The Best Metaphors and Similes
Examples of Metaphors and Similes
Definitions of Metaphor and Simile
Who wrote the best metaphors in the English language? Where can we find the best
examples of metaphors in English literature, poetry and music?
If you’re a student, educator or a seeker on a quest to discover the best
metaphors and similes in the English language―particularly in English poetry
and literature―I believe you’ve found the right
by Michael R. Burch
A metaphor is a non-literal figure of speech, such as an "iron hand"
or "heart of stone." No
human being has an actual hand of iron or a heart of stone. but we intuitively understand what
terms mean. Like symbolism, metaphor is a form of transference, correspondence
night=evil, light=good, spring=youth, summer=maturity, autumn=aging,
winter=death. Commonly-used metaphors include "lemon," "bad egg," "black sheep,"
"wolf in sheep's clothing," "snake in the grass," "honey," "shining
star," "apple of my eye," "dove," "sweet as sugar," "angel of light" and "knight in
shining armor." Sometimes a metaphor can be a double-edged sword: "If life
gives you lemons, make lemonade."
Famous metaphors in literature, poetry and music:
"Tilting at windmills" = fighting imaginary foes
"Gone with the wind" = time deprives us of everything
"Here there be dragons" = there is danger here
"All the world's a stage" = human beings are actors playing parts, perhaps in a
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee" = everyone will die
"A candle in the wind" = a life easily snuffed out
"Every rose has its thorn" = beauty comes with the cost of suffering
A simile is a type of metaphor in which a direct comparison is made, often by
using "like" or "as." A famous simile is William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely
as a cloud." Commonly-used similes include "blind as a bat," "cool as a
cucumber," "slow as a snail," "mad as a hatter" and "sly as a fox." An example
of a simile that does not employ "like" or "as" is William Shakespeare's "Shall
I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
Famous similies in literature, poetry and music:
"Juliet is the sun"
"Oh, my luve's like a red, red rose"
"[Men] swarm around me, a hive of honey bees"
"She's like the wind"
"You are my sunshine"
"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog"
"I am a rock, I am an island"
Writers sometimes employ extended metaphors, as William Shakespeare does here in
a famous scene from "Romeo and Juliet":
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
When Jewish poets wrote about the horrors of the Holocaust, they sometimes used
powerful, evocative metaphors to stunning effect ...
Wasted feet, cursed earth,
the interminable gray morning
as Buna smokes corpses through industrious chimneys.
—"Buna" by Primo Levi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Buna was a Nazi concentration camp. The image of the chimneys of Buna "smoking"
corpses to ash, the way smokers produce ash from cigarettes, is stunning. Levi's
metaphor may also suggest that the morning is gray because of the ash rising
from Buna's chimneys, the way smoking cigarettes can cloud the surrounding air.
We are digging a grave like a hole in the sky; there’s sufficient room to lie
The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!
—"Death Fugue" by Paul Celan, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Paul Celan mixes metaphor with reality, to paint a picture of a Nazi who writes
romantic love poems while sending Jews to mass graves ("where together they'll
lie"). We cannot take the "hole in the sky" and "plays with vipers" literally,
nor is the darkness really "Teutonic." But we can certainly "get" what Celan
wants us to see and understand. It is also vital to the
poem that the Nazis considered fair-skinned human beings with "golden hair" to
be "superior" to people with darker skin and hair. So when the Nazi poet writes
"Your golden hair Margarete" in the Teutonic darkness, this is probably a
metaphor for the primary cause of the Holocaust. It was not the Jews who were
"dark" but the hearts, minds and beliefs of their Nazi oppressors.
I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
—Michael R. Burch, "Epitaph for a Palestinian Child"
In my original poem above, the grave is a metaphor for death and "the grave is
wide" does not refer to the physical characteristics of an actual grave, but to
how Israeli and U.S. injustices that cause Palestinian children to suffer and
die can lead to events like 911, and thus cause Israeli and American children to
suffer and die.
The oppressed can but pursue suitable tracks
Learning to heed the lessons of awesome war
But will the mighty listen to reason’s voice
That justice will accomplish the peace of Rome?
Or will conscience’s dictates be inexorably ignored
As war’s clouds hover over culture’s great cradle?
And yet we do not harbor the odium of hatred
But pray that peace can still be humanity’s finest hour.
Khaled Nusseibeh is a Palestinian poet writing about the Nakba (Arabic for
"Catastrophe"). He uses several vivid, highly effective metaphors to make the argument
that his people deserve justice but have been treated unjustly. He portrays
"awesome war" (the "shock and awe" variety practiced by Israel and the U.S. on
less powerful nations) as a stern, iron-handed, unjust teacher. He points out
the that famous Pax Romana ("peace of Rome") was based on a system of
justice. "War's clouds" refer to the dark state produced by war. He also points
out that the Middle East is the "cradle" of human culture, as civilization began
in the Middle East. Like Paul Celan, he mixes the literal with the metaphorical.
Throughout human history, oppressed people have used such metaphors in poems,
songs, laments and dirges. For instance, in the popular negro spiritual "Sing
Low, Sweet Chariot," the river Jordan represents death while the chariot
represents salvation into the Promised Land (heaven), which lies on the other
side of the Jordan (death):
I looked over Jordan,
An' what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home?
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home!
Swing low, sweet chariot ...
Mary Elizabeth Frye is, perhaps, the most mysterious poet who appears on this
page, and perhaps in the annals of poetry. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I
will present her poem first, then provide the details ...
Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.
This consoling elegy had a
very mysterious genesis, as it was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, a
Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age
three. She had never written poetry before. Frye wrote the poem on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag,
in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust
only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was
weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave to share her
tears of love and bereavement. When the poem was named Britain's
most popular poem in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000
call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics'
nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's
many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's
origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources),
Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail
Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has
also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase.
Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in
the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used
for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.
English and American protest poetry and songwriting probably begin with William
Blake, the great English poet, artist and mystic. In his poem "Jerusalem," the
city of Jerusalem stands for the England that Blake believed England should have
been, and the "dark Satanic mills" stand for what Dwight D. Eisenhower would
later call the "military-industrial complex":
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
—"Jerusalem" by William Blake
Blake's poem also mentions a "chariot of fire," which later became the title of
a popular movie. While we can't be sure exactly what Blake means by his "chariot
of fire," it probably refers to the fiery chariot that carried the prophet
Elijah up to heaven, and so may symbolize correct belief, or true religion. But
Blake did not agree with the black-robed priests of orthodox Christianity who
erected "THOU SHALT NOT" signs in his garden of earthly delights. Blake was a
mystic who claimed to speak to angels and saints on a regular basis, and he
believed in free love, not what he saw as the false morality of the Religious
Right of his day.
Interestingly, one of the best-known apologists for orthodox Christianity, C. S.
Lewis, was haunted by a line of Norse poetry ...
I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes . . .
—“Tegner's Drapa,” loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Here are some of my own personal choices for the best brief, concise metaphors
in the English language, in the form of epigrams (short, pithy sayings):
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.—Eleanor Roosevelt
Conscience is a man’s compass. Vincent Van Gogh
And your very flesh shall be a great poem. Walt Whitman
Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. George Orwell
Dying is a wild night and a new road. Emily Dickinson
The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.—Tennessee Williams
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an
invincible summer.—Albert Camus
Little strokes fell great oaks.—Ben Franklin
Never tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon.—Unknown
Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit
I don't approve of political jokes; I have seen too many of them get
Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart,
and his friends can only read the title.—Virginia Woolf
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude
you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly
on your shoulder.—Henry David Thoreau
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before, to
test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it
took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to
In each case above, the saying means more than its literal meaning. Below are
some short, epigrammatic poems that also convey more than their literal meaning
I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Eros wracks my soul:
a wind on desolate mountains
—Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
how does he live, I wonder ...
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
—“In A Station Of The Metro” by Ezra Pound
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens
—“The Garden” by Ezra Pound
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass
—“Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs ...
—“In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden
Here are Tweets that use metaphor to good effect ...
My phone reception is so clear, I can hear my wife’s eyes rolling as I
The Tea Party enthusiast at work wants everyone to know she "brung muffins." In
the distance, a lonely coyote howls.—@lafix
Here are two of my favorite modern metaphors and the
evocative story behind them ...
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year ...
Shine on you crazy diamond ...
Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!
The metaphors above were penned by Roger Waters of the progressive rock group
Pink Floyd to express his hopes and concerns for Syd Barrett, a childhood friend
and former bandmate. Barrett, a wonderfully attractive and talented young man,
had been the band’s lead vocalist, lead guitarist and primary songwriter during
its formative years. But unfortunately Barrett struggled with mental illness
complicated by drug abuse, and at the time the lyrics above were penned, the
other band members hadn’t seen Barrett for an extended period of time.
Barrett showed up unannounced during the recording of the songs above. Here
is how Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright recalls that unusual day:
Roger [Waters] was there, and he was sitting at the desk, and I came in and I
saw this guy sitting behind him--huge, bald, fat guy. I thought, "He looks a bit
... strange ..." Anyway, so I sat down with Roger at the desk and we worked for
about ten minutes, and this guy kept on getting up and brushing his teeth and
then sitting--doing really weird things, but keeping quiet. And I said to Roger,
"Who is he?" and Roger said "I don't know." and I said "Well, I assumed he was a
friend of yours," and he said "No, I don't know who he is." Anyway, it took me a
long time, and then suddenly I realized it was Syd, after maybe 45 minutes. He
came in as we were doing the vocals for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which was
basically about Syd. He just, for some incredible reason he picked the very day
that we were doing a song which was about him. And we hadn't seen him, I don't
think, for two years before. That's what's so incredibly ... weird about this
guy. And a bit disturbing, as well, I mean, particularly when you see a guy,
that you don't, you couldn't recognize him. And then, for him to pick the very
day we want to start putting vocals on, which is a song about him. Very strange.
It is also very strange that the closing line of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
(“Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!”) seems to have summoned
Barrett to the christening of the songs written about him!
