An extended metaphor is a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
This type of comparison juxtaposes two unlike things without uses the words “like” or “as”. In this case, it is “extended”. This means that it lasts for more than a few words. These metaphors can run through stanzas, paragraphs, chapters, or poems.
Extended metaphors appear in prose writing, as well as plays and poetry. In prose writing, all types of writers make use of this technique. From contemporary writers like Stephen King to classic novelists like Charles Dickens. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to drama, there are multiple examples within William Shakespeare’s works that show how important extended metaphors can be. Take As You Like It as an example and the very famous quote that reads:
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.
The metaphor of the world as a stage is continued beyond the first phrase. The men and women are “players” preforming their roles. They live, die, have exits, and entrances.
Purpose of Extended Metaphors
These prolonged metaphors are powerful tools in the right hands. In each instance that this device is used the metaphor is employed in order to describe something more clearly. The writer relates it to something that helps the reader understand it better. For example, a writer might compare their mother or father to a creature, more than once, throughout a poem. This would give the reader an opportunity to consider what the creature has to say about the parental figure.
Examples of an Extended Metaphor in Poems
Example #1 Wires by Philip Larkin
‘Wires’ contains an extended metaphor that asks the reader to consider the connections between the behaviour of the “young steer” and that of human beings. Within this poem, the speaker describes the learned behaviour of cattle who spend their days on a wide prairie surrounded by an electric fence. In Larkin’s imagined pasture the old cows know well to stay away from the boundaries of the field. But the young steer are less experienced and have yet to come to grips with the predetermined boundaries of their world. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.
The actions of these creatures mirror that of humans, young and old. The poet wants the reader to consider how we learn the boundaries of our own world and how life changes when we realize we can only reach so far.
Example #2 The Skunk by Seamus Heaney
This poem depicts a speaker’s married life with a comparison of his wife and a skunk. Heaney uses zoomorphism within his extended metaphor to compare his speaker’s wife to the animal. The wife is just as mysterious and elusive. But, somehow she also manages to remain ordinary and demystified.
One of the best images comes at the end of the poem when the skunk and his wife seem to merge together. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress
Here, the skunked related imagery is getting mixed up with that of the speaker’s wife, they become one in the same.
Example #3 Hope is a thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson
This is one of Dickinson’s best-known poems. It is light-hearted and a pleasure to read. This piece is also one of the best examples of what a successfully executed extended metaphor looks like. In the poem, there is a bird perching inside her soul. It represents indestructible hope. It perches there and sings. Here are a few lines from ‘Hope is a thing with features’:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
The bird asks for nothing. It is at peace and is, therefore, able to impart the same hope and peace to the speaker. She can depend on it, and take pleasure from it. The text is also a prime example of the way that Dickinson used nature as a metaphor for the most complicated of human emotions.