Metaphor

Written by

Owen Barfield
Contributor Page

Year

2001

[1]

In the West, since Plato's time, the study of language has been developed mainly by grammarians and logicians. It is true that about a hundred and fifty years ago a more historical conception of philology suddenly began to spread rapidly over Europe. But the emphasis was still, until recently, on the external forms of words. The result is, as far as I am aware, that no really profound study has yet been made of meaning--that is to say, of the meanings of individual words. This subject--Semantics, as it is now commonly called--makes its first, embryonic appearance as a cautionary chapter following the chapter on Terms in a logical textbook, and it is not until long after that it acquires a separate existence, and even a hint of wings, in the work of writers like Archbishop Trench, Max Müller, and, today, Mr. Pearsall Smith.

The extraordinarily intimate connection between, language and thought (the Greek word λóyos combined, as we should say, both meanings) might lead one to expect that the philosophers at least would have turned their attention to the subject long ago. And so, indeed, they did, but with a curiously disproportionate amount of interest. The cause of this deficiency is, I think, to be found in the fact that Western philosophy, from Aristotle onwards, is itself a kind of offspring of Logic. To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.

I will try to make this clearer by a comparison. The financial mysteries of 'inflation' and 'deflation' may likewise be said to 'interest' the practising merchant. But that interest is, for the most part, of a limited sort. Since money is the very basis of all his operations, he has, I think it can be said, an instinctive distaste for the mere possibility that money-units themselves should be found to have only an arbitrary 'subjective' value--that they should prove to be simply cross-sections of an endless process taking place in time. If that is true, all is lost. The dykes are opened. Like magic, he sees shrewd practical maxims turning into rarified academic theories, and a comparatively simple and intelligible system of acknowledged facts ('the economic verities') having to be rigged with all sorts of super-subtle reservations and ceteris paribus's, before it will bear the faintest relation to contemporary realities.

What money is to the conservative economist, words are to the conservative philosopher. For the conception of money as a 'symbol of barter' and the conception of words as the 'names of things' are, both alike, not so much untrue as 'out of date'; and for the same reason: not because the advance of science has revealed avoidable ancient errors, but because the facts themselves have changed. Once upon a time money really was an immediate substitute for barter, and once upon a time words could really be the expression on the face of concrete reality. Error--or, at best, waste of energy--is in both cases the fruit of unwillingness to recognize essential change. The spell of the immediate past proves too strong; and, just as the stubborn economist, with his eyes fixed on that past, turns his back on all new-fangled nonsense and nails his colours stoutly to the mast of stabilization, so the philosopher waves aside the study of meaning and still maintains a desperate faith in the ancient system of definitions. In both instances, it may be that somewhere--deep down in the unconscious--a voice has cried Lass mich schlafen!

Whatever the cause, nearly all that has hitherto been said on the semantic aspect of language has been said from one point of view only. And from that point of view it has been said wonderfully well. The original twist was given by the Father of Logic himself, when he included in his Organon a brief treatise De Interpretatione, and since then the conception of language as the prime material of logical constructions has been developed many times with infinite delicacy. It is difficult, for example, to praise too highly the limpid clarity of the third book of Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding; and even as recently as the last century Mr. Bosanquet found memorable things to say in the opening chapters of his Logic. It may be that other modem philosophers have done as well, or better.

We have had, then, to the full, language as it is grasped by logical mind. What we have not had--or what we have only had in hints and flashes--is language as it is grasped by poetic mind. The fundamental difference between logical and poetic mind (which has very little to do with the fashionable contrast between Poetry and Science) will appear farther in the course of this book, wherein I have myself attempted to sketch the way in which a poetic understanding would approach the problem. I have, however, made no attempt to write what I should so much like to see written--a true, poetic history and philosophy of language. On the contrary, it has been my object to avoid (except perhaps in two of the Appendices) entering deeper into the nature of language than is absolutely necessary, in order to throw on 'Poetry', in the usual literary sense of that word, the kind of light which, I think, needs to be thrown.

[2]

The most conspicuous point of contact between meaning and poetry is metaphor. For one of the first things that a student of etymology--even quite an amateur student--discovers for himself is that every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning and association, is apparently nothing, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors. If we trace the meanings of a great many words--or those of the elements of which they are composed--about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things--a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity. Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. Thus, an apparently objective scientific term like elasticity, on the one hand, and the metaphysical abstract, on the other, are both traceable to verbs meaning 'draw' or 'drag'. Centrifugal and cetripetal are composed of a noun meaning 'a goad' and verbs signifying 'to flee' and 'to seek' respectively; epithet, theme, thesis, anathema, hypothesis, etc., go back to a Greek verb, 'to put', and even right and wrong, it seems, once had the meanings of 'stretched' and so 'straight' and 'wringing' or 'sour'. Some philologists, looking still further back into the past, have resolved these two classes into one, but this is immaterial to the point at issue.

'Nihil in intellectu', wrote Locke, 'quod non prius fuerit in sensu.' And Anatole France, in his Jardin d'Épicure has adorned this theory of thought with a characteristically modern jumble of biological, anthropological, and etymological ideas:

'Et qu'est-ce-que penser? Et comment pense-t-on? Nous pensons avec des mots; cela seul est sensuel et ramène à la nature. Songez-y, un metaphysicien n'a pour constituer le système du monde, que le cri perfectionné des singes et des chiens. Ce qu'il appelle spéculation profonde et méthode transcendante, c'est de mettre bout à bout, dans un ordre arbitraire, les onomatopées qui criaient la faim, la peur et l'amour dans les forêts primitives, et auxquelles se sont attachées peu à peu des significations qu'on croit abstraites quand elles sont seulement relachées.

'N' ayez pas peur que cette suite de petits cris éteints et affaiblis qui composent un livre de philosophie nous en apprenne trop sur l'univers pour que nous ne puissions plus y vivre. Dans la nuit où nous sommes tous, le savant se cogne au mur, tandis que l'ignorant reste tranquillement au milieu de la chambre.'

Later on, in an imaginary dialogue between a metaphysician and an etymologist, the latter kindly offers to resolve into its elements the sentence 'L'âme possède Dieu dans la mesure où cue participe de l'absolu'. When he has finished with it, it reads: 'Le souffle est assis sur celui qui brille, au boisseau du don qu'il reçoit en ce qui est tout délié'.

[3]

Anatole France's etymologist, then, sees language as beginning with simple, purely perceptual meanings, and building up, by metaphor, a series of meanings which pretend to be 'abstract,' when they are really only vague. Now it will at once be seen that the conception of the primitive mind, on which this imagination is based, would make it correspond exactly with the state of consciousness into which the reader was asked to throw himself (II, 5) as the result of a fictitious 'stroke'. So that the process by which the words mentioned above have acquired the meanings which they now possess would, on this view, be identical with the process by which Shelley was able to write:

My soul is an enchanted boat. . . (Ex. V).

To carry the illustration further: should the feeling and idea which these lines embody ever become sufficiently well-known and widespread, one can easily perceive how in a few hundred, or in a few thousand years, the word boat, or perhaps the phrase enchanted boat might lose its present meaning and call up to the minds of our posterity, not a vessel, but the concept 'soul' as enriched by Shelley's imagination. A new word, abridged perhaps to something like chambote, might grow into being. Language actually abounds, as we shall see, in meanings, and is not lacking in words, which have come into it in just this way.

We are tempted to infer that, as language grows older, it must necessarily become richer and richer as poetic material; it must become intrinsically more and more poetic. The bald sentence: 'Le souffle est assis sur celui qui brille, au boisseau du don qu'il reçoit en ce qui est tout délié', is palpably prosaic, and its original can only begin to arouse imagination and feeling at whatever point in time âme begins to add to its material meaning a vague suggestion of 'something like breath indeed, but more living, sentient, inward--a part of my Self', and Dieu to acquire the signification of 'something like sky, yet more living, corresponding, therefore, to something in me'. Thus, from the primitive meanings assumed by the etymologist, we are led to fancy metaphor after metaphor sprouting forth and solidifying into new meanings--vague, indeed, yet evocative of more and more subtle echoes and reactions. From being mere labels for material objects, words gradually turn into magical charms. Out of a catalogue of material facts is developed--thanks to the efforts of forgotten primitive geniuses--all that we know today as 'poetry'.

