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What Is the Function of Metaphor in Poetry?

Metaphor in poetry acts as a bridge, connecting the tangible to the abstract, allowing readers to experience concepts in a visceral way. It paints vivid imagery in the mind, evoking emotions and unlocking deeper layers of meaning. How does metaphor shape your understanding of the poems you love? Join the conversation and share your insights.
Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

The function of metaphor in poetry is to talk about one object or situation while alluding to another. It is used as a means of explanation. It is used as a figure of speech and as a form of analogy. Famous examples of the metaphor in poetry include “Cut” by Sylvia Plath, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and “The Country of the Blind” by C.S. Lewis.

In Ancient Greece, Aristotle believed there were only four types of metaphor. Of these four, only analogy is still considered an element of metaphor. The other three are now considered to be elements of metonymy and synecdoche. Regardless of the other three, Aristotle believed that analogy was the most important of all.

Linking love to the heart is an example of metaphor in poetry.
Linking love to the heart is an example of metaphor in poetry.

A metaphor is different to a kenning. A kenning is the replacement of a noun with a pair of other nouns alluding to the original noun. For example, the sea is often called the “whale road” in skaldic poetry. Kennings are not metaphors because they lack circumlocution and concept. Metaphor uses the direct replacement of one thing or notion with another and does not apply “like” or “as” as found in similes.

Aristotle believed there were only four types of metaphor.
Aristotle believed there were only four types of metaphor.

There are several types of basic metaphor in poetry. First, there is allegory, which is an extended metaphor often stretched over the length of an entire poem. Second there is catachresis, a type of mixed metaphor where a word is employed with a radically different meaning than originally intended. There are also parables; they also a feature length metaphor, but one that intends to offer a moral lesson at the end.

A dead metaphor in poetry offers a physical action as a metaphor for understanding. Absolute metaphors have distinct meanings that are often hidden within the poem and have to be deduced. Conceit metaphors are where the extended metaphor first offers a stage, such as “the world is but a stage” and then broadens it out to include subsidiary metaphors such as “and the people in it, its actors.”

Metaphor is important to poetry because it helps to explain emotions in other, simpler, terms. As Aristotle stated in his “Poetics,” the difference between histories and poems is that poems explain emotions while histories explain events. Metaphors also explain qualities using the same methods.

The use of the metaphor in poetry has led to the association of certain symbols and qualities or emotions. Love is linked to the heart, while all neuroscientists will say that love comes from the brain. Such poetic metaphors have, therefore, become part of everyday life.

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Discussion Comments


@indigomoth - I think it's just a matter of using it like a seasoning rather than basing the whole poem around it. People really do think they should make their poems as clever as possible, and that's just confusing.

The best poems are clever, but also very clear. Otherwise they come across as elitist and simply boring. After all, we don't have to read poetry these days. You want people to want to read your poems and if they are full of confusing metaphors, they aren't going to want to.


@KoiwiGal - Metaphor does get misused in poetry all the time, particularly by beginner poets, but that doesn't mean it should never be used.

I don't think the only purpose of poetry is to get across a bare meaning but to get across something beautiful or perhaps emotional.

And sometimes the only way you can convey how beautiful a thing is, or how powerfully it can make you feel, is by comparing it to something else.

The famous example of "All the world's a stage" is a really good one. You couldn't convey all that meaning and association in any other way, at least without being much less concise and lovely.

And dead metaphors are often quite loaded with meaning. When you say you "grasp the meaning", for example, that's a "dead" metaphor because there's an action but no object.

Or you might say "...and then it hit me". That's not particularly poetical, I know, but how else could you describe that particular kind of realization easily, quickly and with the right kind of impact?

Metaphor is definitely useful in some cases.


Metaphor is not as popular in poetry as it used to be, probably because people began to associate it so heavily with poetry that they began to misuse it.

When I was studying poetry, I started off writing poems with a lot of metaphor in them but my tutor was constantly telling me to cut it out. It was much better, she told me, to just say what I meant plainly, as the metaphors were not adding much to the poems and were just making them more difficult to understand.

It was something I had to learn, which I still have to remind myself sometimes. The purpose of poetry is to illuminate, not to obscure.

If a metaphor is going to make something easier to understand, then keep it. If it's just there to make you look clever, then you should cut it away and say what you want to say directly.

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    • Linking love to the heart is an example of metaphor in poetry.
      By: Hedgehog
      Linking love to the heart is an example of metaphor in poetry.
    • Aristotle believed there were only four types of metaphor.
      By: Panos
      Aristotle believed there were only four types of metaphor.