The HyperTexts

The Best Metaphors and Similes
Examples of Metaphors, Mixed Metaphors and Similes
Definitions of Metaphor, Simile, Symbol, Allegory, Catachresis, Surrealism, Absurdism, etc.

Who wrote the best metaphors in the English language? Where can we find the best examples of metaphors in English literature, poetry and music? If you’re a student, educator or a seeker on a quest to discover the best metaphors and similesparticularly in literature and poetry―I believe you’ve found the right page. Writers famous for their use of metaphors, similes and/or symbols include Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, William Blake, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, J. R. R. Tolkien and Bob Dylan. On this page I will endeavor to understand what they were up to, and why what they did was so effective.

compiled by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts

METAPHOR DEFINITION: A metaphor is a non-literal figure of speech, such as "iron hand" or "heart of stone." No human being has an actual hand of iron or a heart of stone, but we intuitively understand what such terms mean and imply. Metaphor is a form of transference, correspondence and/or parallelism.

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 42, translation by Michael R. Burch

Sappho of Lesbos was one of the first great lyric poets we know by name. Her metaphor of lust (Eros was the Greek god of erotic love) being like a thunderstorm uprooting oaks is both powerful and timeless. If you like my translations you are welcome to share them, but please credit the original poet and translator.

Grasses wilt:
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt.
—Yamaguchi Seishi, translation by Michael R. Burch

In this haiku by an oriental master, we see that metaphors are universal. The wilting grasses and the braking locomotive both represent the process of aging and dying.

METAPHOR EXAMPLES: Examples of commonly-used metaphors include "lemon," "bad egg," "black sheep," "wolf in sheep's clothing," "snake in the grass," "honey," "shining star," "apple of my eye," "dove," "angel of light" and "knight in shining armor." Sometimes a metaphor can be a double-edged rhetorical sword; for instance: "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." One of the most famous literary metaphors is "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. Here, Keats is comparing one abstract thing (beauty) to another abstract thing (truth). However, it is more common for metaphors to compare something abstract to something more tangible: for example, Bob Dylan's hard-to-find answers are compared to leaves "blowin' in the wind." A good example of a metaphor that illuminates something abstract by comparing it to something tangible is Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers― / That perches in the soul." Later, Maya Angelou, a black poet, would compare herself to a caged songbird. We can easily understand the image of a bird singing sweetly despite being caged and denied its freedom. A less abstract example of a metaphor is William Shakespeare's description of bare tree limbs as "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." In this case, one tangible thing is being compared to another, while symbolizing autumn, death and loss. There are more examples of metaphors from poetry, literature and music later on this page.

SIMILE DEFINITION: A simile is a type of metaphor in which possibly quite dissimilar things are "linked" through an attribute, most commonly by using "like" or "as." A famous simile is William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Wordsworth was not claiming to be a cloud, only to share its attribute of being apart from everything else. To understand the chief difference between metaphor and simile, please compare "her cheeks were roses" [metaphor/direct] with "her cheeks were like roses" [simile/indirect]. In this case the difference may be hard to detect. But if I were to say, "My father is the Devil," that would be considerably different than saying, "My father is as sly as the Devil."

SIMILE EXAMPLES: Examples of commonly-used similes include "blind as a bat," "cool as a cucumber," "sweet as sugar," "slow as a snail," "mad as a hatter" and "sly as a fox." An example of a simile that does not employ "like" or "as" is William Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate." Shakespeare is not saying that his lover is a summer day, so he remains within the realm of simile. Here's an excellent example of simile from the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: "The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key." There are more examples of metaphors from poetry, literature and music later on this page.

SYMBOL DEFINITION: A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object that represents something abstract. For instance: a crown symbolizes royalty, a halo symbolizes saintliness, etc.

SYMBOL EXAMPLES: These are examples of common symbols: night=evil, light=good, spring=youth, summer=maturity, autumn=old age/aging, winter=death, dove=peace, olive=peace, moon=love, Venus=love, Mars=war, etc.

Metaphors and symbols are closely related. In general, a symbol stands for or represents something else, usually an abstract idea, whereas a metaphor compares two different things and illuminates similarities between them. For instance, Venus and the moon have become universal symbols of love (an abstract concept). But metaphors and similes do not depend on preconceived relationships. For instance, in one of my poems I compared an aging woman's thinning hair to emu feathers:

See how her hair has thinned: it doesn’t seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake.

I just love the wisdom and spirit of Hafiz in this subversive (pardon the pun) little poem below. I can see Trump putting refugees in cages, while Hafiz goes around letting them out for a moondance! In this poem, keys represent freedom.

The imbecile
constructs cages
for everyone he knows,
while the sage
(who has to duck his head
whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys
all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy,
prison gang.
—Hafiz, translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are three common metaphors: "He ruled with an iron hand because he had a heart of stone, but it turned out that he had feet of clay!"

Here are three similes: "Her lips are like cherries, her hair like spun gold, her eyes like flashing emeralds."

A universal symbol is like an extremely popular meme: it has been accepted and can be understood on its own, without any "help" from writers. Because the moon and Venus have become universal symbols of love, if I say, "The first time I saw her, Venus touched me!" most readers will immediately understand that what happened was love at first sight. If, on the other hand, I were to say, "The first time I saw her, Itokawa touched me!" most readers would draw a blank because the asteroid Itokawa has no commonly-understood symbolic meaning. A "global" or universal symbol carries its meaning everywhere it goes. But it is possible for writers to create "local" symbols in their works. For instance, the English poet William Blake created his own system of symbols in his prophetic poems, but an "outsider" might have a very hard time figuring them out.

A local symbol is one that is "local" to a particular poem or other work of literature. In this short poem of mine, I describe "poetic vision" as being like a scuba diver swimming through the bubbles created by his own breath ...

What the Poet Sees
by Michael R. Burch

What the poet sees,
he sees as a swimmer underwater
watching the shoreline blur
sees through his breath’s weightless bubbles ...
Both worlds grow obscure.

Surrealism occurs when the images, metaphors and/or symbols used are fantastic, irrational, incongruous, contradictory or "just don't make sense." Things take on the weirdness of a dream when things don't "add up." Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are examples of still-popular surrealism. Carroll has been credited with the invention of surrealism with the publication of Alice in 1865, although the term came much later. Another possible forefather of surrealism is Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, whose often-surrealistic play Faust dates to around 1775. But we can find surrealistic elements in much older writings―for instance Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Dante's Divine Comedy, William Shakespeare's Tempest and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen. Hell, one of the earth's oldest extant poems, The Epic of Gilgamesh, circa the 18th century B.C., seems wildly surreal in places! So do parts of the Hebrew Bible. In any case, "early adopters" of surrealism among major modern writers include Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Franz Kafka and e. e. cummings. Modern surrealism began as an artistic movement in Paris in the 1920s and lasted until the 1940s. André Breton founded and propelled the movement with his publication of The Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Other notable surrealistic writers and artists include Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Desnos, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Luis Buñuel, René Magritte and Pablo Picasso. Although the movement died, its techniques remain with us in comic books, cartoons, graphic novels, video games and SNL skits like the Coneheads.

Related Definitions: In magic realism, most of the tale being told makes sense, but there are elements of surrealism. Notable magical realist writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. In fabulism, magical realism takes the form of fables. Fairy tales are written by fabulists. Notable fabulists include Aesop, Uncle Remus, Hans Christian Anderson, Beatrix Potter and Italo Calvino. Conversely, absurdism stretches surrealism to such lengths that little or nothing makes sense. Poems written in Klingon or dog barks would be extreme examples of absurdism. For many readers, an absurdist poem or story is "complete nonsense." But then sometimes nonsense can be entertaining! Notable absurdist writers who can (at times) be understood include Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett.

EXTENDED METAPHOR DEFINITION: An extended metaphor, in certain more extensive cases known as a "metaphysical conceit," is a longer, more elaborate metaphor. Poets who became famous for such constructions include John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Andrew Cowley, John Cleveland, George Herbert and Henry Vaughn. Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day") is an extended metaphor, as is Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers." There are more examples of extended metaphors below.

MIXED METAPHOR DEFINITION: There is another, often not-so-good, category of metaphor: the mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors contain correspondences that don't fully mesh. For instance, William Shakespeare has Hamlet considering whether to "... take arms against a sea of troubles / and, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep ..." But obviously one can neither fight nor "end" a sea! Weapons and the sea don't mix. Shakespeare might have done better to compare ending life's struggles to pulling the plug on a bathtub full of dingy water! To employ a simile, mixed metaphors are like P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid: "they sound cool and exotic in your head, but upon closer examination they're made up of two things hastily sewn together that really shouldn't be." Mixed metaphors are literature's shambling, badly-stitched-together Frankensteins!

CATACHRESIS DEFINITION: Catachresis is the use of words in inappropriate or unconventional ways. Another definition of catachresis is "an exaggerated comparison for rhetorical effect." Here's an example of good catachresis, from Francis Bacon: "A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green." Two lovely examples of catachresis can be found in the highly unconventional poetry of e. e. cummings: "the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands."

IRONY: A metaphor can be used for purposes of irony, in which case the poet may not actually believe what he/she is saying. For example ...

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Here, in his poem "The Sun Rising," John Donne is accusing the sun of being a busybody who foolishly disturbs and wakes up Donne and his lover after a night of lovemaking! But of course Donne is just wisecracking, being clever.

METAPHOR EXAMPLES: Here are justly famous examples of metaphors in literature, poetry and music ...

"Tilting at windmills" = fighting imaginary foes [Miguel Cervantes]
"Gone with the wind" = time deprives us of everything [Ernest Dowson, later used by Margaret Mitchell as the title of her famous novel]
"Here be dragons" = we are entering dangerous territory [Unknown]
"All the world's a stage" = human beings are actors playing parts, perhaps in a predetermined script? [William Shakespeare]
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee" = everyone will die [John Donne]
"A candle in the wind" = human life is fragile and easily snuffed out [Elton John/Bernie Taupin]
"Every rose has its thorn" = beauty comes with the price of injury and suffering [Bret Michaels]
"The caged bird sings" = a black poet is like a bird singing in a cage [Maya Angelou]
"Like a bridge over troubled water" = a friend in need is like a bridge spanning a raging flood [Paul Simon]
"Conscience is a man's compass." [Vincent Van Gogh]

SIMILE EXAMPLES: Here are justly famous examples of similes in literature, poetry and music ...

"Juliet is the sun ..." [William Shakespeare]
"Oh, my luve's like a red, red rose ..." [Robert Burns]
"[Men] swarm around me, a hive of honey bees." [Unknown]
"She's like the wind." [Patrick Swayze and Stacy Widelitz]
"You are my sunshine." [Authorship Disputed]
"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog." [Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller]
"I am a rock, I am an island." [Paul Simon, refuting John Donne's claim that "no man is an island"]
"Laughter like a chime of bells." [Charles Reade]
"Laughter rich as woodland thunder." [Ralph Waldo Emerson]
"Laughter soft as tears." [Algernon Charles Swinburne]
"For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool." [Old Testament]

Soft laughter as of light that stirs the sea
With darkling sense of dawn ere dawn may be.
—Algernon Charles Swinburne

Sweet laughter in mirthfulness artlessly flowing
Like zephyrs at play through a fairy flute blowing.
—Ralph D. Williams


Writers sometimes employ extended metaphors, as William Shakespeare does in this famous scene from "Romeo and Juliet" ...

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Here's another extended metaphor from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" ...

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The example above may also be considered a mixed metaphor, as life is compared to a "walking shadow," to a "poor player" and to a "tale."

In some cases, an entire poem can become an extended metaphor ...

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and "Gathering Leaves"
Robert Frost's "Mending Wall"
William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day")
Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers"

For example, the entire poem "Gathering Leaves" can be interpreted as an extended metaphor for unproductive human enterprises that waste time and effort ...

Gathering Leaves
by Robert Frost

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?


John Donne is generally considered to be the pioneer of metaphysical poetry and the sometimes hard-to-swallow "metaphysical conceit." For example, in his poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne compares the souls of lovers to the points on an architect's protractor! ...

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

If all that stiffness and growing erect is meant to be naughty, Donne has indeed blazed new poetic territory!

One very interesting metaphysical conceit appears in Donne's "Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness." Shakespeare had Romeo compare Juliet to the East, because that's where the sun rises. But Donne compares himself to a map surrounded by cosmographers (physicians) who are studying his West (death). Donne then points out that in maps, East and West meet, and asks: "What shall my West hurt me?"

