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The Power and Pleasure of Metaphor

Writers on Writing With Metaphors

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"The greatest thing by far," said Aristotle in the Poetics (330 BC), "is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance."

Over the centuries, writers have not only been making good metaphors but also studying these powerful figurative expressions--considering where metaphors come from, what purposes they serve, why we enjoy them, and how we comprehend them.

Here--in a follow-up to the article What Is a Metaphor?--are the thoughts of 15 writers, philosophers, and critics on the power and pleasure of metaphor.

  • Aristotle on the Pleasure of Metaphor
    All men take a natural pleasure in learning quickly words which denote something; and so those words are pleasantest which give us new knowledge. Strange words have no meaning for us; common terms we know already; it is metaphor which gives us most of this pleasure. Thus, when the poet calls old age "a dried stalk," he gives us a new perception by means of the common genus; for both the things have lost their bloom. A simile, as has been said before, is a metaphor with a preface; for this reason it is less pleasing because it is more lengthy; nor does it affirm that this is that; and so the mind does not even inquire into the matter. It follows that a smart style, and a smart enthymeme, are those which give us a new and rapid perception.
    (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 4th century BC, translated by Richard Claverhouse Jebb)


  • Quintilian on a Name for Everything
    Let us begin, then, with the commonest and by far the most beautiful of tropes, namely, metaphor, the Greek term for our translatio. It is not merely so natural a turn of speech that it is often employed unconsciously or by uneducated persons, but it is in itself so attractive and elegant that however distinguished the language in which it is embedded it shines forth with a light that is all its own. For if it be correctly and appropriately applied, it is quite impossible for its effect to be commonplace, mean or unpleasing. It adds to the copiousness of language by the interchange of words and by borrowing, and finally succeeds in the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything.
    (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 95 AD, translated by H.E. Butler)


  • I.A. Richards on the Omnipresent Principle of Language
    Throughout the history of Rhetoric, metaphor has been treated as a sort of happy extra trick with words, an opportunity to exploit the accidents of their versatility, something in place occasionally but requiring unusual skill and caution. In brief, a grace or ornament or added power of language, not its constitutive form. . . .

    That metaphor is the omnipresent principle of language can be shown by mere observation. We cannot get through three sentences of ordinary fluid discourse without it.
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Language, 1936)


  • Robert Frost on a Feat of Association
    If you remember only one thing I've said, remember that an idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor. If you have never made a good metaphor, then you don't know what it's all about.
    (Robert Frost, interview in The Atlantic, 1962)


  • Kenneth Burke on Fashioning Perspectives
    It is precisely through metaphor that our perspectives, or analogical extensions, are made--a world without metaphor would be a world without purpose.

    The heuristic value of scientific analogies is quite like the surprise of metaphor. The difference seems to be that the scientific analogy is more patiently pursued, being employed to inform an entire work or movement, where the poet uses his metaphor for a glimpse only.
    (Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1984)


  • Bernard Malalmud on Loaves and Fishes
    I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish. . . . I'm not talented as a conceptual thinker but I am in the uses of metaphor.
    (Bernard Malamud, interviewed by Daniel Stern, "The Art of Fiction 52," The Paris Review, Spring 1975)


  • G.K. Chesterton on Metaphor and Slang
    All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social relations "breaking the ice." If this were expanded into a sonnet, we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature, over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away with them--a whole chaos of fairy tales.
    (G.K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Slang," The Defendant, 1901)


  • William Gass on a Sea of Metaphors
    I love metaphor the way some people love junk food. I think metaphorically, feel metaphorically, see metaphorically. And if anything in writing comes easily, comes unbidded, often unwanted, it is metaphor. Like follows as as night the day. Now most of these metaphors are bad and have to be thrown away. Who saves used Kleenex? I never have to say: "What shall I compare this to?" a summer's day? No. I have to beat the comparisons back into the holes they pour from. Some salt is savory. I live in a sea.
    (William Gass, interviewed by Thomas LeClair, "The Art of Fiction 65," The Paris Review, Summer 1977)

    If there is anything in writing that comes easy for me it's making up metaphors. They just appear. I can't move two lines without all kinds of images. Then the problem is how to make the best of them. In its geological character, language is almost invariably metaphorical. That's how meanings tend to change. Words become metaphors for other things, then slowly disappear into the new image. I have a hunch, too, that the core of creativity is located in metaphor, in model making, really. A novel is a large metaphor for the world.
    (William Gass, interviewed by Jan Garden Castro, "Interview With William Gass," ADE Bulletin, No. 70, 1981)


  • Ortega y Gasset on the Magic of Metaphor
    The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when he made him.
    (José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas About the Novel, 1925)

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