Ramblings: The Metaphor

 One year at university my Linguistics progamme demanded that we study all different types of figures of speech and be able to pinpoint them in any type of text. The exam consisted of a list of quotes and we were asked to name and explain the figure of speech. So, of course, I learnt all of the definitions by heart 24 hours before the exam, got about 99% right and then proceeded to forget a lot of them after the fact. This exercise only really matters to those who are actually going to continue either teaching Linguistics or literary analysis, or, maybe, to those who are going to write excellent forms of literary compositions.  I've written a lot of poetry over the years, more than anything else really, but I doubt that I will let anyone read many of my poems, mainly because of the fact that I studied so many brilliant poems through-out the years and never thought that mine would come anywhere near the brilliance of them. I still don't think they will. I wrote my last poem in 2010, sitting by the bay on Long Island, and I doubt that I will ever write one again (although I should probably never say never). The last ones sound more like song lyrics than poems anyway (but then again, they are so very close in nature, lyrics and poetry). I always blamed my writing of poetry on my laziness to write stories, and I always blamed my giving up on poetry on the existence of figures of speech, mainly the metaphor. Why? I'm still trying to figure this out myself.

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines the metaphor as "a figure of speech (more specifically a trope) that associates two unlike things; the representation of one thing by another. The image (or activity or concept) used to represent or "figure" something else is known as the vehicle of the metaphor; the thing that represented is called the tenor. For instance, in the sentence "That child is a mouse," the child is the tenor, whereas the the mouse is the vehicle. The image of a mouse is being used to represent the child, perhaps to emphasize his or her timidity.
Metaphor should be distinguished from simile, another figure of speech with which it is sometimes confused. Similes compare two unlike things by using a connective word such as "like" or "as". Metaphors use no connective word to make their comparison. Furthermore, critics ranging from Aristotle to I. A. Richards have argued that metaphors equate the vehicle with the tenor instead of simply comparing the two."

That doesn't sound too difficult does it? The definition basically gives you the right to compare one thing to another, by the use of an image, so therefore not directly implying that one thing is like another. Take the following words for example: "camera" and "dinosaur". In the phrase "The camera is an old as a dinosaur" you can deduce that the camera in question is very old. In the phrase "The camera is a dinosaur" not only do you deduce that the camera is very old, but it also implies that the camera is very rare and most possibly unique. (Well it does for me, because I just randomly came up with the phrase by looking at a photo of one of Don McCullin's Nikon camera's I have on my wall). That is the whole point and the beauty of the metaphor - it allows the reader to imagine the object or the scene, rather than telling them exactly what it is. In my opinion that makes it one of the most important figures of speech in the world of literature (and by this I really mean the world of anything that is written, from pulp fiction to song lyrics via classical literature). The metaphor gives you the freedom to imply something is like something you would never really compare it to, while creating a conduit for your imagination to run through. Pretty cool, no?

That's what I thought too. There are no real limits to a metaphor, because technically you can correlate one thing with something that it has nothing in common with, and get away with it. Similes can get pretty boring, because the overuse of the word "like" can become heavy and unimaginative, in the same way as the overuse of the words "nice" and "good" can be associated with laziness. The English language is so amazingly rich in vocabulary and figures of speech that it is a pity not to make use of it on a daily basis. I don't want you to tell me that the colour of my sister's skin is the same as the colour of a lily - I want to imagine that it is. The best part of reading a book or a poem is that you can create your own image of the world that is drawn out for you by the writer. In Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the line "and on thy cheeks a fading rose" leaves you to imagine the colour of the rose and how this coincides with the colour of the person's cheeks. In Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart the line "I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye." implies that the person the narrator is peering at has an eye that resembles a vulture's. A vulture circles it's prey and lays in wait for it to die at the hands of another before it feasts. Got the chills yet? Exactly the atmosphere that Poe was aiming to instill in your mind.
All of Shakespeare's plays are chock-full of metaphors and images, you pretty much can find at least one in every scene. For example, in Othello (my most very favourite of all Shakespeare's plays) Iago says to Roderigo “Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners”, implying that we have free will and decide our own actions, and are not determined by a higher being in our destiny. Outside of the fact that Iago is evil personified, this was a pretty bold statement for the time, and I pretty much agree with it. Although I assume that he just used this to justify his own evil actions in his own eyes and in the eyes of others.

There are many times that I ponder upon the idea that an intensive study of literature is not always the best course of action for a writer. You learn how to dissect a piece of writing and find meanings that may or may not have been put there on purpose. You learn how to find recurring themes, and hidden meanings, and thoughts that may not convey themselves to you on the first reading. You learn about structure and metre and cadence; about different rules in poetry through-out the ages, but you don't learn how to actually write your own creative pieces (although you do learn to write excellent literary studies and criticism). Maybe this is only my own problem, but after writing freely for years I suddenly found myself searching through my poems for hidden meanings. I would look at lines and decide that just because they didn't contain a figure or speech found in one of Byron's poems they should be thrown in the garbage. Or I would sit at my desk for hours, surround myself with candles and scratch out an image that would just sound contrived or, even worse, way too similar to something one of my favourite authors or poets had written. Instead of just writing what I felt, the words that were running through my brain, I would push them away and try to come up with something that never actually sounded genuine. So I gave up for a while. I stopped analysing literature like that (and started analysing human beings and real life situations to compensate), and eventually stopped writing poetry. Actually, I stopped calling what I was writing poetry, and started to pretend to myself that the poems I was writing were all actually song lyrics that would never be put to music. All because I was terrified of never getting a metaphor right. I thought I was fearless, but I suppose that's just a cover. In reality I feared the image created by words. Or more accurately, the inability to create an image with words.

But in retrospect, that is just so silly... We create metaphors every day, in everything we do. My writing is full of metaphors, I made them up without thinking and/or realising. Metaphors come naturally. They just exist. Sometimes I still wonder if Shakespeare and Keats and Byron sat there for hours and hours stumbling over one line, or if they just wrote and wrote as they saw the images in their heads. I do the latter, and will continue to do so because that's the only way it works for me. I know that Plath would work on a line for days and days until it sounded perfect to her, but I don't have the patience for that. Maybe I should, who knows, but I'd rather actually be able to produce something rather than throw whatever few words I managed to eke out into the garbage.

Saying that... I just read two lines of a poem that I wrote in 2005. I think I will be going back to writing poetry again in the near future. Thank you metaphor for being so complicated but so simple at the same time. A Rubik's cube of words.

"Twinkle, twinkle silver shadow
My bottle sparkled with a grin"

Literature: Favourite classic British novels/plays

I realised the other day that I hadn't read a classic in a while. Pretty surprising as I used to devour them, British, French, Russian, German classics, anything I could get my hands on. Some of them I would read over and over again, others I would force myself to finish, just so I could say I had read it. I still devour books on a regular basis, but not any classics for many, many months. I've been wanting to read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for ages now, so maybe I should ignore my current pile of to-read books and get on it. It is after all one of my favourite books ever.
Anyway, all this thinking about classics and how much I enjoyed reading some of them made me think that I should write a post about my favourites. And then I realised that if I started doing that I would have to make several based on language, because one post for all favourites would just be too long! So here goes with my favourite British classics, all must-reads in my opinion. I forced myself to choose only one title per author, otherwise it may have been a little too Dickens & Hardy & Brontë heavy...
(I already have an outline for a post on my obsession with Russian literature, but I won't post that one until I have seen the performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the BAM in April).

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre

How can one NOT love this one? A female main character who defies a difficult past misfortunes and traumas to become a strong woman; a dark and mysterious male with whom she falls in love and an uncovered secret that could ruin everything. Dark, gothic, beautiful and so absolutely beautifully written. Oh, and Mr Rochester beats Heathcliff on the "why-doesn't-this-character-exist-in-real-life" scale. I always wanted to be Jane Eyre growing up. You know, strong, independent, passionate, smart...

Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

Yet another one full of gothic landscapes and households, unrequited love, dark, obsessive and totally and utterly sad. Impossible not to burst into tears when reading this novel. I used to relate more to Cathy when I was younger, not so much now, not as much as I relate to Jane Eyre. This is just one of the most beautifully written stories I have ever read. I have read a lot of people complaining about how descriptive Emily was in her prose, but if that's a problem then you should probably avoid reading any type of Romantic literature.

Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist

One of my all-time favourite stories. I used to imagine myself being Oliver Twist, heading off with my only possessions in a sack tied to the end of a stick, going off towards the gold-paved streets of London to find fortune and a better life. The sweet little Oliver ends up being taken in by a band of criminals lead by Fagin (while bringing his image to my mind I just started to rub my hands together, in just the way I have always imagined him to). Dickens wrote his novels as serials, chapters were published in periodicals, this is why each chapter is of the perfect reading length to keep your attention (and perfect bedtime stories for children). No one described Victorian London in such a colourful, dark, wonderful way as Dickens did. I love all of his work, but this is the one that I always go back to. And one day I WILL get a bull terrier and call him Bullseye.

