Glossary Home Figurative Language


A metaphor is used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it, without using “like” or “as”.

The comparison is usually not literal and the two things might be vastly different. A few examples include ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ by Emily Dickinson and Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath.

Examples of Metaphors in Literature

Example #1 ‘An Apple Gathering’ by Christina Rossetti

A very powerful example of an extended metaphor is available to readers in ‘An Apple Gathering’ by Christina Rossetti. ‘An Apply Gathering’ is an extended metaphor for the importance of a woman’s perceived purity. Rossetti used an apple tree and the fruit it bears as a symbol for a woman’s virginity.

Take a look at there lines as the speaker recalls discovering that there were no apples growing on her tree:

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree

And wore them all that evening in my hair:

Then in due season when I went to see

I found no apples there.

While to a casual, uninvested reader this might seem like a simple description of what a female character is doing, to those who want to dig deeper, it is much more meaningful. the use of enjambment in the third line of this section is used as a moment of revelation. The speaker finally understands the implications of what she’s done and how, from now on, her life is going to be quite different.

There is a moving scene later on in the poem in which all the speaker’s peers are appreciating the apples on their individual trees. The speaker though is without a single piece of fruit. She stands out from those around her. They all know that she lost her virginity, as represented by picking her apples too soon.

Metaphors don’t have to control an entire poem though, as they do in ‘An Apple Gathering’. They can be short statements that pass almost unnoted within single lines of poetry. Or, they might influence a few lines, and then be passed over for new figurative comparisons or details. When writing poetry, metaphors are one of the key ways that you can expand your verse and relate it to sights, sounds, and experiences that might not come to the average reader’s mind.

Example #2 Classroom by Dave Calder

This poem provides another great example of the power of metaphor. In ‘Classroom’ Calder uses this technique in order to compare classrooms to “a kind of pet”. Take a look at these lines from the poem:

classrooms are creatures a kind of pet

some are naturally sunny others a bit gloomy

but it’s how we look after them

that makes the difference in how they feel

They express their emotions as pets do, they feel to the onlooker different ways at different times. Just as pets are unable to talk, so aren’t classrooms.

Example #3 Flying Inside Your Own Body by Margaret Atwood

Atwood suggests in the first lines of ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’ that one’s “lungs” are “wings” that fill with the ability to fly. They are only part of a larger metaphor comparing the human body to the body of a bird. This phrase speaks to the continuity of life, and a larger connection to non-human nature, especially birds. The comparison between a human body and a bird body continues. The speaker describes a process in which “your bones” become emptied of all material and end up “hollow,” like a bird. Take a look at these lines from the poem:

Your lungs fill & spread themselves,
wings of pink blood, and your bones
empty themselves and become hollow.

Later on, Atwood uses another metaphor to compare the “joy” one’s heart is made up of to “pure helium”. It has to power to lift you from the ground and into the air.

When you breathe in you’ll lift like a balloon
and your heart is light too & huge,
beating with pure joy, pure helium.

Just like a bird or a balloon, you take off and metaphorically fly, lifted by joy and freedom.

Example #4 Lady Weeping at the Crossroads by W.H. Auden

There are several examples of metaphors in this complicated, yet beautiful poem. For instance, take a look at the first stanza of the poem:

Lady, weeping at the crossroads,
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?

The first line is a metaphor. He refers to a “crossroads,” one that is mental rather than physical. It speaks to a turning point in one’s life in which there are a number of different directions one has to choose from. She is “weeping,” as if in desperation or confusion. Her symbolic crossroads is only in her mind, it is a state of being. The speaker asks her if she “Would…meet [her] love / In the twilight”. 

Later on in the poem, she encounters various obstacles, all of which he has to overcome in order to “Blow the cobwebs from the mirror / See yourself at last”. The mirror is written about as though it is something physical when in reality it is a metaphor for self-examination. When he looks into the mirror, she needs to, the speaker says, “Put [her] hand behind the wainscot”. This is a panel of wood around the bottom portion of the wall. The speaker tells her, as if consolingly, she has “done [her] part”. Now, all she has left to do is find the “penknife” and “plunge it / Into your false heart”. She kills the untrue part of herself and therefore able to move on in her life.

She tossed aside falsehoods and ideally, although the poem does not state it, emerged a new person devoid of doubt. All this is depicted through a series of metaphors depicting a mental journey into the deepest parts of the mind.

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