Saint Agnes of Rome is the patron saint of engaged couples. I find it hard to overlook this convenient bit of allegory in a novel titled I Promessi Sposi. And yet, our own Agnes is an unlikely saint, well-meaning but not particularly wise. Like the other characters in our text, she must find her way in an unjust world. This small but significant nod to the verse and prose romances popular in the 16th century, rife with allegorical characters wandering through a treacherous landscape has haunted my reading of I Promessi Sposi for weeks in the form of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590; 1596). Not that Manzoni had read Spenser; no, that would be too much to hope for. But we know Manzoni did read English authors (Swift, Pope, Johnson) and traveled to London. Spenser influenced generations of writers, including Milton (Paradise Lost), and so if we can say nothing else, we can argue that whatever Manzoni read in English, Spenser lurked in the margins. We can say they share similar sources in Ariosto and Tasso.

            Novices to Spenser’s epic struggle to keep the allegorical and the personal balanced. We are too familiar with novels, these days, to keep the allegorical readily at hand. If we read the text as largely personal, we regularly ask ourselves why Redcross is so darn stupid. Seriously. He makes terrible decisions! If we read it as purely allegorical—well, frankly, it’s just too long for an allegorical tale of holiness. Get to the point already, Spenser. We must read The Faerie Queene with a double consciousness—an awareness that the narrative exists on at least two planes, and those planes are always in play. His bad decisions are allegorical representations of our own failures as fallen humans—a spiritual journey towards holiness taking place on the psychic landscape of the soul, which looks amazingly like pastoral England. There be dragons, but mostly in our own minds. His adventures seem ridiculous (who trusts a ruler named Lucifera?) but they take place as much inside his mind and soul as outside in a physical world. The text, essentially, works from the outside in, giving us the borrowed armor of holiness (see below), and filling the armor with a worthy man through the lessons of the personal and national religious experience.

In short, he’s a character type much like our Renzo at the beginning of I Promessi Sposi. Renzo, as we leave him in chapter 17, is still wearing his wedding clothes—his own armor of “husband”—but has yet to fill those clothes with a man worthy of the title (or worthy of the girl, who is clearly related to Una in some complex literary geneology). Manzoni’s genre (the nascent Italian novel) prioritizes the personal over the allegorical, but still, still, there is Agnes—our patron saint of engaged couples. When Renzo becomes entangled with the significant historical moments of the text, I wonder at the allegorical meaning for the national narrative Manzoni presents his readers, but also for the character himself, engaged (ahem) in becoming more than engaged. He is a rustic clown, a “simpleton,” who is slowly filling in his suit of borrowed matrimony with the mind and soul of a worthy husband. As previous bloggers have noted, we see this most graphically when the historical and the personal meet in the text. But we also see it when the generic (chivalric romance) meets the interior of the character (novel). In Chapter 17, our exhausted and despairing hero weaves his way forward, keeping the ‘straight and narrow high road’ in his sights but avoiding the dangers it threatens. He has, essentially, lost his way—a fugitive from (mistaken) justice, he cannot take the high road physically or spiritually. Finally, he stumbles through a dark and fearsome wood, seeking shelter and sanctuary (the land beyond the river). Paths and woods punctuate chivalric romances. Paths, especially the ‘easy path’ beckons the unwary traveler to fall ever deeper into error. What are we to make of the paths our hero travels in this chapter? Are the high roads of Lombardy paved with the slaughter of innocents? Is our hero so lost that he sees danger where danger does not dwell, eschewing the straight and narrow for endless wandering (our knight errant—error as synonymous for wandering)? Woods harbor monsters. The dense canopy blocks the light (The Light—of reason, of God, of clarity) and casts the hero’s mind into murky darkness. Redcross suffers these tropes many times over; our Renzo too meets his literary ancestors on the road and in the woods. He nearly gives up before hearing the sound of running water. And, at the border of despair and deliverance, he prays. He finds a new high road, and in the dawn light, an alternate path to spousal bliss. No doubt more wrong turns await his future. I would very much like to bring in language here and discuss the words, the style, the national and personal identity shaped by language in this passage, but that is way, way beyond my abilities. With any luck, my ramblings of English poets and chivalric heroes who hail from humble stock make sense for the Italian too.

Quick introduction to Spenser and The Faerie Queene for the uninitiated

Edmund Spenser (1552-1559) was interested in establishing a decisively English verse style for his national epic. Like Manzoni, he wanted to “renew language to its foundation,” and for Spenser, that meant harkening back to Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), known in the sixteenth century as the father of the English language. He produced the first national epic poem of England, The Faerie Queene, which contains six books organized around virtues (holiness; temperance; chastity; friendship; justice; courtesy). I am only obsessing about Book 1: Holiness, although all the virtues do come into play in Manzoni’s novel. Spenser was also greatly influenced by Italian writers (of course!), particularly Tasso and Ariosto, and as such, his epic is a grand verse narrative of knights errant (male and female, fyi) and royal personages wandering around the allegorical British landscape. SO not I Promessi Sposi, right? But bear with me. Book one has two heroes—Redcross and Una. Redcross, we learn much later in the story, is really Saint George, patron saint of England and Dragon-Slayer extraordinaire. Una is the daughter of Adam and Eve—she wins the Holy contest, hands down. She does get in a pickle or three, mostly because Redcross ditches her in a (corrupt) religious house while he heads off for new adventures, but she is wise, sensible, and, well, holy. She makes good decisions, unlike her future husband. Redcross, on the other hand, is a poser. When we first meet our hero, he is wearing borrowed armor and fighting with his horse (not a good sign). Externally, he’s a knight on a quest; internally, he’s a clueless country boy who begged the Faerie Queene (allegorical reference for Elizabeth I) for a quest and got this gig. He has no idea what he’s gotten himself into, and he has to learn on the job. The entire text is allegorical—he travels with a dwarf (human reason) and fights the monster Error who lives in the Wandering Woods before bumping into the evil characters of Duessa (two faced) and Sans Foy (no faith). I could go on—you get the idea. But it departs from its overt allegorical frame by also creating characters with psychological depth—they grow as characters, they have a modicum of interiority unusual for this genre. We read them as real people.


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