Figures of Speech: Definition and Examples in Composition

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Figurative Language:
      There is a generally accepted division of language into literal and figurative. Language that is literal uses words in their accepted and accurate meaning. Figurative language employs words with meanings not strictly literal, but varying from their ordinary definitions.

      Much of our language is figurative. When a person says, “He is a bright boy,” he has used the word “bright” in a sense that is not literal; the use is figurative. In the following there is hardly a sentence that has not some variation from literal language.

Much of our language is figurative. When a person says, “He is a bright boy,” he has used the word “bright” in a sense that is not literal; the use is figurative. In the following there is hardly a sentence that has not some variation from literal language.
Figures of Speech

      “Down by the river there is, as yet, little sign of spring. Its bed is all choked with last year’s reeds, trampled about like a manger. Yet its running seems to have caught a happier note, and here and there along its banks flash silvery wands of palm. Right down among the shabby burnt-out underwood moves the sordid figure of a man. His hat is battered, and he wears no collar. I don’t like staring at his face, for he has been unfortunate. Yet a glimpse tells me that he is far down the hill of life, old and drink-corroded at fifty.” (Le Gallienne.)

      In the second sentence there are at least three figurative expressions. “Bed,” “choked,” and “trampled like a manger” are not literal. So, too, in the next sentence there are two beautiful variations from literal expression. Going on through the selection the reader will find frequently some happy change from literalness,—sometimes just a word, sometimes a phrase. Figurative language is of great value. It adds clearness to our speech; it gives it more force; or it imparts to literature beauty. The last use is the most common; indeed, it is so common that sometimes the other uses are overlooked. However, when such a sentence as the following is read, the comparison is of value in giving clearness to the thought, although it does not state the literal truth.

      “In the early history of our planet, the moon was flung off into space, as mud is thrown from a turning wagon wheel.”

      Force is often gained by the use of figurative language. The following is a good illustration:—

      “Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dextrous and firm sagacity of English enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by these people [Americans]; a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.” The next is an illustration of a figure used for beauty:—

 “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
 Having some business, do entreat her eyes
 To twinkle in their spheres till they return.”

      A figure of speech is any use of words with a sense varying from their literal definition, to secure clearness, force, or beauty of expression.

      Figures add so much to the attractiveness of literature, that every one would like to use them. Yet figures should never be sought for. When they come of themselves, when they insist on being used, and are a part of the thought itself, and seem to be its only adequate expression, then they should be used. In most cases figures are ornaments of literature; it must be remembered that ornament is always secondary, and that no ornament is good unless it is in entire harmony with the thing it is to beautify.

      When a figure suggests itself, it must be so clearly seen that there can be no mixing of images. Some people are determined to use figures, and they force them into every possible place. The result is that there is often a confusion of comparisons. The following is bad: “His name went resounding in golden letters through the corridors of time.” Just how a name could resound “in golden letters” is a difficult question. Longfellow used the last phrase beautifully:—

 “Not from the grand old masters,
 Not from the bards sublime,
 Whose distant footsteps echo
 Through the corridors of time.”

      Of the two hundred or more figures of speech which have been named and defined, only a few need be mentioned here. And the purpose is not that you shall use them more, but that you may recognize them when you meet them in literature.

Figures based upon Likeness:
      There is a large group of figures of speech based upon likeness. One thing is so much like another that it is spoken of as like it, or, more frequently, one is said to be the other. Yet if the things compared are very much alike, there is no figure. To say that a cat is like a panther is not considered figurative. It is when in objects essentially different we detect and name some likeness that we say there is a figure of speech. There is at first thought no likeness between hope and a nurse; yet were it not for hope most persons would die. Thackeray was right when he said that “Hope is the nurse of life.” The principal figures based upon likeness are metaphor, epithet, personification, apostrophe, allegory, and simile.

      A metaphor is an implied comparison between things essentially different, but having some common quality. Metaphor is by far the most common figure of speech; indeed, so common is it that figurative language is often called metaphorical. “Tombs are the clothes of the dead; a grave is but a plain suit, and a rich monument is one embroidered.”

 “Let me choose;
 For as I am, I live upon the rack.”

      “The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep.” Only a little removed from metaphor is epithet. An epithet is a word, generally a descriptive adjective or a noun, used, not to give information, but to impart strength or ornament to diction. It is like a shortened metaphor. It is very often found in impassioned prose or verse. Notice that in each epithet there is a comparison; that the figure is based on likeness.

 “Here are sever’d lips
 Parted with sugar breath.”

      “Base dog! why shouldst thou stand here?” Personification is a figure that ascribes to inanimate things, abstract ideas, and the lower animals the attributes of human beings. It is plain that there must be some resemblance of the lower to the higher, else this figure could not be used. Personification, like the epithet, is a modification of the metaphor. Indeed, in every personification there is also a metaphor.

 “When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
 And they did make no noise.”

      “But ever heaves and moans the restless Deep.” Apostrophe is an address to the dead as if living; to abstract ideas or inanimate objects as if they were persons. It is a variety of personification.

 “O Caledonia! stern and wild,
 Meet nurse for a poetic child!”
 “Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flower,
 Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
 For I maun crush amang the stoure
 Thy slender stem.”
 “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour.”

      Allegory is a narrative in which material things and circumstances are used to illustrate and enforce high spiritual truths. It is a continued personification. Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” are good examples of allegory. All these figures are varieties of metaphor. In them there is always an implied, not an expressed, comparison.

      A simile is an expressed comparison between unlike things that have some common quality. This comparison is usually indicated by like or as.

      “Ilbrahim was like a domesticated sunbeam, brightening moody countenances, and chasing away the gloom from the dark corners of the cottage.” (Does this figure change to another in its course?)

 “How far that little candle throws its beams!
 So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

      Of retired Dutch valleys, Irving wrote:— “They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream; where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”

      Figures based upon Sentence Structure. There are a number of figures that express emotion by simply changing the normal order of the sentence. Among these are inversion, exclamation, interrogation, climax, and irony.

      Inversion is a figure intended to give emphasis to the thought by a change from the natural order of the words in a sentence. “Thine be the glory!” “Few were the words they said.” “He saved others; himself he cannot save.” Exclamation is an expression of strong emotion in abrupt, inverted, or elliptical phrases. It is among sentences what the interjection is among words. “How far that little candle throws its beams!” “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” Interrogation is a figure in which a question is asked, not to get an answer, but for the sake of emphasis. “Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?”

 “Fear ye foes who kill for hire?
 Will ye to your homes retire?”

      “Am I a coward?” Climax is a figure in which the intensity of the thought and emotion gradually increases with the successive groups of words or phrases.

      “Your children do not grow faster from infancy to manhood than they [the American colonists] spread from families to communities, from villages to nations.” Irony is a figure in which one thing is said and the opposite is meant. “And Job answered and said, No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” “O Jew, an upright judge, a learned judge!” Four other figures should be mentioned: metonymy, synecdoche, allusion, and hyperbole. Metonymy calls one thing by the name of another which is closely related to the first. The most common relations are cause and effect, container and thing contained, and sign and the thing signified. “From the cradle to the grave is but a day.” “I did dream of money-bags to-night.” Synecdoche is that figure of speech in which a part is put for the whole, or the whole for a part. “Fifty sail came into harbor.” “The redcoats are marching.” Allusion is a reference to something in history or literature with which every one is supposed to be acquainted. “A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!” Men still sigh for the flesh pots of Egypt; still worship the golden calf. There is no “Open Sesame” to the treasures of learning; they must be acquired by hard study. Milton and Shakespeare are full of allusions to the classic literature of Greece and Rome. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement made for effect.

      “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.”

 “And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
 Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
 Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
 Make Ossa like a wart!”

Exercises in Figures:
      Name the following figures. Of those that are based upon likeness, tell in what the similarity consists. In many of the selections more than one figure will be found. “The long, hard winter of his youth had ended; the spring-time of his manhood was turning green like the woods.” A pig came up to a horse and said, “Your feet are crooked, and your hair is worth nothing.” “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, but they were drawn swords.” “The lily maid of Astolat.”

 “O Truth! O Freedom! how are ye still born
 In the rude stable, in the manger nursed!”
 “The birch, most shy and ladylike of trees,
 Her poverty, as best she may, retrieves,
 And hints at her foregone gentilities
 With some saved relics of her wealth of leaves.”

      “O friend, never strike sail to a fear! Come into port grandly, or sail with God the seas!” “Primroses smile and daisies cannot frown.” “How deeply and warmly and spotlessly Earth’s nakedness is clothed!—the ‘wool’ of the Psalmist nearly two feet deep. And as far as warmth and protection are concerned, there is a good deal of the virtue of wool in such a snow-fall. It is a veritable fleece, beneath which the shivering earth (‘the frozen hills ached with pain,’ says one of our young poets) is restored to warmth.” “We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us by the side of Solon and Alfred and other founders of States. Our fathers have filled them.” “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my judgment was as a robe and diadem. “I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. “I was father to the poor; and the cause which I knew not I searched out. “And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.” “His head and his heart were so well combined that he could not avoid becoming a power in his community.” Spenser, writing of honor, says:—

 “In woods, in waves, in wars, she wonts to dwell,
 And will be found with peril and with pain;
 Nor can the man that moulds an idle cell
 Unto her happy mansion attain:
 Before her gate high God did Sweat ordain,
 And wakeful watches ever to abide;
 But easy is the way and passage plain
 To pleasure’s palace: it may soon be spied,
 And day and night her doors to all stand open wide.”

      “Over the vast green sea of the wilderness, the moon swung her silvery lamp.” “The peace of the golden sunshine was supreme. Even a tiny cloudlet anchored in the limitless sky would not sail to-day.” “A short way further along, I come across a boy gathering palm. He is a town boy, and has come all the way from Whitechapel thus early. He has already gathered a great bundle—worth five shillings to him, he says. This same palm will to-morrow be distributed over London, and those who buy sprigs of it by the Bank will know nothing of the blue-eyed boy who gathered it, and the murmuring river by which it grew. And the lad, once more lost in some squalid court, will be a sort of Sir John Mandeville to his companions—a Sir John Mandeville of the fields, with their water-rats, their birds’ eggs, and many other wonders. And one can imagine him saying, ‘And the sparrows there fly right up into the sun, and sing like angels.’ But he won’t get his comrades to believe that.“

      “We wandered to the Pine Forest That skirts the Ocean’s foam; The lightest wind was in its nest, The tempest in its home. The whispering waves were half asleep, The clouds were gone to play, And on the bosom of the deep The smile of heaven lay; It seemed as if the hour were one Sent from beyond the skies Which scattered from above the sun The light of Paradise. “We paused amid the pines that stood The giants of the waste, Tortured by storms to shapes as rude As serpents interlaced,— And soothed by every azure breath That under heaven is blown, To harmonies and hues beneath, As tender as its own: Now all the tree-tops lay asleep Like green waves on the sea, As still as in the silent deep The ocean woods may be.”

      “When a bee brings pollen into the hive, he advances to the cell in which it is to be deposited and kicks it off as one might his overalls or rubber boots, making one foot help the other; then he walks off without ever looking behind him; another bee, one of the indoor hands, comes along and rams it down with his head and packs it in the cell as the dairy-maid packs butter into a firkin.” “For thy desires Are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.” “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! 267 how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” “And in her cheeks the vermeil red did shew Like roses in a bed of lilies shed.” He betrayed his friend with a Judas kiss. “A true poet is not one whom they can hire by money and flattery to be a minister of their pleasures, their writer of occasional verses, their purveyor of table wit; he cannot be their menial, he cannot even be their partisan. At the peril of both parties let no such union be attempted. Will a Courser of the Sun work softly in the harness of a Dray-horse? His hoofs are of fire, and his path is through the heavens, bringing light to all lands; will he lumber on mud highways, dragging ale for earthly appetites from door to door?” “Hath a dog money? is it possible A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” “Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.” They sleep together,—the gray and the blue. “Have not the Indians been kindly and justly treated? Have not the temporal things—the vain baubles and filthy lucre of this world—which were apt to engage their worldly and selfish thoughts, been benevolently taken from them? And have they not, instead thereof, been taught to set their affections on things above?” (Quoted from Meiklejohn’s “The Art of Writing English.”) “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” “His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine, And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine, That mingle their softness and quiet in one With the shaggy unrest they float down upon.” Too much red tape caused a great amount of suffering in the beginning of the war. 268 “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain.” “The old Mountain has thrown a stone at us for fear we should forget him. He sometimes nods his head, and threatens to come down.” “But pleasures are like poppies spread: You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed; Or like the snow falls in the river, A moment white—then melts for ever; Or like the borealis race, That flit ere you can point their place; Or like the rainbow’s lovely form Evanishing amid the storm.”

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