Friday, June 27, 2014

Lessons from a Publisher's Emblem

One of the anthologies of French poetry held in our collection was published by Alphonse Lemerre under the title Anthologie des poëtes français depuis le XVè siècle jusqu'à nos jours. 

Lemerre was born in Normandy in 1838, and from 1860 pursued his career in Paris, becoming one of the leading literary publishers of the day. He was esteemed in particular for his editions of work by the poets of the Parnassian movement. Inspired by the "art for art's sake" thesis of Théophile Gautier, these writers viewed poetry as being primarily concerned with the celebration of beauty, rather than a medium for discussing social issues or transmitting moral values. Oscar Wilde would absorb and refract into literature in English is own interpretation of Parnassian ideas.

There is no date of publication given in our anthology, but from the evidence of the poets included, it would have come out between 1880 and 1895.  What is included on the title page is the emblem shown above: a visual and verbal hallmark which Lemerre made use of across the range of books published by his firm. The significant elements of the image are the act of digging to prepare the ground for planting, the town glimpsed in the background, and the rising sun. The Latin motto "Fac Et Spera" means "Do and Hope", and at the base of the image are Lemerre's initials, "AL".

The origin of this emblem can be traced back to collections of emblems first produced in Europe in the 16th century. Patricia Flemming has explored the "Fac Et Spera" image in particular, and her article can be read at

The emblems were designed to communicate a message: political, amorous, or religious. The original, slightly different, version of Lemerre's image first appeared in 1615. The figure digging is a woman, possibly representing Ceres, the Greek goddess of agriculture. The Hebrew word "Adonai", another name for  God, also appears in this version of the image. Fleming emphasizes that readers would have absorbed a religious message here; prosperity comes from work and from faith in God. The town is the social unit that will thrive through the working figure depicted. The sun symbolizes both prosperity and the divine presence explored through faith.

Lemerre has adapted this image; filtering it through the lens of his own political, moral and literary sympathies. He believed in the French republic, supported anti-clerical positions on both freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, and published writers for whom literature was an aesthetic, rather than a moral reality.

Yet the "Fac Et Spera" emblem, which had drifted through to him from another cultural epoch, is appropriated in order to present values which Lemerre lived by and wished to be known for: a work ethic, the moral courage of hope. The Parnassians did not teach, but there were still lessons to be learned.