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MY DEAR JOHN,
I HAVE already intimated that an allegory is a metaphor protracted to some considerable length. "When several kindred metaphors," Cicero observes, "succeed one another, they alter the form of a composition; and on that account a succession of this kind is called by the Greeks an allegory; and properly, as far as relates to the etymology of the word. Aristotle, however, instead of considering it as a new species of figure, has more judiciously comprised such modes of expression under the general appellation of metaphors."
I confess I should myself be disposed to adopt the sentiment of Aristotle, and to appropriate the term allegory to another form of composition, which I shall have presently to mention. Custom and authority have, however, decreed it otherwise, and we must therefore admit of two kinds of allegory: the one, the continued metaphor; the other, the continued narration of a fictitious event, applied in the way of comparison to the illustration of the subject. These latter kind of allegories are called by the Greeks awes, or apologues; by the Latins fabulæ, or fables; and by the Hebrews parables, though the word parable is also applied to a proverbial speech or a pointed axiom. Such are the fables of Æsop and Pilpay, the Indian Sage; such is the charming parable which I had occasion to mention in my second letter, and the still more charming narratives of our Saviour, conveyed under the name of parables. Such, in later times, is the Fairy Queen of Spencer, which consists of a series of these allegories; and the very popular work
among the common people, "The Pilgrim's Progress" of Bunyan.
The first of these kinds of allegory differing only in length from the simple metaphor, there is but little necessity, after what I have observed on that subject in my last letter, to enter into the many particulars concerning its use or introduction. I must remark, however, that no figure is more delicate or difficult in the hands of a young writer. If the great difficulty in the use of a metaphor is to preserve the allusion in all its parts, how much must the difficulty be increased in applying a series of metaphors to illustrate the same subject? In short, there is scarcely any error so common as this of forgetting the figurative and resorting to the literal sense, even in the best writers. In the following passage of Shakspeare's King John, the figures are grossly discordant. It relates to the projected union of the King with Constance.....
"For by this knot thou shalt so surely tie
Thy now unsured assurance to the crown,
It is evident that there is no connexion between the tying of a knot and the sun's ripening fruit; and to heighten the absurdity, the "bloom that promises a mighty fruit," is not on a tree but on a boy. Had the word branch been used instead of boy, this latter incongruity might have been avoided.
An allegorical couplet of Blackmore is for a similar reason well ridiculed by the authors of the art of scribbling in poetry.....
"A waving sea of heads around them spread,
A crowd of people is not improperly compared to à deluge, but when eyes are given to this metaphorical sea, the illusion is destroyed, and the effect is ridiculous.
The absurdity even of this is however exceeded by an allegorical sentence contained in a public instrument at a time when better writing might have been expected. "We cannot but acknowledge, to our very great sorrow and shame, that ourselves, though we hope through our weakness and frailty, not out of design, have very much contributed to those provocations which have caused God to depart from our Israel. But we see, when God's hour is come, and the time of his people's deliverance, even the set time at hand, he cometh, skipping over all the mountains of sins and unworthiness that we daily cast in his way," &c.....Monk and the Army's Address on re-assembling the Long Parliament.
Even the ingenious and generally accurate Gibbon, is not free from these vices of composition. In his last vol. p. 640, we read, "that Benedict the Fourteenth consecrated a spot which persecution and fable had stained with the blood of so many Christian martyrs." Here it is evident that the two nouns, one in the figurative, and the other in the literal sense, are wholly inconsistent with each other, and destroy the metaphor or allegory, which ever it may be called; though the author probably meant this mode of expression for a beauty.
After these instances of faulty and imperfect allegories, it is but right that I should give you an example of a good one. It is from Prior's Henry and Emma; and it comes naturally from the lips of an enamoured and virtuous female....
"Did I but purpose to embark with thee
"On the smooth surface of a summer's sea,
The following from Shakspeare is perhaps faulty in confounding in some measure the literal with the figu
rative meaning, as in the fifth line. It is however very beautiful: the third line is finely descriptive....
"This is the state of man: To-day he puts forth
As I have shewn you also that Mr. Gibbon could commit an error in the construction of a figure, it is but fair to shew you also what he was capable of effecting when on his guard. The example I quote is from the 21st chap. of his history, a work to which I must often refer when I wish to exhibit the force of a fine imagination exerted in producing almost every beauty of style. The historian, in speaking of the speculative dissensions which existed in the Christian church at the period he is describing, adds, "It will not be expected, it would not perhaps be endured, that I should swell this theological digression, by a minute examination of the eighteen creeds, the authors of which, for the most part, disclaimed the odious name of their parent Arius. It is amusing enough to delineate the form, and to trace the vegetation of a singular plant; but the tedious detail of leaves without flowers, and of branches without fruit, would soon exhaust the patience, and disappoint the curiosity of the laborious student."
You will easily see that almost all the rules respecting metaphors are applicable to this kind of allegory. Dr. Blair, I must add, makes a very judicious distinction between these allegorical expressions and common metaphors. Besides the difference in point of length, "a metaphor," he observes, "always explains itself by the words that are connected with it, as when I say Achilles was a lion; an able minister is the pillar of the state; my lion and my pillar are sufficiently interpreted by the mention of Achilles and the minister, which I join to them; but an allegory is, or may be, allowed to
stand more unconnected with the literal meaning, the interpretation not so directly pointed out, but left to our own reflection."
Though confounded under the same name, the second species of allegory to which I alluded differs greatly from that of which we have been treating, that, I mean, which represents a subject under the colour of a fictitious narrative. The few successful attempts of this kind extant, sufficiently evince that it is a species of composition extremely difficult, and indeed it is only tolerable in the hands of a writer of the first order. Even Spencer, though abounding in all the beauties of poetry, is scarcely read, and never interests; yet I must make an exception in favour of the charming vision of Mirza, and some others in the Spectator. I may also recommend most of those in the Adventurer, from the fascinating pen of Dr. Hawksworth.
You will perhaps think me hypercritical in making a distinction between the metaphor, and what I term an allusion. The latter is however a slight reference to some well-known fact or matter of history; and I think can properly class neither under the head of metaphor nor allegory. An instance which will at once explain my meaning, presents itself to my memory from a wellknown song of Prior....
"Obtain'd the chariot for a day,
A more beautiful instance is furnished by Mr. Gibbon:
"They (the Jews) cultivated with ardour the theological system of the Athenian sage. But their national pride would have been mortified by a fair confession of their former poverty, and they boldly marked, as the sacred inheritance of their ancestors, the gold and jewels which they had so lately stolen from their Egyptian masters."....GIBBON'S DECLINE AND FALL, C. 24.
The following will probably be ranked as a compa rison: