Personification and Enchantment

by Jason Crawford

The disenchanting poetics of allegorical narrative are especially clear in the context of allegory’s most important trope: personification. Personifications are central to allegory in its narrative forms: they often carry out the action of allegorical narrative. And like the term “allegory” itself, they invite two extreme and incompatible critical accounts. Much commentary on personification since the eighteenth century has inclined heavily toward one of these extreme accounts, the one that supposes an idea (such as “nature”) to be abstracted by the mind from sensory stimulation and that therefore regards a personification (such as the goddess Nature) as a translation of this abstract idea into human form. A certain version of this account is at work already when the Rhetorica ad Herennium says that personification “consists in representing an absent person as present, or in making a mute thing or one lacking form articulate, and attributing to it a definite form or a language or a certain behaviour,” or when Quintilian says that, in practicing prosopopoeia, “we are even allowed . . . to bring down the gods from heaven or raise the dead: cities and nations even acquire a voice.”[1] These rhetorical analyses emphasize the unreality of personification, and Puttenham follows their example when he explains that, “if ye wil [sic] attribute any humane quality, as reason or speech to dombe creatures or other insensible things,” then “it is not Prosopographia, but Prosopopeia, because it is by way of fiction.”[2]  Coleridge adopts a version of this ancient account, and assimilates it to a broadly Lockean psychology, when he dismisses personification as a “translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from the object of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot.”[3]

This one extreme view can explain many of the peculiarities of personification. When the goddess Nature appears to (for instance) the poet of Alan of Lille’s twelfth-century Complaint of Nature, the translation of an ideal order into her temporal, acting, speaking body generates powerful destabilizing energies. The descent of Nature into the mutable world is a kind of fall—delapsa, as Alan’s poem says—“from an inner palace of the impassable world.”[4]  Her bodily movements unfold both in linear time and in a static cyclicality, as if she cannot decide whether fully to enter into the temporal order.[5]  She presides over a group of personified agents who are supposed to enact her presence in nature but who are, as agents, at cross purposes with one another. And she is herself, as an agent, strangely aloof from, and strangely conscious of, the natural world of which she is the form and image. Her enfleshment seems foreign to her primarily conceptual being, an absurd and arbitrary reduction into material life. Her trajectory is downward, from the world of form into the world of recalcitrant matter.

But Nature follows another trajectory as well. Her body is the image of a cosmos which is itself embodied, a site of negotiation between that embodied cosmos and the manifold forms of human life. She figures to the poet the sea, the land, and the sky, the planets and stars, the powers of creation and sexual generation, the orders of grammar and rhetoric and music, the faculties of the human person, and, ultimately, the operations of the creator himself, the Logos made flesh. In her body all the orders of material and immaterial being join in a total unity, and she discloses those orders to the poet as the mirror image of his own bodily form. She is therefore the ground of a convergence between the poet’s material, temporal life and the total cosmos toward which the poet strives. She rises toward allegory from the base of an irreducible materiality, a body that reaches out to embrace all material and immaterial things.

Alan’s goddess admits the possibility, in other words, of another extreme account of personification. Coleridge himself gestures toward this other extreme when he speculates about the ontological status of ancient personifications:

Of a People, who raised Altars to Fever, to Sport, to Fright, &c it is impossible to determine, how far they meant a personal power, or personification of a Power. This only is certain, that the introduction of these agents could not have the same unmixed effect, as the same agents used allegorically produce on our minds—but something more nearly resembling the effect produced by the introduction of characteristic Saints in the roman catholic poets, or of Moloch, Belial, and Mammon in the second Book of Paradise Lost compared with his Sin and Death.[6]

What is the difference between a “personal power” and the “personification of a Power”? Coleridge acknowledges that, in the context of a culture that reveres powers as themselves daemons and deities—as themselves persons—it can be hard to say. And many medieval poets and visionaries accord to the powers just this sort of reverence. Cosmological poets such as Alan and Boethius find Nature, Philosophy, and Fortune presiding over the cosmos of time and matter with a kind of angelic authority. Dante calls these figures the “primal creatures.”[7]  They are embodied, personal, numinous beings. Barbara Newman has this understanding of personification in mind when she chooses to call figures such as Nature not personifications but “goddesses.” Her nomenclature acknowledges that these primal creatures belong, at some level, to a pre-Christian universe of presences.[8]  If Concordia, Caritas, Pietas, Spes, and Sapientia are familiar to medieval readers as the inventions of Christian poets, they came forth first from the ecstasies and encounters of the cult, goddesses in the old pagan orders. In Roman antiquity these goddesses had temples, oracles, and adherents; were counted daughters of major deities; commanded their own feast days. And even in their afterlives as personifications—when Jean de Meun sees Nature weeping at her forge, or when Alan’s dreamer falls wonderstruck at her feet—the old goddesses resonate with the shock of visionary encounter. They bear in much medieval poetry the memory of a genealogy that begins not in the transcendent operations of the human mind but rather in a temple, at an altar, in the utterances of a sibyl or the offices of a priest.[9]

According to this second way of accounting for personification, the personifications are born into the sort of universe that I have described as “enchanted,” a universe densely populated by many intelligences at many levels. As Coleridge acknowledges, the world of the personifications is likewise the world of the Roman di minuti and of the Catholic saints, agents who channel divine power into domestic life. If these daemonic agents oversee certain fields of human activity, such as copulation, childbirth, harvesting, and healing, so too do Nature, Genius, Contemplation, and Desire belong to the animated cosmos that enfolds and energizes the human cosmos. They are signs of enchantment, of an economy in which every experience of impersonal force verges on personal encounter.[10]  They may be abstract nouns, but they nevertheless mate with, dispute with, give birth to, and blend into a host of gods, genii, angels, and saints. Some of these personifications, such as the Venuses and Minervas who show up all over later medieval poetry, still bear the names of the deities from whom they derive. Some, as in the fairy romances of Spenser, seem to come up from the green world of wood spirits and river nymphs. In the presence of such tutelary spirits the dreamers of allegorical poetry tend to adopt the stance of supplicants or pupils, souls initiated into a larger cosmos by principalities who themselves represent that cosmos. Such is Boethius’ stance before the goddess Philosophy and Alan’s before the goddess Nature. In the fourteenth century, when the goddesses give way to the complicated figure of Genius and the mortal woman Beatrice, the poet-protagonists of Gower and Dante adopt the same supplicant pose.

What makes the personifications different from the gods is that they are subject to a certain gravitational pull. In a poet such as Prudentius, Concord is concord, but she also presides over, practices, and exemplifies concord. She is all at once an acting body and an idea, and she is therefore marked by a certain referential, and self-referential, structure. To say that Concord indicates concord is, after all, to say that she indicates herself. But she must also strive away from her personal self toward meaning, for concord, as idea, does not comprehend personhood at all. The allegorical structure of Concord lies in just this paradox of striving. She is her own other, the prophecy of her own exhaustion in pure meaning. Like so many of the medieval goddesses, she issues both from the temporal matter of poetic narrative and from the static forms of meaning: from both sides, in other words, of allegory’s divided operations.[11]

Inasmuch as personification is a channel by which bodies pass from the world of narrative to the world of significance, personification is a harbinger of death, not just a citizen of the enchanted universe but a sign that the presences of that universe are retreating, like Weber’s “sublime and ultimate values,” into the homeland of meaning.[12]  Not by accident does Spenser’s Legend of Justice begin with the retreat of a goddess. Just at the moment when Astrea retreats from the world of human action (she goes off to what Spenser calls “an euerlasting place”) and appoints two agents, Artegall and Talus, to represent and mediate her power, the allegorical narrative commences.[13]  This myth of the goddess receding could almost stand in for the first emergence of allegory in the latter centuries of antiquity, as Christianity ushers in a terminal disenchantment of the old pagan pantheon. Prudentius opens the narrative of the Psychomachia with Faith’s slaying of Worship-of-the-Old-Gods [Veterum Cultura Deorum], a compression of the whole universe of ancient deity into a single dying vice.[14]  In his theological poem Apotheosis he figures Christ himself as a warrior against the old gods, exulting that “Apollo writhes when the name of Christ smites him” and interpreting the god as one of the demons cast out by the Jesus of the gospels. “Thou art beaten, vain spirit,” he imagines the priest of god crying to Apollo: “Christ commands: go out of him.”[15]  The god, in Prudentius’ little narrative, retreats into the territory of the infernal demonic, just as the old gods in the Psychomachia retreat into the territory of the personified vice.

Something like the image of this vanishing deity haunts the many medieval poets who take up Prudentius’ disenchanting idiom. In the allegorical narratives of these poets, the dying goddess hangs suspended in a negotiation between body and meaning, her compound life as a signifying agent ever threatening to come apart. She is entangled with allegory because she is caught up in a striving out from matter, like the statue from the stone, toward a significance that can contain or cancel her material existence. The rifts and contradictions that disrupt the existence of a goddess such as Alan’s Nature are at work likewise in the Silva who gives birth to all things in the Cosmographia of Bernard Silvestris, in the Fronesis who goes questing through the cosmos in Alan’s later Anticlaudianus, and in the emblematic goddesses who preside over the kingdoms, temples, houses, and hells of The Faerie Queene.[16]  All these daemons and goddesses must, by virtue of their power to fold into themselves many orders of being, be ever unstable and uncontainable. They are like enchantment itself: fragile, transitory, teleologically directed toward their own end. Their allegorical operations depend on their power to represent and participate in an eschaton of pure meaning without ever entering fully into that eschaton.

Allegory’s poetics of disenchantment will, then, be an important backdrop against which my readings of early modern allegorical texts will unfold. Against this backdrop, it is possible to discern a dense network of continuities between the medieval and the modern, breaches in the wall of separation that early modernity works so hard to construct. But the story I have to tell about medieval disenchantment leaves plenty of questions about early modern disenchantment unanswered. If disenchantment really is as important to the poetics of allegory as I have suggested, it is strange that so many modern writers would be flatly inhospitable to allegory as a literary form. Critics and poets from the eighteenth century forward have been particularly troubled by allegory’s signifying dynamics. Just at the moment when European critics begin to cultivate an awareness of allegory as a distinct genre of writing, in fact, they begin to regard that genre as intolerably limited in its possibilities, unforgivable in its contradictions and absurdities. The development of this critical attitude has roots in early modern allegorical texts. It can do much to explain the intuition of those earlier texts that they are engaged in something new, and it can help to illuminate the ways in which the early modern hostility to allegory really is new. As another large backdrop of my investigations here, this modern renunciation of allegory deserves careful attention.

Accounts of allegory before the eighteenth century seem to have little notion of the allegorical as a particular category of writing or a particular sort of agent. Even Spenser, whose poetry has done much to undergird generic accounts of allegorical narrative, tends in his critical comments to treat allegory as a rhetorical figure defined by deliberate obscurity, and his theoretically minded contemporaries tend much the same way, as my comments on extended metaphor will have already begun to suggest. As late as the first part of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon regards allegory as a pervasive esoteric device by which “a veil, as it were, of fables” is drawn over the secret learning of forgotten times, and seventeenth-century critics such as Henry Reynolds and Martin Opitz regard the whole of ancient poetry as a kind of high natural philosophy delivered dissimulanter, as Reynolds says, “by riddles and enigmaticall knotts.”[17]  Not until the end of the seventeenth century does the shift to a new notion of allegory, a notion of allegory as a literary genre, begin to occur.

Why does this shift occur? The first clue to this question lies in the eighteenth-century anxiety about allegory’s incoherence. Many eighteenth-century readers simply do not know what to do with allegorical narrative, for reasons Samuel Johnson makes plain in his grumblings about “allegorical persons.” The agents Dr. Johnson finds in the allegorical passages of Milton “have no real existence,” he complains, which is to say that they belong not to the world of material action but rather to the mind alone. They are simply abstractions, operations of the human cognitive machine, rendered artificially into bodily form. Dr. Johnson will tolerate the admission of these embodied abstractions into poetry, for it is the poet’s privilege, as he says, “to exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form”:

But such airy beings are, for the most part, suffered only to do their natural office, and retire. Thus Fame tells a tale, and Victory hovers over a general, or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory can do no more. To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to non-entity. In the Prometheus of Æschylus, we see Violence and Strength, and in the Alcestis of Euripides, we see Death, brought upon the stage, all as active persons of the drama; but no precedents can justify absurdity.[18]

At the heart of Dr. Johnson’s anxieties are problems of action and agency, effects and their causes. The question, for him, is what allegorical agents are suffered to “do.” So long as Fame and Victory are merely inert, like the statuesque rhetorical ornaments of William Collins and Thomas Gray, they will not threaten to draw the language of narrative toward the unstable language of allegory. But the moment these ornaments come into “any real employment,” the moment they themselves assume agency, the internal coherence of narrative begins to come apart. A narrative agent belongs, after all, to a world of material causes and temporalities, and the operations of that agent must be explicable in the terms of that material world. For something to irrupt into the homogenous causal system from some other system—from, say, the immaterial order of mind—can, in Dr. Johnson’s account, only produce absurdity. The only way to save narrative from this fate is to banish allegorical persons out to narrative’s margins.

[. . .]

If allegory involves a contest between “this and that” and “this for that” forms of signification—between affirmations of identity and affirmations of difference—then it seems that eighteenth-century critics want to renounce allegory just to the extent that they want to renounce this contest. Allegory in its “this for that” mode of self-understanding itself strives away from the contest, in favor of a simple “that,” which is why allegorical narrative often includes or anticipates its own negation. But in sustained allegorical narratives from Prudentius to Dante, the conjunctive force of “this and that” draws allegory back, against its own eschatological orientation, into the paradoxes of its temporal, mutable, embodied agents. What is missing in the eighteenth-century accounts is this counter-movement, the will to enter into a state of enchantment in which paradoxes bend and defy the laws of material existence. When enlightened critics such as Addison and Hughes object to “improbability” in allegorical narratives, or when they call for the exorcism of “unsubstantial and symbolical Actors” and chimerical “Dreams and Shadows” from narrative forms such as the epic, they mean to break a spell, to return from the agonistic dream state of allegorical representation to something sustainable and coherent, something graspable by the waking mind.

In what ways is this modern resistance to allegory genuinely new? What does this resistance share with the forms of resistance—the forms of disenchantment—that this book will find at work within allegorical texts themselves? And where do the genealogies of this modern resistance lie? These large questions will undergird much of my discussion in this book, and the answers I consider will often take dialectical and contrary forms. Especially in my readings of early modern poetry, I will claim that allegory both participates in and suffers under the weight of modernity’s eschatological orientation. Allegorical narrative has a peculiarly modern dynamics, a set of self-interpreting practices that aim at an escape from the material, historical world into an eschaton of meaning. This orientation toward escape is particularly strong in the work of early modern poets such as Langland, Skelton, Spenser, and Bunyan. But my readings will suggest that these poets, like the medieval poets from whom they depart, choose also to remain in the material world, to embed the eschaton in that world’s bodies, objects, and actions. Early modern allegorical writers do their work not in the aftermath but in the throes of disenchantment, and they tend in their fictions not to erase the presences of the enchanted cosmos but to sustain those presences into tense, transitory forms. Because the tensions at the core of allegory do so much to inform their projects of disenchantment, allegory is for these writers not an alternative to being modern but rather an alternative way of being modern. In their hands, the agonistic reflexivity of allegory—its restlessness of movement and form—helps to reveal disenchantment as itself an agonistic negotiation, volatile and dynamic. In writing allegorically, early modern poets hold disenchantment in tension with an insistent pull toward re-enchantment that might well be a part of disenchantment’s core structure.

Excerpt from Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics (Oxford, 2017).

[1] In accordance with long tradition, the Loeb Classical Library prints the Rhetorica among the works of Cicero: Ad C. Herennium, ed. Harry Caplan (Cambridge, MA, 1954), 4.53; Quintilian, The Orator’s Education, ed. Donald A. Russell, 5 vols (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 9.2.31. On the history of personification theory, including its roots in classical rhetoric, see James Paxson, The Poetics of Personification  (Cambridge, 1994), 8–34.

[2] Prosopographia, he here explains, involves attributing actions and speech to an actual but absent person; The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, 1936), 3.19. See also Quintilian’s comment that “some confine the term Prosopopoeia to cases where we invent both the person and the words”; Orator’s Education, 9.2.31.

[3] The Statesman’s Manual, ed. R. J. White, in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gen. ed. Kathleen Coburn, 16 vols (London, 1969–2002), 6:30. Coleridge elsewhere notes that, as abstractions made personal, the personifications must always be arbitrary and artificial—“cannot be other than spoken consciously”—the expression of a “disjunction of Faculty” by which one thing (the image of a body) “is every where presented to the eye or imagination” while another (an abstract concept) “is suggested to the mind”; Lectures on Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, and Cervantes  (1819), and Lectures on the Principles of Judgement, Culture, and European Literature  (1818), both in Lectures 1808–1819: On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes, in Collected Works, 5.2:99, 418.

