The Close Reading of Poetry
A Practical Introduction and Guide to Explication

Figurative Language; Imagery & Allusion

Figurative language often plays a crucial role in condensing language and expanding meaning.

Most generally, figurative language refers to language that is not literal: it suggests a comparison to something else, so that one thing is seen in terms of another. For example, the phrase fierce tears (the personification of tears) is figurative, since tears cannot really act in a fierce way, as people can. This phrase is condensed (it is short) and suggestive (it suggests lots of meanings). To understand it, we have to think about what being fierce is like, and how tears could be this way. When we do, we gather some possibilities: fierce tears could, say, be motivated by anger, intensity, power, aggression, defiance, violence, wildness, or perhaps something uncontrolled. They might feel like they hurt you. Figurative language provokes us to explore many possible meanings and to think beyond the literal or obvious meaning of the words.

As another example, consider the statement my love is like a red, red rose. This is a figurative statement (technically, using a simile), since a beloved person is not literally a rose but a human being. The image of a red rose is highly suggestive, while the comparison between the beloved and a rose seems simple. Ask yourself, what are all the things that you associate with a red rose? Then, ask yourself how you can relate those associations with the speaker’s love. This example shows the expansive power of poetic language.

Much of what we read can be taken as 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 is not 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, and is highly suggestive, and it revolves around a simile (like).

  • 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)?
  • How does figurative language suggest a certain meaning? Is there more than one meaning that it suggests?
  • What mood or feeling is evoked via this figurative, non-literal language?

Imagery: when figurative language (like metaphor or simile) evokes as a kind mental image any of the five senses, we call this imagery. “She is the sun” (a simile) suggests imagery of light and warmth (the senses of sight and touch); thus she is likened—compared—to the sun in a positive ways though the imagery. And then, of course, the sun also suggests life-giving as well the idea of being a centre to things that revolve around it. As mentioned above, figurative language condenses and expands meaning. Thus in the short sentence she is the sun, much is suggested by the comparison: for the speaker of the words, she is or perhaps represents the values or powers of light-giving, life-giving, warmth, and some kind of steady center. The speaker might instead have said, she is everything, but this is hardly poetic: no senses or expansive mental images are evoked.

  • What imagery—pictures or senses that are evoked in words—is present in the poem? Which images are most striking or frequent (for instance, images of darkness, of light, of plants, of people’s bodies), and what do these suggest?
  • Is there a dominant image in the poem (for example, does the poem keep mentioning a certain visual image, or a certain smell, a certain kind of lighting, or even something vague like a color)?
  • What images seem related or connected to each other?
  • What mood or atmosphere is created by the imagery?
  • Which details of the images 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, a place, another piece of writing—that 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, an allusion to the Bible, or to another poem).

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

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