Come Back, Metaphor

In an editorial from August 1817, The Times criticized Robert Owen — and the vague generalities of his socialism — with this well-turned phrase:

“[Owen] has fed the world with promises of boundless, magnitude, but he has not yet uttered from his mint of reform, so much as one exact image of the coin in which he will discharge those promises…”

The sentence popped out at me, because it seemed so archaic.  Here I had stumbled on a relic, an extinct species, a fossilized specimen of what has since been purged from Western persuasive writing — the well-crafted metaphor.

Sure, modern writers will still make use of the metaphor as a rhetorical device, but most often once it has been institutionalized as idiom — all over editorial pages, bubbles will burst and tides will turn — or as an extended analogy, bordering more on conceit.  The casual, frivolous metaphor — a trivial, decorative bauble like the one above — has met its demise, I think, against the puritan Stunk-ism that runs in the press.  Rampant metaphor smacks too much of “bad writing”.  If Krugman were to bust out “the mint of reform” in his New York Times editorial, he’d be greeted with incredulous groans — and I’d be joining in.  Perhaps the metaphor deserves to be out-dated.

But it’s still worth sighing after.


Work Cited:  Untitled Leader, The Times, 22 August 1817, Issue 10231, Page 2, Column E.


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