Poetry can take various forms but always expresses a message in a unique way, often with rhythm or rhyme. However, some of the most intensely expressive poetry is highly descriptive and uses language that creates images and feelings beyond that of other literary work. Descriptive poetry, unlike narrative poetry, is known not necessarily for telling a story but for its deep depiction of a person, animal or inanimate object. The feelings the poet has about this object are secondary to the description of the subject, so they don't get in the way of the visual imagery.
Several poets are known for their rich vocabulary and the imagery they produce with that vocabulary in their written work.
One such poet is Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist author and poet whose work was highly descriptive. For example:
Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.
Thoreau’s description of smoke is intense and creates a vivid picture in the reader’s mind with metaphors that compare the smoke to an “Icarian bird” or “incense.”
Other descriptions such a “star-veiling” and “shadowy” allow readers to compose images of their own of how the smoke must have appeared to Thoreau as he wrote this piece.
Another poet who was adept at creating imagery with her words was Emily Dickinson. Her deft ability is clear with this poem:
A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.
A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!
The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.
The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.
In this poem, Dickinson describes a rainstorm during the summer with such greatness that readers can imagine the storm in their minds as it starts slowly in the first stanza, “kiss[ing] the eaves…” and gains momentum as the dust is “replaced in hoisted roads” and the sunshine throws “his hat away.” The metaphors and vivid adjectives that Dickinson uses appeal to readers’ senses and create a lasting picture.
Another poet that must be considered when discussing descriptive poetry is William Wordsworth. One of the most influential poets of the Romantic movement, his expressive vocabulary creates stunning imagery for readers.
Here, he describes a woman with a great deal of symbolic language:
She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleam'd upon my sight;
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment's ornament;
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;
Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly plann'd,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.
Wordsworth's description of the woman’s eyes as “stars of twilight” and her hair as “dusky” creates a purposefully angelic vision of this "phantom of delight." He brings her back down to earth in the sencond stanza ("a creature not too bright or good") but the last line reinforces the angelic vision, yes, she is an earthly creature but still has "something of angelic light."
Descriptive poetry is literary work that displays the talent of those whose rich vocabularies, adept writing skills, and vivid imaginations come together to create masterpieces such as the ones of Wordsworth, Dickinson, Thoreau, and others.
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