Definition of Figurative Language
Figurative language is using figures of speech to be more effective, persuasive and impactful. Figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, allusions go beyond the literal meanings of the words to give the readers new insights. On the other hand, alliterations, imageries, or onomatopoeias are figurative devices that appeal to the senses of the readers. Figurative language can appear in multiple forms with the use of different literary and rhetorical devices. According to Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia, figurative language has five different forms: understatement or emphasis, relationship or resemblance, figures of sound, errors and verbal games.
Types of Figurative Language
It covers a wide range of literary devices and techniques, a few of them include:
Examples of Figurative Language from Literature
Poised between going on and back, pulled
Both ways taut like a tight-rope walker,
Now bouncing tiptoe like a dropped ball,
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on!…
Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
(The Base Stealer by Robert Francis)
The similes and word choice of this poem makes it a masterpiece. The poet use similes between the lines to depict his scattered thoughts before taking action and makes comparison as, “like a tight-rope,” “like a dropped ball,” and “hovers like an ecstatic bird.”
But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill…
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.
(I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)
The entire poem is rich with metaphor as a bird in cage represents a group of those people who are oppressed and cannot get freedom, and cage represents physical barriers, fear, addiction or society, while the song of the bird represents true self yearning for something greater in life.
She sweeps with many-colored Brooms
And leaves the Shreds behind
Oh Housewife in the Evening West
Come back, and dust the Pond!
(She sweeps with many-colored Brooms by Emily Dickinson)
Dickinson uses personification of housewife to describe sunset in the very first line of this poem. She is using a sweeping housewife who does her daily works, likewise the rays of setting sun sweeps away beneath the horizon.
Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary ;
rare and radiant maiden;
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
(The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe)
Poe uses alliteration by repeating “w” sounds to emphasize the weariness of narrator, and then “r” and “s” sounds in the second and third lines respectively. In the last two lines, “d” sound highlights the narrator’s hopelessness.
Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
In the following lines, albatross symbolizes a big mistake of the mariner or a burden of the sin just like the cross on which Christ was crucified. Therefore, all people on the ship agreed to slay that bird.
Function of Figurative Language
Its primary function is to force the readers to imagine what a writer wants to express. Though, figurative language is not meant to convey literal meanings, and often it compares one concept with another in order to make the first concept easier to understand, it, however, links the two ideas or concepts with the aim of influencing audience to understand the link even if it does not exist. Poets and prose writers use this technique to bring out emotions and help their readers form images in minds. Thus, figurative language is a useful way of conveying an idea that readers cannot understand otherwise, due to its complex and abstract nature. In addition, it helps in analyzing a literary text.