The night lay coiled in the street, cobra-cold and scaled with stars.
March 17, 2017 3:46 AM   Subscribe

What authors, or specific books, have a particular gift for beautiful metaphor? Give examples if possible.

Question title courtesy of Peter S. Beagle. Re-reading The Last Unicorn, I fell in love with his writing, highlighting passages on nearly every page. I want more of that.

I would prefer examples from prose but knock-your-socks-off poetry is OK too.
posted by Gordafarin to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For poetry, I always loved this bit by TS Eliot:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
posted by mochapickle at 4:03 AM on March 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Fahrenheit 451 is a treasure trove of metaphor. Bradbury was a masterful author.
posted by gnutron at 5:06 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: YMMV-- the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a hyper-literate teenager who loves surprising and weird metaphors. It's right on the border between brilliant and infuriating but the "metaphor per page" quotient is extremely high, which you might like.
posted by athirstforsalt at 5:35 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My immediate thought was Cormac McCarthy; here's a line from The Road (I guess a simile, not a metaphor) that I found unforgettable: "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."
posted by bluebird at 6:23 AM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: One that has stuck with me for years is from Lois Bujold's Shards of Honor. Aral and Cordelia have been trading stories from their misspent youth, each attributing the story to "a friend".

"She took the story in like some strange, spiked gift, too fragile to drop, too painful to hold."
posted by Bruce H. at 6:56 AM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:03 AM on March 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

First thing I thought of was Embassytown by China Miéville - which as well being full of specific metaphorical neologisms, is also a kind of novel-scale metaphor for itself & for fiction in general.
posted by rd45 at 7:16 AM on March 17, 2017

Guy Gavriel Kay is a beautiful, elegiac writer.
posted by john_snow at 7:17 AM on March 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Heartily seconding Guy Gavriel Kay! I devoured the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, as a young adult.

Also, the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony, is a masterwork.

Now I need to re-read, and re-live, all of these. Fond memories! :D
posted by Amor Bellator at 7:51 AM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: Henry Green's Loving serves up one strange and gorgeous image after another:

The room was dark as long weed in the lake.

Edith took off her scarf. She was brilliant, she glowed as she rang her curls like bells without a note.

He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water.

posted by 826628 at 8:11 AM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I and many other people on MF think John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has a wonderful way with words. He's best known as a song writer but has two novels as well. I always find the language of Minnesota to be sparse but devastating.
posted by Candleman at 9:16 AM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

P.G. Wodehouse. Magic with metaphors- and language generally.

"The fact that he was fifty quid in the red and expecting Civilization to take a toss at any moment had caused Uncle Tom, who always looked a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow, to take on a deeper melancholy."
posted by Patapsco Mike at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a blog post with some fine examples, including some of my favorites:
"For instance: in Elizabeth McCracken's story "Some Have Entertained Angels Unawares," a character is as "pale and bitter as aspirin," and another as "chinless and gloomy as a clarinet," and children sleep "beneath the clasped hands of the roof" ..."
posted by Corvid at 12:07 PM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Patricia McKillip is the most lyrical writer I know, though I can't remember any phrases offhand. I'd try Alphabet of Thorn or The Bell at Sealey Head, both fine examples of her many interesting fantasies. There's also her Cygnet and the Sorcerer duology that's just gorgeous. Probably don't start with the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, even though that's her best-known work, because it's a little more grounded and earthy. Poke around her list on Goodreads; there's lots of good stuff.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:06 PM on March 17, 2017

I've always loved the way Raymond Chandler described a hangover: "I felt terrible. I felt like an amputated leg."
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:14 PM on March 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

'The Peregrine' (Baker).
posted by kickingtheground at 9:06 PM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another (approximate quote of) Raymond Chandler:
"A black pool opened at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom."
(Describing being knocked unconscious)
posted by Temeraria at 10:03 PM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: Salman Rushdie.

My favourite, from Midnight's Children, describing strangers on a crowded street:

"One of them was tall as a tale, and thin as a lie."

posted by beijingbrown at 5:18 AM on March 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

James Lee Burke is excellent with this. I've only ever read the Dave Robicheaux novels but I'm sure his other series show the same qualities.

I'm sorry, I don't have any of his books at hand, but he's well worth reading for this and many other reasons.
posted by purplesludge at 7:18 AM on March 18, 2017

John Crowley, his book "Little Big" is beautiful.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 9:54 AM on March 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nabokov stands out on my list. To pick an often-quoted meta-metaphor,
The essence of the satisfaction belonged rather to the same order as the one he later derived from self-imposed, extravagantly difficult, seemingly absurd tasks when V.V. sought to express something, which until expressed had only a twilight being (or even none at all — nothing but the illusion of the backward shadow of its imminent expression). It was Ada’s castle of cards. It was the standing of a metaphor on its head not for the sake of the trick’s difficulty, but in order to perceive an ascending waterfall or a sunrise in reverse: a triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time. Thus the rapture young Mascodagama derived from overcoming gravity was akin to that of artistic revelation in the sense utterly and naturally unknown to the innocents of critical appraisal, the social-scene commentators, the moralists, the ideamongers and so forth. Van on the stage was performing organically what his figures of speech were to perform later in life — acrobatic wonders that had never been expected from them and which frightened children.
posted by eotvos at 11:21 AM on March 19, 2017

Best answer: The author Alan Bradley who writes the Flavia de Luce mystery series is quite talented with the use of metaphor and simile.

Here are some of my favorite lines:
"Motes of dust floated like little worlds in the pencil beams of sunlight that penetrated the chamber's gloom."
"Moods drifted across his face like the shadows of the clouds that moved across our English hills."
"(the house's) lath work sides, which sloped gently outwards beneath a rounded roof, gave it the look of a loaf of bread that has puffed out beyond the rim of the baking pan."
posted by AdagioCantabile at 5:02 PM on March 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everybody for the answers! I've marked a few of my favourites but you've all given me a lot to chew on. Many thanks.
posted by Gordafarin at 8:37 AM on March 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know I'm late to the party here, but I had to share my absolute favorite metaphors, Randall Jarrell in Pictures from an Institution:

"To hear him speak French, if you didn't try to understand what he was saying, was as good as attending Phèdre: he seemed a cloud that had divorced a textbook of geometry to marry Guillaume Apollinaire."

"From the khaki shorts in which he roamed the forest, seeking snakes, his knees stuck with a kind of indomitable rectitude- they looked like a penny with Abraham Lincoln on both sides."

Not exactly beautiful, but wonderful in their own ways.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:28 AM on March 30, 2017

I went looking for my favorite description of a hangover (from Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe) and happened upon this wonderful list: 10 Best Fictional Hangovers. It's here, along with one of my other favorites, from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. (Lucky Jim is a book with tons of great metaphors too, plus it's hilarious.) Great question by the way, I'm really enjoying the other answers.
posted by capnsue at 12:15 PM on March 30, 2017

1) Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

2) You Fit Into Me, by Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

3) Separation, by W.S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

4) Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise...
posted by Caxton1476 at 2:54 PM on April 10, 2017

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