Nebulous Sheep: Ovine Clouds

The creative potential of sheep as a metaphor.

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Public Domain

Metaphor is a figure of speech in which words seem to be used improperly. The improper sense is achieved by omitting a comparative so that similarity is expressed as identity. An adjective that is appropriate to qualify one noun may then be used to describe another for which it is literally unsuitable. With the passage of time the meaning of the adjective is expanded and the original limitation forgotten. Thus ‘woolly’, meaning ‘covered with wool’, evolves into ‘resembling or suggesting wool’ and then into ‘vague or confused’, for example ‘woolly thought’. As the incongruous sense of a metaphor becomes naturalised, its poetic power diminishes. A dead metaphor is one that has become idiomatic. It is one in which the disparate elements, for example sheepskin and mental activity, have ceased to interact.

Metaphor may be alive for one person and moribund for another. Cumulus humilis, the ‘humble’ fair weather cloud, is sometimes referred to as a ‘sheep cloud’. The juxtaposition of the two words can produce a frisson of pleasure by pointing to the likeness of shape, colour and texture in the objects to which they refer. But a meteorologist may be oblivious to or uninterested in the metaphorical connection, regarding the term as purely denotative. For him or her it refers only to a cloud that shows no significant vertical development. Similarly and paradoxically, the image of a sheep is not usually conjured when a person is said to ‘look sheepish’, because the idiomatic meaning – ‘embarrassed through shame’ – has eclipsed the literal comparison – ‘like a sheep’.

‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is half-alive. A person is described in terms of two animals. He is a wolf because he is dangerous and he looks like a sheep because he appears to be harmless. The fact that neither wolves nor sheep wear clothes is the dead bit of the metaphor; it serves only to ensure that we do not take it literally, to indicate that we should be thinking about people and not animals. Although the idea of ‘wearing’ skin is potentially interesting, in this usage it has become secondary to the main meaning of the idiom and scarcely enlivens our view of the relationship between cloth, fur and fleece. But a sheep clothed in cloud is a different matter. Sylvia Plath’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ has:

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Gray as the weather.

Sylvia Plath: Wuthering Heights

Here the sheep are not clouds, but they are wearing clouds. It is the extraordinary idea of a sheep clad in a dirty wool-cloud that rescues the cliché. Plath has extracted clouds from the weather and wrapped her sheep in them. Then, in a clever reprise, she uses a simile to compare the colour of the ‘wool-clouds’ to that of the weather, thus underlining the idea that they are being likened to something other than themselves.

Shakespeare avoids bringing clouds and sheep into apposition. For Hamlet clouds are shaped like camels, weasels or whales, for Mark Antony they are like dragons, bears or lions. Anything, in fact, other than a sheep! But it is possible to figure sheep as clouds and avoid tedium. Jo Shapcott does it in her poem ‘Lies’:

In reality, sheep are brave, enlightened
and sassy. They are walking clouds
and like clouds have forgotten
how to jump. As lambs they knew.

Jo Shapcott: Lies

Here the trick is accomplished through irony, through the unexpected introduction of the word ‘sassy’, and through the complex elaboration of an initial metaphor with a simile that harbours another metaphor, ‘clouds have forgotten how to jump’. The whole effect heightened by the short simple truth of the final sentence, ‘As lambs they knew.’

And Ted Hughes achieves it in What is the Truth:

The Sheep is a mobile heaven, it nibbles the hill,
A manageable cloud,
A cloud for a lawn, or a field-corner.
A small, patient cloud
In whose shade the Shepherd’s dog can rest.
A cloud going nowhere,
Growing on the hillside, fading from it –
A cloud who teaches quiet.

Ted Hughes: What is the Truth

By heaping up the metaphors, he accumulates interest. Hughes tames his cloud. It is rendered quiet, patient, small and manageable through its association with a sheep, it is going nowhere. How different from Plath’s flock, truly a pack of wolves, who know where they are. It is she, Red Riding-hood Plath, whose identity is threatened with ingestion:

The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

Sylvia Plath: Wuthering Heights

When images are linked together, there is always a two-way traffic in meaning. If sheep acquire the properties of clouds, clouds simultaneously attain an aura of sheepishness. In a humdrum children’s poem entitled ‘Clouds’, Christina Rossetti transforms them:

White sheep, white sheep
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops
You all stand still
When the wind blows
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go?

Christina Rossetti: Clouds

Does cloud into sheep always work less well than sheep into cloud? The ‘sheep in the room’ that Polonius never mentions, appears in Jamie McKendrick’s ‘With Such Impress of Shipwrights:

Nothing was rotten in the state of Denmark
– sitting on the ramparts of Elsinore,
the castle behind us invented by tradition,

and prongy enough to impound or impale a flock of clouds.
Nothing was wrong. Quite the contrary except for
time running or fading out towards the far shore

Jamie McKendrick: With Such Impress of Shipwrights

Yet here the metaphor, ‘flock of clouds’ on its own, would probably fall flat. McKendrick gets away with it because of the link to Hamlet’s speech and because his ‘flock’ is preceded by the life sustaining and surprising words, ‘prongy enough to impound or impale’.

There is, of course, nothing new about it. ‘Penmaen Pool’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (poetically less than scintillating) celebration of Snowdonian landscape, long ago inspired him to write:

And Charles’s Wain, the wondrous seven,
And sheep-flock clouds like worlds of wool,
For all they shine so, high in heaven,
Shew brighter shaken in Penmaen Pool.

Gerad Manley Hopkins: Penmaen Pool

And Mikhail Lermontov in his poem ‘The Demon’, first published in 1875 has:

Through the boundless fields of heaven
Traceless pass the fluffy sheep –
Clouds dissolving in the even
Reaches of the azure steppe.

Mikhail Lermontov: The Demon

Rimbaud’s ‘Mystique’, written a couple of years earlier and thought by many to have been inspired by the Van Eyck brothers’ ‘L’Agneau mystique’, has ‘Sur la pente de talus, les anges tournent leurs robes de laine dans les herbages d’acier et d’émeraude’ [On the slope of the bank, angels turn in their robes of wool in pastures of steel and emerald], which indirectly evokes both images. If the sky is God’s domain and the idea of God as shepherd is taken literally, one would expect to find sheep grazing there.

No doubt the trade in meaning between sheep and clouds is not yet exhausted. I have used it in a poem entitled ‘Shepherd’s Delight’:

Five months after tupping, he camped

in a shelter crammed with buckets,
ropes and snares, Vaseline, iodine,
syringes, needles, teated beer bottles

under a blue pasture where the clouds
scarcely moved – pregnant ewes
enjoying the sun, just waiting

for the weather to settle –

Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist, was surely right when he said ‘Images change little; from century to century, from nation to nation, from poet to poet, they flow on without changing’. But it is the way in which tarnished old images can be transmogrified into shining new ones that is a magical function of poems and arguably the source of their greatest pleasure.

Stephen Wilson is a psychiatrist turned critic and writer, who has lived and worked in Oxford, UK, for many years.

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