Metaphors are a viewfinder before your eyes, showing you both an idea and its image in an unconventional mirror.
I really appreciate metaphors. I appreciate how poetry can artistically unfurl an intricate quilt of fascinating concepts in the bed of your mind. This manipulation of words is so compelling that it inspires the mind and launches it into some of the most complex of mental processes. It is reflective and it can stimulate a call to action. Frankly, words are powerful.
I believe there’s beauty in connecting two distinct things, whether conceptual or concrete, by what is usually a subtle commonality. It’s really an art that skilfully emboldens parallelisms by bringing them into plain view with the stunning, vivid colours of words. Metaphors are so integral to the way humans communicate within our various cultures across the globe that they not only permeate the best of our literature, but are also used daily in casual conversation. For this post, I’ll go ahead and use one main example, a verse from the largest collection of poetry and song found in the highly revered Bible:
Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
(From Psalm 119:105, KJV)
What idea and its image suddenly appears in your mind?
A word is an element of speech that can stand alone or be stringed together with other words to make intelligible statements for the purpose of communication and/or expression.
A lamp is a device used to give light by way of some energy source such as kerosene or electricity.
A light is a source of illumination, which makes things visible.
A lamp and a light, to us, are easily relatable to each other since one is always associated with the other. But “word” and “lamp”? No connection. They are just two random things, one abstract and one concrete. Until… until a strange equivalence is presented to you:
> Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path
>> Your Word is a lamp and a light
>>> Word = Lamp = Light
>>>> This element of speech used for communication is a device used to give light and an agent allowing visibility
Suddenly they are no longer very different, are they? Or well, that’s what the speaker/writer is hoping to show us.
Lamp is light; word is lamp; light is word.
The power of the metaphor stimulates your imagination into perceiving separate things at once as being the same in a very particular way, especially because of the context (feet suggests walking, without aid of any other means of transportation, and a path suggests a means towards a destination, a goal, a desired place to be). It also goes to show that the way in which people associate ideas with individual words matters in how a metaphor is interpreted. (If I tell you my love is the sea, will you think it is vast and beautiful or that it is unpredictable and overwhelming?) One thing is sure though – so powerful is this literary device that it can totally overturn your view of one thing, or two or even ten things and weave them together to make an image that you instinctively understand from a “big picture” perspective, even if you don’t yet understand the details all at once.
Upon meditating upon this one “little” metaphor, you discover there are so many layers you could peel away from this new idea… I can’t hold a light, but I can hold and use a lamp. I can hold a lamp, but I can’t really hold words… or can I? Lamps help me to see in the dark. I can’t even see words in the dark. I would need a light, to be able to perceive words, and thus use words as a light? How could words help me to see? Unless I don’t need to see them. Unless they are spoken or I have previously seen them and have them now in my memory. The light of lamps are powered by a source. What is the source of a word? Is this important? You can break or lose a lamp. Can you break or lose light? Can you lose words? The purpose of the light on the path is to maintain direction. Is that what the speaker is saying the “word” mentioned is for? I really only need lamps if it is too dark to see. Is that when the “word” shows its true power and relevance? If the word is a light unto my feet, like the sun could be in daytime, then can these words also be parallel to sunlight, or any light that allows me to truly see where I am to go? Or is a particular source of light–a particular lamp–integral to the story? Can the word be a map? Can it be a sound? Can it be a person? How do I keep the illuminating power of the “word” consistently glowing upon my feet and directed toward the appropriate path?
Whew! That’s a mindful! I mean, a mouthful!
So yes, that’s a lot to take in. But the thing is, when we are given a metaphor, we don’t have to unpack it all at once, or even go to that extent at all. The miracle of this way of communicating is that it achieves its purpose so easily because of how our minds relate images, concepts and objects. Most of the work of comprehending the meaning is subconscious. So even though it is good to reflect earnestly upon what a statement’s meaning could really be, we can be grateful for the way our mind was made and for the literary tools that make the magic happen all by themselves. Because from one metaphor, from just one statement, one special picture can be given. One painted scene is important. In the above case: word = lamp = light.
Aside from all that, there are other metaphors that are used regularly in our speech. Take a look at these statements:
- Life is a journey.
- She is such a gem.
- The eyes are the window to the soul.
- His comment was a slap in the face.
- Your stomach is a bottomless pit.
- She’s a house-rat.
- He’s a beast on the field.
There are several images and characteristics that come to mind, for each of these statements. How many more can you think of? We use them all the time–metaphors–but not often do we think about how influential they are in shaping the way we see the world and all that is in it, so much so that dictionaries have updated words to include their more idiomatic definitions. Take “key” for example. It is a physical device used to open (and sometimes close) locks. We’ve used the word as a metaphor for “opening” or “accessing” so much that it is now used to identify not only the shaped metal used for opening locks, but also anything that allows access to something else, e.g. “Education is the key to success.”
What do you think? Did you realize that we use poetic language so often? Maybe you never thought you were a Maya Angelou or a Shakespeare but you’re a poet everyday without realizing it. This aspect of your mind is crucial to the way you invite others to understand your thoughts and feelings, and it is a major tool in your understanding of everything you perceive about your world.
So go on, with your beautiful poetic self. There are works and worlds of poetry to explore, in the most unlikely of places 😉
This post was inspired by the following video created by The Bible Project.
© 2019 Sihle Atkinson – All Rights Reserved