Shall I compare thee….? Similes and Metaphors

The metaphor is a shorter simile, or rather a kind of magical coat, by which the same idea assumes a thousand different appearances.

Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Poetry Distinguished from Other Writing’, Essays, no. 16

I don’t know about you, but one of the bugbears of my later school and early university years was the unpleasant task of literary critical analysis. All that sterile dissection of imagery, metaphor, simile, allegory—slicing away at a poem, or indeed any piece of poetic literature, to expose its innards and put them on show [metaphor]—it felt like an act of desecration. I was reminded of the frogs I had also been forced to dissect in science class in school: the process was not dissimilar [analogy]. Dead things splayed out, the barely-disguised stench of decomposition and me, standing over them with my scalpel (metaphorical or otherwise) like a reluctant executioner troubled by the demands of his work [simile].

Yes, in case you haven’t guessed it by now, today’s post is about those wonderful comparative figures of speech available to all writers: metaphors, similes, analogies and allegories.

George Eliot lamented in The Mill on the Floss that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else. And yet surely language would be deadly dull without such comparisons. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the act of comparing things— that bringing together of connections—that helps us to understand and describe not only the world around us, but also our emotions and our experience of things and how they impact on our consciousness. If that all sounds a little esoteric, look at it this way: think of phrases such as ‘drowning in paperwork’, ‘going through something with a fine-tooth comb’, ‘sly as a fox’, ‘not the sharpest tool in the tool box’. The fact is, we all use metaphors and similes in our daily speech. As G.K. Chesterton said, All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.’ So you don’t have to be writing poetry or high-brow literary fiction to spice up your prose with a few well-chosen comparatives.

Let’s take a closer look at our comparison options:

Simile: uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare one thing with another thing so as to make a description more vivid—‘as cunning as a fox’.

Metaphor: compares two things directly by stating that one thing is the other (symbolically, not literally)—’All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;’ W Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.

Analogy: compares two different things with multiple common characteristics to point out their similarities, for example, comparing ant or bee colonies with human society (or the process of dissection of a poem with the dissection of a frog).

Allegory: a story ostensibly about one thing, but meaning another—George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an allegory for the terror and repression of the Stalinist regime in the early twentieth century Soviet Union.

So, what is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

A metaphor is more direct and deals with the essence of the something: the heart of the matter (which is a metaphor in itself). With a simile, the two things remain separate—a man’s cunning may be comparable to that of the fox, but the fox and the man remain two separate things. With a metaphor, the man becomes the fox, taking on all its attributes of cunning and general ‘foxiness’—they are no longer two separate entities. Equally, an analogy can contain metaphors within it, but it doesn’t claim that the two separate things are the same thing: for a metaphor, the poem and the frog become one thing (the thing that has innards to be exposed), in an analogy, the poem and the frog remain separate points of reference to allow us examine the similarities in the way they can be dissected.

Finally, a word of warning: metaphors and similes can indeed be ‘magical coats’ lending your prose richness, depth, colour and meaning, but, as you’ve also probably noticed by now, many of the metaphors in daily use are also stock phrases and clichés, so be careful how you use them. For helpful hints on the use of similes and clichés check out my earlier posts here and here.