When I was a child, I often imagined what it might be like to be somebody else -be something else, too. I mean, let’s face it, sometimes you can’t help feeling, well, trapped in yourself… Okay, I couldn’t. But, of course, that is the nature of Being, isn’t it? And, at least in my case, it meant that for all my dreams, I was only me.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being egologically imprisoned, or anything; after all, it makes sense to be what you already have, and work with it. But, every so often, I longed for escape -if only from my head. After all, my head is the room where I live most of the day, and pulling back the curtains even a crack so I can look out, helps.
Bear in mind that I was a small child with glasses, and so I soon learned that power resided more in mental than physical prowess. The ability to deflect blame, or obfuscate using large words loomed large in my developmental plans, and after finishing my homework, I would comb the dictionary for sesquipedalianisms that might be useful.
Unfortunately, bedazzlement often turns to irritation, and I soon found that people either avoided talking to me, or wrote rude and not very clever instructions on my locker at school. But rather than discouraging me, I took solace from many of their attempts at mockery -not only were the allusions descriptive in their own rights, but they were also prescriptive: they were my first introduction to metaphor.
We all remember the name of our first English literature teacher who broached the subject… or is that just me? Anyway, it was a male teacher by the name of Crumbs who was filling in for Miss Brady who, we were informed, would seem to have ‘fallen pregnant’. He chuckled -thoughtfully- at the words he’d chosen, apparently surprised at the guffaws he had aroused among the Grade 8 boys in the class.
“Do you know what ‘falling pregnant’ actually means?” he asked, after regrouping his thoughts. This, of course, led to a raucous set of male replies emanating from the usual crowd in the back row that I chose not to hear. What I do remember, however, was the wooden yardstick that he had in his hand at the time, striking Miss Brady’s desk in front with an ear-splitting thwack. A serious silence immediately blanketed all and sundry; Crumbs was not somebody even the back seats wanted to mess with.
“It is a metaphor,” he continued, calmly, in the ensuing praeternatural stillness.
I, for one, was intrigued by the idea, but I had some questions so I put up my hand -resulting in the inevitable chorus of hisses. “Sir,” I started, glaring at the rude people around me, “I thought that a metaphor was a word, or whatever, that you used to describe something to which it doesn’t actually apply.”
Crumbs grinned from earlobe to earlobe at that. “Very good… Ahh…?”
“G,” I replied, using my nickname -no sense giving him too much information, I figured.
“That’s a fair enough definition, G, but don’t you think a metaphor is so much more than that?” I remember he scanned the class in front of him for any interest in my opinion, but, finding none, decided to elaborate. “It seems to me that a metaphor (I remember him italicizing it, for some reason) is not merely a comparison -as with a simile that seeks to tell the listener what the thing he is hearing is ‘like’. It is more of an imaginative leap -a statement that is obviously not correct, but the image evoked is so true, so cleverly tied to the subject that for a moment it seems real. Fully appropriate.” My expression was probably so intriguing that he continued.
“What is a ‘rumour’, G…?”
It didn’t sound like a rhetorical question, so I answered. “It’s an opinion of uncertain validity that somehow flies around to various people…” I hate being put on the spot, so I had to sort of extemporize my answer.
The smile never left his face. “Flies?” he asked, interested in my choice of words. “Is it a sparrow or a raven…?”
Geez, was he taunting me? Fortunately just as I was about to shrug, when I remembered a soliloquy of Lady Macbeth about ravens. Time to take a plunge. “Raven!”
His smile grew even bigger. “And why do you say that, G?” He seemed genuinely interested in my answer.
“Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play…”
He waited in silence for me to continue, glaring at those around me who were rolling their eyes and whispering to their friends.
“The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements. Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty…” Once I got started on a part that I remembered, I had difficulty knowing where to stop -I still do, for that matter.
There was actual booing in the class, though, so I decided to close my mouth -mainly because I couldn’t remember whether the next part was about taking my milk for gall, or something about thickening my blood. Anyway, I’m not sure he agreed with my choice of Lady Macbeth’s raven, or even whether I should maybe have chosen ‘sparrow’ but he seemed impressed.
“So isn’t it so much more exciting to think of rumours as ravens,” he said. “Ravens, rather than merely a bunch of opinions flying around to those ‘various people’ you alluded to?”
Whoa. It all started there! You can escape with metaphors.
I think that’s why I love poetry so much… and Shakespeare… and, well, I suppose, things that paint Life in different colours. Different shapes. Reality is fluid like that if you let it wash over you… Wasn’t it Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote that ‘Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.’
And, of course, Aristotle said ‘the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.’
In the words of one of my favourite poets, E.J. Pratt, describing seagulls: ‘Etched upon the horizon blue, the frieze must go unchallenged, for the lift and carriage of the wings would stain the drift of stars against a tropic indigo or dull the parable of snow.’
Metaphors are what make Life bearable – they are paintings on the soul…