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Andrew Escobedo, Volition's Face
by Judith Anderson

Andrew Escobedo. Volition’s Face: Personification and the Will in Renaissance Literature.  U of Notre Dame P, 2017. xii + 326 pp. ISBN: 978-0268101671. $40.00 paper.


If I were to divide modern criticism of Renaissance literature into dominantly theoretical and dominantly text-based approaches, Andrew Escobedo’s sophisticated study would fall under the first. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the text or that the theory he embraces is not strongly historical, as well as correlated with modernity. His study is all these, and it rewrites our thinking about personification (synonymized with prosopopeia) and its relation to the faculty of willing. Simply put, this relation will never again be the same. Escobedo’s book is careful, perceptive, informed, and, in short, important.

Volition’s Face—its title looking two ways—begins with the thetic assertion that Renaissance “Personification is an expression of will,” thereby identifying this figure of speech with the psychological faculty, its possessor as yet open-ended: whose will, we might ask (15). It ends with the observation that “This book has told a story of the will through the literary device of personification” (245). Between the two, an enormous amount of expansion, meticulous qualification, and telling refinement occurs, and the balance shifts. Prior to an Epilogue, in a final chapter concerning Paradise Lost, for example, much space is devoted both to an unpersonified appearance of envy (Satan’s response to the Son’s exaltation in book 5) and to the personified and allegorized figure of Sin. While attention to this unpersonified envy is justified by its relation to volition, the balance has nonetheless shifted from the primarily literary concerns at the start of the book. In this final chapter, theory is decidedly dominant, and this fact bears on its argument.

Escobedo’s first two chapters are primarily theoretical too, respectively titled “Personification, Energy, and Allegory” and “The Prosopopoetic Will: Ours, though Not We.” They provide the lenses through which we see the rest and therefore both ask for attention and lead me to apologize for the length of this review—organized by Escobedo’s chapters to enable selective reading, if wished. Subsequent chapters of Volition’s Face feature literary works, selected, as Escobedo explains, to “showcase the book’s thesis” that literary personification expresses will, or, once narrative is included, an act of willing (6). Chapter 3 treats “Conscience in the Tudor Interludes.” Taken together, chapters 4 (Despair) and 5 (Love) mainly treat The Faerie Queene, although chapter 4 also examines Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus closely. Chapter 5 treats Paradise Lost (Satan and Sin). Because I cannot do justice to a defining characteristic of Escobedo’s critical method throughout, namely to position his arguments with respect to existing ones, I mention it here. My focus will be mainly on his arguments.

Following an Introduction that asserts, “all premodern literary personification—be it Reason, Rage, Winter, or Rome—expresses volition,” chapter 1 characterizes such personification as the “translation of the conception [elsewhere a philosophy] of action implied by daemonism” (12, 21). Earlier, the classical daemon has been identified as a “semidivine figure that populated the landscape and mindscape” of Antiquity (4-5). In a shift from noun to adjective, the ancient daemons become Escobedo’s “daemonic agents … willful characters” of “daemonic intensity” (30, 54). They are figurative, metaphors or catachreses “that enact a transference [transferre/-latus] between the order of things and the order of persons,” and in literary fiction they are continued metaphors, or allegories, as a Renaissance rhetorician might suppose (30). The chapter goes on to distinguish between personification as sign and as character, only to conclude that in a long allegory, the one can slide into the other, and to assert the secondariness of allegorical narrative, only to recognize that the engagement of personifications in narrative can result in their limitation and manipulation (31, 38-39). Escobedo’s examination of thorny issues is rigorous and necessarily given to adverbs like “usually, almost, primarily, often, sometimes” and to tentative verbals like “can and “could.” Recalling the old adage of the pot and the kettle, I sympathize. The fact is that his subject is a difficult one—the kind that benefits from renewed critical illumination and that also confronts the difference between theory and poetic practice, or at least sustained, complex practice. 

