Good and bad Metaphors.--There are certain laws regulating the formation and employment of metaphors which should be borne in mind.

(1.) A metaphor must not be used unless it is needed for explanation or vividness, or to throw light upon the thought of the speaker. Thus the speech of the Gardener, Rich. II. iii. 4. 33,--

Go then, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of our fast-growing sprays, &c.
is inappropriate to the character of the speaker, and conveys an allusion instead of an explanation. It illustrates what is familiar by what is unfamiliar, and can only be justified by the fact that the gardener is thinking of the disordered condition of the kingdom of England and the necessity of a powerful king to repress unruly subjects.

(2.) A metaphor must not enter too much into detail: for every additional detail increases the improbability that the correspondence of the whole comparison can be sustained. Thus, if King Richard (Rich. II. v. 5. 50) had been content, while musing on the manner in which he could count time by his sighs, to say--

For now hath Time made me his numbering clock,
there would have been little or no offence against taste. But when he continues--
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell,--
we have an excess of detail which is only justified because it illustrates the character of one who is always "studying to compare,"1 and "hammering out" unnatural comparisons.

(3.) A metaphor must not be far-fetched nor dwell upon the details of a disgusting picture: “Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
. . . . . there the murderers
Steep'd in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech'd with gore.Macbeth, ii. 3. 117. There is but little, and that far-fetched, similarity between gold lace and blood, or between bloody daggers and breech'd legs. The slightness of the similarity, recalling the greatness of the dissimilarity, disgusts us with the attempted comparison. Language so forced is only appropriate in the mouth of a conscious murderer dissembling guilt.

(4.) Two metaphors must not be confused together, particularly if the action of the one is inconsistent with the action of the other.

It may be pardonable to surround, as it were, one metaphor with another. Thus, fear may be compared to an aguefit, and an ague-fit passing away may be compared to the overblowing of a storm. Hence, "This ague-fit of fear is overblown" (Rich. II. iii. 2. 190) is justifiable. But “Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?” Macbeth, i. 7. 36. is, apart from the context, objectionable; for it makes Hope a person and a dress in the same breath. It may, however, probably be justified on the supposition that Lady Macbeth is playing on her husband's previous expression--

I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

(5.) A metaphor must be wholly false, and must not combine truth with falsehood.

"A king is the pilot of the state," is a good metaphor. "A careful captain is the pilot of his ship," is a bad one. So “Ere my tongue
Shall wound mine honour with such feeble wrong,
Or sound so base a parle,” Rich. II. i. 1. 190. is objectionable. The tongue, though it cannot "wound," can touch. It would have been better that "honour's" enemy should be intangible, that thereby the proportion and the perfection of the falsehood might be sustained. Honour can be wounded intangibly by "slander's venom'd spear" (Rich. II. i. 1. 171); but, in a metaphor, not so well by the tangible tongue. The same objection applies to “Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons
Shall ill-become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation, and bedew
Her pastures' grass with faithful English blood.” Rich. II. iii. 3. 96. If England is to be personified, it is England's blood, not the blood of ten thousand mothers, which will stain her face. There is also a confusion between the blood which mantles in a blush and which is shed; and, in the last line, instead of "England's face," we come down to the literal "pastures' grass."

(6.) Personifications must be regulated by the laws of personality. No other rule can be laid down. But exaggerations like the following must be avoided:-- “Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars.” 1 Hen. VI. i. 1. 2. The Furies may be supposed to scourge their prostrate victims with their snaky hair, and comets have been before now regarded as scourges in the hand of God. But the liveliest fancy would be tasked to imagine the stars in revolt, and scourged back into obedience by the crystal hair of comets.

1 “I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
* * * * *
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.Rich. II. v. 5. 1.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: