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"So stretched out huge in length": reading the extended simile.

One of the distinctive features of simile is that it can be extended beyond the dimensions of trope into the relatively autonomous mini-genre of its Homeric form. Thus, a study of the extended simile may offer some insights into the relationship between trope and genre. Homeric similes often interrupt a story quite significantly, representing a type of narrative embedding that has not so far been examined as such. Following on an earlier study, which examined the simile in relation to the literal-figurative dichotomy, this essay is an attempt to investigate the narrative implications of extending the simile, mainly from a reader's point of view. It also examines some of the narrative variations possible in extended simile by means of a brief survey of the Homeric tradition.

In the earlier essay on simile, I pointed out that, whereas metaphor depends on a distinction between the literal and figurative in order to exist, simile transcends this antithesis by including not only figurative examples, which may be converted or abbreviated into metaphors, but also literal examples, which do not relate to metaphors at all. In fact, a sliding scale of "literalness" and "figurativeness" can be used to classify different simile types on a continuum. Simile is so versatile because, as Christine Brooke-Rose notes in A Grammar of Metaphor (14, 64-65), it is mainly defined by grammar. Brooke-Rose shows that its grammatical nature is what makes simile, and not metaphor, extensible. Unlike metaphors, which may be represented by any part of speech and which often, to adopt I. A. Richards's terminology (96), state only the vehicle, leaving the tenor a matter of implication, similes appear in a limited number of fixed grammatical forms and always state both of their terms; they also label their ter ms clearly by means of comparative tags.

These comparative tags have the effect of marking a boundary between the vehicle's material and the main discourse. When we are told that "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold" (Byron 82), the word "like" disconnects the wolf-sheep image (or mini-story) from the Assyrian-Israelite scene and story unfolding as the main topic of the poem. The tenor, "The Assyrian," is, in contrast, an important element of this topic. In longer similes, the single vehicular tags, "like" or "as," usually give way to the double markers, "just as" and "so" (and their cognates), to label and connect tenor with vehicle over significant textual distance.

Occurring in many languages and often matching each other as in the Italian "quale ... tale," these tags are powerful framing devices, strong enough to hold in abeyance the main discourse even at moments of great tension or gravity. Within their framework, the vehicle is able to flesh out a world that is not the world of the main discourse, or tell a story that is not connected to the main narrative, more-or-less for its own sake.

In an article on narrative framing, Marie-Laure Ryan distinguishes between "actually" and "virtually" crossed boundaries: "The narrative can cross a boundary, by selecting the "here" and "now" of the other side as points of reference, or can simply look through boundaries, by revealing what is beyond the line from the perspective of this side of the line. In this second case, the crossing of the boundary is only virtual" (874). This distinction is helpful in indicating what happens to the reader's central focus as similes are extended. Whereas many short similes invite only a "virtual" crossing of their boundaries, longer, especially Homeric-type, similes attempt to seduce the reader into a "real" crossing, one that reorientates her into a different universe from that of the main story or discourse. Just as "literalness and "figurativeness" are variable qualities, so some crossings may be "more real" or "more virtual" in comparison with others.

In all the following similes, brevity is an important factor in the reader's experience: "Oh, my luve is like a red, red rose," "The holy time is quiet as a Nun," "As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend," "these who die as cattle," "Like a patient etherised upon a table" (Burns 562, Wordsworth 205, Hopkins 30, Owen 80, Eliot 13). The extraneousness of their vehicles does not distract the reader's attention from the poems' main thread of discourse for more than a moment. Encountering some of the more surprising vehicles, such as Eliot's "patient," the reader may seem to experience a brief excursion or jump, a flashing leap in and out of the image-world. But with most of them she is more likely to appear simply as someone recognizing what is pointed to. As Ryan suggests, a narrative may "look" over a boundary without actually crossing it. This "looking" permits the dual consciousness characteristic of short similes: the reader is aware of both the place where she is standing and the field she can see ov er the fence. The two are unequally valorized spatially, however, since one is experienced as "here" and the other as "over there."

In fact, all of the short similes quoted display a very clear hierarchy in the relationship between vehicle and tenor. The tenor's priority is established not only by the overt rhetoric, but also by the vehicle's relative insubstantiality. Burns's "rose" is any rose whatever, so long as it is red; Eliot's "patient" is a dimly-realized generality, limited only insofar as he or she is "etherised upon a table," presumably in some (any) unspecified hospital. Governed, as are many similes' vehicles, by the indefinite article, these vehicles are not particular, but representative, singularities (see Hamilton 12). They have no context other than what is immediately specified because they do not relate metonymically to the main discourse. Though similes can be literal, consisting of definitively similar elements deriving from the same world or context (see Addison 410-15), and though some symbolic or emblematic vehicles draw in much wider and more developed contexts than their immediate elaboration would suggest, th e majority of these memorable short similes include vehicles that simply outline a type against an almost bare background, leaving the reader with minimal sense of their connectedness to a world. Tenors, on the other hand, are not only (as a rule) individually named, but they usually also include in their context all the other elements of the main narrative or discourse, named and unnamed.

