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Charles Wesley: Mixer of Metaphors?

In the previous Music Musing,"I Want a Principle Within," I accused Charles Wesley of mixing his metaphors for the sake of rhythm and rhyme. Some additional research has proved interesting and enlightening.

One reader commented that I had misinterpreted the metaphor "Quick as the apple of an eye," because "apple of an eye" is an old way of referring to the eye's iris. Thus, applying the term "quick," meaning sensitive and responsive is, indeed, an appropriate metaphor and does not constitute a mixing. A bit of research this week has revealed that "apple of an eye" has been used to refer to the eye's pupil, that center black dot of the eye that expands and contracts according to how much light is visible. Thus, "quick" is an appropriate term to describe it. But there is more . . .

If you look directly at a man facing you, and if a third person gets up close to your face and looks into your eyes, that third person will see a small image of the man you are looking at — a little man in your eye — turned upside-down.

The English word for "apple" in Hebrew is literally "little man." Thus, the phrase "keep me as the apple of thine eye" in early English translations of the Bible might be interpreted to mean "keep me as the little man in thine eye" in Hebrew; and when we read this phrase in Scripture or sing it in hymns, it might be a reference to God always watching us . . . God is interested in us. . . . We are a reflection in God's eye . . . perhaps even we are God's child, created in God's image.*But there is more . . .

The Dictionary of Clichés (James Rogers; New York: Ballantine Books, 1985) as well as Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (New York: Facts on File, 1997) claim that in old English, the pupil of the eye was called the "apple" because people believed the pupil was solid and spherical; and it was an important, invaluable part of the structure of the eye. Thus, they used it as a symbol for something of great value, something very dear. What might have been rendered "the pupil of the eye" was instead rendered "the apple of the eye"; and of course, it has continued to the present time. But there is more . . .

The literal translation of the Hebrew phrase is "the little man in the eye," but it is also translated as "the pupil of the eye." Thinking of the relationship of teacher and student, of a student standing before the teacher with that small, upside-down reflection of the student appearing in the center of the teacher's eye, one wonders if this might also be the origin of the term "pupil" to mean "student."

So where does this leave us with Charles Wesley's mixing of metaphors? It would seem that "apple of the eye" can mean both: something valuable and dear, as well as that sensitive, changing part of the eye through which light enters and images are reflected (the pupil). We can find both meanings in Scripture and hymnody.* Wesley is using it in the second sense in this hymn, although I suspect most English-language singers will be understanding it in the first sense, which seems more commonly known and used. Perhaps it is those of us who sing this hymn and understand Wesley's metaphor in the second rather than the first sense who are mixing metaphors.

*[Here are some references to this metaphor in Scripture and hymns: Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalm 17:8; Proverbs 7:2; Zechariah 2:8; "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (United Methodist Hymnal, 540); "As the Deer" (contemporary hymn, stanza 3).]

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