On Imagery & Poetry: Ode to Autumn & the Five Senses

Something Different

I’ve been writing a fair amount of analysis centered on meter. So I thought I’d take some time to focus on imagery, how it has been used during different times, what it tells us about poets, which poets use imagery well, which don’t… Etc.

I’ve been tempted to enter into some of the theoretical conversation surrounding current trends in poetry: poetry in academia; the various schools and their aesthetics; theories of composition, schools of criticism, etc… But, there are many other blogs devoted to these matters and, to be honest, the subject matter bores me. The posts that interest me the most are those that help me write better poems.

At the end of the day, all the chatter about schools, aesthetics and criticism will be relegated to graduate programs, as always. What’s left behind and what matters, to the rest of the world, is the poetry itself. Learn to write well and you will be remembered.

Anyway… somewhat like my first post on Iambic Pentameter, this ought to be a post on the basics of imagery.

What is it?

I’m sure, if you search thoroughly, you can find dazzlingly complex and arcane definitions of what does and doesn’t constitute poetic imagery. princeton-encyclopediaRather than begin this post with an exhaustive retrospective of what this or that critic, poet, dictionary, or encyclopedia considers imagery, I’ll limit myself to just one “official” source, then dandle with imagery on my own. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics starts with Image, then proceeds to Imagery – almost ten pages of double-column, small type explication. The subject deserves it and it’s worth reading. I’ll just offer up the first paragraph:

Image and Imagery are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in the poetic theory, occuring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously, a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech; a concrete verbal reference; a recurrent motif; a psychological event in the reader’s mind; the vehicle or second term of a metaphor; a symbol or symbolic pattern; or the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

The Encyclopedia then goes on to explain how imagery was used and understood from the Elizabethans through moderns. Good stuff.

My Own Take

I’m not sure how I’ll develop these posts, but the following seems like a good place to start:

  • At its most basic level, an Image is anything that evokes any of the fives senses:

Visual (Sight)
Aural (Sound)
Sensation (Touch)

If you are writing poetry, keep this list next to you. Princeton states that “although imagery has come to be regarded as an essentially poetic device, many good poems contain little or no imagery.” [p. 564] Note that Princeton does not say “many great poems”. All poems that have withstood the test of time, that are now universally read and considered to be great poems, are distinguished, in part, by the genius of their imagery. John Keats - StatueThe centrality of imagery to poetry’s power is not unique. Great novelists are also distinguished by their evocative prose .

While I don’t suggest you compulsively stuff your poem with one each of the five senses, keep the list next to you. Think about what senses you are evoking in your poetry. The vast majority of poets, especially those lacking practice and experience, will usually limit themselves to the visual.

Perhaps the greatest poet, in this regard, was Keats. He was keenly aware of the world: its sounds, tastes, texture and smells. His sensitivity and the delicacy of his imagery is part and parcel of his genius. I’ve color coded one of his most famous poems, the Ode to Autumn, to help readers visually appreciate his use of imagery. (I’ve already analyzed the poem for its meaning and meter in a previous post.) Considered among the greatest poems of the English language, it’s rich and evocative imagery is essential to its reputation.

All Five Senses

Notice how Keats touches on all five senses. The poet fully engages us in the experience of autumn. There’s nothing that will add more power to your poetry than inviting the reader into your sensory world. The range of Keats’s imagery adds immediacy. Without it, the poem would have the feel of an intellectual exercise – an essay.

Sensory Clusters

Notice too, by the color coding, that you can see Keats’s mind works. There are image clusters. The first stanza is primarily visual. Sight is our pre-emininent sensory experience, Keats knows it, and so the first stanza creates the poem’s setting. But before the close of the first stanza, he dwells on sensation (touch): the warmth of the day, the clammy cells, the soft-lifted hair. I’ve tentatively included the winnowing wind as a sensation since we can both see and feel the wind .

The second moves us back to the visual experience of autumn. The fume of poppies engages our sense of smell – which scientists claim to be our most associative sense.  But notice what happens in the third stanza. With a kind of deliberateness, Keats’s verse o’erbrims with aural imagery. Keats’s visual terrain is filled with sound: the wailful choirs of mourning gnats, the lambs loud bleating, the singing of the crickets, the treble-soft whistles of the redbreast as the swallows twitter.

The cluster of aural imagery is deliberate. Beginning with the wailful choirs and mourning gnats, they effectively communicate a sense of autumnal loss that would have been more difficult to communicate solely through visual imagery.

Verbal Imagery

Keats’s use of verbal imagery (and his use of anthimeria) is also worth considering. Consider the first stanza:

The use of swell and plump are visual cues, as is  the adverbial budding more. O’erbrimmed is a lovely example of anthimeria “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . O’erbrimmed is also an example of verbal metaphor – in that summer is “like” a cup that is overfull (though the words like or as are omitted).

The use of “verbal imagery” adds vitality and dynamism to the mostly nominal and static imagery. It is also among the most difficult of poetic techniques to master. Keats learned the technique from Shakespeare who, more than any poet before or since, could  brilliantly and ingeniously coin new words and put old words to new grammatical uses. When poets do it well, we see the world in new ways.

Aural (Sound)
Sensation (

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think
warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,

Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the
soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft,
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud
bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What’s Next

Examining more poems! I still haven’t decided on the next poet or poem , but the best imagery leads on to metaphor. And limiting myself to imagery means I can look at free verse poets too. So, if this has been interesting to you, helpful, or if you have questions or suggestions, please comment.