Studies of Imagery in Early Mediterranean and East Asian Poetry

by Kerstin Eksell (Volume editor) Gunilla LIndberg-Wada (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 300 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 54


This volume consists of articles on imagery in the poetry of various literary canons. Focussing on figurative speech, the authors analyse poetry of the Near East, Greece, the Arabic world, early modern Spain, classical China and classical Japan. The articles present new research based on individual approaches for each particular canon within a wide span from socio-cultural environment to semantic and cognitive properties of specific images. They deal with the poetics of the other, the role of the poet, poetic persuasion in politics, traditional typologies of tropes, intertextuality, and the principle of analogy. The authors combine literary theory with specialised knowledge of the local context and literary tradition and provide innovative and dynamic close readings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Kerstin Eksell)
  • Poetry in the Hebrew Bible as Seen through Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Reading Glasses (Jesper Høgenhaven)
  • Poetic Narratives: Moving Images in Old Babylonian Myths and the Characterisation of the Hero Gods Inana and Ninurta (Laura Feldt)
  • Poetic References in Plato’s Laws: The Preamble on Marriage (721b6-c6 and 772e7-774a2) (Claudia Zichi)
  • Natural Imagery in Li Qingzhao’s Song Lyrics: “As Fragile as Chrysanthemums”? (Lena Rydholm)
  • On the Seashore in Japanese Classical Poetry – The Innermost of the Human Heart (Gunilla Lindberg-Wada)
  • Expansions of Metaphor in Classical Japanese Court Literature (Stina Jelbring)
  • Figurative Speech According to the Talkhīṣ. al-Miftah. by al-Qazwīnī. With an Excursus on A. F. van Mehren’s Die Rhetorik der Araber (Kerstin Eksell)
  • Light and Colour in Arabo–Andalusian Poetry (Kerstin Eksell)
  • Góngora on the Stage. Early Modern Spanish Poetry and Ingenium (Juan Carlos Cruz Suárez)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

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Kerstin Eksell


This volume consists of studies of imagery, especially figurative speech, in the poetry of various literary canons from East Asia and the Mediterranean, and along a time axis including pre-modern and early modern periods, from the ancient world, through the Middle Ages up to the baroque.

The individual approach of each expert has been favoured rather than conforming the articles into one theoretical view. The volume adds knowledge to each of the specific topics studied and to their poetic context in history and culture. Every article may be read separately, since it presents new research within its specialised field of knowledge. However, the articles also give information on poetical imagery in general, across borders of time and space, by preparing for points of comparison between poetical traditions worldwide.

The contributions of the volume illustrate the fundamental need for coupling the use of modern literary theory and the search for linguistic, mental and literary universals with a thorough contextual interpretation, a hermeneutical process based on familiarity with the local culture and literature.

The volume is the result of a series of seminars held at the Faculty of Theology in Copenhagen 2014–2016 in honour of the Danish orientalist August Ferdinand van Mehren, professor of Semitic languages 1854–1907. His work Die Rhetorik der Araber is still a seminal work on the theory of figurative speech in medieval Arabic poetics.1

Mehren followed in the line of Herder and Goethe, developing the study of world literature (Weltliteratur). In the preface to the Rhetorik der Araber Mehren writes about his early interest in Arabic poetry. He had soon become aware that aesthetic ideals differed between cultures and that criteria for valuing poetry must be based on the particular poetry and poetics studied. Understanding of the poetry of the other is only possible through profound knowledge acquired from extensive studying of a large number of poems from different ages, so that the ← 7 | 8 → reader gradually is able to grasp the characteristics of the foreign poetry: “Wir müssen also, um in dem Gleichnisse zu bleiben, für die Betrachtung orientalischer Dichterwerke die rechte Beleuchtung gewinnen; dies aber wird nur dadurch möglich, dass wir eine bedeutende Anzahl derselben aus verschiedenen Zeiten under sich vergleichen, das Charakteristische eines jeden derselben ins Auge fassen, und uns so nach und nach ein Bewusstsein ihrer Gesamteigenthümlichkeit anbilden.”2

Theoretical Framework

The project has been operating within the general framework of decontextualisation, in an approach presented by Stina Jelbring, and further extended and completed by contemporary views on the importance of contextual interpretation:

We may use the concept of decontextualisation when dissociating from the historical context in our analysis of a classical text, applying a reader-oriented theory which aims at an open interpretation that is not limited to the interpretations of scholars/readers of its own time. However, decontextualisation can also be used for an application of Western theories on a literature of a non-European language. The aim of such an application may be to prove its general applicability – or the contrary, to prove that it is not generally applicable. Yet another aim of applying Western theories to a non-contemporary (pre-modern or early modern) or non-European literary text would be to examine what happens in the encounter between modern Western theory and a text which is neither represented in the corpus on which the theory is based nor belongs to its interpretive tradition.3

Decontextualisation naturally evokes contextualisation, the hermeneutic study of the text within its context, which thus forms the complimentary part of our general approach. Between those two perspectives, there is an obvious conflict, which we, however, have chosen to consider as an enriching and dynamic challenge.

In support of the approach of decontextualisation, we may refer to the discussion by Alexander Beecroft. He defends using “the etic perspective” in comparative studies: “By definition, the comparative study of literature in different languages, coming from different cultures, must take place in some sort of critical ← 8 | 9 → language, and that language must be etic to at least one of the cultures under study, if it is not etic to both, or all, of them.”4

There are also weighty considerations of the importance of an emic perspective and of involving the context into a multi-layer interpretation of the text. Contextualisation may be considered to be a primary principle for the study of literature in general. Bo Pettersson proposes a holistic view of the literary communication: “Hence, literary studies must include an awareness of so much more than before – of, at the very least, historical, cognitive and cultural aspects – in order to reach a deeper understanding of literary texts, their creation, mediation, and interpretation.”5

On the subject of studying poetry in particular in world literature, David Damrosch discusses the interpretation of a certain Sanskrit poem:

When reading world literature we should beware of the perils of exoticism and assimilation, the two extremes on the spectrum of difference and similarity. We won’t get very far if we take the Sanskrit poem as the product of some mysterious Orient whose artists are naïve and illogical, or whose people feel an entirely different set of emotions than we do. On that assumption, we might experience the poem as charming but pointless […]. Equally, though, we should be wary of assuming that the medieval Sanskrit poet and his audience were just like us, playing by the same rules and with the same sorts of cultural assumptions we might find in a contemporary poem about spousal abuse. We need to learn enough about the tradition to achieve an overall understanding of its patterns of reference and its assumptions about the world, the text, and the reader.6

Damrosch’s views are remarkably similar to those of Mehren from 1853 referred to above.

The focal point of interpretation in this volume regards metaphor and metaphor-related tropes and figures. Here, too, an analogous discussion is taking place. Modern theory of cognitive metaphor has expanded vastly during the last decades. Against this development, the case of the literary metaphor as a relevant and independent concept requiring its own study has been strongly advocated.7 ← 9 | 10 →

Our aim has been to internalise modern research on cognitive metaphor while at the same time insisting on the necessity of interpreting literary metaphor as a complex phenomenon, including the linguistic kernel of the trope, or figure, together with its textual as well as medial and socio-cultural context.8

From a purely textualist point of view, Nowottny speaks of the structure of the whole poem, its “multiple organisation” which strengthens the effect of the particular image/s/ in the poem.9 Peter Hallberg stresses the importance of bringing the whole field of associations related to the extremes of the trope into the process of understanding.10

The dynamics of decontextualisation vs. contextualisation with regard to imagery (figurative speech) as the over-all approach in this volume may be expressed in the words of Laura Feldt, in her contribution on imagery in ancient Mesopotamia. Referring to modern sources such as Andrew Goatly, Richards, and Black (for basic definitions and the concepts of conceptual blending and interaction respectively), she continues:

Current metaphor theories understand metaphor as a unique cognitive vehicle, which expresses something that cannot be said in any other way. […] What happens in metaphor is not related to one word only, but hinges on the interaction of all parts of the utterance – and the context. New meaning is created, which is why metaphor has the ability to convey new information; it is not mere ornament. […] These theories may – in spite of differences – be called interaction theories, because they see metaphor as a kind of interaction, or conflict or tension, between different domains, subjects, or terms, in an utterance. In my work, I have found it crucial that the analysis of metaphor is grounded in hermeneutics, because in any analysis of literary and religious metaphors, context is crucial. The present contribution will be conducted within a hermeneutical frame, considering also the larger frames of the literary and social contexts of the imagery, and it will be based on an interaction theory of metaphor. While the field certainly has seen ← 10 | 11 → quite a bit of discussion on the subject, there seems to be a consensus today that metaphor cannot be explained without reference to extra-linguistic, i.e., pragmatic, factors like context, intention, reference, and pre-understanding, and that substitutive and emotive theories are generally inadequate.

The Contributions

Emerging Points for a Comparative Perspective

Although this volume presents new material rather than dwelling on the question of how to deal with comparison itself and how to relate to literary theory in a comparative perspective, the articles offer possible openings for future exploration of the comparative perspective.11

Earl Miner suggests certain basic principles for comparative studies. The main problem is to identify “what elements constitute, or what procedure guarantees, sufficient comparability.”12 Once such elements (conceptual, cognitive, and historical) have been specified, we may not have identity but a sufficient homology or symmetry for comparison to make sense.13 One useful homology for comparative study is function: in different literatures and societies, different elements may serve the same function and therefore be compared.14 Other criteria besides function can establish homologous, symmetrical or analogous entities appropriate for comparison.15

Stina Jelbring’s article on Japanese classical poetics and poetry in poetic prose illustrates how decontextualisation in combination with a comparing analysis of homologous tropes may be used for interpretation. Finding a functional homology between “metaphor” and two kinds of allusion in Japanese classical poetics, Jelbring demonstrates that metaphor theory lends itself quite willingly to an analysis of this kind of poetic and allusive texture in which allusion can both expand and transform the meaning of the text, as a metaphor. For this reason the term “allusifying metaphor” is utilised. ← 11 | 12 →

In general, the articles demonstrate constituents of “sufficient comparability” which may be further examined along an axis of symmetry, or identity and difference, and within the communicative structure of a poem outlined by Miner: Poet – Work – Text – Poem – Reader.16

One common ground apparent in all articles is the high degree of literary knowledge required on the part of both the poet and the reader. On the textual level, this is particularly evident in the East Asian contributions. Although tropes and figures carry their own meaning, the whole poem consists of an intricate web of allusions and associations, which must all be decoded for interpreting the whole poetic message. The single imagery terms alone are imbued with layers of assembled meanings, not to speak of the effect of the total of the poetic text. The aesthetic and intellectual challenge presupposes a well-educated elite of readers/listeners. Like the Sanskrit tradition, Chinese poetry presents a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind from the Western tradition. According to Damrosch: “Du Fu’s readers knew that poets never simply transcribed whatever caught their eye; classical Chinese poems are elaborate constructions, in which the poet very selectively weaves elements from the world around him into poetic forms that employ long-cherished images, metaphors, and historical references.”17

It follows that intertextuality plays a very important role in the pre-modern poetry of China, Japan, Mesopotamia, Greece and the Arab world. For the educated reader/listener, the delightful effect of a poem will increase considerably by references to other poetry embedded in the poetical text.

The sophisticated attitude of the communicating parts is not linked to chronological historical time. There is no connection between imagery produced early in history and a supposed early stage of artistic production in terms of spontaneity, randomness or simplicity. This is most obvious from the study by Laura Feldt of Sumerian and Old Babylonian imagery from the early second millennium BC or before. In spite of the ancientness of the texts and the pre-historic origins of the mythical topics, the imagery provides evidence of a highly sophisticated attitude towards imagery and literature. The images used have already lost their immediate relation to divine activity. Instead, they demonstrate a high degree of conscious fabrication of artful devices, even an awareness of a break of trust, or even irony, with regard to the supremacy of state religion and state power.

This attitude shows some affinity to the one demonstrated in the study by Claudia Zichi on the use of poetic terminology by Plato in the early forth century BC. ← 12 | 13 → Here, a high level of knowledge of literature on behalf of the listener/reader is necessary for understanding the poetic illusions of the text, which leaves no doubt that both the speaker and the audience belong to an elite group of society far from any pre-historic stage of developing literature. If such a period ever existed, it had died out completely long before the appearance of Plato and his contemporaries.

The display of sophisticated literary knowledge in those ancient texts may raise questions on how to define literary development, also in relative comparisons such as the ecological systems suggested by Alexander Beecroft; the two ancient systems described here are both mainly panchoric, i.e., belonging to the second earliest phase of development.18

The fabrication of tropical patterns in the poetic texts is accompanied by an interplay between inventiveness and convention. Obviously, imagery must always contain an element of novelty and surprise in order to have an effect. The very inventiveness, to find a new way of expressing an old concept, or to discover a new concept altogether, is naturally of primal importance. However, it is also apparent that the novelty must be related to something already known, or we would not be able to perceive it.