Longer similes differ most obviously from shorter ones in that their vehicles have space to develop more---and more specific--context. Those vehicles that are not narrative can include intensive description, crowding details into the picture and making it more individual than representative. And those that are narrative can constitute whole fictions in their own right. As similes are extended, so the reader's experience of boundaries is likely to be of "more real," "less virtual," crossings. While the vehicle's world becomes more developed, so the reader's excursion becomes less of a flash and more of a sojourn. Specificity and contextuality make a world more solid and habitable. The reader may appear at last as an immigrant rather than a visitor. In one of Robert Browning's typical two-to-three-line similes from "The Flight of the Duchess," the heroine is described as:
Too small, almost, for the life and gladness
That over-filled her, as some hive
Out of the bears' reach on the high trees
Is crowded with its safe merry bees:
In truth, she was not hard to please! (1:413, 6-10)

The reader's progress into this medium-length simile is a definite, independent event, in which the expectation of a virtual crossing, as in shorter similes, is gradually undermined. When she encounters "as some hive," her consciousness begins to divide itself in a familiar way between the two elements of the simile. While she appears to "look" over a border at a foreign item, a beehive, her most crucial interest and sense of location remain attached to the little Duchess, the Duke's intriguing child-bride, who is the simile's tenor. But, as the description continues, the reader's underpinning begins to loosen and more and more of her attention and emotional focus begin to bleed through the divide in the direction of the bees. The vagueness and generality of "some hive" is progressively canceled by the piling up of modifiers, "Out of the bears' reach," "on the high trees," "crowded with [. . .1 bees," until, with the emotive adjectives "safe" and "merry," it is no longer any hive, but a very specific type of hive, one for which the narrator, the Duke's bondservant, has a special affection. It is perhaps not a particular, individual hive, as the Duchess is particular and individual, but it is developed enough to distract significant proportions of the reader's attention away from the main narrative, so that she feels a slight jolt as she shifts focus back in the last line.

The jolt is greater than with most short similes, because more of the reader's loyalties have transferred themselves across the boundary into the vehicle's world.

Browning's hive simile is still relatively brief. The crossing of the boundary is much more complete in longer similes, as in the following from Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum:
"The mighty Rustum shall avenge my death!
My father, whom I seek through all the world,
He shall avenge my death, and punish thee!"
As when some hunter in the spring hath found
A breeding eagle sitting on her nest,
Upon the craggy isle of a hill lake,
And pierc'd her with an arrow as she rose,
And followed her to find her where she fell
Far off;--anon her mate comes winging back
From hunting, and a great way off descries
His huddling young left sole; at that, he checks
His pinion, and with short uneasy sweeps
Circles above his eyry, and with loud screams
Chiding his mate back to her nest; but she
Lies dying, with the arrow in her side,
In some far stony gorge out of his ken,
A heap of fluttering feathers: never more
Shall the lake glass her, flying over it;
Never the black and dripping precipices
Echo her stormy scream as she sails by:--
As that poor bird flies home, nor knows his own loss--
So Rustum knew not his own loss, but stood
Over his dying son, and knew him not. (211-12; 11.553-75)

Here, the reader becomes deeply involved in the vehicle's story, for it goes on so long that she has forgotten the urgencies and tensions of the main narrative by the time that the demand, "So," comes that she return to it. Her sense of wrenching in this crossing from one story to the other is unavoidable. The split consciousness characteristic of short similes, though potential when this simile begins, does not materialize, for the reader becomes wholly engrossed as the vehicle unfolds. Instead, as she finds herself negotiating the hiatus between vehicle and tenor at the end of the simile, and at that precise point, just before she acknowledges the comparison's relevance, she feels the tenor to be the foreign country and the vehicle as "home." The acknowledgment of relevance marks her shift of allegiances in the next moment.

The vehicle is able to compete with the main narrative in this way because it is elaborated freely, on its own, without reminders about points of correspondence with the tenor. In fact, many of its features do not parallel anything in the tenor at all--the maternal issue, for example, and the fact that the killer and the bereaved are separate beings. The vehicle is also given an extensive context and almost complete specificity. Despite the use of "some" and the indefinite article in the first two lines, and notwithstanding the simple present tense, which is normally a generalizing device, the story just does not come over as a typical case. Indeed, because their tragic story is particularized so minutely, the reader cannot accept these eagles as representatives of a type. They exist for her as individual characters, not in the father-son story of the main narrative, but in a secondary narrative embedded in the first.


Arnold's simile, though longer and more simply narrative than most, is in the Homeric tradition that is the main focus of this essay. But some longer similes exist outside the Homeric tradition. They are often extended conceits in simile form that, like shorter similes, allow the reader only a glimpse over a boundary. Such similes include few irrelevancies and remind the reader constantly of the simile's dual nature and of the primacy of tenor over vehicle (see Ryan 875). Helen Gardner, in her introduction to The Metaphysical Poets, distinguishes the simile-conceit radically from the Homeric, or epic simile: "Normally metaphor and simile allow and invite the mind to stray beyond the immediate point of resemblance, and in extended or epic simile, which is the diametrical opposite of the conceit, the poet himself expatiates freely, making the point of comparison a point of departure. In an extended conceit, on the other hand, a poet forces fresh points of likeness upon us" (19-20). With the exception of John Do nne's famous compass conceit from "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" (74), however, very few of the simile-conceits in Gardner's collection extend beyond four lines. Characteristically, poets in the "metaphysical" tradition use a particular vehicle only so long as it is useful to their argument. When their argument shifts or develops, they quickly change vehicles. Donne uses five different similes in the following extract, the fourth being, in the course of its development, transformed into a metaphor: "Themselves are mystique bookes." Paradoxically, the sheer number of vehicles helps to foreground the tenor, for their multiplicity emphasizes their merely utilitarian and disposable nature. The use of alternatives, "Like pictures, or like bookes," also works to undermine the vehicles' solidity:
As soules unbodied, bodies uncloth'd must bee
To taste whole joyes. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta's balls, cast in mens viewes,
That when a fooles eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soule may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like bookes gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arraid;
Themselves are mystique bookes, which only wee
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see reveal'd. Then since I may knowe,
As liberally as to a midwife showe
Thy selfe. (Gardner 54, 11.34-45)

