By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A simile is a literary device whereby you liken one thing to another, using the word like or as. Sometimes we use similes in everyday language: describing someone as being as sick as a parrot, for instance.
But sometimes a poet finds a simile too weak for their purposes. After all, by likening one thing to another thing using the actual term like (or as), you’re also acknowledging that the two things are separate and different – otherwise you wouldn’t need to draw them together via the simile.
A metaphor is more direct and does without such weak terms as like or as. Instead of saying someone’s heart is as hard and cold as a stone, you could simply say they have a heart of stone. You can immediately see the difference: a metaphor acts as though the two things are literally the same for literary or rhetorical effect.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …
Strictly, this poem gives us an extended metaphor, rather than a simile, because Shakespeare doesn’t use the word ‘like’ or ‘as’. He does, however, begin with a rhetorical flourish which shows he is comparing two things.
In this poem, the most famous of all the Sonnets written by Shakespeare (probably in the early to mid-1590s), the poet likens the addressee of the poem – a young man – to a summer’s day.
Although he begins by signalling that he is making a comparison, by the end of the poem, he has collapsed any distinction between the Fair Youth and the beauty of summer: ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade …’
2. John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
John Donne (1572-1631) pioneered a new kind of poetry, which would later be branded ‘metaphysical poetry’. Metaphysical poets like Donne didn’t just use metaphors: they took them and stretched them almost to breaking point, developing them over whole stanzas, or even whole poems.
The extended metaphor with which Donne closes ‘The Sun Rising’ – he and his beloved are the whole world because nothing else matters to them as long as they’re in love, so the sun cannot be partnered with the world because Donne and his lover are the world – is unfolded deftly and to great effect. Who hasn’t felt like that when in love?
3. William Blake, ‘The Sick Rose’.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
This short lyric was published in William Blake’s Songs of Experience in 1794. The poem remains a baffling one, with Blake’s precise meaning difficult to ascertain.
How we interpret the meaning of ‘The Sick Rose’ depends largely on how we choose to analyse the poem’s two central metaphors: the rose and the worm. It is possible to see the worm as a symbol of death, given that worms are associated with decay and are commonly said to feed upon the dead (we are ‘food for worms’ in our graves). Roses, meanwhile, often symbolise love, beauty, and the passions.
But the beauty of Blake’s metaphors is that they invite numerous meanings, as we explore in our analysis of the poem (available above via the link to the poem itself).
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Fame is a Bee’.
Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.
This brief four-line poem from Dickinson, whose work is filled with arresting metaphors, begins with a simple enough statement. But how is fame ‘a bee’?
The succeeding three lines develop this idea: like a bee, fame has a beautiful song, it can be a transformative and magical experience; but it carries a sting, too, because the famous can so easily find themselves shunned by their former fans; and it can transport us to other places, making ordinary people extraordinary.
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘Shut Out’.
The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green …
This poem’s central image – a garden from which the speaker has been ‘shut out’ – functions as a metaphor for those things which we have lost: things which attain a status which far exceeds their actual value, by virtue of being lost. We want the things we cannot have, and – equally – we long to regain the things which have been taken from us
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there …
In this joyous sonnet from one of Victorian poetry’s greatest innovators, the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) offers us numerous metaphors for the windhover (that is, the kestrel) in flight: the ‘minion’ of morning, the ‘dauphin’ or prince of the kingdom of daylight, a horseman or chevalier, and even, ultimately, Jesus Christ.
7. H. D., ‘Oread’.
The imagists, a short-lived Anglo-American movement which flourished in London around the time of the First World War, loved metaphors, because they believed in directness of expression and put the image at the heart of their poetry.
In this brief poem, H. D. takes metaphor a stage further, by bringing two things together – the trees and the ocean – so completely that they effectively change places. Is the oread (mountain nymph) calling for the ‘sea’ of pine trees to ‘wash’ over her rocks, or is she calling for the pine-coloured (literal) sea to splash over the mountains?
This poem enacts something which H. D.’s fellow imagist Ezra Pound called superposition, where one image is laid over another.
8. Ted Hughes, ‘The Thought-Fox’.
This is one of the most famous poems by Ted Hughes (1930-98). It is also one of the most famous poetic accounts of the act of writing poetry, or rather, more accurately, trying to write poetry and the arrival of inspiration.
Hughes uses the fox as a metaphor for the arrival of such poetic inspiration: the creature appears inside the poet’s imagination with its ‘sudden sharp hot stink’, and its pawprints across the snow enable the poem’s words to be ‘printed’ across the page.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘Metaphors’.
Given the focus of this post is examples of metaphors in poetry, the inclusion of a poem called ‘Metaphors’ seems appropriate enough. Plath (1932-63) often wrote about motherhood, and ‘Metaphors’ is an almost meta-poetic exploration of pregnancy and the poet’s quest to capture this experience through metaphor, that stock-in-trade of poetic language.
Some of the metaphors are more logical and easily suggested than others, such as the loaf of bread rising like an expectant mother’s belly. Others, like the coin-purse filled with new-minted money, are perhaps more surprising.
10. Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.
‘Coal’ is a 1968 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92). Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’
In this cleverly constructed poem, coal is a metaphor for blackness (or Blackness: Lorde moves from the lower-case ‘black’ of the coal to the capitalised identity, ‘I am Black’, between the beginning and end of the poem). But carbon, which makes coal, also creates diamond if enough pressure is applied.
From this central metaphor, Lorde develops other images: the metaphor of diamond on window panes summons the power of writing, for instance (‘cutting’ words, at that: diamond is hard enough to score the surface of glass). A poem that is almost metaphysical in its use of metaphor, linked to the Civil Rights movement.