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Mary Jo Bang

Since the publication of Apology for Want in 1997, the vivid and distinctive poetry of Mary Jo Bang has been praised by critics and readers alike. Her work is characterized by a light rhythm and a playful tone that draw the reader into her unique world of images and sounds. Bang is also recognized, however, as a subtle, intellectual, and crafty poet who addresses ambitious philosophical themes and maintains careful control over the implications of her varied language.

"Allegory," originally published in the Paris Review but included in the 2004 collection The Eye like a Strange Balloon, is a superb example of Bang's balance between playful verse and profound themes. Like the other poems in Bang's collection, it is written in the tradition of ekphrasis, in which a poem is highly visual or makes close reference to a work of visual art. Interacting with Philip Guston's 1975 painting of the same name, "Allegory" brings Guston's imagery to life in a narrative structure and develops a unique reading of the painting's significance. The poem comments on the position of the artist in society as well as other abstract themes, such as mythology, fate, and identity. Playing with quirky language that climaxes at a point of bleak despair, Bang delights readers at the same time as she provokes them to question how artists interact with reality and how humankind approaches death and destruction.

Author Biography

Born in the central Missouri town of Waynesville in 1946, Mary Jo Bang grew up in St. Louis. She went to college at Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in sociology, graduating summa cum laude. Bang also earned a bachelor's degree in photography from the University of Westminster in central London and a master's in creative writing at Columbia University.

Bang's first collection of poetry, the intellectual and allusive Apology for Want, was published in 1997 and awarded the Breadloaf Bakeless Prize as well as the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. In 2001, Bang went on to publish The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans, which won the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series Competition. That same year, she published another collection of poetry entitled Louise in Love, which received an Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and is known for its intelligent word-play. The Eye like a Strange Balloon, which includes "Allegory," was published in 2004.

An accomplished editor and professor as well as a poet, Bang has been a poetry editor at the Boston Review since 1995. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Pushcart Prize, a Discovery/The Nation Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Bang lives in St. Louis, where she is a professor of English at Washington University.

Poem Text

Let us console you.
Music's the answer.
Of couse, we're caught
in this sphere
Where it doesn't much matter 5
whether our song reaches
the ear of Prometheus or not.
He's adamantly chained
to the mountaintop.
Every morning, there's eagle, 10
a beak and a claw on the back.
Such an ache. Somatognosis
is the sixth sense.
What does it feel like
to inch one's way forward? 15
These are the questions.
Dawn on its knees
crawls toward knowledge.
More of us are coming.
All of the adoring. 20
Every day is another broken
tie on a red-leather shoe. A Who-
Tonight we'll be content
with whomever we think we are. 25
The door of the car will click-close
And off we'll go.
In the back is the Jackself
we might have been.
What's the degree of remove 30
between the one at the top
of Pie Mountain
and the tourist motel
at the bottom with its pool
of aqua attitude and blue inflatables? 35
Some vigorous enactment.
Is it three o'clock or twelve fifteen?
Either is only an estimate.
Myth equals fate
plus embellishment. 40
The wheel is set in motion
when our eyes are on the moment.
Later, we drive on four wheels
to the carnival and line up
for a ticket; the air is rife 45
with summer.
The kinesthetic lift of a foot
from the floor
forces itself to be felt.
The actors are standing 50
against a wall and watching
it all unfold. Look,
they say, at the minutiae sutured
to the spine of the climax
when somebody opens the door 55
on the side of despair
and looks out onto death and destruction.

Poem Summary

Lines 1–7

"Allegory," which is organized into eleven five-line stanzas and a final three-line stanza, begins with the speaker offering to "console" the reader with music. The speaker's use of the pronoun "us" implies that there is a group of artists behind the creative effort, as at the bottom of Guston's painting, which lists "composer," "painter," "sculptor," and "poet" on what appears to be a wave.

In lines 3 through 5, the speaker begins to say that "we" (probably referring, again, to the categories of artists listed in Guston's painting) are "caught in / this sphere" (possibly referring to the earth) where it does not matter whether Prometheus hears their song. This sentence continues over the stanza break between lines 5 and 6, which is an example of enjambment, a convention in which a phrase continues from one line of poetry to the next.

Lines 8–15

Lines 8 through 11 explain the predicament of Prometheus, a Titan from classical mythology known as a great friend to humankind. After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain in the Caucasus, where every day an eagle descended and ate out his liver (which would regenerate by night). The speaker alludes to this eagle's biting and clawing into Prometheus's back and how it would ache. Then the speaker claims that "Somatognosis," or the awareness of one's own body, is the "sixth sense." In lines 14 and 15, the speaker asks what it feels like to "inch one's way forward," and it is likely that this line refers to Guston's painting, in which a man seems to be painstakingly moving against a pile of objects that appear to be shoes.

Lines 16–25

The speaker begins the fourth stanza by stating, "these are the questions," although it is not entirely clear what the questions are. The speaker then envisions a metaphor, or a comparison in which one object or idea is substituted for another, in which dawn is someone crawling toward knowledge. If "More of us" refers to the artists mentioned earlier in the poem, the short statements in lines 19 and 20 suggest that poets, composers, sculptors, and painters, described as "the adoring," are also "coming," presumably toward knowledge.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker moves from these thoughts into a meditation on identity. Comparing each day to a broken tie on a red shoe and a "Who- / do-you-wish-to-be," the speaker suggests that each day offers the possibility of tying the shoe in any manner and assuming a variety of roles. It is worth noting, however, that it seems to be the same "red-leather shoe" each day. The speaker then states that "we," which again could refer to the artists of Guston's painting, will be content with whichever identity "we" think "we" have, which suggests that the "we" do not know what this identity actually is.

Lines 26–36

In lines 26 through 29, the speaker seems to be describing what will happen "Tonight," when the "we" drive off, carrying the "Jackself / we might have been" in the backseat. These lines are important for a number of reasons, including the suggestion that "we" is literally one or two people, since they are sitting in the front of the car. It is also interesting to note that an alternate identity is included with the "we" in the car, as though the "we" comprises both what it is and what it might have been.

Line 30 begins a somewhat mysterious question that is carried over into the seventh stanza, asking the "degree of remove" between someone or something on top of "Pie Mountain" versus a "tourist motel" below with a "pool / of aqua attitude and blue inflatables." This question does not seem to make much sense until one examines Guston's painting, in which mathematical objects such as a ruler, sphere, cube, triangle, and the digits 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 are grouped in the upper left, somewhat in the distance. In the foreground are a man with a cigarette and, above his face, a strange blue object or creature that may be what the speaker calls an "inflatable."

Line 36 then seems to comment on the previous lines with the statement (which is possibly ironic): "Some vigorous enactment." This implies that the relationship between whoever is on top of Pie Mountain and whoever is in the tourist motel is an enactment, or an acting out of something. If the statement is ironic (irony occurs when the literal meaning is the direct opposite of the implied meaning), the speaker would be suggesting that the enactment is actually weak and lacking energy.

Lines 37–46

Line 37's question about the time refers to Guston's painting, in which the central male figure's watch has hands of equal length that could be indicating either 3:00 or 12:15. The speaker then says that either time is "only an estimate" and comments that "Myth," which resonates with the title of Bang's poem, is not just "fate" but "embellishment." Since these three lines emphasize that it is difficult to measure or plan time and fate, they highlight Bang's theme of the artist's distance from reality.

In stanza 9, the narrative seems to return to the nighttime car journey mentioned earlier. The "wheel" that is set in motion in line 41 is another reference to Guston's painting, where what seems to be the wheel of a car is in front of the central male figure's face. Together, lines 41 and 42 comment on the inability to see something fixedly while "our eyes are on the moment." In lines 43 through 46, "we" are driving on four wheels, presumably in the car from stanza 6, to a carnival, where "we" line up for a ticket. The air is "rife," or abundant with, summer, although it is apparently still the nighttime.

Lines 47–58

In lines 47 and 48, a foot lifts from the floor in a motion the speaker describes as "kinesthetic," or sensing one's own muscular movements, a concept similar to that of "somatognosis," mentioned earlier. This motion "forces itself to be felt," which perhaps means that the other, somewhat vague beings or identities in the car can feel it. It may also suggest that the driver has taken his or her foot off the pedal and the car is coming to a stop.