The ancient Greeks invented gods, the Muses, to explain the inexplicable
source of poetry, which they assumed to be divinely inspired. While I can’t
claim to “know” if there is any truth to the idea that gods sometimes
inspire human poetry, I can certain share some of the better examples and more
interesting stories about them.
But first, let’s try to define what we mean by the terms “metaphor” and
According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, metaphor is a form of
transference with magical qualities. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle said: “Metaphor
especially has clarity and sweetness and strangeness.” The best metaphors might
even be considered a form of transport. For instance:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
—“Sonnet 73" by William Shakespeare
One can easily imagine a young girl being temporarily transported by such
words (and the young man reciting them might feel equally transported). In
Aristotle’s Rhetoric he also says that metaphor makes learning pleasant, perhaps
thinking of the entertaining insights poets like Homer create through vivid,
memorable metaphors. But metaphor exists outside poetry and literature. For
Richard the Lionheart
Ted “the Splendid Splinter” Williams
Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran
King Richard I of England was renowned for his courage in battle, hence the
sobriquet “Lionheart” or “Lionhearted.” Ted Williams was one of the greatest
hitters in the history of baseball — some say the best — and because a baseball
bat is made of wood, and because Williams was lean and tall, “Splendid Splinter”
says worlds and makes perfect sense, in two perfect words. Roberto Duran was a
boxer who knocked out most of his opponents, thus "Hands of Stone."
Simile is a form of metaphor that uses “like” or “as”:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
—“A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns
When asked to name the primary influence on his artistic life, the famous
singer-songwriter Bob Dylan (who “borrowed” his last name from the first name of
the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) cited “A Red, Red Rose" by the great Scottish poet
Robert Burns. The poem above is written an somewhat archaic version of the
Scots-English dialect, but it still reads wonderfully well today. And while
metaphor is probably as old as the eldest human language, the best metaphors
remain both stunningly current and endlessly, vitally alive:
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.
—“Sonnet 73" by William Shakespeare
Metaphor and simile have been with the human race for thousands of years.
Here is an excerpt poem from an ancient Egyptian poem that is probably around
4,000 years old:
Death is before me today
Like the sky when it clears
Like a man's wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.
Metaphor is apparently as old as language itself, appearing in the earliest
surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. For instance, Gilgamesh has
a dream about a "falling star." Mystified, he turns to his mother Ninsun for its
interpretation and she tells him that this "fallen star" is a metaphor
representing a great friend or brother who would soon join Gilgamesh. In fact, it has been suggested that the entire story of Gilgamesh is an
extended metaphor for man’s longing for immortality and his struggle to find
meaning in a world full of death.
The earliest English poem still extant today employs the metaphors of God being
the first Architect and Poet ...
Now let us honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father. First he, the Eternal Lord,
established the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the First Poet, created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men, Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind. Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master almighty!
—“Cædmon's Hymn” (circa 658-680 AD), loose translation by Michael R. Burch
"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD. According to
the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given
the gift of poetic composition by an angel. In the original poem, hardly a word
is recognizable as English because Cædmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized
form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the
Angles were a Germanic tribe. Nevertheless, by Cædmon's time the foundations of
English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and
alliteration. Poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's
"Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so
the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God.
Homer developed metaphor into an art form, and his invention of the epic simile was
picked up by later writers including Dante and Milton. In the Middle Ages the device of
allegory underpinned much of French and English writing, while the later Metaphysical
poets employed increasingly elaborate metaphorical conceits in the sixteenth
century. Today most contemporary English/American poetry and songwriting tends
toward the lyric, so the use of metaphor tends to be more specific than general,
but there are wonderful exceptions to the rule. Here are some more typical
modern metaphors, followed by entire poems that may be considered extended
There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven ...
—“Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin
And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.
—“Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum
A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
—“I am a Rock" by Paul Simon
There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad
—“Riders on the Storm" by the Doors
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
—“Goodbye Norma Jean" by Elton John and Bennie Taupin
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
—“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
—“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
—“Song For The Last Act” by Louise Bogan
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
—“MacBeth” by William Shakespeare
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
—“They Flee from Me” by Thomas Wyatt
With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end:
Methinks it is no journey.
Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.
—“Tom O' Bedlam's Song” anonymous ballad, circa 1620
Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.
—“His Confession” by the Archpoet; circa 1165; translated from the original
Medieval Latin by Helen Waddell
Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!
— Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Our life here on earth:
to what shall we compare it?
It is not like a rowboat
departing at daybreak,
leaving no trace of man in its wake?
—Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt
—Yamaguchi Seishi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Wulf and Eadwacer
Anonymous Anglo Saxon poem, circa 960 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
It is to the others as if someone robbed them of a gift.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.
Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.
Wulf's far wanderings, I suffered with hope.
Whenever it rained and I woke, disconsolate,
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, that was pleasant, but it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, unable to eat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.
The metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two
voices never really harmonized remains one of the strongest in the English
language, or any language. Now here are poems that are essentially metaphors,
being extended metaphors ...
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Last night, your memory stole into my heart
as spring sweeps uninvited into barren gardens,
as morning breezes reinvigorate dormant deserts,
as a patient suddenly feels well, for no apparent reason ...
A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear?
except only that you are merciless.
Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently?
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.
I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again?
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.