Pile The Bodies High At Austerlitz Is It A Metaphor Or Symbolism

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brow a piece of paper! stone, etc. J

Thus we have two tenors and two vehicles, but in the middle layer the tenor of one metaphor and the vehicle of another are collapsed into one. This analysis, however crude and tentative, shows how the two separate images co-exist: that of a brow without wrinkles, and that of a person writing on some kind of writing surface. There is no reason, apart from case of comprehension, why compound metaphors containing four or even more layers of analysis should not be built up in this way.

Expressions that we condemn as mixed metaphors, on the other hand, occur when dead metaphors, which have lost their imaginative force, are brought incongruously together so that a conflict in their literal meanings, which normally go unnoticed, is forced upon our attention. Corpses so indecently exhumed have, needless to say, no place in serious poetry. Comically exaggerated examples are: 'The hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket'; 'The boot is on the other kettle offish'; 'The ship of state is at last getting down to brass tacks and putting its best foot forward in the teeth of adversity.'

Although in theory one would like compound metaphors and dead metaphors to be distinct, in practice one has to recognize that there is no clear-cut boundary between them, precisely because there is no clear-cut division between 'living' and 'dead' metaphors. To a modern reader, Hamlet's' to take arms against a sea of troubles' may have something of the awkwardness of the mixed-metaphor, because 'to take (up) arms against' is a cliche expression for 'to oppose'.

9.2.6 Symbolism and Allegory

We have approached metaphor by way of absurdity: metaphor, that is, has been treated as one of the possible answers to an enigma posed by apparent nonsense. It is now time to modify this point of view, by acknowledging that literal absurdity is not the only path that can lead to a figurative interpretation. Christine Brooke-Rose, who makes this clear in her important book A Grammar of Metaphor,12 notes how many proverbs are ambiguous as to literal or metaphorical interpretation. 'A rolling stone gathers no moss' and 'Empty vessels make the most sound' are both true, if trite, as literal propositions; as proverbs, however, we understand them to refer figuratively to human character.13

Miss Brooke-Rose uses the following extract to illustrate the same point in poetry:

Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak ? ... But why such long prolusion and display, Such turning and adjustment of the harp, And taking it upon your breast, at length, Only to speak dry words across its strings ?

[Browning,' Transcendentalism']

There was a time, she says, when poets actually played harps, so that this might be an imagined scene literally recounted by Browning. Moreover, the 'brother' might even be a literal brother, a sibling of the poet. But in fact we understand things differently. Browning, we assume, is talking about a brother-poet, viz. Browning himself as a fellow artist. We also take it that the poet's harp is not a literal harp, but his medium of artistic expression - his language. It is not a question of rejecting one interpretation as unacceptable, but rather of preferring one of two acceptable solutions to the other.

This optional extension, as it were, of the meaning from literal to figurative is what we associate with symbolism. Symbols in common use, such as 'lamp'= 'learning', 'star'= 'constancy', 'flame'='passion', arc assigned their underlying meaning by custom and familiarity. There need not, therefore, be any linguistic indication of what the tenor is, or of why the term cannot be taken at its face value. The most interesting symbols, poetically, are metaphorical - i.e. X (the symbol) stands for Y because X resembles Y - but many of the more conventional ones are métonymie: for example, 'coffin' and 'skull' as the symbols of death.

It is difficult to say exactly how, when there is a choice between literal and figurative readings, one is preferred to the other. Sometimes convention is the operative factor, and sometimes context. The 'mental set' of the reader is also important. The adjustment we make, when we turn from reading, say, a newspaper to reading poetry (especially the poetry of certain poets), includes expecting symbolic interpretations to arise. There is furthermore some impingement of artistic judgment on interpretation, in that poets rely on the reader to select the aesthetically most acceptable solution. We shall return to this in §12.3.3.

Poets frequently adapt and develop their own symbols, instead of relying on traditional ones. These may be esoteric, like those of Yeats and Blake, or made transparent by the poet's exposition, like the symbol of 'grass' in this short poem by Carl Sandburg:


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this ?

Where arc we now ?

I am the grass

Let me work.

