Sunday 11 October 2009

Metaphor and Simile

Before we proceed, 2 definitions from "Considering Poetry", edited by B. A. Phythian

  • Simile - A comparison for the purpose of explanation, allusion or decoration which uses 'like' or 'as'.
  • Metaphor - A comparison implied or stated between two usually unconnected objects.

There are many other definitions and related theories. Note that the order of the 2 items often matters - usually some features of the 2nd item become associated to the 1st, rather than the other way around. There's no shortage of examples. Here are just a few.

  • my love is like a red red rose - Burns
    After, Burns explains the ways that "love" and "red rose" match.
  • Let us go then, you and I,
    where the evening is spread out
    across the sky like a patient
    etherised upon a table
    - T.S. Eliot
  • - Grey trees whose lungs had filled up with winter
    suddenly exhaled a breath of leaves
    - James McGonigal (Posting)
  • Midnight shakes the memory
    As a madman shakes a dead geranium
    - T.S. Eliot
  • their blooms a hidden gargle
    in their green throats
    - Kathleen Jamie (Rhododendrons)

Here we have a more developed "A:B as C:D" relationship.

  • In a Station of the Metro
    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.
    - Pound

The last (which is a complete poem) shows how you don't need "as", "like" or "is" to signal a comparison - juxtapositioning can be enough. One of the more common ways to implicitly compare is to use an adjective or verb usually associated with one noun with another noun - "the ship ploughed through the waves".

Metaphysical poets (Donne et al) and more recently the Martian poets (Craig Raine et al) have used them heavily. Some of their poems are full of little metaphors, others are one extended metaphor (almost allegory). These poets are at one extreme, thinking like G.K. Chesterton that "All metaphor is poetry", or like Frost "Metaphor is the whole of poetry. ... Poetry is simply made of metaphor ... Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing". At the other extreme are those who consciously avoid metaphors, agreeing with A.E. Housman that "Simile and Metaphor [are] things inessential to poetry". Kipling comes to mind.

Sometimes similes are left incomplete. "Homeric Simile" by Oscar Mandel (Prairie Schooner, Summer 1995) begins
      Like a dog and his master
and ends 15 lines later with
      So mankind (you fill in the rest).


In Acumen 36 (Jan., 2000) Frank Dux suggested that "a purpose ... of poetry is to redeem language and recover lost unity. Metaphor is perhaps the most obvious device available for this purpose as it denies words their ordinary validity ... but it is no more essential than ... rhyme, metre .. etc.". Amongst the poems that are short of metaphors he cites "My Last Duchess" (Browning), "Shield of Achilles" (Auden) and "Break, break, break" by Tennyson.

Paul Farley, in "Tramp in Flames", writes "Some similies act like heat shields for re-entry/ to reality".

Other reasons include

  • To describe the new, the nearly-indescribable. Some say that language began as metaphor, and that current language is littered with dead metaphors (e,g. "an idea dawned on me", "groping for words").
  • To make new connections to surprise and interest the reader, engaging the reader's intellect. T.S. Eliot thought that "in the mind of the poet ... experiences are always forming new wholes". their eyes ... as expressive as pandas who have mastered maths - Matt Sweeney.
  • For comic effect - "When is a door like a bottle?" "When it's a jar". "He looked as if he'd been poured into his clothes and someone had forgotten to say 'stop'"
  • Surrealism - When ordinarily unassociated elements are juxtaposed, the reader is called upon to make connection. But if this is not logically possible, if the relation between the two is undecidable, something else appears in this gap. Eliot and Pound spoke of "emotion" in this context.


  • "What makes a bad metaphor? Metaphor which is vague, metaphor which is pedantic, metaphor which is slow", Craig Raine, "My Grandmother's Glass Eye", Atlantic Books, 2016, p.95
  • "For a metaphor or simile to work, there must be an obvious distance between the tenor and vehicle ... The effective simile is also a self-conscious simile", Craig Raine, "My Grandmother's Glass Eye", Atlantic Books, 2016, p.82
  • dead metaphors, cliches - English is littered with once vivid metaphors.
  • confusion, obscurity, gaudiness - It isn't always clear how the poet intends the items to be related. Sometimes metaphors distract more than illuminate. Saying that a dress is as "yellow as a banana" is likely to make people think more about bananas than dresses. Far-fetched metaphors are sometimes called 'conceits'.
  • over-extension - it's tempting to over-elaborate or mix metaphors. "the ship ploughs through the waves" is a dead metaphor, but "the ship slices through waves like a plough through rich loam, dispersing its foam of hopeful seeds" isn't the best way to bring it back to life.
  • over-compression - it's common to go from simile to metaphor. Squeezing things even more can lead to mysteries like "concave afternoons" etc.
  • You think you've invented a striking metaphor, but it's been done before (in fact, you've read it and forgotten it)

Things to do

  • Look at a poem. Identify and evaluate metaphors/similes Try The Gardener by Craig Raine, for example.
  • pick two of the following words at random. Find connections

    lighter scrapbook diet gale servant market chocolate shack workbench tangerine accolade monolith commune cantata pub saffron recorder passport rope church rung crystal Reverend

  • Read "More than Cool Reason", G. Lakoff and M. Turner, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Read "Metaphor and Thought", A. Ortony (ed), CUP, 1979.
  • Read "Darwin's Plots", Gillian Beer, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983
  • Read "The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Writing", D. Lodge, London, 1971
  • Read "A Grammar of Metaphors", C. Brooke-Rose, Secker and Warburg, 1958 (classification by grammar rather than ideas or content).
  • Read the "Metaphor and Beyond" issue of Poetics Today (V20:3)
  • Read the "Metaphor and Affect" in issue 26:3 of Poetics Today, especially for its References.
  • Read "Metaphor: An Annotated Bibliography and History", W.A. Slibes, The Language Press, 1971.
  • Read "eyes like butterflies", Terence Hodgson, Chambers, 2006 (a list of thousands of metaphors from novels and stories)
  • Read Metaphor: A Practical Introduction by Zoltan Kovecses - it has many exercises with answers
  • Pop into the Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor

An exercise

What do you think about these comparisons? Are they powerful? Do they "make sense"? Are any particularly weak? Are any rich enough to be considered a complete poem?

  • "heron-priested shore" (Dylan Thomas)
  • "swan necks were questioning the water" (Helen Kay)
  • "their eyes as expressive as pandas who have mastered maths" (Matthew Sweeney)
  • "The road was very bleak, wandering like the handwriting of a dying person over the hills" (Richard Brautigan)
  • "Being with you was like the thrill of tightroping over Niagara" (Helen Farish)
  • "The washing piling up like nasty thoughts" (Tobias Hill)
  • "The moon round as an oven-dial" (Tobias Hill)
  • "Ten fire-engines slide their red trombones" (Tobias Hill)
  • "sheep as white as cricketers" (Tobias Hill)
  • "Clouds move like mountains" (Tobias Hill)
  • "the slow blubber of their parachutes" (Gerard Woodward) [after they've landed]
  • "the waggle-dance of a small forklift" (Gerard Woodward)
  • "a toilet cistern refills like an old lady pouring tea" (Gerard Woodward)
  • "his grief deeper than the ocean, as empty as a Sunday" (Aoife Mannix)
  • "Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea" (Dylan Thomas)
  • "I saw a weasel streak its sine-wave over the grass" (Gregory Leadbetter)
  • "a thick white saucer like a worn-out moon, brittle from too much shining" (Judy Brown)
  • "grass sprouts from the rafters of the Big House now, like hairs from a pensioner's nose" (Caitriona O'Reilly)
  • "Snores slide like pinecones between my teeth" (James Sheard)
  • "while an old dandelion unpicks her shawl" (Alice Oswald)
  • "morning breaks like an egg or a promise" (Jacob Polley)
  • "the window sash propped open on a splint of wood like a tired eye on a matchstick" (Michael Hoffman)
  • "The passion-fruit resembles coloured bruises rolled into a ball you can suck" (Selima Hill)
  • "Giraffes with swimming-pool skin" (Tobias Hill)
  • "Conkers, like miniature mines" (Owen Sheers)
  • "The moon's a black-and-white flashback, following you home" (Tim Love)
  • "the stars are holes in the jam-jar so we don't suffocate" (Miceál Kearney)
  • "with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else" (Dickens)
  • "the chinese whispers of genetics" (Michael Symmons Roberts)
  • "books ... ironic lighthouses sweeping a confused, interior darkness" (Peter Vansittart)
  • "the future I carried in myself like an empty amphitheatre" (Glen Duncan)
  • "The fog still gliding in and out - like a suspicious moorhen treading water with its prodigious pale toes on a busy river" (Nicola Barker)
  • "the word opens the windows of a room like the first four notes of a hymn" (Toni Morrison)
  • "[the] voice of a crow reared on honey" (Angela Carter)
  • "The train is going through evening like a detective through somebody's drawers" (Paulette Jiles)
  • "Trees as fragile as the legs of listening deer" (Leonard Cohen)
  • "skin like the paper you put at the bottom of a cake tin" (John Berger)
  • "the moon like a petal of honesty" (Glen Duncan)
  • "Love is like rain. Sometimes you can bar your door against it and still find your feet wet the next morning" (Laura Kalpakian)
  • "[a voice] like an English lesbian preventing some rude tribesman from maltreating a donkey" (William S. Burrows)
  • "The ring of words in his mouth like the ring of rain in a steel bucket on a concrete yard in a cold place in the shadow of a hill" (Keith Ridgway)
  • "Each sigh, the dipping of an oar pulling us further and further apart" (Julia Stothard)
  • "Think how the hunting cheetah, from/ the lope that whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm, falters (Amy Clampitt)"
  • "Blue, songs are like tattoos/ You know I've been to sea before" (Joni Mitchell)

(Selima Hill's is a complete poem)

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