Have you ever found yourself saying, “Those are two words I never thought would go together!” In everyday speech, people may draw comparisons between unlike things for effect. For example, the sentence “My dog is like a bear, but he is really a lamb.” creates the image of a huge dog that looks fierce, but he is also very gentle. In this example, two figures of speech are used to compare unlike things: simile, saying the dog is large “like a bear,” and metaphor saying that the dog temperamentally “is a lamb.” Some similes and metaphors are so overused, that they’ve become clichés like, “We avoid Pam like the plague; she’s a snake.” This again is both a simile, where “Pam” is compared to the “plague,” and a metaphor, “she’s a snake” where she’s called a snake, to convey that she isn’t trustworthy.
Poets use simile and metaphor to add depth and meaning to their poetry. The use of simile and metaphor allows poets to create poetic expressions and present information in an interesting, visual way by creating striking images. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to analyze simile and metaphor in poems and understand how these devices convey meaning.
Simile in Poetry
Simile is a figure of speech where different things are compared using the connectives “like” or “as,” for example, look at this line from a Beatle’s song, “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.” Here, the speaker compares his hard work to “working like a dog.” In this case, the two things compared are from two different classes: humans and dogs. However, if the things that are compared are from the same class, the comparison is not a simile. For example, “Heavy metal is like hard rock,” is not a simile. This is more like an explanatory trait of something and less like a comparison. Also in simile the comparison drawn is explicit where one thing is directly compared to something else. Can you think of any common similes that you have heard or used?
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Read Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Flint,” for a fun example of how poets use similes in their poems. Look at this poem’s firts stanza where the poet compares an emerald’s vivid green color to grass, “An emerald is as green as grass.” She also compares the bright red ruby to blood, “A ruby red as blood” and the brilliant blue of a sapphire to the sky in the line, “A sapphire shines as blue as heaven.” The poet uses similes to describe different precious stones and their sparkling brilliance, but she uses these comparisons to elaborate on the virtues of flint. Even though these jewels may sparkle and look attractive, the dull flint is the most useful, it has the ability to create fire.
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Now focus on the poem’s last line, “But a flint holds a fire.” Why do you think the word “but” has been used here? This seems to emphasize that even though the brilliance of other precious stones are comparable to beautiful things, flint doesn’t need any comparisons. It has the ability to create fire. So, though it may not look appealing, a flint’s potential is incomparable! This poem uses simple similes to look beyond the surface and see true potential.
Now you’ll read another poem that is constructed around similes: John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” In this poem, the speaker addresses his love when they are facing a long separation. Donne opens the poem with a two-stanza simile and goes on to weave some shorter ones into the rest of the poem. He uses these similes to show how the speaker and his love maintain an emotional high ground even when they are physically apart.
Read Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” In the opening simile of the poem, the speaker compares the parting with his lover to the passing of virtuous men, “as virtuous men pass mildly away,” who depart from the world quietly, without making a fuss. What does this metaphor tell about the love shared by the speaker and his beloved? This simile suggests that the speaker and his love will part quietly, without crying over it, because to do otherwise would reduce their love to a profane, worldly level, as expressed in the lines, “So let us melt, and make no noise,/ No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;/ ‘Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love.” Their love is not the ordinary love of mere mortals. It is on a celestial level. The simile reveals how the love that the speaker and his beloved share is not merely sense-based, it transcends the physical. So, for them, being apart won’t cause distress.
Now look at the lines, “Our two souls therefore, which are one,/ Though I must go, endure not yet/ A breach, but an expansion,/ Like gold to aery thinness beat.” The speaker compares the love they share to flattened gold to show that like gold doesn’t lose value, doesn’t undergo a “breach,” no matter how thinly it’s flattened, their love can also endure and overcome the stretch of physical separation.
From gold and great men, the poem moves on to compare the love between the speaker and his beloved to something surprising-the twin feet of a compass, “As stiff twin compasses are two.” The speaker calls his beloved the “fixed foot” while he is the other foot the one that moves away, but always stays connected to his love and always returns to her. “And though it in the centre sit,/ Yet when the other far doth roam,/ It leans, and hearkens after it.” This simile establishes that the speaker and his love may be separated, but they will always be reunited and remain unaffected by distance.
Modern feminist critics don’t love this simile. They think it reinforces women’s traditional roles: The woman is supposed to stay close to home to fulfill her domestic duties, and the man can go out on adventures and chase his dreams, while the woman anchors him. What do you think about this interpretation?
While the similes Donne uses in his poem depict the love between the speaker and his beloved, Emily Dickinson’s poem, “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes,” uses similes to describe how people go numb in response to great pain. Read “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes” to analyze the comparisons made. Let’s look at the first simile in the first stanza, “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” What does the comparison between “Nerves” and “Tomb” point to?
Nerves are compared to tombs, which are cold and stony. This shows how the person who’s facing pain is numb and unfeeling like a tomb. Also, tombs are ceremonious, and seem to connect to the “formal feeling” mentioned in the poem’s title. They are part of the funeral rituals and provide an external representation of the person who has died. So the poem seems to be saying that to cope with their loss, mourners become cold and unexpressive like a tomb. Using a tomb, they display in a dispassionate way the hidden “life” that they merely mark. Did you notice the use of “He” in the the line, “The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?” This “He” refers to Jesus Christ, and suggests that just as Christ bore the heavy cross to wash away the sins of humans, mourners carry a “stiff Heart” to cope with their loss.
In the second stanza of “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes,” the poet builds on the mourners’ inexpressiveness and coldness by comparing their feet to quartz, which is a mineral found in transparent glass. What is the “quartz contentment” that the poem refers to? An inanimate object, like a quartz, cannot feel any emotion. The best it can feel is contentment, which involves minimal emotion. Like a stony quartz, the mourners cannot feel deep emotions, but only contentment.
Now look at the poem’s third and last stanza. What does the reference to the “hour of lead” signify? The poet compares mourning people to lead, the dull gray metal, which is listless and lifeless like the numb people. This stanza closes with the simile, “As freezing persons recollect the snow–” This compares people who are suffering from a great loss to people who are freezing in the snow. They react to the snow first by feeling the shocking cold, then numbness sets in, and finally the numbness dissipates and they feel the agonizing pain and express their pain, conveyed in the poem’s last line, “First – Chill – then stupor – then the letting go -“
Metaphor in Poetry
Like simile, metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things. Metaphor draws comparisons between literally incompatible things. Unlike similes that use qualifying words like “as” or “like,” metaphors are implicit comparisons that directly state that something is something else, for example, “When I was working on getting all my college applications out, my dad was my rock.” This simple metaphor lends certain qualities of a rock to the dad: his presence and support was steady and stable.
Apart from simple metaphors, poets also use extended and controlling metaphors. Extended metaphors, also called telescoped metaphors, are a string of metaphors that build from one to another in sequential lines of a poem. Controlling metaphors, also called conceits, extend across parts of or the entire poem and control the development of the poem or a portion of it. Now, you’ll look at some poems that use controlling and extended metaphors.
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After Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that uses extended metaphors, now let’s look at a poem that uses a controlling metaphor. Read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy”, which has a single controlling metaphor that takes the poem’s theme forward. In this poem, the “caged bird” is a metaphor for people who are restricted, and long for freedom and equality, and the ability to do as they please. In the first stanza, the poet describes all the opportunities the caged bird misses out on because of its confinement. The poem depicts how the caged bird doesn’t get to enjoy the sun’s warmth, the soft wind, the sight of the flowing river, and the fragrance of a flowering bud.
The second stanza describes why the bird rails against the cage, “I know why he beats his wing!” fighting to be free from his imprisonment. This desperate, painful struggle for freedom is made especially graphic with the violent and hopeless quality in these lines, “Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” What does the line, “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars” imply? This line tells readers that the bird’s struggle has been going on for a long time. The third stanza describes how the bird, after it stops its futile struggle with the cage, sings “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,” hoping he will taste freedom someday.
