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Metaphor in Literature

Written by

Matthew Zapruder
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"Unless you are at home in the metaphor ... you are not safe anywhere." —Frost, "Education by Poetry"

Metaphor is everywhere. Our daily language is full of metaphors we all day unthinkingly use for regular communication purposes. Cell phone. Highway. Light bulb. Love affair. War on Terror. Many have argued that every word is a metaphor, and/or that metaphorical thinking is what allows us to structure reality at all, and therefore can easily filter and determine our thinking and perceptions if we are not aware of it.

Most great thinkers, philosophers, literary theorists, and writers have eventually turned their thoughts to the question of metaphor and how it determines our basic structures of language, thought, perception. Of course metaphor is a particular concern of writers and literary theorists. Almost all of them have something to say on the subject.

Metaphor is everywhere in literature, from the interrelations among its smallest (words, images, figures of speech) to its largest (characters, plot, narrative) elements. Beyond the most basic assumptions about metaphor — that it has a primarily decorative purpose, to make writing more "exciting" or "beautiful;" or that it helps the reader "visualize" images; or that it serves to highlight and heighten important themes — lie great areas of thinking about metaphor, that can help deepen and clarify our understanding of literature, art and life.

Why do writers use metaphor? What, actually, IS a metaphor? What are the many and various ways metaphors function in literature? What kind of knowledge is only possible through metaphor? And (perhaps most important), how can we read and understand and analyze the metaphorical elements of a work of literature without destroying what is mysterious and essential? To paraphrase Frost, how far should we ride the metaphor, and when should we be ready to accept where it breaks down, what its limits are? And what lies beyond those limits?

These and other questions are what we will be considering together as a class. This seminar course will be a sustained collective exploration of metaphor in literature. We will read and discuss the books for the course, talking about how they work, what we can learn from them, and particularly how metaphor within them functions. In addition, we will consider other texts — philosophy, literary criticism, science, etc. — that can help us illuminate the books we are reading.

Our goals also include understanding together how people have thought about metaphor throughout history. Ultimately, ideas about metaphor are intimately related to ideas about the purpose of literature and its relationship to the world it depicts, reflects and transforms. Hopefully our discussions of metaphor in the texts we are reading, and in general, will help us understand better how we read literature, experience other forms of art, and understand the world.

Course Procedures

Since this course is a seminar, each class will be organized around a student presentation. Each student will present once during the course of the semester, beginning with the third week. The purpose of the presentation will be to guide us (through questions, careful close readings, and observations about micro and macro elements of the text) into deeper readings and understandings of the book before us. Focus should be particularly, but not exclusively, on how metaphor functions in the book.

Concretely, presenters will be required to create two physical objects for the benefit of the rest of the class. First, you will create and duplicate for the class a packet of outside materials that will help us better understand the book we are reading. I want the making of this packet to be essentially a creative act: one should be guided by a sense of personal idiosyncratic enthusiasm and a spirit of sharing. Dread in making of the packet is a sign that one is not on the right track. The packet can consist of such elements as: historical documents and testimonies; scientific explications of objects or processes; biographical or personal information about the author; maps; other literary works or works of art or photographs closely or loosely related to the book at hand; explicatory drawings; esoteric source texts mysteriously related to elements of the text; and so on. Be guided by your particular interests and fascinations, as well as by a spirit of relating metaphorically to the book through which you are guiding us.

Second, students should write (and duplicate for the class) a short (3-5 page) explication of how a particular background text helped with the reading of the book. Below is a list of suggested background material on metaphor: please feel free to search for other resources, and use anything you think would be helpful for us as readers. After your presentation, I will work with you on this paper, and you will submit a revised version to me by the end of the semester. At the end of the course, I will distribute to each of you all of the papers written for the course, which will give us (along with the packets) a fine and exciting compilation of materials about metaphor that we can use subsequently in our own critical, creative and pedagogical work.

I will be available in office hours to guide you with all of this. Please feel free to make an appointment and come to talk to me at any time.


Requirements for the course include class participation, and completion of all required assignments (for the presentation, as well as the revision of a paper due at the end of the semester). Missing more than one class without prior permission from the instructor or a doctor's note is grounds for reduction of grade by one level for each missed class. Missing three or more class meetings is grounds for failure of the course.


8.28      First class, introduction
9.4        Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest
9.11      Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
9.18      Wallace Stevens Harmonium
9.25      James Agee and Walker Evans,
             Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
10.2      Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust, Paul Celan, Selections
10.9      Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems
10.16    John Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out
10.23    Amiri Baraka, The Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones Reader
10.30    Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice (in Divine Fire, ed. C. Svich)+ Ovid,
            Metamorphoses (Book X)
11.6      Roberto Bolano, Distant Star
11.13    Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
11.20    Mary Ruefle, Indeed I Was Pleased with the World
            and The Most of It
11.27    Thanksgiving week, no class
12.4      Haruki Murakami, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Required Books

You can get most of these books easily in various ways. I strongly encourage you to order them either through your local bookstore, or directly from the publisher's website, to support local bookstores and small publishers. Because of potential difficulties in tracking them down, I ordered three of the course texts (Holocaust, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Indeed I Was Pleased with the World): they will be available in the coming weeks at Brazos Books.

A Partial List of Potential Sources

Below is a list of some sources (particular texts, some on reserve at the library as noted, as well as authors who have written extensively on language and metaphor and whose work would surely be of interest and use) that will be interesting or helpful to you when writing your paper and preparing your presentation. Also, I have included below quotations from some of the texts, in order to give you a sense of what the author discusses.

Explore these background sources according to your particular inclinations. There are classical writers (and many more of them available in Classic Writings on Poetry, ed. William Harmon), Russian structuralists, philosophers, Romantics, Modernists, New Critics, Post-modernists, Transcendentalists, and others. Again, please feel more than free to go outside of the sources below if there's something your already interested in or curious about. If not on reserve, the essays and books below will be easily available at the UH library or elsewhere. Many of the writings (along with many other brilliant and potentially relevant essays) are available in one of the reference texts.

General Reference Texts

Classic Writings on Poetry, ed. William Harmon (Reserve)

Poetry in Theory, ed. Jon Cook

Toward the Open Field, ed. Melissa Kwasny (Reserve)

Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (Reserve)

On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Reserve)

20th Century Literary Criticism, ed. David Lodge


Background Materials

Aristotle, The Poetics

G. Vico, "Poetic Wisdom" in The New Science (Reserve)

John Ruskin, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy"

P.B. Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry"

Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry"

Christine Brooke-Rose, "The Poets" in A Grammar of Metaphor

Roman Jakobson, "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance," in Fundamentals of Language (Reserve)

Surrealism" (1924 version)

"The value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently, a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors. When the difference exists only slightly, as in a comparison,* (Compare the image in the work of Jules Renard.) the spark is lacking .... And just as the length of the spark increases to the extent that it occurs in rarefied gases, the Surrealist atmosphere created by automatic writing, which I have wanted to put within the reach of everyone, is especially conducive to the production of the most beautiful images. One can even go so far as to say that in this dizzying race the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind. By slow degrees the mind becomes convinced of the supreme reality of these images. At first limiting itself to submitting to them, it soon realizes that they flatter its reason, and increase its knowledge accordingly. The mind becomes aware of the limitless expanses wherein its desires are made manifest, where the pros and cons are constantly consumed, where its obscurity does not betray it. It goes forward, borne by these images which enrapture it, which scarcely leave it any time to blow upon the fire in its fingers. This is the most beautiful night of all, the lightning-filled night: day, compared to it, is night." — Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism"

"The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover. The observation of the unconscious, so far as it can be observed, should reveal things of which we have been previously unconscious, not the familiar things of which we have been conscious plus imagination. The discords of modernity must not work merely to add but to discover and create." — Wallace Stevens, Materia Poetica

"What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses ..." — Nietzsche

"... the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolizes the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other." — Emerson

"We all live, and speak, only through our eye for resemblances" — I.A. Richards

"Metaphor is the omnipresent principle of language ... we cannot get through three sentences of ordinary fluid discourse without it." — I.A. Richards

"When we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word of prhase, whose meaning is a result of their interaction." — I.A. Richards

"A command of metaphor is a command of life." — I.A. Richards

"An image is not a permanent referent for those mutable complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object — it creates a "vision" of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it" — V. Shklovsky

"Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment, more or less severe, either of the faculty for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic unities. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder." — Jakobson

"... unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values; you don't know the metaphor in its strengths and weaknesses. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history." — Frost

"All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don't know when it is going. You don't know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield." — Frost

Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Zapruder.