Many years ago, I was doing research in the Catholic University of America library, and by chance discovered Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language by Sister Miriam Joseph. At first, I was overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of her analysis, but the part that I grasped at once was her discussion of figurative language. Even though I had “honors” literature classes in my public high school, I could only name the most basic forms of figurative language: metaphor, simile, personification and hyperbole. I did not know other forms even existed. And when we studied literature, even poetry, the use of figurative language was scarcely noticed, let alone analyzed.
Sr. Miriam’s book introduced me to metonymy (which substitutes an attribute for the thing itself, e.g a car is a “ride,” a restaurant customer is a “plate”); synecdoche (which substitutes the part for the whole, or the whole for the part, e.g. “suits” for officials or “skirts” for girls); and meiosis (or “understatement,” the opposite of hyperbole, e.g. a major wound is “a scratch”). In his discussion of poetic language, Aristotle observes that it is “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” (Poetics, chap.22, 1459a5-8) Aristotle focuses on metaphor, but clearly his point applies to figurative language in general. Hence, the genius of Shakespeare’s language, the richness use of figures such as metaphor, simile and many others besides, was lost on me until I met Sr. Miriam.
In my high school, we tended to focus on imagery and symbolism to the detriment of figurative language. We would analyze what the forest “stood for” in The Scarlet Letter, or what the Duke and Dauphine “symbolized” in Huckleberry Finn. This certainly has its place – imagery and symbolism are literary devices. But, if Aristotle is right, the comparisons and contrasts that figurative language makes possible is a defining trait, perhaps the defining trait of both prose and poetry. It is even, as Aristotle explains in his logical works, a philosophic ability. Part of logic is training oneself to find likenesses in unlike things (Topics, I.17). When Socrates relates his “cave allegory” in the Republic, his hearers consider the prisoners and their prison “strange.” But Socrates tells them, “they are like us.” He helps them to understand their own situation in something that at first seems completely unlike and “strange.”
The genius of figurative language is to see likenesses between things that do not at once appear like to us. It is this gift that allows F. Scott Fitzgerald to say of Daisy “Her voice is full of money” or Milton of his devils that “amazement seized the rebel thrones” (metonymy); or again, Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to write “the western wave was all aflame” or Shelley to say of Ozymandias, “the hand that mocked them/and the heart that fed” (synecdoche); or Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye to say “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor in my brain.” and Poe to describe his macabre tale of “The Black Cat” as a “homely narrative” (meiosis).
If you wish to learn more about figurative language, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language is a must-read. Perhaps an easier place to start is Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech, which illustrates various figures with quotations largely (though not exclusively) from Shakespeare’s plays and Biblical texts. (Most of the examples in the preceding paragraph are from Quinn’s book). Quinn was a longtime professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, (“Can anything good come from Berkeley? Come and see!”) and the book is as charming as it is instructive.