For more than a century John Hughes's on allegory was the gateway through which many, possibly most, readers entered the magic kingdom of Faerie Queene. The Remarks remain a useful introduction to the subject, since Hughes discusses several senses of "allegory" no longer in usage that are frequently invoked in early discussions of Spenser and renaissance epic. Hughes is surely correct when he says of Spenser's powers of description, "as this is the most striking part of Poetry, especially to young Readers, I take it to be the Reason that he has been the Father of more Poets among us, than any other of our Writers" 1:27.
Allegory was a standard topic in the grammatical handbooks, though hardly presented in the glowing terms adopted by Hughes: "Allegory is indeed the Fairy Land of Poetry, peopled by Imagination; its Inhabitants are so many Apparitions; its Woods, Caves, wild Beasts, Rivers, Mountains and Palaces, are produc'd by a kind of magical Power, and are all visionary and typical; and it abounds in such Licences as wou'd be shocking and monstrous, if the Mind did not attend to the mystick Sense contain'd under them" xxxiv. As amateur painter who had much to say about the sister arts, Hughes took particular interest in literary allegory.
Samuel Johnson: "He afterwards published the works of Spenser, with his Life, a Glossary, and a Discourse on Allegorical Poetry, a work for which he was well qualified as a judge of the beauties of writing, but perhaps wanted an antiquary's curiosity of the obsolete words" "Life of Hughes" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:162.
Herbert E. Cory: "Hughes's methods were for the most part thoroughly Augustan. He displays the neo-classical interest in allegory and essays an elaborate discussion of allegory as a type of literature in the same manner in which Bossu had discussed the epic. A short citation will show how strongly Hughes was influenced by the French makers of mechanical rules for the creation of poetry. 'There is no doubt but men of critical learning, if they had thought fit, might have given us rules about Allegorical writing, as they have done about Epick, and other kinds of poetry; but they have rather chosen to let this forest remain wild, as if they thought there was something in the nature of the soil which could not be so well restrained and cultivated in enclosures.' Nothing daunted, however, Hughes formulates four rules. Tried by this standard Spenser is found praiseworthy. 'Spenser 's conduct [in respect to allegory] is much more reasonable [than Tasso's]. As he designed his Poem upon the Plan of the Virtues by which he has entitled his several Books he scarce ever loses sight of his design.' Since Hughes's fourth rule is that the allegory 'must be clear and intelligible,' he censures Temple for his judgment that Spenser's 'moral lay too bare.' But we must not come to consider the Augustans as obsessed by their devotion to Spenser as an allegorist. They knew many of his other essential qualities" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 145-46.
Richard Frushell: "The heart of Hughes's criticism is his 32-page essay on allegorical poetry 'With Remarks on the Writings of Mr. Edmund Spenser.' The essay's subheadings could serve as an idex of critical concerns in Spenser's art from his day in 1715 forward, especially in the first six decades of the century, when criticism of Spenser was more frequent and various than any time since the early seventeenth century — or would be again until the nineteenth century" Edmund Spenser in the Early Eighteenth Century (1999) 106.
It is a Misfortune, as Mr. Waller observes, which attends the Writers of English Poetry, that they can hardly expect their Works should last long in a Tongue which is daily changing; that whilst they are new, Envy is apt to prevail against them; and as that wears off, our Language it self fails. Our Poets therefore, he says, shou'd imitate judicious Statuaries, that chuse the most durable Materials, and shou'd carve in Latin or Greek, if they wou'd have their Labours preserv'd for ever.
Notwithstanding the Disadvantage he has mention'd, we have two Antient English Poets, Chaucer and Spenser, who may perhaps be reckon'd as Exceptions to this Remark. These seem to have taken deep Root, like old British Oaks, and to flourish in defiance of all the Injuries of Time and Weather. The former is indeed much more obsolete in his Stile than the latter; but it is owing to an extraordinary native Strength in both, that they have been able thus far to survive amidst the Changes of our Tongue, and seem rather likely, among the Curious at least, to preserve the Knowledg of our Antient Language, than to be in danger of being destroy'd with it, and bury'd under its Ruins.
Tho' Spenser's Affection to his Master Chaucer led him in many things to copy after him, yet those who have read both will easily observe that these two Genius's were of a very different kind. Chaucer excell'd in his Characters; Spenser in his Descriptions. The first study'd Humour, was an excellent Satirist and a lively but rough Painter of the Manners of that rude Age in which he liv'd: The latter was of the serious Turn, had an exalted and elegant Mind, a warm and boundless Fancy, and was an admirable Imager of Vertues and Vices, which was his particular Talent. The Embellishments of Description are rich and lavish in him beyond Comparison: and as this is the most striking part of Poetry, especially to young Readers, I take it to be the Reason that he has been the Father of more Poets among us, than any other of our Writers; Poetry being first kindled in the Imagination, which Spenser writes to, more than any one, and the Season of Youth being the most susceptible of the Impression. It will nor seem strange therefore that Cowley, as himself tells us, first caught his Flame by reading Spenser; that our great Milton own'd him for his Original, as Mr. Dryden assures us; and that Dryden study'd him, and has bestow'd more frequent Commendations on him, than on any other English Poet.
The most known and celebrated of his Works, tho' I will not say the most perfect, is the Fairy Queen. It is conceiv'd, wrought up, and colour'd with a stronger Fancy, and discovers more the particular Genius of Spenser, than any of his other Writings. The Author, in a Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, having call'd this Poem, "a continu'd Allegory, or dark Conceit," it may not be improper to offer some Remarks on Allegorical Poetry in general; by which the Beauties of this Work may more easily be discover'd by ordinary Readers. I must at the same time beg the Indulgence of those who are conversant with Critical Discourses, to what I shall here propose; this being a Subject something out of the way, and not expresly treated upon by those who have laid down Rules for the Art of Poetry.
An Allegory is a Fable or Story, in which, under imaginary Persons or Things, is shadow'd some real Action or instructive Moral; or, as I think it is somewhere very shortly defin'd by Plutarch, it is that "in which one thing is related, and another thing is understood." It is a kind of Poetical Picture, or Hieroglyphick, which by its apt Resemblance conveys Instruction to the Mind by an Analogy to the Senses; and so amuses the Fancy, whilst it informs the Understanding. Every Allegory has therefore two Senses, the Literal and the Mystical; the literal Sense is like a Dream or Vision, of which the mystical Sense is the true Meaning or Interpretation.
This will be more clearly apprehended, by considering, that as a Simile is but a more extended Metaphor, so an Allegory is a kind of continu'd Simile, or an Assemblage of Similitudes drawn out at full length. Thus, when it is said, That Death is the Offspring of Sin, this is a Metaphor, to signify that the former is produc'd by the latter, as a Child is brought into the World by its Parent. Again, to compare Death to a meager and ghastly Apparition, starting out of the Grounds moving towards the Spectator with a menacing Air, and shaking in his Hand a bloody Dart, is a Representation the Terrors which attend that great Enemy to Human Nature. But let the Reader observe, in Milton's Paradise Lost with what exquisite Fancy and Skill this common Metaphor and Simile, and the Moral contain'd in them, are extended and wrought up into one of the most beautiful Allegories in our Language.
The Resemblance which has been so often observ'd in general between Poetry and Painting, is yet more particular in Allegory; which, as I said before, is a kind of Picture in Poetry. Horace has in one of his Odes pathetically describ'd the ruinous Condition of his Country after the Civil Wars, and the Hazard of its being involv'd in new Dissensions, by the Emblem of a Ship shatter'd with Storms, and driven into Port with broken Masts, torn Sails, and disabled Rigging; and in danger of being forc'd by new Storms out to Sea again. There is nothing said in the whole Ode but what is literally applicable to a Ship; but it is generally agreed, that the Thing signify'd is the Roman State. Thus Rubens, who had a good Allegorical Genius in Painting, has, in his famous Work of the Luxemburg Gallery, figur'd the Government of France, on Lewis the Thirteenth's arriving at Age, by a Galley. The King stands at the Helm; Mary of Medicis, the Queen mother and Regent, puts the Rudder in his Hand; Justice, Fortitude, Religion, and Publick Faith are seated at the Oars; and other Vertues have their proper Employments in managing the Sails and Tackle.
