At night such a fire is weird and beautiful,…one sees the tongues of flame as they leap and dance…and, if the wind is high, blowing forward advance guards and pickets of sparks and flakes of burning grass.

– Norman Garstin, “In C-P-Railia,” The Art Journal (vol 54, 1892)

Fire is dazzling, dangerous, out of control at times. It’s hard to understand what fire is, compared to a substance such as water or even wind, as observed in a dust storm. Fire is visibly active, but what is it doing? Flames leap as if driven by spirits, make mad gestures like dancers in a frenzy. Flames are sometimes forked and darting, like a snake’s tongue (ancient enemy in the Bible).

In fire, Garstin sees the main body of an army crossing the prairie (domain of the Central Pacific Railroad). It hurls sparks forward, advancing at breathtaking speed. This ability to spread rapidly gave rise to “catch fire” as a marketing metaphor. In the 1960s, surfing caught fire, mini-skirts caught fire, Tiny Tim caught fire.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, catching fire gave way to “going viral.” In 2020, the year of coronavirus, we have reason to reconsider “viral” as a metaphor for success.

Illustration: “Chicago in Flames – The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge” by John R. Chapin in Harper’s Weekly (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.

– Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (1990)

If it’s like a tsunami, then justice is rare, an exceptional event. It comes after a sudden, earthquake-like downfall of tyranny – as in the French Revolution or the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Wrongs of the past are swept away all at once. Or that is the hope.

To make hope and history rhyme – so that a dream of justice becomes historical fact – there has to be a huge accumulation of pain and anger. Nothing less will move an ocean of inertia. And the wave, once it rises, must reach the shore. Most uprisings sink back into the sea.

In early 2011, known for a while as the Arab Spring, a wave swept across North Africa. It began with the despair of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in Tunis who set himself on fire in protest after callous persecution by a petty official. His story spread fast, stirring sympathy and outrage. People massed in public squares; governments fell. In Tunisia at least, a working democracy emerged and held on. Everywhere else, there was only wreckage and retaliation – still going on in Syria.

A tsunami leaves a terrible mess behind. There is no wiping the slate clean.

Progress, if not justice, is possible, and it may seem to come out of the blue. Harry Truman integrated the US military in 1948 with the stroke of a pen (Executive Order 9981). Oprah Winfrey won instant acceptance in American homes when her show premiered in 1986 – not as a picture-perfect “Julia” or one of the comical “Jeffersons” but as herself, talking about matters great and small that she personally cared about and that her audience of mostly white women also cared about. Barack Obama won presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, as if the country’s need for a wise leader were the only issue that mattered.

Postscript: A wave of protest against racial injustice swept across America in May-June 2020, after the torture-murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It remains to be seen whether history written in the next few months will at last fulfill the long-held hopes of millions of oppressed Americans – so that hope and history rhyme.

Photo: Trail up from the beach at Patrick’s Point State Park (California); Karl Stull

Like a fickle paramour, El Niño is visiting California again – but the weather pattern is weak this year and its relationship with the state is tenuous, experts say.

– Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, “Weakened El Niño returns to state,” LA Times (February 16, 2019)

California is like a woman with a secret lover. When El Niño is with her, the weather is warmer, and we can expect more rain than usual. When he is away, she doesn’t know for how long.

Poets have long associated the heat of passion with tumultuous weather. Shakespeare says of Cleopatra’s sighs and tears: “they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” (Antony and Cleopatra, I.2.149–150).

In mythology, the Sumerian goddess of grain Ninlil was made pregnant by the wind god Enlil, who sneaked up on her when she was bathing. Similarly in Greek mythology, the north wind Boreas and west wind Zephyrus swept their brides off their feet. The princess Danae, imprisoned like Rapunzel, was impregnated by a golden rain – Zeus swimming in through the security.

El Niño is fickle, and California did not feel the full warmth of his embrace in 2019. There is nothing more changeable than love, except the weather.

Painting: Francisco Goya, The Maja with Clothes On (1798–1805), via Wikipedia. The image has been flipped horizontally for comparison. Map: Adapted from a teacher resource at csun.edu

…time, the destroyer, has begun to pile up rubble. Sharp edges have been blunted, and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without a trace.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Memory is like geology for Levi-Strauss, or at least the part of geology that tears down the forms that it built up before. You could call it deconstruction.

This is the perspective of age looking back, aware that continents and monuments have slipped and slid, some sunk out of sight forever. This is not the perspective of forward-looking youth, when the whole world is new and yet to reach its height.

The peak that stands out in memory is a least-likely survivor, grinning idiotically after all others have been worn down to nothing. You strain to remember the face of a loved one and yet can recite every word of the song from Mr. Ed.

Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida

– Repeatedly on newscasts in September 2017

To barrel is to travel with great speed, especially with great weight and force, like a train, bus, or runaway barrel filled with 250 gallons of wine (called a tun, weighing about 2,000 pounds/900 kilos). This use of barrel is an American expression, documented in the 1930s but likely going farther back. In a 1914 short story called “Easy Money,” W.W. Jacobs alludes humorously to the sight of a barrel getting loose on a loading ramp:

“Wot’s the matter?” ses her mother, coming downstairs like a runaway barrel of treacle.

Ancient Rome learned the art of barrel-making from Celtic tribes in the north. Compared to the clay jugs (amphorae) used previously to transport wine, oil, and similar commodities, a barrel was light, less susceptible to fracture, repairable in the event of leaks, and maneuverable. A dockworker could roll a barrel that was too heavy to lift and easily steer it left and right, thanks to the bulging sides, called the bilge.

Satellite video of a hurricane looks like a rolling barrel that sprays wine as it powers toward landfall.

