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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  Located on the opposite side of images and things from ideas in this scheme, abstractions look very much like the paintings of Milton's Death that Coleridge judges inadequate in his 1811 lecture:  
sundry painters ... had made pictures of the meeting between Satan & Death at Hell Gate and how was the latter represented? By the most defined thing that could be conceived in nature - A Skeleton, perhaps the dryest image that could be discovered which reduced the mind to a mere state of inactivity & passivity & compared with which a Square or a triangle was a luxuriant fancy. (Lectures 1808-19 1:311-12) 

  Painted in oils (or on velvet), Death is a stand-in for the "hollowness" of allegorical abstractions ("SM" 28). Benjamin West's popular Death on a Pale Horse goes down for the count here. As Coleridge insists in the "Statesman's Manual," abstractions excavate elements from particular shapes and forms - hollowing them out to produce thoughts and concepts and, later, a second order of abstraction that yields generalities about classes and species that are once removed from particular images and things and twice removed from Coleridgean ideas. The irony that impels this brief opposition between a passive image and the "luxuriant fancy" of a geometrical figure allows fancy, albeit briefly, to deal in figures that prompt mental activity, a concession he later disallows in the Biographia Literaria.

  What goes unsaid in this account is at least as intriguing. Coleridge neglects to mention not just that Milton's Death is allegorical, but that this figure is a brilliant poetic instance of a hollowed-out abstraction, that "other shape, / If shape it might be called that shape had none / Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb" (PL 2.666-67, p. 49). Read against the chorus of Neoclassical complaints about Milton's use of allegory, this omission looks like a dodge with an end clearly in view. To have called Sin and Death allegorical figures would have disrupted his praise for Milton's poetic conception.

  When Coleridge returns to public discourse on this topic in his 1818 lecture on the allegorical tradition, he more consistently isolates what he admires in allegorical narratives from the contaminating effect of allegory:  
if the allegoric personage be strongly individualized so as to interest us, we cease to think of it as allegory - and if it does not interest us, it had better be away. - The dullest and most defective parts of Spenser are those in which we are compelled to think of his agents as allegories - and how far the Sin and Death of Milton are exceptions to this censure, is a delicate problem which I shall attempt to solve in another lecture. (Lectures 1808-19 ii:102-3)

  If Coleridge did attempt to solve this "delicate problem" in his next lecture on Milton, no record of what he said remains.[45] It is more likely that these and similar observations - with some praise for Bunyan because his allegorical characters seem like "real persons" - constitute what Coleridge had to say about allegory. His closing rant begins with Tasso's explanation of the allegorical meaning of Gerusalemme liberata and ends with the merest glimpse of a further declaration about Spenser's Faerie Queene. Luckily for us, Coleridge argues, what Tasso says about his allegorical characters quickly slips out of mind, "having the very opposite quality that Snakes have - they come out of their Holes into open view at the sound of sweet music, while the allegoric meaning slinks off at the very first notes - and lurks in murkiest oblivion - and utter invisibility - /and in the Faery" (Lectures 1808-19 ii:103). True to its genre, this critique of allegory turns into an allegorical vignette in which the Snake of allegorical meaning, like the evil spirit it is, slinks off because it cannot stand sweet, poetic music. Instead, it is consigned to invisibility and oblivion, along with Milton's Death and The Faerie Queene.[46]

  Coleridge's much reworked definition of allegory conveys its limitations by debasing imagination to mean little more than the act of recognizing visual images. The definition is resolutely conventional, even to the extent of making the imagination a pseudo-Neoclassical analogue for the eye:  
we define allegoric composition as the employment of one set of <agents and> images ... so as to convey, while we disguise, either moral qualities or conceptions of the mind that are not in themselves objects of the Senses, or other <images,> agents, actions, fortunes and circumstances, so that the difference is every where presented to the eye or imagination while the Likeness is suggested to the mind. (Lectures 1808-19 ii:99). 

  When he prepared the Biographia Literaria and the "Statesman's Manual" for publication in 1816-17, Coleridge was no longer willing to allow imagination this much proximity to images, particularly allegorical ones. Early in the Biographia Literaria, he tries to make this argument stick by splitting the imagination from its etymological shadow phantasia.[47] He asserts that while it is not "easy to conceive a more apposite translation of the Greek Phantasia, than the Latin Imaginatio," the history of their usage offers a special instance of the process by which the "instinct of growth, a certain collective, unconscious good sense work[s] progressively to desynonymize those words originally of the same meaning" (BL 1:82) - that is, words which have the same etymology.

  Desynonymization is an artifact of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century language theory, which claimed that, as language develops, it moves from concrete to abstract meanings.[48] Wary of abstraction though he is, Coleridge here finds it useful for presenting a shift from phantasia's highly material and "experimental" view of images as what the eye gains from "sense impressions," to the synthetic, "esemplastic power" of the imagination. Although he had developed this principle years earlier, its function in the Biographia Literaria is more specific than general: to rid the imagination of its unsavory double so completely that it will disappear even as the "original likeness" of a word's ancient pronunciation will finally be "worn away" after centuries of phonetic variations (BL 1:83n.). This argument draws heavily on recent German philosophical attention to these terms, particularly that of Jean-Paul Richter, who suggests that imagination ("Einbildungskraft") is inferior to fancy ("Phantasie"), which "makes all parts whole," "totalizes everything, even the endless universe" ("totalisiert alles, auch das unendliche All").[49] Coleridge will in the end reassign fancy's synthesizing power to imagination.

  In the next chapter of the Biographia Literaria, he returns to phantasia by a circuitous route. This return is also half buried in a long note which reviews the problematic definition of idea in early modern philosophy, beginning with Hobbes's mechanistic equation of sense impressions with ideas (BL 1:96). Against Hobbes and his empiricist descendants, Coleridge defends the Platonic conception of the Greek term idea as roughly equivalent to the noun "Ideal." To illustrate this use of the term, he quotes a passage from Jeremy Taylor's Sermons 
St. Lewis the King sent Ivo Bishop of Chartres on an embassy, and he told, that he met a grave and stately matron on the way with a censer of fire in one hand, and a vessel of water in the other; and observing her to have a melancholy, religious, and phantastic deportment and look, he asked her what those symbols meant, and what she meant to do with her fire and water; she answered, my purpose is with the fire to burn paradise, and with my water to quench the flames of hell, that men may serve God purely for the love of God. But we rarely meet with such spirits which love virtue so metaphysically as to abstract her from all sensible compositions, and love the purity of the idea. (BL 1:97-98n.)

  Modern editors note that Coleridge probably wrote the final sentence, which does not appear in Taylor's text. As a gloss on the anecdote, this emphatic declaration minimizes the curious blend of the sensible and the abstract that makes the woman's deportment "phantastic" in the sense of being outlandish and highly visible. Were this consanguinity of terms not expressly foreclosed by Coleridge's parallel desynonymization of symbol and allegory, we might say that the woman's appearance and speech recognize no difference between the allegorical idea and the world of things - that she witnesses an allegorical truth by symbolic means.[50]

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