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This article is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

Further On Metaphor Laura (Riding) Jackson


I have commented elsewhere on the enforced peculiarity of poetry of omission: all cannot be said because - for one reason - the effect must be quickly produced: content is sacrificed to strength of impression. Here, I have a point to make which has connection with this peculiarity of necessary omission, in poetry, concerning the extensive use of metaphor in it. In my introductory essay on metaphor,* I have described metaphor as an established linguistic procedure, and one of which language naturally allows as a device for practical adequacy of expression.

In poetry, metaphor is, by the - in large part - conventional character of poetry, in much of its use a decorative device, imposing additions upon the basic stripped frame of poetic expression. In straight expression, which is in general principle by intent, at least, full expression, the metaphoric element is one in which meaning is compressed within the limits of a suggestion that can only partially express it, and yet serves because, nothing fully expressive at the metaphoric juncture seeming verbally achievable, the metaphoric suggestion engages the interest of the imagination, and something more than what is said thus hovers in the mind in consequence of what is said: a mental reach towards that something more is provided for.

In the main, the poetic metaphor does not have integrality with the expression-structure. Instead of being an incidental linguistic device, it has features of size, and prominence. It is, rather than an auxiliary component of the expression-structure, a unit of expression predominating in emphasis over the area of the expression-structure to which it relates. The metaphor as it were possesses the structure - almost, the structure exists for the metaphoric super-impositions. Oddly, that is, the poetic metaphor is less productive of expansive mental reach from the limits of actual suggestion than straight metaphor; it is unattended by such promptings to imaginative freedom as the straight, unstripped, expression-structure encourages. The poetic metaphor is likely to be itself a limit in sense, by being more labouredly specific.

A better understanding of the part metaphor has had in my poetic work may be gained from what I say here on the general subject of metaphor. Most critics have pronounced my poetic work to be defective in metaphoric substance, and, relatedly, inclined towards 'abstraction' - as if 'abstraction' were total non-metaphoricality. It has been very little comprehended that I endeavoured to employ metaphor in integral functioning with the course of poetic expression, endeavoured to be, in the matter of metaphor as in all else, in my poems, linguistically sound as well as to observe the linguistic economies that are not only allowed of in poetry but required. The aspect of obligated stringent limitation or 'omission', in poetry, takes into the heart of the confused principle of poetry. While in theoretical literary principle poetry has the objective of linguistically effective utterance, it embraces at the same time an objective of emotionally effective utterance. And here is the catch! For, where there is a separate objective of this kind in verbal expression, there is an inevitable duality in method.

In poetry, metaphor slips over from its ordinarily natural involvement in effort for linguistic effectuality to a 'side' of involvement in a specialised effort for emotional effect, joining devices of rhythm and metre and play of verbal sound associated with the distinctly emotional objective. There are more metaphor-instances, generally, in poetic word-use than in ordinary word-use. Each poetic metaphor-instance is in itself less forceful in meaning-impact than an ordinary metaphor-instance: in the poetic instances the metaphor is joined by non-linguistic devices for the raising of its potency of influence on the feelings. Theoretically, this advances the success of the objective - the emotional objective theoretically reinforces the linguistic. But the division itself creates a limited linguistic objective.

In my endeavour to unify the two objective-components of poetry, I did not try to obliterate the division, only to make the closest possible co-operation between them. The consequences are that the devices of the 'other' side (to the linguistic) - purposive poetic resort to metaphor included - are used by me always with the magnetic pull of the linguistic side resisted as little as possible, consistently with the necessary acceptance of poetry's condition for itself that it differs from normal discourse in provision to itself of another side, which adds dramatic and decorative features to the linguistic function (reduced thus to a 'side'!). I was sensitive to the abnormality of a linguistic act, the poem, that overtly classifies itself as such, yet as such establishes as normal an actual mixed nature - being part verbal, part theatric, performance, part mind-, part sense-, experience: a rendering of mind-experience, with some accompanying sense-experience directed in part at the intellectual imagination, in part at the physical. This split of imagination, the division of linguistic sensibility into mental and sensory areas, with metaphor having its base of motivation in the 'other' side, I healed to the possible - using the 'other' side's prescribed facilities of delivery of the linguistic with sympathetic kindness to it, as sworn servant to the linguistic, identified as such in the implications of poetic principle, an agency for the redoubling of the motive forces of linguistic expression.

My procedures did not produce results less 'poetic' than those issuing from the usual procedures, but results of more natural linguistic effectuality than is usual in poetry. And, peculiar to these procedures of mine, and the results, as to metaphor, is that my poems are not loaded with metaphor, as a special poetic property, for the enhancement of effect, in the circumstance of the poet's having to work within a trimmed, restricted frame of linguistic expression. My employment of metaphor in poems is at least as much in accord with the natural character of metaphor as a device of expression where meaning presents difficulty of ready expression as it is with its poetic character as an impression-reinforcer, a delivery-aid.

What I did in poetry in resort to metaphor was part of the course of purification of poetry that I pursued: I treated poetry as poetry and, at once, as a mode of linguistic expression, and the tracks of attempted unification ultimately converged in a consciousness of there being, in poetry, an irreducible abnormality, an irreconcilability with itself. It may be that the intensive resort to metaphor that poets are induced to make in order to compensate for the limitations that poetic form and conventions of poetic diction impose on linguistic substance thickens the veil of obscurity of nature that poetry wears, as the area of a special kind of exercise of the linguistic faculties. Certain it is that the standard poetic abundance in metaphorisation creates a standard acceptance of a peculiar linguistic opacity as the mark of a peculiar poetic clarity of expression. Over-identification of metaphor with poetic linguistic procedures may have been the single most potent obstacle to the dawning upon literary intelligence, and linguistic intelligence especially, of there being a fixed impossibility in poetry of its ever providing a solution to the humanly critical problem of discovery of the mode of verbal utterance that matches language's resources for the giving to linguistic expression its natural proper identity of truth.

The word 'metaphor' should be treated, in a newly wholesome review of the properties of language-in-use, as a word of dubious omen. When raised above the ordinary level of reference to things linguistic, as a flag over a special language-region where gems of verbal beauty or brilliance are procurable by talented quest: beware! The journey into such a region can take the mind out of sight of its linguistic reason and the tongue out of reach of its niceties of utterance-distinction: both may return in a worse state of enslavement, than the ordinary, to the linguistic habitudes and verbal propensities that have been corrupting human linguistic innocence at faster, faster, rate. Of course, the charging of the use of metaphor with a corruptive influence on linguistic habitudes would be a foolish purism. It is what people do with their possessions that makes them instruments of good or ill accomplishment. Metaphor is merely an incidental appurtenance of the faculties of word-management, a homely device for a quick circumvention of vocabularistic difficulties that could slow or obstruct the course of utterance. When it tempts over-use, and is exaggeratively employed, for idle cause, vanity, power of suasion, this is not because of any vice inherent in it: the vice is in the exploiter of the abnormal potencies of the device.

What of such metaphorical practices as those that are repetitive constants in Homeric poetic expression and other epic forms of poetic style? Do they respond to a natural instinct of similarity-finding, as pleasurable to homely fondness for the linguistically simple? Or are they poetic elegances of metaphor disciplined not to exceed reasonable imaginative limits - and maintained restricted in variety of association-evocations? One may guess, with some confidence on the side of probable correctness, that, however intricate the conventions of bardic composition, and solemn the mood of bardic professionalism, there were no such sententiosities as to the nature of metaphor, no such complex conceptions of it, in the critical tradition attending the profusely figurative poetic styles of old, as are to be found in contemporary-modern professional critical pronouncements on it. I quote a passage from a letter I wrote a few years ago to a girl, friendly daughter of a friend, who sent me a poem of hers. There was an 'It is like...' in it. I have revised it at two points just a little for surer clarity.

Why does one say 'It is like...'? One is trying to come as close as one can to saying what it is. One cannot find the words for the exact description. If one knew it thoroughly well, one would find the very words that fitted it. Metaphor is a substitute for the perfectly fitting words: instead of them, one brings into view something one knows, and assumes others know, very well and uses that for the description of the thing one does not know quite well enough to describe exactly.

The 'it is like' utility of metaphor fits the character of poetic composition intended for spoken or chanted delivery - fits the character of the attention it will receive in its delivery: the principle is, a maximum of emphasis with a minimum of rhetorical nicety. The principle is, to spare the audience burdens of attention, in order to keep interest in lively movement. In poetic composition intended for reading, this principle is still in operative force, with metaphor varying between the simpler and the more complex according to the intellectual level on which the poet expects to have meeting with the reader. To account for the abundant use of metaphor in antique poetic composition, one must add to the influence of the described principle the influence of custom. Poetry being initially a mode of expression in which orderliness, rightness, the qualities of truth-appeal, are represented in conventionalised forms of delivery, the resultant formalisation of these ideals in the verbal practice of poetry in the ages of its growth into an important institution fixed upon it limitations in metaphor-employment. Poetry never entirely freed itself from the inherited stereotypes of metaphoric form. It tends to a stiltedness in the use of metaphor which is not seen as such but taken to be an especial excellence in the use of metaphor fostered in poetry.


