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What is a Metaphor?

Updated on November 29, 2016

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one kind of object or idea is compared or identified with another kind in order to suggest a Similarity between them. Often the comparison is a highly imaginative one between things that have no apparent connection. For example, the British author Robert Louis Stevenson compared the human body to a dungeon that yet is large enough to contain parks and palaces.

Metaphors are used not only in written prose and poetry but in everyday speech. The common expression "He is a pillar of strength" is a metaphor. In a metaphorical statement such as "He raced through his meal" the idea of eating rapidly is conveyed through "raced," a word that usually refers to a speed competition. Metaphors used very frequently are likely to lose their vivid suggestiveness and are called dead metaphors.

Examples include "the head of the class," "the foot of the mountain," and "the eye of a needle."

Metaphors have an especially important function in poetry, where they communicate ideas and emotions more vividly than abstract statements do. A metaphor in poetry may be contained in a short and simple statement, such as "The world's a bubble," or it may be an elaborate comparison sustained throughout the poem. Some of the most memorable poetic metaphors in English are found in the works of Shakespeare. In one of his best-known sonnets, for example, he compares middle age to a tree in late autumn:

That time of year thou may'st 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...

Examples of other famous Shakespearean metaphors are "All the world's a stage" and "Life's but a walking shadow."

A metaphor is usually distinguished from another figure of speech, the simile, in which the comparison between two objects or ideas is made obvious by the word "like" or "as." The difference between "My love is like the morning sun" and "My love is the morning sun" may seem unimportant, but the second, metaphorical statement is stronger. Mixed metaphors result when two metaphors are combined in an absurdly illogical and contradictory manner, as, for example, in the statement "The British lion will never pull in its horns."

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