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).


paulineknit said...

I have not been following your Blog for long but am compelled to say that you always write such interesting things. Most enjoyable.

Pete Medway said...

Thank you, Pauline! sorry it's so intermittent. (All depends on how much writing I'm having to do for my work at the time.)