Yet even less complex fictions can be tricky. Referring to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, for example, Escobedo seeks to distinguish between Chastity as an agential sign and Patience as an agential example who does what she is. Patience simply endures Wrath’s blows until her opponent commits suicide in frustration. What patience does is “literally patient,” whereas Chastity’s slitting Lust’s (Sodomita Libido’s) windpipe is not “literally” a chaste thing to do. Warned by “literally” against distractions like the possible symbolism of pipes and wind (think pneuma), one might still wonder why Chastity should be patient rather than active (even proactive) in the face of Lust’s aggression. If we look ahead, the figure of Britomart appears on the horizon. Purely literal action in an allegory, a recurrent notion in Volition’s Face, is itself questionable.

Chapter 1 ends with extensive, tactful attention to the discussions of allegory by Angus Fletcher and Gordon Teskey, both of whom Escobedo acknowledges as particular influences on his study. His interest in daemons derives from Fletcher’s pioneering work on personification and subsequently from Teskey’s, including prosopopoetic “capture” (47-55).[1] He firmly rejects Fletcher’s explanation of daemonism as psychological compulsion, however, and similarly objects to Teskey’s “strict” distinction between the classical daemon and Christian personification. At the same time, he emphasizes that premodern Christians “understood personifications as more than pagan deities translated into figures” (55). Personifications possess daemonic power.

Chapter 2 tells a story—Escobedo emphasizes the indefinite article—about “the relation between volition’s freedom and its causation” (57). He surveys this relation from Antiquity to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, then to modernity. In Antiquity, the will is part of a whole process of desiring, deliberating, deciding. Starting with Augustine but more openly in the late Middle Ages, will emerges as a more distinct faculty, its causation less clear and more problematic, and the Renaissance will is largely continuous with the Medieval one: thus “the premodern will is part of the self but also independent from the other parts of the self” (75). A later sentence parenthetically gestures to disarm the extremity of this independence: beyond “the will’s independence (or deviation) from the intellect and other cognitive functions, no single conception of will dominated Renaissance thought”—a recognition to remember (78). 

Accordingly, personifications “assert an independence from the thing they are a part of by behaving as separate agents in the narrative” (75). As others have noted, the Reformers of the sixteenth century descended from the late Medieval nominalists, claiming Augustine as their predecessor in Late Antiquity. Whereas for Augustine, Duns Scotus, and Ockham, the cause of the will’s activity is the will, however, for Calvin and Luther its cause is its “willfulness, its set orientation toward sin” (83). But crucial to any literary expression of the premodern will is the will’s figuration both as part of the willing agent and as separate from this agent—as out there in the landscape. “As exteriority, personification implies a causal link between inside and outside, whereby the energies of the landscape [in my gloss, the ‘surround,’ situation, context] transact with the energies of the self,” or inside (93). The familiar example offered is Spenser’s Furor, who, in Phedon’s narrative, has emerged from Phedon’s furious action as a sign that then has turned into an agent; once rationally abstracted by the Palmer, Furor turns into a sign that can be captured (immobilized) by Guyon (II.iv). Spenser is clearly interested in the relation of figure/figuration to narrative, as well as in the relation of will/willfulness to thought, and vice versa. So is Milton, for whom “Reason also is choice,” these two faculties—powers, capacities—mutually, if ambiguously, informing each other.

Chapter 3 first treats the history of Christian conscience, born of Antiquity’s daemon. St. Paul combines this daemon with the Hebraic “guilt-imposing accuser” and internalizes the result (97-98). In the Middle Ages, the daemonic figure of Genius becomes an agent or aspect of Nature or a guardian and guide inside and outside the psyche, as C. S. Lewis explained in connection with Spenser’s figure of Genius in the Bower of Bliss (II.xii.47).[2] Escobedo observes that “a Christian conscience [similarly] belongs to us but is a special gift (or constraint) bestowed by God that retains its otherness in relation to us”—“Ours, though Not We,” as his chapter title puts it (100).

