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Identifying Metaphors in Poems
A metaphor is a literary device that describes one thing or explains one phenomenon by using another. While examining the example of metaphors in the following poems, keep in mind the criteria I used to identify these metaphors.
What Constitutes a Metaphor?
- Words are not used in their standard meaning.
- Characteristics of two or more similar objects or actions are linked or compared.
- Another name represents the actual object or action being discussed.
- An entire poem can be a metaphor.
- Metaphors show similarities in the qualities of two or more objects.
Poets use ordinary things that people can relate to in metaphors. Objects (living or non-living) in nature, culture, and other inanimate items can all be used metaphorically. To learn more about metaphors and their functions, visit my article on that subject.
1. “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare
"All the World's a Stage" is an extract from William Shakespeare's play As you Like It. the words are a monologue spoken by a character called Jaques. Shakespeare often used metaphorical language in his writing, and this poem is no exception. The entire poem is a metaphor. It reveals the entertainment culture of his time.
The title of the poem, which is also the first line of the poem, is a metaphor. It extends further to elaborate on the idea and explain how this comparison fits. The speaker compares the world to a stage where people perform a play.
“All the world is a stage
All men and women merely players”
The poem continues to expand on the resemblance between the world and the stage. The poet uses a metaphor for birth and death. The world is just as a stage where players have to enter the arena and exit when the game/play is over.
“They have their exits and entrances;”
the term "bubble" is a metaphor describing a reputation that is created on stage. The actor in a play usually plays a part that doesn't last and is pointless. Cannon is a large gun commonly used in war during the poet's era. Hence, it implies risking life in chasing a reputation on stage.
“Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.”
A hose was a type of tight trousers or breeches commonly used by men in Shakespeare's time. "A world too wide" compares the size of the hose carried from youth in relation to how it is in old age. Furthermore, this metaphor is a euphemism where the shrunk shank represents long lost male vigor. Perhaps this refers to the state of male genitalia in old age versus in youth.
“His youthful hose well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank . . . ”
He compares old age to childishness in the sense of having no teeth, losing sight, and being helpless.
"Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;"
As you can see, the entire poem is a metaphor for human development in seven stages. According to Shakespeare, a play has various scenes that are similar to the seven stages of human life.
2. "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
Robert Frost's metaphors often draw from nature. "The Road Not Taken" is no different because of the natural objects he uses to create metaphors in the poem.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,”
The poet seems to talk about a literal road and wood. It’s possible to interpret this poem so. However, as the poem progresses, it’s clear that the poet does not use those words in their normal sense.
The metaphor creates an image of someone walking alone in the woods. It’s a figurative expression comparing different directions life can take after making a choice—much like the literal choice a traveler has in taking a road in the woods.
“And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler”
The act of traveling on the road and being a traveler is also metaphorical. He compares the choices he has to make in life and the limits they pose with the journey of a traveler. Hence, in life too he has to take only one route as a traveler would. Taking both of them at once would be impossible. All descriptions of the two different roads that follow in the poem are metaphors. Hence, the entire poem is a metaphor.
“I took the one less traveled by”
This metaphor refers to a choice he made in life which was not the ordinary one other people made. Metaphors in "The Road Not Taken" create ambiguity, leaving the reader questioning whether the title signifies the road that the speaker didn’t take, or the road he took and others had not taken. Furthermore, it gives the poem a deeper meaning. At first glance, it's a poem about someone enjoying the pleasure of a nature walk.
3. "The Poison Tree" by William Blake
At first, you’d think the poem is about a poisonous tree, but as we soon realize, "The Poison Tree" is not a literal phrase. Instead, the speaker compares anger and wrath with the fruit of a poison tree throughout the poem.
Other lines in the poem support his metaphor further. Note how wrath is compared to a living thing that you can grow and nurture. Also, it’s compared to a person who can hear and listen.
“. . . my wrath did grow”
“I watered it in fears
night and morning with my tears.
I sunned it with smiles.”
"And it grew both day and night
till it bore an apple bright"
Another metaphor in this poem not related to the tree is:
“when the night had veiled the pole.”
Here, the author is comparing night with something that can be veiled. Also, considering the entire poem has a metaphorical sense; morning and night here are metaphors. Since the tree is metaphorical, the garden is too.
“Into my garden stole . . .”
When the person in the poem finds their "foe outstretched beneath the tree,” this is also metaphorical. This poem is a figurative expression about the impact of anger on both the bearer and the person it’s directed toward. Wrath is destructive and harmful—similar to poison.
4. “'Hope' is the thing with feathers-” by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers is a metaphor comparing hope with “a thing with feathers.” Note the ambiguity. The entire poem is a metaphor. The speaker is not referring to a bird. However, as you read the poem, qualities of a bird become clear.
“. . . That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words,”
Throughout the poem, the speaker compares the qualities of a bird to qualities of hope. Hope and a bird have both similar and different qualities. The thing with feathers can fly away, but in this poem, it “perches.” The poet creates symbolism and vivid imagery. With such a picture of a bird in mind, it makes the poem easy to recall.
“I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,”
Also, the “chilliest land” is metaphorical because the speaker is talking about a bird that is not a literal bird.
“Yet, never, in extremity,
it asked a crumb of me.”
The poem is still about hope—remember that. In a literal sense, hope cannot sing and cannot ask. It’s an abstract thing the naked eye can’t see, but a bird can do these actions. This is also a stylistic literary device called personification.
"That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm."
The poet creates ambiguity and a unique perspective of the world here. A little bird is not a little bird—remember the title. The narrator in the poem is referring to “hope.”
5. "Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
The title of the poem, which is also a refrain, a repetitive line in a poem, is a metaphor. The phrase “that good night” is not the literal meaning of "night."
