Samuel Johnson and Metaphorical Propriety

The following essay is by Jason Turetsky of the College of Staten Island, who tied for first place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Jason!

Samuel Johnson and Metaphorical Propriety

There is a famous passage in Samuel Johnson’s Life of Denham which has confused critics and produced a variety of interpretations. I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, Jean Hagstrum and William Edinger, have tried to decipher the passage. I will consider the comments of each in an attempt to arrive at some sound conclusions about the meaning of Johnson’s statement. It is my view that this difficult passage, if read properly, will help to establish a better understanding of Johnson’s concept of metaphorical propriety.

Johnson analyzes the following lines from Sir John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill”:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream

My great example, as it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear: though gentle, yet not dull;

Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full. (qtd. in Lives 34)

Johnson admires the passage but qualifies his praise with the following criticism:

The lines are in themselves not perfect; for most of the words, thus artfully opposed, are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and if there be any language which does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated. (34-35)

The cryptic formulation of Johnson’s language has vexed his readers for a long time. The confusion partly results from Johnson’s decision to treat the tenor of the conceit as the “intellectual operations” of the poet rather than poetic style.1 Poetic style is evaluated by its effect on the listener. It is a result of the oral effects and aural impressions of diction, syntax and meter. This is distinguished from “intellectual operations,” or purely cognitive processes, which are understood abstractly. In the Life of Cowley, Johnson uses the same phrase in an apparent binary sense: “They neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter nor represented the operations of the intellect” (9). This pronouncement suggests that Johnson may have considered any non-material activity or process, such as the flow of a poem, to be an “intellectual operation.” Nonetheless, poetic style is far more analogous to the flow of a river insofar as its effects are realized through sense experience. Poetic style therefore can be aligned with material processes more easily than can pure thought or cognition. The problem with the conceit is that Denham’s tenor seems to alternate between poetic style and mental process. Denham invokes the river as a model for the “flow” of his poetic style; yet his first descriptive clause, “Though deep, yet clear,” suggests a profound mind rather than a smooth poetic style. Certainly the imaginative faculty, from which poetic style flows, may be considered as an operation of the intellect. And since Denham initially seems to describe the mind, Johnson’s treatment of the tenor as “intellectual operations” is perhaps understandable. But after the initial descriptive clause, the rest of the terms all apply to style far more directly than if they were applied to the intellect.

If we consider Johnson’s own analytical style, as exemplified in the Lives of the Poets, we find that he exhibits a critical habit of mind very similar to Denham’s method in the Thames conceit. Johnson’s tendency in his moral and critical writings to use parallel and antithetical constructions to separate praiseworthy qualities from their corresponding faults accounts for his high estimation of the passage. According to Johnson, “…[T]he particulars of resemblance are so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted… (35). This principle of analysis is prevalent in the Lives of the Poets. In the memorable, encomiastic closing to the Life of Addison, Johnson describes his style as “familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious” (248). In the Life of Milton, speaking of the poet’s depiction of Adam and Eve, Johnson states, “In the first state, their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption” (72). Johnson uses this style for negative criticism as well, as in Life of Cowley, where he complains of the “metaphysical poets”: “Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just” (9). In the Life of Pope, Johnson says of Warburton’s poetry, “His style is copious without selection, and forcible without neatness” (403). In each example, we see Johnson using antithesis in a manner similar to Denham’s. In the last example, his descriptive words are very similar in meaning to those used by Denham. “Forcible without neatness” is essentially an inverted version of Denham’s “strong without rage.” “Copious without selection,” is almost a perfect analogue, though constructed as a negative, to Denham’s “without o’er-flowing full.” In light of Johnson’s negative comments, Tate suggests, “His remark that the ‘particulars of resemblance are perspicaciously collected,’ seems incomprehensible” (91). But if we consider Johnson’s own tendency to separate “mode[s] of excellence” from “adjacent fault[s],” it is not difficult to see why Johnson admired Denham’s lines. The confusing part of Johnson’s comment is the criticism.

