The Art of Metaphor


The Art of Metonymy
Heracleitus on the Delphic oracle:
"It does not say and it does not hide, it intimates."
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it?

--"Praise in Summer"- Richard Wilbur
  • Richard Wilbur's "Praise in Summer"
     Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
    As summer sometimes calls us all, I said
    The hills are heavens full of branching ways
    Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
    I said the trees are mines in air,   I said
    See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
    And then I wondered why this mad instead
    Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
    Such savor's in this wrenching things awry.
    Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
    The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
    Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
    That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
    And sparrows sweep the ceilings of our day?

    This is a sonnet specifically about the motive for metaphor, but the motive for metaphor is the motive for all figures of speech, all tropes.

    The Speaker in the poem feels called upon to praise the glories of summer. So he offers praise by making three statements that are whimsical and fantastic metaphors.

    First, "I said The hills are heavens full of branching ways Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;". Here's a statement that is made up of extended metaphors. The Speaker turns the world upside down and imagines the mole holes and tunnels under the ground as if they are a "series of branching ways in the sky(heavens) and the moles as birds flying in their tunnels. He also adds another metaphor--"star-nosed moles." The moles' noses are compared to the stars in the sky.

    The second statement: "I said the trees are mines in air." The speaker continues with the basic reversal of perception: To view the earth and what's under the surface as the heavens and now to view the heavens as the earth, with the trees now viewed as if they were mine shafts burrowing into the heavens.

    The third statement: "I said See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!" This statement completes the reversal of heaven and earth. The sparrows are compared to the moles. just as the moles are imagined as birds "flying" overhead the dead beneath the surface of the earth, so the sparrow's flying in the heavens is imagined as a mole burrowing in the sky.

    Now comes the great reversal. Wilbur has used the sonnet form with one of its common structures: 6 lines and then 8. Notice the first 6 lines consist of praising the summer by means of his series of metaphors. But now he shifts the focus in the last 8 lines. Just as the speaker's imagination is in full flight, doing figure eights with metaphors, he suddenly stops short and questions what's he's just done. He's questioning the reason for metaphor--this strange bending of the language. He does it by means of two questions:

    "And then I wondered why this mad instead
    Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
    Such savor's in this wrenching things awry."

    The Speaker suddenly wonders what is the motive for metaphor. "Why this mad instead/Perverts our praise to uncreation..." Metaphor is a "mad instead" that "Perverts" praise for the summer--trees and the sky and birds into "uncreation"--metaphorical expressions like "trees are mines in air, "star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead." These images are not part of nature--creation, but the fanciful products of the Speaker's imagination--"uncreation." It is a substitution of one thing for another. A mole for a bird, a mine shaft for a tree trunk. Why not just call a bird a bird and a spade a spade? Notice however, that even in the act of questioning metaphor, the speaker uses one: "Mad" instead is a metaphor comparing the replacement of one thing by another to a crazy person--a personifcation to boot.

    "why Such savor's in this wrenching things awry." The speaker asks another why question. Why is there such pleasure in making metaphor, in "this wrenching things awry." Again, in the act of questioning why there's "such savor's"--such pleasure--in the "mad instead," in turning the world upside down and viewing the heavens as if it were all the tunnels and burrows under the surface of the earth, and the underground as the heavens,--he can't escape using metaphorical language. The pleasure of metaphor is compared to "savor's"--a taste metaphor. The "mad instead" is a savory dish that brings pleasure to the palate. "Wrenching things awry" is also a metaphor, comparing metaphorical language to the act of twisting or bending some object out of shape. So he asks why do we get such pleasure in these language twisting games.

    The speaker ends his ruminating on the motives for metaphor by asking two rhetorical questions.

    Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
    The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
    Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
    That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
    And sparrows sweep the ceilings of our day?

    Now we're getting to the point. It's a lovely ironic statement. Here is the motive for metaphor. The answer to the first rhetorical question is yes. Exactly. Sense is so stale that "it must needs derrange the world to know it." In other words, ordinary perception is dull.

    And the speaker shows us how dull by asking, "To a praiseful eye/ Should it not be enough of fresh and strange/ That trees grow green... " The irony should be clear. There is nothing fresh and strange about saying "trees grow green." It's a dead, cliched statement without insight or excitement--hardly any kind of "Praise."

    An now the final irony. Even in the act of suggesting that we don't need the "mad instead" of metaphor--that it should be enough to talk straight and plain--to say a tree is green, he can't finish his thought without resorting to that same mad instead of metaphors: "and moles can course in clay, And sparrows sweep the ceilings of our day?

    Moles "coursing in clay" is a metaphor comparing moles moving in their tunnels to boats or cars navigating a course. The act of sparrows flying in the sky is compared to the act of sweeping a floor with a broom. But a further metaphor--the floor becomes the ceiling.

    So this poem, which attacks metaphor in favor of plain speech turns out to be a defense of metaphor. If we want to praise the summer or bring fresh insight into any aspect of human life, we do indeed need the "mad instead." Sense is so stale (another metaphor) that it must needs derrange (metaphor) the world to know it. The mad instead of metaphor derranges the world, wrenches it awry out of its conventional patterns in order that we can see it again as "fresh and strange."

