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Society for Pure English, Tract 11 Three Articles on Metaphor   By:

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By E.B., H.W. Fowler & A. Clutton Brock


At the Clarendon Press




The business of the writer is to arouse in the mind of his reader the fullest possible consciousness of the ideas or emotion that he is expressing.

To this end he suggests a comparison between it and something else which is similar to it in respect of those qualities to which he desires to draw attention. The reader's mind at once gets to work unconsciously on this comparison, rejecting the unlike qualities and recognizing with an enhanced and satisfied consciousness the like ones. The functions of simile and metaphor are the same in this respect.

Both simile and metaphor are best when not too close to the idea they express, that is, when they have not many qualities in common with it which are not cogent to the aspect under consideration.

The test of a well used metaphor is that it should completely fulfil this function: there should be no by products of imagery which distract from the poet's aim, and vitiate and weaken the desired consciousness.

A simile, in general, need not be so close as a metaphor, because the point of resemblance is indicated, whereas in a metaphor this is left to the reader to discover.

When a simile or metaphor is from the material to the immaterial, or vice versa, the analogy should be more complete than when it is between two things on the same plane: when they are on different planes there is less dullness (that is, less failure to produce consciousness), and the greater mental effort required of the reader warrants some assistance.

The degree of effort required in applying any given metaphor should be in relation to the degree of emotion proper to the passage in which it is used. Only those metaphors which require little or no mental exertion should be used in very emotional passages, or the emotional effect will be much weakened: a far fetched, abstruse metaphor or simile implies that the writer is at leisure from his emotion, and suggests this attitude in the reader. [E.B.]


Live and dead metaphor; some pitfalls; self consciousness and mixed metaphor.

1. Live and Dead Metaphor.

In all discussion of metaphor it must be borne in mind that some metaphors are living, i.e. are offered and accepted with a consciousness of their nature as substitutes for their literal equivalents, while others are dead, i.e. have been so often used that speaker and hearer have ceased to be aware that the words are not literal: but the line of distinction between the live and the dead is a shifting one, the dead being sometimes liable, under the stimulus of an affinity or a repulsion, to galvanic stirrings indistinguishable from life. Thus, in The men were sifting meal we have a literal use of sift ; in Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat , 'sift' is a live metaphor; in the sifting of evidence , the metaphor is so familiar that it is about equal chances whether sifting or examination will be used, and a sieve is not present to the thought unless, indeed, some one conjures it up by saying All the evidence must first be sifted with acid tests , or with the microscope ; under such a stimulus our metaphor turns out to have been not dead, but dormant. The other word, examine , will do well enough as an example of the real stone dead metaphor; the Latin examino , being from examen the tongue of a balance, meant originally to weigh; but, though weighing is not done with acid tests or microscopes any more than sifting, examine gives no convulsive twitchings, like sift , at finding itself in their company; examine , then, is dead metaphor, and sift only half dead, or three quarters... Continue reading book >>

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