John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.
Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.
So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.
I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.
As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.
Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.
This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.
On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.
Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.
In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;
I well consider all that ye have said, And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd, They are not changed from their first estate; But by their change their being do dilate, And turning to themselves at length againe, Do work their owne perfection so by fate.
This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.
As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.
Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.
Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.
I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:
I will not say that I am a device. The semicircle where my heavy lyre gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice; tall poplars to the right; one may admire how in the distance that dome can entice from its squat cupola to the entire warehouse of print on which the state has fed its house of authorships, its empty head.
Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.