Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210



Metaphor and Imagination

Research in the cognitive sciences over the last twenty years has shown us that metaphor is more than a fancy language device used by poets; it is, in fact, the main way in which our mind works. That is, when we interpret things, when we make comparisons, we do it with metaphors. (The following examples and material are taken from the work on metaphorical cognition done by the three leading researchers in this field- George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner.) 

               Let's start with-

These are all fairly common metaphors which we use to make meaning out of life, love, ideas, or time. And because we understand through these metaphors, we also talk about these things within the metaphor. 

Life is a Journey

"He has been absolutely lost since his dog died."
"Going to school helped her find herself."
"Her goal (destination) in life is to get her Ph.D.."
"As we go through life, I hope we'll always be friends."
"He just doesn't seem to be going anywhere in life."
"You're on the right path now."

Love is War

"She is just another one of his conquests."
"They fought over her for months, but
in the end her old boyfriend won out."
"She fled from his advances."
"He won her hand in marriage."
"He made an ally of her mother."

Ideas are Food

"His remarks left a bad taste in my mouth."
"I can't digest all these ideas at once."
"Now there's an idea you can sink your teeth into."
  "He expected us to swallow his claims about the new product."
"Well, now, there's food for thought."

Time is Money

"He is obviously wasting his time on that."
"I make $6.50 an hour at my new job."
"His crackpot schemes aren't worth my time."
"Let's spend a little time together this weekend."
"When we cash in at the end of our lives....."

The examples we have just read through were a combination of general structural metaphors (Life is a Journey, Time is Money, etc.) and everyday language versions of those metaphors (Her goal in life, Let's spend time together, etc.). The general structural metaphors are those metaphorical concepts which help us to make sense out of the world around us. Because they are necessary to help us understand things, it is only natural that our language would reflect those understandings through what are known as speech formulas

 We make sense out of what goes on around us by thinking metaphorically. We understand what time is, at least in our culture, by thinking of it in terms of a thing, a commodity, say like money. By thinking of it this way, we can quantify it (count it), give it a value, make it serve a purpose, and keep track of how much is needed to accomplish the purpose. In other words, even if we used a different metaphor, we would still need a metaphor in order to have some kind of structure with which to think about time. And this is true of all aspects of life. We understand one thing by comparing it to something else we already know. 

Now that we have seen that much of our everyday speech is metaphorical, it is time to talk about where these metaphors came from in the first place. Simply put, many of our everyday speech metaphors come from poems. Of course, it also works the other way around--often everyday metaphors spark a poet to create a poem around the metaphor. Regardless, if we want to study everyday metaphors we must study poetry--and if we want to study poetry we must study metaphors. Here is an example of a typical poetic metaphor--

Love is a rose

I have stripped the metaphor down to its main elements to demonstrate how metaphors work. How we understand the first term--love--is influenced by what we know about the second term--rose.  But not everyone has the same understandings of roses. For example, if you raise roses then you will understand love to need care, nurturing, cultivation, and so on. But if all you know about roses is that they are expensive to give to someone then you will think of love as something which can be "bought" or gotten in return for something.  (And what does it mean that you can now buy roses at the local gas staion?)

OK, with that brief introduction to metaphors, let's look at another poem by Richard Wilbur. (Hint--besides the metaphorical images, this poem is also one big metaphor. Can you "see" it? To help you, I have included Van Gogh's painting Field with Birds.)

Van Gogh



An Event

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,            line 1
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent 
On the far south, convene at some command 
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone 
With headlong and unanimous consent 
From the pale trees and fields they settled on. 

What is an individual thing? They roll                     line 7
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky! 
Or so I give their image to my soul 
Until, as if refusing to be caught 
In any singular vision of my eye 
Or in the nets and cages of my thought, 

They tower up, shatter, and madden space            line 13
With their divergences, are each alone 
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place 
Shaping these images to make them stay: 
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own, 
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away. 

Delighted with myself and with the birds,                 line 19
I set them down and give them leave to be. 
It is by words and the defeat of words, 
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt, 
That for a flying moment one may see 
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt. 


Questions, always questions....

In order to answer the questions below, I need you to--

  1. Read the poem again--by the way, all poems should be read twice! Think about the first stanza in terms of what the last stanza was about, especially the last four lines.
  2. Next, go and listen again to one or two of the sound files by our guests given to you in the Lecture Notes.
  3. Then come back and answer these questions.
    • What do you think lines 9, 16, 20, and 21 refer to?
    • When you went back and re-read the poem or listened to it again, what did you see when you read/heard the first line?
    • The first stanza puts the reader in the scene with the birds. Where does the last stanza put the reader? 

These are tricky questions.

  • The first one was meant to draw your attention to the fact that Wilbur is actually discussing how to write poetry, not just describing how birds act. He is demonstrating how to write a poem about birds by writing a poem about birds. 
  • The second question was to help you understand that poems loop around on themselves. To really understand the first part of the poem you must read the whole thing and then go back. In this case, we realize that the first line is not just an interesting way of describing the birds (a visual metaphor for how they fly) but a metaphor for writing a poem. 
  • Finally, the third question was meant to help you understand that poems "take place" somewhere. The first stanza of the poem takes place "in scene," that is, you are present in the fields with the birds. But the last stanza takes place in the author's mind. The author is thinking about what he has just done--that is, write a poem. Therefore, the poem itself is one big metaphor for writing poetry!! (Where are you in the other two stanzas?)

If you didn't get all that out of reading the poem twice or hearing it, don't worry. I have studied this poem for years. But now go back and reread it a third time with this information in mind. Also, read it aloud. Finally, try to really "see" the images that are in the poem. 

I would also suggest that you go back and read Wilbur's Museum Piece again with these ideas in mind. Let your imagination take over and really see the images.



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