The entry in Johnson's Dictionary for "allegory" reads, "A figurative discourse, in which something other is intended, than is contained in the words literally taken; as, wealth is the daughter of diligence, and the parent of authority." This definition does not distinguish allegory from other kinds of non-literal writing; indeed, the term "figurative discourse" suggests that an allegory is simply an extended metaphor. Nowhere does the Dictionary state that an allegory may resemble what Spenser calls a "darke conceit," an elaborate system of figures, with multiple or hidden significations. In addition, the illustration Johnson appends to his definition argues that he regards allegory as a rhetorical tool that clarifies rather than complicates meaning. By including his original allegory, instead of directing the reader's attention to an example such as The Faerie Queene, Johnson ensures that the user of the Dictionary will associate allegory with this economical model. Encountering Johnson's sentence outside the Dictionary context, in fact, many readers would describe it not as allegory but rather as aphorism, perhaps noting that it employs prosopopoeia. Like an aphorism, this illustrative sentence condenses our unconscious understanding of three abstract images, reinvigorating a commonplace admonition to "Work hard, get rich, and become powerful." Johnson tersely and profoundly evokes the natural bonds that should unite work, wealth, and power, while his familial metaphor teaches us that the rewards of diligence are subject to the vicissitudes affecting human relationships. Identifying wealth as the "parent of authority," he reminds us that even authority exists in a state of dependency. In short, as Bernard L. Einbond notes in his monograph on Johnson's allegories, by using abstract personification Johnson defines with "great economy the relationships among the concepts he discusses" (67).
Regarding allegories as extended metaphors that focus our thoughts and reinforce and secure our understanding of abstract subject matter, Johnson shares a critical premise with Joseph Addison, who devoted a number of the Spectator papers to the defense of allegories, dream-visions, and fables. Spectator 421 states that "Allegories, when well chosen, are like so many Tracks of Light in a Discourse, that make every thing about them clear and beautiful" (3: 578). Here, Addison does not describe a role for allegory appropriate for the extended narratives we normally associate with the word, works ranging from The Faerie Queene and The Pilgrim's Progress to A Tale of a Tub and Tom Jones. Allegory rather is a rhetorical device that a writer may employ in order to illuminate the more difficult parts of his argument. By analogy, the allegories that Johnson includes in The Rambler serve as "tracks of light" that "illuminate" other aspects of the periodical. The Dictionary emphasizes this sense of the term when it offers as the first example of usage for "allegory" this dictum from Ben Jonson's Discovery: "Neither must we draw out our allegory too long, lest either we make ourselves obscure, or fall into affectation, which is childish" (Johnson's emphasis). Placed immediately after the lexicographer's aphoristic illustration, Ben Jonson's admonition appears to comment approvingly on the brevity of Samuel Johnson's example.
Correctly managed allegory, in short, never permits the luxurious pleasure of invention to misdirect us from keeping its instructive end clearly in view. As Johnson explains in the "Life of Milton,"
to exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity has always been the right of poetry. But such airy beings are for the most part suffered only to do their natural office and retire. Thus Fame tells a tale and Victory hovers over a general or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory can do no more. To give them any real employment or ascribe to them any material agency is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to non-entity.
By introducing the attenuated allegory of Sin and Death, Milton committed "one of the greatest faults of the poem"; moreover, he did so out of vanity, for "there was no temptation but the author's opinion of [the allegory's] beauty" (Lives 1: 158-59). Note that Johnson grounds his criticism of the poem, and his argument in favor of strictly limited personification, on reader response--Milton's characters are faulty because they alarm readers with their inconsistency and, presumably, distract us from the moral lesson they should impart. Johnson seems unwilling to imagine a thoughtful reader able to endure, let alone enjoy, the allegory of Sin and Death. Indeed, "broken" allegories may prompt readers to reject the works in which they appear, for as Johnson remarks in the "Preface to Shakespeare," "The mind revolts from evident absurdity" (7: 96).
