How does symbolism contribute to a poem's power to transcend the specificity of the particular incident it describes?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Symbolism is one of the more important universalizing devices used by poets. In symbolic writing, as well as an object or character working on the literal level, there is also a second or figurative level on which the symbol refers to something other than its literal meaning. For example, in 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed, the distracting garden the bored recruit is so attracted to is both a literal element of the poem and the symbolic. We know it is symbolic for two reasons. First, the obsessive narrative gaze signals its importance. Second, as readers, we are accustomed to using intertextual clues (i.e. our knowledge of other poems) to interpret aspects of the poem we are currently reading. The presence of the beautiful garden as a temptation makes us think of the Garden of Eden. The poet, in the violent world of military training is outside the Garden. Readers of the Bible remember that violence did not happen in the garden but only after the fall. Thus rather than just the poem being about a daydreaming recruit, it transcends the individual and address the way relationship of the military and violence to human fallenness.

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