Autore: Maureen Quilligan
Tratto da: The language of allegory : defining the genre
Editore: Cornell University Press, Ithaca
The text that dramatizes God's promise to man to redeem his fall enjoys a special relationship to narrative allegory. Allegorical protagonists often find themselves in scenes which simply reenact the details of that other book, the first text, the original pretext of all Christian allegory. I term the Bible the ‘‘pretext’’ not simply to emphasize the fact of the Bible's anterior originality for allegory, but to stress as well the covert nature of that relationship. Allegories do not state but discover the nature of that book, and the process of discovery begins on the pretext (or pretense) that the narrative the reader reads is an original story in its own right—not simply another commentary on the Bible. By pretext I mean the source that always stands outside the narrative (unlike the threshold text, which stands within it at the beginning); the pretext is the text that the narrative comments on by reenacting, as well as the claim the narrative makes to be a fiction not built upon another text. The pretext thus names that slippery relationship between the source of the work and the work itself; this relationship deserves a special term, for it is more complicated than the usual connection between a work and its sources, which are often no more than places where the author found stimulating ideas for fictional treatment of a given subject. Even when an allusion is meant to be used as a guide to interpreting the specific passage in which it occurs, this nexus of texts does not approach the connection between an allegory and the pretext. The pretext is not merely a repository of ideas, it is the original treasure house of truth, and even if that treasure house has been plundered and is assumed to be empty, it still retains its privileged status in guiding not only the interpretation but the possibilities of the allegory. And it is primarily the status of the language in the pretext which determines the development of the allegory; if its language can name truth, then the language of the allegorical narrative will be able to. If its language is not felt to have special powers for revealing reality, then the language of the allegory will have a corresponding difficulty in articulating the truth of the human condition.
By scrutinizing the problem of the pretext, in both senses, we may begin to appreciate the generic allusiveness of all allegory, what Fletcher has called Spenser's principle of the “cosmically extended verbal echo.” As we have seen, allegory names the fundamental principle beneath the reverberation of words; yet words in allegory not only extend meaning by punning allusiveness throughout individual narratives, they echo across texts, across generations, across time itself.
The Bible is the pretext of medieval and Renaissance allegory, that is, the text itself, an individual book, some passage within it, or even some method of reading the Bible. Modern allegories, that is, texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, also take the Bible as the pretext, although the relationship of modern allegories to it is complicated by the fact that the Bible is no longer widely considered a literally authoritative text. The status of the Bible in any given period can provide the gauge to the ironic possibilities of allegory; in those moments when the Bible itself is doubted, interpreting allegory, if it does not become more difficult, becomes, at least, less conclusive. When no pretext (biblical or other) is authoritative, we see the ascendance of ironic allegories that question not only the ways to make divine authority legible in the world, but the very existence of that authority. By defining the typical connection between any allegory and the pretext we will be in a better position to account for those differences in texts due to “periods’’ and, perhaps more importantly, for the negative of this as well—we shall be better able to see what remains constant in the evolution of the genre through successive literary periods.
In Dark Conceit, Edwin Honig suggets two terms for the kinds of relations an allegory may have to its biblical pretext. On the one hand, as in The Pilgrim's Progress, the connection is “prophetic,” that is, the narrative is “directly concerned with reinforcing the truth of a traditional text or myth." On the other hand, there are allegories like Melville's (and also, according to Honig, Kafka's) which are ‘’apocalyptic,’' that is, they are founded on the less traditional authority of personal vision, apocryphal books, or “the knowledge derived from the contradictory nature of experience." “In fiction expressing a dominantly apocalyptic element... the search for authority turns into a real pursuit through the still wild and unconquered parts of consciousness. Where the prophetic element is dominant, as in Bunyan, the search seems strenuous rather than strange, even a bit predetermined, like proceeding down a well-lit path in a jungle behind a friendly savage.''
Honig sees the problem of allegory preeminently as the need to recreate authority, that is, as a critical reexamination of reality in the light of an ideal. But, as his strange analogy for Bunyan's pilgrimage hints, even the most straightforward recreation of the ideal embodied in a pretext is made difficult by the lack of a shared language. If Bunyan may be said to proceed down the well-lit jungle path behind a savage guide, he and that guide do not use the same words to talk about the trip. And even if the path is well marked, for the allegorist there still remains the problem of finding a language which will not only describe it, but also be capable of leading the reader there as well.
The Bible is not the only pretext for allegory. Vergil's Aeneid is one other text which enjoys that special position, for it was treated like the Bible through a history of allegorical commentaries and through its presumed status as a prophetic text in its own right. And any text which offers a legitimate language in which to articulate the sacred can become a pretext. Edward Mendelson has invoked Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane as the text which stands behind Pynchon's allegory in The Crying of Lot 49, although we would have to say that it is not Eliade’s text, but the language of myth and ritual it outlines that serves the purpose of the pretext for Pynchon. If anything the study of myth and comparative religion has elevated the status of the Bible; if its mythology is no longer true, it at least shares a human validity with all the other myths it so closely resembles.
While Dante's Commedia also takes the Aeneid as one of its pretexts, it may stand as the prime example of the complicated nexus between allegorical narratives and the biblical pretext. The Commedia is, however, not only exemplary, but also unique, for no other allegory shares its peculiarly specific relationship to the Bible. Yet its very uniqueness is serviceable, for in measuring that idiosyncrasy, we sense the difference between Dante's connection to the Bible and the relationship all other allegories have to that pretext. In the main, Dante's poem shares a “typological” relationship to the Bible, while other allegories conform to a less typological pattern. The differences between typology, or ‘’figural’ allegory, and other sorts of allegory embrace a distinction fundamental to the whole history of biblical exegesis, but it will be more useful to focus on the function of typology in the specific context of Dante's poem. The clarity of his methods allows one to pick one's way through the vast complications of the problem; Dante saw his way through typology, and the way through is the way of his poem.
In the "Letter to Can Grande," Dante describes the "polysemous" structure of his Commedia which, he argues, is like the Bible's in that it can be divided into four different levels of meaning. Because the particular text he uses to exemplify the Bible's manifold meaning is so important to the Commedia itself, we should look closely at Dante's exegesis of the passage in the letter. The text is from Psalm 64: “When Israel went out of Egypt... Judah was the sanctuary and Israel his dominion." Dante explains that ‘if we look at the letter [the “’literal’’ level] this signifies that the children of Israel went out of Egypt in the time of Moses”; he here equates the “literal’’ level with the historical fact of the Jews' flight from Egypt in the time of Moses and in general, for Dante, the ‘’literal’’ level means historical event. He describes the second level, which he calls “the allegorical’’ by saying, ‘’if we look at the allegory, it signifies our redemption through Christ.” This is properly the “typological’’ level, for, according to its historical reasoning (whereby God writes history as a system of signs), when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt he prefigured the moment when Christ would lead his people out of the less literal “bondage,” from the imprisonment of death. Dante describes the third or ‘’moral’’ level as signifying the “turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace." Concluding with a description of the fourth or ‘’anagogical” level, he explains that the exodus ‘’signifies the passage of the blessed soul from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of eternal glory," that is, the soul's departure to heaven from the body at the time of death.
Aside from the pernicious facility with which Dante explains the four meanings of this passage (in practice it is not nearly so easy), the striking thing about his discussion is that it implicitly claims that the Commedia itself works like the Bible, and that, therefore, its literal level is as historically real as the Bible's. That is quite a claim. Given the context of the passage he chose to interpret, there is no doubt that by “’literal level" Dante meant historical fact. The passage preeminently concerns a moment in history, when God disrupted the normal course of nature, performed a miracle by parting the Red Sea, and led Moses and his people out of Egypt. Dante would have believed that not only the description of the event in Exodus and the Psalm recalling it were divinely inspired as he read them, but that the event actually happened. The emphatic historicity of this particular text colors Dante's interpretation and reveals that the fourfold exegesis, at least as Dante practices it here, is intimately bound up with the process of typology. The fourfold method of reading therefore assumes a typological conception of sacred history.
Dante's use of this Psalm in the Commedia further reveals the fundamentally temporal nature of the connections between sacred ‘‘events," for the Psalm is the song which the souls sing as they are ferried to the foot of Mount Purgatory—In exit Israel de Egypto; they sing it, furthermore, as they are released from temporal into eternal ‘time.’ With this song Dante articulates the structure of the Commedia and reveals the specific claim he makes about his poem's relationship to the Bible. The song is quite appropriate for the souls who, wending across that wide water, approach the shores of Purgatory, for as they singing move, they enact the anagogical meaning of the very song they sing, which Dante defines as the “passage of the blessed soul from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” Thus Dante's “literal’’ level is a narrative fiction enacting the fourth meaning of the biblical text.
We could have no clearer statement of the direct relation ship of the poem to its pretext; the Commedia is related to scripture on the level of anagogy. This is to say no more than what Dante has said in the “Letter to Can Grande,” that the poem's literal level is the ‘’state of souls after death," which is the state signified by the anagogical meaning of the Psalm. Yet this state is as literally real, even though atemporal, as the state of the Jews when they were led out of Egypt, or as the historical events surrounding Christ's sacrifice which fulfilled the type presented by Moses' guidance, and which won the privilege for souls to expiate their sins in Purgatory.
In trying to account for the “overwhelming” realism of Dante's Beyond, that is dictated by his understanding of its literal actuality, Erich Auerbach ascribes it to Dante's typological (or, in his term, “figural’’) conception of history; Auerbach argues that the realism is, in fact, so overwhelming that it swamps the medieval theology which gives rise to it; we get lost in the fascinating details and forget the moral lessons they are supposed to teach. Yet whether or not the method undercuts its own purpose is not finally as important as the fact that the typological nature of the poem's relationship to the pretext provides the structure of the text itself.
This fact is most clear in the time continuum of the Commedia, particularly in the Inferno, which is, logically, the most time-bound realm of the afterlife. Dante journeys through hell from Good Friday to the morning of Easter Sunday in the year 1300; that is, he is in hell for the space of time that Christ had been in hell, harrowing it 1,267 years before. The care that Dante takes to impress this chronology on the reader should alert us to its importance. The chronology signals that Dante's journey is, with a peculiar literalness, an imitatio Christi, and that the reason for his journey to hell, aside from all the moral motives behind his need to leam about his own sinning heart (motives which would make the journey a metaphorical, internal one), is fundamentally typological. Therefore, however exemplary Dante makes the journey, which begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita'' (in the middle of the road of our life), it is a moment in his own particular history. Just as Christ's passion is a fulfillment of the figura represented by Moses, so too Christ's life is a figure which must be ‘’fulfilled’’ by each Christian. The typological time continuum does not end with the events of that life as described in the New Testament, for Christ's life stands as a figure that must be fulfilled, a type that needs its antitype to reach historical perfection. The time continuum stretches through all time, from Genesis to Revelation, for Christ's harrowing of hell is not only his redemption of the history of the Old Testament, it is a prefiguration of his second coming which will end time. The first harrowing is simply a figure of the second and both figure very largely in Dante's fiction.
One of the first questions Dante asks Vergil is a question to which Dante already knows the answer.
"Dimmi, Maestro mio, dimmi, Segnore,”
Comincia’io, per volere esser certo
Di quella fede che vince ogni errore:
"Uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto
O per altrui, che poi fosse beato?"
“Tell me, sir —tell me, Master,” I began
(In hope some fresh assurance to be gleaning
Of our sin-conquering Faith), “did any man
By his self-merit, or on another leaning,
Ever fare forth from hence and come to be
Among the blest?”
Vergil answers that yes, when he was newly in this state, shortly after he died, he saw one come in majesty and take away the Old Testament patriarchs. Dante, of course, knew the answer; having read of it in a book, he only asks the question to remind us of the fact, and of the book. Each time, furthermore, that Dante and Vergil have to scramble over the broken landscape of hell, he reminds us of the earthquake which shattered its structure when Christ came to harrow it. Nor does he cease to call our attention to that other moment as well, when Christ will come again. Thus, for instance, in the circle of the suicides Pierre delle Vigne explains that because they abused their bodies in life (or, rather, in their deaths), on Judgment Day he and the other suicides will not, like the other shades, be returned to their bodies to suffer the more perfect form of mortal punishment; rather their bodies will be hung on the branches of their own self-slaughtering shades.
Structurally, the function of these two moments—the first and the second coming—is to bracket Dante's own journey.
His journey is possible only because of the first; he makes it to prepare himself for the second coming; and he is allowed to meet throughout his journey souls who represent the anagogical fulfillment of their literal, earthly lives. The whole structure is typologically historical. “lo non Enéa, io non Paolo sono, Dante fearfully exclaims at the outset of his journey; and by this exclamation he not only names the two pretexts of the poem, the Aeneid and the Bible, he also states a literal fact; neither Aeneas (who only went to hell) or Paul (who only went to heaven) made the whole journey. Dante's journey more directly imitates Christ's and embodies a total literary heritage, classical and Judeo-Christian.
In the episode of the suicides we can see the complicated relationship Dante perceived between his own two pretexts, and the place he felt his poem to have in the continuous poetic tradition of pagan and Christian prophecy. Pierre delle Vigne's suffering, in the shape of a tree lacerated by harpies, conflates two passages from the Aeneid. The idea of the bleeding, speaking tree Dante takes from the bizarre moment when Aeneas, having founded his first city Aenedeae on the shores of Thrace, receives a dark prophecy from the murdered Polydorus who had been buried beneath some reeds, through which he speaks. Ovid also used the tree transformation, yet Dante asks us to remember the moment in Vergil's poem specifically, for he has Vergil himself refer to it. The Roman poet apologizes to delle Vigne, and explains why he has in fact tricked his companion into breaking off a branch.
“S'egli avesse potuto creder prima,"
Rispuose il savio mio, “anima lesa,
Ciò c' ha veduto pur con la mia rima,
Non averebbe in te la man distesa;
Ma la cosa incredibile mi fece
Indurlo ad ovra c'a me stesso pesa."
"O wounded soul,” my sage replied anon,
“Might I have brought him straightway to believe
The thing he'd read of in my verse alone,
Never had he lifted finger to mischieve
Thee thus; but 'twas incredible: so I
Prompted his deed, for which myself must grieve."
Because Dante didn't believe it when he read it in the Aeneid, Vergil explains, he must experience the phenomenon for himself. By raising this question, Vergil points to the ethical problem at the heart of this most self-reflexive of allegories; even for devout Christians of the fourteenth century, Dante's plot would have been incredible, requiring a miracle, and therefore hard to believe. Yet the kind of belief questioned here is more than the simple difficulty of accepting that trees (even in hell, or in Vergil's Thrace) can speak, but that poetry may speak the truth. Vergil’s reference to an extremely unlikely mythological event in his own poem, which he then insists Dante cught to have believed, posits the question: in what way are poetic fictions true? And here we see how the nature of the pretextual relationship, as indicated discursively in the text, also poses the same question asked in other allegories through a selfreflexive wordplay.
Because both episodes, the one in the Aeneid and the one in the Commedia, concern prophecies, Dante's point focuses on the fact that fictions may prophesy truths, although the fictions themselves may only be fictitious. Aeneas learns about part of the future that lies along his path to the foundation of the Roman Empire, which, in Dante's view, would mean part of the foundation of Christianity itself. And Dante in his poem learns again about the second coming, or about the final prophetic fulfillment of the moment in history prepared for by the pax romana. Vergil's reference to his own poem sets up a complex network of associations between his pagan epic and Dante's divinely inspired Christian journey. By it Dante reveals the historical continuum along which he saw his own and Vergil’s poem’s ranked; in the most literal of ways he “follows’’ Vergil as prophetic poet. Both Vergil and Dante stand, in this episode, specifically in their roles as poets. Referring to “la mia rima,’ Vergil identifies himself, but he also stresses Dante's future role as poetic recorder of the moment when he asks delle Vigne to tell his story so that Dante can “restore” his fame by writing the truth. In the Purgatorio Dante directly demonstrates that Vergil's text had in fact a sacred function, for there Statius witnesses that it could inspire true Christian belief in a pagan; yet this understanding of Vergil's text also pervades the suicide episode in hell.
Lest the reader miss the important question of belief central to the scene, Dante introduces the passage with a sentence marked by a fairly tortuous use of traductio: confused by the bodiless whistling voices Dante says ‘’Cred ‘io ch'ei credette ch'io credesse” (“I believe that he believed I believed…”). By this play with the word “credo” Dante not only parodies the historical delle Vigne’s style, he signals the thematic center of the episode. And by collapsing two prophetic texts, pagan and Christian, into one, Dante shows that given the right kind of reading (such as, for instance, Statius had given it), the Aeneid may tell the truth. More important, Dante does not stress any “allegorical’’ reading of the Aeneid, but stresses instead the fantastic literalism of Vergil's scene. Had Dante believed it then, Vergil says, he would not have had to experience it himself. If we simply reverse this statement we find Dante affirming that literary belief can substitute for actual experience. It is a lesser lesson than experience, but with the proper pupil it will work. Dante was evidently not that kind of student, although he here implicitly asks that his reader be.
Leo Spitzer suggests that the implication of the Polydorus incident is that it ‘’prefigures the judgment visited upon a sinner by a Christian God," noting that “Vergil himself seems for a moment at least to have been astounded by the Christian replica of his Polydorus scene.” While the point of contact between the two texts is not as exactly figural as Spitzer would have it, the relationship is temporal, both in the connection between the two poems as historical events, and in the prophetic (and therefore time-bound) subject matter of each individual episode. More important, Dante's ability as a reader of prophetic texts comes to the foreground; discussed in the context of the poem's own pagan, and therefore less certainly creditable, pretext, Dante's narrative asks its reader to question what kind of belief he is crediting the poem.
I have stressed the temporal nature of the connections between the Aeneid and the Commedia to reveal the way in which the emphatic typological historicity of Dante's poem colors the presentation of details which would seem, on the surface, to be the most obvious sort of unhistorical fictions, mere poetic fables. That trees speak, however much they might really be men, is simply not believable, Yet Dante asks us to understand that he, at least, learned to believe that such in fact could be the case.
If we now tum to an exactly parallel episode in Spenser's Faerie Queene we can sense, in a conveniently concrete context, the difference between Dante's historicity and Spenser's lack of it. By tracing the variations between Spenser's and Dante's uses of the Vergilian (and Ovidian) pretext, we can see the difference in the demands made on the reader by an allegorical narrative based on typology and by one based on personification. Spenser's episode also deals with the question ot belief: his hero, like Dante, has a problem with perceiving prophecy, and, as Dante the pilgrim does, the Redcrosse Knight gets (but he does not learn) a lesson in reading. While the similarities between the two episodes are marked, the differences define the distinctions within the genre.
When the Redcrosse Knight meets Fradubio, the man transformed into a tree in canto 2 of Book I, he meets a version of himself. Having just won a dubious battle over Sans Foy which has gained him an even more dubious prize, the Lady Fidessa, the Redcrosse Knight rides into a grove where he bends to break a branch off a tree to make a garland for his companion. Fidessa is actually Duessa in disguise, and the grove literally provides shades of the Errour episode. When he plucks the bough out of the rift there come ‘small drops of gory bloud”: Spenser's description of the Redcrosse Knight's response relies directly on Vergil's description of Aeneas' surprise.
Therewith a piteous yelling voyce was heard,
Crying, O spare with guilty hands to teare
My tender sides in this rough rynd embard,
But fly, ah fly far hence away, for feare
Least to you hap, that happened to me heare,
And to this wretched Lady, my deare loue,
O too deare love, loue bought with death too deare.
Astond he stood, and vp his haire did houe,
And with that suddein horror could no member moue.
Aeneas' hair also stands on end, so that in appearance he resembles the slain Polydorus, who, within his mound, is covered by plants that look like the spears which killed him. Like Aeneas, the Redcrosse Knight is so paralyzed by fear and surprise that he takes on the semblance of the object he views; he becomes as immobile as a tree. The story Fradubio goes on to tell ot his subjection to the seductive charms of Duessa, “that many errant knights hath brought to wretchednesse," exactly parallels the Redcrosse Knight's own situation. Like Fradubio he has doubtfully given up his lady, has succumbed to Duessa's beguiling beauty, has subjected himself to a doubtful faith, and too naively trusts to the evidence of his senses. Like Dante, he is confused because what he hears is so contrary to what he sees. He hears Fradubio's words, but does not listen; were he to, he could learn much to save himself from harm, but he sees only a tree, and the beautiful ‘’Fidessa.‘’ Not yet allowed to see what Fradubio tells him he saw, Duessa's monstrously shaped nether parts which reveal her kinship to snakey Errour, the knight does not trust Fradubio's words which fall on ““doubtful eares.” He relies instead on the truly doubtful evidence of his eyes. Earlier the Redcrosse Knight had fled from the “’guiltie sight’ of the Una-like sprite copulating with a squire; there the transferred epithet applied to the knight's vision. His sight was itself ‘’guiltie,’ not the scene he thought he saw.
Of this episode Mark Rose says that the Redcrosse Knight, "believing still in the evidence of his senses, is trapped in nature, intellectually imprisoned, just as his brother in faithlessness is physically imprisoned”—for “Fra-dubio” means “brother doubt." Rose points out that Spenser owes to Dante the “contrapasso”-like punishment Fradubio suffers; ‘’his present physical immobility is the image of his former indecision," just as the Redcrosse Knight's present immobility images his present indecision, his ‘’doubtful faith" both in what he hears of Fradubio's experience, and in what he believes about Una. The Rederosse Knight"s participation in Fradubio's present plight is, however, totally different from Dante's involvement in delle Vigne's story. The Redcrosse Knight meets a character who is a projection of his own psyche. In recognizing this we see how much the allegorical techniques of Book I owe to psychomachia. In contrast, when Dante meets Pierre delle Vigne, he meets a historical, real, and separate person whose ‘sin’’ he does not share. Of course, Dante does participate in some of the sins he witnesses being punished in hell; he understands which of them will cost him the most pain in purgatory. It is also possible to notice his lessening sympathy and thereby to trace the educating experience he was sent to hell to acquire. Yet Dante, unlike the Redcrosse Knight, does not meet any projected fragments of his own psyche; nor does his response to the souls define their meaning. Their significance derives rather from their piace in the landscape, that is, the particular ditch in which they find themselves eternally punished for lechery, counterfeiting, sloth. This defining landscape, as well as the judgment which places each individual in his proper place, is God's, not Dante's (or such is the fiction of the poem). The “allegorical’’ significance of any encounter is not, therefore, labeled by the protagonist's reactions, but by the landscape, which, furthermore, makes the interpretation historically. That is, the judgment that places the sinner and is revealed by the landscape is God's final reading of the significance of any one individual's historical existence. God's art, which includes history, rather than Dante's response, defines allegorical significance in the Commedia.
This distinction between Dante's historical methods and Spenser's psychological ones is important and too often blurred. Thus Dorothy Sayers in her generally admirable translation of the Commedia inappropriately adds to her description of Dante's reaction to delle Vigne's voice. She has Dante say “I dropped the twig, and like to one / Rooted to the ground with terror, there I stood,'’ thereby suggesting that Dante momentarily reflects the punishment he witnesses. This is Spenser's technique, not Dante's. The Italian merely says he stands like a man who fears—stetti come l'uom che teme’’—an unusually bland way for Dante to make a point, in fact. Dante provides remarkable correspondences and poetically significant details—but they fit the historical facts, not Dante's personality or his momentary predicament, Delle Vigne explains, for instance, that when Minos throws the seed of a suicide's soul into the seventh ditch it falls by chance (‘’là dove fortuna la balestra”), by which Dante demonstrates that the suicide’s attempt to escape misfortune through death has only put him irrevocably under the power of fortune, or of that mutable chance directly opposed to God's immutable purpose. By a minor detail such as the word ‘fortuna’ we see that the landscape of hell grows, in so far as it changes at all, by perfecting, or by making more clearly significant, the meaning of historical acts. Fraudubio is, of course, a meaningful part of Spenser's landscape; but that landscape has no historical reality. Its relevance lies in its capacity to reify or project the protagonist’s state of mind. Fradubio reveals to us the significance of the Redcrosse Knight's present situation, and would also reveal it to the knight himself were he able to read the lesson Fradubio's warning words offer.
I have spent so much time comparing the two speaking tree passages because side by side they present the differences between Dante's and Spenser's techniques in a concrete context. While Dante travels through a typologically conceived landscape and writes a typologically structured poem about that journey, Spenser sets a hero off in search of himself through a projected landscape created out of the language one uses to describe the hero's psychological and therefore spiritual confusions. Does he lose faith? He meets a lady named Fidessa. Does he doubt? He confronts a tree who embodies the paralysis of indecision. Is he beside himself with guilt? He comes face to face with despair. If this appears to oversimplify Spenser's techniques, it is only because Spenser's methodological assumptions are paradigmatic in Book I; in actual practice, the process is as complicated and as subtle as the selfreflexive language Spenser so closely scrutinizes in the process of using it.
The two methods—typology and personification—are distinct, but not mutually exclusive. One can find personifications in Dante's poem, and in many personification allegories one can find episodes the full meanings of which are clear only in a typological context. For instance, when the Redcrosse Knight finally battles the dragon, his three-day fight recalls the fight Christ made in hell when he harrowed it, and the knight's battle thus becomes his proper imitatio Christi. In the same way Langland’s basic method is to pit his protagonist Will against the personified forces of his own personality (especially in the Vita section), but he uses typological methods of signification as well. When Piers tears the pardon, he not only questions the literal nature of pardons and their interpretations, as we have seen, he also reenacts Moses' anger at finding his people worshipping another false image with naive literal-mindedness; Moses “tears’’ the commandments by breaking the stone on which they are carved.
By the same token, Dante, arch-typologist, uses personifications, but sparingly. And his particular use of the technique reveals how fundamentally typological the poem is. The most memorable personification in the Commedia appears in the brief story St. Thomas tells about St. Francis of Assisi in canto 11 of the Paradiso. St. Thomas tells this story in terms of an allegorical marriage between St. Francis and the personified Lady Poverty. Erich Auerbach has noticed that this procedure is unusual for Dante, especially because St. Francis, a famous historical personage, does not himself appear directly in the poem. ‘Dante, who makes so many people speak directly, gives us the most living figure of the period before his own, Francis of Assisi, wrapped in the drapery of an allegorical account." It transpires, however, that by telling St. Francis’ life in terms of his marriage to an abstraction, Dante is able to create out of the saint's life a much clearer typology. The mystical marriage between St. Francis and Poverty is, in Auerbach's term, the “basis” of St. Francis’ own imitatio Christi, for Christ had also married a poor daughter of Sion: sinful mankind. St. Francis' life, told in these terms, therefore properly fits “into the scheme of world history” which underpins Dante's poetic structure, that is, the typological conceptions of figures and their literal, historical fulfillments.
In recounting St. Francis' life, St. Thomas not only uses personification, he also does something else which is not so typical of Dante; he makes an obvious pun. He reads out the polysemous significance implicit in the etymology of the name of St. Francis' birthplace.
Però chi d'esso loco fa parole
Non dica “Ascesi," chè direbbe corto,
Ma “Oriente,” se proprio dir vuole.
Therefore let him who makes mention of that place not say Ascesi ("I rose’), for he would say too little, but Orient if he would name it rightly.
This translation of the name of the town into its meaning of “rising'' helps to reinforce the parallel to the rising son of God, so we see that Dante's wordplay serves the typological connection he makes between Christ and St. Francis. Although Dante does pun throughout the Commedia, it is usually done much more silently than this. While an unwise sinner in the Purgatono etvmologizes her own name (Purg. 13.109-110) such playing with a name is unusual. The example of St, Francis would suggest therefore the typical association of personification with wordplay; the use of the personification of Poverty disposes Dante to think of St. Francis on the level of a personification and so the poet becomes sensitive to the verbal possibilities in St. Francis’ life. Yet, true to his structure, Dante produces a typology out of the pun.
What distinguishes typology from personification allegory is not mutually exclusive methodology, but the difference in their underlying structures. Typology relies basically on a certain way of understanding the connections between specific historical events as recorded in the Bible. Personification allegory relies on the reification of language itself, a process which involves the animation of nouns and the close scrutiny of the “things” embedded within words by etymology and puns. Dante puns, for he writes allegory, and his concern with the language of the poem is as self-reflexive as any allegorist who uses personification, But the basic structure of his poem is historical, and his concern with the polysemousness of, and the limits to, his language centers on its inability to record the historical journey. He has to rely less upon language itself because he can use history, which is itself polysemous.
A typological conception of allegory seems to predispose the poet to treat his pretext in a specifically symbolic way. Personification no less predetermines the poet to present the pretext through a process of reification. By glancing at Spenser's and Dante's differing treatments of the Bible as a book, we shall be able to sense in another concrete comparison the differences between these two species of allegorical narrative.
As we noticed earlier, the Redcrosse Knight produces the New Testament as a gift for Arthur at a crucial moment in his adventures; the Bible itself therefore appears as one of the things the Redcrosse Knight experiences in his travels. In contrast, Dante's first vision of the Bible itself as a book is not the physical object, but a pageant of personifications who represent the various books of the Bible. In canto 29 of the Purgatorio, Dante witnesses an elaborate allegorical progress which introduces Beatrice; literalizing the vision in Revelations, twenty-four old men walk together in stately procession, dressed in white, crowned with fleurs-de-lis. These men represent the twenty-four books of the Old Testament, or the books of faith, symbolized by their white dress. Then, accompanying the chariot and the griffin, appear four animals crowned with green fronds—these are, of course, the four gospel beasts of the New Testament, crowned with green, the color of hope. And finally, at the end of the pageant, clad in white and red, are seven personages who represent the remaining seven books of the New Testament and its message of love, symbolized by the color red. In the midst of describing this elaborate pageant, Dante complains about the difficulty of rendering its symbolic beauty, and even tells his reader to read Ezekiel, referring him more directly than ever before to the relevant passage in the pretext. The procession is allegory of a radically different type from that which Dante uses throughout the rest of the poem; the pageant is static and, in the highest sense of the term, symbolic. Dante does not talk to any of these creatures; he only witnesses their presence. In his dramatic juxtaposition of a radically different mode of narrative with his normal procedure in the next canto, canto 30, we can see Dante's articulation of the relationship between his two pretexts. In canto 29 he perceives the Bible personified, all its teachings implicit in the figures who parade before his eyes; in canto 30 he turns to say something to Vergil, quoting from the Aeneid the poignant, if not in this context heart-rending cry of Dido—”Conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma" (I recognize the signs of the old flame); but Vergil is gone. He has disappeared; human reason can go no further and the pagan wisdom of the Aeneid must be replaced by the higher authority of the revelation of God's Holy Word.
Dante can "follow" Vergil only so far, then he must invoke another authority. At the exact point of the exchange, Dante embodies in his text, the text to which he uniquely makes his appeal in the Paradiso. And as everywhere in the Commedia, the relationship between the two pretexts and the narrative is acted out on the literal level. One might have suspected that Dante, so sensitive to historical, physical actualities, would have presented the physical book itself; but he does not, at least not here in the midst of his journey, for the relationship between his text and its two pretexts is that of figure and fulfillment. The only text Dante need present is his own, for its own structure embodies the temporal connection between the narrative and the two pretexts, as well as the moral and ethical relationships between the two pretexts themselves, all of which are presented by the literal action of the poem. When the Bible appears, Vergil fades. Spenser, whose poem has no such immediate link to the Bible, must alert his reader to the pretext in a more obvious way; thus the book itself appears in the narrative. Its disappearance as well as its appearance comments on the action. After the Redcrosse Knight gives it up to Arthur in canto 9, he does not see it again until he arrives at the House of Holiness in canto 10. Only after he has experienced the disastrous results of disconnecting the teachings of its two texts is he shown the book again, and significantly, in the House of Holiness he is also taught how to read it.
Fair Vna gan Fidelia faire request,
To haue her knight into her schoolehouse plaste,
That of her heauenly leaming he might taste,
And heare the wisedome of her words diuine.
She graunted, and that knight so much agraste,
That she him taught celestiall discipline,
And opened his dull eyes, that light mote in them shine.
And that her sacred Booke, with bloud ywrit,
That none could read, except she did them teach,
She vnto him disclosed euery whit,
And heauenly documents thereout did preach,
That weaker wit of man could neuer reach,
Of God, of grace, of iustice, of free will,
For she was able, with her words to kill,
That wonder was to heare her goodly speach:
And raise againe to life the hart, that she did thrill.
