MY last three lectures presented you some considerations on the subject of figurative language in general; a subject, which has been so much exhausted by all the rhetorical writers ancient and modern, that it was impossible for me to say any thing, which had not often been said before. I have therefore contented myself with presenting it to you in a light somewhat different from that, in which it is exhibited by the writers, with whom I suppose you to be familiarly acquainted; and with endeavouring [sic] to mark out more distinctly, than they have done, the boundaries between the language of the reasoning faculty, and that of the imagination and the passions. In descending to the examination of particular figures, and the discrimination between those, which have obtained names for themselves, it were still in vain for me to attempt to entertain you with any novelty either of sentiment or of theory. As however it has been made my duty to notice the most distinguished among these modifications of speech, I shall devote this and the succeeding lecture to them ; referring you to the ordinary writers on the subject of belles-lettres for those particulars, which it would be useless for me to repeat.
The general definition or character of a trope, you will remember, is a word, employed in a sense different from that of its proper meaning. As the great object of all human language is the communication of ideas from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the hearer, it is obvious that, for the attainment of this purpose, the articulate sounds, uttered by the speaker, should be associated with the same ideas, which they will bear in the mind of the hearer. This may not be difficult, so long as the words used are the direct representatives of the ideas, for which they stand. But when the representation is indirect, when the face of the word imports one thing, and the intent another, the discourse must inevitably be misunderstood, unless there be some common principle of association between the borrowed word and its adventitious meaning. When the patriarch Jacob, on his death bed, called his sons together before him, to tell them that which should befal [sic] them in the last days, and said to them, Judah is a lion’s whelp; Issachar is a strong ass; Dan shall be a serpent by the way; Naphtali is a hind let loose; Joseph is a fruitful bough; Benjamin shall raven as a wolf; it is not to be imagined, that they could understand him to mean literally what he said. The language was figurative. It was probably not clearly understood by those, to whom it was addressed; for it was prophetical not only of themselves, but of the fortunes, which awaited their descendants. There was however a meaning annexed to all these metaphorical expressions, which doubtless made them sufficiently intelligible at the time, for the purpose of divine Providence; and which has been further elucidated by the subsequent history of the twelve tribes, whose destinies were thus shadowed forth in the last words of their common ancestor. There is indeed in all the most eloquent compositions of Greek and Roman oratory nothing, which could more clearly exhibit the uses and exemplify the efficacy and propriety of figurative language, than this important portion of the sacred history. We are told for instance by Quinctilian, and it has been repeated by all other rhetorical teachers, that figurative language in general, and metaphors in particular, should be used from necessity, for energy, and for beauty; from necessity, whenever the literal meaning of words is inadequate to express the idea communicated by the figure; for energy, when it conveys the idea with more force; and for beauty, when it adds to the idea itself graces, which amuse and delight the imagination of the hearer.
At the moment of that solemn and trying scene, certainly there could be no care of ornamental graces in the mind of the dying patriarch. But the history of nations was to be concentrated in a few sentences; the records of ages were to be comprised in a few moments. To express thoughts, pregnant with the burden of future time, imagery was absolutely necessary. Reflect upon all the meaning, contained in all those typical characteristics, to which I have referred, and say how, in any literal form of speech, it could have been uttered. Listen to that magnificent panegyric upon Reuben; “my first born, my might, the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.” THen mark the blasting sentence upon all this superiority. “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel;” and tell me how many volumes of sermons are opened to the researches of meditation, in that single sentence.
In the various forms of figurative speech, included under the denomination of tropes, there are three things which require our attention; the literal, or, as it is sometimes called, the proper meaning of the word; the idea, meant to be conveyed by it; and the chain of communication between them. This chain of communication is no other than the association of ideas. There are in the mind of every individual certain modes of association, which are common to the generality of mankind; and others which, though not so universal, become habitual to all those, who speak the same language. And to these circumstances may be traced the use, the abuse, and the varieties of all metaphorical discourse.
There are four distinct principles of association so familiar to the minds of men, that they serve as the foundations, upon which the use of a word, meaning one thing, for a thought meaning another, is justified in the practice of all nations. The first of these is similitude; the second, the relation between cause and effect; the third, the relation between a whole and its parts; and the fourth is opposition. These various relations form the connecting links of all the principal tropes. Hence it has been contended, that there are only four primary tropes; the metaphor, founded upon similitude; the metonomy [sic], founded upon the relation between cause and effect; the synecdoche, standing on the relation between a whole and its parts; and irony, the basis of which is opposition. There are however various other distinctions, which the continual analytic process of theory has discovered, which form a secondary class of tropes. I shall notice all those belonging to each of the four classes by themselves; and endeavour [sic], as briefly as possible, to mark the distinction between them.
The most frequent and most beautiful of the tropes is the metaphor; which has sometimes been called a short simile, or a simile in a single word. But there is a material difference between a simile and a metaphor, which is in some sort suggested by the terms themselves. The simile is a word purely Latin, and means likeness. Metaphor is of Greek derivation, from μετα φερα [sic], and signifies carriage across. The simile exhibits both the objects of comparison, and notices the resemblance between them. The metaphor identifies the two objects in one, and transfers the idea, belonging to one word, to a word belonging to a similar idea. The simile may be compared to a portrait, delineated by the hand of a painter; the metaphor to the image of the same person, reflected by a mirror. The metaphor in Latin is called translatio, which in itself is a literal translation of the Greek μετα φορα. We have adopted the Latin term, translation; but annex to it a different, though kindred idea. For a metaphor is to all substantial purposes a translation. But let us illustrate this view of the subject by examples.
In a tragedy of Shakspeare [sic], Coriolanus on the approach of his wife, Valeria, speaking of her, says, she is
The moon of Rome; chaste as the isicle [sic],
That’s curdled by the frost from purest snow,
And hangs on Dian’s temple.
Now suppose a person, perfectly versed in English grammar, and accurately acquainted with the literal import of every word in these lines, but altogether ignorant of their figurative import; would he not pronounce the whole a composition of as arrant nonsense, as ever could be put together? A woman who is a moon! The moon of Rome too; as if that city had a moon of its own! THat this woman should be chaste is indeed intelligible; but what can be more absurd than to say, she is chaste as in isicle [sic]! Chaste as that which, having no animation, can neither possess and moral qualities whatsoever! Yet, as if there could be degrees of chastity between one isicle [sic] and another, this lady’s virtue must, it seems, be compared to a very particular isicle [sic]; and isicle [sic], curdled by the frost; curdled from purest snow! And still it will not answer the purpose, unless it hangs on Dian’s temple! No grammar, no dictionary can explain to you the meaning of this strange association of words. You must consider it as a translation. Let us now see how it is to be expounded into the language of common grammar.
The lady is said to be the moon of Rome. This in the first instance is a metaphor; and not a simile. She is not said to be like the moon, but to be the moon itself. The meaning however is, that she possesses certain qualities similar to qualities attributed to the moon. But we may still be at a loss to imagine what properties a lady can have in common with the moon. Until we perceive that, here is another figure. The moon is put here, not for the orb of night, but for Diana; the goddess, who, under the system of the heathen mythology, was the regent of that luminary. Of all the goddesses she was the most distinguished for chastity; and this is the virtue, for which Coriolanus means to say, that Valeria resembled her. The moon of Rome therefore in this quotation, retranslated into literal speech, would simply say, she is chaste as the goddess Diana. The remaining part of the lines changes to another train of figures. Chaste as the isicle [sic] is a formal comparison; a simile, and not a metaphor. Yet the isicle [sic] is but metaphorically chaste, because it is cold. This analogy between physical coldness and moral purity forms the resemblance, upon which the chastity of Valeria is compared to that of an isicle [sic].
You now see with how much propriety metaphorical discourse may be called translation. You see that in the lines I have read there is only a single word, chaste, which means what it literally imports; that the meaning of all the rest must be collected from associations, similitudes, and analogies, which are scarcely hinted at in the words; and which must be supplied by the memory or imagination of the hearer. Here the foundation of the figures was similitude between things entirely distinct from each other; that is, the resemblance between the chastity of a woman and the chastity of a goddess, in the first figure; and the resemblance between coldness and chastity in the second. Hence you will remember, that similitude is the link of association for metaphor.
Quinctilian draws a line of distinction for the different kinds of metaphors, arising from the substitution of beings, animate and inanimate, for each other, together with the diversities, of which this composition is susceptible, I perceive no sort of utility in this distinction. It would not be worth the time it would take to give examples of these differences; but it may be proper to remark, that of all metaphors those are the most beautiful, which substitute animated figures for inanimate objects; like the Pontem indignatus Araxes of Virgil.
The allegory is also a figure, founded on similitude; and is by some writers said to be nothing more, than an extended metaphor. There is however another difference between them, indicated by their names. Metaphor, as we have seen, is a carriage across; a bridge. Allegory is another discourse, αλλη αγορα, where the figure is so complete, that the real or literal meaning is totally discarded. The metaphor mingles the literal and the figurative together very often, when it substitutes the one for the other. The allegory adheres inflexibly to the figure. The metaphor personates a character; but shows the face of the performer. The allegory assumes at once the character and the mask. It is consistent in disguise, and gives you no direct access to its real countenance. The condition of a dissipated youth, commencing with licentious pleasures, and terminating in fatal disappointment, has often been likened to the vicissitudes of a vessel, sailing with prosperous winds, but soon devoted to the tempest and hurricane. Shakspeare presents the idea in the form of metaphors.
