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An In-depth Explanation of Metaphors:What is the Meaning of Metaphors?


Metaphors are everywhere. In articles, books, blogposts, poems. Some even say language itself is a metaphor. But what is actually a metaphor and why even use it when you can use simple language. In this article we discuss the meaning of metaphors and how their use can help better express your ideas. 

Table of Contents

What is the Meaning of Metaphors?

Metaphor is a reference to one thing using something else. For example, 

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances ...
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7

The world is referenced here using a stage. Similarly, men and women are referenced here as players. 

Metaphors are from of expression that helps to convey meaning. Sometimes ordinary plain language cannot express what you want. The feelings, the emotions, the atmosphere, the scenery; whenever any of these things are involved, plain words are not enough. For example, Dan saw a fight on the way home between two men, in which a man was badly injured. When Dan goes home and tries to express to his mom what happened, what does he say? He tries to express emotion and atmosphere. He says something like, "Mom, I saw a guy beat someone to a pulp today." Notice how the word pulp is used here as a metaphor.

We use metaphors every day. We just don't notice them. We see someone beautiful and compare them to a flower. We feel anger and compare it to fire. We hear noise in the office and compare it to the buzzing of some insects.        

Definition of metaphor in literature

The rhetorician I. A. Richards says that metaphor has two parts:

  • Tenor
  • Vehicle

For example, 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more; temperate

 Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Here the tenor is the beloved and the vehicle is summer's day. In short, the tenor is the thing or a person to which attributes are ascribed and the vehicle is the thing or person whose attributes are borrowed. A lover is ascribed, the attributes of the sun or a rose flower. Beloved is the tenor here and the sun or rose flower is the vehicle.

Some writers use the terms ground and figure to denote tenor and vehicle respectively. Others call them, target and source

Examples of metaphors: poetry

Here are some metaphors from poetry with explanations about their usage:

A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!


In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife! 


Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time

In the first part, the poet wants to express the meaninglessness of life that someone is feeling. The metaphor empty dream perfectly captures this feeling. The word dream expresses the unreality, the fakeness, and the strangeness that we feel in our lives sometimes. The word empty expresses the feeling of uselessness, having no purpose and no meaning.

In the second part, the poet wants to express the idea that life is a struggle and we should face this struggle bravely. A battlefield is a perfect metaphor for this struggle. The poet adds depth to this metaphor by adding details. The bivouac expresses the idea of change and temporariness in life. In every battlefield there are heroes and there are those who just follow orders. The poet expresses the idea of a man who faces the struggles of life bravely as someone who is a hero. The others who just go with the flow are compared to cattle here. 

In the third part and the last line, the poet wants to express the idea of someone being remembered after death for a long time. In ancient times hourglasses were used for measuring time. An hourgalss has sand inside it. The movement of the sand inside the hourglass was the indicator of passing time. This movement of sand was also called the sands of time. The poet uses this metaphor of the sands of time to express the idea of time. The footprints on this sand express the idea of being remembered. You may ask why the poet has used an ancient time measuring instrument as a metaphor. The reason is to express the feeling of being remembered for a long long time. Old metaphors are also excellent for expressing the timelessness of some principles.   

Here is an article about  writing good metaphors.  

Invictus by William Ernest Henley  

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate, 

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

In this poem, the poet expresses the idea of being determined, brave, and uncompromising in the face of hardships. The poet expresses the idea of hardships by using the metaphor of the night. The night is the time when dark, unknown things appear. Night is the time of monsters and calamities. The darkness of the night which is described by the line

Black as the pit from pole to pole   

expresses the idea of the harshness of circumstances and suffering. The blackness of the night is compared to a pit. A pit is a deep dark hole or Hell. Hell is the mother of all troubles. So using the pit as a metaphor for darkness adds more intensity to the whole situation.

Read more about the metaphorical meaning of day and night. 

To express the obstinate bravery in the harshest of circumstances the poet uses a metaphor from war. Unconquerable means someone who has never been defeated in battle. This perfectly captures the idea of someone who never gives up and so always wins in the end. 

