Saturday, October 2, 2010

Introduction to Metaphor

Parts of the Metaphor, and Subject-Object Metaphors
Prepositional Metaphors
Vocative Metaphors and Apostrophes
Appositional Metaphors
Possessive Noun Metaphors
Adjectival Metaphors and Synesthesia
Adverbial Metaphors and Paradox
Verbal Metaphors
Compound Metaphors
Conceits, Controlling Metaphors and Extended Metaphors
Unstated and Implied Metaphors
Mixed and Dead Metaphors


Ask the average person to define metaphor, and they'll tell you what we were all taught in grade school: the difference between a metaphor and a simile is that a simile uses "like" or "as." The first and most glaring problem with this statement is that it doesn't define what a metaphor is, only what it isn't. The second (and equally egregious) problem is that the statement tells you almost nothing directly about either metaphor or simile.

The problem of what a metaphor is and what it does has been a hot topic of discussion since ancient times. Aristotle wrote that use of metaphor was a true mark of brilliance, and the one thing that cannot be taught about poetry. The purpose of this short essay isn't to delve into the elaborate theoretical discussions surrounding metaphor, but to provide the beginner with some basic ways to construct metaphors of one kind or another. There are numerous ways to classify metaphor; my intent here is classify them grammatically, to talk about them in terms of language, because language is a great place for the beginner to fatten his or her bag of tricks.

One way to think of both metaphor and simile is as a correspondence between two (usually) dissimilar objects so that something is revealed about the nature of one of those objects. In prosody, this correspondence of dissimilar objects is sometimes called "discordia concors." The "'like' or 'as'" statement about simile tells us implicitly that metaphor uses "is" instead of "is like." We have plenty of statements that use "is" but don't appear to be metaphor in a meaningful sense:

    A violet is a flower.

Here we are given two objects, "violet" and "flower." There's no great revelation in using "is" to equate the two. Why? Because they are similar things; telling us that the violet belongs to the larger class of objects known as flowers isn't all that surprising - this is in perfect concordance with the knowledge of our waking world. This trite phrase:

    My love is a violet

is a metaphor, even though its grammatical construction is the same as the first statement. "My love" and "violet" are not similar objects the way "violet" and "flower" are. The first statement implies some basic information about the violet -- it's a plant, it has a pistil and stamen, it has petals, etc. The second statement implies some basic information about "my love" -- the lover is a violet and has a violet's characteristics, which may involve colors, smells and other sensations. In short, the first statement describes an object in order to place it in a conventional classification. The second statement describes an object in order to provide details of sense, character, emotion -- those things that we too often refer to as "poetic."

Parts of the Metaphor, and Subject-Object Metaphors

In the first statement, "A violet is a flower," we have a basic grammatical construction:

    violet -- (n.) subject

    is -- (v.) linking verb

    flower (n.) object

So we see that, by way of the linking verb "is," the subject is described by the object. In poetry, the components of the second statement ("my love is a violet") are slightly renamed:

    My love -- (n.) tenor

    is -- (v.) copula (or "coupling verb")

    violet -- (n.) vehicle

This is the conventional model for the metaphor. You have a "tenor," or central subject, that is described (or "carried") by the "vehicle." Your basic metaphor is a correspondence such that A = B, whereas your basic simile is a correspondence such that A is like B.

So really, what's the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Consider this: I tell you I bought a car, and you ask me what it's like. I say, "Well, it's like your old car." When I say this, I'm telling you that your old car and my new car are similar: they might be the same model or color, or have matching rust spots, but they're not the same car. Now, if you ask me what my car is like and I say, "Well, it is your old car," I'm telling you that I actually bought your old car. In the first example, the two cars have similar properties, but they're not the same car. In the second example, the two cars are actually one and the same. When you construct a simile, you're essentially constructing a logical comparison between two objects; when you make a metaphor, though, you're saying that the two objects are identical in some way. In the line, "My love is like a red, red rose," Robert Burns is saying that his love has the properties of a rose. If he had written, "My love is a red, red rose," Burns would have been saying something else entirely.

Prepositional Metaphors

Now, with some basic knowledge of grammar, we can extend the non-metaphorical statement about violets:

    The violet is a flower of Roman origin.

The addition, "of Roman origin," is a prepositional phrase that tells us more about the violet. Variably, we may represent a statement like this as "A is the B of C." We can do similar things to our trite little metaphor:

    My love is a violet in autumn.

Ah, that's right -- a prepositional phrase can also begin with any preposition -- in, for, about, after, under, etc. So this formula:

    A is the B (of, in, for) C

Roughly represents the prepositional metaphor. Short of the basic metaphor (or subject-object metaphor), it's the easiest kind of metaphor to construct. Don't go crazy with it, because it often has a trite and contrived feel. The prepositional metaphor is often used to inadvertantly construct cliches, because it's so easy to stick an abstract term in the prepositional phrase:

    My love is a violet of heaven. (ick)

    My love is a violet of passion. (awful)

So now you know two kinds of metaphor -- subject-object and prepositional. These are both grammatical in their nature -- of course, because poetry is made of language and all languages are grammatical. Are there other kinds of metaphors based in grammar? Sure, though there are far too many kinds to cover in a beginning essay. However, here are some of the major types.

Vocative Metaphors and Apostrophes

First, let's discuss some kinds of metaphor that are based more in rhetoric than grammar. Two commonly found types are the vocative metaphor and the apostrophe. When you're out with your friend Mary, and you say to her, "My friend, what do you feel like doing?", you've formed an apostrophe (by referring to her in a direct address as "my friend" and not by her name). The vocative is generally considered antiquated ("O friend"). To form an apostrophe in the metaphorical sense, we have to observe our rule of dissimilar objects. Let's take our original metaphor, "My love is a violet," and convert it into an apostrophe:

    My violet, . . .

By addressing the lover as "my violet," we've compressed our original metaphor -- this new apostrophe implies the original correlation. Theodore Roethke uses an apostrophe in his poem "Elegy for Jane":

    My sparrow, you are not here,
    Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.

The vocative metaphor is generally used to "invoke" a person, spirit, god, object, etc. Here's an example from Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene:

    Helpe then, O holy Virgin Chiefe of nine

When Spenser says, "O holy Virgin," he is using a vocative metaphor to refer to one of the nine Muses. Again, this is usually considered an antiquated kind of metaphor, though is still pops up here and there -- Hart Crane, for example, uses it to slightly maudlin and comic effect in one of his poems when he writes, "O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog."

Appositional Metaphors

Sometimes in normal conversation, we have to clarify the nature of something we're talking about. If you're talking to a stranger about your friend Mary, you might have to say, "Mary, my friend from school, called me yesterday." The clause "my friend from school" describes who Mary is. A construction like this, in which one noun ("my friend") modifies another ("Mary") is called an apposition. To construct a decent appositional metaphor, we have to once again observe our rule of dissimilarity:

    Mary, a violet in autumn, . . .

Here, the tenor ("Mary") is described by the vehicle immediately following it ("violet in autumn"). To form the metaphor, we've essentially omitted the copula present in the basic form, "Mary is a violet in autumn."

Possessive Noun Metaphors

As you might have noticed, compression is a big deal when it comes to metaphor. The metaphor aims to provide a lot of information in a short phrase or correlation. It's important to note, though, that compressing a phrase can sometimes change the phrase's meaning:

    Mary is autumn's violet.

This is a possessive noun metaphor. However, does "autumn's violet" mean the same thing as "a violet in autumn"? I'm not so sure. "A violet in autumn" places the flower in a context, while "autumn's violet" tells us that the flower actually belongs to autumn. However, if our beginning metaphor had been something like:

    Mary was the jewel of my childhood
Converting it to a possessive noun metaphor -- Mary was my childhood's jewel -- doesn't change the meaning. The preposition "of" often shows ownership -- in these cases, transforming the metaphor to the possessive noun form can be quite effective.

Adjectival Metaphors and Synesthesia

Adjectives have a tendency to show up in metaphors as decoration; they get shoved in because we have this compulsion to describe as completely as possible. Here's an example:

    Mary is a withered violet in the cool bleak autumn.

Is this metaphor weaker than our previous examples? Probably. The adjectives -- withered, cool, bleak -- seem like extra baggage that isn't particularly helping the metaphor do its job. We could mess with the grammar of our original metaphor, though, and produce this funky adjectival form:

    Mary, an autumnal violet . . .

Here, the prepositional phrase "in autumn" has been converted to a qualifying adjective, which is something we use constantly to construct and enrich metaphor. The phrase, "the eternal sleep," is basically equivalent to "the sleep of eternity," though the first phrase is better, "tighter," than the second.

Adjectival metaphors are sometimes employed in the service of synesthesia, which is what we call the combination of dissimilar senses in an image. If we refer to "the bugle's red blare," we're using a color adjective to describe the sound of the bugle. Similarly, if we say that "Mary has a purple voice," we're combining senses in an unusual way. This is by no means the only way to work with synesthesia -- you can create synesthesia with nearly any kind of metaphor -- but it's a common one, and a fun one.

Adverbial Metaphors and Paradox

Adverbs are commonly used to convert similes into metaphors, or to compress and enrich metaphors. Consider the following phrases:

    When he walked away, he was like a sheep.

    He walked away sheepishly.

Here, the simile "like a sheep" has been converted into a simple adverb that implies the sheep-like quality of the tenor. Now, about Mary:

    Mary blooms lately.
    Mary is witheringly bright.

Wait - what was that last weird metaphor? Witheringly bright? These two words don't go together, do they?

One typical manifestation of concordia concors is paradox, in which we put two dissimilar words together for effect. Quite often, these words appear as an adverb and an adjective (witheringly + bright). Phrases like "fiercely still," "deafeningly quiet" and "colorfully dull" are examples of paradox.

Verbal Metaphors

Verbal metaphors are potent and tricky, and we use them all the time. Basically, to make a verbal metaphor, you take your metaphor's vehicle and use its action for description. For example:

    Mary is a violet in autumn.

Might become:

    Mary bloomed in autumn
An action of the violet -- blooming -- has become the central vehicle of the metaphor. As you can see, the linking verb and vehicle have been compressed into a single word.

We use the verbal metaphor often because it's both potent and a great way to condense what we mean into a few words:

My debt was like a great weight that sat on my shoulders = I was burdened by debt

Mary's beauty was like a bright light that was difficult to look at = I was blinded by Mary's beauty

Mary's insistent joking was like a needle that she kept sticking me with = Mary needled me

Mary was like a mole, and the crowd at the concert was like earth = Mary burrowed through the crowd

It might interest you to note that verbal metaphors can have an effect on both the subject and the object. In the last verbal metaphor, "Mary burrowed through the crowd," the use of the verb "burrowed" tells us something about both Mary and the crowd she's in.

Verbal metaphors can also be used to compress logical trains of thought, or syllogisms, into small, tight images. If I were almost out of gas and a few miles from the nearest gas station, I could say to my car:

    Car, don't die on me.

In this verbal metaphor, I've compressed the following logic:

1. A car is like a living thing.
2. When a living thing ceases to function, it dies.
3. Therefore, when a car ceases to function, it dies.

into an image in which the verb carries the entire weight of metaphor. This works because there's an implied metaphor in the use of the verb "die."

Compound Metaphors

Metaphors are often not so discrete and easily classified, mostly because we have a natural habit of combining them. We've already established that:

    Mary is a violet in autumn

You might be interested to know that, where I live:

    Autumn is a red-leaved season


    Mary is a violet in a red-leaved season

The basic formula at work here is: A = B and B = C -- therefore A = C. It's possible to build entire poems based on this transitive logic (A = B, B = C, C = D, etc), and learning to do so can teach you a lot about telling a good story and making good poems. Tighten your metaphors and you tighten your mind.

Conceits, Controlling Metaphors and Extended Metaphors

We can can use the compound metaphor formula to construct a long train of metaphors, like so:

    Mary is a violet in autumn.

    Autumn is a red-leaved season.

    The maple leaves are red tears.

    The red-leaved season brightly grieves.

    Mary blooms among fierce red tears.

Here, the metaphors leapfrog from one to the next: violet, autumn, leaves, tears, grieving, blooming. We could write a little stanza with what we have:

    Mary is a violet in a red-leaved season.
    The season brightly grieves
    as Mary blooms in fierce red tears.

This train of interrelated metaphors is called an extended metaphor or telescoped metaphor. It typically works by serial transformation; each metaphor leads to the next. A sort of variation on this is the controlling metaphor, also called the conceit. A conceit controls the development of a portion of a poem, or of the entire poem:

    Mary is a violet in autumn.
    She bloomed too late,
    purpling in the declining day.
    Even now she opens brightly
    as the red-leaved air
    sharpens with frost.

Mary's autumnal violetness is the controlling metaphor for this little stanza, and the development of the metaphor throughout the stanza tells us more about her. We could add to this stanza by introducing another controlling metaphor:

    The frost is hard-edged and quick.
    It hones itself on the sides
    of bare stones, the slim fingers
    of poplar and the dry husks
    of harvested wheat.
    Mary brightens and rises,
    even as the frost
    scythes its way
    through the rough earth.

Okay, so it's not the best poetry in the world, but you get the idea. The controlling metaphor is still a really popular technique, though not many poets seem willing to draw multiple controlling metaphors into their poems. Among the masters of this was John Donne, whose poems such as "The Flea" drew in multiple conceits in a surprising (and often dizzying) fashion.

Unstated and Implied Metaphors

In some instances of metaphor, such as "Car, don't die on me," some portion of the metaphor is unstated. When we make implied metaphors, we rely on some portion of our statement to draw in things that aren't directly declared; the reader or listener can infer what we mean. In the phrase, "Mary needled me about the money I borrowed," for example, we know that wasn't actually using needles of any kind -- she was nagging or harrassing, and her harrassment was needle-like. The same is true with phrases like, "she wore me down," or "she devoured that book." In the second stanza above, the opening image:

    The frost is hard-edged

is actually an implied metaphor in which (hopefully) you realize that a connection is being made between frost and a blade. Constructing implied metaphors gets tricky, but it's often worth the extra work.

The above examples are all implied metaphors in the verbal form; the verb is being made to do all the work of connotation. You can construct implied metaphors in any grammatical form, though; adjectival forms are quite common (a "green recruit" -- implies unripe fruit), as are adverbial ("walked away sheepishly" -- implies sheep), preposititional (the "bitterness of winter" -- implies taste, food) and simple subject-object ("winter is bitter") forms.

Mixed and Dead Metaphors

One of the pitfalls of implied and verbal metaphors is the mixed metaphor. A mixed metaphor is what happens when we combine properties from multiple metaphors in ways that don't necessarily go together. The metaphor fails to be consistent in its imagery. Sometimes the mixed metaphor is great, though often it's flawed and hard to follow. Example:

    Mary's beauty was clouded by a sea of frost.

What's the problem here? Well, for one thing, a sea doesn't "cloud." Clouds are associated with the sky, or perhaps with dirt in a liquid. The metaphor fails to remain internally consistent.

I used to rib an old poet friend of mine about a line he wrote:

    Our boots quack like miniature dogs coughing in the cold.

Goofiness of the imagery aside, examine this line closely. Firstly, there's a verbal metaphor to describe the boots -- they're quacking, which is a bird thing. Then the metaphor is qualified with a simile -- like miniature dogs. How exactly do miniature dogs quack? But then, a verbal metaphor is applied to the miniature dogs -- they're coughing, which is generally a human thing to do. So what are these boots like, exactly? Are they like ducks, miniature dogs or people?

In my friend's defense, let's take a look at what he meant:

1. The boots make a quacking sound.
2. The sound is similar to the sound of miniature dogs barking.
3. Miniature dogs barking sounds like someone coughing in the cold.

The mixed metaphor flaw was introduced when he compressed this into a compound metaphor. Could he have compressed it into something more successful? Probably. The trick, on his part, was to pay closer attention to what he was writing, which is something most of us need to do.

All of that said, are there instances in which a mixed metaphor can be effective? Of course -- it's tricky, but it can be done. This line:

    Mary was burned by a sea of frost

just might work. It's not a very good line (there aren't many in this essay, come to think of it), but it plays with the concept of paradox that we discussed earlier. "Burned" stands in contrast to both "sea" and "frost," but at the same time, anyone who's spent a good deal of time outside during winter can clearly imagine the burning sensation I have in mind. Pablo Neruda has some masterfully mixed metaphors (and some real duds, too) -- if you're interested in adding mixed metaphor to your skills, you may wish to study Neruda's work in some detail.

Mixed metaphors aren't as common as dead metaphors, which are also known as cliches. When an image or metaphor has been used so much that it loses its punch, it's essentially dead. Many of them die because we use them so frequently:

    My love is like a red red rose (Burns)

    All the world's a stage (Shakespeare)

In these two examples, the lines are fine in their respective places -- they were original lines at the time, after all. They've been repeated so much, though, that they've lost their surprise and originality for us.

There are many examples of cliche and dead metaphor that don't come from literature:

    I'm dead tired

    she's the apple of my eye

    he wore me down

    I'm heartbroken

    strong as an ox


Avoiding cliches is no harder than using cliches, and it's much more admirable. A writer who lapses into cliche is a writer's who's too lazy to come up with images of their own. Basically, the rule of thumb is this: if you've heard it before, come up with something else. Part of a poet's responsibility is coming up with fresh imagery to replace imagery that has become outdated, metaphors that have died.


Is this the only way to think about metaphor? Not at all. It might be helpful, though, if you're just starting out -- by now, you should have an extra trick or two to play with. Are these all the kinds of metaphor that exist? Not even close. There are lots of other kinds of metaphor, especially under the category of rhetoric -- and there are certainly enough kinds of metaphor to keep any writer occupied for ages. Learning new ways to construct and think about metaphor is part of the literary career. Without fresh and careful metaphor, your poems are likely to lack the vitality and surprise that might make them memorable. With good metaphor, your poems are certain to remain in a reader's mind for a long time.

No comments:

Post a Comment