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The Power of Metaphor

By David Gosselin

Metaphor should not be approached as some “thing,” but as a transformative power, the invisible process by which “things” come into being. Using metaphor, even very simple language and very common-place images can be brought into new, unique constellations.

Contrary to the sundry definitions of metaphor proffered by many school teachers and dictionaries, metaphor is not some mere literary device; it is the eternal fount of new ideas. Every new and developing generation of idea is born out of a metaphorical process, as opposed to mere logic or simple fancy.

However, the key to understanding the concept of metaphor, as expressed in the great traditions of classical poetry and art across the history of civilization, is to go back to the original meaning of the word metaphor; a meaning which was lost as a result of the textbook-style and rote learning approaches that came to saturate the learning environments of high schools and universities across the Western world.

Nouns or Verbs?

The etymology of the word metaphor can be traced back to the ancient Greek word metapherein, meaning “to transfer.” Meta on its own was a prefix used to convey an idea of changing of places, order, or nature.

Thus, the origin of the word metaphor is an action. It should not be approached as some “thing,” but as a transformative power, the invisible process by which “things” come into being; the process of “becoming,” in Plato’s terms. The final images and organizational matrix of a metaphor are simply the result of a rigorous development and transformation.

To illustrate this power of metaphor, we shall present a series of examples from across the ages, including new examples written by the still-hidden classical poets of the twenty-first century. Each example will allow us to see how craftsmanship alone, no matter how beautiful the lines may be, or how skilled such writers might be, will never produce great poetry.

The transformative power of metaphor is what ultimately defines the basis of the poet’s ability to communicate a profound idea, what Percy Bysshe Shelley referred to in his “A Defense of Poetry” as, “intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.” Such ideas lie beyond the mere literal words and images woven together by the poet’s pen.

In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, a stalwart literary critic who tirelessly fought to defend what he termed “The Poetic Principle”:

He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.

Without metaphor, we at best find ourselves with good craftsmanship. This is often the case with twentieth-century verse, where one finds himself reading piece after piece which require repeated recourse to literal prose-like statements in order to communicate something beyond the simple effects of the choice of language and imagery. Such lines may be factually true or titillate the senses, but neither is poetry per se. Otherwise, much twentieth-century verse has tended to veer into the opposite extreme of literal prose: towards an ever more obscure portrayal of ideas using “pure images,” an endless series of free-associations, symbols, and stylistic gimmicks, for which the reader can glean no higher meaning, and for which he or she increasingly becomes responsible for supplying the meaning and/or feeling.[1]

Poetry or Prose?

As Shelley discusses in his “A Defense of Poetry,” even great prose (as opposed to literal prose) is inherently metaphorical:

The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error . . . Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. He rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and action, and he forbore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his style.

The Modernist has often provided similar reasons to those proffered by Shelley for the “loosening up” of the rules of classical poetry, namely: to allow for a more uninhibited and freely-flowing process of thought, unencumbered by the strictness of traditional elements of form such as meter, rhyme, et cetera . . . However, the difference is that Plato and the Greeks never abandon metaphor. In fact, metaphor becomes the central basis for communicating something more profound, an idea that would otherwise not lend itself to literal forms of expression.

Take the example of Plato’s Phaedo dialogue:

And now I will make answer to you, O my judges, and show that he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world. . . . For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying.

Is Socrates saying that the true philosopher is suicidal? Is he suggesting that the philosopher is ultimately looking for a literal death? Were this the case, why shouldn’t the true philosopher not look for the closest bridge and jump off?

The truth is that Plato was a poet, as was Socrates.

Plato, through the character of Socrates, is using the idea of death as a metaphor for elaborating the concept of the human mind as something capable of investigating the universe beyond simple sense-perception, beyond effects which we know as the continuous series of phenomena experienced by our senses, to an investigation of why and how such a series of experiences necessarily must have occurred.

Without such knowledge, the ability to change things in the real world becomes impossible; individuals become mere spectators who can only watch as history unfolds before their eyes. Similarly, in the case of poetry there may be a series of descriptions, free-associations, and literal statements, but no principle of harmony or idea—only effects. Poetry becomes nothing more but another fleeting experience of the senses.

In such a world, every individual becomes a Hamlet.

Let us therefore take a few simple examples, including those from the hidden poets of the twenty-first century, who, up until the present moment, have still not gotten their due recognition—a phenomena all too common in the history of great poetry.

We will see how the power of metaphor allows the reader to break free from the shackles of sense-perception through the experience of great poetic irony and metaphor.

True Metaphor

Take a simple but profound example by Heinrich Heine.

Fisher Girl

Come you lovely fisher girl,
Come and bring your boat to land;
Join me on the golden shore,
We’ll cuddle hand in hand.

