This collection of essays has two uncommon virtues. First is the nature of the project itself, to “examine the key cultural and formal instantiations of allegory at the most important junctures of its history, and … [to] present a coherent account of its development over time,” (11) is unprecedented in its chronological and thematic sweep. Secondly, the editors have managed to make a collection that reads as a whole. For such an unwieldy topic as allegory, editorial shaping is crucial: the editors deserve high praise for the resulting coherence and dynamism of the collection. In the introduction, the editors lay out the historical manifestations of allegory and, most importantly, emphasize the foundational status of allegory in western thought. From Plato’s critique of allegory as hidden meanings in a text to de Man’s pronouncement that all reading criticism is a version of allegorical interpretation, the introduction posits continuity, variety, and innovation in the intellectual and literary history of allegory.
The first of the four sections of the collection, entitled “Ancient Foundations,” furnish a fascinating history of the origins and development of allegory and allegorical thought from Homer through Late Antiquity. The four essays in this section introduce key concepts that reappear throughout the history of allegory and the essays in the rest of the volume.
Dirk Obbink’s chapter, “Early Greek Allegory,” efficiently treats allegorical thought in Homer, Plato, tragedy, comedy, and the Derveni papyrus. Obbink helpfully distinguishes between allegorical (a poem’s surface hides meanings) and formalist readings (a poem’s structure, diction, style, and genre, produce meanings). Moreover, as Obbink argues, Early Greek literature and thought are foundational for allegory. Glenn Most in “Hellenistic Allegory and Early Imperial Rhetoric” distinguishes allegory’s rhetorical use in literature (“other speaking”) from allegory’s philosophical use ( hyponoia, “underthought”)—a distinction that recurs throughout the collection and is vital for understanding the history of allegory. Later Stoicism gives a broad rationale for allegorical interpretation that in effect saves poetry’s myths and philosophy’s doctrines from devaluation. Daniel Boyarin articulates the problem of knowledge and interpretation that Greek rhetoric and sophism posed and the responses of Judeo-Christian thought, mainly in the work of Origen. Boyarin argues that the epistemological challenge to philosophy by Gorgias, from the side of sophistic rhetoric and as reported in Sextus Empiricus, is what Judeo-Christian hermeneutics endeavors to solve. Christian “incarnational theology” that The Word incarnate, Jesus, reads scripture and shows how to give true interpretations allows Christians to interpret scripture and the world for themselves and becomes crucial to the history of interpretation in the West.
The second section of the collection (“Philosophy, Theology, and Poetry 200 to 1200”) gives the reader a clear view of the continuity of the allegorical tradition, especially on the western side, where the principles of Greek, biblical, and early Christian poetic allegory reach their full expression in medieval literature.
Contrary to the Platonic denial of poetry’s and allegory’s claim to truth, Peter Struck’s dynamic essay, “Allegory and Ascent in Neoplatonism,” argues convincingly that in certain Neoplatonist authors, truth and allegory are compatible. As Struck’s treatment of Neoplatonism points backward to Gorgias and Plato, so it points forward to the medieval connection between literary allegory and allegory as divination (as seen in the Chaldean Oracles and the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio). This implies that poetic myth ( fabula) contains philosophical truth that can be recognized by the reader. Once again, philosophy has made the world safe for literature. Denys Turner in his essay on “Allegory in Christian Late Antiquity,” argues that Origen, Augustine, Gregory, and Cassian establish the intellectual precedents for allegory’s use in medieval literature. From Cassian, Turner distinguishes between the allegorical, which has to do with the fulfillment of a scriptural event, and the literal, which is the promise that the event will happen (again): “History, as literally narrated in the Old Testament, means more, because it intends more, than the events it literally records.” (75) Turner’s essay is more concerned with patristic sources (and thus the distinction between theological allegory and allegory as a poetic trope) than with poetry. Peter Heath’s essay (“Allegory in Islamic Literatures”) takes the collection in a different direction, if only because those of us steeped in European literature and intellectual history are not as familiar, as we should be, with the medieval Islamic contribution. In this wonderfully informative essay, Heath shows the important connections between medieval Islamic allegorical literature and the European tradition; for example, the Platonic city/soul analogy (e.g. Avicenna). Jon Whitman in a grand literary historical essay begins with Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, a text that, as mentioned by Struck earlier, had great influence on medieval authors, whose work reflects the tensions of giving the natural world a deep structure in line with Christian belief: for example, William of Conches’ Platonic world soul as an expression of the Holy Spirit; Bernard Silvestris’ portrayal of the external conditions of the cosmos as reflected inside the characters of his Cosmographia; and Alan de Lille’s exploration of nature and the person in the Complaint of Nature.
Part III of the volume, which contains seven essays and is entitled “Literary Allegory: Philosophy and Figuration,” focuses, for the most part on individual works from the 13th to the 17th centuries. This is the golden age of literary allegory when the uses of allegory reflected the religious and secular intellectual debates of the era.
The first two essays, Kevin Brownlee on the Roman de la Rose and Albert Ascoli on Dante, highlight the extraordinary use of allegory by these poets. Brownlee reminds us that the Roman de la Rose is not a Neoplatonic work out to explain philosophical truth, but rather it constructs a courtly romance with allegorical truths in service to courtly values. De Meun’s continuation of the work brings back the Ovidian god of love who posits a fictional fabula at the surface level of the text that hides and reveals truth at the allegorical level. Ascoli’s excellent and closely argued essay on Allegory in Dante reveals the extraordinary ambition of the poet regarding allegory in his work. Ascoli argues that 1) Dante affirms both the literal and hidden sense of the text and that 2) Dante’s allegory attempts to conflate allegoresis (the practice of reading) and allegory (the practice of writing). Dante has portrayed himself as both an intention-filled writer and an interpreting reader. The next two chapters by Stephanie Gibbs Kamath and Rita Copeland, and Nicolette Zeeman, take up medieval secular and religious allegory in France and England respectively. Kamath/Copeland argue that the Roman de la Rose provoked new responses in vernacular secular allegory that explore eros /love’s relationship to artistic production and are employed as a pretext for philosophical, political, and ethical debate. Kamath/Copeland explain that Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea laid claim to a new literary lineage that rivals even the Roman de la Rose. Although literal and historical readings of scripture were popular in the 13 th century, Zeeman looks at works like Piers Plowman and the 65,000-line Ovid Moralise to show how religious and secular allegories mixed, and how secular vernacular models produced “a newly religious engagement with the world.” (161) Michael Murrin in “Renaissance Allegory from Petrarch to Spenser” shines a light on Renaissance approaches to allegory by focusing on the reception of the story and character of Aeneas. Petrarch reads the Aeneid as a psychomachia. Cristoforo Landino reads the Aeneid according to a Platonic moral exegesis in which Aeneas’ main goal is to escape from the world—much like Dante. Tasso’s Rinaldo and Spenser’s Red Cross Knight reveal the authors’ reading of the Aeneid in which the main character is constantly deciding between opposed alternatives, and frequently getting it wrong.
Brian Cummings in “Protestant Allegory” explains that in interpreting biblical texts, Luther was adamant that one cleave to “the literal sense of the text,” nam oratio quae non habet unam ac simplicem sententiam nihil certi docet. Nevertheless Cummings argues that the reception of Luther as anti-allegory does not fully represent Luther’s more nuanced view on allegory. Cummings’s solution is to claim that for Luther allegory itself is literal, because it is what the text intends. History and metaphor become part of protestant allegorical interpretation, albeit in a limited way. Blair Hoxby’s essay “Allegorical Drama” provides an interlude that is informative and impressive in its breadth of material. Hoxby surveys the dramatic genres of the pageant, i.e. Balet de Cour, Intermedio, and spatial allegories. In these the royal court represents the world or cosmos; the ruler is idealized with heroic virtue; and Pan is the universal god of nature, Apollo the Sun God, and Jupiter the Thunderer. These dramas sought a return to a golden age in which cosmic harmony was brought down to earth.
Taking its cue from Coleridge’s critique of allegorical discourse, Part IV of the collection, “The Fall and Rise of Allegory,” explores allegory’s status in modernity and postmodernity and situates allegory from the 19 th through the 21 st century as a spontaneous and unpredictable effect of a reader’s engagement with a work of art.
In her essay “Romanticism’s Errant Allegory,” Theresa Kelly surveys literary criticism, poetry, and painting to argue that the Romantics rejected allegorical meaning as prophetic or concealed; rather, the Romantics’ “modern reinvention” (228) of allegory was concerned with “spectacular figures and images.’ (212) Coleridge is the lynch pin that fuels the rejection of classical and biblical allegory because both undermine the category of the person and the idea of scripture as true revelation and history. Deborah Madsen in “American Allegory to 1900” extends this view, arguing that the Romantics emphasized “private and individual agency, rather than collective and structural prescriptions for interpretation.” Emerson’s revival of Neoplatonic allegorical cosmology is a product of Romantic subjectivity in which the imagination and soul of the inspired human subject receives and reveals truth. In his “Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Allegory,” Howard Caygill explicates the modernist crisis of meaning that constitutes the essence of the allegorical through an analysis of Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Benjamin argued that, as a collective, humans are in a perpetual state of crisis in the allegorical culture of high capitalism where meaning is destabilized. As Caygill argues, Benjamin’s hope of allegorical art as a threat to this petrification of capitalist unrest is rather impotent since, under these socio-economic conditions, it is impossible for literature and art to influence social or political debates because there are none, only unrest, crisis, and emergency. In his “Hermeneutics, Deconstruction, Allegory,” Steven Mailloux discusses Frye, Gadamer, and de Man in order to argue that hermeneutics and deconstruction are helping to rehabilitate allegory from the Protestant, Romantic, and Modernist critique. In his critique of Romanticism, Gadamer sees a privileging of symbol, which entailed the decline of rhetoric and devaluing of allegory. On his scheme, rhetoric and hermeneutics are inseparable. De Man tells a similar story but adds that rhetorical linguistic features “trouble” interpretive reading (265). For him rhetoric and hermeneutical theories remain in dynamic tension. Lynette Hunter’s “Allegory Happens: Allegory and the Arts Post- 1960,” begins with an excellent summary of the definitions of allegory. Moreover, this essay focuses on art itself: novels, drama, dance, film, and new media in conceptual and performance art. According to Hunter, allegory in our time can or cannot happen. Because of difference and the politics of democratization, allegory generates contradictions and partial knowledge. In Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance, the reader gives up on meaning, especially a unitary meaning, and meditates on “the reading moment’s significance.” (270) Hunter’s essay is a fitting ending to a challenging yet immensely satisfying collection of essays.
One can spend time with the essays in this book, ruminating and reflecting on the powerful role that allegory has played in the history of western literature, art, and thought. In fact, creating and reading literature and art can be seen as a response to the allegorical impulse. The collection inspires the reader to (re)experience the literature and art of a period for him or herself.