Education by Metaphor

Tessa Carter

Few would disagree that the proper wielding of language is essential to a good education. Indeed, the improper use of language is not only regrettable; it is also dangerous.

In his 1931 essay “Education by Poetry,” Robert Frost proposed that part of the antidote to the hazards of language abuse and misuse lies in a familiarity with metaphoric language, and therefore with metaphoric thinking.

Metaphoric language is, of course, the marrow of poetry. Jay Parini writes that Frost “went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”

Frost wrote further:

How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgment? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He will have to go to night schools. They are having night schools now, you know, for college graduates. Why? Because they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don’t know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign. They don’t know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable. And metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about. Education by poetry is education by metaphor. ...

I would be willing to throw away everything else but that: enthusiasm tamed by metaphor. Let me rest the case there. Enthusiasm tamed to metaphor, tamed to that much of it. I do not think anybody ever knows the discreet use of metaphor, his own and other people’s, the discreet handling of metaphor, unless he has been properly educated in poetry. (Frost, Robert, and Mark Richardson. The Collected Prose of Robert Frost. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2007. 103-104)

To embark upon (or continue) our own education by poetry, we could do worse than beginning here.

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