Before we can assess Johnson’s exact meaning, we must determine what he refers to when he uses the word “comparison.” William Edinger supposes that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is the antithesis of terms in each clause. He correctly points out, “The words ‘artfully opposed’ include ‘deep’ versus ‘clear,’ ‘gentle’ versus ‘not dull,’ ‘strong’ versus ‘without rage,’ and ‘full’ versus ‘without o’erflowing’” (597). This point is obvious enough, but he proceeds to the questionable conclusion that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is each antithesis taken individually. According to Edinger, “If Johnson’s observation that one side of each comparison is to be understood ‘simply’ i.e., literally, and the other side metaphorically were true of all, then ‘deep,’ ‘gentle,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘full’ would describe the Thames, while ‘clear,’ ‘not dull,’ ‘without rage,’ and ‘without o’erflowing’ would only describe qualities of style, Denham’s ‘tenor.’” (598). Here Edinger has interpreted Johnson’s statement to mean that, in each antithesis the first term literally applies to the river and the second term metaphorically applies to the intellect. He goes on to say, “Johnson does not, however, make this claim, saying only that ‘most’ of the antitheses are to be understood in this way. An unmistakable instance is ‘gentle, not dull,’ where gentle can apply both to the river and to style… but dull can apply only to style… Other instances are more open to question (598).” Edinger’s assumption that Johnson refers to the antitheses when he uses the word “comparison” leads him to a shaky interpretation. He acknowledges that only one of the four “comparisons” seems to legitimately fit his reading of Johnson’s comment. And he does seem to recognize the problem when, to support his reading, he points out that Johnson qualifies his statement by saying that “most” of the words function this way. Even with Johnson’s qualification, Edinger would have to demonstrate that more than one of the antithetical clauses can clearly exemplify his reading. One out of four comparisons would not justify Johnson’s use of the term “most.” It seems doubtful that Johnson is censuring Denham, as Edinger supposes, for a failure of the visual side of the metaphor to afford images.

Edinger’s problematic reading proceeds from a mistaken interpretation of the word “comparison.” He is perhaps confused by the structure of Johnson’s sentence. Following the implied logic of apposition, Edinger assumes Johnson’s insertion of the qualifying phrase “thus artfully opposed” implies that the comparison he refers to is each individual antithesis formed by the artful opposition of terms. A more reasonable conclusion is that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is the whole conceit—the comparison of the river with the poet’s style. The two sides of the comparison are not the first and second term of each antithesis, but rather the vehicle on one side and the tenor on the other: the river and the poet’s style.

If we accept that Johnson means the entire conceit when he refers to the “comparison,” we see that, in Johnson’s view, most of the words in Denham’s conceit are literally applicable to the river but only figuratively describe the intellect. As we’ve already considered, the tenor of the conceit is more appropriately thought of as poetic style, with the exception of the first descriptive clause which would seem to apply to the mind; nonetheless, I will take Johnson on his own terms—as Tate, Hagstrum and Richards have each done in their respective discussions of the passage—in an attempt to elucidate his meaning and infer a principle from it. Johnson’s criticism suggests that the ground of the comparison is obscure because Denham’s conceit employs a vehicle to elucidate a tenor which is already figurative. For Johnson, this represents an impropriety in the structure of the analogical relationship of the metaphorical components because that which is figurative, the intellect or imagination, is transferred over to an image, the river, where the descriptive terms have a different literal meaning.

Jean Hagstrum interprets Johnson’s criticism in terms of Addison’s concept of “mixed wit” (121). According to Addison, “Mixt Wit… is a Composition of Punn and true Wit, and is more or less perfect as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words” (252). His examples are taken from passages where poets have formed metaphors based on the common use of “fire” and “flame” as figures for the passion of love. He states, “…[T]he Poet mixes the Qualities of Fire with those of Love; and in the same Sentence speaking of it both as a Passion and as real Fire, surprises the Reader with those seeming Resemblances or Contradictions that make up all the Wit in this kind of Writing” (251-52). Johnson was influenced by Addison’s theories about metaphor and quoted his comments on “mixed wit” in the Life of Cowley (20). The concept of “mixed wit” is helpful in understanding Johnson’s critique of Denham because in Denham’s metaphor the descriptive terms, which form the comparison, function simultaneously on both sides of the analogy. For a resemblance to be found, as Addison supposes, in the words, the metaphor must employ the same words in different senses on both sides of the metaphor. It is important to recognize the difference between a pun, which Addison terms “false wit,” which is simply an accidental coincidence of language, and an instance of “mixed wit,” where the double entendre is formed by a secondary, figurative sense of the word that proceeds from a perceived resemblance to its primary meaning (250). This form of wit is “mixed” rather than “false” in Addison’s view because there is in fact a partial correspondence between the two meanings without which the figurative sense would not have arisen. Furthermore, Addison acknowledges the possibility of a mixed-wit metaphor having propriety when he states that such a metaphor “is more or less perfect as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words” (emphasis added). Based on this concept, Hagstrum argues, “The assertion about the river is clear; but the assertion about the poet himself is not… [N]o words in the comparison literally and clearly explain the poet’s mental operations” (121). Allen Tate similarly suggests, “The imperfection… lies in its failure to work both ways; that is, the qualities that Denham would like to achieve cannot be found literally in the river” (91). Addison’s theory, which defines a specific type of metaphor in which the analogy is partly true and partly a verbal felicity, provides a plausible basis for Johnson’s criticism of Denham’s lines. The crux problem he detects is that words like “deep,” “clear,” “gentle,” “strong,” “o’erflowing,” and “full” have literal meanings in a material context, but the abstract transference of those terms into an immaterial context, such as creative processes of the intellect, requires the terms to function figuratively. The terms must perform a double role, with literal meaning on one side of the conceit and figurative meaning on the other. Understood in terms of “mixed wit,” the analogy is built partly upon puns that exploit the double meanings of the descriptive terms. What is said of the river is said of the poet’s style; the illusion of analogical correspondence is created by the double meaning of each descriptive term. A degree of correspondence in the nature of the two things may exist, but the poet has only hinted at such a correspondence.

