Metaphors in Literature

Category: Metaphor, Metaphysics
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2021
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Traditional views treating metaphor at linguistic levels show that metaphors in literature are more creative, unique, impressive, interesting, plentiful, and complex than those in non-literary texts (Semino & Steen, 2008). It is believed that the “real” source of metaphor is in literature (Kovecses, 2010a). As a genre of literature, poetry has all the qualities of literature (Abrams & Harpham, 2012). It is even more metaphorical than prose fiction thanks to the poets’ creative genius (Kovecses, 2002; Lodge, 1977-  28  cited from Semino & Steen, 2008).

In such beliefs, the poet Dickey suggests a fourstep process of metaphor-making, namely, (i) making picture comparisons in the mind, (ii) discovering the threads of continuity that run through these pictures and which create a “narrative of dramatic action”, (iii) recombining these elements so that they undergo a “fruitful interchange of qualities, a transference of energies, an informing of each other”, and (iv) translating this process into the medium of language (cited from Myers & Wukasch, 2003). Analogously, Ricoeur (1977) also defined the process of making metaphor including three steps, selection, substitution and language formation.

On the contrary, the CMT stated that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life; and the knowledge of everyday conceptual system can shed light on most of the cases of poetic metaphors because they are mostly extended from our everyday conventional system of metaphorical thought (Lakoff, 1993; Yu, 1998). It is further shown that poetic metaphorical expressions can be unconventional and novel, but the metaphorical concepts underlying them remain conventional and commonplace to most people in the community (Carriello, 2010; Kovecses, 2010a).

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The poetic language should consequently be regarded as part of the everyday language; and the analysis of the special acts of language and literature must start and end with that of everyday language (Turner, 1991).

It is noteworthy that most of poetic metaphors derive from conventional metaphors, they are thus neither creative nor original nor imaginative. However, poetic linguistic metaphors can be manifested in unconventional ways.

Furthermore, most but not all of the poetic metaphors are reflected based on everyday language. As mentioned above, there are still metaphors that are structured outside our everyday conceptual system. They provide new understanding of human experience. Such metaphors are “typically less clear but richer in meaning than either everyday metaphor” (Kovecses, 2010a, p.49). The metaphor LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART is the one Lakoff and Johnson (2003) used to illustrate the existence of such imaginative and creative metaphors.

Also in terms of metaphor in poetry, Gibbs (1994) claimed that despite using the same underlying conceptual metaphors, the language of great poets is more creative than that employed by most ordinary speakers. These poetic metaphors are made special by reworking ordinary everyday metaphors via four techniques- extending, elaboration, questioning and combining (Gibbs, 1994; Kovecses, 2010a; Lakoff and Turner, 1989); particularly as follows:

Extending is defined as adding a new conceptual element or an unconventional aspect to the source domain through new linguistic means to make the conventional metaphor novel. Kovecses (2010a, p.54) illustrated this technique via the lines “In the middle of life’s road/ I found myself in a dark wood” by Dante. There is seemingly no newness as the conventional metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is employed; but the creativity here lies in linguistic means by which the “life’s road” is described as passing through “a dark wood”. Dante extends the LIFE-ASJOURNEY metaphor by adding this unconventional element to it.

Unlike extending a metaphor by introducing new elements in the source domain, elaboration employs already existing elements in a new, unconventional way. This technique is believed to be a principal mode of poetic thought that goes beyond the ordinary (Lakoff & Turner, 1989). For example, in the lines When I dream of meeting/ the enemy, […] white acetylene/ ripples from my body... (Adrienne Rich, The Phenomenology of Anger, cited in Kovecses, 2010a, p.54-55), the conventional source domain a hot fluid used to describe anger is elaborated as a dangerous substance, acetylene. This modification is an unusual way of treating language to make poetic expressions creative and figurative.

The next technique- questioning is understood as calling into question of the very appropriateness, or pointing out the inadequacy of our everyday conventional metaphors. Let us consider an example cited from Kovecses (2010a, p.55), Suns can set and return again,/ but when our brief light goes out,/ there’s one perpetual night to be slept through (Catullus 5).

The poem points out that there are some questions of the appropriateness of the common conceptual metaphors for life and death, A LIFETIME IS A DAY and DEATH IS NIGHT. It is because once one dies, they cannot live again; or death is a “perpetual night to be slept through” and the dead never come back to life again, which challenges the validity of these metaphors. Therefore, the cognitive mechanism of questioning the validity of accepted metaphors may be based on the partial nature of metaphorical structuring.

Finally, combining is using the materials of several conventional metaphors in a single expression or at the same time. It is the most effective technique in making our everyday conceptual system rich and novel (Kovecses, 2010a). Let us look at the clause black night doth take away [the twilight] of the verse from Sonnet 73 by Shakespeare: In me thou seest the twilight of such day/ As after sunset fadeth in the west;/ Which by and by black night doth take away,/ Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

It is expressed skilfully with a combination of the following metaphors:

- black: LIFETIME IS A DAY, LIFE IS LIGHT, DEATH IS NIGHT - night: DEATH IS NIGHT, LIFE IS LIGHT - take away: LIFE IS PRECIOUS POSSESSION, EVENTS ARE ACTIONS  Blending together, these conventional metaphors reveal the idea that death (correspondent to night) takes away the precious possession of life (corresponding to light) (Lakoff & Turner, 1989, p.71).

In summary, on the basis of the conventional metaphors used by lay people, poets readjust their linguistic expressions to fit poetic circumstances and make their language novel, creative and imaginative via the tools of extending, elaboration, questioning and combining. Bartel (1983, p.54-55) thus pointed out four qualities of poetic metaphors: (i) inseparability form their contexts, (ii) their freshness and uniqueness, (iii) their newness produces not only surprise but also tension, and (iv) several different metaphors emerged in a subtle and interesting interaction. The consequence is that whereas the interpretation of conventional metaphors concerns sense retrieval, the comprehension of novel metaphors involves sense creation; and poetic language of metaphor when it is understandable can convey new poetic insights about human experiences (Bowdle & Gentner, 1999; Gibbs, 1994).

Since our study is carried out based on the materials of poetry, the poetic reworking mechanisms of ordinary metaphors become essential to help us analyse the data, find out the novelty in English and Vietnamese poetic language.

Concepts of space, time and sensory perceptions

In the cognitive view’s equation of meaning with conceptualization, semantic structures are characterized based on the experience of space and time (Bussmann, 2006). The structure of space, time and person is hence fundamental to cognitive process and the understanding of the world (Peer, Salomonc, Goldbergb, Blanke, & Arzy, 2015).


Space is a boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Space contains objects and events, but there also exist empty space and unoccupied places. Spatial relationships involve topology, orientation and distance relations between places (Bussmann, 2006; Mani & Pustejovsky, 2012). More specifically, spatial language is concerned with expressions describing location, movement, configuration and the relationships between objects in space (Coventry, 2009; Slack & Van de Zee, 2003). According to Lý Toàn Thắng (2005), spatial properties and relationships of objects can be reflected directly by senses through images or indirectly by logic through concepts. The spatial properties of an object through senses that can be defined by shape, size, space occupied, position, distance, etc. are manifested differently in languages. Thus, spatial language can be formalized in terms of topology and orientation (Mani & Pustejovsky, 2012,). It is used to reflect the existence of objects, their configuration, locations and motions in space. In human communication, utilizing spatial language is often extended to many abstract domains including love (Casasanto & Bottini, 2014; Landau & Jackendoff, 1993).


