On the Mixing of Metaphor

THE other day, while groping among the serious, and, I regret to say, little used, pigeon-holes of my brain, I discovered the materials for a paper of the ‘uplift’ persuasion, which seemed to me beautifully appropriate to the Home, Heart, and Hope Magazine. Unfortunately, however, my pen had not led gracefully forth from the impalpable dark of the mind to the daylight of writing more than a dozen impressive sentences, when I discovered that it had committed itself to the words, ‘This leads me to pursue the following train of thought’; upon which, a little uneasy devil within me stirred, opened an eye, and questioned, ‘Can one pursue a following train?’

Immediately the serious gray clouds of my uplift article broke away, and there swirled into view the vision of myself, pen in hand, hair flying, in mad pursuit of a train that forever followed after me. Round again, and round again! Here we were like the snake with its tail in its mouth. In that wild dance, ‘Out flew the web, and floated wide’ of my beautiful serious article, its ‘mirror cracked from side to side’; and when the dust settled a little from the shattering of all my good intentions, I found myself face to face with that old enemy of mine, Metaphor, who was licking down his fur and squeaking out his usual protest about my having mixed him.

‘Look here,’ I said, ‘ I set out to write an article that should have made the world a sweeter and a better place, when you came blundering in with your nonsense about not being able to pursue a following train, and threw me right off the track. Now I’m going to settle with you once and for all.’

I spoke with more bitterness because Metaphor and I have been at odds for very many years. Our first difficulty dates from as long ago as my second little trembling book, in which I described the remorse of one of the characters over the unhappiness brought about by her own unkind words by saying, ‘The old woman was appalled by the terrible stone which her tongue had set rolling.’ Fortunately I myself discovered this before my little book went forth into an unkind and critical world; but for weeks I was haunted by a mental picture of an old woman busily rolling stones along with her tongue. My own tongue was lacerated by the thought. Therefore, on this occasion I abandoned the serious article with a certain gladness while I attempted the settlement of Metaphor once and for all.

Alas! this is the unexpected habit of my pen. It can no more pursue one straight line of thought than a terrier can trot along the street without being deflected down every alley, and after every cat which offers. Its waywardness, indeed, reminds me of my youthful rides on an old horse of long ago. We children like to pretend we rode that horse; in reality we knew, together with the horse, and all spectators, that he rode us exactly where he pleased. At the cross-roads, where one fork led to the stable and the other to the house, we were sure to find, no matter how much we might have been set upon going to the house, that the only dignified thing to do — under the amused gaze of grown-up spectators at the house — was to pretend that the stable had all along been our intention. Those childish tussles at the cross-roads with old Sol (in which he always won) so early broke my spirit that I have never been able to keep my pen from taking the bit between its teeth and bolting after every fresh idea which appears.

And if here any reader objects that pens have no teeth with which to take the bit, I can only say that doubtless he is right, and that this by a happy chance restores that wayward quill of mine to the subject in hand — Metaphor, and all its mixings.

I would not have it supposed that I am at odds with all the figures of speech. On the contrary, with most of them I am on the best of terms; like Saul and Jonathan, we are lovely and pleasant in our lives. Apostrophe, allusion, alliteration—I use them all; even metonymy, synecdoche, trope, I sometimes manage, although it is true, as with certain of my acquaintances, I am more familiar with their faces than with their names. My only quarrel is with metaphor. That figure appears to me to be as unbearably high-handed and dictatorial as a Hohenzollern. Particularly, it seems to mistrust me, and to be in a chronic state of apprehension for fear I should mix it.

But why should it set itself up as the only thing on earth that positively cannot be mixed? Plenty of other distinguished things suffer mixing without complaint. Look at pickles, for instance. Who ever heard of any pickle, no matter how exalted its station in life, making a fuss over being mixed? Then why should even the humblest of metaphors always assume this don’ttouch-me air? Let an author’s pen come anywhere near it, with the hope of its helping out a little in the decoration of ideas, and it is sure to give a nervous jump and squeak out, ‘Now don’t mix me, George!’ — or Bill, or Sadie, or whatever the unfortunate author’s name may be.

Metaphor’s attitude, indeed, reminds me of that story of the insane gentleman who labored under the unfortunate impression that he was a glass pitcher, with the result that he was forever jumping away from people, exclaiming, ‘Look out now! Don’t break me!’ This exceedingly fragile attitude toward society at last reacted upon the nerves of one of the other inmates, and suddenly pouncing upon the apprehensive gentleman, he slammed him violently against the wall, crying, ‘Here now! We’ve had about all we can stand of you!’ With the happy result that when the glass-pitcher person discovered that he was not shattered into a thousand fragments, he immediately recovered his sanity.

Now it seems to me that what metaphor needs is just some such firm and ungloved treatment. Undoubtedly its fear of being mixed has reached a pathological state: from having been merely an idiosyncrasy it has gone over into a phobia — an abnormal fear. Therefore, it seems to me that the only means of restoring its sanity and usefulness is for writers to combine to put it through a thorough and systematic course of mixing. Only when metaphor becomes resigned to seeing itself mixed from a figure of speech into a figure of fun, will its usefulness to the drivers of the quill be restored.

Dear fellow authors, in the furtherance of this much-needed campaign, and to set a good example — drawn somewhat from a classical model of the older rhetorics — I herewith send forth this little idea, like a young squirrel escaping from his cage, to navigate the sea of literature, sincerely hoping that it may bear much fruit.