Aug. 25th, 2011

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There's currently a thread on the Magma poetry blog about imagery and it started me thinking. Metaphor is a trickier beast and needs thinking about longer, but I found I could pretty quickly identify the two similes that always come first to my mind if I'm looking for good examples.

The first is Thomas Wyatt, in the Tower and with good reason to fear for his life, praising the faithfulness of his pet falcons, who stay with him (I don't suppose they had much choice) when his friends have unanimously mislaid his address:
But they that some time liked my company,
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.

This must have had enough of an impact in his own day, but it comes as a real shock to a modern reader, as much as anything because we suddenly realise that he not only knows whereof he speaks, he has almost certainly seen it, both dead bodies and lice being a deal commoner back then. It works in other ways, notably the grim pointer to how close his own death may be, but its principal virtue for me is that it creates a sort of immediate trust on the part of the reader; you just sense, without ever having seen such a thing yourself, that he's got it right, that this happens, and the picture in the head is so immediate and striking that it takes a long time to get rid of.

The other is not from a poet at all but a politician, Daniel O'Connell's famous remark that Sir Robert Peel's smile was "like the silver plate on a coffin". I think this works partly by the surprise it creates; we expect "is like" in this context to mean "looks like" (or "sounds like", "smells like" etc), and in this case it isn't so. I suppose, stretching a point, a stiff, tight-lipped smile could be said to physically resemble a rectangular coffin-plate, but it isn't really a physical likeness we are being asked to see at all, more a likeness of function. The silver plate is the decorative, ornamental aspect on an otherwise unprepossessing and sinister object, and the comparison speaks volumes not so much about Peel's smile as his personality.

Of course I'm now wondering what the fact that both my favourite similes are so morbid says about me...

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December 2011

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