Holding the syntax of the passage in its tight coil and also operating as the similes' tenor, the lover's strenuous argument in favor of his mistress's nakedness is kept well in the forefront of the reader's consciousness here. The vehicles are so threaded into it that, despite their novelty and variety, they do not have much independent existence. Each gives the reader that dualistic sensation, usually found in shorter similes, of making a virtual crossing over a boundary, of looking into a different world, while remaining in this one. In fact, even some shorter similes, such as the windhover' s soaring "As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend" (Hopkins 30), linger more lovingly on their vehicles than these.

In addition to the metaphysical conceit, W. P. Ker distinguishes another type of extensible simile from the Homeric simile. Found in the courtly lyric, this is the type of simile whose vehicles are "handed down like heirlooms from one generation to another," unlike those of either the conceit or the epic simile, both of which give the impression of being newly-discovered (41). A reader's experience of courtly similes justifies Ker's distinction, even in the case of a fairly long example, like the following from Thomas, Lord Vaux:
Like as the hart, that lifteth up his ears
To hear the hound that hath him in the chase,
Doth cast the wind in dangers and in fears
With flying foot to pass away apace,
So must I fly of love, the vain pursuit. (J. Williams 44)

This vehicle is so conventional that it is almost completely transparent. The reader perceives the tenor clearly through it; hardly any observable boundary divides the world of the stylized literary lover and the heraldic scene of the hunt. Perhaps here the boundary itself, rather than the crossing, should be perceived as virtual. The reader experiences no sense of 'jolt" in the transition to "I," the tenor, in the last-quoted line, because she has not been lured into another story's world in the way that she is in Arnold's simile.


Conventional vehicles are not by any means foreign to the Homeric simile. Epic poets, particularly Milton, often use several shortish vehicles at a time. Many similes in the Homeric tradition are more tightly argued than the Arnold example, bringing their tenors much more closely to bear on their vehicles. But Gardner's and Ker's distinctions are nevertheless useful. If a poet is to fill in a single, newly-developed image or narrative in between the "as" and "so" markers of a simile, without inserting into it any extra or implicit versions of "so," then the simile is likely to "expatiate freely" and to be, in fact, a "departure" from the main discourse or narrative. Samuel Johnson complained that Milton, in his epic similes, "does not confine himself within the limits of rigorous comparison" but "expands the adventitious image beyond the dimensions which the occasion required" (7: 132). But he could have complained thus of any epic poet, for a measure of digressiveness is built into the figure itself and a mo re gratuitous measure is inherited from Homer, as we shall see later. In fact, debates about the relevance or digressiveness of various epic poets' similes constitute the pivot of most discussions of epic simile (see Wolfson 257-58). In this essay, however, we shall regard digression not as a compositional flaw but as a narrative strategy.

Arnold's simile, for example, digresses from the main narrative in order to indicate the repeatability of Rustum's tragedy. It also gives the reader a significant pause between Sohrab's naming of himself and Rustum's realization of that identity. Similes are frequently employed to slow down the pace of narration, often to mark an event as specially important (Mueller 109) or, by strategic "overcoding," to demand an interpretation that goes beyond their immediate context (Nimis 32). Moreover, they sometimes signal a move to a different thread of narration (Bowra 123), or they may be used proleptically, to anticipate some theme not yet introduced into the main narrative (Ricks 132).

But, for this discussion, the most interesting feature of Arnold's simile is that it is sufficiently digressive to offer a secondary, embedded narrative, one apparently independent of the poem's primary narrative. In Narrative Discourse, Gerard Genette touches on the use of embedded narrative for purposes of analogy" (233), but he, like many narratologists, focuses mainly on prose and fails to extend this insight to epic simile. Although Irene J. F. De Jong in her narrative study of the Iliad does focus on a poetic text, she does not consider most of the similes there to be examples of embedding, since they are narrated and focalized by the primary narrator (123-27). This is, of course, the case with Arnold's simile, too, for the hunter-eagles story is told by the poem's narrator, not by a character. Nearly all extended similes are of this type, those in the traditional epics being spoken not in the ambiguous tones of a fallible or contingent narrator, but in the authoritative voice of the epic poet himself ( see Kirk 6; G. Williams 166; Ferry 69).

De Jong's exclusion of most epic similes from the category of embedding is in line with Mieke Bal's system and also with that of her mentor, Genette. In both systems, embedding is regarded as a matter of narration: a character within the primary story ("diegesis") narrates his or her own story, but it is then embedded in the primary narration, divided from it by boundaries, and said to exist at a higher narrative level (see Bal 41-44). But boundaries, marked clearly by the tags "As" and "So," certainly divide the vehicle of Arnold's simile from the main discourse, even though no change of narrator occurs. The model that seems to fit this situation best is again one of Ryan's, for she makes a distinction between two types of boundary, "illocutionary boundaries," which "mediate between speech acts," and "ontological boundaries," which "delimit domains within the semantic universe of the story" (874). The boundaries that are virtually or actually crossed in the narrative of similes are ontological but not illocu tionary. The narrator himself embeds into the frame of his main story another story belonging to a different fictional world or, as Ryan puts it, "a new system of reality, centered in a new actual world" (874).

A major concern of the rest of this essay will be the degree to which the embedded vehicle's "new system of reality" and "new actual world" is "new"--or "foreign"--to the framing discourse in which it is embedded. An "ontological boundary" may divide worlds that are very different, one mundane and one weirdly magical, for example. But it may divide worlds that are not noticeably different or that may be potentially co-extensive. Just as I regarded "figurativeness" as a continuously variable quality in my previous essay, "fictionality" will be similarly regarded here, depending as it does on an observer's perspective. In simile, both "figurativeness" and "fictionality" oppose "literalness," another variable quality. A simile is more "literal" if its terms share similar categories and worlds. It is more "figurative" if the categories to which its terms belong are "distant" and also if the worlds of these terms are foreign to each other. In longer similes, "foreignness" is akin to fictionality, and both are rela tive measures. The world across a simile's boundary may be very fictional if it is totally foreign to the main narrative or discourse in which it is embedded, even if it is not very foreign (or fictional) in relation to the reader's own world. Thus, a spectrum of possibilities exists not only for the degree of "reality" and "virtuality" of crossings themselves, but also for the degree of "fictionality" possessed by the world within the boundary in relation to the main world of the literary work.

In Arnold's simile, for example, the comparison of the animal with the human world does involve a shift in categories and thus some "distance." But because the animals are not impossibly anthropomorphized by the analogy, they remain consistent with the poem's general realism and so are not "foreign." The landscape of their existence is fairly compatible with that of the main narrative, whose central action takes place on the Persian "low land" (219; 1.876) but whose world includes as well the "high mountain cradle of Pamere" (219; 1.887). Likewise consistent with the ancient story of battle between Tartars and Persians is the hunter and his weapon: he is no gun-toting nineteenth-century hunter from Arnold's own world. Indeed, this simile and others in Sohrab and Rustum, just like those in the Iliad and the Odyssey, are among the main identifying marks of the poem's narrator. Though he remains somewhat shadowy, he is partially revealed as an inhabitant of the lands of the River Oxus, during or soon after the e vents of which he tells. He draws the vehicles of all his similes from roughly the same geographical and temporal world as he draws his story--except that he has a somewhat wider perspective that his similes, like panning shots in a film, make evident to the reader.

Thus, we do not feel that the vehicles of these similes are very foreign to the main discourse. They are close to what Genette would call "intradiegetic" (228), for they introduce a different story line without straying into a new universe, Even though they have the effect of expanding the outer limits, they seem to represent a point of view originating within the story's world. Even more obviously intradiegetic in this way are the similes of Browning's "The Flight of the Duchess," though they perhaps fall short of epic length. They are spoken by an overt character-narrator and they all reveal aspects of his experience within the limited bounds of the Duke's domain. In these as in most similes, however, the vehicle is not a structural element of the story being told: it has different "characters" and is not connected causally with the story.

In Arnold's simile, the reader's slightly vertiginous passage from the vehicle to the tenor and main narrative is thus a return more from a digression than a transgression. She has wandered into a distant part of the same world rather than trespassed into another universe. In other words, the vehicle of Arnold's simile is not very "fictional" in relation to its tenor, since the eagles and their hunter exist in more-or-less the same world--or fictional space-time--as Rustum and Sohrab. Looked at this way, as a comparison between two "similar" entities actually present to each other, the comparison between Rustum and the male eagle becomes more literal, less figurative (Addison 413).

But the degree to which a reader become naturalized to a simile's vehicle and estranged from its tenor does not depend only on the distance separating tenor and vehicle, though a sense of the "strangeness" of reentry may do so (see Furedy 748-49). In extended similes, the vehicle leads the reader gradually astray from the main narrative or discourse, undermining the parenthetic effect of the "as . . . so" structure by allowing her to forget it. The crucial point of the relationship between vehicle and tenor is felt only at the conclusion. At this end point, the reader may become aware of a huge gap between the elements compared or of a merely minor division. The number of irrelevant contextual details included in the vehicle, however, is also likely to affect her sense of "jolt" in re-entering the tenor. She may be led down the garden path into a different world, or just led down the garden path; either way she finds herself for a moment lost. Her degree of lostness may be a measure of ordinary distance trave led or of a magical quantum-leap. The way back home from the Land of Faerie is not necessarily more difficult than the way back from Timbuktu.


Epic similes need not be as literal as Arnold's example. Indeed, the "originator" of the epic simile, Homer, uses similes throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey that are extremely figurative--or, in other words, "fictional" in relation to the main narrative. That Homer should be the inventor of the epic simile is surely a surprising conclusion for modern scholarship to have come to. The groundbreaking research on oral traditions conducted earlier this century by Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord would suggest that, on the contrary, the authors of the Homeric poems were no innovators in the modern sense at all, since what they worked with were ready-made materials inherited from an oral culture several centuries old. But recent scholars have mostly returned to a more traditional view of the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey as mainly the work of a single individual who, though inheriting much from the tradition, was also a bold and original innovator. In support of their theory, they offer the poems' sheer length and surprising consistency as well as evidence gleaned from further investigations of oral traditions showing that these cultures resemble literate cultures much more than Parry's and Lord's research would indicate (Mueller 7-14). Some also cite the similes themselves as evidence (Kirk 6, Mueller 108). But this is not an entirely new perspective on the similes: W. P. Ker and C. M. Bowra, both writing before the publication of Parry's discovery, note that similes of Homer's type are almost unknown in other early European poetry (Ker 37-40, Bowra 114-15). That such similes are also absent from Homer's own Mycenaean sources seems to be a general scholarly consensus. Linguistic research demonstrates that the vocabulary and style of the similes' vehicles belong to a much later period than those of the main narrative, including, of course, the similes' tenors (see, for example, Mueller 108, Kirk 6, Bowra 128, Lynn-George 278).

The extended simile, in other words, does not "naturally" belong to the oral tradition. Whereas short similes appear spontaneously in the speech of many languages, extended similes are extremely unlikely to occur in an unrehearsed oral situation. Epic similes were conceived late in the oral tradition by a poet of unparalleled scope, vision, and sheer memory, and they belong more appropriately in a literate context, where a reader may run her eye back from "so" to "as" and see the whole thing at once on the page. We might expect a simile of the length of Arnold's, subversive as it is of unity and continuity, to pose too great a challenge to an oral narrative's integrity. Nonetheless, though his similes do not usually extend to twenty lines, Homer was apparently confident enough of his powers-- and, perhaps, of his audience's attention--to take this kind of risk.

This is not to say that the Homeric simile is a wholly "artificial" form, totally unrelated to the shorter, "naturally" occurring simile. First of all, we should, in the context of language as elsewhere, be highly suspicious of the "natural-artificial" dichotomy. Second, as we have already seen, there is a fairly simple linear progression from shorter to longer similes in literature. If the cut-off point for similes outside literature--or outside the language of literates--is somewhat sooner than within it, this is not difficult to understand in terms of human memory and attention. And, third, Homer certainly developed his epic version of the simile from shorter, inherited forms, for these still exist in his poems, many of them being brief comparisons between human warriors and ferocious animals such as lions and wolves. Also occurring are longer versions of this type of simile, ones representing an intermediate stage, perhaps also inherited (see Bowra 118-20).

What interest us here, however, are not the inherited similes, but the more famous, distinctively Homeric type. According to G. S. Kirk, these similes "not only deal, often enough, with subjects remote from the heroic world--with wasps' nests, and small boys beating donkeys, and flies clustering around the milk-pail, and men arguing over the boundaries of their fields, and women staining ivory--but they do so in a way that reveals a quite distinct and unheroic view of life and action" (8). In other words, the vehicles in the Homeric type belong to a world completely discontinuous with their tenors; they are extreme versions of the foreign (fictional) embedded object. Quintilian, probably using as his model the epics of Homer and Virgil, felt that a simile's effectiveness was a measure of this very distance, or fictionality, between the worlds of the tenor and the vehicle (3: 253).

In the following simile from Rieu's translation of the Iliad, for example, the heroic struggle over the body of Patroclus, a struggle that is the subject of the main narrative at this moment and of the tenor, is thrown into relief by the peacetime activity of the vehicle:

Tugging the body to and fro between them in that restricted space, they were like men to whom a tanner gives the job of stretching a great bull's hide soaked in fat. They take the hide, stand round in a ring, and tug at it with many hands till it is taut in every part and the moisture comes out while the fat sinks in. (326)

In relation to the purposeful, communal, and successful activity of tanning, the tenor's chaotic violence develops a certain air of futility. But this potentially ironic distance between peacetime and wartime categories--evident even in translation--is not all that divides tenor from vehicle in the original Greek, in which the language of the vehicle belongs to a much later period than the archaisms of the main narrative. What Homer is doing here is inserting an image--or mini-narrative--from the everyday life and language of his own world into the grand narrative of the heroic, semi-mythical past. The closely observed details--for which Homer has been justly admired over the ages--are in fact largely irrelevant to the comparison--for which Homer has been castigated now and then, for example, by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century (298-300). Though perhaps the submerged animal simile in the "great bull" now reduced to a "hide" is also apposite, only the gesture of several people pulling at one object is properly functional in the comparison. The tanner and his orders, the standing in a ring, the tautness, the moisture and the fat--all are gratuities, indices of another universe, one set to lure the reader out of the bloody press of a world at war. As in Arnold's simile, her return to the war-world is a wrench not only because of her sense of wandering into another scene of developed context (and therefore of interest), but also because this other scene is totally discontinuous with the main narrative. In other words, it is wholly fictional in relation to this narrative.

