A metaphor is a comparison between two things that states one thing is another, in order help explain an idea or show hidden similarities. Unlike a simile that uses “like” or “as” (you shine like the sun!), a metaphor does not use these two words. For example, in a famous line from Romeo and Juliet Romeo proclaims, “Juliet is the sun.”
Metaphors are commonly used throughout all types of literature, but rarely to the extent that they are used in poetry. Let’s take a look at a few examples of metaphors in poems, which will allow us to see why they lend themselves particularly well to this form of writing.
Because poems are meant to impart complex images and feelings to a reader, metaphors often state comparisons more poignantly. Here are a few of the most famous metaphors ever used in poetry:
Metaphysical poet John Donne was well known for his use of metaphors. In this famous work “The Sun Rising,” the speaker tells the sun that nothing else is as important in the world as him and his lover.
“She is all states, and all princes, I.
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.”
In one of the most evocative metaphors in literature Donne is claiming that his lover is like every country in the world, and he every ruler — nothing else exists outside of them. Their love is so strong that they are the world and all else is fake.
If there exists a poet who truly mastered the metaphor, that would be William Shakespeare. His poetical works and dramas all make extensive use of metaphors.
“Sonnet 18,” also known as “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” is an extended analogy between the speaker’s lover and the fairness of the summer.
“Thy eternal summer shall not fade.”
Shakespeare is communicating that the speaker’s lover will remain beautiful and vital, though perhaps only in memory, captured in this rhyming couplet:
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Love, like summer, is a life-giving force, but both come to an end. However, the poet’s love and lover will live on as long as people read this poem.
The romantic poet John Keats suffered great loss in his life. His father died in an accident and he lost his mother and brother to tuberculosis. When he began displaying signs of tuberculosis himself at 22, he wrote “When I Have Fears,” a poem rich with metaphors concerning life and death.
“Before high piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain.”
In the example above, Keats employs a double metaphor. Writing poetry is implicitly compared with reaping and sowing, and that reaping and sowing represents the emptiness of a life unfulfilled creatively.
Keats’ metaphor extends throughout the poem, the image of books of poetry unwritten stacked on the shelves of the imagination leading to an inexorable conclusion:
“On the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”
The end of his life is represented here as a shore where he stands and meditates until he forgets the sorrows of his too-short existence.
Sylvia Plath's poem “Metaphors” takes a close and ambiguous look at her pregnancy through, unsurprisingly, several incongruous metaphors.
“An elephant, a ponderous house
A melon strolling on two tendrils.”
This is a playful way to describe the shape of her body as a pregnant woman.
“I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.”
Some believe these lines are a metaphor for her fear of childbirth, or perhaps the realization that being pregnant is only the start and she must now become a mother.
In this poem, Emily Dickinson uses a metaphor to compare hope to a bird. She personifies hope as having feathers and perching in the soul, singing without end. Most people can relate to the feeling of hope; it lifts us up, stirring feelings of freedom and levity.
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”
Dickinson focuses on the notion of hope because, even in times of tribulation, it may be the very thing that gets us through.
While poetry is an expression of self, it’s also meant to make the reader ponder new perspectives. Metaphors are the perfect way to leave certain ideas open to interpretation while creating a new reality.
If you’re introducing children to this form of expression, take a look at Metaphor Examples for Kids. It’ll be a great way to help them learn how to paint pictures with their words, too.