On metaphors

From Brad Leithauser’s essay in The New Yorker, Meet My Metaphor“:

To my mind, it’s one of the deepest gratifications the poet or fiction writer knows. I mean, the internal stumbling upon some satisfactory answer to the question, What is this like? Or, What does this remind me of? A comparison is laboriously but successfully introduced. You meet your metaphor, and it’s good.

Back in college, in one of those roots-of-civilization survey courses that flourished in the days before the near-simultaneous birth of irony and multiculturalism, I was told that the greatest similes and metaphors belonged to Homer. It’s in Book 1 of the Iliad that we’re given our first taste of the “wine-dark sea,” and I don’t suppose anyone ever has better evoked the mesmerizing, inebriating thoughts that marine motion moves in us. In Book 8, we come upon the famous image where the Trojan campfires become constellations. And in a number of places, Achilles is likened to a lion. But as equations go (ocean equals wine, campfire equals constellation, leading warrior equals king of beasts), these don’t represent leaps of any sizable or significant distance. To my mind, the deeper pleasure in metaphor lies in creating unexpected equations, perceiving likeness in the land of unlikeness.

I don’t suppose any literary metaphor or simile has ever struck me more forcibly than when, in my early teens, I first read the opening of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

“Prufrock” is an amazing poem for all sorts of reasons, not least because over the years its opening image remains so fresh, so disconcerting. Those first lines are an oxymoron: an expected, dependable surprise. Over time, a sense of familiarity may slow and solidify Homer’s bounding lion and bounding warrior, petrifying them into statues, but Eliot’s inert body on the operating table continues to twitch and pulse.

One of the profoundest pleasures of verse lies in the way a poem’s constituent elements—meter, rhyme, diction—can trigger surprise where meaning alone would suggest there isn’t any. I think of the final stanza of John Crowe Ransom’s splendid “Parting, Without a Sequel,” in which a woman has just put into a mail carrier’s hands a letter severing relations with her lover:

Away went the messenger’s bicycle,
His serpent’s track went up the hill forever,
And all the time she stood there hot as fever
And cold as any icicle.

The concluding metaphor runs very close to cliché (cold as ice?). But the over-all effect is perpetually startling. This is partly because of the rumbling clangor of the trisyllabic rhyme (the biggest and boldest such pairing in the poem) and partly because the introduction of the serpent abruptly conjures up a divine, slithery fall from grace, and partly because the mode of transport itself seems so unlikely—not a truck, or the black horse or hearse of popular imagination, but a wobbly, wayward cousin to a velocipede.


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