Guide to Literary Terms

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What is imagery as a literary element?

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Since experience comes to people predominantly through the senses, the use of imagery in literary works is essential because it is "the representation through language of sense experience." Certainly, poetry appeals to the listener with its music and rhythm, as in Robert Browning's "Parting at Morning":

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

But, poetry as well as prose also appeal indirectly to the reader's senses through the use of imagery that ignites the imagination. There are seven types of imagery:

  1. visual imagery - occurs most often in poetry and involves the creation of a mental picture.
  2. auditory imagery - language that represents  sounds
  3. olfactory imagery - language that represents  smells
  4. gustatory imagery - language that represents a taste of something
  5. tactile imagery - language that represents the touch of something, such as wetness, softeness, heat or cold
  6. organic imagery - language that represents internal sensations, such as exhaustion, nausea, hunger, or thirst
  7. kinesthetic imagery - language that represents movement or tension in the muscles and joints

Consider this poem for tactile, visual, and kinesthetic imagery:

"An August Night"  by Seamus Heaney

His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable,
When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.

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rachellopez | Student

Imagery is the use of figurative language that creates an image in the reader's head. Often authors use specific words that create a mental picture and help the reader feel like they are there in the story. For example, if a writer said "It was a dark and stormy night..." the reader can visualize the setting because of the descriptive words "dark" and "stormy". 

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