metaphor approaches to literary criticism

Metaphor theory asserts that the meaning of poems is constituted by their metaphors. Analyzed along these lines, the poem does indeed seem novel and intriguing, but two questions need to be asked. Does the poem work in its own terms? And do we accept those terms: is its view of reality a convincing one? The answer in both cases is only a partial yes.


Metaphor theory has only begun to analyze poetry. Literary critics have abundantly discussed the roles of metaphor in individual poems, and often made general observations about metaphor as trope, {1} but metaphor in such studies is given a supporting role, and not regarded as something actually constituting meaning. Yet such is the suggestion of Lakoff and Johnson. {2} Metaphors reflect schemas, which are constructions of reality using the assimilation and association of sensorimotor processes to anticipate actions in the world. Schemas are plural, interconnecting in our minds to represent how we perceive, act, react and consider. Far from being mere matters of style, metaphors organize our experience, creating realities which guide our futures and reinforce interpretations. Truth is therefore truth relative to some understanding, and that understanding involves categories which emerge from our interaction with experience. Schemas are neither fixed nor uniform, but cognitive models of bodily activities prior to producing language. The cognitive models proposed by the later work of Lakoff and Johnson are tentative but very varied, the most complex being radial with multiple schema linked to a common centre. Language is characterized by symbolic models (with generative grammar an overlying, subsequent addition) and operates through propositional, image schematic, metaphoric and metonymic models. Properties are matters of relationships and prototypes. Meaning arises through embodiment in schemas. Schemas can also be regarded as containers-part-whole, link, centre-periphery, source-path-goal, up-down, front-back.

Schemas recognize the different styles of human expression. Linguistic functions are propositional and symbolic. Propositional logic uses basic-level concepts only (entities, actions, states, properties) and meaning is built with link schemas. Complex propositions are built from simple propositions by modification, quantification, conjunction, negation, etc. Scenarios are constructed of an initial state, sequence of events, and a final state structured by source-path-goal. Syntax is simply idealized cognitive models (part-whole, centre-periphery, link, container schemas). Knowledge and truth, however, are radial concepts depending on basic-level concepts and social context, these indeed being the only grounds for certainty. Objectivity is never absolute and we can only look at a problem from as many aspects as possible.

Such a view questions much of academic study. It contests the claims of philosophy or mathematics to preeminence, and places knowledge in a wider context. Meaning lies in body physiology and social activity as well as cerebral functioning. Our temperaments and experiences colour our thoughts, and the philosopher's search for contextless and indisputable truth is an impossible dream. How human beings act in practice is the crucial test, and in practice humans paraphrase according to context and need. Understanding is never complete, and specializations that would base truth on logic, mathematics, invariant relationships in the physical world or in social generalities make that understanding even less attainable. Indeed the approach is entirely misconceived. Multiplicity is what makes us human, and we live variously in conceptions that arise from the totality of our experiences — physiological and mental, private and social. Twentieth century theories which have imitated science, and looked for invariant underlying rules to art, have neglected its one essential feature. Art is a representation of the completeness of our experience (though shaped according to conventions and individual understanding) whereas science is the very opposite: abstract thought refined into inconceivable entities.

But all are valid outlooks. The popular singer and the logician may be poles apart in temperament and skills, but there exists a spectrum of activities bringing them into the human fold. We do not have to accept either the intellectual snobbery of academia, or the caricature of academics as out of touch with life. The important point is surely this: Science and the arts are slowly, very slowly, converging to give us a fuller and more comprehensive view of the world, and that view is anticipated by schema that draw no sharp line between rationality and irrationality, between thought and emotion, between the world out there and our private universes, between our mental and our bodily activities. Yes, the distinctions can be made — and indeed have to be made for practical purposes — but the distinctions represent a narrowing of conception and possibility. And though we necessarily shut off other considerations to focus on a task in hand, those considerations remain potent in memory and language. The multiplicities of our existence are represented by the ways we express ourselves, and can therefore be reenacted by artists. Nothing is very original in this observation, but by recognizing that truth lies as much in width as penetrating narrowness the way is open to a more sensible, generous and indeed scientific view of literature and the arts in general.

Science itself recognizes the shortcomings in the old attitudes. The descriptive sciences never fitted the formula well, and the social sciences failed altogether. Chaos theory destroys determinism in many areas, emphasizing the importance of the contingent and unforeseen. {3} Concepts are not necessarily the more accurate or convincing by being more precisely definable, and indeed the new object languages of computing (Java, C++, etc.) do not define classes by outside reference but by the methods and arguments they contain. {4}

And the importance of this long preamble? Metaphor theory in its various forms — and there are many forms, each contested in detail {5} — resolves some of the conflicts between Humanism and Modernism. The first may be uplifting but depends on a world view that is possibly medieval and in some parts superseded. The second is inhibitory, bleak and bogus: the bitter residue of hopes marginalized by science. The long war between the humanities and science, as between academia and commerce, has been to the detriment of both, and a good deal of art is now neither exciting or accomplished. In short, whether they provide the means to accomplish good writing or not, the new conceptions of metaphor theory, complexity and brain functioning do at least point to a ground that is more varied and all-encompassing than before.

Published Examples

There is little metaphor criticism as such. The following are introductory works on metaphor and related matters:

George Whalley's Poetic Processes (1953).

Nelson Goodman's The Languages of Art (1968).

Mary Gerhart and Allan Russel's Metaphoric Processes: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding (1984).

George Lakoff and Mark Turner's More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. (1989).

David Leary's (Ed.) Metaphors in the History of Psychology (1990).

Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The origins of Thought and Language (1996).

John Briggs and Richard Monaco's Metaphor: The Logic of Poetry, A Handbook (1990)

Metaphor and Simile Analysis

We start by noting the similes and metaphors:

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant
and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office
they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     1997

The metaphors and similes are obvious enough, and traditional or New Criticism would examine the ways they are effective — in supporting argument, setting mood, adding freshness or distinction to the poem. But the claim of metaphor theory is larger: that these tropes constitute the meaning. Let us take them in turn, not distinguishing between metaphor and simile.


  • The very word, heavily stressed and re-stressed with buildings, sets the poem in motion. Buildings have something to convey, something they can hardly contain, perhaps even larger than themselves. What? we wonder, because the poem pushes off with the colloquial remark — as you'd expect — a journalistic device — and is later referred to with So perhaps.... But the question is never answered. Clearly it has something to do with the North Sea as the building materials — concrete aggregate, silica sands — originate there. But the poem does not say that the buildings constituents give the buildings their impatience (and in what way could the constituents be Impatient?) but uses the colourless gerund having. Perhaps the constituents are indeed the reason, or perhaps that is only by the way. We don't know, and are not given time to ponder: the poem moves on to consider the physical nature of the grit and pebbles.


  • Burdensome is deployed very curiously. Ostensibly it refers to cliffs, but the associations are carried forward in overcast and obdurate to human lives. We appear in some way to be oppressed by the physicality of nature. The cliffs are higher, and this perception is burdensome, as though we were beneath them, were actually carrying them. Or the associations of the cliffs — the weight of the pebbles, the raw energy of the sea — bear down on us, a thought developed in past days overcast where the heavy stress and assonance repeat the connotations.


  • Underwritten means to agree to finance or support, to accept liability for something. In what way can overcast days support or be held liable for the cliffs? Because stormy weather created the shingle and piled up the cliffs in the first place? But underwritten is a guarantee against future actions or difficulties. Here the poem oddly seems to be saying that the cliffs and their burdensome nature will be made good by past days, and by past lives that have the grittiness of the natural world: part of the silicate of tough lives. Grit has the connotation of toughness and determination. It also suggest the word knit, which is brought to consciousness by the continual repetition of n, i, and t sounds, and by the word silicate, as we shall see. But there is something unexpected about underwritten. We could stress the physical aspects of the word and possibly regard the seashore and cliffs as supporting the overcast days. But the poem inverts the relationship. For a moment the world is turned upside down, and we are as though bowled over, caught up in the tidal energy of the first stanza. Again, and by an innocuous commercial term, we are threatened by the physicality of natural things.


  • Wet pebbles glint, and that reference is supported by the immediately following obdurate. But in fact the word refers to past days. In some way the past days poke through, but (as these days also underwrite the cliffs) that activity continues into the future. Indeed glinting is later (at the end of poem) picked up the sharp clutch of incurved glass. And since glinting implies movement, the uncomfortable physicality of nature seems ever present like a watch mechanism quietly grinding away beneath the passing of the hours.


  • As obdurate refers to past days, we should perhaps recall that the word carries overtones of impenitence, of stiffening against some moral influence. The word links the hardness of past days with the unrepentant nature of lives (part of the silicate of tough lives) as they are in fact lived. But if memory — the only way that past days live on — is rooted in or buttressed by natural processes, those processes are not placid or secure. If the lives are our lives — and we are not quite sure as the poem moves obliquely on to bureaucrats — they are fastened to things which are in motion, and very uncomfortably so.


  • Silicates are structures, often complex structures, that silicon constructs with oxygen, calcium, iron, magnesium etc. to make the rock-forming minerals. What is the silicate of tough lives, then: the structure, the basic constituents, or both? Whatever the answer, lives are again being represented in — or even transposed to — elemental and uncomfortable things. But a larger point is being made. Living creatures are constructed of carbon chains; the rocks have silicon chains. We do not ordinarily see rocks as alive as they have no metabolism to speak of, and do not reproduce. But they do have toughness, and hold themselves together strongly until worn down by the elements and refashioned by igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary processes into new rock. Is that what Impatient refers to — the North Sea hurrying them on to fulfill their own cycles of existence, relentlessly, oblivious of human needs?

distant and intricate

  • If so, note the part distant and intricate plays. At one level it refers to silicate lives, distant from human purposes but intricate in their own way. Then it links silicate lives — and by extension the whole natural world — with the remote and fussy lives of bureaucrats. The adjectives apply to both worlds, but in radically different ways. Which is the more literal application? That to the natural world, we might be tempted to say. But human lives are not more abstract or metaphoric than those arising from our study of the natural world, so that these three small words are setting aside a comfortable distinction between animate and inanimate nature. For a moment they seem a pivotal point in the poem, until we realize that distant is mapping the far edge of our consciousness: physical processes are not distant for most the poem, but things very much with us.


  • Whirring is an ambiguous word — a humming or softly clicking sounds associated with cogwheels and birds' wings. Given the physicality of the preceding lines, we would think of machinery, perhaps of the natural world going about its business behind the scenes. But whirring applies to bureaucrats, and these are let in and settled with coffee in the concrete pallets, so that the word now seems to evoke the ineffectual flutter of a profession only pushing paper about, a view developed in the fourth stanza.


  • We talk quite normally of settling someone with coffee, i.e. of putting them in one place and of making them comfortable. But settle also implies levelling the score, or of making an end of things, and both these implications are heavily underscored by concrete pallets. The fluttering bureaucrats are not quieted in the concrete tower-blocks but hemmed in, imprisoned, flattened. Indeed their very life seems to be squeezed out so that they can become disembodied spirits (these do not know it, at least do not seem to) and the fourth stanza take a curiously detached view.


  • After the raw vigour of stanza one, and the lowering nature of stanza two, stanzas four and five seem of another world altogether. At first glance vacuumed suggests no more than vacuumed-cleaned: spotlessly cloudless skies. And perhaps something of domesticity in these high-rise offices. But in fact there is no "vacuum-cleaned", or "vacuumed away". The word is vacuumed — i.e. the afternoons have been made completely empty by matters predating the poem (So perhaps...) By what? We're not told, but the effect is unsettling. We have the North Sea imagery, then a vignette of bureaucrats' lives, and now nothing at all.


  • Even the with tier upon tier of concrete like rib-bones packed above them, which would surely be an oppressive thought, seems in this context only inconsequential, sandwiched between cloudless, almost vacuumed and lightheaded with a blue airiness spinning around. And the rib-bones are above so that once again the normal order of things has been inverted.

frail relations

  • The disorientating continues. We have frail and presumably querulous relatives calling randomly through the day, without any pattern though still needing our help. The sense of importuning with which the poem ends is first struck here — unless the So perhaps... introduces the theme: certainly the rhythm changes and becomes more fluid.


  • Disorientation applies also to space. Ringing phones are notoriously difficult to source, but here the cannot get to suggests that continual thwarting of simple actions characteristic of nightmares, a theme emphasized in the increased concentration of the lines which follow. The they presumably refers to bureaucrats, and the we to the speakers of the poem, possibly architects. But note what the switch in reference is doing. When left, the they are still becoming attentive. And we are becoming so too, so that the attentive and constructing are paralleled by a pincer motion of two sets of individuals concentrating and trying to make sense of matters.


  • And the result? Somewhat incongruous. The webs of buildings are likened to whales, which have nothing to do with the earlier part of the poem (unless they simply further the North Sea imagery) but imply a total immersion in an aqueous environment. Is this acceptable? The first two stanzas were harsh and urgent; stanzas four and five became ethereal; and the sixth views buildings as great whales sealed (caulked) about us — i.e. we too are surrounded by water. But we are not drowning so much as viewing from some chamber or bathyscope. The environment is not our natural one, though, and indeed "caulk" comes from the old French "cauquer", meaning to tread or press together by force, which again asserts the previous sense of imprisonment.


  • Ostensibly, dress as means simply to give the appearance of. But the nature of caulking, and the dark grey coloration of whales, provides dress with something formalizing, making the buildings appear ordinary by the light of common day where in fact they (presumably) are very different.

pleading and flailing

  • Indeed the pleading and flailing seems to be that we shall accept them as friends, though without much confidence (flailing).


  • The object of fill is us, but the inversion of the usual syntax seems to extend to whales the placid but unbearable melodies, which is how their sonic signalling sounds to our human ears. The Us starting so abruptly therefore has the odd if momentary effect of giving us (the architects) kinship with the whales. Where they are contained by water, and cannot escape by becoming our friends, we are also immured in hinterlands of what is harsh and enclosing (incurved). And so the orotund, almost stilted fill with...Us conjures up the notion of forced-feeding, that we are held in deep hinterlands and obliged to hear calls for freedom from buildings that we have constructed. And since glass is a super-cooled liquid form of silica (pure beach-sands) we grasp that the ethereal nature of the middle stanzas were only a feint. Nature which seemed urgent and threatening in the first two stanzas has returned to entirely surround and subdue us.

Schemas: A Digression

Schemas are not metaphors, and there is enough argument over their existence, let alone their exact nature, to make schema-hunting in poems a very doubtful business. But suppose we make a little digression. Science tries to persuade us that it describes a reality independent of linguistic formulation, that a hard core of knowledge survives paraphrase. Aristotle and Plato's systems were a search for certainty, a way of distinguishing knowledge from rhetoric. Gross argues that science changed in the seventeenth century, however: truth became only the most successful argument and has today lapsed into rhetoric. Scientific truth is no more than a coherent consensus of utterances. Few would perhaps go that far, but it has proved very difficult to know what science and scientific theories really consist of. Quine, for example, believes that science is underdetermined by experience, that the edges square with perception and measurement but the interconnecting theories are self -adjusting systems of internal coherence. Vico long ago remarked that much of reasoning is vacuous — it transferred meaning from intimate, domestic surroundings to unknowns. {6} Paul Friedich supposes that metaphor is only one of many tropes, and that these are entangled with worlds external and independent of language. {7} And so on. Lakoff and Johnson's are far from being the only models, when the whole matter becomes fascinating but very contentious.

