Aspects Of Metaphor

In a simile, the two things to be compared and (sometimes) the ground of the comparison are spelt out in succession: the comparison itself, too, is made explicit by means of such constructional elements as like, as. . .as, more . . . than. But in a metaphor, these three parts of the analogy have to be hypothesized from 'what is there' in the text. Moreover, the separation of tenor and vehicle is not usually so clear as in a definitional metaphor like 'Life's but a walking shadow'. This is why it is useful to have a technique for analysing metaphors, like that set out in the following section. It should be made clear that this is not a procedure for discovering a metaphor, or of finding out its significance - because of the subjective element of figurative interpretation, it would be vain to look for such a procedure. On the contrary, we must assume that we already understand the metaphor; our task is to analyse and to explain what we understand. For clarity's sake, the method of analysis will be set out as a sequence of directions to the reader.

9.2.1 How to Analyse a Metaphor

Let us take these three examples of metaphor for analysis:

[a] But ye loveres, that hathen in gladnesse

[Chaucer, Troihts and Criseyde, I]

[f>] Some time walking, not unseen,

By hedge-row elms, on liillocks green, Right against the eastern gate, Where the great sun begins his state [Milton, L'Allegro]

[c] The sky rejoices in the morning's birth

[Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence]

Stage I: separate literal from figurative use Decide which parts of the metaphoric expression are taken figuratively (they are in italics in the examples above); then separate them by setting them out on different lines. The jump from literal to figurative meaning, or vice versa, occurs at a point where literal interpretation is baffled, usually by a violation of selection restrictions. The lines as set out below are labelled 'L' (= 'literal') and 'F' (='figurative'). What appears on each line should on its own make literal sense-i.e. should not involve any absurdities.

[б] L: the eastern\-^ where the great sun begins^-

F:-rejoices in -'s birth

Ditto marks are placed beneath words which belong equally to the literal as to the figurative interpretation. In example [a], the lovers can literally bathe, just as they can literally experience gladness. Hence 'But ye lovers, that..." is merely an introductory context for 'bathen in gladnesse' - the dittos indicate that it is strictly not part of the metaphor. The blanks, on the other hand, signify textual gaps in the literal or in the figurative interpretation.

Stage n: construct tenor and vehiclb, by postulating semantic elements to fill in the gaps of the literal and figurative interpretations

Replace the blanks by a rough indication of what elements of meaning might reasonably fill the gaps. Both the top line and the bottom line should now make complete 'literal sense' on their own. The top line now represents the tenor (' TEN') and the bottom line the vehicle (' VEH') of the metaphor. This method shows clearly that tenor and vehicle, i.e. the things compared in the metaphor, are not usually identified with the literal or figurative senses of particular words: often one whole clause is placed in opposition to another. The tenor is the literal part of the expression with its reconstructed literal context, and the vehicle is the figurative part of the expression, together with its reconstructed context.

[<j] TEN: But ye loveres, that; [feel] ' gladnesse VEH: „ „ „ „ ; bathen in ; [water, etc]

[6] TEN: the eastern part of the sky gate

] where the great j sun \ begins king' etc its daily course his state

[looks bright at] ; the morning's [beginning] rejoices in ; [animate] 's : birth

As a general principle, make the 'gap-fillers' (the parts in square brackets) as unspecific as you reasonably can. Thus following 'bathen in' in [a] any kind of liquid would be appropriate, although water is the most obvious choice. In [¿], the figurative counterpart of 'sun' might be a king, or some other kind of dignitary. In [c], the gap-filler 'animate' is used twice to fill out the vehicle, for there is no reason here to restrict the class of meanings allowed in these positions by the selection conditions of rejoice, which demands an animate subject, and birth, which demands an animate genitive complement. The tenor and vehicle should not be made any more precise than is warranted by rules of selection and appropriateness of context.

Another rule is: avoid if at all possible inserting a further figurative expression. To use figurative language in expounding tenor and vehicle is merely to multiply one's task by explaining one metaphor by another.

Stage 111: state the ground of the metaphor The ground of a metaphor is more clearly seen once we have isolated tenor and vehicle. To find it, we simply ask the question: 'What similarity can be discerned between the top and bottom lines of the analysis ?' How we answer this is very much a question of personal intuition; I therefore do not ask the reader to agree with the following suggestions, but merely to accept that they offer one possible analysis of each example.

