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Figurative Language

That orbed maiden, with white fire laden,

Whom mortals call the moon, Glides glimmering o'er my fleece-like floor,

By the midnight breezes strewn; And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,

Which only the angels hear,

May have broken the woof of my tent's thin roof

The stars peep behind her and peer; And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,

Like a swarm of golden bees, When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,

Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas, Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high

Are paved with the moon and these.

Observe that in the first selection the author calls the moon a maiden; speaks of her light as white fire; thinks of her as having feet; of the sky as a tent; of the stars as being like a swarm of bees; of the rivers, lakes, and seas as being like strips of the sky.

All these expressions are in figurative language. While poets use these figures more than other writers, the English language is full of expressions which in their origin are figurative.

Try to see in the expressions in italics any differences in the way of putting the figurative language. It will be found that the moon is here represented as a person.

The figure used to represent inanimate objects as though they were persons is called personification.

Try to find other objects in the stanza that are personified.

Find examples of personification in familiar poetry.

Think why the poet calls the moon that orbed maiden; why he speaks of her as with white fire laden; why he speaks of the heavens as a fleece-like floor; why he speaks of the moon's motion as a movement of unseen feet; why the sky is called a tent; the broken clouds the woof.

It is evident that the poet has here given expression to the resemblances that he has seen with his poetical vision.

Observe that no word expresses the comparison or likeness between the moon and a maiden; it is left for the reader to see for himself.

The figure which expresses an implied comparison is a metaphor.

Try to find other metaphors in the stanza.

Farther on in the stanza observe that the author says the stars are like a swarm of golden bees. See how this figure differs from the metaphor. Here we see an expressed comparison.

A simile is an expressed comparison.

Find another simile in the stanza.

Personification, metaphor, and simile are most effectively used by the poets.

Poets have the power of seeing resemblances that the ordinary mind fails to see.

In using these figures in written or spoken language care should be taken that the figure is impressive, elevated, and in harmony with the thing with which it is compared.

Study carefully the following sentences. Be sure that you get their full meaning.

1. He giveth bread to the hungry.

2. Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood; Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest; Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

3. Come, trip with me a measure.

4. A tyrant's power in rigor is expressed,

The father yearns in the true prince's breast.

These sentences illustrate another figure of speech. Observe that bread, a particular kind of food, is put for food in general. Hampden the individual is put for all who withstand oppression; Milton, for any singer; Cromwell, for any liberator; measure, an attribute of a dance, for a dance; father, the concrete person, for the abstract fatherly affection.

Synecdoche is the figure of speech that puts the species for the genus, the genus for the species, the concrete for the abstract, the abstract for the concrete, a definite for an indefinite number, a part for the whole, or the whole for a part, the material for the thing made.

Find as many examples of synecdoche as you can, before beginning the study of the next figure of speech.

1. The ermine did not prevent the unrighteous judgment.

2. By the stroke of his pen Abraham Lincoln made manhood free.

3. He keeps a good table.

4. Gray hairs should be honorable.

5. They have Moses and the prophets.

In this group of sentences ermine, the symbol of a judge's office, is used for the office; stroke of his pen, for what was written on the Emancipation Proclamation; table, which contains the food, is used for the food itself; gray hairs, an effect of old age, for old age; Moses, the author of the Pentateuch, for the books.

Metonomy is the figure of speech which nuts the sign or the symbol for the thing signified, the instrument for the agent, the container for the thing contained, the effect for the cause, the author for his books.

1. He sacrificed home, happiness, life, for his country.

2. From the wreck of its elements it takes all at once a new and livelier and disembarrassed form; it arises, another, yet the same, a noble, full-bodied, arrowy stream, which leaps rejoicing over obstacles, and hastens toward a freer existence and a final union in the boundless and infinite ocean. \

In the first sentence we find the series of words, home, happiness, life, - each more important than the preceding. In the. second sentence we find the members each more important than the one preceding. In the first member the adjectives new, disembarrassed, livelier, grow more important to the last; so with noble, full-bodied, arrowy; the same is true of freer existence and final union, and also of boundless and infinite.

Climax is the figure which uses words, phrases, or statements in a series, with each word, phrase, or statement more important than the preceding.

1. Men may come and men may go,

But I go on forever.

2. Favors to none, she smiles to all extends.

3. Gold cannot make a man happy; rags cannot make him miserable.

Observe here that in each of the above sentences two ideas or thoughts are put in strong contrast.

Antithesis is the figure which puts ideas or thoughts strong contrast.

1. O my Country, my life's blood is thine!

2. Ye Crags! and Peaks! I'm with you once again.

3. Blow, blow, thou winter wind, Thou art not so unkind As man's ingratitude; Thy tooth is not so keen Because thou art not seen.

In impassioned speech the person or thing spoken of as present is said to be apostrophized.

Apostrophe is the figure which addresses a person or thing in impassioned language.

The eight figures of speech here illustrated are the most important and most used by authors to beautify their writings and make their thoughts attractive and forcible.


A knowledge of these figures helps one to understand and enjoy the beauties of written language.

Find as many of these figures as you can in the following extracts:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert, That from heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest,

Like a cloud of fire The deep blue thou wingest, And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest

The Gladness Of Nature

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,

When our mother Nature laughs around,

When even the deep blue heavens look glad,

And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren, And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;

The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den, And the wilding-bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space,

And their shadows at play on the bright green vale,

And here they stretch to the frolic chase, And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a dance of leaves in that aspen bower;

There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree; There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,

And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,

On the leaping waters and gay young isles, - Ay, look, and he'll smile thy gloom away!

. . . Ay, but a spirit dwells Within our land that long ago hath fled Those ancient countries. Liberty! "Tis she That paints with wonder all our woods and dells, And with an aureole rings each mountain-head And writes a morning freshness on the sea.

But knowledge to their eyes her ample page Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll,

Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage And froze the genial current of the soul.

And, sir, it is no little thing to make Mine eyes to sweat compassion.

It is well in our reading always to picture place or act. To picture the person or thing described adds greatly to the pleasure in reading beautiful descriptions, and in reading of fine actions both the acts and the actors should be imaged in the mind of the reader. Fine sentiments and noble thoughts tend to ennoble the character that pictures them. The figures of speech help greatly to this full realization of what authors wish us to see, feel, think, and do.

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