Metaphors. The little devils just wriggle in everywhere. ‘Put a lid on it,’ ‘get stuck in,’ ‘shut your trap’: they’re a routine feature of vernacular usage, even when the metaphors are (as we metaphorically say) ‘dead’ or ‘buried’. It’s the only figure of speech which not only everyone uses but which more or less everyone can name, even if they can’t instantly rattle off the OED’s definition of it as ‘a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable’. Metaphor would come high on a GCSE examiner’s list of things a teenager should be able to spot in a poem, and probably most people would put it pretty high on any list of the characteristics of poetic language. How did metaphor become king of the rhetorical figures?
The most obvious answer to that question is ‘because it always has been’. Aristotle said in the Poetics that the ability to create metaphors was ‘a sign of natural gifts, since to use metaphor well is to discern similarities’ [to to homoion theōrein]. Aristotle’s use of the verb theōrein in that typically gnomic sentence is thought-provoking: theōrein can just mean ‘to see things’, but it’s also the root of our word ‘theory’ and can imply something like ‘to stand back and analyse’. The act of making up a metaphor does seem in some respects analogous to the processes of abstraction that enable us to think and to use language. A ginger cat resembles a tabby cat in respects apart from its colour (likes fish, swishes tail when angered, pounces on mice), so both are cats. Something that twitches when angered could consequently have a word appropriate to a cat transferred to it, as a kind of cross-categorical switch which is analogous to the kinds of analogy that generate the class ‘cat’. In Institutio Oratoria, the fullest rhetorical handbook from the ancient world, Quintilian regarded metaphor as first among what were termed the ‘tropes’, or the figures of speech that change a word or phrase ‘from its proper meaning to another’. For Quintilian metaphor fulfils two main functions. It enables an orator to supply a more striking word in the place of an expected one (‘the moon winked from behind its cloud’), and it can enable us to provide a word for something for which no word presently exists.
The second of these two functions gives metaphor great power, and was the main reason it survived the long period, from the later 18th century onwards, when most of the technical vocabulary associated with the art of rhetoric died the death. Through that period it was common to speculate about the origins of language, and metaphor often played a central part in those mythical histories of speech. It was generally assumed that primitive peoples began by calling a spade a spade. Grunt and point then turns into grunt and wave suggestively, so that words accommodate new experiences – or the white heat of technology. (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.’) Human language consequently came to be seen as having been expanded by metaphor. In The New Science of 1725, Vico argued that the main figures of speech (which he reduced to four: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony) were ‘previously thought to be the ingenious inventions of writers’ but were actually ‘necessary modes of expression in all the early poetic nations’. Vico’s story about the origin and development of language was extremely useful for poets, because it made them technologists of the word, who enabled speech to encompass and perhaps also create new ways of thinking. As Shelley put it in 1821, the language of poets
is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganised, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
The fact that Shakespeare was so good at metaphor helped the figure onwards and upwards during the heyday of bardolatry in the later 18th century; and, reciprocally, Romantic beliefs that metaphorical language was the clearest manifestation of the mind’s ability to create new concepts did much for Shakespeare’s reputation. The New Criticism further nudged metaphor towards the podium labelled Supreme Figure. For the father of practical criticism, I.A. Richards, the brain was ‘a connecting organ’, and metaphor – in which a ‘tenor’, or thing described, is presented via a ‘vehicle’, or a metaphorical expression of it – was the core figure for making connections between distinct entities. Metaphor therefore lay close to the heart of the ‘organised response’, connecting everything with everything in a cognitively organised manner, which Richards equated with both poetic excellence and a good critical response to it. That’s why it’s still believed today that if you underline the metaphors in a poem you will have instantly grasped its heart. A dog-eared copy of Antony and Cleopatra from my teenage years shows the pedagogical success of this method, since in it I underlined every single metaphor related to melting and water. (I got an ‘A’!)
Metaphor got a further boost in the 20th century from the rise of both ordinary language philosophy and literary theory. It became the problem, the elusive but fundamental aspect of language which suggested that we don’t always mean what we say even when we think we’re being as plain as a pikestaff, because who really knows what a pikestaff is? The concept of ‘ordinary’ language, which has come to mean effectively ‘a kind of language sufficiently unfigurative for philosophers to be able to say something intelligible about it’, is itself not unmetaphorical. John Locke associated it with a rhetorical idea of the plain style, which metaphorically was akin to the kinds of clothes you wear on weekdays rather than on high days or holidays: ‘Philosophy itself,’ he declared, ‘must have so much Complacency, as to be cloathed in the ordinary Fashion and Language of the Country.’ So even ordinary language is not a literal concept. And, hang on, just how literal is that word ‘literal’ anyway? Literally speaking it is metaphorical: the word says ‘look only at the letters (literae) of the text, and then you’ll see things as they really are.’ The origins of the more usual sense of ‘literal reading’ lie in biblical hermeneutics, in which the ‘literal’ sense (Abraham kills a ram in the place of his son) came to be distinguished from the figural sense (Abraham’s sacrifice prefigures God’s sacrifice of his son). Even here ‘literal’ doesn’t mean literally ‘looking at the text letter by letter’, but rather conveys something metaphorically privative, like ‘not interpreting a text in a way which makes a person stand for another person, but which allows a series of letters to denote a particular individual’. So, oh dear, maybe metaphor is triumphant because after all it is all we ever do. It is itself a metaphor of course: the Greek verb metapherein means ‘to carry across’, or (translated into Latin), transferre, to translate, transfer – or, in the unfortunate press release that accompanied Denis Donoghue’s civilised and informative book, ‘in classical Greek metaphor means “a carrying or bearing of a cross”.’ Oops.
