Metaphor and Meaning

BNF Fr. 599 fol. 84 15th-16th century

With the publication of volume 4, ‘Influence and Appropriation’, we’ve asked our fantastic contributors to write a blog post about their work.  First up is Jenny Smith, whose paper explores the influential power of metaphor in early modern literature.  Her article can be found here: Necessary Abuse: the Mirror as Metaphor in the Sixteenth Century

Over to Jenny:

My interest in metaphor is part of a long interest in language as an organisational principle of thought. Cerae’s call for papers on the theme of ‘Influence and Appropriation’ was an exhilarating opportunity to explore how metaphor influences thought and how metaphors accumulate, or appropriate, meaning. A case study is the metaphor of the mirror in sixteenth-century counsel, that is, the literature of advice.

Metaphor was one of the most important tropes in classical and early modern rhetoric. Just as it is in 20th– and 21st-century linguistics and philosophy of language, throughout its history metaphor in particular was considered not just a literary ornament but a fundamental principle of how humans conceive of the world. I wanted to historicize that. What was it, why was so much ink expended on it, and how did the readers and writers of those textbooks use metaphor in their non-rhetoric-textbook writing?

Elizabethan sources showed metaphor working in a cumulative way, allowing people to connect dissimilar concepts to perceive a coherent whole:

‘Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

But … all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.’

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.I.18-27)

Most uses of the mirror in counsel either described the mind as a mirror, reflecting the counsel it received, or they described counsel itself as a mirror. Counsel could therefore have all the characteristics of a mirror: distorting, flattering to vanity, true and crystal clear, obscure and requiring painstaking interpretation, part of a chain of being, showing a positive or negative example for the viewer. As Spenser reminded Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene, counsel could be

‘nought but forgerie,

Fashion’d to please the eies of them, that pas,

Which see not perfect things but in a glas:

Yet is that glasse so gay that it can blynd

The wisest sight…’

(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book VI, Proem, stanza 5, lines 3-7)

The mirror of counsel, like the mirror of Narcissus, could deceive a mind conditioned, as the Biblical mirror of St Paul had conditioned people, to ‘see not perfect things but in a glass’.

Mirrors of counsel could also function within the idea of a mirror as history, as in the Mirror for Magistrates, a text that reflects several ways of conceiving of history. The first, suppressed, edition was titled a ‘Memorial’, but from 1559 the title of ‘Mirror’ was so popular and appropriated so many times for other texts that the metaphor accumulated yet more layers of meaning.

The pedagogical practice of imitatio, that is the reading and imitating of many different authors as taught by Erasmus and other influential figures, was central to the persistence of all these layers of meaning shaping the Elizabethan world.

The sources were also immensely enjoyable to read. Elizabeth I has a reputation for being a crafty, canny and well-read writer; George Gascoigne and Stephen Gosson were delightful new discoveries who seemed to be no less so. My title is taken from Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse, a polemic against plays (by a former playwright), and from the rhetorical trope of catachresis, Latinized to abusio. Catachresis, as Puttenham said, is what happens when a metaphor seems too far-fetched, too awkward, too obscure. The tension between resemblance and difference in the two terms of a metaphor have influenced metaphor theory since Aristotle, and this tension fascinates me too. The mirror shows both resemblance and difference: when Paul described human understanding as seeing ‘through a glass darkly’, it was a metaphor for how metaphor works in cognition.

So forms of language do persist in interesting ways – not just metaphors but also rhythms and vocabulary. Reading Mark Turner, who moved cognitive linguistics into the field of literary criticism, I saw a passage whose balance of phrases is so Ciceronian, and the opening sentence ‘There is a system to imagination’ so reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that it struck me as a proof of how the language of predecessors becomes an organising principle for the language, and perhaps the thought, of later writers. I don’t know whether Turner does this deliberately, but if he did he was doing imitatio in the best sixteenth-century style; Erasmus would have approved. The passage therefore seemed a case in point for my argument, and an appropriate conclusion.

I am grateful to Cerae’s anonymous reviewers, to the audience at RSA16, and to the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Monash and the Medieval and Early Modern Cohort at the University of Melbourne, for helpful comment on different aspects. The article therefore reflects the pleasures and wisdoms of scholarship and scholarly counsel.

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