  • Donald Davidson's "What Metaphors Mean"

    What Metaphors Mean-pdf

    Metaphor is the dreamwork of language and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator. The interpretation of dreams requres collaboration between a dreamer and a waker, even if they be the same person; and the act of interpretation is itself a work of the imagination. So too understanding a metaphor is as much a creative endeavour as making a metaphor, and as little guided by rules.

    For me, here's the great Davidsonian insight: Metaphor is an invitation to imagine--it does not tell, it intimates. A spur, a prick, a goad, a bump on the head.

    ( My aside on the meaning of Davidson's opening sentence: 'Metaphor is the dreamwork of language." I've puzzled over this metaphor because it certainly is arresting. What does it mean? First, the statement is an allusion to Freud's theory of interpreting dreams. Dreams are not transparent communication but indirect communication. 'Dreamwork" is his term for how the overt content of dreams is the result of a number of activities--condensation and displacement, etc., so that the dream itself does not communcate a transparent meaning. The interpretation of dreams involves an active imagination in reflecting on what the dream might indicate about what's going on in the dreamer. Only an imaginative response of seeing how this dreamwork fits in which lots of other dreams and other bits of information about the person, will yield possible meanings. Metaphor is like that. Understanding metaphor requires an act of imagination in interpreting the implications of such strange and startling statements such as "an aged man is but a paltry thing/ a tattered coat upon a stick..." or "whatever flames upon the night/ man's own resinous heart hath fed."

    ...all communication by speech assumes the interplay of inventive construction and inventive construal.

    There are no instructions for devising metaphors; there is no manual for determining what a metaphor "means" or "says"; there is no test for metaphor that does not call for taste.

    A metaphor makes us attend to some likeness, often a novel or surprising likeness, between two things.

    My spin on this Davidson sentence: a metaphor makes us notice a likeness between two things. One way to define a "dead" metaphor is to say that when the metaphor has been so frequently used that it doesn't make us notice anything out of the ordinary then it has become conventional--"dead." What dies is the metaphor's original power to arrest attention--to make us notice. Dead metaphors are still metaphors. We can easily recover the comparison when we're asked to do so. When they were alive we noticed them--they startled and made us puzzle and think about the comparison.

    We can learn much about what metaphors mean by comparing them with similes, for a simile tells us in part, what a metaphor merely nudges us into noting.

    The simile says there is a likeness and leaves it to us to pick out some common feature or features; the metaphor does not assert a likeness, but if we accept it as a metaphor, we are again led to seek common features (not necessarily the same features the associated simile suggests...).

    In the case of simile, we note what it literally says, that two things resemble one another; we then regard the objectsand consider what similarity would, in the context, be to the point.

  • A metaphor directs attention to the same sorts of similarity, if not the same similarities, as the corresponding simile.

  • ....But then the unexpected or subtle parallels and analogies it is the business of metaphor to promote...

  • Metaphor and simile are merely two among endless devices that serve to alert us to aspects of the world by inviting us to make comparisons.

    The most obvious semantic difference between simile and metaphor is that all similes are true and most metaphors are false.

    My examples: "My love is like a red, red rose that's newly bloom'd in spring." Davidson's point: this is a true statement because "everything is like everything." My love and roses share life, color, beauty, etc. To say "my love is a rose" is a false statement. Cops are like pigs. They are both alive, etc. The metaphor "get the pigs off campus" is literally false. So similes are literally true statements and metaphors are literally false statements.

    Generally, it is only when a sentence is taken to be false that we accept it as a metaphor and start to hunt out the hidden implication. Like Davidson's opening metaphor: "Metaphor is the dreamwork of language...." A literally false statement. The metaphor invites us to puzzle out the comparison.

  • But in fact there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character. When we try to say what a metaphor "means" we soon realize there is no end to what we want to mention.

  • Seeing as is not seeing that. Metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that inspires or prompts the insight.

  • The critic is , so to speak, in benign competition with the metaphor maker. The critic tries to make his own art easier or more transparent in some respects than the original, but as the same time he tries to reproduce in others some of the effects the original had on him. In doing this the critic also, and perhaps by the best method at his command, calls attention to the beauty or aptness, the hidden power, of the metaphor itself.

  • Richard Rorty on Metaphor

    Rorty is my favorite philosopher. In several books, he keenly comments on Davidson's work on Metaphor. I think that Rorty is one of the few readers of Davidson's essay who actually understands the subtly of the argument. In any case, Rorty's imaginative explication and expansion on Davidson's work certainly provokes lots of thought.

    Here are key ideas from the first chapter of Rorty's Contingency, irony and solidarity: "The contingency of language"

    • "Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors."--p.16

    • Davidson's distinction between literal and metaphorical use of language: "not as a distinction between two sorts of meaning, nor as a distinction between two sorts of interpretation, but as a distinction between familiar and unfamiliar uses of noises and marks. The literal uses of noises and marks are the uses we can handle by our old theories about what people will say under various conditions. Their metaphorical use is the sort which makes us get busy developing a new theory."--17

    • Why metaphors don't have meaning. "To have a meaning is to have a place in a language game. Metaphors, by definition, do not. (Metaphors are always false statements--my gloss on Davidson) .....Tossing a metaphor into a conversation is like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph out of your pocket and displaying it, or pointing at a feature of the surroundings, or slapping your interlocutor's face, or kissing him. Tossing a metaphor into a text is like using italics, or illustrations, or odd punctuation or formats. ( Notice Rorty uses a series of similes to explicate how metaphors function--to provoke, arrest, startle, confuse, goad into reflection.)

      All these are ways of producing effects on your interlocutor or your reader, but not ways of conveying a message.

      If a metaphor is repeated, caught up, bandied about and gradually acquires habitual use, then it will have a place in a language game. It thereby ceases to be a metaphor; it's a dead metaphor.--p. 18

    • Rorty expands Davidson's ideas. Here "metaphor" means any new concept, idea as well as words that don't fit into existing language games. "A sense of human history as the history of successive metaphors would let us see the poet, in the generic sense of the maker of new words, the shaper of new languages, as the vanguard of the species."--20

    • From chapter 2: "The contingency of selfhood": Metaphors are unfamiliar uses of old words, but such uses are possible only against the background of other old words being used in old familar ways."--41

    From "Unfamiliar noises: Hesse and Davidson on metaphor" in Objectivity, Relatvism, and Truth

    Unfamiliar Noises-pdf

    • Metaphors are "unfamiliar noises and marks." Literal language is "familiar noises and marks."

    • Davidson lets us see metaphors on the model of unfamilar events in the natural world--causes of changing beliefs and desires--rather than on the model of representations of unfamilar worlds, worlds which are 'symbolic" rather than 'natural." --p. 163

    • "...we come to understand metaphors in the same way that we come to understand anomalous natural phenomena. We do so by revising our theories so as to fit them around the new material. We interpret metaphors in the same sene in which we interpret such anomalie--by casting around for possible revisions in our theories which may help to handle the surprises." --167.

    • Key difference between Davidson and Rorty and Lakoff and other philosophers on metaphor. For Davidson and Rorty when metaphors become cliches through habitual usage they come to have literal meanings--that is, they take their place in a normal language game. When this happens the metaphors are really dead, which means that they are no longer metaphors. When you're dead, you're dead. Lakoff and others think that dead metaphors are still metaphors. But only because they can see the obvious comparisons. But because the comparisons are now obvious, they no longer function as metaphors. There was a time when these dead metaphors--argument is war; thinking is seeing-- were puzzling and caused reflection. But now they've become cliches.

    • What's the difference between metaphor and paradox? "No man is an island" and "Love is the only law." Both statements are literally false. The test is by asking "whether the first utterer of what seems a blatantly false remark can offer arguments for what he says. If he can, it is a paradox. If not, it is a metaphor.

    • "Both are the sorts of noises which, on first hearing, 'make no sense'. But as metaphors get picked up, bandied about, and begin to die, and as their paradoxes begin to function as conclusions, and later as premises, of arguments, both sorts of noises start to convey information. The process of becoming state, familiar, unparadoxical and platitudinous is the process by which such noises cross the line from 'mere' causes of belief to reasons for beliefs."--p. 171

    • ( Aside: A paradox only appears to be a false statement, but it can be explained, argued that it is a true statement. "Love is the only law" is a central paradox of the Christian faith. Metaphor is always a false statement that can't be explained and therefore shown to be a true statement.)

  • The difference between metaphors and metonymies that emerge out of our common life language use and those created by the artist is only one of degree. The artist creates consciously and with more imagination. There is not a qualitative difference between an artist and us ordinary folk. All humans are creative and imaginative in their use of language to communicate; some do it better than others.

  • Good metaphor is always something unexpected. . Metaphor-makers bring us startling comparisons. Once they say them, we say "Oh yes. Once I was blind and now I see."

  • The same is true of metonymy. We ordinary folks don't see the details that can suddenly illuminate a context, that can stand for something else. Thank god for the eyes and ears who can see and hear and are voices for the rest of us.

  • Rorty's riff on metaphor and cultural change in "Philosophy as science, as metaphor, and as politics" in Essays on Heidegger and Others

    • "there are three ways in which a new belief can be added to our previous beliefs, thereby forcing us to reweave the fabric of our beliefs and desires--viz., perception, inference and metaphor."--p. 12.

    • "A metaphor is, so to speak, a voice from outside logical space, rather than an empirical filling-up of a portion of that space, or a logical-philosophical clarification of the structure of that space. It is a call to change one's language and one's life, rather than a proposal about how to systematize either."--p.13.

    • To think of metaphorical sentences as the forerunners of new uses of language, uses which may ecllipse and erase old uses, is to think of metaphor as on a par with perception and inference, rather than thinking of it as having a merely 'heuristic' or 'ornamental' function.--p. 14.

  • W.V. Quine "Postscript on Metaphor"

  • Metaphor and Metonymy in David Lodge's, Nice Work (from Kate Broom's course handouts)