Glossary Home Figurative Language


Metonymy a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.

The substitution is made because of some preexisting relationships between the two things.  For example, “The pen is mightier than the sword” or “lend me your ear”. In the former, the word “pen” is substituted for the written word in general, and “sword” for military might.


Examples of Metonymy in Literature

Example #1 Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

One very straightforward example comes from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale‘. here are a few lines from the poem:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
         Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
         Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Here, the speaker refers to a “draught” or drink of “vintage”. In this line, the word “vintage” refers to wine, but it also speaks to its age. The use of this phrase is less common today than it might’ve been when Keats was writing. It would still be considered part of a more elevated way of speaking.

Today, if used, the context would be particular. This allows a reader, or in this case, a listener, to learn something about the person speaking. If someone chooses to say “vintage” rather than “old” there is a reason for it. That could be that they’re trying to tap into the history of the word, or that they are making a concerted effort to sound smarter.


Example #2 Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats 

A close reader can find an example of this technique at the end of the first stanza of this poem. Take a look at these lines:

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Here, YEats makes use of both metonymy and metaphor. He is speaking about the “motley” clothes the men are wearing. They are made up of different colours, unmatched. The people are “motley” just as their clothes are motley. The poet is speaking about their clothes and their cultural differences. re were many different types of people in Dublin when this poem was written, Protestants and Catholics, the rich, the poor, as well as those with varying allegiances to England and Ireland. A relationship is created between their clothes and their lives.


Example #3 The Show by Owen Sheers

This poem is divided into two parts, The first speaks on models walking down a catwalk while the second speaks on Shears’ girlfriend, what she did to get ready, and her entrance into the room. A reader can find an example of metonymy in the fourth stanza. Take a look at the lines:

leaving the crocodile pit of cameras
flashing their teeth for more

Here, the speaker, who is Shears himself, describes the predatory nature of the runway show. The group of cameramen are described as gathering in a “crocodile pit of cameras”. It is a dangerous place, one where the entire dynamic of the runway show is controlled. The first part of the poem speaks about the models powerfully, but at this point, things change.


Example #4 The Laboratory by Robert Browning

‘The Laboratory’ is a monologue that takes place in an apothecary’s laboratory. It is told from the perspective of a vengeful wife who is planning on killing her husband’s lover. She watches the man mix the poison In the fifth stanza a close reader can find an example of a metonymy. Take a look at the lines:

Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,

What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!

To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,

A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!

The angry wife speaks joyfully about the process. She’s thrilled by the contents of the room. In the third line, she describes the poison as “pure death”. This helps the reader understand the nature of the concoction and the woman’s very clear intentions.

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