Hi! This is study guide 5.2 for AP Lit. In this guide, we’ll be looking at ways authors use specific words and phrases to shift the meaning of their writing from the obvious to the figurative. Some techniques we’ll look at are: words with multiple meanings, imagery, hyperbole, and understatement.
Oftentimes in literature, a surface level analysis is not enough to deeply delve into the work. Words shouldn’t just be taken at face value; they may have dual meanings that change the overall message of the poem.
For example, let’s take a look at the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. See the poem here
In the poem, the word "wall" has multiple connotations. The physical wall serves as a barrier between the speaker and his neighbor, separating their properties and symbolizing their differences. However, the wall also has a metaphorical connotation, representing the barriers that exist between people in general, including those between the speaker and his neighbor. Additionally, the phrase "Good fences make good neighbors" at the end of the poem suggests that the wall serves a practical purpose in maintaining boundaries and preserving a sense of privacy and respect.
Here are two other examples:
"The Road Not Taken"
by Robert Frost: In this poem, the word "road" has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. The speaker is describing an actual road in the woods, but the choice of which road to take also represents the choices one makes in life.
by Edgar Allan Poe: The word "raven" has multiple meanings in this poem. The bird is a literal creature, but it also symbolizes death and the speaker’s descent into madness.
Words with multiple meanings and connotations in poems can have a significant impact on the overall meaning and effect of the poem.
They add layers of meaning: The use of words with multiple meanings allows the poet to convey multiple ideas or themes in a single word or phrase, adding complexity and depth to the poem.
They create ambiguity: The use of words with multiple meanings can also create ambiguity, leaving the reader to interpret the meaning for themselves. This can make the poem more open to interpretation and can make the poem more engaging and thought-provoking for the reader.
They enhance imagery and symbolism: Words with multiple meanings can also be used to enhance imagery and symbolism in a poem. This can make the poem more evocative and powerful, allowing the reader to connect with the poem on a deeper level.
They add to the tone of the poem: The use of words with multiple meanings can also contribute to the tone of the poem. For example, a word with a positive connotation used in a negative context can create a sense of irony or sarcasm.
Overall, words with multiple meanings and connotations in poems can make the poem more nuanced, engaging, and memorable for the reader. They allow the poet to convey multiple ideas and emotions in a single word, making the poem more complex and open to interpretation.
Imagery in poetry refers to the use of descriptive language and sensory details to create a vivid and evocative image in the reader's mind. This can include imagery of nature, objects, emotions, and more.
Usually, a poet uses descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs to create imagery. For example, colors, shapes, and size-related words all convey specific images.
Sometimes the image is literal, meaning it's exactly what the words say, but other times it's a comparison that represents something else.
Imagery helps to emphasize ideas that the poet wants to stand out.
Examples of imagery in poetry:
"I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o'er vales and hills," - This line from William Wordsworth's poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"
uses imagery of a solitary cloud to convey the feeling of loneliness and isolation.
“I thought that I had died in sleep, / And was a blessed ghost.” - This line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
uses imagery of a ghost to create a sense of mystery and danger.
“Sometimes the men - they come with keys, / and sometimes, the men - they come with hammers.” - This line from Warsan Shire's poem "The House"
uses imagery of keys versus violent tools to illustrate the dual nature of men who wish to “unlock” women.
In these examples, the imagery helps to convey emotions, and bring the poem to life. The reader can visualize the scene and connect with the poem on a deeper level.
A hyperbole is a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, often in a humorous or dramatic way. It is not meant to be taken literally.
Here are some common hyperboles to help you understand this concept before we look at examples in poems:
"I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse."
"I've told you a million times."
"I've been waiting for you forever."
"This bag weighs a ton."
"I'm so tired, I could sleep for a year."
"I've got a million things on my plate."
As you can see, when you say these common hyperboles, you don’t actually mean you could “eat a horse.” You’re really just trying to emphasize the magnitude of your hunger, your impatience, and other emotions.
By exaggerating a trait about an idea or object, the poet is able to convey the speaker’s perspective about the idea/object.
Let’s look at Robert Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose"
as an example. Burns writes:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
The hyperbole in the lines "Till a’ the seas gang dry" and "And the rocks melt wi’ the sun" conveys the idea that the speaker's love for their beloved is eternal and unending, emphasizing the intensity and depth of their commitment to the person they love. The idea of the seas drying up and the rocks melting is both impossible and dramatic. This hyperbole is used to communicate a message of timeless and unconditional love that is not bound by any temporal or physical limitation.
Here are some other ways hyperbole can impact the meaning and interpretation of poems:
Emphasis: Hyperboles can be used to emphasize a particular idea or feeling, making it stand out more in the reader's mind. This is particularly true in poetry, where the use of literary devices is often used to create a specific emotional response.
Amplify emotions: Hyperboles can be used to amplify the emotions expressed in a poem, making them more powerful and intense.
Adds humor: Hyperboles can also be used for comedic effect in a poem, making it more light-hearted and enjoyable to read.
Creates atmosphere: Hyperboles can set the atmosphere in a poem, whether it be a melancholic, romantic, or joyful atmosphere.
Expresses the poet's feelings: Hyperboles can be used to express the poet's feelings in an exaggerated way that is often more powerful than a simple statement.
Now that we’ve discussed how hyperboles exaggerate and emphasize, let’s look at how understatements minimize and detract.
An understatement is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker intentionally makes a statement that is less than what is actually true or expected for emphasis or effect. An understated statement is often used to express something in a subtle, understated way, usually to create irony, sarcasm, or a sense of detachment.
Here are some common examples used in everyday language:
"It's just a little cold outside." (when it's freezing)
"I'm just a little bit tired." (when you're exhausted)
"It's just a small problem." (when it's a big issue)
"I'm not the best at this." (when you're terrible)
"I'm not that good at dancing." (when you're terrible at it)
These understatements are often used in everyday conversation to downplay the importance of something, to be modest, or to avoid sounding boastful or arrogant. They can also be used to create irony or sarcasm. It's a way of communicating without exaggerating or making a big deal out of something, making it less formal, more casual, and more relatable.
In the next section, we’ll look at how and why understatements are used by poets.
Overall, understatements can create a subtle and nuanced effect in poetry, and help the poet to convey a complex range of emotions and ideas in a more subtle and nuanced way.
We can look at Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice."
Pay attention to the bolded lines.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
The line "To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice" uses an understatement to convey the idea that ice is just as capable of causing destruction as fire is. The use of "also great" and "would suffice" downplays the destructive power of ice, making it seem almost matter-of-fact or casual. This creates a sense of detachment and objectivity in the speaker's tone, making the statement more powerful.
In this guide, we looked at various techniques poets use to add depth and complexity to a poem. Words with multiple meanings can add layers of meaning, create ambiguity, and contribute to the tone of the poem. Imagery, the use of descriptive language and sensory details, can create a vivid image in the reader's mind, emphasizing the poet's ideas. Hyperbole, exaggeration for emphasis or effect, is not meant to be taken literally, but can be used in a humorous or dramatic way. Lastly, understatement can create irony and also emphasize ideas. These techniques can make a poem more memorable and engaging for the reader.