Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Making invisible things visible

I have received my copy of Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor. I'm enjoying it. Farnsworth warns against reading it from beginning to end and I won't. This is selected from the introductory chapter:
.... A metaphor can make unfamiliar things familiar, invisible things visible,and complicated things easier to understand. It can, as Aristotle said, give life to lifeless things. It can produce amusement by putting a subject into unexpected company. It can create feeling by borrowing it from the source to which the subject is compared. It can make a point riveting and memorable by the beauty of the comparison's fit. It can make an insult or a compliment immortal. It can attract attention by the element of surprise. And it can do all this with wondrous economy, invoking a mass of imagery and meaning in a sentence or a single word. ....

Metaphors can serve deeper ends. Many important subjects cannot be described literally, at least not well. States of mind are like this, as are the sources and effects of language and other arts and many elements of spiritual life. They don't just require pictures in order to be understood. They require comparisons, because they cannot be depicted literally in images or in words. A subject tends to defeat literal description when it is inaccessible to the senses; our words for what we can see are more extensive and refined than our words for what is intangible. Other truths and observations cannot be captured through a literal use of words simply because words and reality aren't coextensive. The range and subtlety and feeling of what we wish to say outruns the labels that our language provides for the purpose. Comparisons free us from those limits. They allow a writer to use words not as labels to name a thing but as links that attach it to what we have known or seen or can imagine. The link summons pictures and other associations in the reader's mind and rallies them to the descriptive purpose. A metaphor may, in short, express something that otherwise cannot quite be said or shown, and provide a way to understand it—possibly the only way. ....

The title of the book and some of the comments just made have used the word "metaphor" to refer to figurative comparisons in general. The word will bear that meaning but is also commonly used in a more specific way: a metaphor is a comparison, often implied, in which one thing is equated with another ("all the world's a stage"), whereas a simile makes the comparison explicit by saying that one thing is like another or using similar language ("he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus"). The differences between metaphor and simile are discussed...but most of the book presents those two kinds of comparisons side by side without fussing over the distinction between them. ....
The rest of the book is examples, categorized but almost entirely without commentary. Most are from secular literature of the 18th and 19th centuries but a few are from Scripture (KJV) and there are many from Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, are among those from whom many examples seem to have been selected. I have a feeling that I will be posting favorites as I come across them.