The meaning of language can be literal or figurative. Literal language states exactly what something is. On the other hand, figurative language creates meaning by comparing one thing to another thing. Poets use figures of speech in their poems. Several types of figures of speech exist for them to choose from. Five common ones are simile, metaphor, personification, hypberbole, and understatement.
A simile compares one thing to another by using the words like or as. Read Shakespeare’s poem “Sonnet 130.”
Author: William Shakespeare
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,—
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
as any she belied with false compare.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare’s simile in the first line is a contrast where one thing is not like or as something else. He wrote, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”
A metaphor compares one to another by saying one thing is another. Read Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”
Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
Author: Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.
Notice that Emily Dickinson compared hope to a bird–the thing with feathers. Because there are bird images throughout the poem, it is called an extended metaphor poem.
A personification involves giving a non-human, inanimate object the qualities of a person. Robert Frost did that in his poem “Storm Fear.”
Author: Robert Frost
When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
‘Come out! Come out!—
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.
Look specifically at the strong action verbs to find the human traits that are attributed to the wind and storm.
A hyperbole is an exaggeration of the truth in order to create an effect. Sometimes that’s done in a single statement. Other times it can happen with repetition like in Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Read the poem aloud. Notice the effect of the last two lines. The reader feels the tiredness of the weary traveler.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Author: Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Understatement is the exact opposite of a hyperbole. The writer deliberately chooses to downplay the significance or seriousness of a situation or an event. This is evident in Mary Howitt’s Poem ” The Spider and the Fly.”
The Spider and the Fly
Author: Mary Howitt
Will you walk into my parlour, said a Spider to a Fly;
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to shew when you get there.
Oh, no, no! said the little Fly; to ask me is in vain:
For who goes up that winding stair shall ne’er come down again.
Said the cunning Spider to the Fly, Dear friend, what can I do
To prove the warm affection I have ever felt tor you?
I have within my parlour great store of all that’s nice:
I’m sure you’re very welcome; will you please to take a slice!
Oh, no, no! said the little Fly; kind sir, that cannot be;
For I know what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see.
Sweet creature, said the Spider, you’re witty and you’re wise;
How handsome are your gaudy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlour-shelf;
If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.
Oh, thank you, gentle sir, she said, for what you’re pleased to say;
And wishing you good morning now, I’ll call another day.
The Spider turn’d him round again, and went into his den,
For well he knew that silly Fly would soon come back again.
And then he wore a tiny web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready for to dine upon the Fly;
And went out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
Come hither, pretty little Fly, with the gold and silver wing.
Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little Fly,
Hearing his wily flattering words, came slowly fluttering by.
With humming wings she hung aloft, then nearer and nearer drew.
Thinking only of her crested head and gold and purple hue:
Thinking only of her brilliant wings, poor silly thing! at last,
Up jump’d the cruel Spider, and firmly held her fast!
He dragg’d her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour; but she ne’er came down again.
And now, my pretty maidens, who may this story hear,
To silly, idle, flattering words, I pray you ne’er give ear;
Unto an evil counsellor close heart, and ear, and eye,
And learn a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly.