4.5 Similes, Metaphors & Personification in Poetry
As gentle as a lamb. America is a melting pot. As busy as a bee. I’m standing at a crossroads. That’s opportunity knocking. All of these are figurative language. Particularly, these are examples of comparisons. Poetry is especially rich in comparison, and when writing about poetry or analyzing it for the AP Literature test, you need to do more than simply identify it, as you may have done in other courses. For AP, you’ll need to think about how the use of that comparison affects the reader. More on that later, let’s start with the more straightforward part – identification.
The most common poetic comparison is metaphor, a type of analogy that compares two unlike objects with one another. Aristotle, that Greek philosopher guy who founded much of Western thought, called metaphor the poet’s greatest tool. He admired the ability to gain insight through comparison. Ezra Pound, a writer whose work is a regular part of AP Literature classes, called the well-chosen metaphor, ‘the hallmark of genius.’ Pound’s short poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro,’ is essentially a single, well-chosen metaphor. Here’s the entire poem:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem, as indicated by the title, takes place in a subway stop. The metaphor compares the faces of the people to blooms on a dark tree branch. The power of the metaphor lies in the fact that these things are so disparate. Human faces and wet flower petals are quite different, but the comparison suggests something about humanity, that they’re packed together, but also that they’re part of some larger collective, because they stem from the same branch. Rather than state that directly, Pound gives it to the reader in a single metaphoric image that contains a wealth of connotation for the reader to tap.
To get a little more technical about the term, any metaphor can be divided into two parts. The tenor is the subject of the comparison. In the case of Pound’s poem, the tenor is the nature of humanity. The vehicle is the image used to convey the idea in the metaphor. In the case of our example, the wet and flowering tree branch is the vehicle.
When writing for the AP Literature test, it’s important to recognize the complexity of the works. You might even see the word ‘complex’ in the prompt! The poems chosen for the test have the complexity that is necessary to speak to profound ideas. The Pound poem, as short as it is, has depth because the nature of humanity that the poem illuminates isn’t something that can be expressed simply. It requires a metaphor with depth and complexity. In general, when writing about metaphor, first identify the comparison, then think about how far apart the tenor and vehicle might be. The most profound metaphors utilize strikingly different tenors and vehicles. That means the ideas being expressed will be hard to summarize in a concise manner.
- AP Pro Tip – Don’t try to be concise when writing about complex matters. Show that you understand the complexity by exploring the nuances of meaning.
That will score much higher than identifying metaphors and quickly summing up their meanings. Lower-half essays identify metaphors. Upper-half essays explain the function of the metaphors and acknowledge that the figurative language often has multiple meanings.
Moving onto our next term, the simile is a poetic comparison between unlike objects that incorporates the words like or as. Like the metaphor, a simile will also have a tenor and a vehicle, and the objects compared are not easily recognized as comparable. If you write, my dog is like your dog, you have not written a simile. Dogs are obviously like dogs. Comparing a dog with a vacuum cleaner would be a more appropriate simile.
One of Langston Hughes’s best-known poems is ‘Harlem.’ It begins:
‘What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?’
He uses two similes to compare dried up raisins and weeping sores to a dream that has been put off. One wouldn’t normally think of a dream, such as a vision of racial equality, as being like a dehydrated fruit, but the comparison works upon closer inspection. The sweetness of a grape, a fruit symbolic with prosperity, has been removed leaving only a chewy remnant. Taking away the dream of equality can likewise leave a person as dried up as a raisin. And by mentioning the sun, Hughes suggests that there’s no chance for the raisin to overcome the situation; it’s only going to get drier.
Similes can offer a rich, complex comparison, but they’re not generally as powerful as metaphors. Saying that two things are like each other is weaker than comparing them directly, so take that into consideration as you analyze poems. The writers don’t always want their comparisons to be as strong or direct as metaphors.
Our last term is personification. Personification is a poetic comparison that gives human qualities to something nonhuman. Emily Dickinson uses personification in these lines:
‘She sweeps with many-colored Brooms —
And leaves the Shreds behind —
Oh Housewife in the Evening West —
Come back, and dust the Pond!’
Dickinson compares a sunset with a housewife. The colorful rays as the sun sets are like brooms, leaving small scraps behind as they’re swept up. Like any complex bit of personification, the comparison isn’t one that’s immediately obvious, and it’s also one that brings several interpretations to mind. Is Dickinson making a reference to the daily task of the sun, almost likening it to a chore? Or is she exalting domestic work, by making something as simple as sweeping elevated into something as grand as a sunset? Both ways work, and that’s the complexity that you should attend to on the AP Lit test.
Metaphors, simile, and personification are types of figurative comparisons. Metaphors are a direct poetic comparison between unlike objects. Similes also draw a comparison, but they use the words like or as. Both of these devices have a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the unlikely object used for the comparison, and the vehicle is the thing being compared. Personification is another figurative device that describes nonhuman things by giving them human characteristics. In the case of all three devices, AP Literature students should be prepared to think of multiple interpretations because the poems used on the test are complex ones that deserve to be treated as such.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define metaphor, simile, and personification
- Identify how similes and metaphors are similar in terms of comparison
- Examine how all three devices have different interpretations depending on how they’re used in poetry