Imagery. This term is one of the most common in modern criticism, and one of the most variable in meaning. Its applications range all the way from the “mental pictures” which, it is sometimes claimed, are experienced by the reader of the poem, to the totality of the components which make up a poem. An example incorporating this range of usage is C. Day Lewis’s statements, in his Poetic Image that an image “is a picture made out of words” (17-18), that a “poem may itself be an image composed from a multiplicity of images.” Three discriminable uses of the word, however, are especially frequent: in all these senses imagery is said to make poetry concrete, as opposed to abstract:
1)“Imagery” that is, images taken collectively is used to signify all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem or other work of literature, whether by literal description, by allusion, or in the vehicles (the secondary references) of its similes and metaphors. In William Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” (1800), the imagery in this broad sense includes the literal objects the poem refers to (“ways,” “maid,” “grave”), as well as the “violet” and “stone” of the metaphor and the “star” and “sky” of the simile in the second stanza. The term “image should NOT be taken to imply a visual reproduction of the object referred to; some readers of the passage experience visual images and some do not; and among those who do, the explicitness and details of the pictures vary greatly. Also, “imagery” in this usage includes not only visual sense qualities, but also qualities that are auditory, tactile (touch), thermal (heat and cold), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and kinesthetic (sensations of movement). In his In Memoriam (1850), No. 101, for example, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s imagery encompasses not only things that are visible, but also qualities that are smelled or heard, together with a suggestion, in the adjective “summer,” of warmth:
Unloved, that beech will gather brown, . . .
And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air . . .
2)Imagery is used, more narrowly, to signify only descriptions of visible objects and scenes, especially if the description is vivid and particularized, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798):
The rock shone bright, the kirk no less,
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness
The steady weathercock.
3) Most commonly in recent usage, imagery signifies figurative language, especially the vehicles of metaphors and similes. Critics after the 1930s, and notably the New Critics, went far beyond earlier commentators in stressing imagery, in this sense, as the essential component in poetry, and as a major factor in poetic meaning, structure, and effect.
Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935), made statistical counts of the subjects of this third type of imagery in Shakespeare, and used the results as clues to Shakespeare’s personal experiences, interests, and temperament. Following the lead of several earlier critics, she also pointed out the frequent occurrence in Shakespeare’s plays of image-clusters (recurrent groupings of metaphors and similes), and presented evidence that a number of the individual plays have characteristic image motifs (for example, animal imagery in King Lear, and the figures of disease, corruption, and death in Hamlet); she claimed that these elements established the overall tonality of a play. Many critics in the next few decades joined Spurgeon in the search for images, image patterns, and “thematic imagery” in works of literature. By some New Critics the implicit interaction of the imagery, rather than explicit statement by the author or the overt speeches and actions of the characters, was held to be the way that the subject, or theme, worked itself out in many plays, poems, and novels. See, for example, the critical writings of G. Wilson Knight, Cleanth Brooks on Macbeth in The Well Wrought Urn (1947), Chapter 2, and Robert B. Heilman, This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear (1948).
This excerpt is taken from Glossary of Literary Terms, by M. H. Abrams.