Poetic Thought for the Day (8/30/2014): Figuration & Allegory: On the Symbolic

Sometimes I have a sneaking suspicion that many contemporary readers of poetry expect, or at least only relate to what my be termed a literal and discursive level of statement within poetry; as if two thousand years of what in poetic terms is known as the symbolic mode of poetic statement and its reading as allegory had not only bypassed them, but had never come into play to begin with; never been taught within current educational institutions as either a worthwhile pursuit or study. Else due to modern and postmodern systems of thought, allegorical modes could now be dispensed with as both irrelevant and obsolete; even medieval forms of thought and behavior long dead to us skeptical and reasoning moderns.

The symbolic modes of allegory never died, and live among us in the most hidden aspects of our lives in plain site: fashion, advertising, politics, cultural critique, etc. are all immersed in allegorical and figurative appraisals of life and thought. One could say that every common reader assumes certain allegorical readings of life, art, and politics, even if they’ve never heard of the term nor its subtle connections to poetry, philosophy, and the beginnings of history.

Allegory and figuration begin in this: When do you suspect that a poet means something more than what he says, or that his use of language might mean more than what his words convey in their literal meaning? If you suspect that a poet means more than what a literal reading of his poem might tell you, then you’ve moved beyond the literal and into that world of the symbolic mode of thinking and feeling.

Since this is but a thought for the day I cannot take in every aspect of this long history of the Symbolic Mode, all I can do is offer what is probably the prime example of a figurative or allegorical rendition of thought in the ancient world, Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory of the Cave can be found in Book VII of Plato’s best-known work, The Republic, a lengthy dialogue on the nature of justice. Often regarded as a utopian blueprint, The Republic is dedicated toward a discussion of the education required of a Philosopher-King. You can read Benjamin Jowett translation (Vintage, 1991), pp. 253-261 on The History Guide. I’ll not explain the allegory which can be looked up in a number of nice commentaries across the web (i.e., here, here, here, etc.). 

Yet, in my previous post I introduced Aristotle’s Poetics which never even discusses the symbolic mode of poetic statement, and it is mainly from him that most rhetoricians would formulate their notions of poetics as perfect clarity of reason and message, of meaning and intellect. But there is another sort of critic that lived during these times that because the philosophers of the era felt both an apathy and a fierce and competitive need to oust from their world, were left out of the philosophical arguments of rhetoric’s and poetics for the most part. These were the allegorists for whom poetry was an obscure and hidden symbolic mode of thought that conveyed deep meanings unavailable to most literal minded readings of poetry. They felt there was not only a literal reading on the surface, the base reading or natural statements of the poetry itself, but that there were also higher or symbolic readings beyond the literal meaning of the words that opened up language to the unsaid or unspoken cosmic meanings of which language as a prosaic or discursive mode did not have access.

The poet’s that the allegorists of the symbolic mode defined poetry as divination and magic, as the power of words to evoke meanings that did not exist in natural modes of comprehension, but brought the through indirect access the hidden realms that our everyday consciousness did not have direct access to alive within an excess of linguistic power that would later be marked down as the Sublime.

Longinus would become the first of a long line of critics who would write On the Sublime: “the Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy: for what is wonderful always goes together with a sense of dismay, and prevails over what is only convincing or delightful, since persuasion, as a rule, is within everyone’s grasp: whereas, the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and [an invincible] strength, rises above every listener”. (wiki)

I would also add the obverse coin in that the world of the Grotesque and Macabre, the downward spiral into earth and the meanings of things below the surface rather than as in the sublime to lift up, is the power that pulls down and sinks us into those realms of being that tie us to the erotic and thanatos, love and death in things, events, and life. This, too, is a counter-sublime that works in many poets who also tend toward the symbolic mode. Poet’s such as Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Sylvia Plath, and others have tended toward this mode; and, in the long line of Lucretian poets of which the greatest is the Italian, Giacomo Leopardi, whose Canti and Zibaldone both have given me my darker songs. As well as that great Spaniard, Federico Garcia Lorca whose notions of duende have so influenced my own poetics. And, not least, is François Villon, whose Le testament, 1461 is one of my primal texts for the earthy and street poetics in some of my poetry.

With the beginnings of the Enlightenment project, and Immanuel Kant in particular the modernist mode of poetic statement was been locked into the prosaic and discursive, literal mode of saying and doing for the last two hundred years to the point that it has become the dominant mode of thinking and being, so naturalized that many no longer know that it was not always the main mode. William Blake the poet would once call this literal enclosure of meaning in its naturalist mode as “Single vision & Newton’s sleep”:

Now I a fourfold vision see And a fourfold vision is given to me Tis fourfold in my supreme delight And three fold in soft Beulahs night And twofold Always. May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep.
—Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake(1956)

The romantic poets Coleridge, Shelley and Keats would revive the allegorical mode after their readings in both John Milton and Edmund Spenser. Blake is objecting to the literalism of the Newtonian mindset. He would have us see multiple significances in everything. It’s this notion that words cannot be locked down to just the base or literal meaning, the dictionary rendering of language, that works within these poets and critics of the symbolic or allegorical mode. For them poetry is always in excess of its literal meaning, that it is symbolic of the deep structure of reality that we as humans only have indirect access too.

Our conscious minds are bound to a very small iteration of the brain’s capacity to know the Cosmos surrounding us, it filters and orders the world presented to us in consciousness long before we understand what it means; in fact, we do not, and never have had direct access to the brain’s sea of seething computational or neuronal complexity, even those delicate emotions that we believe are ours: anger, love, desire, fear, dread, etc., all the words we attach to emotions and what we presume as intentional entities that compose and recompose our lives, that are the compulsions that drive us toward or about objects are in fact not our at all, but the power of that mystery of the brain that even the vast learning of modern sciences has of yet only an inkling.

Yet, the ancient poets knew it by other means, by indirect access to the mysteries of being through their powerful symbolic and allegorical modes of thought and comprehension, which we moderns have all but abandoned and forgotten in the dustbin of history.

That is my thought for the day!


For those interested pursuing this study of Allegory, Figuration, & the Symbolic Mode:

  • Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts by Peter T. Struck
  • Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode by Angus Fletcher
  • The Origin of German Tragic Drama by Walter Benjamin
  • The Cambridge Companion to Allegory by Rita Coleman
  • Allegory by Jeremy Tambling





8 thoughts on “Poetic Thought for the Day (8/30/2014): Figuration & Allegory: On the Symbolic

  1. This is superb, and I am so glad someone has taken up the subject. This narrow reading practice seems everywhere at the present time – stifling.
    I suspect also there is the philosophy of language at play here too; I have had people intone to me: There is a word for everything, say exactly what you mean
    Words for me are more aides memoires of the complex of ideas and thoughts around the words.
    Many in the UK here could not see metaphor if their life depended on it.
    I also suspect there is the cultural flux at play here: no one is sure at the moment what is implied by what; rather rather than go exploring (which takes time and committment) they want easy access, or teasingly easy access.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s as if educating one’s self in the old high way of art was just too much of a task, they would rather have reality be built like a box or a square and the hell with the round holes or pegs that don’t fit… they’d just throw them out. 🙂

      Yea, scholarship has become a sort of flatland filled with one-dimensional players… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have just seen (interLitQ) Seaumus Heaney’s death 1 year on. How many, now I wonder, in light of our conversation read, understand his Haw Lantern volume, with its take on eastern european techniques of equivocal meanings?
        This does, however, suggest a possible lucrative market for books explaining such texts for the modern reader!


      • I think you’d have to go to someone like Helen Vendler to get a good fair reading of his poetry… but, true, being Catholic his poetry was both within and against the whole tradition of Dante/Petrarch and within his own Irish world as well of Yeats and after… I started reading him long ago in the late 70’s or so. 🙂


      • I have just been reading HV’s The Breaking of Style, on GM Hopkins, Heaney and Jorie Graham – wonderful book. Makes me realise how much further I would need to go to even get near her brilliance. Her work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets is still my canon and favourite (so far).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yea, the old aestheticians of the figural or tropes of mind and feeling are far and few between now. Been reading Edward Hirsch’s work on artistic inspiration on Lorca, duende, etc. The Demon & The Angel of late which I’m enjoying.


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