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More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

5.0 1
by George Lakoff
"The authors restore metaphor to our lives by showing us that it's never gone away. We've merely been taught to talk as if it had: as though weather maps were more 'real' than the breath of autumn; as though, for that matter, Reason was really 'cool.' What we're saying whenever we say is a theme this book illumines for anyone attentive." — Hugh Kenner, Johns


"The authors restore metaphor to our lives by showing us that it's never gone away. We've merely been taught to talk as if it had: as though weather maps were more 'real' than the breath of autumn; as though, for that matter, Reason was really 'cool.' What we're saying whenever we say is a theme this book illumines for anyone attentive." — Hugh Kenner, Johns Hopkins University

"In this bold and powerful book, Lakoff and Turner continue their use of metaphor to show how our minds get hold of the world. They have achieved nothing less than a postmodern Understanding Poetry, a new way of reading and teaching that makes poetry again important." — Norman Holland, University of Florida

Editorial Reviews

Metaphor is not merely a decorative aspect of poetic language; it is a mode of everyday thought that allows us to comprehend one conceptual domain in terms of another. With great clarity, Lakoff (linguistics, U. of California, Berkeley) and Turner (English, Chicago) explain how poems rely upon and extend the basic metaphors by which we make sense of the world. The paper edition is available ($11.95, 46812-7). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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More than Cool Reason

A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

By George Lakoff, Mark Turner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1989 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-47098-6


Life, Death, and Time

"Because I could not stop for Death"

    Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism "He passed away" is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don't say "He drank a glass of milk" or "He had an idea" or "He upholstered his couch." Instead we say things like "He's gone," "He's left us," "He's no longer with us," "He's passed on," "He's been taken from us," "He's gone to the great beyond," and "He's among the dear departed." All of these are mundane, and they are metaphoric. They are all instances of a general metaphorical way we have of conceiving of birth, life, and death in which BIRTH IS ARRIVAL, LIFE IS BEING PRESENT HERE, And DEATH IS DEPARTURE. Thus, we speak of a baby being "on the way" and "a little bundle from heaven," and we send out announcements of its "arrival." When Shakespeare's King Lear says

    Thou must be patient; we came crying hither:
    Thou know'st the first time that we smell the air
    We waul and cry ... (King Lear, 4.4)

he is using an extension of the very ordinary metaphorical conception of birth as arrival ("came hither") that we use when we speak of a baby being on the way. Mark Twain said he "came in" with Halley's comet and would "go out" with it—and we all understand that he was talking about birth and death. To speak of someone, after a serious operation, as being "still with us" is to say he is alive, with the "still" suggesting the possibility of imminent departure. Someone who is "at Death's door" can be spoken of as "slipping away." If a patient's heart stops beating and a doctor gets it started again, the doctor can describe this as "bringing him back." And if a doctor, after an operation, emerges from the operating room and says "We lost him," then we know the patient died, because something that is lost is absent.

All this may seem obvious, but there is an important theoretical issue at stake in these examples: metaphor resides in thought, not just in words. There is a metaphorical conception of death as departure that can be expressed in many different ways, such as "passing away," "being gone," and "departing." Though we would not normally speak of a coachman coming to take away someone who is dying, we nonetheless normally conceive of death as a departure and speak of it that way. And when Emily Dickinson speaks of Death as a coachman, she is using an extension of the same general and ordinary metaphorical conception of death as departure that we use when we speak of someone passing away.

We use the death-as-departure metaphor in making sense of Dickinson's poem. We can see this by noticing that nowhere in the first four lines is anything said about departure with no return. And yet we know when she says, "The Carriage held but just Ourselves" that the passengers are not simply sitting in the carriage or going for a visit or a spin around the block. We know because we understand death as a departure with no return. Because we conceive of death in this way, Dickinson does not need to state all of the details: we know them by virtue of knowing the basic conceptual metaphor.

Life and death are such all-encompassing matters that there can be no single conceptual metaphor that will enable us to comprehend them. There is a multiplicity of metaphors for life and death, and a number of the most common ones show up in the Dickinson poem. To begin to sort them out, let us return to the line "Because I could not stop for Death—." We understand here that what the speaker cannot stop are her purposeful activities. A purposeful life has goals, and one searches for means toward those goals. We conceive metaphorically of purposes as destinations and of the means to those destinations as paths. We speak of "going ahead with our plans," "getting sidetracked," "doing things in a roundabout way," and "working our way around obstacles." Thus there is a common metaphor PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS, and such expressions are instances of it.

