Figures of Speech:

Excerpts from Western Wind,
by John Frederick Nims

Detail from "Holy Thursday" by William Blake

Tropes--In classical rhetoric, a figure of speech involving a "turn" or change of sense--the use of
a word in a sense other than its literal one--figures of comparison (metaphor, simile) as well as
ironical expressions.

We organize according to resemblances. Our need to compare is psychological and emotional.
Poets try not only to relate to what is familiar, but they try to discover resemblances that no one
had noticed before. It's true, we feel, when coming on a good comparison, It's true, but I never
realized it!

Poets express discoveries of likenesses through figures of speech like simile and metaphor.
Some people think figures of speech are unnatural but language itself is nothing but a figure of
speech We use a word when we mean a thing.

Simile is Latin word for "like." Metaphor is from the Greek word for "transfer"; in using it we
transfer to one thing the name of something else we associate with it, as when we say "the heart
of a cruel man is a stone" or that "a grumpy man is a bear."

Often when we speak in metaphor we are thinking in simile: That boxer is a bull in the ring. No
question of a real bull.

Metaphor, since unqualified, is usually stronger than simile. More concentrated, hits with
greater impact.

When we say A is like B or A is B we are trying to show in a fresh and vivid way something
about the nature of A. A good figure often jolts, surprises into a pleasant shock of recognition.

When John Clare writes:

In gentle waves the river heaves

That sways like boats the lily-leaves...


we may feel that the floating leaves are so much like little boats that the point is hardly worth
expressing. Also, with Lowell's:

A seal swims like a poodle through the sheet of blinding salt...


The head of a seal may seem too much like a poodle. Brewster Ghislin is being bolder, eerier:

Slant of their fins asway like a wing speeding

And heads rising blunt like a feeding swallow's

They circle. . . .


On the other hand the two things compared may be so far apart that we fail to see the point.
Nothing is easier than to be "original" in one's metaphors. The trick is to be original and true to
experience. One can say anything is like anything. There are no two things in the world, said
Cicero, that cannot be compared.

When a writer is using an A is like B formula to make a comparison and either element distorts
the other, or contradicts the other, he might haveforced a mixed metaphor. If you say,
"People who skate on thin ice are likely to find themselves in hot water," you mix metaphors.

Mixed metaphors are like double exposures in photography. Some may be deliberate, some
may be accidentally good. Most are plain failures, with comic results, ugly or blurred.

Images are not felt as mixed when the poet makes a clean break with one before going on to
another. Robert Burns's poem:

O my love's like a red, red rose

That's newly sprung in June;

O my love's like the melody

That's sweetly played in tune.


If he'd said "My love is like a red, red rose that sings a merry tune," we might have resisted
justifiably.

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