Allegory in the Rambler

By Berglund, Lisa | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Allegory in the Rambler


Berglund, Lisa, Papers on Language & Literature


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.[1] 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).[2] 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.[3]

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. …

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