Four Master Literary Tropes

In this set of key ideas and imagery, I will make connections between the key ideas centered on “Utopia” as having a certain correspondence in music, a dialogical lyric key, if you will, and Burke’s work in literature, poetry and the resonance underlying these tropes that he sees are also affirming, confirming and evocative in social, political and cultural theory and actual “corporate body publics.” Burke sees a similar sense of the transcendent and autonomic living systems and integral whole well-being in social, political and cultural realms as found in those of poetry and literature. Thus, both Utopia as relying on music and Burke’s twofold conception of poetry and its four master tropes offer the same vision of the epic grandeur of creation, humanity and history: our life together, our inclusive fruition loves, goods, truths and mysteries, our twofold everlasting expansive flourishing with our eternal God and illimitable Humanity as two spirits, two orchestral opposing but gloriously creative composing thundering music and poetry. We are in this way of twofold being, made and sustained, promised and called, liberated and enchanted to each of us as extraordinary musicians and poets to compose and write our whole ways of life, loves, joys, social relationships, agonies and ecstasies, shared sense of beauty, mystery and awe, our community, nation, world, our manifest destiny that is never manifest as one hegemonic one, the horrible threat of the Beast (as in William Blake’s poetry and the similarly beautiful poetry of the Bible and Christian eschatology) but that of two divinehumane realities coming into ever more musically uplifting, and poetically rapturing fruitful social flourishing.

Thus: “We Are” with Utopia and Four Master Tropes strengthening our sense, capacity, imagination and understanding of this profound new way of being in two worlds, realities and hsitories at the same time, and never being more wholly alive, actually doubly!


I REFER to metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. And my primary concern with them here will be not with their purely figurative usage, but with their r6le in the discovery and description of “the truth.” It is an evanescent moment that we shall deal with – for not only does the dividing line between the figurative and literal usages shift, but also the four tropes shade into one another. Give a man but one of them, tell him to exploit its possibilities, and if he is thorough in doing so, he will come upon the other three. The “literal” or “realistic” applications of the four tropes usually go by a different set of names. Thus: For metaphor we could substitute perspective; For metonymy we could substitute reduction; For synecdoche we could substitute representation; For irony we could substitute dialectic.

We must subsequently try to make it clear in what respects we think these substitutions are justifiable. It should, however, be apparent at a glance that, regardless of whether our proposed substitutions are justifiable, considered in themselves they do shade into another, as we have said that the four tropes do. A dialectic, for instance, aims to give us a representation by the use of mutually related or interacting perspectives – and this resultant perspective of perspectives will necessarily be a reduction in the sense that a chart drawn to scale is a reduction of the area charted.

Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this. If we employ the word “character” as a general term for whatever can be thought of as distinct (any thing, pattern, situation, structure, nature, person, object, act, role, process, event, etc.,) then we could say that metaphor tells us something about one character as considered from the point of view of another character. And to consider A from the point of view of B is, of course, to use B as a perspective upon A.

The “noblest synecdoche,” the perfect paradigm or prototype for all lesser usages, is found in metaphysical doctrines proclaiming the identity of “microcosm” and “macrocosm.” In such doctrines, where the individual is treated as a replica of the universe, and vice versa, we have the ideal synecdoche, since microcosm is related to macrocosm as part to whole, and either the whole can represent the part or the part can represent the whole. (For “rep resent” here we could substitute “be identified with.”) One could thus look through the remotest astronomical distances to the “truth within,” or could look within to learn the “truth in all the universe without.” Leibniz’s monadology is a good instance of the synecdochic on this grand scale. (And “representation” is his word for this synecdochic relationship.) See Burke here.

Kenneth Burke (1945), an American literary theorist, declared that in rhetoric the four master tropes, or figures of speech, are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Burke’s primary concern with these four master tropes is not simply their figurative usage but their role in the discovery and description of the truth.[18] He described synecdoche as “part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made… cause for the effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus”. In addition, Burke suggests that synecdoche patterns can include reversible pairs such as disease-cure. Burke proclaimed the noblest synecdoche is found in the description of “microcosm and macrocosm” since microcosm is related to macrocosm as part to the whole, and either the whole can represent the part or the part can represent the whole”.[20] Burke also compared synecdoche with the concept of “representation”, especially in the political sense in which elected representatives stand in pars pro toto for their electorate.

I will also have key quotations and cites as below.

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