Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.04.18, Kamath, Authorship and First-Person Allegory

13.04.18, Kamath, Authorship and First-Person Allegory

In her illuminating study of what we might call Rose-tinted allegorical writing of the later French and English Middle Ages, Stephanie Viereck Gibbs Kamath examines the ways in which the allegorical strategies deployed to brilliant effect by the mid- thirteenth century Roman de la Rose inform a rich tradition of allegorical, and allegorically-inflected, writing that focuses on questions of voice, authorship, authority, and interpretation within an unfolding vernacular, literary tradition. She argues that the "interpretation-inviting" (6) first-person voice of the Rose allows for, even provokes, a sustained engagement with the fractured first-person voice of the author-poet-narrator as a vehicle for examining and shaping strategies of reading and interpretation, translation and adaptation, and the continuation, subversion, and renewal of vernacular literary history.

Kamath identifies three strategies that are essential to her authors' explorations of authorship, legitimacy, textual reception and production, and the foundation of an English vernacular literary tradition. First, the author's name and/or other identifying features are associated with the protagonist; second, the narrator-protagonist claims to be writing at the command or request of an authoritative mythological or allegorical figure; and third, some parts of the texts are presented as documents (charters, prayers, lyrics) inserted or embedded into the "main" text.

The volume is comprised of four chapters, each focused primarily upon a single author. Kamath richly contextualizes the text that is at the center of each chapter, demonstrating an authentic engagement with the works of an assortment of late medieval authors, including Christine de Pizan, Boccaccio, Laurent de Premierfait, and others. I stress this fact because Kamath's breadth of knowledge strikes me as exceptional, and also because one of the main contributions of this volume is to demonstrate, through careful reading and insightful, well-argued interpretation, the degree to which French literature deeply influenced a range of English writers, not just with respect to characters, themes, or sources, but in terms of how they conceptualized a writer's relationship to his or her craft, literary predecessors, patrons, readers, and self.

In Chapter one Kamath examines the relationship between the Rose and Guillaume de Deguileville's three allegorical pilgrimage texts. Many critics have asserted that autobiographical texts are not, or cannot be, allegorical. Kamath contests this view by showing how artfully-staged scenes of authorial naming, often by allegorical figures, effect a fragmentation of the first-person voice that itself demands interpretation. Similarly, documents inserted into the text figure the text itself, inviting readers to consider and interpret the relationship between these intradiegetic texts and the text as a whole. In Deguileville's first Pilgrimage text, the protagonist reads a charter authored by Grace. The charter contains a date that, codicological evidence reveals, some readers assumed to be the date of the composition of the text itself, thereby assimilating intradiegetic charter to historical text. This scene of embedded texts and authorial voices invites the reader to ask: who is writing? on the authority of whom? In the second Pilgrimage text, Deguileville is named three times in ways that increasingly fragment the voice of the first-person protagonist-narrator, allowing that voice to function both universally and individually. In this work Deguileville takes up issues of literary genealogy by inserting a portion of an Ovidian text, followed by a macaronic French and Latin lament of the poet that reveals his name in an acrostic. Insertions such these "emblematize the text in which they are contained and teach more complex strategies of reading" (55). As Kamath shows, Deguileville recognized the potential of first-person allegory to invite scrutiny not only of the voices and discourses of the allegorical figures, but also those of the protagonist-narrator.

Chapter two turns to the English literary landscape, and specifically to Chaucer. Kamath contests the historical scholarly reluctance to characterize Chaucer's works as allegorical by showing how Chaucer's engagement with, and translation of, both the Rose and Deguileville's ABC, a lyric poem pronounced by the figure of Grace, provided him with strategies for staging--and inviting the interpretation of--author, authorship, identity, textual production, and reception. Chaucer draws attention to his activity as translator, one working within the framework of an English geographic and cultural space, at times redirecting the reader's attention from the Rose's author-narrator-protagonist, to himself. "Chaucer translates the allegorical tradition into English," Kamath writes, "to fashion a vision of vernacular authorship in the minds of his readers, a vision inclusive of his own activities as author and as reader" (78). Chaucer's works display slippage, overlap, and discontinuity between a multiplicity of voices that produce, voice, and judge literary works. In the House of Fame, for instance, the God of Love criticizes the poet-narrator (who is also an author), while in the F version of the Legend prologue, Love criticizes an embedded ballade. In the Canterbury Tales we see the character Justinius, from the Merchant's Tale, make reference to the Wife of Bath, "author" of another tale. Such fragmentation of the first- person voice and "diegetic disruptiveness" (101) invite the reader to ponder the relationship of voice, to authorship, to text, in a way that Kamath traces back to the pervasive influence of the Rose and its literary offspring.

Chapter three discusses how the first-person texts of Thomas Hoccleve negotiate the space between the personal and the universal, providing abundant detail about the author and his circumstances, while providing a text that presents itself as applicable to readers. Kamath interrogates the nature of Hoccleve's engagement with Christine de Pizan and Deguileville by means of an insightful and powerful analysis of literary authority and responsibility. When characters or allegories speak in literary works, who is responsible for the content of their words? How does such speech relate to the divinely- authorized speech of prophecy? How do authors claim both authority and originality through self-inscription into literary genealogies and networks of textual transmission? Kamath explores these questions through careful readings of the Rose, Christine de Pizan's Epistre au dieu d'Amours, one of Deguileville's lyrics, and Hoccleve's translations of the two latter, and the ways in which these texts lay claim to, or distance themselves from, the content and authority of their literary predecessors. Hoccleve exploits what Kamath calls the "rhetoric of complaint" (122) to restage and interpret anterior texts, his own and others'. In the Series, the character Friend, invoking the authority of the Wife of Bath, criticizes Hoccleve's Epistola (the translation of Christine's Epistre), while the narrator-protagonist identified as Hoccleve defends the Epistola on the basis that he wrote "conpleynyngly" (122). Later in the Series the narrator-protagonist discusses his suffering and recovery from mental illness, experienced as a fragmentation of the self that is both "dangerous and instructive" (131), in a Complaint, and Hoccleve also translates a complaint from Deguileville. The (re)writing of first-person complaint lyrics invites the reader to consider the fragmentation of the self, which is presented in both personal and universal terms, as an expression of the experience of an individual, and a text that is potentially applicable to readers. In this way Hoccleve's textual practice invites readers "to think about the role of the vernacular author and the complexities of interiority through allegory" (136).

Kamath's final chapter considers John Lydgate, and his forging of a newly-prestigious English literary tradition that begins not with the Rose, but with Chaucer. Kamath focuses on Lydgate's Pilgrimage of the Life of Man and Fall of Princes, demonstrating how each uses the allegorical strategies laid out by the Rose "to write a self-authorizing literary history" (141). Kamath turns first to the Pilgrimage, a translation of Deguileville which calls attention to itself as a translation. The voice of the translator, audible in the prologue, does not appear as a character in the text, but does add another layer to the many voices that speak within it. The interventions of the translator are signaled by means of rubrics which establish the translator as a kind of guide. The prologue expands upon elements of Deguileville's allegory in ways that link "the representation of English textual production to the matter presented for interpretation" (143), notably by means of the presence of Fortune. The translator's experiences with Fortune are connected to those of Deguileville's pilgrim who, in turn, escapes from Fortune by means of an embedded alphabetic acrostic prayer, which provides the source for Chaucer's ABC. Thus in Lydgate's Pilgrimage the prayer's first-person discourse belongs to Deguileville's narrator-protagonist, to the external author [i.e., Deguileville], potentially to Deguileville's readers, and also to Chaucer and to the translator of the Pilgrimage (150). The first-person voice thus finds itself connected to an ever-increasing number of potential referents, prompting a reflection on what it means to speak in the first person. In the Fall of Princes, Lydgate similarly adds a prologue in which he names himself, and cites his sources, predecessors, and patrons. As in the Pilgrimage, the prologue reworks key parts of his predecessors' allegories--namely the passages in which Boccaccio stages the interactions between Fortune and Poverty, and Fortune and the narrator--in order to reorient the objectives of his own textual endeavor. In the first of these encounters, Boccaccio discusses the truth to be found in fables, while in the second Fortune identifies and asserts control over the narrator, in a scene reminiscent of the Rose. As in the Rose, this "intradiegetic yielding of narrative control to the personification encourages readers to consider the nature and authority of the extradiegetic author" (159). In his translation of Boccaccio, Laurent de Premierfait seeks to establish the authority of French authors relative to the classical subject matter of his text. The Boccaccio-narrator's encounter with Dante, for instance, is exploited by Premierfait as an opportunity to assert the literary influence of Paris and the Rose over Dante's Commedia. As for the Fall, "first-person narration, pilgrimage imagery, personification allegory, and reference to the Rose by name" (164), present in both of Lydgate's sources, remain important. While Premierfait sought to maximize the presence and significance of a French literary tradition, Lydgate's genealogy is an English one, authorized by its connection to a prestigious classical tradition. The Fall receives what Kamath terms a "Chaucerian makeover," as Boccaccio becomes one of the supplicants to Fortune from Chaucer's House of Fame, and Lydgate cites not the French Rose, but Chaucer's translation thereof. Kamath shows us how the "model of authorship conveyed by allegory allowed authors to implant their proper names or attributes in a way that demands individual attention in the context of a wider literary tradition, depending upon the cooperative investigation of readers" (172).

If I were to cite one limitation Kamath's excellent study, it would be the degree to which the Rose functions as an ur-text. I do not intend to diminish the Rose's significance, but in making all roads lead backward to the Rose, and to a certain kind of allegory (one focused on authorship, voice, identity) Kamath risks overlooking other texts, authors, and kinds of allegory that might be equally illuminating when placed in dialogue with the texts of her corpus. This is a very small bone to pick, however, with a work that constitutes an important addition to recent studies of medieval allegorical literature, as well as a very welcome reassessment of medieval English reading and writing practices as they relate to those of their French predecessors and contemporaries.