April 5, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingUncategorizedWriting

On Mixed Metaphors in Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin

To almost all writers today, the term “mixed metaphor” has only negative connotations, referring to a classic type of bad and thoughtless writing, when a writer without realizing it employs two contradictory metaphors, usually producing an unintentionally comic effect. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English described them in the following way:

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. 

There may be more subtle and contemporary examples, but I think “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song” proves the point really well.

However, there can be instances when purposefully mixing metaphors actually produces an interesting literary effect. It’s rare to see this in contemporary literature, since today we value more realistic prose in which our metaphors are meant mostly to underscore the realism. But while reading Fakhruddin Gorgani’s 11th century Persian love poem Vis and Ramin (wonderfully translated by Dick Davis), I was stuck by the sheer number of metaphors the poet uses, even when describing a single thing—an avalanche of metaphors, a cornucopia of metaphors, a wellspring, barrage, volley, etc. of metaphors. Here for example:

One day in spring, when all the world was glad,

As lovely as Karkh’s gardens in Baghdad,

When deserts flowered like gardens, and the sight

Of pretty girls filled gardens with delight,

As if they were like pagan temples where

Men bow before the lovely idols there,

When silver blossoms drifted from the trees

And fluttered in the musk-diffusing breeze,

When all of nature seemed to be arrayed

For courtly festivals where minstrels played,

Whose harps were voices of sweet nightingales,

Whose flutes were ringdoves’ moans and plaintive wails,

Where bold narcissi passed the wine around

And drunken violets nodded to the ground,

Where boughs were like jeweled crowns, where charm and grace

Rivaled the fabled Layla’s lovely face,

Where earth shone emerald green, and tulips made

Bright topaz of the mountain’s granite shade,

The sentence isn’t even over and yet the natural world has been compared to a Baghdad garden, a pagan temple, perfume, a courtly festival, music, wine, and jewelry. And then here, in another description:

Spring’s army pitched camp on the hills and plains,

And rivers ran with its reviving rains,

The world was like a garden now as though

Heaven had come down to the earth below.

The ancient world grew young and debonair,

Its cheeks were tulips, violets its dark hair,

Its lovely face a royal treasury

Of silks, brocades, and every luxury,

A thousand birds addressed the flowers in song

Like drunken lovers who sing loud and long;

Wild game descended from the hills to roam

The grasslands and to make the plains their home,

And every dawn new boughs were blossoming

As harbingers of the advancing spring.

Like brides who leave their litters, each new rose

Robbed countless nightingales of their repose,

It seemed that wine rained from the firmament,

The plain’s dust took on ambergris’s scent,

The gardens were heart-stealing girls, the trees

Shoes with their blossoms like the Pleiades.

The air was like a glittering robe, the ground

A place where elegant, jeweled flowers were found;

The world became a banquet where a king

Might celebrate the glories of the spring,

And bright nacissi, where he sat to dine,

Were like exquisite goblets filled with wine—

And gold and silver filled the pleasant land

Like Khsorow and Shirin sat hand in hand.

We have a similar range of metaphors, with spring and the natural world being compared to an army pitching camp, a garden, heaven coming down to earth, a young person, a treasury, silk, drunken lovers, brides, wine, women, shoes, a robe, jewelry, etc. And what’s fascinating to me is that, on the one hand, these verses are undeniably beautiful—rich with detail, visually sumptuous, reflecting the effusive romance of the characters in the poem. But on the other hand, so much of the poem uses these same metaphors, elements of nature being compared to banquets, women, wine, song—and so after a while, wouldn’t these comparisons lose their vividness. Isn’t there a danger that they might become the “stale metaphors” that Orwell warns us about?

The poem’s translator Dick Davis, however, makes an excellent point in his introduction to defend Gorgani’s seeming overuse of metaphor. “Vis and Ramin,” Davis notes, “belongs to a rhetorical world in which set pieces are elaborated for their own sake, and when an occasion for a set piece presents itself everything else stops, often for pages on end.” To our modern sensibilities, stopping the narrative for pages to indulge in metaphoric descriptions of nature seems wrong (how many writers workshops, after all, have we all been in where people have advised cutting a descriptive passage because it interrupts “the story”)—but as Davis notes, this Medieval poem belongs to a different rhetorical world, which had different attitudes towards features like mixed metaphors. As he puts it later in his intro:

…beautiful hair is compared to violets, the cheeks to roses or pomegranate blossoms, the breasts to jasmine (for their color and scent) or pomegranates (for their shape), the face to the sun or the full moon, beautiful skin to silver, the skin of a sick person to gold, teeth to pearls, lips to rubies, and so forth. The images are stock, but even so Gorgani is often able to overwhelm the reader with their profusion.

Profusion, like a narrative-halting set piece, is again not something we tend to value in literature today. But in Gorgani’s Medieval world, such artificiality reflected the predominant aesthetic ideal, one present also, for example, in Persian miniature painting. These kinds of paintings would eventually be seen as outdated as the realistic traditions of the Renaissance began to dominate—but when looking back, we obviously shouldn’t judge them by later Western standards and instead by their own.

Reading Vis and Ramin and Davis’s introduction reminded me that the writing rules we often hold sacred are not in fact universal but simply the result of our particular era’s aesthetic sensibilities. That’s why I think it’s often very useful for writers to read something from a thousand years ago, and to try and find the literary value in something that employs very different aesthetic principles. In the case of this particular poem, I think the aesthetic differences come down to artificiality vs. realism. As much as we might acknowledge the artificiality of what we write (something I’ve argued for on this blog several times before), we still live in a moment when we all very much believe that literature should try and get at “the real”—realistic human emotions, realistic ways of describing the world, etc. Still, while the mixed metaphors of Vis and Ramin may feel at odds with our own literary ideals, there’s a value in being able to understand why they work in their own context.