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Metaphor in Its Safe Haven: Poetry

Let’s now return the metaphor to its hometown: poetry. The interdisciplinary field of cognitive poetics arose in the 1990s as inspired by conceptual metaphors, and envisions a more coherent literary theory that understands how and why poetic language is both based in and restrained by human cognition. As analyzed by Roberto Bertuol in 2001, Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century philosopher-poet, employed the Universe-is-Mathematics metaphor in a large collection of her poems, reflecting her belief in materialist philosophy (as influenced by the famous Thomas Hobbes, some believe) (Bertuol). However, the field of cognitive/neuroscience poetics is not only limited to aiding the contextualization of text, but also provides further proof for the existence of conceptual metaphors as a linguistic tool.

Quantitative research done by Jacobs and Kinder in 2017 inspected a large literary collection—including Shakespeare, Byron, and Keats—on three measures: comprehensibility (CMP), metaphor goodness (MGD), and the number of alternative interpretations (ALT) (Jacobs). Interestingly, the top three metaphors of the MGD scale—Byron's A broken heart is a shattered mirror, Byron’s Faithful love is a tree standing through the stormiest hour, and Shakespeare's The sun is the eye of heaven—are considerably more concrete with respect to their source domains in comparison with the bottom three metaphors of the MGD scale: E.E. Cummings's History is a winter sport, Barnstone’s The summer is a heap of puppets done to death, and Gerald Manley Hopkin’s Music is death. Additionally, a high MGD score was also positively correlated with a low ALT score, indicating that “good” metaphors usually have a unified interpretation (Jacobs).

A potentially more relevant (and technologically fancy) study was done by Littlemore, Sobrino, Houghton, Shi, and Winter in 2018 which investigated conceptual metaphors, specifically: using participant responses to both computer-generated and human-generated conceptual metaphors and non-conceptual metaphors to measure “metaphor quality” (Littlemore et al.). The overall conclusion was that expressions containing conceptual metaphors were more preferable than those without known conceptual metaphors, as indicated by its presence’s ability to predict both processing speed and perceived metaphor quality (Littlemore et al.).

Though a relatively experimental academic field of study, cognitive poetics is similar in many ways to classical rhetorical studies which aim to deconstruct and construct speech, based on both the intent and beliefs of the speaker and the perception of the audience. In a sense of the word, then, cognitive poetics attempts to approach with caution what lies at the root of goal-oriented communication: how a cognitive objective is translated into language.


Works Cited:

  1. Bertuol, Roberto. “The Square Circle of Margaret Cavendish: The 17th-Century Conceptualization of Mind by Means of Mathematics.” Language and Literature, vol. 10, no. 1, Feb. 2001, pp. 21–39, doi:10.1177/0963-9470-20011001-02.

  2. Jacobs, Arthur M. “Quantifying the Beauty of Words: A Neurocognitive Poetics Perspective.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 11, Dec. 2017, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00622.

  3. Littlemore, Jeannette, Paula Pérez-Sobrino, David Houghton, Jinfang Shi, & Bodo Winter. “What Makes a Good Metaphor? A Cross-Cultural Study of Computer-Generated Metaphor Appreciation.” Taylor & Francis, vol. 33, Apr. 2018, pp. 101-122, doi:10.1080/10926488.2018.1434944.


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