Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Dead metaphors

Mervyn Peake, it seems, drew a set of jokey pictures entitled ‘Figures of Speech’:

A man plays the flute, his feet tapping against the music: this is ‘Toeing the line’. Another stares sorrowfully at what seems to be a puppet at the end of his arm: ‘His right-hand man’. A humanoid sea creature surfaces cheerfully from the water, his arms wrapped around himself: ‘Coming up to scratch’. (Michael Wood, ‘Eaten by Owls’, London Review of Books, 26 January 2012).

Those are funny and clever (though not funny and clever enough for me to decide life’s not too short for reading Peake’s Gormenghast novels -- am I wrong?) and the humour lies, as the titles suggest, in taking figurative language literally. The phrases aren’t similes and I'm not sure they’re metaphors (so your poor English teacher would have no way of dealing with them, those two terms being his or her entire stock-in-trade in this field, leftovers from well over a hundred terms taught in classical rhetoric). But they certainly aren’t meant literally, or not original-literally: ‘coming up to scratch’ has a meaning of its own now, which it goes to directly, as it were, not by way of an image, but if we hold it still and allow ‘scratch’ to register, which we’re not normally supposed to, then the original literal meaning, scratching/scratches etc, emerges. A dead metaphor is revitalised.

I mentioned Donald Davie not long ago.  Davie argues, in Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), a book I've partly read just recently (only to discover that I’d already made notes on it a few years ago though I can’t remember ever having got it out of the library, let alone opening it -- a now familiar experience), that late 18th century verse, which in his day had the reputation of being thin on figurative language (and thus being arid and lacking in experiential colour), actually has plenty only it’s in the form of revitalised dead metaphors.

Now that I look in Davie again, though, I can’t find an example to quote that’s quite like those of Peake. The most interesting discussion so far has been of the transfer of meanings that you’d expect to be expressed in adverbs qualifying verbs into adjectives that qualify nouns, thus conferring particular energy on the verbs. Thus

Urging at noon the slow boat in the reeds
That wav’d their green uncertainty of shade.
(Langthorne, tha knows.)

‘Here “urging”’, says Davie, ‘naked and conspicuous because “slow” has been removed (at no expense to logic) to qualify “boat”, comes over with all the force of muscular exertion. “Wav’d”, too, profits from being left alone...’ (p32 in Penguin 1992 edition). Well, yes,I think I see....something like a metaphorical process is happening...(?)

In other cases the commonplace dead metaphor isn’t cited explicitly but is in the background to explain the sudden force of a formulation that in effect takes it literally. Or so Davie claims. Thus here (Johnson) the ‘submerged’ metaphor is ‘rebellion broke out’:

The bold Bavarian, in a luckless hour,
Tries the dread summits of Caesarian pow’r,
With unexpected legions bursts away,
And sees defenceless realms receive his sway;

Here the metaphor ‘comes to violent life. “Breaks” becomes “bursts”, and strikes out, naked and powerful, because the unexpectedness of the outbreak has been transferred to the instrument, the legions’ (ibid). Well, I'm not sure that ‘breaks out’ really is so insistently present, submerged, when we read the passage, but something of the sort is going on here giving extra force to ‘bursts’ -- and in any case I appreciate Davie’s singling out of these lines with such illuminating insight (to risk a dead metaphor that if woken up would be an embarrassment) that I don’t care.

Then we have the submerged ‘stock image (corrupt politicians = foxes)’ in Gray:

Owls would have hooted in St Peter’s choir
And foxes stunk and littered in St Paul’s.

‘The metaphor comes to life because the force of it has shifted onto the verbs, those magnificently “foxy” verbs “stunk” and “littered”, both coming straight out of speech’ (p35).

This ended up not ‘illuminating’ Peake at all, but I enjoyed those memorable snatches of verse and the clarity of Davie’s analyses.

The book, of course, that all students of those plodding courses in Applied Linguistics, Discourse Analysis and the like know is Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson, 1980. Owen Barfield, 1947, quoted by Davie, got there much earlier:

‘...figurative expression is found everywhere; its roots descend very deep, as we shall see, into the nature, not only of poetry, but of language itself. If you take away from the stream of European poetry every passage of a metaphorical nature, you would reduce it to a very thin trickle indeed...’ (p27).

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Wuthering Heights in Milford Haven

The recent film of Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold) had the best representation of the Yorkshire moors I've seen. It had a powerful impact on me for the first half or two thirds, for landscape and sound, certainly, but also for characters and story. But I could have done without the rest of the story after Catherine died--the Gothic element I found, as I always do, silly--and I began to be conscious of the film’s innovative techniques as mannerisms -- too many shots at 2 cm range as if seeing something on one’s own cheek, too many scenes opening with crashing wind and rain, great though those were the first few times.

I have had the book since I don’t know when.

A good old Everyman edition.  I thought I remembered reading it but not particularly liking it and I had no intention of reading it again. But I opened it and had a look and found the narrative lively and engaging, so without quite deciding to I ended up re-reading it (if indeed I’d read it before -- my memory now can’t be trusted). And after that I came close to going straight back and reading it yet again, but as that was partly to clear up the confusion left in my mind by the two versions, film and book, I opted to start on something else.

But the cover, I noticed, inside the dust cover looked like this:

And inside the front cover was this:

Margaret Hancock was my mother. Both she and my father went to school in Milford Haven but I’d always known it was to the grammar school. So what was this ‘Intermediate School’? It turns out that well before state (i.e. local authority) grammar schools were created by law in England they’d been legal in Wales, but under the name of intermediate schools, intermediate between elementary (primary) and university or college. The Milford Haven one was renamed a grammar school at some point.

I even found an image of it, from a postcard:

I was surprised how tiny the building was, for the only such school in the town. But I knew that more prosperous families sent their boys, like my mother’s brother, to the grammar school in Haverfordwest, and it wasn’t a rich town, so few would have afforded the fees (my dad, I think, won a scholarship).

Isles of Wonder

That’s to be the theme of the Olympics opening ceremony but it strikes me that very few people in mainland Britain think of themselves on living on ‘isles’ or even, except occasionally, on an island.

How many of us have ever been to any other British isle?

Norman Davies’s big history book is called The Isles and historians sometimes refer to the British Archipelago or, I think I recall, the Western European Archipelago. Both feel odd. The cluster might be more like an archipelago if it weren’t for Ireland since an archipelago suggests a long line of islands -- like Britain and the Orkneys and Shetlands, with all the Scottish islands clearly belonging. I suppose if you think of it as an interrupted northward extension of Normandy and Britanny....

I've been totting up how many of the islands I’ve been to and I think it’s more than most people have. Yes for a start to the other big one, Ireland, though I don’t know it at all well. Otherwise, clockwise: Wight; not Scillies, not Skomer, Skokholm etc, not Lundy; Anglesea but not Man; Arran, Skye, Lewis and Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Barra; no Orkneys or Shetlands; Farne Islands, Lindisfarne. The best trip was sleeping on the deck of a Macbraynes steamer on a warm starry night from Oban to Stornaway. Time I did more of Scotland, the parts I've visited and the parts I haven’t.