In most of our canonical poetic texts, the conventionalism is also of utmost importance. The cultivated listeners/readers do not want totally new poetic messages, they want to learn something new against a background of well-known elements: Old images coined anew with a slight change; recognised cultural phenomena reappearing; focal images which simultaneously hint at other known images: the poem is a code consisting of hints, allegories and semantic and cultural relations, which shall be decoded. The more complex the imagery, the more decoding necessary – the greater the pleasure for the listener/reader.

Analogy is a conceptual paradigm of great importance for many of the texts studied. It is highly relevant for the construction of the single trope on the poetic, cognitive and linguistic levels, and it appears as a functional principle explaining the world in many religious and philosophical systems. As Octavio Paz expresses it: “Analogy […] has had a dual function in the history of modern poetry: it was the principle before all principles, before the reason of philosophies and the revelation of religions; and this principle coincided with poetry itself. If analogy turns the universe into a poem, a text made up of oppositions, which became resolved in correspondences, it also makes the poem a universe.”19 ← 13 | 14 →

In the articles of this volume, the importance of analogical thought is particularly evident in Eksell’s presentation of light and colour in Arabic garden poetry, where metaphor may be used to reflect medieval Neo-Platonic thought, and in Cruz Suárez’s analysis of a poem by Góngora, where the semantic discord in the metaphor behind tenor and vehicle typical of early Spanish baroque discloses the tension and obscurity of the early modern world. Both poetics are connected to the antique world of the Mediterranean.

Comparing between East and West, the principle of analogy acquires new importance, emerging from its potentiality of implying the unity of the world as well as its plurality. In Western thought, the plurality is often emphasised: “Analogy […] exists only by virtue of differences. Precisely because this is not that, it is possible to extend a bridge between this and that. The bridge is the word like, or the word is: this is like that, this is that.”20

In her article on natural imagery, Rydholm gives an extensive presentation of the principle of analogy in Chinese poetry and how it relates to present metaphor theory in modern Chinese poetics. Contrary to Western views, Chinese poetics stresses the potential of unity in the principle of analogy: “If Western literary culture is founded on ontological dualism, Chinese literary culture is founded on a monistic worldview, the immanent cosmic principle of Dao.”21 And Stephen Owen is quoted on the same subject: “Both lei, ‘natural category,’ and the Western concept of metaphor (closest perhaps to the Chinese ) are ultimately based upon analogy; however, the metaphor is fictional and involves true substitution, while lei is a shared category that is ‘strictly true,’ based upon the order of the world.”22

This definition of metaphor has far-reaching consequences and needs to be much further studied.

Another dividing-line may be drawn according to the hierarchy of integration between the elements of the image, in which imagery in East Asian poetry might often be characterised as elements in simple juxtaposition, in contrast to the closer connections of the elements in Mediterranean poetry represented by simile and metaphor.23 This type of ordering needs further consideration as well. ← 14 | 15 →

The intimate relation between man and nature: Nature is the topic and scene in most of the poetry presented here, from the mythical and religious poetry of the ancient Near East, and reappearing as a forceful component in Spanish early modern poetry. The affective-expressive mode often associated with lyrical poetry is particularly cultivated in East Asia.24 The distanced approach of the Andalusian Arab poet, whose personal engagement is only glimpsed behind the neutral-descriptive attitude of the genre, contrasts with the emotions displayed in Chinese and Japanese poetry, very clearly articulated in the poetry studied by Lindberg-Wada. Here, the seashore is used as the main motif, and since it depicts the human condition, it is immediately understood by the modern reader. Deeply affective poetry on nature, produced by a poet expressing his innermost feelings, is also exemplified in Høgenhaven’s article on ancient Hebrew poetry, again defying boundaries of time and ecological development.

Finally, the contributions mark the geographical and cultural contours of the areas studied. In the Mediterranean world, the strong tradition of figurative speech from the antique world has created affinities between the Hellenistic and Arabic countries of the eastern Mediterranean and Spain in the western Mediterranean, and historically, from classical Greece up to early modern time. In East Asia, close ties exist between the imagery of Chinese and Japanese poetic texts. However, between the Mediterranean world on the one hand and the East Asian world on the other, principal differences of imagery may be discerned.

