20 Thoughts on Metaphors

Metaphor:  two seemingly unlike things compared to one another. Unlike simile, you don’t use “like” or “as” in the comparison. Example: Life is a tale told by an idiot


I never liked the definition of metaphor describing it as “A comparison not using ‘like’ or ‘as.’”  It isn’t just that it’s insulting to metaphors and similes to define them using the other’s terms. It also misses a metaphor’s stature. The “like” or “as” that reveals the comparison also mediates between the thing and the thing it’s being compared to. Nothing intervenes in a metaphor just as nothing intervenes in a kiss.


Some definitions of metaphors describe them as “a comparison of unlike things.” I understand that if they are too alike you have no reason to compare them. They are one. But if they are unlike, where is the basis for comparison at all? A metaphor needs to be a new species of worm that wriggles from the soil where you stand.


What if parents recalled first metaphors as they recall first words?


In third grade, I started my report on zebras with the exact words of the World Book Encyclopedia. The World Book must have been clever, because Mrs. Stone read my opening to the rest of the class. It called them a flashy cousin to the horse. Mrs. Stone might have wanted to shame me for stealing, but I was happy about the theft. I had cousins. Zebras were my teenaged cousin Billy, who was much flashier than myself.


Metaphors, according to I. A. Richards, have tenors and vehicles. The tenor is the original. The vehicle is the likeness. In “life’s but a walking shadow,” “life” is the tenor. The “walking shadow” is the vehicle. In every metaphor, the vehicle is boss. Even when the vehicle is a shadow, it controls the pairing because the vehicle is new and interesting and subjugates the tenor to its terms. Sometimes the vehicle has no driver at all, as when you say you “grasp the concept” or “catch my drift.” You see only the invention.


I sometimes think I live in a metaphor, making every hard and harsh object I observe into one I can hold.


Wallace Stevens said, “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal.” I take this to mean metaphor replaces reality— the explanation overturns what it explains, the described becomes the description, the likeness is the subject. The act of rendering anything as anything else incinerates reality.


Metaphors don’t have to resort to language. In visual art, a thing can stand in for another thing. A tree can be hand-like, and a face can also be a landscape. Any thing looking like a thing looks metaphoric after a time… until the world becomes one knotted likeness and no one knows what fundamental and incomparable thing began it all. If it had a beginning.


The Epic of Gilgamesh describes sleep as mist, the first recorded use of metaphor. Gilgamesh is to withstand sleep seven days and six nights, but while Gilgamesh is resting on his haunches, sleep comes upon him… mist comes upon him. Sleep or dreaming is mist, and Gilgamesh can’t resist. The compulsion comes upon him, and mist, as natural and inseparable and unalterable as nature itself, comes upon him. He sleeps and dreams metaphor.


If dreams are metaphors, they’re metaphors you inhabit. If, in a dream, you move from room to room into strange chambers of buildings that look much larger from the outside and then find yourself going into even more impossibly situated rooms as small as the first claustrophobic box of a nautilus, that probably means something. The trouble is knowing what. Something is being compared, but is it the something compared to that room or is the room waiting for something to be compared to?


“No one, ever,” Gustav Flaubert said, “can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sufferings, and the human world is a cracked cauldron on which we beat out melodies for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.”


Suppose you challenged each person in a class to devise an anti-metaphor, a comparison with no basis at all. Someone would surely justify each comparison. Someone would find it true.


Once I tried to write a story where everything was itself and something else. The idea never worked. Soon nothing was but what it was not and, soon after that, only abstraction survived. Events and characters sat outside the narrative, lost in thoughts as solid as stone.


Metaphors are synapses.


Synesthesia supposes senses have more dimensions than most of us can perceive. Coffee makes a sound, and the L passing overhead fills the air with color unknown before now. Are these moments the realization of alternatives or the discovery that this world, the one we think we know, is really only a representation?


It’s occurred to me that metaphor is not comparison at all. It’s understanding one thing as if it truly were another.


Wallace Stevens believed there was no such thing as a metaphor for a metaphor. “One does not progress through metaphors,” he said, “reality is the indispensible element of each metaphor.”


When the world slips, one image overlaps another. Superimposition gives one image another—the body, the blood, everything. Each is each or unto each until time ends, and, once we cross, nothing can uncross again. So we have pretense then. We believe likening and unlikening is in us.


I could not count the number of metaphors I’ve made. No one could. The best metaphors—whatever definition of “best” that implies—live long after. They are handles to move the world and windows cut into air.


To see one thing as another, to make them one thing—maybe metaphor is the visitation of an odd god, one who can speak no other way.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Poetry, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Wallace Stevens

10 responses to “20 Thoughts on Metaphors

  1. #11: Flaubert, dude. Really.

    #16: Absolutely what I’ve always thought. It never seemed so much a comparison to me as the only way certain things make sense.

    #18: Wow.

    I now have twenty more things to think about, and I suddenly feel compelled to make a list of metaphors.

    • dmarshall58

      I hope that “dude” was a good “dude.” The word “Dude” is so versatile.

      Pieces like this scare me. I write twenty thoughts and hope that one isn’t so silly and/or stupid that it spoils the rest. I hope I can be forgiven some items if two or three of the others reach you. One “wow” is a high compliment, and that’s enough for me. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

      • Ha ha. It was a good dude, and was actually in response to this: “…the human world is a cracked cauldron on which we beat out melodies for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.” It seemed over the top when I read it. But that’s Flaubert for ya. Today it seems just about perfect though.

        I don’t think that any one thing in anything you write could ever ruin the entire piece. I really admire your thoughts and your writing…and yes, #18 was beautiful. It deserved a Wow.

      • dmarshall58

        Okay, so Flaubert is a little over the top (and, speaking personally, reading his work is a sort of exquisite torture), but I love the crazy accretion of that particular metaphor. To use a seasonal comparison, in the metaphor world Flaubert is the lady who invites you into her house to get the Halloween candy. –D

      • I kind of like the idea of exquisite torture, and that’s a perfect description I think. I guess when I read it the first time, I just wasn’t in the mood for candy.

  2. hhstheater

    It felt “like” you were inside my head much of the time that I was reading this. I, too, dislike the negative definition of metaphor.

    As for #3, every year I share with my students my daughter’s first metaphor. It’s still magical to me.

    And #4. . . I did a report on sheep at about the same age. I copied word for word the entire World Book entry on sheep. Word for word. The entire thing. And my teacher gave me either an A or an A+. Obviously I didn’t know any better. And it was literally a re-porting, but the episode still mystifies me.

    I’m curious if you have thoughts on the etymology of the word metaphor. Or if you have favorite words that are (in Emerson’s words) “fossil poetry”—words that began life as metaphors and which most of us keep using without an awareness of their poetic origins. (One of my favorites is “pupil.”)

    Looking forward to diving back into your book again, now that the weekend and a small meadow of time has arrived!

    (Oh, and I just thought of this, in My Life, Hejinian has some wonderfully elliptical thoughts on metaphor, including this one: “A sentence is a metaphor since when.”)

    • dmarshall58

      I’m really enjoying My Life. Oddly, it’s partly the size. The edition I have is so small, and I can carry it around and read it wherever I got. It’s so transporting itself, a mixture of oddly elliptical and penetrating memory that carries me into her imagination. I’ll try writing about it on this blog when I’ve had time to digest it and study it more. Thanks for introducing me to it.

      All I know about the etymology comes from online. I looked it up before I started writing this piece. “Metaphor” comes from Greek, where it meant the way a word from one context could be used in another. Metaphora meant, literally,”a transfer,” which suggests a way of moving meaning, the way when a wave advances, the water actually stays where it is and the energy moves through it, which is another metaphor I suppose. Now that I’m aware, I’ll be looking for words that are really metaphors, but I don’t really have a favorite yet.

      We must have been likeable kids to be forgiven for all our sins, that’s what I figure… but, of course, we shouldn’t have been… I guess.

      I’m anxious to hear what you think about my book. All I really hoped to get from writing it was conversation. I hope all is going well for you with the school year and that you’re in a comfortable moment in the play production schedule. –D

      • hhstheater

        David, wanted to let you know that I’m enjoying your book immensely, but that I’m a very slow reader, and I’ve reached the stage in production where every spare moment is going towards the play. Looking forward to coming back to it after this madness ends and hoping to review it on Amazon. Hoping all is well with you!

      • dmarshall58

        Please. I understand entirely what getting ready for a show demands. To me, theater is the strangest art form. All the creativity is so collaborative and aims toward one magic window when the work of art exists. When the run is over, it’s disappeared again, sort of like a poem written in disappearing ink or a painting that fades to shadows in the sun. There’s something almost miraculous in it, and giving yourself over to creating that miracle is exactly what you should be doing. –D

  3. Wallace Stevens–another favorite. Really enjoyed reading your comments about metaphor.

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