Metaphor et al.
Bill Long 12/03/04
Sorting out Some Terms
"Reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor"--WALLACE STEVENS
One of the reasons that literary criticism never appealed to me is as an academic discipline that I quickly became confused by all the verbiage of the critics and didn't understand what they were saying. Perhaps I was immature at the time, however, and didn't have the self-confidence to ask them what they meant by their terms. Perhaps I wasn't able or willing to hold them down until they had actually made themselves clear. But, in any case, I find myself returning to literary/rhetorical terms much later in life, with a desire to try to sort out what is meant by metaphor, metonomy, metalepsis, irony, synecdoche and other words.
What you find, at first glance, is that no one seems to know what any of the terms mean with any precision. The purpose of this and the next mini-essay is to try to massage these terms, especially with the help of Puttenham, to see if we can come up with a satisfactory language to describe some of the wonderful ways that we might use language.
Major Classificatory Schemes
Quintilian, the 1st century (CE) Roman orator divides words into tropes and schemes, the former having to do with "turns" (derived from the Greek trophos--turning) of phrases while latter has to do with the "forms" (schema is the Greek word for form) of individual words.
Petrus Ramus, the 16th century grammarian and teacher of rhetoric, then divides words into four categories: irony, metonomy, metaphor and synecdoche. The words are meant to suggest a graded degree of likeness to what one might term a literal similarity with the term compared. That is, irony expresses a relationship between concepts that are unrelated; metaphor is used to connect concepts that are apparently unrelated but have some similarities; metonomy suggests words that are "adjuncts" or closely associated to each other; and synecdoche speaks of words that are "contained in" other words.
Roman Jakobson, the 20th century literary critic, is indebted to Ramus and divides words into the two broad categories of metaphor and metonomy, with the former stressing the apparent unrelatedness of terms ("similarity despite difference") while the latter asserts a direct connection ("contiguity") between words.
Puttering Around with Puttenham
I like to have George Puttenham (Poesie, 1589) guide me through some of the thickets of rhetorical usage or, at the least, to give me some words by which I can ponder the confusion that these terms create in me. So, what I propose here is to walk through Puttenham's Poesie III.17-18, highlighting most of his rhetorical terms, to help us attain some precision in our usage, where possible, and come up with a way of speaking that satisfies.
He begins 3.17 by contrasting the auricular figures (3.16), which the "eare" receives with due satisfaction and the sensable figures (3.17-18) by which the "minde" is served. In 3.17 he will speak of the "single words" that have their "sence and understanding altered and figured by many ways," whereas in 3.18 he will address the way longer units are altered by figures of speech. He begins by summarizing the whole discussion: "single words have their sence and understanding altered and figured many wayes, to wit, by transport, abuse, crosse-naming, new naming, change of name." As this is "darke" unless explained, Puttenham proceeds to explain what he means.
Beginning with Transport
"Transport" is a kind of "wresting of a single word from his owne right signification, to another not so naturall, but yet of some affinitie or conveniencie with it (Poesie, p. 148)." For example, we say "I cannot digest your unkinde words" to mean "I cannot take them in good part." Or, we might say, "I feele you not," meaning that "I understand not your case." These are simple examples of taking a word from a particular area of life (eating or feeling) and "transporting" them to other areas of human experience: enduring or understanding.
We refer to the top of a tree or hill as the "crowne" of the tree or hill and this designation is derived ("transported") from the highest ornament of a Prince's head or else the top of a man's head, where the "haire windes about." Thus, the term is not "applyed naturally to a tree, or to a hill but "is transported from a mans head to a hill or tree, therefore it is called by metaphore, or the figure of transport."
The category of "metaphore" or "transport" will be a major one for Puttenham, and so he goes on to give more examples. He quotes a quatrain:
"As the drie ground that thirstes after a showr/ Seemes to rejoyce when it is well wet,/ And speedely brings foorth both grasse and flowr,/ If lacke of sunne or season doo not let."
Then he comments: "Here for want of an apter and more naturall word to declare the drie temper of the earth, it is said to thirst and to rejoyce, which is only proper to living creatures, and yet being so inserted, doth not much serve from the true sence, but that every man can easilie conceive the meaning thereof (Id. at 149)."
Thus, "metaphor" for Puttenham is something, in contrast to Jakobson and Ramus, where there is already a fairly close connection between word and metaphorical word. Perhaps the English language lacks a proper word to describe the earth's thirst and so we supply one from the human experience of being without water. The function of this device is to entertain and to please.
Let's see how things get more complicated.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long