More Than Cool Reason: Excerpt

From the University of Chicago Press

More than Cool Reason:
A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

Copyright © 1989 by George Lakoff and Mark Turner

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Chapter one: Life, Death, and Time
Chapter two: The Power of Poetic Metaphor
Chapter three: The Metaphoric Structure of a Single Poem
Chapter four: The Great Chain of Being
More on Traditional Views


It is commonly thought that poetic language is beyond ordinary language--that it is something essentially different, special, higher, with extraordinary tools and techniques like metaphor and metonymy, instruments beyond the reach of someone who just talks. But great poets, as master craftsmen, use basically the same tools we use; what makes them different is their talent for using these tools, and their skill in using them, which they acquire from sustained attention, study, and practice.

Metaphor is a tool so ordinary that we use it unconsciously and automatically, with so little effort that we hardly notice it. It is omnipresent: metaphor suffuses our thoughts, no matter what we are thinking about. It is accessible to everyone: as children, we automatically, as a matter of course, acquire a mastery of everyday metaphor. It is conventional: metaphor is an integral part of our ordinary everyday thought and language. And it is irreplaceable: metaphor allows us to understand our selves and our world in ways that no other modes of thought can.

Far from being merely a matter of words, metaphor is a matter of thought--all kinds of thought: thought about emotion, about society, about human character, about language, and about the nature of life and death. It is indispensable not only to our imagination but also to our reason.

Great poets can speak to us because they use the modes of thought we all possess. Using the capacities we all share, poets can illuminate our experience, explore the consequences of our beliefs, challenge the ways we think, and criticize our ideologies. To understand the nature and value of poetic creativity requires us to understand the ordinary ways we think.

Because metaphor is a primary tool for understanding our world and our selves, entering into an engagement with powerful poetic metaphors is grappling in an important way with what it means to have a human life.

We have written this book to analyze the role of metaphor in poetry. In it, we take up general questions of the theory of metaphor, and, more widely, questions of rhetoric, meaning, and reasoning. The book should therefore prove valuable to students and researchers in literature, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science.

We have tried to write the book in a style accessible to undergraduates who are learning to read poetry in depth. We hope it will help them to understand how poetic metaphor works.

Excerpt from Chapter One: 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 Twain, Mark "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 Conceptual domains, begin 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, definition of "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 Tennyson, Alfred Lord as "when I put out to sea.'' When John Keats, discussing death, Keats, John 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.


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.


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).


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). Bible, Genesis 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 $\ldots$ I Bible, John 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.

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