On Description

Choosing Similes

The Prism

Both in poetry and prose, one of the hardest parts of writing solidly is your choice of metaphor and simile. Even the most simple simile is double edged – it’s like a prism, and each edge directs the light of your description into one clear beam. But if one of the sides doesn’t fit the others, it will not function properly. If you describe only one part of whatever it is, like, say, the speed, then the simile you choose for it will also affect the way the reader thinks about the sound, sight, smell and look of the thing.

In the chapter of Far From the Madding Crowd when Troy shows Bathsheba his sword fighting in the fern thicket, Thomas Hardy describes the sword as passing behind Bathsheba  ‘as quick as electricity’. The simile works well because electricity resembles a sword in other ways than its speed. It is flashing, dangerous, bright, cutting. If instead Hardy had described it as ‘fast as a thrown stone’, it would not have been nearly so affective – a stone is blunt, unlike a sword, and the metaphor takes a long time describing something that is supposed to be quick. The word ‘quick’ also works better than ‘as fast as’, because it is itself quicker.

Which brings us to

The sound of the word or sentence

… Everyone feels that, quite apart from words like ‘pop’, which are like their meaning, there are words like ‘wee’ which are fitted to their meaning; the Paget theory would explain this … by saying that while ‘huge’ moves the tongue back from the teeth so as to make as large a space as it can, ‘wee’ moves the tongue near to the tweet so as to leave as small a space as it can …

… All the sounds may, when reduced to gestures in this way, more or less fancifully; they all, then, carry some suggestion of size, or shape, or movement, or pressure, up, down, forward, or backward …

(Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson)

Not only should the simile make the reader think of the right things, but it should also have the right sound and length to it. Luckily, words tend naturally to sound like what they describe, probably partly because of our associations with them. The ‘s’ and the ‘ft’ in ‘soft’ sound soft – the quick ‘arp’ in ‘sharp’ sounds sharp. As I mentioned earlier, a long simile is distracting. Our minds tend naturally to track each thought to the end. So if we say, at a moment of leisure, when our character is thinking over the endlessness of eternity, that life stretches away ‘like a dirt track into the far distance’, the description will make our thoughts seem to get lost along that dirt track. If that is how the character is feeling – lost in the largeness of life – then this will be a good affect. But say, instead, that the character is in the middle of fighting off an army, and the arrow she has just loosed disappears into the midst of the soldiers ‘like a dirt track into the distance’. The length and dreaminess of the metaphor will be distracting, and the reader will not pay attention.

Some more mistakes 

If the simile you use is too much like the thing that you are trying to describe, it will go wrong. If that sword had moved behind Bathsheba ‘as fast as an arrow’ we would have been bothered by the similarity between swords and arrows. Even worse if it had moved behind her ‘as fast as a scythe cuts through corn’. A simile is likening one thing to something different, and the fascination of it lies in pointing out the similarites between one thing and another – perhaps similarites the reader had not noticed before. It does not simply say ‘here are two things almost the same’. The similarities have to be a little of of reach, not totally obvious. Now ‘electricity’ surprises us, but at the same time seems perfectly fitted to describe a sword. When I likened simile to a ‘prism’ in the beginning, it was, I hope, a lot more interesting than if I had likened it to ‘metaphor’.

Finally, there is randomness. If the sword is only like the stone because it moves fast, then the simile is random. If I said ‘he darted away, fast as a hare’ it would not be particularly wrong, but unless there was some background information that made it fit, it would be random.  On the other hand, if the character was sprightly and bouncy like a hare, it would make more sense. Or if it was in free indirect speech and the characters were up on the moors, hoping to spot hares, then the character would be thinking about hares, and it would be okay.

The Character’s Simile

If the description is in free-indirect speech or first person, then the simile should be plausible for the character. It is very affective in writing to choose a simile from whatever the character is thinking about. If they are going on holiday to a beach after not having seen the sea for years, the hawthorn hedges will look like sea foam, and the sunlight will be yellow as sand.