The similes of Homer afford a revealing insight into the paradox of fictionality. Though their vehicles are fictional when viewed from the heroic perspective of the main narrative, the narrative is fictional from the point of view of most modern commentators. Because little in the main story is historically verifiable, while the vehicles are more-or-less factual, reconstructing what are probably authentic scenes from the everyday life of early Greece, fictionality thus displays itself only ironically as the obverse of whatever is valorized by the label of truth.

In Virgil, many similes appear to use much the same material for their vehicles as in Homer. But according to Williams in his excellent book on the Aeneid, Virgil's vehicles display far more relevant points of comparison with their tenors than Homer's (60-62). Williams demonstrates that little details of some vehicles identify the material as belonging to a Roman, first-century, rather than a Greek, sixth-century, present (165-67). One of the most striking of these similes occurs early in Book I (ll. 148-54), when Neptune's calming of the waves is compared with an experienced politician preventing an urban riot:
ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
seditio, saevitque animis ignobile vulgus,
iamque faces et saxa volant--furor arma ministrat--
tum pietate gravem et meritis si forte virum quem
conspexere, silent arrectisque auribus adstant;
ille regit dictis animos, et pectora mulcet:
sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor. (1:5)

and just as often when rioting breaks out in a
 great crowd of people,
and the rabble, with its ignoble soul, rages,
and now firebrands and stones fly about--so
 anger supplies arms--
then if by chance they look around and see a
 man dignified by piety and merit,
they stand silent with attentive ears;
he controls their minds with words, and soothes their breasts:
so the whole uproar of the sea died down.

In this simile, the temporal distance between the terms is even greater than that in Homer, for nearly twelve centuries separate the time of the angry Roman mob, with its "faces et saxa" ("brands and stones")--the time of writing--from the time of the action (if the action can be regarded as historically placeable at all). In relation to the main narrative, vehicles of this type in Virgil are thus at least as fictional as Homer's, and like his are more "realistic" than their tenors from a historical point of view. These similes would no doubt have been much admired by Quintilian.

But Virgil introduces into the epic some vehicular material altogether alien to Homer (see Williams 172-73, 180-81). In Book XII (ll.908-14), in a somewhat atypical simile, the Roman vates goes so far as to use the first-person (plural) in the vehicle. Comparing Turnus's terrible experience in battle with bad dreams, he uses the verb "succidimus" ("we succumb") to universalize the experience of nightmare (2: 147). Though he carefully avoids first- and second-person substantives, the first-person inflection of the verb identifies the world of the vehicle quite explicitly as the world of the narrator and his narratee. Even a modern reader, having crossed the boundary into the vehicle's world, is co-opted by the narrator's camaraderie into acknowledging this world as home. In other Virgilian similes, the gods appear not as tenors, as part of the main narrative, but in the much less exalted position of vehicles whose tenors are mortal men and women. Dido is compared with Diana (1: 15; I: ll.498-504), for example , and Aeneas with Aegaeon (2: 86; X: ll.655-70). Since the gods exist as characters in the main narrative, the vehicles of these similes belong to the same universe as their tenors. The vehicles are thus intradiegetic; neither they nor the main narrative are fictional in relation to each other.

Dante turns this intradiegetic potential to cunning rhetorical effect in La Divina Commedia. Following Homer's example through his reading of Virgil, he uses similes that draw on the everyday life of his own period, but, as Ker notes (35), he does not create distance between tenor and vehicle so much as suggest an almost seamless continuity between them. He allows no historical distance to separate the world of epic action from the world of fourteenth-century Italy, for the protagonist is Dante himself, a citizen of the latter. The narration does not characterize itself as a vision or a dream, thereby dividing itself from the reality of the waking world. Rather, it presents itself as an autobiographical account of a strange adventure that recently befell its living, flesh- and-blood protagonist. Dante's purpose is to show his readers the immediacy and relevance to their own lives of hell, purgatory and heaven, but the strange and fantastic nature of his story tends to work against this purpose by distancing itself from the mundane world of human experience. Dante's similes are designed to counteract this tendency. By constantly comparing details of the awesome and often terrifying spectacle that he witnesses in the metaphysical world with ordinary features of everyday life, and by strategically reducing the expected distance between tenors and vehicles, Dante brings his "other" worlds in very close, forces them, in fact, into apparent co-extension with "this" world.

In some of the extended similes of La Commedia, tenor and vehicle are all but identical--for example, Inferno XXIV, 11.25-28 (Addison 412; Nimis 139-40). In others, differences ought to be perceptible, for the spiritual world must surely be other than the human world with which it is compared; but somehow the reader is persuaded to overlook them. Here is an example from Purgatorio (VI, 11.1-12):
Quando si parte il gioco de la zara,
colui che perde si riman dolente,
ripetendo le volte, e tristo impara;
con l'altro se ne va tutta la gente;
qual va dinanzi, e qual di dietro il prende,
e qual dallatro li si reca a mente;
el non s'arresta, e questo e quello intende;
a cui porge la man, piu non fa pressa;
e cosl da la calca si difende.
Tal era io in quella turba spessa,
volgendo a loro, a qua a la, la faccia,
e promettendo mi sciogliea da essa. (363)

When the game of hazard ends,
the loser remains dolefully behind,
repeating the turns, sadly learning his lesson;
while all the people leave with the winner
one goes ahead, and one takes him from behind,
while yet another plucks him by the sleeve;
he does not stop, but this one and that he heeds;
the one to whom he lends his hand is the one
 who does not press him any more;
in this manner he defends himself from the throng.
So was I, amongst that dense crowd,
Turning to them all, here and there, my face,
And making promises, I freed myself from it.