What is this poem doing? It is certainly a very odd creation. Paraphrased — i.e. transposed to everyday concepts — its notions are preposterous, unbelievable. They might be viewed as objective correlates to vague thoughts or moods, but we should be very reluctant to attribute truth or reality to them. But is the transposition valid? The poem, after all, employs some very devious and unusual strategies in trying not to make sense in any literal way. It says, in effect: follow these associations and comparisons (metaphors and similes) and you will be led to a very troubling view of the world, unusual but perhaps also compelling. You judge an Elizabethan sonnet by its accordance with a Tudor view of the world, and you must judge this from its own view too — one that feels a kinship with the natural world, and sees differences in degree rather than kind between animate and inanimate matter.

Conclusions: Suggested Improvements

Two questions need to be asked. Does the poem work in its own terms? And do we accept those terms as a valid and convincing view of the world?

Respecting the first, we should probably ask the following: —

  • Is Impatient the right word to describe nature's restless energy?

  • What does flurrying the grit....the aggregate contribute to the poem, beyond adding some local colour?

  • What exactly of past days is glinting through?

  • Do we wish the bureaucrats to seem mechanical with whirring?

  • Would not "evacuated" be better than vacuumed in this context?

  • Are the they and we sufficiently emphasized to concentrate attention?

  • Webs suggests buildings being constructed or cleaned. Is this wanted?

The second question is much more difficult to answer. Outlooks are not to be judged by originality (or schizophrenics would write better poetry) but by largeness and coherence of view. Until we saw many poems on this and similar themes we would probably suspend judgement.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.


1. George Whalley's Metaphor entry in Alex Preminger's (Ed.) The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms (1965).
2. G. Lakoff and M. Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980), G. Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (1987) and M. Johnson's The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (1987).
3. Briggs and F.D. Peat's The Turbulent Mirror (1989), and R. Lewis's Complexity (1993).
4. See any programming handbook, e.g. David Flanagan's Java in a Nutshell (1996).
5. Contributions and bibliographies of David Leary's Metaphors in the History of Psychology (1990). Also references in Andrew Goatly's The Language of Metaphors (1997).
6. James Fernadez's Introduction in his (Ed) Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology (1991).
7. Paul Friedrich's Polytropy in Fernadez 1991.

Internet Resources

1. Understanding the basics of metaphor in poetry. Garry Smith. 2002. Straightforward account of literary use: Dylan Thomas poem example.
2. Metaphor Poetry. Dynamic (flash) teaching examples.
3. Metaphor, the Crux of Poetry. Robert J McCaffery. 2000.
. Simple account.
4. Poetry and the scope of metaphor: Toward a cognitive theory of literature. Margaret H. Freeman. 1988. Outline of paper in Metaphor & Metonymy at the Crossroads.
5. Glossary of Poetic Terms. Useful definitions, examples and quotations: includes metaphor.
6. Rhetoric. Excellent site for specialists.
7. Links to Rhetorical Theory Notes. Excellent notes on and reading lists for rhetorical theory.
8. Metaphor and Meaning. William Grey. 2000. Literary use of metaphor in some depth.
9. Philosophy and Rhetoric, Argument and Exploration. Doug Brent. Oakeshott and Burke's views of rhetoric.
10. Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship: Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts. Reuven Tsur. Feb. 2000. Further dimensions of metaphor.
11. George Lakoff. Jan. 2004. Introduction to Lakoff and controversies raised.
12. Construction Grammar. Laura A. Michaelis. Introduction plus related sites listing.
13. Does Cognitive Linguistics live up to its name? Bert Peeters. Review of current work in cognitive linguistics.
14. George Lakoff: The Theory of Cognitive Models. Francis F. Steen. Apr. 1997. Critical review of Lakoff's work.
15. Thinking About Thought. Piero Scaruffi. 2001. General essay that takes metaphor theory a little further.
16. Mark Turner. Home site, with publications, etc. and links.
17. From Iser to Turner and beyond: Reception theory meets cognitive criticism. Craig A. Hamilton and Ralf Schneider. 2002. Detailed review of trends.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.