Robert Gleckner. Blake and Spenser. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. pp. 384. $29.50
A larger human brain will be developed by Man when the whole of human life is seen and understood as a single mental form. This single mental form is a drama of creation, struggle, redemption and restoration. . . . the archetype of all prophecy and art, the universal form which art reveals in pieces, and it is also the Word of God. (Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry)
Northrop Frye, the unacknowledged legislator of Blake and Spenser, built archetypal literary theory on the idea that a single universal mental form, derived from the Bible, establishes the “ultimate context for all works of literature whatever” (“The Road of Excess,” in Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom [New York, 1970], 129). Frye elaborated the theory following his book on Blake, when a study of The Faerie Queene eventually begin page 35 | ↑ back to top was absorbed into the more ambitious Anatomy of Criticism. Blake’s work led Frye into literature at large because it became coherent when seen in the context of the “line of vision” formed by Milton, Spenser, and Dante among others. Blake’s poetry thus holds the keys to poetic thought, for individual works attain meaning only in relation to literature, “or what we may call its archetypal framework,” a framework revealed by the contextual strategy of allusion. And since in Blake “nine-tenths of the allusions are to the Bible,” the Bible is the total order of words or the Word within which all works inhere, providing the poet with both a mythic structure and a prophetic purpose. That purpose is identifying the non-human and human worlds, linking creative activity with an awareness of its social function: “It is this unity of energy and consciousness that Blake attempts to express by the word ‘vision’ ” (“The Road of Excess,” 132).
Robert Gleckner seeks to determine just how much vision Blake found in Spenser. And since he adheres to the basic Frye postulate of using Blake’s entire canon in his analysis, the synoptic prose description of A Vision of the Last Judgment is one of his primary texts. “Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists. Really & Unchangeably” and is distinguished from “allegory,” although Blake concedes that “Allgory [sic] is Seldom without some Vision” (E  554). The phrase “some Vision” occupies Gleckner throughout the book. It refers to temporal fragmentation of what really and unchangeably exists in Blake’s Eternity or Eden, the highest mode of consciousness that Albion (“Man”) can enter and that identifies or marries the contrary subjective and objective poles of reality. In effect, Gleckner’s focus is epistemological. On the one hand, he attributes to the passive Lockean subject the mental division that produces external reality. The passive subject, rather than identifying reality with mental form, classifies it according to similitudes and analogies, veering from the concrete or sensuous poetic image to the reified idea, from minute particularity to generality. When an idea is abstracted from its sensory ground it loses its identity, its fundamental metaphoricity, and becomes a substitute image or metonymy, what Gleckner calls “allegory.” In Blake’s epistemology, on the other hand, reality and vision are one: and this unity appears when the subject perceives as part of the “single eternal and infinite God-Man” that Frye finds in Blake’s Albion, who in his unfallen or undivided form is guided by Los-Jesus: “All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the Divine body of the Saviour . . . the Human Imagination” (VLJ, E 555). Spenser’s fundamental error is relying on the allegorical trappings of Arthurian romance; for in fragmenting Albion into the temporal acts of Arthur, he reduces the eternal into an historical personage and thereby achieves only “some Vision.”
Gleckner’s other primary text is plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (MHH), which illustrates the process of allegorization at the center of Blake’s critique of Spenser. “In addition to Blake’s fundamental purpose of exposing the self-serving power play that is the origin of priesthood,” Gleckner writes, “the passage is also a thumbnail sketch of how poetic vision is narrowed to allegorical constructs” (324). Although the plate informs the commentary on Blake’s tempera painting of The Characters in Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” the central section of Gleckner’s book, it also anchors Blake’s “mini-commentary” on Spenser in works from 1780 up to the Spenser painting in 1825 (Gleckner refers to plate 11 ten times before page 130). Plate 11 underlies Blake’s use of the rhetorical strategy called abusio or catechresis, terms that describe the borrowing of contexts from precursors in order to invert, subvert, or comment on them. A busio underlies the “de-allegorizing” project that Gleckner locates not only in MHH but in Los’s “Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems” (Jerusalem 11:5) and in Los’s printing press: “and here he lays his words in order above the mortal brain / As cogs are formd in a wheel to turn the cogs of the adverse wheel” (Milton 27 :9-10). Blake’s critique of such contexts as Arthurian and Petrarchan “systems” amounts to a “reversed rethinking” that produces a “new figuration.” Gleckner examines Blake’s use of abusio, particularly in regard to Petrarchism, in four texts: The Book of Thel, two Pickering manuscript poems—“The Golden Net” and “The Crystal Cabinet”—selected passages from the epic prophecies that subsume Petrarchism, and MHH.
