Main menu

Figures of Speech

It is by similes that ideas are made vivid, argument enlivened, and obscurity made clear. The term above—'Figures of Speech'—is used in the sense of comparisons, similitudes, symbols, likenesses, and generally such descriptions of things in which the imagination discovers an instructive resemblance to the subject to be explained. A figure of speech is a mirror in which a subject is unexpectedly reflected in a new light. A simile is the comparison of another thing to the one in question, the likening of two things which, though differing in some respects, have strong points of resemblance. The one rule being, if the object is to exalt a subject, to make a noble comparison. If the purpose is to degrade a subject, the comparison made should serve to lower it in the reader's estimation. Errors and oversights in these respects are of daily occurrence. A preacher to whom I often listened with pleasure in days when I was an habitual hearer of the word, one day reproached Christians with not using their minds for making sure of the grounds of their convictions, adding, that they put out their thinking as people did their washing, and got it done badly. This offended many of his congregation, for some of them could think. The preacher's simile implied that his congregation had dirty ideas—for that, and that alone, is why garments are sent to the laundry. The laundress does not make garments, but merely cleans them; whereas, what the preacher—to his credit—wanted, was that his hearers should form ideas of their own, without which a man is mentally naked or bedizened in second-hand clothes, and he should have sought a simile which suggested this. The one he chose did not touch the case. The congregation did not suffer from dirty ideas, else he had badly instructed them. What they suffered from was scantiness of ideas, which could only be worthily increased by their own efforts.
Some time ago a noble lord, who, like his father before him, had high regard for Mr. Gladstone, told a public meeting of Liberals that it might be said of Mr. Gladstone in the words of Shakespeare:—
He doth bestride this narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we, petty men,
Walk under his huge legs, and creep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

Now, the bestriding man referred to was a dangerous tyrant. It was a bad compliment to compare Mr. Gladstone to him. Then it follows also that the lesser Liberals are 'petty men, who creep about to find themselves dishonorable graves.' So the speaker smote Mr. Gladstone and all his adherents hip and thigh by one simile, of whose range and application he could have given no thought. Had the speaker compared Mr. Gladstone to the King of Brobdignag, and his followers to men of good but lesser build; or by other simile which suggested that Mr Gladstone was the Saul of his party—head and shoulders above any of them—he had exalted him whom he intended to exalt, and not called up adverse reflections. It may serve to show with what circumspection similes should be employed if I point out that the last one I have given is open to objection on a political platform—for Saul was mad sometimes, a fact which a quick adversary would turn to good account.

Not long ago Lady Henry Somerset, in a much-applauded address, said that a bear leader whom she saw in Switzerland, told her that when he wanted the bear to dance he kept pulling the string. That was what 'the people of England must do with their leaders in respect of temperance, and she was sure they would dance.' This should have been said when the reporters had left, as being better suited for private than for public consumption. To tell public men you consider them street bears, who will dance only when you pull the string round their necks, is to do all you can to prevent leaders doing anything you wish. It sets their self-respect against you. It is smart speaking if you do not think of the result. Lady Somerset is an engaging lady, and if she, or others like her, pulled the string, no doubt there would be dancing if the dancers could forget that she thinks them 'bears.'

There is an Australian weapon called a boomerang, which, when thrown, comes back and hits the thrower. Beware of boomerang arguments, or boomerang similes. For instance, if misled by pessimist text you should say all men are corrupt, your opponent might say: 'As all men are so, so you must be. Thank you for the admission of your conscious rottenness, of which it did not occur to me to accuse you.' That was the reply I made to a Dr. Rowbotham who asked me to assist his advocacy, after declaring on a London platform that all men had putrid principles. I thought such principles did not require aid in development.

Robert Owen's principles have often been described but never made so clear as by citing a simile of Victor Hugo. 'Men are like nettles. Cultivation will turn them from noxious to useful plants. There are no bad herbs or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.' This is Robert Owen's philosophy in a nutshell.

If kings were not better than they are supposed to be, they would be worse than they are, breathing, as they do, the air of fulsomeness. Royalty has always been a patient, and at times a greedy, recipient of egregious adulation. It is Macaulay, I think, who says the oratory devoted to James I., on his progress through Scotland, was of no common cast. Officials who addressed him at the various towns at which he arrived, 'put together Augustus, Alexander, Trajan and Constantine. It was supposed that even the antipodes heard of his courtesy and liberality; the very hills and groves were said to be refreshed with the dew of his aspect; in his absence the citizens were languishing gyrades, in his presence delighted lizards, for he was the sunshine of their beauty. At Glasgow, Master Hay, the commissary, when attempting to speak before him, became like one touched with a torpedo, or seen of a wolf; and the Principal of the University, comparing his majesty with the sun, observed, to that luminary's disadvantage, that King James had been received with incredible joy and applause, whereas a descent of the sun into Glasgow would in all likelihood be extremely ill taken. Hyperbole was not sufficient—the aid of prodigies was called—a boy of nine years old harangued the king in Hebrew, and the schoolmaster of Linlithgow spoke verses in the form of a lion.' That was better than a good deal of adulation of royalty, which is often presented in the form of an ass. When literature first became common, rhetoric grew tawdry, and degenerated into what Dr. Parker calls the 'Berlin wool and fancy work' style of statement. A strong simplicity is always force.

To preserve peace, and to do good, is a dull old maxim of morality. Feltham thus enlivens it by this illustration:'When two goats on a narrow bridge met over a deep stream, was not he the wiser that lay down for the other to pass over him, rather than he that would hazard both their lives by contending? He preserved himself from danger, and made the other-become debtor to him for his safety. I will never think myself disparaged either by preserving peace or doing good.'

Paine, whom I have heard Ebenezer Elliot describe as the greatest master of metaphor he had known, said of a certain body in America, who professed that principle was higher than interest, were nevertheless 'hunting after their own advantage with a step as steady as time, and an appetite as keen as death.' Their insatiableness is rendered more evident by these similes. Describing the illuminated popularity of a political quack—one Silas Deene—Paine said, 'He went up like a rocket and came down like the stick.' Mirabeau, when asked to counsel an obstinate friend, answered, 'You might as well make an issue in a wooden leg as give him advice.' Emerson, at the soiree of the Manchester Athenaium, expressing the latent strength of Old England, said it 'had still a pulse like a cannon.' Speaking elsewhere of the freshness of the style of Montaigne, Emerson said his sentences were 'vascular and alive—if you cut them they would bleed.' The Cork Magazine says, that the preface of Thomas Davis to the speeches of Curran is in some parts as majestic as the orations which it prefaces; in others, displaying a wild pathos, which 'strikes upon the ear like the cry of a woman.'

Comparisons are implied by phrases. An instance occurs in Cardinal Newman's works, where he says, 'Heresy did but precipitate the truths before held in solution.' The allusion is chemical and a happy one. Contempt for the men-millinery of literature was forcibly expressed by Mirabeau—' My style readily assumes force, and I have a command of strong expressions, but if I want to be mild, unctuous and measured, I become insipid, and my flabby style makes me sick.' Dumont, a friend of Mirabeau's, recounting his own editorial experience in preserving brevity and a wise directness in his journal, says, 'The most diffuse complained of our reducing their dropsical and turgescent expressions.' Grattan, comparing the Irish Parliament to a human career, exclaimed, 'I have sat by its cradle and I followed its hearse.'

In the Auditor, Lord Viscount Barrington was described as 'a little squirrel of State, who had been busy all his life in the cage, without turning it round to any human purpose.' The clearness attained by such similes needs no explanation. Edward Vansittart Neale, when he wished to show how much the profits of productive labor exceed those of distribution, likened the store to the squirrel,—
Which, whether he turns wood or wire,
Never gets a hair's-breadth higher,
while the workshop has unlimited possibilities before it.

It is of value to intercept the difference between wholesale and retail prices. But the store moves between those two barriers. Mr. Neale's simile made clear the advantages of labor acting without limitation.

When Mr. Mould, the undertaker in Martin Chuzzlewit, speaks of Shakespeare, it is as the theatrical poet who was 'buried' at Stratford. But it matters not whence the similes are drawn, provided they are appropriate and elevating, which was not the case in the sermon preached at Newgate after the escape of Jack Sheppard. The clergyman discoursed to this effect:—
'How dexterously did he pick the padlock of his chain with a crooked nail, burst his fetters asunder, climb up his chimney, wrench out an iron bar—break his way through a stone wall, make the strong door of a dark entry fly before him, reach the leads of the prison, fix a blanket to the wall with a spike stolen from the chapel, descend to the top of the turner's house, cautiously pass downstairs, and make his escape at the street door.

'I shall spiritualize these things. Let me exhort ye, then, to open the locks of your hearts with the nail of repentance; burst asunder the fetters of your beloved lusts; mount the chimney of hope; take thence the bar of good resolution; break through the stone wall of despair, and force the stronghold in the dark entry of the valley of the shadow of death; raise yourself to the leads of divine meditation; fix the blanket of faith with the spike of the Church; let yourselves down to the turner's house of resignation; descend the stairs of humility. So shall you come to the door of deliverance from the prison of iniquity, and escape from the clutches of that old executioner the devil.'

