Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

On the Difficulties of Allegory

Horace, Odes 1.14, is a notoriously difficult poem to interpret. It is universally agreed that it is an allegory, but there is no consensus as to what it is an allegory of, and this points up the problems of allegorical writing and reading in general. First, the poem, in Latin and in English:

O navis, referent in mare te novi
fluctus. O quid agis? Fortiter occupa
portum. Nonne vides ut
nudum remigio latus,

et malus celeri saucius Africo               5
antemnaque gemant ac sine funibus
vix durare carinae
possint imperiosius

aequor? Non tibi sunt integra lintea,
non di, quos iterum pressa voces malo.               10
Quamvis Pontica pinus,
silvae filia nobilis,

iactes et genus et nomen inutile:
nil pictis timidus navita puppibus
fidit. Tu, nisi ventis               15
debes ludibrium, cave.

Nuper sollicitum quae mihi taedium,
nunc desiderium curaque non levis,
interfusa nitentis
vites aequora Cycladas.               20

O ship the fresh tide carries back to sea again.

Where are you going! Quickly, run for harbour.

Can’t you see how your sides

have been stripped bare of oars,

how your shattered masts and yards are groaning loudly

in the swift south-westerly, and bare of rigging,

your hull can scarce tolerate

the overpowering waters?

You haven’t a single sail that’s still intact now,

no gods, that people call to when they’re in trouble.

Though you’re built of Pontic pine,

a child of those famous forests,

though you can boast of your race, and an idle name:

the fearful sailor puts no faith in gaudy keels.

You must beware of being

merely a plaything of the winds.

You, who not long ago were troubling weariness

to me, and now are my passion and anxious care,

avoid the glistening seas

between the shining Cyclades.

Quintilian uses this poem to illustrate his definition of one type of allegory in Institutio Oratiora 8.6.44:

Allegory, which is translated in Latin by inversio, either presents one thing in words and another in meaning, or else something absolutely opposed to the meaning of the words. The first type is generally produced by a series of metaphors. Take as an example:

O ship, new waves will bear thee back to sea.192

What dost thou? Make the haven, come what may,”

and the rest of the ode, in which Horace represents the state under the semblance of a ship, the civil wars as tempests, and peace and good-will as the haven.

Quintilian reads the poem as a political allegory, as does the translator linked above, who titles the poem “The Ship of State.” But there is by no means any critical agreement on this point; the poem has also been read–plausibly–as an allegory for love, for poetry, and for life in general.

In his classic study The Odes of Horace, Steele Commager offers acute comments on the risks and ambiguities of allegoresis.

One critic ventured that the ship represents not the state, but the poet’s own life–the metaphor was scarcely less common. From a cry of national anxiety, the Ode then becomes a resolution to retire to “the quiet life of the philosopher-poet.” If such an explanation seems implausible, it cannot be disproved. Nothing in the poem tells us what the ship represents, for allegory, unlike the simile and many metaphors, customarily leaves one term tacit. To say “my love is like a red, red, rose” involves no difficulty, and the statement “my love is a red, red, rose” is hardly more abstruse. But were we to write simply a description of a red, red, rose, readers might justly be excused for failing to grasp its significance, unless they received sufficient hints. Thus Dante’s Beatrice has been taken as The Church, Scholastic Theology, Faith, Divine Grace, and finally, Platonic Philosophy.

Fortunately for our peace of mind, allegory as a pure form is something of an anomaly in classical literature.1

Because all this is so (the ambiguity, indeterminacy, and so on of allegorical interpretation), one can easily see why even someone who allows for Scripture to be interpreted allegorically might prohibit any doctrinal conclusions being drawn from such reading, or, rather, “reading.” Thus Thomas Aquinas:

The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense. (ST I-I, Q. 1, Art. 10, ad. 1)

  1. Steele Commager, The Odes of Horace, 169.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.