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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  As these designs vitiate Gray's line of march toward the concluding maxim ("all that glisters is not gold"), they also create an interpretive space needed for Blake's revision of Gray. Whereas the poem deploys its cat vehicle and woman tenor with a wink and nod at the wit of it all, Blake's surrounding designs create an allegorical tale about Selima's ultimate release from this hybrid status. Now Selima's gold is her uncovered hair, not pilfered goldfish. The grotesque hybrid figures of the earlier designs and their hints of malignity and violence mark the figural violence of Blake's intervention. To save Selima from a blandly repressive maxim and fate, he deploys figures whose variance from mimetic norms is the visual sign of their allegorical power. The preferences conveyed by this gesture are plain: Selima undergoes a sea-change and becomes a woman, not another emblem, and the fish are still goldfish. Denying the application of Gray's maxim to females who long for gold (presumably, gold baubles), Blake makes gold a natural attributive for Selima as well as the fish.

  Blake's visual insistence that Fate is not simply an emblematic rerun of the Greek Atropos but a malignant woman who acts, conveys an impatience with Gray's personification that he repeats in other designs, including several that pit eighteenth-century poets against Spenser. In the twelfth design for The Bard, Blake puts two small vignettes of scenes from The Faerie Queene to the lower left of the text box, and two larger figures to the upper right. The left-hand vignettes position Gray's figures of Grief, Horror, Despair, and Care in Spenserian settings much favored by illustrators and painters - Mammon's Cave and the Cave of Despair.[21] In one scene, Despair offers a knife to a hapless figure; beside the two is a figure of the deed performed - a dead body with a knife in its chest which depicts, Gleckner suggests, Gray's Horror. The other, darker vignette features Mammon, Sir Guyon, and Spenser's "feend." The two right-hand figures are less easy to place. Tayler suggests they are "Truth severe" and "fairy Fiction"; Gleckner believes their theatrical dress fits the "buskin'd measures" of Gray's duo "Pale Grief, and pleasing pain." The small figure cupped in the Bard's hand is probably the fairy Spenser.

  The visual iconography Blake uses to revise Gray in this design makes an intriguing case for Spenser. Whereas Gray's Bard and accompanying figures to his right are sketchily presented and not apparently involved in any action, the smaller but well-defined vignettes illustrate well-known Spenserian episodes. The contrast between the "Lilliputian" Spenser - a caricature of the "fairy" Spenser so often invoked by eighteenth-century and Romantic commentators - and the "Brobdingnagian Bard" who plunges to "endless night" in the last plate [22] thus implies that this moment in the line of poetic transmission from Spenser to Blake is clogged with Gray's bulky monumental sculptures.3

  A similar bias characterizes other designs in which Blake represents Gray's personified abstractions as grotesque shapes, at times just a monstrous head or visage.[23] Monstrous, grotesque, or inert, Gray's personifications may strike a threatening posture, but they do not move like living beings and so cannot be charged with allegorical agency. Blake's designs for Gray suggest that this is precisely what is wrong with his figures, whose vague outlines in The Bard pale in the vicinity of the tonal density and clarity of the Spenserian vignettes. As they do in J. M. W. Turner's art, here scalar extremes denote a figural rather than verisimilar argument about, in this instance, the relative values of Spenser's miniature emblematic scenes and the passivity of eighteenth-century personification.

  Blake's designs for Gray constitute a highly formal intervention whose goal is, in Giddens's modern phrase, "structuration" - the process by which individuals and groups craft structures within which they live and work, thereby "structuring" them even as they are structured by them.[24] As Blake's subsequent poetic practice shows, the transformation of systemic tyranny into the work of structuration over time requires enormous hermeneutic energy and flexibility. Neither is available in the allegory Neoclassical writers prefer and the personifications Gray offers in receipt of that preference. Both are potentially available in Blake's allegorical narratives, whether the story concerns Gray's Selima the cat-woman or the continuous project of demolition and hard-won formation in Jerusalem.

  Blake's critique of Gray participates in a Romantic debate about personification that in part concerns the allegorical potential of such figures.[25] Wordsworth's changing view of personification in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads conveys a broader Romantic ambivalence about figures whose rhetorical vividness makes them seem animated yet still unlike the human beings whose actions such figures mimic. In 1800 he declares that he has not used personifications of "abstract ideas" in the volume because they do not "make any regular or natural part of" ordinary conversation. Eighteenth-century poets who used a stock lexicon of "poetic" personifications with scant attention to situation and affect are the obvious target of this disclaimer. In later editions he replaces this claim with a Longinian acknowledgment that powerful, even exaggerated figures are appropriate (albeit distinctly not "regular" in the sense of being ordinary or usual) when "prompted by passion." This self-correction makes pathos a double agent: it is both an ancient rhetorical term for what strong, exaggerated figures need in order to be convincing and a thoroughly Romantic point of entry for such figures. Indeed without pathos, those figures gain no entry (WProse ii:31-32n.).

  So construed, pathos, usually understood to mean passion or strong feeling, looks like safe and familiar Romantic ground. It is not. In her 1798 "Introductory Discourse" for Plays on the Passions, Joanna Baillie recommends the dramatic use of "the Passions" to depict tragic protagonists. Although she argues against assigning a master passion such as envy, love, or hatred to protagonists, contending that audiences find such displays unbelievable and therefore unaffecting (35), she implies that strong passions invite abstraction. Whether pathos designates a protagonist's dominant passion and its rhetorical expression or an audience's response, its affinity to abstractions such as "fear," "envy," or "love" is the unresolved contradiction in Baillie's "Discourse." She insists throughout that the protagonist whose character and history are governed by a mixture of passions gains a moral and psychological complexity akin to that of real people. Against the grain of this preference, the plays themselves feature several tragic (or purportedly tragic) male protagonists like De Monfort who are in the grip of a single passion. Her account of the language authorized by the tragic passions suggests the logic that impels this contradiction: "Bold and figurative language belongs peculiarly to [the tragic passions]. Poets, admiring those bold expressions which a mind, labouring with ideas too strong to be conveyed in the ordinary forms of speech, wildly throws out, taking earth, sea, and sky, every thing great and terrible in nature to image for the violence of its feelings, borrowed them gladly" ("Introductory Discourse," Plays i:41). Despite Baillie's objection to the excessive use of this language, her description of protagonists who struggle against passions edges toward allegory: passions are "those great masters of the soul," even "tyrannical masters" whose "irresistible attacks ... it is impossible to repell" (Baillie, "Introductory Discourse," Plays i:39, 43).

  Romantic writers trace the origin of this allegorizing impulse in characters to Greek mythology and Roman rhetoric. Writing under the pseudonym Edward Baldwin, William Godwin explained to Romantic schoolchildren that the basis of Greek religion is allegory, which he defines as "the personifying, or giving visible forms to, abstract ideas" (Pantheon 9). Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric notes a similar correspondence: "as metaphor in general hath been termed an allegory in epitome, such metaphors and metonymies as present us with things animate in the room of things lifeless, are prosopopoeias in miniature" (Campbell, Rhetoric ii:210). The expanding and contracting semiotic logic of this relay between figures writ small like metaphor and prosopopoeia, used here as a synonym for personification,[26] and allegory as a figured narrative invokes phantasia and theatrical spectacles that create the illusion of animation where there are only still images.[27] It also acknowledges that modern allegory is almost wholly confined to personification allegory. Although personification allegory is more commonly used in the early modern period than its medieval counterparts, topical and scriptural allegory,[28] it troubles the distinction between abstractions and persons in ways that Neoclassical writers had already made clear.

  Campbell's definition by analogy, which implies that metaphor is a reduced or miniaturized allegory, indicates the visual, at times spectacular, extremes that mark Romantic allegory as it shuttles between the very small and the very large. These extremes mark the distance between real figures and visual images and those whose designs on readers are figural, illusionist, and potentially allegorical. Romantic rhetoricians are by no means easy about this potential. Campbell issues a prior restraint on allegory when he asserts earlier that when prosopopoeia or personification uses sensible or concrete things to convey abstract ideas, the outcome is merely rhetorically vivid language (Rhetoric 207-8). Notable for its absence here is phantasia, "things animate in the room of things lifeless." In Whately's Elements of Rhetoric, phantasia makes its way back into Romantic rhetoric by way of Aristotle's evepyeia ("the act, or actualization of a potency or habit"), here translated as roughly equivalent to "energy" or "nearly corresponding with what Dr. Campbell calls Vivacity" (Elements of Rhetoric 275, 283-84). Whately's subordination of Aristotelian action to its simulacrum authorizes the slippery slope phantasia has travelled from meaning "a making visible" to false vision, "phantoms," fantasy, and fancy. By this path rhetorical phantasia comes home to roost.

  In Romantic fiction and poetry, reservations about allegory often compete with the depiction of absent things or ideas as though they were present. I offer two instructive instances. In The Prelude Wordsworth's speaker finesses the contradictions embedded in "fancy" when he characterizes a vision of Druid priests observing the constellations and engaging in human sacrifice as "things viewed, / Or fancied, in the dim obscurities of time" (Thirteen-Book Prelude 12:354-55, pp. 312-13). The line-break emphatically separates these alternatives. In the 1831 "Preface" to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley invokes a string of English cognates for phantasia 
possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw - with shut eyes, but acute mental vision - I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out. (Frankenstein 227-28)

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