Saturday, 31 October 2009

Three Types of Simile

Here's something I wrote while deeply bored some time ago. As you can imagine, I'm still desperately bored - too bored even to blog propely, though I've started posting again over at CTS. I had a volume of Hardy and a cup of tea to hand when I wrote it.

The first type of simile simply tries to invoke some genuine quality of a real object through reference to another object. The relevant cliché is “as hot as an oven”. With these “concrete” similes, the danger for the writer is that cliché is difficult to avoid; exaggeration also creeps up on you. But the possibility is always there for a simple simile of this type to contain other, hidden meanings or connotations. Take this example from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Clock Winder’: “It is as dark as a cave”. Nothing too complicated there, the image is clear, the reference, obvious. But think for a while on the nature of caves. Claustrophobic, tapering into ancient rocks, the home of unknown streams, stalactites and stalagmites, the origins of human civilisation, hidden realms. The darkness of the very ordinary night Hardy is explaining now takes on a more psychological aspect. The depth of similes such as these is, of course, entirely up to the writer. But writers and students should be encouraged to think very carefully about the objects they choose to place into their similes.

The second type does the same thing, but invokes non-existent objects that people are nonetheless familiar with. For example: “Quick feet as light/As the feet of a sprite” from the poem ‘Signs and Tokens’. It is easy to see the reference, even though there are (as far as we know) no such things as sprites. The word “sprite” itself has become almost a metaphor for quickness and lightness. With this kind of simile a writer can convey some sense of numinosity or give an ethereal atmosphere to a scene or idea. A clichéd example of this type would be something like, “She looked like an angel”. A better one would be this, from Hardy’s poem ‘Apostrophe to an Old Psalm Tune’, “..sweet as angels’ laughters”.

The third type of simile intends to reference the object or quality only vaguely or slightly to anything, and is instead a satire, or a play with language for its own sake. This is exceptionally difficult to write appropriately. Most usually it is done to make the reader question the writing process and think about the difficulty of communication. It is mainly associated with modernist and post-modernist writing. An example would be “The years were like the cries of children”, in which a sense of fear is invoked, but otherwise the similarities are slight or non-existent.

These types of simile can also be adapted, extended or cut. Often a writer will slide the usual expressions into “hot like an oven” or “oven-hot” or “with the heat of an oven” or some other phrase. To avoid cliché and extend the image – though this has to be done with caution – a writer might take a simile like “she looked like an angel” and change it to “she looked like an angel, full of its sadness for humankind” – the idea being to give the object of reference more detail in order to make the image more complex. In the following quotation Hardy doubles his simile to give it more shades of meaning:
From tides the lofty coastlands screen
Come smitings like the slam of doors
Or hammerings on hollow floors

(from ‘The Wind’s Prophecy’)