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

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literal language refers to the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences in their real or actual sense. The definitions for words in their literal sense is precise and uncomplicated and, in dictionary terms, is referred to as its denotation. Literal language is the language one uses to precisely say what one means. The meaning of literal language does not change, irrespective of the context in which it is used. In the sciences, for example, language is used in its literal sense; the language is particular and unambiguous. In a sentence such as "The grass is green," the language is literal because it conveys what it means and is easily understood.

Figurative language, in contrast, is language that has acquired meaning outside its ordinary or real interpretation. It is, therefore, a language in which words, phrases, and sentences have been attributed extraordinary definitions. In dictionary terms, the variety of meanings words acquire in a figurative sense is called their connotation. The meaning of the language, unlike literal speech, is interpreted within the context in which it is used. The sentence, "The grass always looks greener on the other side," can be understood both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, it would mean that the ground covering one area consistently seems to have a better color or hue than the other. Figuratively, it means that other lives or situations always seem better than your own.

The use of figurative language in poetry is to convey meanings beyond the ordinary. Poets tend to use figures of speech such as similes, metaphors, personification, and others, to indicate a sentiment or mood and to enhance their writing. The purpose is to provide a better sense of the writer's intention and to convey this to the reader. By using figurative language, the poet can create emphasis and provide common words with symbolic meanings. The technique essentially compels the reader to infer the writer's purpose. Also, the use of figurative language adds color and a deeper dimension to the poet's writing and enhances the enjoyment of his or her work.  

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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 | Student

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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