Figurative Language Terms

Posted: August 23, 2013 in Notes and Literary Terms

Here’s the powerpoint from class: figurative-language-terms

A text version can also be found under “more” with good examples, although it’s not organized as neatly.

Metaphor:      figure of speech which makes a direct comparison of two unike objects by identification or substitution.

Metaphors consist of two parts, the vehicle (the object being mentioned from which we extrapolate traits) and the tenor (the subject that is actually being talked about to which we ascribe traits from the vehicle)

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances

(William Shakespeare,  “As You Like It”)

[the vehicle is the stage, the tenor is the world (or our lives) – the things we associate with a stage, such as acting, the temporary nature of an actor’s transformation into a character, etc., are ascribed to us and the world in which we live]

Death is the broom

I take in my hands

To sweep the world clean.

(Langston Hughes,  “War”)


Simile: a direct comparison of two unlike objects, using like or as.

The holy time is quiet as a nun

(William Wordsworth,  “On the Beach at Calais”)

And like a thunderbolt he falls

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson,  “The Eagle”)






Conceit: an extended metaphor comparing two unlike objects with powerful effect.  (It owes its roots to elaborate analogies in Petrarch and to the Metaphysical poets, particularly Donne.)

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

(John Donne, “Valediction Forbidding Mourning”)

Personification:   figure of speech in which objects and animals have human qualities.

When it comes, the landscape listens,

Shadows hold their breath.

(Emily Dickinson,  “A Certain Slant of Light”)

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell.

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson,  “The Charge of the Light Brigade”)

Apostrophe:   addressing a person or personified object not present.

Little Lamb, who made thee?

(William Blake,  “The Lamb”)

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!

(John Milton,  “Samson Agonistes”)

Metonymy:     the substitution of a word which relates to the object or person to be named, in place of the name itself

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.

(William Shakespeare,  “Hamlet“)

A spotted shaft is seen [snake]

(Emily Dickinson,  “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”)

Synecdoche:  figure of speech in which a part represents the whole object or idea.

Not a hair  perished.  [person]

(William Shakespeare,   The Tempest )

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fire  [homes]

(Thomas Hardy,  “The Darkling Thrush”)

Hyperbole:     gross exaggeration for effect; overstatement.

Love you ten years before the Flood,

And you should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

(Andrew Marvell,  “To His Coy Mistress”)

Our hands were firmly cemented.

(John Donne,   “The Ecstasy”)


Litotes:           understatement for effect.

I am the American heartbreak—

The rock on which Freedom

Stumped its toe.

(Langston Hughes,  “American Heartbreak”)

[In this personification, Freedom did not just stump its toe, but was injured permanently.]

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

(William Wordsworth, “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways”)

[Wordsworth deeply loved the woman, and therefore felt deep sorrow not hinted at in these casual lines.]

Irony:             the contrast between actual meaning and the suggestion of another meaning.

a. verbal irony—meaning one thing and saying another.

next to of course god america i love you\

(e.e. cummings)

b. dramatic irony—two levels of meaning–what the speaker says and what he means, and what the speaker says and the author means.

I stood upon a high place,

And saw, below, many devils

Running, leaping,

And carousing in sin.

One looked up grinning,

And said, “Comrade!  Brother!

(Stephan Crane,  “I Stood Upon a High Place”)

c. situational irony—when the reality of a situation differs from the anticipated or intended effect; when something unexpected occurs.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last

Slouches toward Bethehem to be born?

(William Butler Yeats,  “The Second Coming”)

[The second coming of Christ is intended, but a rough beast will come instead.]

Symbolism:    the use of one object to suggest another, hidden object or idea.

In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,”  the fork in the road represents a major decision in life, each road a separate way of life.

In Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,”  “Cupid’s flames” symbolizes love.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Caged Skylark”:  “As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage” symbolizes man’s spirit contained within the domains of society.

Imagery:         the use of words to represent things, actions, or ideas by sensory description.

Night after Night

Her purple traffic

Strews the and with Opa Bales–

Merchantmen–poise upon Horizons–

Dip–and vanish like Orioles!

(Emily Dickinson,  “This is the land Where Sunset Washes”)

And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings

(Thomas Hardy,  “Afterwards”)

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson,  “The Eagle”)

Paradox:        a statement which appears self-contradictory, but underlines a basis of truth.

Elected silence, sing to me.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins,  “The Habit of Perfection”)

Were her first years the Golden Age;  that’s true,

But now she’s gold oft-tried and ever-new.

(John Donne,  “The Autumnal”)


Oxymoron:     contradictory terms brought together to express a paradox for strong effect.

Beautiful tyrant!  fiend angelical!

Dove-feathered raven!  wolvish-ravening lamb!

(William Shakespeare,  Romeo and Juliet )

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins,  “Pied Beauty”)

Allusion:         a reference to an outside fact, event, or other source.

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard

(William Butler Yeats,  “Among School Children”

[Pythagoras–Greek mathematician;  Muses—mythological goddesses of beauty and music]

In Breughel’s great painting, The Kermess,

the dancers go round, they go round and around

(William Carlos Williams,  “The Dance”)

  1. […] Sound devices and figurative language notes can be found way back here and here and here […]

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