By this general Description of Allegory, it may easily be conceiv'd that in Works of this kind there is a large Field open to Invention, which among the Antients was universally look'd upon to be the principal Part of Poetry. The Power of raising Images or Resemblances of things, giving them Life and Action, and presenting them as it were before the Eyes, was thought to have something in it like Creation: And it was probably for this fabling Part, that the first Authors of such Works were call'd Poets or Makers, as the Word signifies, and as it is literally translated and used by Spenser; tho' the learned Gerard Vossius is of opinion, that it was rather for the framing their Verses. However, by this Art of Fiction or Allegory, more than by the Structure of their Numbers, or what we now call Versification, the Poets were distinguish'd from Historians and Philosophers; tho' the latter sometimes invaded the Province of the Poet, and deliver'd their Doctrines likewise in Allegories or Parables. And this, when they did not purposely make them obscure, in order to conceal them from the common People, was a plain Indication that they thought there was an Advantage in such Methods of conveying Instruction to the Mind; and that they serv'd for the more effectual engaging the Attention of the Hearers, and for leaving deeper Impressions on their Memories.
Plutarch, in one of his Discourses, gives a very good Reason for the use of Fiction in Poetry, because Truth of it self is rigid and austere, and cannot be moulded into such agreeable Forms as Fiction can. "For neither the Numbers," says he, "nor the ranging of the Words, nor the Elevation and Elegance of the Stile, have so many Graces as the artfull Contrivance and Disposition of the Fable." For this Reason, as he relates it after Plato, when the Wise Socrates himself was prompted by a particular Impulse to the writing of Verses, being by his constant Employment in the Study of Truth, a Stranger to the Art of inventing, he chose for his Subject the Fables of Aesop; not thinking, says Plutarch, "That any thing cou'd be Poetry which was void of Fiction." The same Author makes use of a Comparison in another place, which I think may be most properly apply'd to Allegorical Poetry in particular: That "as Grapes on a Vine are cover'd by the Leaves which grow about them, so under the pleasant Narrations and Fictions of the Poets, there are couch'd many useful Morals and Doctrines."
It is for this reason, that is to say, in regard to the moral Sense, that Allegory has a liberty indulg'd to it beyond any other sort of Writing whatsoever; that it often assembles things of the most contrary kinds in Nature, and supposes even Impossibilities; as that a Golden Bough shou'd grow among the common Branches of a Tree, as Virgil has describ'd it in the Sixth Book of his Aeneis. Allegory is indeed the Fairy Land of Poetry, peopled by Imagination; its Inhabitants are so many Apparitions; its Woods, Caves, wild Beasts, Rivers, Mountains and Palaces, are produc'd by a kind of magical Power, and are all visionary and typical; and it abounds in such Licences as wou'd be shocking and monstrous, if the Mind did not attend to the mystick Sense contain'd under them. Thus in the Fables of Aesop, which are some of the most antient Allegories extant, the Author gives Reason and Speech to Beasts, Insects and Plants; and by that means covertly instructs Mankind in the most important Incidents and Concerns of their Lives.
I am not insensible that the word Allegory has been sometimes us'd in a larger Sense than that to which I may seem here to have restrain'd it, and has been apply'd indifferently to any Poem which contains a cover'd Moral, tho' the Story or Fable carries nothing in it that appears visionary or romantick. It may be necessary therefore to distinguish Allegory into the two following kinds.
