Poetic Devices—Figurative Language


Poetry Alive: Reflections

Larry Liffiton and John McAllister (ed.) Format: book

Canadian Writer's Companion

Luengo, Anthony Format: book

Completing this lesson will help you to:

-understand the way poets use simile, metaphor, personification,

and hyperbole to help readers see ordinary things in new ways

You have learned about the use of imagery and symbolism, poetic

devices that help make poems more interesting and meaningful for

their readers. In this lesson you will look at figurative language,

another device poets can use to vividly express their ideas.


Figurative Language

When you want to explain something to another person, it often helps

to compare the new thing to something that the person is familiar

with. This is basically what poets do when they use figurative language.

The difference is that a poet is likely to use surprising combinations

that make the reader see familiar things in new ways.

Figurative language (sometimes called metaphorical language)

uses images that cannot be taken literally, i.e.,

abstract ideas. However, this technique usually works best when the

comparisons are based on accurate and realistic details.

Your text, Canadian Writer's Companion, p. 107-108, summarizes

the most common types of figurative language. Read the definitions of

metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole, then carry on with

the lesson, which will further explain the ideas presented in your text.



A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two unlike things that

have a common likeness. By using a metaphor, the poet generally

suggests that one thing is another thing. It is a comparison that is

suggested or implied rather than stated. Metaphors are often used in

slang. For example, "He's a nut" and "She's an angel" are metaphors.

The poet needs a great number of metaphors, because if ideas are

expressed literally, most of the imaginative appeal is lost. Remember

that one of the reasons for writing poetry rather than prose is it

generally allows the writer more scope for imagination.

Metaphors are never absolutely true. For example, when we say, "That

little boy is a devil," we know that we are only making a comparison.   



Our oldest son is the star of the family.

The news you bring is a dagger to my heart.

His rash policy let loose the dogs of war.

He swam bravely against the tide of popular opinion.


In "Letter to My Mother" the narrator describes the actions of the boy

they have been teasing:

till he ran screaming through the weeds,

a rodent harassed by the jays,

into the nest of his old stone house.

Poetry Alive: Reflections, p. 28

By referring to the children who are doing the teasing as "jays," the

poet wants you to see them as birds that will attack in groups. The boy

who is being teased is called a "rodent," and, by extension, his house

becomes a "nest."





A simile is an explicit comparison between two things that are not the

same, but which have a certain similarity that the poet wishes to point

out. A simile uses the word like or as to make the comparison. For

example, in "Coaster-Waggon on Indian Grove," the narrator

compares the way he is feeling to the wobbling and spinning of a top:

with the whole world doing a wobbly whirling round and round

like a top that couldn't stop spinning,

Poetry Alive: Reflections, p. 31

The phrase "like a top" compares the whirling world to the motion of

a spinning top. Your clue that this is a simile and not a metaphor is the

word like.

Here are some more examples of similes:

Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;

Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair;

"She Was a Phantom of Delight" by William Wordsworth

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

'The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot

To be effective, similes must not be too far-fetched, neither must they

be too obvious. Saying that "the world is as round as a ball" is as weak

as "You are sweet as sugar." Similes that are too commonly used, such

as "hair like spun gold," "cold as ice," "black as coal," "fatter than a

pig," and so on are called cliches. In your writing, avoid cliches and

aim for fresh, original images.

Comparative examples of similes and metaphors:

He fought like a lion. (simile)

He was a lion in the fight, (metaphor)

The river winds through the valley like a snake, (simile)

The river snakes through the valley, (metaphor)




Personification is a type of metaphor. Personification gives human

parts or qualities to an inanimate (lifeless) object or abstract idea. It

lends vitality to poetry and permits the poet to give emotions to

inanimate objects.

In the following examples of personification, the words that give

human qualities have been underlined.

"nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands"

"somewhere i have never traveled" by e.e. cummings

"..  jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops..."

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The rain obviously does not have hands and day cannot stand on its

tiptoe, but using personification creates more vivid images and gives

the rain and the day character and personality.




Hyperbole is a figure of speech based on exaggeration. It can be an

effective method to attract attention, emphasize a point, or create an

effect. For example, when your teacher says, "I've told you a million

times to put your name on your assignments," you have not really

been told a million times. But the exaggeration is much more effective

at portraying the teacher's frustration than if he or she actually counted

the number of times you had been told and said, "I have told you

seventeen times to put your name on your assignments."

Guided Practice:


Identify the devices or figures of speech in the following quotations.

There may be more than one device in a quotation, but you are only

required to identify one of them.

1.        But look, the mom in russet mantle clad,

Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

2.        Life is a dome of many-colored glass.

"Dome of Many-Colored Glass" by Amy Lowell

Check Your Answers

3.        O My Luve's like a red, red rose

That's newly sprung in June;

"A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns

4.       Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

"The Concord Hymn" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

5.        I like to see it lap the miles,

And lick the valleys up,

And stop to feed itself at tanks;

"The Train" by Emily Dickinson

Check Your Answers

6.       Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

7.       Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No....

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

8.       Lo, the unbounded sea,

On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying

even her moonsails,

'The Ship Starting" by Walt Whitman

Check Your Answers

9.       Ah, William, we're weary of weather,

said the sunflowers, shining with dew.

"Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room" by Nancy Willard 

10.      Death lies upon her like an untimely frost

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Check Your Answers

Answer to Guided Practice

1. Personification

2. Metaphor

3. Simile

4. Hyperbole

5. Personification


6. Metaphor

7. Hyperbole

8. Personification

9. Personification

10. Simile