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What Is the Meaning of Symbols in Poetry?


The 19th-century English writer William Hazlitt called poetry, "the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself." Symbolism is the technique of describing objects and imbuing them with new meanings. Symbolism in poetry adds to the effect of the universal language and provides multiple levels of meaning for interpretation by readers.

Why Poems Use Symbolism

Symbols in poems can be derived from nature, animals and religion to represent people, ideas, and thoughts and feelings of individuals. It is the job of the poet to not take the usage of symbols lightly. When the poet uses objects to represent people and thoughts, it requires readers to use their own experience and the knowledge that a symbol can have multiple meanings. The use of symbols enhances the reading of a poem. Symbols like the season of Spring or cocoons can represent new life, while falling leaves and the end of the year represent death.

Robert Frost and Symbolism

Not all poets use symbolism as a poetic device. Robert Frost, one of the most famous American poets, preferred to use metaphors. Metaphors are devices that build an analogy between two things rather than having one thing symbolically represent another thing not present in the poem or an abstract thought. Frost's poems do have some symbolism, however. His most well known poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken," have symbols that stand for choices and the paths people take in life. In the latter, this symbol is the fork in the road. Flowers are a symbol for a loved one in his poem "Rose Pogonias." In that poem they represent his wife Elinor.

Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven"

Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" is a good example of a poem that has both easily interpretable symbols and symbols that require extra study. Reading and rereading the poem to analyze it prove that the poem can be objectively and subjectively approached. The raven is a symbol of ill-fortune, and as a non-rational creature it can communicate the meaning of the word "nevermore" more effectively than any human. That the raven lands on the bust of Pallas is another symbol, connecting the nonsensical word "nevermore" with a symbol of wisdom. This allows the reader to interpret that the raven's word has more wisdom and meaning than previously thought.

Symbolism of Nature

Nature and time are less recognizable---but nonetheless important---symbols in the poem "The Raven." The poem is set at midnight and in December, implying that something is ending, but also symbolizing a new beginning. The bad weather in the poem also stands for the nature of the man's dark feelings. Knowing what symbols mean in one poem allows the reader to use this knowledge to interpret other poems. The weather or descriptions of the atmosphere in poems can be used to interpret the more abstract ideas of inner thoughts and feelings. These types of symbols are called traditional symbols, because they are common to many poems.

About the Author

Emily Meehan began freelance writing in 2007. She wrote for her graduate school newspaper "The Public Servant," covering subjects ranging from politics to arts education. Meehan has a Master of Public Service and Administration from Texas A&M University and a Bachelor of Science in sociology from Brigham Young University.

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