What is imagery?

What is imagery?

Poetic and psychological

An image can be any mental picture:
• Literally, a picture that the eye looks on and the brain processes
• A shape that the imagination tries to interpret
• A verbal construct, which again the imagination and the brain put together to create a mental picture.

As it is in the mind, the processes at work are of interest to psychologists, and can be studied objectively and scientifically. But as pictures are also an art form, whether visual or aural, they can also be studied artistically and more intuitively.

Both forms of study will try to interpret the emotions aroused, the ideas conveyed and/or the purposes lying hidden. But the way these studies are categorised are quite different.


The study of poetry has a long history. Many of the terms used in categorisation have Greek origins, so the terms may sound strange at times, but need to be learned. The categories of imagery that you need to know are:

  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Personification
  • Conceit
  • Symbol
  • Analogy

You will also need to know what ‘association' is and how it works.

Metaphors and similes


Simply put, a metaphor is when you name something in terms of something else, but not in a literal sense. Thus:

‘My love is a red red rose'.

Literally it is unlikely that you are personally attached to a rose; metaphorically you are attached to a person who has, for you, the same attributes as a red rose.

But what are those attributes? This is where ‘association' comes in. What do we associate with a rose? And with redness? Probably, for the flower, beauty and fragrance; for redness, passion. In the culture we live in, roses are highly prized among flowers, carefully cultivated and sold for high prices. These attributes too become associated with the metaphor.

Notice there are other associations which we probably rule out. Literally we could argue that roses are usually prickly and scratch; their petals drop all over the place if picked; and they attract all sort of bugs. We could argue, too, that literally red could mean anger and rage. But culturally, our associations are pleasant rather than unpleasant, and the poet makes use of these.

Thus metaphors identify through a certain set of associations, often culturally determined.


A simile is when you say something is like something else, rather than identifying it with something else. Hence the use of words ‘like' and ‘as' in simile. Thus:

‘My love is like a red, red rose'.

The poet can control the area of likeness, for example, but saying in what ways the likeness operates: beauty, delicacy, preciousness etc.

We overuse the word ‘like' in our everyday speech. We often use it as an excuse not to be precise: ‘I felt quite emotional, like', meaning you cannot further define what exactly those emotions were. However, in poetry, a simile should work in the opposite direction, to further define something being described.

Similes are thus to help define, whilst metaphors are more to make a direct impact; similes are perhaps a little more logical, metaphors a little more intuitive. But the difference is often quite small.


Association can be of two sorts: public and private.

Public associations are culturally defined. Thus if you hear the word ‘bell…', what sort of associations come to you? Church bells? School bells? Alarm systems? Most of these responses are culturally defined. Bells in most cultures have certain significant functions, and we learn what those are pretty early on in life. These are the public associations.

But suppose we have some specific memory involving a bell: and when the word ‘bell' is said, that memory is the first thing that comes to mind. This is a private association, personal to us. Of course, public associations can also have private offshoots: you might remember one particular school bell, one particular church bell, rather than a generalised image.

Modern poets often use private associations to give emotional depth or poignancy to their imagery. [3T.S.Eliot3]'s poetry is full of private associations, either memories of places or people, or books read where he remembers a phrase. The latter associations are technically called ‘allusions', and his style of writing, frequently hinting at writers he has read, is called ‘allusive'. They often take a lot of footnotes to explain where the allusions come from, and become another sort of difficulty in themselves.

Wordsworth often used certain autobiographical associations, too, but he is careful to explain them, as in The Prelude. Most writers use fragments from their own past to create images in their present writing. This is what often gives them their emotional colouring.

Personification etc.


Children often imagine inanimate objects, such as toys, to be alive; or they imagine animals can talk and think. In other words, they treat them as humans.

So do poets, but when they do it, they call it personification. However they go further, including abstract notions, such as duty, honour, love. Usually they see such abstractions as female rather than male, and sometimes the personification is based on mythological figures.

Thus, in Roman mythology, Venus is the goddess of love. So it is easy to personify love as female, and see ‘her' in terms of a goddess.

Perhaps the biggest personification, especially of Romantic poets, is the figure of Nature.  Again, the figure is usually seen as female, even though here, Greek and Roman mythology would suggest a male deity, based on Pan.

The opposite to personification, making people things, is called ‘reification'. However, the term is only used in psychology, though examples in poetry can easily be found. Wordsworth sees his dead Lucy as a thing, being rolled round the earth's orbit with all the other inanimate things, like rocks and stones and trees.

Odes and apostrophes

When a poet addresses someone in a poem, this is called an ‘apostrophe'. The someone can be a personification, so a poet can apostrophise a flower, an animal, or an abstract virtue.

When a whole poem is addressed to a personification or to a real person, it is usually called an ‘Ode'. Thus there are odes to duty; odes to the west wind; odes to real people like Oliver Cromwell. Odes used to be quite oratorical and public, but the Romantic poets managed to make them more lyrical and private.

Pathetic fallacy

This rather odd term describes a certain sort of figurative language (‘figure' is just another word for ‘image') where the speaker is addressing inanimate objects as if they share the same human feelings he has. It is a type of projection. Thomas Hardy employs this figure in his poems and novels, but so realistically that someone remarked that ‘Thomas Hardy did not know whether the pathetic fallacy was a fallacy or not.'!  So winds sob or sigh, trees chatter and laugh, rocks groan, and so on.

If a poet sees the universe as a living being, then the pathetic fallacy seems a natural way to express this.

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