Thursday, 8 December 2011


Imagery is at the heart of all human language: whether we are writing a poem or describing something to a friend our language is suffused with metaphor and loaded with symbolism (did you see what I did there?) Of course in spoken language much of that imagery is "dead" (itself a metaphor of course). As you plough through traffic this morning the idea might strike you that the road is not a farmer's field and that the idea in your head has not physically hit anything.

It seems as though the part of our brain that manages language is hard-wired (another metaphor) to use imagery. To digress a little, it seems the same is not so powerfully true of the areas of our brain that process vision and sound directly, as can be seen by comparing the prevalence of imagery in the visual arts and music as opposed to literature. Visual imagery does exist of course: architects are fond of visual metaphors, particularly since the apartment-block-as-ocean-liners of the Art Deco era and religious art has always contained visual symbols. The pre-Raphaelites were fond of imagery, but perhaps that was because they were so immersed in poetry. One of the purest examples of visual imagery in art is Man Ray's le Violon d'Ingres and it is striking because it is so unusual. However the visual form that uses imagery to by far the greatest extent is cartoons- think of Tom and Jerry- and this I think emphasises its slightly transgressive effect. Similarly imagery exists in music- Vaghan William's The Lark Ascending or Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf are examples- but these are often just evocations of the real world through sounds that echo real sounds. In popular discourse we do actually use imagery in sound, but chiefly for humorous effect. Think of the ironic "ta-da" trumpet fanfare we use to comment on a friend's achievement or the conclusion of a bad joke, or the rasping "uh-uh" (taken from Family Fortunes) we use for an even worse joke.

To return to the main theme of this entry though, in literature imagery is often key, and in great literature at least very much alive. However that does not make it easy to analyse and write about. Students are generally good at spotting metaphors and similes (or have had them pointed out to them) but beyond saying that "the poet uses a lot of imagery" or "this image is really strong/powerful/meaningful" they often struggle to make anything of them.

For me it helps to understand better what imagery actually is and how it works. An image consists of three parts: the tenor (or what is being described); the vehicle (or what the reader is being asked to imagine); and the grounds (or what connects the two) as in the following diagram.
To take an example from above "As you plough through traffic this morning..."
Of course this is pretty much a dead metaphor and you may not be explicitly aware of the grounds, but they are there and I would argue they give that phrase a little extra strength.

This diagram describes the fundamental structure of imagery of all types, though the balance can shift depending on the type. So in similes the focus is very much on the tenor. We are made aware of the fact that imagery is being deployed (through "like" or "as") and the vehicle exists simply to give a fuller description of the tenor. In metaphor the balance is more even. Tenor and vehicle exist concurrently and we are invited rather than instructed to consider them together. In symbols the emphasis is on the vehicle and the tenor is (or tenors are) sometimes not even stated: we have to work out what it is/they are for ourselves. So in the quote from the philosophical Glaswegian that heads this blog, the vehicle in the image is the train and the passengers on it- some with tickets and some without. I was being invited to compare that with the condition of society and our respective places in it.

Fundamental to the power of imagery of all sorts is the almost miraculous power of connotations in our language. I have touched on this in a previous post and may expand on it later. Words can have a huge range of connotations (or ideas, thoughts and feelings we associate with them) and imagery can untap that power and make us see (and more important, feel) connections between ideas and thoughts. Often the grounds are obvious, though in great poetry they always make us in some way look afresh at the relationship between tenor and vehicle. In Tennyson's the Eagle the vehicle of a thunderbolt falling is used for the dive of the eagle. The grounds that spring immediately to mind are around the speed and direction of movement, but tenor and vehicle also share connotations of power and majesty (think Jove's thunderbolts) and a certain ruthless and destructive potency. In other images the grounds are less apparent, but all the more powerful for that. Owen's Mental Cases contains the horrific line "Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh." You have to work at the grounds a bit, but think about the image. The strengthening line of deep red at the horizon is visually horribly reminiscent of the blood oozing from a reopened wound. Also, whilst for us the tenor (dawn) and vehicle (a reopened wound) might not share much more in the way of grounds, Owen is writing about soldiers traumatised by war. For them dawn signalled another day of fighting, pain, fear, bloodshed and death. The grounds are rich and deep after all.

Another Owen poem, Exposure takes a different and less usual approach, where tenor and vehicle deliberately have very little in common and it is the act of forcing a connection between them that gives the image its power. In the last stanza Owen describes the burying party looking at the faces of the soldiers they are about to bury. The line "All their eyes are ice" forces us to consider the grounds of comparison between eyes, with their connotations of life, beauty, character, being a window to the soul and ice with its connotations of hardness, coldness and lifelessness. Of course, to the burying party the dead soldiers' eyes have simply become ice; their bodies indistinguishable in any important way from the mud in which they lie frozen. That is the point that this image forces onto us.

Poets' use of imagery can go beyond this too, particularly when they work with symbols rather than just metaphors and similes, enabling them to unleash the full power of the connotations of the words and phrases they use. To demonstrate the range and subtlety of that power consider the following two images, which use the same vehicle: waves softly breaking on the sea shore. Before looking at the poems think of the connotations of that image.

Now see how Keats (in Bright Star) and Arnold (in Dover Beach) have used the image. For Keats the tenor is an idea of purification and religiosity, which he applies to his love for the subject of the poem:
"And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores"

The grounds here concern ideas of cleansing, but also the repetitive patience of both priests and waves and the way both stand aside from and seem unsullied by the messy human world.

For Arnold the image of the waves on the shore evokes very different, indeed almost opposite, ideas:
"The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world"

Here, the grounds concern the sadness of the sound of the waves and of the poets feelings about the world, the sense of something withdrawing and feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

These uses of the same image are utterly different, yet both illustrate another aspect of imagery- the way it can operate at a level below our conscious perception. What is striking is that both poets associate the sea in their image with religion. This is not a "grounds" we would readily identify nowadays. However water has always had deep symbolic power that has put it often at the heart of religious worship (think of holy water, baptism, ritual bathing etc.) and I think the sense of power and depth is still there as we read the poems.

Reading Bright Star also reminds me how much their choice of vehicle can reveal about the poet's attitude to and feelings about the tenor. Compare Keat's image for his loved one, as a bright star with Marvell's in To His Coy Mistress as an amorous bird of prey:
"And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power."

The grounds in both images are clear, but very different. Keats' image is about purity, beauty, the idea of guiding and providing a focal point and (poor Keats) unattainability. Marvell's on the other hand is about physicality, impatience with the slow passing of time, the desire and ability to take what you want and an insatiable and almost violent appetite. Tellingly, Keats in his poem is a sleepless Eremite (or hermit) worshipping the star, whereas Marvell is another bird of prey, sporting with its mate.

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