Figurative language refers to language that uses figures of speech in order to improve a piece of writing. Figures of speech include metaphors, similes, hyperboles, and allusions that take a description beyond the obvious and into the poetic. These figures of speech are used to expand a reader’s understanding by taping into their senses, preconceived notions of what something should be like, or what the contextual implications or connections are.
Other kinds of figurative language include personification, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, sarcasm, pun, anaphora, tautology, imagery, symbolism, alliteration, understatement, and idiom.
Purpose of Figurative Language
The primary reason that writers use figurative language is to stimulate a reader’s imagination. They are asked to think beyond what they immediately see or feel and make deeper, more meaningful and sometimes surprising connections.
It is not used to convey something literal, but something emotional or conceptual. This kind of language can often get to the root of meaning and tap into something universal to all readers. It is especially important when a topic is complex or abstract.
Examples of Figurative Language in Poetry
Example #1 A Coat by William Butler Yeats
Within this poem, Yeats describes his writing practice through the metaphor of an embroidered coat. The metaphor is “extended” meaning that it lasts for more than one or two lines. In this case, it takes up the entire poem. It equates his writing practice (his process and the poems and essays he produced) to a coat. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
It wasn’t a simple coat, but one that was covered in embroidery. Within the text, Yeats uses allusion to refer back to his own interest in mythology and how that has informed his work. He also makes use of techniques like assonance and sibilance in the repetition of the long “e” vowel sound and the “s” consonant sound.
Symbolism is also used in this poem. Yeats chose the coat as a symbol of this life and his life’s work. The coat is something that one can wear and with all the embroidery, it represents his identity. But, the coat can also be taken off again. This speaks to Yeats’ ability to move from form to form, accept change within life and within his writing.
Example #2 Your Last Drive by Thomas Hardy
Within this piece, the poet tells of his own regrets after the death of his wife, Emma Hardy. When Emma died, the couple had been separated for a number of years. He was unaware of an illness that was killing her and therefore he did not take advantage of the opportunities to say goodbye to her. Here is the second stanza of the poem:
And on your left you passed the spot
Where eight days later you were to lie,
And be spoken of as one who was not;
Beholding it with a heedless eye
As alien from you, though under its tree
You soon would halt everlastingly.
The poet expresses grief in these lines for the transformation that has come over his wife. She is addressed specifically as the poet defines her last drive. The drive itself becomes a symbol for Emma Hardy’s life. He speaks throughout the text of the fact that he was not with her when she was driving but should’ve been.
In the second stanza, using figurative language, he alludes to her death by referring to the place where she was “to lie” eight days after she passed it. He speaks of death again as “halt[ing] everlastingly”.
Example #3 The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop
In this poem, Bishop uses figurative language to describe the low tide in a bight where birds, shattered boats, fishermen and the poet herself are part of the scenery. Bishop uses alliteration, allusion, simile and metaphor within the poem. Take a look lines sixteen through twenty-three:
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
Here, the poet is describing the birds that move through the scene. The “man-of-war birds” are carried along on “impalpable drafts”. She uses a simile to compare their tails to “scissors”. They “tense them like wishbones”.
In the twenty-second line, the speaker describes the “gaffs and hooks” as “jackstraw”. This is an allusion to a game in which straws or pieces of fabric are gathered in a pile and participants have to pull one out at a time. This has to occur without disturbing the rest of the pile. With this allusion in mind, a reader is able to better imagine what the spears and hooks look like. They are likely crossing over one another dangerously.