Allegory, Mixed Metaphors, and the Decline of Rhetoric

Quintilian 8.6.44

“Allegory, which we translate into Latin as inversion either communicates different things in words or meaning or something completely contrary. The first type emerges from continued metaphor as in “Ship, new waves will return you to this sea—What can you do? Make bravely for the harbor!” And that whole passage in which the ship stands for the state, the waves and storms stand for civil war and he makes the harbor stand for peace and agreement.”

[44] allegoria, quam inversionem interpretantur, aut aliud verbis aliud sensu ostendit aut etiam interim contrarium. prius fit genus plerumque continuatis translationibus, ut

O navis, referent id mare te novi
fluctus; o quid agis? fortiter occupa

totusque ille Horatii locus, quo navem pro re publica, fluctus et tempestates pro bellis civilibus, portum pro pace atque concordia dicit.

It is of utmost importance that you avoid this kind of mistake, that you move on from the kind of metaphor you began to another. There are many, certainly, who, although they have begun with a storm, end with a fire or collapsing building. This is a most wretched incongruity.

In general, allegory most often graces men of little genius in their quotidian conversations. For those phrase worn by their public use like “putting your foot forward”, “going for the jugular”, or “bloodletting” all come from allegory, although they do not gain much notice. For truly it is novelty and variation which makes for eloquence—and the unexpected delights even ore. For this reason, then, we have abandoned moderation and we have wasted language’s charm by striving too much for attention.”

[50] nam idquoque id primis est custodiendum ut,quo ex genere coeperis translationis, hoc desinas. multi autem, cum initium atempestate sumpserunt, incendio aut ruina finiunt; quae est inconsequentia rerum foedissima.

[51] ceterum allegoria parvis quoque ingeniis et cotidiano sermoni frequentissime servit. nam illa id agendis causis iam detrita, pedem conferre et iugulum petere et sanguinem mittere, inde sunt, nec offendunt tamen. est enim grata id eloquendo novitas et emutatio, et magis inopinata delectant. Ideoque iam id his amisimus modum et gratiam rei nimia captatione consumpsimus.

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