The Metaphor of Every-Day Life

— For a people who talk as much as we Americans, we are strangely deficient in current proverb and available metaphor. With the exception of certain Yankee quaintnesses and the topsy - turviness of humor which reached its acme in Artemus Ward, we have done little in the way of furnishing ourselves with useful and artistic slang. To be sure, we have invented some odd verbal terms of distinction (of more than doubtful expediency and fitness), as when we say a “walkist,” meaning a man who walks for a living, as discriminated from the “ walker,” who is merely a man who walks ; or as when we indicate by the word “ billiardist ” the gentleman who makes a calling of the propulsion of ivory in contradistinction to the ordinary individual who plays billiards !

The older countries, especially those rejoicing in many dialects, have a wealth of proverb and metaphor, the picturesqueness of which might imply a survival of the fittest through many generations. What, for instance, could be better descriptive of a man who returns abashed at the non-success of his mission than the phrase (Scotch), “ He came back with his finger in his mouth ” ? What more vivid limning of the fatuously improvident one than the following description, “ He came home with both arms alike long ” ? A whole sermon on marriage is contained in the phrase, from the same national source, “ Beauty and she might be married, being nothing akin ” (applied to the case of a conspicuously plain woman). The delight which is sometimes experienced at some novel wickedness, or, still more, novel virtue, has a brief but expressive condensation in the word “ newins.” I noticed in army days that no one had to ask twice to be sent to the front ; and the philosophy of Auld Reekie confirms this noble sentiment in a proverb to the effect that “ those who are willing to take the black end of the poker will always get it.” The unwritten anthology of popular wisdom is rich in prudence rather than generosity, abounding in warnings against the vice of unthrift. Probably in all languages there is a variant for the idea contained in that homely Yankee distich,

“ But keep your money in your pocket,
For when it’s there, you know you ’ve got it,”

— an idea which is offset by the following from the Scotch : “ If a man counts the cost, he ’ll never put plough in the ground.”

The metaphor of every-day life, being made, as it is, for convenience rather than for ornament, is apt to resemble the attire of every-day life, and is therefore more remarkable for its accommodating proportions than for its suitable fit. Indeed, certain current witticisms seem to be valued (and here let the present metaphor be changed) as missiles which can safely be launched on all occasions, since their entire merit is irrelevance ! The embodiment of all evil, his Satanic Majesty, and the kingdom which he represents, are apt to figure largely in the metaphor of every-day life ; and the easygoing indifference as to fit or fitness is nowhere better manifested than in the various rôles assigned to this tropical personage. It might seem proper to refer to the weather as being “ hot as the Devil ; ” but when the profane hewers of wood, in midwinter, on the Canada border, look forth on a morning when the mute mercury cowers in the bottom of the thermometer, and characterize the season as one cold as the regions swayed by the Prince of Darkness, we might call this the meeting of extremes. In most metaphorical illustrations, persons given to methods of this sort are likely to push language to the last hyperbolical bounds. So, the bucolic voyager, overtaken by a passing shower, describes the event as a series of torrents, sometimes reaching the amazing consummation of “cats and dogs, ” or, yet worse, “ pitchforks ; ” but why these domestic animals or agricultural implements should be so popular in weather observations is difficult to account for except on the score of improbability.

Persons who are têle montée, such as fervid orators, temperance lecturers, and lovers, are not expected to confine themselves to literal truth ; and we cannot wonder that the narratives of J. B. Gough were more remarkable for their tear-compelling qualities than for historic or clinical accuracy. The lover is aware that he is expected to come supplied with certain “property” metaphors (if a theatrical term may be used), metaphors in which the lady’s eyes are likened to stars, which they must very slightly resemble ; although, when the rose and the carnation are laid under contribution for limning her cheeks and lips as they appear to him, there is both propriety and fragrance in their use !

In politics, of course, the “property” metaphor is drawn mainly from the national symbols, with such occasional allusions to our national dimensions and civic virtues as will conduce to the popularity of the orator. However, there is nowadays far less tampering with the bird of freedom, far less adverting to territorial resources, than was the case in the early days of the republic. The late Daniel Dougherty used to allude to his political opponents as persons who had “ dried up the fountains of liberty, and locked the wheels of progress,” making a very convenient use of certain obvious elements of our commonwealth. Joseph Rodman Drake furnished material for the Fourth of July orator for a period of fifty years ; but, unfortunately, when the abolition question arose, the inconvenient presence of “ stripes ” in his glowing metaphor was a drawback to national similitudes of freedom. Contributory to this department of rhetoric, Edward Everett made a beautiful turning-point in his speech on Washington by referring to the Indian quest of Vasco da Gama and the sublime mistake which brought Columbus to our shores when seeking India as “ two century plants, of the West and the East.”

Time was when a poem, even a lyric like those of Moore, was expected to contain at least one thoughtful metaphor addressed in verse as musical as poetry could command. As, for example, in one of the Irish Melodies, where the proverbial variableness of climate is used to parallel the troubled political career of Ireland, the whole metaphor is “resolved” (to speak as musicians do) in the second verse, where “a rainbow of promise” is called in to reconcile all factions under “ one arch of peace.” In another instance taken from this poet, any one who has ever heard the snapping of a string on a musical instrument, especially at night, when the increased dampness makes such an accident probable, will see at once the propriety with which the idea is introduced in that most poetic bewailing of the silenced harp, in the lines, —

“ The chord alone that breaks at night
Its tale of ruin tells.”

It would seem that our moderns (the impressionists of verse, shall we call them ?) can find some better way of expressing the thoughts that crowd upon them, for the metaphor is no more a necessity of life in poetry than it is in oratory. But it is the metaphor of every-day life that is under present consideration, and I fear that it is subjected to many humiliating tasks ; largely used for purposes of needless condensation, lending a sting to the blow of invective, imparting a pathos to the pleading of self-seeking ; acting, therefore, as a stenographer, telephone, and other ornaments of the useful arts, until, like the spavined race horse that draws a buggy for the country doctor, it is scarce recognizable in its harness of commonplace duty !

On the whole, the “property” metaphors are the least objectionable : they fill a “long-felt want.” Like depreciated currency, they deceive no one, for no one attaches to them their face value. A gentleman who is described as being “ quicker than lightning ” may be one who simply avoids being a sloth. A man who is “ strong as a horse ” need not necessarily draw four tons to prove his athletic power. When, on the other hand, eulogistic comparisons are addressed to beauty, all reasonable exaggeration becomes poetic license, and is understood to express not so much the literal fact as the elevated state of mind of him who speaks.