Since MHH is so crucial to Blake and Spenser, and since Gleckner’s insights into the poem are cogent and suggestive, let us turn to chapter 3, “Roads of Excess.” Gleckner finds all previous interpretations hindered by the lack of a “guiding principle of interpretation . . . that will account for the apparent shifts in the authoritativeness of the several speakers” (71). Because no one speaker is privileged, when is Blake speaking in his own voice? Gleckner’s answer hinges on the epistemological issues discussed in the first two chapters: imagination sees life whole, which means that neither demonic voices of excess nor angelic voices of restraint speak the whole truth. The truth lies in experiencing a marriage of contraries: the reader must redeem the diabolic excesses of angelic correction by experiencing the “errors” of reason and energy divided. The point is to not evade experience, as Thel does, for “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” That proverb, Gleckner argues, demonstrates Blake’s use of abusio, his inversion of the Legend of Temperance in Book II of The Faerie Queene. In particular, Blake exposes the error of the “golden mean” morality underlying the Legend, for in reality temperance is an excess of restraint. At the end of Book II Guyon destroys the begin page 36 | ↑ back to top Bower of Bliss in a rage of excessive zeal that prompts Gleckner to identify Spenser’s personification of Excesse as “the presiding allegorical power of the entire book” (79). This ambiguous figure, says Gleckner, should restrain us from embracing “Blakean excess” as desideratum. Hence the “allusionary context” of Book II indicates the proper interpretive stance toward the speakers in MHH.
Chapter 4, “Calling and Naming,” further substantiates Blake’s “de-allegorical” project, relates it to the archetypal Word, and prepares for the central portion of the book on Blake’s Spenser painting. Gleckner shows that part of Spenser’s redeemability lies in his insight into human character and mental process. The “some Vision” that Blake discerns inheres in Spenser’s minute articulation of character and “in the sort of shifting identities of those characters,” Gleckner writes, “which I explore as functioning in Blake’s painting” (120). The guide here, as acknowledged in the last chapter, is Kathleen Williams (“a Blake critic aborning if I ever saw one”), who in Spenser’s World of Glass (1966) contends that the personified virtues and vices issue from the poem’s action, not vice versa, and who champions Spenser as an acute psychologist, a master of mental space in which characters merge identities and functions not unlike the activity of Blake’s zoas and emanations. Unfortunately, Spenser’s “naming” the mental energies amounts to the reification deplored on plate 11 of MHH. Personification abstracts the energies from the “Divine body” into a system of analogies: character is thus reduced from identity to mere resemblance subject to the ravages of time and mutability in a way that the “eternal attributes” of the human form divine are not (132). In other words—and we are at the cutting edge of recent debates on romantic allegory—Blake presents the “naked passions themselves” rather than allegorical substitutes. Urizen, for example, is not “named” reason nor does he represent reason, argues Gleckner; he is one of “the vinous eternal realities of intellect” pressed from Los’s printing press “out of the husk of words” (154). Spenserian virtues and vices, despite Spenser’s subtle insights into human character, become “surrogates” that never integrate into the single mental form in which “All Human Forms [are] identified” (Jerusalem 99:1).
Armed with his “verbal and conceptual imitation-criticism” culled from years of rethinking Spenser, Blake embarks on a pictorial critique of The Faerie Queene’s moral-allegorical system. Gleckner arranges this most informative section of the book into three chapters: the first, chapter 5, concentrates on critical methodology and the upper half of the painting, the “supernal realm.” The two critical principles Gleckner adduces are intervolved: that the painting is structured by a “double horizontal focus” between the upper “supernal” and lower “mundane” worlds, and that Blake critiques Spenser by using but disrupting The Faerie Queene’s book-by-book narration, primarily by placing the lower half of the painting within a “tripartite scheme” that exposes the movement toward allegory in Spenser’s sequential conception. The supernal realm, moving from the city of Babylon on the right to the New Jerusalem on the left, counteracts the processional movement below, which follows Spenser’s narrative “progression” from Holiness (the New Jerusalem of Book I) to Courtesy (the pastoral allegory of Book VI). Thus Blake’s double horizontal perspective visualizes the strategy of significant allusion or abusio, which enables him to reverse the mundane procession and collapse the rhetoric of temporality into a visionary “tableau” that “forces us to perceive the entire ‘procession’ coinstantaneously” (169). Gleckner sees in this reversal of the narrative movement of The Faerie Queene Blake’s recuperation of Spenser, or Spenser’s apotheosis into the visionary company, the select “Chaucer & Shakespeare & Milton” pantheon, for Spenser is “the only poet aside from Chaucer to be granted a non-sequential ‘illustration’ ” (283).