The first is that in which the Story is fram'd of real or historical Persons, and probable or possible Actions; by which however some other Persons and Actions are typify'd or represented. In this sense the whole Aeneis of Virgil may be said to be an Allegory, if we consider Aeneas as representing Augustus Caesar and his conducting the Remains of his Countrymen from the Ruins of Troy, to a new Settlement in Italy, as emblematical of Augustus's modelling a new Government out of the Ruins of the Aristocracy, and establishing the Romans after the Confusion of the Civil War, in a peaceable and flourishing Condition. It does not, I think, appear that Homer had any such Design in his Poems, or that he meant to delineate his Cotemporaries or their Actions under the chief Characters and Adventures of the Trojan War. And tho' the Allusion I have mentioned in Virgil is a Circumstance, which the Author has finely contriv'd to be coincident to the general Frame of his Story, yet he has avoided the making it plain and particular, and has thrown it off in so many Instances from a direct Application, that his Poem is perfect without it. This then, for distinction, should, I think, rather be call'd a Parallel than an Allegory; at least in Allegories, fram'd after this manner, the literal Sense is sufficient to satisfy the Reader, tho' he should look no further; and without being consider'd as emblematical of some other Persons or Action, may of it self exhibit very useful Morals and Instructions. Thus the Morals which may be drawn from the Aeneis are equally noble and instructive, whether we suppose the real Hero to be Aeneas or Augustus Caesar.
The second kind of Allegory, and which, I think, may more properly challenge the Name, is that in which the Fable or Story consists for the most part of fictitious Persons or Beings, Creatures of the Poet's Brain, and Actions surprizing, and without the Bounds of Probability or Nature. In Works of this kind, it is impossible for the Reader to rest in the literal Sense, but he is of necessity driven to seek for another Meaning under these wild Types and Shadows. This Grotesque Invention claims, as I have observ'd, a Licence peculiar to it self, and is what I wou'd be understood in this Discourse more particularly to mean by the word Allegory. Thus Milton has describ'd it in his Poem call'd Il Penseroso, where he alludes to the Squire's Tale in Chaucer.
Or call up him that left half told
The Story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Cambal and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to Wife:
That own'd the virtuous Ring and Glass,
And of the wondrous Horse of Glass,
On which the Tartar King did ride;
And if ought else great Bards beside
In sage and solemn Tunes have sung
Of Turneys and of Trophies hung,
Of Forests and Enchantments drear,
Where more is meant than meets the Ear.
It may be proper to give an Instance or two, by which the Distinction of this last kind of Allegory may more plainly appear. The Story of Circe in the Odysses is an Allegorical Fable, of which there are perhaps more Copies and Imitations than of any other whatever. Her offering a Cup, fill'd with intoxicating Liquor, to her Guests; her mingling Poison with their Food, and then by magical Arts turning them into the Shapes of Swine; and Ulysses resisting her charms by the Virtue of an Herb call'd Moly, which he had receiv'd from the God Mercury, and restoring his Companions to their true Persons, are all Fictions of the last kind I have mention'd. The Person of the Goddess is likewise fictitious, and out of the Circle of the Grecian Divinities; and the Adventures are not to be understood but in a mystical Sense. The Episode of Calypso, tho' somewhat of the same kind, approaches nearer to Nature and Probability: But the Story of Dido in the Aeneis, tho' copy'd from the Circe and Calypso, and form'd on the same Moral, namely, to represent a Hero obstructed by the Allurements of Pleasure, and at last breaking from them; and tho' Mercury likewise assists in it to dissolve the Charm, yet is not necessarily to be look'd upon as an Allegory; the Fable does not appear merely imaginary or emblematical: the Persons are natural, and, excepting the Distance of Time which the Criticks have noted between the real Aeneas and Dido, (a Circumstance which Virgil not being bound to Historical Truth, wilfully neglected) there is nothing which might not really have happen'd. Ariosto's Alcina, and the Armida of Tasso, are Copies from the same Original: These again are plainly Allegorical. The whole literal Sense of the latter is a kind of Vision, or a Scene of Imagination, and is every where transparent, to shew the moral Sense which is under it. The Bower of Bliss in the Second Book of the Fairy Queen, is in like manner a Copy from Tasso; but the Ornaments of Description, which Spenser has transplanted out of the Italian Poem, are more proper in his Work, which was design'd to be wholly Allegorical, than in an Epick Poem, which is superior in its Nature to such lavish Embellishments. There is another Copy of the Circe, in the Dramatick way, in a Mask, by our famous Milton; the whole Plan of which is Allegorical, and is written with a very Poetical Spirit on the same Moral, tho' with different Characters.