Sometimes an almost haunting, metaphoric background theme can be created by repeating the same simile about different things – particularly if it’s from a character’s point of view. In a retelling of one of the Robin Hood stories, I described Maid Marian’s smile as being ‘like sunlight on elm leaves’. The ‘sunlight on elms’ was a childhood memory that haunted Robin. To create that impression I took care to mention elms again in later descriptions. I did the same with speedwell flowers in throughout my novel, Speedwell. If you are interested the background, hidden workings of metaphor and simile, another thing is –

Hidden Meanings

In poetry, we create hidden meanings with stress. But it also works with metaphor and simile. The story of the book can be told ahead of time with hidden clues left in the descriptions. It’s basically a continuation of the method I talked about a moment ago. You can describe something in a way which links it to a following event – in the first chapter, a tree seems to have a face, and its roots seem to be like arms. In the next chapter, the tree is coming alive.

With great authors this affect can be carried further, so that very trivial descriptions at the beginning of the book bear reference to the events at the end.

To take another example from Far From the Madding Crowd, think of the passage when Boldwood has just received Bathsheba’s valentine letter.

At dusk, on the evening of St. Valentine’s Day, Boldwood
sat down to supper as usual, by a beaming fire of aged logs.
Upon the mantel-shelf before him was a time-piece,
surmounted by a spread eagle, and upon the eagle’s wings was
the letter Bathsheba had sent. Here the bachelor’s gaze was
continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became
as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye; and as he ate
and drank he still read in fancy the words thereon, although
they were too remote for his sight …

When later in the book Boldwood murders his rival, Troy – an action springing from the receiving of the valentine  – the ‘blot of blood’ suddenly becomes significant.

On not overthinking

In all this talk about carefully weighing and avoiding subtle mistakes, we mustn’t forget to use our unconscious. Instinct will, for the most part, naturally tell us when a simile fits and when it doesn’t, and sometimes overthinking can spoil the natural instinct, like when you repeat a word to yourself until it loses its meaning. It’s best to check afterwards that it fits – but if the word just feels right, it usually is alright.

In my poem about snow, Melted, I called the Winter air ‘dumb’. I couldn’t have described to myself exactly what that meant – it came to me in a flash as a way to describe the silent, drifting, muffled feeling of snow on the air – the strange quietness. The word doesn’t really mean what I made it mean in the poem. But there is no other word that captures the atmosphere as well. Part of creativity is to put a new turn on words. This is something more modern authors talk about a lot, and it happens quite often to me in poetry.

It can, of course, be carried too far. I am not an advocate for ‘throwing aside rules and speaking your true self‘ an idea which is becoming a cliche in modern arts. Writing is hard – writing does have some rules – it is not just a vent for random gabbled thoughts. But I think you should trust instinct in some parts of writing.

The Final Balance

We allow instinct to carry us – but at the same time each simile needs to be properly thought out and measured. Each side needs to be checked – sound, smell, feel, speed – your simile needs to describe all these parts, even if it only owns to be describing one of them. It needs to fit your character’s thoughts, to be unique, to be the right length and have the right sound to it. Some of this checking – perhaps most of it – we do unconsciously. It certainly does not take as long as it seems to when broken up into parts and dwelt on as it was in this post. If deciding on every word was a matter of deep and long thought it would be absurd – especially in prose. But in really good works even small things are weighed out and considered to some extent.

With poetry, everything is more checked and measured and takes longer – and naturally, it is more noticed by the reader, because it is designed to be savoured like a chocolate. With prose, a slight inconsistency in one of the sides of a metaphor or simile will usually be passed by. But it’s worth looking at in detail – because everything in writing that is not quite right will be taking up space. It all builds up. After all, writing is made of words – tiny things individually but very powerful when packed together. It is the same with our choices. If we say ‘it doesn’t matter, nobody will notice’ we will soon start saying that about everything – and then somebody will notice.

Owlet and Rose Photos

 

My mother saw it first. It must have been quite a shock; just glancing out of the window – my gosh! –

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There it was, a blinking, fuzzy old fluff ball, looking rather grumpy but so sweet! It was sitting less than a room’s length (be it not a very tiny room) from our french doors, on the raised part of the garden surrounded by a gravel drive-way that we call the island.

Perhaps I ought to explain a little more. For a long while, our garden has been inhabited by two great tawny owls – gifts of Athene, the protectress of those animals –  or so I have always thought.

Day after day, we would look up and see them, sitting side by side on the branch, looking down with their wide, burning, searching eyes gazing questingly into yours, and their great heads swivelling amazingly far round.

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Many times we have found what are almost defiantly the feathers of young owls about the garden; but we have never seen the babies before. It was a great excitement, then, as you may imagine, when we found a tawny owlet sitting on the island.

After the first shocks of delighted amazement, we began to consider what to do. We did not know at all whether the owlet was supposed to be on the ground – it looked considerably out of place there, almost like some incredible creature from another world suddenly set down in our garden. We are surrounded by different  neighbours, nearly all of whom have cats who not uncommonly venture into our garden – and we have even occasionally been know to have dogs enter from under the gate. We were therefore rather worried that some of these animals would prove predators to the baby owl.

I set to work googling, and found that

Hand rearing an owlet and releasing it later is not the best thing for it. Unless there is something definitely wrong with the bird, it is far better off remaining ‘in the wild’… It is important to note that young Tawny Owls usually leave the nest long before they are ready to fly and there is actually no point in placing such birds back in the nest. From approx. ½ to ¾ grown (around 120-220mm tall), Tawny owlets go through a phase called ‘branching’, when they walk, climb, jump and flutter around in the trees at night. The adults locate them by their contact calls and will feed them anywhere. It is not at all uncommon for owlets to spend time on the ground during this phase and they are surprisingly good at climbing back up again. It is very likely that the owlet you have is perfectly okay and if it is left where it is, or returned to the same spot, it will be fed by the adults and will be able to climb to safety.

and

“Tawny Owl babies are often seen on the ground in summer, where you should leave them alone! They are able to call their parents and even climb trees to safety. Adult Tawny Owls can attack and severely injure humans. Beware!”

We decided, then, to let it stay where it was; we could frighten away any cats that came if the parent did not. It was comforting to know that it was still under the parent’s guardianship, and had not been turned out of the nest. Incredible as it seemed that such an immobile looking fluff-ball could climb a tree, we trusted the websites, for all of them said the same.

So, everybody, that is what to do it you are lucky enough to ever see this amazing spectacle.

Note: This note is written a few days after I wrote the first part of this – I kept it un-posted as Jane Austen characters do with their letters so as to add more later. We have continued to see the owlet about the garden; sometimes it tries to fly, and makes a ridiculous spectacle, rather like a struggling bear with wings. It is clear that it can move about the garden much faster than you might have thought, and the parents regularly feed it. We are not as yet sure whether having seen the babies, as we have not done previous years, means that they are nesting in the garden, instead of in a nearby hollow chestnut as we before thought. 

Also, it was Thomas Hardy’s birthday on the 2nd of June.

And finally, here’s a slideshow of some pictures of the Incense Rose I took the other day:

And here’s a poem I wrote about it years ago:

I open with the sun –
The gentle sun of spring,
I overflow with joyous light
Oh, what the year may bring!
My dainty buds were forming
When the earth was bare and stark;
My ferny leaves made patterns
On my stems so rich and dark.
My leaves they are scented
Of incense do they smell,
Like a church as dark as winter
But of sweet spring sun as well.
I am no double rose,
Nor fit for any ball,
But I’m sure my simple beauty
Will please and charm you all.

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles

 

Note: (The contents of this post is to be traversed only by those that have read the book, lest something of the plot may be given away)

I have just finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and so all you who have read it will know what I must be suffering.

The tragedy of the ending is made worse because there is no heaven to believe in. The book was written around the time when Darwin’s theory of Evolution had begun to make people pry deeper into the idea of God, and Thomas Hardy did this by writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the conclusion seems to be in favor of Darwin. The whole story of the book is the tragic life of the heroine, Teresa Durbeyfield, and suggests strongly that God does not really watch lovingly over the lives of all human beings – for Tess is driven by the unfairness of life to commit the crimes most terrible to the Victorian public – she was twice lured into sexual relations with one she was not married to, and is even, in the end (I hope those who have not read the book are following my a advice not to read this post) a murderess. Yet, she is still, after all this, ‘a pure woman’. Were providence a real thing, these misfortunes could not have happened – Christianity suggests that be your soul pure, life will favor you and you will never have to do wrong, and Hardy suggests this idea is incorrect. In other great novels of the Victorian age providence looks after the heroines. In Jane Eyre, for instance, everything is fair and even – Mr Rochester pays for his byronic sins by being blinded, and Jane finds her way to happiness be being always pure and true, always preserving her self-respect, and above all, believing in that great power which ought to lift all worthy heroines out of difficulty. But Tess has no such good fortune – pureness does her no good – there is no God to punish her for her wrong and reward her for her wrights. One paragraph from the book describes this point – when Alec d’Urberville finds the vulnerable Tess asleep under the trees:

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

The end of the paragraph brings up the idea that Tess might be being punished by having the same done to her that her ancestors had done before her to others, but, ‘it does not mend the matter’, for it is unfair for her to be punished for her ancestors’ sins. This theme is touched on again later in the book, showing at the same time the cruelty of established Christianity, when the church will not give a Christian burial to the little baby that Tess gave birth to illegitimately by d’Urberville. Why should the baby suffer for its mother’s, sins, (if sins they were)?

