The Tail of the Peacock

A copy of The New Day: A Poem in Songs and Sonnets

How do we read the cover of the book pictured above? It seems simple – the cover strikingly juxtaposes a deep blue cover with one single peacock feather inscribed in gold. The book itself was produced in the decadence movement and so we might expect the cover to convey something of the spirit of that literary moment. Decadence writing originated in Western Europe and the United States in the late 19th century and was understood as expressing a certain literary optimism and sense of timelessness, not to mention an air of wealth and opulence. Between just the deep blue and the gold, we are left without much to go on aside from the association of gold with opulence. Which begs the question: why a peacock feather?

The decadence movement was perhaps the only time peacocks were used for literary book binding. Mainly, the feathers of the peacock were used either as a book cover material or as mere stencils for book cover design.[i] Though peacocks had been used in book illustrations, portraits, and sculptural pieces before the specific text above, both in and beyond the West, no evidence has surfaced of prior use of peacock feathers for book binding work. The material bookishness of the peacock has instead consistently been relegated to forms of the book outside of the “literary” as such. The question remains and intensifies then: what about the history of the peacock in the West led a fleeting moment in literary history to use the peacock as a bookbinding material?

Let us explore this question by way of a brief historical excursion through the cultural history of the peacock. The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates English language use of the word peacock to around the year 1175. Even at this early point in history, the word was used as a misnomer for a broader category – peafowl. In actuality, peacock is a word which refers to the male member of the species with the female version being referred to as peahen. As a kind of peafowl, peacocks are closely related to other pheasant birds such as the American Turkey, for which the peacock was often confused in the Early Modern Period.[ii] There are three different kinds of peacock species found in nature: the green peacock, the blue peacock, and the Congo peacock. The Congo peacock is a relatively new discovery which was classified as a member of the species at the very recent date of

An Early Peacock From Pliny's Natural History, 1476.

1936 and solely resides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The green peacock is natively Javanese – meaning it can be found in places ranging from Myanmar to Java – and the blue peacock, perhaps more famous than its green counterpart, is native to India and further East. Both blue and green peacocks are now properly global citizens, finding themselves living in most of the world’s nation states in zoos, on private farms, estates, and various other sorts of royal properties. Before peacocks lived in these various locations however, it was their parts – such as feathers and talons – that circulated between various locales. Blue and green peacocks have had an illustrious history ranging temporally as far back as pre-biblical cultures and spatially as far East as Japan and West as England, making their way through China, Russia, Persia, Ancient Greece, and even Viking Oslo.[iii] In early China and Japan for example, peacock feathers were used for many purposes. As early as China 458 AD and Japan 598 AD, a kind of silk has been spun form the feathers of the peacock used in garment making – but also the feathers themselves were used as sheaths for halberds, fans, helmets, armor, arrows and even as adornments for gowns.[iv][v] What accounts for this wide and consistent circulation of peacocks across space and time as opposed to other avian creatures is their distinctive train of feathers which makes up more than 60 percent of the bird’s total body length.[vi] The peacock’s opulent display of feathers remains consistent across the blue and green variations of the species and has continuously been used symbolically and materially in vastly different cultures and periods.

As a symbol, the peacock has been relegated to several dominating yet contradictory meanings across different periods and cultures. In the homeland of the blue peacock, India, the birds were used as symbols of royalty and power. Beginning in Greek culture after Alexander the Great's conquests, the western tradition began to split the Indian understanding of the peacock into two distinct representations. Greeks especially associated the bird with either immortality or with the goddess Hera. Due to the association with Hera, peacocks assumed the attributes of jealousy, vanity, and vengefulness. In addition to being among Solomon’s prized possessions in the Bible, peacock representation in the Christian tradition mirrors that of the Greeks in so far as Christianity also saw the peacock as symbolic of immortality and jealousy. In early Christian cultures, the peacock is often illustrated to represent either rebirth (immortality) or the devil’s proxy (sinful jealousy of God).

