Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. Meaning, it 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.
Poets use figurative language in order to create the images that give poems their vibrancy and meaning. These include techniques like metaphor, simile, personification and, hyperbole. Often times, the imagery created by poets is there to take a reader to a specific place in their mind and help them understand what a character is experiencing. But, the images can sometimes be more complicated than that, acting as symbols as well as descriptive/emotive details.
There is an endless number of ways a poet might use figurative language to go about creating imagery in their poetry, and several different schools of thought about how important images are in general. The best example is the Imagist poets of the early 20th century. The most famous among them, Ezra Pound, valued creating images over anything else in his poetry and sought to do so as clearly as possible, without the flourishes of the poetic movements that came before.
Examples of Imagery
As stated above, there is an endless number of images writers can create and an equally complex number of ways those images can impact a reader. Due to the differences among every reader, no single image is going to affect everyone in the same way. Readers bring their life experiences with them to literary works and one image crafted by the poet might lead a reader to another related image in their own mind. One perfect example of how a poem’s complex landscape of images can impact readers can be found in ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath.
Daddy by Sylvia Plath
‘Daddy’ is one of Plath’s best known, and most contentious, poems. In this work, she is addressing her relationship with her father who had passed away. Her emotions are complicated, and the images she uses to depict them are striking, surprising, and to some readers, troublesome. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
These five lines are only one example of the way that Plath uses images that allude to Nazi Germany in order to depict the character of her father. She speaks of him as a “brute” and a “boot in the face”. These lines are dark, the images evocative, and the allusions brutal.
Rain on a Grave by Thomas Hardy
‘Rain on a Grave’ is one of a series of poems that Thomas Hardy wrote in the wake of his wife’s death. In this work, he is considering his wife’s grave, the elements that assault it, and his own desire to change the facts of her death and his own life. Within the poem, Hardy makes use of natural imagery, that of the elements: rain, sun, thunder-clouds, and wind in order to depict his own mental and emotional state. These elements are also used to show the world’s inability to mourn the death of his wife.
Here are the last eight lines from ‘Rain on a Grave’:
Soon will be growing
Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them –
Ay – the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure
With a child’s pleasure
All her life’s round.
This stanza concludes the poem in a more optimistic mood than the rest of the text. He is looking towards the future rather than the past and using imagery associated with rebirth, spring, Heaven, and the afterlife in order to paint a picture of his wife becoming one with the daises.