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


A symbol represents or stands for something other than the image itself. A symbol, then, is often something concrete—a word, a thing, a place, a person (real of fictitious), an action, an event, a creation, etc.—that represents something larger, abstract, or complex—an idea, a value, a belief, an emotion. A river (a thing) can be symbol for life; Gomorrah (a place) can be a symbol of shameless sin; Homer Simpson (a fictitious person) can be a symbol of innocent stupidity; a strawberry (a thing) can be a symbol of sensual love; a rainbow (a thing) can suggest connection. Symbols can have great power and economy because something abstract (love) can be attached to something concrete (a rose).

  • Does the poem have any clear or central symbols? What meaning do they bring to the poem?
  • Are there things in the poem that seem to stand for or represent something other than themselves?