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Literary Imagination in Angus Fletcher
by Gordon Teskey

Angus Fletcher

Edmund Spenser occupied an enduring place in the regally capacious and energetic mind of Angus Fletcher, who left us in the last week of November, 2016. Fletcher was one of the leading figures in American literary criticism over last fifty-plus years. He did not, however, establish a method or found a school or style of approach. His work has more in common with French master thinkers of his generation, such as Michel Serres and Edgar Morin, who take the sciences as a rich source of thought—and of metaphor—to do illuminating work in the humanities.

Angus, as everyone called him, including his students, is best known in the wider critical community for his first book, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, a much-reprinted classic, the latest edition appearing from Princeton in 2012, with accolades from Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Stephen Greenblatt. I shall have more to say about this book here, including what I see as its importance in the history of criticism. I shall also discuss the Spenser book that followed shortly after: The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser. But the later phase of Angus’s career, beginning with Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature, seems to me just as important as the earlier, if not more so, and deserves the careful attention of Spenserians.

This is not a personal essay or a testimonial, but I will disclose that in my own work on allegory I took a different line from Angus’s. Even so, our disagreements on this one subject never cast the slightest shadow on a friendship that extended over two decades, beginning with my first meeting him and Michelle Scissom-Fletcher at Yale in 1996, at a conference celebrating the 1596 Faerie Queene. My regard for the brilliance of his mind and the depth of his learning is immense. Almost up to his death we consulted each other on our work, although I was the greater beneficiary. Like many who kept up an acoustical correspondence with him, I miss Angus’s voice at the other end of the telephone line. 

Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode has a title that bears obvious relevance to Spenser, even if direct remarks in it on the poet of The Faerie Queene are comparatively scarce (I shall review some of these later), which is doubtless one reason for the book that would follow, exclusively devoted to Spenser. The material treated as allegorical in Allegory is extensive, all the way from Homer and Virgil to detective novels, advertisements (recalling Roland Barthes), and Italian neo-realist films: in short, art. (Fellini, alas for our loss of Angus’s thoughts about him, was only then entering the Jungian phase of his career, with masterpieces strikingly like episodes in Spenser.) The claim that allegory coincides with art has been justified in two ways, the one having to do with commentary, the other with language. The first follows Northrop Frye’s assertion that any literary work is allegorical from the point of view of commentary (53-54 and 89-92, and Fletcher, Allegory, 8-12). Although Frye made an effort to reign in that statement, distinguishing between allegorization as a critical practice and allegory as “a structural principle in literature,” his own “sliding scale” for thematic criticism pretty much affirmed it (Frye 54, 341, and 91). The second way to justify the limitlessness of allegory, one to be made more of by Paul de Man (who would call Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, for example, an allegory of irony) is the claim that language itself, and indeed any communicative act, is felt by us to be secondary or “other” with respect to a temporally prior meaning that is always deferred (de Man 228). The very word allegory, formed from allo “other” plus agoreuein “speaking,” points to this radical element of difference in language, or what Derrida called espacement, implying a temporal as well as a metaphysical distance. According to this second point, which does not appear in Allegory but in subsequent discussions on the subject generally, literary texts are not merely capable of being interpreted allegorically, that is, allegorized; they just are allegorical.

It is true that scholars who study actual allegorical works, such works being numerous in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, will not readily embrace such a conclusion. The distinguished French medievalist J. C. Payen, in one of the longer efforts, was nonplussed by the implicit definition of allegory as anything that happened to be of interest to a scholar who seemed to him interested in everything.

However, Allegory is more than a book about allegories. It is that rarity, a deeply learned academic book with continuing cultural relevance. In 1964, in the context of expanding education and progressive cultural and political movements, there emerged in Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode a new style of criticism that was nearer to art, awakening a creative and expansive spirit in its readers, chief among whom was a new generation of students of literature and criticism, not a few of them professors of literature today. Instead of the punitive and narrow philology that reigned formerly in the most prestigious institutions where literature was studied, restrictions that went hand in glove with the exclusion of women and the racial and class exclusions that remain with us today, Angus pioneered an exciting way forward. His work and his teaching, some of it by choice in non-elite institutions more favorable to theory, embodied the spirit of the most advanced English and Comparative literary criticism in the following decades—especially, though by no means exclusively, on this side of the Atlantic.

The book began as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “Allegory and Compulsion,” still available in the library, a crisp and lucid exercise in Freudian analysis supervised by none other than I. A. Richards—and fostered by Reuben Brower—in line with the intention, popular at the time (is it not at all times?), of putting literary study on a scientific basis, an expectation Angus was soon to encounter in the work of Northrop Frye, by far the most cited critic in Allegory. The thesis contains the essence of the first chapter of the book, “The Daemonic Agent,” arguing that the daemons or specialized gods of late antiquity, who can do only one thing, such as grow beards, enact the repetition compulsion in Freud and are succeeded to in Medieval and Renaissance culture by such figures as Ira and Invidia, not to mention such figures in The Faerie Queene as Furor and Occasion.

The scattered observations on Spenser in Allegory retain their freshness today, even when we have come across them since in more atomistic form. For example, in a point to be developed in Angus’s later book on Spenser, Radegund’s rule-bound state is a “counter ideal” of justice (361) because it represents the excessive legalism to which Artegal is subject—this to be contrasted later with equity, as represented at Isis’s Church (The Prophetic Moment,259-60). We may now be familiar with the thought that Malbecco’s progress from a realistic figure, as in fabliau, to an allegorical one, ending with his name, Gealousy, enacts allegory’s way of digesting other literary forms (49-50). But so far as I can tell Angus was the first to say so. I am more certain no one else said, as Angus did, that the Malbecco episode generates movement in the opposite direction as well, from allegory to myth, which is signified in Spenser by androgyny, a symbol for the unconditioned, primordial state: “We can explain in these terms the emergence of heroes and perhaps even more of heroines in The Faerie Queene from a state of allegorical significance to a state of mythical significance. The tendency in Spenser is for all major characters to move toward androgyny, the most notable instance being Spenser’s most richly developed character, Britomart” (356 n.). This provides a brilliant insight into the canceled end of Book III, with its figure of the hermaphrodite, into the explicitly androgynous Venus of Book Four (IV.x.41), and into the goddess of Nature in the Cantos of Mutabilitie: “Yet certes by her face and physnomy, / Whether she man or woman inly were, / That could not any creature well descry” (VII.vii.5.5-7). Angus’s explanation is that “myth and allegory are two different stages of a single archetypal story-telling process” with dream at one end and compulsive thinking at the other (355-56 n.)

The broader argument of Allegory identifies the two principle actions in this literary form: on the one hand battle, on the other, quest or progress, as in Petrarch’s Trionfi. Allegories drive towards encyclopedic and cosmic completeness, and specialized allegorical sub-heroes are projected out of more general ones (chapter two, “The Cosmic Image,” 70-146, and 155, and 35-36). Perhaps more open to discussion is the claim that magic and ritual, rather than the remnants of classical idealism, are mediating energies between narrative action and symbolic form (293-98). In 1964 few of these things had been said, and never with such an original effort to account for their relations with one another. Most original of all, and perhaps key to the book, are the intriguing pages on the social-psychoanalytic drives out of which allegories are produced and by which they become, as Angus says in his concluding sentence, “the natural mirrors of ideology” (368). That statement still has considerable force, especially if we drop the Renaissance critical commonplace of the mirror and replace it with that of the engine.

Spenser is the main subject of only one of Angus’s books: The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser, which was written almost a half century ago, followed the next year by a book on the most Spenserian work of the poet who called Spenser his “original”: The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s “Comus.” Angus’s discussion of “the politics of the vanishing point” in Comus, Milton’s work of sublime baroque imagination, is only one instance of the critical creativity he displays in this book (79-86). Allegories also have a vanishing point, where meanings converge on The Meaning, the “darke conceit.” That this effect has political force, by virtue of what was just then elsewhere being termed logocentrism, to be followed by phallogocentrism, is an insight in line with the interpretation of Spenser as a political prophet.

Modestly presented as an essay or “effort,” which it is, The Prophetic Moment is one of the most intellectually adventuring books ever written on The Faerie Queene, which is the most intellectually adventuring long poem in English. This may be especially so in Book V, and more especially at Isis’s Church, to which Angus devotes a fascinating reading in the book’s second part: “by adopting the euhemerist tradition that Osiris was originally a man and not a god, Spenser drives his myth into the humanistic sphere where justice takes the form of action” (261). Is this not a fine description of how Spenser treats myth generally in The Faerie Queene?

In The Prophetic Moment the moment in question is a spatial concept: the threshold between the labyrinthine toils of narrative and the open, synoptic clearing of the temple, between sequential events and inclusive visions. It is at the turbulent boundaries between these different regimes, Angus argues, rather than in the clearings or “allegorical cores,” that the poem releases its prophetic “moments,” a word he may be credited with introducing into the critical analysis of The Faerie Queene. As for prophecy, it is meant in Jeremiah’s sense, or William Blake’s, as social energy and political vision.

This claim works best for Book Five, with its temple-like places where political mysteries are seen clearly (as at Isis’s Church and the court of Mercilla). But such mysteries are at first entangled in narrative before they are dragged out into plain view, as with the monster, “Borne of the brooding of Echidna base” (V.xi.23.5), that hides beneath the temple idol, feeding on the carcasses that have been sacrificed to it. Like her mother Echidna (or his mother: the gender is inconsistent, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not), who is the mate of Typhon, monster of monsters (Theogony 295-305), this horror is too comprehensive in meaning to be explicated in terms of the political allegory of the episode, however monstrous the Duke of Alva’s brutality to the population the low countries. That comprehensiveness is what gives this figure its Blakean, prophetic power.

The Prophetic Moment contains a great deal of cerebration that to a stricter sensibility may appear to be of dubious relevance to the study of the object in hand, if the poem is to be considered a detached object of study, rather than as inspiring the kind of associational reflection that allegory generally is meant to call forth. One exasperated reviewer remarked, in a long list, on “marginally relevant” digressions and unnecessary footnotes; “allusions to scholarship in unexpected fields,” arguments at once “meandering” and “repetitive” and “inclined to bury the ostensible subject beneath an orgy of information.” This is Jane Aptekar, herself an author of a study Book V of The Faerie Queene, Icons of Justice, and she’s just warming up. But by the end of her review she does not hesitate to speak of The Prophetic Moment’s “heroic energy,” at once “positive, visionary, synthesizing, recreative,” conveying “the largeness of Spenser’s enterprise and of (in all the available senses of the term) its relevance” (561).

By relevance I think Aptekar would wish to mean that the poem’s “truth content,” its Wahrheitsgehalt, to use Adorno’s ample term, is something other than relevance in the ordinary sense of the word. It is inspired cerebration within an energetic region of ideas. The Prophetic Moment is an experimental book, as The Faerie Queene is an experimental poem. It therefore points the way to the future, most notably to the intense cerebral connectivity of James Nohrnberg’s monumental study, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene. 

A hiatus followed the Milton book, after which Angus entered the final and astonishingly creative phase of his career. In it he composed four major books, for which we must be grateful to the vision of Lindsay Waters, of Harvard University Press. Angus was also blessed in these years by his wife and full intellectual partner, Michelle Scissom-Fletcher, who read and commented on every page of these books. The series begins with Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature, with its important concept of “iconographies of thought,” and with the observation that the stanza of The Faerie Queene is a matrix into which the poem’s heterogeneous sources are gathered (123). The next book, A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination, follows a tradition of descriptive poetry from John Clare in nineteenth-century England to Whitman and Ashbery. It registers the difference of American poetry from English as the difference between the sense of place and the feeling for space, the environment in the etymological sense of that word. These poems, Angus says, are not about the environment: “they are environments” (103). Is this not also a just statement about The Faerie Queene, improving on Coleridge’s description of Faerie as “mental space” (409-10)? The Faerie Queene is not a poem about a place, like “To Penshurst.” It is an environment for ideas—one that is exceptionally beautiful, rich, and strange.

