19 January, 2015Issue 27.1Critical TheoryLiterary CriticismLiterature

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Metaphors Behaving Badly

Fergus McGhee

Denis Donoghue
Harvard University Press, 2014
£18.95 (hardback)
240 pages
ISBN: 99780674430662

Discussions of metaphor tend to begin with Aristotle. Denis Donoghue, however, refuses to bend the knee. “The understanding of metaphor,” he writes, “has been inordinately governed by a few sentences that Aristotle jotted down sometime between the years 360 and 355 [BC].” Refreshingly, the philosopher doesn’t make an appearance in Metaphor for sixty or so pages, which gives a good indication of the book’s distinctive approach to the subject. Despite its bluntly definitive title, Metaphor is neither an introductory primer nor by any means comprehensive. Donoghue is a delightfully idiosyncratic guide, who complements his literary enthusiasms with adventurous critical interests. If his study suffers from a certain lack of focus (and, it has to be said, some lousy editing), it is redeemed by its verve and suggestiveness.

For Aristotle, metaphor was one of the ornaments of rhetoric, literally (or rather, metaphorically) hêdusma, “seasoning” to the meat of discourse, to be sprinkled with discretion. Aristotle’s characteristic caution extends to the composition of metaphors as well as their use. The peculiar genius of metaphor, he thought, was to perceive similarities in things dissimilar—but not too dissimilar. He scorns the far-fetched, just as Samuel Johnson would censure poetry like Donne’s, in which “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” A metaphor that oversteps the boundaries of decorum is what Johnson would call, in a term dripping with implication, a “conceit”. For Donoghue, by contrast, it is of the very essence of metaphor to be badly behaved (although he is careful to admit that most metaphors do indeed toe the Johnsonian line).

Donoghue arrives at this view by applying considerable pressure to the relation between a metaphor’s two elements. These are conventionally defined as “tenor” and “vehicle” (as in “Juliet [tenor] is the sun [vehicle]”) after the example of I.A. Richards, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) laid the groundwork for much modern thinking about metaphor. Donoghue has an ingenious metaphor of his own for thinking about this relation, which he is led to via an autobiographical excursion.

As a boy growing up in County Down, Donoghue used to stroke the syllables of Thomas Aquinas’ great Latin hymns, Panis angelicus and Adoro te devote. Like the “metaphysical” poetry Donoghue clearly admires, Aquinas’ lyrics are lush with metaphor and wordplay. He hones in on the angelic doctor’s use of the word figura: in the first hymn, the heavenly bread puts an end to figures (figuris terminum), while in the second, God is said to hide himself under figures (sub his figuris vere latitas). But Aquinas isn’t talking about rhetorical figures; by figurae he means the multitude of visible forms through which an invisible God makes himself legible. Read aright, almost everything could be found to testify to the divine, but the most prominent figurae were those Old Testament “type” figures whom the Fathers had interpreted as foreshadowing Christ, from Isaac to Moses. This is what Panis angelicus is getting at: the consecrated host, embodying the real presence of Christ, banishes such pale portents with its own blinding light, even as it fulfills their promise.

The exegetes of the early church thus endowed the events of the Old Testament with what Donoghue calls “a metaphorical destiny”. With the exception perhaps of Origen, for whom the Old Testament had to be read in the light of the New if it were to be the slightest bit worthwhile, they paid due respect to the tenor while affirming the shatteringly interruptive character of the vehicle. Metaphors of this kind have a prophetic quality, and, like prophets, tend to be considered a nuisance by sensible persons. To those of a classical disposition, they flout every principle of good taste; to Romantics like Donoghue, they are triumphs of imaginative liberty. “Metaphor,” he writes, “expresses one’s desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one’s devising.”

For Donoghue, then, metaphors are more than just clever comparisons. It is this that distinguishes them from similes, which tend to draw attention to local degrees of likeness on the reader’s behalf. If similes invite us to admire their own brilliance, there is also something limited about what they can achieve: in a simile, “each of the constituents holds its character; nothing is changed.” Metaphors both demand more of us and give us more in return. Given Donoghue’s passion for quotation, it’s a shame he couldn’t make space for Coleridge, who is better on this subject than anybody:

You feel him [Shakespeare] to be a poet, inasmuch as, for a time, he has made you one—an active creative being.

This creative participation is not a simple case of mapping correspondences from a source to a target, as cognitive linguists like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson like to insist. For one thing, as Richards pointed out, disparities between tenor and vehicle are just as operative in any metaphor as similarities. And nor is it really a question of saying “A is B”. Donoghue agrees with Northrop Frye that metaphor is not so much a matter of predication as of perspective: closing the distance between two things, not necessarily making any assertions. It means giving something “a different life, a new life.” And (again, pace the cognitivists) it goes both ways. “Interaction” is the obvious word: Donoghue prefers Donne’s splendid coinage, “interinanimation”.


Donoghue’s book, I should say, is not short of examples. They are woven into the fabric of his zigzagging narrative, and his finely-tuned close readings both instruct and delight, a depressingly rare combination. By contrast, too often the critical literature he adduces is allowed to go without comment, such that it is often difficult to tell exactly what Donoghue thinks of the point at issue. These difficulties are compounded by a general lack of historical perspective; to the extent that they are situated within wider historical and intellectual contexts, Vico and Schlegel and Paul Ricoeur might as well be contemporaries. Donoghue is further let down by some distinctly shoddy editing: at a trivial level, this manifests itself in spelling mistakes (“the philosopher Thomas Nagle”), wandering punctuation, mistitled books (“The Metaphors We Live By“) and careless tautologies (“mostly… for the most part…”). On a more serious scale, a lengthy Kafka quotation is permitted to appear twice over, while an entire paragraph of observations about Proust, which appears on page 132, is repeated verbatim on page 171. Although insignificant in themselves, collectively these lapses create an impression of haste.

To return to those elegant examples. Donoghue draws our attention to George Herbert’s ‘Prayer (I)’, noting its paratactic “procession” of metaphors, twenty-seven in all, from “the Churches banquet” to “something understood”. These figures do not depend upon resemblance: “each is a quality or power linked now to prayer, not already found there.” As the late American philosopher Max Black suggested, it often makes more sense “to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Not that Herbert’s metaphors are in the business of assertion (the poem contains no verb); they persuade by simply offering no alternative.

To many commentators, this insinuating power is evidence enough of metaphor’s fundamental shiftiness. Ideas that keep dodgy company are apt to get themselves into trouble, as the narrator of Middlemarch memorably suggests:

For we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.

Donoghue demonstrates that the narrator draws a false conclusion here: Casaubon’s fatal misprisions, he shows us, are not metaphorical but literal. He was mistaken in marrying Dorothea, but not because he thought of her as money in the bank, as his metaphor about “large drafts on his affections” implied. Indeed, if one might be indulged in a spot of good old-fashioned character criticism, the comparison seems both beneath his sensibility and beyond his wit.

Donoghue also pours cold water on the cognitivist claim that so-called “dead” metaphors insidiously condition our ways of thinking because they litter our language. If I say your argument is without foundation, it’s rather feeble to protest that if only I thought about argument as a merry dance rather than a building I might see things differently.

That said, I doubt whether metaphors are as benign as Donoghue seems to think. Indeed, they strike me as one of the deadliest instruments of malice available to language. In Great Expectations, Wemmick is described as having “such a post-office of a mouth that he had a mechanical appearance of smiling.” It’s the kind of criticism that it is simply not possible to refute, like Faulkner’s wicked description of Henry James as “one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.” If Labour lose the next election, to what extent could we attribute such an outcome to the wag who first called Miliband “Wallace”?

I wonder, too, what Donoghue would make of Worcester’s denunciation of the metaphor-drunk Harry Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I:

He apprehends a world of figures here,
But not the form of what he should attend.

Unlike Casaubon, Hotspur really does seem to lose his head in the pursuit of his own metaphors (“To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon…”) and his intoxication becomes a substitute for a serious politics. Or is his honest romanticism to be preferred to Worcester and Northumberland’s pragmatic plottings?


The impulse to be elsewhere, to escape from “the importunity of objects, things, and faces” runs deep in the motive for metaphor, argues Donoghue. This is especially so in the wilder regions of Symbolist and modernist poetry, from Rimbaud’s “slow kiss rising to the eyes of the ocean” (from Le Bateau ivre) to Hart Crane’s “adagios of islands” (from Voyages). These examples lend weight to Donoghue’s lyrical description of metaphor as “an irruption of desire, specifically the desire to transform life by reinterpreting it, giving it a different story.”

But they also contradict another of his claims, namely that “if something is possible in language, it is possible at least as a mental entity, a picture, and therefore a figure.” The dependence of metaphor upon imagery seems reasonable at first glance, and has been theorized by everyone from Aristotle to Hegel, but there is cause for scepticism. Donoghue’s remark sounds suspiciously close to an archaic conception of language in which words correspond to particular mental images, as if “uttering a word [were] like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination”, as Wittgenstein contemptuously puts it in the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Metaphors may indeed give rise to a play of images, but this isn’t always the case. What does an adagio of islands look like?

Crane’s metaphor doesn’t bow to so mundane a power as common sense. It is “scandalous to resemblance” and “indifferent to shame.” Donoghue is quoting Crane again when he says that such metaphors offer us “the thrill of ‘new thresholds, new anatomies.’” This is the exhilarating rhetoric of a high Romantic, a Shelley, for whom poetry “creates anew the universe”. In Thieves of Fire (1973), Donoghue had written about the Promethean imagination that “does not allow objects to assert themselves or to hold out for their right”, and we might well expect the man who wrote the book on Walter Pater (Walter Pater, 1995) to sympathize. Indeed, although he does not make the reference, Donoghue’s conception of metaphor corresponds closely to Pater’s definition of Romanticism: the pursuit of “a strange beauty, to be won, by strong imagination, out of things unlikely or remote.”

Yet Donoghue’s romance with metaphor ends with what he calls “blank failure”. Wallace Stevens’ late poem ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ is the occasion of this breakdown. Stevens strikes a Worcesterish pose as he defines that motive as a matter of “shrinking from / The weight of primary noon, / The ABC of being.” As Donoghue says, had he written nothing else we might have taken him for a “sturdy realist” (though even here his language betrays him: what would Johnson have made of “the weight of primary noon”, one wonders?) Like Stevens, Donoghue has always been acutely conscious that there is a cost to asserting one’s own imagination. Or to put it another way, metaphors have the faults of their virtues, just like the rest of us. On a bad day, the desire to transform the world can look awfully like an attempt to run away from it. In his 1968 book The Ordinary Universe, Donoghue envisaged a perpetual rivalry between “Supreme Fictions” and “Ordinary Things”. The secret is they depend on each other. The romance of idealism, as well as its weakness, is precisely that it goes too far. Metaphor, our revolutionary hero, may be doomed to a “noble defeat”, but what could be more irresistible?

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.