Figures of speech, or “rhetorical figures,” or schemes (from the Greek word
for “form”), in which the departure from standard usage is not primarily in the
meaning of the words, but in the order or syntactical pattern of the words. This
distinction is not a sharp one, nor do all critics agree on its application. For convenience of exposition, however, the most commonly identified tropes are treated
here, and the most commonly identified figures of speech are collected in the article rhetorical figures. For recent opposition to the basic distinction between the
literal and the figurative, see metaphor, theories of.
In a simile, a comparison between two distinctly different things is explicitly
indicated by the word “like” or “as.” A simple example is Robert Burns, “O my
love’s like a red, red rose.” The following simile from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” also specifies the feature (“green”) in which
icebergs are similar to emerald:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
For highly elaborated types of simile, see conceit and epic simile.
In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of
thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison. For example, if Burns had said “O my love is a red, red rose” he would have
uttered, technically speaking, a metaphor instead of a simile. Here is a more complex instance from the poet Stephen Spender, in which he applies several metaphoric terms to the eye as it scans a landscape:
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line.3
For the distinction between metaphor and symbol, see symbol.
It should be noted that in these examples we can distinguish two elements, the
metaphorical term and the subject to which it is applied. In a widely adopted usage, I. A. Richards introduced the name tenor for the subject (“my love” in the
altered line from Burns, and “eye” in Spender’s lines), and the name vehicle for
the metaphorical term itself (“rose” in Burns, and the three words “gazelle,” “wanderer,” and “drinker” in Spender). In an implicit metaphor, the tenor is not itself
specified, but only implied. If one were to say, while discussing someone’s death,
“That reed was too frail to survive the storm of its sorrows,” the situational and
verbal context of the term “reed” indicates that it is the vehicle for an implicit
tenor, a human being, while “storm” is the vehicle for an aspect of a specified
tenor, “sorrows.” Those aspects, properties, or common associations of a vehicle
which, in a given context, apply to a tenor are called by Richards the grounds
of a metaphor. (See I. A. Richards, Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936, chapters 5–6.)
Source: A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams