Excercise: Tropes and mimesis

Tropes are frequently used in the act of describing something, as in the example of the man who was “tall as a house,” here. Below is a more extensive and elaborate use of figurative language in the description of a landscape. This is the third paragraph in Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno. The scene is observed from the deck of a boat moored in the bay of an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile.

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a grey mantle. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

Please read this paragraph several times and try to answer the following questions:

  1. What kinds of tropes are used to describe the landscape?
  2. What can you say about syntax and diction in this passage?
  3. What are the effects of the tropes, the syntax and the diction on the mood of the passage?

When you have made some notes to your own satisfaction, you can go to this page to see our suggested answers.