Meaning & Figurative language in Poetry

Poems are frequently written in figurative language and have meaning beyond the literal translations of the words.

allegory explication figurative language literal language metaphor personification simile
analogy extended metaphor hyperbole literalism oxymoron prose paraphrase



Figurative language – Language that means something more than or other than what the words actually mean

Ex:  Get out of town!  (means, “I don’t believe it!”)

Literal language – Language that means exactly what it says

Literalism – Understanding writing only in the strict sense of the words, in a matter-of-fact, unimaginative way.

Personification – giving human characteristics to non-human creatures or non-living objects. 

Ex:  The sun smiled down on us.

 Oxymoron – Figurative language in which a paradox contains a direct contradictaion.  Ex: Jumbo shrimp

Analogy – any comparison of two similar relationships (ex: “hand:arm :: foot:leg” = a hand and an arm are related to each other in the same way that a foot and a leg are related to each other); there are many different types of analogies...

 Simile – a comparison of two unlike objects using “like” or “as” focusing on one specific similarity

Ex.: Brian's hair is shiny like...

Ex.: Andrew is as fast as...

NOTE: Comparisons can be positive or negative

 Metaphor – a direct comparison of two unlike objects or ideas in which the two objects have several things in common.

Ex: Mr. T is a grizzly bear; he has a fuzzy brown face, he growls at people, and he likes honey too much.

Extended metaphor – a long, drawn out metaphor that makes a very detailed and explicit comparison - the two things involved have many things in common.  Sometimes, an entire poem can be one long extended metaphor.

 Allegory – An extended metaphor that tells an entire story that makes sense unto itself, while also representing another situation.  In other words, the story is symbolic.  Shel Silverstein's poem "The Giving Tree" is a good example of an allegorical poem.

Symbol – A thing that stands not only for itself but for something else as well.  It is the visible expression of a hidden meaning.  Some common symbols in poetry include the cross (faith, religion), the rose (love), and the sword (war, honor).

Explication – an explanation, often a word-by-word, line-by-line explanation.  To explicate a poem is to make it clear by explaining its meaning.

Prose paraphrase – A summary of the basic idea of an entire stanza or poem; a restatement of the idea of a text in words that are different but as close as possible to the meaning of the original.  The use of paraphrase is to help understanding, but the music and images are lost.  In fact, the poetry is lost.