What is a Metaphor?
Did you hear this old joke about metaphors when you were a kid? “What’s a metaphor? A place to keep the cows in!” It probably seemed funnier back when kids actually knew what metaphors, AND meadows, were. Right now, I’m not going to talk about the fading of “meadow” from the modern American vocabulary, but I will ask this: Do you know what a metaphor is for? Knowing just a little about how metaphors and some other important figures of speech function can help you understand and enjoy a poem more deeply.
A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are apparently not much alike. For instance, if I say that Sue’s coffee tastes like Starbucks coffee, I am not making a metaphor; I am just making a literal comparison between two things that are already largely alike. But if I offer you “some of this molasses Sue calls coffee,” I am speaking figuratively, making a metaphor. In sober reality, coffee and molasses are very dissimilar, but Sue’s coffee makes me think of molasses for some reason, maybe because it is thick and sludgy, or over-sweet. In this metaphor, the coffee is the “tenor,” or topic of the metaphor, the object or idea I want to make a point about. Molasses is the “vehicle,” the thing I am using to convey my rather insulting ideas about Sue’s coffee.
In Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Mother to Son,” the speaker in the poem, the Mother, compares life to a stairway. Take a minute to read it.
In this poem, a mother is giving advice to her son by comparing her progress through life to climbing a staircase. Her life is the “tenor” (the topic of the metaphor) and the staircase is the “vehicle,” the object she uses to explain her ideas about life. Her life has not been easy, or as her metaphor conveys it, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Instead, it’s been full of tacks and splinters and torn-up boards (all qualities of the vehicle that stand for the difficulties in her life).
Nevertheless, she says, she is still climbing, making progress and reaching higher stages in life. She uses this extended metaphor to encourage her son not to give up when things get rough, because if she can make it, he can. In this poem and so many others, Hughes shows us the power and delight of well-crafted metaphoric language. The image of the mother climbing the stair is much more vivid and visceral than literal words like “my life hasn’t been easy, but I’ve still made progress.” We both see and feel the image presented by the metaphor, and catch the meaning powerfully and directly. [For more about imagery, see The Easiest Step in Understanding Poetry: Imagery.]
Simile: Another Kind of Poetic Comparison
Hughes’s figurative comparison in “Mother to Son” is called a metaphor because the language asserts a simple equivalence between two things (life is a staircase). Another type of comparison, sometimes called another type of metaphor, points out the comparison using the word “like” or “as”: the Simile. Robert Burns’s lovely, well-known poem “A Red, Red Rose” starts out with two sweet similes in the first stanza. (You can read “A Red, Red Rose” here.)
First, the speaker says that his “Luve” (the woman he loves) is “like a red, red rose, /that’s newly sprung in June.” Here we can stop just a minute to picture red roses and their fetching qualities to get an idea of the speaker’s opinion of this woman he loves. Roses are beautiful, sensual, delicate, and desirable. Since this rose is newly sprung, we might get the idea that the speaker’s loved one is young.
His second simile is to compare this woman to “the melodie,”/ “That’s sweetly play’d in tune.” What are some qualities of tuneful melodies that might apply to this speaker? Harmony, pleasantness, appropriateness, grace might all be qualities that apply both to melodies and this beloved woman. She must not be quarrelsome, harsh, grating, or even too shy, since a melody in tune is always lovely, welcome, and engaging to the hearer.
Encountering Embedded Metaphors
Let’s pause and sum up what we’ve learned so far: metaphors and similes are both comparisons. The simile states that a comparison is being made by using “like” or “as,” while the metaphor simply asserts equivalence between the Tenor and Vehicle.
Sometimes readers might be confused about how to interpret metaphors in poems because the comparison between two things might just be assumed, not stated explicitly. Let’s look, for instance, at Ezra Pound’s famous Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” Other than the title, the poem consists of only two lines. Read “In a Station of the Metro” HERE.
How to interpret this poem? First, following Step 1 of Understanding Poetry, we need to rely on the title to realize the setting is a train station of the Paris metro. The faces in the crowd must be the people waiting for the train. But what about the “petals”? We wouldn’t expect to find a literal blooming branch down in a subway station, so we can surmise that what we have here is a metaphor. The speaker is comparing people’s faces (tenor) to the petals on a tree limb in the rain (vehicle).
To discern the meaning of the poem, meditate on the qualities of petals on the wet limb. These are the qualities that spring to my mind: the petals look very similar, pale (in contrast to the black limb), dampened, and possibly beat down by the rain. These qualities suggest that the waiting people seem anonymous and forlorn, each just one more face in the crowd.
