Creating beautifully crafted images with impactful messages, the metaphor is mundane, found in everyday speech, and poetic. The ubiquitousness of metaphor may make this literary device seem simple, but it is a rather complex concept. Although the study of metaphor is extensive, we explore a small portion to better understand and appreciate this staple poetic tool.
Metaphor as a form of knowing
Metaphor compares one thing to another without the use of like or as, which is used in similes. A metaphor is composed of two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the abstract concept while the vehicle is the concrete image to which the idea is compared. However, a closer look at metaphors, even in everyday language, allows us to see that metaphors are complex relations between two images that require an equally complex thought process.
For example, the idiom “life is a journey” happens to also be a metaphor, which appears like a simple statement. However, we can break down this phrase and take a moment to understand the process, which will dissect how metaphors function. In I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, James Geary explains that metaphor is:
Derived from the Greek roots meta (over, across, or beyond) and phor (to carry), the literal meaning of metaphor is “to carry across.” A metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target. Rhetoricians throughout history have recognized metaphors as linguistic hand-me-downs, meanings passed on from an old word to a new thing. (26)
Looking at our examples, if we follow Aristotle’s math for metaphors, as Geary illustrates, we know that life “equals” journey. The complexity of this comparison happens the moment we think about all the details and descriptions we know about a journey, a word that is grounded in lived experiences of road trips, a trip to grandma’s house, or Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. We also start thinking about how these descriptions apply to the concept of life.
As a result, the meaning of life is redefined by the metaphor’s vehicle, the journey. We know that a journey is a process, anything can happen along the way to a destination (e.g. a lot of unknowns), there are roads we may know and others we don’t (e.g. detours), and a journey can mean exploration and discovery. It is important to note that we should be selective and not bother with unnecessary information; for example, we do not have to think about what color the road signs are as we explore this metaphor.
In the use of metaphors, we find the shortcomings of language. The phrase “life is a journey” speaks to this limitation. To express the profound significance of living in the moment and enjoying life as it develops is difficult. We borrow knowledge from another word or object we already know. We use concrete examples and images that help us understand the abstract. Whether it is an idea or an emotion, metaphors use concrete examples we already know and understand as a tool, while transcending the knowledge conferred by the vehicle. We then end up with the following: