It is not often realized that all commentary is allegorical interpretation, an attaching of ideas to the structure of poetic imagery. The instant that any critic permits himself to make a genuine comment about a poem (e.g., "In Hamlet Shakespeare appears to be portraying the tragedy of irresolution") he has begun to allegorize. Commentary thus looks at literature as, in its formal phase, a potential allegory of events and ideas. — Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), 89.

The best refutation of allegories I know is Croce's; the best vindication, Chesterton's. Croce says that the allegory is a tiresome pleonasm, a collection of useless repetitions which shows us (for example) Dante led by Virgil and Beatrice and then explains to us, or gives us to understand, that Dante is the soul, Virgil is philosophy or reason or natural intelligence, and Beatrice is theology or grace. According to Croce's argument (the example is not his), Dante's first step was to think: "Reason and faith bring about the salvation of souls" or "Philosophy and theology lead us to heaven" and then, for reason and philosophy he substituted Virgil and for faith or theology he put Beatrice, all of which became a kind of masquerade. By that derogatory definition an allegory would be a puzzle, more extensive, boring, and unpleasant than other puzzles. It would be a barbaric or puerile genre' an aesthetic sport. . . . Chesterton . . . denies that the genre is censurable. He reasons that reality is interminably rich and that the language of men does not exhaust that vertiginous treasure.... Chesterton infers that various languages can somehow correspond to the ungraspable reality, and among them are allegories and fables.

In other words, Beatrice is not an emblem of faith, a belabored and arbitrary synonym of the word faith. The truth is that something — a peculiar sentiment, an intimate process, a series of analogous states — exists in the world that can be indicated by two symbols: one, quite insignificant, the sound of the word faith; the other, Beatrice, the glorious Beatrice who descended from Heaven and left her footprints in Hell to save Dante. —Jorge Luis Borges, "Nathaniel Hawthorne," Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, trans. R.L.C. Simms (New York, 1966), 51-52.

Decorative Initial T

HE ALLEGORICAL tradition in painting, poetry, and critical theory, so vital in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, had all but died by 1856 when Ruskin published the third volume of Modern Painters, and it is thus striking to encounter his statement that "allegorical painting has been the delight of the greatest men and of the wisest multitudes, from the beginning of art, and will be till art expires" (5.134). Arguing against those who assert that "symbolism or personification should not be introduced in painting at all," Ruskin expresses the wish "that every great allegory which the poets ever invented were powerfully put on canvas, and easily accessible by all men, and that our artists were perpetually exciting themselves to invent more,'(5.134). Ruskin, who here draws upon the humanistic theory of painting, makes allegory one of the major parts of his conception of ut pictura poesis; and in this same chapter which defends allegory in painting he cites the allegory of the Faerie Queene as a great example of poetic imagination. Discussing Spenser's figure of Envy, he comments that the poet concentrates his ideas in one powerful image, "so that we feel it fully, and see it, and never forget it" (5.133). Unlike most nineteenth-century critics, then, Ruskin believes that allegorical painting and poetry embody the highest workings of the artistic imagination.

To his praise of Spenserian allegory one may compare  Macaulay's harsh criticism of the Faerie Queene:

Even Spenser himself, though assuredly one of the greatest poets that ever lived, could not succeed in the attempt to make allegory interesting. It was in vain that he lavished the riches of his mind on the House of Pride, and the House of Temperance. One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of the Faerie Queene. We become sick of Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins, and long for the society of plain men and women. Of the persons who read the first Canto, not one in ten reaches the end of the First Book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the poem. Very few and very weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast. ["Southey's Edition of the Pilgrim's Progress" (1831), Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous (Philadelphia, 1853), 129.]

