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The History of Simile and Sensory Poems


Greek Greek philosopher Aristotle theorized on the difference between rhetorical and poetic speech.

Poetry is sometimes described as enhanced prose for its ability to share dense meaning and vivid imagery. The simile is one of the oldest poetic tools for accomplishing this. From the beginning of poetry’s recognition as a viable art form, Aristotle theorized on the purpose and use of the simile. The vast majority of similes function on a sensory level, and the term "sensory simile" could describe verse from across the spectrum of literary history.

Senses as Basis of Simile
A rose offers a material analogy to the concept of love.

A simile enhances imagery through the comparison of one object or idea to another, often unrelated one. The strongest similes operate through analogy to the physical senses. The example “my love is like a red, red rose,” illustrates this well. Love is an abstraction, and to render it in vital terms, the poet Robert Burns chose to compare it to a rose. As sensory objects, roses are fragrant, colorful and lush, perceptions that can also describe an understanding of love. As the basis of simile, sensory comparisons use the five senses to help a reader experience an image or idea.

Sensory Simile in Classical Era
As a people who celebrated the physical as well as the intellectual, ancient Greeks appreciated the sensory simile.

The link between sensory descriptions and the use of simile was already well established in the classical era. Aristotle coined the term "imago" to describe what we would call a simile. In Aristotle’s "Rhetoric," he defined imago as the practice of describing something through a comparison to something else. Roman writer Cicero described similes as "speech showing the likeness of bodies or nature." Greek tragedian Aeschylus was a master of the sensory simile. In his work "Agamemnon," he famously describes the condemned maiden Iphigenia as “like a picture she would but could not speak.”

Sensory Simile in Shakespeare
Shakespeare developed the sensory simile into its modern, condensed form.

Shakespeare developed the sensory simile poem to its highest state. Rather than developing a simile over several lines, Shakespeare used the simile as a jolt of imagery. The results are some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. He writes of Juliet that, “Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night, / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.” The comparison of Juliet to an Ethiopian’s jewelry projects an image of the girl on a balcony at night. In "Cymbeline," Belarius describes two boys as “gentle / As zephyrs, blowing below the violet, / Not wagging his sweet head.” Again, the force of the sensory simile is immediate and does not require elaboration.

Sensory Simile in Contemporary Poetry
Contemporary poets must compete with many forms of entertainment, and the sensory simile lets them paint a visual picture.

The sensory simile fell out of favor among modernist poets who rebelled against the poetic tradition. It was seen as an antiquated device, and poets such as T.S. Eliot used more abstract, intellectual tools. Contemporary poets have re-evaluated the sensory simile, however. Much of contemporary poetry uses imagery to communicate meaning in a visually focused world. The sensory simile is perfect for this. Richard Blanco's poem for President Obama's inauguration, “One Today,” relies upon the use of simile. The line, “And always one moon / like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop,” provides an image of shared dreams.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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