Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Metaphor

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how metaphors have the power to "fuse fact and fancy."

The word metaphor comes from the Greek metapherein, "carry over"; transfer is a synonym with Latin roots. All writing may be called metaphor, because writing transfers life into word. Once we agree that life may be fairly described with words — house, horse, walking, talking — we can use words as metaphors of reality to convey our experience to others.

If we call every word a metaphor, however, we reduce metaphor to a label. And if all we could do was to put these metaphors in fact-by-fact sequence, our writing would be stymied by its labeling limit, and its descriptions of the world would remain as flat as the paper it's printed on.

Instead, writing leaps the labeling limit by applying the power of metaphor to itself. If metaphor can make words equivalent to facts, metaphor can make words, which are facts, equivalent to each other. For example, the immortal metaphor Shakespeare gives to Romeo:

Juliet is the sun.

This sentence is inaccurate labeling. If honest John rewrote it, he'd write, "Betty is a woman." Tricky Shakespeare, in contrast, uses the freedom to switch labels that comes with labeling and challenges us to contemplate a fascinating riddle:


We read the sentence, hear the resonances of both words, and try to equate them. If we agree with Romeo — yes, a woman can be the sun to her lover — Shakespeare has successfully carried the resonance of one word over into the resonance of another. That is metaphor more precisely defined: the power to transfer resonance word-to-word by equating different words in a sentence.

Metaphors pop up everywhere in writing. Similes are metaphors qualified by "like" or "as." Raymond Chandler often writes a simile per sentence:

The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. —The Big Sleep

Proverbs are metaphors that convey good ideas in graphic images: "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." Parables are extended similes that let us glimpse great truths in homespun words:

The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches. —St. Matthew 13; 31-2

Fairy tales and fables use metaphor's magic to change frogs into princes and pumpkins into golden carriages. Allegory, metaphor's most complex form, combines fable's fanciful transfers with parable's moral power. John Bunyan interweaves countless metaphors in his great allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, creating a dreamlike landscape of Delectable Mountains and Doubting Castles, populated by virtues and vices in human shapes. His magnificent fiend, Apollyon, is a patchwork quilt of similes:

Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales like a fish (and they were his pride); he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.

In all its forms metaphor works the same way: equating two words equates two points of view on life. Multiple metaphors like Bunyan's present a dizzying number of viewpoints, but unadorned classics like "Juliet is the sun" show the two-way effect plainly. Since any two words may be equated, metaphor allows a writer to make freeform connections between disparate experiences. "Talking to John," Betty could be "sitting on top of the world" or "down in the dumps," "as excited as a kid on Christmas morning" or "as lonely as a woman lost in a crowd." In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte uses metaphor to put human forms on the heavens —

She broke forth as never moon had yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon but a white human form shone forth in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward.

— and to put animal forms on humans:

I compared him with Mr. Rochester... the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon: between a meek sheep and the rough-coated keen-eyed dog, its guardian.

Metaphor's many viewpoints boil down to two: fact and fancy. One side of the equation labels experience correctly; the other side switches the label to describe the same experience as sensed by the imagination. In one pan of metaphor's scale Juliet is the woman herself; in the other, she is the sun Romeo sees in his mind's eye. Which is she more truly, woman or sun? Metaphor balances the two and declares she is truly both.

This ability to fuse fact and fancy makes metaphor a principal technique we can use to recreate three-dimensional life on two dimensional paper. Metaphor acts as writing's parallax, the two-sided vision of our eyes which, when resolved by the brain, creates our picture of the spacious world. As a navigator can triangulate the position of a ship far at sea by viewing it from two separate points along the shore, a writer can use the twin perspectives of metaphor to triangulate life. The factual view complements the fanciful with the firmness of logic, the fanciful complements the factual with the flexibility of imagination. Together, the two give us the ability to render life word-by-word on a flat surface and at the same time convey its incalculable depths. Or, as Bunyan writes in yet another metaphor:

My dark and cloudy words they do but hold
The truth, as cabinets inclose the gold.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 21st 2010, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I really like the idea that metaphors provide written pieces a stereoscopic power and dimension. To me, another analogy is, actually, stereo audio. Two speakers provide a third dimention of space that simply cannot be perceived with a mono source. Just like stero music reproduction,metaphors provide the "the and right channels" that allow us to experience the written word just as we do stereo audio. Good stuff, and you've given me a new meta-metaphor to contemplate when writing!
Thursday January 21st 2010, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Very nice!
Thursday January 21st 2010, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Graeme R.
I remember a quote from Robert Frost to the effect that he had given many talks on poetry, and that they all involved, "To say one thing and mean another." Lydon does a fascinating job of revealing some of how this works. Bravo!

I've enjoyed John Briggs and Richard Monaco's METAPHOR: THE LOGIC OF POETRY, which at 290 pp. is obviously pretty thorough. But this essay nets the butterfly and lets the reader view the living thing briefly without having to review a whole labeled collection.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
Wow! I really enjoyed that. Very well written and superb examples. Thank you.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Abigail W.
"...this essay nets the butterfly and lets the reader view the living thing briefly without having to review a whole labeled collection." Wonderfully put, for a gem of an article.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 4:07 PM
Comment by: LeanneF (Winnipeg Canada)
Brilliant! I definitely learned something today. Thank-you for that. I'm writing a story that's built entirely on metaphor and I will definitely refer to this article.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Bryce S. (Niceville, FL)
In my 76 years, I've read no better description of metaphor.
Friday January 22nd 2010, 4:11 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
A beautifully written article, flowing from its first sentence to its last, something I so much enjoy. Your idea of using parallax as another metaphor, made me somehow see the very distance (so small) between the two physical human eyes extending so much in space until one was reaching the life giving star itself, creating in my mind the imagine of a splendid monster (what we sometimes call monstre sacré) to behold (one eye representing and seeing “being”, and the other eye representing and seeing “Being”; being/Being, Phenomenal/ noumenal, conscious/subconscious). And the very mention of the word parallax in relation to metaphor, made me try to find out more about it in this role, which I did when I found out that this metaphor is also used by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his book The Parallax View, a book I have not read, as I just learned about its existence (thanks to your use of the word parallax in your beautiful article), but I could read some of its pages on the site below: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10762

And particularly one passage from this book (quoted below),

"The philosophical twist to be added ((to parallax)), of course, is that the observed distance is not simply subjective, since the same object which exists 'out there' is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently mediated so that an 'epistemological' shift in the subject's point of view always reflects an ontological shift in the object itself.”

seemed to me very interesting as it leads us to understand metaphor in connection to relation, perception, epistemology and ontology.

As the observed distance is not subjective, since the same object (in its extended sense, including a human being) 'out there' is seen from two points of view, in what way can we explain that a knowledge shift in the subject’s point of view reflects a shift in the nature of the being of the object itself?
I can only think that a shift in the nature of the being of the object itself would occur because its relation to the subject changes due to shift in the subject’s point of view. That is to say that if subject and object are inherently mediated, by a relation that exists between the two, then a relation change leads to a change of perception and vice versa, creating both epistemological and ontological shifts in both subject and object. In this way, I think, also a metaphor can be seen as a particular case, a product of such a process.
Sunday January 24th 2010, 1:46 PM
Comment by: Joy S. (Kingman, AZ)
The metaphor as written has expanded my understanding of beauty and substance. Congering a picture of fact in a beauty that stirs my immagination. Great!
Monday January 25th 2010, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
A very revealing article! But that hardly sums up all that can be gleaned from his field. Nicely done.
Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
This reminds me of the words to an old old commercial--"Calgon, take me away". Mr. Lyndon's words did just that-- I was transported someplace else, as I read every word here. This place was peaceful, yet stimulating. I felt euphoric and did not want the sensation or article to end. Now I will have to find myself a wonderful book so it can continue to "take me away".
Saturday February 6th 2010, 5:40 AM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
This morning as I come to what I hope is the end of my second book which has been a long time coming.your essay inspires me to keep on keeping on.

Thank you.

Mary Lou Shields

"Sea Run:Surviving My Mother's Madness" (Seaview Books,NY, 1981)

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The Art of Phrasing
Michael Lydon takes us on a tour of phrasing, one of writing's most ingenious tools.
Bob Greenman explains how students can use similes to enliven their prose.