Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context, that help get a writer’s point across. In most cases, an object, colour, or event is used to represent something else, something entirely different but in some crucial way connected. Other symbols might be words, people, animals, dates, places, or even emotions.
When considering the possible range of symbols, and what they can symbolize, consider the things that are meaningful in your everyday life. What can you look at in your room or house that means something to you? Is the bracelet a symbol of love? The scar a symbol of experience? The picture a symbol of the past? There are also less physical symbols, such as a smile, hug, or threat.
One of the most important things to remember about symbols is that their meaning usually hinges on the context. If your bracelet is in someone else’s possession the symbol changes entirely. It might symbolize nothing, or, if it was stolen, gifted, or found, something else entirely. It is up to the writer to make sure that the setting, characters, and circumstances all match up with what they want their symbol to convey. One aspect that a writer will not be able to control, and which may throw one’s well-crafted written ideas out the window, is the perspective a reader brings to a poem or prose work.
Examples of Common Symbols
Although many symbols are subjective, there are also some common symbols. These are if not universal, close to it. Consider these examples:
- The colour white as a symbol for purity, new life, or peace.
- The colour black as a symbol of death, danger, or mystery.
- The colour red as a symbol for love, passion, or even death.
- The colour green as symbol for rebirth, new life, and nature.
- A cross as a symbol of death, Christianity, or sacrifice.
- A home as a symbol of safety and peace.
- A mother as a symbol of comfort and care.
- A gun as a symbol of violence and fear.
Examples of Symbolism in Poetry
Example #1 Daffodils by William Wordsworth
The daffodils in ‘Daffodils’ are a great example of how an object like a flower, living and growing, can become an important symbol. It is through the context of the poem that a reader comes to regard the flowers as a symbol of freedom, peace, and happiness. They also speak to a very human connection to the natural world, one of the themes of Wordsworth’s poems that have made them so popular. Take a look at this first stanza of the poem:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Throughout the poem Wordsworth uses several poetic techniques that benefit its overarching intent. The personification of the daffodils as “dancing in the breeze” is only one of them. The next stanza of the poem continues to describe the flowers:
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
In the second stanza the daffodils become even more important. They stretch as far as he can see, “in never-ending line”. This poem is remembered for the image of the daffodils and since its composition and its growing popularity the flower’s symbolism has changed as well. now, whether one is familiar with the poem or not, the flowers are tied to feelings of freedom and peace. This is a testament to the power of Wordsworth’s verse.
Example #2 An Apple Gathering by Christina Rossetti
In this poem the speaker describes the plight of a woman who had a relationship before marriage, effectively ending her chance at a good life. Her strife and the unfair nature of Rossetti’s contemporary society is seen through an extended metaphor. It uses an apple tree as a symbol of a woman’s virginity and the lack of flowers, and then apples, as a loss of that virginity.
The speaker describes how the main character of this piece chose to pick the pink flowers from her apple tree. This choice changed the course of her life. Rather than wait for marriage and gather her apples when they are ripe, she engaged in a sexual relationship with a man who did not love her. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.
Although it is not stated explicitly, it is clear through the context of the poem (as expanded in the later stanzas) that the apples/flowers are representative of the woman’s sexuality purity.