A contribution to the study of metaphor, this book examines the way figurative language behaves in a major tradition of English poetry: 17th- century lyric. The poets of this tradition - Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne, among others - are often called the "Metaphysicals", Harold Skulsky notes, but could more aptly be named the "Metaphorists". In focusing on the verse of these writers, Skulsky confronts fundamental yet knotty questions about how metaphors are understood and communicated - in short, how speakers use figurative language without lapsing into nonsense. He argues that the Metaphorists point the way to an answer. In the work of these poets, he shows, metaphor is not a thing made but a thing performed - an improvisational "dance" of cue and response in which the "performers", writer and reader, are kept in synch by a web of mutual understandings. After setting and documenting the theory of metaphor contained in classical rhetoric, Skulsky shows how it was refined and deepened in the Christian tradition.
In close readings of the poems, he then shows how the metaphorists, as the heirs of classical rhetoric, further contributed to this theory - paradoxically through their "practice". Skulsky actively assumes the reader role assigned by clasical theory and in so doing demonstrates the ways in which the act of metaphor is changed for better or worse by the visionaries and wits, deceivers and self-deceivers, who people the poems. Firmly grouded in language theory, philosophy, and theology, this book challenges much recent theory and criticism of metaphor and engages with the 17th-century poets on their own terms.