Definition of Imagery

Imagery is a literary device that refers to the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience or create a picture with words for a reader. By utilizing effective descriptive language and figures of speech, writers appeal to a reader’s senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, as well as internal emotion and feelings. Therefore, imagery is not limited to visual representations or mental images, but also includes physical sensations and internal emotions.

For example, in his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes imagery as a literary device to create a sensation for the reader as a means of understanding the love felt by the protagonist, Hester Prynne.

Love, whether newly born or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

By using descriptive language in an effective and unique way, Hawthorne evokes feelings and allows the reader an internal emotional response in reaction to his description of love. This image is especially poignant and effective for readers of this novel since Hester’s love, in the story, results in darkness, shame, and isolation–the opposite of sunshine and radiance. However, Hawthorne’s imagery appeals to the reader’s understanding of love and subsequent empathy for Hester’s emotions and actions, despite her transgression of societal norms, morals, and laws.

Common Examples of Imagery in Everyday Speech

People frequently use imagery as a means of communicating feelings, thoughts, and ideas through descriptive language. Here are some common examples of imagery in everyday speech:

  • The autumn leaves are a blanket on the ground.
  • Her lips tasted as sweet as sugar.
  • His words felt like a dagger in my heart.
  • My head is pounding like a drum.
  • The kitten’s fur is milky.
  • The siren turned into a whisper as it ended.
  • His coat felt like a velvet curtain.
  • The houses look like frosted cakes in winter.
  • The light under the door looked buttery.
  • I came inside because the house smells like a chocolate brownie.

Types of Poetic Imagery

For poetic imagery, there are seven primary types. These types of imagery often feature figures of speech such as similes and metaphors to make comparisons. Overall, poetic imagery provides sensory details to create clear and vibrant descriptions. This appeals to a reader’s imagination and emotions as well as their senses.

Here are the main types of poetic imagery:

  • Visual: appeals to sense of sight through description of color, light, size, pattern, etc.
  • Auditory: appeals to sense of hearing or sound by including melodic sounds, silence, harsh noises, and even onomatopoeia.
  • Gustatory: appeals to sense of taste through describing whether something is sweet, salty, savory, spicy, or sour.
  • Tactile: appeals to sense of touch by describing how something physically feels, such as its temperature, texture, or other sensation.
  • Olfactory: appeals to sense of smell by describing something’s fragrance or odor.
  • Kinesthetic: appeals to a reader’s sense of motion or movement through describing the sensations of moving or the movements of an object.
  • Organic: appeals to and communicates internal sensations, feelings, and emotions, such as fatigue, thirst, fear, love, loneliness, despair, etc.

Famous Examples of Imagery in Shakespearean Works

Writers use imagery to create pictures in the minds of readers, often with words and phrases that are uniquely descriptive and emotionally charged to emphasize an idea. William Shakespeare’s works feature imagery as a literary device for readers and audiences as a means to enhance their experience of his plays. Shakespeare’s artistic use of language and imagery is considered to be some of the greatest in literature.

Here are some famous examples of imagery in Shakespearean works:

  • “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep.” Romeo and Juliet
  • “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” Macbeth
  • “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
    Men were deceivers ever,-
    One foot in sea and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.” Much Ado About Nothing
  • “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” The Taming of the Shrew
  • “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Hamlet
  • “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
    Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
    More than cool reason ever comprehends.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” The Tempest
  • “And thus I clothe my naked villainy
    With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;
    And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Richard III
  • “By heaven, me thinks it were an easy leap, To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon” Henry IV
  • “If music be the food of love, play on,
    Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
    The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Twelfth Night

Writing Imagery

Writers use imagery to evoke emotion in readers. In this way, the reader’s understanding of the poetic subject, setting, plot, characters, etc., is deepened and they have a sense of how to feel about it. Ideally, as a literary device, imagery should enhance a literary work. Unfortunately, some writers try to use this literary device too often, which can lessen the impact of the description and figurative language.

For imagery to be effective and significant, whether in poetry or a story, it should add depth and meaning to the literary work. Overuse of imagery can feel tedious for readers and limit their access to and understanding of the writer’s purpose. Therefore, it’s essential for writers to balance presenting information in a straightforward manner and using imagery as a literary device.

Examples of Imagery in Literature

Though imagery is often associated with poetry, it is an effective literary device in all forms of writing. Writers utilize imagery as a means of communicating their thoughts and perceptions on a deeper and more memorable level with readers. Imagery helps a reader formulate a visual picture and sensory impression of what the writer is describing as well as the emotions attached to the description. In addition, imagery is a means of showcasing a writer’s mastery of artistic and figurative language, which also enhances the meaning and enjoyment of a literary work for a reader.

Here are some examples of imagery in literature:

Example 1: Goblin Market (Christina Rossetti)

Early in the morning
When the first cock crow’d his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows,
Air’d and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sew’d;
Talk’d as modest maidens should:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight,
One longing for the night.
In this passage of her poem, Rossetti uses all forms of poetic imagery to appeal to the reader’s physical senses as well as their experience of motion and internal emotions. The reader can visualize the actions taking place in the poem along with a sense of orderly movement paired with disordered emotion. As the sisters Lizzie and Laura go about their maidenly and pastoral tasks, the poet’s description of their divergent mindsets and feelings creates imagery of the tension between darkness and light, innocence and temptation. These contrasting images evoke unsettled and contradictory feelings for the reader, undermining the appearance of the sisters’ idyllic lives with a sense of foreboding.

Example 2: The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

In this passage of Gilman’s short story, the narrator uses poetic imagery to describe the yellow wallpaper which eventually ensnares her mind and body. The narrator’s imagery effectively appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, and touch so that the reader is as repulsed by the wallpaper as the story’s protagonist. By utilizing imagery as a literary device, Gilman is able to evoke the same feelings of sickness, despair, fear, claustrophobia, etc., for the reader as she does for the narrator. In addition to this emotional effect, the artistic language used to describe the yellow wallpaper also enhances its symbolic presence in the story.

Example 3: The Red Wheelbarrow (William Carlos Williams)

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

This poem by William Carlos Williams features imagery and, in fact, is an example of Imagist poetry. Imagism was a poetic movement of the early twentieth century that veered away from the heavy description that was characteristic of Romantic and Victorian poems. Instead, the purpose of Imagism was to create an accurate image or presentation of a subject that would be visually concrete for the reader. Imagist poets achieved this through succinct, direct, and specific language, favoring precise phrasing over set poetic meter.

In Williams’s poem, the poet uses simple language and clear expression to create imagery for the reader of a red wheel barrow, lending beauty and symbolism to an ordinary object. By describing the wheel barrow with sparse but precise language, the reader can picture an exact visual image of what the poet is trying to convey which, in turn, evokes an emotional response to the image. This imagery enhances the meaning of the poem’s phrasing such that each word becomes essential, and the poem and its imagery are nearly indistinguishable.