Instead, it means a state of mental darkness or blindness. The meaning becomes clear when you read the entire poem. At first glance, you may interpret the title in a literal sense.
"Old age should burn and rave at close of day;"
"Close of day" is not the end of the 24-hour day. If used that way, it will not make sense. The phrase signifies the end of light and the beginning of darkness. A man does not grow old in a day. Also, the comparison of old age to something which can burn and rave is figurative.
“Because their words had forked no lightning...”
“Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,”
“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,”
“Rage, rage, against the dying of light.”
The dying of the light, the flight of the sun, and that good night mean blindness and old age. The way the end of the day comes with darkness so does blindness and old age.
6. "If" by Rudyard Kipling
The following are instances of metaphorical language in the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling.
"If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;"
In a literal sense, you have a head, you don't keep it. And if you lose your head you are dead. Hence, the use of the term is metaphorical.
"If you can dream - and not make dreams your master"
Dreams, or hopes and expectations, have the possibility of being a master over you. This is an indirect comparison between the powers of individual dreams as the power of a master over a slave.
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same"
Triumph and disaster compare to impostors. An impostor is "a person who assumes a false identity in order to deceive or defraud." Sometimes you feel you are succeeding or failing when the real situation is further from the truth.
"Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,/And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;"
The poem is not referring to a building and actual tools given the context of the stanza. Rather it's about an individual's success in life when experiencing failure and having to continue pursuing "dreams" despite being weak
7. "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth
The title “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is a simile. However, the poem continues the comparison in the form of a metaphor.
The following are instances of metaphor in which the words refer to something else.
You'd expect a crowd to be a large number of people. however, he's referring to a large number of daffodils.
“When all at once I saw a crowd,”
The movement of daffodils is figurative of “fluttering, dancing, and tossing of heads.”
“Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
“Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”
The movement of the waves and the movement of the speaker’s heart are also metaphors for happiness.
“And then my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils.”
Additionally, the speaker in the poem compares the flowers and waves to “jocund company.”
“Wealth” refers to not the material but the abundance of happiness and joy. The standard meaning of wealth is an abundance of possessions or something desirable.
“What wealth the show to me had brought:”
And who has an inward eye? This implies the persona's thoughts and fantasies. He can picture the image as he relaxes in his house.
“They flash upon that inward eye:”
Since the poem starts with a comparison, it seems the “daffodils” might also have a metaphorical meaning, and not referring to flowers.
8. "I know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
The entire poem is a metaphor. The birds in this poem do not refer to literal birds, rather they are a comparison to people in two opposite situations. That is, those who enjoy their freedom and those who are not free.
“The caged bird” is equivalent to a person who does not have freedom, and “the free bird” is equivalent to a free person.
The caged bird represents people who are oppressed, enslaved, and restricted from achieving their potential in society. The caged bird" a comparison with people who do not have freedom.
On the contrary, "the free bird" is a comparison with people who are unconstrained and living a great life. The caged bird longs for such a life too. A caged bird cannot enjoy freedom like other birds.
Other metaphors in this poem refer to the main idea of freedom and slavery. They include:
"The narrow cage"
"Bars of rage"
"Grave of dreams"
All these are metaphors because the terms are not used literally. Can you recognize which of these metaphors are linked to "the free bird" and "the caged bird" respectively?
Even the singing of the bird is metaphorical. The beautiful song of the caged bird refers to the longing for freedom. Apart from being caged, its wings are clipped and its feet tied. So, the only freedom it has left is freedom of expression.
The entire poem is a metaphor. The birds in this poem do not refer to literal birds, rather they are a representation of the state of society. As in Maya Angelou's time when African-Americans were treated unfairly and faced oppression.
9. "No Man Is an Island" by John Donne
"No Man is an Island" by John Donne begins with a metaphor which is in a negative form, describing what man is not. the image of an island, in social isolation, alone in the midst of a vast sea comes to mind.
Then, the metaphor extends by describing now what man is. Again, using a metaphor.
"Every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main."
The above line can have both literal and metaphorical meanings. If you believe in the creation story, then humankind was made from dust. However, man is separate from the continent as an individual and he needs other people to make him complete.
"Any man's death diminishes me,/because I am involved in mankind."
The word "man" in this poem is a metaphor. The persona clarifies that "man" refers to humanity as a whole and not just the male gender.
"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,"
No one is standing somewhere to ring a bell. It seems during John Donne's time, death was announced using bells. Therefore, the bell tolling is a metaphor for impending death.
10. "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley
“Out of the night covers me.”
It makes me think of a veil. It’s a metaphor and also a literary device of personification.
Night cannot cover someone, but the image of someone being covered by the night brings a vivid image of the night. Furthermore, as you read the poem, you realize “night” does not imply its ordinary meaning, rather it refers to a time of darkness in the speaker’s life, which is not physical darkness.
The speaker is comparing circumstances as they are to a clutch. Also, personification here, whereby an inanimate object is given human qualities. Circumstances cannot clutch someone with a forceful grip, but it’s an abstract depiction.
Also, the metaphor for war, whereby he compares the action of chance, or fate, to being beaten with bludgeons, but as in battle he refuses to give up and remains “unbowed”
"...Horror of the shade"
The term “shade” is not used in its literal sense, although it creates a vivid mental picture. Shade indicates looming dark times again, which is terrifying.
“...menace of the years”
It's not the years with 365 days that are dangerous, but the circumstances he will go through those coming year are.
“... how strait the gate”
It's definitely not a physical gate. It refers to a difficult situation. He's saying, no matter how difficult the situation is, he will go through. Read an in-depth analysis of "Invictus."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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