Similes, Metaphors & Personification in Poetry

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  • 0:02 Figurative Language
  • 0:39 Metaphor
  • 3:35 Simile
  • 5:13 Personification
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Comparison is the basis of figurative language, and the most common forms of poetic comparison are simile, metaphor, and personification. In this lesson, you'll define all three terms and see several examples of each.

Figurative Language

As gentle as a lamb. America is a melting pot. As busy as a bee. I'm standing at a crossroads. That's opportunity knocking. All of these are figurative language. Particularly, these are examples of comparisons. Poetry is especially rich in comparison, and when writing about poetry or analyzing it for the AP Literature test, you need to do more than simply identify it, as you may have done in other courses. For AP, you'll need to think about how the use of that comparison affects the reader. More on that later, let's start with the more straightforward part - identification.

Metaphor

The most common poetic comparison is metaphor, a type of analogy that compares two unlike objects with one another. Aristotle, that Greek philosopher guy who founded much of Western thought, called metaphor the poet's greatest tool. He admired the ability to gain insight through comparison. Ezra Pound, a writer whose work is a regular part of AP Literature classes, called the well-chosen metaphor, 'the hallmark of genius.' Pound's short poem, 'In a Station of the Metro,' is essentially a single, well-chosen metaphor. Here's the entire poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The poem, as indicated by the title, takes place in a subway stop. The metaphor compares the faces of the people to blooms on a dark tree branch. The power of the metaphor lies in the fact that these things are so disparate. Human faces and wet flower petals are quite different, but the comparison suggests something about humanity, that they're packed together, but also that they're part of some larger collective, because they stem from the same branch. Rather than state that directly, Pound gives it to the reader in a single metaphoric image that contains a wealth of connotation for the reader to tap.

To get a little more technical about the term, any metaphor can be divided into two parts. The tenor is the subject of the comparison. In the case of Pound's poem, the tenor is the nature of humanity. The vehicle is the image used to convey the idea in the metaphor. In the case of our example, the wet and flowering tree branch is the vehicle.

When writing for the AP Literature test, it's important to recognize the complexity of the works. You might even see the word 'complex' in the prompt! The poems chosen for the test have the complexity that is necessary to speak to profound ideas. The Pound poem, as short as it is, has depth because the nature of humanity that the poem illuminates isn't something that can be expressed simply. It requires a metaphor with depth and complexity. In general, when writing about metaphor, first identify the comparison, then think about how far apart the tenor and vehicle might be. The most profound metaphors utilize strikingly different tenors and vehicles. That means the ideas being expressed will be hard to summarize in a concise manner.

  • AP Pro Tip - Don't try to be concise when writing about complex matters. Show that you understand the complexity by exploring the nuances of meaning.

That will score much higher than identifying metaphors and quickly summing up their meanings. Lower-half essays identify metaphors. Upper-half essays explain the function of the metaphors and acknowledge that the figurative language often has multiple meanings.

Simile

Moving onto our next term, the simile is a poetic comparison between unlike objects that incorporates the words like or as. Like the metaphor, a simile will also have a tenor and a vehicle, and the objects compared are not easily recognized as comparable. If you write, my dog is like your dog, you have not written a simile. Dogs are obviously like dogs. Comparing a dog with a vacuum cleaner would be a more appropriate simile.

One of Langston Hughes's best-known poems is 'Harlem.' It begins:

'What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--

And then run?'

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