Figurative Language Exercise: Metaphors and Similes

Examining Figurative Comparisons in Essays

The eight passages in this exercise, all taken from our sizable collection of Classic British and American Essays, are richly developed with metaphors and similes. Your job is to identify these figures of speech and explain their significance.

Each of the following passages contains one or more metaphors or similes (or both). Either by yourself or with others, first identify these figures of speech and then explain their meaning and purpose in the context of the passage.

(To read the complete essay, click on the highlighted title that appears in parentheses after each passage.)

  1. The fog tiptoes into the streets. It walks like a great cat through the air and slowly devours the city.

    The office buildings vanish, leaving behind thin pencil lines and smoke blurs. The pavements become isolated, low-roofed corridors. Overhead the electric signs whisper enigmatically and the window lights dissolve.

    The fog thickens till the city disappears. High up, where the mists thin into a dark, sulphurous glow, roof bubbles float. The great cat's work is done. It stands balancing itself on the heads of people and arches its back against the vanished buildings. . . .
    (Ben Hecht, "Fog Patterns," 1922)
  2. Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.

    But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held--so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place--who knows?
    (Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," 1928)
  1. And if one hears, as one does hear often nowadays, that boys and girls are impertinent to their parents, usually it is the elders who have set the tune of manners, and the young people do but dance to it. The fault lies in themselves, inasmuch as love and charity have not come sufficiently into their own lives to make them practise, and teach, the true courtesy whose source is the heart, because they have not made real comrades of their children, or let them feel that they have gone with them step for step all the way--instead, they have lived their own selfish life apart, grabbing later, at what has grown away from them.

    True, not all the sown seeds come to flower, but where all are planted in a fair soil, with room to grow, some, at least, must bear golden fruit at last, and in many respects the New Order is superior to the Old, inasmuch as it inaugurates comradeship between mother and daughter, father and son, because under it, children are ruled by love, not by authority, and while the old abject attitude of enforced respect on the one hand, and condescension on the other, did not make for truth and sincerity in the filial relation, the Order of the New most emphatically does.
    (Helen Mathers, "A Contrast in Generations," 1903)
  1. I was in town the other evening, walking by myself, at my usual rapid pace, and ruminating, in all likelihood, on the military affairs of the Scythians, when, at a lonely street corner not adorned by a gas-lamp, I suddenly felt a delicate stir in my upper pocket. There is a sort of mechanical intelligence in a well-drilled and well-treated body, which can act, in an emergency, without orders from headquarters. My mind, certainly, was a thousand years away, and is at best drowsy and indifferent. It had besides, no experience, nor even hearsay, which would have directed it what to do at this thrilling little crisis. Before it was aware what had happened, and in the beat of a swallow's wing, my fingers had brushed the flying thief, my eyes saw him, and my legs (retired race-horses, but still great at a spurt) flew madly after him. I protest that from the first, though I knew he had under his wicked thumb the hard-earned wealth of a notoriously poor poet (let the double-faced phrase, which I did not mean to write, stand there, under my hand, to all posterity), yet I never felt one yearning towards it, nor conceived the hope of revenge. No: I was fired by the exquisite dramatic situation; I felt my blood up, like a charger
    "that sees
    The battle over distances."
    (Louise Imogen Guiney, "On a Pleasing Encounter With a Pickpocket," 1893)
  1. English air, working upon London smoke, creates the real London. The real London is not a city of uniform brightness, like Paris, nor of savage gloom, like Prague; it is a picture continually changing, a continual sequence of pictures, and there is no knowing what mean street corner may not suddenly take on a glory not its own. The English mist is always at work like a subtle painter, and London is a vast canvas prepared for the mist to work on. The especial beauty of London is the Thames, and the Thames is so wonderful because the mist is always changing its shapes and colours, always making its lights mysterious, and building palaces of cloud out of mere Parliament Houses with their jags and turrets. When the mist collaborates with night and rain, the masterpiece is created.
    (Arthur Symons, "The Aspect of London," 1909)
  1. I could not get out of my mind the thought of a friend, who said that the rainbows over [Niagara] Falls were like the arts and beauty and goodness, with regard to the stream of life--caused by it, thrown upon its spray, but unable to stay or direct or affect it, and ceasing when it ceased. In all comparisons that rise in the heart, the river, with its multitudinous waves and its single current, likens itself to a life, whether of an individual or of a community. A man's life is of many flashing moments, and yet one stream; a nation's flows through all its citizens, and yet is more than they. In such places, one is aware, with an almost insupportable and yet comforting certitude, that both men and nations are hurried onwards to their ruin or ending as inevitably as this dark flood. Some go down to it unreluctant, and meet it, like the river, not without nobility. And as incessant, as inevitable, and as unavailing as the spray that hangs over the Falls, is the white cloud of human crying. . . .
    (Rupert Brooke, "Niagara Falls," 1913)
  2. As I lie here, helpless and disabled, or, at best, nailed by one foot to the floor like a doomed Strasburg goose, a sense of injury grows on me. For nearly four years--to be precise, since New Year 1895--I have been the slave of the theatre. It has tethered me to the mile radius of foul and sooty air which has its center in the Strand, as a goat is tethered in the little circle of cropped and trampled grass that makes the meadow ashamed. Every week it clamors for its tale of written words; so that I am like a man fighting a windmill: I have hardly time to stagger to my feet from the knock-down blow of one sail, when the next strikes me down. Now I ask, is it reasonable to expect me to spend my life in this way? . . .
    (George Bernard Shaw, "Valedictory," 1898)
  1. In days of more single purpose than these, young men and maidens, in the first flush of summer, set up a maypole on the green; but before they joined hands and danced round about it they had done honour to what it stood for by draping it with swags of flowers and green-stuff, hanging it with streamers of divers colours, and sticking it with as many gilt hearts as there were hearts among them of votive inclination. So they transfigured the thing signified, and turned a shaven tree-trunk from a very crude emblem into a thing of happy fantasy. That will serve me for a figure of how the poet deals with his little idea, or great one; and in his more sober mood it is open to the essayist so to deal with his, supposing he have one. He must hang his pole, or concept, not with rhyme but with wise or witty talk. He must turn it about and about, not to set the ornaments jingling, or little bells ringing; rather that you may see its shapeliness enhanced, its proportions emphasized, and in all the shifting lights and shadows of its ornamentation discern it still for the notion that it is. That at least is my own notion of what the essayist should do, though I am aware that very distinguished practitioners have not agreed with me and do not agree at this hour. The modern essayist, for reasons which I shall try to expound, has been driven from the maypole to the column.
    (Maurice Hewlett, "The Maypole and the Column," 1922)