The second part of chapter 3 focuses on moral interludes from the late fifteenth century to the 1580s that treat the sinner’s repentance (or not). These dramas embrace “the simultaneously interior and exterior nature of daemonic energy,” the figure of Repentance being “alternately” external to the sinner and “a projection of his inner passions and faculties” (103). In typically Catholic versions, Conscience is at once inside the sinner and outside in the counselors and institutions of the church; this conscience activates the will, imposes “painful remorse,” and intimates hope, which opposes despair. In the Protestant interludes, “Conscience does not prompt the will to do anything, and it is often all but indistinguishable from despair” (105). Instead of activating the will, the Protestant Conscience “requires the sinner to exercise self-reflection” (122). Whereas the ancient Greek (and Thomist) view is that we cannot rationally choose evil, as evil (rather than as a seeming good), the contrasting Lutheran-Calvinist view that our innate corruption corrupts our every intention makes repentance “the consequence, rather than the cause, of divine forgiveness” (105-6). Escobedo concludes that the Protestant “sinner cannot will himself to repent (self-mastery), but he does will his repentance” (110). This conclusion, which is important for later chapters, needs more unpacking than even an online review allows. Suffice it to say that it leads to a Scholastic-like distinction between a first-order desire for an object and a second-order desire, which is “a desire about a desire” (113): “A functioning [Protestant] conscience” compels “second-order knowledge about one’s first-order desire to sin,” providing a perspective on it and enabling an emotive response to it, whether affirmative or negative (114-15). Conversely, a sinner’s desire for the will to repent, while not effecting a “transition from wanting to willing” can endorse this transition “as it happens to him,” if it does (117). Second-order volition is a positioning, an “attitude,” an “endorsement,” a “self-identification” (117-18). The significance of all this for later chapters—as Escobedo will recurrently remind us—is the difference between being free to do what you want and being free to will what you want. Thus the paradox of the Protestant will or at least of the Lutheran-Calvinist one, which dominates the next two chapters (Spenser, Marlowe) and remains important in the last (Milton).

Chapter 4, treating The Faerie Queene and Doctor Faustus, remarks the originality of Spenser’s and Marlowe’s Despair characters insofar as they enact this emotion as “an ongoing condition” of relating to God and genuinely knowing Him (139-41). Both Redcrosse and Faustus attempt an “act of will” that can move them from despair to contrition, but neither succeeds, according to Escobedo (143). With respect to Redcrosse, Escobedo argues that Spenser disappoints the traditional expectation that unrelenting despair ends in death. Instead, Spenser’s figure of Despair, who cannot die, enacts a death wish whose Kierkegaardian torment is its incompletion. Despair is simply doing what he is—for all time. But what about Redcrosse? Escobedo argues that Spenser lets neither suicide nor repentance exhaust the knight’s “spiritual hopelessness” at “the incalculable condition of being a creature of God” (153): holiness “is the virtue of managing, or at least living with, one’s despair” (156). Una’s sympathetic intervention in Redcrosse’s near-suicide is “moving,” but her promise of election is belied by Redcrosse’s current weakness, which the House of Holiness apparently fails to cure (151). Pulling a few lines from this House but conspicuously skipping its personifications, most significantly Redcrosse’s dialogue with Contemplation wherein Redcrosse finds his voice, Escobedo’s argument enforces a down-beat view of the knight’s existence (153). In the recapitulation that is the knight’s dragon fight, only the knight’s calling for death part-way through seems to matter. Canto xii goes unmentioned, as does the salience of volition in Book VI (briefly excepting Mirabella’s denial of choice in the next chapter: 196). The treatment of Despair in canto ix is perceptive and provocative in Volition’s Face, while leaving many a question still open.

Productive questions are a staple in this book. The discussion of Faustus’s despair opens with a good one: Why is there so little personification in the play? In view of the Tudor interludes, we might expect some, and the usual answers, based on Marlowe’s main source and the development of realistic psychology in drama, are offset by the strong memories of traditional personification in the play. The devils and angels in Doctor Faustus are “not-quite-personifications,” Escobedo suggests (159). In an example he cites (B: 2.1.14-22), the good and bad angels are not the usual daemon and figure, and they do not represent the usual outside and inside. Instead, either/or replaces and because Faustus does not interact with these angels, even to acknowledge them (163). Escobedo stresses Faustus’s isolation as the end nears but nonetheless finds comfort in Faustus’s desperation, since he “comes to know God, in a sense, through his despair” (168-69). For Faustus, “wanting and willing repentance seem to blur into each other” (169). Yet Faustus fails to “get a coherent perspective on his despair”—a positioning, a self-identification—or to sort out the relation of inside to outside (here to there), conceivably thus to escape his fate (171). Escobedo’s insight into Faustus’s despairing end rings persuasively true.

Chapter 5 concerns Love in The Faerie Queene. It ends with a section on the House of Busirane. Referring to philosophical commentary on Cupid, a daemon in Platonism, Escobedo maintains that “only by taking over human agents, and depriving them of their liberty, can love [Cupid] imbue them with a sense of moral purpose unavailable until the moment of possession” (177). The subsequent difference between the responses of an Arthur and a Braggadocchio lies in “what is already in them”: moral character tempers the initial erotic rapture (194-95). Assent pertains to Spenserian love, but “only as an acquiescence to an external pressure”; Spenser’s lovers “cannot will [choose] what they want”—that is, like grace, rapture happens to them (197). There is much to applaud and much also to ponder here. For example, tension arises between the new moral purpose of the enraptured and the later claim that Eros narrows the protagonists, making them more single-minded, more simply personifications of the virtues they champion (184). At least further unpacking would be desirable, particularly since, at the end of this chapter, Britomart is seen to succeed “because she is able to intensify her daemonic nature and become what she is: chastity”—Chastity? (207). If only as a passing thought, I wonder, “What is chastity, what is She?”

Escobedo’s interpretation of the Busirane episode is where I really part company with his argument.[3] Cupid effectually replaces Busirane; the first and second chambers of this House (first the statue, then the pageant figure, of Cupid) replace the third chamber: thus “Cupid’s illusionary poetics—or, if you prefer, Busirane’s” (201). I confess I prefer the text—I’d say the “literal text,” except that it can’t be, insofar as we are reading metaphorical, indeed catachrestic, allegory—that is, abusio. Only a single text exists, however various its elements and dimensions and their relationships, which shift within books, between books, and over the course of the whole poem. There is no denying Cupid’s power in the House of Busirane or Escobedo’s valid recognition of it. But it is Busirane who reigns in this place.

In Busirane’s House, Escobedo holds, daemonic love (Cupid) “abrogates” Amoret’s will, “demoting her from agent to consequence” (202). Well, yes, and no. This is Busirane’s aim, the goal of his faining/feigning—of the shaping and staging of his sadistic libido—but as far as we know, Amoret will not love Busirane: “Ah who can loue the worker of her smart? … Yet thousand charmes could not her stedfast hart remoue” (III.xii.31.7, 9). Busirane tries to cancel Amoret’s will but fails, yet his abuse frighteningly, even lastingly, affects her figure and her figuration. Moreover, he would, but cannot, replace Scudamour, whose blazon is Cupid himself and whose raptus of Amoret, we later see, informs Spenser’s increasingly urgent questioning of a culture that turns figures humanly more complex than personifications into them. Escobedo scants too much of what goes on both in the House of Busirane and in its larger context in the poem, including the problematical Scudamour, whose role goes untreated. For Escobedo, this House only inspires Britomart to respond as a personification subject to its inner daemon. For Britomart, at least, personified subjection is now the ideal. To the limited extent that her role gets Escobedo’s attention in later books, this remains her condition.

