Chapter X. – Jumbled Metaphors and Anachronisms, pp.46-48.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

ANOTHER and exceedingly common kind of slip is the jumbling together of different figures or similes, as when Lord Castlereagh said, 

   “I will now enter upon the fundamental feature on which this question hinges;” 

or when Mr Robert Montgomery says, in the poem to which Macaulay’s criticism gave a gibbet-immortality – 

“One great Enchanter helmed the harmonious whole.” 

One of the most famous on record is that of Sir Boyle Roche, when expressing his suspicion, in the Irish Parliament, that underhand dealing was going on in regard to certain negotiations – 

   “I smell a rat!” 

cried the excited Baronet, 

   “I smell a rat! I see it floating in the air before me. But mark me, Sir, I will nip it in the bud!” 

How true it is, as Professor David Masson once remarked, that we find tissues of words in which shreds from Nature’s four quarters are jumbled together as in heraldry – in which the writer begins with a lion, but finds it in the next clause to be a water-spout, in which icebergs swim in seas of lava, comets collect taxes, pigs sing, and teapots climb trees. 

“Dicky” Turner, the Preston operative – the originator, it is said, of the word “teetotal” as now used – was a rousing speaker, with an imagination that ran riot through all kinds of images. Old Jacob Livesey said he remembered him in one of his speeches making the following extraordinary appeal:- 

   “Let us be up and doing, comrades! Let us take our axes over our shoulders, and plough the deep till the good ship of temperance sails gaily over the land!” 

How the deep could be ploughed with axes, and how ploughing the deep with axes or anything else could enable the good ship of temperance to sail anywhere, but especially to sail over the land, it would probably have puzzled even the soul-inspiring “Dickie” to have explained. “Dickie,” however, did not use much more license than Addison, who in his letter from Italy has the following couplet:- 

“I bridle-in my struggling muse with pain 

That longs to launch into a nobler strain.” 

In the dockyards, the idea of putting a bridle on a ship to prevent it from launching itself would seem a poetical license indeed. 

Cases of similar license could probably be found in almost every writer who has written much. Even Milton, in his “Paradise Lost,” makes a curious medley when he says, in describing the lazar-house [leprosy hospital] – 

“What heart of rock could long 

Dry-eyed behold?”                  

Shakespeare also, in Romeo and Juliet, has an angel, who 

– “bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds, 

And sails upon the bosom of the air.”   

– a strange thing surely, a bosom, to sail upon. He speaks, also, in one of the best-known passages in Hamlet, of 

“Taking arms against a sea of trouble.” 

In such cases the incongruity probably arises from images succeeding one another with such rapidity in the poet’s mind that they trample on each other’s heels and get into confusion. 

A very curious metaphor occurs in one of St Peter’s epistles, where we have members of the Church compared to 

   “lively stones.” 

The Oriental imagination, however, often worked by way of addition – taking, for instance, a lion to symbolise strength, giving it wings to add the idea of swiftness, and so on. “Lively stones” may be an illustration of this peculiarity rather than an unintentional confusion. 

Another kind of blundering is that of jumbling up in one picture the features and characteristics of different nations or of different periods in history. Artists as well as literary men have made strange slips of this kind. In an altar-piece at Capua, representing the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary is seated in a rich arm-chair, with a cup and a silver coffee-pot standing on the table beside her. Tintoret, in his picture of the manna-gathering in the desert, has armed the Hebrews with guns! Another artist, in a picture of the Crucifixion, represents a priest holding up before the eyes of the good thief a crucifix. A curious absurdity, for which, however, the original designer of the picture was not responsible, used to be seen in one of the College chapels in Paris. On the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, this picture, which represented Napoleon visiting the plague hospital in Egypt, was altered so as to wipe out its original character and prevent its removal. Bonaparte was accordingly converted into a Christ, and his aides-de-camp into disciples. The artist, however, did not deem it necessary to alter the whole costume, and our Saviour, accordingly, appeared in the boots of Napoleon!

Leave a Reply