Angus wrote one other composition that is exclusively—if that is ever the right word to use for his open-plan mind—devoted to Spenser. This is the essay on the Cantos of Mutabilitie, which was published in Literary Imagination in 2004. It is a wide-ranging discussion of the productive discordance of mythos and logos, of the theory of complex adaptive systems, or complexity theory, and of Spenser’s final poetic statement as anticipating romanticism’s “natural supernaturalism,” in M. H. Abrams’s phrase.

One new point in this essay stands out: a marked preference for dissimilarity over analogy, because discordant properties interact more productively, more expansively, than similarities do. Complexity theory seems to have awakened Angus to some of the limitations of analogy (famously pointed out by Michel Foucault) as a reliable instrument of knowledge.

In complexity theory the generative power of interaction between heterogeneous elements develops the larger characteristics of a system, one that sustains itself by adapting to new circumstances and changing with them, as do both environments and the organisms in them. It is the same, says Angus, with certain long narrative poems, from Ovid to the Italian romances and, of course, with pre-eminence, to The Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene is a poem with many, indeed, almost innumerable heterogeneous but interacting parts, like the Italian romances. Its preeminence comes from the charge that this delivers to its readers, which is continually to impose logos on mythos, one regime interacting with its heterogeneous other. As a result, the total, social environment enclosing the poem and its many interpretations is itself a complex adaptive structure. It is the history of the poem’s changing existence in time, in the community—no, in the environment!—of its interpreters.

Angus’s Mutabilitie essay contains asides that should interest Spenserians for some time. The Faunus episode, for example, is not what it is usually assumed to be: a lower-register, harmonic parallel to the usurpation struggle between Mutabilitie and Jove, with Faunus as another encroacher: on Diana the huntress instead of Diana the goddess of the moon. That is a classically analogical reading, which for commentators in the Renaissance was authorized by the system of correspondences in the hierarchy of being as laid out in Pico della Mirandola’s Heptaplus. But for Angus the Faunus and Molanna digression is a discordant irruption into the higher realms of metaphysical debate. Its importance is in its dissimilarity to the narrative frame:

Faunus gives to the narrative at large its true complexity, its nonlinearity—for nothing could on the surface be more unpredicted, more chaotic in the strict scientific sense, than the irruption of this odd pastoral folktale into the sublime philosophic allegory surrounding it. In detail, of course, there are crossovers of tone, as when Jove calls Mutability a “girl,” but these are decentering secondary bridges to the Faunus episode and do not fundamentally diminish the grandly archaic tone of the trial of legitimacy (VI.34.1). Poetry and philosophy, which I am deliberately “reducing” to complexity theory, depend in Spenser upon the central Ovidian notion of metamorphosis, whose equivalent in the strictly ordered notion of complex adaptive systems is called “interaction” (22).

In Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus returned from American poetry to the European Renaissance with a meditation on the emergence, with Galileo, of universal measurability as a standard of truth. The problem for the humanities posed by this standard is the subject of Angus’s next and final book, The Topological Imagination: Spheres, Edges, and Islands, in which magnitude is relinquished in favor of warping surfaces and twisted shapes, which are identical on different scales. This last point is key, because for Angus universal measurability, which is so vital to the scientific enterprise that took off in the seventeenth century, is also deadly to poetry and to the artistic efforts of the imagination, the qualities of which are not subject to reduction to quantities.

Characteristically (as with his earlier interest in complexity theory), Angus found the counterpoise to scientism in the humanities within science itself, specifically within the discipline of mathematical topology, in which measurement has no role because its objects of study—knots, toruses, polyhedrons, and continuous surfaces—are identical on different scales. Think of Claes Oldenberg’s whacky giant sculptures depicting cakes, hamburgers, clothespins, needle and thread, and a Swiss Army knife gondola, complete with actively folding parts, floating down Venice’s grand canal. Of course, it matters that these sculptures are stunningly larger than what they depict. But it matters only because our shock draws attention to how the sculptures’ size doesn’t after all, in a deeper sense, matter. The objects appear to be just the same, but the world around them has shrunk.