Photo: Tony Thompson, RR modelers blog: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2012/02/wine-as-industrial-commodity.html

Crossing out over the bar on a rough day bore an odd resemblance to entering a crab pot.

– Jon Humboldt Gates, “Lady Fame”/Night Crossings (1986)

Two jetties define the entrance to Humboldt Bay (Eureka, Calif.). Rough seas and occasional “sneaker” waves, cresting as high as 30 feet, have overturned fishing boats heading into or out of port, as told in the anthology Night Crossings (1986) by Jon Humboldt Gates.

A bar is a sand bank lying across the entrance to a harbor or river. The shallows around a bar can be perilous for fishing boats, especially when there is a strong coastal current. Once a boat enters the cross-current, there is no turning back. In effect, the current is like a one-way door. Crab pots also work by means of a one-way door.

It’s “odd” but understandable that crab fishermen and crabs face similar perils, both being driven by a daily need to gather food and living at the mercy of the sea. Hunters often come to a similar realization, because thinking strategically about your quarry – where he is likely to go, how he will respond to danger – is equivalent to seeing the world through his eyes. Native Americans used to offer prayers to appease the spirit of a slain animal, acknowledging that it treasured its life as much as a human does, and might want revenge.

This recognition – of how hunter and hunted are alike – comes out of a remarkable act of comparison. It has the category-busting power of metaphor but is, strictly speaking, an analogy. In an analogy, points of comparison are usually factual (or thought to be factual). In a metaphor , the resemblance is conceptual and contrary to fact – my love is a red, red rose. (See definition of analogy.)

A couple of famous quotations

Literature’s most quoted man-crab metaphor, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1920), takes an unsympathizing view of underwater bugs. For T.S. Eliot, a crab is the opposite of red-blooded manhood – obscure, furtive, pusillanimous, unpleasant to look at, and worthless except in a salad:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

“Crossing the Bar” (1889), the final poem in the collected works of Alfred Tennyson, is about the one-way passage from life to death. Tennyson envisions the soul being carried out by a tide that is beyond all particulars of time and place to an oceanic unknown:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Links
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock-56d2233846c6d 
“Crossing the Bar” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45321/crossing-the-bar

Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers/Wikimedia

After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

Drain the swamp

Swamp is an American word going back as far as John Smith, who said swamps were “more profitable than hurtful” (Generall Historie of Virginia, 1624). William Byrd II took a dimmer view in 1728. He named Virginia’s southern marshes the Great Dismal Swamp.

A swamp is low-lying ground covered by still or slow-moving water in which all kinds of plant and animal remains go to rot, enriching the soil and befouling the air. In 1825, Charles Lamb made “swamp of convalescence” a metaphor for personal stagnation. “Swamp of corruption” came into common use by the 1880s, when civic reform movements were going strong.

Swamps became wetlands in the mid-1960s. The more neutral term helped biologists use the concept of ecological zones to recognize the role of marshes in region-wide life cycles – for example, filtering water and providing habitat for ducks. In 1973, the Great Dismal Swamp became the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Half of Americans want to preserve wetlands. The other thirty percent say drain the swamp. Political division and image-based thinking prevent us from seeing that any right-thinking American wants both: to keep the literal wetlands and be rid of the metaphorical swamp.

Photo: Union Refugees in the Swamps of Louisiana, Harper’s Weekly (May 14, 1864) /http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1864/may/louisiana-swamp.htm

Love shakes my heart like a wind sweeping down a mountain onto oaks.

– Sappho, fragment 47 (translated by Suzy Q. Groden)

“€—

It is surprisingly difficult to say what desire feels like. Sappho describes its invisible force in terms of another invisible force, a strong wind that races down a mountainside, accumulating power, thrashing limbs of the sturdiest of trees. The metaphor externalizes desire, making it something to be observed at a distance. But it also calls upon memory, encouraging you to recall a time when you stood on the flank of a mountain, holding onto your hat. You might think also of your first love and realize the mountain is your body and the limbs of the trees are your trembling arms and legs.

Songwriters typically compare the physical sensation of desire to a fire. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960, covered by The Guess Who in 1965) evoke the feeling with an itemized list of quaking bones.

Quivers down my back bone

I’ve got the shakes down the kneebone

Yeah havin’ the tremors in the thighbone

Shakin’ all over

For another “wind in the trees” metaphor, use the Search box to find “Like the moon needs poetry.” See also “kite dancing in a hurricane.”

Painting: Detail from Storm in the Mountains (circa 1870) by Albert Bierstadt; Museum of Fine Arts Boston (mfa.org)

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You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.

This line from Spectre (2015) has a metaphor within a metaphor.

  • Outer metaphor: Bond is like a kite because he is a solitary figure being driven by powerful forces.
  • Inner metaphor: The kite is like a dancer because its actions seem graceful and free of earthly bounds.

Dancing is not the same as dangling, or being buffeted by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, so the two metaphors are not an exact fit. But the sense they make together is apparent: Mr Bond is both vulnerable and beautiful. Like a candle in the wind.

The Elton John/Bernie Taupin song “Candle in the Wind” was about Marilyn Monroe when it was first released in 1974. In 1997, John and Taupin saw a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and released a new version of the song, extending the metaphor to sales of 33 million copies.

Wind metaphors are of special interest because wind is invisible. We know it only by its effects.

  • Soaring birds “ride” the wind, like boats on a river.
  • Windmills “harness” the wind, as if it were a plough horse.
  • Willows bend with the wind and oaks stand against it, though their leaves may shiver.

In the Disney movie Pocahontas (1995), autumn leaves blow insistently across the screen to illustrate the “Colors of the Wind” theme music and perhaps the winds of change coming to America. In The Revenant (2015), wind-driven snow and debris remind us that as long as there is breath, there is life.

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