The Death of Allegory is a thoughtful and ironic poem that focuses on the allegorical style of the Renaissance, featured in paintings and texts, where people and objects and things are symbols and carry figurative meaning.
The speaker is asking the question of their whereabouts, giving examples, and answering at the same time. There is a suggestion of loss, that the symbols are no longer alive in the sense of being regularly used by writers and other artists.
It is an accessible poem of reflection, about change and fashion in the arts and society. As is typical of Billy Collins it contains wit, charm and playful intelligence, alongside some vivid imagery and tongue-in-cheek humor.
Some think the title should have a question mark against it because generally speaking, allegory is not dead yet. It still breathes in novels such as Animal Farm and Life of Pi, and in movies such as The Matrix and The Truman Show.
But Billy Collins’s allegory is specifically based in the European Renaissance period, between the 14th and 17th centuries. The images he depicts come straight out of a tale of the royal court and include knights and maidens, horses, walls and green hills.
To allow these images entry into the modern day present, he connects them to everyday objects and places, like license plates and the retirement state of Florida. This helps the reader put allegory into context and adds a touch of humor to what is often a serious academic subject.
Collins does this a lot in his poetry and calls the technique ‘ironic deflation’ ….’I use the pedestrian detail to reverberate against the loftiness of literary tradition.’
This device basically juxtaposes the past with an immediate present, and the stark contrast created can be seen in this poem’s sixth stanza, where the speaker zooms in on black binoculars and a money clip, solid objects that are nothing but themselves.
So, the main themes of the poem are:
- allegory and its role in culture.
- change in society’s attitude to what things mean.
- materialism versus the imagination.
The Death of Allegory was first published in the magazine Poetry, 1990, and appeared in the book Questions About Angels 1991.
I am wondering what became of all those tall abstractions
that used to pose, robed and statuesque, in paintings
and parade about on the pages of the Renaissance
displaying their capital letters like license plates.
Truth cantering on a powerful horse,
Chastity, eyes downcast, fluttering with veils.
Each one was marble come to life, a thought in a coat,
Courtesy bowing with one hand always extended,
Villainy sharpening an instrument behind a wall,
Reason with her crown and Constancy alert behind a helm.
They are all retired now, consigned to a Florida for tropes.
Justice is there standing by an open refrigerator.
Valor lies in bed listening to the rain.
Even Death has nothing to do but mend his cloak and hood,
and all their props are locked away in a warehouse,
hourglasses, globes, blindfolds and shackles.
Even if you called them back, there are no places left
for them to go, no Garden of Mirth or Bower of Bliss.
The Valley of Forgiveness is lined with condominiums
and chain saws are howling in the Forest of Despair.
Here on the table near the window is a vase of peonies
and next to it black binoculars and a money clip,
exactly the kind of thing we now prefer,
objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case,
themselves and nothing more, a wheelbarrow,
an empty mailbox, a razor blade resting in a glass ashtray.
As for the others, the great ideas on horseback
and the long-haired virtues in embroidered gowns,
it looks as though they have traveled down
that road you see on the final page of storybooks,
the one that winds up a green hillside and disappears
into an unseen valley where everyone must be fast asleep.
The opening line is the speaker thinking to himself out loud, sending his thoughts to the reader, involving the reader from the start, typical inclusive Billy Collins. The tone is conversational and the lines are full, so full, it could be prose chopped up.
Note the first stanza is one complete sentence with just two commas for pause because the enjambment encourages the flow into the next line. So this quite a rapid pace, despite the long words with their 3 syllables tripping across the tongue…abstractions…statuesque…Renaissance….displaying…capital.
The speaker wants to know why the tall abstractions – presumably human because they’re robed and parading about in paintings and on pages – are no more. He’s noticed that, for some reason, these symbolic figures have disappeared.
That fourth line simile relates to the modern world and causes the reader to leap a few centuries into the here and now. Those old Renaissance capital letters eh? They must have conveyed a lot of information, just like a license plate.
The pace slows down as the speaker begins to detail just who these characters are. There’s much more punctuation; a careful syntax carrying Truth itself, on a horse; Chastity in veils; Courtesy with an extended hand.
These are all ex-statues brought to life, wearing clothes, animated, part of someone’s story in which they play vital roles – they’re symbols, taking the reader into an abstract world.
Yet more characters emerge. Villainy, Reason, Constancy and Justice. But note the ‘ironic deflation’ as the speaker informs the reader that they’re all retired, gone to Florida where all the tired tropes live. A trope is a literary device in which a word is used figuratively.
Justice is ironically brought to life next to a fridge – please feel free to describe what happens next.
Valor is next, along with Death. Both are in Florida too the reader has to assume but they’re not enjoying the sunshine. Seems like both are bored and clueless. All their props are being stored in that most industrial of spaces, the warehouse. How demeaning.
The situation reaches rock bottom. Should they be called back, there’s nowhere for them to live. Modernity has caught up with them, overtaken them. There’s no garden, bower ( a pleasant place with trees) or valley. These idyllic spaces have been built on (condominiums are houses often for rent or holiday let) or are being developed or exploited.
The speaker seems to be hinting at the destruction of the environment, with increased affluence and population growth leading to a lack of suitable land for allegory to thrive in.
The speaker focuses right in on the here and now and shows the reader some objects on the table. Peonies, binoculars, money clip…these things have taken the place of the allegorical characters because the modern mindset doesn’t need the figurative twist any longer. Things are things, nothing else, end of story.
This is the turning point of the poem. The reason why allegory is dead is because humans have moved on, become more material and reductive in their thinking. We prefer lower case, no capitals leading us into more abstract worlds.
And this idea continues, again with only a slight pause between stanzas. More everyday objects are cited, although these might be allegorical themselves:
- the wheelbarrow could be a reference to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem (so much depends upon/a red wheelbarrow) and his saying ‘no ideas, but in things’.
- An empty mailbox says so much – someone is alone, expecting mail that never arrives.
- A razor blade resting in a glass ashtray – a curious image, one which the speaker purposefully placed there for the reader to ponder on.
This final stanza, on the surface, draws a rather sad conclusion. The great ideas and virtues have disappeared into oblivion, into an unseen world where everyone apparently, is asleep.
But wait. The language here is quite vague. For example, it only looks as if the others have gone down that road leading to oblivion. Is the speaker so uncertain? Perhaps deep down there is a forlorn hope that these allegorical characters might return one day? Will truth come out of retirement to once again ride the horse?
The Death of Allegory is a free verse poem of 32 lines, made up of 8 stanzas, all quatrains. There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line.
When two words are close together in a line and begin with a consonant, they are said to be alliterative. This brings increased phonetic interest for the reader. Note:
wondering what…letters like license…crown and Constancy…Florida for…lies in bed listening…Bower of Bliss…black binoculars…line in lower…razor blade resting…though they…
Vowel sounds closely connected in a line or stanza compliment the alliterative. As with:
There is substantial use of enjambment, where a line is left unpunctuated to carry sense on into the next, without a formal pause.