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  • By David B. Gosselin

The Power of Metaphor

Nike Tying her Sandal

Contrary to the sundry definitions of metaphor proffered by school teachers and dictionaries, Metaphor is not some mere literary device; it is the eternal fount of new ideas. Every new and developing generation of idea is born out of a metaphorical process, as opposed to logic or simple fancy.

However, the key to understanding the concept of metaphor as expressed in the great classical poetry and art of civilizations across history is to go back to the original meaning of the word; a meaning that was lost as a result of the textbook-style and rote learning approaches that came to saturate the learning environment of high schools and universities across the Western world.

Nouns, or Verbs?

The etymology of the word Metaphor can be traced back to the ancient Greek word metapherein, meaning “to transfer.” Meta on its own was a prefix used to convey an idea of changing of places, order or nature.

Thus the origin of the word metaphor is an action. It should not be approached as some “thing,” but as a transformative power, the invisible process by which “things” come into being, the process of “becoming” in Plato's terms. The final images and organizational matrix are simply the final state or end result of that metaphorical process.

To illustrate this power of Metaphor, we shall present a series of examples from throughout the ages, including from the hidden poets of the 21st century. Each example will allow us to see how mere craftsmanship, no matter how skilled the writer may be, or how beautiful the lines he weaves are, that alone will never produce great poetry. The transformative power of metaphor is what ultimately defines the basis of the poet’s ability to communicate a profound idea. Such ideas are what Percy Bysshe Shelley refereed to as “intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.”[1]

Without metaphor, we at best find ourselves with mere good craftsmanship.[2] Often, as has been the case with much Modernist verse, one has come to know the endless recourse to literal prose, which the writer attempts to pass off as poetry. It may have otherwise veered in the opposite extreme: towards an ever more obscure portrayal of ideas using “pure images,” an endless series of free-associations, symbols and stylistic gimmicks, for which the reader can glean no intelligible meaning, and for which he increasingly becomes responsible for supplying the meaning and/or feeling.

In the latter case, the reader would be best off writing his own metaphorical poetry!

As Shelley discusses in his “A Defense of Poetry,” even great prose (as opposed to literal flat prose) is inherently metaphorical:

The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. […] Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. He rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and action, and he forebore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his style.

The Modernist has often provided similar reasons to those above for the “loosening up” of the rules of classical poetry, namely: to allow for a more uninhibited and freely flowing process of thought, unencumbered by the strictness of traditional elements of form such as meter, rhyme etc… However, the difference is Plato and the Greeks never abandon metaphor. In fact, metaphor becomes the basis of communicating something more profound, an idea that would otherwise not lend itself to literal forms of expression.

Take the example of Plato’s Phaedo dialogue:

And now I will make answer to you, O my judges, and show that he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world. [...] For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying;

Is Socrates saying that the true philosopher is suicidal? Is he suggesting that the philosopher is ultimately looking for a literal death? Were this the case, why shouldn’t the true philosopher not simply look for the closest bridge and jump off?

The truth is that Plato was a poet, as was Socrates, much to the chagrin of modernists. Many so-called scholars and literal-minded individuals will in all likelihood refuse to recognize the irony of the piece and instead simply dismiss Socrates for his rhetoric and word play, but it is this irony which lifts Plato's prose to the lofty heights of poetry.

Plato, through the character of Socrates, is using the idea of death as a metaphor for elaborating the concept of the human mind as something capable of investigating the universe beyond simple sense-perception, that is beyond effects which we know as the continuous series of phenomena experienced by our senses, to an investigation of why and how such a series of experiences necessarily must have occurred.

Without such knowledge, the ability to change things in the real world becomes impossible, individuals become nothing more than spectators who can do nothing but watch as history unfolds before them.

In such a world, every individual becomes a Hamlet.

Let us therefore take a few simple examples, including from the hidden poets of the 21st Century, who up until the present moment, have still not gotten their due recognition - a phenomena all too common in the history of great poetry.

We will see how the power of metaphor allows the reader to break free from the shackles of sense-perception through the expiernece of great poetic irony and metaphor.

Take the simple but profound example by Heinrich Heine.

Fisher Girl

Come you lovely fisher girl,

Come and bring your boat to land;

Join me on the golden shore,

We'll cuddle hand in hand.

Lay your head on my breast

And let all your fears set sail,

You've trusted the deep sea

So often with you fate.

My heart is like the sea,

Has storm and ebb and flow

And many lovely pearls

Lie in its depths below.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

What a simple, yet beautiful and profound idea! While there are many more elaborate examples of metaphor, such as those of Keats’ or Shelley’s great odes, Heine’s short, but dense poem is a perfect distillation of the idea of metaphor.

Notice the poem does not use an elaborate form of language or particular vocabulary, everything is very straight-forward. Despite that, there is a great hidden meaning, which Heine generates across only three short and simple stanzas.

In the first stanza, the speaker invites the young maid to return from sea and join him on the golden shore. In the second stanza, he essentially tells her to let her guard down and to trust in his love, which, given that she has been daring enough to trust the sea with her fate, she might consider taking a chance with him. By just this second stanza, a metaphorical idea is already unfolding.

Now, in the third stanza, the speaker introduces the idea of his heart as akin to the sea. He does not elaborate some simple Romantic “lovey-dovey” idea of love, but in using the metaphor of the sea, conveys a sense of the complexity or depth of his love—it has ebbs, it has flows— it is not perfect, yet “many lovely pearls/lie in its depths below.”

Using metaphor, very simple language and very common place are brought into new unique constellations; they express a profound and complex idea of love, which goes beyond what any literal form of description or argument could achieve.

It says what words alone cannot.

Let us take another example, which has a more serious tone, by the great African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings

I know what the caged bird feels, alas! When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass, And the river flows like a stream of glass; When the first bird sings and the first bud opes, And the faint perfume from its chalice steals— I know what the caged bird feels! I know why the caged bird beats his wing Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; For he must fly back to his perch and cling When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars And they pulse again with a keener sting— I know why he beats his wing! I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!

The first stanza introduces the idea of the bird’s song as a longing to be free, something provoked by the beauty of nature, “When the first bird sings and the first bud opes/And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—”

The poet introduces the idea of a caged bird singing to express his thoughts and feelings about his own plight.

The second stanza introduces a new emotion:

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing.

The second set of images introduces new dimensions to the initial idea; there is a violence being done to the bird, when “he fain would be on the bough a-swing”—his natural rights are being violated; it is an affront not only to his personal freedom, but an affront to natural law as well, as opposed to mere arbitrary laws such as a slave-owners property rights.

In the third stanza, a new stirring and final dimension is introduced, where the bird’s pain is presented anew. In contrast to the former kind of pain, in which a longing for the absence of injustice is suggested, the quality of longing in the bird is transformed:

It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!

The bird's song is an invocation of natural law, the God-given rights of every human individual.

Only a true poet could develop such great transformative power, using Metaphor, with such a seemingly simple image and form.

It is the nature of all great poetry, that even the simplest of images and language can be elevated to loftiest heights and bring us to tears. Take a modern example, using a poem written in May 2010 by Daniel Leach.

Little Ones

Little ones, little ones, playing around me,

Blowing your bubbles up into the air,

Laughing and giggling to chase them toward me,

Or when they turn back to alight in your hair;

Watch them float upward above the green treetops,

Where they are caught by the golden sunbeams,

And wonder how each, for a beautiful moment,

Lives like a bright rainbow world full of dreams.

What if our spirits could fly with those bubbles,

And time could stand still as those worlds we explore?

Castles of sunlight and fairy-cloud people,

A beautiful cloud-kingdom princess, and more!

And every story the mind can imagine,

Would magically form in those clouds as we fly,

And we could tell of our awesome adventure,

When back down, like bubbles, we float from the sky.

Little ones, you perhaps never considered

The infinite beauty there is all around,

And perhaps this I would not have remembered,

But for the joy that with you I have found.

--May, 2010

What moving irony is created by Daniel Leach!

The unconsciousness of the little children playing carefree becomes the cause of the greatness and awe-inspiring realization of life’s beauty, its promise and the infinite potential of creativity, being ever-renewed with each new coming generation.

In light of this example, let us take a similar theme treated by The Bard himself. One of the great Metaphors in the history of poetic composition, Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare's sonnets develop a quality of metaphor, which while expressed in each individual poem, it is also elaborated on a higher order through the series of sonnets, where the development of the series as a whole represents a sort of Metaphor of Metaphors.

Sonnet I

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare opens by saying each individual is drawn to beauty and longs for it, and ultimately desires ‘increase’ i.e. to reproduce. Yet even in the first two lines, it is stated that this beauty fades and that even the fairest of creatures is no match for time. Yet, in recognizing that this beauty does fade, only then is one ready to discover an even higher order of beauty: the power to generate new beauty!

What does a world look like, where each individual is acting with the conscious idea that they are responsible for the re-creation and continued development of the human species; that they are not mere individuals, but are defined and in turn define themselves by this eternal process for which they are now a mediating part. Rather than simply discrete individuals floating through the ether of a nihilistic universe, which has no discoverable meaning or purpose, each individual is seen as a singularity within a continuous process of creation.

What is real is not what is seen as such, it is not a noun, rather what is real is the causal change effected by an individual in the advancement of truth and beauty. In this respect, Keats’ statement from his Ode on a Grecian Urn becomes the most lucid and self-conscious statement on the nature of great art and its role in the development of the human species.

Every great poem is susceptible of an intelligible representation. It is the result of this verbal quality of transformation, defining a new idea. The basis of metaphor is its intelligibility; or else it would be nothing more than a mere abstract image or an aggregation of free associations, neither of which is poetry per se.

Let us take a final short example, from another modern classical poet, Paul Gallagher. He demonstrates all the power and force of a true poet, and startlingly so given the briefness of the piece.

Deep Down

Tired bends the lily

Beneath its gorgeous flower; Weary stoops the pilgrim Drawn on by heavenly power. All the soldier’s glory Is grime upon his brow In the darkness after battle -- A storm would bless him now. Sadly broods the poet, But the verse will glow, And joy, like a diamond, Rise from deep below. Painful though the story That the verse must tell, Yet the heart that tells it Sings like Philomel. Love’s a longer story Than weariness or pain, So the bending lily Blooms again and again.

Note. In Greek mythology, Philomel was a princess raped by Tereus, the king of Thrace. To avenge her, the Gods transformed her into a nightingale, known for its beautiful songs.

Right from the very beginning, the poet challenges us to rise beyond any simple notion of self-interest or preoccupation with our senses. The pilgrim is one drawn by something that challenges him to rise beyond his own mere individual existence. The image of the pilgrim is compared to the initial image of a tired lily wearied by the force of its own beauty.

In the second stanza, after the initial images of the first stanza, the Poet immediately makes a call to arms . He calls upon the mind of the reader to join him, to meet him on the battlefield where they find the weary soldier. His presence on the battlefield implies a force beyond any simple notion of self-interest or immediate gratification. Justice, the future of his children and of mankind are the things a soldier must hold dear. The question of what persists beyond on own mortal existence is brought to the fore.

All this in only eight short lines!

By the third stanza, the higher metaphor begins to crystallize, and this short but dense jewel-like poem now introduces the idea of the poet, as one who like a miner, through toil, is able to extract something of a qualitatively different worth than the dirt and all of the elements that surround it, which make possessor a rich man.

The fourth stanza elaborates on the preceding image of a poet with the irony that says “despite the sad nature of the lines written by the poet, we are yet inspired, and the tears we cry, we cry with joy.” The idea is solidified with the image of Philomel, the princess raped by the king of Thrace, who finally receives the mercy of Gods and is transformed into a Nightingale singing beautiful melodies, rising above tragedy

Finally, we arrive at the fifth and last stanza, where the poet’s statement on Love takes on a meaning that a literal uttering of such a statement, in the absence of the development that preceded, could very well mean little more than one of those feel-good meme-style quotes posted by some millennial on Facebook.

All this in five short four line-stanzas! Mr. Gallagher has passed the test of a true poet with flying colors.

Finally, we wish to leave the reader with a concluding paradox. In light of the discussion on the nature of great poetry and the power of a true poet, one might ask the question, “is the death of a Poet a sad thing?”

After Dark Vapors Have Oppressed Our Plains

After dark vapors have oppress’d our plains

For a long dreary season, comes a day

Born of the gentle South, and clears away

From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.

The anxious month, relieved of its pains,

Takes as a long-lost right the feel of May;

The eyelids with the passing coolness play

Like rose leaves with the drip of Summer rains.

The calmest thoughts came round us; as of leaves

Budding—fruit ripening in stillness—Autumn suns

Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves—

Sweet Sappho’s cheek—a smiling infant’s breath—

The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs—

A woodland rivulet—a Poet’s death.

As a true poet, Keats crafts not simply a series of beautiful lines, he crafts a beautiful paradox that gives the reader the power to free himself from the habitual reliance on sense perception. It challenges him to understand what his senses never will: the death of the poet is not a sad thing because poets never die.

The 21st century is an age that requires not craftsman, but true Poets.


[1]In Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[2]]With such standards, the writer could literally write about garbage, as long as the lines were well written and filled with plenty of original language and imagery. The lines may be rife with unbounded perversion, as long as the rules of "good writing" are respected.

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