Olfactory Imagery

Definition of Olfactory Imagery

Sensory imagery plays an important role in creating mental images for the reader while reading. So that he/she can engage himself to that level at which the writer desires. Olfactory imagery is all about the smell. Also, very few writers use olfactory imagery in their work because it is not an easy one to master. It may include perfumes, fragrances, or different types of odors. As smell is the direct tool to activate or trigger the mind and feelings. It is also important to note that smell and taste are most often linked together, and so as in sensory imagery, by using both, the writer can better explain one with the help of the other. Olfactory imagery represents those smells or odors that are related to memory or prior experience. It is not a direct stimulation. The writer can create a certain feeling or mood through this imagery. Some studies conclude that olfactory sensory plays a vital part in visual memory performance.

Examples of Olfactory Imagery from literature

Example #1

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899).

 “There were strange, rare odors abroad—a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near.”

In the above lines, the writer has compared the smell of the sea to the smell of earth while comparing the smell of flowers, soil, and weeds in a very beautiful way.

Example #2

Perfume (Novel) by Patrick Suskind

“In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.”

In the above-mentioned example writer discussed the surroundings of the 18th century using olfactory imagery and the unsentimental behavior of that time. The hidden animal in human disguise is also described through odors that are released by sweat and the lack of basic hygiene. Especially in areas where peasants or poor people lived without amenities and water. The markets and the streets were probably never cleaned, the people had no facilities to clean their bodies or teeth unlike the royalty and rich people who enjoy all the knacks.

Example #3

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

“My captor, whoever he was, seemed not much taller than I…. I smelled a faint flowery scent, as of lavender water, and something more spicy, mingled with the sharper reek of male perspiration.”

The author is known to use heavy imagery in her works. The current example explains a protagonist’s interaction with a stranger when he tries to get closer to her. She describes his personality combined with the type of perfume he is wearing and also indicates that he is tired because she’s able to smell his sweat.

Examples of Olfactory Imagery in Poetry

Example #1

Rain in Summer by T.W Longfellow

“The toilsome and patient oxen stand
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.”

In the above example, the poet has very successfully used olfactory imagery using the words ‘smoking soil’ and ‘clover scented gale’. The imagery here is very rich in emotions and feelings that explain hard work and lifts the reader to the level of the writer’s imagination.

Example #2

After Apple Picking by Robert Frost

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass

In these lines, frost allows the reader to enjoy the smell of apples, he didn’t mention the type of apple as he left its smell for the imagination of the reader. He beautifully merged olfactory imagery with visual imagery to take the reader to the desired height of imagination and feelings. Thus allowing the readers to understand the surroundings of the apple farm.

Example #3

Prelude by T.S Eliot

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways
Six o’ clock.
The burnt- out ends of smoky days….
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer.

The first two lines and the last line of the above-mentioned example is reflecting the Olfactory imagery. The smell of wintry evening mixes with the steak smoke and further merges with the smell of the beer.

Example #4

Smell by William Carlos Williams

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent?

This modern poem is the address to the nose, criticizing it for letting him smell bad odors like rotten flowers. The nose can’t be shut down as eyes through eyelids. One has to use hands or fingers to shut the senses of hearing and smell. Because of this reason poet is scolding his nose and using olfactory imagery.

Example #5

Miss Thompson Gees Shopping – Martin Amstrong

The old strange fragrance filled the air
a fragrance like the garden pink,
but tinged with vague medicinal stink
of a camphor, soap, new sponger, blent,
with chloro form and violent scent.

The words like ‘camphor’ and ‘chloroform’ are used as olfactory imagery for pharmacists as they smell strong and metallic. So, a human nose can detect the medicines as mentioned in each line of the poem. ‘Medicine stink’ is the noticeable imagery.

A Few More Examples of Olfactory Imagery in Regular Usage

  • Nancy dressed up in a velvety green gown and put on her musky jasmine perfume, and went out for the party.
  • As he opens the shoe polish, its smell spreads all around the room.
  • She put the popcorn packet in the microwave, and in seconds the cheesy smell of popcorn started making her more hungry.
  • The little boy started coughing and put his hand on his nose to avoid the rotten smell of cigarettes.
  • The waiter served him a glass of Mint Margarita, and its fresh lemony smell soothes his thirst after a long summer drive.
  • Her refrigerator became out of order; the nauseating smell of rotten eggs and stale bread forced her to run away from the kitchen.
  • The gardener was watering the plants, and the grandfather, who was sitting nearby in a wheelchair, took a deep breath as he aromas the wet soil.
  • When James sprayed mosquito killer, Elena ran away from the room, scrunching her nose, unable to bear overpowering decomposing smell.

Examples of Olfactory imagery in Biblical Verses

  • The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. – Genesis 8:21
  • He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the Lord. – Leviticus 2:2
  • Moreover, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. – Exodus 30:22-29
  • I will be like the dew to Israel; He will blossom like the lily, And he will take root like the cedars of Lebanon. His shoots will sprout, And his beauty will be like the olive tree And his fragrance like the cedars of Lebanon. – Hosea 14:5-6
  • The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines [with] the tender grape give a [good] smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.  – Song of Solomon 2:13


Olfactory imagery can be more creative through descriptive language and appropriate adjectives. Olfactory imagery also helps the reader to imagine what we breathe or smell of the described item. It plays an important role in envisioning the scene, plot, and character. It not only enhances the piece of writing but enhances the thoughts and feelings of the reader. Imagery helps the readers track their imagination and glide with them.