This playful love poem is one of the many fine medieval English lyrics found, in London's British Museum (MS Harley 2253), in a 13th-century manuscript. "Ali-soun" has received a great deal of scholarly attention both for its formal qualities and for the way the poet responds to the traditions of medieval love poetry.
striking features of the verses in "Alisoun" include strong alliteration and the rhythm created by varying three or four stresses per line. Both contribute to the rapid pace of the poem and to the effect hinted at in the first lines of the poem—that of a lover singing like a bird in the springtime. The poem also has a complex rhyme scheme that links together the stanzas and keeps up this smooth and rapid flow. The first stanza begins abab, bbbc, dddc, and the remaining three stanzas follow this pattern, with the last four lines of each stanza making up the repeated refrain.
"Alisoun" begins with a reference to springtime and love, a trope common in medieval love poetry. From this discussion of the renewal of nature and life, the speaker moves directly to his love-longing for the fairest of all women, his Alisoun. Following the pattern prescribed by the tradition of medieval love poetry, the poet then discusses the lady's physical beauty in the second stanza, and the third stanza describes the speaker's sleeplessness and torment—his lovesickness because of his longing for the lady. In the final stanza, the speaker worries that someone else may take away his lady, and he begs her to listen to his plea.
A number of scholars have explored the relationship between "Alisoun" and the tradition of medieval love poetry by examining the poem's connections to Geoffrey Chaucer. Though there is no clear evidence that Chaucer knew the lyric, he was certainly familiar with this type of poem. The first lines of "Alisoun" clearly draw upon the same tropes as the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales. Further, Chaucer gives the heroines of two of his tales the name Alisoun. The Alison of "The Miller's Prologue and Tale" seems very like the Alisoun of the lyric—a beautiful woman who excites men's passions. The Wife of Bath, also named Alisoun, is an older version of the same character type. Chaucer was not necessarily borrowing directly from the lyric, however. The name Alisoun or Alysoun, including variations on the name Alice, was commonly given to middle-class female characters in Middle English literature. That observation has lead to interpretations of the poem "Alisoun" that examine how the poet adapted the conventions of courtly love for a bourgeois lady.
Recent critical trends have also explored issues of gender and sexuality in this poem. Alisoun is presented as an object of male desire; the attributes catalogued by the speaker are physical in nature and serve primarily to attest to her sexual desirability. We learn specifically about her "browe broune, hire eye blake," the fairness of her hair, the whiteness of her neck, and her "middel smal ant wel ymake" [small waist and fine shape] (ll. 13-16). More explicitly sexual is the phrase "Geynest vnder gore" (l. 37), meaning "fairest under clothing," which unmistakably refers to Alisoun's genitalia. Recent critics have discussed "Alisoun" in terms of the speaker and reader as voyeur. Nevertheless, although
Alisoun is presented as an object of sexual desire, she is also endowed with her own power in the poem. She has not yet acquiesced to the speaker's requests, and the speaker himself notes that there is no man in the world so clever that he can tell all of her excellence. While this may be read as a commentary on the extent of Alisoun's good qualities, it can also be read as a comment that no man may recount these qualities because none has been able to be sexually intimate with her. Alisoun retains her own mystery, and with it, her own power.
See also Middle English lyrics and ballads.
Brook, G. L., ed. The Harley Lyrics. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1948. Fein, Susanna, ed. Studies in the Harley Manuscript. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000. Stemmler, Theo. "An Interpretation of Alysoun." In Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honor of Rossell Hope Robbins, edited by Beryl Rowland, 111-118. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1974.
ALLEGORY Allegory, in the broadest sense, refers to any figurative, or secondary, meanings that exist simultaneously with the literal, or primary, meaning of a text. The term's etymology from the Greek words allos (other) and agoreuien (to speak openly) reflects this definition and suggests why allegory has had so controversial a history. Speaking or writing alle-gorically allows one to make public declarations while concealing certain ideas from some part of the audience. Thus, allegory functions as the perfect vehicle for expressing political, theological, or other ideas not intended for general consumption.
Unlike related rhetorical forms such as irony, sarcasm, and enigma, where the secondary meaning corrupts or contradicts the primary one, in allegory the two levels are generally congruous with each other. In fact, the characters and actions on the literal level provide the hints by which readers are enabled to discover the allegorical meanings. For example, in the morality play Everyman (1500), the title character's name provides a hint that his experiences apply literally to him but figuratively to all people.
In addition to the broad definition, by the early modern era (see early modern v. renaissance), allegory had acquired a number of specific and significant connotations, which for clarity's sake have been organized into three categories: rhetorical figure, interpretive scheme, and narrative text. While dividing allegory in this manner simplifies the process of understanding the uses of the term, it should be kept in mind that in practice the categories tend to overlap.
Understanding allegory as a rhetorical figure requires a turn to the rhetorical handbooks of the classical tradition, where figures were discussed for their value as devices to enliven a speech. Starting with Quintilian's Institutes oratorio (Principles of Oration), allegory tended to be defined as a kind of extended metaphor, differing from it only in duration. Allegory might continue through an entire oration or poem, whereas metaphor is typically restricted to a line or short sentence. To illustrate this point, Quintilian offers as an example of allegory Horace's Odes (l. 14) where the state is compared to a ship sailing on a stormy sea. While classical rhetoric placed significant value on allegory's ornamental value, some rhetoricians noted that allegory could also influence ideas being expressed, an observation that later writers would exploit in various ways. Direct evidence that the influence of classical rhetoric extended through the early modern period can be seen in the fact that English rhetorical handbooks, including those by Thomas Wilson (Arte of Rhetoric) and Henry Peacham (Garden of Eloquence), and related works such as George Puttenham's guide to writing poetry (Arte of English Poesie) generally do little more than repeat ideas developed by Quintilian or Cicero. Perhaps the most original aspect of early modern treatments of allegory is in the increased emphasis they give to the pleasure writers have in creating allegories and that readers take in unraveling them.
The history of allegorical interpretation (allegoresis), like that of allegory as rhetorical figure, reaches back into the classical world, where scholars used it to reinterpret significant earlier texts, most notably Homer's great epics, in ways that showed those texts' relevance to contemporary events. Late in the first century, Origen, a Christian scholar in Alexandria, combined this classical tradition with the Jewish interpretive tradition called midrash to form a systematic method for interpreting the Old Testament scriptures in which different levels of meaning could be discerned. While different interpreters in the late-classical and medieval periods argued over how many levels of meaning exist—St. Augustine, for example, generally speaks of two levels—the fourfold method of interpretation became the best-known example of this allegorical system. Somewhat confusingly, the second level in this scheme is called the allegorical level, while the third level is called the moral (tropological) level and the fourth the anagogic (eschatological) level (see ana-gogy). The clearest and most famous example of this method appears in Dante's "Letter to Can Grande Della Scala," where he provides an interpretation of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt: "If we look only at the letter, this signifies that the children of Israel went out of Egypt in the time of Moses; if we look at the allegory, it signifies our redemption through Christ; if we look at the moral sense, it signifies the turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace; if we look at the anagogical sense, it signifies the passage of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory." While interpreters using the fourfold method have applied it to most scriptures in the Old Testament, very few yield distinctly different readings on all four levels.
While early theologians such as Augustine and Origen, and poets like Dante claimed Paul's injunction that "the Letter killeth, while the spirit saveth" legitimized the search for hidden or mysterious senses of scriptural passages, the practice was always controversial. For instance, William Tyndale, an early translator of the Bible, warned, "if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way." While Tyndale's concern lay solely with the interpretation of scripture, the same caution has been called for in the interpretation of secular texts, despite there being no sure method for knowing if an interpretation has gone astray. The most that can be safely said is that allegorical interpretation requires a balance between the verbal and historical context established by the text and the historical situation of the individual reader. The consistency of interpretation between the literal and figurative levels of the text provides the only test of the soundness of allegorical interpretations. If the figurative meaning imputed to the text remains compatible with the literal level over the entire text, then the allegorical reading is valid. However, if conflicts emerge, the allegorical reading should be abandoned.
