What is Imagery in Poetry? Definition, Tips, and Examples


Poetic expression can take many forms to encapsulate the richness of a scene, sound, or feeling.

One of the ways poets play to the reader’s imagination to their advantage by painting a picture with words is the use of imagery.

Imagery, in simple words, is the use of language and words that create a sensory experience in the reader’s imagination.

It is the creative use of language so that whatever the experiences the poet went through can be felt by the reader as well.

In this article, we will look at what exactly is meant by imagery, what are its types, why is it important, and how you can identify imagery the next time you pick up a book of verse.

So without further ado, let’s get into the definition of imagery.

What is Imagery in Poetry (Definition)?

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.

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.

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

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

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. 

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.

Example 1:

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.

Example 2:

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 

Example 3:

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.

Final Remarks

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.

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