The language of this simile's vehicle is carefully adjusted so that it applies just as well to the situation in the tenor. The fortunate dice-player, just like Dante, is surrounded by a "turba spessa" ("dense crowd"); like Dante, he is "volgendo a loro a qua a la, la faccia, / e promettendo" ("turning to them all, here and there, [his] face / and making promises"). The impersonal collective, "turba" ("crowd") and the plural pronoun, "loro" ("them"), both of which refer to the purgatorial souls, neither distinguish nor identify these souls in any way. Exactly the same words could be used to designate the crowds of unlucky gamblers. Ker, who finds examples of this tendency in Chaucer as well, makes the following comment on the quoted simile: "The picture of Dante saving himself from the crowd of spirits thronging about him is of the same kind as that of the lucky gamester escaping from his importunate friends. At a distance, one might mistake the one scene for the other" (35).

Thus Dante, by sleight of hand, regularly conceals the possibility of fictionality in his similes, and thereby seems to negate the boundaries between worlds. Some of his vehicles, for example Inferno XXII, 1.1-10 (193), are even narrated in the first-person singular, beginning "Io vidi" ("I saw"). This is a far bolder variation of the form first seen in Virgil and, unlike Virgil, Dante uses it to create continuity, not distance, between the two worlds involved. In La Commedia, the main protagonist of the whole story is designated by the first-person singular pronoun, "io." For Dante, the material world is continuous with the spiritual worlds. In fact, the modern opposition of matter and spirit is quite foreign to his vision. Thus, for Dante's ideal reader, neither the tenors nor the vehicles of the similes are fictional. The narratives of the vehicles are intradiegetic and scarcely even seem digressive, so much do they resemble their tenors. Nevertheless, a skeptical twentieth-century critic may choose to pe rceive a certain distance between the real and the imaginary. Just as in Homer and much of Virgil, Dante's narrative is, from a "realistic" viewpoint, fictional, whereas his vehicles are a source of factual information on his life and times.

Milton uses similes very differently from Dante. The universe of Paradise Lost is larger in all directions than that of La Commedia, for it encompasses many myths and religious beliefs, both well-known and abstruse, as well as all of the known world from America to the Far East, and the discoveries of modern science that, since Galileo's invention of the telescope, were extending the boundaries of knowledge even into space. But Milton is ultimately not a humanist: a Puritan, he aims not to create connections between worlds and beliefs but to show the single truth amid multiplicities of falsehood and fiction. Hence, he frequently forces on his similes a form that insists explicitly on the priority of the tenor over the vehicle. This form is the comparison of inequality: "A is (like but) greater than B," where A is always some aspect of his heroic tale of creation and fall (Whaler 1038, Lerner 304). As the inspired speaker in Paradise Lost must soar above all pagan poets to tell the divine truth to which they had no access, so his similes must demonstrate the superiority of his subject-matter in all its details to everything that may seem to resemble it:
Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
Was gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th 'inspir'd
Castalian Spring might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive. (92; IV, 11.268-75.)

In these similes, in which Eden (containing Eve) is compared with Enna (including Proserpine) and the gardens of Daphne, the equality of resemblance is suppressed. To a sceptic or an atheist, a claim of resemblance among the three terms would seem to be true and the similes therefore somewhat literal. Indeed, the story of Eve is similar to the stories of Proserpine and Daphne, because they all involve the despoiling of an innocent woman in a beautiful, pastoral place and because they are all equally fictional. Thus, they belong to many of the same categories and realms of existence. Moreover, considering the enormous inclusiveness of Paradise Lost's ontological world--it contains nearly all of history and space--we are tempted to call these vehicles intradiegetic. At this stage they are somewhat digressive, however, because the narrative focus is officially on Eve, their tenor, and the reader is for a moment wholly taken by the poignancy of the rape of Proserpine, so brilliantly and dramatically is it rendered by the manipulation of syntax and line-endings.

To a Christian believer such as Milton, however, the similarities are only superficial. The story of Eve, being true, belongs in a category of reality totally different from that of the pagan stories. The inequality stated in the comparison--that Eden is more beautiful than other paradises--implies as well this more important distinction, which is implicit throughout Paradise Lost and explicit in places, as in the tag, "Thus they relate / Erring," appended to a classical account of the fall of Mulciber (28; I, 11.746-47). In a Miltonic reading of this epic, it is clear that the vehicles of the quoted similes are wholly fictional in relation to their tenor; we are nudged into a Miltonic reading by the form of the comparison.

Clearly, a vehicle's distance from the world of the narrator is an issue in reading epic simile, as is its distance from the world of the main narration. Some of Milton's vehicles do belong to the material world of their well-traveled and well-educated narrator; these include "Vallombrosa" (14; I, 1.303), "the Cape of Hope," "Mozambic," "Araby" (88; IV, 11.160-64), and "the Moon, whose Orb / Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views" (14; I, 1.287-88). But many of them-for example, both the vehicles in the "Enna" passage--are wholly imaginary in relation to the narrator's world and beliefs. These vehicles are, in fact, much further removed from him than is the main narration. This main discourse represents a complete metaphysic that naturally includes him; he can transcend it only with the divine aid he claims to be granted. The classical myths belong to the narrator's own mental world only insofar as they are stories he knows--and knows to be false. He narrates them under erasure, as it were.