I have here instanc'd in one of the most antient and best-imagin'd Allegories extant. Scilla, Charibdis, and the Syrens, in the same Poem, are of the same Nature, and are Creatures purely Allegorical: But the Harpies in Virgil, which disturb'd Aeneas and his Followers at their Banquet, as they do not seem to exhibit any certain Moral, may probably have been thrown in by the Poet only as an Omen, and to raise what is commonly call'd the Wonderful; which is a Property as essential to Epick Poetry, as Probability. Homer's giving speech to the River Xanthus in the Iliad, and to the Horses of Achilles, seem to be Inventions of the same kind, and might be design'd to fill the Reader with Astonishment and Concern, and with an Apprehension of the Greatness of an Occasion, which by a bold Fiction of the Poet is suppos'd to have produc'd such extraordinary Effects.
As Allegory sometimes, for the sake of the moral Sense couch'd under its Fictions, gives Speech to Brutes, and sometimes introduces Creatures which are out of Nature, as Goblins, Chimaera's, Fairies, and the like; so it frequently gives Life to Virtues and Vices, Passions and Diseases, to natural and moral Qualities; and represents them acting as divine, human, or infernal Persons. A very ingenious Writer calls these Characters shadowy Beings, and has with good reason censur'd the employing them in just Epick Poems: of this kind are Sin and Death, which I mention'd before in Milton; and Fame in Virgil. We find likewise a large Groupe of these shadowy Figures plac'd in the Sixth Book of the Aeneis, at the Entrance into the infernal Regions; but as they are only shewn there, and have no share in the Action of the Poem, the Description of them is a fine Allegory, and extremely proper to the Place where they appear.
Vestibulum ante ipsum, primisq; in Faucibus Orci
Luctus & ultrices posuere cubilia Curae,
Pallentesq; habitant Morbi, tristiq; Senectutus,
Et Metus, & malesuada Fames, ac turpis Aegestas,
Terribiles visu Formae; Lethumq; Labosq;
Tum consanguineus Lethi Sopor, & mala Mentis
Gaudia, Mortiferumq; adverso in limite Bellum;
Ferreiq; Eumenidum Thalami, & Discordia demens,
Viperum crinem vittis innixa cruentis.
In medio ramos annosaq; brachia pandit
Ulmus opaca, ingens; quam sedem Somnia vulgo
Vana tenere ferunt, soliisq; sub omnibus haerent.
Just in the Gate, and in the Jaws of Hell
Revengeful Cares, and sullen Sorrows dwell,
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine's unresisted Rage;
Here Toils and Death, and Death's Half-Brother, Sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their Centry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty Mind;
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind:
The Furies Iron Beds, and Strife that shakes
Her hissing Tresses, and unfolds her Snakes.
Full in the midst of this infernal Road
An Elm displays its dusky Arms abroad;
The God of Sleep here hides his heavy Head,
And empty Dreams on every Leaf are spread.
As Persons of this imaginary Life are to be excluded from any share of Action in Epick Poems, they are yet less to be endur'd in the Drama; yet we find they have sometimes made their Appearance on the antient Stage. Thus in a Tragedy of Aeschylus, Strength is introduc'd assisting Vulcan to bind Prometheus to a Rock; and in one of Euripides, Death comes to the House of Admetas to demand Alcestis, who had offer'd her self to die to save her Husband's Life. But what I have here said of Epick and Dramatick Poems does not extend to such Writings, the very Frame and Model of which is design'd to be Allegorical; in which therefore, as I said before, such unsubstantial and Symbolical Actors may be very properly admitted.
Every Book of the Fairy Queen is fruitful of these visionary Beings, which are invented and drawn with a surprizing Strength of Imagination. I shall produce but one Instance here which the Reader may compare with that just mention'd in Virgil, to which it is no way inferior: It is in the Second Book, where Mammon conducts Guyon into a Cave under Ground to shew him his Treasure.
At length they came into a larger Space,
That stretch'd it self into an ample Plain,
Thro which a beaten broad High-way did trace,
That strait did lead to Pluto's griesly Reign.
By that Way's side, there sat infernal Pain,
And fast beside him sat tumultuous Strife;
The one in hand an iron Whip did strain,
The other brandished a bloody Knife,
And both did gnash their Teeth, and both did threaten Life.
On th' other side, in one Consort there sate
Cruel Revenge, and rancorous Despight,
Disloyal Treason, and heart-burning Hate:
But gnawing Jealousy, out of their sight
Sitting alone, his bitter Lips did bite;
And trembling Fear still to and fro did fly,
And found no place where safe he shroud him might;
Lamenting Sorrow did in Darkness lie,
And Shame his ugly Face did hide from living eye.
And over them sad Horrour, with grim Hue,
Did always soar, beating his iron Wings;
And after him Owls and Night-Ravens flew,
The hateful Messengers of heavy things,
Of Death and Dolour telling sad Tidings;
Whiles sad Celeno, sitting on a Clift,
A Song of bale and bitter Sorrow sings,
That Heart of Flint asunder could have rift:
Which having ended, after him she flyeth swift.
All these before the Gates of Pluto lay, &c.
The Posture of Jealousy, and the Motion of Fear in this Description, are particularly fine. These are Instances of Allegorical Persons, which are shewn only in one transient View. The Reader will every where meet with others in this Author, which are employ'd in the Action of the Poem, and which need not be mention'd here.
Having thus endeavour'd to give a general Idea of what is meant by Allegory in Poetry, and shewn what kind of Persons are frequently employ'd in it; I shall proceed to mention some Properties which seem requisite in all well-invented Fables of this kind.
There is no doubt, but Men of Critical Learning, if they had thought it, might have given us Rules about Allegorical Writing, as they have done about Epick, and other kinds of Poetry; but they have rather chosen to let this Forest remain wild, as if they thought there was something in the Nature of the Soil, which cou'd not so well be restrain'd and cultivated in Inclosures. What Sir William Temple observes about Rules in general, may perhaps be more particularly applicable to this; that "they may possibly hinder some from being very bad Poets, but are not capable of making any very good one." Notwithstanding this, they are useful to help our Observation in distinguishing the Beauties and the Blemishes, in such Works as have been already produc'd. I shall therefore beg leave to mention four Qualities, which I think are essential to every good Allegory: the three first of which relate to the Fable, and the last to the Moral.
The first is, that it be lively, and surprizing. The Fable, or literal Sense, being that which most immediately offers it self to the Reader's Observation, must have this Property, in order to raise and entertain his Curiosity. As there is therefore more Invention employ'd in a Work of this kind, than in meer Narration, or Description, or in general Amplifications on any Subject, it consequently requires a more than ordinary Heat of Fancy in its first Production. If the Fable, on the contrary, is flat, spiritless, or barren of Invention, the Reader's Imagination is not affected, nor his Attention engag'd, tho' the Instruction convey'd under it be ever so useful or important.
The second Qualification I shall mention is Elegance, or a beautiful Propriety, and Aptness in the Fable to the Subject on which it is employ'd. By this Quality the Invention of the Poet is restrain'd from taking too great a Compass, or losing it self in a Confusion of ill-sorted Ideas; such Representations as that mention'd by Horace, of Dolphins in a Wood, or Boars in the Sea, being fit only to surprize the Imagination, without pleasing the Judgment. The same Moral may likewise be express'd in different Fables, all of which may be lively and full of Spirit, yet not equally elegant; as various Dresses may be made for the same Body, yet not equally becoming. As it therefore requires a Heat of Fancy to raise Images and Resemblances, it requires a good Taste to distinguish and range them, and to chuse the most proper and beautiful, where there appears an almost distracting Variety. I may compare this to Aeneas searching in the Wood for the Golden Bough; he was at a loss where to lay his Hand, till his Mother's Doves, descending in his sight, flew before him, and pearch'd on the Tree where it was to be found.
Another essential Property is, That the Fable be every where consistent with it self. As licentious as Allegorical Fiction may seem in some Respects, it is nevertheless subject to this Restraint.
The Poet is indeed at liberty in chusing his Story, and inventing his Persons; but after he has introduc'd them, he is oblig'd to sustain them in their proper Characters, as well as in more regular kinds of Writing. It is difficult to give particular Rules under this Head; it may suffice to say that this wild Nature is however subject to an Oeconomy proper to it self, and tho' it may sometimes seem extravagant, ought never to be absurd. Most of the Allegories in the Fairy Queen are agreeable to this Rule; but in one of his other Poems, the Author has manifestly transgress'd it: the Poem I mean, is that which is call'd Prothalamion. In this, the two Brides are figur'd by two beautiful Swans sailing down the River Thames. The Allegory breaks before the Reader is prepar'd for it; and we see them, at their landing, in their true Shapes, without knowing how this sudden Change is effected. If this had been only a simile, the Poet might have dropp'd it at pleasure; but as it is an Allegory, he ought to have made it of a piece, or to have invented some probable means of coming out of it.
The last Property I shall mention is that the Allegory be clear and intelligible: the Fable being design'd only to clothe and adorn the Moral, but not to hide it, should methinks resemble the Draperies we admire in some of the antient statues; in which the Folds are not too many, nor too thick, but so judiciously order'd, that the Shape and Beauty of the Limbs may be seen thro' them.
It must be confess'd, that many of the antient Fables appear to us at this Distance of Time very perplex'd and dark; and if they had any Moral at all, it is so closely couch'd, that it is very difficult to discover it. Whoever reads the Lord Bacon's Wisdom of the Antients, will be convinc'd of this. He has employ'd a more than ordinary Penetration to decypher the most known Traditions in the Heathen Mythology; but his Interpretations are often far fetch'd, and so much at random, that the Reader can have no Assurance of their Truth. It is not to be doubted that a great part of these Fables were Allegorical, but others might have been Stories design'd only to amuse, or to practise upon the Credulity of the Vulgar; or the Doctrines they contain'd might be purposely clouded, to conceal them from common Knowledg. But tho', as I hinted in the former part of this Discourse, this may have been a Reason among Philosophers, it ought not to be admitted among Poets. An Allegory, which is not clear, is a Riddle, and the Sense of it lies at the Mercy of every fanciful Interpreter.
Tho' the Epick Poets, as I have shewn, have sprinkled some Allegories thro their Poems, yet it wou'd be absurd to endeavour to understand them every where in a mystical Sense. We are told of one Metrodorus Lampsacenas, whose Works are lost, that turn'd the whole Writings of Homer into an Allegory: it was doubtless by some such means that the Principles of all Arts and Sciences whatever were discover'd in that single Author; for nothing can escape an Expositor, who proceeds in his Operations like a Rosycrucian, and brings with him the Gold he pretends to find.
It is surprizing that Tasso, whose Jerusalem was, at the time when he wrote, the best Plan of an Epick Poem after Virgil, shou'd be possess'd with this Affectation, and shou'd not believe his Work perfect till he had turn'd it into a Mystery. I cannot help thinking that the Allegory, as it is call'd, which he has printed with it, looks as if it were invented after the Poem was finish'd. He tells us, that the Christian Army represents Man; the City of Jerusalem, Civil Happiness; Godfrey, the Understanding; Rinaldo and Tancred, the other Powers of the Soul; and that the Body is typify'd by the common Soldiers; with a great deal more that carries in it a strong Cast of Enthusiasm. He is indeed much more intelligible, when he explains the Flowers, the Fountains, the Nymphs, and the musical Instruments, to figure to us sensual Pleasures, under the false Appearance of Good: But for the rest, I appeal to any one who is acquainted with that Poem, whether he wou'd ever have discover'd these Mysteries, if the Poet had not let him into them; or whether even after this, he can keep them long in his Mind while he is reading it.