In considering the nature of metaphor as a rhetorically planned manner of expression, the particular instance of this could be called a trope; the adjectival characterisation of it would be 'tropical'. Then, we might ask: where in poetry is the distinction between the metaphorical and the tropical to be drawn? The question assumes that there is some metaphorical procedure in poetry that is natural, spontaneously metaphorical, not contrivedly so - not a resort to figurativeness just because composition is poetic. Once the question is formed, however, it turns into a problem-question: it is not a practical question because entrance into the linguistic region of poetic performance thrusts upon a person with the name 'poet' a sense of being in a region in which the verbal beautiful, the stylistically vivid, is not only a matter of privilege, but of obligation. Is it possible for a poet to know to what extent an instance of metaphorical expression is of natural or purposed occurrence? Would there not be an intensification of the obscurity in the issuance from such considerations of still another question: cannot metaphorical expression in poetry be regarded as of a peculiar kind of metaphor natural in poetry? But still another question: what, then, could be said of the difference between the naturalness of metaphor in 'ordinary' word-use and the naturalness of metaphor in poetry?

I believe that the nature of the poetic use of words is such that the poet who is conscious of there being in it a certain verbal lawlessness, of its being necessarily to some degree outside the natural range of linguistic government - who has, that is, a sound instinct of linguistic principles - will be everywhere caught in a test of conscience as to how to arbitrate between the deserts of the ordinary use of language as deserts of truth and the deserts of poetry viewed in al seriousness as, implicitly, more explicitly of the nature of truth than the comparable honours that can accrue to non-poetic linguistic expression. How impossible it would be to arbitrate thus, in measured distribution, in any instance of poetic expression - whether as the former of it, the poet, or as a critic is at once of special sensitivity to the poetic use of words and of general linguistic sensitivity - anyone applying himself, herself, concentratedly to the task would perceive at some point.

The linguistic process in poetic composition is continually, indeed incessantly, involved in a struggle with something called a 'poetic process' both to identify itself with it and yet not be lost in it, although, the composition being categorially poetic, the poetic process is the governor-process. By the nature of this struggle, everything in what is of poetic make-up is, when viewed in its character as being, inarguably, of linguistic make-up, not seeable otherwise than as wrapped in moot identity: if endeavour is made to evaluate it exclusively according to linguistic principles, it will be found snapped away from resolution into the authority-grasp of the poetic process. It is not only metaphor that passes, in entering the domain of poetry, into the shadow of an obscurity of identity. The shadow envelops the identity of everything that poetry encompasses in itself of the instrumentalities of language.

The oddity, in poetry, of a heightened emphasis on the spiritual force of words, combined with a heightened emphasis on the physical accompaniments of activities of spoken or written expression of thought-movement, seems dissolved in a unity of spiritual and physical intensities. But there is, here, in this pairing of the two elements as reconciled opposites, an arbitrary bringing of them into opposition, a pressing of an incompatibility of nature upon them resolvable only in and through poetry. The strain between the spiritual and the physical over which triumphs seem to be achieved in poetry is created by poetry. The problem of the relation between the spiritual and the physical aspects of language, and the functioning of the articulate human intelligence itself, takes on difficulties in the doctrine of poetic articulateness that are exaggerations of failings in the human spiritual constitution affecting the success of words. The exaggerated difficulties undergo, in the doctrine, oversimplifications of solution. In poetry, word-solution is made the subject of verbal pantomime: success of words is forcibly slipped there, as if the story of human articulateness consisted of just history, and poetry. And metaphor plays many parts, in the pantomime.


The refinements of analysis into which literary criticism was driven by the challenge that scientific method seems to hold direly over its head have been accompanied, in all the branches of literary criticism, by a panicky energeticness of endeavour to come up with special laws, terms, formulae of measurement, suitable (from the scientific point of view) to the category of critical investigation. What pertains critically to poetry has become, under the influence of this remote government of intellectual life by what has been set up in a ritual of modern rededication to scholarliness as the scientific spirit, tends to be reduced to, the subject of poetic style. Technicalities of a special category and lore of literary scholasticism become the particular concern of poetic criticism. Everything of general character and principle involved in the fact of poetry is dealt with as an element of general personal power, exercisable in literature, art, and other pursuits engaged in on a basis of individual will - this will, the idiosyncratic causal law of performance, being assigned the name 'creativity'.