Macaulay believes that allegory is dull, intrinsically so, and of all the allegories ever written only one, Pilgrim's Progress, escaped boring its readers: "Other allegories only amuse the fancy. The allegory of Bunyan has been read by many thousands with tears." Only the seventeenth-century thinker has achieved "the highest miracle of genius — that things which are not should be as they were, that the imaginations of one mind should become the personal recollections of another." Macaulay's condemnation of the Faerie Queene and his praise of Pilgrim's Progress reveal that, for him, poetry, which he believes to be largely a matter of the emotions, must convey what it felt like to have been at a particular scene, to have had particular thoughts, and to have experienced particular emotions. For him, in other words, literature must portray the facts of experience being-experienced, not the truths to be abstracted from experience. Assuming that with one exception allegory can appeal only to the fancy, Macaulay stands so completely committed to his romantic conception of art that he cannot even envisage the possibility of successful non-romantic modes. Furthermore, as his remark about the tediousness of the cardinal virtues reveals, the kind of art which makes its audience contemplate the long-known, sure truths of morality and religion bores him; and therefore that delight in discovering commonplace beliefs under strange and wondrous guise, which characterizes the expectations of the medieval and Renaissance reader of allegory, is not only missing in Macaulay, but, more important, is beyond his grasp. Thus interested neither in the specific pleasures of the allegorical mode nor the kind of truths it best conveys, he finds such poetry essentially and irremediably boring.

Many of the points at the heart of Macaulay's criticism of the Faerie Queene appear more explicitly stated in Coleridge's distinction between allegory and symbol:

An allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot. On the other hand a symbol . . . is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal. It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative. The other are but empty echoes which the fancy arbitrarily associates with apparitions of matter. (The Statesman's Manual, ed. W.G.T. Shedd (New York, 1875), 437-438. Quoted by Angus Fletcher. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Ithaca, N.Y., 1964, 16n. For a discussion of Coleridge's attitudes toward allegory, see also 15-18.)

Whereas the symbol, which develops organically, partakes of that which it represents, allegory, a mere mechanical device, has no such intimate, natural relation to the signified. Therefore, allegory can signify only arbitrarily and artificially. This basic difference in the natures of the two modes arises from the fact that whereas the imagination creates the symbol, fancy, a lesser faculty, produces allegory: the symbol comes into being as a forming, synthesizing mode of vision which may finally reveal the mind in possession of more truth than it had consciously realized, but allegory, which "cannot be other than spoken consciously" never adds new truths. In other words, while the symbol precedes conscious formulation of an idea, thus itself advancing knowledge, allegory must always follow behind, the mere embellisher of thoughts already formulated.

Similar attitudes appear in Matthew Arnold's statements about allegory. He begins his "Dante and Beatrice" with the assertion that "Those critics who allegorize the Divine Comedy, who exaggerate, or, rather, who mistake the supersensual element in Dante's work, who reduce to nothing the sensible and human element, are hardly worth refuting. They know nothing of the necessary laws under which poetic genius works, of the inevitable conditions under which the creations of poetry are produced. about the "necessary laws under works" refers, it would seem, to shared with Coleridge) that allegory is unimaginative. Since Arnold believes great poetry imaginative and the Divine Comedy great, it cannot, he would argue, be an allegory. His other comment that to consider the Divine Comedy allegory "would reduce the sensible and human element to nothing" shows that, like Macaulay, he believes allegory has no human element and deals only with rather uninteresting abstractions. His statement in this same essay that "the Divine Comedy . . . is no allegory, and personification of theology" further demonstrates that for Arnold allegory equates, clearly and unmistakably, with "mere personification" (8). He holds that allegory concerns itself only with personified abstractions which have been emptied of all human interest; for example, he holds that to consider Beatrice the figure in an allegory necessarily means, first, that the reader must neglect whatever literature meaning this figure might have in the poem, and, second, that in allegory a simple abstraction, here theology, equates clearly and simply with that which represents it. Arnold, of course, is quite correct: Dante did not write this kind of an allegory, but, then neither did anyone else before the eighteenth century.

Carlyle's attitudes toward allegory are more complex, largely because he employs the term ambiguously. In Heroes and Hero-Worship, he comments that "Dante's Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, are a symbol withal, an emblematic representation of his Belief about this Universe: — some Critic in a future age . . .. who has ceased altogether to think as Dante did, may find this . . . all an 'Allegory,' perhaps an idle Allegory! It is a sublime embodiment, or sublimest, of the soul of Christianity. It expresses, as in huge world-wide architectural emblems, how the Christian Dante felt Good and Evil to be the two polar elements of this Creation." Like Coleridge before him, he apparently believes that allegory cannot embody thought, and yet, as other passages reveal, he does not distinguish between allegory and symbol. Like Arnold after him, he believes that Dante, as a great and sincere poet, could not have written the Divine Comedy consciously as an allegory. The central problem for Carlyle with an allegorical interpretation of the Divine Comedy is that "Men do not believe an Allegory," and yet he is positive that "to the earnest Dante it is all one visible Fact; he believes it, sees it; is the Poet of it in virtue of that. Sincerity, I say again, is the saving merit, now as always" (Works, Centenary Edition, ed. H. D. Traill, 30 vols. (London, 1896-1899), V, 97). Carlyle's prime difficulty arises in his theory of the creative act, a theory which differs at significant points from Ruskin's. According to Carlyle, all great poetry and all great truths must well up from within the deeps of the mind, growing unconsciously and organically. Unlike Coleridge, from whom he apparently derives this emphasis upon unconscious creation, Carlyle holds that the artist must believe literally and completely in the vision he creates. So suspicious is Carlyle of the workings of the conscious mind, that he holds no organic, sincerely believed, art could arise even partially in the conscious mind. Therefore although we, who come centuries after Dante in a changed time, can read Dante's poem as an allegory, we cannot, says Carlyle, hold that Dante could have created it as one.

His discussion of the allegorical interpretation of pagan religious myth in "The Hero as Divinity" confirms this interpretation of his conception of allegory. He admits the partial truth of those writers who attribute pagan myth to allegory. "It was a play of poetic minds, say these theorists; a shadowing-forth, in allegorical fable, in personification and visual form, of what such poetic minds had known and felt of this Universe. Which agrees, add they, with a primary law of human nature . . ., That what a man feels intensely, he struggles to speak-out of him, to see represented before him in visual shape, and as if with a kind of life and historical reality in it.'' Admitting there is doubtless such a law, Carlyle yet asks, "Think, would we believe, and take with us as our life-guidance, an allegory, a poetic sport?" Nonetheless, a few sentences later he states "Pagan Religion is indeed an Allegory, a Symbol of what men felt and knew about the Universe; . . . but it seems to me a radical perversion, and even inversion, of the business, to put that forward as the origin and moving cause, when it was rather the result and termination.... We ought to understand that this seeming cloudfield was once a reality; that not poetic allegory, least of all that dupery and deception was the origin of it." In other words, Carlyle, who feels that allegory consciously conceived must be insincere, "a poetic sport," yet holds that those who created pagan myth unconsciously created allegory from stories which they firmly believed. Looking back, Carlyle and men of the nineteenth century may perceive that these beliefs were in fact allegories, but the men who created them could not have been aware of this themselves. As accurate a rendering of primitive mythology as this may be — and it is surely an advance on the usual Renaissance and eighteenth-century conception of the origins of myth — Carlyle's view of allegory, when applied to literature, requires that one believe poets such as Dante did not know what they were doing. Ruskin, who knew the Epistle to Can Grande and the Convito, could not hold such a conception of allegory. [For renaissance and eighteenth-century conception of the origins of myth, see Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. Barbara F. Sessions (New York, 1961) and Frank E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (New York, 1967).]

Carlyle's one concession to an allegorical literature appears in his statement in the same passage that

The Pilgrim's Progress is an Allegory, and a beautiful, just and serious one: but consider whether Bunyan's Allegory could have preceded the Faith it symbolises! The Faith had to be already there, standing believed by everybody; — of which the Allegory could then become a shadow; and with all its seriousness we may say a sportful shadow, a mere play of the Fancy, in comparison with that awful Fact and scientific certainty, which it poetically strives to emblem.

Here the ground has shifted, apparently, for Carlyle now argues that, at least as far as Bunyan was concerned, sincere allegory was possible; and yet when a chapter later he discusses Dante, he does not allow that possibility. Carlyle does not tell us much about Bunyan here, so we may reason either that he believes Dante a far greater writer than Bunyan, one who has to work in a more unconscious way, or that he may even have thought that Bunyan himself literally believed what he wrote. Or, finally, that Carlyle's habit of stating everything in the strongest possible terms leads him to major inconsistencies. Whatever the answer, Carlyle clearly remains deeply suspicious of allegorical art and will not allow that great, true, sincere art can be written consciously as allegory.

Victorian Web Ruskin materials Contents Next

Last modified 26 July 2005