The Power and Pleasure of Metaphor

Writers on Writing With Metaphors

"I love metaphor," said novelist Bernard Malamud. "It provides two loaves where there seems to be one.". (Peter Anderson/Getty Images)

"The greatest thing by far," said Aristotle in the Poetics (330 BC), "is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance."

Over the centuries, writers have not only been making good metaphors but also studying these powerful figurative expressions — considering where metaphors come from, what purposes they serve, why we enjoy them, and how we comprehend them.

Here — in a follow-up to the article What Is a Metaphor? — are the thoughts of 15 writers, philosophers, and critics on the power and pleasure of metaphor.

  • Aristotle on the Pleasure of Metaphor
    All men take a natural pleasure in learning quickly words which denote something; and so those words are pleasantest which give us new knowledge. Strange words have no meaning for us; common terms we know already; it is metaphor which gives us most of this pleasure. Thus, when the poet calls old age "a dried stalk," he gives us a new perception by means of the common genus; for both the things have lost their bloom. A simile, as has been said before, is a metaphor with a preface; for this reason it is less pleasing because it is more lengthy; nor does it affirm that this is that; and so the mind does not even inquire into the matter. It follows that a smart style, and a smart enthymeme, are those which give us a new and rapid perception.
    (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 4th century BC, translated by Richard Claverhouse Jebb)
  • Quintilian on a Name for Everything
    Let us begin, then, with the commonest and by far the most beautiful of tropes, namely, metaphor, the Greek term for our translatio. It is not merely so natural a turn of speech that it is often employed unconsciously or by uneducated persons, but it is in itself so attractive and elegant that however distinguished the language in which it is embedded it shines forth with a light that is all its own. For if it be correctly and appropriately applied, it is quite impossible for its effect to be commonplace, mean or unpleasing. It adds to the copiousness of language by the interchange of words and by borrowing, and finally succeeds in the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything.
    (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 95 AD, translated by H.E. Butler)
  • I.A. Richards on the Omnipresent Principle of Language
    Throughout the history of Rhetoric, metaphor has been treated as a sort of happy extra trick with words, an opportunity to exploit the accidents of their versatility, something in place occasionally but requiring unusual skill and caution. In brief, a grace or ornament or added power of language, not its constitutive form. . . .
    That metaphor is the omnipresent principle of language can be shown by mere observation. We cannot get through three sentences of ordinary fluid discourse without it.
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Language, 1936)
  • Robert Frost on a Feat of Association
    If you remember only one thing I've said, remember that an idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor. If you have never made a good metaphor, then you don't know what it's all about.
    (Robert Frost, interview in The Atlantic, 1962)
  • Kenneth Burke on Fashioning Perspectives
    It is precisely through metaphor that our perspectives, or analogical extensions, are made--a world without metaphor would be a world without purpose.
    The heuristic value of scientific analogies is quite like the surprise of metaphor. The difference seems to be that the scientific analogy is more patiently pursued, being employed to inform an entire work or movement, where the poet uses his metaphor for a glimpse only.
    (Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1984)
  • Bernard Malalmud on Loaves and Fishes
    I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish. . . . I'm not talented as a conceptual thinker but I am in the uses of metaphor.
    (Bernard Malamud, interviewed by Daniel Stern, "The Art of Fiction 52," The Paris Review, Spring 1975)
  • G.K. Chesterton on Metaphor and Slang
    All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day, we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social relations "breaking the ice." If this were expanded into a sonnet, we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the Northern nature, over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away with them--a whole chaos of fairy tales.
    (G.K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Slang," The Defendant, 1901)
  • William Gass on a Sea of Metaphors
    - I love metaphor the way some people love junk food. I think metaphorically, feel metaphorically, see metaphorically. And if anything in writing comes easily, comes unbidded, often unwanted, it is metaphor. Like follows as as night the day. Now most of these metaphors are bad and have to be thrown away. Who saves used Kleenex? I never have to say: "What shall I compare this to?" a summer's day? No. I have to beat the comparisons back into the holes they pour from. Some salt is savory. I live in a sea.
    (William Gass, interviewed by Thomas LeClair, "The Art of Fiction 65," The Paris Review, Summer 1977)
    - If there is anything in writing that comes easy for me it's making up metaphors. They just appear. I can't move two lines without all kinds of images. Then the problem is how to make the best of them. In its geological character, language is almost invariably metaphorical. That's how meanings tend to change. Words become metaphors for other things, then slowly disappear into the new image. I have a hunch, too, that the core of creativity is located in metaphor, in model making, really. A novel is a large metaphor for the world.
    (William Gass, interviewed by Jan Garden Castro, "Interview With William Gass," ADE Bulletin, No. 70, 1981)
  • Ortega y Gasset on the Magic of Metaphor
    The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when he made him.
    (José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas About the Novel, 1925)
  • Joseph Addison on Illuminating Metaphors
    Allegories when well chosen, are like so many tracks of light in a discourse, that make everything about them clear and beautiful. A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a lustre through a whole sentence.
    (Joseph Addison, "Appeal to the Imagination in Writing on Abstract Subjects by Allusion to the Natural World," The Spectator, No. 421, July 3, 1712)
  • Gerard Genette on the Recovery of the Vision
    Thus metaphor is not an ornament, but the necessary instrument for a recovery, through style, of the vision of essences, because it is the stylistic equivalent of the psychological experience of involuntary memory, which alone, by bringing together two sensations separated in time, is able to release their common essence through the miracle of an analogy — though metaphor has an added advantage over reminiscence, in that the latter is a fleeting contemplation of eternity, while the former enjoys the permanence of the work of art.
    (Gerard Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse, Columbia University Press, 1981)
  • Milan Kundera on Dangerous Metaphors
    I have said before that metaphors are dangerous. Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.
    (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim, 1984)
  • Dennis Potter on the World Behind the World
    I just sometimes very occasionally am conscious of what I would call "grace" but it's corroded by intellectual reservation, by the sheer improbabilities of thinking in that mode. And yet it remains within me — I wouldn't call it yearning. Yearning? Yes, I suppose that's a lazy way of putting it, but somehow the sense continually threatening to be present and occasionally flickering into life of the world behind the world which, of course, is what all metaphors and in a sense, all art (again to use that word), all of that is about the world behind the world. By definition. It is nonutilitarian and has no meaning. Or appears to have no meaning and the strangest thing that human speech and human writing can do is create a metaphor. Not just a simile: not just Rabbie Burns saying "My love is like a red, red rose," but in a sense, it is a red rose. That is an amazing leap, is it not?
    (Dennis Potter, interviewed by John Cook, in The Passion of Dennis Potter, edited by Vernon W. Gras and John R. Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)
  • John Locke on Illustrative Metaphors
    Figured and metaphorical expressions do well to illustrate more abstruse and unfamiliar ideas which the mind is not yet thoroughly accustomed to; but then they must be made use of to illustrate ideas that we already have, not to paint to us those which we yet have not. Such borrowed and allusive ideas may follow real and solid truth, to set it off when found; but must by no means be set in its place, and taken for it. If all our search has yet reached no farther than simile and metaphor, we may assure ourselves we rather fancy than know, and have not yet penetrated into the inside and reality of the thing, be it what it will, but content ourselves with what our imaginations, not things themselves, furnish us with.
    (John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding, 1796)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson on Nature's Metaphors
    It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope. . . .
    The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836)
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Nordquist, Richard. "The Power and Pleasure of Metaphor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Power and Pleasure of Metaphor. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Power and Pleasure of Metaphor." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).