Lay your head on my breast
And let all your fears set sail,
You’ve trusted the deep sea
So often with your fate.

My heart is like the sea,
Has storm and ebb and flow
And many lovely pearls
Lie in its depths below.[2]

While there are many more elaborate examples of metaphor, such as those of Keats’ great odes, Heine’s short but dense poem is a perfect distillation of the idea of metaphor.[3]

Notice the poem does not use an elaborate form of language or advanced vocabulary, everything is very straight-forward. Despite that, there is a great hidden meaning, which Heine generates across only three short and simple stanzas.

In the first stanza, the speaker invites the young maid to return from sea and join him on the golden shore. In the second stanza, he essentially tells her to let her guard down and to trust in his love, with which, given that she has been daring enough to trust the sea with her fate, she might consider taking a chance. By just this second stanza, a metaphorical idea is already unfolding.

Now, in the third stanza, the speaker introduces the idea of his heart as akin to the sea. He does not elaborate some simple Romantic “lovey-dovey” idea of love, but in using the metaphor of the sea, conveys a sense of the complexity and depth of his love—it has ebbs, it has flows—it is not perfect, yet “many lovely pearls / lie in its depths below.”

What a simple and yet profound piece of poetry!

Using metaphor, even very simple language and very common-place images can be brought into new unique constellations; they express a profound and complex idea of love, which goes beyond what any literal form of description or argument could achieve.

It says what words alone cannot.

Let us take another example, which has a more serious tone, by the great African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

The first stanza introduces the idea of the bird’s song as a longing to be free, something provoked by the beauty of nature, “When the first bird sings and the first bud opes / And the faint perfume from its chalice steals.”

The poet introduces the idea of a caged bird singing to express his thoughts and feelings about his own plight.

The second stanza introduces a new emotion:

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing.

The second set of images introduces new dimensions to the initial idea: There is a violence being done to the bird when “he fain would be on the bough a-swing”—his natural rights are being violated; it is an affront not only to his personal freedom, but an affront to natural law as well, as opposed to mere arbitrary laws (such as a slave-owner’s property rights).

In the third stanza, a new stirring and final dimension is introduced, where the bird’s pain is presented anew. In contrast to the former kind of pain, in which a longing for the absence of injustice is suggested, the quality of longing in the bird is transformed:

It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

The bird’s song is an invocation to natural law, the God-given rights of every human individual.

Only a true poet could develop such great transformative power, using metaphor, with such a seemingly simple image and form.

It is the nature of all great poetry that even the simplest of images and language can be elevated to the loftiest heights and bring us to tears. Take an example written in the twenty-first century, by the poet Daniel Leach of Houston, Texas.

Little Ones

Little ones, little ones, playing around me,
Blowing your bubbles up into the air,
Laughing and giggling to chase them toward me,
Or when they turn back to alight in your hair;

Watch them float upward above the green treetops,
Where they are caught by the golden sunbeams,
And wonder how each, for a beautiful moment,
Lives like a bright rainbow world full of dreams.

What if our spirits could fly with those bubbles,
And time could stand still as those worlds we explore?
Castles of sunlight and fairy-cloud people,
A beautiful cloud-kingdom princess, and more!

And every story the mind can imagine,
Would magically form in those clouds as we fly,
And we could tell of our awesome adventure,
When back down, like bubbles, we float from the sky.

Little ones, you perhaps never considered
The infinite beauty there is all around,
And perhaps this I would not have remembered,
But for the joy that with you I have found.

—May, 2010

What moving irony is created by Daniel Leach!

The unconsciousness of the little children playing carefree becomes the cause of the greatness and awe-inspiring realization of life’s beauty, its promise and the infinite potential of creativity, being ever-renewed with each coming generation.

In light of this example, let us take a similar theme treated by The Bard himself—one of the great metaphors in the history of poetic composition, Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare’s sonnet series develops a quality of metaphor, which, while expressed in each individual poem, is also elaborated on a higher order through the series of sonnets, where the development of the series as a whole represents a sort of “Metaphor of Metaphors.”

Sonnet I

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare opens by saying each individual is drawn to beauty and longs for it, and ultimately desires “increase” (i.e. to reproduce). Yet even in the first two lines, it is stated that this beauty fades and that even the fairest of creatures is no match for time. Yet, only in recognizing that this beauty does fade is one ready to discover an even higher order of beauty: the power to generate new beauty!

What does a world look like where each individual is acting with the conscious idea that they are responsible for the re-creation and continued development of the human species; that they are not mere individuals, but are defined, and in turn define, themselves by this eternal process for which they are now a mediating part? Rather than simply discrete individuals floating through the ether of a nihilistic universe, which has no discoverable meaning or purpose, each individual is seen as a singularity within a continuous process of creation.