Was it really like this? To have observed a resemblance between, say, a straight stick and an inner feeling, and to have used the name of the stick to describe the feeling is indeed to have made a long step forward. From now onward--so we perhaps imagine--upon the chaotic darkness in which it first awoke, human consciousness begins to cast its own brilliant and increasing light. It flings its beams further and further into the night. 'With the beginning of language', writes Ludwig Noiré, a disciple of Max Müller, 'the period of spiritual creation began; the light glimmered feebly and inconspicuously at first which now illumines heaven and earth with its rays--the divine light of reason . . .' and he adds, still more enthusiastically:

'the first step is herewith hewn, by the joint toil of reason and speech, in the hard rock, where a second and then others must follow, till aeons hence the lofty summit is reached, and reason enthroned on high sees all the world beneath as the theatre where her might and glory is displayed, and ventures forth upon new flights through the unexplored realms of heaven not even here without a clue, any more than at the hour of her birth, afforded by her own--but now purely ideal--constructions.'

And Shelley: 'Metaphorical language marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension until words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts.'

Here again we seem to have a picture of language becoming, intrinsically, more and more poetic; for who could make poetry out of a disjointed list of unrelated percepts? And what is the very essence of poetry if it is not this 'metaphorical language'--this marking of the before unapprehended relations of things?

[4]

Yes, but is it poetry, or reason that is being exalted? Shelley, in the passage just quoted, seems hardly to distinguish the one from the other. Let us actually examine the sentiments of those who have thought historically, not on language, but on poetry itself. 'As civilization advances', said Macaulay, 'poetry almost necessarily declines.' Peacock's Four Ages of Poetry, notwithstanding its irony at the expense of 'progress', is a genuine dirge on the gradual murder of the Muse by that very Reason, whose 'divine light' the philologist was constrained to hymn. Mr. Courthope, in his Liberal Movement in English Literature, qualifies a similar opinion by the subtle distinction: 'As civilization advances, the matter for poetic creation diminishes, while the powers of poetic expression are multiplied'. And even to Shelley, who wrote with the express purpose of refuting Peacock, it is in 'the infancy' of society that 'every author is a poet, because language itself is poetry'. There is no need to go further for examples. They are found everywhere. Thus the general view is the exact opposite of what one would be led to expect. Indeed, nothing in the world seems so likely to turn a man into a laudator temporis acti as an historical survey of poetry. Even today it remains a moot point among the critics whether the very first extant poet of our Western civilization has ever been surpassed for the grandeur and sublimity of his diction.

Yet if language had indeed advanced, by continual accretion of metaphor, from roots of speech with the simplest material reference, to the complex organism which we know today, it would surely be today that every author is a poet--today, when a man cannot utter a dozen words without wielding the creations of a hundred named and nameless poets. Given the necessary consciousness of this (i.e. an historical knowledge of, and feeling for, language), [1] our pleasure in such a sentence as--for example--'I simply love that idea' should be infinitely more sublime than our pleasure--as far as the language itself is concerned--in reading Homer. How is it then that, in actual fact, we find this almost universal consciousness that the golden age of poetry is in the infancy of society? Bearing in mind our conclusion that pleasure in poetic diction depends on the difference between two planes or levels of consciousness, we can indeed see why language, at an early stage, should delight us. But what follows? If this theory of the growth of language, by means of metaphor, from simple perceptual meanings to complex psychic ones is a correct theory, it follows that our pleasure in such relatively primitive diction ought to be of a poor and unsatisfying nature, compared to our pleasure in the diction of a modem writer who wields these wonderful meanings. It should be more akin to the pleasure we take in such primitive locutions as Example I, where the change of consciousness is effected by contraction rather than expansion--as for example, by emphasizing those purely external, pictorial relations of things, which sophistication--saving the painter's case--too often induces us to ignore. Is this true? We know at once that it is not. We know from first-hand experience that resemblances between the Greek poetry of Homer's day, or even the Anglo-Saxon of the author of Beowulf's, and, say, pidgin-English--though tell-tale--are yet in point of value so slight as to be almost negligible. We find, in fact, that this old poetry has the knowledge-value, as well as the pleasure-value, and has it in a high degree.

