Interpreting experiences through metaphors, symbols

Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
Artistes use metaphors, symbols and images, among others, as the flowers that adorn the written word, without which reading becomes a cumbersome experience.

According to the Swiss linguist and semiotician, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), there are about 216 literary devices that artistes can draw from in their interpretation of the world so as to effectively convey their thematic concerns.

These are, among others, metaphors, symbols, images, similes, hyperboles, oxymorons, paradoxes, metonyms, synecdoches, irony, sarcasm, idioms and proverbs. Due not only to constrains of space, but their prominence, this instalment will narrow down to three of them; metaphors, symbols and images.

It is also worth noting that in some cases distinguishing the phenomena may be a splitting of hair.

A metaphor may invariably be a symbol or an image depending on individual interpretation and use.

Although the most commonly used literary device in all genres; prose, verse and drama, is the simile, it will not be looked at here. Instead, the metaphor will be explored as it is closely linked to it. The word metaphor comes from the Greek word metaphora which means transfer; and in its simplest form, a metaphor is a comparison that does not use the words like or as. Whereas in a simile the one thing is like the other, in the metaphor the one thing is the other. Meanings are derived through associations between the known and the unknown.

Sometimes a metaphor becomes so common that we desist from taking it like one; life for example and its link to the journey motif, death and water. “Water is life,” we usually find ourselves saying or “Their marriage died after the birth of their first child.” Metaphors by their nature make the reading of literature refreshing, as they engage the reader’s sense of discernment.

In the hands of a seasoned and gifted writer, the metaphor can convey a pot-pourri of feelings in the reader. However, it is not always easy for one to follow metaphors or symbols if the artiste decides to be idiosyncratic rather than conventional. Metaphors, especially as used in poetry, are concrete, and those in prose and drama are mostly extended. An extended metaphor is easy to follow as associations are recreated through subtle transfer of meanings.

In prose, most African writers, like Caribbean and other people of colour across the globe, are inspired by the displacement of their people, poverty, disillusionment and betrayal to such an extent that the metaphors that obtain in their works are more collective than individual. The metaphors of drought, disease, hunger, blood and rain pervading their experiences reflect on their creativity. Books that easily come to mind are Charles Mungoshi’s “Coming of the Dry Season” (1972), “Waiting for the Rain” (1975) and “Waiting Still” (1997); Ayi Kwei Armah’s “Two Thousand Seasons” (1973), Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (1958), Dambudzo Marechera’s “House of Hunger” (1978), Ngugi WaThiong’o’s “Secret Lives” (1964) and Richard Wright’s “Native Son” (1940).

Because of their contrived use of words and economy, poets are usually not at liberty to use the extended metaphor as they may want to convey a plethora of thematic concerns at the same time, as such they exploit concrete metaphors one after the other.

Chidiock Tichbourne demonstrates this in the poem “Written The Night Before His Execution” as is illustrated in the following stanza: “My prime of youth is but a frost of cares; /My feast of joy is but a dish of pain; /My crop of corn is but a field of tares; /And all my good is but vain hope of gain; /My life is fled, and yet I saw no sun; /And now I live, and now my life is done.” The comparisons used here are easy to follow and capture the persona’s sense of loss, pain and hopelessness in the face of death. All his life’s toils and aspirations highlighted through the metaphors of “frost of cares”, “dish of pain”, and “field of tares” are reduced to “vain hope of gain”; hence their futility. The metaphor of the sun creates a sense of hopelessness as it does not illuminate his travails, as hope remains that mirage etched on the horizon.

In the poem “Praise Song For My Mother”, Grace Nichols also uses concrete metaphors to hail her mother’s significance in her life. She writes: “You were/water to me/deep and bold and fathoming/You were/moon’s eye to me/pull and grained and mantling/You were sunrise to me/rise and warm and streaming.” As a paragon of strength, her mother has always been “water”, “moon’s eye” and “sunrise”; giving her hope, security and emancipation, without which she could have faltered and been consumed by this void called life.

Maya Angelou, however, unlike Tichbourne and Nichols, exploits the extended metaphor in the poem “Caged Bird” to expose the nature of oppression, suffering and hopelessness in a world where the rumbling of the mighty is more audible than the mere chirpings of the feeble bird. The metaphor of the caged bird resonates throughout the poem as the oppressed and down trodden whose “wings are clipped and (his) feet are tied/…open (his) throat to sing . . . of freedom.” The expression of the quest for freedom loses appeal if read in the absence of imprisonment; physical, psychological or emotional.

A symbol on the other hand is something that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, belief action or entity. In poetry the meaning of a symbol can be drawn from outside the poem itself, depending on one’s understanding of the sign or his/her cultural, religious or scientific background. If the symbol is conventional, it can be universally interpreted. Symbols which are universal include the sun, moon, cross, pen, sword, train, bird and crucible. Poets who use universal symbols are easy to follow and those who use idiosyncratic ones like the Malawian poets Frank Chipasula and Jake Mapanje, Wole Soyinka and John Keats, place a burden on the reader as meanings are not easily fathomable.

James Shirley demonstrates the effectiveness of symbolism in the poem “Death The Leveller” as expressed in the following: “The glories of our blood and state/Are shadows, not substantial things; /There is no armour against fate; /Death lays his icy hand on kings; /Sceptre and crown/Must tumble down, /And in the dust be equal made/With the poor crooked scythe and spade.” Here the unselective and just nature of death is exposed through the use of “sceptre and crown” which are symbolic of authority and power as opposed to “scythe and spade” symbolising the poor and oppressed masses whose sweat lubricates the gravy trains of the mighty. However, all this is vanity as death levels the scores.

Imagery is the use of words to create mental pictures in the reader through evocation of the senses. Because reading in itself is an engagement of the senses, a good writer strives to evoke two or more of the reader’s senses as a way of transporting his thematic issues. Images are therefore premised on the five senses-taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing, creating corresponding categories of imagery; gustatory, tactile, visual, olfactory and aural, in that order. Imagery, like symbolism, is inspired by individual or collective experiences.

Images may be drawn from nature as is the case in William Wordsworth’s poetry as well as that of Chenjerai Hove, Musaemura Zimunya and Denis Scott, or from everyday experiences. An effective piece of art is one that collapses sense boundaries as it appeals to all the senses at the same time.

However, although metaphors, images and symbols may be explored in each stead, it is interesting to note that an image’s strength lies in its use of powerful metaphors and symbols, which means that the three literary devices are complementary, for they function in convergence. An image may both be metaphorical and symbolical in meaning.

A poet may effectively use all the three devices at the same time as Denis Scott does in “Marrysong” using images and symbols drawn from nature.

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