How to Identify Metaphors in a Poem

Metaphor refers to the act of comparing two things that are not obviously similar. Literary critics consider metaphor to be one of the four main types of figurative language in poetry, along with irony, synecdoche, and metonymy. In his "Poetics" Aristotle wrote that for poets "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor." In order to identify metaphor in a poem, you must know the different types of metaphor that exist in poetry, and be able to recognize when poets use them.

Look for similes first, one of the most common types of metaphor. If a comparison contains the words "like" or "as," this is a simile. For example, in his poem "Lucy Gray" William Wordsworth uses the following simile to compare the movement of a young girl's feet to the movement of smoke:

Her feet disperse the powdery snow,

That rises up like smoke.

Next search out other examples of comparisons between unlike things that do not use like or as. Earlier in the same poem, Wordsworth compares Lucy with a deer:

Not blither is the mountain roe.

Finally, separate what the literary critic I.A. Richards called the "tenor" and the "vehicle" of the metaphor. The tenor is the idea the poet is conveying, and the vehicle is the image she uses to convey it. In "Sonnet 35," for instance, where Shakespeare compares his male companion's faults to a rose's thorns, the faults are the tenor and the thorns the vehicle.

  • Many types of metaphor exist in poetry. Cyber English gives the following examples: simile, personification, anthropomorphism, hyperbole, parable, fable, animism and analogy.
About the Author

Thomas Colbyry is a writer living in Marquette, Mich. Currently pursuing a B.A. in English, he works as a writing tutor and contributes book reviews to several publications. Colbyry often covers topics related to literature, specializing in early modern, Restoration, 18th-century and Victorian British literature, as well as the literature of Japan.

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