George Eliot – Middlemarch

Such a wonderful depiction of Victorian England, and the place of a woman in society. I took a class on the woman in Victorian time back when I was at university, and it really helped me to understand this book and the issues that Dorothea faces within society. If you are worried about the size of the book, don't be. It's a wonderful read, from beginning to end.

Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I got my love of Thomas Hardy from my mother. Tess of the d'Urbervilles my favourite book of all-time (right after Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers). There is something about the tale, the despair, the sadness, the beauty and the characters that draws me back to this book every time. It's heartbreaking and sad and sometimes happy. I am usually really wary of film adaptations of novels, but Polanski did an amazing job with his version, and using Nastassja Kinski as Tess was the best idea ever - she is exactly the way I imagined Tess in my head.

I suppose there is some kind of pattern in my literary preferences here, although I'm not too surprised really...

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

There is so much more to this novel than a doctor (Frankenstein) who creates a monster. Mary Shelley was in her late teens when she wrote this novel and was surrounded by other literary greats (her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron) and held her own in this literary circle. This story is a wonderful gothic tale that not only scares the shit out of you, it also plays with the philosophies and society of the time, leaving subtle hints that stick in your mind and nag you for days after you have finished reading. Mary never knew her mother, who died a few days after Mary was born, but her mother was one of the very early advocates for women's rights in England. Everyone should read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

D.H. Lawrence – Sons and Lovers

I may have read this a little too early in life, I was around 11 or 12 at the time, but it definitely hit a chord. I understood the main themes the first time round, but when I revisited it again a couple of years later I really felt like I had got it. D.H. Lawrence isn't for everyone, but I adore his work, most especially this one. I actually find this one to be darker and more intense than Lady Chatterley's Lover.

George Orwell – Animal Farm

One of the best and most obvious political allegories ever written in my opinion. Although 1984 is pretty timeless (even though it contains a year as a title), I also feel that this one is too. Replace the political notions with just humankind and the way humans inevitably interact with each other when given the chance to obtain certain amounts of power and this is what can happen. Main moral of the story, no one is free from the possibility of becoming a tyran once one has obtained a position of power over others.

William Shakespeare – Othello

Still the piece of literature with the best most evil character of all time. I hope to never meet an Iago in my life, but know at one point probably will (or probably already have). I love to read Shakespeare, I love to watch Shakespeare, and really wish that I hadn't been too shy in high school to pursue drama, because I really wanted to be a Shakespeare character one day in my life. Not Desdemona, she is too tragic and too easily persuaded in my mind, more like an Emilia, a strong woman figure. Although the play is called Othello, in my opinion the main protagonist is Iago. God, even his name is a synonym for evil in my mind.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

Decadence. That's the first word I always think of when I think of Oscar Wilde. I was so obsessed with him (and decadence) when I was a teenager, and I wanted to write just like him. His writing is magical, telling, descriptive, sarcastic and many a time, just downright hilarious. What a tale of a narcissistic descent into hell. Eternal youth isn't that something that we all dream of at some point in our lives?!

Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

I probably would never have read this unless it had been a required reading book in high school, and I am so glad it was. A retired man ends up picking up and traveling around England and then abroad with his older, eccentric aunt, meeting weird and wonderful people along the way. Greene's prose is so entertaining that you can't put this book down. Which reminds me, I should probably read some more of his work after all this time!

Other honourable mentions: William Thackeray – Barry Lyndon; Henry James – Portrait of a Lady; Jane Austen - Emma; Bram Stoker - Dracula

I just realised I hadn't even bothered to talk about any of my favourite poets, so I am just going to write another post about them at a later date. Too much to say about them and too little time today!

Literature: William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXIII

Just because Shakespeare wasn't only a playwright, and because I find this one particularly moving and truthful.

Sonnet XXIII
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

Go HERE to find all of the sonnets, as well as some explanations and commentaries (although I always find it easier to trust my own interpretation to be honest).

Theatre & Tragedy 1

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Shakespeare - Othello Act 5, Scene 2, Iago's last words

Not only the best play written by Shakespeare, but also one of my favourite plays ever written. I used to be able to recite Emilia's speeches because I loved her character so much. I still don't think to this day that a better villain than Iago has been created...

Now time to revisit Racine. I'm in the mood for some really good tragedies.