"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Simile and Real Presences

Her shirt was o' the grass-green silk

I suggested last time, a poet writing about a remote God needs to use metaphor to make that God present, but that simile was a more appropriate device for the presentation of what is perceived of as naturally present. In the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Olwen is said to have hair yellower than the flowers of the broom and cheeks redder than the reddest foxgloves. The description continues with further superlatives based on comparisons to specific natural things; “Whiter were her palms and her fingers than the shoots of the marsh trefoil from amidst the fine gravel of a welling spring….”.

Notice that metaphor is not needed here. The urge is not to make present what is other, but to suggest intensity or an amplification of what is already present or immanent in nature. Consider too that, in the same tale, what are clearly mythological deposits are represented matter-of-factly as naturally occurring: each of the ‘oldest animals’ has a tale to tell of his or her great antiquity, they are superlatively old and part of the natural structure of things. So, too, Mabon, Son of Modron, the great boar Trwyth and the giant Ysbadadden whose eyelids have to be raised up by forks. If it might be objected that these are folktale elements and can’t be compared to the presentation of a religious quest, we can look farther back in literary history.

In the Aeneid, Virgil says of Aeneas: “I fared out upon the high seas, an exile with my comrades and my son, with the little Gods of our home and great Gods of our race.” Venus (his mother) appears at key moments to tell him what he needs to know like any other woman but with a special aura that distinguishes her. Arriving at the future site of Rome, the God Tiber speaks to him from beneath reedy hair, a natural emanation of the place. Figurative language is largely absent from the presentation of the gods whether in general terms or when describing personal confrontations with them. It is often difficult to know how literally we are expected to take the manifestation but the experience of the gods is never the result of the forcing of the imaginative process via metaphor.

In Homer the gods come and go from the battlefield at Troy just as the heroes who fight their battles there. Is Poseidon the sea or a representation of the sea? Homer does not seem interested in the question and we could take it either way. Odysseus experiences Athene in the guise of Mentor : “Then Athene, daughter of Zeus, drew near them in the likeness of Mentor, in fashion and in voice” in which guise she had previously appeared to Telemachus. She also appears as a swallow sitting on a roof beam or communicates in any number of ways but, as Roberto Calasso puts it in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, “[Odysseus] knows he need not be waiting for the dazzling splendour of epiphany. Athenê may be a beggar or an old friend. She is the protecting presence.”

These gods are present in nature rather than supernatural. Even the Otherworld is a place that can be visited and from which visitations can occur. Not only is the figurative language of metaphor not needed to realise them, neither is the device of allegory anywhere apparent. These beings stand for themselves rather than another plane of existence or representation. In a polytheistic world-view the gods are each manifest in their own right, not as aspects of one God or Goddess. They don’t depend on notions of allegorical transference or on metaphor as the only way of speaking adequately about them. Their superlative qualities may therefore be described by simile. They are like this but exceed even the best of that. The ‘worshipper’ does not look to enter another plane of being or a supernatural realm to catch a glimpse of them, though they might have their existence in parallel or time-shifted dimensions. Faery, though it exists alongside or at some oblique angle to our own life, is not a different dimension entirely to our own reality. Thomas of Ercildoune is carried off there by a lady on a white horse in the ‘Ballad of True Thomas’. Such stories are many. The ‘Spirit World’ is immanent in the material world and infuses its daily life.

[next time I want to talk about metonymy]