Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"With a Glance of Dark Meaning"; or, Bloodstained Allegories in Spenser and Hawthorne

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"With a Glance of Dark Meaning"; or, Bloodstained Allegories in Spenser and Hawthorne

Article excerpt

Over and over again, there was the idea of woman, acting the part of a revengeful mischief towards man. It was, indeed, very singular to see how the artist's imagination seemed to run on these stories of bloodshed, in which woman's hand was crimsoned by the stain; and how, too,--in one form or another, grotesque or sternly sad,--she failed not to bring out the moral, that woman must strike through her own heart to reach a human life, whatever were the motive that impelled her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

And the blood has its strange omniscience.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

It has long been acknowledged that Hawthorne was a close and careful reader of Spenser. (1) He often wrote about reading his treasured copy of The Faerie Queene; he and his wife read cantos of the poem out to their children at bedtime; his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, adapted the first book of the poem for children; and his daughter was named Una after the heroine of Book I (Miller 49, 56, 409-10, passim-, Peabody; Hosington and Anne Shaver 289). According to Gary Scharnhorst, Hawthorne was the anonymous reviewer of the first American edition of Spenser's Poetical Works in the Boston Post in 1839 (668). It is thus hard to imagine another nineteenth-century writer--and there are many, given Spenser's importance for writers of Gothic fiction, poetry, and romance--who was more obviously influenced by the greatest Elizabethan poet. (2) Despite this, the ways in which Spenser has shaped Hawthorne's literary imagination have not often been fully explored, and Gregory Staley is a rare exception in acknowledging that Hawthornes debt to Ovid in his work is an Ovid "re-modelled by Spenser" (137). This is assuredly due, at least in part, to an over-compartmentalization of academic writing which has served to isolate scholars and critics in their distinct fields or time periods. Yet the relative lack of scholarship on the Spenser-Hawthorne relationship may also be due to a tradition of reading Hawthorne in terms of the development of Puritan allegory, especially in terms of John Bunyan, rather than more ambiguous and amorphous writers such as Spenser. Henry James, for one, ascribes Hawthorne's "metaphysical moods" to his reading of both Bunyan and Spenser, those two "masters of allegory," together in a single breath. As James writes:

   Hawthorne, in his metaphysical moods, is nothing if not
   allegorical, and allegory, to my sense, is quite one of the lighter
   exercises of the imagination.... It has produced assuredly some
   first-rate works; and Hawthorne in his younger years had been a
   great reader and devotee of Bunyan and Spenser, the great masters
   of allegory. But it is apt to spoil two good things--a story and a
   moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible
   for a large part of the forcible feeble writing that has been
   inflicted upon the world. (366)

Despite James's characterization, we should be careful to put Spenser and Bunyan uncritically together, as the two instantiate different literary and philosophical investments in their use of allegory. Although he acknowledges Hawthorne's first-rate works, for James, the influence of the two allegorists ultimately leads less to Hawthorne's richly allusive prose textures, marked by studied ambiguities of phrase and rhetoric, image and characterization--things Hawthorne found in Spenser, and which James would seemingly otherwise appreciate--than to James's opinion of allegory as one of the "lighter exercises of the imagination." What is more, Hawthorne's allegorical method notoriously combines not only Spenserian and Bunyanesque conceits (like the Valley of the Shadow of Death in "The Celestial Railroad"), but also unique features from New England Puritan typology, elements drawn from the historical "romance," as well as new understandings of symbol and allegory developed in Romantic poetics. …

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