In praise of metaphor

“One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor,” wrote Ogden Nash in his poem “Very Like a Whale”.

There is a lot of confusion between simile and metaphor. Similes ask only that you observe likenesses; metaphors ask you to use your imagination. Similes are easier. It is plausible to say the moon is like a balloon. But saying one thing is the other thing and still sounding plausible is trickier: The moon is a balloon.

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) says that a simile is “A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another of a different kind, as an illustration or ornament.” As for a metaphor, it is “A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word of phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, bit analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.”

MetaphorThere are four kinds of metaphor:

  • Allegory: An extended metaphor in which a story illustrates an important attribute of the subject.
  • Misuse: A mixed metaphor used by design or accident (a rhetorical fault).
  • Parable: An extended metaphor narrated as an anecdote to illustrate and teach.
  • Pun: A frivolous allusion between two different things, whereas a metaphor proper is a purposeful allusion.

William Shakespeare was an arch exponent of metaphors to describe life, time, love and the meaning of the universe. In both The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he describes life as a dream in which we can never be sure of what’s real. The magus Prospero believes that the world will one day disappear into thin air, as dreams do and just as the “play” does.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air.”

Many more metaphors can be found:

“Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.”
Romeo and Juliet

“But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.”
Hamlet

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
As You Like It

But metaphors come with a warning. In Terry PratchettLords and Ladies (which spoofs A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is one of the Discworld series),  the English author of fantasy novels who died in March 2015 wrote: “Using a metaphor in front of a man as unimaginative as Ridcully was like a red flag to a bull, was like putting something very annoying in front of someone who was annoyed by it.”

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