A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another.
The biggest difference between metaphor and simile is that similes say that something is “like” something else, or “as” something else, rather than actually being that thing. These comparisons are used, just as metaphors are, to create a chain of images within the reader’s mind. These images should help to paint the larger emotional, conceptual landscape of the poem. There are plenty of examples in which similes are used just for the joy of language. A poet might string together outrageous comparisons for the pleasure of the way the words arrange themselves. This is seen most clearly in nonce verse. more often than not though, similes are used to make larger connections. They can help a reader dig deeper into what a poet was thinking about when they wrote a particular poem or even a specific line.
Example #1 A Lady by Amy Lowell
There are innumerable examples a close reader can find in poetry. But let’s take a look at one poem by Amy Lowell as an example. In ‘A Lady’ Lowell uses simple language to speak about a woman. Consider these lines:
You are beautiful and faded
Like an old opera tune
Played upon a harpsichord;
In these lines, the speaker is comparing a woman to an “opera tune” that’s played on a “harpsichord”. She reminds him of the romance associated with his instrument. As well as with tradition, elevated beauty and the pleasures of music in general. it is certainly a complimentary comparison.
Example #2 Sex Without Love by Sharon Olds
Let’s take a look at another example in ‘Sex Without Love’ by Sharon Olds. In this poem, the poet uses several similes to depict the kind of people who have sex without being in love. Her tone varies throughout the poem so often it is through these similes that a reader has to try to understand how the poet feels about this kind of relationship. At one point she depicts these loves as:
Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice,
While at another, later one, she says that they have face “red as steak, wine”. The real turn in the poem comes with the line that connects their love to the distress of a child given away by its mother at birth.
One more poignant example can be seen in ‘Design’ by Robert Frost. In this short poem that depicts creation at the hands of a malevolent creator, the poet uses similes to describe the seemingly coordinated meeting of “death and blight”. He says a moth in his head is “Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth” and that life has been mixed “Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth”. Lines like these, in which unusual imagery is introduced, help set the tone for the entire poem.