The actors mentioned in line 50 may refer to the artists listed at the bottom of Guston's painting, and once again they are portrayed as observers somewhat distanced from reality. They observe "minutiae," or trivial details, that are "sutured," or stitched, to the "spine of the climax." This intriguing description is somewhat vague and abstract, but it may refer to the pile of objects at the lower right of Guston's painting. In any case, the artists are looking at this climax, which is also the climax of the poem itself, when someone opens the car door "on the side of despair / and looks out onto death / and destruction." The nature of this death and destruction is not specified, nor is it clear why one side of the car faces "despair." Once again, however, Bang is very likely referring to the everyday, but also rather bleak and disturbing pile of objects in Guston's painting, from which the four types of artists are firmly separated.


Art and the Artist

"Allegory" is closely related to Philip Guston's 1975 painting of the same name, and Bang's commentary directly engages with the central themes of the painting. For example, both works provide a self-conscious commentary on the predicament of the artist, including the artist's relationship to reality and society. Bang produces a somewhat unique perspective on Guston's painting, but she follows his lead in analyzing the dilemma of the visual, literary, and musical artist as he or she attempts to approach the world and create art.

Since it includes a scroll that reads "The Artists" at the top, and what appears to be a wave at the bottom with the words "composer," "painter," "sculptor," and "poet," Guston's painting suggests that the figures in the body of the piece are artists at work. Similarly, Bang suggests that the people represented by the pronouns "we" and "us" may be artists whose function ranges from "consol[ing]," to "adoring," to producing a "vigorous enactment," to looking out "onto death / and destruction." As in Guston's painting, the artist figures seem to be facing powerful and overwhelming obstacles; at the climax of the poem, the "actors," which again seems to refer to artist figures, stand against a wall and look out through a door of despair. Bang may be commenting on the barrier between the real world and the artist, the difficulty in determining the function of art, and the problems of creating successful artwork.

Myth, Fate, and Allegory

"Allegory" contains a reference to classical mythology, a commentary on the connection between myth and fate, and a suggestion (because of the title) that it is an allegory, or a story told in symbols that represent the meaning implied by the narrative. These themes are related because they all refer to the ancient tradition of a work of art that contains a hidden message about the fundamental nature of the world.

In the second stanza, Bang makes reference to Prometheus, the titan (a race of immortal gods that preceded Zeus's generation) from ancient Greek mythology known as the benefactor of humankind. This allusion establishes that Bang is interested in connecting her poem to the tradition of classical mythology, and it makes her poem appear to be commenting on timeless philosophical themes. For example, after discussing Prometheus, the speaker makes the abstract claim "These are the questions." Then, in stanza 8, the speaker notes that time in Guston's painting is "only an estimate," which inspires another general and abstract claim: "Myth equals fate / plus embellishment."

Claims such as these are not technically allegorical, since they state precisely the deeper meaning that would be implied by the symbols of a true allegory. The title of the poem seems misleading, therefore, unless it is simply a reference to Guston's painting. However, Bang's poem could be commenting on the very concept of allegory, in the sense that she describes an event or refers to an aspect of Guston's painting and then provides a literal explanation of its allegorical meaning. In fact, in elements of the poem such as the final description of "death / and destruction," Bang seems to be playing with the idea that there is a potential to make a grand or timeless commentary on the world. This is because those looking out at this death and destruction, who presumably represent artists, can see only "the minutiae" connected to the crux of the event instead of its full allegorical significance.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research the life and artwork of Philip Guston. How would you describe his artistic style? What were his key influences? Why did he shift to practice abstract expressionism, and why did he shift back to figurative painting? What are the differences between abstract expressionist and figurative art, and how are these differences apparent in Guston's work?
  • Bang makes reference to the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus in "Allegory." Who was Prometheus, and why was he important? Why do you think the mythology about him has been influential over Western literature? Why do you think Bang refers to him in her poem, and how do you think this reference affects the poem?
  • Think of a lesson you would like to teach and then create an allegory for it. Brainstorm until you find the right story and situation to bring across your message. Then tell your allegory to a group of friends or classmates and ask them to describe its message. How did their response compare with your original idea?
  • The convention of ekphrasis stretches all of the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it was particularly popular in the romantic period. Discuss the relationship between words and images today. When and why does literature become highly visual? What does this say about the work of literature? What are some of the ways a contemporary writer would go about describing artwork, and why would he or she choose to do so?


Another one of Bang's major themes in "Allegory" is her discussion of the notion of identity and selfhood. The idea that "Tonight we'll be content / with whomever we think we are" implies that it is difficult or impossible to discover one's true identity, as does the statement that every day is a "Who-do-you-wish-to-be?" It is likely that Bang's commentary on identity is concentrated on artistic identity, however, since it refers to the main subject of Guston's painting. Indeed, Bang continually emphasizes that the artist has difficulty determining who he is as well as how he fits into the world and creates art. She even seems to refer to artists as "actors" in the tenth stanza, implying that their role as observers of society makes it difficult to determine how they fit into the world.



Bang's most important technique in "Allegory" is her use of the convention of ekphrasis, which refers to poetry concerned with the visual, particularly the visual art of painting. Often, an ekphrastic poem will take a work of visual art as its subject and describe or illuminate the visual elements of this work in literary terms. Bang's entire collection The Eye like a Strange Balloon is based on ekphrasis, and each of its fifty-two poems takes a work of art as its subject. "Allegory" is based on Philip Guston's painting of the same name, although, as is typical of Bang's use of ekphrasis, the poem does not simply explicate or depict Guston's painting but uses it as a starting point to explore Bang's own themes.


Bang is known for her use of repeated vowel and consonant sounds, particularly the technique of alliteration, which refers to the repetition of initial consonant sounds. The c sound in the line "The door of the car will click-close" is an example of this technique, as is the repetition of the d sound in the last words of the final four lines of the poem—"despair," "death," and "destruction." In addition to its usefulness as a musical and rhythmical device, alliteration allows Bang to draw attention to certain words and connect their meanings.


Bang frequently makes use of the technique of enjambment, which occurs when the meaning of one line of verse runs over into the next line. In fact, several of Bang's phrases run across stanzas, emphasizing the sense of continuation through a longer visual blank space in the poem. Enjambment can be useful for a variety of reasons, from moving along the action to emphasizing the space, or lack of space, between words in a continuous phrase. In "Allegory," Bang often contrasts a short, end-stopped line, or a line whose meaning does not carry over to the next line, such as "Music's the answer," with the five lines that flow on after it in an example of extended enjambment. Because of this technique, short declarative phrases, such as "All of the adoring," receive more emphasis.

Playfulness and Irony

With its story that is difficult to follow literally and its variety of subtle and ambiguous remarks, "Allegory" can be described as both playful and ironic. Irony is a device in which language implies the opposite of its literal meaning, and the best example of irony in Bang's poem is the phrase "Some vigorous enactment," since it implies that the enactment is not vigorous at all. Bang's playfulness is evident in the first stanza, when the speaker asks to "Let us console you" with music but goes on to suggest that it does not matter what happens to this music. Here, as in many of the allusions to Guston's painting, it is not entirely clear what the speaker is talking about, and Bang seems to be teasing readers' expectations and challenging their interpretation of the poem and the painting.

Historical Context

Contemporary American Poetry

The contemporary American poetry scene is diverse and varied, and no one movement or poetic school dominates the literary scene. Many poets of the early twenty-first century, however, are influenced either directly or indirectly by the artistic movement of postmodernism, which began in the years following World War II. Known for challenging fixed understandings of reality, postmodern theory suggests that the world is composed of infinite layers of meaning. Psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan were among the key early figures to challenge previous standards in psychological, philosophical, and linguistic thought by questioning the commonly held belief that human psychology operates in a structured symbolic universe. In literature, postmodern theory has challenged writers to think about the form and meaning of texts as variable, or not confined to one particular perspective. Many poets have been particularly influenced by the theories of Jacques Derrida, who developed a critical method called "de-construction," which stresses that texts do not refer to reality but only to other texts.

American poetry since the 1980s, therefore, tends not to take for granted that people experience and remember events in a straightforward manner in which symbols correspond to reality. Some poets have made further advances in the surrealist and abstract impressionist traditions, for example, and these traditions were particularly influential over the avant-garde "New York school" of poetry, which includes intellectual poets such as John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Meanwhile, poets such as Billy Collins have attempted to relate the dialect or style of a particular American region or culture, using a direct and conversational voice. Also, the poetry scene in the United States since the 1980s has become increasingly interested in voices from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, especially groups that were marginalized in the past.

Some contemporary American poets have begun to think about history from different, more relativistic perspectives, and some refer to mythology or religion in order to bring out their themes. For example, Louise Glück tends to reinterpret classical mythology as a way to address feminist themes. Other poets, such as Bang, are interested in interacting with diverse artistic, visual, and cultural mediums. Some have stressed the need to reflect advances in computer and film technology in their work, for example, using the convention of fast-forward and rewind to describe a series of events. However, Bang's work in ekphrasis comes from a much longer tradition that stretches back to the classical world. Ekphrasis was particularly popular among romantic poets such as John Keats and Lord Byron, in part because poetry of the romantic era was interested in visionary glimpses of nature and art.

Philip Guston

Born in Canada, Philip Guston (1913–1980) moved to Los Angeles as a child and became friends with his classmate Jackson Pollack, later the leading figure of abstract expressionism in the United States. Guston, largely a self-taught artist, dropped out of the Otis Art Institute in 1930 and began working in the figurative medium, in which painted forms refer to objective, or real, sources. After working on a number of mural projects, Guston began a period of transition to abstract expressionism, a style in which artists express emotional states rather than physical objects, without symbolism or figuration. He became one of America's leading abstract expressionist painters in the 1950s and 1960s, teaching in New York and developing a following, until his style suddenly and dramatically changed back to figurative art in the late 1960s. The symbolic figures he painted during the 1970s, often evoking a bleak and dark side of existence, were controversial and extremely influential over neo-figurative artists. In many of these paintings, including Allegory (1975), Guston paints seemingly mundane but representative objects that allow him to engage in symbolism.

Critical Overview

Bang has been an acclaimed poet since the success of her first collection, Apology for Want, in 1997. She has a reputation as an intellectual poet who asks major philosophical questions about art and existence, but her lively poetry has a popular appeal as well. The Eye like a Strange Balloon was reviewed positively in publications such as Book-list and Publishers Weekly; in the former, Donna Seaman finds Bang particularly praiseworthy, writing that her fourth collection "is especially commanding in its metaphysical puzzles, tart irony, antic yet adamantly channeled energy, and devil-may-care poise." Michael Scharf, meanwhile, discusses what he considers the collection's central theme in his Publishers Weekly review, arguing that Bang's poems "search relentlessly for the meaning of—and the reason for—art in our contemporary world." Although it has received little individual critical attention, "Allegory" is one of the noteworthy poems of the collection, having appeared in the Paris Review in the fall of 2004.


Scott Trudell

Trudell is an independent scholar with a bach-elor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, he highlights the context of Guston's Allegory and analyzes its significance in order to discuss the aesthetic commentary in Bang's poem of the same name.

"Allegory" is a coherent, visually compelling poem that, in some ways, stands alone. Bang's vision comes to life because of its own imagery, so it is possible to enjoy the poem without a close familiarity with the Philip Guston painting on which it comments. In fact, Bang's themes tend to explore her own interests instead of the artist's, and she certainly does not simply explain or draw attention to Guston's ideas. "Allegory" very closely and very carefully engages with the painting, however, and to appreciate the deeper resonance of its most important theme—its commentary on art and aesthetics—it is necessary to examine how Bang interprets Guston's work.

Before discussing Bang's particular reading of the painting, it will help to highlight Guston's role in the development of art of the late twentieth century and his self-conscious artistic commentary in Allegory. Bang has chosen a painting that makes broad and ambitious claims about the nature of art and engages explicitly with the vehement debate during the 1970s about the direction American art should take. Allegory appeared after Guston had famously and controversially disavowed abstract expressionism, at the height of his return to figurative painting. The work rejects the tenets of abstract expressionism, a movement that centers on the importance of free self-expression that does not refer or allude, symbolically or otherwise, to any external objects or events.

Allegory, a prominent example of the kind of symbolic, representational painting that occupied the final stage of Guston's career, appeared at a point when American artists were breaking away from abstract expressionism, which had been such an important and predominant movement a decade earlier. Andy Warhol, for example, had already established himself as a famous leading figure of pop art, a movement that returns to figurative art and incorporates themes and ideas from mass-produced, mass-media culture. Meanwhile, mini-malist artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt had become popular and influential. Unlike pop art, minimalism was not associated with symbolism, figuration, or representation; on the contrary, it often involved sculpted objects that were abstract and referred only to themselves.

American art in the 1970s, therefore, was in the midst of a debate about what art should be. Few artists were still practicing abstract expressionism, but many artists and critics refused to return to figurative, representational work. Abstract art was seen throughout the years after World War II as a liberating, exciting, pro-American practice that opened up an enormous variety of artistic possibilities. Even the Central Intelligence Agency, eager to denounce the "social realist" art characteristic of totalitarian and Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, sponsored and promoted abstraction in the arts. As antifigurative movements began to take hold in the 1960s, major American artists' positions in the controversy were closely watched, particularly in New York City, the locus of the debate, where the key artists lived and worked.

Guston had been one of the leading figures in abstract expressionism and a childhood friend of Jackson Pollack, the leading figure of abstract expressionism. A prominent artist living in New York, he was one of the key converts to the movement, involved in its origins in the 1940s. He was also one of its chief exponents in the fifties and sixties. His sudden conversion in the late 1960s to figurative art, therefore, which included cartoonlike figures, ordinary objects, and highly politicized representations, including Ku Klux Klansmen, shocked the art world. Many claimed that Guston was a traitor to the cause of American art, and his return to figuration was extremely influential over other artists of the period.

Allegory is one of the key paintings of Guston's late period, one that is very much a part of the debate between figuration and abstraction. Because it is so overtly symbolic and allusive; because it involves and interacts with language; and because it even claims, with its title, to contain an implicit, secondary meaning, the painting can be considered a landmark in 1970s figurative painting. The "dilemma" of the artists depicted in the work is an aesthetic one: how to interact with the world, how to use the tools at hand for artistic production, how go about the struggle of creating art. The two human figures in the painting are confronted with extremely oppressive obstacles to their artistic goals, and Guston gives the impression that they are making little headway against what appears to be a blue wave or a monster, a wheel, an intimidating pile of metal-soled shoes, and an accusatory red finger from the heavens.

Guston is at his most figuratively clear and direct in this painting, actually including words in his work to establish the significance of his images. The fact that a scroll reading "The Artists" floats above the main body of the work emphasizes that the words "composer," "painter," "sculptor," and "poet" at the bottom are meant to correspond to the figures in the main body. Although there are paint-brushes and other artists' materials in the foreground, the exact artistic medium in which the central human figures are working is unclear; the important thing to recognize is that there is a divide between two different types of art and two different types of artists. While the bodyless head on the left is associated with abstract and mathematical ideas such as a ruler, geometrical shapes in space, and a sequence of five numbers, the head on the right is working with a pile of specific and real objects (mainly, it appears, shoes). One artist, therefore, is working in abstraction, while the other is working in figuration.

The "dilemma" of Guston's Allegory, therefore, is closely connected to the artist's own dilemma as he attempted to redefine himself in the 1970s American art scene. A number of conclusions can be drawn from Guston's commentary on abstract versus figurative art. The abstract artist is facing the sky, overwhelmed by what appears to be a kind of blue wave or monster, while the figurative artist seems to be much more in the brunt of the artistic process, his face enmeshed in a wheel. The latter is holding a length of rope that trails back to the artistic materials in the foreground, and his hair seems to be melting from the imposing red finger from the heavens. This finger suggests that the figurative artist is somehow chosen by God, or that he is burdened by God, or both.

Bang's poem, which centers on self-conscious themes of aesthetics, identity, and myth, is very aware of the debate between abstraction and figuration. She begins with a suggestion that music has a function of consolation but that it does not matter whether this artistic medium engages with the mythological figure of Prometheus. Prometheus, said to be the figure responsible for giving the power of artifice to humankind, is then associated with "Somatognosis," or awareness of his body (and, by extension, awareness of his function as a figurative or representational allusion). The speaker's claims that "it doesn't much matter" whether the work of art is connected to or recognized by its source and its own allusion raises the possibility that allusion/figuration is neither important nor necessary.

Bang proceeds to discuss questions about identity, suggesting that the figure facing up on the left side of Guston's painting is the "Jackself / we might have been," which (if this figure refers to an abstract expressionist) is a slight joke about Guston. The next lines, which probably refer to the scroll that reads "The Artists" ("the one at the top") and the listing of the various types of artists at the "tourist motel / at the bottom," suggest that there is a "degree of remove" between the abstract idea of the artist and the material, functional reality of the artist at work. This comment, as well as the ironic and sarcastic line "some vigorous enactment" and the speaker's comment on the fact that the artist's watch only estimates the time, suggest that both abstraction and figuration are somewhat distanced from the immediate reality.

Bang puts forward this idea even more clearly in the final stanzas of the poem, in which the artists are called "actors" and are reduced to "standing / against a wall and watching / it all unfold." In fact, they are not simply distant from this reality; the artists comment detachedly about the minute, unimportant details connected to the "spine of the climax" rather than the climax itself. Perhaps the key element to recognize about this climax of the poem's aesthetic commentary, however, is that it ceases to draw any distinction between abstraction and figuration. All artists and identities are grouped into the notion of "actors," and none of them seems able to deal with the open door to death and destruction.

It is clear, therefore, that Bang's poem takes Guston very seriously as a painter who is able to bring the viewer into close proximity with the themes of despair, death, destruction. It is also clear from her discussion of identity and artistic creation that Bang engages with the aesthetic debate of the painting. Bang's position on the debate between abstract and figurative art, however, takes a tone that can perhaps best be described as playfully mocking. She seems to be suggesting that, despite Guston's self-conscious exploration of the direction that art should take, artists are at a distance from reality regardless of whether they paint in abstract or in figurative terms. To Bang, the true "dilemma" of Guston's painting, and the true dilemma of the arts, is that there is always a divide between the artist and reality, and abstraction and figuration (like composing, painting, sculpting, and poetry) are simply tools for attacking the same daunting problem.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "Allegory," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores the relationship between mythology and reality in Mary Jo Bang's poem.

Throughout her poem "Allegory," Mary Jo Bang introduces the twin themes of mythology and reality. She sets them beside each other to demonstrate that mythology has no relevance to reality. The poem instead praises experience, preferably personal experience, as the real source of truth and knowledge. Her references to mythology are so readily recognized by the reader that Bang succeeds in making her point that mythology is, and always has been, an enduring element in thought, belief, and culture. By including these references in "Allegory," Bang seems to be challenging them head on and dismantling their past claims to truth.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Bang's first collection, Apology for Want (1997), established her as a prominent and sophisticated poet able to address intellectual themes while retaining an engaging and playful style.
  • Philip Guston's Late Work (1998) is an intimate portrait of the artist that focuses on his shift back to figurative painting, written by the renowned poet, and friend of Guston, William Corbett.
  • Jill Bialosky's Subterranean (2001) is a collection of vivid poetry about grief, motherhood, and desire.
  • The Whitsun Weddings (1964), by the English poet Philip Larkin, is a collection of masterly verse that ranges in tone from playful to biting and bleak.
  • Jonathan Strong's Secret Words (1992) is a charming and touching novel about a late bloomer who moves out of her parents' house at age twenty-nine and begins to find her way in the world.

The first stanza begins the process of defeating mythology by pointing to its meaninglessness in the real world. The speaker comments, "Of course, we're caught / in this sphere" (lines 3 and 4). These lines remind the reader not only that all people have in common their current place in the sphere of this world but also that they are caught in it. There is no choice in the matter. It is merely the reality of being here, and it is a common experience shared by people everywhere. The speaker's personal point of view is reflected in her word choice "caught," which gives the reader an initial insight into the speaker's particular experience and personality. While this makes the speaker seem more realistic by giving her a persona, her word choice does not affect the truth of what she is saying.

Finishing the first stanza and moving into the next, the speaker adds, "where it doesn't much matter / whether our song reaches / the ear of Prometheus or not" (lines 5–7). This is an important classical allusion. Prometheus was a character in Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus to give to the mortals. Some accounts of the story of Prometheus tell us that he had already given the mortals other gifts, including brickwork, medicines, signs to be read in the sky, and art. After Prometheus had tricked Zeus and given mortals fire, however, Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a mountain where an eagle came to gouge at his body and eat his liver. Every night, Prometheus would heal completely, and the eagle would return the next day. It was a horrifying punishment for a kindness done for mortals. In "Allegory," the speaker introduces the image of Prometheus suffering alone high on his mountain to show how useless music on earth is to him in his doomed state. Even if he were real, what good would a song do by reaching him? Bang makes the point that art created on earth is not for the benefit of mythical characters but for that of real people. The first two lines ("Let us console you. / Music's the answer") make very clear that music and, by extension, art in general exist in the earthly world and have the ability to affect people. Music can provide true consolation to a person in emotional need. This is because people think, feel, and have experiences in the real world, not in the world of myths.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker comments directly on mythology, where she states, "Myth equals fate / plus embellishment" (lines 39 and 40). Although fate may or may not be real, the truth is that there is nothing people can do to control or alter it. Because the speaker is developing a theme about truth, the notion of fate seems to be irrelevant. To put it into an equation with embellishment, which is divergence from the truth, makes fate even more meaningless. Together, the speaker essentially sums up myth as embellished fate. She understands myth as the creation of people bent on fashioning stories, interest, history, and purpose in their reality. To cast this light on the story of Prometheus, the speaker would likely say that the story was made up as a way for the ancient Greeks to value their ancestors because, after all, something as basic as fire was a divine gift to them, for which someone paid a very high price. This understanding is more exciting than just believing that early people got fire from a lightning storm. To return to the speaker's equation, the myth of Prometheus is simply an embellishment of the fact that early people would inevitably have fire. The myth has no meaning or relevance to reality or truth.

The speaker rejects mythology as a source of truth or wisdom, but she does not leave the reader wondering where truth can be found. She believes that reality provides truth and meaning and that wisdom is gleaned from experience. In the third stanza, the speaker introduces a medical term, "Somatognosis" (line 12). This word refers to a person's sense of his or her body's existence and functioning. Like the story of Prometheus, this word has Greek origins: somato means "body," and gnosis means "knowledge." This refers to a very concrete form of knowledge; it is knowledge of—and through—a person's bodily existence. Somatognosis is illustrated in the tenth stanza, where the speaker remarks, "The kinesthetic lift of a foot / from the floor / forces itself to be felt" (lines 47–49). This refers to a person's first lifting up on a Ferris wheel and feeling his or her foot leave the ground. It is a very tangible illustration that the reader can easily understand. Because the image is so tangible, the reader almost experiences the lift of the foot as he or she reads the poem. It immediately connects the reader to the truth of that image through physical experience.

At the end of the third stanza, the speaker asks, "What does it feel like / to inch one's way forward?" (lines 14 and 15), which brings the reader to the idea of experiencing progress. This type of progress is very different from the progress stolen from Mount Olympus by Prometheus; this is progress made and felt through a human body. Also, notice how the speaker says "inch one's way forward," which is progress made on earth, as opposed to "inch one's way upward," which would be progress toward the mountaintop realm of Prometheus. Bang is drawing very sharp lines between the real world and the world of fantasy and mythology. Similarly, the speaker introduces a startling image of a new beginning: "Dawn on its knees / crawls toward knowledge" (lines 17 and 18). Here again, Bang expresses that knowledge is gained by slow and steady movement forward in the real world. Knowledge of the truth is acquired only through experience over time. It requires patience and also willingness to make the slow movements in the right direction.

In developing her theme of myth and reality, Bang utilizes symbolism to give the reader a visual cue. In "Allegory," mountains symbolize the realm of myths, and the bottom of the mountains symbolizes the real world. These mountains give a strong sense of "here" in the real world and "there" in the mythical and unknown realm. In the figure of Prometheus, Bang introduces two mountains that are specific to myths. The mountain to which Prometheus is chained is one, and Mount Olympus is the other. Mount Olympus was the source of the fire Prometheus stole to give to mortals at the bottom of the mountain. Both mountains are fictitious, and both are important to the myth of Prometheus's giving fire to the mortals. This illustration also calls attention to the land at the bottom of the mountain, where the mortals who received fire lived. In the context of this poem, that land represents the realm of truth. The mortals, after all, were no different from real people today. From a historical perspective, those mortals were the ones who created the myths that are rejected in the poem, but the people were as real as the gods they created were not.

Another image of a mountain occurs in the seventh stanza. The speaker asks, "What's the degree of remove / between the one at the top / of Pie Mountain / and the tourist motel / at the bottom with its pool / of aqua attitude and blue inflatables?" The speaker makes a clear delineation between someone at the top of a mountain and ordinary tourists at the bottom of the mountain. She even asks to what extent they are separated, indicating that they are indeed in different realms. Because she gives no specifics about the person at the top of the mountain, or if she is even referring to a person (she uses an indeterminate "one"), the reader immediately relates to the tourists playing in the motel pool. Further, because the tourists are depicted engaged in such a common activity, the reader is able to recall his or her own experiences on similar vacations. This is another way she sets the reader's feet solidly on the ground of truth and experience.

