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Figurative Language in Poetry (1)

 Parlindungan Pardede

What is Figurative Language?

Consider this statement: “The wind whispered through the trees.” What do you have in mind? You might respond, “This statement seems not meaningful for wind does not really whisper. However, if the speaker means to describe an idea of how the wind sounds, he succeeds.” Yes, you got it. The speaker actually means to express an idea how the wind sounds softly, like the way a person whispers. This is an example of figurative language—language that departs from the literal for the sake of comparison or exaggeration. In poetry, figurative language makes the ideas more vivid and engaging. Figurative language surprises the reader and forces him to think.

Returning to the example above, do you realize that when you examined it literally, that is to say unimaginatively, you found that the statement seemed absurd, but after examining it imaginatively you got the message? This is typical of figurative language which is often found in literary works, especially in poetry. Poets use figurative language because they can say what they want to say more vividly and forcefully by figures than by saying it directly. However, if you examine your daily speeches, you might be surprised to discover how often you use such expressions as those described above, which are definitely examples of figurative language. A great deal of our ordinary speech and slang is based on figurative language, as well as a great many works in literature. Without figures of speech, our language would be dull and mechanical. It becomes, therefore, important in developing especially affective comprehension skill to know the difference between literal and figurative language.

There are hundreds of figures of speech. However, we’ll focus on just twelve of the most common figures. Six of them are discussed in the following sections. The other six will be discussed in Figurative Language in Poetry (2).

1. Simile

A simile is a comparison of two things of different categories. It is usually introduced by like, as, as…so, than, similar to, or resembles. “John is as strong as a lion” is a simile. It compares two things of different categories. “John is as strong as Jack” is not a simile because it compares two things of similar categories. Other examples of similes are: “He ran like a hunted deer”, “… sounds like a machine gun”, … sparkles like a lake”, and “… as cool as a spring water”.

2. Metaphor

Like a simile, a metaphor compares two things of different categories. But different from a simile, a metaphor doesn’t use the words or phrases like, as, as…so, than, similar to, or resembles. In other words, the comparison in a metaphor is implied—that is, the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term. For instance, when we say someone “clammed up and wouldn’t talk,” we are comparing the person’s closed mouth with the tightness of a closed clam. When we say someone has a stone face, we are comparing the unchanging expression with the immobility of a stone. When Shakespeare writes, “merry larks are plough-men’s clock” in his poem Spring, he is using a metaphor, for he identifies larks with clocks. When Tennyson writes that the eagle “clasps the crag with crooked hands”, he is using a metaphor, for he substitutes crooked hands for claws. The line “the furrow followed free” from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is also a metaphor because a furrow, when taken literally is only to be found in a ploughed field. In this context, it is used to describe the speed of the ship: it went so rapidly that it made a ‘furrow’ in the sea.

When simile and metaphors are properly used, they help us to react on emotional and affective levels of understanding. Consider, for example, the different feeling is called up by these figures of speech: “black as soot” versus “black as ebony”; “he pounced like a lion” versus “he pounced like a vulture”; “a neon smile” versus “a sunny smile.”

Some metaphors have been used so frequently that we accept them almost literally now. Such metaphors are called dead metaphors. Metaphors are probably the most important of all the means by which language develops, changes, grows, and adapts itself to our changing needs. Some popular dead metaphors are: “a dry book”, “a shallow thinking”, “pursuing a subject”, “the head of a pin,” “the neck of a bottle,” “the lip of a cup,” “the foot of a ladder,” “the mouth of a river.”

3. Allusion

An allusion is a reference to a person, place or thing outside of the confines of a work. Authors usually allude to characters or events in mythology and the Bible, to another literary work, or to a contemporary or historical event. The use of allusion in a work widens its dimensions. Using an allusive reference, readers can make connections that greatly enhance their understanding of what they read. Sometimes the allusion is crucial to the understanding of the selection. “The couple went to Adam’s grocery and stole an apple” is an allusion to the book of Genesis in the Bible.

4. Metonymy

In metonymy, one word or image is used to represent another with which it is closely related. When we say, “I have read all of Shakespeare,” we use Shakespeare’s name to stand for his works. Calling a detective a “gumshoe” is also an example of metonymy. In the Eagle’s song Hotel California, for example, “California” seems to be metonymical for the entire United States. Some of the popular metonymies are: “he succeeded to the throne” (royal officer), “from the cradle to the grave” (from childhood to death), “She accepted the cross (Christianity)”, and “The pen has more influence than the sword.”

5. Synecdoche

A synecdoche is a kind of substitution of a name for another, the meaning of which is more or less cognate with its own. When a person uses a synecdoche, he uses a part to represent the whole or the whole for a part. Synecdoche is very commonly used in English, even in everyday speech. One does not think twice about so ordinary phrase as farm or factory hand. The word ‘hand’ is substituted for the complete human being because that is the operative part of the man or woman in so far as manual work is concerned. The part is merely substituted for the whole and the substitutional relationship is obviously recognized. Synecdoche, however, is not restricted to physical relationship and in the line, “Give us this day our daily bread”, the word bread represents the whole class of foodstuffs which sustain and nourish mankind. When Coleridge writes “The western wave was all aflame” in Ancient Mariner, he is using a synecdoche, for he substitutes “wave” for “sea”. Another example is “Spain won the World Cup in 2010”

6. Allegory

Allegory is a narrative or description that has a second meaning beneath the surface one. Although the surface story or description may have its own interest, the author’s major interest in the ulterior meaning. When Pharaoh in the Bible, for instance, has a dream in which seven fat kine are devoured by seven lean kine, the story does not really become significant until Joseph interprets its allegorical meaning: that Egypt is to enjoy seven years of fruitful ness and prosperity followed by seven years of famine. This figure of speech is an effective way of making the abstract concrete, because abstract ideas or concepts are represented as people, objects or situation.


Determine whether each of the following statement is literal or figurative. If the statement is figurative, mention what type it is.

  1. His mind is as quick as a computer.
  2. The crowd was becoming angry.
  3. He is too fond of the bottle.
  4. The more a man reads, the more he can write.
  5. He has a good hand at composition.
  6. He explained the topic clearly.
  7. Poetry must be as new as foam and as old as the rock.
  8. Lend me your ears.
  9. They are waiting for word from the crown.
  10. That chili tasted like a bowl of fire
  11. The faces of the people were expressionless.
  12. He has many mouths to feed.
  13. She’s planning to serve the dish early in the evening.
  14. She likes reading poems.
  15. He curbs his passion.
  16. His rubber cheeks are bouncing all over town.
  17. The money from this deal will be pure gravy.
  18. Let the hands go to dinner.
  19. Can you please give me a hand carrying this box up the stairs?
  20. Gray hairs (old age or old person) should be respected.