Allegorical poems are like a two-for-one deal: you get the literal and the symbolic. Read about what defines an allegorical poem and a few of the master poets who wrote them.
Definition of an Allegorical Poem
First off, what makes a poem a poem? How do we distinguish a poem from other pieces of written work, such as prose? A poem is like a piece of word art. It makes use of similes, metaphors, and, of course, sometimes it rhymes. It is structured in meter or verse and uses heavy doses of imagery to convey deep emotions.
So then what is an allegorical poem? It’s still a poem, but what distinguishes it is that it’s a poem with two meanings. The first meaning is the obvious one, the literal meaning. The second meaning is a symbolic meaning. To get the full significance of a symbolic meaning, we have to dig beneath the surface and read between the lines.
The symbolic meaning forces the reader to interpret the text, to figure out what the poet is trying to say without coming right out and saying it. Perhaps the poet is making a political critique or social commentary. It’s up to the reader to figure it out.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of allegorical poetry, starting with Inferno. The literal story in Italian poet Dante Alighiere’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy from the early 14th century is about a man who is on a journey. The poem is divided into three parts: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). But what does it all mean? There surely must be some hidden meaning.
Dante is writing about his view on the soul’s journey towards God. The poem is packed with great imagery and symbolism. The first part of The Divine Comedy is Inferno, which is a very classic example of an allegorical poem. In Dante’s version of hell there is a sort of ‘eye for an eye’ poetic justice motif. The sullen choke on mud; the gluttonous are forced to eat feces; the greedy are placed underneath a stream of fire. So, one of the allegorical meanings in Inferno is that God created hell to punish all sins. God will match the severity of a person’s sins with what he deems is a proper penalty.
The progressive nature of the narrative also reinforces the symbolism. As Dante (with the poet Virgil as his guide in both Hell and Purgatory) moves through Hell, the sins get larger and larger, as does the punishment.It should be noted that there are hundreds of symbols in Inferno. One of the more obvious, for example, is the beast Geryon who has the body of a disgusting serpent and the head of an innocent man. It represents fraud and dishonesty, which in God’s eyes is worse than committing violence.Another example is the dark, scary forest at the beginning of the poem, which represents Dante’s confusion.
He is at the halfway point of his life (age 35) and is totally lost and alone in the dark woods, unable to find the right path. Virgil finds him at that point and the two begin their journey to the three realms of the afterlife.It’s difficult to neatly sum up the symbolic meaning of a 14,233-line epic poem. However, we can fairly interpret that the various symbols of the journey describe the search of a Christian’s arduous path to God. It’s not easy to find God – we’re human and we make mistakes – but in order to find God, we have to pay for our sins.
The Haunted Palace
Let’s take a look at another example in The Haunted Palace by American writer Edgar Allan Poe.
The poem was originally written in 1839, but Poe later incorporated the poem in his popular novella The Fall of the House of Usher.The literal meaning of the poem is about a beautiful palace that completely falls apart after evil things arrive and decide to haunt the place. However, the symbolic meaning uses the palace as an allegory for the mind. The broken-down house is essentially a metaphor for insanity.
We can get a sense of Poe’s use of symbolism right at the beginning of the poem, which compares the palace with a human head. In fact, each stanza describes a different part of the human body and how madness deteriorates it. The windows are the eyes and the door is the mouth. The exterior of the palace is the physical attributes of a person, and the interior is the mind.
The Faerie Queene
Another classic example of an allegorical poem is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which was published in two parts in 1590 and 1596. In a letter to Sir John Walter Raleigh, Edmund wrote that he only completed six of the originally conceived 12 books.
Edmund planned that at the end of the poem, each knight would represent his specific virtue and meet at the court of the Queene. Unfortunately, because Edmund did not finish the poem, there is no final verse that neatly wraps up the story.The obvious literal meaning of the poem is the story of a group of knights who each set out to observe a different Christian virtue. These virtues include things like friendship, truth, holiness, and justice. Each book takes on the story of a different knight examining a different virtue.
As for the allegorical meaning, all of the characters and events in the poem have a very specific symbolic meaning. In fact, even the setting (Faerie Land) which is ruled by the Faerie Queene is symbolic of Spenser’s homeland of England and his beloved monarch Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser, a religious zealot, adored the Queen because she was able to unify England under Protestantism.Finally, in the poem the knights endure many trials and tribulations. These obstacles can be seen as a metaphor for Catholicism. Spenser felt that the Catholic Church was extremely corrupt and that the only true religion was Protestantism.
Allegorical poems contain both a literal and a symbolic meaning. The reader will have to interpret the text’s use of imagery and metaphor in order to get the full meaning. Renowned poets such as Dante, Poe, and Spenser all used allegory to write a few of the most acclaimed poems ever written.