When we think of life as purposeful, we think of it as having destinations and paths toward those destinations, which makes life a journey. We can speak of children as "getting off to a good start" in life and of the aged as being "at the end of the trail." We describe people as "making their way in life." People worry about whether they "are getting anywhere" with their lives, and about "giving their lives some direction." People who "know where they're going in life" are generally admired. In discussing options, one may say "I don't know which path to take." When Robert Frost says,

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference,
    ("The Road Not Taken")

we typically read him as discussing options for how to live life, and as claiming that he chose to do things differently than most other people do.

This reading comes from our implicit knowledge of the structure of the life is a journey metaphor. Knowing the structure of this metaphor means knowing a number of correspondences between the two conceptual domains of life and journeys, such as these:

—The person leading a life is a traveler.

—His purposes are destinations.

—The means for achieving purposes are routes.

—Difficulties in life are impediments to travel.

—Counselors are guides.

—Progress is the distance traveled.

— Things you gauge your progress by are landmarks.

—Choices in life are crossroads.

—Material resources and talents are provisions.

We will speak of such a set of correspondences as a "mapping" between two conceptual domains. Thus we will speak, for example, of destinations being mapped onto purposes.

When we read "Because I could not stop for Death—" and understand that what the speaker could not stop are her purposeful activities, we can understand those purposes as destinations and her life as a journey to reach those destinations. The occurrence of the word "Death" in the line suggests the reading that what she declines to stop is her life's journey. The second line, "He kindly stopped for me," and the occurrence of "Carriage" in the third line make it clear that what is being talked about is a journey.

Life is a journey with a stopping point, and that stopping point is death's departure point. Consequently, death too can involve a journey with a destination, So we speak of going to the great beyond, a better place, our final resting place, the last roundup. In Greek mythology, when you die, the ferryman Charon carries you from the shore of the river Styx across to the underworld. In Christian mythology, you ascend to the pearly gates or descend to the gates of hell. Other religious traditions, such as ancient Egyptian, also conceive of death as a departure on a journey. So, when Tennyson discusses death he refers to it as "when I put out to sea." When John Keats, discussing death, says "then on the shore / Of this wide world I stand alone," we understand that the shore is death's departure point, and that land's end is life's end.

Dickinson's coachman is taking her on death's journey, as we can see in the full poem:

    Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove—He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor and my leisure too,
    For his Civility—

    We passed the School, where Children strove
    At Recess—in the Ring—
    We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
    We passed the Setting Sun—

    Or rather—He passed Us—
    The Dews drew quivering and chill—
    For only Gossamer, my Gown—
    My Tippet—only Tulle—

    We paused before a House that seemed
    A Swelling of the Ground—
    The Roof was scarcely visible—
    The Cornice—in the Ground—

    Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses' Heads
    Were toward Eternity.

In this poem, Death is taking the speaker on a journey, and the first part of the journey reviews the stages of life that one traverses during life's journey. We interpret the children at school as referring to the stage of childhood, the field of ripe crops as referring to full maturity, the setting sun as referring to old age, the dews and chill and the near darkness suggested by the phrase "scarcely visible" as referring to the onset of death, and the swelling of the ground as referring to the final home of the body—the grave, the end of life's journey.

How do we understand so easily and naturally that the sequence of things the speaker mentions refers to the sequence of life-stages, to childhood, maturity, old age, death? The answer, in part, is that we know unconsciously and automatically many basic metaphors for understanding life, and Dickinson relies on our knowledge of these metaphors to lead us to connect the sequence she gives to the sequence of life-stages. As we shall see, we use the basic metaphor PEOPLE ARE PLANTS to understand that the "Fields of Gazing Grain" suggests maturity. We use the basic metaphor A LIFETIME IS A DAY to understand both that the setting sun refers to old age and that the dew and chill and near darkness refer to the onset of death. In understanding the swelling of the ground as referring to the final "home" of the body, we use both what we will call an "image-metaphor" and the basic metaphor DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION. Let us see how each of these metaphors works in detail.

People are Plants

In this metaphor, people are viewed as plants with respect to the life cycle—more precisely, they are viewed as that part of the plant that burgeons and then withers or declines, such as leaves, flowers, and fruit, though sometimes the whole plant is viewed as burgeoning and then declining, as with grass or wheat. As Psalm 103 says, "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth." Death comes with the harvest and the falling of the leaves. The stages of the plants and parts of plants in their yearly cycle correspond to the stages of life. When we speak of someone as "a young sprout," we mean that he is in the early stages of life. Someone "in full bloom" is mature. Someone "withering away" is approaching death. Wheat that has put forth its grain is mature. Thus, in the Dickinson poem, we can apply the PEOPLE ARE PLANTS metaphor to read the "Fields of Gazing Grain" as referring to a stage of life—maturity.

A Lifetime is a Day

In this metaphor, birth is dawn, maturity is noon, old age is twilight, the moment of death is sunset, and the state of death is night. Via this metaphor, Dickinson's line about the "setting sun" can be understood as referring to old age. In our conventional schema for a day, as the sun sets, the dew and chill set in. Metaphorically, death's coldness is night's coldness, since death is night. Against the coldness of death coming on, the speaker has only a gossamer gown and a very thin shawl (a tippet made of tulle, a very fine cloth).

Death is Going to a Final Destination

We conceive of death as something to which we are all subject. Death is inevitable and final. Particular deaths may vary in certain details; one may "go out" in a variety of fashions. Correspondingly, the DEATH IS DEPARTURE metaphor does not fix the details of how one departs: for example, one may depart in a carriage, a boat, or a chariot. But since one inevitably dies, so the metaphorical departure is inevitable, as is the final state to which it leads.

The death-as-departure metaphor is often extended in religious traditions, where the departure is seen as the beginning of a journey to a final destination. This makes use of the basic metaphor that STATES ARE LOCATIONS that one can be in, enter, or leave. Being dead is a final state, and therefore, metaphorically, a final location. A change of state is metaphorically a change of location. Via DEATH IS DEPARTURE, this final location is the final destination toward which one departs. The specific details of this final location vary: it can be, for example, God the Father's house, punishment in hell, an assigned spot in the underworld, final rest, or the place of one's origin, which can be one's home.

If one conceives of the earth as where the body comes from and returns to and belongs, then one can conceive of the grave as the home, not just the house, of the body. Then going to the grave can be going home: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19). Home is where you start from and return to, and it is where you belong. In the Judeo-Christian conception, our soul comes from God the Father, and it returns to our Father's house, as in John 14:2: "in my Father's house are many mansions ... I go to prepare a place for you."

We apply the DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION metaphor to understand the Dickinson poem as presenting death in terms of a departure from this life and a journey toward a final destination, namely, the grave. The scarcely visible "House" she mentions is her grave, the final residence of the body, in which the body will dwell. The carriage is the hearse, moving slowly, with "no haste." The gossamer gown is her death shroud. There is an image-metaphor at work in these lines, which helps to activate the DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION metaphor. Our conventional image of a grave is superimposed on our conventional image of a house: the roof of the house is the bulge of earth, and the cornice of the roof is the gravestone, with the interior of the house being earth. Such a superimposition of images constitutes a metaphor in itself, since it is a mapping from one conventional image onto another conventional image. Such an image-metaphor can then help activate other conceptual metaphors. Because our conventional image of a grave is associated with death and our conventional image of a house is associated with our going toward our own houses as final destinations, the superimposition of the images activates a connection between death and going home, and hence it activates the metaphor DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION.

We have thus seen five basic metaphors for death that are used naturally, automatically, and largely unconsciously in understanding the Dickinson poem. They are DEATH IS THE END OF LIFE'S JOURNEY, DEATH IS DEPARTURE (an inference from LIFE IS BEING PRESENT HERE), DEATH IS NIGHT (from A LIFETIME IS A DAY), HUMAN DEATH IS THE DEATH OF A PLANT, such as the harvesting of grain, the falling of leaves from the tree, and so on (from PEOPLE ARE PLANTS), and DEATH IS GOING TO A FINAL DESTINATION (an instance of CHANGE OF STATE IS CHANGE OF LOCATION).

Dickinson extended and composed these metaphors in novel ways. But, though she created the poem, she did not create the basic metaphors on which the poem is based. They were already there for her, widespread throughout Western culture, in the everyday thought of the least literate of people as well as in the greatest poetry in her traditions.

Some Conceptions of Life and Death

It is important to distinguish the way we conceive metaphorically of such things as life and death from the way a particular poet may express such thoughts in language. We began this book with "Because I could not stop for Death" not to focus particularly on that poem as opposed to a multitude of others but to illustrate some basic metaphors that belong to our culture. We all use them.

General conceptual metaphors are thus not the unique creation of individual poets but are rather part of the way members of a culture have of conceptualizing their experience. Poets, as members of their cultures, naturally make use of these basic conceptual metaphors to communicate with other members, their audience. Therefore, we would expect the basic metaphors used by Dickinson to show up in the works of many other poets. Let us consider how other poets use each of these basic metaphors.

Life is a Journey

Dante begins his Divine Comedy:

    In the middle of life's road,
    I found myself in a dark wood.


Excerpted from More than Cool Reason by George Lakoff, Mark Turner. Copyright © 1989 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

George Lakoff is Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books.

Mark Turner is Institute Professor and professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University and the founding director of the Cognitive Science Network.

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