14.06.08, Nievergelt, Allegorical Quests

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Anne Lake Prescott

The Medieval Review 14.06.08

Nievergelt, Marco. Allegorical Quests from Deguileville to Spenser. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. xii, 244. ISBN: 9781843843283.

Reviewed by:
Anne Lake Prescott
Barnard College, Columbia University

Marco Nievergelt's provocative book on quests is itself a bridge, a border crossing that will help those who study the Middle Ages or the Renaissance give each other a passing salute as they read this welcome study. Welcome, but not flawless--no roadblocks, just some inattention to the scenery, some swerves, and probably in need of some editing.

The Introduction traces two overlapping and competing narratives: a pilgrimage to Heaven and a chivalric quest for service at court. Chivalry takes arms and a horse, but courtiers often serve on foot; together the paths show the tension between Christianity's guilt culture and knighthood's shame culture (a useful if simplifying dichotomy). In exploring such complexities, says Nievergelt, we should avoid periodizing that simplifies "identity, self-understanding and self-representation in the period 1350-1600." The texts he describes will "re-elaborate, alter, prune and expand Deguileville's Pèlerinage de vie humaine," and he also offers a little on Bernard's Prodigal Son--I could wish for more on the stages of the Prodigal's journey sketched at the end of Parabola I--and some smart comments on Prudentius. He then turns to four works derived from Guillaume de Deguileville: King René d'Anjou's Livre du cuer d'amour espris, Olivier de la Marche's Chevalier délibéré, Jean de Courcy's Chemin de vaillance, and Thomas de Saluces' Livre du chevalier errant. René had little influence in England, but Stephen Hawes borrowed from Courcy, while Thomas was imitated by the Carmelite Jean de Cartheny [or Cartigny] and through him by William Goodyear. Hernando de Acuña's translation of La Marche inspired both Stephen Bateman and Lewis Lewkenor. Such imitators, Nievergelt shows, make Deguileville more chivalric--pilgrimage is "increasingly embroiled with the contingencies of individual life on earth" rather than with an "eschatologically focused" moral "struggle." It is in the "no man's land" between "pilgrimage and wandering that something like individual identity begins to emerge." (I would hate to explain that to Ovid brooding in exile, Martial remembering Spain, or Cicero writing his now lost autobiography. Even a Neanderthal might have had complex inward reactions to being out-napped by one of those smooth-browed newcomers. Nievergelt does allow Augustine a complex self, but he can write as though people we can never interview had selves simpler ours. He knows better, but he is up against seductive assumptions.)

Courcy was a "conventional poet" whose protagonist is seduced by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil as Prowess and Hardiness snooze on the grass (after all, Scripture says "all flesh is grass.") Encountering the Forest of Temptation and imprisoned by Pride, he eventually finds the Haven of Salvation. Nievergelt finds this journey straight with a mere detour--but that detour seems crucial: detour is life. Thomas's Chevalier (1394-1396), written in captivity, likewise synthesizes "moral didacticism and chivalric celebration" in a search for Lady Knowledge; Thomas, though, cannot "completely turn his back on the mundanity inherent in the aristocratic lifestyle." Fortuna, moreover, is not "compatible" with the role of aristocrat and ruler. Really? Smart rulers know Fortuna, or had better. Thomas, then, has "two fundamentally opposite ethical systems." This makes sense, and yet…some royalists might reconcile them, just as some modern millionaires reconcile capitalism with the Bible. What Nievergelt says remains intriguing. René, we now read, offers "the usual allegorical dream-vision" as Cupid gives the heart human form and some Pauline armor while the author tries to "harmonise spiritual chivalry and erotic allegory." Deguileville's "aestheticising, impressionistic" spiritual allegory now "ultimately" distracts the protagonist from "successful exegesis" and "enchants him with a sensual experience." For the "Holy City," we have Cupid's castle, with Fantasy and Imagination as the architects and foundations too "shaky" for the author's "ethereal ideal." Did René intended such shakiness? If the dream is "unmasked" is he the unmasker? Nievergelt does not make this clear. René cannot quite give up the dream, he says, and writing this book is that king's consolation for political failure.

La March's Chevalier, printed in 1488, also "subverts" the "'typical' quest of homo viator." With a first-person narrator, it has no "clearly declared final objective," only "aimlessness and fatality." Nievergelt ignores the horse Vouloir, sired by Bernard's Desiderium--a pity, for Vouloir's descendants include Bateman's "Will" and, perhaps, St. George's feisty mount. He stars in illustrations from La Marche to Bateman. The "acteur," we read, has flashes of "spiritual insight" but his journey traces a "futile circularity" with "spiritual barrenness," no New Jerusalem, and no afterlife, just a "radical, fatalistic pessimism" and a perhaps unconscious "radical agnosticism." Depressing! But why not more on the hermit Understanding's farewell Christian instruction before leaving the knight, as understanding leaves so many of the old, to die? Here, Nievergelt concludes, is a "crisis of the tradition." Next, Hawes's "secularised quest" explores "the more confined cosmos of the early Tudor court," "ultimately" making it more earthly as he moves from the early Example of Vertu to the "utter disillusion" of his Conforte of Lovers. As Example ends, Youth goes to Heaven in an "eschatological afterthought" after pursuing "good reputation" and courtly advancement in this "confused juxtaposition of human and divine love." The Pastime of Pleasure has a king but no Jerusalem and in Conforte," Hawes's last work, allegory vanishes. Maybe because excluded from court after Henry VIII's death, Hawes "ultimately addresses only the supreme authority of God" and we return to Deguileville's "eschatological focus."

Bateman, however, has an "idiosyncratic independent-mindedness and eclecticism," stressing Pauline "spiritual battle" more than chivalry even as belief in justification by Faith shifts matters inward to create an "increasingly" isolated individual conscience and the collective quest of England's "'church militant.'" Nievergelt seems to wonder why Bateman changes Acuña's Habsburgs to Tudors. Why not for relevance? Rivalry? Showing off? Nor can I see much difference between Acuña's lament for dead Habsburgs and Bateman's for dead Tudors or why, in Nievergelt's view, Bateman is providential and Acuña is not. More serious is the ascription to Bateman of what is also in his sources. Thus Nievergelt refers to Bateman's "choice of Understanding"--but "Understanding" is simply La Marche's "Entendement"; and Bateman does not add "Infancie," who brings water for the narrator's eyes, for La Marche's hermit also has "Bonne Enfance" (I, St. 28, p. 74) who at least brings water. Unlike La Marche, says Nievergelt, Bateman "reintroduces the eschatological Jerusalem as the ultimate focus" even if implicitly. Why implicitly for Bateman and not for La Marche (or Acuña)?

Goodyear's Knight (1581) attenuates the chivalry in Cartheny's Voyage (1557) as he traces the "fruitless departure, errance and return of a prodigal son" whom Grace rescues from Worldly Felicity and who glimpses the New Jerusalem. The description is valuable, although some may be distracted by simplifications: Catholics balance "personal introspective spirituality with a sense of corporate belonging," for example, whereas Protestant interiority has "a mere solitary exercise of probing intellectual introspection." The treatment of Goodyear is odd, moreover, for thanks to the printer's flattering epistle to Francis Drake Nievergelt turns the text into an allegory starring that same Drake, a "working-class hero" whose treatment shows "something like an emerging 'class consciousness.'" A few lines later, confusingly, this becomes "the emergent 'middling sort'." The entire text, says Nievergelt, is "a celebration of Drake's own personal voyage" as well as a "collective quest for national identity" and "a vehicle for the social aspirations of a new social 'class.'" Drake is no "uncompromising individualist and revolutionary," though, and by being knighted he is "reintegrated into the framework of the social fabric he is trying to explode." Explode? That's a stretch. Drake had been a pirate, but piracy is hardly Jacobinism. In Goodyear's text, then, are "emerging modernity" and a new "trajectory" for "Elizabethan self-fashioning." Next comes Lewkenor's Resolved Gentleman, which translates Acuña's La March; the intermittently Catholic translator had known exile, although James would knight him in 1603. Despite subtle criticism of Elizabeth's court, says Nievergelt, Lewkenor tries to link "Burgundian chivalry, Habsburg imperialism and the rise of England as an international political power," tying all this to a "humanist ideal of the Gentleman" and making "translatio imperii depend" on "translatio studii." Like Acuña, Lewkenor "radically revises de La Marche's pattern," turning lament to triumph, although he also "deconstructs the cult of Elizabeth" and mocks court fops. Does he imply "the dangers" of "personal rule" by "cleverly exploiting de la Marche's obsession with Old Age and Death"? Perhaps, although Bateman's had already shown Death observing the Tudors. Nievergelt is not wrong, but where he sees novelty there may be genealogy.

The chapter on Spenser claims both that there is now a "'self'" and that "intertexts and contexts appear as part of a single, fluid continuum of discourses" to articulate Spenser's "necessarily provisional articulations of identity and selfhood." Spenser must have noticed, says Nievergelt, the problem in Hawes of "collapsing of the paths towards worldly honour and heavenly doctrine." Yes. Nievergelt writes, though, as if we knew how much Spenser wrote or would have written, and it may thus be too risky to say it was impossible for him to integrate "the individual self into the wider body politic." Spenser thus comes to doubt the "possibility of ever attaining an 'apocalyptic' apotheosis in history," losing faith in the poetry of empire and quests aimed at public service. Hence his final "retreat" into "a solitary, contemplative form of transcendental poetic vision," a reference to Spenser's mountaintop pastoral scene Book VI that has led a number of scholars to doubt that Spenser was still interested in being a national poet. "[P]rivate bliss," says Nievergelt, in what seems a contradiction, "ultimately finds no legitimate place in the world of Spenser's national epic" and is relegated to Amoretti, where a beloved as "ultimate 'haven.'" (Since Amoretti ends with lonely separation that haven is actually in Epithalamion.) In truth, though, we don't know what "ultimately" meant for Spenser, and as for "private bliss," that depends on how we imagine marriage in Renaissance England. In sum, this narrative of national allegory turning into a disappointed turn inward may too confidently describe too unobstructed a path. How does the poem, moreover, "come full circle" to a "Deguilevillian notion of an ascetic pilgrimage in the Mutabilitie Cantos"? There is no whisper of a pilgrimage in those cantos, only Natures concession that Mutabilitie rules this world, if with patterns, and a promise of Eternity to come. Nievergelt wonders why there is no Heavenly City "when it comes to articulating his highest apocalyptic vision in Book VII." (True, there is no Jerusalem vision in that book, but no apocalyptic vision either, and Nievergelt ignores the one in the Book of Holinesse.) He also notes, as though it were a puzzle, that "The City" is "conspicuously absent as a final eschatological signifier in Spenser's apocalyptic vision on Arlo Hill" (Book VI.x); Spenser does offers a piping shepherd, nymphs, (allegorical) graces, a beloved, and a spying knight, but no apocalypse--perhaps inappropriate in Book of Courtesy.

A Coda refers skeptically to the "supposedly 'modern self,'" yet in this same section Nievergelt refers to the "emerging individual self." Similarly, when Spenser's allegory "fails," we read that experiencing "failure, frustration and loss" is "the essence" of the "'modern self'," one requiring an "abstract" or "latent notion" of "completeness and deliverance." "Ultimately," then, the "modern self crystallises out of its very failure to become that supposedly fully emancipated 'modern self', and modernity is thus paradoxically characterised by its longing for a putative 'pre-modern', more integrated and metaphysical model of identity." Chivalry gets abandoned as "an imaginative 'language'" and we now reject "that union between the worlds of politics and the imagination.'" Nievergelt admits his claim will raise some eyebrows. It raises mine, if only because we have our own quests (On the Road?), to say nothing of utopias and dystopias. On the eventually diverging paths of pilgrimage allegory and chivalry he makes excellent sense, and it is amusing to see the latter surviving in modern pop culture.

Most troublesome in this thought-inspiring book, though, are some errors and what can seem like sidestepping around counter-evidence. Page 195 implies that Spenser wrote the Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings (1568, 1569), no "collection" but a long tract with some illustrated poems by Petrarch and Marot that a young Spenser translated for the author, Jan van der Noot. Worse is the assertion that Philip Sidney had a "premature and forced retirement from the active life" or, later, that he retired "to Arcadia." Perhaps Nievergelt believes the now disputed story that Elizabeth's anger drove Sidney to his sister's house (where he did write Arcadia). But Sidney died of battle wounds received while in Holland on active service to his queen. Did Spenser relinquish his role as a national poet? Nievergelt should at least consider "Prothalamion," even if not everyone reads it as a job application to the earl of Essex. Other assertions are more mystifying. Where is there an "apotheosis" in the "Mutabilitie Cantos"? We have only the narrator's prayer to the God of Hosts for a Sabbath sight. To Nievergelt, this sight" is a "blank slate," "beyond form," but the lines mention steady pillars bearing "all things," which may even include Spenser.

An editor might have suggested reining in some metaphors, as when Sapience "shifts gears," or something "foundational" is a "crystallisation" of a "timeless" struggle seen through a "lens" in "the wake" of the "break with Rome." More distracting are the mob of scare quotes. If Spenser loses his "faith in 'political'" poetry why is "political" in quotation marks? One paragraph on p. 205 sports sixteen such marked words. What is being signaled? Then there is "ultimately": one paragraph on p. 22 has two in five lines; p. 28 has two in four lines. "Fundamental" appears often, but more worrisome is the passive "is forced"--Spenser "is forced" to "admit" that "the balancing act of idealism and pragmatism has once more failed" (22). But he never "admits" this and the evidence relies on a pastoral scene (VI.x) that comes well before the end of the poem. Perhaps in his next monograph, to which we should look forward, this intelligent and well-read scholar will avoid such tempting verbal tics.

Medievalists and Spenserians should read this book. Its shortcomings, stumbles, or deviations are a pity, but the issues it explores--how a journey to the New Jerusalem can sometimes parallel and sometimes cross that to the royal court and how life's journey to death can deviate--are crucial, both then and, if with a different set of metaphors and analogies, now.

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Anne Lake Prescott

Barnard College, Columbia University