On its most basic level an allegorical poem is one where the content stands for something else, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, for example, has central characters who stand for certain abstract qualities so as to demonstrate some facets of virtue. Part of Keston Sutherland's Stress Position concerns events at a wedding reception which stand for mental distress. The problem that readers often face is not knowing what is allegorical and what is not and, if so, how these allegories should be read. This has, of course, given academic critics the opportuinty to argue endlessly about these 'under-meanings' often to the detriment of both the work and the readerly experience. This kind of speculation can be a good game to play but, in my view, we shouldn't take it too seriously. Rather than get overly theoretical, I'm going to give a few examples of this thorniness. The choice of these three are entirely subjective and rely entirely on the fact that I'm reasonably familiar with the passages and some of the questions that they raise. Allegory is a huge and involved topic and I make no apologies for providing a brief overview here.
Book One of this keystone of Western Literature concerns in part an argument between Agamemnon and Achilles as to the possession of a female captive. Things get increasingly heated:
With half unsheath'd appear'd the glittering blade Minerva swift descended from above, Sent by the sister and wife ofJove; (For both the Princes claimed her equal Care) Behind she stood, and by the golden hair Achilles seiz'd; to him alone confess'd; A sable cloud conceal'd her from the rest. He sees, and sudden to the Goddess cries, Known by the flames that sparkle from her eyes.
This is Alexander Pope's translation becuase it's very good indeed but also because of the observation that he makes about this episode. We will however start with Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism and who was immensely influential throughout late Antiquity. He uses this scene to make a further point:
Were one able to be spun around, ether by his own effort or through the good fortune of being pulled by Athena herself, he will find himself face-to-face with the god, with himself, and with the universe. He will not at first perceive what he sees as the universe, but when he finds that he is unable to locate and define himself as his limits, then, abandoning the definition of himself as something separate from the All, he will enter the total universe without making a single move, by remaining there, where the universe has its foundations.
Plotinus here seems to be attempting to impose his own meaning on a passage that is about the intervention of a God in order to pacify Achilles rather than a mystical encounter with the universe and consequent immersion in the All.
Pope's Observations on this part of Book One take a different allegorical turn:
The allegory here may be allow'd by every reader to be unforc'd. The prudence of Achilles checks him in the rashest moment of his anger, it works upon him unseen to others, but does not entirely prevail on him to desist, 'till he remember his own importance, and depends on it that there will be a necessity of their courting him at any expence into the alliance again. Having persuaded himself by such reflections, he forbears to attack his general.....
Thus we have two very different readings of the same moment, one has the intervention as the prelude to revelation and the other as the exercise of Achilles' own good sense to take (temporary) control of his anger.
In my opinion, however, there is nothing in Homer to suggest either of these deeper meanings. For the poet and his early readers, the intervention of the Gods in human affairs was accepted per se and this may best be read in as straightforward a way as possible.
To be fair, however, Plotinus doesn't provide a direct allegorical meaning but rather takes the intervention (which all of his audience would be familiar with) to make a point of his own. In doing so, however, he does offer the potential for another meaning.
In his Letter to Raleigh Spenser categorises this enormous poem as "a continued allegory or darke conceit" which sets out to "fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline". By 'continued', he means that the whole should be read allegorically. He completed the first six books of the twelve that he had planned and the first of these concerns how a knight achieves holiness. This is the fourth stanza of the first Canto:
A lovely ladie rode him faire beside, Vpon a lowly Asse more white then snow, Yet she much whiter, but the same did hide Vnder a vele, that wimpled was full low, And ouer all a black stole she did throw As one that inly mournd: so was she sad, And heauie sate upon her palfrey slow: And by her in a line a milkwhite lambe she lad.
As an entirely gratuitous but brief digression, just typing that out has reminded me how brilliant and fulfilling the FQ is, from the carefully honed use of language to the technical wonders performed therein.
I've been reading this juggernaut for the last twenty years or so and am of the view that the darke conceit doesn't always 'work' in that things are either extended beyond their reach or that the allegorical figure is allowed to wander too far off-piste. Una, the character introduced above, is however reasonably consistent throughout Book One as well as being wonderfully complex.
The FQ's finest contemporary editor is A C Hamilton, this is him, from the second edition (p32), on the above:
Until she is named at 45.9, Una is associated by the lowly Asse with Christ's humility, by more white than snow with truth and by her vele with the truth that remains veiled to the fallen. White and black are the colours of perpetual virginity, and hence the Queen's personal colours. While the lambe associates her with innocence and the sacrificial lamb of John 1.29, the king's daughter leading the lamb bound by her girdle is a traditional element in the legend of St George. Una riding an ass is a familiar Renaissance emblem, asinus, portans, mysteria, which symbolizes the true church.
I'm in agreement with all of this and can confirm that Una does little wandering from her 'meanings' at all but I'd also like to add a couple of other possible readings. 'Una' as 'One' can be read as the Neoplatonic supreme being and it is possible to read Neoplatonic threads through most of Spenser's work. The first three books of FQ were published in 1590 at a time when the untiy of the church or otherwise was a major political concern and thus Una might be seen as the embodiment of this objective too.
As a further aside, for those interested in pursuing this further, the progress of Artegall in Book V may be worth some attention and consideration.
For those who don't know, Keston's Stress Position is the finest and most intelligent protest against the Iraq war that we have but I'm going to use the section that has the least to do with things political because the allegory speaks to my personal experience with incredible accuracy. We are at a wedding reception and a relative is making a speech:
We hate her speech, oppose her, seethe during it, but it goes on, and because it does we are obliged to go on hating, as it continues the same until we will speak, but we will not be able to speak becuase we can't, it isn't speaking, it's an act, and in a sudden rush of choking and unstoppable loathing you are run to the front, which is not now a front but a floor, and it is because you cannot see what hands you have put on her throat that her strangling must appear not to be your only way out but better hers instead, as her face bulges, then it blushes, with every shed of your repugnance you split up unbearably scream at and press her, and as you are looking at this she begins to calm you, with a face very tender and unflickering in a way you like.
To most readers this will read as an unpleasant dream poem that ends badly ("these are my fists clenched and blooded in how you swallow them") but for me, with experience of severe depression, this speaks directly of that specific kind of mental anguish. What many people who haven't experienced this kind of anguish and despair is the amount of seemingly uncontrollable anger and loathing that it brings about and how this seems impossibly difficult to resolve. One of the things that poetry is really good at is expressing different kinds of personal reality in ways that other means of expression can't. As a tired old cynic it takes a lot for a poem to 'speak' with this kind of accuracy but the effect of this passage was immediate and lasting.