In chapter 6, which centers on Satan’s will in Paradise Lost, the purpose of Milton’s personification allegory of Sin and Death is to illustrate the radical freedom of moral agents (212). In Escobedo’s view, Milton has the option either of making Satan’s choice to sin “free but incomprehensible” or of explaining it as “a prosopopoetic expression of Pride,” which, he argues, “nullifies moral responsibility” (218). Key to Escobedo’s argument is his discussion of the narrative of Satan’s fall in book 5. Setting aside envy on the (questionable) ground that it is involuntary, Escobedo reads the progress of Satan’s sinning in book 5—the trip north, the debate with Abdiel, the declaration of autonomy and embrace of warfare—as deterministic, insofar as narrative, inherently temporal, represents “deliberation as one thought after another after another, creating the impression that thoughts … at least minimally determine each other” (229). (As a Spenserian, I find this “impression” of causality decidedly allegorical: e.g., because Redcrosse is unfaithful to Una, he next meets Sans Foy in the narrative, although this kind of specifically causal, not simply rational, sequence is hardly a constant even in The Faerie Queene.) Escobedo’s “Deliberation,” the weighing of options, is one issue here: does Satan weigh his options after his initial response? Insofar as decisive reasoning occurs, doesn’t it come in debate with Abdiel, not in the narrative movement that precedes it? Does this distinction matter? Another issue is Escobedo’s word “thoughts”: are they choices? Especially if “Reason also is choice,” the two mutually informing, the word “thoughts” is puzzling, too. Be that as it may, Satan’s choice to sin by breaking with God and declaring his own autonomy, critics seem to agree, is a gradual process, as Raphael narrates it. 

Sin’s story of her sudden and explosive birth is another narration, which Escobedo discusses perceptively, and Satan’s narration/soliloquy early in Book IV is yet another, one full of personification, to which he oddly pays little attention. Milton uses double voicing (or multiple voicing) repeatedly in Paradise Lost, a fact whose significance has been too little appreciated. Escobedo’s perception that Sin’s is the first account of Satan’s sinning and thereby virtually a framing antecedent for later ones is first-rate, though I would add that it is so in the order of the telling rather than in the chronology of the poem, from whose vantage point it is suspect: Sin, after all, is its source. It also follows the Miltonic narrator’s brief observation even earlier in the poem that attributes Satan’s fall to Pride (I.35-38). Escobedo’s treatment of Satan’s volition in sinning, whether through personification or otherwise, again appears to be incomplete.

Leading up to the personification of Sin, the payoff of chapter 6, Escobedo provides another enlightening discussion of will: Hobbes and Bramhall, aligned with their modern counterparts, respectively compatibilists and libertarians. Doubtless surprisingly for some, Milton turns out to be a Hobbesian compatibilist, if a closeted one: Reason’s law is philosophical compatibilism, “ideally determining the will to (voluntarily) choose the good” (232-33). A problem, or at least a paradox here, could be that for Milton right reason is informed by faith, which involves willing—“Reason also is choice.” You don’t have one without the other. Escobedo concludes that Satan’s Sin voices—I’d add “sinfully” voices—“a radically divided volition, free from narrative [at least from Raphael’s] and yet subjected to essence”—this in contrast to Raphael’s narration in book 5, which is only now epitomized as “an ambiguous combination of causality and volition” (240). At once agent and sign, Sin’s birth “causes Satan’s choice” and is “a consequence” of it and, to my literary sensibilities, is as tautological a cause and effect as the tormenting hellhounds who encircle her, then kennel in her womb, hourly to re-emerge in a parody of creation (241).

As I hope this review has shown, Volition’s Face is a highly intelligent book, as well as a difficult one in terms of argument and textual application. It is a book that provokes, challenges, and rewards thought, and in my view, it requires reading.


[1] See Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Cornell UP, 1965, and Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence, Cornell UP, 1996.

[2]C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love  (Oxford UP, 1936, 1958), 361-63 (appendix 1); C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge UP, 1964), 42, 214-15.

[3] Since I have published articles on the House of Busirane and Britomart, it might be needless for me to note that I have a forthcoming book, already in production, titled Spenser’s Narrative Figuration of Women in “The Faerie Queene.” I do so in the interest of full disclosure. The longest chapter in this imminent book treats Britomart. 


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Cite as:

Judith Anderson, "Andrew Escobedo, Volition's Face," Spenser Review 47.3.52 (Fall 2017). Accessed January 17th, 2018.
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