What is real is not what is seen as such, it is not a noun; rather, what is real is the causal change effected by an individual in the advancement of truth and beauty. Keats’ statement from his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” becomes the ultimate self-conscious statement on the nature of great art and its role in the development of the human species.

Every great poem is susceptible to an intelligible representation. In fact, the basis of metaphor is its intelligibility; or else it would be nothing more than a mere abstract image or an aggregation of free associations, neither of which is poetry per se. From a causal stand point, it is the result of this verbal quality of transformation which defines a new idea.

Let us take a final short example, from another modern classical poet, Paul Gallagher. He demonstrates all the power and force of a true poet, and startlingly so given the briefness of the piece.

Deep Down

Tired bends the lily
Beneath its gorgeous flower;
Weary stoops the pilgrim
Drawn on by heavenly power.

All the soldier’s glory
Is grime upon his brow
In the darkness after battle —
A storm would bless him now.

Sadly broods the poet,
But the verse will glow,
And joy, like a diamond,
Rise from deep below.

Painful though the story
That the verse must tell,
Yet the heart that tells it
Sings like Philomel.

Love’s a longer story
Than weariness or pain,
So the bending lily
Blooms again and again.[4]

Right from the very beginning, the poet challenges us to rise beyond any simple notion of self-interest or preoccupation with our senses. The pilgrim is one drawn by something that challenges him to rise beyond his mere individual existence. The image of the pilgrim is compared to the initial image of a tired lily wearied by the weight of its own beauty.

In the second stanza, after the initial images of the first stanza, the poet immediately makes a call to arms. He calls upon the mind of the reader to join him, to meet him on the battlefield where they find the weary soldier. His presence on the battlefield implies a force beyond any simple notion of self-interest or immediate gratification. Justice, the future of his children and of mankind are the things a soldier must hold dear. The question of what persists beyond our own mortal existence is brought to the fore.

All this in only eight short lines!

By the third stanza, the higher metaphor begins to crystallize, and this short but dense jewel-like poem now introduces the idea of the poet as one who, like a miner, through toil is able to extract something of a qualitatively different worth than the dirt and the elements that surround it.

The fourth stanza elaborates on the preceding image of a poet with the irony that essentially says, “despite the sad nature of the lines written by the poet, we are yet inspired, and the tears we cry, we cry with joy.” The idea is solidified with the image of Philomel, the princess raped by the king of Thrace, who finally receives the mercy of the gods and is transformed into a Nightingale singing beautiful melodies—she is able to rise above the tragedy.

Finally, we arrive at the fifth and last stanza, where the poet’s statement on love takes on a meaning, the literal uttering of which as a statement, in the absence of the development that preceded it, could very well mean little more than a feel-good, meme-style quote, posted by some millennial on Facebook.

All this in five short four-line stanzas! Mr. Gallagher has passed the test of a true poet with flying colors.

Finally, we wish to leave the reader with a concluding paradox. In light of the discussion on the nature of great poetry and the power of a true poet, one might ask the question, “Is the death of a Poet a sad thing?”

After Dark Vapors Have Oppressed Our Plains

After dark vapors have oppress’d our plains
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.
The anxious month, relieved of its pains,
Takes as a long-lost right the feel of May;
The eyelids with the passing coolness play
Like rose leaves with the drip of Summer rains.
The calmest thoughts came round us; as of leaves
Budding—fruit ripening in stillness—Autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves—
Sweet Sappho’s cheek—a smiling infant’s breath—
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs—
A woodland rivulet—a Poet’s death.

As a true poet, Keats crafts not simply a series of beautiful lines, he crafts a beautiful paradox that gives the reader the power to free himself from the habitual reliance on sense perception. The paradox and metaphorical nature of the idea of “the poet’s death” challenges him to understand what his senses never will: The death of the poet is not a sad thing because poets never die.

The twenty-first century is an age that requires not craftsmen, but true Poets.


Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Reader’s Shelley. Ed. Carl H. Grabo & Martin. J. Freeman. American Book Co., 1942. 473-512.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Poetic Principle.” The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Random House, Inc., 1992. 889-907.


[1] Of course, it is not to say Modernist poetry has never used a metaphor. However, most modernist verse which did employ certain metaphorical elements usually employed them as literary devices aimed at generating some novel effect rather than a true unity of effect or harmony of ideas.

[2] Translation © David B. Gosselin.

[3] Leach, Daniel. “Keats’ Great Odes & the Sublime: Commemorating the Life of John Keats (October 1795 – 23 February 1821).” The Chained Muse, 23 February 2019.

[4] In Greek mythology, Philomel was a princess raped by Tereus, the king of Thrace. To avenge her, the gods transformed her into a nightingale, known for its beautiful song.

This article was republished with permission of the author and was originally published by The Chained Muse.

Feature Image: “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” by Rembrandt


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