Although Bang makes distinctions between mythology and the real world in "Allegory," she also acknowledges that people have a tendency to create their own personal mythologies, even if they reject classical myths. In the fifth and sixth stanzas, she describes the act of embracing "Who- / do-you-wish-to-be?" She concludes the fifth stanza with the statement, "Tonight we'll be content / with whomever we think we are." In the next stanza, the speaker describes setting off in a car with the person she might have been: "The door of the car will click-close / and off we'll go. / In the back is the Jackself / we might have been." To allow the reader to hear the door closing, Bang very effectively uses alliteration ("car will click-close"), or the repetition of consonants, and onomatopoeia ("click-close"), or the use of words whose sounds suggest their meaning. This makes the reader feel that he or she is also in the car with the speaker and her other self. It brings the poem alive to the reader's senses, so that being in the car seems like something the reader is actually experiencing. According to the way Bang has built the theme of truth in this poem, experience is the litmus test of truth and the path to knowledge. So her decision to make the reader feel that he or she is sitting there in the car is a major cue that something important is about to be revealed in the comfort and privacy of the car.

The speaker returns to the image of the car in the ninth stanza, where the reader finds that their destination was a carnival. What is important to the themes of myth and truth, however, is that Bang ties the two together without contradicting anything else she has claimed about how unrelated the two are. The difference is that with the image of driving her "might have been" self to the carnival, she introduces the notion of a personal mythology. This is why she remarks that people are content with whoever they think they are. That, like the kinesthetic experience of a foot lifting from the ground or playing in a motel swimming pool, is a truthful experience almost any reader has had. A personal mythology may not be any more true than the myth of Prometheus, but the experience of having one rings very true with the reader.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Allegory," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

E. M. Kaufman

In the following review, Kaufman provides an overview of Bang's intent with her collection and finds "music in Bang's lines."

Bang's fourth collection takes ekphrasis (poetry about works of visual art) to the limit: each of the 52 poems involves a different art object, the last of which is Bang's own "mixed media collage." The work's eclectic nature may worry readers who have watched the film Mulholland Drive or seen the paintings of Sigmar Polke and Dorothea Tanning, not to mention Bang's collage. Knowing the artwork would, perhaps, help, but these poems are not tactile explorations of art but rather explorations of the idea of ekphrasis and the relationship between the verbal and the visual. The title poem is an internal rendering of an 1882 charcoal drawing by Odilon Redon, in which a large disembodied eyeball floats upward and away from Earth: "We were going toward nothing / all along. Honing the acoustics, / heralding the instant / shifts, horizontal to vertical?" There is music in Bang's lines, set off by the charming, poetic titles of the paintings: The Tyranny of Everyday Life, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and Three Parts of an X. Readers' enjoyment will be determined, in part, by their interest in questions of aesthetic theory: "What harm is there in art? / As long as an image can never bed / the object it represents. / Sex with an effigy. / How much fun could that be? Tsk. Tsk." For academic collections.

Source: E. M. Kaufman, Review of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, in Library Journal, Vol. 130, No. 1, January 2005, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly

In the following review, the reviewer notes Bang's "signature quirky pathos and alliterative staccato."

"Art / is the depth of whatever has deepened / an abbreviate existence," writes Bang in this fourth collection, comprising ekphrastic poems that search relentlessly for the meaning of—and the reason for—art in our contemporary world. The book is without sections; instead it operates by proposing its subjects in a somewhat overly direct and thematically oriented first poem titled, "Rock and Roll is Dead, The Novel is Dead. God is Dead, Painting is Dead," which ponders the place of art in the postmodern age. The book proceeds through a series of 52 poems to try to find that place—finding a meager, not entirely satisfying answer in art's resistance to the depredations of time. Each draws upon a different work of art, from sources as various as Willem de Kooning, Cindy Sherman, Picasso and David Lynch. Unlike classical ekphrasis, however, Bang does not attempt to directly describe the work of art, but instead uses the works as springboards for her signature quirky pathos and alliterative staccato: "We are posing. We are poised. / This is where we live. We are ever / but only when ever is all that there is." The collection concludes in a poem drawn from an original artwork by Bang herself. "Here darling, take this," she writes, "and Time gives the mouth a morsel."

Source: Publishers Weekly, Review of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 42, October 18, 2004, p. 1.


Bang, Mary Jo, "Allegory," in The Eye like a Strange Balloon: Poems, Grove Press, 2004, pp. 55–57; originally published in Paris Review, No. 171, Fall 2004, pp. 36–38.

Scharf, Michael, Review of The Eye like a Strange Balloon, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 42, October 18, 2004, p. 61.

Seaman, Donna, Review of The Eye like a Strange Balloon, in Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 6, November 15, 2004, p. 547.

Further Reading

Auping, Michael, ed., Philip Guston: Retrospective, Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Providing images and analyses of Guston's work throughout his long career, including high-quality reproductions of his paintings, this comprehensive volume will help the reader place Guston's Allegory in its artistic context.

Bang, Mary Jo, ed., Whatever You Desire: A Book of Lesbian Poetry, Oscars Press, 1990.

The collection of poetry about lesbian themes that Bang edited in 1990 provides a useful background to some of the twentieth-century women authors by whom Bang is influenced.

Heffernan, James A. W., Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

In this study of the convention of ekphrasis throughout the history of Western literature, Heffernan pays particular attention to how and why poetic methods of capturing the visual have developed and changed.

Kirby, David, "Give Me Rapture and Bliss," in New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2001, p. 23.

Kirby's favorable review of Bang's verse novel Louise in Love provides an important example of the critical community's positive reaction to the poet.


views updated Jun 08 2018


ALLEGORY , a narrative in which the agents and the action, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived not only to make sense in themselves, but also to signify a second correlated order of things, concepts, or events (Abrams).

In the Bible

A pure parable differs from a pure allegory in two respects: (1) it is simple and credible in itself; it begins by saying that case a is like case b. The parables in the Midrash and Gospels are of this sort (e.g., prodigal son: Luke 15:11–32; fatherless steward: ibid. 16; the 11th hour: Matt. 20:1–16). There are, however, some parables which tell a tale simple and credible in itself but do not begin by saying case a is like case b, but rather leave the hearer wondering, or – at first – deliberately mislead him (e.g., Nathan's parable, i Sam. 12:1–7; the "story" told by the anonymous prophet in I Kings 20:39). The latter might be called quasi-allegories or crypto-allegories. These stories are not as contrived as Ezekiel 17:1ff., which only makes sense as a "riddle" (ḥidah; Ezek. 17:2). This is not an allegorically applied parable but an allegory pure and simple. A similar quasi-allegory is the "Song of the Vineyard" in Isaiah 5:1–6, which, however, has an allegorical element (cf. verse 6 b) in the story as well as being allegorically interpreted in verse 7. The fact is that biblical Hebrew was hardly aware of a distinction between simile, metaphor, parable, and allegory. Thus, in Ezekiel 24:3 the word mashal designates a metaphor, whereas in 17:2 it introduces, together with the word ḥidah, a typical allegory (Ezek. 17:3–24). In fact, both these words cover the gamut of figurative language, including not only parable and allegory, but fable, tale, enigma, maxim, and proverb.