[4] For Nature’s descent, see De planctu Naturae, 2.2. All citations of Alan’s Latin text are from Nikolaus M. Häring’s edition (Spoleto, 1978). English quotations come from The Plaint of Nature, trans. James Sheridan (Toronto, 1980), here at p. 73. Jon Whitman is perceptive on this fall, and on the complications that arise from Nature’s status as a “character”; “The Problem of Assertion and the Complaint of Nature,” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 15 (1987): 5–26. 

[5] See, for instance, Alan’s description of Nature’s dress: “Changing circumstances, which substituted one hue for another, altered the garment with a varied display of colour. At first whitened to the brightness of the lily, it dazzled the eyes. Secondly, as though moved to repentance and struggling to amend, it shone forth in blood-red colour. Thirdly, at the peak of perfection, it gladdened the eyes with an emerald green.” This passage does not mean to describe a linear progression. The movement from white to red to green is present to this garment in every moment of its narrative existence, and its static recurrence is like the recursive movement on that same garment of the eagle, who, “assuming first the form of a youth, secondly that of an old man, thirdly returning to his former state, makes his way back from Nestor to Adonis.” De planctu Naturae, 2.138–43, 148–49; Plaint of Nature, trans. Sheridan, 85–86.

[6] Lectures on the Principles of Judgement, in Collected Works, gen. ed. Coburn, 5.2:102. I have incorporated Coleridge’s emendations into his text.

[7] Of Fortuna his Virgil says, “con l’altre prime creature lieta / volve sua spera e beata si gode.” Dante also includes Fortuna among li altri dèi, “the other gods”; Inferno, ed. and trans. Charles Singleton (Princeton, 1975), 7.95–96, 87.

[8] God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages  (Philadelphia, 2003), esp. 1–35.

[9] On the gods and Christian allegory, see Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism  (New Haven, 1986); Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition  (Berkeley, 1986); Robert Grant, Gods and the One God  (Philadelphia, 1986); Whitman, Allegory, pp. 14–57; and Teskey, Allegory and Violence  (Ithaca, 1996), 32–55. These latter two accounts, especially, rewrite C. S. Lewis’s seminal account in The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition  (Oxford, 1936), 48–59.

[10] Charles Taylor describes human life under enchantment as playing out in a “field of spirits,” in a condition of porous vulnerability to a variety of powers and influences; A Secular Age  (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 27. In his own brief account of disenchantment, C. S. Lewis calls the animated order of enchantment the “genial universe.” See his preface to D. E. Harding, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth  (Gainesville, 1972), 9.

[11] For this interplay between vision and making, see Newman, God and the Goddesses, 24–35.

[12] “The twilight of the gods,” as C. S. Lewis says, “is the midmorning of the personifications”; Allegory of Love, 52.

[13] The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton with Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki (Harlow, 2001), 5.1.11–12.

[14] Psychomachia, 21–39, in Works, ed. H. J. Thomson, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1949).

[15] Apotheosis, 402–3, 411, in Works, ed. Thomson.

[16] On the paradoxes and contradictions of the Anticlaudianus, and the ambiguous status of Fronesis as a psychological faculty, see James Simpson, Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille’s “Anticlaudianus” and John Gower’s “Confessio amantis”  (Cambridge, 1995), 32–56, 110–16. In printing the Latin of Gower’s title with the minuscule a, I follow Simpson.

[17] Francis Bacon, Of the Wisdom of the Ancients, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 7 vols (London, 1852–61), 13:75; H[enry] R[eynolds], Mythomystes . . . (London, [1632?]), sig. E3r, in facsimile at Early English Books Online. For perceptive discussion of Bacon’s treatise, see Teskey, Allegory and Violence, 89–93. On the long tradition of finding esoteric mystery in ancient poetry, see Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance  (Chicago, 1969), 21–53. See also Opitz, Buch von der deutschen Poeterei, ed. Wilhelm Braune (Halle, 1913), chs 2–3.

[18] “Milton,” in Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale, 2 vols (Oxford, 2006), 1:291 (par. 256).

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