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Metaphors in Poetry and Their Functions

Updated on May 22, 2020
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I read and analyze poems in a psychological POV. Check out my poetry book on Amazon Store: "Piece of Mind-Everyone has an Untold Story."

Definition of 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 which 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 inanimate items are often given a metaphorical value.

The writer designates one phenomenon or object using another, attributing the first object to the qualities of the second.

Metaphors fall under tropes alongside similes. Unlike similes, the comparison of two objects does not directly use words like 'as' or 'like.'

A trope is non-literal meaning of a word; a figurative word

Metaphor and Simile

Metaphors are indirect comparisons while similes are direct comparisons using the words 'like" or 'as.'

Metaphor Example

In the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley the poet uses "the night" and "the shade" to mean something else. Night signifies pain and shade signifies death.

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 the common one.
  • A metaphor creates a link between two objects such that A equates B.
  • In metaphor, the object being discussed may be mentioned without using its actual name, but instead, another word denotes it.
  • Metaphors may depict a simple comparison that involves two terms only. Conversely, it may incorporate complex prolonged parallels. Therefore, an entire poem can be a metaphor.
  • Metaphors compare the similarities in the quality (or qualities) of the objects. The objects might be ordinarily incomparable, but have a common characteristic in the poem.

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 of the world

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 of the presented theme. Metaphors may be used to draw out the literary device of analogy which points out resemblances between two phenomena.

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

2. For memorability

Metaphor in poetry is common, sometimes absurd and outrageous. Hence, aids the reader in memorization.

3. For aesthetic purposes

A metaphor creates beautiful language and necessitates "reading between the lines." Thus, it makes the poem enjoyable and sometimes humorous. It animates the poem.

4. Metaphors enhance the 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 it to something easy to identify with.

5. 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 metaphor in a poem creates ambiguity. The poet can hide the true meaning of his words behind a metaphor. The meaning of metaphors sometimes 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. Provokes critical thinking

Metaphors provoke the reader to think beyond the literal sense of the 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 the comparison, the focus is on 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 the other. Where A is compared to B, Object B represents the quality or function of object A.

10. For euphemism purposes

The poet may use nonspecific terms in the poem to refer to experiences or objects that are not explicitly named because they are considered offensive or harsh. For instance, metaphors for erotic experience, political criticism, or genitals.

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


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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