Allegory is a literary device that is used in verse and prose writing. It allows the writer to deliver a specific, meaningful message.
This message usually seeks to remind the reader of a moral obligation or specific religious teaching. Sometimes with allegories, the message is obvious, but more often than not it is hidden and a reader has to dig deep into the poem to try to uncover it. The message might be contained within a double meaning in a character’s words or a narrator’s description. It might also be found in symbols or actions, even events occurring in the background can have powerful implications.
Origins and Examples of Allegory
The origins of this literary device go all the way back to Homer. Today, some of the best known allegorical works are books. These include Animal Farm by George Orwell in which the pigs represent figures in the Russian Revolution and The Scarlet Letter, which has a very obvious and poignant symbology.
In regards to poetry, writers such as Edmund Spenser, best known for his work The Faerie Queene, are known for their utilization of the device. One can also find many instances of allegory within the multilayered works of William Shakespeare.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
These lines use allegory to speak on sin. Specifically, as defined through the lens of Christianity. Killing one of God’s creatures, putting another’s life behind one’s own, is something the speaker in ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were contending with. This double meaning is even more obvious in one of the last stanzas of the poem:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Here, the speaker bids the wedding guest, to whom he was telling his tale, farewell and summarizes what he has learned. Never, should one love “man” or “bird” or “beast” more than the other. God, he states, “made and loveth all” and so should “we”.
Take a look at this list of other poems that use allegory:
- The Haunted Palace’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Woman and the Angel’ by Robert Service
- ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins
- ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti