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"Ptolemy, Dante, the two Bacons, and Boyle were even more to me than Darwin or Maxwell, as so much nearer the vanished van breaking into the dark of ignorance."

The sentence is from George MacDonald's Lilith. I don't quite understand the second half of the sentence. What's the metaphor here? Thanks!

EDIT: this already appears in the comment and I'm putting it here. From Google: van, the foremost part of a company of people moving or preparing to move forward, especially the foremost division of an advancing military force.

And by the way, I consulted my giant American Heritage Dictionary and didn't find this meaning. Is this chiefly a British usage?

Just my last question: I actually don't really understand what "as so much nearer" means. Could anyone explain it? Thanks so much!

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    Please use the edit key to tell us what English dictionary you consulted to learn the many meanings, current and archaic, of the noun van. Just as in your own language, poetry in English commonly employs the figure of speech called the metaphor. Do you know what a metaphor is? – P. E. Dant Jun 22 '17 at 6:15
  • I don't think this text has anything to do with the actual meaning of the word van whether current or archaic. – Phil14 Jun 22 '17 at 6:20
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    @Phil14 Au contaire, mon frére; It has everything to do with it, but LitCrit is a misdemeanor hereabouts. – P. E. Dant Jun 22 '17 at 6:26
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    @CowperKettle :) There are those who forget that a van need not be a vehicle in which a failed life coach can live, down by the river. – P. E. Dant Jun 22 '17 at 6:30
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    @CowperKettle Wrong? Quite the contrary. What do you think is the root of advance? Look closely at the verb. If you have a bit of Latin, it will help. – P. E. Dant Jun 22 '17 at 6:48
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Let's take van as vanguard or avant garde. Absent further context it seems likely. Or it could be a delivery van. :)

Ptolemy, Dante, the two Bacons, and Boyle were even more to me than Darwin or Maxwell, as so much nearer the vanished van breaking into the dark of ignorance.

Those thinkers were even more to me [we more important to me] than Darwin or Maxell, as [in being, by virtue of their being] so much nearer the vanished van breaking into the dark of ignorance.

nearer the vanished van = closer to the vanished van, i.e. closer to the front lines

Those thinkers were closer to the vanguard of human thought as it strode into the darkness of human ignorance.

Why "vanished"? The vanished van sounds like an epithet from an elegiac poem celebrating the heroism of the fallen.

  • Ah, thanks! Maybe "vanished van" is intended to be an alliteration here. So the word "as" is a conjunction meaning "because" in the sentence? But then the second half is not a complete sentence? – yshen Jun 22 '17 at 11:36
  • COMPARE I chose x as the better option. not sure how contemp grammar analyzes this. i take it as ellipsis of BE. traveling at the moment. apologies for typing. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 22 '17 at 12:09

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