THERE’S A recently published book that threatens to tell me more about metaphors than I really want to know. Its review by Colin Burrow in the London Review of Books, April 23, 2015, is just enough.
Metaphor, by Denis Donoghue, Harvard Univ. Press, 2014.
Merriam-Webster says a metaphor is “an object, activity or idea that is used as a symbol of something else.” The word comes from the Greek, μεταφορά (metaphorá), “transfer.”
Metaphor is one of the four principal elements of Classical Rhetoric, the other three being irony, metonymy and synecdoche. In “What a Synecdoche!” I focused on this last one and gave brief examples of the other three. Loosely, a metaphor likens two things without using the word “like” or “as.” (“You’re a real peach!”)
In his “What is a pikestaff?” LRB article, Colin Burrow quotes Shelley’s view that the language of poets “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.”
Yeah, I guess that’s how I feel about the language of poetry too.
Burrow gives a vivid description of the birth of metaphor: “Caveman Bill says, ‘No, not a rock, stupid; but hard. Heat melts it. Call it stone-ice.’ His down-to-earth friend Cavegirl Judy says: ‘Don’t be such a darn poet, Bill, let’s call it bronze and be done with it.’ ”
The second Globe Theatre, London. Drawing by Wenceslas Hollar, c. 1640.
Some metaphors are original insights of genius: “All the world’s a stage” says Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
“Most of the time, though,” Burrow notes, “we receive them pre-owned (as car salesmen say), as part of the texture of daily speech.” And, like used cars, some metaphors have problems.
A metaphor, for example, can be over-worked. Poet Frederick Seidel writes, “I ride the cosmos on my poetry Ducati, Big Bang engine, einsteinium forks.” Metaphor author Denis Donoghue quotes this appreciatively. LRB author Burrow finds it far-fetched: “It doesn’t say to its readers: ‘Note this relationship between poetry and motorcycles and the cosmos and rethink your views about all of them accordingly.’ Instead it says: ‘Just listen to how much noise I can make.’ ”
Another potential problem is the mixed metaphor. Seeking examples of these, I gleaned a couple I really like. One has a political analyst saying, “I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons.”
The other sounds like an entry in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest: “Her saucer-eyes narrow to a gimlet stare and she lets Mr. Clarke have it with both barrels.”
The beauty of a mixed metaphor is in the wonderfully bizarre image it conjures up. Don’t you love those wagons circling in the swamp? Or her gimlet stare firing off dually? ds