This poem, “Litany,” by American poet Billy Collins reminds me a bit of the George Eliot quotation from The Mill on the Floss that I posted here a few weeks ago. In that passage, Eliot laments that “intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor, — that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else.” A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two unlike objects, with the goal of illuminating not only some similarity between them, but ideally also with the hope of making something clear about the essence of each object itself.
Since all you need to make a metaphor is two objects to compare to one another, it is an extremely portable, versatile and popular literary tool. You can use it expansively to compare, say, the depths of your lover’s eyes to the deepest reaches of the ocean, or damningly, to say that your ex-lover has a heart of stone. You can use a metaphor to evoke both the utmost of practicality and the ethereally abstract. If we went by demographics, I think there’s a good chance that poets might use more metaphors than almost any other section of the world’s population. Think of Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,” or Emily Dickinson’s “My life had stood-a loaded gun,” just two famous examples from a (metaphorical) field where the possibilities are truly infinite.
However, the downside–or perhaps better–the danger of metaphors, as both Eliot and Collins allude to, comes exactly from the fact that they are so ubiquitous. We’re so accustomed to thinking in metaphors that sometimes it becomes difficult to think of things simply as they are, without resorting to comparing them with something else. It’s after this happens that metaphors can cease to illuminate meaning and instead become completely, even comically, meaningless. I think it’s this ability of the metaphor to lead away from, instead of toward, truth that is at the center of Eliot’s lament, Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, and Collins’ satire here, in “Litany.”
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.
~ Billy Collins