What is Imagery?
I’ve been editing a textbook for an educator who includes a section on the five senses and imagery, and this got me thinking. I questioned whether some of the examples were really evocative of the five senses and questioned whether some of the examples were even imagery (if they weren’t pictorial or visual). In the course of writing this post, I’ve hung myself out to dry. I’ve changed how I think about imagery and if my definition doesn’t suit you, feel free to ignore it.
If you go to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the entry under image begins like this:
“Image” and “imagery” are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in poetic theory, occurring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide any 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.
And this is why Encyclopedia’s aren’t always the best place to go for definitions: they have to represent all the various constituencies. Along the way we get a gem like the following: “The concept of “poetic imagery” is thus a kind of oxymoron, installing an alien medium (painting, sculpture, visual art) at the heart of verbal expression”. Any newcomer to poetry, having read Princeton’s overview, will probably depart in greater confusion than they arrived. Next in line is the word Imagery. Princeton discusses Imagery for 7 single-spaced, double columned pages. Fascinating stuff, but not very concise. The third section of the article is called “Recent Developments” and begins like this:
More recently the literary study of imagery has become at once more advanced and more problematic. There are a plethora of studies in speculative and experimental psychology, involving phenomenology, epistemology, and cognitive psychology, looking very closely at the question of what exactly mental imagery is.
Whenever the epistemologists show up, if there isn’t a corpse already, there will be. Ultimately though, imagery is like pornography, everyone knows it when they see it. The morally righteous have no trouble identifying erotica (which doesn’t have a shred of actual pornography) as, well, pornography. They know that erotica, like the best poetry, is rich with imagery; and that the thought of what goes on in a reader’s imagination is immeasurably worse than anything on the page.
My two favorite (and most practical) definitions of imagery are from the The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms and The Poetry Dictionary. They are elegantly simple.
Image, Imagery A mental picture, a concrete representation of something; a likeness the senses can perceive. (…) Many images, such as a “bracelet in a wheel barrow,” appeal primarily to the sense of sight. But an image can invoke the other senses too, as in a “sniff of perfume,” a “jangling of banjoes,” a “scratchy blanket,” or a “tart cherry.” [from the The Poetry Dictionary]
Now isn’t that a breath of fresh air? And from the Longman Dictionary:
image a pictorial likeness, literal or figurative, that illustrates an idea, object, or action by appeal to the senses. (…) Generally, images are of two types: fixed image, in which the picture conveys a concrete and specific meaning throughout its various levels of interpretation, and free image, in which the image creates a general meaning to be subjectively interpreted in various ways by readers.
imagery the use of pictures, figures of speech, or description to evoke action, ideas, objects, or characters. The term ranges in meaning from the use of a single IMAGE or detail to the accumulative effect of a poem’s figurative devices that imply THEMATIC STRUCTURE.
Both entries define imagery as, in part, a “mental picture” or “pictorial likeness”. On the other hand, they also each state that an image is something that “the senses can perceive” or something that “appeals to the senses”. (Interestingly, all the examples given by The Poetry Dictionary are pictorial or visual “images” that evoke one of the senses.) But if we limit imagery to the pictorial, what do we make of the following:
And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape,
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye…
(John Keats: Hyperion, I, 209-10)
The phrase, “fragrance soft” isn’t pictorial. It describes the rose’s fragrance through the tactile soft. Does this mean it’s not an image? We can’t picture a fragrance, but if it’s not an image, then what do we call it? My own habit is to apply Occam’s Razor to all things literary: keep it simple. The simplest thing is to recognize that Imagery is used figuratively when applied to poetry. We could divide Imagery into Imagery/Visual, and Sense Imagery/Non-Visual, but this seems needless. I think it’s best to interpret Imagery, when applied to poetry, as any passage that evokes any of our senses: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, organic, or kinesthetic.
