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Metaphors

CARDINAL PERRON has a very judicious criticism on Metaphors. Cicero compares them to Virgins, who should not too familiarly shew themselves, and who must appear without affectation. We frequently meet with many that are not only vicious, but disgustful, and have nothing of that by which Cicero is desirous they should be distinguished.

Is it possible that some authors are ignorant that Style is meant to delight? And, if they write vicious and disgustful Metaphors, should they even convey to the reader their meaning, they must offend?—Such as those which a fanatical Preacher employed, when he called on the Lord to wipe his lips with the napkin of his love; and when he talked of the lamp of love, and the candle of divine grace.

Du Bartas, who was a famous poet in his day, calls the Sun, the Lord of Candles—the Winds, the Postillions of Æolus—Thunder, the Drum of the gods. These wretched metaphors arose from that total want of taste, which both the poet and his age evinced. Notwithstanding these vicious thoughts, I have read some fine verses in his Weeks.

All the lay preachers in Cromwell’s time abounded with such metaphors: the titles of their works are sufficient proofs. One Saltmarsh published a book, entitled—The Smoke in the Temple; and this was immediately answered by a congenial genius, with—A Flaming Fire in Zion!

Bishop Latimer preached, in the year 1527, a sermon, in which he says—“Now, ye have heard what is meant by this first card, and how ye ought to play: I purpose again to deal unto you another card of the same suit; for they be of so nigh affinity, that one cannot be well played without the other.”

About the middle of the seventeenth century, a country minister—Fuller informs us—imitated these ridiculous allusions of Latimer; but the congregation, now somewhat more refined than in the good bishop’s time, could not refrain from immoderate peals of laughter.

Perron observes, that in employing Metaphors, we must not descend from the general to the particular: we may be allowed to say—the flames of love, but not the candle, the lamp, and the wick of love. Saint Anselm exclaims—“Draw me, O Lord! that I may run after thee; fasten me with the cords of thy Love!” The Metaphor is a little similitude, or an abridgement of a similitude—it must pass quick; we must not dwell upon it ; when it is too far continued, it is vicious, and degenerates into an Enigma.

Pere Bouhours also observes, that Metaphors must not be continued too far, and that when they are thus overstrained, they become trifling and frigid. These two instances will explain what is here meant—

An Italian, on his return from Poland, said, that the persons of that country were as white as their snows; but, that they were even colder than they were white; and that frequently, from their conversations, he caught a cold.

Costar says, that the Lectures of Malherbe were satiating and cloying to a degree—so as to destroy the appetite of those who heard them, and to save them the expence of a dinner.

Of the first it is to be observed, that Cold, as a figure, is an established Metaphor; but that from this cold we are likely to catch one, is what passes the just limits of the Metaphor; as well as those lectures, which cloyed till they occasioned a loss of appetite, and saved the expence of a dinner.

It was saying enough, that they were satiating and disagreeable, without adding the rest, which goes to such an extreme, and which is not likely. This, however, must be understood, when the author speaks in a serious style: for, if he means to employ such Metaphors jocularly, they would then not shock us; because, when we laugh, we may be allowed great latitude; and, according to Aristotle and Quintilian, whenever we joke, the falsest thoughts have, in some measure, a true sense.

To illustrate this criticism. Let as try these two thoughts; which, however, carried far, have great merit, when we reflect on the manner in which they must be understood.

An ancient satirist says, that if we wish to temper an overheated bath, we have only to beg a certain rhetorician to enter; because he was remarkable for frigidity in his discourses. A modern satirist declares, he was lately frozen at reading a certain Elegy of a miserable poetaster; and that the polar frosts do not, by many degrees, approach it.


Editor’s Notes

 § The passage above concerning Bishop Latimer’s sermon was later included by D’Israeli in the article ‘Jocular Preachers.’