with himself as the central speaker.
In terms of antithesis defined as the parallel arrangement of words, it is not always the case that poets of the Golden Age employ the technique as such: rather, the juxtapositioning of ideas is achieved in a different manner, such as one idea supplanting another at the volta at the start of the sestet, even if the content is still largely Petrarchan in nature. The forty-five sonnet contribution of Luis de Góngora to the Petrarchan legacy transforms typical antithesis onto a different level. While still love sonnets, the carpe diem attitude of Mientras por competir con tu cabello (While musing on your locks) and Illvstre i hermossissima Maria (Illustrious and most beautiful Maria) merges the Neo-Stoical idea that love and beauty are both perishable with the Petrarchan-style lament. Both are heavily influenced by Garcilaso’s sonnet En tanto que de rosa y azucena (Just as roses and lillies). Mientras por competir’s linear succession of hair, forehead, lips and neck becomes through repetition a cycle in the poem which then become a vertical axis, as the features are gradually transformed into metaphorical material equivalents and, finally, into the remnants of the woman’s life on earth: ‘tierra, humo, polvo, sombra, nada’ (‘earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing’). While the octave begins in a deceptively tame style with the speaker contemplating the embellished beauty of the lady addressed, the carpe diem conclusion hits the reader with force in the final tercet. The repetition of ‘en’ (here ‘into’) emphasizes the stark destiny of all the qualities aforementioned, and this creates a new kind of textual antithesis together with the previous emphasis on the lady’s beauty being superior to that of nature. Whether the mortality of the lady’s beauty is comforting to the speaker or not, we are not told, but Góngora’s seeming refusal to suffer in silence for love is clear.
Conversely, the difficulty of bridging the gulf between body and spirit forms a conceivable thematic antithesis in the sonnets of Quevedo and Francisco de Aldana. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates acts as a mouthpiece for the notion that the mind was drawn upwards by beauty, and therefore loving a woman provided a spiritual stepping stone towards the achievement of knowledge and love of Absolute Beauty – God. This ideal posed a metaphysical problem for the poets of the Golden Age, evident in Aldana’s sonnet Junto a su Venus (Beside his Venus). Here, sensuous love is treated as the supreme value in life instead of that which can be gained from it: antithesis is created between the brutality of masculine love in Mars, God of War, and feminine tenderness in Venus. In a sense, the ‘fiero’ (‘fiery’) nature of Mars doused by Venus’ ‘blando’ tenderness mirrors the Petrarchan antithesis of fire and ice: these two expressions of love and the ‘fuerza extraña’ (‘strange force’) upon which they are based are united in how they govern the universe with their pacifying nature. Similarly, in Sonnet XX Aldana makes an attempt to conceive of sexuality as a good of the soul despite its inability to penetrate it or raise it up. The ‘bien’ and ‘mal’ or good and bad can be read to symbolize not necessarily good and evil, but instead the appeal of sensual pleasure derived from love and its disadvantage of being incompatible with the Petrarchan idea of idolized worship without hope of fulfilment. This use of theme as antithesis takes Petrarch’s linguistic equivalent as its predecessor, while still incorporating strong appeals to the senses and depictions of love as an overwhelming force.
Quevedo’s sonnet Mándome, ay Fabio (Instruct me, dear Fabio) also exemplifies this dilemma through a number of conceits which contrast the original Petrarchan idea of antithesis. The opposition between the spirit and the senses is played out through the continuous repetition of the verbs ‘amar’ and ‘querer’, similar in their meaning of ‘to love’, yet distinct enough for one to imply divine adoration of the lady, and the other a more physical desire for her. The joy of the mind and distress of the human feeling in lines 4 and 5 are juxtaposed both through their division due to the comma and start of a new line, and through the o-a assonance of ‘llora’ (‘cries’) and ‘goza’ (‘enjoys’). The double connotation of ‘amartelado’ in line 6 as both ‘in love with’ and ‘tortured/lovesick’ enhances this contrast further, as does the echo of ‘encarcelado’ (‘imprisoned’). The lover in the sonnet appears to be relaying this order given to him by his lady to a companion, but similar to the likes of Garcilaso and Petrarch he resigns himself to this fate; but not before pointing out the inner counterforces which through the lack of possessive pronouns in lines 4-12 are more an observation of the human condition than a lament. The original Petrarchan antithesis of ‘hielo abrasador’ (‘burning ice’) can then still be seen in this sonnet of Quevedo, but concerns instead an element of Petrarchan love not previously explored: the battle between the senses and the spiritual. This passive resignation transforms into a rejection of noble suffering for love in A fugitivas sombras (Into fugitive shadows), as the speaker’s attempts ‘con nueva fuerza’ (‘with fresh energy’) to obtain his lady’s affection ends in ‘con amor me hacen pedazos’ (‘with love, they reduce me to pieces’). The Courtly Love tradition of love as suffering is present in the ‘llanto’ (‘weeping’), but here the pursuit of fulfilment in love does not lead to spiritual serenity and pleasure but instead to obsession and anguish. The use of the present and imperfect tense suggests the continuation of the lover’s suffering, and the anguished tone of the final tercet demonstrates a reversal of the Petrarchan commonplace: fidelity is no longer something the poetic persona takes pride in; instead, it has become something of which he is ashamed. This development of the struggle between sensual and spiritual love then expands typical Petrarchan antithesis by adapting it for the preoccupations of 16th and 17th century Spain.
It would seem that antithesis plays a key role in Petrarchan imitation in Golden Age Spanish poetry and can therefore be considered essential in Petrarchan rhetoric. Evolving with the context of the time, the development of other paradoxical literary techniques such as the juxtaposition of the two halves of a sonnet or the insertion of a hard-hitting final line as in Góngora’s Mientras por competir con tu cabello broadened the effect of the typical Petrarchan antithesis of dilectoso male. This also contributed to the transformation of Petrarchan commonplaces, such as oro (‘gold’) denoting a lady’s hair, into almost synonyms of their comparisons: thus forming the inspiration for the conceits and wordplay of the Baroque. Overall, direct verbal antithesis is arguably not absolutely necessary for a sonnet to be considered as having a Petrarchan theme, but the turmoil created by love is always implied, even if otherwise presented.
 ‘Beautiful agony – Sonnet 132, Francisco de Petrarca
 ‘If good, why this effect: bitter, mortal? / If bad, then why is every suffering sweet?’ – Sonnet 132, Francisco de Petrarca
 Soneto amoroso difiniendo el Amor, Francisco de Quevedo
 Soneto amoroso difiniendo el Amor, line 1, Francisco de Quevedo
 Sonnet 151, Luis de Góngora
 Sonnet 152, Luis de Góngora
 Sonnet XXIII, Garcilaso de la Vega
 Orphans of Petrarch, UC Press E-Books Collection, p195
 Sonnet 151, line 14, Luis de Góngora
 Sonnet 2, Francisco de Aldana
 The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p65
 The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p165
 The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p167