The Daily

On Language

Striking Similes

January 21, 2016 | by

There’s an abysmal simile making the rounds online right now, drawn from a certain splashy literary debut: “Breasts like bronzed mangoes.” Yes, it comes courtesy of a male writer, of course; and yes, Google suggests it’s the only use of the phrase “bronzed mangoes” in recorded history. Even so: as an object of ridicule, this is what you’d have to call low-hanging fruit. 

The awful simile is a mainstay of literary prose. I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of it. Even with vigilant editing, meticulous revision, and a five-year terminal degree devoted to responsible acts of metaphor, we’d still see more than the occasional stinker. And why shouldn’t we? As Paul Muldoon says in his Art of Poetry interview, “I think that the impulse to find the likeness between unlike things is very basic to us, and it is out of that, of course, which the simile or metaphor springs.” Pair this impulse with a desire for novelty—with every writer’s desire, that is, to be the first person ever to make a certain comparison on the page, to connect two previously disparate things—and you can see how even a seasoned writer could have a reach that exceeds his grasp. There’s a thin line between the original and the asinine. 

A simile is an unstable element, too—it often doesn’t age well. Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases (1917), which I’ve mentioned in this space before, includes a long list of “striking similes,” all of them gathered from the preeminent poets and writers of the day. It’s a strange collection to read a century later. Some of Kleiser’s examples still have that imagistic click we look for in the best metaphors. “A memory like a well-ordered cupboard,” for example: it’s not going to win any points for originality, but it has a conversational ease to it, a nice cadence. Plus it’s roughly isomorphic: you can understand intuitively how your memory could take on the spatial qualities of a cupboard. It reads like a refined version of the much more clichéd “mind like a steel trap.” Likewise, “The scullion with face shining like his pans,” from Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s “Wyndham Towers,” works for me, too. The sense of proximity is what does it. That like invites you to imagine a kind of mutual gleam: a pair of slick ellipses side by side in some dark, sweaty kitchen.

But most of Kleiser’s “striking similes,” even the ones by famous authors, are overwrought, twee, or just confusing; today they’d meet with the same mockery as “bronzed mangoes.” Below I’ve listed a few that jumped out at me for how bizarre they are. I should say that reading enough similes consecutively really dulls your taste for them—by the time I got to the second half of the alphabet, the banal and the ingeniously figurative were hard to tell apart. Consider yourself warned.

A breath of melancholy made itself felt like a chill and sudden gust from some unknown sea

A glacial pang of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well

A name which sounds even now like the call of a trumpet

As amusing as a litter of likely young pigs

Brute terrors like the scurrying of rats in a deserted attic

Cheeks as soft as July peaches

Debasing fancies gather like foul birds

Dull as champagne

Each moment was an iridescent bubble fresh-blown from the lips of fancy

Easy as a poet’s dream

Grazing through a circulating library as contentedly as cattle in a fresh meadow

He snatched furiously at breath like a tiger snatching at meat

He was so weak now, like a shrunk cedar white with the hoar-frost

Her dusky cheek would burn like a poppy

Her expression changed with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope

Her hair dropped on her pallid cheeks, like sea-weed on a clam

Her laugh is like a rainbow-tinted spray

Herding his thoughts as a collie dog herds sheep

His nerves thrilled like throbbing violins

His talk is like an incessant play of fireworks

I was as sensitive as a barometer

Incredible little white teeth, like snow shut in a rose

Laughter like a beautiful bubble from the rosebud of baby-hood

Like a crowd of frightened porpoises a shoal of sharks pursue

Like a damp-handed auctioneer

Like a festooned girdle encircling the waist of a bride

Like a slim bronze statue of Despair

Like a summer-dried fountain

Like dead lovers who died true

Like Death, who rides upon a thought, and makes his way through temple, tower, and palace

Like some unshriven churchyard thing, the friar crawled

Like the detestable and spidery araucaria

Like the sea-worm, that perforates the shell of the mussel, which straightway closes the wound with a pearl

Like thoughts whose very sweetness yielded proof that they were born for immortality

Love had like the canker-worm consumed her early prime

Odorous as all Arabia

Pale and grave as a sculptured nun

Pride and self-disgust served her like first-aid surgeons on the battlefield

Put on gravity like a robe

The dreams of poets come like music heard at evening from the depth of some enchanted forest

The pine trees waved as waves a woman's hair

Whose music like a robe of living light reclothed each new-born age

You are as gloomy to-night as an undertaker out of employment