Imagery and Figurative Language

Poets mean what they say, but they do not always say what they mean. For example, when Margaret Atwood writes, in her poem "You Fit into Me," "you fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye," she means just what she says and wants the reader to experience the rightness of the first comparison, with its suggestion of sexuality, and the shock and pain of the second comparison. If she were to say what she meant, then she would have written something like the following: "Though our relationship appears mutually supportive, it is actually destructive, especially to me." She would have made her point, but she would not have written a poem.

image: a literal or concrete representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more senses. Ezra Pound defines it as "a radiant node or cluster into which, out of which, and through which ideas are constantly rushing." In Swift's "A Description of the Morning," the "ruddy morn" of line 2 is an image; so, too, are the "broomy stumps" of line 9. Loosely, imagery may refer to all figures of speech in a poem.

simile: a figure of speech in which a similarity between two objects is directly expressed; usually the comparison is introduced by like or as. Margaret Atwood's "You Fit into Me" is based on a simile.

metaphor: an implied analogy which imaginatively identifies one object with another and ascribes to the first one or more qualities of the second, or invests the first with emotional or imaginative qualities of the second. According to the critic R.P. Blackmur, all metaphors are made up of two parts: a tenor, which is the idea being expressed or the subject of the comparison, and a vehicle, which is the image by which the idea is conveyed or the subject is communicated. The word metaphor comes from the Greek and means transference, i.e., of the qualities of one thing to another. We have encountered metaphorical language in most of the poems we have read so far. When the speaker of Ben Jonson's poem laments the "adulteries of art," he compares not only the act of dressing to an art, but also compares that art to committing adultery; the first comparison ascribes the qualities of art to the everyday act of dressing, while the second comparison encourages us to see such art in the same emotional terms as an act of adultery.

allusion: a figure of speech making casual reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event, or to another work of literature. Of the poems we've read so far, Swift's "A Description of the Morning" could be said to allude to a generic or stock character of Restoration literature when we learn that "Betty from her master's bed had flown." A more obvious moment of allusion appears in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." When the speaker declares, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet," he assumes that have read or seen a production of Shakespeare's play, and that we will know that in making his negative comparison (allusion is a kind of metaphor), he is saying that his indecisiveness has nothing like the tragic dimensions of Hamlet's.

personification: a figure of speech which endows animals, ideas, abstractions, and inanimate objects with human form, character, or sensibilities. The clock in Housman's "Eight O'clock" is personified: it "sprinkle[s]" the quarter hours on the town and figuratively "strikes" the "he" of the poem, as well as literally "strik[ing]" (chiming) the hour of the morning. And Keats's "To Autumn" personifies autumn: it "conspire[s]" with a "bosom-friend," and "sit[s] […] on a granary floor" while its "hair [is] soft-lifted by the winnowing wind."

symbol: literally, something which is itself and yet stands for or suggests something else, usually abstract. Housman's "Eight O'clock" uses the clock as a symbol: the clock is both a clock which tells the town what time it is, but it also stands for the abstract concept of time - here, a sense of obligation, or of power and control.

synecdoche: a figure of speech which in mentioning a part signifies the whole or in which the whole signifies the part. An example of the former is the expression "All hands on deck"; the "broomy stumps" of Swift's poem are also an example of synecdoche, since the stump of the broom's straw stands in for the whole of the broom. An example of the latter kind of synecdoche, when the whole signifies the part, is when Andre Agassiz claims (or used to claim) in a commercial, "Image is everything."

metonymy: a figure of speech which is characterized by the substitution of a term naming an object closely associated with the word in mind for the word itself, as in "In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread." Here, "sweat" stands for hard labor. In his sonnet 73, Shakespeare uses metonymy in line 8 when he identifies sleep as "Death's second self"; sleep is not equivalent or a part of death, but shares some qualities with death, such that to think of one is to think of the other. In Housman's "Eight O'Clock," one could argue that the clock is a metonymy for the individual who instigates the literal or figurative death of the "he": the clock stands in for the active agent who will "kill" the subject of the poem.


The above definitions are derived in large part -- often verbatim -- from Poet and Vanderbilt Professor Mark Jarman, H. Holman's The Handbook to Literature, and Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms.


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