Other examples of full-poem metaphysical conceits include:

"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell
"The Coronet" by Andrew Marvell
"The Collar" by George Herbert
"The Pulley" by George Herbert
"Redemption" by George Herbert
"Love (III)" by George Herbert
"The Waterfall" by Henry Vaughn
"The Night" by Henry Vaughn


When Jewish poets wrote about the horrors of the Holocaust, they sometimes used powerful, evocative metaphors to stunning effect ...

Wasted feet, cursed earth,
the interminable gray morning
as Buna smokes corpses through industrious chimneys.
—"Buna" by Primo Levi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Buna was a Nazi concentration camp. The image of the chimneys of Buna "smoking" corpses to ash, the way smokers produce ash from cigarettes, is stunning. Levi's metaphor may also suggest that the morning is gray because of the ash rising from Buna's chimneys, the way smoking cigarettes can cloud the surrounding air.

We are digging a grave like a hole in the sky; there’s sufficient room to lie there.
The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!
—"Death Fugue" by Paul Celan, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Paul Celan mixes metaphor with reality, to paint a picture of a Nazi who writes romantic love poems while sending Jews to mass graves ("where together they'll lie"). We cannot take the "hole in the sky" and "plays with vipers" literally, nor is the darkness really "Teutonic." But we can certainly "get" what Celan wants us to see and understand. It is also vital to the poem that the Nazis considered fair-skinned human beings with "golden hair" to be "superior" to people with darker skin and hair. So when the Nazi poet writes "Your golden hair Margarete" in the Teutonic darkness, this is probably a metaphor for the primary cause of the Holocaust. It was not the Jews who were "dark" but the hearts, minds and beliefs of their Nazi oppressors.

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
Michael R. Burch, "Epitaph for a Palestinian Child"

In my original poem above, the grave is a metaphor for death and "the grave is wide" does not refer to the physical characteristics of an actual grave, but to how Israeli and U.S. injustices that cause Palestinian children to suffer and die can lead to events like 911, and thus cause Israeli and American children to suffer and die.

The oppressed can but pursue suitable tracks
Learning to heed the lessons of awesome war
But will the mighty listen to reason’s voice
That justice will accomplish the peace of Rome?
Or will conscience’s dictates be inexorably ignored
As war’s clouds hover over culture’s great cradle?
And yet we do not harbor the odium of hatred
But pray that peace can still be humanity’s finest hour.
—Khaled Nusseibeh

Khaled Nusseibeh is a Palestinian poet writing about the Nakba (Arabic for "Catastrophe"). He uses several vivid, highly effective metaphors to make the argument that his people deserve justice but have been treated unjustly. He portrays "awesome war" (the "shock and awe" variety practiced by Israel and the U.S. on less powerful nations) as a stern, iron-handed, unjust teacher. He points out the that famous Pax Romana ("peace of Rome") was based on a system of justice. "War's clouds" refer to the dark state produced by war. He also points out that the Middle East is the "cradle" of human culture, as civilization began in the Middle East. Like Paul Celan, he mixes the literal with the metaphorical.

Throughout human history, oppressed people have used such metaphors in poems, songs, laments and dirges. For instance, in the popular negro spiritual "Sing Low, Sweet Chariot," the river Jordan represents death while the chariot represents salvation into the Promised Land (heaven), which lies on the other side of the Jordan (death):

I looked over Jordan,
An' what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home?
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home!
Swing low, sweet chariot ...

Mary Elizabeth Frye is, perhaps, the most mysterious poet who appears on this page, and perhaps in the annals of poetry. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I will present her poem first, then provide the details ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

This consoling elegy had a very mysterious genesis, as it was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age three. She had never written poetry before. Frye wrote the poem on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag, in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave to share her tears of love and bereavement. When the poem was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000 call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase. Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.

English and American protest poetry and songwriting probably begin with William Blake, the great English poet, artist and mystic. In his poem "Jerusalem," the city of Jerusalem stands for the England that Blake believed England should have been, and the "dark Satanic mills" stand for what Dwight D. Eisenhower would later call the "military-industrial complex":

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
—"Jerusalem" by William Blake

Blake's poem also mentions a "chariot of fire," which later became the title of a popular movie. While we can't be sure exactly what Blake means by his "chariot of fire," it probably refers to the fiery chariot that carried the prophet Elijah up to heaven, and so may symbolize correct belief, or true religion. But Blake did not agree with the black-robed priests of orthodox Christianity who erected "THOU SHALT NOT" signs in his garden of earthly delights. Blake was a mystic who claimed to speak to angels and saints on a regular basis, and he believed in free love, not what he saw as the false morality of the Religious Right of his day.

Interestingly, one of the best-known apologists for orthodox Christianity, C. S. Lewis, was haunted by a line of Norse poetry ...

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes . . .
—“Tegner's Drapa,” loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are some of my own personal choices for the best brief, concise metaphors in the English language, in the form of epigrams (short, pithy sayings):

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.—Eleanor Roosevelt
Conscience is a man’s compass. Vincent Van Gogh
And your very flesh shall be a great poem. Walt Whitman
Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. George Orwell
Dying is a wild night and a new road. Emily Dickinson
The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.—Tennessee Williams
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.—Albert Camus
Little strokes fell great oaks.—Ben Franklin
Never tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon.—Unknown
Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.—Will Rogers
I don't approve of political jokes; I have seen too many of them get elected.—Jon Stewart
Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart, and his friends can only read the title.—Virginia Woolf
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.—Henry David Thoreau
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before, to test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.—Anaïs Nin

In each case above, the saying means more than its literal meaning. Below are some short, epigrammatic poems that also convey more than their literal meaning ...

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
—Alexander Pope

Deep autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue ...
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
—“In A Station Of The Metro” by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens
—“The Garden” by Ezra Pound

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
—“Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs ...
—“In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden

Here are Tweets that use metaphor to good effect ...

My phone reception is so clear, I can hear my wife’s eyes rolling as I talk.—@cpinck
The Tea Party enthusiast at work wants everyone to know she "brung muffins." In the distance, a lonely coyote howls.—@lafix

Here are two of my favorite modern metaphors and the evocative story behind them ...

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year ...

Shine on you crazy diamond ...
Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!

The metaphors above were penned by Roger Waters of the progressive rock group Pink Floyd to express his hopes and concerns for Syd Barrett, a childhood friend and former bandmate. Barrett, a wonderfully attractive and talented young man, had been the band’s lead vocalist, lead guitarist and primary songwriter during its formative years. But unfortunately Barrett struggled with mental illness complicated by drug abuse, and at the time the lyrics above were penned, the other band members hadn’t seen Barrett for an extended period of time.

Barrett showed up unannounced during the recording of the songs above. Here is how Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright recalls that unusual day:

Roger [Waters] was there, and he was sitting at the desk, and I came in and I saw this guy sitting behind him--huge, bald, fat guy. I thought, "He looks a bit ... strange ..." Anyway, so I sat down with Roger at the desk and we worked for about ten minutes, and this guy kept on getting up and brushing his teeth and then sitting--doing really weird things, but keeping quiet. And I said to Roger, "Who is he?" and Roger said "I don't know." and I said "Well, I assumed he was a friend of yours," and he said "No, I don't know who he is." Anyway, it took me a long time, and then suddenly I realized it was Syd, after maybe 45 minutes. He came in as we were doing the vocals for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which was basically about Syd. He just, for some incredible reason he picked the very day that we were doing a song which was about him. And we hadn't seen him, I don't think, for two years before. That's what's so incredibly ... weird about this guy. And a bit disturbing, as well, I mean, particularly when you see a guy, that you don't, you couldn't recognize him. And then, for him to pick the very day we want to start putting vocals on, which is a song about him. Very strange.

It is also very strange that the closing line of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (“Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!”) seems to have summoned Barrett to the christening of the songs written about him!

The ancient Greeks invented gods, the Muses, to explain the inexplicable source of poetry, which they assumed to be divinely inspired. While I can’t claim to “know” if there is any truth to the idea that gods sometimes inspire human poetry, I can certain share some of the better examples and more interesting stories about them.

But first, let’s try to define what we mean by the terms “metaphor” and “simile.”