Tate construes Johnson’s complaint the following way: “The tenor of the figure, in order to be convincing, ought to have translatability into a high degree of abstraction; it ought to be detachable from the literal image of the flowing river” (91). This means that all of the descriptive terms should literally apply to the immaterial side of the conceit. Johnson’s judgment that the lines are imperfect reveals something important about his idea of metaphorical propriety. His remarks on “Cooper’s Hill,” implicitly demand a strictly literal correspondence in any metaphor that compares material and immaterial processes. The problem with this stricture is that the ground of a comparison of physical and mental operations cannot achieve a perfectly literal correspondence because qualities of the intellect cannot be visualized or understood by the senses except through the use of figurative language. Even if we treat Denham’s tenor as poetic style and distinguish that from “intellectual operations,” the difference is only a matter of degree. A phrase like “without o’erflowing, full” may be more directly applicable to style than to the intellect, but it is still somewhat figurative. It is not as literal in reference to style as it is in reference to the river. As Richards suggests, “…[M]etaphor is the omnipresent principle of language” (Philosophy 92). It is precisely this facility with which we revert to figurative language which Johnson mistrusts in the structure of metaphors such as Denham’s, where words are pressed into functioning both literally and figuratively at the same time. We inherently rely on figurative language in describing the processes of the mind. Johnson recognizes this and expects the poet to observe a greater degree of care and clarity in his use of figurative language when the objective is to exemplify an unexpected but accurate resemblance of different entities.

The problem with Johnson’s idea of metaphoric literalism is that all languages “express intellectual operations by material images.” This is precisely why Johnson’s hypothetical language, which does not express operations of the intellect in material images, is only hypothetical. Abstract terminology results from the human intellect’s ability to grasp intuitively a resemblance of immaterial qualities of the mind to the material processes of the physical world. As Richards points out, “…[H]istorians of language have long taught that we can find no word or description for any of the intellectual operations which, if its history is known, is not seen to have been taken, by metaphor, from a description of some physical happening” (Philosophy 91). This is precisely the point which renders Johnson’s criticism of Denham’s lines problematic and necessitates his use of a hypothetical language devoid of figures of speech to elucidate his point. The words we use exclusively in reference to mental qualities have been so distinctly separated from their original literal meaning that we mistake their abstract meanings for primary ones. Johnson himself offers a pertinent reflection on this feature of language in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language:

The original sense of words is often driven out of use by their metaphorical acceptations, yet must be inserted for the sake of a regular origination. Thus I know not whether ardour is used for material heat, or whether flagrant, in English, ever signifies the same with burning; yet such are the primitive ideas of these words, which are therefore set first, though without examples, that the figurative senses may be commodiously deduced. (b3 recto)

A perfect example of this would be the word Johnson uses to praise the manner in which Denham’s “resemblances” are collected: “perspicaciously.” It is incidentally noteworthy that two of the first three examples of the word “perspicaciously” in the OED are from Johnson. The third example is the exact sentence which I am currently discussing from the “Life of Denham.” The OED defines “perspicacious” as follows: “Of eyes, sight, etc.: keen, sharp; clear-sighted. Chiefly fig.” (def. 1); “Of a person, wit, etc.: penetrating; perceptive, discerning.” (def. 2); “Clear, transparent. Obs. rare.” (def. 3). Definition 2 is an abstract application of the term which relies on other abstract terms taken from material processes, such as “penetrating,” “perceptive” and “discerning” to define its meaning. The etymological entry also displays the word’s original denotation of a physical, sense-related process:

[perspicc-, perspicx having keen or penetrating sight, discerning (perspicere to see through, look closely into, discern, perceive (see PERSPECTIVE adj.) + -x: see -ACIOUS suffix) + -IOUS suffix.

