Imagery in Poetry
We experience the world through our five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. My experience of a sunny day on a beach, for instance, may consist partly of certain emotions I feel and partly of certain thoughts I think. But most of it will be a cluster of sense impressions. It will consist of seeing blue sky white clouds, and green palm trees; of hearing the crashing waves’ and swallows singing in the sky; of smelling salty air; and feeling a fresh wind against my cheek or moist sand on my feet. The poet seeking to express his experience of a sunny day on a beach must therefore provide a selection of the sense impressions he has, and the use of imagery (the collection of images in a literary work) will serve him best. By means of imagery, the emotions that accompanied his sensations can be evoked.
Images are essentially word-pictures which usually work by a method of association. This means that the images are created by associations that we make as readers within the linguistic context of the text. For example, the line “swashing waves and salty air” immediately creates the image of being on a beach in the reader’s mind, because “swashing waves” and ‘salty air” could naturally be heard and smelt on a beach. That’s why they are directly associated with the seaside. To take another example, the world “red” in “His face turned red after hearing he was betrayed” will be associated with “anger”.
Based on those explanations, it is obvious that imagery is a tool or an instrument poets use to reveal their intentions or feelings. Understanding the use of images, therefore, is very crucial in one’s trials to understand the essential meaning of poem.
Imagery, which is defined as a word or representation that appeals to the human senses, can be very various in poetry. Psychologists identify seven kinds of mental images — those of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinesthetic (movement and muscular tension) and internal sensation. All are available to poets, and all are used by poets, though not to the same extent.
Visual image describes something you can see. Visual imagery will describe a setting’s colors, size, shape, physical features and anything else that you detect with your eyes. Some examples of words used to evoke sight (visual) images are: picture, flash, bright, clear, see, light, dark, large, red, and gloom.
Auditory image, also known as aural imagery, describes something you can hear. It can be used on a large scale, such as describing the sounds of an earthquake, or it can be more subtle, such as the sound of footsteps on a wooden floor. Common words used to suggest sound (auditory) images are: scream, shout, listen, tone, whisper, ring, utter, noisy, and quiet.
Olfactory image describes something you can smell. Writers can use lots of creative license with olfactory imagery by assigning smells to unusual things. For example, anyone can imagine the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, but a writer can use olfactory imagery to describe the smell of a forest, a meadow or a summer night. To evoke smell (olfactory) images, common words to use are: pungent, fragrant, sweet, dank, stinky, musty, rotten, odor, or essence.
Gustatory image is something you can taste. Like olfactory imagery, gustatory imagery has endless possibilities for describing simple things in a creative way. Gustatory imagery can describe anything from the taste of a slice of pizza to the taste in your mouth before you have to make a big speech. To evoke taste (gustatory) images, poets can use words like sweet, sour, salty, bitter, fresh, juicy, burnt, zesty, and tangy.
Tactile image appeals to your sense of touch. It describes parts of the story you can feel on your skin, for example a kitten’s fur between your fingers or a cold wind on your face. Good tactile imagery should make you feel something as though it were really there. To evoke touch images, common words used are: hard, sharp, smooth, soft, wet, and rugged.
Kinesthetic imagery is a broad term that is used to describe various emotions. It includes sense of movement (swimming, running on grass, or throwing a ball), feeling (sad, calm, angry, happy), temperature (cold, hot), internal sensations (hungry, thirsty) and physical interactions (heartbeat, tension in the muscles or joints).
To illustrate the importance of considering imagery in poem comprehension, read the following poem and pay attention to imagery used by Browning in it.
Meeting at Night
The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And a blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
(Robert Browning, 1812-1889)Vocabulary cove (l. 5): small bay and quench (l.6): to put out a fire, or satisfy one’s thirst; here it has the sense of ‘stop’. slushy: (l.6): very soft and watery pane (l.9): one of the panels of glass in a window.
Meeting at Night simply describes a lover’s journey toward his beloved. It makes, one might say, a number of statements about love: being in love is a sweet and exiting experience; when one is in love everything seems beautiful to him, and the most trivial things become significant. But the poet actually tells us none of these things directly. He even doesn’t use the word ‘love’ in the poem. He just communicates the experiences of a lover who is going to meet his sweetheart. The journey is described so vividly in terms sense impressions that the reader not only sees and hears what the lover saw and heard but also shares his anticipation and excitement.
This works is a poem which the reader should see, touch, smell, hear, and feel in order to understand the meaning. Every line in the poem contains some image: the gray sea, the long black land, the yellow half moon, the started little waves, and the blue spurt of the lighted match—all appeal to our sense of sight and convey not only shape but also color and motion. The warm sea-scanted beach appeals to the senses of both smell and touch. The pushing prow of the boat on the slushy sand, the quick sharp scratch of the match, the low speech of the lovers appeal to kinesthetic images. Finally, the sound of their two hearts beating appeals to the internal sensation.