In the next lines, the poet expresses the idea of someone remaining steadfast in the harshest circumstances and most unpleasant of chance events. The poet converts circumstance and chance into metaphors by anthropologizing them. He converts circumstance into a monster with evil (fell) clutches who does not let go of his prey. This perfectly captures the situation in which someone finds himself when he is facing hard times and cannot get out of his situation. Similarly, the poet converts chance into a monster that has a cudgel with which it beats or bludgeons its prey. Similar to an unexpected and unpleasant chance event a cudgel can land on the head of its prey at any time without a warning. 

Next, the poet expresses the idea of being unafraid of death. The horror of the shade is a metaphor for death. The poet is using Biblical language here to express the seriousness of the situation. Death is compared to a shadow here. The shadow expresses the idea of the unknown and unexpected. The shadow expresses fear and uncertainty. The passing of time is expressed by the metaphor menace of the years. The poet has anthropologized the years of life into another monster which is very dangerous and harmful. This has helped to capture the feeling of harsh years of life and their never-ending trauma. 

In the last stanza, the poet wants to emphasize his message. So he uses direct words from the bible to give a Biblical emotion to the whole poem. The first line takes the concept of strait gate from Matthew  7:14:  

“Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to eternal life.” (Matthew 7:14) 

The scroll refers to the scroll of fate which every human being has according to the Bible. To express the idea that "I control my destiny" the metaphor of master is used. A master is someone who has complete control of something. This accurately depicts the meaning the poet wants. The last line is expressing the idea of passing through life with full control of the situation. We all know that circumstances and chance occurrences are not in our control during our lives. So the poet expresses the idea of control through the metaphor of the captain of a ship. The ship is the ship of soul which is sailing in the waters of time and the torrents of destiny. This is a beautiful and deep metaphor and a perfect conclusion for this poem.

 Harlem by Langston Hughes 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore- 

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load

Or does it explode?


The poet wants to express here the concept of dreams in the hearts of people and what happens to those dreams when they are kept waiting for too long. Do they become lifeless? Do they change into something negative? Do they lead to an unsolvable situation? Do such dreams face reality in the end and become nothing or do they lead to a revolution? These are the questions that the poet asks but he asks them using metaphors. Why? Because metaphors have the quality of adding a feeling to the abstract concepts and make them more real, all-encompassing and yet personal, all at the same time. 

The poet uses everyday food items in his metaphors to give a feeling of familiarity to common people. Does a deferred become lifeless? The poet asks this question using raisins dried in the sun. Just like grapes when they are dried in the sun they become lifeless so can a dream become nothing but a lifeless husk. Festering like a sore refers to the negativity that keeps building in people. A festered sore is painful for the whole body. Similarly, people whose dreams are deferred can become angry with their situation and can go towards dark paths like crime and drugs etc. Rotten meat expresses the idea of a person who have become something below human. Something to be despised. People who are forced by society to remain uneducated and in the lowest tiers ultimately become a burden for everyone. crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet refer to the idea that when dreams are deferred people sometimes become trapped in the past and unable to move on. Dreams are sweet in the beginning just like sweet syrup but just as sweet syrup becomes dry and hard with time dreams too can become hard, immovable when they are deferred, and can force a person to remain stuck in the past. sags like a heavy load refers to the idea that deferred dreams can become a burden for a person. In the last line, the metaphor explode is very simple yet it conveys a powerful emotion. The reason is built-up of the poem in the above metaphors which perfectly captures the whole situation. explode here refers to a situation where people are oppressed to a point where they feel like a cornered animal and attack.     

 The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The metaphors in this poem are simple. Two roads in a yellow wood but by adding a little context the poet has made this poem one of America's most famous. A deep reflection about the choices in life, our confusions about making those choices, and the vagueness that is called life. The subject is very complex and deep yet the language of the poem, the words are all simple. The trick lies in a simple narrative that can together convey a deep meaning.

There are things in life that are everyday and common. For example, a road, a river, a wall, or a tree. We all see these things every day and think nothing about them. And one day when we are thinking about some mundane task suddenly a thought occurs in our mind; A deep thought that is related to that road, that river, that wall, or that tree. You are going on a road trip and suddenly you think about the road and how your life is also a road leading you to somewhere and someplace. This poem is also like this. The narrative is a simple thought process that suddenly hits upon something deeper about our existence and life. This is the beauty of this poem. It captures something which is common and yet we can't share it with other people. 

Opportunity by John James Ingalls 

Master of human destinies am I;

Fame, love, and fortune on my footsteps wait.

Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate

Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by

Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,

I knock unbidden once at every gate.

If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before

I turn away. It is the hour of fate,

And they who follow me reach every state

Mortals desire, and conquer every foe

Save death; but those who hesitate

Condemned to failure, penury, and woe,

Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.

I answer not, and I return no more. 

The poet expresses here the power of opportunity and how it changes a person's life. In order to do this, he has anthropologized opportunity into a king, a master who has servants fame, love, and fortune (again anthropologizing), and all the human world is his realm. The poet then describes in a dramatic manner how opportunity knocks on every door. Those who follow it reach success and those who don't are doomed to failure.   

No Man Is An Island by John Donne

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

The poet has made a contrast between selfish individualism and selfless community by using the metaphor of an island and a continent. A single selfish man living in his own world who does not depend nor care about anybody else is an island. No man is an island No man is an island because men are dependent on each other and so they are a continent.  

A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone? 
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

The poet is describing here the experience of loss and how we all are unable to stop beautiful things from going away from our lives. This experience is compared to a man standing on a surf-tormented shore holding grains of golden sand that are creeping down from his fingers. He is unable to stop the flow of the sand particles no matter how hard he tries. Same is the experience of a person who is losing some close and precious but couldn't stop the circumstances. 

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Poets often compare their beloved to the sun but here the poet has done the opposite. He is comparing his beloved to the night. The night is often a metaphor for the unknown and its terror. But night has another attribute. It is mysterious, especially the night sky with all its stars and constellations weave a patchwork of light within the darkness which can leave a man in awe if he gives it some time. The poet is comparing his beloved to the mysteriousness of the night and its beauty. 

Metaphor examples in literature

“I wonder which is preferable, to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you're depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin - everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone - and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?”
― Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Everyone has secrets and mysterious things in their lives that give life its deeper meaning. The writer is describing all these feelings and secrets using the metaphor of a sack full of goods. The metaphor is simple but its explanation and description and the way meaning is attached to it have given it, its depth, feeling, and personality. 

“The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. 'Upon my word,' he said [...], 'I don't see that one's more true than another. Both are utterly false.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

In this passage, beautiful things are turned into something darker and terrible by using metaphorical imagery. 

“His love for me seemed to overflow my limits by its flood of wealth and service. But my necessity was more for giving than for receiving; for love is a vagabond, who can make his flowers bloom in the wayside dust, better than in the crystal jars kept in the drawing-room.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World

The giving and receiving of love is described by water which can make trees grow and flowers bloom. 

“Time is a river...and books are boats. Many volumes start down that stream, only to be wrecked and lost beyond recall in its sands. Only a few, a very few, endure the testings of time and live to bless the ages following.”
― R.W. and Rev. Joseph Fort Newton, The Lost Symbol

Many books are lost in time, forgotten forever. This is described by boats floating down a river.

“...I can’t stop squirming. If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five new languages.”
― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

“And now, my poor old woman, why are you crying so bitterly? It is autumn. The leaves are falling from the trees like burning tears- the wind howls. Why must you mimic them?”
― Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

“Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is--the strong horse that pulls the whole cart.”
― Winston Churchill

“What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”
― Freidrich Neitzsche

Metaphorical sentences examples

“Happiness is the china shop; love is the bull.”
― H.L. Mencken

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

“Life' wrote a friend of mine, 'is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.”
― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

“Love is a piano dropped from a four story window and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
-Two Little Girls (Little Plastic Castle)”
― Ani Difranco

“Your mind is a cupboard and you stock the shelves.”
― Thomas S. Monson

“The mind is a metaphor of the world of objects.”
― Pierre Bourdieu

“Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.”
― Thomas Fuller

“If London is a watercolor, New York is an oil painting.”
― Peter Shaffer

“Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.”
― Roberto Bolaño, 2666

“Until the thirst for power parched his throat, he was a fearless and noble lord.”
― Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron

“As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion.”
― Antisthenes Pinto

“Guilt is the toothache of the soul.”
― Tommy Cotton, Just Went Out for Milk

List of metaphors

Anger bottled up inside

Apple of my eye

Ideas in motion

She felt her gorge rising

Love is a fine wine

Melting pot

Night owl

Path of glory

Path of exile

Point of no return

Sweet dreams

Fork in the road

Work has dried up

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