Iain McGilchrist: Interview and Metaphor

Iain McGilchrist, from http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/

Iain McGilchrist, from http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/

Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer, former Oxford literary scholar, AND author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Whew! What a resume. The book explores the mystery that shrouds the natures and functions of the two brain hemispheres, and “through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, [the book] reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present.”1 I should note that McGilchrist gave a TedTalks lecture on the subject (see this post).

McGilchrist pursued his scientific degrees after teaching literature at Oxford, and he included a good amount of poetry in his book! This captured the attention of editors from Poetry.com, and they asked Ange Mlinko, a poet who “knows her way around the scientific material”, to interview McGilchrist. The result was a very thoughtful, enlightening, and, well, poetic exchange! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, not only because it was a unique sort of discussion about poetry but because so much of what McGilchrist says concerning poetry can be applied to Art as a whole. Thus, this interview is brimming with eloquent words and profound insights that can inspire any artist.

One topic unraveled that I found particularly fascinating: metaphor.

McGilchrist argues that metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

Metaphors, however, do not jive with a world where directness, ease, and explicitness are valued, for they are just the opposite.

“Subtlety and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work, not likely to find favor in a culture that demands instant gratification, prefers the loud and the blatant over the quiet and tentative, and is impatient of the idea that nothing good is achieved without a battle.” -McGilchrist

However, Mlinko notes that metaphor has become rather unfashionable in American poetry. She says that American poets see the metaphor as “obvious, or precious, or merely ornamental,” an opinion with which McGilchrist subsequently disagrees, claiming that this kind of general aversion to metaphor is not a new development. The view first developed during the Enlightenment and is “an inevitable consequence of the left hemisphere’s view of language.”

Let’s return to Mlinko’s comment about metaphor in modern American poetry. Citing the avant-garde poet Rosmarie Waldrop, she distinguishes between two types of figurative language: metaphor and  metonymy, the latter being considered a more popular and progressive tool.


1560s, from French métonymie (16c.) and directly from Late Latin metonymia, from Greek metonymia, literally “a change of name,” related to metonomazein “to call by a new name; to take a new name,” from meta- “change” (see meta-) + onyma, dialectal form of onoma “name”3

Metonymy is a figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated. “Rifles were guarding the gate” is more concise than “The guards with rifles in their hands were guarding the gate.”4

William Shakespeare’s Julies Caesar, Act I: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: “I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it secedes or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”


late 15c., from Middle French metaphore (Old French metafore, 13c.), and directly from Latin metaphora, from Greek metaphora “a transfer,” especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally “a carrying over,” from metapherein “transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense,” from meta- “over, across + pherein “to carry, bear.3

Metaphor is a figure of speech which makes an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two things or objects that are poles apart from each other but have some characteristics common between them…
In simple English, when you portray a person, place, thing, or an action as being something else, even though it is not actually that “something else,” you are speaking metaphorically…Furthermore, a metaphor develops a comparison which is different from a simile i.e. we do not use “like” or “as” to develop a comparison in a metaphor. It actually makes an implicit or hidden comparison and not an explicit one.4

John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”: “She is all states, and all princes, I.”
William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”: “Shall I Compare Thee to a summer’s Day”,

Metonymy is different from a metaphor. A metaphor draws resemblance between two different things as in “You are sunlight and I moon” – Sun And Moon from Miss Saigon. Sunlight (and moon) and human are two different things without any association but it attempts to describe one thing in terms of another based on a supposed similarity. Metonymy, however, develops relation on the grounds of close associations as in “The White House is concerned about terrorism.” The White House here represents the people who work in it.4

"The Distrest Poet'' by William Hogarth (completed in 1740 and issued in 1741)

“The Distrest Poet” by William Hogarth (completed in 1740 and issued in 1741)

Newness can be an issue with the good ‘ole metaphor. Having such an integral place in the history of literature, many metaphors are used over and over again, such as comparing spring to resurrection. Perhaps the repetition tarnishes its value in modern society, and the traditional metaphoric poem becomes useless, “[paraphrasing] information we already have.” (Mlinko)

But McGilchrist underlined the difference between newness and novelty, and that “poetry need not seek novelty, because true poetry makes what had seemed familiar new.” In the end, metaphors do not have to be new to be successful:

…in fact the best ones never can be. They are like the language of love, as old as the hills and yet fresh with every new lover. The trick of the poet is to make what seemed feeble, old, dead come back to life. True metaphor is a union like love; perhaps, to use another old metaphor:

a durable fire
In the mind ever burning;
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.
– “ Pilgrim to Pilgrim” by Sir Walter Ralegh


Here are a few more noteworthy quotes:

“But the fact remains: poets can’t be considered possessors or transmitters of “knowledge” because we as a society have decided that knowledge is quantifiable—but art is not. Art is precisely the experiment that can’t be reproduced under identical conditions.” -Mlinko:

“Of course I agree that poets have a form of knowledge that is hugely important, but, as you suggest, knowledge can never be inserted into other people in the way that data can be into a computer. If it’s knowledge, not information, that we want, we’ll have to keep struggling for it, and that means that those who purvey it have to wait to be heard. It is tempting to want to make poets more powerful, and give them voices at the table, but even if that could be achieved, which seems to me doubtful, I fear it would have the paradoxical effect of making them no longer poets.” -McGilchrist

“…it is in the nature of poetry to be hidden—as perhaps is all truth.” -McGilchrist

“Subtlety and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work…” -McGilchrist

“There is a tension between what has to engage our conscious debating minds and what must carry us into a realm beyond any such ratiocination. An excessive fear of being direct, and the worship of the difficult, endemic in Modernism, threaten at times to undermine the direction that poetry inevitably takes, away from what we have to “work out” for ourselves toward what we thought we knew already, but in fact never understood. In poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult.” -McGilchrist

“…but the way loss of perspective destroys depth, and therefore to a large extent our felt connectedness with what it is we are viewing.” -McGilchrist

“How it messed up the study of literature, all those university departments that had to prove they were doing something difficult and serious, a form of science! We badly need an antidote to this culture: we should not be concerned with proving ourselves clever, but rejoicing in doing something science could never do on its own, understanding and celebrating experience—otherwise known as life. Poets and all artists take the inside view: as I say in the book, the brain is just the view from the outside. It’s not more real.” -McGilchrist

Apollo and the Muses, oil on canvas polyptych by Charles Meynier, Cleveland Museum of Art, from left to right: Polyhymnia, Muse of Eloquence Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy Clio, Muse of History Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry

Apollo and the Muses, oil on canvas polyptych by Charles Meynier, Cleveland Museum of Art, from left to right:
Polyhymnia, Muse of Eloquence
Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry
Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy
Clio, Muse of History
Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry

I love, like you, the fact that there are givens, that we can’t make the world any way we want. How lonely that would be—in fact it would be precisely the left hemisphere’s world, one entirely made by ourselves, shiny, clean, without friction or contradiction. It is the postmodern predicament: nothing really exists because we made it all up ourselves.” -McGilchrist

“Actually, I think Lawrence’s lines are even greater. The movement of those last two lines is itself the best expression of what it describes, the tension between life and the resistance to life that makes creation possible, and I often mutter them to myself for the sheer pleasure of it, especially if I am lucky enough to see a bird flashing through the gunnera—like soul and body, each as awe-inspiring as the other.” – McGilchrist

“For me, though, everything depends on the reciprocal relationship between our minds and the relatively independent world beyond them. The solidifying of spirit into matter, the business of incarnation, provides the necessary resistance without which nothing could move, or change, or have any meaning.” -McGilchrist

“And I could not agree less that having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting, or tends to suggest the left hemisphere’s attitude to language. They are the condition of all music and dance, the right hemisphere’s domain, and when we decide to dispense with them, we take a knowing risk. Here the resigned simplicity of the regular meter emphasizes the inevitability of its subject.” -McGilchrist



1. “The Master and His Emissary.” A Brief Description of by Iain McGilchrist. Web. 01 May 2014. <http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/brief_description.asp#content&gt;.

2. McGilchrist, Iain. “This Is Your Brain On Poetry.” Interview by John Ashbery.Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

3. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 07 May 2014. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php&gt;.

4. “Literary Devices and Literary Terms.” Literary Devices. Web. 07 May 2014. <http://literarydevices.net/&gt;.


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