metaphor and simile

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Aristotle (384—322 bc)

Plato (c. 429—347 bc)

Quintilian (c. 35—100 ad) Roman rhetorician

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Are features of literary language that have been extensively discussed by theorists and critics since antiquity. The first purposeful investigations are Aristotle's. By the time of Quintilian metaphor (implicit comparison) and simile (explicit comparison) have a place in an elaborate apparatus of ‘tropes’ and ‘figures’, with metaphor classed among the tropes, and simile generally associated with the figures. Figures comprise a variety of supposedly special ‘conformations’, from homoeoteleuton (see assonance, Latin) to rhetorical question. Tropes comprise all deliberate deviations from established usage, including in particular (a) deviations based on contiguity or association, in modern analysis generally grouped together as ‘metonymy’ (‘arma virumque cano’, ‘arms and the man I sing’, Virgil, Aeneid 1. 1, where arms implies war) and (b) metaphor, a deviation based on similarity or analogy (a swarm of bees ‘swims through the summer air’, Virgil, Georgics. 4. 59).

Metaphor proper differs from dead metaphor or cliché. Homer's ‘shepherd of the people’ may ‘sound metaphorical’ in translation, but in Homeric Greek is an established usage. Acc. to Quintilian, metaphor is the most important of the tropes, but not detached from them. Modern analysts of metaphor distinguish the vehicle (deviant element) from the tenor (non‐deviant element) and both from the image as a whole, and likewise with the corresponding elements of similes.

In much Greek and Latin literature metaphor and allied figures occur sporadically. Representative are the short explanatory comparisons that crop up in technical prose (‘in tetanus the jaws set hard like wood’) and the orator's isolated and often half‐familiar metaphors, commended by generations of rhetoricians (‘the insurrection awoke Italy’). The intensive or intense use of imagery is in poetry and poetic prose. With the antiphonal epic simile, use is restricted: ‘And as when a man packs the wall of a high house tight with stones…, even so packed were their helmets and bossed shields.’ This is nevertheless much the most important mode of imagery in Homer, from whom it is transmitted as part of the epic repertoire to Apollonius Rhodius, Virgil, and beyond.

The main functions of metaphor and simile in ancient poetry are:1. To make clearer, as through a diagram, usually by appeal to familiar experience. The function is chiefly associated with epic simile (as in the Iliad example just cited), or simile or analogy in scientific or philosophical contexts.2. To make immediate, as if to the senses. This is a matter of making alien and thereby making listener or reader experience anew (the ‘swimming’ bees, cited above). The mechanism is usually short metaphor.3. To exploit the associations, including the contrary associations, of the vehicle, beyond any limited point or ground of comparison. In Iliad 8 Gorgythion is killed and ‘his head dropped like a poppy, weighed down with its fruit and the spring rain’: poignant contrast of death with life and growth. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon Menelaus is ‘Priam's great adversary at law’: the implication that the Trojan War is somehow a legal event prefigures the way the whole cycle of conflict is eventually resolved in Eumenides. At the end of the Aeneid (Aeneas killing Turnus ): ‘Pallās te hoc vulnere, Pallas immolat’ (‘this wound is for you from Pallas; you are Pallas' sacrificial offering’: the vehicle evokes the nexus of religious duty and destiny to which Aeneas is committed, even as he avenges himself on Turnus for killing young Pallas. Different functions readily coexist in a complex whole. Complexity is often intensified by clusters of imagery. The richest examples are in Aeschylus.In some of the best ancient literature, however, metaphor and simile are not predominant. The most characteristic tropical movements in much Latin poetry and literary prose involve not metaphor but metonymy. Juvenal writes of ‘crimes worthy of the Venusian lamp’, i.e. crimes that the satirist Horace, born at Venusia, might have got up early, or stayed up late, to write about. And in the Aeneid, which begins with a simple metonym (‘arms’), the representative trope of the closing lines is not the metaphor in ‘immolat’ discussed above, but the agonized metonymic cluster that precedes it, ‘Pallas te hoc vulnere, Pallas…’. Here ‘wound’ (i.e. weapon that deals the wound) and the repeated ‘Pallas’ (i.e. ‘I, Aeneas, on behalf of Pallas’) combine to create a harsh and powerful image: the absent Pallas is ‘there’ in the weapon's stroke to avenge his own ‘wound’ and Aeneas' too.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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