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Jason Crawford, Allegory and Enchantment
by Ayesha Ramachandran

Crawford, Jason. Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics. Oxford UP, 2017. x + 227pp. ISBN: 978-0198788041. £55 cloth.

To write allegory or to write about allegory is no mean task. The dizzying mix of figuration, signification, interpretation and theoretical framing that allegory enfolds is often impossible to write about without engaging in dense critical other-speak—but to be able to do so, precisely for these reasons, marks a substantial intellectual achievement. It is no accident that critics from Benjamin to De Man, and, closer to the world of Spenser studies, from Angus Fletcher to Judith Anderson and Gordon Teskey have made a consideration of allegorical poetics a hallmark of their scholarship. Now, into this dark wood ventures Jason Crawford, a knowing, lucid, unflappable and masterful guide: it is a relief and a pleasure to be in his hands. Allegory and Enchantment is a major new intervention into the theory of allegory that seeks to connect the form to questions about modernity, specifically to the experience of disenchantment which is often identified as its defining characteristic. Conjugating notions of enchantment and disenchantment, periodization, and ‘modernity theory’ with the more familiar literary grounds of allegorical form, structure and hermeneutics, Crawford deftly draw together these enormous critical and historiographical terms, bringing them into relation with a sharpness that is impressive and very welcome.

This is a wide-ranging book: an introductory chapter offers a rapid and concise account of what Crawford means by ‘an early modern poetics’ of allegory, and the five subsequent chapters move through a discussion of genealogies of allegory in Plato, the early Church fathers and Prudentius (chapter 1), Langland’s Piers Plowman (chapter 2), Skelton’s The Bowge of Courte (chapter 3), Book 1 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (chapter 4) and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (chapter 5). The structure here itself affords a rich meditation on the history of allegory, the shaping of the literary fields (that typically separate Crawford’s main authors), historicism itself, and the interpretive possibilities opened up by bold, transhistorical analyses. In effect, Allegory and Enchantment bridges the lingering ghostly divide between medieval and early modern worlds by grappling with problems of periodization head on, but also by immersing us in individual authors and texts that effectively instantiate larger cultural concerns. It covers almost four centuries of English literary history and grounds the literary developments of this time in an acute, if brief, analysis of classical and fourth-century antecedents.

Central to Crawford’s account of allegory is the dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment — terms perhaps most closely identified in recent theoretical practice with the legacy of Max Weber’s characterization of modern times as being marked by rationalization and ‘the disenchantment of the world’ (1-3; ‘Science as a Vocation,’ 1917). This view, which continues to underlie many historiographical narratives about transitions to modernity, emphasizes the stripping away of a world of magical correspondence, of faith in the communion between natural and supernatural forces, human and divine, and consequently, of the power of literary figuration and poetry as an agent in the world. In its place, we find a turn towards empiricism, rationalism, economic and social analyses —systems, in short, that undercut modes of enchanted belief. But there has also been a push back against such accounts (see for instance, Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life and David Martin’s Curious Visions of Modernity among others), and Crawford posits (rightly in my view) that the logic of enchantment and disenchantment may instead be dynamic and dialectical, the one always already a part of the other. It is not hard to see how this perspective matters for literary analysis: in a linear view from pre-modern enchantment to modern disenchantment, poetry (and art more generally) loses its privileged position to science; its forms of signification are forever cut off from making meaning in the real world, which can now only be known empirically. On a dialectical view, poetic figuration is in constant dialogue with the problem of making meaning of the world, tending at different historical moments towards the logics of enchantment or disenchantment. For Crawford, allegory is the quintessential literary form that captures this dialectic and registers the fitful stops and starts that marks a long movement towards modernity: ‘the dynamics of disenchantment,’ he writes, ‘are…closely related to the dynamics of allegory’ (11). Early modern allegorical works, in particular, are especially representative of this conjunction because they coincide with a historical phase of self-reflexive interrogation about historicity, signification and representation itself. They are ‘infected by a kind of historical weariness or solitude’ (11).

The evidence he marshals for this argument is varied and often surprising: I had not, for instance, noticed the many lexical instances of ‘enchant’ and ‘enchantment’ in the Spenserian corpus in contexts that uncannily echo theoretical debates about modernity. In Crawford’s reading, Archimago, the ‘great Enchaunter,’ does not merely stand for false (Catholic) images, but for the premodern/medieval temporality of enchanted signification, against which Spenser posits his own demystifing, self-correcting poetic authority. The Reformation, for Crawford, is thus an iconic moment of modern disenchantment — and he is excellent on how reformers throughout the sixteenth century invoke the language of hypocrisy, double-speak, and a stripping away of illusion that resonates powerfully with Weberian (and one might say, Foucauldian) narratives. The Reformation also marks a revolution in conceptualizing temporality itself — and Crawford here draws usefully on De Man’s account of modernity not as a period but as ‘the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.’[1] Taken in this way, the pre- and post-Reformation bifurcation of the book’s main, author-centric chapters gains in argumentative power, for it allows Crawford to explore how the dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment, as registered by changing uses of allegorical poetics, develops from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries.

