A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols


This is the first dictionary of symbols to be based on literature, rather than 'universal' psychological archetypes, myths, or esoterica. Michael Ferber has assembled nearly two hundred entries clearly explaining and illustrating the literary symbols that we all encounter (such as swan, rose, moon, gold), along with hundreds of cross-references and quotations. The Dictionary concentrates on English literature, but its entries range widely from the Bible and classical authors to the twentieth century, taking in American and European literatures. Its informed style and rich references will make this book an essential tool not only for literary and classical scholars, but for all students of literature.


The idea for this dictionary came to me while I was reading a student essay on Byron's “Stanzas Written on the Road between Florence and Pisa, ” which sets the true glory of youthful love against the false glory of an old man's literary renown. After a promising start the student came to a halt before these lines: “the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and- twenty / Are worth all your laurels, though ever so plenty.” His copy lacked footnotes, and he lacked experience of poetry before the Romantics. With disarming candor he confessed that he had no idea what these three plants were doing in the poem, and then desperately suggested that Byron might have seen them on the road somewhere between Florence and Pisa and been inspired to put them in his poem the way you might put plants in your office. I wrote in the margin that these were symbolic plants and he had to look them up. But where, exactly, do you send a student to find out the symbolic meaning of myrtle? The Oxford English Dictionary was all I could come up with, but I felt certain there must be a handier source, designed for readers of literature, with a good set of quotations from ancient times to modern. But there is no such book.

A dozen times since then I have asked colleagues and librarians if they knew of one. They were all sure they did, or thought “there must be one, ” but they could never find it. Several of them came up with Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols, but that work, whatever its uses, is the last thing I would recommend to a student. It has no entry at all for myrtle. Under ivy it mentions the Phrygian god Attis and its eunuch-priests and then says, “It is a feminine symbol denoting a force in need of protection.” One can hardly imagine the interpretations of Byron that would arise from those claims. Under laurel it names Apollo and mentions poets, but has nothing about fame, and it goes on about “inner victories over the negative and dissipative influence of the base forces.”

Only slightly better are two recent ones: Hans Biedermann's Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them, translated from the German, and Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant's Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, translated from the French. Both range widely but unsystematically over the cultures of the world, packing Mayan and Chinese meanings next to those from medieval alchemy. The latter book, much the larger, lacks an entry for myrtle; under ivy it discusses Dionysus, which is on the right track, but it says nothing about its uses in Roman poetry that lie behind Byron. Neither book quotes widely from poetry or prose fiction.

If no adequate dictionary exists, but everyone thinks it does (because it must), that seemed a good reason to write one. It was also a reason not to write one, for if even the Germans have not produced one, as it seemed, it might be beyond mortal powers. After all, anything can be a . . .

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