Why was my first instinct to insist on imagery as strictly pictorial? It allowed me to talk about some beautiful and very rare imagery that poets are all too unaware of: what I would have called an “olfactory image“, “auditory image“, “tactile image” or “gustatory image“. I’m not referring to the “image” that only evokes the sense of touch (for example), but images that are pictorial/visual evocations of touch. Since I’m not going to divide imagery into imagery and sense imagery, it’s probably easiest to refer to this imagery as Synaesthetic Imagery.
What is and isn’t…
Interestingly, many poets who think they’re invoking one of the seven senses, actually aren’t. I remember reviewing Calendar by Annie Finch. She was genuinely surprised when I called nearly all of her imagery visual. But she’s not alone. The majority of poets, including me (though I try to be aware of it) hew almost exclusively to the sense of sight. Here’s what I mean. Take the example given by The Poetic Dictionary, “sniff of perfume”.
If the poet writes, “the dog sniffed behind her ear”, then the reader sees a visual image but the sense of smell is not invoked. This is strictly a visual image.
However, if the poet writes, “the dog found a sniff of perfume behind her ear”, then that is a visual image the also invokes our sense of smell. Why? Because a sniff of perfume describes what the dog is smelling (or found), whereas the first example does not describe the smell. Make sense? In order to invoke a sensation, you need to describe the sensation. It’s not enough to simply refer to someone smelling, touching, tasting or hearing. The imagery that invokes a sensation tells us something about the sensation.
- As an interesting aside: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics posits seven senses:
Psychologists have identified seven kinds of mental images: visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement).
Is there such a thing as a visual or pictorial auditory, olfactory or tactile image? Yes. And this imagery is some of the loveliest (and perhaps rarest) in all poetry. The only book, to my knowledge, that discusses this kind of imagery was one published in 1949 by Richard Harter Fogle called The Imagery of Keats and Shelley. If gaining real insight into the nature of imagery interests you, then this book is indispensable. It’s from Fogle’s book that I take the term: Synaesthetic Imagery. The first chapter, wherein he defines imagery somewhat differently than I do, is interesting (to me) but some will find it academic and abstruse. If you skip it, the rest of the book won’t suffer. Interestingly, he too rejects the notion of the image as solely pictorial. At the outset, he writes:
Another source of possible misconception is the common identification of imagery with pictorial representation, which has misled many who have accepted the sensory view of imagery into overemphasizing the element and excluding other sensory factors. ¶ While giving due heed to those objections to the word, I nevertheless employ it here in default of a better. In this study “imagery” will be used broadly to signify the principle of “figurativeness”.
The Visual Auditory Image | Sound
So, how does one write a visual auditory image? Like this:
Thy visible music-blasts make deaf the sky,
They cymbals clang to fire the Occident,
Thou dost thy dying so triumphally:
I see the crimson blaring of they shawms!
(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 103)
The extract is from Ode to the Setting Sun by Francis Thompson. And did you catch it? — the “crimson blaring”? This isn’t exactly what Fogle calls synaesthetic imagery, but it’s a nice term and I’m going to use it. The poet has used the sense of sight to describe a sound. This kind of thing is exceedingly rare and beautiful. The reason Fogle chose Keats and Shelley is that Shelley, to a certain degree, acts as a contrast and foil to Keats’ imagery. Shelley’s imagery is generally more abstract and “intellectual” whereas Keats’ imagery is more concrete and sensual. Naturally enough, some of the most beautiful Synaesthetic Imagery or Sense Imagery, is by Keats — well-known for the sensuality of his poetry.
Hyperion, leaving twilight in the rear,
Came slope upon the threshold of the west;
Then, as was wont, his palace-door flew ope
In smoothest silence, save what solemn tubes,
Blown by the serious Zephyrs, gave of sweet
And wandering sounds, slow-breathed melodies;
And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape,
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye,
That inlet to severe magnificence
Stood full blown, for the God to enter in.
