4. Figurative Language; Imagery

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE; IMAGERY. Related to word meaning is figurative language, which often plays a crucial role in both condensing language yet expanding meaning. Most generally, figurative language refers to language that is not literal. The phrase “fierce tears” (the personification of tears) is not literal, but it is both precise and suggestive in carrying meaning.

  • Are certain words used in unusual, non-literal, non-standard, exaggerated, or metaphorical ways? What effect do these figures of speech have?
  • Which words or phrases are used literally (they denote something literal) and which are used figuratively (they connote something figurative)? 

Much of what we read is literal: The evening sky was dark; he looked up; he felt sick. Figurative language refers to language not used literally—it is used abstractly, indirectly, and often evocatively. The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Here we have an evening (a thing), spreading (an action), a patient (thing), etherizing (an action), and a table (thing). But an evening cannot be a drugged patient spread out upon a table, perhaps ready to be operated upon; this description cannot be literally true (there is no patient, no etherizing, no table, and evenings don’t literally spread out against skies); this language is used figuratively.

  • How does non-literal or figurative language suggest a certain meaning?
  • What mood or feeling is evoked via this figurative, non-literal language?

Imagery. When figurative language (like metaphor or simile) provides a picture that evokes any of the senses, we call this imagery. “She is the sun” (a simile) contains imagery of light and warmth (the senses of sight and touch). 

  • What imagery—pictures or senses that are evoked in words—is present in the poem? What imagery, if any, is most striking, frequent, or patterned?
  • What images seem related or connected to each other?
  • What mood or atmosphere is created by the imagery?
  • Which details stand out? Why?
  • What sense (if any) seems to dominate the poem: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell?

Allusion. Poetry sometimes contains brief references to things outside itself—a person, place, or thing—that will expand, clarify, or complicate its meaning. Sometimes they are obvious and direct, and sometimes they are subtle, indirect, and debatable. Allusions are frequently references made to other texts (for example, to the Bible, or to another poem).

  • What allusions, if any, can you detect?
  • What effect do the allusions have upon the poem?
  • If it is a literary allusion, how does it relate to or connect with the original text?

[Key terms: figures of speech, connotation, denotation, metaphor, simile, irony, imagery, personification, allegory, symbol, allusion.]