This style, once popular, might divert a good audience, but would not be thought edifying now. Down to this chaplain's days this was thought to be clever composition. The chaplain ought to have been imprisoned for his effort. Its only excuse could be that it amused his gloomy congregation. It could not edify them, and was more likely to produce ridicule than reverence.

Prodigality of metaphors, like multitudes of superlatives, confound meaning. 'It is an idle fancy of some,' says Felton, 'to run out perpetually upon similitudes, confounding their subject by the multitude of likenesses, and making it like so many things, that it is like nothing at all!'

The child, when he first learns to speak, will say anything, thinking he accomplishes much in continuing to talk. So with the public speaker when he first commences, and so with the early efforts of the young writer. When he first rises above the level of plain prose, he never knows when to descend to the earth; and instead of finding an elevation whence he can show his readers a wider landscape and new objects, he think he does enough by showing himself.

Goodrich relates that a boy being rebuked by a clergyman for neglecting to go to church, replied that he would go if he could be permitted to change his seat. 'But why do you wish to change your seat?' said the minister. 'You see,' said the boy, 'I sit over the opposite side of the meeting-house, and between me and you there's Judy Vicars and Mary Staples, and half a dozen other women, with their mouths wide open, and they get all the best of the sermon, and when it comes to me it's pretty poor stuff.'

It is doubtful whether any boy ever made this reflection. The story must be pointed at those preachers whose voices are confined to the listeners nearest to them. Nevertheless, likening the sermon to something to be eaten, made vivid the disadvantage of not being able to hear what is provided.

A resemblance of one thing to another is often cited in argument. It is then called an analogy. But it must be remembered that an analogy is not an argument, only an illustration. No two different things can be alike all through, and it is only the points of resemblance cited which should be mainly noticed in reply.

There is sometimes an argument of no mean force in a simile. A soldier, sentenced for an attempt to leave his regiment on Indian service, said in his defense, 'We are not all bad at bottom, but we have at times fever and ague, and then the heart grows faint for England, and we have Europe on the chest.' That soldier, had he been educated, had been a great rhetorician who would have convinced in a few words.

A negro woman, though possessing a scantier vocabulary, can be more vivid of speech than her mistress:—A Washington lady, much surprised upon receiving notice from her dusky cook that she was about to leave her service, in order to be married. 'Why,' said the lady, 'I did not even know you had an admirer.' 'Oh, yes'm, for some time.' 'Who is it, Mary?' 'Don't you 'member, Miss Lissie, that I 'tended a fune'l 'bout two weeks ago? It's the corpse's husband!'

In using figures of speech care must be taken not to change the simile in an incongruous way. There is the well-known American example of the orator who, discovering the artfulness of an opponent, exclaimed, 'I smell a rat—I see it floating in the air—I nip it in the bud.' In two sentences he converted the rat into a bird and a flower. The Irish have a gift for absurd similes, which are excusable in them because of the humor in which they excel. As when Sir Boyle Roche in affirming his loyalty said, 'I stand prostrate before the Throne.' It was an Hibernian prophet who announced—
To-night's the day (I state it with great sorrow)
When all of us will be blown up to-morrow.

But it was an English cleric of confused memory who told his congregation that sorrow may endure for a joy but night cometh in the morning.' 'My brethren,' said an aspiring young preacher, 'such a man as I have described is like the captain of a crewless vessel on a shoreless sea. Happy would such a man be to bring his men to land.' There was a glamour of imagination in these words, and it was only afterwards that the hearers reflected that a crewless vessel had no men, and that on a shoreless sea there was no land to put them on. These oratorical aberrations are confined to no country, though more frequent in some than others. It was only the other day that Herr Rickhert taunted the German Ministry, saying, 'We hear nothing upon the Ministerial benches, nothing but profound silence.' This could not be better said in Dublin.

A practical design of these chapters, now nearing their close—which the reader will be glad to perceive—is to call into life the latent power for excellence that every man has, and to guard him against the easy errors into which one inexperienced or uninformed may fall. Errors are forgiven on their first, or even second committal, but the third time they cause distrust. At Muzart Pass, over the Tian Shan Range, a marble monument bears this inscription:—
'He who comes this way once may be pardoned, as not knowing what he is doing. He who comes twice is a fool He who comes a third time is hopeless as a Kaffir.'

The reader of the maxims of the preceding pages may be desirous of illustrating his meaning, when necessary, by some apt figure of speech. If he does, he may make useful things agreeable and dark things clear. In time he will find it as easy as dullness, and more entertaining to others. But he must exercise taste, relevance and circumspection, or he will, as Uncle Eben observes, 'after toiling up the stairway of fame, slide down the bannister into obscurity.'

(0 votes)

George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

Leave a comment

back to top

Get Social