Ashamed to live any more at home, where all know what befell her, Tess goes to work at Tabothay’s Dairy, where she falls passionately and tragically in love with Mr. Angel Clare, a middle-class gentleman who has decided to be a farmer, instead of taking orders as his father and brothers have done (as is later revealed this is because he once had an affair and does not think it right to preach against what he had done himself). He falls in love with her, and asks her to marry him. She refuses at first, having decided never to marry, for she thinks herself in a certain way married to Alec d’Urberville, the destroyer of her maidenhood. She relents at last, however, and they become engaged to be married, but Tess is troubled in her conscience for she feels she ought to tell him about her affair with Alec d’Urberville. She writes him a letter about it and tries to post it under his door, for she has not the courage to tell him in person, but it slips under the rug.

Here is an example of the sort of frustrating sadness that occurs so often in Thomas Hardy – for later, after they are married she tells him about it, having discovered he did not receive her letter, and because, even after deciding to leave the respectable middle class of his birth, he is still without the courage to defy common custom for the sake of right, he decides it is improper for them to live together, and he goes to make his fortune as a farmer in Brazil, leaving Tess behind, enveloped in agonized misery. But while about to leave for Brazil, he says to himself, ‘Had you only told me sooner, Tess, I should have forgiven you!’ So damn and curse the stupid carpet ten million times!

After making the point about how frustrating the incident of the carpet and letter is, I will now go over the previously talked about part of the book in a little more detail.

I believe it is not completely because of a false sense of delicacy that Clare left Tess – it is also because he had formed a picture of her as a blooming, unsoiled country maiden – a sort of untried, innocent little doll or turtle-dove for him to teach and love, as a romantic book might put it ‘the picture of innocence’. He wished her to be pure as a child, to never have had any experience of the wicked world around her. Such complete innocence is impossible for any human-being – we all have our faults and blemishes, we have all gone through some experience or other of the world, and Tess was, no doubt, as near to what he wanted as he would ever have found on this earth. He wanted her as the ‘beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer’ that she had been before she was ‘soiled’ by d’Urberville. Yet even then, she had been only ‘practically blank as snow’. To be completely blank is impossible, and Clare threw away from him the nearest thing to his dream that he would ever find.

Also, she had told him about something that her family had found out – it was speculated that they were of the ancient family of the d’Urbervilles (hence the name, Tess of the d’Urbervilles). It was because of this she had met Alec d’Urberville. She had been sent by her family to tell him and his old mother that she was related to them, but it turned out he was not really of the same ancient d’Urberville family. Anyhow, Clare got an idea that the d’Urbervilles had committed many crimes of the same sort as Tess, and that her being from that ancient family was also a blight on her innocence.

Clare had told Tess she could get money from his father, but she was to proud to do so, and she became very poor and had to work at Flintcombe Ash. But no more of the plot, for I have already asked those who do not already know it not to read this. A few more thoughts on the later parts of the book, and I will close this entry.

It is an odd thing that after murdering Alec, she seemed to see nothing at all wrong with it. She seemed almost to have been driven mad with sorrow.

The most traumatizing part of the book for me, sadder even than when she dies, is when Clare comes home to her and finds her with Alec d’Urberville, and she stands at the door and talks to him so coolly. It might be, perhaps that she is too sad to be sad – she had stopped even existing in her own head, her existence was so terrible. This may explain another interesting thing, which is that the book leaves Tess’s point of view as she is talking with d’Urberville in the church, and never really ever returns to it. It is lucky – it would be too dreadful indeed if you were looking at the events of the end with Tess’s eyes. It is interesting though, and seems to again suggest the idea that she is not even thinking to herself anymore – that it would be too bad for her to be herself, just as it would be too bad for the reader to be her.

And now, my last thought. The book seems to explore the strange pathos of life – something that is quite beyond science – a mystery far greater than the scientific mysteries of how the world began, and other such things. The book confronts and diminishes one great mystery – that of religion – and introduces another – that of life.