In this guide, we’ll be covering everything you need to know about imagery in poetry.
Let’s dive in!
What is Imagery in Poetry?
Imagery in poetry is simply defined as that property of language by which a poet paints a picture with words.
Poets use language as a medium to convey feelings by painting pictures and sounds that make us feel nostalgic, free, sad, happy, or any other emotion.
The word imagery by itself may suggest a relation only to visuals or images, but that’s not correct.
Imagery, in its poetic sense, encapsulates all the expressions of language that appeal to our senses, be that touch, smell, taste, sight, or sound.
Furthermore, imagery in poetry can also produce certain feelings in a reader that are a direct result of reading a poem.
Therefore, it is wrong to assume that imagery has only got to do with the sense of sight or images.
How Do You Identify Imagery in Poetry?
Writers and poets are often told to ‘show, not tell’ as a piece of advice on how to write better and create lasting impressions in their reader’s minds.
Imagery in poetry is used to fill in those sensory details so that we, as the readers, are enamored and yet feel connected to the scene described by the poet.
But how do you identify poetic imagery?
The obvious clue is to look for figurative language.
It can be hard to identify first, but if you notice how poets do it, it becomes harder not to recognize. Here’s an example from Daffodils by William Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.
In the poem above, you can see how the poet compares his walk to the wanderings of a lonely cloud, and then further in the poem, we get to meet the dancing daffodils as if they are happy and reveling in the breeze that sweeps across the vale.
Here is an excerpt from the poem The Shell by James Stephens:
AND then I pressed the shell Close to my ear And listened well, And straightway like a bell Came low and clear The slow, sad murmur of the distant seas
In the excerpt above, you can see that the overwhelming sensation in the poem is related to the sense of hearing.
As you can see in the examples above, the poet has described a scene in a way that best corresponded to the feeling of the poet at the time.
While reading the daffodils, one is unmistakably transported to a more natural setting, close to nature, and a wholesome feeling sweeps across you.
In the poem The Shell, on the other hand, the mood is obviously a little more somber.
Why is Imagery in Poetry Important?
Imagery in poetry is a great way to draw the reader’s imagination into the piece.
So instead of just reading as an outsider, you feel how the poet felt, visit the same places and memories as the poet, and experience an event on an emotional level.
Poets use imagery to convey subtler and abstract emotions by recreating scenes through words that would evoke emotions.
Figurative language tools like simile, metaphor, and onomatopoeia are used to describe scenes, tastes, smell, touch, and sound so that we feel that we are part of the scene, going through the same internal and external, sensory and psychological experience.
Here is a poem by Robert Frost called Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening:
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
You can see the use of visual imagery by the phrase “his woods fill up with snow”, and there is also auditory imagery as well as is evident from the phrases, “gives his harness bells a shake”, and “easy wind and downy flake”.
The use of imagery can lend vivid and riveting detail to our sensory experience by filling in our need for sensory details.
Lastly, the use of imagery in poetry beautifies our language through the use of figurative language tools like personification, simile, and metaphors et cetera. Consider the following sentences:
Example 1: The field was full of bright yellow flowers.
Example 2: A bright yellow ocean of flowers swept far and wide as the eye could see.
The second example definitely makes a more lasting impression and also paints a picture of a more vivid image in our heads.
What are the Types of Imagery in Poetry?
The word imagery can be a little misleading. Imagery in poetry is not only related to the sense of seeing, but it includes all the sensory experiencing. Therefore, imagery is divided into the following types based on which sense words appeal to:
Visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile imagery.
Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Visual Imagery
As is evident from the name, visual imagery relates to how paint is able to recreate the scene of the poem in the reader’s imaginative eye.
Words of a poem that convey these scenes in vivid detail are examples of visual imagery.
On broken blinds and chimney-pots, And at the corner of the street A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. And then the lighting of the lamps.
This excerpt from T.S. Elliot’s Prelude brings vivid images of the scene on a winter evening to mind in great detail.
2. Auditory Imagery
This imagery is related to the sense of hearing.
In this sort of imagery, the poet will use sounds or a figurative language tool called onomatopoeia, which basically means a word for action or thing obtained by the exact sound it makes (buzz, sizzle, boom, et cetera. are examples of onomatopoeia).
Here is an example of auditory imagery:
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven
3. Olfactory Imagery
Olfactory imagery is related to the sense of smell. It is when a poet encapsulates the aroma of a scene.
In the following poem by H.W. LongFellow called Rain In Summer, you can almost smell the ‘clover-scented gale’ and ‘well-watered and smoking soil’.
They silently inhale the clover-scented gale, And the vapors that arise From the well-watered and smoking soil
4. Gustatory Imagery
Gustatory imagery is related to the sense of taste.
It is the sourness, bitterness, sweetness, texture of the things that you can taste (or not taste) that represent gustatory imagery.
Here is the first stanza from Jonathan Swift’s Cooking Poem:
Gently blow and stir the fire, Lay the mutton down to roast, Dress it nicely I desire, In the dripping put a toast, That I hunger may remove: Mutton is the meat I love.
5. Tactile Imagery
Tactile imagery is related to the sense of touch.
Things like the texture of things, the feelings one can get through touching something, are described.
Here is an example of tactile imagery from Edgar Allan Poe’s A Dream Within a Dream:
And I hold within my hand Grains of the golden sand- How few! yet how they creep Through my fingers to the deep, While I weep- while I weep! O God! can I not grasp
What are Examples of Imagery in Poetry?
Now that you know what imagery in poetry is, let’s look at some of the well-known examples of imagery in poetry.
Bruce Lanksy My Bed is Like a Sailing Ship
My bed is like a sailing ship- when I’m tucked in, I take a trip. I leave behind my busy day and sail to places far away. I sail past beaches, gleaming white, with palm trees swaying in the night. I watch the waves break on the shore, and then I see my bedroom floor! I blink my eyes, I scratch my head- my ship is home, I’m back in bed. My ships goes sailing every night and sails home in the morning light.
Mary O. Fumento’s Elegance
A ballet dancer is a swan Without the beak or feathers A ballet dancer is the seasons Without a change in weather A ballet dancer is a portrait With a difference to this art The picture captures feeling The dancer embraces heart
T.S. Elliot’s Preludes
The winter evening settles down With smell of steaks in passageways. Six o’clock. The burnt-out ends of smoky days. And now a gusty shower wraps The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet And newspapers from vacant lots; The showers beat On broken blinds and chimney-pots, And at the corner of the street A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. And then the lighting of the lamps.
To further explore the subject of imagery in poetry, we also recommend this video by Karen Hamilton:
Imagery in poetry is a stylistic choice on the part of the poet that attempts at showing the scene, in all its sensory glory, to the reader’s imagination.
Poets use to convey the richness in detail and for the beautification of language.
Sikandar is opinionated on a diverse set of topics that include, but are not limited to, Productivity, Health, Fitness, Motivation, and Career. He is in love with the written word and writes mainly to help others on their self-actualizing journeys. A journalist by education, getting to the bottom of things is his modus operandi. Often, he finds himself moonlighting as a life coach to his family, friends, and colleagues. He can be reached at his LinkedIn for collaboration.