The most famous allegorical narratives, Dante's Divine Comedy and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, represent the culmination of the rhetorical and interpretive forms of allegory. From the rhetorical tradition, narrative allegory takes the use of continued metaphors to delight readers, and from the interpretive tradition there is the potential for a reader's engagement with such a text to be instructive. The centrality of Dante's and Spenser's texts in the genre of allegorical narratives rests on a number of factors, not the least of which is artistry, but it also includes their connection to external, explanatory documents. Spenser's case concerns his Faerie Queene and its dedicatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. In this document, Spenser discusses both his authorial intention, which "is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline," and his method for doing so, the "continued Allegory, or darke conceit." The central allegorical device in each book of the poem is a knight who becomes perfected in a virtue. For example, in the first book he presents, Spenser says "Redcrosse, in whome I expresse Holynes," in the second he presents "Sir Guyon, in whome I sette forth Temperaunce," and so on. Each of his knights faces a set of tasks and challenges, the successful completion of which strengthens their possession of the virtue they represent. In defending his decision to use allegory to achieve his ends, Spenser acknowledges that the dark conceit is a "Methode [that . . .] will seeme displeas-aunt" to some of his readers who "had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or ser-moned at large, as they use," but he defends his choice on the grounds that telling readers how to behave is less effective than showing them how to act.
While Spenser's and Dante's works hold a central place in the canon of allegorical narratives because of the external materials that have provided such valuable insights into the allegorical method, such materials are not essential for a work to be considered an allegorical text. What is essential is that the text engages the reader in a process of sustained interpretation. Allegorical works use a variety of means to help engage readers in such interpretive processes, means ranging from the generic conventional opening of a dream vision, in which a narrator solicits the reader's help in understanding a dream, to the use of personification, where inanimate objects and/or abstractions are represented as human beings with the ability to speak and act.
See also exegesis, Middle English poetry.
Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. 1936. Reprint, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Todorov, Tzvetan. Theories of the Symbol, translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell, University Press, 1982. Tuve, Rosemond. Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
ALLITERATION Alliteration occurs when a consonant is repeated in words that are next to or near each other. In English, typically, alliteration happens at the beginning of words that are part of a single line of verse. It may also appear in the stressed syllables within words, across two or more lines of a verse paragraph, and in various kinds of prose. Because alliteration produces a conspicuous, if brief, consonantal echo, it is best understood as a sound effect rather than a rhyme.
Scholars consider alliteration to be among the most ancient of metrical devices. The earliest poems were spoken or sung and therefore, if of any length, were difficult to recall. As a mnemonic device, alliteration enabled poets and listeners to better remember what they had performed and heard. Besides enabling language to be repeated more accurately, alliteration imposed order on spoken words and, by so doing, gave speech some of its earliest formal patterns. Listeners (and later readers) learned to treat instances of alliteration with greater attention than the more irregular utterances of everyday language. Alliteration thus helped to make poetry and prose more stylized over time.
Old English poetry had alliteration as its formal basis. Its poets divided a line of verse by inserting a caesura, or significant pause, at about the line's mid point. Alliterative consonants spanned the resulting half-lines, typically by emphasizing a consonant of one or two of the stressed syllables. By the latter half of the 14th century, an alliterative revival arose. Responding to Old English versification and opposing continental poetry, Middle English poetry both used alliteration and varied it. As poets investigated alliterative possibilities, the best and often densest poetry of the period resulted. Indeed, major poems on the order of Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight expanded how alliteration could be imagined.
By the early Renaissance, alliteration had changed from an organizing principle to a less frequently used poetic device. Shakespeare's sonnets, with their more sporadic but still-strategic use of alliteration, best demonstrate this change. For instance, the first quatrain of Sonnet 30 treats the memories of lost love and dead friends by repeating, famously, the s and w consonants in lines 1 and 4, respectively. The repetition in "woes," "wail," and "waste" (l. 4) concludes the first portion of the poem by foregrounding an onomatopoetic of lament.
Cable, Thomas. The English Alliterative Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
Larry T. Shillock
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