Sensory language is an essential part of setting the scene and inspiring the reader to let their imagination fill in any missing pieces in literature. Sensory imagery is a literary device that’s created through descriptions that make scenes feel real and tangible. When reading this kind of imagery, one should find themselves imagining what something looks like, smells like, sounds likes, or even tastes like.
Explore Sensory Language
Sensory Language Definition
Sensory imagery is the use of language to create images that appeal to the reader’s senses. These images use the reader’s auditory senses, scent (like a pungent smell) as well as sound, touch, and taste to make a place, person, event, or another part of a story, seem real through the skilled use of sensory imagery.
Readers can suspend their disbelief and, for the time they’re reading, feel as though they’re part of another world. The images a writer creates through the use of sensory words could be anything from a description of a loud siren to the feeling of a cat rubbing against a character’s leg. Imagery is also connected to the ways bodies move through space, emotions such as fear or anger, and sensations such as hunger or lust. Explore some examples of sensory writing below.
Examples of Sensory Writing
In this beautiful Thomas Hardy poem, the poet writes about his emotions following his wife’s death. This is one of several poems that are focused on the same topic. It’s quite emotional and moving. Here are a few lines from the poem that uses sensory details to make the scene feel more real:
Clouds spout upon her
Their waters amain
In ruthless disdain, –
Her who but lately
Had shivered with pain
As at touch of dishonour
If there had lit on her
So coldly, so straightly
Such arrows of rain:
Hardy brings in nature images of clouds raining down on his wife’s grave, “pain,” “cold,” “arrows,” and more. These images set the tone in the first lines and make sure the reader is confronting the subject matter in the way the author wanted them to. It’s impossible to ignore the speaker’s pain and grief as he considers his wife’s death.
Read more Thomas Hardy poems.
In this haunting poem, which is surely Poe’s most famous example of verse, his use of sensory language is interesting. Without this imagery, the poem would lose its disturbing and most memorable qualities. Consider the vivid descriptions in these lines:
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
This is the second stanza of the poem. Among other devices, Poe uses image-rich words like “bleak December,” “dying ember,” and “radiant” to create a very clear scene. Readers are left wondering about the speaker, his mental state, the raven, and what’s going to happen next in Poe’s world.
Read more of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
This poem depicts the moments in which spring is on the verge of returning to the earth – a vivid depiction of the spring season and all the feelings, sights, and sounds that go along with it. Rossetti uses skillful examples of imagery. Consider this short passage and how it keeps the reader’s interest
Frost-locked all the winter,
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
What shall make their sap ascend
That they may put forth shoots?
Tips of tender green,
Leaf, or blade, or sheath;
Telling of the hidden life
That breaks forth underneath,
Life nursed in its grave by Death.
Here, the poet uses words like “tender green,” “Frost-locked,” and “nursed in its grave by Death.” These very evocative images are meant to make the reader think about spring as well as feel it. These lines truly demonstrate the power of sensory language.
Explore more Christina Rossetti poems.
The Bombardment by Amy Lowell
This famous war-time poem explores themes of war, destruction, and fear. The poet uses piercing detail to depict the fears of those entrenched in chaos and constant danger. Here are a few lines:
The room is damp, but warm. Little flashes swarm about from the firelight.
The lustres of the chandelier are bright, and clusters of rubies
leap in the bohemian glasses on the `etagere’. Her hands are restless,
but the white masses of her hair are quite still. Boom! Will it never cease
to torture, this iteration! Boom! The vibration shatters a glass
on the `etagere’. It lies there, formless and glowing,
with all its crimson gleams shot out of pattern, spilled, flowing red,
blood-red. A thin bell-note pricks through the silence. A door creaks
There are numerous examples of sensory imagery in this excerpt.
Discover more Amy Lowell poems.
Why Do Writers Use Sensory Language?
Writers use sensory language when they want to convey a particular setting, feeling, or experience to the reader. To make a poem as impactful as possible, it’s important to make the reader feel something. A good way to do this is to create such a real-seeming scene that readers can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be physically present in it. In addition to the tastes, feelings, and smells that a poet describes, the sights and sounds are all part of writing good poetry.
It is the language writers use when they want readers to use their senses in order to imagine a scene or action. They might use auditory words that appeal to the reader’s sense of hearing.
Descriptions the writer creates that help readers visualize a place, person, scene, action, etc. They can be more or less sense-oriented.
It is important because it allows the reader a better connection with the written work. If the reader can imagine someone’s experience, it’s more likely they’ll feel connected to the story.
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Oxymoron: a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.
- 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.”
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Read: The Bombardment by Amy Lowell
- Watch: Poetry for Beginners: What is Imagery & Visualization
- Watch: What is Imagery?