Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


+ analogy or simile

& "Extended Metaphor" a.k.a. "Conceit"

(see also "Mixed Metaphor"; figures of speech)

Metaphor is the most familiar or common figure of speech. (Other figures of speech include hyperbole, irony, metonymy, synecdoche, understatement. etc.)

Aristotle, Rhetoric: ‘Metaphor is the application to one thing of the name belonging to another . . . .

Following Aristotle, literary theory often describes metaphor as speaking of the unknown in terms of the known or the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

The familiar thing that is known is called "the referent" to the metaphor; e.g. when Jaques in Shakespeare's As You Like It says, "All the world's a stage," "the world" is the unknown or described thing and "a stage" is the referent.

Everyday speech shows this aspect of metaphor or simile when saying, "It was, like, . . . "

Metaphor, like art or literature in general, both entertains and informs or has aesthetic and instructive functions;

  • metaphor makes the unknown comprehendable by comparing it to the known.

  • metaphor gives pleasure through cleverness, aptness, wit, or learning, and by providing sensory images for thinking of abstract concepts. ("I'm in a pickle.")

As with other figurative speech, metaphorical language is usually more colorful and vivid than plain speech or gray bureaucratic phrasing.

As an additional dimension to its power, metaphor not only describes the unknown but shapes or forms it. The unknown remains unknown until it is described, and once it is described it often retains the original metaphor.


Examples: William Gibson's early descriptions of cyberspace (examples below) influenced perception and even the design of virtual reality or the internet by describing it in terms of walls, firewalls, towers, voids, clouds. (We still speak of virtual reality as "cyberspace" even though there's little to no physical space involved . . . only imaginary space.)

science is always changing as knowledge advances but becomes familiar itself through metaphors (sometimes called "models")


Doctors often use metaphors in explaining organ functions to patients: 

"Your heart is like a pump."

"Circulation of the blood is like the tides."

"Your nervous system is like a network of wires."

"The sensors on your skin are sending S.O.S. signals to your brain."


Other ways people say metaphor:






Similarities and differences between simile / analogy and metaphor.

"Simile" & "analogy" are here used interchangeably as in common speech. (Distinctions made at bottom of page.)

Simile & analogy may be regarded as types or sub-classes of metaphor.

Similarities: Both metaphor and analogy or simile compare one thing to another, or use the term or qualities for one thing to describe another thing.

Differences: In making comparison, simile and analogy use connective words such as "like" or "as" or verbs like "resembles."

In contrast, metaphor is an implicit comparison and uses no apparatus to signal the comparison.


Simile / Analogy Metaphor
cute as a kitten

They fought like cats and dogs

busy as a bee

"Life is like a box of chocolates . . . ."

His temper is like a volcano.

The typical teenage boy’s room is a disaster zone.


The wheels of justice turn slowly.


My sister was boiling mad.


The assignment was a breeze.

Extended metaphor

An extended metaphor is a metaphor that continues into following passages of the work, whether lines of a poem or chapters of a novel.

"You are a magnet, and I am steel." (Walter Egan, "Magnet and Steel," 1978)

The teacher planted the seeds of wisdom.

The executives had golden parachutes to land safely after the company crashed.


William Gibson, Burning Chrome (1986) ("Cyberpunk author")

Towers and fields of [data] ranged in the colorless non-space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they work behind . . . (ICE = a block cypher in cryptography)

 . . . a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system . . . .


Done well, an extended metaphor drives the point home. Done badly, it either confuses people, for example through conflicting vehicles, or annoys them, for example through excessive elaboration or too many metaphors for a single subject.

a metaphor that is extended through a stanza or entire poem, often by multiple comparisons of unlike objects or ideas

Examples of poems using extended metaphors:

Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage" from As You Like It 2.7

Richard Wilbur, “The Writer”

Samuel Daniel, Delia Sonnet XXXIX

Heidi Gerke poem from 2006

Conceit  Oxford English Dictionary

I. Conception; conceiving and its product.
1. a. That which is conceived in the mind, a conception, notion, idea, thought; device. Obs.


  6. An overweening opinion of oneself; overestimation of one's own qualities, personal vanity or pride; conceitedness.

8a. A fanciful, ingenious, or witty notion or expression; now applied disparagingly to a strained or far-fetched turn of thought, figure, etc., an affectation of thought or style.


Literary conceit = an ingenious extended metaphor, especially one found in the 17th-century Metaphysical poets like John Donne, Andrew Marvell, or George Herbert.

George Herbert, "The Altar," from The Temple (1633).

Oxford English Dictionary: Metaphor A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable . . . .

Definitions of metaphor on the Web:

cliché as dying metaphor:

Emerson, The Poet (1844)

The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolizes the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.




Simile and analogy distinguished:

Simile = a figure of speech where two unlike things are compared using the word "like" or "as" followed by a figurative example.

Example: "He is hungry like a horse."

Analogy = a literal comparison between two things that have some features that are the same and others which are different. Analogy is often more extensive than metaphor or simile.

Example: “The structure of an atom is like a solar system. Its nucleus is the sun, and electrons are like planets revolving around their sun.”