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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

Allegory addressd to the Intellectual Powers while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry. (1803) ... Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. (1810)
Blake 730, 554

They look at it [The Faerie Queene] as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them.
Hazlitt "Chaucer and Spenser," Works v:38

Shop after shop, with symbols, blazon'd names
And all the tradesman's honours overhead:
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
Shop after shop, with symbols, blazon'd names
There, allegoric shapes, female or male,
Or physiognomies of real men.
Wordsworth, Prelude 7.173-80, p. 234
  Romantic writers echo Blake's ambivalence about allegory in different poetic climates, with different ends in view. Leigh Hunt claims that Spenser's Faerie Queene is "but one part allegory, and nine parts beauty and enjoyment; sometimes an excess of flesh and blood" ("Spenser" 50). The unaccommodated remainder in this equation registers what Hazlitt mocks - the specter of allegorical figures alive and on the move (Works v:38). Like Blackmore's earlier rant against Spenser and Ariosto "lost in the wood" of their allegories, Hazlitt's quip entertains a slight, but unmistakably allegorical tale. A dragon named Allegory (or Error) is on the loose, but readers who ignore her may pass "unalarmed," like Wordsworth before the gates of a Miltonic Hell, neither bitten nor meddled with (i.988, Home at Grasmere, ms. B, 102).

  As Hunt's formula uncannily predicts, such shapes exceed verisimilar representation by making an issue of their proximity to human identities and particulars, even as their quirky differences from both hardly escape notice. Moreover, as Boileau's translation of Longinus's treatise On the Sublime had earlier reminded English and Continental readers, allegorical excess requires exaggerated figures. Extending this rhetorical tradition, Romantic allegory welds its abstractions to "flesh and blood," the world of lived particulars and feeling.

  This chapter and the next two investigate allegory's stake in Romantic spectacles and images. In the midst of a sustained polemic against allegory, Romantic writers put allegorical emblems to uses unsanctioned by Neoclassical arguments. The "excess of flesh and blood" in Spenser's allegory returns in Romantic figures that gain their characteristic energy and pathos by tacking between abstract ideas and lived particulars. The present chapter examines allegory's unsteady fortunes during the French Revolution and among early Romantic writers. Its topics include Romantic personification as a measure of what happens when pathos and animation are attributed to abstract figures; the role of allegory in French revolutionary spectacles and propaganda; the figure of phantasia in Coleridge's strictures against allegory; and finally the work that "allegoric shapes" perform in book 7 of Wordsworth's Prelude.

  My argument begins with Romantic historical consciousness, at the very least a two-handed engine. Gossman argues that the French Revolution signals a definitive break with the past that takes two forms: the Romantic longing and nostalgia for hidden origins for which Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality and later Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education so eloquently speak; and Hegel's progressive histories. In these evolutionary schemas that suture the Romantic present to the past, Gossman suggests, Romantic nostalgia masks a deeper anxiety. Whether the object of nostalgia is women, the Orient, or a hidden, unrecoverable past, its otherness is masked by the incorporating gesture of Schiller's "sentimental" or Romantic poet. Without this gesture, the poet and the historian risk a definitive break with the past that threatens reason and the bourgeois order.[1] To avoid that break, Romantic historians began prospecting for ends, preferably better ends, nearly as soon as they began to look backward. Camouflaged as nostalgia, progressive histories repeat the organic logic of the Romantic symbol, which authorizes the claim that present institutions and cultures have evolved from inchoate or imperfectly achieved primitive forms whose vestiges moderns cherish as their "naive" ancestors could not because they lacked (Romantic) self-consciousness.

  The other historical engine of Romantic self-consciousness is allegory. Tenacious of particulars, it imagines history as contingent, reinventive, and alert to materials that lie at hand. In a late Romantic recognition of this view of history, Carlyle argues that because "the general sum of human Action is a whole Universe, with all limits of it unknown," history must run "path after path, through the Impassable, in manifold directions and intersections to secure for us some oversight of the Whole" ("On History" 95). Existing in a negotiable middle space between the Annales historian and the recognition that history is also a narrative fiction for a chaos of details that necessarily exceed our grasp [2], this historical consciousness profits from allegory, whose otherness gives the prospective edge needed to imagine and construct a new order.

  What English Romantic writers typically called allegory looks more like the Neoclassical model. The personifications of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which join abstract names and real tyrants, astutely mark the numbing fixation of such figures.[3] Lady Blessington's "Allegory" in which Pleasure is "the daughter of Virtue and Happiness, and the sister of Innocence and Modesty" suggests the relative safety of such figures. With hardly surprising consequences, Pleasure strays from her family, but is finally reunited with them, although not in this world. Her unsavory double, also called Pleasure, is the child of Extravagance and Idleness. The conventionality of this allegory is the formal sign of its moral cachet: keeping an allegory within acceptable bounds means not being led astray by pleasures and fantasies.[4] Throughout its four-year quarrel with the Royal Academy and some of its members, James Elmes's Annals of the Fine Arts echoes Neoclassical strictures and indulges in allegorical satires less searing and scatological than Dryden's or Swift's, but otherwise patterned on these models.[5] For Elmes, paintings like Benjamin West's popular Death on a Pale Horse were not problematic because they did not use allegorical figures to represent historical subjects. Paintings that did so err risked strong criticism. When James Ward exhibited his monumental canvas (35 by 21 feet) titled Allegorical Painting of the Triumph of Waterloo, he attached this explanation: "The Genius of Wellington on the Car of War, supported by Britannia and attended by the Seven Cardinal Virtues, commanding away the Demons, Anarchy, Rebellion and Discord, with the Horrors of War." The day after the painting went on exhibition, the Morning Herald trumpeted: "the most daring violations of nature, consistency, truth and propriety; the most grotesque conceits, the most unbounded extravagances, horror and loathsomeness, are here embodied under the extraordinary name of Allegory."[6] Although Discord's presence in Ward's painting might have triggered this explosion of critical animus, it looks more like a class-action complaint against mixing allegory and history. The manic tone of this complaint haplessly reproduces what it sees - allegory as an excessive, even monstrous, narrative figure and practice.[7]

  Largely persuaded that allegory was what Neoclassical critics claimed it was, Romantic writers may assent to this caricature because it speaks to their own uneasy settlement with abstraction. Yet they also invent allegorical figures whose unaccommodated remainder of "flesh and blood" is a striking index of their "otherness," an excess defiant of the law of abstraction and the law of genre. This figural practice bends toward a version of allegory whose differences from the Neoclassical model are emphatic. Temporizing and excessive, it eludes capture much as Proteus tries to avoid capture by adopting different shapes. If gods there be, this one is the household deity of Romantic allegory. Like Proteus, this allegory is bound to successive visible and material shapes that hover over the boundary between idea and material form.[8] The imagined proximity of such shapes to real people and events corrodes the unvarying relation between the general and the particular which Neoclassical critics urged. By way of allegory, Romantic writers investigate a problem that becomes more pressing with the rise of nineteenth-century realism, whose epistemological faith in real particulars William Carlos Williams echoes in a modernist key when he calls for "no ideas but in things."[9]

  As an engraver, printmaker, painter, and poet, Blake consistently exercises a formal commitment to emblematic or allegorical structures of meaning. Yet his remarks on allegory are, as Dorothy Wordsworth says of Michael's sheepfold, "in the shape of a heart unevenly divided." In Europe Blake identifies allegory with Enitharmon's promise of eternal life "in an allegorical abode where existence hath never come" (5:7, Blake 62); in The Song of Los with "allegoric [i.e. false] riches" (6:18, Erdman 69); in Jerusalem, with "delusion and woe" (89:45, Blake 249); in The Four Zoas with the Tree of Mystery's "Allegoric [i.e. false] fruit" (viii:169, Blake 375). In an 1803 letter to Thomas Butts, Blake offers limited praise for "Sublime Allegory" that is "address'd to the Intellectual Powers," but "hidden from the Corporeal Understanding" (Blake 730). But in the 1810 A Vision of Judgment, where he is principally concerned to distinguish a lesser "allegory" from greater "Vision," Blake cannot quite decide. First he ranks allegory below "Vision," then he concedes that "Fable or Allegory is Seldom without some Vision. Pilgrims Progress is full of it and the Greek poets the same" (Blake 555-56). He also very nearly cancels out this faint praise: "Real Visions ... are lost & clouded in Fable & Allegory." A devastating syllogism puts an end to this verbal seesaw: "allegories are things that Relate to Moral Virtues Moral Virtues do not Exist they are Allegories and dissimulations." The unstated conclusion - that allegories do not exist - is meant to be obvious. As if to save Blake from his own waffling, critics have tried to resolve these contradictions by taking sides. Foster Damon tries to erase them by assigning Blake's fleeting praise of allegory to "a slip of the pen."[10] The recent debate about whether Blake executed a series of drawings of figures identified as "personifications" ("Cruelty," "Pity," etc.) registers the same anxiety.[11] Critics who defend Blake against allegory have aligned his complex characters and narratives with "Vision," and consigned rigidly schematic figures (whether Blake's or some other poet's) to allegory. Northrop Frye sensibly imagined this difference as one that exists within allegory.[12]

  Blake's vision is allegorical in the sense of the term ratified by the survival of this mode in modernity. Dangerously split off from a world of the Imagination identified with "the Eternals" and the figure of Albion, his prophetic characters objectify the intra-psychic struggles of Prudentius's late classical Psychomachia. The figure of Erin in Jerusalem, where she is identified with Ireland's national consciousness, summarizes Blake's struggle with allegory. In chapter 1 "the spaces of Erin" preserve the daughters of Beulah. Along with Scotland, England, and Wales, Ireland is subjected to the urizenic subdivision into counties that is one of the many signs that the body of Albion is in imaginative disarray, divided and subdivided as surely as if it were a complex Renaissance emblem. In chapter 2 Erin is invaded by an "Aged Virgin Form" from Ulro, also called "Religion." Thereafter the voice of Ireland speaks with religious pity of the woes begotten by "allegoric generation," by which she means the atomization of the body of Albion into the parts of "creation." Under this regime it is mostly a matter of time (and space) before allegory becomes, as it were, the generic sign for "falsehood" or, as Los now would have us believe, "Divine Analogy." Finally, Blake's narrator takes bitter note of Enitharmon's "little lovely Allegoric Night of Albion's Daughters" (11:10-12, 16:29, 44:27, 50:1, 85:1, 88:31, Blake 154-247).

  From the obviousness of punning allegorical names like Urizen (Your Reason) to the more subtle and varied allegorical claims he makes for Enitharmon and Los in the prophetic poems, Blake's characters inhabit shifting allegorical frames. As the fallen poet-artist, Los is a minute and yet vast "particular" instance of Blake's allegorical method. Unlike Urizen, whose rigid schematism brilliantly satirizes Enlightenment values and, not incidentally, Neoclassical allegory, Los tests critical preconceptions about what allegory is or can be. Gleckner's statement that Los is an "allegorical anti-allegorist"[13] succinctly declares this equivocal status. Watching what Los does and does not accomplish from poem to poem and even in Jerusalem suggests the fragile, if sustained, allegorical enterprise at work in Blake's prophecies.

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