(Ibid., p. 113: Hyperion, I, 209-10)
Here again, Keats blends sensations in the most beautiful way. When he describes how Hyperion’s palace doors open, a visual image, he creates a synaesthetic image of their sound — smoothest silence — a tactile description of an auditory “silence”. When the Zephyrs blow Keats first describes their noise as “wandering sounds” — a visual and arguably kinesthetic image — and then as slow-breathed melodies (an organic and visual description of the auditory “melody”). Keats describes the palace door with the imagery of a vermeil rose “in fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye”. Notice how fragrance is described synaesthetically by the tactile soft and how the vermiel color is described as having coolness to the eye. While these last examples aren’t really visual, I couldn’t resist pointing them out. They are equally rare and beautiful synaesthetic images.
You heard — the song the moth sings, the babble
Of falling snowflakes (in a language
No school has taught you), the scream
Of the reddening bud of the oak tree
As the bud bursts into the world’s brightness. (The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, p. 565)
In Muted Music, Robert Penn Warren uses the synaesthetic image of reddenning oak buds screaming into the world’s brightness to powerfully close the poem. The synaesthesia creates a kind of crescendo only emphasized by the word scream.
Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other.
Perhaps the most famous and powerful moment of synaesthetic imagery occurs in this passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Pity is compared to a wind which shall blow “the horrid deed” in everyone’s eye. It’s when Shakespeare combines this image with the visual imagery of the new-born babe striding the “trumpet-tongued” blast (both kinesthetic and auditory), that the imagery becomes brilliantly synaesthetic. The sound of the wind becomes the brilliant visual image of the new-born babe “horsed/Upon the sightless couriers of the air”. Herein lies the power of Shakespeare’s poetry – his sheer and unrivaled imagistic genius. To say that he was a Michelangelo of imagery might be apt.
The Visual Kinesthetic Image | Motion
At this, through all his bulk an agony
Crept gradual, from the feet unto the crown,
Like a lithe serpent vast and muscular
Making slow way, with head and neck convulsed
From over-strained might…
(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 97: Hyperion, I, 259-63)
Remember that Princeton defines the kinesthetic sense as awareness of muscle tension and movement. Notice how beautifully Keats describes the kinesthetic feeling of exhaustion and muscular agony like a “lithe serpent… with head and neck convulsed from over-strained might”. Clear cut examples from other poets are hard to find, but here’s a famous passage from Shakespeare that, while the imagery may not be strictly synaesthetic, deserves mentioning.
Aye, but to die, and go we know not where
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world…
(William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, III, i. Claudio)
Shakespeare combines the tactile cold with the kinesthetic obstruction. Because Elizabethan English was constructed nominally rather than verbally, the reader or listener isn’t sure which is modifying which. Is it the obstruction that is cold, or the cold that is obstructing? Shakespeare, who always liked to think in opposites, proceeds to “sensible warm motion“. The image combines the tactile warm with the kinesthetic motion. So far, we don’t really have anything visual, but Shakespeare goes one “opposite” further (as if such a thing were possible) and combines life and death in kneaded clod. Kneaded is both tactile and kinesthetic. It implies the ability to feel and awareness. Clod is lifeless, immobile and visual. At last, we are given a pictorial image of the lifeless clod combined with the paradoxically tactile and kinesthetic kneaded. Shakespeare’s imagistic genius pictures death as both a lifeless inability to escape and as a paradoxical awareness of that lifeless inability to escape. While these opposites may not necessarily be synaesethetic in a Keatsian sense, I think they’re worth including.
The Visual Olfactory Image | Smell
How does one make scent visual? Here are two examples by Shelley once again drawn from Fogle:
And suddenly my brain became as sand
“Where the first wave had more than half erased
The track of deer on desert Labrador,
Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed
“Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
Until the second bursts –so on my sight
Burst a new Vision never seen before. —
“And the fair shape waned in the coming light
As veil by veil the silent splendour drops
From Lucifer, amid the chrysolite
“Of sunrise ere it strike the mountain tops —
And as the presence of that fairest planet
Although unseen is felt by one who hopes
“That his day’s path may end as he began it
In that star’s smile, whose light is like the scent
Of a jonquil when evening breezes fan it,
“Or the soft note in which his dear lament
The Brescian shepherd breathes, or the caress
That turned his weary slumber to content. —
(Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Trumph of Life, II. 405-423)
Where else have you heard light described as the scent of an evening jonquil? If you ever wonder how to characterize a scent, don’t let your imagination be limited by what you smell. Think of smell by what you see, or taste, or touch. At least twice in all his poetry, Keats is reminded of touch, of softness, when he thinks of fragrances.
And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense…
(Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Sensitive Plant,I, 25-28)
I included this latter quote because, although it’s not a visual olfactory image, it nevertheless evokes an equally synaesthetic experience of smell — the flower’s odor as a sound, a sweet peal of music. The example that Fogle finds most compelling, however, comes, once again, from Keats’s Hyperion. He writes:
Taste-images occur with relative infrequency in Keats’s synaesthetic imagery, but such as appear are powerful and vivid. On one occasion he combines taste with smell to produce one of the strongest of all his sensory images:
Also, when he would taste the spicy wreaths
Of incense, breath’d aloft from sacred hills,
Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick…
(Hyperion, I, 186-89)
(The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 117)
We not only taste the poisonous brass but we see it too, evoking warfare and bloodshed. We visually see the odor.
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
In T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the tactile imagery of the sandy earth is transformed into a salt savor. This isn’t as strictly synaesthetic as Shelley’s imagery, but more like Keats’. Eliot was a keen reader of Shakespeare and Keats. It may be no coincidence that he used the same word, savour, as Keats. Eliot might well have been directly inspired by the passage for Keats’ Hyperion. Remember, it was T.S. Eliot who said that “good poets borrow, great poets steal”. If you’re looking for inspiration, don’t hesitate to steal.
In your light, the head is speaking, It reads the book.
It becomes the scholar again, seeking celestial
Picking thin music on the rustiest string,
Squeezing the reddest fragrance from the stump
(Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry & Prose, Good is Good. It is a Beautiful Night, p. 255)
Stevens always like to stretch imagery creatively and powerfully. After he wrote “rustiest string”, the color of the rust must have led him to the next synaesthetic image: the reddest fragrance. Like Robert Penn Warren, Stevens saves the powerful synaesthetic image for the penultimate lines of the poem. It’s hard not to think that both poets were proud of these images and wanted them to crown the closing lines of their poems.
The Visual Tactile Image | Touch
This is much more difficult to example. The tactile and the visual generally go hand in hand — if anything, it’s the difference between writing she moved her fingers over the rough of his palms or her fingers tripped over his gravelled palms. Sometimes the tactile can be applied in the most unexpected ways. In Endymion, Keats writes:
Where had he been, from whose warm head out-flew
That sweetest of all songs, that ever new,
That aye refreshing, pure deliciousness,
Coming ever to bless
The wanderer by moonlight? to him bringing
Shapes from the invisible world, unearthly singing
From out the middle air, from flowery nests,
And from the pillowy silkiness that rests
Full in the speculation of the stars.
(John Keats, I stood tip-toe upon a little hill, 181-189)
Perhaps Keats was remembering nights with a silk pillow under his head as he gazed up at the stars. Whatever inspired him, the imagery creates a visual and tactile experience of viewing the stars.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…
(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
T.S. Eliot’s famous opening to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock beautifully combines the tactile and visual when describing the motion of the fog. Some readers may argue that this is kinesthetic, but I’ve always associate rubbing with the tactile.
Returning to Fogle, he picks out another image from Keats and takes particular relish in it beauty. He writes:
Of a like complexity is this startling synaesthetic image from Endymion:
….lost in pleasure at her feet he sinks,
Touching with dazzled lips her starlight hand. (Endymion, IV, 418-19)
The interplay of sight and touch is very swift. There is a trade of “wit,” of conscious ingenuity, which lends to the image a certain flavour of modernity. The lips of Endymion are “dazzled,” of course, because the hand which they touch is “starlight.” But there is more to the image than its sensory content. Endymion is dazzled because he is dreaming that he is among the Gods on Olympus, kneeling before Hebe: a situation in which some bedazzlement seems excusable. (The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 112)
The Visual Gustatory Image | Taste
Perhaps the beset known passage typifying the synaesthetic fusion of taste and visual imagery comes, again, from Keats. Rather than steal Fogle’s thunder, we’ll let him introduce it:
The synaesthetic imagery of Keats reaches its highest level, however, in the complex fusion of sense, emotion, and concept in the second stanza of the Nightingale:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth…
Keats has attained to the utmost degree of synthesizing compression in this passage, packing into a few lines what prose could not have expressed in many times the number of words he has emplyed. (Ibid., p. 120-121)
Only the very best wine-tasting critics could dream of aspiring to this kind synesthesia. For Keats, the taste of the vintage draught doesn’t evoke memories of other tastes, but of a whole world of sensation: the visual Flora and country green, the kinesthetic dance, the aural Provencal song, and the organic and tactile sunburnt mirth. Top that. Right? But Keats isn’t content to stop there, the beaker is full of the warm south. Woe to the recovering alcoholic who reads this poem. I”ve never had a vintage draught and I could take or leave most wines, but this makes my mouth water.
Other examples are hard to find, I’ve looked (though not exhaustively) through Eliot, Marriane Moore, Frost, Pen Warren, Mary Oliver, Stevens. Strongly imagistic poets like E.E. Cummings, Amy Clampitt and a sensualist like Pablo Neruda might be good places to look, but I only have so many hours in a day. I did find this from Galway Kinnell, perhaps the most organically aware poet (in the sense of bodily awareness) that I know of. In the following passage, Galway turns the taste of blackberries into a melange of sounds, word-sounds, color — black — and the tactile cold. The italics are Kinnell’s.
…as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.
(Blackberry Eating, from Three Books: Body Rags; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words; The Past p. 96)
The Visual Organic Image | Heart, Breath and Pulse
These images are more than exceedingly rare, Fogle offers the following from Endymion:
And down some swart abysm he had gone,
Had not a heavenly guide benignant led
To where thick myrtle branches, ’gainst his head
Brushing, awakened: then the sounds again
Went noiseless as a passing noontide rain
Over a bower, where little space he stood;
For as the sunset peeps into a wood
So saw he panting light…
(Endymion, II. 376-383)
In the poem There Are Things I Tell to No One, Galway Kinnell describes God’s “music of grace” as “notes”:
It speaks in notes struck
or caressed or blown or plucked
off our own bodies…
The image skirts the line. I’m not sure its really synaesthetic since Galway is comparing the body to a blown or plucked stringed instrument. He’s not really ascribing these qualities to the notes, per se; he’s telling where they come from. In the poem Voyages, Amy Clampitt creates a synaesthetic, visual image of breath:
Beside the Neva, Osip Mandelstam wrote of the cold,
the December fog-blurs of Leningrad. O to throw
open (he wrote) a window on the Adriatic! — a window
for the deprived of audience, for the unfree
to breathe, to breathe even the bad air of Moscow.
Yet on the freezing pane of perpetuity,
that coruscating cold-frame fernery of breath,
harsh flowerbed of the unheated rooms of childhood,
even from the obscurity that sealed it off, his breath,
his warmth, he dared declare, had already setttled.
(The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. p. 160)
This isn’t as immediately synaesthetic as “panting light”, but Clampitt describes theOrganic sensation of Mandelstam’s breath visually, coldly and chillingly.
If you can find other examples, feel free to add them.
All in all, the thing to remember is that this kind of synaesthetic imagery is the province of poetry. No other art form, be it music, painting, dance or any other similar art, can so unite the multifaceted synaesthetic experience of the world. If you’re going to write poetry, don’t let this kind of beautiful imagery slip through your fingers. If you’re only writing about what you see, omitting what you hear, smell, touch and taste, then you’re crippling yourself and poetry. If you’re not thinking about imagery, about the senses and communicating your experience of life and the world, then you aren’t writing poetry.