May 29 Richard Wilbur: A Simile For Her Smile

I have come to the section in the textbook’s chapter “Figures of Speech” where the author talks about similes and metaphors. The chapter started talking out by talking about how a figure of speech is using one thing to describe something else that is not like it literally (e.g. a summer’s day is used to describe a woman), but the definitions can be the same (both summer and the woman are bright and beautiful). The next logical step is to talk about similes and metaphor.

A simile is not using one thing to describe another (like figure of speech, “what a son of gun”), but actually mentioning two unlike things and comparing them. “He is like a gun”, “My love is like a rose.” But the comparison is limited to only one or two qualities, for instance, “he eats like a pig” is only comparing his eating habits. Metaphor on the other hand is not a comparison it’s a symbol for what something is – he is a gun – using something unlike the subject to describe that thing’s qualities. Now, a human is a weapon and all of the things (or perhaps also all the ideas) that that weapon embodies. So, he could be cold, deadly, fierce, precise. If he doesn’t eat like a pig, but he is a pig, that can encompass many qualities beyond his eating habits: he is corrupt, dirty, rude, snorts, round, greedy and on and on. I don’t even need to list them all. Many are implied.

In Dickens’s book Great Expectations, there is a character whose face is described as a post office box. I imagined him tall and thin, uniform like a pole (or, um, a post office box) with a shiny, bald head rounding the top. Dickens took great pains to describe the mouth as one that was square and opened in a certain manner. Once something went into the mouth, it never came out and when the man was surprised he gaped like an open post box. It made me apply the qualities I think of in a post office box to him, mechanical, helpful in a bureaucratic way, quiet and unassuming, sturdy and ever-vigilant. As the prose went on, the description became more and more apt.

The following poem goes above and beyond the call of duty when comparing. A long and drawn out simile is used to describe the poet’s feelings when his lover smiles (or the feelings he has anticipating it). He doesn’t simply say, “the feeling I get is like a pause” or “like an interruption” or even something that causes a pause “a hiccup” or “a palpitation”. I suppose when he first thought, “her smile makes me pause” he had to add, “you know what I mean? Like when you’re at the traffic bridge and everybody stops and all activity dissipates, it’s quiet and they all watch the water in wonder as it floats calmly by like a ribbon of shining gold slipping past.” Some similes require a lot of backup description in order to clearly describe the exact feeling or idea that exists within the person experiencing it.

The language he uses in the poem to describe this works to deepen the simile. Hasty traffic is balked, horns are hushed – you can feel the quiet of that moment from that description. Better than this “the oilsmoke rarifies”, so the air becomes clear. The abrupt ease, as abrupt as when the bridgegate falls, sounds like a description of how everything comes to a quick halt when she smiles. The silken river slipping past, is perhaps how he feels when she passes smiling. She is a natural wonder to observe. And the ringing of clear bells, says that an almost heavenly sound is inspired in him, bells (especially clear ones) being associated with the blissful nether realm. She is a pause and wonder all wrapped into one moment.

A Simile for Her Smile

by Richard Wilbur

Your smiling, or the hope, the thought of it,
Makes in my mind such pause and abrupt ease
As when the highway bridgegates fall,
Balking the hasty traffic, which must sit
On each side massed and staring, while
Deliberately the drawbridge starts to rise:

Then horns are hushed, the oilsmoke rarifies,
Above the idling motors one can tell
The packet’s smooth approach, the slip,
Slip of the silken river past the sides,
The ringing of clear bells, the dip
And slow cascading of the paddle wheel.

 

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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