What is a pikestaff?

Colin Burrow

  • Metaphor by Denis Donoghue
    Harvard, 232 pp, £18.95, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 43066 2

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.

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