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Personification and Allegory: Selves and Signs

What has allegory to do with personification, and personification with allegory? Are we justified in speaking, as we often do, of “allegorical personifications” and “personification allegory,” or does such usage, however widespread, obscure fundamental differences between the two? Why is it that... ... more

What has allegory to do with personification, and personification with allegory? Are we justified in speaking, as we often do, of “allegorical personifications” and “personification allegory,” or does such usage, however widespread, obscure fundamental differences between the two? Why is it that the notion of allegory emerges already with some of the earliest known readers of Greek mythological poetry in the sixth century BCE, whereas full-scale personification narrative does not seem to appear until Prudentius’ Psychomachia in the fifth century CE? Can the histories of these concepts be brought into meaningful alignment? Can the premise of their close interrelatedness withstand rigorous theoretical scrutiny? In revisiting such questions, this colloquy hopes to spark fresh debate on what is not merely an unresolved terminological issue, but a fundamental conceptual problem with immense implications for our understanding of Western art and literature from classical antiquity to the present day. 

The initial cluster of contributions provides a selection of some of the most compelling recent and forthcoming work on the subject, opening with a cogent argument against the traditional connection between the two categories by Michael Silk, extracted from a comprehensive study of the theory of allegory in the Western tradition. For Silk, it is “beyond doubt that the association with personification cannot be said to be built into the notion of allegory itself,” and that the wide acceptance of this association has been the cause of “endless critical slippages and misleading formulations.” By contrast, for Walter S. Melion and Bart Ramakers, in the introduction to their wide-ranging collection on personification, or Jason Crawford, in his recent study of English literary allegory from Langland to Bunyan, the link is strong as ever: “[t]alking about personification” still “means talking about allegory,” and personification remains allegory’s “central” and “most important trope.” Others still—Nicolette Zeeman, in a forthcoming essay on aspects of personification in the work of Guillaume de Deguileville—adopt more qualified positions: there is no simple equivalence, but there are key features, notably the tendency to “[yoke] together discourses or elements that are potentially at odds with each other,” that personification “shares with allegorical narrative more generally.”

These initial contributions are meant to indicate the range of the current debate on the subject as well as the possibilities for further dialogue between partly or wholly divergent positions. Acceptance of Silk’s argument, for example, does not leave one without questions. If the allegory-personification connection is not only theoretically but also historically unsustainable—if “we now associate the two categories” whereas “they for centuries never did”—then why have we begun to do so? What changed between roughly the sixteenth and eighteenth century CE to occasion this development? On the other hand, even as they differ from Silk in reaffirming the association, the remaining authors in the cluster do not necessarily agree in various other matters. Is premodern personification allegory based on a radically different understanding of the world and the self? Is it an expression of a premodern mind to which what we call personifications really “were what they signified” (Melion and Ramakers)? Or does personification allegory entail a more complex dynamic, where this conflict between meaning and being is intrinsic to its operation, and where a radically different historical perspective emerges—one of “a dense network of continuities between the medieval and the modern, breaches in the wall of separation that early modernity works so hard to construct” (Crawford)? Does a “structural hybridity” lie at the heart of the phenomenon, do “the tensions, non-sequiturs, and contradictions of personification” enable us “to think about the tensions, non-sequiturs, and contradictions of being a subject,” and does “the fragmentary and anti-holistic nature of allegory [make] it the proper reflection of a modern condition often understood to be unquiet or alienated” (Zeeman)?

In the rich array of arguments they advance and the key points of debate they collectively identify, the contributions selected to launch this colloquy illustrate both the scope and the vitality of the current work on this subject. They are assembled here as an invitation to further discussion of the allegory-personification problem in Western poetics, aesthetics, and intellectual history, both in terms of its broader dynamics and trajectories and of interpretive encounters with particular authors and works, in whatever medium and of whatever period.

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What has allegory to do with personification, and personification with allegory? Are we justified in speaking, as we often do, of “allegorical personifications” and “personification allegory,” or does such usage, however widespread, obscure fundamental differences between the two?

Vladimir Brljak's picture
Curator Vladimir Brljak

Vladimir Brljak is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Literature at Durham University, h

Vladimir Brljak is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Literature at Durham University, having previously studied at the Universities of Zagreb (BA) and Warwick (PhD), and held a Thole Research Fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He works mainly on English literary and intellectual history, 1500-1700, with wider-ranging interests in the history of poetics and hermeneutics in the Western tradition.

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Personification and Allegory?

by Michael SilkEssay
On all available evidence, the critical-theoretical association of allegory with personified abstractions (in modern understandings, a common and generally unchallenged association) is later than Isidore and indeed later than Tyndale. That is: in literary usage from late... more

Personification and Allegory

by Walter Melion and Bart M. RamakersEssay
Talking about personification means talking about allegory. One reason for this is that texts and images which are considered allegories very often contain personifications. Where personification is used, allegories come into being. For this reason literary and art... more

Personification and Enchantment

by Jason CrawfordEssay
The disenchanting poetics of allegorical narrative are especially clear in the context of allegory’s most important trope: personification. Personifications are central to allegory in its narrative forms: they often carry out the action of allegorical narrative. And like... more

Personification and Alienation

by Nicolette ZeemanEssay
What we call personification, classical, medieval and early modern theorists named, amongst other things, traductio, immutatio, prosopopoeia, conformatio, or ethopoeia. [... more