From Milton to McEwan: the beauty of metaphor

In a subtle, engrossing book, Denis Donoghue looks at why we describe one thing as another

Paradise Lost: similes provide a breathing space. Illustration: Gustave Doré

Paradise Lost: similes provide a breathing space. Illustration: Gustave Doré

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:


Denis Donoghue

Harvard University Press

Guideline Price:
$ 24.95

There are those who regard the availability of metaphor as a blessing, an enhancement of the ranges of life. In one of the epigraphs to Denis Donoghue’s subtle and engrossing new book, the poet John Donne, with the faintest of apologies for a possible irreverence, calls his maker not only “a literall God” but also “a figurative, a metaphoricall God”.

Of course we are not to think of God himself as a metaphor, but we find in his words, Donne says, “such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors” that God seems to fly while every human author crawls. Voyages, fetch, remote, precious: the terms, here used positively, suggest the distance from humble, present reality that is deplored by the enemies of metaphor, from John Ruskin to Susan Sontag and beyond. How often do we use “far fetched” as a compliment?

Donoghue suggests that even Aristotle, who said “a command of metaphor” was “the mark of genius”, “felt queasy” about the process. Why is it, as George Eliot asks in The Mill on the Floss , “that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?”

She is half-joking, in her rather earnest way, but the definition is basic and still current, and Donoghue uses it in much the same form if with quite a different tone. “On the face of it a metaphor . . . is bizarre. Why say that something is something else?”

More elaborately, and with ironic caution, he announces, “We are engaging in metaphor when we see, or think we see, or propose to see, one thing in the light of another.” Why is this a blessing or a worry, and do we have to take sides?

Not entirely. Or perhaps we do, but our decisions will depend on the case and the day. One question is whether we can manage without metaphor, whether the idea of dispensing with it is a delusion. We can certainly get along without metaphor some of the time – although “get along” would be an instance of how easily it returns. As Donoghue says, “ ‘The literal’ is rampant with metaphors, new and old.”

That is, if we can’t call things by their proper names because we are not Adam we can at least, to quote Eliot again, “call things by the same names as other people call them by”. But then some of these same names are going to be metaphors, and how long will it be before we ask a friend to pull herself together or conquer her fear?

“There are no dead metaphors,” Donoghue persuasively says, “only sleeping ones”, wittily conjuring up a tribe of such snoozers: the heart of the matter, in the fullness of time, the leg of the table, the heel of the hunt, comfort zone, brass tacks, the leaf of the book, picture of health, a wild goose chase, presence of mind, creature of habit, towering oaks, wolf in sheep’s clothing, Freudian slip, no-win situation, toxic assets, push comes to shove.

The case against metaphor here is no case at all, as these sleeping tropes are just doing the same work as their literal cousins, fuzzily referring to whatever these phrases usually refer to.

Departure from the usual
What’s striking about working metaphors is their departure from the usual. They are often literally nonsense, as philosophers like John Wisdom and Donald Davidson have said. But this may only mean, and often does, that the literal is not enough for us and that our idea of sense is gravely impoverished. As Donoghue very well says, “If you take the metaphor seriously, you provoke the resistance of common sense. A metaphor incurs resistance from our sense of absurdity and is indifferent to shame.”

His book is full of wild and beautiful examples. Can anyone “sigh blood”, as is promised in The Revenger’s Tragedy ? Did any woman ever play “whisper music” on her hair, as a figure does in The Waste Land ? Do we even know what “bisqued” means when Wallace Stevens writes of “a purple Southern mountain bisqued / With the molten mixings of related things”?

We have recourse to our sense of absurdity in order to register the stretch and strangeness of these images. But then we need to let it go so that the images may do their enchanted work; Donoghue says, in a memorable phrase, that he thinks of reading “as enchanted interpretation”.

This is his repeated, lyrical theme. “Readers expand metaphorically when they encounter metaphor”; metaphors “add perceptions that were not there before”; a metaphor “gives us more abundant life”; metaphors “offer to change the world by changing one’s sense of it”; the source of metaphor “is the liberty of the mind among such words as there are”.

Donoghue’s instances and authorities run from the Latin hymns he sang as a boy in church in Warrenpoint to the work of contemporary authors like George Saunders and Ian McEwan; from Tertullian and Hegel to Rimbaud and Hardy, Proust and Nabokov, and many others.

Holding all this together are two central fictions, as Stevens would say. One is about the origins of the distinction between the literal and metaphorical; the other is about the difference between metaphor and simile. They are fictions not because they are untrue but because they are in the first case untestable and in the second case easily blurred.

Did we start with the literal and invent the metaphorical later? This is Aristotle’s view, and still the standard one. We know the right names for things and we arbitrarily (or poetically, depending on our view) choose to employ other ones. Or did we, as Vico and after him Rousseau suggested, start with tropes and imaginings and arrive at the literal when, at some late stage of human development, we became reasonable?

Literal language would be “the economy practiced on metaphor”. Donoghue hopes Vico is right, and so do I. But he also knows the fable of sequence is a fable. Without the metaphorical the literal would not be the literal; it would just be. And without the literal the metaphorical can’t look unusual. So the sequence offers us a magical preference either way. Do we want to feel grounded, free to fly but mostly preferring to stand? Or do we want to feel we have given too much away, squandered treasures of the imagination through our timid devotion to common sense?

Similes, Donoghue suggests, don’t alter the world the way metaphors do. “No wild intention transpires in a language that says something is like something else.”

This is not just a matter of grammar, of the explicit mark of comparison, although that contingency is important. It is a matter of imaginative action. “A simile compares one thing with another, without changing either of the entities compared; it is a tangent that doesn’t dislodge the circle it touches.” We note the nifty use of a metaphor to say what a simile doesn’t do.

This is a very fine point. In the drafts of his great novel Proust had his narrator compare the activity of remembering to waking up in a strange room. In the final version he just wakes up in a strange room, and tries to remember. What’s more, metaphors do not deal only in resemblance. Metaphors are about creating “new company” for words and things and attributes, and their “essential requirement” is that they be “improper”, a form of bad linguistic behaviour. If two ideas are associated in a writer’s or reader’s mind, they can (and do) hang out there for any reason they like – because they are so different, for example.

Still, similes are not to be scorned. They “provide a breathing space in the narrative” of Paradise Lost , for example, and “you can do more than breathe in a breathing space”.

And yet for all this bravery and invention Donoghue’s book ends with a story of what he calls “blank failure”. The occasion is a remarkable reading of Stevens’s poem The Motive for Metaphor , where the motive is defined as “shrinking from / The weight of primary noon, / The ABC of being.” Elsewhere Stevens writes of some roses that are “too much as they are to be changed by metaphor”. Donoghue rightly says there is not much to be done with Stevens in this mood. If he had stuck with it we would have “taken him for a sturdy realist”. But he’s not, or mostly not, and what he calls shrinking is what Donoghue calls the liberty of the mind.

Donoghue is willing to say, as his reading of Stevens prompts him to, that “the cry of metaphor is doomed” – the cry, that is, “to change the world by giving things their proper names”. But it is doomed only if we wish the change to end on the supposed propriety of these names, or allow ourselves to feel ourselves shamed by the insistent decorum of others. We might want to move on from Adam’s language even if we had it, and failure here would be a kind of success. If we take this option then “metaphor”, as Donoghue writes in the last words of his book, “will do its transforming work another day”.