Single Topics in the Contributions

The articles present single motifs of interest within a wide spectrum from socio-cultural environment to semantic and cognitive properties of specific images.

A historical perspective on the beginnings of comparative world literature in the eighteenth century is provided by the first article in the volume, Jesper Høgenhaven’s article on Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder argues that understanding the poetry of Biblical Hebrew requires an interpretation according to its own poetics, and within the context of the society and culture of the ancient Near East. We have seen this early approach taken up by other scholars occurring in this volume up to the present state of research. Now more than ever, “the sense ← 15 | 16 → of a comparative imperative” may be felt for trying to relate the cultures of our world to each other, however divergent they may seem.25

The articles dealing with the most ancient poetry of this volume deal with imagery in relation to the socio-cultural context of the poetic texts. The role of the poet-scholar in ancient Mesopotamia is discussed by Laura Feldt. Studying image-intensive segments of the mythical poetry, she suggests that the scribes, i.e., the professional scholars occupied with teaching and transmitting the traditional old Babylonian poetry, favoured developing their literary skill, their knowledge of intertextual references and their ability to use rare vocabulary and to find new variants of known images, rather than emphasising the message of the mythical poetry sent out by the religious and political powers.

The strong persuasive effect of poetry was well recognised in classical Greece society. Plato is known for having warned against the negative influence of poetry because of its potential to lead emotions astray. However, as Claudia Zichi demonstrates, Plato himself made use of poetic allusions in his political and ethical writings as a means to enforce his arguments for improving moral and ethical behaviour among the citizens. Poetry thus became an educational tool.

The article by Lena Rydholm brings the gender question into focus. Rydholm presents the conventional division of masculine and feminine poetry according to formal criteria and discusses the poetry of the female poet Li Qingzhao and her biography and situation in life. In Rydholm’s interpretation, the poet manipulates the aesthetic conventions of natural imagery, deconstructing the masculine vs. feminine distinction. “Feministic” undertones may be traced.

Among the articles dealing primarily with imagery constructs, Stina Jelbring’s presentation of the expansions of metaphor has been mentioned above. Here, the relation between allusion as a traditional Japanese technique and as a metaphor, as well as the extended (narrative) metaphor, in the modern Western sense are explored.

In another article on Japanese poetry, Gunilla Lindberg-Wada discusses how images of the seashore is developed into a poetic landscape constructed with the help of particular Japanese figurative devices such as the kakekotoba, or “pivot word,” a kind of punning, in which a word or part of a word is exploited, being used as a pivot between two series of sounds with overlapping syntactical and semantic patterns. Due to homonymy or polysemy, an expression may thus be read either in its proper meaning or tropically, similar to, but not identical with, Western metaphor or symbol; it may also be compared to the concept of juxtaposition. ← 16 | 17 →

Eksell has selected metaphors and similes which contain elements of light in a few selected Andalusian garden poems and shows how those images form isotopes, which structure the reading on the semiotic level of the poem. Poems which at first sight seem to be purely descriptive and artificial may thus be interpreted as having a special significance on the semiotic level. Their function is in concordance with the inherited view of the universal principle of analogy, but there is also a tendency towards a new semiotic paradigm aiming at poetizing individual emotions of harmony or increasing agony.

A theory of figurative speech is provided by the late classical Arabic scholar al-Qazwīnī. Eksell presents the typology of this theory with its main divisions based on degrees of transformation and distance between the referential term of the image and its imaginative term. In spite of the concise form of al-Qazwīnī’s work, it gives plenty of information on the development of stylistics in the late classical Arabic time. Somewhat surprisingly, it provides material for relating it to the antique tradition, as well as to modern Western theory of figurative speech.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
World literature Metaphor Allusion Intertextuality Nature poetry Cultural context
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 299 pp., 2 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Kerstin Eksell (Volume editor) Gunilla LIndberg-Wada (Volume editor)

Kerstin Eksell was Professor of Semitic Philology at the University of Copenhagen and Professor of Arabic at Stockholm University. She is an affiliated researcher at Stockholm University. Gunilla Lindberg-Wada is Professor emerita of Japanology at Stockholm University.


Title: Studies of Imagery in Early Mediterranean and East Asian Poetry
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