Kenneth Borris. Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature: Heroic Form in Sidney, Spenser, and Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. xii + 320pp. ISBN 0 521 78129 9.

Mary R. Bowman
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Bowman, Mary R. "Review of Kenneth Borris, Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 9.1-7 <URL:

  1. Conventional wisdom holds that allegory fell out of fashion near the end of the sixteenth century; even Spenser retreated from the mode late in The Faerie Queene, Milton used it only incidentally or parodically, and Sidney not at all. Kenneth Borris contends that this view reflects twentieth-century distaste for allegory, not sixteenth- or even seventeenth-century theory and practice. Allegory, he insists, was a valued mode, with a particularly strong association with epic and romance, throughout the early modern period.

  2. Borris presents his argument in four sections, the first laying out theoretical and historical contexts and the rest treating the three writers in turn. Drawing on medieval exegesis of Homer and Virgil as well as the large body of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary theory and criticism, both Italian and English, he establishes the longevity and importance of allegoresis. He then presents a theory of allegory, which he describes as a mode that interacts with a host genre to produce a hybrid, and gives an overview of the conventions, methods, and themes of allegorical epic, emphasizing moral philosophy and symbolic diction.

  3. Sidney presents the greatest test for Borris's thesis. Traditionally, Sidney has been said to employ an "exemplary" mode distinct from allegory, creating characters that illustrate privileged virtues but that do not "mean" anything beyond themselves. Borris turns first to the Defense of Poetry to argue that Sidney did not make this distinction, much less reject allegory in favour of an exemplary mode, and that Sidney's expressed views about the function of literature are compatible with allegoresis. He then offers readings of some components of both the Old and New Arcadias. The two princes' defeat of the wild beasts (and later of the rebellious peasants), for example, is read as an instance of a "general allegory of moral progress through temptation, trial, and discipline of the 'lower nature,' that was commonly ascribed to Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid" (116). Borris concludes, "No longer anomalous curiosities somewhere beyond the prestigious 'Spenser-Milton' pale, the Arcadias should be re-positioned within that line of literary development, of which Sidney now seems the clear progenitor" (141).

  4. The Faerie Queene's allegorical nature has never been in dispute, but Borris focuses his attention on Book VI, where Spenser is often thought to have abandoned the mode. As his proof text, Borris chooses the conflict between Arthur and Turpine, including the characters of Enias and the Savage. In Borris's reading, Enias represents the mental faculties, at first working against Arthur but eventually redirected and controlled by him; the Savage represents innate human nature. Together, they contribute to an analysis of the composite hero Arthur, who subsumes both faculties and thereby defeats Turpine.

  5. Though Paradise Lost is not generally regarded as allegorical, except in isolated moments such as that involving the figures of Sin and Death, Borris positions himself within recent critical work to challenge this traditional view. Indeed, Milton's choice of subject could have led him away from allegory (unlike Homer, for example, Milton could address divine truths directly rather than veil them in the doings of pagan gods), but Borris contends that episodes which Milton invents, without biblical warrant, invite allegorical interpretation. The Son's appointment as "viceregent" over the angels (narrated at V. 603-11), for example, is a Miltonic invention, and is crucial to the plot as the proximate cause of Satan's rebellion; in Borris's reading, this moment pre-figures Christ's later exaltations (not directly represented in the poem) at the Resurrection and at the Apocalypse. The more obviously allegorical episode of Sin and Death marks not the first appearance of allegory in the poem, but the progressive "reductiveness of Satan's revision of the cosmic analogies" (209).

  6. A sceptical reader might object that Borris's argument is circumstantial. Its component parts are persuasive: He demonstrates that heroic poetry was frequently read as, if not expected to be, allegorical, even into the eighteenth century, and therefore establishes cause to hypothesize that specific works may be allegorical; he offers sensitive and attentive allegorical readings of the poems in question, readings which are consistent with philosophies that the writers express more overtly in other ways or other venues. It thus seems reasonable to connect the dots and assert that the works are allegories, in other words, that the allegorical meanings are intentional. But what can't be allegorized? In the absence of clear markers (a hero named "Christian" or a monster named "Error"), it is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate allegorical intent. Not all readers will be convinced that Borris has done so. However, his circumstantial case is a strong one, and he has placed the burden of proof on those who would insist on the absence of allegory.

  7. Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature is an extremely well-researched, meticulously documented, and well-edited work. It should become the beginning, not the end, of renewed critical discussions of Sidney, Milton, and even Spenser, as allegorists.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)