Using Graphic Language: A Short History of Figure Poems

Jaume Plensa’s Spillover II in Atwater Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Photo by the author).

I miss Milwaukee sometimes. On warmer nights, I used to run along Lake Michigan and wait for the sunset, before jogging home to work on the book. One of the best things about those runs was looking at sculpture against the backdrop of the Wisconsin sunset. What always caught my eye was a piece by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa in Atwater Park. It is a man made entirely of letters. In conceptualizing the 8.5 foot sculpture, the artist remarked: “The letters that form the open framework suggest that language is our primary tool for experiencing the world and each other, and that we are, essentially, both limited and empowered by this abstract means of translating our experiences.” If this doesn’t sum up the work of a classicist, I don’t know what does, but as it turns out, Plensa is not the first to use letters and words as a kind of graphic Lego. Since Greek antiquity, words have influenced the making of objects, but objects also influenced words.

Figure poems–a visual poem that manifests in the form of an object–have been popular since Greek antiquity. In the 6th c. BCE, Simonides of Keos famously claimed that poetry was a speaking picture, while painting was a mute poem (Plut. Mor. 347A). Figure poetry remained a poetic genre into Roman antiquity and the middle ages, when they were often called carmina figurata. Perhaps the best known figure poem today is “The Altar” by the 17th century Welsh poet George Herbert, but before Herbert’s altar, there were altar poems by Dosiados (c. 150 BCE) and Besantinus (c. 117 CE).

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.41.07 AM
(L) “The Altar” by George Herbert (via Poetry Foundation) and (R) Besantinus’ altar poem.

The Greek antecedents for this form of poetry is perhaps less surprising if we understand how the Greeks conceptualized writing and the many parallels they made between writing and the act of construction. For instance, at the heart of the word “poet” is the Greek word ποιητής (“maker, doer”), coming as it does from the Greek verb for “to do.” Poets are craftsmen or craftswomen of imagination rather than tangible objects, but they are still in the habit of weaving a new fabric using previously fabricated words (unless you are James Joyce; then you can feel free to make up both the story and the words it consists of). As one scholar put it, figure poetry most closely adheres to the Platonic idea of ποίησις (“making”) in the novel sense that Plato used it (Drummond 2013: 69)–that is for what we might call an artist rather than a technician or artisan. One of the most widely known Greek figure poets we know of does not come until around 300 BCE, during the Hellenistic period that followed the death of Alexander the Great. His name was Simias of Rhodes (Greek Anthology XV, 22), and his poetry took on the form of physical objects such as an axe, a wing, and an egg.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.00.48 AM
Simias’ egg poem next to a real egg (in case you didn’t know what one looked like).

Simias’ axe poem reads:

Epeius of Phocis has given unto the man-goddess Athena, in requital of her doughty counsel, the axe with which he once overthrew the upstanding height of god-builded walls, in the day when with a fire-breath’d Doom he made ashes of the holy city of the Dardanids and thrust gold-broidered lords from their high seats, for all hew was not numbered of the vanguard of the Achaeans, but drew off an obscure runnel from a clear shining fount. Aye, for all that, he is gone up now upon the road Homer made, thanks be unto thee, Pallas the pure, Pallas the wise. Thrice fortunate he on whom thou hast looked with very favour. This way happiness doth ever blow.
(trans. Edmonds)

.text_pp1.jpgIt is likely that Simias’ poem was a votive offering placed on an actual axe, rather than a poem shaped like an axe and placed on a scroll. This epigraphic habit would not have been uncharacteristic. Other inscribed votive axes are quite similar to Simias’. Below is a religious axe (i.e., for performing sacrifice) from Archaic Greece, around 520 BCE (now at the British Museum). It too has a “speaking” inscription, this one in the Achaean dialectic:

I am the sacred property of Hera-in-the-Plain: Kyniskos the butcher dedicated me, a tithe from his works. (trans. British Museum).