But Spenser cannot be redeemed without Blake, as chapters 6 and 7 demonstrate in detail. Because it is “paradigmatic” of Blake’s critical method, the front or Dwarf-Una-Redcrosse panel gets a chapter of its own. Blake not only places the neglected Spenserian Dwarf at the head of the procession (Gleckner sees him as a version of the Christ child), but he ignores the warrior Redcrosse and moves Duessa and Archimago to the rear or “Calidore” panel, where they are identified with the Blatant Beast and so serve as “iconographic signals” of Blake’s critical reading of the poem. Chapter 7 treats the “middle” and “Calidore” panels of the tripartite frame as allegorical “traps” that the reader-viewer must dismantle. To summarize crudely, Blake disrupts Spenser’s book-by-book narrative sequence by placing Arthur between the middle and rear panels, omitting Book IV on Friendship (the only positive Spenserian “virtue” to Blake) and identifying Arthur with Britomart (Book III) and Artegall (Book V), whom Arthur introduces center stage, and with Calidore (Book VI): that is, with chastity, justice, and courtesy, the linchpins of the moral system supporting Spenser’s allegory. Because Arthur subsumes but does not integrate the separate virtues, Blake depicts him as the consolidation of Moral Virtue he so abhors and figures in his Rahab-Satan, religion hid in war, which is what Britomart and Artegall (or Britomartegall) represent. In effect, the reader-viewer must see Spenser “not with, but through” Blake’s eyes, see that the Britomartegall hermaphroditic union parodies the androgynous union of Albion-Jerusalem, the single mental form in which virtues and vices are supplanted by “Vision.” But as Gleckner contends, Blake can only go so far: “The ultimate deliverers, of course, are Blake’s begin page 37 | ↑ back to top readers, for it is we who must recognize Blake’s imaginative deallegorizing” (111), his abuse of contexts to deliver us from the encrusted orthodoxies embedded in those contexts and clogging the visionary line.
Blake and Spenser is a subtle and highly unified example of contextual criticism at its best. But of course the contexts have not been exhausted. As with Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, whose presuppositions guide Gleckner throughout, the book’s thoroughgoing unity hides certain fissures. What, for example, keeps Blake’s use of allegory from becoming allegory? Gleckner would respond that Los’s “system” self-destructs into a “systematic antisystemizing” that questions its own need of language: “Los’s ‘system,’ I submit, is the allegorical antiallegory” (111). But what do we make of the names Urizen, Luvah, Los and the rest? Are they not “named”? Again, Gleckner would come back with the Romantic distinction between allegory and symbol (“Vision”), but this unresolved point brings us to another quibble. Despite his denial of “system”—which would distance him from Frye—Gleckner relies on the founding assumption of archetypal theory: that of a “total order of words” or of the word within the Word (see 157). Yet this “transcendental signified” situates Gleckner’s critical method firmly within the tradition (system) of philosophical idealism. Whether this tradition best illuminates Blake’s work—it certainly offers one important context—is not the point. Rather, Gleckner’s privileging of method over theory, his rejection of system, reveals his affiliation with the older New Criticism and its built-in suspicion of history and temporality. Ultimately Gleckner’s methodology contains Blake within the categories of formalism, even if it is the cosmic formalism of Frye’s verbal universe.
True to the value of the New Critical enterprise, however, Gleckner’s anti-system rhetoric does not negate the often brilliant readings in the book. And he certainly breaks new ground in his treatment of the Spenser painting, combining a thorough understanding of Blake’s poetry with a sure grasp of the mechanics of his art. As an application of the best that has been thought and said about Blake, Blake and Spenser is without blame. If Gleckner had acknowledged the philosophical underpinnings of his work, and the essential but partial understanding it affords, Blake and Spenser would be so tightly woven of insight and self-critical awareness that neither praise nor blame could mar it.