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The function of allegory in poetry is to provide two meanings to a poem. The first meaning is obvious and represents the main theme of the verse; however, a second deeper meaning is contained within. The second meaning is often a reference to the poem’s true message. In this sense, allegory is a metaphor using a direct substitution to replace one story with another.
Allegory is an extended metaphor usually covering an entire poem. Marcus Fabius Quintillian, a Roman thinker, believed there were two main types of allegory: those that were personal or historical and those that were witty or sarcastic. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, considered poems to only be about emotions and not history.
An allegorical poem, however, can be about any subject matter so long as there is a direct substitution of one message for another. These can be parables using an old story to portray a modern message. They can also be political, where fake characters are symbolic versions of real-life politicians or public figures. They may ape historical incidences or be a way to mask personal experience.
Classical poetry such as Virgil’s “Eclogues” and “Aeneid” demonstrate that an entire allegory can cover one poem, but there can also be smaller allegories within the poem. This is typically the case with longer poems such as Dante’s poems on heaven, hell and purgatory. The function of allegory in poetry such as the “Aeneid” is to praise a political leader. Virgil uses Aeneas, the protagonist, to show the great strengths of Roman Emperor Augustus.
John Dryden, on the other hand, used his allegory in poetry to critique contemporary political figures. His poem, “Absalom and Achitophel” was published in 1681-82 in two parts, with only the first part definitely being written by Dryden himself. It was written as the reign of Charles II of Britain came to a close. Dryden used direct substitutions to replace political figures with Biblical ones such as replacing Thomas Shadwell and Elkanah Settle with Og and Doeg respectively.
Edmund Spenser decided to use allegory in poetry to represent virtues as human beings. Each knight featured in his poem, “The Faerie Queene,” is an allegory of one virtue. It is, however, also a critique at the Tudor dynasty, which in 1596, was drawing to a close.
The main functions of allegory in poetry are to glorify or flatter like Virgil or to critique like Dryden and Spenser. It is also a tool to be used to teach morals and virtues, to make parodies of contemporary figures or to mask emotions. The function depends upon what the poet wants to say, so the hidden meaning comes first then the poet attempts to mask the direct meaning with a different cloak.