This mistake isn’t Donoghue’s fault, of course, but it is rather a good one, since Donoghue’s view of metaphor is not only rooted in the history that I’ve just outlined, but is also self-consciously Catholic. In his first chapter he describes puzzling over the metaphors he encountered in the Latin liturgy and in the hymns of St Thomas Aquinas when he was an altar boy in Warrenpoint, County Down in the 1930s. He tried to grasp how the Virgin might be a ‘tower of ivory’ and what Aquinas meant when he said that the ‘celestial bread’ of the Host marked ‘the end of figures’. ‘The most consequential figure in the history of rhetoric,’ he says, ‘is the metaphor by which the Old Testament is fulfilled – or abrupted, challenged – in the New.’ Underlying Donoghue’s book is a wonder at metaphor that has distinctly sacramental overtones: ‘The force of a good metaphor is to give something a different life, a new life,’ he says, and ‘the essential character of a metaphor is prophetic. Metaphors offer to change the world by changing one’s sense of it.’ That view of metaphor as both life-affirming and world-transforming has as its correlative the view that ‘a metaphor is all the better the more the vehicle differs from the tenor.’ Donoghue sees the most successful metaphors as being close to catachresis, or deliberately unnatural usage. His most persuasive example is the opening apostrophe in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ – not quite a ‘tower of ivory’, perhaps, but an equally mystifying description of a virginal art object, which he describes as ‘scandalous to resemblance’. His taste for the metaphor as a figure of outrageous conjunction has its roots in the New Critics’ preoccupation with the metaphysical poets, and what Samuel Johnson called their yoking together of heterogeneous ideas by violence, but it also reflects the attitudes of someone trained to believe that bread is flesh and God.
Donoghue’s main claims are that metaphor ‘invokes things disgracefully far apart’ and that metaphors on the whole get better in proportion to the degree of disjunction between tenor and vehicle. Call me an old-fashioned Aristotelian, but I’m sure this isn’t true. To illustrate his thesis he quotes appreciatively a poem by Frederick Seidel which includes the line: ‘I ride the cosmos on my poetry Ducati, Big Bang engine, einsteinium forks.’ This is a bad metaphor, because deliberately far-fetched. It doesn’t say to its readers: ‘Notice 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.’ Aristotle was surely onto something when he emphasised how central the perception of likeness was to metaphor: successful metaphors – which is to say those that last – are more than performances of disjunction. The process of conjoining different objects or concepts may generate a degree of lexical and conceptual turbulence, but the turbulence isn’t the whole point. Hamlet’s ‘when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’ doesn’t work as a substitute for ‘when we’re dead’ because of any wide disjunction between tenor and vehicle. It’s almost the opposite: ‘mortal coil’ presses for a direct relationship between tenor and vehicle by suggesting that the ‘coil’, or turmoil of life, is already deadly. ‘Shuffle off’ tends in around 1600 to imply ‘sidling away from a sacred responsibility’, so Hamlet’s way of describing death suggests that living may be hard and noisy but it’s what you’re supposed to do, and getting out early is a kind of shirking. If ‘coil’ carries, as it may, an overtone of the sense just emerging in Shakespeare’s lifetime of ‘coil of rope’ then there is some room in the phrase for a positive view of death as a matter of slipping, like a snake, out of a troublesome and constraining skin into a new life. The multiple metaphors in the phrase make you rethink what death might be (evading responsibility, getting rid of something bad, finding something new which may or may not be pleasant) in complicated ways that are tangled up in puns. But they don’t obtrusively draw attention to the gap between tenor and vehicle.
Metaphors can be made up to suit specific occasions (a character reflects on death; a poet perceives an affinity between poetry and motorcycles). Most of the time, though, we receive them pre-owned (as car salesmen say), as part of the texture of daily speech. The distinction between these two classes of metaphor is not absolute, since a metaphor made up one day for a particular occasion can be adopted by others. Shakespeare can’t be blamed for the actions of the British soldier who said, ‘Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,’ before he shot an Afghan prisoner of war with a 9mm pistol. But metaphors which are used so often that we don’t even recognise them as metaphors may become euphemisms, or ways of dressing up bad actions, or records of buried historical prejudices which may continue to influence our conduct. Donoghue has an engaging chapter on this aspect of metaphor called ‘Not Quite against Metaphor’. He quotes Nietzsche’s description of truth as ‘a movable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms: in short: a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.’ But he mildly demurs: ‘The vernacular is contaminated – or improved – by metaphors that are soon forgotten as metaphors and come to be used as ordinary speech … But “contaminated” may not be the right word: there may be no mischief at all when a metaphor becomes commonplace.’ Certainly there may be no mischief: a speech in a local council meeting described as ‘inflammatory’ will not scramble the local fire brigade. But one particular example Donoghue chooses to show that ‘the damage done by literalisation is slight’ is the word ‘culture’, which he sees as extending its range from literally digging and growing plants to metaphorical senses which include ‘to cultivate our minds by thought and education’ and ‘all the social and other activities of a particular people living in a certain place’. This is a slightly surprising example for an Irish person to have chosen to illustrate the harmlessness of metaphor: the English ‘planters’ who were granted large estates in 16th-century Ireland believed that they were bringing what we call ‘culture’ to the province by digging the land and by uprooting native Irish customs, and perhaps even by ploughing some of the blood of the Irish into the land. Buried metaphors may sometimes be more historically fraught than Donoghue allows. It’s true that metaphors don’t carry guns and that people rather than words kill people. But there is also good reason to ask questions about the historical origins of the metaphors we live and kill by, and to wonder how far they can tilt our judgments. Metaphors can affect how we perceive relationships between objects. They also can influence how people think about their relationships to other people.
Donoghue’s defence of buried metaphors is, however, a mark of the thoughtful evenhandedness that runs through this book. He tends to reflect in a sceptical way on what has been said about metaphor, quietly arguing with critical authorities without pressing the argument too far in one particular direction. The attitudes to metaphor that emerge from these measured discussions are those of an Irish Catholic born in 1928 who studied English at Cambridge in the 1960s and who learned to argue with and against Paul de Man and Paul Ricoeur and Stanley Cavell during a long period as a professor at NYU. To describe this book as a product of that history is not to belittle it. From a wider historical perspective it’s what will make it valuable. Donoghue has common roots with the many Irish Catholics who have had such a profound influence on literature in English since the later 19th century, and whose influence has twined into the evolution of poetry and literary criticism through and after the 20th century. When he discusses Yeats, Joyce or Heaney, Donoghue doesn’t just understand their language but feels it too, and the whole book explains through close analysis of poems by Pound, Stevens and Eliot why image and metaphor have come to occupy such a central position in modernist poetry and 20th-century criticism.
But after I put it down I found myself wondering whether the triumph of metaphor has been entirely good for poetry or for criticism. Is our focus on that single figure a limitation? Should poetry that works by a long, slow construction of an alternative universe be valued as much or more than that which makes us think about connections between discrete objects in a metaphorical flash? Concentration on metaphor can limit the field of poetry to moments of vision and frissons of recognition. That’s not everything a poem can or should do. A three-line poem called ‘An August Night’ by that good Irish Catholic Seamus Heaney illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of reading and writing in a way that treats metaphor as king of the figures:
His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable.
When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.
This is a poem forcefully metaphorical. It reads like a simile from which the word ‘like’ has been surgically removed, so as to leave two instances of the verb ‘to be’, one perceptual (‘were warm …’) and the other describing a dream that is also a metaphor (‘they were two ferrets’), in which tenor and vehicle are fused firmly together despite the apparent dissimilarity between hands and ferrets. Poems grounded in metaphor can sharpen the vision and give objects (as here) a wiry vividness. But if that were all that this poem did or that poems do, then this poem in particular and poetry in general would be not much more than a source of momentary insights into possible relations that can be perceived between things, and might become no more than a form of whimsy or self-indulgence: ‘Metaphor, more than simile or metonymy, expresses one’s desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one’s desiring.’
Fortunately, the hands Heaney describes metaphorically as ferrets in ‘An August Night’ are not just a metaphor: they are also a synecdoche (part for whole) for Heaney’s father, whose presence and loss runs through the collection in which the poem appears. And that collection is called Seeing Things, which means not just ‘seeing things vividly’ but also ‘seeing ghosts’, and seeing pasts, and seeing wholes in parts. And that in turn is part of what we (metaphorically) call the larger vision of Heaney’s collection of verse: fathers haunt sons, and metaphorical fathers such as Larkin and Dante and Eliot haunt poems. We might recall here Aristotle’s statement that ‘to use metaphor well is to discern similarities’ [to to homoion theōrein], where theōrein means both ‘see’ and ‘analytically get beneath the skin of something’. Seeing things is not just a matter of collocating two heterogeneous objects in surprising ways that call attention to the act of conjunction. As Aristotle implies when he describes metaphor as a ‘sign [sēmeion] of natural gifts’, it is not in itself the end of poetry, but is a marker of a larger capacity to relate small-scale perceptions to larger wholes.