Figurative Language in Poetry (2)
A symbol may be roughly defined as something that means more than what it is. Metaphor, image, and symbol shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In general, however, an image means only what it is; a metaphor means something more than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more too. If I say that a shaggy brown dog was rubbing its back against a white picket fence, I am talking about nothing but a dog (and a picket fence) and am therefore presenting an image. If I say, “Some dirty dog stole my wallet at the party”, I am not talking about a dog at all and am therefore using metaphor. But if I say “You can’t teach an ole dog new tricks,” I am talking not only talking about dogs but about living creatures of any species and am therefore speaking symbolically.
In literary use, symbols depend upon their context for meaning. Some symbols are generally accepted as universal and give few problems in their interpretation: the cross symbolizes Christianity; water symbolizes life; sleep symbolizes death; winter symbolizes old; age symbolizes death; dove symbolizes peace; sunrise symbolizes birth; sunset symbolizes death. The meaning of some symbols may be accepted by a group of people in the scope of a nation. For Indonesians, for instance, red symbolizes bravery and white symbolizes purity.
A personification is also called ‘personal metaphor’ because it speaks of inanimate objects and abstract ideas as if they were alive, had human characteristics or animal life. Thus, when personification is used, the speaker helps us to identify with non-human elements by giving them human emotions or characteristics, or to identify non-living things by giving them the attributes of animal life. In the line, “The screaming shells burst overhead”, it would be absurd to think of he artillery shells as complete human beings, flying through the air and exploding. The sound of the shells make as they fly overhead is being compared to the sound of a person screaming (metaphor) and so introduces connotations of danger and human fear. Here is another example, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground” (Genesis IV.10).
9. Overstatement (Hyperbole)
This figure of speech is a kind of exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. So, it makes things greater. Hyperbole is very commonly used in English, even in everyday speech. It is not uncommon to hear such figurative statements as “I could have killed him for saying that” or “What an uncomfortable house, I nearly froze to death.” The first merely expresses the speaker’s anger and desire to hurt the other person, the second, that the speaker was cold.
Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole, and is just as common as hyperbole. It exaggerates things below the level of literal meaning. The statement “Men have died from time to time”, for instance, exaggerates below the fact that men die every minute and in very great number.
11. Paradox (Oxymoron)
A paradox (or oxymoron) is a contradiction between two things that seemingly cannot be resolved. Literally, an oxymoron seems illogical or self-contradictive. However, figuratively interpreted it makes sense. Literally, “The pen is mightier than the sword” seems contradictory to fact. As weapons that share similar shapes but have different sizes, the pen is certainly not mightier than the sword. But when it is figuratively interpreted, it does make sense! If pens are not being compared to swords, but rather writing (pen as tool) to fighting (swords), the statement reads: “Argument is more effective than violence.” A simpler example is seen in the line, “The child is father of the man.” By realizing that the word ‘man’ implies one’s physical and psychological characteristics that begin to develop from his childhood, the statement makes excellent sense: “The man’s nature is formed or determined by that of the child.
Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using words that mean the direct opposite of what one really intends to convey. In this way, it may show ridiculous, contemptuous, or humorous attitude. Irony is classified into three types, i.e. verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony. Verbal irony is used when we wish to emphasize a point humorously or sarcastically. For example, assume that someone is trying to look out into a valley filled with smog and some minutes later she says, “What a lovely view.” A famous example of verbal irony, laced with sarcasm, occurs in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Mark Anthony, orating over the body of the assassinated Caesar, says one of the chief assassins, “Brutus is an honorable man.” The crowd (and the audience) soon sees that Anthony means just the opposite.
Situational irony is less familiar in daily speech but is often used in literature. In this type of irony, a discrepancy exists between the actual circumstances and those that would seem appropriate or between what one anticipates and what actually happens. If a man and his second wife, on the first night of their honeymoon, are accidentally seated next to the man’s first wife, we should call this situation ironical. When King Midas, in the famous fable, is granted his fondest wish, that anything he touch turn to gold, and then finds that he cannot eat because even his food turns to gold, we call this situation ironical. When Coleridge’s Ancient mariner finds himself in the middle of the ocean with “Water, water everywhere” but not a “drop” to drink”, we call the situation ironical. In each case, the circumstances are not what would seem appropriate or what we would expect.
In dramatic irony the discrepancy is not between what the speaker says and what he means, but between what the speaker says and what the author means. In this irony, the audience knows something a character does not. A classic example of dramatic irony occurs in Sophocles play Oedipus when Oedipus curses whoever it is that caused the plague in the city of Thebes; however, the audience knows, as Oedipus does not, that he has cursed himself. Despite its name, dramatic irony is not used only in drama but also in poems and prose.
Determine whether each of the following statement is literal or figurative. If the statement is figurative, mention what type it is.
- I’d rather abjure all roofs, and choose to be a friend of the wolf and the owl.
- In Cargoes, Masefield implies that modern times are less beautiful than former times.
- It was a terrible flight because the wind roared for hours.
- Parting is such sweet sorrow.
- The red rose whispers of passion.
- Many people would like to live long, but nobody is ready to be old.
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
- Bill says that he would like to swim with Liz in the ocean of love.
- A father must be cruel only to be kind.
- All the perfumes of French will not sweeten her little hand.
- The night is approaching as the eye of the day grows weakening.
- Wars are needed to create peace.
- All night I made my bed to swim; with my tears I dissolved my couch. (Psalm 6: 6)
- Allusion is a reference to something in history or previous literature.
- You want to know about a nation? Read its literature.