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Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Poetry and metaphors

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In English poetry this is possibly one of the most famous metaphors of all time used by none other than the National Poet, William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 18.

However, metaphors in literature (not just English literature) can be traced as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an ancient poem from Mesopotmia (present day Iraq) and which historians have dated to the eighteenth or seventeenth century BC.

So…what is a metaphor?

One of the very first definitions of the term ‘metaphor’ is found in Aristotle’s Poetics, dating back to 335 BC, where he describes this figure of speech in the following way:
“Metaphor is the application of a strange term either transferred from the genus and applied to the species or from the species and applied to the genus, or from one species to another or else by analogy.”
Still…WHAT is a metaphor?
Needless to say, for the sake of our sanity, it is imperative that we try to simplify this quote above; and as a teacher, I firmly believe that the best way to do so is to give an example. Then we can work our way backwards to the definition. The example I am going to use is the poem Tranquility by StarFields (Dr. Silvia Hartmann), and this is how it goes.

Time slides
a gentle ocean
waves upon waves,
washing the shore,
loving the shore.

The first two verses of this short poem immediately and clearly compare time to an ocean. In the remaining part of the poem Hartmann continues to conjure up the image of the ocean by using words such as ‘waves’ and ‘shore’.
At this point, the question arises automatically – ‘Is time really an ocean?’ The answer is simply, NO. That is exactly what a metaphor is – a situation (generally a literary situation) in which the unfamiliar is expressed in terms of the familiar.

Why are metaphors used?

To answer this question I am going to ask you to read the poem above again, slowly, and then answer the following questions one you finish.

  1. Can you see that ocean?
  2. Can you feel the slow rhythm of the waves?
  3. Can you feel calmness and tranquility?
  4. Do you understand the term tranquility better now?
If your answer to the last three questions was YES, then you can say that you have experienced a metaphor. This is a tool which writers use in order to involve their readers more, by making them FEEL as opposed to helping them to UNDERSTAND things. In other words, when metaphors are involved, the meaning in that particular piece of writing goes far beyond the words of the text.

Examples of metaphors which are used in everyday English

  1. My brother was boiling mad.
    This implies he was very, very angry.
  2. The assignment was a breeze.
    This implies that the assignment was very easy to do.
  3. It’s going to be clear skies from now on.
    This implies that clear skies are not a threat
  4. The skies of his future began to darken.
    Darkness is a threat; therefore, this implies that something negative will probably happen to him.
  5. Her voice is music to his ears.
    This implies that he feels happy each time he hears her voice.
  6. Thoughts are a storm, unexpected.
    In the same way in which storms are unpredictable, so are thoughts – they come when you least expect them to.
  7. Life is a journey.
    This implies that in life there are always going to be ups and downs, challenges, moments of success and moments of failure…just like a journey.
  8. Choices are crossroads.
    When you are at a crossroad you have different paths in front of you, all of which lead you to a different place. It is up to you to choose the best one, depending on your destination.
  9. You’ve given me something to chew on.
    This implies that you’ve given me something to think about.
  10. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
    In literature seasons are often used as metaphors of the different stages in life – summer is youth.

So what is the difference between a metaphor and a simile?

Let us look at these few examples, which will hopefully help to illustrate this difference clearly.

  1. Life is a journey.
  2. Life is like a journey.
  3. Life is as eventful as a journey.
As stated in the previous section, the first example is the metaphor, whereas the second and third examples are both similes. One simple way of remembering the distinction is to bear in mind that a simile generally includes like or as, whilst in the case of a metaphor the writer says that something actually IS something else.
In mathematical terms here’s how one can describe it:
Metaphor: Something IS EQUAL TO something else.
Simile: Something is APPROXIMATELY EQUAL to something else.