The Metaphorical Flood

A watchword in eighteenth-century criticism is “propriety.” It is a dam built against the cheap, popular productions of Grub Street writers. True wit is a propriety of words and thoughts adapted to a subject.1

The Neoclassical author must observe decorum, strive for both correctness and simplicity, and avoid low, vulgar comparisons. In literary history, notably since Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, the elegance of Neoclassicism is contrasted with the extravagance of seventeenth-century Metaphysical wit.

But metaphor is, by definition, an improper use of words. Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum defines metaphor as “putting a foreign Name for a proper one.” Likewise, in his Lectures on Rhetoric, Hugh Blair claims, metaphor occurs “when, in place of using the proper name of any object, we employ in its place, the name of some other [object] which is like it” (294).2

Metaphor flouts propriety by putting improper names in the place of proper ones. Metaphor is displacement. What place then can metaphor have in those studied attempts of the Neoclassicists to observe propriety?

No paradox lurks here. Metaphor occupies a central place in eighteenth-century literature. Truly, there is little, if any, literature that does not avail itself of metaphor. The literature of the eighteenth century is no exception; it is awash in figuration. Propriety is a false standard.

Critical pronouncements and artistic practice typically diverge. Hobbes and Locke, master metaphorists, are repeatedly cited as professed enemies of figurative language; belle-lettrists warn against metaphor and then deploy it in the same sentence.2 Do as I say but not as I do.

I will not explore contradictions under the sign of aporia. My discussion of propriety prefaces a selection of tortured comparisons from The Mind is a Metaphor database. Extravagant, gross, and vulgar violations of propriety interest me. Decorum is breached to specific ends.

The literary traditions that focus on capturing “the inwardness of our mental lives in a quite direct, experiential manner” succeed by “straining the resources of everyday language in the interest of fidelity to this experience” (Toulmin 4). Against constraint we strain.

Sir Richard Blackmore, physician and minor eighteenth-century poet, writes,

Thou see’st from whence her Colours Fancy takes,
Of what Materials she her Pencil makes
By which she paints her Scenes with such Applause,
And in the Brain ten thousand Landskips draws.
The Cells, and little Lodgings, Thou canst see
In Mem’ry’s Hoards and secret Treasury;
Dost the dark Cave of each Idea spy,
And see’st how rang’d the crouded Lodgers lye;
How some, when beckon’d by the Soul, awake,
While peaceful Rest their uncall’d Neighbours take.
Thou know’st the downy Chains that softly bind
Our slumb’ring Sense, when waiting Objects find
No Avenue left open to the Mind.
Mean Time thou see’st how guideless Spirits play,
And mimick o’er in Dreams the busy Day,
With pleasant Scenes and Figures entertain,
Or with their monstrous Mixtures fright the Brain.

The stanza is itself a “monstrous Mixture” of metaphors and personifications. Blackmore, a versifier of Lockean philosophy, gives us images that would explain mental imagery; he pictures ideas that sleep in the consciousness and animal spirits that wake when we dream; he produces an allegory of these actors and their activities and furnishes the variegated scene with pencils, hoards of treasure, landscape paintings, caves, lodgings, chains, and avenues. The figuration is both in and out of doors, a fancifully painted “Landskip” but also the brain’s terrain.

Blackmore’s metaphors are often characterized as bombastic by his contemporaries. Yet Blackmore works in the epic form. He wields pentameter and couplet. His figuration is contained in “epic similes.” His models are Virgil and Milton. He pursues propriety. Still, Blackmore found himself attacked by Dryden and later by the Scriblerians and Alexander Pope.

Pope ridicules Blackmore in the Dunciad. In the mock olympic games of Pope’s satire, Blackmore is a contender. When the dunce poets dive in the sludge and sewage of Fleet-Ditch, Blackmore is celebrated (along with Matthew Concanen) for his bathetic perseverance:

True to the bottom, see Concanen creep,
A cold, long-winded, native of the deep!
If perseverance gain the Diver’s prize,
Not everlasting Blackmore this denies:
No noise, no stir, no motion can’st thou make,
Th’unconscious flood sleeps o’er thee like a lake (II.288-92).

Perhaps Blackmore pursues propriety too far. Lord Kames warns that metaphors must not be “extended to a great length, nor be crowded with many minute circumstances” (119). Moreover, metaphors should not be joined in the same period (124). An extended metaphor overstrains the mind. At least Blackmore is in good company. Overly nice eighteenth-century critics often accuse Shakespeare of mixing and muddling his metaphors. Kames, for one, treats Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech explicitly.3

In closing I treat the reader with two hydrological metaphors, both of which strain propriety. Impropriety itself may be characterized as a flood in which metaphors arrive torrentially. Blair notes, “Whenever the imaginations of the vulgar are much awakened, or their passions inflamed against one another, they will pour forth a torrent of Figurative Language” (275).

The novelist Tobias Smollett mixes Liquid metaphors and Mineralogical ones with satirical effect. Remember Blackmore’s cells, caves, and hoards; in Smollett the mind is a mine sluiced and impregnated with vitriol:

After a weak mind has been duly prepared, and turned as it were, by opening a sluice or torrent of high-sounding words, the greater the contradiction proposed the stronger impression it makes, because it increases the puzzle, and lays fast hold on the admiration; depositing the small proportion of reason with which it was before impregnated, like the vitriol acid in the copper-mines of Wicklow, into which if you immerse iron, it immediately quits the copper which it had before dissolved, and unites with the other metal, to which it has a stronger attraction (168).

The superintendents of propriety instruct us to not concern ourselves with the workings of sluices, or with the corrosive effects of vitriol. Technical vocabularies are faulted by those who begrudge vulgar professionals their own “high-sounding” words. Blair finds metaphors “borrowed from any of the sciences, especially such of them as belong to particular professions, are almost always faulty by their obscurity” (362).

I take my final example from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela:

While the Banks of Discretion keep within their natural Chanel the proud Waves of Passion, all calm and serene, glides along the silver Current, inlivening the adjacent Meadows, as it passes, with a brighter and more flowery Verdure. But if the Torrents of sensual Love are permitted to descend from the Hills of credulous Hope, they may so swell the gentle Stream, as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to be retain’d in its usual Bounds. What then will be the Consequence?— Why, the Trees of Resolution, and the Shrubs of cautious Fear, whose intertwining Roots had contributed to support the frail Mound, being loosen’d from their Hold, they, and the Bank itself, will be seen floating on the Surface of the triumphant Waters (III. L63, p. 431).

Richardson pictures the stream of consciousness as a passionate torrent. He extends his metaphor beyond all belief.

The critic may value propriety over the bombastic, the strained, and the mixed. Or he may come to prize the excessive language Johnson dismisses as a “cumber of magnificence” (in Life of Cowley 116).

We’ve seen that Hugh Blair pictures cumbrous language as a vulgar “Torrent” and Pope as an “unconscious flood,” and we begin to understand that the metaphor for metaphor is liquid.

On this anniversary day, metaphors proper and improper, “high-sounding” and vulgar, pour forth as a torrent of language. The sluices open. The oceans rise. The tide has not yet turned. “Triumphant Waters” and high-sounding, empty rhetoric will cover, bury, and drown us all.


1 The sentiment is John Dryden’s. But see Addison’s revision of the definition in Spectator No. 62: “Mr. Dryden’s Definition of Wit; which, with all the Deference that is due to the Judgment of so great a Man, is not so properly a Definition of Wit, as of good Writing in general.” See also William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks in Literary Criticism: A Short History. vol. 1. U of C Press: Chicago and London, 1987. pp. 228-34.

2 See also The Ladies Rhetoric: “Metaphors are Words taken from their natural Signification, and from the Place where they were proper, to make them serve in another that bears some resemblance with the natural Signification” (Anonymous 88). Or Charles Rollin’s 1734 translation of The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres: “The metaphor is a figure which substitutes the figurative terms it borrows extraneously, as it were, by a kind of exchange, in the room of proper words which are either wanting, or have not energy enough” (162). The fifth sense of “propriety” in the OED is “the proper, strict, or literal sense of a word” (emphasis mine). Behind all these definitions stands the Aristotelian pronouncement that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics 1457b5-10).

3 On all these points Hugh Blair agrees with Lord Kames. Metaphors may be “too far pursued” (370). Cowley, Shaftesbury, and Young are prone to wearying us with the play of their fancy. Shakespeare is faulted for making two metaphors “meet on one object” (365). And even Pope is faulted for producing periods that are not all literal or all figurative but mixed.