The conviction that allegory succeeds best when restricted within a narrow and logical compass underlies many of his remarks elsewhere in the Lives of the Poets. Johnson observes of Absalom and Achitophel, "The original structure of the poem was defective; allegories run to great length will always break; Charles could not run continually parallel with David" ("Dryden"; Lives 1: 361). He levels similar charges against many of Cowley's poems. Conversely, Gray's use of personification in The Bard Johnson criticizes as "indistinct. Thirst and Hunger are not alike; and their features, to make the imagery perfect, should have been discriminated" ("Gray"; Lives 3: 417). Prosopopoeia may require brevity, in other words, but it should not be employed casually; abstract personages instruct the reader only when their characters are both general and precise. Lastly, in what amounts to an acknowledgment of how difficult it can be to unite these two qualities, Johnson commends the Sylphs in The Rape of the Lock because as "airy beings" unique to Pope's poem they are not bound by any of the limitations that logic places on abstract personification. Few modern readers, I believe, quarrel with any of these observations, although we may find, as Johnson himself allows, that the happy similarity of Charles and David inclines us to forgive Dryden's problems in sustaining the parallel for a thousand lines (Lives 1: 307-308).
More serious questions arise with Johnson's response to the allegories of Swift. Gulliver's Travels, despite the acclaim of an audience including "the high and low, the learned and illiterate," impressed Johnson as bizarre and disgusting; he feels that it hoodwinks its readers because "no rules of judgment [are] applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity" ("Swift"; Lives 3: 190). Swift often disturbs Johnson--he finds revolting Swift's "unnatural delight in ideas physically impure" ("Pope"; Lives 3: 131)--and this prejudice, combined with his suspicion of extended allegory, leads to his virtual refusal to comprehend the work. To make sense of Johnson's failure to understand Gulliver's Travels, however, we need look no further than his own description of its reception by the public. Swift's "open defiance of truth and regularity," he writes, discourages readers from "applying judgment" to the text. This inability to judge precisely characterizes Johnson's own response as a reader, his famously inadequate "once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest" (qtd. in Boswell 2: 319). In other words, Johnson does not reject Gulliver's Travels for qualities that he incorrectly imagines exist in the text; rather, here, as in his other condemnations of extended allegory, he recognizes precisely how allegory operates upon the reader--and responds by refusing to participate. He reacts to Swift as he reacts to "Lycidas"; he denies any desire to explore that elegy's pastoral imagery because, "though it be allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote that it is never sought because it cannot be known when it is found" ("Milton"; Lives 1: 141). According to Maureen Quilligan, author of several studies of Renaissance allegory, "Allegory tames a reader's impatience by insisting on its own paratactic leisure to unfold, manipulating the reader's responses by continually tempting him, but never allowing him to make final vertically arranged statements about the significance of what he has read" (236). Johnson feels these temptations and denials, but far from taming his impatience, they annoy and alarm him. We, like Boswell, who tried to defend Swift from Johnson's attacks, may delight in irregularity. However,
[f]or Johnson, books, of whatever kind, always had, or could be seen to have, practical consequences; for Boswell, books could sometimes, perhaps often, be theoretical exercises which one read for their novelty but which had no immediate effect upon one's day to day behaviour. The assumptions and attitudes that a reader brings with him to any book naturally and inevitably condition his estimation of a book's worth and prefigure its impact upon him. (Price 191-192)
A book whose "practical consequences" include the deliberate suspension of judgment can only impress Johnson as dangerous. He values allegory for its usefulness as an unambiguous, though not simplistic, tool of instruction. Indeed, Boswell reports of their conversation on Gulliver's Travels, "Johnson at last, of his own accord, allowed very great merit to the inventory of articles found in the pocket of the Man Mountain, particularly the description of his watch, which it was conjectured was his GOD, as he consulted it upon all occasions" (2: 319). This passage, which could stand on its own as a separate "figurative discourse," earns Johnson's praise because it conforms to the limitations he respected and that shape his own use of allegory in The Rambler.
Remarking on Johnson's taste for abstract personification, Thomas M. Curley states in Samuel Johnson and The Age of Travel, "Allegorical literature especially appealed to him precisely because it communicated an ordered pattern of ideas directly without lapsing into the distracting details of a complex story" (140). In fact, prosopopoeia enables Johnson to impose "an ordered pattern of ideas" upon what he reads. Illustrating Northrup Frye's claim that "all commentary is allegorical interpretation" (89), Johnson merges criticism with allegoresis in the well-known peroration of his remarks on Falstaff. After …