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What is a good example of the figurative meaning of a poem?

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Erin DuBuque eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Before giving a specific example, let's have a look at what figurative as opposed to literal means. The literal meaning of poetry or language in general indicates that the words used mean exactly what they appear to mean according to their conventional definitions. Figurative language, however, goes beyond literal meanings to convey added insight to the reader.

Figurative language employs a range of literary devices to give added dimension to the words a writer uses to convey thoughts in poetry. For instance, metaphors compare two things that are otherwise unrelated. In "Sonnet 18," William Shakespeare compares the lover for whom the poem is written to the loveliness of the season of summer.

Similes also use comparison, but specifically with the words "like" or "as." In "Daffodils," William Wordsworth compares himself to a cloud in the sky when he says, "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

Personifications give human attributes to animals or ideas. The same poem, "Daffodils" by Wordsworth, personifies "a host of golden daffodils" by describing them as "dancing in the breeze."

Hyperboles emphasize ideas by exaggerating them. W. H. Auden uses hyperbole in describing how much the narrator loves the "dear" object of the poem in "As I Walked Out One Evening." He writes that he will love his dear one "till China and Africa meet," "the river jumps over the mountain," "the salmon sing in the street," and "the ocean is folded and hung up to dry."

For an entire poem that uses figurative language, consider "She Sweeps With Many-Colored Brooms" by Emily Dickinson. The first stanza says:

She sweeps with many-colored brooms,

And leaves the shreds behind;

Oh, housewife in the evening west,

Come back, and dust the pond!

Literally, it sounds as if Dickinson is writing about a housewife doing her chores, but the entire poem is actually a figurative description of a sunset.

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Gracie O'Hara eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Much Renaissance love poetry uses extended metaphors or other figures of speech as a means of talking about love or sexuality. One charming example is Thomas Campion’s song “There Is a Garden in Her Face,” in which the beauties of the narrator's beloved are compared to a beautiful garden, with her skin being compared to lilies, as pale skin was considered especially beautiful in that period, and her lips to roses. The final two lines of the stanza are:

There cherries grow which none may buy,

Till "Cherry ripe" themselves do cry.

On a literal level, we get a sense of the woman making some sort of choice. On the figurative level, the term "cherry" is slang for virginity and ripening suggests sexual maturity. Thus what is being said on the figurative level has nothing to do with a woman growing and selling fruit, but rather is saying that the woman herself decides when to give away her virginity.


Further Reading:

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mjd015 | Student

The beauty of poetry lies in the fact that the words and lines must be interpreted for a greater meaning. While poetry uses fewer words than prose, its meaning is often more extensive. This is all due to the figurative and symbolic language that are blended in the lines. Figurative language is the use of words that serve as symbols to evoke emotion or critical thinking within the reader.

The most common types of figurative language are similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and allusion. A simile is a comparison of two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.” A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things without using the words “like” or “as.” Personification is language that gives human qualities to an inanimate object. Onomatopoeia is the use of a word to represent a sound. Alliteration is the use of the same beginning sound in several words in a line of poetry. Lastly, an allusion is the reference to a famous literary work, piece of art, film, historical moment, etc.

One poem that epitomizes the idea of figurative meaning is the poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. The beginning of the poem is as follows:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


From a literal sense, the poem seems to be a mother describing a damaged staircase. However, the poem presents a clear metaphor for her life. She notes that “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” meaning that her life has had its fair share of challenges and hardships; it has not simply been some perfect, spotless journey. Again through a metaphor, she refers to her struggles as “tacks” and “splinters.” Langston Hughes uses this type of language to cause his readers to connect more to the experiences of the mother and the advice that she is leaving for her son. Readers can envision a staircase with tacks sticking out and boards all torn up and feel as though they are a part of her journey.

For the full poem of “Mother to Son,” click the link below.

For other poems that incorporate figurative language, see the following links.