Spenser's Conduct is much more reasonable; as he design'd his Poem upon the Plan of the Vertues by which he has entitled his Several Books, he scarce ever loses sight of this Design, but has almost every where taken care to let it appear. Sir William Temple indeed censures this as a Fault, and says, That tho' his Flights of Fancy were very noble and high, yet his Moral lay so bare, that it lost the Effect: But I confess I do not understand this. A Moral which is not clear, is in my Apprehension next to no Moral at all.
It wou'd be easy to enumerate other Properties, which are various, according to the different kinds of Allegory, or its different Degrees of Perfection. Sometimes we are surpriz'd with an uncommon Moral, which ennobles the Fable that conveys it; and at other times we meet with a known and obvious Truth, plac'd in some new and beautiful Point of Light, and made surprizing by the Fiction under which it is exhibited. I have thought it sufficient to touch upon such Properties only as seem to be the most essential; and perhaps many more might be reduc'd under one or other of these general Heads.
I might here give Examples of this noble and antient kind of Writing, out of the Books of Holy Writ, and especially the Jewish Prophets, in which we find a Spirit of Poetry surprizingly sublime and majestick: But these are obvious to every one's Reading. The East seems indeed to have been principally the region of these figurative and emblematical Writings. Sir John Chardin in his Travels has given us a Translation of several Pieces of modern Persian Poetry; which shew that there are Traces of the same Genius remaining among the present Inhabitants of those Countries. But, not to prolong this Discourse I shall only add one Instance of a very antient Allegory, which has all the Properties in it I have mention'd: I mean that in Xenophon, of the Choice of Hercules when he is courted by Virtue and Pleasure, which is said to have been the Invention of Prodicus. This Fable is full of Spirit and Elegance; the Characters are finely drawn, and consistent; and the Moral is clear. I shall not need to say any thing more of it, but refer the Reader to the second Volume of the Tatler, where he will find it very beautifully translated.
After what has been said, it must be confess'd, that, excepting Spenser, there are few extraordinary Instances of this kind of Writing among the Moderns. The great Mines of Invention have been open'd long ago, and little new Oar seems to have been discover'd or brought to light by latter Ages. With us the Art of framing Fables, Apologues and Allegories, which was so frequent among the Writers of Antiquity, seems to be, like the Art of Painting upon Glass, but little practis'd, and in a great measure lost. Our Colours are not so rich and transparent, and are either so ill prepar'd, or so unskilfully laid on, that they often sully the Light which is to pass thro them, rather than agreeably tincture and beautify it. Boccalini must be reckon'd one of the chief modern Masters of Allegory; yet his Fables are often flat and ill chosen, and his Invention seems to have been rather fruitful than elegant. I cannot however conclude this Essay on Allegory without observing, that we have had the satisfaction to see this kind of Writing very lately reviv'd by an excellent Genius among our selves, in the true Spirit of the Antients. I need only mention the Visions in the Tatler and Spectator, by Mr. Addison, to convince every one of this. The Table of Fame, the Vision of Justice; that of the different Pursuits of Love, Ambition, and Avarice; the Vision of Mirza, and several others; and especially that admirable Fable of the two Families of Pain and Pleasure, which are all imagin'd and writ with the greatest Strength and Delicacy, may give the Reader an Idea more than any thing I can say of the Perfection to which this kind of Writing is capable of being rais'd. We have likewise in the Second Volume of the Guardian a very good Example given us by the same Hand, of an Allegory, in the particular manner of Spenser.