Here, as in metaphor generally, the tenor is not precise, because not explicit. Is it merely forgetfulness of the past in general that is symbolized by the grass ? Or is it forgetfulness of the pity and honour due to the dead ? Or forgetfulness of hostility, of the horror of war, of the enormity of man's past deeds, of past glory? The poem does not answer these questions, but leaves them for the reader's judgment.

allegory stands in the same relation to an individual symbol as extended metaphor does to simple metaphor: in fact, an allegory might be described as a 'multiple symbol', in which a number of different symbols, with their individual interpretations, join together to make a total interpretation. So considered, an allegory on superficial interpretation may be a story (like Pilgrim's Progress) or a description (like the various portraits of Marvell's The Gallery). It partakes of the ambivalence and indeterminacy we have noted in ordinary symbolism. It may also contain within itself no overt linguistic indication of its underlying significance, being thus completely cut loose from the anchorage of literal interpretation. A naive reader may well take an allegory at its face value as a simple narrative. However, it is a convention of allegory that a hint of the tenor, the underlying sense, should be allowed to peep through, in the form of proper names like Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest [Piers Plowman]; Mr Great-heart, Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond [Pilgrim's Progress]; the House of Holiness, the Bower of Bliss [The Faerie Queene],

The lack of overt linguistic clues for symbolic and allegorical interpretations should perhaps remind us that we have touched on a topic which goes beyond linguistics and beyond the scope of this book into the broader subject of the psychology of symbolism in all its forms. Symbols and allegories may be expressed by non-linguistic means - for example, in painting; and the principle of transferred meaning, which we began to look at in a purely linguistic light, is wide enough to embrace the whole area of artistic communication, whether in literature, music, or art.

Examples for discussion

Study die figurative element of die following poems, analysing metaphors into tenor, veliicle, and ground in the manner set out in §9.2.1.

[a] The Rainy Summer

There's much afoot in heaven and earth this year;

The winds hunt up the sun, hunt up the moon, Trouble the dubious dawn, hasten the drear Height of a threatening noon.

No breath of boughs, no breath of leaves, of fronds May linger or grow warm; the trees arc loud; The forest, rooted, tosses in her bonds, And strains against the cloud.

No scents may pause within the garden-fold;

The rifled flowers arc cold as ocean-shells; Bees, humming in the storm, carry their cold Wild honey to cold cells.

[Alice Meynell, 1847-1922]

whirl your pointed pines, splash your great pines on our rocks, hurl your green over us, cover us with your pools of fir.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'ersways their power, How widi this rage shall beauty hold a plea Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out Against the wreckful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays? O fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still siiine bright. [Shakespeare]


2 A technical account of what I here call 'rules of transference' is given by u. Weinreich, 'Explorations in Semantic Theory', in Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. III, ed. t. a. sebeok, The Hague, 1966, 455-71.

3 See 1. a. richards, Philosophy of Rhetoric, New York and London, 1936, 96.

4 Ibid., 117. For this threefold division of metaphor into tenor, vehicle, and ground, I have drawn inspiration from a similar threefold scheme proposed by u. ornan, in a valuable article 'Sliitat Nituach she! Dimuyim Sifrutiyot: Iyunini Bevayot Hasignon', Leshonenti (Jerusalem), 26 (1961-2), 40-7. Unfortunately, no English translation of this article is available.

5 Examples from b. groom, The Diction of Poetry from Spenser to Bridges, Toronto, 1955, 215.

6 c. esnault, Imagination Populaire, Metaphores Occidentales, Paris, 1925, 31. Translation by s. uixmann, Language and Style, Oxford, 1964,177.

7 w. Nowottny, The Language Poets Use, London, 1962, 54-6, points out the vague or undeterminable character of tenor and vehicle.

8 See nowottny, op. cit., 50-1, on the variety of formulae for expressing a simile.

11 The last two examples are from ullmann, op. cit., 87.

12 c. Brooke-rose, A Grammar of Metaphor, London, 1958, 38.

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  • mantissa
    What is "pile the bodies high at austerlitz an example of?
    1 year ago
  • savanna
    What does the metaphor pile them high mean?
    1 year ago

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