Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het; […]
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
- William Barnes, "Tokens"
The above is as good a definition as I know of a writing technique that fascinates me because it's almost, but not quite, imagery. As I understand it, imagery is fetching Object B out of its context in order to compare it with Object A, and by so doing, to shed a new light on Object A. For the purpose is not just to show A more clearly, it is rather to slant the reader's view of it in the author's own chosen direction by means of the comparison object, because Object B does not come out of its former context alone; it brings with it a whole trail of associations. As Martin Opitz observed in the 17th century, to write that a girl has hair like corn and eyes like forget-me-nots says "farmgirl" whereas hair like gold and eyes like sapphires says "queen" – but, as he went on to point out, once you have the rule you can subvert it; describing a queen in farmgirl similes might be a subtle way of indicating that she was ill at ease with her rank and secretly yearned for the simple life.
But what Barnes was doing above is not comparison exactly. The iron bars, the furrows, are themselves; they are not being likened to any other object, but what he is doing is seeing beyond their present state to the past contained within it. It is human deduction, knowledge and above all memory that make green mould emblematic of a wet winter. His wonderful coinage "soulsight", as opposed to eyesight, is what the Welsh poet J T Jones of Llangernyw was using, and making his readers use, in his englyn "Now that I am old and unsteady on my feet, I feel an urge to go back to where I was brought up, to walk in the places where I used to run". In any other place on earth, an old man doddering along is just that, but in the one place where his mind's eye (and ours) cannot help but see the boy running ahead of him, the figure of the old man contains that of the boy, the memory of all he once was.
Cavafy, who almost never uses actual metaphor or simile, constantly uses this technique whereby things or acts become more than themselves, emblems of everything an individual's experience and memory has added to them. In his poem "The Afternoon Sun", what would be, to anyone else, a space where furniture once stood is transmuted by memory and association:
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.
This room, how familiar it is.
Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.
I think what pleases me most about this technique is its sense of the power and importance of things, both the solid reality of their present and the depth of association and memory they carry with them, which transcends and transmutes that reality. In the poem above, Cavafy pretty much does this twice; first his memory can fill the now empty office with the furniture it once held, but then the conjured-up furniture itself, because of its associations, becomes emblematic of the relationship so firmly in the past. William Barnes does something eerily similar in "The Wife A-Lost", one of the many poems in which his uncanny skill at creating empty spaces comes in handy. The widower who speaks this poem is spending all his time in a grove of beech trees, precisely because his late wife disliked it and never went there: it is the only place in the neighbourhood where he doesn't constantly expect to see her and miss her presence. Again here, the beech grove is not precisely being used as an image for the man's bereaved state, any more than the bed absent from Cavafy's former room is an "image" of his lost relationship. They are real: objects in their own right which belong where they are seen or recalled, not imagined Object Bs dragged out of some other context solely to furnish comparisons for Object A. But by making us conscious not only of what they are but of what they have been, the writer can invest them with an unsuspected depth of meaning.
None of this is intended to deny the efficacy of metaphor and simile, with their ability to slant and direct the reader's view via the complication of associations and value systems which any comparison object drags at its tail. What could be more heartrending, for all manner of reasons, than the metaphor in an old Irish Gaelic folk song Frank O'Connor quotes: "Rise up and put a fence about the field you spoiled last night" (ie, "marry the girl you seduced")? Yet, for all it tells us about the kind of society those two people live in, I think we are still, as readers, using our eyesight here: we are seeing a field and a fence on one side, a woman and a man on the other, and superimposing one picture on the other, to great effect.
Cavafy's lost furniture re-imagined back into the room, the old man who walks where he used to run, Barnes's "tokens" and powerful empty spaces (like the arms of the turnstile, gaping empty and still, where the narrator's memory sees the lost child who used to set it spinning) are something else. It is eyesight that shows us these real, solid objects in their normal setting (and you may be assured, there is nothing as solid as a Barnes empty space). But it is another kind of perception, reliant on memory and imagination, that adds the emotional depth to it, that makes it "to eyesight one, to soulsight two".