[a] The lovers' attitude to gladness is that they wholeheartedly commit themselves to it. Gladness becomes their element - they see nothing beyond it. Their delight is simple, uncomplicated, untarnished by worry, like that of a person enjoying the water - the natural gift of God.

[b] There is an obvious resemblance between the sun and a king: we look up to both; both are powerful, being capable of giving and taking away life; both are glorious and of dazzling brightness (the one literally, the other metaphorically). The eastern quarter of the sky is like a gate because it is the sun's 'entrance' to the sky.

[c] Here are two separate comparisons; that between the brightness or clearness of the sky, and a person's rejoicing; and that between dawn and a birth. The second is the simpler: the connection is plainly that both arc beginnings - dawn is the beginning of day, and birth the beginning of life. The first comparison rests on a commonplace metaphorical link between visual brightness and 'brightness' in the sense of cheerfulness, happiness, liveliness. On a less superficial level, these metaphors, which attribute life to inanimate things, are justified by Wordsworth's philosophy of nature.

9.2.2 Simile and Metaphor

Simile is an overt, and metaphor a covert comparison. This means that for each metaphor, we can devise a roughly corresponding simile, by writing out tenor and vehicle side by side, and indicating (by like or some other formal indicator) the similarity between them. 'The ship ploughs the waves', a stock classroom metaphor, may be translated into a simile as follows: 'The ship goes through the waves like a plough ploughing the land.' Example [c] above can be translated:' The sky looks bright at dawn, like someone rejoicing in a birth.'

However, this equivalence, this translatability between metaphor and simile, should not obscure important differences between the two:

[o] A metaphor, as we noted earlier of metonymy, is generally more concise and immediate than the corresponding literal version, because of the superimposition, in the same piece of language, of tenor and vehicle.

[¿] A simile, conversely, is generally more explicit than metaphor. 'That bathen in gladnesse', for instance, does not tell us exactly what gladness is compared to. Instead, there is a bundle of interrelated possibilities: the sea, a lake, water generally, some other liquid, etc. But in translating into simile, we have to make up our minds which of these is intended. The very circumstantiality of simile is a limitation, for the ability of metaphor to allude to an indefinite bundle of things which cannot be adequately summarized gives it its extraordinary power to 'open new paths' of expression.7

[c] Simile can specify the ground of the comparison: in' I wandered lonely as a cloud', loneliness is stated as the property which the speaker and a cloud have in common. Also a simile can specify the manner of comparison, which may, for example, be a relationship of inequality, as well as equality: 'In number more than are the quivering leaves/Of Ida's forest' [II Tamburlaine, III. V]. It is more flexible, in this respect, than metaphor.8

[i/] Metaphor, on the other hand, is inexplicit with regard to both the ground of comparison, and the things compared. This is not only a matter of indefmiteness, as noted in [¿] above, but of ambiguity. Consider the line 'This sea that bares her bosom to the moon' [Wordsworth, The World is too much with i«]. Taking 'bares her bosom' to be figurative, we construct the skeleton tenor 'This sea that does-something-or-other to the moon'. We then might theoretically entertain the following possible literal relationships between sea and moon:

1. The sea reflects-thc-image-of the moon

2. The sea is-spread-out-underneath the moon

3. The sea is-made-visible-by the moon

4. The sea is-tidally-affected-by the moon etc.

Two factors help us to eliminate all but the most appropriate choices: one is context, and the other is the principle, which we unconsciously follow, of making the tenor as similar to the vehicle as is feasible; i.e. of maximizing the ground of the comparison. Both factors conspirc to eliminate (4), which is utterly inappropriate; the second factor also eliminates (1). We are left, then, with an interpretation of' bares her bosom' which is something like a blend of (2) and (3): roughly 'the sea which lies stretched out and open to view by the light of the moon'. Hence it is an important difference between simile and metaphor that in metaphor, because both ground and tenor are to some extent unknown, the determination of a ground may logically precede the determination of a tenor. In retrospect, we can now see why the three stages of analysis in §9.2.1 should not be confused with stages in the psychological process of understanding a metaphor: the ground should not be thought of as necessarily the last thing to be established.

Simile and metaphor have complementary virtues. Poets quite often take advantage of both by producing a hybrid comparison, in which simile and metaphor are combined. An example of such a blend is Wordsworth's

The City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning

[Sonnet composed upon Westminster Bridge]

in which wear is used figuratively, whereas garment is introduced by a simile.9

9.2.3 Notional Classes of Metaphor10

It would be futile to attempt a full typology of metaphors according to the relation of meaning between literal and figurative senses. Nevertheless, certain types of semantic connection have been traditionally recognized as more important than others. They include:

[а] The Concretive Metaphor, which attributes concreteness or physical existence to an abstraction: 'the pain of separation', 'the light of learning', 'a vicious circle', 'room for negotiation', etc.

[б] The Animistic Metaphor, which attributes animate characteristics to the inanimate: 'an angry sky', 'graves yawned', 'killing half-an-hour', 'the shoulder of the hill', etc.

[c] The Humanizing ('Anthropomorphic') Metaphor, which attributes characteristics of humanity to what is not human: 'This friendly river', 'laughing valleys', 'his appearance and manner speak eloquently for him'.

[d] The Synaesthetic Metaphor, which transfers meaning from one domain of sensory perception to another: 'warm colour', 'dull sound', 'loud perfume', [Donne, Elegy IV], 'Till ev'n his beams sing, and my music shine' [Herbert, Christmas].11

Categories [<j], [b], and [c] overlap, because humanity entails animacy, and animacy entails concreteness. The familiar poetic device of personification, whereby an abstraction is figuratively represented as human (e.g. 'Authority forgets a dying king', Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur) actually combines all three categories.

These categories reflect the tendency of metaphors to explain the more undifferentiated areas of human experience in terms of the more immediate. We make abstractions tangible by perceiving them in terms of the concrete, physical world; we grasp the nature of inanimate things more vividly by breathing life into them; the world of nature becomes more real to us when we project into it the qualities we recognize in ourselves. Metaphors in the reverse direction are less common, and have a flavour of singularity. Thus dehumanizing metaphors, which ascribe animal or inanimate properties to a human being, frequently have a ring of contempt:

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! [Julius Caesar, I.i]

or of ironic disparagement:

I found you as a morsel, cold upon Dead Caesar's trencher.

[Antony and Cleopatra, IILxiii]

It is the difference between tenor and vehicle, rather than their similarity that comes to the attention in these cases.

9.2.4 Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor is a metaphor which is developed by a number of different figurative expressions, extending perhaps over several lines of poetry. In the following, a whole series of literal absurdities is explained by the same comparison between a mental experience and a physical experience:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes, I sped; And shot, precipitated Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears.

[Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven]

This is the beginning of a poem which explores, in a striking way, the image of the love of God as an animal hunting the human soul. The whole of man's inner life then becomes translated in spatial terms: ' down the arches of the years' makes us see the succession of years as (perhaps) an arcade or a vaulted passage; 'under running laughter' makes laughter into a waterfall; hopes become bills and valleys fears in this topographical account of the human mind. The tenor and vehicle which are invoked by the first line are merely continued and elaborated in the lines that follow.

9.2.5 Compound Metaphor and Mixed Metaphor

The' mixed metaphorlike the' split infinitivehas been such a shibboleth of bad style, that we have to be careful not to confuse it with compound metaphor, a perfectly legitimate and frequently powerful device of poetic expression. A compound metaphor consists in the overlapping of two or more individual metaphors. It is by no means confined to highly concentrated and elliptical styles of poetic writing, but occurs even in passages of verse which are fairly easy to follow and understand, such as this extract in which Byron addresses himself to the ocean:

Unchangeable, save to thy wild waves' play, Time writes no wrinkle in thine azure brow: Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now.

[Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, IV]

In the second of these three lines, there are two 'humanizing' metaphors: the sea is personified in 'thine azure brow', and time in 'Time writes no wrinkle'. However, these two metaphors do not operate at the same level: at the level where we imagine the sea as a person, we do not conceive of time as literally writing wrinkles on this person's brow - that would indeed be an incongruous metaphor. Rather, mites is still figurative on the level where brow is literal. Hence we need to replace the standard two-layer analysis of metaphor into tenor and vehicle by a three-layer analysis, in which the middle layer, containing wrinkle and brow, is figurative with respect to the azure sea, and literal with respect to the writing of Time: Lx Time_

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