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Seizing the Occasion: How an Early Modern Emblem Changed Our Luck

Posted by Mapping Metaphor on the 1st of November 2013

This is a guest post by Dr Jennifer Craig, Wenatchee Valley College

When was the last time you “seized the occasion or “grabbed the opportunity to do what you wanted?  “Seizing the occasion” brings up an image of grasping something before it passes you by, but rarely do we question exactly what we are trying to catch. The object of this metaphor is Occasio, the ancient Roman goddess of chance. In classical texts, the slippery deity is described as naked, mostly bald, and wearing a long lock of hair on the front of her head for people to catch as she rushes by, which explains the original phrase “seizing occasion by the forelock.”

While researching the emblem book’s influence on imagery in early modern English drama, I noticed that a popular emblem about Occasio changed how the instance of opportunity was expressed from the 1530s onward. After publication of a woodcut and verse about her in the first book of emblems, the Italian lawyer Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber (1531, 1534, etc.), Occasio became less dry rhetoric and more an image of hope for anyone looking for success.  This presents an unusual moment where we can trace the impact of visual arts – and especially the emblem – on the English language.

An emblem from the sixteenth century usually consisted of a motto, an image, and a block of text. The symbols in the image and the allusions in the motto and text had to be analyzed together in order to come up with the emblem’s meaning. Its purpose is to encode a moral value or commonplace idea. If the person analyzing the emblem discovered the moral, it was thought they were one step closer to embodying that value themselves. The emblem became a hot trend in Europe and the British Isles. The symbolic pictures found in emblem books were applied everywhere in daily life: including clothing, bedding, dinnerware, performance, and, most importantly here, conversation.

In the case of Alciato’s Occasio emblem, “In Occasionem,” or “On Opportunity” (see the image, below), the moral is to notice when the time is right to do something and act quickly. Occasio is a nude woman standing tip-toe on a ball or wheel and holding out a razor. She is bald except for the long piece of hair blowing in front of her face. The text, derived from The Greek Anthology (16.275), is a series of questions and answers explaining how each item represents careful observation and quick action.

[caption id="attachment_112" align="aligncenter" width="281"]First edition of the emblem on “seizing the occasion.”   Andrea Alciato, “In Occasionem,” Emblematum liber (Augsburg: Steyner, 28 February, 1531), A8r-A8v.   Glasgow University Library Special Collections. First edition of the emblem on “seizing the occasion.”
Andrea Alciato, “In Occasionem,” Emblematum liber (Augsburg: Steyner, 28 February, 1531), A8r-A8v.
Glasgow University Library Special Collections.*[/caption]

The metaphor of occasion in English became more visual in its expression over time. Chaucer’s The Parson’s Tale, written in about 1390, contains the following line:

Another remedie agayns leccherie is specially to withdrawen swiche thynges as yeue occasion to thilke vileynye as ese, etynge, and drynkynge.

The underlined part, “such things as give occasion,” has occasion given rather than grasped. William Bonde also writes in Pylgrimage of Perfection in 1526, “All this he dyd to gyue vs an occasion of reuerent familiarite” (i. sig. Fiv).

More often than not, texts that mention “taking occasion” in any way before 1531 are translations of ancient or foreign works. This is the case with a translation of Cato’s Distichs in 1475: “Thogh thou be stored of gret rychesse, Balled occasion make hit sesse.” This reference to the hairless head of the diety comes from a work originally written by an ancient Roman, who may have himself seen the original statues of Occasio.

After 1531, the metaphor of opportunity becomes much more descriptive, and the detail increases. In the early 1530s, from the birthplace of the emblem in northern Italy, Englishman Thomas Starkey wrote in A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, “Let not occasyon slyppe.” The playwright Christopher Marlowe then writes more boldly in The Jew of Malta in about 1593, “Begin betimes; occasion's bald behind” (v. ii). A little under two hundred years later, in A View of Society and Manners in France (1779), John Moore states, “I now seize the first occasion of communicating the whole to you.”

The image’s popularity seems to have climbed when Alciato’s emblem found its way into English emblem books. In 1586, Geffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblemes included an English translation of “In Occasionem,” dedicated not to a courtier but to a relative who shared the author’s full name (181). George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635) has a similar emblem under the title “Occasions-past are sought in vaine; But, oft, they wheele-about againe” (4).

The detailed references to Occasio reach their height with Samuel Johnson – but in a way that also marks a major change in use of the metaphor. In a letter written on the Isle of Skye to Hester Thrall in the autumn of 1773, Johnson exclaims, “The wind is now changed, and if we snatch the moment of opportunity, an Escape from this Island is become practicable” (30 Sept. (1992) II.98).

It is most likely a coincidence that Johnson refers to this metaphor within the context of the wind changing and being on an island – the blustery isolation seen in all emblematic images of Occasio – but nevertheless this must be noted. The most important thing, however, is that Johnson does not refer to the “occasion” but to the “moment of opportunity.” As the emblem book declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, so did specific reference to “taking occasion by the forelock.”

We now also use “grabbing the moment,” “seizing the opportunity,” and “taking the chance,” among other variants. Perhaps this version of Lady Luck even sparked the saying that “the moment has come and gone.” The first verse of Eminem’s Academy Award winning hip-hop song “Lose Yourself” from 2002 shows how far the metaphor has evolved: “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, / Would you capture it or just let it slip?”**

*The translation of this emblem’s text is:

On Occasion
This image is the work of Lyssipus, whose home was Sicyon. Who are you?

I am the moment of seized opportunity that governs all.

Why do you stand on points? I am always whirling about. Why do you have

winged sandals on your feet? The fickle breeze bears me in all directions.

Tell us, what is the reason for the sharp razor in your right hand? This sign 

indicates that I am keener than any cutting edge.

Why is there a lock of hair on your brow? So that I may be seized as I run towards you.

But, come, tell us now, why ever is the back of your head bald?

So that if any person once lets me depart on my winged feet, 

I may not thereafter be caught by having my hair seized. 

It was for your sake, stranger, that the craftsman produced me with such art, 

and so that I should warn all, it is an open portico that holds me.

Translation from Alciato’s “In Occasionem” on the Alciato at Glasgow website.

**The chorus to “Lose Yourself” then goes, "You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, / You own it, you better never let it go, / You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime (Yo)." From the album Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture 8 Mile (Shady Records, 2002).