We may develop this point by contrast with a use of simile that is wholly self-reflexive and personal. In the second canto of Byron's comic Don Juan (stanza 178), the (usually) omniscient narrator begins by embellishing a description of part of his fictional world with a simile in which he compares the "small ripple spilt upon the beach" of an island in the Cyclades with "the cream of your champagne." So far the simile is unremarkable, its only eccentricity the use of the second-person adjective "your." But when the narrator proceeds to develop the vehicle, by means of a series of free-associations that ramble through three long ottava rima stanzas, the reader realizes the significance of the second-person. It points right out of the text toward the narratee, the narrator's confidante and friend, and propels the discourse into their own world, one that is a version of Byron's "real" world--at least, during the society years in London--with its bumpers of champagne, its hangovers, and its valets. Clearly, thi s vehicle functions not to individualize the narratee except as a receptive other; its main function, rather, like that of so many of this poem's distinctive features, is to exhibit the narrator. Couched in the form of familiar conversation, the vehicle dramatizes a number of the narrator's own propensities, opinions, and habits (the habits cleverly disguised in the imperative voice as advice to a friend):
And the small ripple spilt upon the beach
Scarcely o'erpass'd the cream of your champagne,
When o'er the brim the sparkling bumpers reach,
That spring-dew of the spirit! the heart's rain!
Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach
Who please,--the more so because they preach in vain,--
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion!
But to return,--Get very drunk; and when
You wake with head-ache, you shall see what then.

Ring for your valet--bid him quickly bring
Some hock and soda-water, then you'll know
A pleasure worthy Xerxes the great king;
For not the blest sherbert, sublimed with snow,
Nor the first sparkle of the desert-spring,
Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter,
Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water.

The coast--I think it was the coast that I
Was just describing--Yes, it was the coast-
Lay at this period tranquil as the sky. (2.178-180)

Whether or not all this meandering can be described as the vehicle of a single simile, a simile (of almost-inequality) is certainly what provides the jumping-off point for the effusion. By the end, the narrator's world has been so filled up, and the narrator himself so dramatically brought forward as a personality, that the story of Don Juan (set at this point on the "coast" in question) is reduced to a pasteboard fiction, dependent for its existence upon the narrator's unreliable memory--and, presumably, sobriety as well. The relationship between tenor and vehicle here gives priority to the vehicle in the sense that the vehicle cannot fail to appear the "reality" from which the reader judges the tenor and main narrative to be fictional.

This world of the vehicle is truly the world of the narrator, Genette's "extradiegetic" world, the "world in which one tells" (236)--the world in which one forgets periodically what one is supposed to be talking about. The debauched lifestyle Byron delineates here is not exclusive of story-telling--or, rather, story-writing--for in the stanza usually published at the beginning of the poem, the narrator claims that "[he writes] this reeling,/Having got drunk exceedingly today" (625). Few writers before modern times allow their readers so confidingly into this extradiegetic narrator's world of composition as Byron in Don Juan.


The world that becomes evident in the vehicles of Homer's and most of Virgil's similes may in a sense be their narrator's own, but the reader must infer this, and it is not delineated as a poet's world--a world in which the composition of those poems actually could and did take place. Appearing intradiegetic, Dante's similes, particularly, of course, those which are narrated in the first person, are more specifically of the world of the narrator's revealed self. The similes from Browning and Arnold examined in this essay, though more traditionally introduced, are also nearly intradiegetic, while revealing the narrator's world. Milton's similes include examples that are at least as distant from the main narration as Homer's, but they are even more foreign to the narrator than to the narrative. The example from Byron is the only one we have examined whose vehicle is not only wholly foreign to the narrative but also wholly domestic to the narrator.

The extended simile is thus a fairly versatile embedding structure. Its clearly demarcated boundaries allow the insertion of a variety of smaller contrasting or parallel texts into the larger text of the frame. Though simile is often classed as a trope or figure of speech, its extensibility both allows its enlargement into minigenre and suggests the essential continuity between trope and text. For many extended similes are self-contained descriptions or complete, though very short, stories. They are nevertheless not fundamentally different in kind from shorter similes, for the literal-figurative continuum measures the same kind of tendencies as the distances between ontological worlds (their measure of fictionality in relation to one another). What distinguish extended similes from the shorter, more "naturally" occurring forms are mainly the consequences of extension itself. Longer examples possess not only the space to develop context and specificity but also the time for forgetfulness to operate on the read er's memory of the main discourse. Moreover, being more developed by narrative discourse, epic similes have the same capability as the story of existing close to or distant from the world of their narrator. In fact, the vehicles of similes may act as windows between any ontological worlds generated by a discourse, or as magic casements opening onto wholly new worlds.

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Catherine Addison ( is an associate professor at the University of Zululand, South Africa. Since graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, Canada, in 1987, she has taught at a variety of South African universities and has published on Byron, Shelley, Crane, Mitford, prosody, and simile.
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