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Allegory and the Western Epic

Allegory and the Western Epic

Perhaps we have so much trouble [understanding allegory] because we still think of poetry as an end in itself rather than as a medium. The purpose of allegorical rhetoric is to create a particular experience within a person. The words of the poet stimulate this experience. Partial as it is, the lógos prophorikós [the spoken word] requires the auditor to complete the poem himself, and in the process he enters into the thought-modes of the poet. He sees through the poet’s verbal veil into the poet’s mind and there finds truth, but a truth which does not correspond to our notions of truth. He finds not a fact or a concept but a way of looking at things which reveals to him his own divinity. As if he saw lightning flash in a clear night sky, he suddenly perceives that he, simply by being man, transcends his own world, and the more he thinks mythologically, the less he is bound by the chains of contingency.

—Michael Murrin

Persuasive allegory does not duplicate. . . . It releases a counterplay of imagination and thought by which each becomes an irritant to the other, and both may grow through the irksome contact.

—Edgar Wind

Allegoria does not use metaphor; it is one. By definition a continued metaphor, allegoria exhibits the normal relation of concretion to abstraction found in metaphor, in the shape of a series of particulars with further meanings. Each such concretion of sensual detail is by virtue of its initial base already a metaphor.

—Rosamund Tuve

In addition to allegory and metaphor, thought and imagination—the attentive reader will have noticed—our epigraphs have also introduced the terms myth, divinity, truth, and experience; concretion and abstraction, the particular and, by implication, the universal. Together with the title they have raised certain questions about the relationship among the poet, the poem, the auditor and, by extension, the reader of epic. It has seemed best to lay these cards on the table at the outset. We shall return to our terms for fuller consideration as occasion requires, but none in this essay will be given final definition. To do so would allow our topic, The Allegorical Element, to preempt our subject, The Western Epic. Let us proceed at once to our thesis, to wit, that the western epic, from beginning to end, is allegorical. This view is not so much new as neoclassical. In his Traité du poëme épique of 1675 Le Bossu had said, of epic action, that “it is Universal, it is Imitated, it is Feign’d [imaginative], and it contains Allegorically, a Moral Truth.” This truth, he goes on to say, is veiled behind an action which, though “invented by the Author . . . yet will seem to be taken out of some History and Fable.” A fable is of course an imaginative story that has a moral. Moral and allegory for Le Bossu are practically the same. Do not all epics have a moral? Are they not then all allegorical? What has happened to our sense that allegory requires a special rhetorical machinery, a “continued metaphor” (Quintillian), a “sequence of metaphors” in which “the sense of the words is totally altered” (Cicero), a distinguishing degree of abstraction, as in the general modern conception of the form?

The fact of the matter is that we have made some progress in our understanding of allegory, which we now recognize as a mode, not a form; as an unstable counterplay of terms (Edgar Wind), not an homogeneous expression; as a discourse hard to schematize, not the regularly leveled quatre-sens of medieval-Renaissance theory. “The more allegory exploits the divergence between corresponding levels of meaning,” Jon Whitman observes, “the less tenable the correspondence becomes. Alternatively, the more it closes ranks and emphasizes the correspondence, the less oblique, and thus the less allegorical, the divergence becomes.” Allegory is beginning to sound like literature itself, the hermeneutic exegete like the modern critic. Some will agree, some disagree: if everything is allegory, then nothing is allegory.

Our subject here, we recall, is not, however, literature but the western epic. What in this tradition is allegorical, what not? Or to turn the question around, who within the tradition would regard himself as allegorical, who not? Dante regards himself as allegorical. Does Byron? Does Homer? Neither pronounced on the topic. Let us, then, turn the question another way. What in Dante is lacking from other perspectives? From the pre-classical point of view he is not mythic; from the modern point of view he is not historical. Or is he? Auerbach describes him as “the first to configure what antiquity had configured very differently and the Middle Ages not at all: man not as a remote legendary hero . . . but man as we know him in his historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness.” As for his Christian belief, is it not also mythic? For Gregory Nagy myth represents a “collective expression,” “an expression that society itself deems to be true and valued. From the standpoint of the given society that it articulates,” he adds, “myth is the primary reality.” Nagy has in view Homer’s society, but he might as well be speaking of Dante’s. Dante, then, is mythic, historical and allegorical. Moreover, since he represents his personal experience, he may be called experiential as well.

What is it, then, that separates myth, history, allegory and experience? Many things: they are by no means identical. And yet in epic expression they coalesce. Homer and Vergil, Dante and Ariosto, Spenser and Milton, all are mythic writers, yet all have historical subjects; all represent experience, yet all are allegorical. This inclusiveness is one feature that distinguishes the epic from other literary modes. Furthermore, we may say that all major epic is sacred, cosmological, geographical and philosophical, in varying degrees of course. It is this variation by degree that gives the sub-genres and that makes the larger mode so resistant to unitary definition. We might explore all these aspects of the epic. Instead we shall concentrate upon only one, the allegorical; but in so doing we must situate that element in relation to the others. The Western Epic is a large subject. We shall limit ourselves to examples drawn from pre-classical Greece and Alexandria; ancient Rome; medieval Italy; Renaissance Italy; seventeenth-century Spain; and sixteenth-, seventeenth- and nineteenth-century England.


We begin with Homer. Subject to allegorization at the hands of scholiast, Athenian philosopher, Roman critic, neoplatonist, medieval, Renaissance and later commentators, Homer nonetheless continues to provoke the question, is the text itself allegorical? The modern reader, who takes his fiction in the form of novel, cinema, television series, is all too prone to regard Homer as essentially naturalistic, a novelist with divine machinery, a few allegorical trappings, a certain amount of fabulous improbability (a one-eyed monster, a horse that talks). Accordingly, he is largely unsympathetic toward the great tradition of allegoresis and instinctively recoils at the notion that Homer himself was an allegorist. “Homer no more dreamed that nonsense,” said Rabelais, “than Ovid in his Metamorphoses dreamed the Gospels.” Seneca, in a more balanced statement, remarks, of the philosophical exegetes, “None of their doctrines are in Homer, simply because they are all there, all contradicting one another.”

What then is there, and how do we prove that it is? The modern allegorical reader of Homer is in much the same position as the teacher of unlettered students. He must convince his audience that what meets the eye is not all there is, and he had best do so without recourse to authority. Not only poetry but critical reading begins with Homer. Let us admit, then, in all candor that the lines between mythic shape, historical significance, allegorical meaning and thematic content are not easy to draw. What to one reader is mythic to another is historical (does the Fall of Troy portend the ascendancy of Occident over Orient?). Likewise, what to one reader may seem allegorical, may to another seem merely thematic. Yet another reader may regard the Odyssey but not the Iliad as allegorical. As to the question of Homer’s intentions, it seems to this reader highly unlikely that a poet of such consummate artistry, at the end of such a long poetic tradition, could have been unconscious of his allegorical import. Moreover, he may have been capable of articulating allegorical readings of his work wholly alien to later understanding. What, after all, do we know of the history of this legend between the time of its nominal events and its redaction in Homer?

Let us pick up where Aristotle left off, with his three influential terms: mythos (myth), plasma (fiction), and istoria (history), all counterpoised against actuality or present experience. Is Homer mythic? According to Nagy, “the primary narrative of Greek epic, which is the Trojan War, is self-motivated by the Indo-European social principle of counterbalancing praise and blame,” the paradigm for which he finds in the Judgment of Paris, which “entailed the blaming of the goddesses Hera and Athena along with the praising of Aphrodite.” “Myth,” says Nagy elsewhere, “in societies where it exists as a living tradition, must not be confused with fiction.” But in Homer’s hands it is a fiction. Is it not also an allegory? Surely so. Is it also an historical event? It is at least legendary, a part of the epos that Homer has inherited. Thus the Judgment to some degree fits all three of Aristotle’s categories.

Homer, then, is mythic, but is he also religious? Hera, Athena and Aphrodite figure not only in the underlying paradigm but also as central powers throughout the epic. Zeus, in Xenophanes’ description, resembles a monotheistic god: “he remains in the same place . . . , but without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind.” In Nausikaa, Odysseus sees Artemis, the daughter of Zeus. It was Apollo, not you, who killed me, Patroklos tells Hektor; in Ovid, Neptune exhorts the same god to slay Achilles.

If Homer is religious, is the Iliad sacred? By the standard of Tasso or Milton, yes. Cosmological? Surely the Shield of Achilles demonstrates that. Is he not then also allegorical? What must we do to make the case? Without exhaustively surveying every book, let us touch on some high points. Though not theological in the sense of a Dante or Milton, Homer nonetheless raises questions about the relationship of the gods and men in ways that sometimes suggest Christian argument. What was the reason for all this suffering, past, present and to come? asks Book III. Perhaps the Rape of Helen is but another version of Original Sin, Satanic Paris, uxorious Menelaos, Helen in her pride and sorrow another Eve. The gifts of the gods—Helen’s beauty, Paris’ charm—are a kind of Fate, not to be cast away. The will of the gods overrides practical and moral considerations. The allegorical Menelaos and Paris, responsible husband and profligate prince, having agreed to duel, are nonetheless helpless to resolve a conflict larger than theirs, for Helen (Passion) inhibits its resolution. She, says Homer, is like a goddess. More important than her role is that of Zeus; larger still than his is the role of Fate. Paris and Menelaos not so much fight as display their allegorical temperaments. As in Spenser, Homeric allegory is complex, psychological as well as moral and theological

Book IV depicts a Council of the Gods in an allegorical parallel with an earlier human council. In Book V Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo and Ares intervene in the battle. Toward the middle of the action Diomedes attacks Aphrodite; dropped by his mother, Aeneas is rescued by Apollo, who fashions him into a brilliant image. How carefully Vergil must have studied this emblem: the Trojan prince as Apostle of Civilization. Book VI, like Books I, IX, XVI and XXIV, all notably naturalistic, brings earlier theological discourse down to an experiential level, as Diomedes asks Glaukos why humans go to war. In Book VII, replete with the allegorical episodes of Zeus’s golden cord and golden scales, the gods again intervene. What are they but allegories of the invisible world, of its psychological, scientific, cosmic modalities: Energy (Apollo), Culture (Artemis), Strife (Ares), Wisdom (Hermes), Fecundity (Hera), Power (Zeus), Love (Aphrodite), Time (Chronos)? More allegorical episodes follow in Books XIV and XV: the lovemaking of Zeus, instigated by Hera, in turn abetted by Sleep and Aphrodite; the fettering of Hera’s feet with anvils. The conclusion of Book XVIII offers the Iliad’s most extended allegorical episode, a miniaturized cosmology: Earth, Sky and Sea’s Water; Sun, Moon and the Constellations; the Ocean River, all on a work of art so magnificent and incongruous in its context that Ovid’s Ulysses is moved to ask Ajax why Thetis would have thought to arm such a rough and foolish soldier as her son with such celestial accoutrements. Thus is the allegorical principle of episodic relevance and incongruity observed.

As the Iliad moves toward closure, its allegorical element increases. Book XXI treats us to an elemental battle of Water vs. Fire along with a series of multilevel parodies, emblematic gods squaring off in human-style conflicts: Athena vs. Ares, Apollo vs. Poseidon, Hermes vs. Leto, Hera vs. Artemis, Hephaistos vs. Xanthos, all foreshadowing on a lower level the climactic battle of the semi-divine Achilles and the mortal Hektor. Only the anagogical figures of Zeus and Aphrodite refrain from contest, as though in comment on their lesser counterparts. In Book XXIII athletic games serve as an extended peaceful metaphor of the poem’s more extensive martial action. Book XXIV, with its type scenes (divine visitation, supplication, funeral), involves Hermes in its scenario of reconciliation. As he brought to conclusion his Poem of Wrath (whose other allegorical figures include Fear and Terror; Hate, Confusion and Death; Ate, or Blind Folly), did Homer think of Hermes, the figure of Wisdom, as a bridge to the more hermetic Odyssey? Undoubtedly so. For just as Achilles appears at the end of that poem, so Odysseus’ reappearance is predicted at the end of this one.

Iliad and Odyssey: from a whole cycle of epics, why have these two alone survived? Because Heroic Mind complements and completes Heroic Body. Likewise Penelope (Fidelity) balances Helen (Infidelity). Such are Homer’s allegorical pairings, unlike the merely modal oppositions that balance the two works and distinguish them from one another (tragedy vs. comedy; Aristotle’s simple and pathetic Iliad vs. his complex and ethical Odyssey). Like the Iliad, the Odyssey too is theological, as Athena’s domination of Hera and Aphrodite indicates.

Throughout history the Odyssey has been far more subject to allegoresis than the Iliad, and the reason is not far to seek: Odysseus himself in his narrative (Books 9-12) is a blatant allegorist, and Homer, though far more subtle, scarcely lags behind in his activity. Moreover, Homer himself is engaged in allegoresis, reworking presumably rougher, less developed material, refining and allegorizing it. The Odyssey overtly refers to many elements in the Iliad and may even be taken as an allegoresis of the earlier poem’s theme of withdrawal and reentry.

Though also concerned with the family, friendship, and the principle of leadership, the Odyssey focuses on the solitary spirit (or in more allegorical readings, the Soul). Laertes, an only child, is the father of an only child, our hero, in turn the father of Telemakhos, another only child. Individual Man, then, is Homer’s allegorical hero; his temptation, parallel with that of Paris, occasions heroic resistance: to Circe’s wand, to the Sirens’ song, to the temptation of Helios’ Kine. The last episode is a parable of Original Sin, a temptation foretold at the poem’s outset, one to which the leader’s companions, but not the leader himself, fall victim. Likewise Penelope resists temptation, though her serving-girls fail to. She is part of a quartet of allegorical female figures that includes Kalypso, Circe and Nausikaa. In a similar configuration Odysseus is placed among another allegorical foursome that includes Agamemnon, Menelaos and Ajax. This kind of symmetry is not naturalistic.

Allegorical elements in the Telemakhiad are easily overlooked. When Menelaos tells Telemakhos of Proteus, Heraclitus recognizes in this figure the Origin of the Universe (and we, a cosmological dimension of the Odyssey); for Bacon, Proteus stood for Productive Matter; in a common classical view, for Truth. Who are we to say that Homer was unaware of such allegorical meanings? In Book 5, like one of Ariosto’s knights, Odysseus sets out from Kalypso, The Concealer’s, island for a series of more openly allegorical encounters with Hermes, Poseidon, Leucothea and Athena. In Book 6 he gazes at Nausikaa, according to some accounts the Mirror of the Soul. The Phaiakia episode as a whole represents an allegorical topos, an Ambiguous Paradise, much imitated in later tradition. There Demodokos (“Popular,” as opposed to merely “Famous,” as Phemius, the poem’s other bard’s name suggests) sings of the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus in an allegorical epitome of the Homeric corpus. After an interlude of games (multilayered in their significance, here as in the tradition at large) there follows a song of Ares and Aphrodite, another inset allegory, cosmologically construed by the neoplatonists, and certainly another metaphor for the themes of Iliad and Odyssey.

Odysseus himself sings of such allegorical subjects as Cyclops (“Circle Eye”), Symplegades (“Clashing Rocks”) and Nemo (“Nobody”). The modern reader tends to regard the second half of the epic as essentially naturalistic, but we must not forget that it is introduced by a Voyage in a Magical Boat; the Hero’s Encounter with the Goddess of Wisdom; and her Transformation of him into a Beggar in his own Realm. These romance motifs are easily allegorizable, as are Odysseus’ reunions with Eumaios and Penelope (above ground), with Achilles and Agamemnon (below ground, in a second Nekyia); likewise, the victory of Good over Bad, which culminates an extended allegory of Intelligence, Fidelity and Loyalty against the forces of Anti-mind (Antinous), Duplicity (Amphimous) and Treachery.


When the classical epic is incontestably allegorical, as in the Theogony, we shall not bother to make an argument. The only question is where Hesiod’s allegory leaves off, if at all. For in addition to cosmological elements such as Void, Darkness and Light, abstract principles such as Law, Wisdom and Peace, bodily states such as Sleep, Death and Old Age, moral agencies such as Retribution and Strife, Hesiod includes both major and minor divinities, the Muses, the Giants, the Nymphs and the Fates. At the poem’s conclusion he points this all in the direction of Jason, Odysseus, Anchises and Aeneas. Are we to suppose that these heroes were for Hesiod less allegorical than the rest of his cast? For some readers another question remains: is the Theogony really an epic? The ancients thought so, as did those in the allegorical tradition. That we today even entertain the question indicates how far we have shifted the epic genre’s definition away from allegorical expression toward naturalistic narrative.


The whole Alexandrian enterprise of miniaturizing, ironizing and modernizing the epic represents a form of Homeric allegoresis. Callimachus does in a few hundred lines what the pre-classical epic did in a book; Theocritus turns Polyphemus into a jest; Apollonius, through a kind of psychological allegory, refashions pre-Homeric Jason into a modern urban soul. Since space is limited, we shall take up only the Argonautica, and then only the introduction to Book III. Under the muse of Erato rather than Calliope (love poetry rather than epic), Apollonius has Hera and Athena supplicate Aphrodite in a plot to make Jason and Medea fall in love. This imitation of the Judgment of Paris thus builds one allegory atop another. Power and Wisdom must first be reconciled before they can solicit the help of Beauty and Love (Eros) to do their bidding. It is a fable in which Strife (Eris) is supplanted by the principal of Cooperation.

Apollonius’ version is also a tale of Married Love as opposed to Adultery. It merges themes of the Odyssey (where not only Odysseus and faithful Penelope, but Menelaos and unfaithful Helen are reunited) and opposes them to the theme that propels the Iliad (where Paris and Helen, Agamemnon and Briseis and, no doubt, many others are engaged in adultery). Apollonius also gathers up other elements in the tradition, for Medea’s violent treachery within the family recalls Klaitemnestra’s murderous act. His depiction of Aphrodite and Hephaistos in marital harmony supplants Demodokos’ model in his song of Ares and Aphrodite. Of Hephaistos the Alexandrian writes, “He had gone early to his forge and anvils in a broad cavern on a floating island, where with the blast of flame he wrought all manner of curious work.” In that sentence Apollonius’ audience would have seen an allegory of Fire, Water and Earth, a topography of Mainland, Island and Cavern, figurations that we are less familiar with. The first three terms belong to a permanent elemental drama, the latter three to a permanent Greek geography. One of the subgenres of the epic is the geographical. In the Iliad we resituate ourselves in Troy; in the Odyssey we return to Greece, taking time out for expansive excursions; in the Argonautica we travel much farther afield but always with one foot in Alexandria.


Despite our advances in understanding allegory, there remain many modern misapprehensions: that a work must be overtly allegorical to qualify as such; that its allegorical elements must be consistent; that allegory can exist without allegorical reading. Vergil seems an appropriate point at which to dispose of such misconceptions, for with the Aeneid sophisticated allegorical reading becomes institutional, both on Vergil’s part and on the part of his critics. Servius, who had to invent the word “polysemous” to accommodate this poet’s work, initiates an enterprise that is alive today and includes the early Christian Fulgentius (who discerned in Aeneid I-VI the course of life from youth to old age), the medieval Bernard Sylvestris (who found in the poem “truth in the veil of fiction”), Dante (who treated his master under the head of Human Wisdom), and Landino (who saw in the work a quest for the highest good). Poets from Boiardo to Milton likewise had their own Aeneids. We must, however, remind ourselves that our principal concern lies not with what readers have found in Vergil but what in the work enabled them to find it.

The Aeneid is an allegory built, we might say, out of a synthesis of earlier allegoresis. There is nothing naïve in Vergil. The Homeric influence competes with the Alexandrian, the Athenian and the Roman, the allegory compounding the mythic, historical, theological and experiential levels in a way that will prove especially sympathetic to Renaissance and later readers. The first epic of complex historical consciousness, the Aeneid is an allegory of Past, Present and Future. In his representation of Rome, Vergil is also an allegorist: political, religious and amatory. Undoubtedly his contemporaries saw much more in the poem than we do. Only after two centuries of scholarship are we beginning to catch up with Vergil’s allusions.

His allegoresis of Homer is a more straightforward subject, for which we now have the basic analysis but not as yet the full interpretation. Only gradually, for example, are we giving up the notion that the Aeneid’s first half imitates the Odyssey, its second, the Iliad, a Renaissance idea as imprecise as another coeval critical chestnut, the assignment to the poem’s two halves two different themes: the via contemplativa and the via activa. Likewise the crudity of earlier characterology, as in Scaligero’s view that Aeneas represents the fortitude of Achilles (his temerity removed) and the prudence of Odysseus (his cunning transferred to Sinon).

We cannot here discuss the whole Aeneid, though by concentrating on its central story, that of Dido and Aeneas, we may find a key to its structure. As with Homer, Apollonius and others in the tradition, Vergil indicates that his theme is the Fall of Man, when he says of his hero and heroine’s outing, “that day was the first cause of death, and first of sorrow.” Like Apollonius’ Hera and Aphrodite, Vergil’s Juno and Venus have colluded in arranging a tragedy, one that Mercury’s visit at Jove’s behest precipitates. Aeneas himself blames his departure on Apollo and Fate. Here the allegory is theological and moral. Like Milton, Vergil chastises his heroine for her evil deed; unlike Milton, he leaves it for us to surmise its consequences (what will her suicide mean for her subjects?). Though compounded of many characters, historical as well as literary (she echoes Homer’s Penelope, Helen, Nausikaa, Kalypso and Circe, and like Ajax commits suicide; she is modeled on Euripides’ and Apollonius’ Medea; she reflects both the historical founder of Carthage and her modern successor, Cleopatra), Dido is nonetheless an original, as is Aeneas. For though he too combines literary with historical precedent (Homeric Odysseus, Hektor, Achilles, Agamemnon and Paris; earlier representations of Jason; historical figures such as Antony and Augustus), he matches Dido in a brilliance of multivalence that has given life to the pair for two thousand years, in nearly a hundred operatic representations alone. Moreover, this couple (they may well have been married in that cave, for Roman law required no ceremony) stand behind Milton’s Adam and Eve and collapse into Spenser’s Britomart. No major poet has escaped their charisma.

By reexamining them through the lenses of Spenser and Milton we gain some insight into their character. Like both Dido and Aeneas, Britomart is both chaste and lascivious. Like Britomart, Aeneas and Dido are one: as we read their speeches we feel that we are listening to two sides of Vergil’s own personality, in what we might call an allegory of Self and Soul. Both Dido and Aeneas are political leaders who found empires, are exiles who betray their vows and, as a consequence, meet in Hades. We recall Dido vividly from this encounter in Book VI, and of course from her tragedy in Book IV, but we tend to forget that she is also present in Books I-III. Moreover, she is shadowed forth in Books VII-XII. The possibilities of an epic with two central figures, male and female, could not have been lost on Milton. Alive, Dido is anti-type to Creusa; dead, type to Lavinia’s anti-type. She dies on Aeneas’ sword, of a self-inflicted wound, her pyre recalling Hektor’s; Aeneas is Hektor redivivus, his Achillean sword the agent also of Turnus’ death, the latter another Hektor, or Dido. Nothing in Vergil is simple.

Aeneas’ infernal descent is an anti-type of the two infernal descents in the Odyssey. Homer had troped his first with his second; Vergil now tropes both of Homer’s. As though obsessively allegorical in his method, the Roman poet forces upon us encounters with Chaos, the Fiery Stream, Grief and Cares, Disease and Old Age, Dread, Hunger and Want. Death and Toil are followed by Homeric Death’s own brother, Sleep, Death-bringing War and Discord (that Eris who had provoked the Judgment of Paris). We continue with Aeneas on past the Centaurs, past Scylla, Briareus and the Lernaen Hydra, past Chimaera, Gorgon, the Harpies and Geryon. And this is just the opening scene. No wonder that Vergil’s complete geography of Hades sufficed to inspire Dante’s Inferno. As Vergil himself makes clear at the end of Book VI, Aeneas’ descent is not a real but a false dream. It is, in fact, a dream allegory, personal and psychological but also cosmological, historical and prophetic. Are cosmology, history and prophecy chimerical too? Prophecy will prove especially important in Vergil’s Christian successors. Dante will appropriate Vergil’s history and cosmology. As Seneca said of Homer, all the doctrines (in this case theological, philosophical, political) are there, all contradicting one another. Again Vergil has taken his master seriously.

In our brief survey of his allegory we must at least touch on Vergil’s allegoresis, in Book VIII, of The Shield of Achilles. The Shield of Aeneas, we recall, is made by Vulcan at the request of Venus. (We note in passing how Vergil extends Apollonius’ account of a reconciled Hephaistos and Aphrodite.) Like the Greek shield, the Roman places a microcosm within a macrocosm, a common device of ambitious allegory. Landino had allegorized the Aeneid according to a theory of macrocosmic and microcosmic correspondences; one now sees where he found his sanction. Like Homer’s Descent into Hades, but not like his Shield of Achilles, Vergil’s Shield of Aeneas is prophetic. The Shield of Aeneas combines, then, myth, history and prophecy, a combination that proves essential to the later phases of the tradition.

In Book IX, contra Apollonius’ Erato, Vergil invokes Calliope, as he moves toward closure. In Book XI Aeneas is spoken of as “first in reverence for the gods.” Consequently, some later readers take him for a priest rather than an epic hero, though others regard his piety as confirming the new theological direction that the allegorical epic will take.


We need not await Prudentius, much less Dante, those Vergilian devotees, to witness the new theological direction, for within a generation of Vergil comes Ovid, to enact, as he devours his mighty predecessor, the most stupendous succession struggle known to literature, some of its consequences emblematized in the tales of Phaeton, Icarus and Ovid’s own exile at the hands of Augustus. As for theology, where could we find a more compendious redaction than the Metamorphoses? In the Bible? An Imperial Roman who begins his epic with accounts of the Creation, Original Man, Universal Sin, The Flood and its aftermath could hardly have been ignorant of Hebrew belief. To ask if he had read the Bible is to miss the point: like Shakespeare and Whitman, this cosmopolitan was a great talker. He learned of Israel as the Londoner learned of Italy, the New Yorker of India, both in and out of books. Along with Confucius, Ovid is for Ezra Pound one of the two reliable guides to religion. A man without much sense of humor, Pound took his Ovid seriously, as for the most part have western poets for two millennia. What has this to do with allegory?

Quite a bit, for one may say serious things in ironic form. Some classical rhetoricians regard allegory as a form of irony, others as a mode of personification, yet others as ornament (kosmos, in Aristotle’s term). Ovid is the first fully ironic poet, in the sense that he projects at least two contradictory attitudes in everything that he writes. He also creates what D. C. Feeney calls “personification allegory,” “an alternative way of reflecting on human behavior, one which was eventually to emerge triumphant in European verse narrative.” According to Angus Fletcher, kosmos, or the allegorical image, emphasizes “the visual modality,” more specifically “visual or symbolic ‘isolation,’” and signifies both “a universe” and “a symbol that implies a rank in a hierarchy.” According to Gordon Teskey, allegory is paratactic, digressive, and episodic and introduces iconographic details irrelevant to its narrative. Taken together, these observations about the nature of the mode throw a good deal of light on Ovid’s practice. As the Ovide moralisé and Renaissance readers attest, we are not the first to regard Ovid as bound up with the allegorical. We may, however, be the first to claim that he is quintessentially so.

Let us begin with parataxis. Notoriously Ovid strings together two-hundred and fifty stories in such a way that to this day, though we can recognize thematic and major structural groupings, we cannot discern any general principles of subordination or unity. Even metamorphosis is not an adequate principle. Though most epic narratives digress, Ovid is the first to interrupt a train of thought or story line for the sake of doing so. No other long poem before his is more episodic, that is, composed of such allegorically self-contained units. Only with Petrarch and his sonnet sequence will someone go further toward minimalizing the allegorical segments of a long poem. With Tennyson and other moderns the fashion grows for composing long poems episodically. Generally, then, we may say that Ovid emphasizes “the visual modality,” as his legion of painterly followers attests; that his narrative episodes stand in “visual or symbolic ‘isolation’” from one another; and that their iconographic details are often irrelevant to any larger narrative, precisely because no larger narrative exists. The frame of the poem, from creation to the present, is not a narrative, merely a terminus a quo and ad quem. Ovid’s novel personification allegories (see Envy in Book II, Hunger in VIII, Sleep in XI and Rumor in XII) set us on a course that will lead through Dante on to Spenser and Milton.

The Metamorphoses, neither continuous in its action nor clear in its moral, is also tonally ambiguous. Accordingly, interpretative responsibility, as with all allegory, falls upon the reader’s shoulders. The poem begins with cosmology, devolving thence into theology, myth, history and experience. Thus is promulgated a five-level allegorical scheme: the cosmic, the divine, the semi-divine, the heroic and the ordinary mortal, strands that are often interwoven. The early parts of the poem emphasize Love, the later, War, the two themes interinvolved, as were Ares and Aphrodite, whose story Ovid retells. This allegorical interplay will find many friends in the Renaissance, among them Ariosto, Tasso, Sidney and Spenser, who follow Ovid in glossing that allegorical union as the two aspects of Hercules.

We have been speaking broadly of Ovid’s allegorical features. Let us return to a single episode, the story of Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun, an allegory of Hubris. Represented as an ekphrasis of the doors of Apollo’s temple, Ovid’s story, like Homer’s and Vergil’s shields, is an inset allegory. Included in its narrative are the allegorical figures of Day, Month, Year, Century and Hours, who, along with the four Seasons, attend Phaeton in his progress across the sky. Ovid digresses to introduce the Houses of the Zodiac, an allegorical cosmology elaborated with more allegorical figures in attendance on the Sun: Blazes, Dawn, Fire and Flame. The whole episode is part of an overarching elemental allegory that contrasts Fire with the Water of the flood and with mother Earth, who, at the narrative’s conclusion, complains about the heat of the sun. These three fecundating elements are of course also complementary.

In the space that remains let us turn from Ovid’s allegoresis of Hesiod, Aratus and Lucretius to his allegoresis of Homer, Apollonius and Vergil. In reworking the legend of Troy, Ovid both expands the Homeric frame (he includes the foundation of Troy as well as the Odyssean aftermath) and miniaturizes the epic tale (as in Book XII, where he summarizes the Trojan War in half a dozen lines). Later on he does much the same with Vergil, recounting at length legendary Rome and then, in a two-line summary almost comic in its effect, polishing off the last six books of the Aeneid. In four lines drained of all romantic interest he summarizes Dido’s story. As though seeking to overgo himself as miniaturist, in Book XIII he reduces both Odyssey and Iliad to an epigram: “Mind counts for more than muscle.” Summary, and its cousin, generalization, then, are essential instruments of Ovid’s allegorical technique, whereby story is converted into abstraction. Some techniques of allegoresis he has learned from his masters: how to enlarge the Odyssean element in recounting the Iliad’s story (from Vergil); how to epitomize Homer by staging a battle between Ajax and Odysseus (from Homer himself); how to introduce Apollonian material into the account of Troy (Vergil as well as Apollonius had taken his hero to Odyssean sites). Similarly, Ovid adds post-Homeric material, in this following Vergil and pointing a direction for Dante and others. His handling of the departure from Troy links the two Homeric poems by way of another Vergilian allegoresis.

The problematic Book XV, taken too seriously by those who seek in Ovid a consistent philosophy, undoes Pythagoras and the general gravity of classical thought. By endorsing the Pax Romana, Ovid contravenes the myth of Eris. Reversing the poem’s overall progress, he memorializes the political Caesar as an historical figure, then renders him divine, reserving for himself alone a cosmic position among the stars. In a double irony the mortal Emperor is snatched away by Venus, a goddess on whom Caesar himself had bestowed cult status. Nonetheless, Ovid’s divine prophecy overgoes the merely political prophecy of Aeneid VI, whose infernal descent Ovid had already overgone by recourse to the deeper myth of Orpheus.

We must note that Ovid is also anti-allegorical, in his agnosticism, in his trivialization of myth, history and politics, in his self-defeating parody. In this he predicts Byron.


I have two friends, one a devout Christian, the other a non-believer. The latter, having taken up Dante, delighted in scandalizing the former by reporting that he was reading a long poem by an Italian who had gone on a journey. I have another friend, also a believer, and a Dante scholar, who, though he recognizes allegory in the poet’s treatment of The Seven Deadly Sins, does not find the Divine Comedy as a whole allegorical. A non-believer myself, I regard the poem as thoroughly allegorical, though I consider Dante a rather muddled critic of his own work, for it seems both improbable and undesirable that a long narrative should consistently maintain four levels of meaning. How can there be such fundamental disagreement among five readers, all brought up in the same tradition, three of them Christian, four of them living in the same age? Quite simple. What is allegorical is a matter of definition and interpretation.

No friend of Dante’s, this reader has nonetheless found the Comedy’s argument to be the least controvertible in all literature. What is its universal appeal? So few readers have read the whole poem, in the original, recently, that we shall not dwell on the beauties of its language, imagery, or pathetic affect. What, we shall ask instead, in its epic argument, its Idea, that is, its allegory, is so attractive? But first we must summarize that argument and will turn to Dorothy Sayers for guidance. “Allegory,” she begins, “is the interpretation of experience by means of images.” Dante’s poem “is an allegory of the Way to God,” “of the Soul’s search for God.” Dante “set himself down to write the great Comedy of Redemption and the return of all things by the way of Self-Knowledge and Purification to the Beatitude of the Presence of God.” In contradistinction to much Christian allegory, his is “an allegory of symbolic personages” in which “far the greater number of . . . figures are symbolic images.” On his journey Dante (“the image of every Christian sinner”) experiences Hell (“the image of the deepening possibilities of Evil within the soul”), Purgatory (“the image of repentance by which the soul purges the guilt of Sin”) and Paradise (“the image of the soul in a state of Grace,” symbolized by Beatrice). Dante’s appeal, she says, may have much to do with the story of a lover who is required to “adventure through the Underworld to find his lost Lady.”

What is this Inferno through which one voyages, what this Paradiso at which one arrives, and what this Purgatorio that stands betwixt them? Could it be that Hell is Death and Heaven, Life, or is it the other way round? Now, you see, we are talking allegory: it is up to you to decide. Is it that Hell is the Bad and Heaven the Good, or again do we have the terms reversed? Most readers thoroughly enjoy their trip through Hell, whereas few find Heaven attractive. Among Occidental readers, that is; Oriental readers are more prone to find the poem perfectly symmetrical, presumably as Dante intended. What other schemes did he have in mind, for normally we regard poets in Vergil’s direct line as something less than direct? Could it be that Dante has taken the rota Vergiliana and reversed it, making of the Aeneid his model for the Inferno, of the Georgics his model for the Purgatorio, of the Eclogues his model for the Paradiso? The inversion and rectification of archetypes may be part of his project.

Curiously Dante’s epic does not much resemble a journey, though wit may be expended on accommodating his to Aeneas’ progress, or to the older pattern of Odyssean nostos. In fact he goes down into a pit and comes back up a mountain to gaze higher toward heavenly images. Have we experienced lows and highs, and do we not seek some higher principle? Dante is quite original and patently universal. He is also personal, candidly admitting his pleasure at others’ suffering, egotistical in rehearsing the details of his own mid-life crisis. An exile from country, family and the woman he loves, he is secretly happier than communal souls. As a consequence he appeals to two audiences: those who share his freedom and those who wish they did. He stands, in life, for the happily married man (which he seems to have been) who nonetheless craves his ideal woman; or, in imagination, he stands for the goatish loner with all his various fantasies. For Dante’s poem is both a fantasy and an incitement to further fantasy. Its lack of mimetic grounding is what this reader finds its principal defect.

Dante, we have seen, gains by denying what he seeks and seeking what he and others have denied. Dante is Aeneas, he is Paul, though he denies both identities. His coyness is another feature that this reader finds unattractive. Dante pretends to be the student, of Vergil, Beatrice and others, but he is really the teacher. In poetic theory, since Horace and till recently, we all pretended to seek instruction, but did we really delight in it? Dante has us coming and going, for as he experiences delight, it is we who are being instructed. Brilliantly he embodies this paradox in his relationship with Vergil, whom he learns from but also dismisses. No such teacher-student relationship encumbers the classical epic (Phoenix and Achilles are a minor exception), though it figures prominently in the Indian epic. The relationship surely serves to universalize Dante’s poem, especially since the teacher is in part a figure of failure. Vergil, who has done his best to save his own soul, is not to be spared, at least not within the poem’s dispensation. Still, Dante is a lucky man to have such good teachers as Vergil, Statius, St. Bernard—and especially Beatrice!

The poem’s consummate quest, for the Justice available in The City of God, is compromised, one feels, by the doctrine of retribution, a symbolic sublimation of the principle of revenge. Dante’s Hell is, after all, a sado-masochistic Heaven, a feature which may also render the poem’s appeal more universal. Even less attractive to this reader is Dante’s cultural prejudice and exclusivity. Nonetheless, his comic resolution of the story of man’s woe, so much more comprehensive than the final dispensations of Iliad, Argonautica, and Aeneid, or even of Odyssey and Metamorphoses, wipes away blame, as in theory comedy should. If, in fact, all this has happened. Dante might have taken his Ovid more seriously.

What can we learn about the Divine Comedy from its later reception? Here we shall limit ourselves to epic writers, and then exclusively to the English, among whom Dante has had an illustrious readership: Chaucer, Spenser and Milton; Blake, Wordsworth and Carlyle; Pope, Byron and Joyce. Curiously those who may have studied him most carefully have the least to say about him. Chaucer sidesteps Dante; though the divine poet influences his dream allegory, his effect upon Troilus and Criseyde is negligible. In Spenser there is no mention whatsoever of Dante; in all Milton’s works, but a few critical remarks. Both would have been expert readers of the Italian and Latin texts and both, according to scholars, had access to them, Spenser to the Comedy, Milton to the Comedy and more (he “knew the Monarchia, owned a copy of the Convivio,” and “was familiar with the Vita nuova,” says David Wallace). Perhaps the evidence of Dante’s influence is so clearly before our eyes that we cannot see it. For the tri-partite structure of The Faerie Queene (Books I-II; III-IV; V-VI) looks very much like the structure of the Comedy; likewise, what this reader regards as the probable order of Milton’s major works: Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained. In the first phase of Spenser and Milton the doctrine of Original Sin is set forth; in their middle phases both are concerned with knowledge of self and other; in their final phases both contemplate ideal worlds, in Spenser, those of Justice and Courtesy, in Milton, Paradise again.


Like Petrarch and Boccaccio before them, Ariosto and Tasso respond to the baleful tendencies of Dante. Unlike those adulators, who submit to their mighty predecessor’s reputation, Ariosto and Tasso take measures to escape him, though important lineaments in their poems may be traced back to the Comedy, Ariosto developing what we have identified as its fantastic vein, Tasso, its allegorical. Both cinquecento writers eschew the personal in Dante, which Petrarch had intensified, and the escapist, which Boccaccio had echoed, albeit in a secular way (his storytellers flee plague-ridden Florence to a suburban locus amoenus). Unlike Tasso, who will merge the romance with an original allegorical theory, Ariosto contents himself with his romantic materials, rerendering them in a manner at once more fantastic and more realistic than his medieval predecessors. In so doing he predicts the liberation of mimetic narrative from its allegorical restraints that will only fully emerge in the novel. Like Vergil, Ariosto celebrates an empire, the more restricted House of Este, for which he offers a foundation myth, basing his upon Vergil’s. In another sense, however, like Dante before him, he enlarges the Roman Empire to include all Europe. Finally, through his frankly erotic thematology he subverts the sublimated pieties of Dante and others who had struggled to reconcile their adoration of Christ’s celibacy and Mary’s virginity with their own sexuality.

Although the Orlando Furioso embodies many allegorical figures, episodes and larger motifs, Ariosto is in a sense the least allegorical writer in the tradition that we have given that name. Unlike most of our epic poets, he produces a poem for oral recitation. Its statements of moral principle serve largely to salve the conscience of an audience whose more pressing requirements appear to have been delight and self-flattery. Unlike Tasso, Ariosto does not provide an allegoresis of his own work; nor does he Christianize his themes beyond the terms of his received polemic; unabashedly he privileges the amatory over the martial, though both are important themes. In the brilliance and exuberance of his originality he outranks all but Ovid and may well be the most imaginative epic poet. His decision to continue Boiardo’s already monumental narrative with an equally monumental one of his own reverses the tradition of palimpsest imitation that runs from Alexandria through Dante and resumes with Spenser and Milton. That decision alone bespeaks his liberating genius.

Beneath its romantic surface and despite its mercurial disjunctures, the Orlando Furioso reflects deeper allegorical programs characteristic of medieval and Renaissance thought. Like Dante’s work, and in accord with the poetic principal of movere et docere, it embodies an allegory of education. In imitation of Vergil, and more appositely sixteenth-century ways of reading him, it embodies an allegory of the perfect prince. The model here, for both Orlando and Ruggiero, is Hercules, a composite hero whose twelve labors allegorize the twelve aspects of his personality. We know Hercules’ story from his birth to his death and beyond; this is not true of Odysseus or Aeneas. Accordingly, he provides what we might call a compressed (as opposed to extended) metaphor for the heroes of Ariosto and others. He also serves as one of two poles in an opposition between Good and Evil, the other represented, in Renaissance typology, by Paris (see, for example, Landino’s debate between the evil choice of the latter and the virtuous choice of the former). Similarly, Ariosto’s narrative is organized about an opposition between the Heavenly and the Earthly Venuses, another Renaissance topos.


Since anyone with an eye for capital letters may scan the Orlando Furioso and Gerusalemme Liberata for allegorical figures, we shall not here compile lists of them nor offer commentary on these largely conventional—classical, medieval and Renaissance—abstractions, however adroitly Ariosto and Tasso deploy them. More helpful to our understanding of the allegorical tradition might be a summary of Tasso’s contributions to its theory, in his Discorsi del poema eroico, in the Allegoria to his own epic, in his letters and other critical writings. An extravagantly gifted critic, Tasso, despite occasional irrationalities and frequent contradictions as his thought evolves, stands as the most influential theoretician of the epic since Aristotle. So highly regarded was his work that Spenser may have paused in the composition of The Faerie Queene to absorb the latest edition of the Gerusalemme; his theory, which Milton knew, virtually defines the project of Paradise Lost.

Like most Italian Renaissance critics, Tasso has one eye on Aristotle most of the time. Regarding the romance as equivalent to the classical epic, he explains that Aristotle could have had no opinion in this matter, since he had never read one. Tasso goes on to argue the superiority of episodic plot over single-action plot. It is truer, he says, to the Italian genius and language to have many actions. Out of a passage in the Poetics Tasso develops the notion that the distinguishing feature of the epic is the marvelous, which he ingeniously assimilates to the verisimilar. In extension of Aristotle he proclaims that the epic may imitate divine actions and works of nature as well as human deeds. In a similar extension, one that merges the Rhetoric and the Ethics with the Poetics, he argues that narrative is substance, not just rhetoric; decorum ethical, not just stylistic. In a more important and even more imaginative transformation of Aristotle he defines allegory as the verisimilar imitation of the universal. Following the epideictic Aristotle, he says that epic, as distinct from tragedy, requires admirable agents of the highest virtue and piety, in whose discourse we take the highest pleasure. Contra Castelvetro, a stricter Aristotelian, who had argued for history, Tasso argues for invention as the higher principle in epic. Since history is interinvolved with religion, the highest epic Truth, says Tasso, will be found in Christian history. Contra Mazzoni, a Platonist who had argued for the fantastic imagination, Tasso argues for the icastic, which, he says, constructs idoli of reality. Love, Tasso pronounces, is the greatest theme for epic, but then, in a characteristic non-sequitur, he argues that Faith, Church and Empire are even greater ones.

Of compelling interest to us is Tasso’s definition of allegory. The epic (or heroic) poet, he says, shapes his poem as God shapes His creation. Its allegory is its Idea (cp. Sidney’s “fore-conceit”), its Truth, its Soul. It is nothing less than “the glassed figure of Human Life.” The higher Truth toward which the epic poet strives is the truth of Universals. In a redefinition of Aristotle, Imitation becomes the representation of merely external realities, for allegory alone, says Tasso, can represent the internal, ethical life of man. Allegory takes over at the point where the literal, or historical, leaves off; where Imagination, that is, begins. Poetry, which Tasso has now identified with allegory, he calls “an imitation of human action, fashioned to teach us how to live.” In one final, breath-taking reversal, Imitation, which Tasso earlier had opposed to Allegory, now, through the power of Imagination, becomes the very method whereby the poet achieves Allegory, which itself has been defined as “the Universal Idea.”


The cinquecento Italian theory of epic and romance had a formative effect upon the structure and allegory of The Faerie Queene. Minturno distinguishes the epic, which, he says, “imitates a memorable action carried to its conclusion by an illustrious person,” from the romance, which “has as its object a crowd of knights and ladies and affairs of war and peace.” “In this group,” he continues, “the knight is especially taken whom the author is to make glorious above all the others.” Spenser will call that knight Arthur and his consort Gloriana. “The romances readily devote themselves to several deeds of several men,” writes Ariosto’s biographer Pigna, but “they concern especially one man who should be celebrated over all the others. And thus they agree with the epic poets in taking a single person, but not so as taking a single action.” Toscanella recommends that the poet place “several virtues in several individuals, one virtue in one character, and another in another, in order to fashion out of all the characters a well-rounded and perfect man,” the last phrase a reflection of the Renaissance idealization of Aeneas. Petrarch, who in the fourteenth century had already summarized Vergil’s “end and subject” as “the perfect man,” adds in wonderment, “It is as if Vergil were not describing Aeneas, but the brave and perfect man under the name of Aeneas.”

This collective way of thinking leads to Spenser’s scheme for his own romance-epic, in which Arthur, the paramount hero, is successively embodied in half a dozen of the dozen, or even two dozen avatars that Spenser had originally planned for. His six allegorical virtues he represents in six books (Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice and Courtesy), to which he appends a philosophical conclusion, an Allegoria of sorts. For some have surmised that the Books of Mutability form the first half of a twelve-book plan, according to which Spenser would have offered us six more Books of Constancy. At any rate, the extant books have other important allegorical arrangements: the odd-numbered are Christian, the even-numbered, classical; the even-numbered have as their heroes Knights, the odd-numbered, Elves. Though profoundly influenced by Vergil and Ovid, Spenser’s general conception is less classical than medieval (his knights represent what Aquinas called infused virtues, his elves, acquired virtues); less medieval (it lacks the quatre-sens of historical, allegorical, moral and anagogical levels) than Renaissance (the whole constitutes a Christian Humanist synthesis); less Renaissance than curiously modern (as in Dante, all is internalized, if not in the figure of the poet himself, then within the reader’s psychology).

His architecture is not as symmetrical as it seems, for the poem is shaped by a temporal, or experiential dynamic. The Book of Holiness lays the doctrinal ground for the rest of the poem and consequently has more importance than other individual books (Milton will counter Spenser’s choice of Revelation as his scriptural text with his own choice of Genesis, in a move like that of Apollonius to assert his priority over Homer by recounting an older story). Likewise, the first two books, which balance and synthesize Christian and classical elements, establish a model that contains the whole poem’s method. In this they are like the first two cantos of Dante’s Comedy and the first two books of Paradise Lost, all three examples epitomizing the larger works of which they are part. In each of his books Spenser deposits an allegorical episode that serves to focus his theme: The House of Pride (I), The Bower of Bliss (II), The Garden of Adonis (III), The Temple of Venus (IV), The Temple of Isis (V) and Mount Acidale (VI). That The Garden of Adonis is “classical” but occurs within a “Christian” book helps us to understand another dynamic: Christian thesis (I), classical antithesis (II) and Christian Humanist synthesis (III), a pattern repeated in Books IV, V and VI. Books III and IV, one of three pairs of contrasting books, constitute a continuum as well. Under the banner of Vergilian allegoresis, whereby Britomart subsumes both Dido and Aeneas, Spenser further allegorizes her and her quest as Love and War, or Venus vs. Mars in the terms of a dialectical allegory. In two of her avatars, Belphoebe and Amoret, Britomart figures another allegory, the Heavenly and Earthly Venuses. Third in a triad, Florimell, reconciling the first two, transports Love onto a cosmic plane. In response to this allegorical grouping, Book IV introduces the figures of Ate, Lust and Discord. Book V is then linked to III and IV by Britomart, whose pursuit of Artegall overflows the boundaries of Book IV. In fact each book of The Faerie Queene, beginning with Book II, serves to complete the preceding book, thereby generating another series of allegorical pairings. In Book V Spenser offers us a political allegory, basing his treatment of Justice on an allegoresis of Hercules. Book VI steps out of the allegorical and into the romantic mode, as though to foreshadow what will become of the allegorical in the Romantic tradition. In The Faerie Queene’s progression from atavistic allegory through cultural syncretism to a polyvalent mode of romance we might even see a survey of western culture.

But what is the unifying principle of the poem? “Clearly some close relation obtains between Arthur and the liberating faith in the person of Christ,” writes C. S. Lewis. “However, any direct leap from the literal Arthur to the theological would . . . have horrified Christian feeling,” he goes on to say. “The platonic level provided a meeting-ground between. It was unobjectionable to present an Arthur with philosophical overtones, and the Platonic Arthur was in turn easily syncretized with the Christian.” The Faerie Queene, Lewis implies, is a sacred as well as a philosophical poem. As we have seen, it is also theological and at points historical. Is it mythic too? In other words, is Spenser’s poem an epic or just a romance of platonized Christianity? We have begun with C. S. Lewis, a Christian believer, precisely because Spenser of late has fallen into agnostic hands, those of critics who find, for example, that all is relative, his method a “closing up of truth to truth”: Holiness leads on to Courtesy, Mount Acidale represents “the poem’s allegorical core.” For the Christian, however, the poem’s allegorical core must be the doctrine of Man’s Fall and Redemption.

Spenser is hard to pin down, perhaps because in certain ways he is like Dante, who, though strictly Thomistic in his theology, as an allegorist is personal and modern. We have seen how, despite his explicit denial, Dante is Aeneas, is Paul. Likewise Spenser, who, through the internal or psychological allegory of Guyon’s struggle, represents a process akin to ours or to his own. His poem as a whole may be indebted to another Renaissance allegoresis of Aeneas, one which allegorizes a process of the spirit. It may also be directly indebted to Dante. “Guyon,” says Frank Kermode, “passes from the lower temperance of natural habit to the virtue of a hero, which includes all the cardinal virtues,” in “a purgatorial process from human to semi-divine virtue, from a human to a divine phronesis.” The model for Guyon he finds in the New Testament representation of Christ in the Wilderness. In short, Guyon, as an avatar of Arthur, is a figure of the heroic Christ. He too is Paul and Aeneas. As Jon Whitman argues, allegorical reading is akin to Christian scriptural exegesis, a process that tends toward conversion. Spenser’s elfish hero, through his conversion, becomes a kind of Christian gentleman, “the general end,” we recall, that Spenser had in the Letter to Ralegh specified for his educative epic. Through his own participation in the process of Guyon’s redemption, Spenser, like Dante, points the way for reader and poet alike.


On the first pages of some ideal anthology of the period he does so much to initiate, one might find the poet Petrarch, confessing that he has made a holy thing of his beloved Laura—in other words, an Idol. The last pages of this same anthology would bring the reader up against a crazed hidalgo posted on a road in Spain—the mad one is trying to compel a group of traveling merchants to confess with him the supereminent beauty of a partly nonexistent lady whom he may never have seen. Behold, this dreamer cometh. . . . After all, it is not Shakespeare, but Don Quixote, of whom one could truly say that his whole life was a life of allegory.

—James Nohrnberg

In the Proem to Book II of The Faerie Queene, Spenser encourages Elizabeth to behold England “in this faire mirrhour,” “thine owne realmes in lond of Faery.” Inversion, as well as its counterpart conversion, is an allegorical stock-in-trade (inversio was a Roman term for allegory). “Spenser,” says Michael Murrin, “has inverted an age-old convention whereby the real world is mirrored in the ideal by asserting instead that the ideal world is mirrored in the real.” Is this not too the method of Don Quixote’s madness? And does it not derive from the same source as Spenser’s—the world of romance? “Renaissance literature,” says Nohrnberg in sentences omitted from the epigraph above, “though it can hardly be said to put the relation of subject and object on that ideal basis of independence that leads from Descartes to Kant, might well be described as a critical engine for insinuating the unavoidable subjectivity of the mind’s construction of both the object of knowledge and the object of love.”

Cervantes’ masterpiece includes two allegories, one an inversio, in which the Don imagines the ideal world reflected in the real, the other a conversio, in which the world of romance leads to Christian faith. This explains why critics who see only one of the allegories (Nabokov, for example, for whom only the inversion exists; Unamuno, for whom only its opposite) cannot understand Cervantes. Closer to the truth is the critic who sees in the book “the last and greatest epic” and “the first and greatest novel.” But is Don Quixote really an epic? And for that matter, is it really a novel? It fact it is neither, if by those terms we mean, on the one hand, something tragic, on the other hand, something realistic. If, however, we add the term “comic,” then Don Quixote is both epic and novel. Let us turn to the question of its allegory.

Since we all recognize the Don as an Idealist and Sancho as a Realist (their roles of course also reversible), we shall not belabor the point. If the work is allegorical, does it also meet our other requirements of the epic, that it be mythic, theological, historical and experiential? In “The Captive Captain’s Tale”—to look no further—Cervantes transparently rehearses his own experience. Scholars have shown that the book reflects the history of sixteenth-century Spain. Christian theology is everywhere present, in the form of parody as well as serious doctrine. What remains is to identify its governing myth, but that we must do without recourse to previous mythology. For the myth is precisely Don Quixote, the man and the book. Out of his own independent Kantian “experience” Cervantes has created an epic.


Despite his classical erudition Milton is most profoundly indebted for the grounding of his enterprise to Italian Renaissance theory. The pastoralism of Paradise Lost, to cite one example, would be unthinkable without Minturno’s reranking of epic subjects to read, in ascending order, heroic, philosophical, bucolic, along with the general example of long pastoral works by Sannazaro, Tasso, Sidney, Spenser and others. Milton follows Minturno in devaluing martial themes in favor of an “argument / not less but more Heroic,” one that is philosophical in its cosmological, theological and ethical speculations, and bucolic in its choice of Eden as his setting. In culmination of this elevation of pastoral from a lowly to an ideal status, René Rapin, in 1659, as Milton is composing his epic, redefines the mode as “a perfect image of the State of Innocence.”

Having summarized Tasso’s new allegorical theory of the epic, let us now apply its leading ideas to Paradise Lost, for Milton’s Christian themes and allegorical technique owe much to this reformulator of the genre. Especially important is the Italian critic’s sanction of divine actions as a subject for epic imitation, since God’s Will and Christ’s Word will figure so prominently, the first in Paradise Lost, the second in Paradise Regained. Moreover, Tasso’s favorable view of the marvelous serves to propel the development of Milton’s fantastic allegorical machinery: Heaven and Hell; God, Satan and the Angels; celestial battles and other improbable motifs. His conception of heroism, as reflected in the prelapsarian Adam and the divine Christ, reflects Tasso’s Christian memory of Aristotle’s prescription: admirable agents of the highest virtue and piety. Like Castelvetro, Milton favors what for the Biblical fundamentalist is an historical subject but, like Tasso, favors invention as a means of treating it. By way of the novel concept of imagination Milton creates a verisimilar imitation of the universal. The highest epic Truth, Tasso had said, will be found in Christian history, which Milton takes as his theological frame for the delineation of human events from Adam’s Fall to Cromwell’s Reign to Christ’s Second Coming. His poem combines two of Tasso’s recommended themes: Love and Faith. Though Milton does not comment on the Italian’s theoretical pronouncements, we can still imagine his applause at two of Tasso’s notions: that the epic poet shapes his poem as God shapes His creation; and that the higher Truth toward which he strives is the truth of Universals. For Milton acts upon his Biblical clay to create a version of its story whose universal allegoresis quite transcends its original context. How else, from his comparatist perspective, would the modern Christian Englishman have viewed such events except as universally true?

Paradise Lost principally concerns Adam and Eve, our first parents according to Milton’s received Biblical myth. Why is it, then, that we, with our post-Darwinian knowledge of evolution, are still so fascinated by the story? Because this allegorically layered fable works on us in other ways. Adam and Eve represent our actual parents, from whose hereditary disposition we are descended and from whose ethical choices we have profited or suffered. Moreover, Adam and Eve represent ourselves (for women, Eve; for men, Adam), as well as our significant others (for women, Adam; for men, Eve). Accordingly, this domestic and personal drama has a more direct appeal than most other epic stories. As did Vergil with Dido and Aeneas, so does Milton make it ambiguous as to whether Adam and Eve are married (there was no Church in Eden). Beyond these levels, and perhaps deeper than they, is the psychological configuration of the story. To use Freudian terms, God appears as a stern Superego, Satan as a rebellious Id; to shift to Jungian terms, Adam and Eve create an androgynous figure known to myth and depth psychology alike: for women, a Self and Animus; for men, an Anima and Self. We note in all this that, except for the celibate or homosexual reader, the relationships that Milton describes are universal. Could he have known that he would find an avid readership throughout the world? Undoubtedly so. He was a student of universality, an allegorical exegete and a practicing allegorist of the archetypes.

As Tasso redefines the genre, Paradise Lost is fundamentally allegorical. Its “Idea” is the doctrine of Original Sin, its theology the elaboration of that germ into the drama of the Fall, the Expulsion from Eden and the subsequent Redemption of Man. Its allegorical figures exist on interpenetrating levels, requiring of the reader an interpretive involvement that leads him theoretically to conversion, if he is not already convinced of Milton’s belief. So much is obvious. Of greater interest is the novel method required of Milton’s novel subject. For despite his indebtedness to Homer, Vergil and Ovid, and for all his assimilation of Dante, Tasso and Spenser, Milton had to go it alone when it came to actually writing his epics. (In this regard, Paradise Regained, with its unprecedented form, must have posed an even greater challenge than Paradise Lost.) Tasso, we recall, had elevated the status of the romance. In a sense its pattern of agon, pathos and anagnorisis is more relevant to Paradise Lost than those of classical epic and tragedy which Milton himself adduces. Milton’s masterpiece is also a theatrical epic, grounded in the Italian tradition of the sacra rappresentazione, whose main performers enact a revel of love and subsequent fall. Masque, pageant and prophetic show, all allegorical forms, provide models for Milton’s work as essential as those of epic or romance.

That Milton chose a Biblical subject by no means dictated his particular solution. “Christian writers of heroic story,” Leland Ryken observes, “had struggled for centuries to reconcile the theological and literary traditions of the hero,” in “holy war” epics, such as Tasso’s; in “romance allegories,” such as Spenser’s; in “divine poetry,” such as the Biblical epics of Milton’s contemporaries. For Ryken and others the Bible itself, regarded as an epic, provides another important model, not only for its narrative but also for its traditions of allegorization. Moreover, “In the epics of Genesis, Exodus and Revelation,” Ryken argues, “Milton found a pattern, respectively, for his substitution of domestic values for heroic ones, his substitution of divine strength and human weakness for the epic motif of human glory, and his substitution of spiritual for physical versions of some common epic motifs.” This illuminating scholar goes on to cite Ian Watt’s designation of Paradise Lost as “the greatest and indeed the only epic of married life.” Like Cervantes, Milton is a figure astride two ages, voraciously gathering up all that had gone before him but with equal strength preparing the way for much that is to follow.

How, then, does Milton’s project tally with our definition of epic? More fundamentally mythic and more expansively theological than Spenser’s, Milton’s is also more comprehensively historical, moreso than any earlier model. It has many allegorical aspects in addition to those already noted: its allegorical episodes observe the principle of relevance and incongruity; its grandly abstract discourse maintains an allegorical distance from its simple story; likewise, its narrator sustains a tension between its verisimilar and its marvelous elements; it is psychological as well as ethical. In short, like Dante and Spenser’s epics, Paradise Lost is experiential, though in ways that English readers will not fully grasp until Blake, Wordsworth and Byron develop the implications of Milton’s innovation.


Allegory belongs to the fallen world, the world of Plato’s cave-dwellers; it is an invention of mind on its own, trying to make sense of experience in a benighted world.

—Isabel G. MacCaffrey

As critics we cannot live without definitions, for criticism is a branch of philosophy, and philosophy, at least its western branch, begins with definitions. Nonetheless, it serves no purpose to string the noose of definition about the neck of literature, especially when the terms defined are allegory and epic. It is in the interest of neither literature, philosophy, nor criticism to do so. Byron is an allegorist in a sense both old and new, according to MacCaffrey’s definition of the mode. A most attractive figure, as brilliant a critic as Tasso is a theorist, he is an even more innovative practitioner than Milton. Would that he had lived to write his planned hundred cantos instead of the mere sixteen plus that we have. One suspects that after Juan had visited Paris, to witness the Revolution, had he not lost his head, he would have accompanied Byron on travels yet more universal: to America, to India, to China. In a sense Whitman and Pound fulfil these promises. In another sense they bury themselves in books. For when MacCaffrey speaks of experience, it is not of the Kantian kind.

Though every writer in a sense has an open-ended plan—his life, his ongoing work, Byron literalizes this and so puts an end to the closure that characterizes epic from Homer through Milton. His precursors here, as in other matters, are Ovid and Ariosto. Accordingly, he stands among those whom Pound called writers that would be read whether or not they were taught in school. A young critic, Byron cannot decide whether he belongs to the line of Homer, Vergil and Dante (he is planning his own “panoramic view of hell”) or the line that he knows is truer, Milton, Dryden and Pope. By Milton he means the Apostle of Liberty, though his reworking of Adam in Juan shows that he has grasped the Poet’s importance too. He himself is not so much Homer as Odysseus, for Byron equals Juan equals Odysseus. His poem is autobiographical and philosophical, but also epic and mythic (it is not by accident that he has chosen Don Juan as its hero). Like Milton, Byron is a student of Genesis, which, along with Hesiod, Lucretius and Ovid, influences his decision to “begin with the beginning” (that is, with Juan’s birth), a move at once liberating and impoverishing, for it restricts the multiplicity of perspectives otherwise available to the poet who begins in medias res. Having done the Oedipal triangle once, Byron does it again and again. This reader suspects that he committed incest not only with his half-sister but with his mother too (see Juan’s encounter with Catherine the Great). Perhaps Byron’s inability to resolve the Oedipal complex resulted from such an horrendous event; at any rate, unresolved it remained. In an open-ended work such as Don Juan, everything can be changed, or nothing can, for the fundamental terms of such an epic have never been determined. Significantly, the myth of Don Juan is itself repetitive and open-ended. Though theology brings it to closure, Byron does not live to finish his own version of the story. In Don Juan history is present, but present history is a contradiction in terms, and so gives way to experience, by itself an inadequate basis for epic, as the novel has shown.