Now, to the genuine critic, the spiritual fact of his own aesthetic experience, when once he knows inwardly that it is purged of all personal affection, [2] must have at least equal weight with any reported historical or scientific facts which may be placed beside it. Beyond that, it must be his aim, as it is the aim of all knowledge, to reconcile or relate conceptually all the elements included in his perceptual experience; among this latter he must number his own aesthetic reactions.

[5]

Since, then, ancient poetry is simply ancient language at its best (II, 6), we must now try and discover why it is that this best ancient language, when it is compared with the best modern language, so often appears, not simply as naïve, but, on the contrary, as endued with an extraordinary richness and splendour. Where, we must ask, is the fallacy in that proud conception of the evolution of language from simplicity and darkness to complexity and light?

It should be remembered that we are here dealing, not with 'poetry', which includes the creative activity itself, but with 'poetic diction'--that is to say, with the language of poetic compositions, as we actually find them written in different ages. Someone might come forward and say: But this is nonsense. You are leaving out of account the one thing that really matters and making a mystery of what is left. When people say that Homer has never been surpassed, they mean precisely what they say--that he has never been surpassed. His poetry is sublime because he himself was sublime, and if there has been no such great poetry since, it is because there has been no such great man; or, at any rate, if such a man has lived, he cannot have turned his attention to poetry.

The reply to such an objection would be threefold: (i) It has already been pointed out that there are certain elements in poetic diction which are clearly not traceable to any identifiable individual. (ii) Homer is in any case a bad example to choose, as his individual existence is disputed. (iii) This problem of the responsibility of individuals for poetic value is just one of the most important questions which a theory of poetic diction has to attack. To make any assumptions beforehand would be to beg it. The only way to start with an unprejudiced mind is to take actual examples of poetic diction (see definition, I. 1) and to work backward from them to their sources. This method does not exclude the possibility of arriving eventually at the conclusion expressed in the objection--that the poetic element in language is, and always has been, the result of individual effort, but we have certainly not arrived at that conclusion yet. The question will come up for discussion, in fact, in its proper place.

A hundred and fifty years ago Dr. Hugh Blair wrote in his Lectures on Rhetoric:

'We are apt, upon a superficial view, to imagine that those modes of expression which are called Figures of Speech are among the chief refinements of Speech, not invented till after language had advanced to its late periods, and mankind were brought into a polished state; and that then they were devised by orators and rhetoricians. The contrary of this is the truth. Mankind never employed so many Figures of Speech, as when they had hardly any words for expressing their meaning.

'For, first, the want of proper names for every object, obliged them to use one name for many; and, of course, to express themselves by comparisons, metaphors, allusions and all those substituted forms of Speech, which render Language figurative. Next, as the objects with which they were most conversant, were the sensible, material objects around them, names would be given to these objects long before words were invented for signifying the dispositions of the mind, or any sort of moral and intellectual ideas. Hence, the early language of men being entirely made up of words descriptive of sensible objects, it became, of necessity, extremely metaphorical. . .'

Now this appears to be a conception of language which, since the time of Locke, has been held by most people who have troubled to write on the subject. Yet it proves (unless one stretches the meanings of such words as metaphor and trope intolerably far) to be quite unreasonable. For how is it arrived at? In this way: (i) The theorist beholds metaphors and similitudes being invented by poets and others in his own time. (ii) Examining the more recent history of language, he finds many examples of such metaphors having actually become a part of language, that is to say, having become meanings. [3] (iii) Delving deeper still into etymology, he discovers that all our words were at one time 'the names of sensible objects', and (iv) he jumps to the conclusion that they therefore, at that time, had no other meaning. [4] From these four observations he proceeds to deduce, fifthly, that the application of these names of sensible objects to what we now call insensible objects was deliberately 'metaphorical'.

