Understand metaphor, understand the world, understand yourself

Te Baltimore Sun

Four years ago, David R. Godine brought out Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, a splendid catalogue of tropes, richly illustrated with examples. Reading the examples was a treat in itself.

Now Ward Farnsworth has written Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (David R. Godine, 243 pages, $27.97), ransacking English literature from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth in a volume of Godine’s characteristically handsome printing.

Plato wanted nothing to do with poets in his nasty republic, but impulse to use metaphors runs deep in human beings, and it goes far beyond mere ornamentation, as Mr. Farnsworth explains in his introduction:

“Many important subjects cannot be described literally, at least not well. States of mind are like this, as are the sources and effects of language and other arts and many elements of spiritual life. They don’t just require pictures in order to be understood. They require comparisons, because they cannot be depicted literally in images or in words. A subject tends to defeat literal description when it is inaccessible to the senses; our words for what we can see are more extensive and refined than our words for what is intangible. Other truths and observations cannot be captured through a literal use of words simply because words and reality aren’t coextensive. The range and subtlety of feeling of what we wish to say outruns the labels that our language provides for the purpose. Comparisons free us from those limits. They allow a writer to use words not as labels to name a thing but as links to attach it to what we have known or seen or can imagine. The link summons pictures and other associations in the reader’s mind and rallies them to the descriptive purpose. A metaphor may, in short, express something that otherwise cannot be said or shown, and provide a way to understand it — possibly the only way. [emphasis added]”

He has organized his collection of metaphors by a baker’s dozen of categories, including using animals to describe humans, nature to describe inner states, and personifications. Readers of this blog may be particularly taken by the chapter “Nature to Describe Language.”

In it we have Samuel Johnson from The Rambler: “Praise, like gold and diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity”; H.L. Mencken on Thorstein Veblen: “The learned professor gets himself enmeshed in his gnarled sentences like a bull trapped by barbed wire, and his efforts to extricate himself are quite as furious and quite as spectacular”; Hazlitt on Horne Tooke: “Each of his sentences told very well in itself, but they did not altogether make a speech. He left off where he began. His eloquence was a succession of drops, not a stream.”

Or, if you hold with Dr. Johnson that “classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world,” you may prefer the chapter “The Classical World”: Thoreau in Walden; “The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor”; Oscar Wilde: “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography”; Justice Holmes in a letter: “I long have said there is no such thing as a hard case. I am frightened weekly but always when you walk up to the lion and lay hold the hide comes off and the same old donkey of a question of law is underneath.”

I could quote to you for the rest of the afternoon without exhausting the richness and sophistication of Mr. Farnsworth’ admirable collection. Everything I have cited and everything I have read in it reinforces his claim in the introduction. Metaphor is the way we understand our relationship to the external world and one another, the way we come to understand ourselves. The more we understand and make use of the possibilities of metaphor, the more profound understanding we will achieve.

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