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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a figure in rhetoric, whereby we make use of terms which, in their proper signification, mean something else than what they are brought to denote; or it is a figure whereby we say one thing, expecting it shall be understood of another, to which it alludes; or which, under the literal sense of the words, conceals a foreign or distant meaning. An allegory is, properly, a continued metaphor, or a series of several metaphors in one or more sentences. Such is that beautiful allegory in Horace, lib. i, Od. 14.

"O navis, referent in mare te novi Fluctus," &c.

[O ship, shall new billows drive thee again to sea, &c.]

Where the ship is usually held to stand for the republic; waves, for civil war; port, for peace and concord; oars, for soldiers; and mariners for magistrates. Thus, also, in Prior's Henry and Emma, Emma describes her constancy to Henry in the following allegorical manner:—

"Did I but purpose to embark with thee

On the smooth surface of a summer's sea, While gentle zephyrs play with prosperous gales,

And fortune's favour fills the swelling sails; But would forsake the ship, and make the shore, When the winds whistle, and the tempests roar?"

Cicero, likewise, speaking of himself, in Pison, c. 9, tom. 6. p. 187, uses this allegorical language: "Nor was I so timorous, that, after I had steered the ship of the state through the greatest storms and waves, and brought her safe into port, I should fear the cloud of your forehead, or your colleague's pestilential breath. I saw other winds, I perceived other storms, I did not withdraw from other impending tempests; but I exposed myself singly to them for the common safety." Here the state is compared to a ship, and all the things said of it under that image, are expressed in metaphors made use of to denote the dangers with which it had been threatened. We have also a very fine example of allegory in Psalms 80; in which the people of Israel are represented under the image of a vine, and the figure is supported throughout with great correctness and beauty. Whereas, if, instead of describing the vine as wasted by the boar from the wood, and devoured by the wild beasts of the field, the Psalmist had said, it was afflicted by Heathens, or overcome by enemies, which is the real meaning, the figurative and the literal meaning would have been blended, and the allegory ruined. The learned bishop Lowth, De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, Prael. 10, 11, has specified three forms of allegory that occur in sacred poetry. The first is that which rhetoricians call a continued metaphor. When several metaphors succeed each other, they alter the form of the composition; and this succession has, very properly, in reference to the etymology of the word, been denominated by the Greeks αλληγορια , an allegory; although Aristotle, instead of considering it as a new species of figure, has referred it to the class of metaphors. The principle of allegory in this sense of the term, and of the simple metaphor, is the same; nor is it an easy matter to restrict each to its proper limit, and to mark the precise termination of the one, and the commencement of the other. This eminently judicious critic observes, that when the Hebrew poets use the congenial figures of metaphor, allegory, and comparison, particularly in the prophetic poetry, they adopt a peculiar mode of doing it, and seldom regulate the imagery which they introduce by any fixed principle or standard. Not satisfied with a simple metaphor, they often run it into an allegory, or blend with it a direct comparison. The allegory sometimes follows, and sometimes precedes the simile: to this is added a frequent change of imagery, as well as of persons and tenses; and thus are displayed an energy and boldness, both of expression and meaning, which are unconfined by any stated rules, and which mark the discriminating genius of the Hebrew poetry. Thus, in Genesis 49:9 , "Judah is a lion's whelp;" this metaphor is immediately drawn out into an allegory, with a change of person: "From the prey, my son, thou art gone up," that is, to the mountains, which is understood; and in the succeeding sentences the person is again changed, the image is gradually advanced, and the metaphor is joined with a comparison that is repeated.

"He stoopeth down, he coucheth as a lion; And as a lioness; who shall rouse him?"

A similar instance occurs in the prophecy, recorded in Psalms 110:3 , which explicitly foretels the abundant increase of the Gospel on its first promulgation. This kind of allegory, however, sometimes assumes a more regular and perfect form, and then occupies the whole subject and compass of the discourse. An example of this kind occurs in Solomon's well-known allegory, Ecclesiastes 12:2-6 , in which old age is so admirably depicted. There is also, in Isaiah 28:24-29 , an allegory, which, with no less elegance of imagery, is more simple and regular, as well as more just and complete, both in the form and the method of treating it. Another kind of allegory is that which, in the proper and more restricted sense, may be called a parable; and consists of a continued narration of some fictitious event, accommodated, by way of similitude, to the illustration of some important truth. The Greeks call these allegories αινοι , or apologues, and the Latins fabulae, or fables. ( See PARABLE. ) The third species of allegory, which often occurs in the prophetic poetry, is that in which a double meaning is couched under the same words, or when the same discourse, differently interpreted, designates different events, dissimilar in their nature, and remote as to time. These different relations are denominated the literal and mystical senses. This kind of allegory, which the learned prelate calls mystical, seems to derive its origin from the principles of the Jewish religion; and it differs from the two former species in a variety of respects. In these allegories the writer may adopt any imagery that is most suitable to his fancy or inclination; but the only proper materials for this allegory must be supplied from the sacred rites of the Hebrews themselves; and it can only be introduced in relation to such things as are immediately connected with the Jewish religion, or their immediate opposites. The former kinds partake of the common privileges of poetry; but the mystical allegory has its foundation in the nature of the Jewish economy, and is adapted solely to the poetry of the Hebrews. Besides, in the other forms of allegory, the exterior or ostensible imagery is mere fiction, and the truth lies altogether in the interior or remote sense; but in this allegory each idea is equally agreeable to truth. The exterior or ostensible image is itself a reality; and although it sustains another character, it does not wholly lay aside its own. There is also a great variety in the use and conduct of the mystical allegory; in the modes in which the corresponding images are arranged, and in which they are obscured or eclipsed by one another. Sometimes the obvious or literal sense is so prominent and conspicuous both in the words and sentiments, that the remote or figurative sense is scarcely permitted to glimmer through it. On the other hand, the figurative sense is more frequently found to beam forth with so much perspicuity and lustre, that the literal sense is quite cast into the shade, or becomes indiscernible. Sometimes the principal or figurative idea is exhibited to the attentive eye with a constant and equal light; and sometimes it unexpectedly glares upon us, and breaks forth with sudden and astonishing coruscations, like a flash of lightning bursting from the clouds. But the mode or form of this figure which possesses the chief beauty and elegance, is, when the two images, equally conspicuous, run, as it were, parallel throughout the whole poem, mutually illustrating and correspondent to each other. The learned author has illustrated these observations by instances selected from Psalms 2, , 72. He adds, that the mystical allegory is, on account of the obscurity resulting from the nature of the figure, and the style of the composition, so agreeable to the nature of the prophecy, that it is the form which it generally, and indeed lawfully, assumes, as best adapted to the prediction of future events. It describes events in a manner exactly conformable to the intention of prophecy; that is, in a dark, disguised, and intricate manner, sketching out, in a general way, their form and outline; and seldom descending to a minuteness of description and exactness of detail.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Allegory'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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