The Essence of Language: Metaphorically Speaking

By Heaney, Liam F. | Contemporary Review, June 1995 | Go to article overview

The Essence of Language: Metaphorically Speaking


Heaney, Liam F., Contemporary Review


Following a local 'ideal home' exhibition, which attracted thousands of visitors, a close friend suggested that the police and traffic wardens were having a field day giving tickets to illegally parked motorists. The phrase 'having a field day' was cleverly chosen given its various meanings and associations. It conjures up notions of outdoors, of excitement, of planned manoeuvres and dare one say, it creates an image of authority expressing or asserting its power with a certain pleasure, triumph and glee. In other words, the phrase or analogy extends one's range of thinking, over and above the mere fact that parking tickets were being issued to scores of motorists, an event which is perhaps mundane or even commonplace. This is one example, but analogies and comparisons are part of our everyday language. They add meaning, variety and a richness to language. Arguably, the most important means whereby we extend our understanding of everyday life is through metaphor, and our everyday speech is full of metaphor.

Clearly then, metaphor is more than a literary device. It is fundamental to our capacity to give meaning to and to deal with the complex world around us. Metaphor gives us new insights into one idea or concept by comparing it with another. For example, 'the evening of one's life', 'food for thought' and 'time is money' not only change but extend our understanding of these ideas. Language is enriched by metaphor. We talk about 'the pendulum swing of cultural changes', about 'the light at the end of the tunnel' and about 'climbing the ladder of success'. We talk about being 'undermined', about 'going downhill' and about being 'stumped'. We talk about 'falling in' and 'falling out' of love. In times of adversity we talk about 'weathering the storm' and putting things away for 'a rainy day'. Indeed, every aspect of human endeavour has a plethora of metaphors that are regularly used to explain and extend our understanding of that activity.

Shakespeare's much quoted words from As You Like It, 'all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players', lends support to the idea that metaphor is a powerful literary device which is often used to explore profound philosophical issues. In this case, the world is very much presented as a physical reality, as a universe of material objects existing independently of us, of man as observer and at the same time a participant of this reality.

In literature metaphor is used extensively to enhance meaning. For example, the works of D. H. Lawrence, William Golding, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and John Banville, to name but a select few, use metaphor with engaging effect in their novels. For example, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, the central character of the novel, struggles with language and artistic creativity. Indeed, as Richard Ellmann reminds us, this particular novel is 'in fact about the gestation of a soul, and in the metaphor Joyce found his new principle of order'. Each chapter of the novel documents the development of the soul, as it responds only to the most primitive sensory impressions, in the initial stages, to the stage when its development is completed and it is released from its confinement. In the course of this gestation, the metaphor of swimming is replaced with that of flight. Stephen confirms that the artist is 'like the God of the creation', remaining 'within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, paring his fingernails'. Furthermore, the making or creation of literature is referred to by Stephen as 'the phenomenon of artistic conception, artistic gestation and artistic reproduction' and at a later stage he points out that 'In the virgin womb of the imagination the word is made flesh'. Stephen as artist, must 'go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. …

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