In the loose idea of 'creativity', into which the doctrinaire spokesmen of contemporary literary-criticism philosophy stuff everything left over from processes of technical interpretation, there is no room for an element of natural action of spontaneous thoughtful choice in a compositional course. Deliberate proceeding at random, by involuntary caprice, on the one hand, or the predeterminations of independency, answerable only to personal satisfaction, on the other, forms the critical sense of the author's part: this is the theoretical conception of the natural, in modernised literary criticism. It is an element of the poetic process conceived of as being outside of the action of poetic composition itself: all the elements of the process conceived of as being within the field of this action are denaturalised from integrality with the inspirational element as subjects suitable only for technical inspection, evaluation, identification, with the inspirational (that is, what has been traditionally viewed as the inspirational) reconceived as the arbitrarily purposeful.

In the recasting of the active components of poetry that modernised literary criticism has effected, sense of the nature of metaphor has become much more confused than it was in the old order of poetic and general literary-critical sense of it, both for poets themselves and critics. Where before it was construed as a literarily natural element of the poetic process as a whole, it is now split into an element of poetic composition, automatically present in it, something technically indispensable to poetic text, and a psychological constituent of the motivating personal dynamics of the poetic process, of the personal-purposeful poetic power-house.

I believe that it is modernised literary criticism that has split metaphor thus, attributing it exaggeratively, for one party, to a mythic personal condition of the poet's imagination. Poets have swiftly responded to the suggestions of this attribution in variedly wilful exaggerated uses of metaphor (literarily daring as in T.S. Eliot's poems, psychologically daring, as in Hart Crane's), pursuing an intricate artificiality beyond the extremes of conventional metaphorical practices to be found in any poetic composition of the past. As to the automatic, technical play represented by the other part of the modern split in metaphor as a peculiar element of poetry: this has become increasingly a weakened factor in modern poetic composition. The mere natural resort to metaphorical devices in the use of words has undergone desensitisation in poetic practice generally, and this also I believe to have come about through the influence of the modernisation of literary-critical thinking. Poetic, and all other, literary motivation has been driven from its home-ground out into the desert of an intellectual life dominated by fear of not meeting the standards of scientific rationalism. Literature-activity - poetic activity outstandingly so - has lost consciousness of the nature of the literary processes and become incapable of judging what literature was, and what it is, what poetry was, and what it is.

I must qualify, amplify, 'standards of scientific rationalism' as the identification of the ruling influence, in modern times, affecting its intellectual life. 'Scientific rationalism' comprises more than a dominant school-of-thought force among other intellectual forces of the time. Scientific rationalism influences the general life of the time extensively, the intellectual phases of it intensively. The reasoning-processes by which human beings are pursuing and controlling their life-activities have been deeply affected by the methods of scientific experimentation that have been applied to human needs, desires, and interests in progressively multiplying forms. Simplifications keep being introduced in mounting numbers into particular areas of human life and activity by these methods. But the expansion of specialised simplification over the entire area of human life and activity has had the effect in the large of replacing simple conceptions of human existence as a whole with complex conceptions, which are not only more baffling to the intelligence but lack the imaginative substance that made the simple ones reassuringly durable, generally stimulative of a fair degree of self-confidence and certainty of understanding.

The reasoning-processes of human beings exposed to the operations of science in the entire range of their life-experience are sharpened within many kinds of special mental operations. But in each such particular experience-area the mind is stopped at a limit. As a mental experience it is not translatable into general terms: no sum of such experiences equals attainment to a comprehensive simplicity of wisdom. The distinctly intellectual phases of the general life, the intellectual vocations separated from the scientific vocations by their being relevant to human life as of broadly inclusive experience-content, have not only not been immune from the effects on reasoning-processes with which the human generality have been touched: the effects have exceeded the proportions of personal confusion in the contradictions of the scientific simplifications of human life and activity by the attendant general complication of it and dissipation of the human sense of an all-underlying all-overlying simplicity. The naturally non-scientific intellectual vocations have been thrown into professional confusion, seeking to be themselves and yet subsume the supposed gains of scientific particularisation within their generalising rationalism. They have all relied on language - both to allow them to subsume scientific method in their processes and to save them from its disintegrative effects on thought-unities.

The literary vocations have suffered the most dislocation from their resources of intellectual coherence by the intrusion of standards of scientific rationalism just because their values are, essentially, linguistic values, which admit of no infusion of particularistic absolutes, such as form the plural scales of scientific values. In compositional poetic activity, bendings towards the categorialistic temper of scientific intellectualism have reduced the traditional poetic pleasure taken in the trial of word-use for what will surprise the senses, and at the same time content the mind, to an exhibition of verbalistic self-consciousness; the freedom of metaphor has been converted into an obligation of emotional insincerity and intellectual bravado - the sophisticated commonsense of the twentieth-century scientific Enlightenment makes of metaphor a professional poetic routinism.

The practitioners of poetic criticism are excited, by the challenge of scientific rationalism, the new Enlightenment realism, to the professional literary point of view as intellectually antiquated, to endeavour to demonstrate critical vitality in enlivenment of the critical vocabulary with new extra-literary reference-features, and new terms pleading a new-spirited literary orientation to the modern experience - with demoralising consequences, linguistic, intellectual, general. A new system of critical clichés is laid upon older ones, and exercises in forms of analysis are imported from the multifarious specialistic activity of the general intellectual environment. Such shows of new critical vigour are a confused mixture of counter-action to challenging invasion of literary-criticism fields by new schools of science-inspired analytical learning and (a good deal of) surrender, in stung professional pride, to temptations to compete in literature-analysis procedures.


It might be helpful to those who are uncomfortably conscious of the varied scientific explorations of literature in these times, as movements difficult to dismiss as having nothing seriously to do with literature because they are pursued with very industrious attention to literary material, to consider this suggestion of mine as to the character of these explorations. View them not as types of literary criticism but as types of general intellectual method - types of philosophical analysis applied to literature: thus viewed, the new late-modern science of literature (sprung up alongside the new late-modern science of language) has close resemblance to the late-mediaeval science of religion. This presented itself as a new intellectual method of philosophic analysis of religion, reverting for its new approach to large reliance on Aristotelian concepts of analytical methods, Aristotelian models of philosophic definition.

While, as can be seen in the systematic coverage of the entire field of religious considerations in Aquinas's thought, religion is the widely prevailing, the absolute, subject, it is the system that matters intellectually, not religion itself, the intrinsic content of belief. So, in modern, late-modern, literary science, literature is not the actual subject, but the occasion of a system-development: the intrinsic content of literature, the personal reality of the work of composition, is but what is taken theoretically, summarily, for granted as the practically convenient material, in order to get on with the systematisation of consideration of literature's content.

Everything that can be classified as of literary bearing, that is, everything that can be brought into processes of literary consideration conducted in a spacious environment of scholastic theorising, is a 'literary' subject. Alas, literary science has no such intellectual spaciousness of consideration-activity as did Aquinas's grand exploration of what could be said under the head of religion as a subject. His was a huge provision of subjects, matters, derived from religion as an intrinsically unapproachable overlord subject-matter, for engaging the intellectual energies of the 'best minds', those not merely simple believers. Contemporary literary scholasticism has no comparable centre or fortress of Unquestioned, Unquestionable, Subject, round which to dispose its intellectual armies in its analytical, theorising, manoeuvre: its overlord figure, literature, is but a myth existing for its demythologising.

Metaphor: it is abbreviative, what it 'says' cannot add up to more than a fragment. Aristotle viewed metaphor mastery as the greatest poetic gift. ('The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.') But he, ever, in whatever he explained and ruled on, reduced it to the crude identifications of dogma.


This piece, published by permission of the Laura (Riding) Jackson Board of Literary Management, was one of three that Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote on the subject of metaphor in the early 1970s, the others being 'The Matter of Metaphor', one of the Supplementary Essays in Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, and 'The Matter of Metaphor: Addenda', which appeared in The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007). 'The Matter of Metaphor' and 'Further on Metaphor' were among the 'author's selections' for It Has Taken Long (Chelsea 35, 1976, entire issue), but in the event 'Further On Metaphor' was dropped due to lack of space - as were other pieces, notably 'The Limits Of Human Decline' (which she allocated instead to Under The Mind's Watch, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004). As for her opening remark in 'Further On Metaphor' about her having commented 'elsewhere' on 'the enforced peculiarity of poetry of omission': she had written on this feature of poetry in, for example, 'Poetry and the Good', The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader (New York: Persea Books, 2005) 211; 'What, If Not A Poem, Poems?', Reader 241; and 'From a Notebook of Essays-In-Little', The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language 117. A separate note by L(R)J has been added here as the final paragraph of 'Further on Metaphor'.


* ['The Matter of Metaphor', in Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997).]

This article is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

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