“Adorned with beautyes and vertues store,
Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
Her forehead yvory white,
Her cheeks lyke apples which the Sun hath rudded…”
(original spelling from Poetry Foundation)
Above is an excerpt from the poem “Epithalamion” by Edmund Spenser. I’ve included this poem at the start of this post to give an example of the poetic mode, blazon. According to the Poetry Foundation, blazon uses literary devices such as metaphor, simile, and other forms of figurative language to describe the physical attributes of a subject. The subject is often female but not exclusively. The physical attributes of the subject are compared to beautiful, mystical, or rare objects. This is certainly evident in the excerpt from “Epithalamion”. Spenser uses simile to compare his subject’s eyes to shiny jewels, metaphor to describe her pristine-looking forehead, and simile again for her cheeks, which are as red as a ruddy apple. As stated in the Poetry Foundation’s description of blazon, this technique was made famous by Francesco Petrarca, Italian scholar and poet. Petrarca depicts his female beloved by describing her in parts, similar to Spencer’s poem above. Blazon also thrived amongst poets during the Elizabethan literary period when “Epithalamion” was written. Blazon still occurs in contemporary literature.
One possible example of blazon in modern literature is in Percival Everett’s re: f (gesture). This collection of poems includes a section labeled “Body” where each poem is entitled with the medical term for a body part, followed by a description of that body part. In my previous post, I deliberated this use of scientific language in poetry. I came to the conclusion that Everett’s reason for doing this was to give the reader a realistic depiction of the human body. Of course, I don’t know Everett’s intentions, but I believe that he wrote the poems in admiration of the body to celebrate its natural features. This choice of language also helps determine whether or not the poems are classified as blazon or not.
For example, if I examine the poem titled, “Labia Majora”, I see anatomical terminology that describes a women’s vulva, “Posteriorly lost in the neighboring integument, between areolar tissue, sweet fat, vessels, nerves.” Because the description is of female genitalia, the criteria that the blazon often centers around a female subject is full-filled. However, the scientific language used does not compare the body part to a rare gem or a blissful sunrise, like a typical blazon might. Instead, it chronicles the aspects of the labia major with literal, scientific terms. Even though I decided in my previous post that Everett does this as a celebration of the human body, is not done in the traditional way that the blazon celebrates its subject. So, can Everett’s poems in “Body” be considered a blazon?
To better comprehend this question, I want to look at what contreblazon is. The Poetry Foundation defines contreblazon as the invert of blazon. Poems that are contreblazon compare the subject’s attributes to something wonderful but then negate it, changing the meaning. William Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet number 130 is an example of this, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sun, Coral is far more red than her lips red…”. I would not say that the poems in “Body” represent a contreblazon. This is because I believe that Everett wrote the poems to celebrate and recognize the human body. So, the contreblazon, which is a device used to insult the subject’s physical appearance, isn’t fitting.
I am convinced that the poems in “Body” would be an example of blazon despite their lack of some of the traditional elements normally in a blazon. Sure, the body parts are not compared to stunningly beautiful natural phenomena or objects, but the way each poem is written makes it clear to the reader that Everett admires the subject’s beauty. This is evident by Everett’s inclusion of every small detail of each body part and his crafting of each word or phrase.
In my opinion, Everett’s choice to use literal language instead of figurative, is more alluring than the more traditional blazon, “Epithalamion” referenced above. I feel this way because the way conventional blazons are written, the woman is never revered as she is, but instead is compared to another object. Of course, this objectifies the woman and causes women readers (like me) to assume that I cannot be beautiful the way I am unless I look like a gemstone! Also, in the poems in “Body”, Everett discusses some unusual parts of his subject’s body that would normally not be considered beautiful. An example being the previously referenced poem, “Labia Majora”. Not only is this body part often not discussed at all in literature, it is almost never looked at through poetry as a beautiful thing. While this honest viewpoint in “Body” may make some readers uncomfortable, it allows me to realize that every part of our human bodies is naturally beautiful as is.
Percival Everett’s “Body” represents a non-traditional and contemporary blazon that calls attention to the human body differently than most blazon poetry. This divergent interpretation can cause readers to look at societal standards of beauty and assess what really is beautiful.