The association of both positive and negative connotation with peacock symbolism is reflected across various other cultures as well. For example, in the Islamic tradition there is a mildly obscure parable about a peacock associated with the famous practice of prayers to Mecca five times daily. There was once a peacock prayed to Allah for 70,000 years only to fall in vanity when presented with a mirror. Entranced by its own beauty, the peacock defected its attention from Allah thus betraying its own devotion. In repentance, the peacock prostrated itself in front of God 5 times. Though certainly not even close to what those who practice Islam actually believe, the aforementioned parable depicts the peacock as undergoing a redemption arc which shifts between negative and positive moments. Further, the parable places the peacock at the center of one of Islam’s most identifiable and sacred practices interestingly placing the creature in an unexpected cultural genealogy.

We can then see from these examples among others that classical symbolic uses of the peacock shift between the good (immortality, redemption, beauty) and the bad (vanity, jealousy, vengefulness) within and across various times and places. By the early modern period in the west (which is most directly an extension of the Christian tradition) we begin to see a synthesis of the positive and the negative representations of the peacock. Which is to say, the peacock becomes understood more and more as a symbol of status, luxury, and class. These three categories all have a kind of ambivalence: they can be positive or negative – it is a matter of perspective. As a kind of food for example, the peacock has retained its status as a luxury and exotic good. Bruce Boehrer notes that consistently, “the peacock is on the table less for its flavor than for its luxury value . . . [this] sentiment . . . becomes a standard feature of medieval bestiary entries on the peacock” (Boehrer 139).

A Royal Figure with Peacock Feathers, Early 17th Century.

And the tradition of ceremoniously consuming a peacock for its status as a luxury symbol has been done as recently as the first quarter of the 20th century in the anglophone tradition. The famous modernist poets W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound once threw a dinner party with other less famous modernist poets of the time with the explicit purpose of consuming a peacock.[vii] To transition from this literary example to the one with which we began – and with the contextualization of the peacock we have here established in mind – I want to address the question I raised at the start: why is there a peacock feather on the cover? Perhaps we can understand the decadence movement as a fleeting moment which assumed a general historical attitude synonymous with the historical understanding of the peacock. Both peacock and decadent literature have emphasized timelessness, immortality, vanity, wealth, and opulence. Thus, the decadence movement seems only too appropriate for consummating the symbolic use of peacocks within the western literary tradition by adorning a book cover with a single golden feather.

Further Reading

Boehrer, Bruce. Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Chaiklin, Martha. “The Flight of the Peacock, or How Peacocks Became Japanese.” Animal Trade Histories in the Indian Ocean World, 2020.

McDiarmid, Lucy. Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Milburn, Olivia. “Featherwork in Early and Medieval China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 2020, Vol. 140, No. 3, pp. 549-564.

Hunt, Elle. “A Peacock’s Tail: How Darwin Arrived at His Theory of Sexual Selection.” The Guardian, 19 May. 2017.

All Images from the Shakespeare Folgers Luna Database, Oxford’s Bodleian Online Image Collections accessed through Jstor’s Artstor database.

Works Cited [i] Minsky, Richard. “The Art of American Book Covers – Peacocks.” International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, 4 April. 2014. [ii] Boehrer, Bruce. Animal Characters: Nonhuman B

eings in Early Modern Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. 133-163. [iii] Chaiklin, Martha. “The Flight of the Peacock, or How Peacocks Became Japanese.” Animal Trade Histories in the Indian Ocean World, 2020. Pp. 277-314. [iv] Milburn, Olivia. “Featherwork in Early and Medieval China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 2020, Vol. 140, No. 3, pp. 549-564. [v] Chaiklin, Martha. “The Flight of the Peacock, or How Peacocks Became Japanese.” Animal Trade Histories in the Indian Ocean World, 2020. Pp. 277-314. [vi] Author Unlisted. “Peacocks. National Geographic. [vii] McDiarmid, Lucy. Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Written by Noah Terrell, a first year PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.