In Greco-Roman antiquity, objects did “speak” to their audiences. For instance, an Italo-Corinthian alabastron from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has inscribed on it: mi licinesi mulu hirsunaiesi (“I am the gift of Licinius Hirsunaie”). Roman sepulchral epigrams often spoke to the viewer in verse, and in so doing, made a connection between the dead (now an inanimate object) and the living (an animate object). Even everyday objects, such as utensils and bowls, were inscribed to speak to readers. The so-called “Nestor Cup” of Pithekoussai is one of the oldest Greek alphabetic texts (Haarmann 1996 :145) we have, and it too wants to converse with the imbiber:

I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 9.38.10 AM.png
The “Nestor Cup”  of Pithekoussai dates to around 700 BCE.

As inscribed objects demonstrate, the relationship between objects and inscriptions can be strong. This relationship is in some way maintained in figure poetry. Into the period of Late Antiquity, the shape of a verse or letter remained important to its reception. My favorite figure poet of that time is a 4th century writer and statesman named Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius (just call him Optatian), who adopted the use of letter grids and arithmetic presentation for his panegyric hexameters for Constantine in order to captivate his readers in poems called carmina quadrata (squared poems). He used the spatial presentation of his words in order to underscore beauty, order, and the cosmos to his audience. As Marie Okacova put it, Optatian adopted isometry, “which guarantees that graphically equivalent lines always have the same number of characters.” 

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.48.46 AM.png
An 11th c. manuscript transmitting some of Optatian’s carmina quadrata from the BnF (Latin Manuscript 2421. Available online here).


To my mind, Optatian seems inspired by epigraphy as well, though I cannot prove it. The grid-like reading used for the Greek στοιχηδόν style inscriptions is quite similar. These inscriptions often transmitted laws, accounts, and other state documents put on display predominantly in 5th c. BCE at Athens–but also at Delphi, Chios, and in other Greek areas. One wonders if the ordered presentation was meant to graphically communicate the gravitas of the state document itself.

Greek stoichedon style inscription.

During the Carolingian period, such grid and figure wordplay continued. The 9th century poet Hrabanus Maurus was a Frankish benedictine monk who wrote poetry and encyclopdias, and was trained by Alcuin. He had a love for carmina quadrata et figurata. In his De laudibus sanctae crucis, there are 28 figure poems on a range of ecclesiastical topics.

Otto Homburger manuscript of Rabanus Maurus, Figure Poems, “Four evangelists and the Lamb of God” (Cod. 9. Burgerbibliothek. 11th c. See more here.)

Like any good writer, Hrabanus both literally and figuratively inserted himself into his own text.

Hrabanus’ 9th century self portrait (via the Rabanus Project at the University of Toronto)

Clearly the use of words to form pictures or patterns was en vogue during the Carolingian period. The use of words to form animals is another type of illustration that appears popular at this time. As he usually does, medievalist Erik Kwakkel explains these manuscript illustrations best: “They illustrate Cicero’s Aratea, a work of astronomy. Each animal represents a constellation and the written words in them are taken from an explanatory text by Hyginus (his Astronomica). His words are crucial for these images because the drawings would not exist without them. It is not often in medieval books that image and text have such a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for its very existence.” Below is the constellation Aquila (“eagle”), which appears in the northern sky along the celestial equator. (NB: The constellation is named after the eagle that brought thunderbolts to Jupiter.) Having the explanations of constellations in the shape of the figure or animal they were named after surely engaged the audience more fully than traditional, linear word presentation would.

Word illustration of an Aquila (“eagle”) in Harley 647, (Via the British Library)

As per usual, this is a short blog post that leaves out a lot of rich history of figure poems; however, I think these examples go a long way towards inspiring us to think more deeply both about the history of textual presentation and about how objects may have influenced their formation. Poetry was certainly inscribed on objects, but objects also left their impression on poetry. The placement of words helps to shape our understanding and even our enjoyment of reading, as does the background (e.g., paper, papyrus, parchment, cup, statue) behind the words. The beauty of letters and words as linguistic Legos means that they will continue to be broken apart, remade, and reformed to create unique poetic fabrics. Certainly it was the letter sculpture set against the backdrop of a Milwaukee sunset over Lake Michigan that always made this reader speechless.

Birds and Dragons surround a cross spelling out “Alleluia” and “Amen” in a 12th c. manuscript copy of the 9th c. monk and poet Hrabanus Maurus (Harley 3045 from the British Library).

One thought on “Using Graphic Language: A Short History of Figure Poems

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: