Volume 1, Number 3 (December 1995)

Mindele Anne Treip. Allegorical Poetics and the Epic: The Renaissance Tradition to Paradise Lost. Lexington, Kentucky: UP of Kentucky, 1994. xviii + 368 pp.

Review by,
C.D. Jago
University of British Columbia
Jago, C.D. "Review of Allegorical Poetics and the Epic: the Renaissance Tradition to Paradise Lost." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 11.1-6 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-3/rev_jag1.html>.
Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.3 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the editor of EMLS.
  1. Mindele Anne Treip's Allegorical Poetics and the Epic: The Renaissance Tradition to Paradise Lost is a formidable work of Milton scholarship written out of the conviction that "Paradise Lost must be considered in relation to the critical tradition from which it grew" (128). For Treip, appreciating Milton's epic in the context of a tradition of allegorical practice leads to a better understanding of some of the poem's "unusual features" (such as angels, supernatural machinery, and the figures of Sin and Death in Books 2 and 10) and, most importantly, the poem's "coherent intellectual and artistic structure" (xiv). The objective of Treip's book, thus, is twofold: she undertakes the challenging task of mapping a poetic and exegetic tradition of allegory spanning from Aristotle to Milton, and she relates these historical practices to Paradise Lost in such a way that allegory emerges as the key for comprehending the text. In the course of achieving these two aims, Treip discusses a wealth of historically significant theoretical texts, many of which are rarely treated in English.

  2. Allegorical Poetics and the Epic is divided into three main discussions. In the first, Treip looks at the treatment of allegory in poetry and in exegesis up to the early Renaissance. This section encompasses classical interpreters, rabbinical interpretation, church fathers and medieval allegory, Dante, Colluccio Salutati, English rhetoricians, English mythographers (including Bacon, Comes and John Harrington), and finishes with a discussion of "Idea" as formulated by Philo, Boccaccio, Sidney and Tasso. In part two, Treip focuses her discussion on the theories of allegory developed by Tasso and Le Bossu, and includes a discussion of allegorical theory adduced from Paradise Lost itself. In part three, she discusses Milton's "explicit writing" on allegory in his secular prose and theological treatise. In this final section Treip discusses Paradise Lost as an allegorical epic within the contexts of Milton's Protestantism, his own writing on the subject of allegorical poetics and exegesis, and "the practical artistic evidence" in the text.

  3. Treip's study of allegory is remarkable for the way it discovers significant historical continuities in both the theory and application of allegory. The perception of these continuities leads her to regard allegory (as both a poetic and exegetic practice) as having undergone "a long evolution" from which it emerges as a distinctive theory and practice. More importantly, Treip regards allegory as "crystallizing" in the late sixteenth century, especially in the work of Torquato Tasso. Tasso is treated as the most important figure in the evolution of allegory because he is seen as perfecting a two-level model of allegoresis (allegorical writing/interpretation) by theorizing the inter-relatedness of historical content with underlying "hidden meaning," "moral," or "idea." Treip reads Tasso as striving towards, and finally achieving, a doubling of allegory through the combination of the allegory of the supernatural episode of romance with a main plot allegory. This innovation, Treip argues, allowed for an entire poetic narrative to be related as a metafora continuata or, in Spenser's words, a "continued dark conceit." Treip proceeds to argue that Tasso's ideas of allegory, along with those of his contemporaries Ludovico Castelvetro and Jacopo Mazzoni, are the key to understanding the structure and content of the The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost because both Spenser and Milton, to different degrees, seized on their idea of "a Moral or Idea expressing itself via the plausible fiction, and also through fantastic fictive modes" (149).

  4. Central to Treip's argument is the view that the sixteenth-century formulation of allegory as metafora continuata affords the poet who works with this model a greater flexibility of imaginative expression than is conceded by interpreters who would over-emphasize either the figurative or literal aspects of allegory. Given her concern for cautioning against reductive strategies of reading allegory, it is noteworthy that Treip does not find it necessary to question whether her own commitment to the Tassonic formulation of a two-level model of allegory as an interpretive key to Paradise Lost may not also be considered reductive. The aesthetic coherence that Treip reads into these epics, regardless of its historical viability, imposes order on the generative potentialities of the texts and, necessarily, places limits on their interpretation.

  5. With respect to this text's methodology, Treip's reading of the historical practice of allegory as a "tradition," and her reading of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost are informed by an essentialism which privileges the idea of authorial intention and the idea that texts contain core meanings. This approach tends to erase differences between texts and leads Treip to make some rather sweeping generalizations. The best example of this is, perhaps, her view that the moral content of the allegorical epic is principally "the concept of 'Heroic Virtue'" (55), a judgment based "on such well-tried Aristotelian and or Platonic concepts as a reason-versus-passions antithesis in the structure of the soul, with the need of the moral aspirant to cultivate a guiding principle of wisdom in his actions and choices" (56).

  6. The traditionalism of Treip's methodology may disappoint readers who expect a more contemporary critical discourse. In addition, in a number of places the text lacks clarity; extended sentences occasionally make determining the sense of her commentary a time consuming task. The text also tends to be weighed down by repetition. However, in spite of its methodological and stylistic handicaps, Allegorical Poetics and the Epic is an ambitious, and in many ways remarkable, work of scholarship that should be of interest to Milton scholars, and others concerned with allegory, for years to come.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

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[JW, RGS; December 28, 1995.]