Another particularly pertinent example of this relationship between material and abstract terminology can be seen in one of the problem words from Denham’s conceit discussed earlier: “dull.” As I noted, Edinger suggests that the word “dull,” as it is used in Denham’s conceit, only applies to the intellect. Richards, on the other hand suggests that the term describes the river literally but the intellect only derivatively (121). The disagreement over the signification of “dull” in Denham’s line suggests the reciprocity of mental and physical qualities. Common usage can easily give rise to a material application of a term where the common signification is mental. Here is the OED’s first definition for “dull”: “Not quick in intelligence or mental perception; slow of understanding; not sharp of wit; obtuse, stupid, inapprehensive. In early use, sometimes: Wanting wit, fatuous, foolish” (def. 1). Here too, we see how an apparently abstract term is inherently reliant upon material images to elucidate its meaning. The OED definition employs physical terms, such as “quick”, “slow” and “sharp” to explain the mental signification of “dull,” supporting Richards’s contention about the physical origin of abstract terms. Also supporting Richards’ interpretation of the word “dull” as descriptive of the river, here is the OED’s third entry for “dull”: “Slow in motion or action; not brisk; inert, sluggish, inactive; heavy, drowsy” (def. 3a). And the following example is cited from Spenser, where “dull” is applied to moving water: “Thenceforth her waters wexed dull and slow” (def. 3a). Johnson himself quotes this same passage from Spenser to exemplify the sixth entry for “dull” in his Dictionary.

The figurative, verbal structure of the analogy which Johnson recognizes is apparent, but Johnson’s judgment that the lines are thus imperfect indicates a narrow view of metaphorical decorum. The ingenuity of Denham’s metaphor is in the use of an image that allows him to exemplify the relational aspects of the intellectual qualities he aspires to. Richards suggests, “What the lines say of the mind is something that does not come from the river. But the river is not a mere excuse, or a decoration only, a gilding of the moral pill. The vehicle is still controlling the mode in which the tenor forms” (Philosophy 122-23). By this he means that although an overly scrupulous reading of the conceit would recognize a lack of perfect analogical propriety in the terms of the metaphor, the arrangement and structure of the metaphor is such that the relations of the terms on both sides of the conceit make sense to the reader. The fidelity of the analogy is not found in the terms taken individually but in the antithetical relations of the terms to each other. The bottom of the river is mysterious as is the bottom of a profound idea. Just as the river’s clearness is all the more surprising considered in relation to its depth, a profound intellect is all the more impressive for its ability to express itself lucidly. This relation can only be visualized in the image of the river, but the tenuous relation of depth and clarity—the difficulty of achieving both—may be appropriately applied to the river and the intellect in a way that is acceptable and even felicitous by Johnson’s standards. Similarly, the river is “strong, without rage.” This means that the river flows powerfully but stays within the limit of its banks. Similarly, Denham’s ideal style of poetic expression is forceful but tempered and focused. Although the correspondence is not literal, the relation of the terms is analogically fit to describe both the river and the poet’s style. These relational analogies, the separations of virtues from concomitant faults, are the resemblances which Johnson celebrates as “perspicaciously collected.”

The metaphor is not simply a verbal felicity that compares a set of literal qualities with a corresponding set of figurative qualities; it is not simply an instance of Addison’s mixed wit. It is a collection of analogous antithetical relations of qualities. It would seem that although Johnson is troubled by the figurative application of Denham’s terms to the intellect, he recognizes the fitness of the antithetical relations of the terms in both the vehicle and the tenor.

Edinger cites one of Johnson’s own images from “The Vanity of Human Wishes” as an example of a metaphor which observes his own guidelines for a proper metaphor. The image of fireworks to represent the transience of worldly prominence affords an opportunity to analyze Johnson on his own terms, but with perhaps a different conclusion than Edinger’s:

Unnumber’s suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate,

Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;

Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant call,

They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall (Vanity 73-76).

Edinger says that this image “fulfills all the requirements we have inferred from his criticism” because “Johnson’s particulars function on both the metaphoric and descriptive levels” and afford a striking image with visual propriety (607). This conclusion relies on Edinger’s assumption that Johnson criticized Denham for a “failure of the visual” (598). But the use of terms that “are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other,” which Edinger observes as the propriety of Johnson’s metaphor, is precisely Johnson’s complaint about Denham’s lines. The words, “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate,” and “fall,” are all derived from material processes. They are literally applicable to an image of fireworks, just as Denham’s terms do, in spite of Edinger’s claims, afford a literal image of the river. But, like the terms in Denham’s conceit, Johnson’s four verbs, “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate,” and “fall,” are to be understood figuratively when applied to the tenor. The structure of the metaphor is similar to that of Denham’s insofar as the verbs perform a double function, which is literal on the side of the vehicle and figurative on the side of the tenor. The figurative sense of words like “mount,” “shine” and “fall” is so common to the language that one easily forgets they are figurative at all. In this sense, the words, as they function in Johnson’s metaphor, bear a similarity to Addison’s mixed wit. What Johnson makes evident with this conceit, he fails to acknowledge in his criticism of Denham: namely, that the analogy of an abstract process to a material one can be evinced by the use of figurative speech—and this can be the proper ground of a successful metaphor. Johnson’s verbs are no more literally true of worldly ascension and decline than Denham’s qualities are literally descriptive of the intellect. Johnson’s tenor is no less dependent on the visual image of the fireworks to elucidate the meaning of the analogy than Denham’s is on the river. To say that someone who has risen to prominence “shines” would be as meaningless as Denham’s conceit in a language that does not express abstract operations by material images. “[E]vaporate” is a particularly problematic word from Johnson’s image because it is a technical, scientific term which is only understood in Johnson’s metaphor because of its position between two other common, figurative terms.

It may be true that Johnson’s analogy is more clear and direct than Denham’s. But this is simply a matter of degree. As Addison suggested, mixed-wit metaphors may exhibit a range of analogical propriety between the illusory verbal resemblance and true resemblance. As a type of metaphor, the structure of Johnson’s fireworks image is similar to that of Denham’s Thames conceit. In Denham’s metaphor, it is not the qualities themselves, but the analogous relations of the terms in each of the four antitheses that accounts for the fidelity of the comparison. In Johnson’s image, it is the arching figure formed by the chronological relation of the four verbs which is analogous in the vehicle and the tenor. Both conceits rely on the vehicle not to explain a perfect analogy of operations but to provide a concise unifying power of summation. Both images establish a mode in which the figurative terms make sense.

It is difficult to see why Edinger chose the fireworks metaphor as an example of Johnson observing his own critical precepts. If Denham’s image suffers from a failure of literalness in the tenor, the same can be said of Johnson’s. Perhaps a better example, one which avoids the qualities which Johnson censures in Denham, can be found in the Life of Cowley where he criticizes the methods of the metaphysical poets: “Their attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life, than he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon” (9). Here we have a metaphor with a different structure from Denham’s Thames conceit. There is sufficient abstraction because none of the terms function on both sides of the comparison, thus avoiding Addison’s problem of mixed wit. Each of the elements of the tenor lines up neatly with the features of the vehicle. The vehicle is perfectly suited to exemplify the actions and qualities of the tenor. The image of a scientist using a prism to divide sunlight into a narrow view of the refracted light spectrum exemplifies the style of analysis that Johnson found distasteful in the metaphysical poets.

According to Richards, “A metaphor may be illustrative or diagrammatical, providing a concrete instance of a relation which would otherwise have to be stated in abstract terms” (Principles 239). The image from the Life of Cowley avoids the problems Johnson discusses in Denham’s conceit because it is a simile that does not require any of its terms to function simultaneously on both sides of the metaphor. In Denham’s lines, depth and clarity of the river are compared with depth and clarity of intellect, pressing the terms to function both figuratively and literally. Likewise, in the fireworks image, the terms “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate” and “fall” function on both sides of the comparison. In both metaphors, it is up to the reader to see the figurative relationship of the terms to the tenor. Johnson seems to prefer the diagrammatical form of analogy. Of course, he could not avoid the use of figurative language to exemplify resemblances of material and abstract processes any more than other poets can.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph and Steele, Richard. The Spectator. Volume The First. “No. 62.” Glasgow: Printed for A. Stalker and R. Murie, 1745. 248-254.

Edinger, William. “Johnson on Conceit: The Limits of Particularity.” ELH, Vol. 39, No. 4. Dec.
1972. 597-619. http:/www/

Hagstrum, Jean H. Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1952.

Johnson, Samuel. “Preface.” A Dictionary of the English Language. Vol. I. Sixth ed. London:
Printed for J. F. and C. Rivington, L. Davis, T. Payne and Son, 1785.

— — –. Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. London: Frederick Warne & Co., n.d.

— — –. “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Samuel Johnson: A Critical Edition of the Major
. Ed. Donald Greene. New York: Oxford UP. 1984. 12-21.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd. Ed. 1989.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

— — –. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1925.

Tate, Allen. “Johnson on the Metaphysical Poets.” Samuel Johnson. Ed. Donald J. Greene. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965. 89-101.


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Filed under Essay Contest, Poetry, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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