However, maybe you think the poem focuses more on positive qualities of the vehicle, the wet flowers on a tree branch. What would these qualities add to our understanding of how these people in the subway appear to the poet? If you have a thought, please leave a reply below and share your idea!
If you want a more detailed discussion of metaphor and simile, check out this excellent page on the Put Learning First website.
Synecdoche? Metonymy? They’re Easy!
When using metaphors and similes, poets make comparisons. There is another frequently used class of figures based on substitution, primarily Synecdoche (sin-NECK-doh-key), Metonymy (meh-TAWN-uh me), and Symbol. These are just fancy names for figures of speech we use all the time.
I bet you have used a Synecdoche today! Have you asked someone to lend you a hand? Or cast an eye on something? Or pay the bill with some plastic? Or ask someone to borrow their wheels? Or that Germany won 2014’s World Cup?
If so, you have used a Synecdoche, which means to substitute a part of something for the whole thing OR to substitute a whole thing for a part of it. In these examples, the hand or eye are only parts of the whole person whom you are asking to do something for you. The plastic is just the material part of the credit card you use to pay the bill, as the wheels are just part of the whole car. These are all examples of substituting a part for a whole; using “Germany” to refer just to the Germany’s winning team is an example of a whole being substituted for a part.
Metonymy is common too. Whenever you substitute the name of something with an object associated with it, you are using metonymy. For instance, anyone complaining about “the suits on Wall Street” is using metonymy–the suits business people wear are substituted for the word for the people themselves. News reporters use metonymy all the time: “The White House (or The Pentagon) announced today. . ..” These official buildings, or course, cannot literally speak, but these phrases convey that someone associated with the White House, probably an official spokesperson, has made an official announcement.
And of Course, Symbol
Another way of substituting special language for things or ideas is to use Symbols for them. A symbol can be any object or person that stands for another thing or idea. Wedding rings and stop signs are common symbols. Literally, a ring is just a band of metal, but a wedding ring symbolizes a legal and personal commitment to a spouse. Stop signs are just red metal hexagons, but they symbolize a legal command (as well as offer an opportunity to get a ticket!).
Synecdoche, Metonymies, and Symbols all focus readers’ attention on the most significant or powerful quality of the thing for which they substitute. Also, as one of my students said, they are a way more cool way to say something. Figures communicate ideas in a flash, both delighting and startling readers.
More Advice for Sons
Above, we sampled some advice from a mother to a son; now let’s look at some advice to a son from a father. Besides offering serious advice along with some sweet slyness, Peter Meinke’s wonderful 1991 poem “Advice to My Son” is a treasure trove of figures of speech. Take a minute to read and savor it. Then see if you can find examples of synecdoche in the first stanza and metaphors in the second stanza. The second stanza is rife with symbols as well.
Did you find any synecdoche? In the first stanza, “the shattered windshield and the bursting shell” are examples of synecdoche. The shattered windshield, the most dramatic part of a car crash, is standing in for the whole event. The bursting shell is just part of a battle that stands in for and sums up the essence of this violent kind of death.
In the second stanza, the advice about gardening offers us multiple symbols to ponder. Of course, the father isn’t giving literal advice about how to plant a garden, but uses peony, rose, squash, and spinach to symbolize aspects of life. Flowers are planted for no use other than beauty, so the father is telling his son to include beauty and enjoyment in his life, even though he does need to plan how he will manage life-sustaining things (squash and tomatoes) like education and jobs and responsible behavior.
Even though the father is careful to warn that “the stomach craves stronger sustenance / than the honied vine,” it’s easy to see that he wants to teach his son to make beauty and enjoyment a prime value. “Beauty is nectar” is a great metaphor, comparing the abstract concept of beauty to the most desirable and, for birds and butterflies, the most sustaining part of a flower, its nectar. We can’t get by on turnips and bread alone.
Do You Have to Know All Their Names? Not at All.
What if you couldn’t name all the figures of speech in any of these poems, or worse, never can? No problem!
Readers don’t need to name figurative language to recognize that it is there, to feel its effects and ponder its meaning. I do think that once you know their names, you are more alert to recognizing when you come upon a figure of speech in a poem. If you know you are reading figurative language, that helps you uncover, ponder, and savor language that might seem odd or confusing when you first light on it.
Naming every figure of speech in literature might not seem natural, but using figures of speech is natural to every human. Relax and let some amazing poems shower you with the beauty and power of metaphor, simile, synecdoche, symbol, and song.
In the next post, we’ll learn about some more figures or tropes, especially those that relate to irony and contrast. Join us then!