Through their descriptions of scenes, authors can appeal to more than one sense and therefore associate those senses with one another. Examples of synesthesia in literature are usually associated with similes. For example, saying one experience is “like” another and therefore combining those senses together.
Definition of Synesthesia
Synesthesia is a literary term that refers to the combination of sensory imagery in order to create a more evocative experience for the reader. When the technique is used, the writer uses multiple senses, sight, sound, taste, touch, etc., in order to depict a scene in the best possible detail. By appealing to more than one sense, readers will get a more fulsome picture of what’s happening. This technique can be found in poetry, prose, plays, and other literary works.
The word “synesthesia” is usually used to refer to a medical condition in which one links senses, sometimes experiencing all of them at once, in real life. They might hear a sound or smell a feeling. The literary technique is taken from this experience. If a writer can convey a similar experience, they’re likely able to create interesting imagery.
In some instances, a character with synesthesia, known as a synesthete, is present in the story. Then, as they describe their experiences, the reader can try to imagine them.
Examples of Synesthesia in Literature
‘A Tuft of Flowers’ is a poem about the lives of simple, hardworking people. As it progresses, it takes a more mystical turn. It includes the following lines:
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground
When speaking about the dawn, Frost’s speaker says that while looking at it, he heard the “wakening birds around.” This unites the common elements of the morning, combining them into a thoughtful description of what it’s like to see and hear the sun come up.
Discover Robert Frost’s poetry.
There are a few examples of synesthesia in ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ a poem that was written in 1819 and is one of Keats’ longest odes. He wrote it after being struck by the melancholy singing of a nightingale bird. Here is the first example:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun burnt mirth!
In these lines, Keats suggests that the “vintage” he’s longing for tastes like “country green / Dance, Provencal song, and sun burnt mirth.” This combines numerous experiences into one that readers should find quite memorable and beautiful.
Read more John Keats poems.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet uses synesthesia in the following lines:
E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.
Here, he’s describing a place where the “sun is silent.” This suggests that one can hear the sun normally, and when it quiets, one’s experience of the world changes. He’s relating the presence of its heat and light to another sense that one doesn’t normally associate with the sun. By saying the sun “is silent,” he’s asking the reader to consider the sun in a new way. He could’ve gone with a simpler description but chose this one to make the passage more interesting.
“Salomé” by Oscar Wilde
In this one of Wilde’s most commonly performed plays, readers can find a beautiful quote that uses synesthesia. Salomé speaks the following lines:
In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music. Ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me, Jokanaan?
In this passage, she says that when she looked at “thee,” she “heard a strange music.” This is a way of alluding to the experience of synesthesia without directly conveying it. It adds a mystery to the text that fits with Salomé’s personality.
Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Synesthesia?
Writers use this literary technique when they want to elevate the imagery in their writing. It can be overused, but mostly when a writer employs it successfully it benefits the overall quality of the writing. It asks readers to rethink what they know about an experience or a sense and look at it in a new light. It can also make the writer’s work all the more memorable. The more vivid a piece of writing is, the more likely a reader will enjoy and remember it.
Synesthesia is the use of human senses to describe an experience in which they overlap and trigger one another. For example, hearing a taste and smelling a texture.
It is an important literary technique due to how it can unite various experiences together. For instance, helping the reader understand what the sun feels like, sounds like, and what textures it reminds the narrator of.
In real life, it depends on the person who has it. In literature, it is usually a positive attribute for writing to have.
Synesthesia is used when writers create a character who experiences the medical condition and uses their experience as a first-person narration. Or when the writer is trying to create a more memorable descriptive passage.
In ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost, he presents the reader with the following example of synesthesia: “That made me hear the wakening birds around, / And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground.”
Related Literary Terms
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Kinesthesia: depicts movement in text. It is a type of imagery that helps readers see the movements someone makes in prose and verse.
- Personification: a literary device that refers to the projection of human characteristics onto inanimate objects to create imagery.
- Perspective: the lens through which the reader experiences a story, film, television series, or poem.
- Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective.