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Poetry Tips: Symbolism

by Samantha Beardon

Poetry Tips: Symbolism

Symbolism can take different forms. Generally, it is an object representing another, to give an entirely different meaning that is much deeper and more significant. Sometimes, however, an action, an event or a word spoken by someone may have a symbolic value. For instance, “smile” is a symbol of friendship. Similarly, the action of someone smiling at you may stand as a symbol of the feeling of affection which that person has for you.
Symbols do shift their meanings depending on the context they are used in. “A chain,” for example, may stand for “union” as well as “imprisonment”. Thus, symbolic meaning of an object or an action is understood by when, where, and how it is used. It also depends on who reads the work.

Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life.

In our daily life, we can easily identify objects that can be taken as examples of symbolism, such as the following:
The dove is a symbol of peace.
A red rose, or the colour red, stands for love or romance.
Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.
A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.

Symbolism is often found in colours:
Black is used to represent death or evil.
White stands for life and purity.
Red can symbolize blood, passion, danger, or immoral character.
Purple is a royal color.
Yellow stands for violence or decay or happiness.
Blue represents peacefulness and calm.

Animals as symbols

A bear might represent courage or danger.
A butterfly can symbolize great transformation.
A dog often stands for loyalty or devotion.
A serpent or snake might symbolize corruption or darkness.

Function of Symbolism

Symbolism gives a writer freedom to add double levels of meanings to their work: a literal one that is self-evident, and the symbolic one whose meaning is far more profound than the literal.

Symbolism, therefore, gives universality to the characters and the themes of a piece of literature. Symbolism in literature evokes interest in readers as they find an opportunity to get an insight into the poets mind on how he/she views the world, and how the poet thinks of common objects and actions, having broader implications.

Examples from Poetry

Wild Asters (By Sara Teasdale)

“In the spring, I asked the daisies
If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
Always knew.
Now the fields are brown and barren,
Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
Not one knows.”

In the above lines, “spring” and “daisies” are symbols of youth. “Brown and barren” are symbols of transition from youth to old age. Moreover, “Bitter autumn” symbolizes death.

William Blake goes symbolic in his poem Ah Sunflower. He says:

“Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveler’s journey is done;”

Blake uses a sunflower as a symbol for human beings, and “the sun” symbolizes life. Therefore, these lines symbolically refer to their life cycle and their yearning for a never-ending life.

Metaphors as Symbolism

A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses symbolism. It compares two things that aren’t similar and proves they actually have something in common. In a metaphor, there is an additional meaning to a word. This makes it an example of symbolism.
An example of symbolism that take the form of a metaphor is:

Time is money: This is symbolic because it warns you that, when you spend your time, you’re giving up the opportunity to be doing something else with that time (like making more money). Just as when you spend your money, you give up your chance to do something else with the money. Further, like money, time is finite.

So when you read poetry always consider if those potential symbols are just there for their literal value or there because the poet was adding a literal and deeper meaning to their work.

©Samantha Beardon

What do you think?

Written by Anne Thrope

Ellen S. Breiling, aka Anne Thrope, is a multiple award-winning, published poet appearing in various poetry anthology books and magazines, with a forthcoming book, "Full Circle: 360° Poetry" - due for release Fall, 2020. She is the Chief Administrator of the US/Canada region for Motivational Strips, the world's largest writer's forum, the founder of Full Circle Poetry, and she manages 360° Poetry, a personal poetry blog, all can be found on Facebook. Ellen is an approving editor for the Bharath Vision website, affiliated with Motivational Strips. She is also a co-author of the poetry book, "Chasing Zephyrs." She was recognized by The Government of Peru as one of the world's foremost contemporary writers and awarded accordingly. And on the occasion of India's 74th Independence Day in 2020, Ellen was among the world's most highly respected poets to receive an award directly from the Government of Gujarat and the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi in celebration.

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