October 31, 2016
Lions and Unicorns
“the lion civilly rampant,
. . . . . . . . .
the lion standing up against this screen of woven air
which is the forest:
the unicorn also, on its hind legs in reciprocity.”
“Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” The Dial, 78 (November 1024): 411-13.
An offering: two years after the publication of this poem, Moore thanked Monroe Wheeler for sending her from Paris a “handkerchief containing the Museé Cluny. . . . Cluny was the dearest delight we had in Paris and the place we went oftenest.” (SL 228) One of the glories of that museum is the set of six Flemish tapestries from about 1500 known as The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne) which arrived there in 1882 from Boussac Castle in central France. Five of the mille-fleur tapestries depict the five senses while the sixth is entitled somewhat enigmatically “À Mon Seul Désir.” The work portraying “taste” shares with the others the figures of a woman with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. It also includes a monkey, a parakeet, a goat, rabbits, and other animals, and a kneeling woman offering a dish of sweetmeats.
“Taste” is the only Cluny tapestry which portrays both the lion and the unicorn standing on their hind legs. Moore’s interest in heraldry has been remarked upon but perhaps not drilled down to these animals’ positions. In heraldry, the lion “rampant” refers to “attitude” or position, a lion on its hind legs (or on one hind leg, the other slightly raised), turned to one side. The other tapestries’ lions and unicorns are sejant (sitting), sejant erect (sitting, front legs up), couchant (lying down), or passant (walking). Technically, the unicorn is a unicorn rampant guardant, that is, looking to his left. But perhaps it is best not to stress the heraldic precision too much.
“The Lady and the Unicorn,” “Taste,” Musée National du Moyen Âge
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