In other words, although, when he moves backwards through the history of language, he finds it becoming more and more figurative with every step, yet he has no hesitation in assuming a period--still further back--when it was not figurative at all! To supply, therefore, the missing link in his chain of linguistic evolution, he proceeds to people the 'infancy of society' with an exalted race of amateur poets. Thus, Max Müller in his Science of Language speaks with confidence of the 'metaphorical period', describing how:

'Spiritus in Latin meant originally blowing, or wind. But when the principle of life within man or animal had to be named, its outward sign, namely the breath of the mouth, was naturally chosen to express it. Hence in Sanskrit asu, breath and life; in Latin spiritus, breath and life. Again, when it was perceived that there was something else to be named, not the mere animal life, but that which was supported by this animal life, the same word was chosen, in the modern Latin dialects, to express the spiritual as opposed to the mere material or animal element in man. All this is a metaphor.

'We read in the Veda, ii. 3, 4: "Who saw the first-born when he who had no form (lit. bones) bore him that had form? Where was the breath (asuh), the blood (asrik), the self (atma) of the earth? Who went to ask this from any that knew it?"

'Here breath, blood, self are so many attempts at expressing what we should now call "cause".'

It would be difficult to conceive anything more perverse than this paragraph; there is, indeed, something painful in the spectacle of so catholic and enthusiastic a scholar as Max Müller seated so firmly on the saddle of etymology, with his face set so earnestly towards the tail of the beast. He seems to have gone out of his way to seek for impossibly modern and abstract concepts to project into that luckless dustbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies--the mind of primitive man. Not only 'cause', we are to suppose, was within the range of his intellection, but 'something', 'principle of life', 'outward sign', 'mere animal life', 'spiritual as opposed to mere material', and heaven knows what else. Perverse; and yet for that very reason useful; for it pushes to a conclusion as logical as it is absurd, a view of mental history, which, still implicit in much that passes muster as anthropology, psychology, etc.--even as ordinary common sense--might easily prejudice an understanding of my meaning, if it were ignored without comment.

The truth is, of course, that Max Müller, like his predecessors, had only been able to look at 'meaning', and the history of meaning, from one imperfect point of view--that of abstraction. For in spite of frequent flights of imagination, the main road of his approach to language was the regulation one from philosophical logic or logical philosophy. Thus, he was an enthusiastic disciple of Kant--even to the Herculean extent of translating the Critique of Pure Reason into English. The full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames--ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them. To the Locke-Müller-France way of thinking, on the contrary, they appear as solid chunks with definite boundaries and limits, to which other chunks may be added as occasion arises. Nevertheless, it is a mistake, and a mistake that is commonly made, to underrate Max Müller's semantic flights. The marvel is that with his materials and antecedents he was able to fly so high. Thus, even to this very question of metaphor he has an interesting contribution to make. We find him drawing a novel distinction between radical and poetical metaphors:

'I call it a radical metaphor when a root which means to shine is applied to form the names, not only of the fire or the sun, but of the spring of the year, the morning light, the brightness of thought, or the joyous outburst of hymns of praise. Ancient languages are brimful of such metaphors, and under the microscope of the etymologist almost every word discloses traces of its first metaphorical conception.

'From this we must distinguish poetical metaphor, namely, when a noun or verb, ready made and assigned to one definite object or action, is transferred poetically to another object or action. For instance, when the rays of the sun are called the hands or fingers of the sun.' Science of Language, p. 451.

[NOTES]

  1. Language reserves one satisfaction for the observer, all the more lively because it is not sought after: the satisfaction, namely, of feeling a metaphor, whose value has not hitherto been understood, suddenly open and reveal itself. Bréal; Semantics, p. 129. (return to text)

  2. That is to say, when he knows that his pleasure arises from the proper activity of imagination (I. 1) and not from any incidental suggestion of pleasurable sensation--in the case of metaphor, when it is the pure content of the image, and not only the reference, which delights.(return to text)

  3. So M. Bréal (Semantics): 'There is the same difference between the tropes of language and the metaphors of poets as between a product in common use and a recent conquest of science'. See also Chapters VII and VIII post.(return to text)

  4. See Blair, quoted above: and compare Locke (Human Understanding, III, i. 5): 'Spirit, in its primary signification, is breath, angel a messenger', etc., etc.(return to text)