Temporal information plays a very important role in communication and in many specialized domains of human activity. Fraisse illuminated the importance of time in human life by explaining that our existential conditions vary constantly and modify us in different ways because our existence is structured and shaped by the rhythms of nights and days (cited from Hamdi, 2010). An obvious property of time that we all experience is its passing. Newton stated, “time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to any external” (cited from Evan, 2004). It is composed of points and intervals, and represented by its common units such as year, month, day, hour, minutes, second, etc. (Hajnicz, 1996). There are two opposite concepts of time: temporary and permanent time (McTaggart, 1927; Sinha & Gărdenfors, 2014). Temporary time represents time experienced from the inside on the basis of grammar tense, adverbs, and nominal temporal landmarks. Permanent time is time viewed from the outside and specified by before and after, earlier and later, first and last, etc. Although it is popular and well-known, time is one of the problematic aspects of human experience. Evans (2004) supposed that temporal experience is manifested in two levels: lexical and cognitive based on some notions such as temporal, duration, interval, moment, sequence and event. In lexical level, time is conventionally represented by time, past, present, future, etc. However, people ordinarily think and talk about time not in time’s own terms, but rather in terms of motion through, and location in, three-dimensional space (Evans, 2004). Similarly, Lakoff and Johnson (1980a) stated that time is frequently constructed in terms of space. Therefore, the data for our analysis under temporal terms should be chosen carefully so that they don’t overlap with the ones of space.

 Sensory perception

Sensory imagery is any description involving one or more of the five senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Each sense has a corresponding sensory organ – eyes, noses, ears, tongue and skin respectively. Sensory perception is an awareness of things, a process of identifying and interpreting sensory information under environment stimuli through the senses (Medical dictionary). According to Nguyen Lai (2009), the field of perception has to be linked to that of thinking in relation to metaphor. Therefore, sensory perception is one link in a chain of cognizing the world, especially emotional world. Furthermore, since the sensory perception is a relatively straightforward process and an accurate reflection of reality (Barth, 2012; Van de Lagemaat, 2015), sensory language is often deliberately used so as to increase descriptive and perceptive effects, particularly those on abstract concepts as love.
In brief, space, time, and sensory perception are fundamental cognitive domains, in relation to which the mappings of conceptual metaphors are motivated (Lakoff, 1993; Langacker, 1987, 1999; Tissari, 2001). In this study, the language of space, time and sensory perceptions that are employed to express love are investigated. On the basis of the love metaphors introduced by Lakoff and Johnson (1980a,b), Kövecses (1986, 1988, 2000), and some other researches, the metaphorical expressions of love are analysed and classified into these three basic domains. The procedure is presented in more detail in the next chapters.

Love as an emotion

In line with Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries where love is defined as any of a number of emotions related to a sense of strong affection and personal attachment, McTaggart (1927) treated love as an emotion felt towards persons; it is intense, passionate, and leads to the desire of closeness and union. Love may cause happiness or sadness, pleasure or pain; therefore, love is a complex emotion. According to Tallis (2004), love may exist in many forms; however, there is one manifestation of love that appears to have fascinated humanity since the dawn of civilization. It is the love that a couple share when they fall in love – passionate or romantic love.
Romantic love is regarded as a complex sentiment of erotic, cognitive, emotional and behavioural components that are impossible to disentangle, a mix of emotional and physical desires along with unrealistic and idealistic attitude towards a partner (Karandashev, 2015; Sternberg, 1988). In a more general definition, Gottschall and Nordlund (2006) stated that romantic love is a complex emotion manifested in a romantic context between two persons with partly sexual attraction. It is a representative feeling kept for only one person and expected to last forever. When someone is in romantic love, they are intensely attracted to the beloved’s whole person (but not just to the body) and desire strongly to join with this person. This feeling can change one’s own life priority. In a romantic relationship, one tends to idealize his or her partner, care for this person’s well-being; and when one is absent, the other will feel pain or empty. It is also the emotion of which the metaphorical expressions are chosen for our study.

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Metaphors in Literature. (2020, Aug 14). Retrieved from

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