Metaphor is one of the key pillars of knowledge in English. Whether we are creating them or encountering them, metaphors highlight the interconnectedness of ideas and experiences. Fundamentally, metaphors are devices which convey information about something by linking it to something else.
The thing being described, the tenor, is described by being linked to another thing, the vehicle. The way in which the link is drawn, the relationship, dictates the kind of metaphor it is.
For example, look at these metaphors:
‘All the world’s a stage’
Tenor: the world
Vehicle: a stage
Relationship: the tenor is the vehicle
‘Life is like a box of chocolates’
Vehicle: a box of chocolates
Relationship: tenor is like the vehicle
n.b. Some people call the relationship the ground. It means the same thing, but I like relationship because it needs less explanation.
Metaphor is something which students know from Primary school. Usually, new Y7s can tell you what a metaphor and a simile are, and if they can’t, this is something which is relatively easy to remedy. They can generally talk about a metaphor saying something IS something it is not, and simile using LIKE or AS. All good. But are we then going further than that? Why does a writer choose one over the other? Why choose to liken something to something else, rather than to say it IS something else? Why choose that thing over another thing? What would change if we swapped this out for this? Or if the relationship between these things was different?
When we teach concepts in English we need to be really careful that we aren’t just teaching students to define and identify. They need to go beyond – to explain, to interrogate, to describe, to analyse, to interpret, to connect, to synthesise, to apply, to manipulate, to change… knowing and KNOWING are very different things. This is true of all subject knowledge in English, but metaphor is particularly interesting because it is so often boiled down to a simple division of: IS vs. LIKE/AS
How often do we pull metaphor apart, talk about how an image is constructed and use those component parts to fuel our analysis?
How important is terminology?
How long is a piece of string?
Metaphor is an umbrella term for lots of devices which work through these tenor/vehicle relationships, such as simile, personification, allegory and many others. A great many of the language devices we teach in the English classroom fall into this category, and there is a healthy debate which seems to be constantly raging about the value of terminology and specificity when talking about such things. Is it, for instance, important to be able to describe something as synaesthesia? Or is it fine to simply call it a metaphor? An image, even? I’d argue that it really depends on what exactly it is you are trying to say.
Terminology is good when it helps you to be specific and direct in your comments about language.
Terminology is bad if it’s being used for no sensible reason. Just throwing in a fancy term as you go, even if it’s accurate, is a bit of a waste of time and might actually obscure your meaning. Peps McCrea says that you should aim to write so that your reader feels more intelligent, not so that they think YOU are intelligent. If you throw in a term which the reader doesn’t know and then do nothing with that term, you simply distract them from what you’re saying and confuse things as they go to look it up. If, however, you write about why that specific device is meaningful, then it’s worth using the term to distinguish it from other language devices.
For example, in ‘The Emigree’, Rumens writes about the girl’s home langauge, saying that it, ‘tastes of sunlight.’ This is a powerful image. It is a metaphor. If we’re being specific, it’s synaesthesia – Rumens uses the visual image of ‘sunlight’ but present it as a ‘taste’, creating a sense that the girl’s memory is ingrained deeply in more than just the visual. Her memory of her home is a physical one; all consuming. The notion that something can ‘taste’ of light is also a rather profound idea, tying this image of language in the mouth to all the associated symbolism of sunlight.
So, terms can be helpful, but they can also be really, really unhelpful. We have to show our students that meaning is at the forefront.
Concepts in English are extremely abstract and complex. For years I have found myself explaining things via little diagrams, arrows, shapes and anything else I could use to indicate relationships between things on the page. I’ve worked on this resource as a way to show how metaphor is built, and how the components interact with each other, the wider text, the reader and our own existing knowledge.
For example, in this example I’m trying to demonstrate how the vehicle (fire) is foregrounded in the right hand example…
This level of understanding of the positioning of tenor and vehicle enables us to say more, for example:
The man is clearly angry because ‘fire’ indicates an extreme passion and perhaps implies that he, like a fire, is dangerous or capable of destruction.
The man is clearly angry because ‘fire’ indicates an extreme passion and perhaps implies that he, like a fire, is dangerous or capable of destruction. By foregrounding ‘fire’ as the first image in this line, the writer forces the reader to imagine this destructive element first, and everything they read subsequently is through the lens of ‘fire.’
Now obviously this sort of thing won’t always be relevant. Sometimes a simpler comment is fine. But thinking carefully, not just about whether it is a metaphor or not, but also about how it is built is potentially extremely fruitful. Students can do a lot with that level of understanding and skill in deconstruction. Visual representation can support us to unpack a metaphor, appreciate how it works, and find a level of language awareness which is more sophisticated. I have to say thank you to the immensely clever and kind Oliver Caviglioli who has been hugely supportive and generous with his time and feedback during the process of creating this guide.
Here are some more visuals from the guide itself – it covers a range of devices and includes lots of examples and ideas for the classroom, too. It will also be on sale for half price until Tuesday 10th January. You can get it here.