You know that the “caged bird” is a metaphor for people who don’t have freedom, but who are the people that the poet has written about? When you consider that Dunbar was African American and that this poem was written in 1899, after the abolishment of slavery and the American Civil War, who exactly is the “caged bird” a metaphor for? Even at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century and after slavery was abolished, African Americans were subjected to severe and overt racism, particularly in the Southern states. In the poem, “Sympathy,” the “caged bird” can be considered a metaphor for African Americans, who were struggling for freedom and equal rights.
The impenetrable cage and the bird’s painful, futile, and prolonged efforts to free itself represent the long-drawn and bitter African American struggle to be free from slavery. Further, the poet depicts how, despite the atrocities and hardships they endured, African Americans continued their freedom struggle, even when they were “scarred.” The prayer that the bird sings in the last stanza refers to the freedom songs that African Americans sang. African Americans didn’t have all the opportunities and rights that others did. They struggled long and hard, until their voice was heard.
Paul Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy”, inspired Dr. Maya Angelou to write about a “caged bird” too. Read Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s poem has a “caged bird” like Dunbar’s, but also a “free bird.” What do the “caged bird” and “free bird” in Angelou’s poem represent? Remember, both Dunbar and Angelou are African Americans. Does this have any relevance to the poems’ themes?
You’ve read both Dunbar’s “Sympathy” and Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” How would you compare the poems? Does Angelou’s poem update Dunbar’s poem or answer it?
Maya Angelou wrote “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” in 1969. Her poem adds to Dunbar’s controlling metaphor of the “caged bird.” The “caged bird” in Angelou’s poem also represents African Americans and the racial discrimination they face. Angelou also brings in the “free bird,” which refers to people who have the liberty to do as they please, in this case Caucasians in America. The two metaphors serve to provide a contrast between the experiences of African Americans and Caucasians. The poem establishes that unlike the free bird who “dares to claim the sky,” the caged bird’s “wings are clipped/ and his feet are tied.” His dreams don’t come true, instead life is a constrained nightmare. Since the caged bird can’t soar across the skies he has to be content with just dreaming and singing of his hopes for freedom, but even that is done in fear.
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These metaphors serve to contrast the constraints on the African Americans and the freedoms enjoyed by other Americans. The “free bird” is able to enjoy the “fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn,” where the worms are a mini-metaphor that represent all the opportunities available to the “free bird.” The poem shows how African Americans were suppressed and not given the chance to discover their potential or fulfill their dreams. On the other hand, Caucasians had every opportunity available to them.
While Paul Dunbar’s poem depicts the oppressions that African Americans faced using the “caged bird” metaphor, Maya Angelou’s poem uses the “caged bird” metaphor and the “free bird” metaphor to clearly contrast the experiences of African Americans and other Americans. Dunbar’s poem, which was written right after the Civil War, is about the hard and long African American struggle for equality. Angelou wrote her poem almost seventy years later. Her poem depicts how the “caged bird” is still yearning for and dreaming of soaring free in the sky while the “free bird” enjoys the “breeze” and “fat worms,” and “names the sky his own.” Even after struggling for decades, African Americans continued to be discriminated against and the caged bird still “stands on the grave of dreams.”
Both Dunbar and Angelou’s poems were empathetic toward the African American cause. Angelou’s poem adds to Dunbar’s idea and highlights the plight of African Americans in a more effective way, by contrasting the plight of the “caged bird” and the freedoms of the “free bird.”
Did you notice that both poems focus on the caged bird singing? This singing alludes to the creation of the blues genre and black gospel music, which originated in the early 20th century, and also the freedom songs, which originated around the time of the Civil War in the 1860s and then again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Simile and Metaphor Analyzed
Now that you’ve understood and analyzed some poems rich in similes and others in metaphors, let’s look at a poem that uses both simile and metaphor. Read Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” or watch the poem being recited. Look at the question that the poem starts with, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The word “deferred” means something that is delayed or put off. What do you understand by a deferred dream? Do you have a dream that has been put off? What would a deferred dream mean to Langston Hughes? He wrote this poem during the Harlem Renaissance, which was the African American literary movement that originated in New York’s Harlem District in the 1920s. It was during this movement that African Americans found their voice and started to speak up against racial discrimination.
Read Langston Hughes’s poem and answer this question in 150-175 words: Identify the similes used in “Harlem.” What do these similes convey about a deferred dream in context of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance?
In this poem, Hughes asks readers a series of rhetorical questions, which are followed by a tentative statement, all using similes to compare a deferred dream to unpleasant things. The poem ends with a provocative metaphor.
The first simile in the poem has the poet asking if an unfulfilled dream dries up “Like a raisin in the sun?” This comparison suggests that a delay in fulfilling the dream will take away the urgency and purpose behind it, and the person will lose interest in it. To understand this simile, imagine that you really love basketball and want to play for your school’s team. You get onto the team, but your coach always keeps you on the bench even though you play better than your teammates. How long do you think your interest would remain?
From a dried raisin in the sun, the unfulfilled dream could become a painful, festering sore, “Or fester like a sore–/ And then run?” Someone whose dreams and goals are blocked is likely to become restless and violent, and lash out at those who are responsible for coming between him and his ambitions. Hughes asks whether the unfulfilled dream might start to rot, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” This simile implies that the dream may start to hang over the person like an unpleasant reminder of what he’s unable to accomplish. This will finally force the person to give up on his dreams since they’ll never be accomplished anyway.
Now look at the next comparison, “Or crust and sugar over–/like a syrupy sweet.” No, this isn’t to say that the dream will stay sweet. What happens to a sweet syrup, like honey or maple syrup, when you leave it lying around unused for a long time? It forms a crust and becomes inedible. Like the crusty syrup, an idle dream becomes useless and is ruined. The person’s useful, intelligent goals and inner goodness turn into idle thoughts of despair, doubt, and anger. The poem’s last simile is “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load.” Here the unfulfilled dream lies heavily on the person’s mind, and leaves him with thoughts like, “what if” and “if only,” ensuring that he’s never content with the little that life has to offer.
After all the similes, this poem ends with a metaphor, “Or does it explode?” What’s the comparison here? Readers are left to fill in the blank. What explodes? A bomb. By leaving off the “like a bomb,” this is the only metaphor, and not simile, in the poem. This rhetorical question acts like an abridged version of all the other questions and opens up the poem to more interpretations. Metaphors usually directly equate one object with another, but this one implicitly equates the deferred dream to an explosive thing. And because it is in the form of a question, this implied metaphor sneaks up on the reader. It’s question form makes it seem tentative, but its implications are strong.
While all the comparisons made in the poem are unpleasant, did you notice that the tone of the four similes is very different from the tone of the metaphor? The similes are more passive, they have more to do with the frustrations within the person. But the explosive metaphor is violent and is about external repercussions. In context of the Harlem Renaissance, when this poem was written, the metaphor suggests that civil unrest is likely to result from these pent up dreams and frustrations. Hughes builds from the unpleasant similes to this violent metaphor to convey that people’s dreams cannot be contained forever. At some point, they will express themselves forcefully and refuse to be ignored.
Think about all poems you analyzed in this lesson. Pick any one poem and write your own short poem modeled after it, using either a simile or a metaphor or both. While writing think about what kind of social commentary you’d want to make through your poem, how you would structure it, and what similes and metaphors you would use.
Simile and metaphor are figures of speech that are used in poetry to draw striking comparisons and make readers pause and think. If you want to completely understand and enjoy similes and metaphors, you need to not just look at each individually, but also relate them to the poem as a whole. Think of it like enjoying the entire pizza pie, instead of only picking on the toppings!
In this lesson, you’ve seen how poets use similes and metaphors to enrich their poems’ meaning and effectiveness. While Christina Rossetti uses simile to show how some things have no compare, John Donne elevates love to a spiritual level using similes in his poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” While Emily Dickinson uses simile to illustrate the numbness that overcomes people faced with unbearable pain. You’ve also seen how Shakespeare uses metaphor to make the approach of old age seem less harsh. African American poets like Paul Dunbar and Dr. Maya Angelou depict the plight of African Americans using extended metaphors in their poems. You’ve also read Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” that builds up through similes and finally “explodes” into a metaphor to portray the effect of suppressed dreams.
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