Wednesday, October 23, 2013

From the P&PC Vault: The Great Diagraphic Corset

Check out this great, Victorian-era die-cut advertising sign for "The Great Diagraphic Corset"—a 10" tall, full-color display item that was designed to stand upright with the help of an "easel" leg that once attached to its reverse side. (You can see a remnant of that leg in the second image below.) As much as we here at the Poetry & Popular Culture office love this design concept, we like the punning product-packaging concept even more, as the hourglass shape of the vase tropes the va-va-va-voom hourglass form that the female body will supposedly take on with the help of a little whalebone and some minor shortness of breath. "It is our belief," the makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset state on the reverse side, "that no corset has yet been produced, uniting in so great a degree the qualities of support, ease and beauty."

Beauty indeed. How better to complete the web of cultural associations linking femininity, flowers and fashion than by throwing a poem—or, in this case, part of a poem—into the mix? As is often the case with advertising poetry (see P&PC's recent digressions on Poetry in Lotion or Ex-Lax, for example), it's never quite as simple as just throwing something into the mix, however. The makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset write "Our corset seems to embody the fancy of the Poet" and go on to quote four tetrameter lines witnessing to that fancy:

Now doth her bodice aptly laced
From her fair bosom to her shapely waist
Fine by degrees and beautifully less
The air and harmony of grace express.

If you're saying to yourself right now "Ah-ha! Those couplets ring a bell!" it's probably because you're thinking of "Henry and Emma," a fairly sizable dialogue poem about marital (in)fidelity written by everybody's favorite Augustan poet, Matthew Prior (1664-1721). But if you know your Prior well enough to place that quotation—and if you were able to recognize him as "the Poet" which the language on the die cut was referring to—you probably also know that the makers of The Great Diagraphic Corset are actually misquoting Prior's original text. The original, in fact, reads:

No longer shall the Boddice, aptly lac'd,
From thy full Bosome to thy slender Waste,
That Air and Harmony of Shape express,
Fine by Degrees, and beautifully less...

And, of course, if you recognized that The Great Diagraphic Corset was rewriting Prior, then you probably know that Prior's "Henry and Emma" had—and 'fessed up to having—its own source text: ye olde, anonymous, 15th-century poem, "The Nut-brown Maid." (Incidentally, the "Nut-brown Maid" became especially popular in the mid-18th century after Prior's death, when it was included in Thomas Percy's hit collection of ballads and popular songs, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)—a collection that eventually inspired imitations of popular verse by wanna-be balladeers such as Colderidge and Wordsworth.)

All of this is to say, of course, that a half century of poetry lies behind the four lines printed on the back of The Great Diagraphic Corset advertisement—a seemingly simple puff that reveals itself to be a moment of extraordinary intertextuality in the consumer marketplace. Now that's the sort of literary historical hourglass that catches Poetry & Popular Culture's eye!