(from Greek Μετάληψις
) is a figure of speech
in which one thing is referenced by something else which is only remotely associated with it. Often the association works through a different figure of speech, or through a chain of cause and effect
. Often metalepsis
refers to the combination of several figures of speech into an altogether new one. Those base figures of speech can be literary references, resulting in a sophisticated form of allusion
A synonym for metalepsis is transumption, derived from the Latin transsumptio invented by
Quintilian as an equivalent for the Greek.
- "I've got to go catch the worm tomorrow."
- "The early bird catches the worm" is a common maxim in English, advocating getting an early start on the day to achieve success. The subject, by referencing this maxim, is compared to the bird; tomorrow, the speaker will awaken early in order to achieve success.
- "He's got a lead foot."
- Lead is heavy; a lead foot would be heavy; the weight of a lead foot would push down on the automobile accelerator; hence, he drives quickly. The meaning comes from transferring heaviness from lead to feet and by understanding that the context of the comment is how "he" drives.
- "'Death can have a wide snout like a hyena'.... Just then the hyena stopped whimpering in the night and started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound. The woman heard it and stirred uneasily." (Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro)
- Death is like a hyena. The crying sound comes from a man experiencing death. The hyena represents death (the simile has become a metaphor), and death in turn represents the man (a metonym, since the man is dying, thus is associated with death).
- This reading can be contested, since the word hyena may not refer to the man at all, but simply to a literal hyena. At the end of the story, a howling hyena is mentioned again, after the man has died Here it cannot be metalepsis; it could either be Death Incarnate (a simple metaphor) or a literal hyena, but not the metaleptic man.
- post aliquot mea regna videns mirabor aristas, "Many harvests later, I shall return to wonder at my kingdom" (Virgil, Eclogue 1, line 70)
- Puttenham cites this as an example of metalepsis. The speaker of the poem is a shepherd, and thus his use of the word "kingdom" to describe his pastoral domain is a metaphor. Then, instead of saying "many years later," the speaker references the fact that harvests only happen once a year. This part of the figure is an example of metonymy. By folding metonymy into the metaphor, one arrives at a "farfetched" metalepsis.
- "Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold / A sheep-hook" (Milton, Lycidas)
- There is some controversy about what the base figures of speech are in this line.
- Under metalepsis, the figure "blind mouths" could be referencing all the above passages, and more.
- It is also argued that this is not an example of metalepsis at all, simply one of catachresis.
- A description of Satan's spear in Paradise Lost: "to equal which the tallest Pine / Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast / Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand" (1.292-94)
- Eric Wilson claims John Hollander has written this is an allusion to multiple figures:
- Polyphemous's club in Chapman's Homer, "being an Olive tree . . . so vast / That we resembl'd it to some fit Mast / To serve a ship . . ."(9.445-48)
- Polyphemous's club in the Aeneid, a "lopped pine" (3.559)
- Goliath's club
- The pine tree described in the Golden Age of Ovid's Metamorphoses, "in which pine trees still rooted in the earth, unlike Satan's uprooted tree, symbolize unspoiled innocence."
"For the nature of metalepsis is that it is an intermediate step, as it were, to that which is metaphorically expressed, signifying nothing in itself, but affording a passage to something. It is a trope that we give the impression of being acquainted with rather than one that we actually ever need." -- Quintilian,
"But the sense is much altered & the hearer's conceit strangely entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to use one nearer hand to express the matter as well & plainer."
"In a metalepsis, a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope, so that a metalepsis can be called, maddeningly but accurately, a metonymy of a metonymy."