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

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The cat
On the mat.

Whether this qualifies as poetry may be rather doubtful, but it is perhaps the first and simplest piece of verse children learn when they are first discovering rhyme. It describes a simple situation which happens in many households and appears at first glance to be entirely literal. An actual cat of flesh, blood, bone, and fur sat on a real mat. I am sitting at a desk as I write these words. I am typing on a laptop computer. Literal language like this attempts to convey the physical universe into words as simply and directly as possible.

However, it is at least arguable that any writing is open to a figurative interpretation. What if the cat on the mat is a metaphor? It could symbolize repose, idleness, contentment or any number of other things. The first and simplest reason why poems are often figurative is that poems are analyzed more closely than other writing and people find figurative language in them which may or may not have been intended. If you prefer to interpret a poem in a purely literal manner, it is often possible to do so. Take one of the most famous poems in American literature:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

It is perfectly possible to say:

Robert Frost describes a walk he took in a wood (which, rather surprisingly, was entirely yellow). He stood and looked down one road for a while, then took the other. The poem has no metaphorical meaning whatsoever and certainly has nothing to do with making choices in life. It is purely a narrative about walking in a wood.

Most readers, however, have not interpreted the poem in this way.

I have written mainly about metaphors here since they are some of the easiest examples of figurative languages to take literally, but it is possible to do the same with other figures of speech. Hyperbole, for instance, is often taken literally as a matter of sarcasm.

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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...

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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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