The Topological Imagination thus takes as its point of departure the revolution against measurement in the field of mathematical topology and aligns these topoi or shaped places with the mysterious ways of the poetic imagination. Spenserian readers of this book will find themselves asking not where Faerie is, or how large it is, or what measurable distances there are in it between one location and another, or even whether Cleopolis can be designated a center, an inside, or an outside. Are we ever definitively inside or outside Faerie in this poem, or are we always, in some sense, on a surface that is continuously turning and warping, and doing so especially rapidly as we pass over edges, at points of transition?

Consider, for example, the episode near the beginning of Book Three in which the terrified Florimell bursts from the underbrush and rushes past on her palfrey, whereupon Britomart’s companions, Arthur, Timeas, and Guyon, ride off in pursuit. Britomart rides on for the space of one stanza and then leaves the forest path for an open plain in front of the castle of Malacasta—“At last as nigh out of the wood she came” (III.i.20.1)—where six knights are fighting with one, in a “compacted gyre” (23). What The Topological Imagination is asking us to picture in moments of transition like this—and do we ever pay enough attention to the transitions in The Faerie Queene?—is one episode spread out on one face of a polygon and the next episode on an adjacent face. To get from the one to the other we have to pass suddenly, speedily, over an edge.

If I am right in this hunch, The Topological Imagination is continuous with the Spenser book of forty years previous. The thick, transitional spaces between twisting labyrinths and open regions of “templar” vision come back as edges on spherical polyhedrons.

At the time of his death, Angus was working on a book on Whitman and particle physics, exploring the paradox in Leaves of Grass that atomistic things are also standing waves. Like Whitman, “starting from fish-shaped Paumanok,” that is, Long Island, Angus grew up along what was still in his youth the rural seashore, where he had much to do with boats, bays, shoals, streams running down to the sea, and mazelike passages through saltwater marshes. The horizon at sea, Conrad’s “shadow line,” so beautifully evoked in A New Theory for American Poetry (22), may be intellectually clear because it is subjective. But despite its name, there is nothing linear about a shoreline.

Considering his work as a whole, Angus seems to me the inheritor of Coleridge’s amorphous and glorious mantle, itself an irregular shoreline between philosophy and poetry. The great difference is that STC, however far he ranged (very far!), was chiefly absorbed in Shakespeare. But Angus always had Spenser at the back of his mind. It is possible that Coleridge’s philosophical ambitions, so evident in the Shakespeare lectures, might have been more suitably exercised on a philosophical poet like Spenser. At any rate, Spenserians may perhaps be forgiven for seeing—if only here and now, on the abstract surface of this electronic page—Angus Fletcher’s brilliant and generous career of wide-ranging thought as having its secret home in Faerie, with its “strange waies” and its hilltop vistas, where graces dance.

Gordon Teskey
Harvard University

Works Cited

Aptekar, Jane. Icons of Justice: Iconography & Thematic Imagery in Book V of The Faerie Queene. Columbia UP, 1969.

—. Review of The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser, by Angus Fletcher. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, 1971, pp. 560-563.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures, 1808-1819, on Literature. Edited by R. A. Foakes, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1987.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays on the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed., revised, edited by Wlad Godzich, U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Cornell UP, 1964.

—. “Allegory and Compulsion: A Conceptual System for Specifying An Allegorical Dimension in Literature.” Proquest Dissertations and Theses. Diss. Harvard University, 1958.

—. Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. Harvard UP, 1991.

—. “Complexity and the Spenserian Myth of Mutability.” Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-22.

—. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Harvard UP, 2004.

—. The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser. U of Chicago P, 1971.

—. Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare. Harvard UP, 2007.

—. The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s Comus.” Cornell UP, 1972.

—. The Topological Imagination: Spheres, Edges, and Islands. Harvard UP, 2016.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton UP, 1957.

Nohrnberg, James. The Analogy of The Faerie Queene. Princeton UP, 1980.

Payen, J. C. Le Moyen âge, vol. 3, no. 1, 1967, pp. 173-78.


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Gordon Teskey, "Literary Imagination in Angus Fletcher," Spenser Review 47.2.24 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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