Beside allegorical figures, such as kindness (grace; ḥesed), faithfulness (emet), righteousness (ẓedek), integrity (shalem) in Psalms 85:11–12, 14 and 89:15, wisdom (ḥokhmah, ḥokhmot) in Proverbs 1:20; 8:1, 12;9:1; 14:1, and folly (kesilut, ivvelet) in Proverbs 9:13, 14:1, maiden Israel, fair (lit. daughter) Zion, fair Jerusalem, and similar expressions in various poetical books, there are two principal kinds of allegory in the Bible. The first occurs when the narrative is based upon an image that suggests the intended subject. Allegories of this kind are often found in Ezekiel, perhaps the first Hebrew poet to make an extensive use of the metaphor. Thus, in Ezekiel, 16:3–63, Jerusalem appears as an adulteress, and in Ezekiel 23:2–45, the two adulterous sisters Oholah and Oholibah represent Samaria and Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 19:2–14, there is a twin allegory, in which the lioness and the vine stock symbolize the people of Israel. This allegory is perhaps partially inspired by an originally Sumerian lyric, The Message of Lú-dingir-ra to His Mother (see M. Civil, in: jnes, 23 (1964), 1–11; J. Nougayrol and E. Laroche, in Ugaritica, 5 (1968), 310–19, 444–5, 773–9). Another allegory of the vine stock is found in Psalms 80:9–17. In Ezekiel 31:3–18, the fate of the Cedar of Lebanon symbolizes the destiny of Pharaoh, while the allegory of the shepherds and the flock in Ezekiel 34:2–16, 17–22, alludes to the kings of Israel. Ezekiel's allegorical descriptions are sometimes followed by an interpretation of all the figurative elements, a method found later in apocalyptic literature; symbolic visions are explained by a heavenly being or a man of God. This occurs first in Ezekiel 17:3–24, one of the finest pieces of allegorical imagery, which represents the king of Babylon as an eagle and the house of David as a cedar. The same proceeding is found in Ezekiel's vision of the resurrection of the dry bones (37:1–14), an allegory of Israel's restoration. The description of the invaders' army in Joel 2:1–11 portrays in reality the invasion of locusts, which the poet considered a sign of the Lord's anger. The shepherd's allegory in Zechariah 11:4–14 is a kind of apology of the divine Providence toward Israel. Some visions of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel 4:7–24 or 7:2–27, are akin to allegory inasmuch as the details have an assigned meaning. The allegory of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1–7 is, in its individual figures, somewhat akin to a riddle.

The second kind of allegory occurs when the literary composition has a complete meaning contained within itself, independently of the moral or spiritual framework that lies beyond it. There is perhaps one sustained allegory of this type in the Bible, namely the Song of Songs, which is an artistically elaborate anthology of love lyrics. Some scholars have nevertheless attempted to see it as an allegorical narrative about the relations between God and His people. An allegorical interpretation may be imposed by others on a work whose author did not intend it to have any meaning on other than the literal level. The allegorical exegesis of the Song of Songs may reflect such a creative approach to a work, which originally had no allegorical meaning at all. In fact, allegorizing interpretations made their way into Judaism in the first centuries b.c.e. and c.e.

[Edward Lipinski]

In Talmudic and Medieval Literature

Allegory was used in the talmudic period, and especially in the medieval period, in three types of literature, each using allegory in its own, different way: (a) homiletical literature used allegory in trying to translate facts and ideas known to the public, into ethical teaching, by discovering the hidden meaning behind the well-known phenomena; allegorical interpretation of Scripture was frequently used in this literary type; (b) fiction, both poetry and prose, used allegory in order to develop a multi-level story or poem; (c) theological literature, especially medieval philosophy and Kabbalah, used allegory as a means to express the idea that the phenomena which are revealed to the senses are but a superficial and sometimes false part of the divine truth, whereas allegory can penetrate to deeper and truer levels.

The preachers of the talmudic and midrashic literature seldom used complete and systematic allegorical constructions. An attempt has been made to prove that two schools of allegorists existed in talmudic times, the doreshei reshumot and doreshei ḥamurot, both of which were frowned upon by the leading talmudic scholars. This may well be, and the result was that allegory is found in a scattered, unorganized way in this vast literature. One of the clearest examples of the use of allegory is to be found in the homiletical discussions of Ecclesiastes 9:15, 16 (Eccles. R., ch. 9). Here the characters in the biblical verse are interpreted in several allegorical ways, but each is complete, and explains every detail in the source, whether it is historical allegory, finding in the verse the story of Israel in Egypt, or ethical allegory, describing the relationship between the good and the evil (inclinations) in man. The midrashic preachers in this case, as in a few others, had no doubt whatsoever that the biblical verse is allegorical in nature; they discussed various possibilities of unveiling this allegorical meaning. This is a completely different situation from that found in the interpretations of the Song of Songs as allegory, for in that case the meaning (e.g., the relationship between God and Israel) preceded the detailed allegorical interpretations.

Later homiletical literature, in the medieval and early modern periods, revealed allegorical meanings not only in biblical verses, but in talmudic and midrashic passages. Obscure sayings of talmudic scholars, strange stories told by them (e.g., the stories of *Rabbah b. Bar Ḥana, allegorically interpreted by R. *Naḥman of Bratzlav in the first years of the 19th century), all served as material for allegorical interpretation, usually within an ethical, moralistic framework. However, here also systematic, allegorical structure is very rare.

The clearest examples of the use of allegory in fiction is to be found in the *maqama of the 12th–14th centuries, especially in Spain. Characters in these works are sometimes allegorical entities, usually with some hidden philosophical meaning. Usually it is difficult to distinguish between a well-developed fable and allegorical elements in these works, but some allegorical tendencies are evident. Most of the writers of this school followed examples, or even definite works, by their Arab predecessors or contemporaries. In Hebrew poetry of the period, especially sacred poetry but sometimes also in the secular, allegorical elements may be found. However, it is difficult to point out a separate allegorical school. Abraham *Ibn Ezra's Ḥai ben Makiẓ is one of the best examples of allegorical works of this period.

It is not surprising that theological allegory is to be found more in the homiletical and exegetical works of medieval Hebrew philosophers and mystics than in the "straight" theological works. Allegory was used mainly to reconcile ancient lore with contemporary theology, and homiletics and exegetical literature are usually the meeting place of the old and the new. However, some use of allegory is to be found in stories and fables incorporated in theological works, e.g., in *Baḥya ibn Paquda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot," in the writings of R. Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera, or even in Maimonides' famous "parable of the Palace" (Guide, 3:51).

The philosophers used allegory not only to explain away the physical attributes of God in the Bible and the talmudic literature. They interpreted whole biblical stories as allegory. This tendency is less evident in the early development of Jewish medieval philosophy; it came into its own only in the 13th century, in the writings of Maimonists like R. Zerahiah Ḥen (see *Gracian), in his polemical letters and his exegesis of the book of Job, or R. Jacob *Anatoli, in his homiletical work, Malmad ha-Talmidim. In works like these, one plot is substituted for another: the story of Abraham and Sarah, for example, becomes a parable of the relationship between matter and form, and Noah's three sons represent the three Platonic social classes.

[Joseph Dan]

In Kabbalah

Allegory does not occupy a prominent place in kabbalistic thought and insofar as kabbalists used it, they were influenced by philosophical exegesis. The specific domain of kabbalistic thought is the aspect of sod ("mystery"), that is, viewing the processes of the world or interpreting the Scriptures in a manner which refers them to the mystery of the Godhead and its hidden life. However, opposed to sod is remez ("allusion"), which is allegory. Philosophical commentaries did not talk of processes within the divine world revealing themselves through symbols; but of parallelism between biblical data, e.g., the stories of the Bible, and philosophical views derived from Greek and Arab tradition. Such commentaries recur in certain parts of the Zohar, especially in the Midrash ha-Ne'lam concerning the stories of the patriarchs and Ruth, where these stories were interpreted as allegories of the fate of the soul in its descent from above into the human body, its vicissitudes inside the body, and the future allotted to it after death and in the world to come. Here and there such commentaries are also found in the main body of the Zohar. In kabbalistic literature this type of allegorical interpretation is prominent among those kabbalists who tended (especially in the 13th and 14th centuries) to seek a compromise between philosophy and Kabbalah, and to develop mystical views beyond the specific theosophical system of *Sefirot. The main representative of this conception is *Isaac b. Latif. In the wide-ranging commentary on the Pentateuch of *Baḥya b. Asher the allegorical parts ("rational exegesis") were separated from the kabbalistic parts ("exegesis in the manner of the Kabbalah"). Allegorical interpretations are also found in the writings of kabbalists like Joseph *Ibn Waqar and Samuel *Ibn Motot. Allegory of the type which interprets the words of the Scriptures as referring to the history of man and his fate is found in abundance in the ḥasidic literature which combines the manner of the allegoristic and aggadic interpreters with the style of the kabbalists.

[Gershom Scholem]

One of the major kabbalists who systematically used philosophical allegories, especially Maimonidean ones, was Abraham *Abulafia. He describes this exegetical method as the fourth in his sevenfold system and applies it widely to the biblical texts in his Commentary on the Torah entitled Sefer ha-Mafteḥot. Moreover, unlike most of the other kabbalists and philosophers who allegorized the sacred scriptures, Abulafia composed some of his prophetic writings as allegories, inventing dramas whose specific meaning he himself interpreted by resorting to Maimonidean psychology or metaphysics.

The impact of his allegoristic approach is evident in Johanan *Alemanno, and in some instances of Ḥayyim *Vital's exgesis.

[Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

Modern Literature

Influenced by kabbalistic symbolism modern Hebrew (and later also Yiddish) literature developed the allegorical drama, of which the most outstanding examples are the moralistic dramas of Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto (e.g., La-Yesharim Tehillah). As to prose writings, while it is probable that the stories of R. Naḥman of Bratslav are of an allegorical nature, as they were later interpreted, there is no distinct allegory until the appearance of Di Kliatshe (Heb., Susati) of Sholem Yankev *Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim). Also some of the writings of I.L. *Peretz and S.Y. *Agnon (e.g., Pat Shelemah, Shevu'at Emunim) were interpreted as allegories. Note should also be made of many political allegories which flourished during the years of Jewish underground activities in Ereẓ Israel in times when writers had to disguise their message for fear of the censors. Further examples may be found in the early stories of Abraham B. *Yehoshua (e.g., Mot ha-Zaken, 1962) and in some prose works of Yitzḥak *Orpaz, as both writers seek to explain the tensions within the personal and collective subconscious. The allegorical names given to some opf the characters are interwoven with realistic features (e.g., in Orpaz's novel Or be-ad Or, 1962). In his novella Nemalim ("Ants," 1968), Orpaz describes how a horde of mysterious, demonic ants invade an apartment, threatening to destroy the home of a couple on the verge of a divorce. The menace of the ants has been interpreted as an allegorical story about the horror of the modern family as well as the destructive forces among the Arabs. Benjamin Tammuz´s novella Ha-Pardes ("The Orange Grove," 1971) is likewise an allegory about the relations between Jews and Arabs, set against the background of pre-State Israel.

[Anat Feinberg (2nd ed.)]


E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898), 748–54; A.M.J. Lagrange, in: rb, 6 (1909), 198–212, 342–67 (esp. 347–55); C.G. Montefiore, in: jqr, 3 (1912/13), 623–4; O. Eissfeldt, Der Maschal im Alten Testament (1913), esp. 14–16; H. Gunkel and H. Gressmann, in rgg2, 1 (1927), 219–20; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1 (19584), 179–80; F. Hauck, in: G. Friedrich (ed.), Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 5 (1954), 741–59 (esp. 744–6). add. bibliography: M. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1971), 4; J. Fraenkel, Darkhei ha-Aggadah ve-ha-Midrash (Heb., 1996), 197–232; idem, Midrash ve-Aggadah (1996), 181–99; M. Idel, Language, Torah and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, tr. M. Kallus (1989).


views updated May 14 2018


The word allegory comes from the Greek allègoreïn, which literally means "to talk differently." An allegory is a transfer of meaning. Most often, it consists of an image that develops within a coherent narrative context, referring systematically—often metaphorically—to a referential universe of a different nature (e.g., abstract, philosophical, or moral). As a figure of speech, it is commonly distinguished from a metaphor or a comparison by the number of its elements. Because an allegory is characterized by the systematically maintained coexistence of a double meaning, literal and symbolic, literal and figurative, it is a complex figurative system whose interpretation is difficult. An allegory is thus always at risk of remaining enigmatic or undecipherable. However, its obscure character, its sometimes sinuous or elliptical logic, also gives it its strength and permanence: an allegory is always rich with meaning, versatile, polysemic.


Resorting to a personifying allegory has often been a defense against this possible confusion or incomprehension. Personifying involves ascribing human traits, feelings, and behaviors to inanimate beings or abstractions. The readability of the personifying allegory thus prevents misinterpretations: virtues (e.g., Justice, Temperance, Charity), passions (e.g., Envy, Vengeance, Glory, Vanity), fortune or time (e.g., Death, Old Age as well as seasons or months), nations, the temperaments of ancient and modern medical anthropology (e.g., Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Irascible, Melancholic), the five senses, the liberal arts (e.g., Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music), fine arts and their Muses, and other categories are easily depicted.

All these allegories are predominantly feminine, as if this gender facilitates comprehension of the figure of speech. Several explanations can be offered for this feminization of the allegory. From antiquity, poets have personified all these beings of reason, these abstract notions, these techniques, these eminently human feelings and desires, so as to transform them into divinities of flesh and blood, animated characters, or the familiar figures of the Greek mythology best known from the writings of Homer in Iliad or the Odyssey. One of the first explanations given concerning allegory's gender is that the gender of the word, notion, or concept determined the gender of the personification: Because numerous terms were grammatically feminine in ancient (and some modern) languages, they were depicted as feminine. This philological explanation, although perhaps less than satisfying, is nonetheless heuristically sound. In her Cité des Dames, Christine de Pisan places real women by taking seriously the grammatical gender of allegorical figures of political, philosophical, scientific, or artistic authority. Through direct usage of allegorical personification, she reduced the figurative to the literal, the symbolic to the domestic. She thus transcribed her feminine characters into reality. She gave them a historical and proclamatory density, as shown by the positions she took in her Querelle de la Rose (Quilligan 1991). Women are not authority, women have authority. However, in doing so, Christine de Pisan purely and simply sacrificed allegory.

Angus Fletcher defines allegory as a technique to encode a text: Allegory says one thing and means another (Fletcher 1982). The feminine gender of personifications and other allegorical figures thus necessarily refers to something else: it appears to show itself, to unveil itself, but it always has to fade away to serve a coded, hidden meaning. The gendered incarnation of allegory may be defined as a "power transfer game": The feminine body of the allegorical figure serves a world that is in fact dominated by men. One then better understands why, during the seventeenth century—the century of the allegory—Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701) chose the cartographical allegory to represent relationships between the sexes. This kind of cartographical allegory had been present since ancient times and was commonly used by Christian thinkers. It allowed the representation of complex relationships as well as the visualization of metaphysical, moral, social, and political values as they related to one another; by definition, a map has coordinates and is thus symbolically hierarchical, whereas benefiting from a panoptical and thus immediately inclusive acquisition mode. The seventeenth century saw the development of what is called "gallant geography," first in the Parisian salons, then in England. La Carte du Tendre (Map of Tenderness), conceived by Madeleine de Scudéry and expanded by François Chauveau (1613–1676) in his engravings illustrating Scudéry's poetry, certainly is the most famous of these productions (Reitinger 1999). In this representation of the meanderings of the heart, feelings are likened to so many rivers, mountains, lakes, seas, forests, boroughs, or towns. This de-gendering of allegory allowed courtesans to reinvent the norms of gallant friendship. Given that love's passions and virtues were no longer fixed allegorically in female or male characters, they could be truly incarnated by women and men meeting freely: thus testifying to the strength of the societal trend that was critical of inequality between the sexes, which developed during the classical age.


At the end of the eighteenth century, allegory became one of the favorite forms of expression of political power. In Europe, as in America, a profusion of female allegorical characters arose in the texts of neoclassicism and, later on, romanticism. Just when new nations were born and old nations called for their own "regeneration," allegory contributed to the great fabric of founding narratives. Allegory then becomes "a kind of physiognomy of history" (De Baecque 1994, p. 112). During the nineteenth century, for example, the painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) gave France a human face with his La Liberté Conduisant le Peuple (Freedom Leading the People). The allegorical female characters of modern nations almost systematically contradict dominant norms of femininity. The characters Marianne, Britannia, and Germania are inspired by the warrior goddess Athena: These secularized guardian divinities; these female armed authorities (the bayonet of the French republic, the trident of Britannia, and the sword of Germania) appeared just when the separation between the public sphere and the private sphere—to which most women were assigned—was confirmed. But more fundamentally, just when the modern, exclusively male citizen thought of himself as a free Subject, liberated from any material and social determination, masculinity could no longer be an efficient signifier, because it was confounded with the neutral, the undetermined, and the universal. The allegorical character could consequently be only female, because its gender is by definition a matter of determination and concrete characterization. Only the feminine can thus signify the most abstract notions, embody a concept, and give it meaning and reality (e.g., Freedom, Independence).

However, as soon as nations were transformed into colonial empires, the allegory not only served to represent national values, it also became a real discursive and political matrix (Dorlin 2006). The allegorical femininity of the nation was entirely confounded with motherhood: she simultaneously generated and represented her people. The metaphor thus acquired a performative dimension: The nation was represented as an agricultural divinity. Marianne was, for example, represented as the maternal, nurturing, and white goddess Ceres, whereas the colonies and other overseas possessions were represented as both hyper-eroticized and grotesque bodies. The indigenous, hyper-eroticized, almost systematically naked bodies represented a wildness to be civilized, an eternal childhood of peoples allegedly devoid of history, as well as the erotic object par excellence, on which the colonizers' desire could licitly focus. Just when European nationalisms arose at the end of the nineteenth century and allegorical female characters repeatedly represented an excessive and virilized motherhood, those colonized incarnated all sexual fantasies. This allegory was made of all sexual desires: The exoticism of the colonies was the signifier of sexuality. These colonized bodies became grotesque as they were outrageously racialized through the animalization of gender: Men represented an animal-like virility far from the predominant civilized masculinity. Allegory is crafty, however, because this racialization—in the literal sense of the word—of colonized nations expressed the racialization of the colonizing nations; "the continent," in the words of Césaire (1955), "proceeds to savagery."


Césaire, Aimé. 2001 (1955). Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

De Baecque, Antoine. 1994. "The Allegorical Image of France, 1750–1800: A Political Crisis of Representation." Representations. 47: 111-143.

Dorlin, Elsa. 2006. La Matrice de la Race: Généalogie Sexuelle et Coloniale de la Nation Française [The Racial Matrix: Sexual and Colonial Genealogy of the French Nation]. Paris: La Découverte.

Fletcher, Angus. 1982 (1967). Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Quilligan, Maureen. 1991. The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan's Cité des Dames [The Ladies' City]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Reitinger, Franz. 1999. "Mapping Relationships: Allegory, Gender and the Cartographical Image in Eighteenth Century France and England." Imago Mundi 51: 106-130.

                                                  Elsa Dorlin


views updated May 14 2018


Derived from the Greek words allos (other) and agoreuein (to speak), allegory refers to a literary and rhetorical style that uses fictitious persons, things and events symbolically as indirect references to real people and situations, or to abstract ideas such as "the Christian life" or "virtue." The first level, but less important, is the actual story told by the narrative (e.g., Gulliver's adventures in a kingdom of tiny people); the second, which carries the author's intended message, lies behind and runs parallel to the literal sense of the narrative. Because this second level of meaning is not spelled out, the text of an allegory is open to multiple interpretations. In a religious context, allegory refers to the meaning given to a narrative or work of art when its elements are interpreted as being symbols for moral and theological values.

The idea that the written word can carry several levels of meaning has had great influence on the Western literary tradition, especially during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. From antiquity, works have been written expressly as allegories. Dante's Divine Comedy, Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de

Meunand, Piers Plowman, attributed to William Lang-land, and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are often cited examples that illustrate allegory's use in both secular and religious contexts. Allegory has not played so large a role in the modern Western literary tradition, although George Orwell's Animal Farm, James Joyce's Ulysses, and the works of Franz Kafka and C. S. Lewis do continue the tradition.

Allegorical Interpretation. The fact that some literary works carry two levels of meaning gives rise to a method of interpretation that looks for a second, hidden meaning behind a given text even when there is no indication that the author intended such a meaning. As early as the 5th century b.c., Greek philosophers such as Metrodorus of Lampsacus were searching for hidden meaning in the works of Homer and Hesiod. They were convinced that the ancient poets were great sages who had hidden moral and spiritual truths from the ignorant in their stories. The early Stoics (4th to 1st centuries b.c.) were especially instrumental in developing allegorical interpretations for the mythical legends recorded by Homer and Hesiod. At the beginning of our era, the Neoplatonists revived the allegorical method of interpretation, producing interpretations of Greek mythology that included such things as saying that Helen personifies the beauty of the world that lures souls from their true spiritual home into the world of matter.

Philo Judeaus of Alexandria (c. 30 b.c. to c. 40 a.d.) applied this "allegoresis" to the Old Testament in an effort to harmonize its anthropomorphic descriptions of God with Greek philosophical ideas about the true nature of divinity. The early Christian fathers also took up this method of interpreting the Old Testament "[a]s a way of eliminating the scandal which particular passages of the Bible might provide for certain Christians, not to mention pagan adversaries of Christianity" (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994; III.B.2). However, the patristic exegetes did not abandon the literal, historical meaning of biblical texts as the Greek philosophers had done with their own mythology. They held that, since it is the word of God, Scripture is an inexhaustible font of revelation for every time and place. The truth it contains cannot be confined to its literal meaning, but must also be sought behind and under the text. Origen (c. 185 to c. 254) is one of the most influential of the early Christian exegetes, famous for his use of allegory when interpreting the Old Testament. Such interpretation, especially the use of typology (e.g. finding in Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac a "type," or prefiguring, of Christ's sacrifice on the cross), allowed the church fathers to counter the Marcionite heresy, which called for abandoning everything Jewish, including the Old Testament, by pointing out how the Old Testament prefigures and points to Christ. St. Augustine (354 to 430) wrote that Scripture contains both a hidden meaning that exercises the intellect and teaches us to value the truth found with effort, and a literal meaning that provides everything necessary for salvation, so that even the unlearned may be saved (On Christian Doctrine, Bk 1). This attitude toward the richness of meaning that can be found in Scripture led to the idea that there are four "senses" of Scripture; the historical or literal, the allegorical or spiritual, and the tropological or moral, and the anagogic or mystical.

Even though the emphasis in biblical study in recent years has been on its literal meaning, especially on trying to discover as nearly as possible the original language and context of the texts, allegorical interpretation continues to be an important way of understanding Scripture. The modern reader may find the patristic use of allegory as an interpretive tool somewhat incredible, but "[t]he fathers of the church teach [us] to read the Bible theologically, within the heart of a living tradition, with an authentic Christian spirit" (Pontifical Biblical Commission, III.B.2). Because it is the word of God, the richness of Scripture's message is inexhaustible; both the text of Scripture and the realities and events it describes can be signs of God's plan of salvation. The allegorical sense of Scripture allows us to "acquire a more profound understanding of [those] events by recognizing their significance in Christ" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 117).

Bibliography: m. w. bloomfield, ed., Allegory, Myth and Symbol (Cambridge, Mass. 1981). h. de lubac, Exígèse médiévale, 2 v. (Paris 195964). a. j. s. fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, NY 1964). j. c. joosen and j. h. waszink, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1950) 1:283293, with bibliog. c. s. lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York 1936). j. pÉpin, Mythe et allégorie (Paris 1957). The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1994). j. tate, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1934) 3839. j. whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (Cambridge, Mass. 1987). h. a. wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, v.1 (Cambridge, Mass. 1956) 2472.

[l. harrington]


views updated May 23 2018

Allegory A narrative expressing abstract ideas as concrete symbols; a description of a topic or subject under the guise of another which is suggestive of it, an extended comparative metaphor. There is often little distinction between an allegory, a parable, a simile, or a metaphor. In Judaism, the Song of Songs has been interpreted allegorically, as a description of the relationship between God and his people. Allegory is also to be found in Talmudic and kabbalistic literature. It was especially prominent in Philo, who regarded allegory as ‘the rules of a wise architect’. Yet he also insisted that the literal sense and practice must be maintained (see e.g. De Abrahamo, 89–93). In Christianity, allegorical exegesis is that which treats a text as if it were an allegory, and was thus important for Christians as a way of relating Jewish scripture (from their point of view, the Old Testament) to Christianity.


views updated May 23 2018

al·le·go·ry / ˈaləˌgôrē/ • n. (pl. -ries) a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one: Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of the spiritual journey. ∎  the genre to which such works belong. ∎  a symbol.DERIVATIVES: al·le·go·rist / -ist/ n.


views updated Jun 11 2018

ALLEGORY. A story, such as George ORWELL'S Animal Farm (1945), that can be read on two levels: as a surface narrative that may or may not be realistic and at a deeper level that is often didactic and moralistic, and sometimes satirical. Characters and episodes are intended to represent some elements in human life: Orwell's farm is a nation state and his pigs are Marxist revolutionaries. Allegory may occur in any genre, does not constitute a literary form, and is in effect an extended METAPHOR. See ANALOGY.


views updated May 14 2018

allegory XIV. — (O)F. allégorie — L. allēgoria — Gr. allēgoríā ‘speaking otherwise’, f. állos other + agor — in agoreúein speak; see -Y3.
So allegoric XIV. allegorical XVI; see -IC, -ICAL. allegorize XV. — F. allégoriser — late L. allēgorizāre.


views updated May 14 2018

allegory Literary work in either prose or verse in which more than one level of meaning is expressed simultaneously. The fables of Aesop and La Fontaine are examples of simple allegory. Pilgrim's Progress (1684) by John Bunyan is a sophisticated religious allegory.


views updated Jun 27 2018

allegory a story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. The word comes (in late Middle English) via Old French and Latin from Greek allēgoria, from allos ‘other’ + -agoria ‘speaking’.

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