Because he did not know how to read the testament properly in the first place, the Redcrosse Knight was subject to Despaire. Fidelia teaches him what was lacking in his understanding then, for it was specifically with a problem ‘’of God, of iustice, of free will’ that Despaire had confronted him. Fidelia here helps to give the hero the faithful understanding, or the understanding only faith can grant, which Una had asked him to “add unto” his force in canto 1. He had not the faith then; he won against Errour (in so far as he “won’’) by adding more force. Here in canto 10, Fidelia's instruction finally reads out what Una had meant as long ago as canto 1: to add to force the understanding given by faith is to realize that the force is not one's own.
Contemplation completes the process of instruction Fidelia begins by showing the hero the holy city of Jerusalem in a vision from the top of a typological mountain: it is like the one ‘’where writ in stone / With bloudy letters by the hand of God," Moses received ‘The bitter doome of death and baleful mone’'; or it is ‘’like that sacred hill, whose head full hie,” was “adorned with fruitful Oliues all arownd”; or, finally, it is “like that pleasaunt Mount, that is for ay / Through famous Poets verse each where renownd” (1.10.54) where the Three Graces dance. In these ‘or's'” we catch not only the note Milton echoed in his great typological poem—On the secret top of Oreb or of Sinai… Or if Sion delight thee more “—but also a less easy typological association between the three mountains than Dante would have assumed. Spenser, relying less solidly on a typological foundation throughout, must remind his reader when to read typologically. Dante never makes the associations so obvious, assuming that his reader will recognize that each mountain is the other, that each figure is its fulfillment, each type its antitype.
On this mountain, Contemplation gives the Redcrosse Knight his real name. Having finally attained psychic integrity (the wholeness of holiness), the Redcrosse Knight can leam who he is. He is St. George of Merrie England and almost as if the hero were himself a personification, Contemplation reads out the meaning of the Redcrosse Knight's name. Alluding to another pretext, this time to a native allegorical narrative, Contemplation identifies the knight as an adopted son of Piers Plowman:
thee a Ploughman all vnweeting fond,
As he his toylesome teme that way did guyde,
And brought thee vp in piloughmans state to byde,
Whereof Georgos he thee gaue to name;
Till prickt with courage, and thy forces pryde,
To Faery court thou cam‘st to seek for fame,
And proue thy puissant armes, as seemes thee best became.
Given here in its transliterated Greek form, Georgos means “worker of the earth,” a humble origin which the knight has too arrogantly forgotten and which has made him vulnerable to all the works of that other all-too-earthly brother of his, Orgoglio. Realizing the true meaning of his name, the knight learns that his duty is humbly to work the earth; he may not remain on the mountaintop, but must return to the plain and slay the dragon. Contemplation, the Redcrosse Knight says, “hast my name and nation red aright.”
In contrast to this naming in The Faerie Queene, we have Dante's name spoken only once, in the Purgatorio by Beatrice, who thereby identifies him as the historical individual who had loved her. Dante's own earthly life (as opposed to the “life‘’ he lives throughout the poem) in its particular historical] detail itself becomes a figure fulfilled by the events in the poem; his first glimpse of Beatrice culminates in this vision of her when she finally says his name. Against the historicity of Dante's naming in his poem, we have the reverberating etymology of St. George's christening, which comments on, explains, and unfolds the meaning of both the preceding and the successive episodes, It sums up the significance of what the Redcrosse Knight has learmed by confronting all the various personified projections of his own fragmented, unholy psyche. He is St. George, and so he is only a man of earth; the humility of the knowledge named by this name is his final protection against the dragon in the last battle.
Once again the giving of these names reveals the basic difference between allegory organized on typological, primarily historical lines, and allegory organized primarily around words—a divergence that is also clearly revealed in the different treatments of the pretext. Both Spenser and Dante create narratives which offer a “pattern of echo, development, recapitulation, and resolution within the events of the poem itself"; and just as Elizabeth Kirk has characterized these echoing responsions in Piers Plowman, so both Spenser and Dante owe the possibility of creating such texts to the operation of typology within the pretext. Because the Bible offers the original of this kind of patterning, Spenser no less than Dante or Langland trusts the impact and continuity of his poem to the force of this pattern, and to the ability of his readers, instructed by their reading of the Bible, to see it. That Spenser relies on typology less directly only emphasizes the underlying allegorical nature of the reading inculcated by typological patterns in the Bible. Both typology and personification serve the interests of allegory; it is simply in their differing mixtures within a given narrative that we can distinguish different types of allegory. The specific presentation of the pretext within a narrative may also, however, help to distinguish not only differences in allegorica] method, but to define the shifts the genre makes from one period to another in response to changing cultural assumptions about the nature of that pretext. It may be helpful now to turn to a different allegory which presents a different amalgam of text and pretext, and which, therefore, defines a different period of allegory.