Before I get into something substantive and profound, which is obviously probable on this blog, I remember a year or so ago when I was working as a cashier at Lowes and a man came by with a shopping cart with fifteen or twenty hammers. I asked him if he was an exterminator. He wasn’t, but then why buy all those hammers?
Anyway, this is a blog entry about metaphors, and I want to consider the phrase “dumb as a bag of hammers”, which I first heard on the comedy TV show Second City years ago. I loved it as a description of stupidity, especially because it had the appeal at the time of freshness. Since a metaphor is a comparison, what is being compared there? The phrase works because it compares the mental capacity of a person with something that has connotations of closed containment (a bag), heaviness (the weight of the hammers), dullness (the shape of the hammers), and perhaps brainless repetitious behavior (banging away with the hammers). There are still deeper levels of metaphor in my list, such as why heaviness might imply stupidity.
In a previous blog entry I wrote about the fact that metaphor is a basic aspect of how our mind makes sense of the world. Having already written on that, I’m not going to repeat it until enough time passes that both of my readers have forgotten about it. Here I want to write about simply playing with words, delighting the mind with the bright sparkle of a metaphor (“bright sparkle”, that’s a metaphor there, but you knew that).
One of the most brilliant metaphors I ever heard is also remarkably famous, and from hearing it so often, it’s easy to overlook how good it is. I used to play a game with my students, writing it on the board one word at a time, to see how quickly they guessed it. Some people knew it after two words—“what light”. You got it?
“What light by yonder window breaks. It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Picture the actual setting of this, a world much darker than anything we know, and all artificial light was something literally on fire. In a very dark garden Romeo is looking up at at the balcony when Juliet enters the room above carrying a candle. From down below he would see a faint light gradually growing brighter as she walks across the room.
Shakespeare used that fact to compare Juliet’s entrance to the sun rising, which of course happens in the east. The line uses the interesting reference to light that “breaks”, which we don’t much say anymore except for the fixed phrase “daybreak”.
This imagery of Juliet as the sun is already pretty smart stuff for a writer, but it’s even better than it seems. Human beings have a compelling fascination with light, and we use many other metaphors of light as goodness and knowledge (“Jesus is the light of the world”, “enlightenment”). The ultimate source of light for us is the sun, and by saying “Juliet is the sun” Shakespeare not only used clever language, he also showed something of how highly Romeo regards Juliet, how infatuated he is with her.
Metaphors swarm around us like linguistic insects. Some are bright and gaudy, butterflies of the word world (like Shakespeare’s phrase), while others sneak by generally unnoticed, such as the word “swarm” in this paragraph. One of the great delights of a good writer is the unique vision they bring to seeing the world in new ways through fresh metaphors. It’s something I love about writing.
[The photo that accompanies this blog entry is of “Juliet’s balcony” in the city of Verona, Italy. I’m not making this up. I took a group of students to Verona, and they took us to that courtyard and said “here’s Juliet’s balcony”, and I thought “What is this shit? It’s a story.” True or not, it’s a popular tourist attraction.]