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The idea for this dictionary came to me while I was reading a student essay

on Byrons ‘‘Stanzas Written on the Road between Florence and Pisa,’’ which

sets the true glory of youthful love against the false glory of an old mans

literary renown. After a promising start the student came to a halt before

these lines: ‘‘the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and-twenty / Are worth all your

laurels, though ever so plenty.’’ His copy lacked footnotes, and he lacked

experience of poetry before the Romantics. With disarming candor he confessed

that he had no idea what these three plants were doing in the poem,

and then desperately suggested that Byron might have seen them on the

road somewhere between Florence and Pisa and been inspired to put them in

his poem the way you might put plants in your office. I wrote in the margin

that these were symbolic plants and he had to look them up. But where,

exactly, do you send a student to find out the symbolic meaning of myrtle?

The Oxford English Dictionary was all I could come up with, but I felt certain

there must be a handier source, designed for readers of literature, with a

good set of quotations from ancient times to modern. But there is no such


A dozen times since then I have asked colleagues and librarians if they

knew of one. They were all sure they did, or thought ‘‘there must be one,’’ but

they could never find it. Several of them came up with Cirlots Dictionary of

Symbols, but that work, whatever its uses, is the last thing I would recommend

to a student. It has no entry at all for myrtle. Under ivy it mentions the

Phrygian god Attis and its eunuch-priests and then says, ‘‘It is a feminine

symbol denoting a force in need of protection.’’ One can hardly imagine the

interpretations of Byron that would arise from those claims. Under laurel it

names Apollo and mentions poets, but has nothing about fame, and it goes

on about ‘‘inner victories over the negative and dissipative influence of the

base forces.’’

Only slightly better are two recent ones: Hans Biedermanns Dictionary of

Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them, translated from the

German, and Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrants Penguin Dictionary of

Symbols, translated from the French. Both range widely but unsystematically

over the cultures of the world, packing Mayan and Chinese meanings next to

those from medieval alchemy. The latter book, much the larger, lacks an entry

for myrtle; under ivy it discusses Dionysus, which is on the right track, but it

says nothing about its uses in Roman poetry that lie behind Byron. Neither

book quotes widely from poetry or prose fiction.

If no adequate dictionary exists, but everyone thinks it does (because it

must), that seemed a good reason to write one. It was also a reason not to

write one, for if even the Germans have not produced one, as it seemed, it

might be beyond mortal powers. After all, anything can be a symbol, and a

comprehensive dictionary might require thousands of entries. After some

hesitation, however, I decided the thing can be done, and the present book is

the result.

Its title is somewhat misleading. It would be more correct, if ungainly, to

call it A Selective Dictionary of Traditional Western Literary Symbols and Conventions,

Mainly in Poetry, and I shall follow the terms in that hypothetical title as I

describe the books features.

It was only by drastically limiting the range of possible symbols, of course,

that I could proceed with it. Yet it is more comprehensive than one might

think. This dictionary covers only traditional symbols, those that have been

used over many years by many authors. Most entries begin with the Bible or

the classics and trace examples through to fairly recent writers, with an

emphasis on British literature, and especially on Chaucer, Spenser,

Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics; they also typically include a few

examples from Italian, French, Spanish, German, or Russian literature

(especially from Dante and Goethe). The tradition is more stable than I had

first guessed, at least until the twentieth century; nightingales and cypresses

carry with them their ancient associations, and even where they are invoked

in new ways those connotations may still be in play. There is no need,

moreover, to take up the significance of the lathe in Flauberts Madame Bovary,

the pistols in Ibsens Hedda Gabler, the mysterious sound in Act 2 of Chekhovs

Cherry Orchard, the madeleine in Proust, or the leaden circles of sound from

Big Ben that permeate Woolfs Mrs Dalloway. These must be worked out by the

reader in each case, and no dictionary on a reasonable scale could help much.

What readers need to know, in any case, are the traditional symbols, the

routine furniture of literature over thousands of years, which often appear

without explanation, and which gradually gain in connotation as the

tradition lengthens and alludes to itself. Whether it informs the meaning of

an individual work is often a subtle question -- does it matter that the bird

that seeks ‘‘your cradle narrow / Near my Bosom’’ in Blakes ‘‘The Blossom’’ is a

sparrow, with its associations of lust? Or that the tree that Akhmatova

especially liked but is now a stump was a willow, with its suggestion of

maidenhood or fruitlessness? (‘‘The Willow’’) -- but the question cannot even

be entertained without a knowledge of the tradition. I do not know how many

of these traditional symbols there are, but the number cannot be very large,

and I am hoping that a book with 175 of the most important ones, along with

cross-references, will be complete enough to constitute a useful reference


I have tried to be copious with quotations and citations in each entry,

risking redundancy, in order to give a sense of the history of a symbol and the

range of its contexts. Simply to give definitions of symbols would have made

for a short book but a misleading one, for often only a listing of examples can

convey what a symbol has meant. I have aimed, too, to interest the scholar or

experienced reader as well as to help the beginning student. There are doubtless

important omissions within many of the entries -- indeed until the

moment I yielded the manuscript to the typesetter I was continually turning

up material that I wondered how I had missed -- but I have done my best

within strict word limits to include interesting variations as well as the most

typical senses.

