Fundamentals of the Art of Poetry
New York, London: Continuum International
Order from www.continuumbooks.com or 1-800-561-7704.
This title was originally published by the Sheffield Academic Press, England.
From Chapter 17:
Energetic Metaphor: the Major Trope
. . . . Let us imagine Adam and Eve living in their
orchard east of Eden by a jolly stream full of fish under a sun never
too hot and rain never too wet. One day Adam, seduced by the serpent’s
propaganda, ate the forbidden apple, much against his wife’s
advice, for Eve did not like snakes, even snakes that talk. God sent
down an angel, who told the pair that they must quit the Garden and
work for a living for the rest of their lives. At this bad
news, Adam sat down and did what neither he nor Eve had ever done:
he wept buckets of tears, as we might put it nowadays. Of course,
he had cried a little now and then when Eve would not play with him
or when he stubbed a toe on a stone. But never so much as now, not
by far, and Eve, who tried to be stoical and not belabor her husband
with bitter reproaches, was astonished at the quantity of tears she
was seeing for the first time in her life. That night, in the foul
world outside the Garden, sitting by their first campfire (after expelling
them, the angel had left them his smoldering brand as a parting gift),
and mulling over the day’s cruel events, Eve heard herself saying,
among other things, ‘And then, pet, I saw a stream of tears
flowing down your cheeks.’ With this, the first postlapsarian
metaphor had been invented (buckets would come much later). I hope
that it impressed Adam, and distracted him a little from his gloom.
What Eve had done was to use her God-given imagination (which is the power to bring to one’s consciousness things and combinations of things that are not physically present) to realize that two quite different phenomena, a stream and weeping, have one or more attributes in common. Their realities—or rather, to be punctiliously philosophical, their perceived realities—overlap. Both are wet, both flow, and both can be abundant. Having imagined this overlap in a fraction of a second, Eve could both define and characterize, in a single word familiar to her and Adam, a phenomenon altogether new to her.
In pre-historical fact rather than my pretty story, metaphors must have sprung up spontaneously among all the creatures who were using language, and must have appeared very quickly after language took its first tottering steps. For, needless to say, language was not born a seasoned adult. It began by coping with the limited social and natural phenomena of early communal life. It grew as new phenomena demanded attention—and of course still grows for the same reason: coping with new situations. Whenever something new and unfamiliar appeared to the mind, the easiest and therefore most natural strategy was to apply to it a word or a phrase signifying something already familiar to the community: usually something clear and communicable to the senses (like ‘stream’)—something physical whose special feature was that it displayed—was thought or perceived to display—a significant connection (usually a partial similarity, an overlap) with the hard-to-express new phenomenon.
This sort of lexical activity was especially useful when it came to finding words for vague, hard-to-define yet important phenomena. Think, for instance, how difficult it would have been to avoid metaphors when people tried for the first time to name the kinds of persons we call ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.
Since the real or imagined universe offered endless possibilities of perceiving similarities and interconnections, every language found itself in possession of as many metaphors as there are waves in the ocean (but this is not a metaphor; it is a simile—a hyperbolical one—that must be despatched to another chapter).
Indeed, after looking at Eve in some bewilderment, Adam proved himself capable of rising to the occasion by assuring her, ‘I see what you mean’; and then, fibbing a little, as was natural after the Original Sin: ‘In fact, my dear wife, I grasped your invention of metaphor at once,’ thus providing mankind with two basic metaphors for understanding.
While this mental procedure for naming new things or making unfamiliar things familiar is in one sense gloriously creative, and of course unique to homo sapiens, viewed from another angle it seems downright lazy—a case of taking the line of least resistance, which is what living beings typically do. The mind boggles at the hardship of minting a brand-new name for each new experience. For that matter, the mind is unable to create what would amount to an infinite lexicon, where each object or experience would receive its own discrete term. Metaphors make it possible for mankind to augment the language ‘organically’, the new and unfamiliar getting linguistically grafted on the old and familiar.
In our own times, this primordial function of metaphor subsists and thrives. Whoever gave the name mouse to the instrument I am using at this very moment to move the cursor to and fro upon the screen of my word-processor drew upon a familiar, physical creature to designate an item quite new to the universe. He was poetically inspired to find an amusing if somewhat farfetched overlap between the rodent and the grey box that dashes about the pad under my hand.
But why was our Adam taken aback for a split second by Eve’s metaphor? Because in the instant before informing her that he had ‘seen’ and ‘grasped’ what she was doing, he had thought, ‘A stream of tears? Why did she say a stream? As if there were fish swimming in my tears!’
What Adam had realized is that even though metaphors are based on perceived similar attributes among things, the things themselves retain their own essential beings: the mouse remains a Mus musculus and the little electronic box remains a little electronic box. In other words, the metaphor-maker also excludes; in fact, he normally excludes much more than he includes. For instance, when Donne tells his ex-mistress that she will be ‘bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat’ (see Chapter 7), it is not recommended that we import into our enjoyment the fact that mercury is a good conductor of electricity or that it forms alloys called amalgams.
The fact of exclusion helps explain why metaphors can be obscure, even unintelligible, to the hearer. Had Adam been less perceptive, Eve would have been obliged to explain what she had included and excluded from her metaphor: ‘It was not because of any fish, darling, but because of the quantities of water that were coming out of your eyes.’ By the same token, when I remarked that the similarity between a live mouse and the electronic cursor-guidance unit is far-fetched, I implied that some persons, hearing ‘mouse’ in this context for the first time, would need a brief explanation.
. . . . Calling the computer thingamajig a mouse instead of sticking to ‘Handheld Input Device’ or HID was not only amusing; it was also brilliant salesmanship. The metaphor was new; it was vivid; and it sucked into the thingamajig certain implied values concerning those tiny, cuddly and active creatures. You might argue that many potential customers are afraid of mice. I believe I would have brought up this argument myself at the conference where the name was adopted. I would have suggested some other metaphorical name out of fear of losing a large number of customers. But it seems that I would have been mistaken. ‘Rat’ was of course out of the question. Public disgust is invincible vis-à-vis rats. But ‘mice’ turned out to be a hit. The attributes of ‘scary’ and ‘repellent’ were successfully excluded, as they are for Mickey Mouse.