Tag Archives: John Donne

‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.


But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.



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More on Metaphor: St Patrick and the Queen of Tropes

If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.

For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage.  Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.

Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.

Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.

When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.

I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.

It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’

There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.

And prepositions were everywhere.

I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.

It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?

Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the  doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)

The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.

*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.

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