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Poetry of Nature: How Physical Laws Are Represented in Metaphors

Natural elements pack a powerful metaphorical punch in poetry.

Natural elements pack a powerful metaphorical punch in poetry.

Poetry Is Filled With Recurring Metaphors

Some metaphors are so common that they seem to overlap in nearly every culture's poetic tradition. Understanding why these archetypal metaphors appear across cultures is a matter for psychological and anthropological debate. As a poet, I can't pretend to understand the origins of consciousness, nor can I explain what a metaphor is in any neurological terms; however, I can dissect the emotional truths we find hidden within these recurring metaphors.

In this article, I will analyze three common nature-based metaphors and I will attempt to explain any connections that might exist between how these metaphors make us feel and the natural processes behind the imagery.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay


Smoke has been used as a metaphor since humankind first created fire. Simply put, smoke is the suspension of carbon and other compounds and elements as heat burns or melts inorganic or organic matter. Heat vibrates the atoms faster and faster until they move apart from each other, and the burning object either melts or bursts into flames.

Meanings associated with smoke:

  • Death
  • The ephemerality of life
  • A coming disaster
  • The fragility of memory
  • The transition from the waking world into the spirit world
  • The memory of pain
  • The shadow of war
  • The underworld

In poetry, the spiraling of smoke often represents the feeling of spiraling out into oblivion. The spiral dissipates as it spins, warm atoms vibrate faster and faster, moving away from each other rapidly. The spiraling of smoke makes the movement of the air visible. The invisible cycles of heating and cooling are made visible as well. Smoke is the aftermath of destruction, the memory of a violent release of energy. It's easy to see why this metaphoric image has never gone away and why it will continue to be used by generations of poets to come.

Shadow and Tree

Shadow and Tree


Given that there are many diverse species of trees and plants around the world, the meanings associated with one species of tree or plant may not apply to another. Think about the difference between hemlock and lilacs. That being said, there are common archetypical meanings associated with trees across many cultures.

Meanings associated with trees:

  • Family and relationships
  • Symmetry and bifurcation
  • Evolution
  • The mother figure
  • The father figure
  • New beginnings (new leaves)
  • The inescapable cycle of life and death (Autumn/dropping leaves)
  • The ancient patterns of history
  • Unity

Trees are made of many branches but all branches originate from an original source. This is ancient wisdom and it's easy to see why people would use the tree as a symbol of unity and the familial. Given that family, the seasons, and the cycles of life and death are inherent to all living things, trees are still one of the most common metaphoric images used in poetry today.

Snake River Canyon

Snake River Canyon


Water moves in all directions and can fit into any crevice. Humankind has assigned an onslaught of metaphoric meanings to water. Not surprisingly, water is one of the most common recurring images throughout all eras of poetry and across all genres of poetry. Water brings all of life together but also dissolves anything that lingers for too long in its depths. It only makes sense that the metaphoric meanings associated with water are a mixture of destruction and culmination.

Meanings associated with water:

  • Wearing down/erosion
  • Persistence
  • The turbulent nature of time
  • Tranquility
  • The life force
  • Adaptability

I find water's adaptability to be its most romantic quality. Literally, thousands of poems associate water with love. Just as love is fluid and ever-shifting, water takes the shape of any container it is placed inside of. Love is a feeling that shifts and morphs over time. Like water, love is a source of energy that flows and ripples outward across generations. Given how adaptable and transformative water is, it's easy to see why this metaphoric image is the most common image in the history of poetry.

Life Is as Much a Metaphor as It Is a Physical Thing

Knowing where, when, and how humans began shaping nature into metaphors is unknown, but continuing to analyze these ancient metaphors makes a reader reexamine his/her connection to the natural world in a positive way. Poetry anthropomorphizes the natural world, seeing the patterns of nature as mirroring the patterns of human life. It only makes sense that the elements of the natural world that we depend on, and use to regulate our bodies, would become the most widely used images in poetry.

To truly dissect humankind's complex relationship with nature-based metaphors would take two-hundred more pages. If you find yourself wanting more information and examples about the natural world's influence on poems and poets, I advise visiting the "nature" section on the Academy of American Poet's website.