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What is Imagery?

Imagery is a figurative device in which what is present only to the mind, is represented as actually before one’s eyes, and present to the senses.

Imagery is one of the more important literary device. It is regarded as the “heart and soul of poetryOpens in new window” where sensory details in a work are vivified by the use of figurative language to evoke a feeling, call an idea to the imagination of the mind, or describe an object.

In poetry, a poet merely implies his message using imagery which can appeal to any of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) and this is not limited to the five senses, it appeals to internal feelings too.

The language used to evoke imagery can be figurative or literal or both, as these lines from Elinor Wylie’sOpens in new window Puritan SonnetOpens in new window demonstrate:

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray, Those fields sparse-planed, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than appleblossom’s breath,
summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, lika a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

Figurative imagery involves metaphorOpens in new window, simileOpens in new window, and other figures of speech (such as metonymyOpens in new window, synecdocheOpens in new window, personificationOpens in new window, allegoryOpens in new window), by means of which one thing (vehicle) is said while another (tenor) is meant.

A figurative image may be said to be abstract or concrete according to whether the vehicle is more abstract or more concrete than the tenor. While concrete images are common, abstract ones are rare. An example of abstract images is from T.S. Eliot’sOpens in new windowThe Love Song of J. Alfred PrufrockOpens in new window”:

“Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question.”

Examples of Imagery in Literary Works

  1. “A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the Milky Way.”

    — Williams Wordsworth, Daffodils

  1. “On a starry winter night in Portugal
    Where the ocean kissed the southern shore
    There a dream I never thought would come to pass
    Came and went like time spent through an hourglass.”

    — Teena Marie, Portuguese Love

  1. “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
    It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
    Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;”

    — Williams Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

  1. “Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

    John Keats, To the Autumn

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