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Allegory and the Art of Memory

  • Author(s): Moore, Stephanie Anne
  • Advisor(s): Landreth, David
  • et al.

Scholars of early modern literature often consider allegory inherently idealist, particularly in its exploitation of visual description, which, they argue, produces a spurious vividness that tries to pass off the schematic and the ideal as natural. Critics who subscribe to this view often celebrate Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590/96) as both a pinnacle of the genre and a skeptical anatomy of it—a great allegory that is great because it exposes allegory's illusions. As the argument goes, Spenser reveals the false visuality at the heart of allegory by complicating his imagery with naturalistic description. By turning allegorical images against themselves, the poem prevents allegory from subordinating the world of matter and appearances to a timeless conceptual order.

This dissertation, Allegory and the Art of Memory, offers an alternative framework for understanding allegory's visuality and Spenser's use of it: the mental visualization techniques of the classical and medieval memory arts. Because these mnemonic methods draw mental imagery into the service of memorizing words and ideas, they too have been accused of visual bad faith, but recent scholarship has excavated the practical and philosophical contexts in which these methods were used, and this visual regime gives us a new way to think about allegorical imagery as well. I argue that in adapting the memory arts to narrative poetry, medieval allegorists did not aspire to impress an idealist image of cosmic harmony upon the empirical world but to lead readers through a voluntary and collaborative process of composing meditative imagery.

In the following pages, I analyze three pre-Spenserian allegorical poems particularly engaged with the theory and practice of memory: Guillaume de Deguileville's Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine (1330-32), Olivier de la Marche's Le Chevalier Délibéré (1483), and Stephan Batman's loose adaptation of Le Chevalier Délibéré into The Trauayled Pylgrime (1569). I use these analyses to illuminate crucial episodes of The Faerie Queene to show that, rather than revealing the fissures in the earlier poems' methods, The Faerie Queene continues their project by adapting allegory to the transformed media environment of sixteenth-century England, where the visual mnemonics of the memory arts had mostly been discarded. The pre-Spenserian poems I analyze borrow formal elements from mnemonic techniques while critically evaluating the practices and the role of memory in human life. The Faerie Queene, I argue, follows their trajectory into the age of print. Whereas the older poems treat their imagery as a script for composing mental images, Spenser uses the formal tropes of the memory arts—image (imago), place (locus), and order (ordo)—to represent memory-processes, not just of the individual but of an entire culture, a collective record that is both analogous to memory and radically unaccommodating to the human mind.

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