Understanding the basics of metaphor in poetry

Understanding the basics of metaphor in poetry

Unless one has a clear understanding of metaphor, most poems cannot be fully understood. This article outlines the use of metaphors in poetry.

The use of metaphor in poetry is one of the most important aspects of poetic style that must be mastered. Metaphor can be described as figure of speech in which a thing is referred to as being something that it resembles. For example, a fierce person can be referred to as a tiger. Another example of a metaphor would be the description of a person who was uncommunicative as being as "silent as stone". The word stone is an image that is used to explain the intense silence of the person. In this way, metaphors are used in poetry to explain and elucidate emotions, feelings, relationships other elements that could not to described in ordinary language. Poets also use metaphor as a way of explaining or referring to something in a brief but effective way.

An easy way to understand metaphor is to view a metaphor as a simile without the word "like". A simile compares two things in a clear fashion. For example: "he is like a beast". Another example of a simile would be to say that the man is so fierce that he is like a tiger. A metaphor assumes that the relationship will be understood without the interlinking word "like".

Metaphor works on many levels in poetry. The best way to show how a metaphor function is to study the use of sustained metaphor. Sustained metaphor refers to a metaphor that consistently runs through the entire poem and is therefore easily identifiable. Metaphors that are sustained also provide a depth and inner complexity to the poem

In studying metaphor we will use the poem "The Forces That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower", by Dylan Thomas (1914- 1953).

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer.

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever."

The first stanza or section clearly states the central metaphor of the poem. If we take the very first line of this stanza we see that the "force" that " drives" nature is the force of life that also drives the poet or protagonist. The poem initiates a relationship between the force of nature and life force within flowers and trees and the life force that flows through humans. The metaphor, which continues throughout the poem, is intended to develop a sense of the close relationship between nature and humanity. The poet uses the word " green: which we normally associate with plat life to refer to human life as well.

Not as well that the metaphor is complex in that various other elements are added to it. This can be seen in the use of the word " fuse". Why do you think that the poet uses this word? It becomes evident as we read the poem that nature is also a process leading towards death, as well as life. The idea of approaching death that is hidden in the very creative life force of nature is therefore "like" a fuse

The central metaphor is centered on the use of the word "force". The poet is suggesting that the same force that gives life, and death, to the flower also drives him. There is a strong sense of incipient death in the images of the poem. The poet is aware that as flowers and trees die naturally over time, so will he. Nature is also the destroyer as well as the creator.

This becomes clear in the following line:

" Is my destroyer"?


" My youth is Bent by the same wintry fever."

Note that in the last line that the poet is comparing the life of a human being to the growth and decline of a tree. This metaphor is sustained by the word " bent."

The same thing that bends the tree or flower causes old age and finally death in the human being. Through a comparison that is very subtly brought about between nature and human life, the poet creates the poem as a long, continuous metaphor.

The very life force that drives nature also gives the human life.

The following lines express this in a crisp statement of force and movement:

" The force that drives the water through the rocks

Drives my red blood [. . .] "

Notice the use of the word " drives" which connects with the feeling and impetus of the previous stanza.

However, the same force which so vigorously drives the blood can also turn it to "wax". In other words the force of life and death that is in the flower is also in the human body.

The same metaphor is extended in the last two lines of the third stanza:

"And I am dumb to tell the hanging man

How of my clay is made the hangman's lime".

This extends the metaphor to further show the intimate linkage between things and between nature and man.

This poem shows the use of metaphor as a powerful tool for the poet who wishes to express a complexity of insight and feeling. A good exercise in understanding metaphor would be to paraphrase or rewrite a summary of the poem, trying to capture the intensity of its mood and insight. You will most probably finds that this is a nigh impossible tasks. The reason for this is that the use of metaphor has the ability to convey inner connections that cannot be expressed through more prosaic language.

Written by Gary Smith - © 2002 Pagewise