(Ed note: This week Edward Hirsch is presenting terms from his new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
Metaphors and similes, which are sometimes confused with each other, are two different modes of poetic thinking.
metaphor A figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another—as when Whitman characterizes the grass as "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." The term metaphor derives from the Greek metaphora, which means "carrying from one place to another," and a metaphor transfers the connotations of one thing (or idea) to another. It says A equals B (“Life is a dream”). It is a transfer of energies, a mode of energetic relation, of interpenetration, a matter of identity and difference, a collision, or collusion, in the identification of unlike things. There is something dreamlike in its associative way of thinking. Kenneth Burke calls this "perspective by incongruity." In “The Constant Symbol,” Robert Frost says, "There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority."
In The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), I.A. Richards distinguished the two parts of a metaphor by the terms tenor and vehicle. The tenor stands for what is being talked about. It is the subject. The vehicle stands for the way it is being talked about and carries the weight of the comparison. When Macbeth says that "life is but a walking shadow," "life" is the tenor and "walking shadow" is the vehicle.
One philosophical tradition maintains that there is no logical difference between metaphors and similes. Metaphors are considered literal comparisons with the explicit "like" or ''as'' suppressed. Another tradition, the one to which I belong, holds that there is a radical difference (or should be) between saying that A is the same as B and saying that A is like B. ("I am crossing the word like out of the dictionary," Mallarmé declared.) Metaphor works by condensation and compression, simile by discursiveness and digression.
Metaphor works by a process of interaction. It draws attention to the categories of language by crossing them. The language of poetry, Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” is "vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension." Shelley suggests that the poet creates relations between things unrecognized before, and that new relations create new thoughts and thus revitalize language.
Readers actively participate in making meaning through metaphor, in thinking through the conjoining—the relation—of unlike things. The philosopher Ted Cohen suggests that one of the main points of metaphor is “the achievement of intimacy.” He argues that the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are brought into deeper relationship with each other. That’s because the speaker issues a concealed invitation through metaphor that the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret. Such “a transaction constitutes the acknowledgement of a community.” So, too, in poetry meaning emerges as an intimate collaborative process.
simile The explicit comparison of one thing to another, using the word as or like—as when Robert Burns writes:
My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
The essence of simile is similitude; it is likeness and unlikeness, urging a comparison of two different things. A good simile depends on a kind of heterogeneity between the elements being compared. "You smell of time as a Bible smells of thumbs," the Irish poet Mebdh McGuckian writes in her poem “The War Degree,” thus comparing the odor that clings to someone aging to the smell imprinted on a holy book that has been paged through by hundreds of people over the years.
Similes are comparable to metaphors, but the difference between them is not merely grammatical, depending on the explicit use of as or like. It is a difference in significance. Metaphor asserts an identity. It says, "A poem is a meteor" (Wallace Stevens); it says A equals B and in doing so relies on condensation and compression. By contrast, the simile is a form of analogical thinking. It says: "Poetry is made in a bed like love" (André Breton); it says A is like B and thereby works by opening outward. There is a digressive impulse in similes that keeps extending out to take in new things. Breton recognizes, “The embrace of poetry like the embrace of the naked body."
The simile asserts a likeness between unlike things, it maintains their comparability, but it also draws attention to their differences, thus affirming a state of division. When Shakespeare asks, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” (Sonnet 18), he is drawing attention to the artificial process of figuration. So is the Hebraist when he asserts in the Song of Songs (1:9): “I have compared thee, O my love, to a company / of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.” The reader participates in making meaning through simile, in establishing the nature of an unforeseen analogy, in evaluating the aptness of unexpected resemblance.
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”