The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Imagery: A term used to refer to: (1) the corpus of images in a text; (2) the language used to convey a visual picture (or, most critics would add, to represent any sensory experience); and (3) the use of figurative language, often to express abstract ideas in a vivid and innovative way. Imagery of this third type makes use of figures of speech such as simile, personification, and metonymy.

Imagery is a central component of almost all imaginative literature and is often said to be the chief element in poetry. Literal imagery is purely descriptive, representing an object or event with words that draw on or appeal to the kinds of experiences gained through the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). Figurative imagery may call sensory experience to mind but does so as a way of describing something else — often some abstract idea that cannot be depicted literally or directly (for example, Emily Dickinson’s “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” [1861]). Whether literal or figurative, however, imagery is generally intended to make whatever the author is describing concrete in the reader’s mind and to provide the reader with a sense of vividness and immediacy.

Imagery has a specific and special relation to symbolism. All symbols depend on images, which are often repeated to give the symbol cogency and depth. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), the repeated description of Sethe’s scarred back as wrought iron or as a tree serves to make her a symbol of the slave’s extraordinary physical and spiritual suffering and strength. Some critics have suggested that the key to unlocking the meaning of a work lies in identifying its image patterns and understanding how they work together to suggest or symbolize larger meanings or themes. These critics believe that the pattern of imagery in a work more truly reveals its meaning than an author’s, character’s, or narrator’s assertions. The New Critics, in particular, examined and analyzed the interrelation among images and their relevance to interpretation.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: In his poem “Fish” (1922), D. H. Lawrence used striking imagery to create the visual picture (and tactile sensation) of a fish on a line. The speaker says that he has:

Unhooked his gorping, water-horny mouth,

And seen his horror-tilted eye,

His red-gold, water-precious, mirror-flat bright eye;

And felt him beat in my hand, with his mucous, leaping


In her poem “The Fish” (1946), Elizabeth Bishop also used imagery to describe a hooked fish. However, whereas Lawrence almost humanized his subject with the image of the “horror-tilted eye,” Bishop invoked inanimate objects in the world above the surface:

I looked into his eyes

which were far larger than mine

but shallower, and yellowed,

the irises backed and packed

with tarnished tinfoil

seen through the lenses

of old scratched isinglass.

They shifted a little, but not

to return my stare.