How like a younker or a prodigal
The sharfed bark puts from her naked bay,
Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return
With over-weather’d ribs, and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!
Here the prodigal and the vessel both appear. The figure might be inverted, and indeed it is inverted; for the poet, in likening the weather-beaten vessel to the ruined prodigal, really means to like the prodigal to the vessel.
But in Gray’s bard there is very nearly the same image, to express nearly the same idea, in the form of an allegory.
Fair laughs the morn, and soft the zephyr blows,
While proudly riding o’er the azure realm;
In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes,
Youth on the prow, and pleasure at the helm.
Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind’s sway,
That, hush’d in grim repose, expects his evening prey.
In these lines you discover nothing but the mere imagery. The shadow stands alone. The body, from which it projected, is kept altogether out of sight. The real object, intended to be depicted in this representation, was the unhappy fate of Richard the second of England. The thoughtless splendor of his reign at its commencement, and the melancholy catastrophe, with which it terminated, are portrayed; but they are not mentioned. The vessel itself is all you see.
Allegories are .susceptible of indefinite extension.The term itself implies more than a mere figure of speech. It is a discourse; and often expands into voluminous works. Fables and parables are almost entirely allegories. All fictitious history is allegorical; and there was a time, when the fashionable language of poetry was nothing but allegory.
There is a species of allegory, very frequently used in discourse of every kind, which is comprehended under the general name of allusion. This is a peculiar mode of sporting with ideas, as the term itself imports; an irregular association of ideas, which the writer or speaker intends without giving notice of it; and which is seldom employed, but when there is some reason for disguising the thought which is inspired. The allusion may be made in direct, as well as in figurative language. It is most commonly a subsidiary thought, which may be altogether distinct both from the image presented by the figure, and from the principal idea represented by it. There is no other figure of speech, which has so wide a range of means, as the allusion. It may be made so direct, as to strike every hearer, or so remote, as to escape the most penetrating discernment. An allusion may be made, and in all public speaking you will find yourself making allusions, which none of your hearers will understand. You will say perhaps that this is a very idle waste of time, directly contrary to the main object of speech, which is the communication of thought. Certainly there could be no greater abuse of language, than to seek occasions for making such allusions, as will not be understood; but they may present themselves spontaneously to the mind, and there may be no substantial reason for rejecting them; particularly when the principle idea is complete, whether the allusion be understood or not.
In Dr. Johnson’s pamphlet, entitled taxation no tyranny, there is an example of allusion, which, though at the time perhaps universally understood, would occur to scarce any reader of the present day, whose recollections do not extend so far back. This pamphlet was professedly written in answer to an address from the American continental congress to the people of England in the year 1774. He says,
“Those who wrote the address, though they have shown no great extent of profundity of mind, are yet probably wiser than to believe it; but they have been taught, by some master of mischief, how to put in motion the engine of political electricity; to attract by the sounds of liberty and property, to repel by those of popery and slavery, and to give the great stroke by the name of Boston.”
The principal and apparent idea here is contained in a metaphor. which designates the address of the congress, as an engine of political electricity. The reflection upon the congress is gross, and insulting, and unjust. But besides the general idea, charging that body with political hypocrisy, there is here an indirect allusion to Dr. Franklin. He was the person intended by the words “some master of mischief.” These words would have been of themselves insufficient to point him out; but, when connected with the metaphorical operation of political electricity, they indicated who was meant, as much as if he had been mentioned by name. Dr. Franklin was at the time, when this address of congress was drawn, in England, in the capacity of agent from several of the colonies, which afterwards became the United States. He had obtained great celebrity throughout Europe by his experiments and discoveries in electricity; and was then much distinguished by his zeal for the American cause. He returned just at that juncture to America·; and at the time, when Johnson’s pamphlet appeared, was himself a member of the congress. Johnson’s intention therefore was to insinuate, that Franklin had written from England, recommending that such an address to the people of England should be made, and even suggesting the topics, upon which it should insist. The allusion presents a superadded idea, insinuating what the writer dared not assert, because he could not have any proof to maintain it; but which he supposed would have its effect upon the public mind in England, to render Franklin odious, and the congress contemptible, as much as if he could have made the assertion upon the faith of unquestioned public documents.
There is a particular species of metaphor, distinguished by the name of the oratorical syllepsis; which consists in the employment of a word, bearing at the same time two different senses; the one literal, the other figurative. It is not always easy to distinguish this figure from what is commonly called a pun.
In one of Virgil’s pastorals, the shepherd, Corydon, speaking in praise of his mistress, exclaims,
Nerine Galatea, thymo mihi dulcior Hyblae,
Candidior cycnis, edera formocior alba.
Galatea is whiter than a swan; more beautiful than whit ivy; sweeter than the blossoms of Hybla. The two first of these epithets apply in the same sense to both the things compared, and the objects of comparison; but the sweetness of the thyme of Hybla was literal. The sweetness of the shepherdess, Galatea, was figurative; and the term dulcior, sweeter, applying both to the thyme and to the nymph, bears at one time two different significations.
So in Shakspeare’s [sic] tragedy of King Lear, the king, pronouncing an execration against one of his ungrateful daughters, wishes that, if she should bear children, they may
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.
The sharpness of the serpent’s tooth is literal; the sharpness of having an ungrateful child is figurative. The term stands for both these ideas at once. It would not perhaps within the compass of human knowledge be practicable to find words capable of exciting stringer abhorrence against the crime of filial ingratitude, than these; and yet in this case, as in numberless others, the figure will not stand the test of a logical analysis. It is not the sharpness of the serpent’s tooth, which renders it so dangerous and detestable; but its venom. If the tooth were ten times sharper, it would not be more fatal; and therefore to say of any thing, that it is sharper than a serpent’s tooth, does not imply that it is more dreadful. That, which gives to these expressions their great energy, is the idea of the serpent; a creature, devoted most peculiarly to the abhorrence of mankind; and although the sharpness of his tooth is the only property, which the poet notices to make him rankle in the mind of the speaker, yet the natural association is so easily formed in that of the hearer, that all the consequences of a serpent’s bite spontaneously rise in the imagination, without any direct reference to them.
Satirical writings are very often locked up in allegories. Personal satire especially provides for its own safety, by concealing its purposes under this partially transparent veil. Many distinguished writings of this description have been published, with indices under the name of keys. Soon after Pope’s rape of the lock was published, Swift wrote an ironical dissertation to ridicule this fashion of producing keys, in which he pretended to prove, that Pope’s poem was a political satire upon the barrier treaty. Swift entitled his little treatise a key to the lock. This title was in the first place a metaphor, meaning a key to the rape of the lock. But it was also made a whimsical pun. The lock was at once the representation of two ideas; meaning first a lock of hair, which Pope’s poem had immortalized; and next the smith’s lock, which could be opened only by a key.
This use of words with two faces, by the graver critics of modern times, is very rigorously excluded from serious composition. But it is a powerful weapon for strokes of humor, and of great use for pointing an epigram; of which Swift may furnish us also an example.
There was a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, made by several persons of quality, published by Tonson; a miserable performance, which Swift ridiculed in ballad, closing with the following lines.
Now, Tonson, list thy force all;
Review them, and tell noses;
For to poor Ovid shall befal [sic]
A strange metamorphosis.
A metamorphosis more strange,
Than all his books can vapor.
To what, quoth squire, shall Ovid change?
Quoth Sandys—“to waste paper.”
The point of this conclusion consists in the two-fold sense, applied to the term Ovid. Until the three last words, Ovid means the poet of that name. But he there undergoes his metamorphosis, and becomes the paper, upon which the translation of his principal poem was printed. The word in the first part is literal; and at last is figurative.
The particular figure, by which the paper is put for the translation, and the translation for the author of the original poem, is one of those, founded not upon similitude, but upon the relation between cause and effect. Of this I shall speak in a subsequent lecture; and in the mean time recommend to you the following rules of restriction upon the use of figures, founded upon resemblance.
1. That there should be some resemblance between the figurative and the literal object.
2. That the figure, when brought into view, be not too much dwelt upon. It is seldom safe even to run a metaphor into an allegory. Your hearer expects you will leave something for his own imagination to perform.
3. Avoid selecting metaphorical figures from mean or disgusting objects.
Much less can that obtain a place,
At which a virgin hides her face;
Such dross the fire must purge.
4. Let your metaphors not be too thickly crowded. The [spices], which give a relish to your food, would make but indifferent food by themselves. And the best food, over-seasoned with them, would be spoiled.
Distinguish between the metaphors suitable for oratorical discourse, and those which are reserved to the exclusive use of poetry. The poet may soar beyond the flaming bounds of space and time; but the orator must remember, that an audience is not so readily excursive, and is always under the power of gravitation.
There are some other rules, which, applying to all figurative language, and not to the figures of similitude alone, may be reserved for a future consideration.