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, metaphor is a form of transference with magical qualities. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle said: “Metaphor especially has clarity and sweetness and strangeness.” The best metaphors might even be considered a form of transport. For instance:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
—“Sonnet 73" by William Shakespeare

One can easily imagine a young girl being temporarily transported by such words (and the young man reciting them might feel equally transported). In Aristotle’s Rhetoric he also says that metaphor makes learning pleasant, perhaps thinking of the entertaining insights poets like Homer create through vivid, memorable metaphors. But metaphor exists outside poetry and literature. For example:

Richard the Lionheart
Ted “the Splendid Splinter” Williams
Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran

King Richard I of England was renowned for his courage in battle, hence the sobriquet “Lionheart” or “Lionhearted.” Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball — some say the best — and because a baseball bat is made of wood, and because Williams was lean and tall, “Splendid Splinter” says worlds and makes perfect sense, in two perfect words. Roberto Duran was a boxer who knocked out most of his opponents, thus "Hands of Stone."

Simile is a form of metaphor that uses “like” or “as”:

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
—“A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns

When asked to name the primary influence on his artistic life, the famous singer-songwriter Bob Dylan (who “borrowed” his last name from the first name of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) cited “A Red, Red Rose" by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poem above is written an somewhat archaic version of the Scots-English dialect, but it still reads wonderfully well today. And while metaphor is probably as old as the eldest human language, the best metaphors remain both stunningly current and endlessly, vitally alive:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
—“Sonnet 73" by William Shakespeare

Metaphor and simile have been with the human race for thousands of years. Here is an excerpt poem from an ancient Egyptian poem that is probably around 4,000 years old:

Death is before me today
Like the sky when it clears
Like a man's wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.

Metaphor is apparently as old as language itself, appearing in the earliest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. For instance, Gilgamesh has a dream about a "falling star." Mystified, he turns to his mother Ninsun for its interpretation and she tells him that this "fallen star" is a metaphor representing a great friend or brother who would soon join Gilgamesh. In fact, it has been suggested that the entire story of Gilgamesh is an extended metaphor for man’s longing for immortality and his struggle to find meaning in a world full of death.

The earliest English poem still extant today employs the metaphors of God being the first Architect and Poet ...

Now let us honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father. First he, the Eternal Lord,
established the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the First Poet, created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men, Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind. Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master almighty!
—“Cædmon's Hymn” (circa 658-680 AD), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English because Cædmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the Angles were a Germanic tribe. Nevertheless, by Cædmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God.

Homer developed metaphor into an art form, and his invention of the epic simile was picked up by later writers including Dante and Milton. In the Middle Ages the device of allegory underpinned much of French and English writing, while the later Metaphysical poets employed increasingly elaborate metaphorical conceits in the sixteenth century. Today most contemporary English/American poetry and songwriting tends toward the lyric, so the use of metaphor tends to be more specific than general, but there are wonderful exceptions to the rule. Here are some more typical modern metaphors, followed by entire poems that may be considered extended metaphors ...

There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven ...
—“Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin

And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.
—“Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
—“I am a Rock" by Paul Simon

There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad
—“Riders on the Storm" by the Doors

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
—“Goodbye Norma Jean" by Elton John and Bennie Taupin

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
—“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
—“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
—“Song For The Last Act” by Louise Bogan

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
—“MacBeth” by William Shakespeare

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
—“They Flee from Me” by Thomas Wyatt

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end:
Methinks it is no journey.
Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.
—“Tom O' Bedlam's Song” anonymous ballad, circa 1620

Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.
—“His Confession” by the Archpoet; circa 1165; translated from the original Medieval Latin by Helen Waddell

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!
— Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Our life here on earth:
to what shall we compare it?
It is not like a rowboat
departing at daybreak,
leaving no trace of man in its wake?
—Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wulf and Eadwacer
Anonymous Anglo Saxon poem, circa 960 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is to the others as if someone robbed them of a gift.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf's far wanderings, I suffered with hope.
Whenever it rained and I woke, disconsolate,
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, that was pleasant, but it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, unable to eat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

The metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never really harmonized remains one of the strongest in the English language, or any language. Now here are poems that are essentially metaphors, being extended metaphors ...

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Randall Jarrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1914, the year World War I began. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Vanderbilt University, where he studied under Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and worked as a control tower operator during World War II, an experience which influenced and provided material for his poetry. Jarrell’s reputation as a poet was established in 1945 with the publication of his second book, Little Friend, Little Friend, which "bitterly and dramatically documents the intense fears and moral struggles of young soldiers."

Last Night
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Last night, your memory stole into my heart
as spring sweeps uninvited into barren gardens,
as morning breezes reinvigorate dormant deserts,
as a patient suddenly feels well, for no apparent reason ...

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear?
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently?
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again?
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

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