Extended Metaphor

Definition of Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor, sometimes known as a conceit or sustained metaphor, is a metaphor that an author develops over the course of many lines or even an entire work of literature. An extended metaphor may act as a theme in the work of literature because it is repeated and changes forms as it reappears over and over again. Extended metaphors are complicated than a metaphor that an author only uses once in that extended metaphors more deeply explore the similarities between the original thing and the thing to which it is being compared.

Common Examples of Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphors can be found in famous speeches, such as in the following examples:

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

—John F. Kennedy, “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech, 1962

Kennedy uses the extended metaphor of condensing human history to explore how far we’ve come in a short time and to show that space travel is only a short leap away.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963

While this is not the most famous part of King’s speech, this is a good extended metaphor example in that he compares the promises to the American people to funds that all should inherit.

Significance of Extended Metaphor in Literature

Extended metaphors are most frequently found in poetry, as the author can develop the comparisons throughout the course of the entire poem. William Shakespeare also used many extended metaphors in his plays, treating with the same metaphorical base throughout an entire monologue. Extended metaphors can also sometimes be found in prose, though they often are not sustained for an entire work. There is one notable exception, however, which is the allegory, which has a very similar definition to the definition of extended metaphor. An allegory is considered to be a form of an extended metaphor used to convey a deeper spiritual or moral truth, or to illustrate a historical event or political situation.

Like metaphors, extended metaphors create new synaptic connections for the reader and broaden an audience’s understanding of the world. Extended metaphors can either help better explain the world or complicate it by comparing things that a reader previously had not thought of as alike.

Examples of Extended Metaphor in Literature

Example #1

JAQUES: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

(As You Like It by William Shakespeare)

In this example of extended metaphor, Shakespeare compares the world to a stage and people to actors. He goes on to develop this metaphor by exploring the seven different stages of life.

Example #2

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost used many examples of extended metaphor in his poetry, and in “Birches” he compares the exhaustion of living to “a pathless wood” that torments the traveller with obstacles like cobwebs and twigs. He revisits this metaphor in his more famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Example #3

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

(“To The Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara)

In this poem, Frank O’Hara sustains a metaphor from the beginning to end about a man who is like a seafarer attempting to reach his lover. O’Hara uses many words and images relating to this idea, from verbs like “tying up” and “depart” to nouns such as “moorings,” “tide,” “rudder,” “vessel,” and so on.

Example #4

Historical fact: People stopped being people in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joy-sticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.

(Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides)

This example from Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex compares humans to machines and shows how the metaphor was at first uncomfortable to human beings and yet has become pervasive in our culture. This is an interesting example of extended metaphor because Eugenides shows how it has affected us all, and how metaphor can become reality.

Test Your Knowledge of Extended Metaphor

1. Choose the correct extended metaphor definition from the following statements:
A. A metaphor that an author develops throughout several lines or the entire work of literature.
B. A metaphor that an author uses just once to illustrate a comparison.
C. A literary device only used in poems that compares two things that are completely dissimilar.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off….
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

Is this excerpt an example of extended metaphor?

A. No; Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” just once and never repeats that comparison.
B. Yes; Romeo compares Juliet to the sun and reinforces this metaphor by speaking of several other celestial bodies, include the “envious moon,” stars, and heaven.
C. Yes; this is an example of an extended metaphor acting as an allegory because there is deeper moral truth in Romeo’s comparison of Juliet to the sun.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. What extended metaphor does Robert Frost employ in his poem “The Road Not Taken”?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

A. Robert Frost traveled through a literal forest and reminisces about it fondly.
B. Robert Frost regrets the life choices he has made and blames a long-ago journey through a forest for the poor outcome.
C. Robert Frost compares the divergence of two paths in a wood to the choices he has made in life and explores the idea of choosing a less common life choice.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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