Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Metaphor

METAPHOR

A metaphor happens when one image suggests another without using the word ‘like’. The best metaphor is a mere hint. It suggests the companion image with a single word. Metaphor should trust us, allowing our imagination to see how metaphor works like a flash of touching wires. R.S. Thomas, in a poem about the cruelty of nature, writes of the stoat sipping from ‘the brimming rabbit’. One word, ‘brimming’, turns the rabbit into a vessel full of blood set before the stoat. It’s a wonderful metaphor, shocking and exciting.

Metaphor is used every day in spoken English, so no wonder poets use it without even thinking about it. Time flies. Snowdrops peep. Rain dances. You’re burning with rage. In fact, time has no wings, snowdrops have no eyes, rain has no feet, and you have a feeling inside you, not a fire. The thrilling thing about metaphor is that it fills ordinary language with colour, it haunts the way we talk, illuminates plain fact, and is the interesting part of everyday story telling. In contemporary poetry, it is one of the most commonly used poetry devices.

In his poem At a Potato Digging, Seamus Heaney sees the field as a sea. The diggers return ‘to fish a new load from the crumbled surf.’ The earth is also ‘the black mother’, and ‘a seasonal altar’. In Follower, too, Heaney suggests the field is a sea with words like ‘wake’ for the mark the plough leaves behind. In Mid-Term Break the body of his little brother is ‘wearing a poppy bruise’. Frogs are ‘mud grenades’ in Death of a Naturalist.

I, (Gillian Clarke), think of the hospital in which Catrin was born as ‘the glass tank’, the umbilical cord as the ‘red rope of love’, and later as ‘that old rope’. In On the Train, the burning carriage of the crashed train becomes ‘the blazing bone-ship’, like a funeral ship in which the ancient Celts might place the body of a dead hero before setting the boat on fire and launching it on the sea. In The Field Mouse, the ‘long grass is a snare drum.’

In Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Anne Hathaway, (William Shakespeare’s widow) the couple’s bed was ‘a spinning world’, ‘words were shooting stars’, and the widow still holds her dead husband in the ‘casket’ of her head. In lines 5-9, there is a beautiful extended metaphor where their bed was a page where the lovers ‘rhyme’, Anne Hathaway’s body was ‘now echo, assonance’, and her husband’s touch was ‘a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.’ 

Simon Armitage writes of ‘the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors’ in the new house his mother is helping him to measure. In the poem beginning ‘I’ve made out a will’, he has metaphors for the whole human body. Blood is ‘a gallon exactly of bilberry soup’, the brain is a ‘loaf’, the rib-cage ‘a cathedral of bone’, the heart a ‘pendulum’.