It is worth noting that the stakes of Crawford’s book are somewhat different than what we might be used to when reading works on allegorical poetics: he isn’t especially concerned with explicating the allegorical texts he discusses (as for instance does Judith Anderson)—indeed there is little new from that perspective here — but he is interested in what we may describe as the cultural work of allegory and its epistemological potentials. That is, he explores the intellectual tensions and desires captured in the paradoxes of allegorical narratives, suggesting that allegory is the literary place, the topos, where the process that underlines various kinds of mediation (flesh/spirit, form/matter, history/eternity) can take place. Admittedly, this argument is sometimes difficult to follow in individual chapters, as Crawford tries to balance the large-scale framework that he lays out in the introduction with specific readings of texts, and he struggles sometimes not to get entangled in the coils of his authors’ allegories. Still, his conceptual account of how allegory works (pp. 19-21) is among the clearest I have read, and I was struck by the explanatory utility of his two-pronged account of allegory as ‘this and that’ (a more complex, encompassing model for multiple meaning) or ‘this for that’ (a correspondence-driven, schematic model that eventually explains allegory’s decline as a privileged literary form). His insistence on the paradoxes of allegory and its inherent doubleness — at once seeking to enchant, but also to demystify — also enables him to offer a quite persuasive analysis of the modern renunciation of allegory from the eighteenth century onward.  

Spenserians will be most interested in his discussion of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, which is in some ways an odd focus given Spenser’s more obvious exploration of allegorical demystification in other places (such as Book 6 or the Mutabilitie Cantos). And yet, the book’s emphasis on the modern, disenchanting impulse within allegory and its particular connection to the Reformation, makes the Redcrosse Knight’s ‘education in disenchantment’ through a ‘narrative of spell-breaking’ (140) an inevitable subject. There are many fine observations in this chapter: a discussion of mobility and stasis (that reconsiders Despair and Speranza as inversions) and the very possibility of action in a Legend of Holiness; the iterative repetition of allegory (Despair or Malbecco’s endless replaying of their key characterstics); a consideration of sickness and its implications, eventually connected back to the figure of Despair. But there is little especially new in terms of local readings and I often felt the influence of Teskey’s meditations on Spenserian allegory hovering in the background. Where Crawford does break new ground with regard to Spenser is in shifting the terms of study: he doesn’t ask what Spenser’s allegory means, so much as attempts to explain why Spenser turns to allegory at all. His answer—that ‘in its eschatological longings, Spenser’s poem registers the same historical breakage that energizes the apocalyptic projects of John Foxe and John Bale’ (173) — goes some way towards suggesting how The Faerie Queene, by virtue of its allegory self-reflexivity, can feel strangely archaic and acutely modern at the same time.

For Crawford, there is something about the Redcrosse Knight akin to Walter Benjamin’s turn to allegory. He writes evocatively about Spenser’s exploration of ‘a dissenting subjectivity, self-protective, agonistic, and alone…this subject searches for Benjamin’s ‘destruction of the organic,’ the road by which the citizens of an age of ruins must seek the homeland of allegorical meaning’ (173). He is not the first to want to bring Spenser and Benjamin into conversation — and to some readers, this move will feel anachronistic and dubious. Others will quibble about the genealogies Crawford constructs here and about whether ‘modernity’ (in whatever guise) can be extended back to Langland in the fourteenth century. But it is worth remembering that outside the English context, Petrarch, the oft-cited father of the Renaissance and an early chronicler of the experience of historical solitude, was a contemporary of Langland, and that Benjamin’s interest in allegory was first consolidated in his work on the early modern Trauerspiel.

It is a commonplace now to speak of continuities and ruptures between the medieval and the modern, but rarely is the dialectical relation between these two heuristic poles worked out with the care that Crawford shows here. He readily acknowledges, early on, that he aims to hint at ‘forms of cultural modernity more fluid and subtle than our language of ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ tends to invite’ (40). His ambition to persevere despite such challenges is admirable and it opens a door for scholars who seek to join cultural-historical concerns with formal, literary ones. Allegory and Enchantment is a provocative, important book: I did not always agree with its claims and analyses, but at every stage, much like the dialectical allegories it examines, it made me stop, think, and reconsider what I thought I already knew.

 Ayesha Ramachandran

Yale University

[1] Paul De Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 148.


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Ayesha Ramachandran, "Jason Crawford, Allegory and Enchantment," Spenser Review 48.1.12 (Winter 2018). Accessed February 25th, 2018.
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