The Allegory of Love Essay - Critical Essays

C. S. Lewis

Critical Evaluation

In THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE, the subtitle, “A Study in Medieval Tradition,” suggests something more than literary history or criticism. As Lewis traces the development of the allegorical form historically to show how it was conditioned by the general climate of opinion in the Middle Ages, he reveals an underlying theme which is his main purpose. He states that the form and sentiment of the discussed poetry has left a clearly definable trace on our minds even though it has passed away. The allegorical love poem was an easy mode of expression and if we can understand the present and possibly the future then by using the imagination of history we can possibly succeed in recreating expression of the lost state of mind created by these old poems. The basic element distinguishing the medieval from the modern mind was its intuitive recognition of myth as the essence of literature. Imaginative apprehension of this concept is necessary for understanding the relationship between past, present, and future, according to Lewis, because the pattern of history, like all great stories, is a myth whose meaning is revealed only to the imagination.

The structural argument of the book has four main divisions: (1) an analysis of the medieval ideal of courtly love; (2) an explanation of the origins of allegory as a literary form; (3) a survey of the mutations of the allegorical form as it was used in love poems; (4) an analysis of the transmutation of both form and sentiment in THE FAERIE QUEENE In following this main outline, Lewis contributes to the study of medieval literature a useful synthesis of unfamiliar material and fresh assessment of the familiar. Attempting to revitalize medieval literature for the modern reader, he stresses that the Middle Ages, having more coherence than our own age, had also more vitality in the sense that art forms were derived directly from what was considered most significant in human life. The initial premise is that the form of allegorical love poetry is explicable only in terms of the tradition of courtly love.

Lewis distinguishes four main aspects of courtly love: Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. The code of feudal society was obviously responsible for the first two features; the third developed more subtly from the practice of strategic rather than romantic marriage alliances and from the Church’s ambivalent attitude toward passion. The fourth feature had the most complex origin and the most significant bearing on love allegory. Lewis thinks that the idea of a “Religion of Love” cannot be attributed to a misunderstanding of Ovid’s mock-religious love poetry; for the medieval poets’ understanding of Ovid is revealed by the comparable flippancy of their own erotic poetry. Moreover, the original connection between Christianity with its worship of the Blessed Virgin, on the one hand, and the “Religion of Love,” on the other, was a matter not so much of influence as of reaction, with the love poetry based on parody of the religious doctrine. But what began as parody was transformed by the high seriousness of some poets into an imaginative escape from the severities of their faith.

The subtlety of this relationship is elaborated in detailed summaries of the love poetry of Chretien de Troyes and the love theory of Andreas Capellanus. In discussing Chretien, Lewis stresses the difference between his early EREC and his masterpiece, LAUNCELOT. The first is a brutal adventure tale of the Griselda story type, while the later poem is the epitome of the tradition of courtly love. Chretien transforms the element of adventure by expressing his hero’s religious emotion in terms of subjective adventure, through the medium of allegory. In contrast, Andreas Capellanus in his DE ARTE HONESTE AMANDI attempts to Christianize love theory by rational definition, illustrated by a delightful variety of dialogues and stories; but he recognizes the impossibility of reconciliation in a palinode which affirms that all his advice was given in order that the reader might understand but reject love. Lewis feels that his conclusion, like the similar closing passage of Chaucer’s TROILUS AND CRISEYDE, invalidates neither the love theory nor the religious doctrine, but subordinates the former to the latter as, in medieval thought, everything in the secular world is subordinated to eternity. Lewis stresses the fact that the relationship between the two systems, erotic and Christian, was one of infinite variation of a pattern which gave life the unity of art. This idea underlies the whole argument of the book. Life is most meaningful when it has the form of an art; and art, in turn, is most meaningful when it takes its form from life.

Lewis’ analysis of the history of the allegorical method is based on the premise that the nature of thought and language is fundamentally allegorical. His purpose is an inquiry into a quality inherent in human speech which becomes as well a part of the structure of poetry in the Middle Ages. The definition of the inquiry implies the conclusion: if allegory is fundamental to the human imagination, then its structural use in imaginative literature results in a synthesis of form and content which was naturally popular in an age which appreciated synthesis.

Allegory as a mode of expression began, according to Lewis, in classical Latin poetry with the use of personification, a literary device which originated in mythology and continued in rhetoric. He traces this development as a decline from genuine mythopoeia or myth-making in literature. Using the THEBAID of Statius as a key example, Lewis reveals a pattern of recurrent loss and recovery; as the Olympians declined into mere figures of rhetoric, the figures of rhetoric acquired increasing imaginative force. This literary trend resulted from a two-fold change in the thought of the Roman world, a change of which Christianity was a supreme manifestation rather than a cause. One aspect was the development of monotheism, which explained the gods of popular religion as facets of the supreme power; and the other was what Lewis defines as an increasing personal sense of divided will and a concomitant practice of introspection. He finds in St. Augustine’s CONFESSIONS a major example of the trend toward expressing this inner conflict in metaphorical terms, which he thinks explains both the origin and the continued...

(The entire section is 2630 words.)