Explore the simile and how, through comparison, it is used as a shorthand to say many things at once. Learn the difference between similes and metaphors, along with many examples of both.
What Is a Simile?
Writers sure love figurative language. That's where they take something, maybe the lady they are trying to woo, and compare it to something else: a summer's day, a rose, a sunset.
It's pretty effective, when you think about it. Instead of telling a love interest that they are good looking, try telling them they are like a diamond. Diamonds aren't just beautiful; they are precious and rare, unique. Comparing someone to something else is a shorthand way to say lots of things at once, and it sounds poetic and clever.
In literature, such comparisons, usually using the words 'like' or 'as,' are called similes. 'Love like a sunset,' 'my love is like a red, red rose,' 'love like winter' are all similes that compare love to something more tangible. Often, a simile compares one aspect of a thing to another: 'as tall as a giraffe,' 'shine like a diamond,' 'safe as houses.'
Take this poem by Robert Burns, written in 1794:
O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
This is good stuff. By comparing the object of his affection to a newly bloomed rose, we not only get a nice image, but Burns is able to describe his love as beautiful, youthful and fresh. By adding the simile about his love being like a 'melodie/ That's sweetly play'd in tune,' he's able to pay even more compliments: that she's pleasing to the senses, sounds nice and is generally awesome.
Similes are often confused with metaphors, which are another type of figurative language used by poets, songwriters and rappers alike. But instead of using the language of comparison the way similes do, metaphors describe things as if they were something else.
'Love is a battlefield' is one metaphor used in a song, while 'Love is blindness,' is used in another. See how metaphors equate one thing with another rather than comparing them? This makes a metaphor more of an all-or-nothing proposition than a simile.
When an author says, 'Bob is like a shadow,' she is saying that Bob has a few qualities that are shadow-like. Maybe he's quiet or sneaks up on you easily. If an author was to write, 'Bob is a shadow,' the comparison is much stronger. We would expect Bob to have a lot more qualities of a shadow. Maybe he's an especially mysterious person. Or we could even think of him as less than a complete person: 'Bob is a shadow of a man.'
Epic similes are extended comparisons commonly found in epic poems - super-long, sprawling poetry that tells a story. Epic similes are sometimes called 'Homeric similes' after an Ancient Greek writer named Homer who used them when writing the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus travels for years and years, which makes sense given an odyssey is an especially long journey. Homer uses this epic simile to compare Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) to a farmer:
'As one who has been all day ploughing a fallow field with a couple of oxen keeps thinking about his supper and is glad when night comes that he may go and get it, for it is all his legs can do to carry him, even so did Ulysses rejoice when the sun went down.'
By using an epic simile to compare Odysseus to a hard-working farmer, Homer makes his hero seem like a regular guy who wants to go home after a long day and rest. Odysseus is like a farmer in that he grows weary at the end of the day and wants to chill out at home.
Leave it to Shakespeare to notice the simile's limitations, but still make it sound lovely. Here are the first few lines of Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
The speaker considers comparing his love with a summer's day, but then decides that, no, she is more lovely and more mild. (A good call, given how sticky and uncomfortable summer days can sometimes be!) By deciding not to make the comparison, Shakespeare highlights that a simile doesn't always say exactly what you want to say.
Similes can be inexact or inaccurate, undermining their effect. (Diamonds don't shine, Rihanna; they reflect.) Additionally, certain similes have become cliché with overuse: 'light as a feather,' 'big as a house,' 'busy as a bee.'
A simile is a comparison between two things, usually using the words 'like' and 'as', and is often used in all kinds of writing, especially poetry. Similes compare one thing with another - 'My love is like a red, red, rose' - or compare an aspect of one thing with another - 'She is as big as a house.' A metaphor is different from a simile because it doesn't put two objects side-by-side to compare them. Instead a metaphor equates one thing with another. Epic similes are extended comparisons, originating back to the Ancient Greeks and early epic poetry. Similes can sometimes be limiting because they can't convey everything a writer wants them to convey or are clichés that have been used many times before.
This lesson should prepare you to:
- Describe similes and differentiate them from metaphors
- Define epic similes
- Give examples of similes and epic similes
- Understand the limits of similes