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The Function of Metaphor in Poetry

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Centfie writes, reads and analyzes poems from a psychological POV. See her book on Amazon: "Piece of Mind: Everyone has an Untold Story."

What is metaphor?

What is metaphor?

What Is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that ascribes imaginary qualities to something by comparing it to another. It’s a literary device of comparison that depicts reality by associating objects or actions.

The metaphor is one of the obvious stylistic devices that qualify language as poetic. Even ordinary, day-to-day language is full of metaphorical expressions. Poets use ordinary things that people can relate to in metaphors. Objects (living or non-living) in nature, actions, movements, and other things are often given a metaphorical value.

The writer designates one phenomenon or object using another, associating the first object with the qualities of the second. Metaphors, alongside similes, fall into the general category of literary "tropes." Unlike similes, the comparison of two objects in a metaphor does not involve words of comparison such as "as" or "like."

What Is a Trope?

A trope is a non-literal meaning of a word or phrase used for effect.

Metaphor Examples

In the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, the poet uses "the night" and "the shade" to signify pain and death respectively.

  • Line 1: "the night that covers me"
  • Line 10: "Horror of the shade"

Characteristics of Metaphors

  • The meaning of the word as used in the text deviates from the standard definition. Or, it may utilize a figurative word in place of a common one.
  • A metaphor creates a link between two objects (i.e., A is B).
  • In metaphor, an object being discussed may be mentioned by another word or name.
  • Metaphors may depict a simple comparison that involves two terms only. Conversely, they may incorporate complex, prolonged parallels. Therefore, an entire poem can be a metaphor.
  • Metaphors compare the similarities in the quality (or qualities) of objects. The objects might be ordinarily incomparable but have a common characteristic in a poem.

What Is an Analogy?

Unlike the metaphor, which is a figure of speech, analogy is a rhetoric device.

Why Is Metaphor Used in Poetry?

In literature, the use of metaphors is purposeful and intentional. I have come up with 10 functions of metaphors in poetry. These uses of metaphor may apply in other types of literature as well.

1. To Communicate Remarkable Perspectives

The meaning conveyed by a metaphor creates a link between the target object and the source, even though they may be different. Therefore, it gives the reader another perspective on the presented theme. Metaphors may be used to draw out the literary device of analogy by pointing out resemblances between two phenomena.

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2. For Memorability

Metaphors are common in poetry. They are sometimes absurd and outrageous, which can aid the reader in memorization.

3. For Aesthetic Purposes

A metaphor creates beautiful language and necessitates "reading between the lines." Thus, it can make a poem enjoyable and sometimes humorous. It can animate a poem.

4. To Enhance Meaning

The stylistic device of metaphor gives power to poetic language by appealing to the imagination and promoting the reader's understanding of the poem. A metaphor makes complex issues more understandable by relating them to something easy to identify with.

5. For Sensory Appeal

Metaphors appeal to the senses of the reader, especially visualization. Therefore, metaphors make imagery in poetry more vivid. You can associate the compared objects to each other and create mental pictures.

6. For Ambiguity

The presence of a metaphor in a poem creates ambiguity. The poet can hide the true meaning of their words behind a metaphor. The meanings of metaphors may only be understood by a specific audience from a certain background. Hence, the absolute significance of a specific metaphor is often at the poet's discretion. And if the audience understands as intended, they enjoy the poem more.

7. To Provoke Critical Thinking

Metaphors can provoke readers to think beyond the literal sense of a poem. Hence, using metaphors in poetry can promote debate and criticisms, which are drivers of enlightenment.

8. To Amplify an Idea

Metaphors are used to expand on an idea by describing it more. Through a comparison, more focus is drawn to what is being compared, thus giving it more weight in the poem.

9. To Create Symbolism

Since metaphors are comparisons, one object becomes a symbol of another. Where A is compared to B, object B represents the quality or function of object A.

10. For Euphemism Purposes

A poet may use nonspecific terms in a poem to refer to experiences or objects that are not explicitly named because they are considered offensive or harsh. For instance, metaphors are frequently employed in the descriptions of erotic experiences, political criticisms, or genitals.

The meaning of a metaphor may only be understood by a specific audience from a certain background.

— Centfie


  • Greene, R., Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., Rouzer, P., Feinsod, H., . . . & Slessarev, A. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics. Princeton University Press.

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.

© 2020 Centfie

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