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8.4 Identifying symbols, conceits, and allusions

6 min readmarch 15, 2023

Sylvia Rodriguez

Sylvia Rodriguez


AP English Literature 📚

145 resources
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In poetry, symbols, conceits, and allusions are powerful tools used by writers to convey complex ideas, emotions, and themes in a compact and imaginative way. Understanding these literary devices is crucial to interpreting and analyzing poems effectively.

Understanding symbols in poetry:

A symbol is an object, image, or action that represents something beyond itself. In poetry, symbols are used to create layers of meaning and to evoke emotions and ideas in the reader. To identify symbols in poetry, the reader should look for recurring or significant images, actions, or objects in the poem and consider their contextual meanings.

Examples:

Example 1: "The Tyger" by William Blake

In "The Tyger," the tiger serves as a metaphor for the complex and mysterious nature of creation and destruction. The speaker is in awe of the tiger's beauty and ferocity, which symbolize the two opposing forces that exist within the universe. The use of the tiger as a conceit helps to express the speaker's wonder and awe at the paradoxical nature of the world.
The metaphor of the tiger is effective because it provides a visual representation of the opposing forces of creation and destruction. The tiger's fiery eyes and sharp claws symbolize the power of destruction, while its grace and beauty symbolize the power of creation. The metaphor also highlights the idea that these two forces are not mutually exclusive, but rather exist in harmony within the universe.

Example 2: "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas

In "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," the image of light represents life and hope. The speaker is urging those who are close to death to resist their passing, and to cling to life and hope. The use of light as a conceit is effective because it provides a tangible representation of the abstract concepts of life and hope. The idea that light can be both bright and warm, and yet also fleeting, adds a sense of urgency to the speaker's argument.
The metaphor of light is also effective because it can be easily understood by the reader. The image of light shining in the darkness conveys a sense of hope and vitality, which is a powerful message for those who are facing death. The speaker's use of the conceit helps to bring the abstract idea of death into focus, and encourages the reader to reflect on their own mortality and the importance of holding on to life and hope.

Understanding conceits in poetry:

A conceit is a complex and sustained metaphor that extends throughout a poem. It is a literary device used to explore a single idea or theme in an imaginative and extended way. To identify conceits in poetry, the reader should look for extended metaphors that are central to the poem's meaning and themes.
Examples:

Example 1: "The Sun Rising" by John Donne

In the poem "The Sun Rising" by John Donne, the speaker uses the conceit of comparing the world to a room and himself and his lover to the sun and the day. This comparison highlights the speaker's belief that he and his lover are the center of the world and that their love is more important than anything else. The poem's title, "The Sun Rising," also reflects this idea as the speaker addresses the sun and demands that it not disturb his and his lover's solitude. This use of the conceit adds depth and meaning to the poem and emphasizes the speaker's strong emotional connection to his lover.

Example 2: "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell

In the poem "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, the speaker uses the conceit of comparing his love to a river and the passage of time to a river's flow. This comparison highlights the speaker's urgency and the passage of time. The speaker argues that time is running out and that he and his lover must act quickly before it's too late. The river is also a symbol of life, vitality, and the passage of time, which adds another layer of meaning to the poem. This use of the conceit adds to the urgency and passion of the speaker's argument and emphasizes the importance of seizing the moment and not wasting time.
Conceit adds a rich and imaginative layer to the two poems by using extended metaphor or analogy to explore abstract concepts and emotions. In "The Sun Rising," the speaker's use of the conceit of comparing the world to a room and himself and his lover to the sun and the day highlights the centrality of their love and emphasizes the speaker's strong emotional connection to his lover. This comparison also adds depth and meaning to the poem and allows the reader to understand the speaker's perspective in a unique and imaginative way.
In "To His Coy Mistress," the speaker's use of the conceit of comparing his love to a river and the passage of time to a river's flow highlights the urgency of the situation and emphasizes the importance of seizing the moment and not wasting time. This comparison adds to the passion and urgency of the speaker's argument and provides a vivid and memorable way of expressing complex emotions and ideas.

Understanding allusions in poetry:

An allusion is a reference to a well-known historical, literary, or cultural event or person. In poetry, allusions are used to add depth and cultural context to the poem and to evoke emotions and ideas in the reader. To identify allusions in poetry, the reader should look for references to historical or cultural events or figures and consider how these references contribute to the meaning of the poem.

Examples:

Example 1: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In this poem, the title "Ozymandias" refers to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and serves as a symbol for the idea of power and civilization. The poem reflects on the ephemeral nature of these things and how even the greatest and most powerful civilizations eventually fade away into oblivion. The title and the allusion to Ramses II help to convey the theme of the poem, which is the idea that all things are temporary and that even the most powerful empires will eventually crumble.

Example 2: "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In this poem, the title and reference to the skylark symbolize the beauty and freedom of nature. The skylark is often seen as a symbol of freedom and beauty in literature, and in this poem, it serves as an example of the beauty and power of the natural world. The poem is an ode to the skylark, praising its beauty and freedom and reflecting on the idea that nature is a source of inspiration and renewal. The title and use of the symbol of the skylark help to convey the theme of the poem, which is the idea that nature is a source of beauty and inspiration.
In both of these examples, the use of symbols, allusions, and conceits helps to enhance the themes of the poems and add depth and meaning to the text. The use of these literary devices helps to convey the ideas and emotions of the poems in a more impactful and memorable way. When analyzing poetry, it is important to pay close attention to the symbols, conceits, and allusions used in the text and to consider how these elements contribute to the meaning and overall impact of the poem.
Symbols, conceits, and allusions are important tools used by writers to add depth and complexity to their poems. Understanding these literary devices allows the reader to interpret and analyze poems effectively and to engage with the text on a deeper level. As you read and analyze poems, pay close attention to the symbols, conceits, and allusions used, and consider how these elements contribute to the meaning and themes of the poem.
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🤔Exam Skills
🌱Unit 1 – Intro to Short Fiction
Unit 2 – Intro to Poetry
🎭Unit 3 – Intro to Longer Fiction & Drama
⚔️Unit 4 – Character, Conflict, & Storytelling in Short Fiction
🌈Unit 5 – Structure & Figurative Language in Poetry
🛠️Unit 6 – Literary Techniques in Longer Works
🏛️Unit 7 – Societal & Historical Context in Short Fiction
🤾🏾‍♀️Unit 8 – Advanced Techniques in Poetry
🚣🏾Unit 9 – Nuanced Analysis in Longer Works

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