That all the references are to western literature, counting the Bible as one

of its prime sources, would not seem to require a defense, but more than one

colleague has questioned my ‘‘western-centric bias’’ and urged that I undertake

a truly multi-cultural dictionary of the all the worlds literary symbols.

It sounded like a wonderful project, but not for me, or for any one mortal.

Two days reading through Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation gave

me a glimpse into what it might entail. The swallow, I learned, is seen as a

harbinger of spring, just as it is in western poetry: the thirteenth-century

poet Chiang Kuei ponders the time ‘‘When swallows come to ask where

spring is.’’ But another common image for spring, plum blossoms, is not

common in western poetry. Since plum blossoms often appear amid latewinter

snow, they are tokens of hardiness and courage as well as forerunners

of spring (somewhat, but not quite, like the almond blossom in the west);

one commentator suggests that they represent the promise of the perfect

beauty of the cherry blossoms that come later. In England, however, if we may

trust Ben Jonson, it is ‘‘The early cherry, with the later plum,’’ that mark the

usual order (‘‘To Penshurst’’ 41). The cuckoo, or rather the bird translated as

‘‘cuckoo’’ in English, seems not to be the same species as the European bird,

which is known for laying its eggs in other birds nests. The oriental ‘‘cuckoo’’

is known for its beautiful song and its straight flight. In the call of the

cuckoo the Chinese heard kui k’u, ‘‘go home’’; in Japanese, its charming

name hototogisu may be written in characters that mean ‘‘bird of time’’; in

both cultures the bird suggests homesickness. It is also associated with the

moon. All of this is quite the opposite of the harsh song of cuckoldry! And so

it goes. There are close similarities to western usage, not surprising since we

all live in the same world, and there are sharp differences, not surprising

either since fauna and flora, not to mention human culture, vary from

place to place. The task of working out the details in a comparison of just

two traditions would be daunting. It would be difficult even to decide

whether to enter the two ‘‘cuckoos’’ under one name or two. I hope nevertheless

that scholars expert in other languages will undertake to produce

dictionaries like this one for each tradition, if they do not exist already,

so we might look forward to a systematic study of ‘‘comparative


This is a dictionary of symbols in literature, not myth, painting, folklore,

dreams, alchemy, astrology, the Tarot pack, the Kabbalah, or the Jungian

collective unconscious. Myths come into it, of course, insofar as they take

literary form, but no proper names have entries. The reader who misses them

can easily find several excellent dictionaries of classical mythology. That there

are also excellent books about iconography in European painting allows me to

omit citations from that tradition, both the Christian symbolism seen in

countless paintings of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of

saints, and the like, and the emblem books of the Renaissance. By ‘‘literature’’

I mean for the most part the ‘‘high’’ literature of the standard western canon.

To modern eyes this tradition may seem an elite affair, in contrast not only to

proverbs and ballads but to fairy tales, popular plays and songs, seasonal

rituals, and other kinds of folklore, from all of which this dictionary might

have drawn more than the few examples it has. The limits of space (and time)


must be the main plea against having done so, but one should remember that

a great deal of Greek literature was ‘‘popular’’ in its day, as were Shakespeare

and many other writers, and many bits of folklore live on in them that have

died out among the folk. I have also tried to include a few references to less

well-known writers. Those with a particular interest in women,

African-American, Latin-American, or ‘‘post-colonial’’ writers may find them

underrepresented, but this dictionary does not seem the right place to argue

for a new canon. It is my sense, too, that at least through the nineteenth

century, women, blacks, and other ‘‘others’’ did not use symbols in ways

notably different from the dominant tradition. As for alchemy and the other

mystical traditions, they have certainly found a place here and there in

literature, but except for a few references I have had to leave out the often

difficult and lengthy explanations they would require.

This dictionary depends on no particular definition of ‘‘symbol.’’ I have

chosen to err on the side of generosity rather than exclude something one

might want to know, and many instances come closer to metaphor, allusion,

or even motif than to symbol strictly defined. I also include some conventions,

commonplaces, or ‘‘topoi,’’ the standard ways a thing has been represented.

