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Allegory is a literary device whereby subjects such as abstract qualities, people or events are represented by something else, often being personified as people, animals or mythical personages. It is sometimes explained as an "extended metaphor". The term is also used to refer to those literary works with an allegorical framework. Spenser referred to his Faerie Queene as a "continued Allegory or darke conceit", the word dark meaning hidden.

The use of allegory is common across a wide range of cultures, serving several different purposes, including the enhancement of meanings otherwise difficult to express, the concealment of meanings the author does not wish to make explicit, or providing memorable teaching through entertainment.[1]

In medieval Europe, allegory was a dominant strand in the mode of thought. Not only were new allegories composed, but writings of the past, including the Bible and Greco-Roman fable, were interpreted in an allegorical fashion. A conspicuous example is Bernard of Clairvaux, who devoted 86 sermons to the Song of Solomon, none of them dealing with its obvious erotic meaning. In sermon 56 he says explicity, "When you think of these two lovers, remember always that not a man and a woman are to be thought of, but the Word of God and a soul."[2] At the beginning of the 17th century, Francis Bacon, in promoting a more objective outlook, challenged such interpretations, denying that the originators had any such intentions.[3]

In English literature, after the use of allegory reached its peak with Spenser's multi-layered 16th century poem The Faerie Queene and John Bunyan's 17th centuryThe Pilgrim's Progress, the use of allegory diminished, but has never wholly died out.


  1. Lewis, C S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford University Press. 1936. ch 2
  2. Butler, C. Western Mysticism. Constable & Co. 2nd ed. 1926. p 97
  3. Bacon, F. The Advancement of Learning. 1605. Bk II