What Is Imagery in Poetry?
In poetry, imagery is a vivid and vibrant form of description that appeals to readers’ senses and imagination. Despite the word’s connotation, “imagery” is not focused solely on visual representations or mental images—it refers to the full spectrum of sensory experiences, including internal emotions and physical sensations.
How Is Imagery Used in Poetry?
Imagery allows the reader to clearly see, touch, taste, smell, and hear what is happening—and in some cases even empathize with the poet or their subject. Whether it’s the classical sonnets of Shakespeare or the searing social commentary from poets in the African diaspora like Langston Hughes, imagery beautifies and intensifies the poetic work.
7 Types of Imagery in Poetry
There are seven main types of imagery in poetry. Poets create imagery by using figures of speech like simile (a direct comparison between two things); metaphor (comparison between two unrelated things that share common characteristics); personification (giving human attributes to nonhuman things); and onomatopoeia (a word that mimics the natural sound of a thing).
Here are the seven types of imagery in poetry, with examples.
- Visual imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet appeals to the reader’s sense of sight by describing something the speaker or narrator of the poem sees. It may include colors, brightness, shapes, sizes, and patterns. To provide readers with visual imagery, poets often use metaphor, simile, or personification in their description. William Wordsworth’s classic 1804 poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is a good example:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In this poem, inspired by a walk Wordsworth took with his sister, the poet uses simile to compare his lonely wandering to the aimless flight of a cloud. Additionally, he personifies the daffodils, which dance as if a group of revelrous humans.
- Auditory imagery. This form of poetic imagery appeals to the reader’s sense of hearing or sound. It may include music and other pleasant sounds, harsh noises, or silence. In addition to describing a sound, the poet might also use a sound device like onomatopoeia, or words that imitate sounds, so reading the poem aloud recreates the auditory experience. In John Keats’ short 1820 poem “To Autumn”—the final poem he wrote before abandoning the craft because poetry wasn’t paying the bills—he concludes with auditory imagery:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats personifies fall as if it is a musician with a song to sing, and then creates an audible soundtrack from the sounds the surrounding wildlife is making. The gnats form a wailful choir, the lambs bleat, the crickets sing, the red-breast whistles, and the swallows twitter—all sounds marking the passage of time and the advance of winter.
- Gustatory imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet appeals to the reader’s sense of taste by describing something the speaker or narrator of the poem tastes. It may include sweetness, sourness, saltiness, savoriness, or spiciness. This is especially effective when the poet describes a taste that the reader has experienced before and can recall from sense memory. In Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem “This Compost,” he uses some disturbing gustatory imagery:
O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
Whitman is pondering the life cycle and how it is that the Earth produces “herbs, roots, orchards, grain” that are enjoyable whilst processing a compost of the many human corpses buried under soil everywhere. Although most people have not eaten human flesh, the “sour dead” and “foul liquid and meat” conjure the taste of rotting meat
- Tactile imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet appeals to the reader’s sense of touch by describing something the speaker of the poem feels on their body. It may include the feel of temperatures, textures, and other physical sensations. For example, look at Robert Browning’s 1836 poem “Porphyria’s Lover”:
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm
Browning uses tactile imagery of the chill of a storm, the sensation when a door is closed to it, and the fire’s blaze coming from a furnace grate to describe the warmth of the cottage.
- Olfactory imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet appeals to the reader’s sense of smell by describing something the speaker of the poem inhales. It may include pleasant fragrances or off-putting odors. In his poem “Rain in Summer,” H.W. Longfellow writes:
They silently inhale
the clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil
Here, Longfellow’s use of imagery in the words “clover-scented gale” and “well-watered and smoking soil” paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind about smells the speaker experiences after rainfall.
- Kinesthetic imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet appeals to the reader’s sense of motion. It may include the sensation of speeding along in a vehicle, a slow sauntering, or a sudden jolt when stopping, and it may apply to the movement of the poem’s speaker/narrator or objects around them. For example, W.B. Yeats’ 1923 poem “Leda and the Swan” begins with kinesthetic imagery:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
In this retelling of the god Zeus’s rape of the girl Leda from Greek mythology, the opening lines convey violence in the movement of the bird’s “beating” wings while Leda’s “staggering” provides the reader with a sense of her disorientation at the events.
- Organic imagery. In this form of poetic imagery, the poet communicates internal sensations such as fatigue, hunger, and thirst as well as internal emotions such as fear, love, and despair. In Robert Frost’s 1916 poem “Birches,” he makes use of organic imagery:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
In this poignant moment, Frost, who has seen bent birch trees and imagined a boy’s playful swinging has bent them, describes feelings of fatigue and aimlessness and a longing to return to the purposeful play of youth.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry in Billy Collins’s MasterClass.