So I include dawn, death, dream, nature, and certain other subjects

not so much for what they have stood for as for what other things have stood

for them.

For several reasons the great majority of examples is taken from poetry.

Nearly all the oldest western literature is in verse, and until the modern era

the poetic genres were the most prestigious and most frequently published.

Poetry tends, too, to be denser in symbolism than novels or stories, though

there is plenty of symbolic prose fiction. It is much easier, too, to scan poetry

for key words or ideas than to scan prose, as there are concordances for most

poets (in book or electronic form) but very few for novelists. I have been able

to find fifty occurrences of a symbol in a dozen poets in a few minutes, but

for novelists I can mainly rack my memory or that of colleagues. I have

nevertheless included quite a few prose examples, helped at times by scholarly

studies of one symbol, yet in the end I dont think it would make much

difference to the range of entries and meanings within entries if there were

no prose examples at all.

Sometimes the entries are rather long. Readers may find more about the

nightingale than they strictly need for understanding a passage by

Shakespeare or Keats. Most annotated student editions of classic works, either

from limits of space or the wish not to seem intimidating, give only minimal

information in the notes, and so they fail to convey the richness of the

tradition and suggest instead that there is a code or algebra of literature. I

also think it is interesting in itself to see many threads of nightingale meanings

woven together in a long entry, and it lets one take a bearing on the

whole history of western poetry.

This is not to say that whenever a nightingale appears in a poem it must

mean all the things it ever meant, or that it must allude to all the previous

appearances of nightingales. What Freud said about cigars is sometimes true

of literary symbols: sometimes a nightingale is just a nightingale, or little

more than a way of saying that night has come. On the other hand, most

poets have absorbed the traditional language of poetry and assume their

readers or listeners have done so too. The implied reader of most poetry is an

expert on nightingales, even if that reader has never heard or seen one. If it is

possible for a nightingale to make an ‘‘innocent’’ appearance after 2,800 years

in western literature it must be under special literary conditions that

somehow both invoke and erase the associations the nightingale has acquired,

as perhaps Coleridge does in ‘‘The Nightingale’’ as early as 1798, or Wallace

Stevens much more recently in ‘‘The Man on the Dump,’’ where the

nightingale is included in the great garbage pile of worn-out poetic images. To

repeat an earlier point, the ideal is to know the tradition and then decide in

each case to what extent it is still in play.

Note on sources

There is one advantage, perhaps, in the incompleteness of this dictionary,

and that is that readers, if they enjoy the existing entries but miss a particular

symbol, can have the pleasure of researching it themselves. The best

place to begin, in fact, is the Oxford English Dictionary, which will at least give a

few quotations. There are comparable dictionaries in French and Italian; the

German one, begun by the Grimm Brothers, is wonderful but its citations are

from editions now very old and rare. If you read a little German, you can

make use of the great Real-Encyklopдdie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft,

edited by Pauly, Wissowa, and Kroll, in many volumes, which is an astounding

work of scholarship, a kind of super-concordance to Greek and Latin

literature. Even without Greek and Latin you can get something out of the

two large Oxford dictionaries, which are generous with quotations; you will

need to learn the Greek alphabet, but then you can track the citations in

facing-page translations in the Loeb series published by Harvard University

Press. A good university library will have concordances to the major poets;

when you have found lines, say, from Shakespeare, go to one of the scholarly

editions of the individual plays (Cambridge, Oxford, or Arden) and check

the footnotes to the lines with your symbol: they may well give sources

going back to the Romans. The great scholarly editions of Greek and Latin

classics are usually bursting with references to sources and parallels. Also

helpful are dictionaries of proverbs, especially Stevensons Home Book of

Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases, and indexes to titles, first lines, and last

lines of poetry. I have listed several more works in the ‘‘General’’ section of

the bibliography.

After many quotations from languages other than English I have given the

last name of the translator. Except for a few historically important

translations (e.g., Chapman, Dryden, Pope), I have used readily available

modern ones; classical texts other than Homer and Virgil are generally from

the Loeb, Penguin, or Oxford Worlds Classics versions. The brief unattributed

translations are ‘‘my own,’’ that is, they are usually so simple and inevitable as

to be common property.

An asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical or unattested


Introduction to the second edition

For the second edition I have written twenty new entries, expanded nearly

thirty existing entries, and added a dozen works to the bibliography.

I have also corrected a few errors, mostly citations, in the first edition. For

pointing them out I am grateful to Yatsuo Uematsu, who translated the first

edition into Japanese, and to Laimantas Jonuˇsys, who translated it into