In the last thirty years a great deal of sophisticated work has been done on the notion of metaphor: linguisticians, philosophers, scientists and archaeologists, amongst others, have all joined in the debate. At the centre of the discussion has been the 'location' of metaphor: is it a distortion of ordinary (= 'degree zero') language, or is it, on the contrary, at the very centre of linguistic usage? Far less attention, however, has been devoted to the closely related linguistic-rhetorical figure of the simile. In the recently published Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, for instance, the entry on 'simile' receives 30 lines, as against 258 for 'metaphor'. Yet there are certain forms of literature in which similes forge well ahead of metaphors as regards the insistence of their claims upon readers' attention. A prime example of such a form is Homeric epic.
Before approaching Homer directly, however, I want to ask a preliminary and very basic question. Is there anything to be gained, in spite of all the theoretical elaborations in recent criticism,3 by retaining an elementary, formal, linguistically based distinction between metaphor and simile, according to which a metaphor is a comparison which does not contain a word signifying ‘like’ or ‘as’, whereas a simile is a comparison which – however short or long – does contain such a term? To describe the ocean as ‘like an unfingered harp’ will be, on that formal definition, to use a simile; whereas to observe, with Stephen Spender, that ‘afternoon burns upon the wires of the sea’, will be to employ a metaphor