Definition of figurative language in poetry

Written by tiffany barry
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Definition of figurative language in poetry
Figurative language can be found in all types of poetry. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Figurative language is a category of several different types of poetic devices. It is any group of words or phrases -- even the entire poem -- that is not meant to be read or interpreted literally. Similes and metaphors, personification, metonymy and synecdoche are all types of figurative language used in poetry. Apostrophe, hyperbole and understatement are other figurative devices.

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Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors and similes are very similar. They both make a comparison of unlike objects. However, it is how these objects are compared that separates whether a metaphor or simile is being used. Similes make a comparison using either "like" or "as." An example of a simile: The warm breeze is like a lover caressing my cheek goodbye. Alternately, metaphors make this comparison in a direct way without the use of "like" or "as." An example of a metaphor: The raging animal is my soul brought to life.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche are both types of metaphors. Metonymy is used when part of the phrase is being replaced by something similar to that which is being compared. An example of metonymy is from a poem written by Robert Frost. In this poem he writes that a boy held his injured hand up as if to keep the life from spilling out, while he means that the boy is literally trying to keep the blood in. A synecdoche is a phrase in which the whole is replaced by the part, as in referring to a heart being affected when the whole body is literally affected. An example of synecdoche, provided by Kentucky Classics, is: "The U.S. won three gold medals."


Personification is a device used when you are literally giving something non-human human characteristics. The object can be the weather, a piece of clothing, food or any item that is not a person. "The fog whispered against the windowpane," "My apple jumped from my hand" and "A teakettle screamed in the distance" are all examples of personification.

Hyperbole and Understatement

Hyperbole and understatement are the exact opposites of one another. Hyperbole is simply when a statement is being clearly exaggerated. "My soul would surely wither should he ever leave my sight" is an example of the use of hyperbole. Understatement is exactly the opposite and true to its name. It is used when the author wants to imply more than what is exactly being said. An example of an understatement: [spoken to an angry person] You're in a grand mood, aren't you?


Another type of figurative language is apostrophe. This device is used when the poem's author wishes to direct his speech to something that is not or can not literally listen such as addressing the wind. The wind can not listen to reply, therefore addressing it in literature is referred to as an apostrophe. Common apostrophes include the poem addressing nature or the elements.

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