Why Read Spenser When Allegory Invites Despayre

When Allegory invited me to a read and feed, I hesitated. He is a thin man, easy to overlook, his yellowish skin almost transparent. He wears a mishmash of musty, old-fashioned clothing: a toga and a biblical robe, medieval hose and cod piece, moccasins and a romantic scarf. Nothing modern, except maybe the combination.

At his table, I’ve read, he constantly changes seats and hats; one minute he sports the tangled wig of a whore, the next a crown. Pontificating endlessly on weighty matters of Vice and State, he tells you exactly who he is and what he means and never gives you a chance to speak at all, so didactic and bossy he barely seems human at all.

At least that was what I thought, until Allegory’s Invitation came. Invitation was a lanky page named Spenser, who bowed and said, in a charmingly antique way, “On behalf of Allegory and The Faerie Queene, you are cordially invited to a feast and recitation of poetry at Kilcolman Castle in North Cork at which many doubty knights errant and ladies fair and foul will in attendance be. Will you?”

I said yes.

I confess I didn’t care what he meant, his matter didn’t matter to me. He didn’t leave me space to wonder about his purpose, however, because the page stated clearly, “The generall end therefore . . . is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” (Letter to Raleigh). He must have sensed I didn’t wish to be disciplined, gently or otherwise, and felt that no one could fashion me, a modern man, except myself, because he added quickly, “Which for that I conceiued shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which for the most part of men delight to read” (Letter to Raleigh). It’s true I didn’t want or need to read a guidebook on how to be a gentleman, thank you very much, but I was attracted by the medieval pageantry, the romance of it all, so I accepted.

He bowed again and said, “Another guest, most deadly he, will wait on you, Despayre!” At first I thought the last word was a command. When I realized it was a name, I knew who was meant, end of story, not a threat. So I followed the handsome page to the castle hall. When he exchanged his page’s cap for a battered white helmet, I recognized my host. The pageant had begun. He dashed around the table, Red Cross Knight, King Arthur, Archimago, Una and Duessa, even a dragon named Errour, a spectacle more exciting and astounding than I’d expected, but easy to understand, as Allegory is.

It wasn’t until he was putting on the dreaded locks of Despayre that I noticed that the dome of Allegory’s head was clear as crystal and in that instant I saw, not meaning as I might have expected, but myself.

I had underestimated Allegory. Allegory was leading me not out of the world to some ideal realm in the clouds, some neo-Platonic heaven of perfect gentlemen who meant well but lacked their own voices. He was leading me to myself: unfaithful and untrue, a thief and a murderer. I realized suddenly that there had only been one person at the dinner. I was Despayre.

(To read more about metafiction, check out my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

1 thought on “Why Read Spenser When Allegory Invites Despayre”

  1. Hi Ron,
    I haven’t read Spenser, but you’re in good company if you feel you’ve underestimated allegory. Paul de Man has a great essay called “Rhetoric of Temporality,” where he questions the Romantics’ championing of the symbol as a device that is more complicated and open than allegory, because it can be assigned many possible meanings, in contrast to the surface-level meaning of allegory. With the arrival of the age of Reason and the consequential irrelevance of God, it was no longer possible to transcend the gap between “the created world and the act of creation by means of a positive recourse to the notion of divine will,” so writers took refuge in “the world of the symbol,” where they hoped “it would be possible for the image to coincide with the substance,” since in symbol, the substance and its representation do not differ in their being but only in their extension: they are part and whole of the same set of qualities or categories. The relationship of symbol and substance is therefore one of simultaneity, of seemingly contrary objects being related in space at the same time. Meaning is stable and unchanging. On the other hand, allegory is primarily temporal, not spatial, because “it remains necessary, if there is to be allegory, that the allegorical sign refer to another sign that precedes it.” The meaning of allegory is then only to be the “repetition… of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority.”
    So, although the symbol posits the “possibility of an identity or an identification,” “allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin” and only forces the self to painfully recognize the existence of the “non-self.” de Man is saying here that our condition is truly one of eternal absence, of a truth that is constantly changing and evolving, and that it is part of the task of rigorous philosophy to embrace this fact, not to try and escape it like the Romantics with their symbols.

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