What is the difference between literal language & figurative language and why poetry is often figurative?

Asked on by ebi

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Literal language means exactly what it says.  If some word is written, it means exactly that.  Let's think about Frost's "Desert Places."  He says that he has his own desert places that scare him.  If that were literal, it would mean that he was afraid of deserts or of some other deserted place.

Figurative language is language that has a meaning that isn't literal.  The line about the guy's "desert places" is figurative.  It means that he has something inside him, in his mind, that feels deserted and alone.

Poets often use figurative language because it allows them to give multiple possible meanings to their poems.  Sort of the same as your question last night about language with multiple meanings.

krishna-agrawala's profile pic

krishna-agrawala | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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A language is called literal when what is meant to be conveyed is same as what the word to word meaning of what is said. In contrast the figurative language, the words are used to imply meaning which is other than their strict dictionary meaning. Take for example the following two sentences.

The baby slept in lap of its mother.


The baby lived in lap of luxury.

In the first sentence the word lap is used to mean the physical lap formed by the body of the mother. Thus this sentence is conveying what the words used actually mean. Therefor it is literal statement. In comparison the word lap as use in second sentence does not represent a physical lap. It is only intended describe the cosy and comfortable conditions in which the baby lived. Therefor it is a figurative statement.

Poetry tends to use figurative language more than prose because, as compared to prose, it is intended more to appeal to emotions and described thing in imaginative ways rather than provide their precise and accurate descriptions.

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