< SWITCH ME >

If you want to speak the English language like a true descendent of Shakespeare - or of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf... - look no further. In this issue's instalment of our series on idiomatic English, we travel from Hell to Paradise in search of some everyday poetry.

moon
Photo: Luc Viatour (CC-SA)
In one of his magnificent epic similes, Milton compares Satan's shield with the moon

"...his ponderous shield

Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,

Behind him cast; the broad circumference

Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb

Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views

At evening from the top of Fésolè,

Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,

Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe."

In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, the great English poet Milton does not hold back when it comes to poetic comparisons: his first descriptions of Satan after his fall from grace show him as a towering warrior with a shield which resembles the moon. Traditionally, such epic similes are miniature poems of their own: from the image of the moon, Milton moves to the "Tuscan artist" (meaning Galileo) who looks through his telescope to find "new lands" - thus the simile takes us far away from Satan in time and space, before we are brought back to him for the next lines of the poem, which compare his spear with an enormous Norwegian pinetree.

Unfortunately, such similes do not lend themselves to everyday speech. Admittedly, when arguing with your mother or complaining to a shop assistant it might be tempting to come up with elaborate comparisons. Maybe it would make a change to tell your mother, "you are as stupid as an ox, which finding that its trough is empty of water, keeps lowing and kicking till its master comes and leads it to a ditch," or answer the astonished shop assistant with the words, "your speech insults me as a bulbous toad insults the placid water of a pool, when grinning horribly he leaves the bank and squirms into its depths" - but usually, we need to be less wordy and ensure that our meaning is clear.

However, modern English does contain a number of quick, convenient similes which may not be as impressive as Milton's rhetoric, but which do add a sprinkling of poetry to common conversations. Milton himself, although he did lose his sight and had to dictate the whole of Paradise Lost, would probably not be pleased to be called blind as a bat, but after all he is now as dead as a doornail and cannot complain about the crudeness of contemporary speech. So here is a quick summary of the content of Paradise Lost, using a few distinctly unpoetic similes...

Although a lot of the angels were as good as gold and would never have dreamt of rebelling against God, Lucifer and his friends were as bold as brass and decided to squash the ruler of Heaven as flat as a pancake. They lost the fight and were sent down to Hell - but Satan was as tough as old boots and wasn't going to give up easily. Meanwhile, Adam and Eve were living in Paradise, both of them as pure as the driven snow. Everything in the Garden of Eden was as bright as a button and as shiny as a new pin, and now and again the Angel Michael floated down as light as a feather and explained the universe to Adam. As quick as a flash, Satan came up with a plan to destroy this idyll, and soon he had set off on a journey from Hell to Paradise, facing monsters who were as ugly as sin and as hard as nails. As you can imagine, Satan was as pleased as punch when he finally arrived, and he made his way, straight as an arrow, to Eve, whom he persuaded to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam also ate of the fruit, and for a while he was as deaf as a post to all thoughts of guilt or shame, as he enjoyed himself with Eve. He felt as fit as a fiddle and began to believe that the fruit had had a good effect. But on waking up from awful nightmares, both Adam and Eve turned as white a sheet, and soon they found themselves locked out of Paradise.

Yes, Milton would have been as mad as a hatter to write the story like this instead of using his own wonderful blank verse - and it's also inadvisable to use such comparisons in a master's thesis or a formal letter. But in an everyday conversation, cliches like this can be a useful shortcut!

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