Expansive Poetry & Music Online: Prosody
Copyright (c) 2000 by Expansive Poetry & Music Online and Somers Rocks Press

Part VI

The Art of the Figure

Part of this is already online in introductory articles still in the archives.   There are wonderful sites online for this subject as well; the best this author has seen is at Brigham Young University -- BYU.COM, which has an encylopedia of figurative usage online.  Figure out how to get further from there.

Figurative language is a very wide range of specific devices in both poetry and prose, from the tritest of spelling tricks to the most complex of metaphors.   In the classical system of figurative language, developed by Roman rhetoricians, and greatly expanded upon in the middle ages, with a great peak in the early 16th century in England, much went far beyond device to methodologies, particularly regarding argumentation.

Argumentation does not mean two louts yelling at each other; it means the presentation of a case or a variety of cases.   In law there are arguments for and against, as there are in discussions of water policy in Tennessee.   In Hamlet the title character spends much of his time onstage presenting arguments for and against taking action on the immaterial evidence of a ghost or material evidence he might discover himself.   In "The Mind Reader" Richard Wilbur spends nearly two hundred lines presenting the argument of a con artist both sought out and hated for his prognostications.  Argument depends on a variety of means, including knowledge of the case, logical development of its meaning and the consequences of acting for or against it, and persuasive means for convincing an audience which may not believe water is wet without swimming in it.  Each of these, according to classical rhetoricians and their disciples in the Renaissance, is developed with a mix of particular figures of speech.  And in Shakespeare's time, a grammar school education included knowledge of nearly two hundred figures, many of which were expected to be employed in the development of meaningful expresion of any kind, nevermind poetry.

There are several intimations about language in the use of the broadest group of figures employed by both poets and by most people in everyday life, the class of comparative figures.  Not the least of these is that we use such devices as metaphor to bridge the gap between the capacity of our senses and of symbolic language to express them.   Another is that metaphor and other comparative figures bridge the gap between different experiences of the same event in the world.  Another is that metaphor can connect different kinds of knowledge, as physicists often use comparative figures to express the meaning of what are otherwise totally abstract mathematical expressions (see Richard Feynman or more contemporary physicists).   And last, but hardly least, metaphor and other comparative figures allow for a sense of play that can lead to both amusing and harrowing revelations.

Aristotle remarked in Poetics that metaphor is the mark of the true poet.  This hasn't changed.  Nor has the difficulty in using metaphor, simile, or dozens of other figures of speech.  Plain language, as mentioned before, has its uses, but plain language absent figurative speech of any kind may be regarded as suggestive of either a failed or of a deeply disturbed imagination.  The figures of comparison and argument, by far the most significant, also permit expression to enrich original impressions, if we take the time to consider exactly what they mean.