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On Allegory

On Allegory:
Some Medieval Aspects and Approaches
(with an Introduction by Eric Stanley
and an Afterword by Vincent Gillespie)

Edited by

Mary Carr, K.P. Clarke and Marco Nievergelt

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

On Allegory: Some Medieval Aspects and Approaches (with an Introduction by Eric Stanley and an
Afterword by Vincent Gillespie), Edited by Mary Carr, K.P. Clarke and Marco Nievergelt

This book first published 2008 by

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

15 Angerton Gardens, Newcastle, NE5 2JA, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2008 by Mary Carr, K.P. Clarke and Marco Nievergelt and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-84718-400-6, ISBN (13): 9781847184009

Hans Memling, Die sieben Freuden Mariens, Oil on Wood, 81.3 X 19.2 cm,
Munich, Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Inv. Nr. WAF 668. Reproduced with Permission.

Preface ........................................................................................................ ix


Allegory Through the Ages, As Read Mainly in England and As Seen

Anywhere .................................................................................................... 1
E. G. Stanley

Allegories of Faith

The Persistence of Narrative: An Exploration of Hans Memling's

The Seven Joys of the Virgin...................................................................... 28
Meredith Bacola

“The Picture of Christ Crucified”: Luthern Influence on Donne's

Religious Imagery ..................................................................................... 42
Kirsten Stirling

Allegory and the Self

Personification and abstractio in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy...... 56

Olga Malinovskaya

Sum newe thing: Autobiography, Allegory and Authority

in the Kingis Quair .................................................................................... 70
Darragh Greene

Allegory and Place

The Allegory of Landscape: Land Reclamation and Defence

at Glastonbury Abbey................................................................................ 87
Catherine A. M. Clarke
viii Table of Contents

Writing Allegory

Erotic Dialogue and the Meaning of Margaryte

in Usk’s The Testament of Love............................................................... 104
Alice Spencer

The Object of Allegory: Truth and Prophecy in Stephen Hawes’

Conforte of Lovers................................................................................... 133
Jane Griffiths

Re-reading Allegory

Translation of Allegory or Allegory of Translation?

Petrarch’s Redressing of Boccaccio’s Griselda ....................................... 156
William Rossiter

Reading/Writing Griselda: A Fourteenth-Century Response

(Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 42,1)................... 183
K. P. Clarke

Allegory, Cognition, and a Philosophical Controversy:

Two Texts by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola......................................... 209
Crofton Black

Afterword ................................................................................................ 231

Vincent Gillespie

Contributors............................................................................................. 257

Index........................................................................................................ 260

The contributions collected in the present volume of essays were,

excepting two, presented at a graduate medieval conference entitled
“Allegory: Aspects and Approaches”, held at Lincoln College, Oxford,
June 10—11, 2005. If the reader is struck by the collection’s diversity of
both subject-matter and approaches, then this is to be seen within the
context of a conference that drew together people from various
backgrounds and methodologies. We were unconcerned that the
conference made any particular ‘statement’ other than to reflect the many
faces of allegory. Likewise, this collection of articles is not meant to sit
comfortably within any theoretical tradition or ‘–ism’. The mix, it is
hoped, will generate its own connections and contradictions for the reader:
Varietas, after all, delectat.

We have incurred several debts during the organization of the first

conference and the editing of this book. Professor Eric Stanley closed the
conference with a contribution that has become, here, an introduction to,
or rather an opening to the complexity of the subject. His support and
encouragement is warmly acknowledged here and deeply appreciated.
Professor Peter S. Hawkins, then the Starr Visiting Fellow at Lady
Margaret Hall, was, too, a stalworth champion of our venture and his
guidance ensured it was far from a folle volo. Professor Vincent Gillespie
was often on hand to help us, in very many ways, and his support of the
conference, and those that have followed it, is surely a key to its success.
The Rector of Lincoln College and the Faculty of English Language and
Literature were generous in their financial support without which the
conference would simply not have been possible.

Mary Carr
K. P. Clarke
Marco Nievergelt


Allegory in Classical Antiquity

Allegorical imagery, whatever its places of origin may have been,
developed in Classical Antiquity, and so one turns with due reverence to
Johann Winckelmann, 1717–1768. He wrote a monograph, An Essay on
Allegory, especially for Art, which begins (1766, p. iii):1 “With none of my
writings have I been more fearful to publish than with this, because I
feared not to be able to succeed in my intention or to fulfil what might be
expected of it.” Fearfulness comes to anyone trying to write on allegory.
The subject is too multifarious for assured success, even in
Winckelmann’s study of 168 pages (plus indexes), even when basically
confined to Classical Antiquity. He does not define allegory; in his second
chapter, he comments on details, how, for example, the gods are depicted,
what symbols are associated with them, and how the beholder recognizes
the gods because of such symbols. His third chapter deals with abstracts
personified. Evening is his first example: the Seasons, Night and Day, and
many more, both Classical and Renaissance, and later. He is not concerned
with Christian imagery, abstract and often Counter-Reformation: how to
represent the Sacred Name of Jesus, how the Immaculate Conception,
subjects illimitably allegorical in every aspect, including their
Some proverbial phrases such as “Time flies or flees”, Tempus fugit,
invite visual representation. The proverb comes in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale,
when the spokesman of the populace of Saluces urges the young Walter to

“Mit keiner meiner Schriften bin ich furchtsamer gewesen, als mit dieser,
hervorzutreten, weil ich meine Absicht nicht erreichen können, und befürchte die
Erwartung derselben erfüllet zu haben.” Unless otherwise stated, all translations
are mine in this paper.
2 Allegory Through the Ages

get married soon—but Chaucer uses it to refer to Time, not he in tune with
Time personified (Ruggiers 1979, fol. 175ro; Furnivall 1873, 406–7 lines

And thenketh lord / among youre thoghtes wyse

How þat oure dayes passe / in sondry wyse
For thogh we slepe / or wake / or renne / or ryde
Ay fleeth the tyme / it nel no man abyde.

The word “allegory”; what it stood for in different

periods; its only biblical use at Galatians 4:24
In the Middle Ages allegory was in the first place verbal, crying out for
exegesis. In the Renaissance and after, much influenced by Classical
Antiquity, allegory more strongly involves visuality. Medieval allegory
typically involves biblical exegesis. The word itself is used in the Bible
only once, at Galatians 4:24, and it is not recorded in English before the
first Wycliffite Bible, where it is explained as “goostly vndirstondinge”,
that is “spiritual interpretation”; MED’s definition (Kurath, et al., 1952–
2001, I, 199–200) of the word allegory confines itself to the use of the
word in biblical exegesis:

allegorie: 1. Theol[ogy] One of the four methods or levels in the

interpretation of Holy Writ [i.e. the literal (temporal), spiritual
(allegorical), moralizing (tropological), and mystical (anagogical)]:
spiritual interpretation, presentation, or meaning (of a text); bi (in) ~, by
way of spiritual or symbolic interpretation, allegorically. ... 2. bi ~, by
means of symbolism, symbolically; in maner of ~, ? figuratively.

That is not sufficient for medieval allegory, and MED has for the same
phrase, bi allegorie, two interpretations, “allegorically” and
“symbolically”, and the phrase in maner of allegorie is interpreted as a
questioning “? figuratively”. Is allegory the same as symbol, the same
perhaps as figure? For the exegetical sense, MED quotes Galatians 4:24 in
the earlier Wycliffite Version of the Bible, which reads (with the
intercalated words in italics (Forshall and Madden 1850, IV, 404):2 “The

Variants given in the apparatus include ‘by another vndirstondinge’ and
‘gospelles vndirstondinge’. The later Wycliffite version does not use the phrase
said by allegorie, but has instead seid bi an othir vndirstonding, and a side-note
explicates an othir vnderstonding: bi gostli vndirstonding, thouȝ it is fer fro
Jerusalem bi space of londis.
On Allegory 3

whiche thingis ben seid by allegorie, or goostly vndirstondinge.” The

context of the word “allegory” in the Epistle is of interest, literally
translated in the Rhemes New Testament (1582, 505, annotations 508)
Galatians 4:22–6, which refers to the casting forth of Hagar and Ishmael in
Genesis chapter 21: 3

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sonnes: one of the bond-woman,
and one of the free-woman. 23 But he that of the bond-woman, was borne
according to the flesh: and he that of the free-woman, by the promisse.24
which things are said by an allegorie. For these are the two testaments. The
one from mount Sina, gendring vnto bondage: which is Agar, (25 for Sina
is a mountaine in Arabia, which hath affinitie to that which now is
Hierusalem) and serueth with her children. 26 But that Hierusalem which
is aboue, is free: which is our mother.

An exegesis is supplied by the English College of Rhemes in an


24. By an allegorie.] Here we learne that the holy Scriptures haue beside
the litteral sense, a deeper spiritual and more principal meaning: which is
not only to be taken of the holy wordes, but of the very factes and persons
reported: both the speaches and the actions being significatiue ouer and
aboue the letter. Which pregnancie of manifold senses if S. Paul had not
signified him self in certaine places, the Heretikes had bene lesse wicked
and presumptuous in condemning the holy fathers allegorical expositions
almost wholy: who now shew them selues to be mere brutish and carnal
men, hauing no sense nor feeling of the profunditie of the Scriptures,
which our holy fathers the Doctors of Gods Church saw.

No such Romish statement about heretics, “wicked and presumptuous ...

mere brutish and carnal men”, could have been left uncontroverted at the
end of the sixteenth century, and the Puritan William Fulke (1589, 327vo–
328ro) replied vigorously, and at a length on such “Allegorical

Cf. the Vulgate (Wordsworth, et al., 1889–1941), II, 390–2, Galatians 4:22-6:
scriptum est enim | quoniam Abraham duos filios habuit | unum de ancilla et unum
de libera | 23 sed qui de ancilla secundum carnem natus est | qui autem de libera
per repromissionem | 24 quae sunt per allegoriam dicta. | Haec enim sunt duo
testamenta | unum quidem a monte Sina in seruitutem generans | quae est Agar | 25
Sina enim mons est in Arabia | qui coniunctus est ei quae nunc est Hierusalem et
seruit cum filiis eius | 26 illa autem quae sursum est Hierusalem libera est | quae
est mater nostra.
4 Allegory Through the Ages

We learne that Abrahams house being the Church, was a figure or paterne
of the Church to come, and that all notable mutations therein doe prefigure
or set forth, the like in the whole Church that followed... But that the
Apostle in this place vsing the terme of allegory, meaneth no such
descanting vpon the Scripture, as you [the Papists at Rhemes] call a deeper
and spirituall, and more principall meaning, diuers of the ancient fathers
also doe beare witnesse. First Chrysostome vpon this place saieth: A figure
he calleth vnproperly an allegory. But this is the meaning of what he
saieth. This history declareth not onely that which appeareth, but also
setteth foorth higher matters. Theodoret vpon this place sayth: The diuine
Apostle hath sayd these things are sayd by allegory, meaning that they are
otherwise vnderstood, for he hath not taken away the story, but teacheth
what things are prefigured in the story.
S. Ambrose saith: Isaack was borne to be a figure of Christ. Therefore
he saith these thinges are said by allegorie, because the persons of Ismael
and Isaack by one thing signifie another. Photius saith: They are spoken
allegorically, that is, the natiuities of these two sonnes were figures of two
testaments. These prefigurations differ much from allegoricall
interpretation... [I]t is not lawfull to conclude euery truth out of any text of
scripture, where the Holy ghost meaneth not to teach any such matter. How
vaine a thing therfore those allegories are, the varietie of them gathered by
diuers men out of the same text, doth declare, seeing they haue no
foundation in the word, but only in the braine of the inuenter. And it is as
easie a matter to interpret Virgils Aeneades, or Ouids Metamorphosis
allegoricallie as the scriptures, and to applie all things in them to truth and
spirituall vnderstanding.

The exegesis by the Seminary at Rhemes, as controverted zealously by

Fulke, provides a good set of examples of what allegory is, attached to the
only use of that word in the whole Bible.4 Prefigurations are clearly
allegorical. Thus Isaac prefigures Christ: the parallel of the sacrifice is
close and literal. That, however, according to this Pauline allegory, the
nativity of Ishmael figures the Old Testament and the nativity of Isaac the
New Testament requires a spiritual leap of understanding too far for a
Puritan, and probably a leap too far for a modern reader. But pace Fulke, it
is allegorical so to interpret their nativities because St Paul says it is. If we
indulge allegory further we may see in Isaac typologically Ecclesia of the
New Testament and in Hagar and Ishmael Synagoga of the Old Testament
cast forth by Abraham as Synagoga is to be cast forth. There may be some

Galatians 4:22–31 is the Epistle read at Mass on the Fourth Sunday in Lent;
according to a side-note in the Rhemes New Testament, and cf. the Sarum Missal
(Legg 1916, 79); so also in the Uses of York and Hereford (Blunt 1907, 272–3);
the Book of Common Prayer begins the reading at verse 21.
On Allegory 5

beauty in that view made lively in medieval statuary, for example, in the
statues outside a door of Strasbourg cathedral (and now sheltering in the
museum there). Synagoga is blindfolded with her staff broken, and
Ecclesia is triumphant, and often with a flag aflutter. Art is, however,
unlikely to reconcile us to how, in the unallegorical reality of the world,
Abraham shamefully cast forth Hagar and her son into the desert.

Allegory and symbolism

Superficially, St Paul’s explicit use of allegory seems akin to the
symbolism with which the elements of the Eucharist are invested because
of the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper and used liturgically still:
Matthew 26:28:5 “Drinke ye al of this. For this is my blovd of the new
Testament, which shal be shed for many vnto remission of sinnes.” The
Latin liturgy has “the cup of my blood of the new and everlasting
Testament, the mystery of the Faith”, but, in accord with the wording of
the Gospel, the Book of Common Prayer has left out et eterni, and
mention of the calix (in line with the practice that the laity share in both
elements), and crucially has left out misterium fidei; cf. Joseph Ketley
(1844, 89); Blunt (1907, 390). The words “my bloud of the new
Testament” are allegorical: they encapsulate a mysterium fidei, but what
exactly they mean is far from clear.
The nature of allegory as understood in the Christian Middle Ages
becomes clearer when one tries to follow its application to central
mysteries of the Faith. For the elements of the Eucharist to become in
reality Christ’s body and blood requires the witness of a miracle such as
that of the Mass of Bolsena in 1263, to be seen in many late medieval and
Renaissance works of art, including a transfigured representation in
Raphael’s celebrated fresco in the Vatican Stanza d’Eliodoro (1512–
1514). That miracle, however, does not explain the allegory expressed in
the words “this is my bloud of the new Testament”, which remains a
mysterium Fidei, as much as that Ishmael is the Old Testament and that
Isaac is the New Testament. Shortly after the miracle at Bolsena, post hoc
ergo propter hoc, Pope Urban IV ruled on the Feast of Corpus Christi, and

New Testament (1582, 75–6); Wordsworth et al. (1889–1941, I, 154), Mattheus
26:27–8: bibite ex hoc omnes | 28 hic est enim sanguis meus noui testamenti | qui
pro multis effunditur in remissionem peccatorum. Cf. the Canon of the Mass (Legg
1916, 222): Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes... Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei noui
et eterni testamenti. misterium fidei. qui pro uobis et pro multis effundetur in
remissionem peccatorum. All the Uses current in Britain and the Roman Liturgy
have this wording (Maskell 1882, 142–3).
6 Allegory Through the Ages

English piety resulted in several extant lyrics, including “The Corpus

Christi Carol” with the last stanza “And by that beddes side ther stondith a
ston | ‘Corpus Christi’ wretyn theron”; but what that means and to what
historical event it may form an allegorical or symbolic appendage is much
discussed and much disputed, often without clear relevance.6 Clearer in its
origins as an image of Corpus Christi is the Pelican in her Piety vulning
herself, based on the exegesis of Psalm 101:7 (Biblia Sacra, 1926–1995,
X, 219–20): similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis | factus sum sicut
nycticorax in domicilio; (Holie Bible, 1609, 1610, II, 184) “I am become
like a pellicane of the wildernes. I am become as a nightcrow in the
house”. The verse is expounded at length, in Psalmum CI sermo I, 7–8, by
St Augustine (Dekkers and Fraipont 1990, III, 1430–2), pivoting on the
great similitude of Christ and the bird, the pelican according to a fable
reviving its dead children with the blood from its self-inflicted wounds,
and sinful mankind revived by Christ’s blood.
The Pelican in her Piety, Ecclesia and Synagoga, as well as the Mass
of Bolsena have been made palpable through the visual arts; the first is a
fabular similitude, the two female figures are allegorical personifications,
the last is no allegory, but if one believes the miracle, it is a historical
event perceived as resolving doubt in the bodily presence in the elements
of the Eucharist. The Pelican is allegorical because understood as standing
for mankind’s renewal of spiritual life through Christ’s Crucifixion and
Resurrection. The personified Ecclesia and Synagoga become allegories
because with their attributes they form a complex theological statement. A
comparable, more modern, secular example is Britannia personified and an
allegory for Britain. On the coins, still on the 50p piece, she sits on her
throne, a lion at her feet, woe to any attacker, and by her side the shield
that shields the nation.
Allegory is handled dramatically in the visual arts after the Middle
Ages, a visuality that declines from the eighteenth century onwards, except
in traditional representations as of Britannia. The statue of Liberty, a gift
from the people of France in 1886, still welcomes immigrants to the
United States if they happen to arrive in New York by ship; and, less
pompously, there are Picasso’s pigeons of peace and his half-legendary,
half-egocentric Minotaur of sexuality.
Visual allegory in modern times must not be left on a sour or grudging
note. It is best to see the work of an allegorist from his side, as indeed we
can when considering John Gibson’s group of Queen Victoria in the

See Greene (1977, 195–6, notes 423–7), no. 322 (Balliol College MS 354, 16th
On Allegory 7

Palace of Westminster. Gibson himself records the commission with the

childlike, guileless loyalty characteristic of him, as we learn from Lady
Eastlake (1870, 205–8) who has taken it from his own autobiographical

In 1850 I was informed that it was intended to erect a statue of Her

Majesty within the Houses of Parliament — to be placed in a recess in the
Prince’s Chamber. . . . Prince Albert . . . proposed that two allegorical
figures should be added, so as to form an important group. I accordingly
sent a design from Rome [Gibson’s place of residence] representing Her
Majesty seated upon her throne, with her sceptre in her left hand, and a
laurel crown — the emblem of the reward of merit — in her right. On her
right hand the figure of Wisdom, on her left that of Justice. These figures
stand a little below the throne, giving a pyramidical form to the group.
Certain geometrical forms are necessary in composition. . . . His Royal
Highness suggested that, the Sovereign being a lady, the figure of Wisdom
might be exchanged for that of Clemency. . . . I completed the monument
in five years. It stands in the Prince’s Chamber, where it receives a fine
light, which is of the first importance for sculpture...
I was requested to write a description of the group for visitors to read
when surveying the monument. I wrote the following: “In the Prince’s
Chamber is represented in marble her most gracious Majesty Queen
Victoria, sitting upon her throne, holding her sceptre and a laurel crown —
that is, governing and rewarding. The back of the throne is surmounted by
lions, expressive of British strength and courage, and the footstool is
adorned by sea-horses, to signify dominion upon the ocean. The horse is an
emblem of war. On the right of the Sovereign stands Justice; on the left
Clemency. Justice holds the sword and balance — round her neck is
suspended the image of Truth. In Egypt the judge, when pronouncing the
sentence of death, put on his neck a small golden image of Truth. The
expression of Justice is inflexible, while that of Clemency is full of
sympathy and sadness — sad for the constant sins that come to her
knowledge, while with lenity she keeps the sword sheathed and offers the
olive-branch, the sign of peace. On the front of the pedestal is a bas-relief
of Commerce. On the right side is Science designated by a youth
pondering over geometry. On the left a figure denoting the useful arts. In
the background are represented the steam-engine, the telegraph-wire, and
other objects. The figures are colossal; that of Her Majesty being eight feet
high — the two supporting figures are above seven.”

Of course, like many things about a hundred and fifty years old, this
account is dated in its deferential style, and in the now politically incorrect
thought that Clemency, rather than Wisdom, should stand by a female
sovereign. Gibson’s description of the allegory he has created is,
nevertheless, of interest: the dimensions, the geometrical forms, the
8 Allegory Through the Ages

symbolism of royal sway with Wisdom or (better?) Clemency and Justice

(based on Truth) slightly smaller in size than the queen herself,
considerably more than one and a half times her actual diminutive height,
the attributes of Britain’s military, maritime, and colonial power, and
representations of achievements in commerce, in science, and in the useful
arts, all in one group, designed to stand in the presence of Royalty at the
centre of parliamentary government of what was then the most powerful
nation on earth.

Definitions of allegory
The general meaning of allegory is well understood, but the word is
difficult to define. Isidore of Seville (Lindsay 1911, I, 37, 22) defines the
word etymologically: Allegoria est alieniloquium, which, even with his
not very helpful examples, get us nowhere except to remind us that the
Greek etymon ἀλληγορία means “other-speaking”.7 That is not enough
for allegoria in the Renaissance and later; for allegory—as understood in
Classical Antiquity, less often perhaps in the Middle Ages, and then
strongly again in the Renaissance and later—combines “other-speaking”
with higher-seeing. Sir James Murray (1884, s.v.) is particularly good in
the last four words of his definition: his sense 1 is, “Description of a
subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive
resemblance.” Johnson (1755, s.v.), always brilliant on abstracts, adds a
contrastive example:8 “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.”
Johnson in his quotations likes, whenever possible, to present evidence
from both the Humanities and the Sciences. He has two quotations for the
word allegory. The first is from Ben Jonson’s Discoveries (Herford and
Simpson 1925–1952, VIII. 625 lines 2019–21, XI, 268–9), good advice to
authors that allegories should not be drawn out inordinately, if obscurity
and affectation are to be avoided. The second quotation, by “Peacham”—
no details (Peacham 1634, II, 114) in Johnson—sounds scientific,
explaining that “by this word Nymphe is meant nothing else but by

Isidore’s examples are: Virgil, Aeneid, I. 184–5, the three stags straying by the
shore killed by Aeneas are interpreted as symbolizing the warlike enemy; and
Eclogue III, 71, the ten golden apples interpreted as the ten books of Virgil’s
Samuel Johnson (ed.), A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols (London: by
W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton; T. and T. Longman; C. Hitch and L. Hawes; A.
Millar; and R. and J. Dodsley, 1755), s.v.
On Allegory 9

allegory the vegetative humour or moisture that quickeneth and giveth life
to trees, plants, herbs and flowers, whereby they grow.”9 Peacham is
writing not a biological treatise, but “an exquisite practise” in the visual
arts, and he goes on: “. . . whereby they grow and increase, wherefore
[nymphs] are fained to be the daughters of the Ocean, the mothers of
flouds, the nurses of Bacchus, goddesses of fields, who have the protection
and charge of Mountaines, feeding of hearbs, woods, medowes, trees, and
in generall the whole life of man.”

The alleged falsity of allegory

In the age of Spenser, Puttenham (Willcock 1936, 154) is witty at the
expense of allegory in The Arte of English Poesie:10

As figures be the instruments of ornament in euery language, so be they

also in a sorte abuses or rather trespasses in speach, because they passe the
ordinary limits of common vtterance, and be occupied of purpose to
deceiue the eare and also the minde, drawing it from plainnesse and
simplicitie to a certaine doublenesse, whereby our talke is more guilefull &
abusing, for what els is your Metaphor but an inuersion of sence by
transport; your allegorie by a duplicitie of meaning or dissimulation vnder
couert and darke intendments: one while speaking obscurely and in riddle
called Ænigma: another while by common prouerbe or Adage called
Paremia: then by merry skoffe called Ironia: then by bitter tawnt called
Sarcasmus. . .

He goes on: “our maker or Poet is appointed not for a iudge, but rather for
a pleader, and that of pleasant & louely causes”, so that “all his abuses
tende but to dispose the hearers to mirth and sollace by pleasant
conueyance and efficacy of speach, they are not in truth to be accompted
vices but for vertues in the poeticall science very commendable”.
Puttenham first emphasizes truth, but then relents, because such poetic
departure from literal truth delights, and delight is traditionally considered
an aim of poetry.
At the end of the seventeenth century Richard Blackmore has a
pompous preface to an “heroick poem” of his (1695, beginning of the
preface, and sig. [bii]ro) in which he sets forth at the outset the desirable
morality of poetry: “To what ill purposes soever Poetry has been abus’d,

I quote the spellings, etc., as in Peacham, not as in Johnson.
The attribution of the work, published anonymously in 1589, to Puttenham has
been questioned.
10 Allegory Through the Ages

its true and genuine End is by universal Confession, the Instruction of our
Minds, and Regulation of our Manners.” Later in the preface, he states at
some length the rules required for a heroic poem. He explains how
allegory must not be overdone, and how, a century after Ariosto and
Spenser wrote, though he recognizes their art, he finds their fanciful use of
allegory altogether too much [sig. b2ro]:

The Action must be related in an Allegorical manner; and this Rule is best
observ’d, when as Divines speak; there is both a Literal Sense obvious to
every Reader, and that gives him satisfaction enough if he sees no farther;
and besides another Mystical or Typical Sense, not hard to be discover’d
by those Readers that penetrate the matter deeper. . . . Ariosto and Spencer,
however great Wits, not ... attending to any sober Rules, are hurried on
with a boundless, impetuous Fancy over Hill and Dale, till they are both
lost in a Wood of Allegories. Allegories so wild, unnatural, and
extravagant, as greatly displease the Reader. This way of writing mightily
offends in this Age; and ’tis a wonder how it came to please in any. There
is indeed a way of writing purely Allegorical, as when Vices and Virtues
are introduc’d as Persons; the first as Furies, the other as Divine Persons
or Goddesses, which still obtains, and is well enough accommodated to the
present Age. For the Allegory is presently discern’d, and the Reader is by
no means impos’d on, but sees it immediately to be an Allegory, and is
both delighted and instructed with it.

Towards the end of the next century, Thomas Warton (1774–[1806],

III, 498–9) derives Elizabethan (and, no doubt, seventeenth-century)
spectacles from the moralities of a more religious age:

Allegory has been derived from the religious dramas into our civil
spectacles. The masques and pageantries of the age of Elizabeth were not
only furnished by the heathen divinities, but often by the virtues and vices
impersonated, significantly decorated, accurately distinguished by their
proper types, and represented by living actors. The antient symbolical
shews of this sort began now to lose their old barbarism and a mixture of
religion, and to assume a degree of poetical elegance and precision. Nor
was it only in the conformation of particular figures that much fancy was
shewn, but in the contexture of some of the fables or devices presented by
groupes of ideal personages. These exhibitions quickened creative
invention, and reflected back on poetry what poetry had given. From their
familiarity and public nature, they formed a national taste for allegory; and
the allegorical poets were now writing to the people. Even romance was
turned into this channel. In the Fairy Queen, allegory is wrought upon
chivalry, and the feats and figments of Arthur’s round table are moralised.
The virtues of magnificence and chastity are here personified: but they are
imaged with the forms, and under the agency, of romantic knights and
On Allegory 11

damsels. What was an afterthought in Tasso, appears to have been

Spenser’s premeditated and primary design. In the mean time, we must not
confound these moral combatants of the Fairy Queen with some of its other
embodied abstractions, which are purely and professedly allegorical.

The Song of Songs

Peacham (1634, I, 79–80) shows how the Psalter and especially the Song
of Songs were understood by all exegetes of the Bible, till in our age,
when eroticism has become acceptable in the now demysticized holy

What lively descriptions are there [in the Psalter] of the Majesty of God,
the estate and security of Gods children, the miserable condition of the
wicked? What lively similitudes and comparisons, as the righteous man to
a bay tree, the Soule to a thirsty Hart, vnity to oyntment and the dew of
Hermon? What excellent Allegories, as the vine planted in Ægypt; what
Epiphonema’s, prosopopoea’s and whatsoever else may be required to the
texture of so rich and glorious a peece?
And the song of Solomon (which is onely left us of a thousand) is it not a
continued Allegory of the Mysticall love betwixt Christ and his Church?

Peacham directs the reader to see in the Psalter and the Song of Songs
such figures as simile, allegory, epiphonema, and prosopopoeia, terms that
reach back further than the Middle Ages. The allegory of the Song of
Songs, as that book of the Bible was understood for 1500 years or more, is
significant. The opening words of the Song of Songs are, in the Doway
translation (Holie Bible 1609, 1610, I, 135), “Let him kisse me with the
kisse of his mouth: because thy brestes are better then wine”, rendering the
Vulgate (Biblia Sacra 1926–1995, XI, 179), Osculetur me oscula oris sui |
quia meliora sunt ubera tua vino. The book therefore opens with initial O,
and King’s College Cambridge MS 19 fol. 21vo of the twelfth century,
Bede’s commentary on the Song of Songs, shows a nimbed bearded
figure, Christ, very close to a nimbed female figure, Ecclesia, both sitting
on a throne; his left hand and her right hand are touching each other, and

In Psalm 37:35 (Authorized Version) the wicked, as if righteous, is seen
“spreading himselfe like a greene bay tree”. I quote A.V. throughout this paper
from Pollard (1911). For the soul compared with a thirsty hart, see Psalm 42:1;
unity with ointment and the dew of Hermon, Psalm 133; “a vine out of Egypt”,
Psalm 80:8.
12 Allegory Through the Ages

she is kissing him.12

Where we in this century and the second half of the last see sex, more
pious times saw holy spirituality. In Donne’s Holy Sonnet XVIII (Grierson
1912, I, 330, II, pp. lxxx–lxxxii, 235–6) is Christ’s spouse the Ecclesia of
seven-hilled Rome—which Donne in his youth followed, as did his
distinguished forebears—or is it the Reformed Church of Germany and
Britain? This deeply troubled poem should make us see the inadequacy of
a sniggering response to an allegory so enveloped in faith and love and

Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and clear.

What! is it She, which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which rob’d and tore
Laments and mournes in Germany and here?
Sleepes she a thousand, then peepes up one yeare?
Is she selfe truth and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seaven, or on no hill appeare?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travaile we to seeke and then make Love?13
Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights,
And let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she’is embrac’d and open to most men.

Donne uses the Song of Songs in his sermons, for more general
explication, unrelated to his own position; thus in his (second) “Serm. LI.
Preached upon the Penitentiall Psalmes”, with a marginal reference to
Canticles 4:12, the Song of Solomon in the Authorized Version 4:10–12
(Pollard 1911, unpaginated): “10 How faire is thy loue, my sister, my
spouse! how much better is thy loue then wine! and the smell of thine
oyntments then all spices!. . . 12 A garden inclosed is my sister, my
spouse: a spring shut vp, a fountaine sealed.”

Donne’s sermon (1640, 509–21, at p. 515):

God sayes of his Church, Hortus conclusus soror mea, My sister, my

Spouse is a Garden enclosed, as a spring shut in, and a fountaine sealed

The initial is illustrated in Kirschbaum (1968–1972, I, 319), s.v. “Bräutigam u.
Braut”, i.e. Christ and Ecclesia as bridegroom and bride.
Here to make love means “to pay court (to), pay amorous attention (to)”; not “to
copulate (with)”, a sense not recorded before 1950 in Burchfield (1972–1986, II,
744), s.v. love, sb., 7.g.
On Allegory 13

up; But therein is our advantage, who, by being enwrapped in the

Covenant, as the seed of the faithfull, as the children of Christian Parents,
are borne if not within this walled Garden, yet with a key in our hand to
open the doore, that is, with a right and title, to the Sacrament of Baptisme.
The Church is a Garden walled in, for their better defence and security that
are in it; but not walled in to keepe any out, who, either by being borne
within the Covenant, inherit a right to it, or by accepting the grace which is
offered them, acquire, and professe a desire to enter thereinto.

Grammatical gender
The place in allegory of gender follows on easily from consideration of the
beloved understood as Ecclesia in the Song of Songs. In Winckelmann’s
general theory of allegory grammatical gender matters; it is central in our
grasp of personification, an aspect of allegory, which when female, that is
feminine, allows one to see some abstraction as a daughter or mother of
some abstraction, or a nurse (of Bacchus, for example), or some goddess.
In the twenty-first century (accustomed to other historical speculations
about the origins of gender in Indo-European languages or further afield),
we are unlikely to accept Winckelmann’s patriarchal view of the matter:14

Nature itself has been the teacher of allegory, and allegorical language
seems to belong more properly to nature than the signifiers15 of our
thoughts devised at a later stage: for the language of allegory is essential,
giving a true picture of the things such as is to be found in only a small
number of words of the earliest languages, and which depict thoughts ...
Nature, speaking in figures, is to be recognized in traces of figurative
concepts, even in the gender of the words which the first who called them
so combined with the words. Gender testifies to a contemplation of active

Winckelmann (1766, 3):
Die Natur selbst ist der Lehrer der Allegorie gewesen, und diese Sprache scheinet
ihr eigener als die nachher erfundene [sic] Zeichen unserer Gedanken: denn sie ist
wesentlich, und giebt ein wahres Bild der Sachen, welches in wenig Worten der
ältesten Sprachen gefunden wird, und die Gedanken mahlen... Die in Bildern
redende Natur und die Spuren von bildlichen Begriffen erkennet man so gar in
dem Geschlechte der Worte, welches die ersten Benenner derselben mit den
Worten verbunden haben. Das Geschlecht zeuget von einer Betrachtung der
wirkenden und leidenden Beschaffenheit, und zugleich des Mittheilens und des
Empfangens, welches man sich Verhältnißweise in den Dingen vorgestellet, so daß
das Wirkende in männlicher Gestalt und das Leidende weiblich eingekleidet
My use of signifier (the English rendering of Saussure’s signifiant) is an attempt
to render Winckelmann’s Zeichen “sign”.
14 Allegory Through the Ages

and passive quality, and at the same time to a contemplation of the

impartment or reception which were imagined appropriately in the objects,
with the result that the active was clad in masculine shape, the passive in
feminine shape.

Winckelmann’s subject is the interpretation of allegory in Classical

Antiquity, and though he has modern examples too, thus the beaver stands
for Canada to give just one example (Winckelmann 1766, 135), he is not
concerned with the fact, so important for medieval and later allegory, that
Latin abstracts are most often feminine, and therefore personified or
allegorized as female figures.
In a fable by La Fontaine (1838, I, [192], livre V fable xii), based on
the Æsopic Aegrotus et Medicus,16 two physicians attend a dying man.
One of the two, looking desperately sad in Grandville’s illustration,17 is
Tant-pis representing Life (or Health) at the time of the patient’s death.
His confrère—looking comfortably pleased in Grandville’s illustration,
with skull and bones embroidered on his chest—is Tant-mieux
representing Death in whose hands the dying man will soon be. In French
la vie (or la santé) and la mort are feminine; and the two physicians, in la
Fontaine’s wording confrères, are only representatives of Life (or Health)
and Death, not, of course, la Vie (or la Santé) and la Mort themselves. Not
all of the world of Fable is allegory, but some fables come close to it, as
this fable certainly does.

Grammatical gender; personification and prosopoeia

Personification, symbolism, and allegory are distinct though related. Jacob
Grimm is at his best and grandest when in the second edition of his
Deutsche Mythologie he adds two chapters, personifications and poetic art.
He believes that poetry arose out of mythical personification, an idea
present in Winckelmann, but less closely studied by him when he
discusses how gods personify abstractions. Grimm (1844, 835–6) says:18

See Perry (1952, 387), no. 170 Νοσῶν καὶ ἰατρός.
“Grandville” is Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803–1847).
Was in sprache und sage tief verwachsen ist kann der mythologie niemals fremd
geblieben sein, es muß auf ihrem grund und boden eigenthümliche nahrung
gesogen haben, und jene grammatische, dichterische allbelebung darf sogar in
einer mythischen prosopopöie ihren ursprung suchen. Da alle einzelnen götter und
göttlichen eigenschaften auf der idee eines elements, eines gestirns, einer
naturerscheinung, einer kraft und tugend, einer kunst und fertigkeit, eines heils
oder unheils beruhen, die sich als gegenstände heiliger anbetung geltend gemacht
On Allegory 15

Whatever grows deep into language and spoken tradition cannot remain
outside mythology; it must have imbibed fitting nourishment on its soil;
and the aforenamed universalizing animation, at once grammatical and
poetic, may truly trace its origin to a mythical prosopopoeia. Since all
individual gods and divine attributes consist in the idea of one element, one
constellation, one natural phenomenon, one strength and virtue, one art and
skill, one good or evil fortune, which have achieved prevalence as objects
of sacred veneration; in that way concepts related to such ideas attain
deification, even if in themselves impersonal and abstract. A definite
personality is proper to such animals, plants, or stars as have reference to
individual gods or have their origin in metamorphosis. We may go so far as
to say that in general the gods of paganism have altogether proceeded from
those various personifications which were closest to the genius and
tradition of each nation, except that, by uniting several attributes and as a
result of a long-continued tradition, a more exalted standing was certain to
be conferred upon individual figures.

For all the grandeur of Grimm’s concepts, and his language is often
difficult, there are not infrequently aspects and ingredients in his
statements that may not be to the taste of readers in the twenty-first
century. As a comparativist he generalizes, undeterred by distances in time
and space, about linguistic, literary, and cultural phenomena. He tries to fit
what he says into a strongly held belief in national character, each people
different in sinnesart und entwicklung, “national genius and tradition”, for
that explains differences in personification resulting in the deities and in
the mythology peculiar to each nation. In his writings, the grammar of
personification is not a mere aspect of allegorical personification
expressed in poetry, but, uniquely—and essentially, as Grimm sees it—
grammar brings forth poetry. Heathendom elevated nature by making
natural phenomena worthy of veneration: it is a lost world. I do not know
whether Grimm had in mind Schiller’s poem “Die Götter Griechenlands”,
a lament for the gods and lower divinities of the Greeks. A world that does
not endow abstractions and natural phenomena with divinity is an

haben; so erlangen auch ihnen verwandte, an sich unpersönliche und abgezogne

vorstellungen auf vergötterung anspruch. thieren, pflanzen, sternen, die sich auf
besondere götter beziehen oder aus verwandlung entstanden sind, wird eine
bestimmte persönlichkeit gebühren. Man könnte sagen, die götter des heidenthums
seien überhaupt hervorgegangen aus den verschiedenen personificationen, die der
sinnesart und entwicklung jedes volks zunächst gelegen haben; nur daß den
einzelnen gestalten durch vereinigung mehrerer eigenschaften und lang
fortgetragne überlieferung höheres ansehn bereitet werden muste.
16 Allegory Through the Ages

entgötterte Natur, “ungodded nature”: 19

Alle jene Blüthen sind gefallen

von des Nordes winterlichem Wehn.
E i n e n zu bereichern, unter allen,
mußte diese Götterwelt vergehn.
gleich dem todten Schlag der Pendeluhr,
dient sie knechtisch dem Gesetz der Schwere
die entgötterte Natur!

[All those blossoms are fallen in the North’s wintry blast. To enrich the One
God among them all this Olympian world had to perish.
like the dead stroke of the pendulum-clock, ungodded nature serves slavishly
the law of gravity.]

In the same part of Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm used apostrophe as

obviously personifying the thing addressed, and, like Dr Johnson before
him, he refers to terms of family relationship to express the relationship of
things. As an example he quotes chapter 35 of Skáldskaparmál in which
the awl or bodkin (alr) is seen as the brother of the knife (knífr):20 “our
artless Antiquity delighted to emphasize such animation by means of the
usages of apostrophe and family relationship.” Grimm’s examples,
however, involve no allegory. One thinks of the Riddles of the Anglo-
Saxons in Latin and English which similarly give life to things without
allegorical overtones or symbolism. For example, in Riddle 88 lines 9–25
the two horns that form an antler are referred to playfully and riddlingly as
brothers, the absence of one leaves the other brotherless, thus lines 20b–

“Die Götter Griechenlands” exists in two version. I quote lines 153–7, 166–8, of
the original version of 1788 (Petersen and Beißner 1943, 194; Kurscheidt and
Oellers 1991, 162, note p. 174). According to a note by the editors, the effect of the
wintry winds of the North is reminiscent of Winckelmann’s distinction between
the fair climate of Greece and the rough northern climate, which is the cause of the
distinction between Greek and Northern art, Kultur, and religion.
Grimm (1844, 835), “unser naives alterthum liebt es solche belebung durch die
gebräuche der anrede und verwandtschaft hervorzuheben.” For the family
relationship of alr and knífr see Rask (1818, 133); cf. Sigurðsson and Jónsson
(1848–1887, I, 346). I owe the precise references to the 1818 and 1848 editions to
Professor Roberta Frank (Yale).
The text of the riddle is badly damaged at the beginning, but all commentators
are agreed that horns are involved, whether or not they are gables, or one of the
On Allegory 17

Nis min broþor her,

ac ic sceal broþorleas bordes on ende
staþol weardian, sto[n]dan fæste.
Ne wat hwær min broþor on wera æhtum
eorþan sceata eardian sceal,
se me ær be healfe heah eardade.

[My brother is not here, but brotherless I must, at the edge of the table,
guard my stand, must stand firm. I do not know where in the possessions of
men my brother has to inhabit a corner of the earth, (the brother) who had
occupied a high place by my side.]

An example of gender mismatch in translation

When a female abstraction is translated into a language with grammatical
gender, for example, from Latin into Old English, things can seem to go
wrong sexually when the genders do not coincide in the two languages. I
have written elsewhere about an example of such an incongruity of gender
in King Alfred’s version of The Soliloquies ascribed to St Augustine.22 In
Latin sapientia is feminine, in Old English wisdom is masculine. That
affects the sense of the following passage, in which Alfred greatly
amplifies his source:23

Ac ic wolde þæt wyt sohten nu hwilce ðæs wysdomes lufiendas beon

scolen. Hu ne wost ðu nu þæt ælc þara manna þe oðerne swiðe lufað þæt
hine lyst bet þaccian and cyssan ðone oðerne on bær-lic24 þonne þer þær
claðas beotweona beoð? Ic ongyte nu þæt lufast25 þone Wisdom swa

two is an inkhorn as is now usually thought. See the full discussion in Göbel
(1980, 426–9, 436–44).
Stanley (1994, 45–7). For a different view of the immediacy of perception when
Wisdom is experienced naked, see Waterhouse (1986, 69–71).
For the Old English see Endter (1922, 42–3); cf. Hargrove (1902, 42), Carnicelli
(1969, 75–6). Endter and Hargrove print a text of Augustine’s Soliloquia under the
Old English. Hargrove (1904, = 1970, 68–9), usefully italicizes Alfred’s additions.
In the passage quoted here only the first sentence goes back to the Latin, Nunc
illud quaerimus qualis sis amator sapientiae.
Though not recorded in the dictionaries, bær-lic may be regarded as a
compound, like bær-fot “barefoot”, since the adjective is uninflected; bær-lic has
no parallel in other Germanic languages, and is presumably a nonce-formation.
The editors do not accept the manuscript reading as involving non-expression of
the subject pronoun; and its omission is unusual in Old English when person and
number, in this case þu, is to be inferred only from the ending of lufast, and not
from what precedes. Pogatscher (1901, 286–7) has no clear parallel for such
18 Allegory Through the Ages

swiðe, and þe lyst hine swa wel nacodne ongitan and gefredan þæt þu
noldest þætte26 ænig clað betweuh were. Ac he hine wyle swiðe seldon
ænegum mæn swa openlice geawian;27 on ðam timum þe he ænig lim swa
bær eowian wile þonne eowað he hyt swiðe feawum mannum. Ac ic nat hu
þu hym onfon mage mid geglofedum handum. Ðu scealt æac don bær lic28
ongean gyf ðu hine gefredan wilt.
[But I should like that the two of us now find out of what kind the lovers of
Wisdom must be. Do you not know that every person who very much loves
another man would rather pat and kiss the other man on the bare body than
where there are clothes between them? I now perceive that you so very
much love Wisdom, and so much long to get to know and feel him naked
that you do not want any cloth to come between. But he (scil. Wisdom)
will only very rarely show himself so openly to any person; at those times
when he is willing to display any limb thus bare then he displays it to very
few people. But I do not know how you can perceive him with gloved
hands. You too must put your bare body against his if you wish to feel

Clearly, Wisdom is male because the endings in -ne are accusative

masculine as is the pronoun hine referring to Wisdom. It is unlikely that
the person addressed is regarded as anything other than male; hine lyst has
a masculine reflexive pronoun, and the verb refers to any who would be a
lover of Wisdom. Even if there were instances of Anglo-Saxon statements
favourable to homosexuality—in the laws and penitentials homosexuality
is not regarded favourably—this is an allegorical love of Wisdom, but the
nature of what lovers do is expressed in terms that do not rule out the
normal actions of heterosexual lovers, male and female, when they pat,
feel, and kiss each other as they present themselves naked to each other: he
who seeks Wisdom, that is naked Truth, must strip himself of all
inessentials. Alfred continues a little later gyf ðu hwilc ænlic wif lufodest
[if you loved a certain peerless woman];29 and then uses heo to refer back
to neuter wif to make the sex of the woman doubly clear.

omission; the most that can be said, however, is that it is unusual, not that it is
MS þæt ic ænig.
The next clause has eowian in a closely similar use. DOE (Cameron, et al. 1986)
takes the form to be from eowian with initial g-, a development not uncommon in
Kentish; cf. Jordan-Crook (1974, § 82).
Perhaps bær lic is to be regarded as a compound (cf. note 24, above), but when
the adjectival element is uninflected any distinction between adjective + noun and
nominal compound is undemonstrable.
MS lofodest as if “didst praise”, but “to love” is required here, not “to praise”.
The Latin has si alicujus pulchrae feminae amore flagrares.
On Allegory 19

Abstracts allegorized
In the nineteenth century, as we have seen, figures represent such abstracts
as Justice, Glory, Death, and La Patrie in the Panthéon in Paris, Liberty on
Ellis Island welcomes newcomers to the United States, and Gibson has
placed Queen Victoria between Clemency and Justice, complicating the
group by further symbolisms. As Richard Blackmore (1695, sig. [bii]ro)
says, Vices and Virtues are habitually treated allegorically in words:
centuries earlier Prudentius’ Psychomachia had inspired and inspirited a
world of Christian allegory. No wonder then that abstracts are brought to
life in Old English, for example in the late poem, Judgement Day II (lines

Þonne druncennes gedwineð mid wistum,

and hleahter and plega hleapað ætsomne,
and wrænnes eac gewiteð heonone,
and fæsthafolnes feor gewiteð
uncyst onweg, and ælc gælsa
scyldig scyndan on sceade þon[n]e;
and se earma flyhð uncræftiga slæp
sleac mid sluman slincan on hinder.

[Then Drunkenness disappears with the drinks and eatables, and Laughter and
Play run off together, and Lechery too goes away from here, and
Closefistedness, the vice, goes far away, and every kind of guilty Wantonness,
hastening then into the shades; and wretched, enfeebled Sleep, sluggish with
Somnolence, flees slinking backwards.]

The author of the early Middle English Sawles Warde is good at

breathing life into personified abstractions that are centrally allegorical,
livelier than the Latin source, Hugh of St Victor, which is handled very
freely in the much-edited Middle English text:31

Ant Warschipe hire easkeð, “Hweonene cumest tu, Fearlac, Deaðes

“Ich cume,” he seið, “of helle.”
“Of helle?” ha seið, Warschipe; “ant hauest tu isehen helle?”
“Ȝe,” seið Fearlac, “Witerliche, ofte ant ilome.”
“Nu,” seið þenne Warschipe, “for þi trowðe, treoweliche tele us hwuch is
helle, ant hwet tu hauest isehen þrin.”

Caie (2000, 98). Cf. Stanley (1996, 213-14).
Wilson 1938, 10, and source, p. 11; Ker 1960, fol. 74ro; Bennett and Smithers
1968, 250; d’Ardenne 1977, 170.
20 Allegory Through the Ages

“Ant ich,” he seið, Fearlac, “o mi trowðe, bluðeliche, nawt tah efter þet hit
is, for þet ne mei na tunge tellen, ah efter þet ich mei ant con, þertowart ich
chulle reodien.”

[And Prudence asks her, “Where do you come from, Fear, Death’s
remembrancer?” “I come,” says he, “from hell.” “From hell?” says
Prudence, “and have you seen hell?” “Yes,” says Fear, “truly, time and
again.” “Now,” Prudence says then, “for your truth’s sake, tell us truly
what kind of place hell is, and what you have seen in it.” “And so I shall,”
says Fear, “gladly, on my truth, not though according to what it is, for no
tongue can tell that, but according to what I can tell and know how to, I’ll
make an effort in that direction.”]

An abstract may be given life by personification when skilfully

handled. Grammatical gender often matters in that process, but is not
essential to its operation. Both “death” and “sleep” were masculine in
Greek (Θάνατος and ὕπνος) and in Old English (deaþ and slæp), but in
Latin mors is feminine whereas somnus is masculine. Shelley opened his
early poem Queen Mab with the anthropomorphizing lines (Reiman and
Freistat 2000, 2004, II, 165):

How wonderful is Death,

Death and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy like the morn
When throned on ocean’s wave,
It blushes o’er the world:
Yet both so passing wonderful!

The brothers Death and Sleep sound all right in English and would have
worked in Greek, a language Shelley was at home in. His personification
is, however, at times far-fetched: neither Death nor the moon is endowed
with lips, blue or otherwise, Sleep is hardly rosy, though the morn is so,
and may be thought to announce its presence by blushing when seen
“throned on ocean’s wave”. We may be dealing with some kind of
hypallage, a “fallacy” akin to, but not identical with, “the pathetic fallacy”
condemned by Ruskin, unless felt by him to be an “Idea of Truth”, and
then perhaps accorded the accolade “exquisite”, or even praised for
“exquisite sincerity”, Ruskin’s judgement of Keats’s “over the unfooted
sea” in Hyperion, book iii:32 “[T]his fallacy is of two principal kinds.

Cook and Wedderburn (1903–1912): V (1904), Modern Painters, III, 201–20,
ch. XII ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’, at pp. 205 § 5 (definition) and 208 § 8 (on Keats).