Measure For Measure: Shall I Compare Thee?

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Videos by American Songwriter

Shakespeare is quoted more often than any writer this side of the Bible, so it’s no surprise if you added “to a summer’s day” to the title above. But there’s another guy you probably know at least as well, the one who wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” According to Carol J. Williams of the LA Times, Bob Dylan is cited in more court opinions and briefs than any other poet.

Do Shakespeare and Dylan have something in common? Brilliant use of metaphor immediately comes to mind. Since the last column compared an extended metaphor in “Mr. Tambourine Man” to a hypnotic induction, and Blood On The Tracks (bootleg edition) is explored in this issue, the time seemed ripe to mine the metaphor vein a little deeper, bringing Mr. Shakespeare along as a distinguished guest.

“But he’s so sixteenth-century.”

Well, if you don’t think you can learn anything from the Bard, try diving into “Ariel’s Song”:

Full fathom five thy father lies/ Of his bones are coral made/ Those are pearls that were his eyes:/ Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange.

That’s at least as chilling as the check-in counter at “Hotel California” to my ears. Then there’s Hamlet and Macbeth, whose soliloquies —“To be or not to be” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”—rank alongside “Desolation Row” in the annals of melancholy metaphor.

Metaphor and its cousin simile lay two things side-by-side for unexpected comparison. Similes alert you with “like” or “as,” as in “She grilled me like a cheese sandwich.” Metaphor merges the two objects, as in “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”

These quippy examples typify the “pulp” genre of simile and metaphor, so-called for the cheap paper used in dime novels. Pulp metaphor is glib, often with humorous or sardonic intent. Country music abounds with examples, such as “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.”

On the opposite end from pulp we find literary metaphor. Here’s where the comparisons get serious. Complex, layered metaphors trigger startling revelations about the human condition, or, like something seen through a glass darkly, leave us to ponder their significance for a lifetime.

To sum up the difference, “pulp” partakes of the daydream, while “literary” partakes of the night dream. Pulp inhabits a sunlit landscape where moral rules are clear and inner conflict doesn’t weigh us down unduly. More often than not, the good guy wins, or he dances through the pain, as in “Achy Breaky Heart.” Even the “King Of The Road” is a “winner.” Literary metaphors often inhabit the moonlight, where morality breaks down, the soul grapples with angels and demons, and outcomes cannot be predicted. As in dreams, symbolism figures heavily.

Space being short, I decided to pursue one metaphor—the moon — through Shakespeare and Dylan. These are merely hors d’oeuvres; only context can impart the true flavor:

Shakespeare: 1) “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” 2) “His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck a sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted the little O, the earth.” 3) “Let me twine mine arms about that body, where against my grained ash an hundred times hath broke, and scarr’d the moon with splinters.” 4) “Nor shines the silver moon one half so bright through the transparent bosom of the deep, as doth thy face through tears of mine give light.” 5) “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.”

Dylan: 1) “Don’t the moon look good, mama, shinin’ in through the trees?” 2) “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune. Birds fly high by the light of the moon.” 3) “Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past.” 4) “Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon. Somebody better investigate soon.” 5) “Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls. Teeth like pearls, shining like the moon above.” 6) “Oh, the moon is shinin’ bright, lighting ev’rything in sight, but tonight no light will shine on me.” 7) “Now the moon is almost hidden; the stars are beginning to hide. The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside.”

Dylan, unlike Shakespeare, often creates songs that are metaphorical worlds unto themselves. Metaphor need not be Shakespearean to be literary, either. Consider Hank Williams’ “The moon just went behind a cloud, to hide its face and cry.” That’s a literary moon.

How to strengthen your metaphorical muscles? Try being born in Texas, where metaphor’s a way of life. Of course, it’s hotter than the hubs of hell, so you might want to stay home and study Shakespeare and Dylan. Look for linking images: If the moon is high, can the stars be far behind? When you imitate, seek the unexpected; don’t stop at one obvious comparison. Coin (or convert) pulp and literary metaphors.

 Also suggested for more on metaphor: As One Mad with Wine (Elyse and Mike Sommer), Word Magic For Writers (Cindy Rogers), and Waking The Poet (Gene Fowler).

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