We Think in Metaphors

People often assume that metaphors are merely optional figures of speech whose purpose is to enliven expression and make it more poetic and appealing. The common assumption is that we could speak literally, but its more colloquial and comfortable to use imagery–unless we’re trying to be precise, in which case metaphors muddy up the idea being expressed. But according to research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics, metaphors are not just words or images that help describe a concept that already exists in the mind. Instead, metaphorical connection is the way the human brain understands anything abstract. The deepest metaphors are not optional or decorative: they’re a kind of sense, like seeing or hearing, and much of what we consider to be reality can be perceived and experienced only through them. We understand almost everything that is not concrete (even “concrete” is a metaphor) in terms of something else. In short, the expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality.

Joel R. Primack & Nancy Ellen Abrams
The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos p. 243

Something which all great poetry has in common, the poetry favored and enjoyed by readers over thousands of years, is metaphor. Shakespeare was the great master. His genius burst with with one metaphor after, each idea arising out with an almost fractal stream of associations.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket. [Antony & Cleopatra Act V Sc. ii]

Shakespeare is thinking big, so when Cleopatra is describing Antony, he has her say that his legs “bestrid [straddled] the ocean“. Once the word ocean has entered his mind, he imagines the waves. That leads to his next image and metaphor: his rear’d arm Crested the world. The word crest can be used to describe the crest of a wave. If you read Shakespeare carefully, you can actually see him thinking as he wrote. He was said to have been a very quick writer and exceedingly nimble in thought and jest. His writing displays that nimbleness of thought.

Now, with the crest of a wave in mind, Shakespeare was probably reminded of storms at sea. From the previous metpahor, a new one bursts forth. He writes:

As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.

The opposite of a storm would be the tunèd sphere. The earth’s orb was as much earth as water, and so Shakespeare, having been reminded of a storm at sea by the crest of a wave, finishes with rattling thunder.  The sound of thunder is preceded by the oppositional idea of tunèd or musical spheres. Shakespeare’s imagination, by this point, is deeply immersed in the metaphor of sea and ocean. From the peacefulness of the tunèd spheres (and by association a calm ocean) he makes the imaginative leap to the metaphor of Antony’s delights being dolphin-like.

But Shakespeare’s imagination isn’t entirely swept into the ocean’s currents. Antony’s richness of character is like a bounty. There’s no metaphorical winter in Antony’s bounty and that leads Shakespeare to compare his bounty to an Autumn that grows the more by reaping.

Once this association and metaphor has been lodged in Shakespeare’s mind, the poetic thought process reappears in the final lines. Not only that, but Shakespeare was a master of wordplay. When Shakespeare uses the word crest in the earlier portion of the speech, crest can also refer to the emblems used to decorate a helmet or armor. This double meaning stays with Shakespeare so that, a few lines later, he writes that crowns and crownets walk’d in his livery. Livery can refer to a uniform, a sign or a mark related to a crest. This metaphor combines with the idea of a bounty, and a bounty, naturally enough, reminds Shakespeare of food and feasting. On what do we eat but plates. Once that image is lodged in Shakespeare;s imagination, another metaphor springs to mind, he writes:

…realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

The comparison of realms and islands to plates combines with the imagery of livery and leads to pockets, probably because Shakespeare has imagined the pockets sown into the livery of servants.

Shakespeare’s use of metaphor allows to see how the great poet thought, how his mind moved from one metaphor and image to another. Clusters of images appear like bubbles, each bursting from the previous image. It’s a manner of thought that characterizes all of Shakespeare’s poetry and is the property that makes his poetry great; and is the reason his associative genius places him heads and shoulders above his peers. Compare Shakespeare’s poetry to his sometimes collaborator, John Fletcher, and Fletcher’s poetry proceeds line by line, linearly rather than organically. Fletcher’s metaphors are built brick by brick or appear in isolation.

Night do not steal away: I woo thee yet
To hold a hard hand o’re the rusty bit
That guides the lazy Team: go back again,
Bootes, thou that driv’st thy frozen Wain
Round as a Ring, and bring a second Night
To hide my sorrows from the coming light;
Let not the eyes of men stare on my face,
And read my falling, give me some black place
Where never Sun-beam shot his wholesome light,
That I may sit and pour out my sad spright
Like running water, never to be known
After the forced fall and sound is gone. [John Fletcher: The Faithful Shepherdess]

Fletcher’s pathos inhabits a different imaginative world than Shakespeare’s. Fletcher’s passage is largely immersed in a single metaphor. Night is personified as Boötes, the constellation known as the herdsman. Boötes, or Night, is envisioned as having his hand on the reins of the Lazy Team. By Lazy Team (lazy referring to the slow movement of the stars) Fletcher may be referring to the constellations Equuleus, the little horse, and Pegasus.

The Wain, (known as the Big Dipper in North America) was, in some parts of Britain, commonly known as Charles’ Wain (a wain being a wagon). The wagon rides round the North Star in a “ring”.   Knowing all this, Fletcher’s imagery begins to come together, but it altogether lacks the associative brilliance of Shakespeare. He slowly builds his metaphor line by line. Shakespeare barely lets one metaphor sink in before he hatches the next. (Interestingly, Mozart’s musical facility flowed with equal freedom and he was criticized for it by fellow composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Dittersdorf said that Mozart’s melodic ideas moved too quickly. There was no time to savor a melody before Mozart’s pen eagerly inked the next.)

One final metaphor springs from Fletcher’s quill when he writes that his character will pour out his sad spright “like running water”. The metaphor is disconnected and feels almost

Elizabethan Dramatist John Fletcher

arbitrary. Fletcher had to work at poetry, being more of a natural born dramatist. Nowadays, when we read or perform Fletcher, it’s less for his poetry than for his drama.

The dramatist Phillip Massinger represents the tail end of the Elizabethan generation. He’s among the last  and also demonstrates the least poetry. His  imagery is stock. His use of metaphor rarely rises above the commonplace. Though he wrote blank verse, like Shakespeare and Fletcher, his language has the feel of elegantly and beautifully versified prose. Few modern scholars would consider him a poet.

The point of all this is that when we appraise the work of dramatists 400 years ago, it’s not enough that they wrote verse. The dramatists who were also poets were the ones who still transport us with their figurative use of language. Metaphor is the life-blood of poetry. Metaphor is what makes the sum exceed the parts. As Primack and Abrams wrote, “the expansiveness of our metaphors determines the expansiveness of our reality.” The expansiveness of our metaphors also determine the expansiveness of our poems. Modern poets who have abjured the use of metaphor for one reason or another seem to think they will be appraised differently by the generations following. They tell themselves that they live in a different era. But what we value in poetry hasn’t changed in the thousands of years since poems were first written.

Fall in love with metaphor.

Imbue your language with metaphor and your poetry will be inestimably larger than the page it’s written on.

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5 responses

  1. No problem, this post pulled me in like webbing, and it is you that I must thank. Almost two years ago you through a gentle but surgical critique of my poetry midwifed my transition into proper form and verse (more or less lol). So in short, thank you

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