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The Cambridge Companion to Allegory Ed. by Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck (review)
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Allegory is a slippery term whose usage varies from period to period, genre to genre, author to author, or even within a single author’s body of work. The present Companion, therefore, provides a much-needed guide to the history and development of allegory: its essays chart a complex terrain, and, though each can certainly stand on its own, the larger intellectual-historical trajectory that they collectively describe is especially illuminating and surprisingly coherent.

Copeland and Struck outline that trajectory in their Introduction, describing the place of allegory in Greek philosophy, its Roman redefinition as a trope, and the subsequent flowering of allegory in literary practice. We then find three essays (Part I) on “Ancient Foundations”: Dirk Obbink notes, briefly, the earliest extant evidence of allegory in Greek poetic fragments, while Glenn Most provides, with great clarity, an account of Hellenistic allegory’s move from the domain of philosophy to that of poetry and rhetoric. At this point, we may expect some discussion of what must be another major moment in allegory’s history—Paul’s identification, in Gal. 4: 24, of many of the major narratives of the Old Testament as allegories. The later influence of Pauline notions of allegory can hardly be overstated, and Paul’s use of the term would appear to muddy already rather opaque waters. Daniel Boyarin notes “the powerful engine of Pauline reinterpretation” in passing (p. 39), but his essay focuses instead on Origen’s allegorical reading of Scripture. Paul’s place in the intellectual history traced by this Companion is thus left unexplored. The polemical tone of Boyarin’s piece is also somewhat unexpected: he frames his essay as a response to David Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity (2001).

With the “foundations” laid in Part I, the essays of Part II trace the various developments, especially in the theory of allegory, before the later Middle Ages. Peter Struck offers a useful account of Neoplatonic treatments of allegory, with a particularly instructive discussion of Porphyry’s commentary on the Odyssean cave. Denys Turner traces the impact of the muddled philosophical and poetic uses of allegory on patristic Biblical interpretation, especially by Augustine. Turner also, usefully, deviates beyond the chronological limits set for Part II (AD 200–1200) to discuss later medieval attempts to clarify the muddle, pointing to Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyre as writers who acknowledge allegory as one of the senses of scripture and also as a literary device that could be employed in the sensus literalis by the human author. We may also be glad that Peter Heath’s lengthy contribution on “Allegory in Islamic Literatures” extends beyond Part II’s chronological bounds, since it is the only chapter that addresses allegory in Islamic milieux. Heath makes notably good use of his footnotes, providing ample bibliography. The final essay in Part II is by Jon Whitman, who presents a strong survey of the allegorical poetry frequently associated with the “School of Chartres.” Segregating the material treated by Whitman from the essays in Part III, “Literary Allegory,” runs the risk of suggesting that this twelfth-century Latin verse is somehow “less literary” than its vernacular descendants, but Whitman’s readings succeed in showing the nuance and complexity of the Latin material.

The essays in Part III would appear to form the core of the Companion. They begin with the major vernacular allegorical poem of the later medieval period, the Roman de la Rose. Here the volume’s strong sense of continuity is particularly marked, and Kevin Brownlee demonstrates how many of the poetic techniques described by Whitman were elaborated in the Rose. Likewise, in his brief chapter on the Convivio, Albert Ascoli presents Dante’s engagement with many of the issues in Biblical allegory addressed earlier by Turner. Then follows a pair of chapters on French and English allegory of the later Middle Ages—first “Secular Allegory,” by Stephanie Kamath and Rita Copeland, and then “Religious Allegory,” by Nicolette Zeeman. These chapters address some especially familiar material (e.g., Chaucer), but it is illuminating to read such poems in the context of the larger historical trajectory charted by the Companion. These chapters demonstrate that an understanding of...


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