Metaphor is the most common of the "figures" of speech. It is a comparison that we use without the help of "like" or "as." For example, we may say, "Julie is a gem." We are comparing her to a precious stone.

There are four kinds of metaphor, varying in the intensity with which we wish our audience to recreate what we are trying to say.

First Level

Second Level

Third Level

Fourth Level

Think of the "levels" of metaphor as a kind of hierarchy of difficulty, the first level being the type we use most frequently in language.

1. A first level metaphor expresses both the literal and the figurative term. In the above example ("Julie is a gem") both elements are expressed as words:

Julie = gem

"Julie" is the literal term (you can see her), and "gem" is the figurative term.

Think of "Julie" as the "A" term and "gem" as the "B" term. Thus

A = B

This first type of metaphor is the easiest to recognize.

Return now to look at the three other levels of metaphor.


2. A second level metaphor expresses as a word only its literal term, not its figurative term. If we were to say,

"Here comes Jim clucking away"

we would be comparing Jim to a chicken even though we do not use the word "chicken" in our sentence.

"A" still = "B"

but only the A term expresses itself literally. Jim is Jim. But the B term implies a chicken without using the literal word "chicken."

Return now to look at the two other levels of metaphor.


3. A third level metaphor expresses as a word only its figurative term, not its literal term.. If we say,

"It falls in teardrops from the sky"

we would know that we are talking about rain even though we do not use the word "rain" in the sentence.

It (rain) = teardrops

Return now to look a one final level of metaphor.


4. A fourth level metaphor expresses as words neither its literal term nor its figurative term. If we say, "Here it comes chugging into its sty" we have very deep levels of language working here.

The word "chugging" implies a train, and the word "sty" implies a pig.


A = B


It (pig) = chugging (train)

When fourth level metaphors appear in poetry, they sometimes leave readers scratching their heads trying to figure out what the poet is talking about, but once readers are sensitized to such metaphors, they actually enjoy finding fourth level metaphors used in poetry. Emily Dickinson was fond of fourth level metaphors and used them in poems like "It sifts from leaden sieves."

Return to table above for levels of metaphor. Or

Now try your hand at recognizing levels of metaphor. Which of the four levels of metaphor is found in the following bold faced type?

Stefansson: a walrus of a man
whose walk is paced to sled dogs
on the offshore ice.

--from "Stefansson island" by Philip Booth)

Click here when you are ready to identify the level of metaphor.

Here is a more difficult level metaphor:

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

--from "I taste a liquor never brewed" by Emily Dickinson

Click here when you are ready to identify the level of metaphor.

The home of the poet John Keats in Hampstead, England.

Return now to look at other types of figurative language.

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