We should recall at this point the emphasis we placed on the figurative or connotative nature of the language of poetry in our consideration of several definitions of the genre in previous articles. Among other points, we stressed that poetry communicates experiences in language deliberately selected and arranged by the poet to create specific emotional as well as intellectual responses through meaning, sound and rhythm. Another related point we made was that poetry, in line with the general nature of literature, communicates experiences through indirection. This deliberately contrived and indirect/suggestive language of poetry is achieved, mainly, through some figurative usages among which are irony, paradox, metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, etc, which we shall discuss in this article.
Irony is one of the most typical figures of speech in poetry. Hugh Holman has defined it as “a broad term referring to the recognition of a reality different from the masking reality”. Put more simply, it is a figure of speech in which the denotative, literal or ordinary meaning of a word or expression is more or less the direct opposite of the sense intended by the speaker or, in this case, the poet.
You should be able to identify this poetic device by paying close attention to the contexts in which the ironic words or expressions are used in a poem. For example, irony could manifest in a context in which a patently ugly and unpleasant event or object is described as beautiful/attractive and pleasing/satisfying, e.g. when an unattractive person is referred to as the most beautiful or attractive person; a dwarf is described as a palm tree or the African ‘iroko’ and a hopeless situation is said to be a hopeful or cheering one.
These are examples of verbal irony and they illustrate the manner in which irony as a figure of speech stands logic on its head through expression or usage that is built upon a discrepancy between what is asserted and what is actually the case. Let us also examine the opening lines of JP Clark’s short poem titled “The Cleaners” to illustrate how this type of irony works as follows:
Look at the crew
Who after each disastrous race
Take over a public place
To wash it new.
They are themselves so full
Of muck … … (State of the Union )
To begin with, the title of the poem is ironic because it runs contrary to the moral quality expected of whoever would lay claim to being a cleaner. The irony is further strengthened by the fact that “the crew” referred to is depicted as a group of persons who pretend to be morally above board as opposed to the those who were responsible for the disastrous race that instigates their reaction; and their professed intention is to wash clean the proverbial political “Augean stable” when they themselves are not better than those they have ousted.
You as close readers should be able to identify and enjoy this form of verbal duplicity which is the stock in trade of the ironist because its contradiction is apparent.
However, there is the more complex type of irony which best reveals the characteristic feature of irony as a dominant structural ingredient in an ironic poem; where the persona or speaker in a poem assumes the position of a wellmeaning or disinterested neutral person to express ideas that appear to be earnest but which essentially are not to be taken literally. A good example of this form of irony is “A Modest Proposal” by the Irish poet, Jonathan Swift, in which the persona acts as a caring professional economist who proffers economic solutions to end the poverty in his impoverished society by suggesting outrageously impossible steps to be taken by the authority. It is highly recommended that you read this poem in a good anthology of English poetry.
Other forms of irony are the situational, cosmic and dramatic which are more frequently used in dramatic works.
Paradox is a statement or expression which at first seems to be contradictory or senseless but which on further or closer examination contains much truth. As a poetic device, it usually contains an element of surprise or shock that is revealing of the potentials of words in poetry and literature in general. The truth that is contained in paradox is often realised against a religious or philosophical background. For example, the concept of the Fortunate Fall, as expressed by a medieval lyricist, when taken literally does not make an apparent sense, but when read against the Biblical/religious background of Man’s fall from divine favour in the Garden of Eden, it conveys the truth of the interplay of the Fall and the advent and mission of Christ on earth. The truth that transforms an apparently ‘unfortunate fall’ or disfavour into a fortunate ascendancy is that it provides the necessity for the redemptive career of Christ.
Similarly, the paradox that runs through John Donne’s sonnet titled “Death Be not Proud” can only be fully appreciated against an understanding and acceptance of the religious concept that death is not a terrible end-all of man’s ontology; that death is a needful interlude between man’s existence in this world and his transition to the next world:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not soe
….. ….. ….. ….. ….. why swell’st thou then?
….. ….. …… …..
One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
The elements of contradiction and shock combine here to give us a classic example of the workings of a paradox; initially the idea that death is not mighty and dreadful does not sound rational until the poet provides convincing reasons to back up his statement and concludes by proving it so by showing that it is a mere necessary prelude to man’s resurrection that would signal the end/demise of death! This typical shock resulting from a new awareness of an inherent truth in an apparently absurd statement is also couched in a philosophical garb in the following poem by William Wordsworth titled “My Heart Leaps Up”:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So it was when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
In this essentially Romantic poem, the poet gives lasting expression to the philosophy that a child’s potentials are a presage of what he would become at maturity. But by the way it is expressed, it conveys, on the surface, the ridiculous and contradictory impression that the child is actually the father of man. It is only on close scrutiny against the Romantic philosophy of the evolution of the child with all its positive and negative implications that its embedded truth is realised.
JP Clark also offers us a fitting example of the use of paradox to reinforce poetic meaning in “Letter from Kampala”, a piece that conveys the familial sentiments of the persona who is engaged on a journey away from home as follows:
At this other end of Africa
It is of you alone
I think at home,
And the children:
I go further in order
To get home to you. (A Decade of Tongues, 95)
Taken literally, the two last lines would contradict the home sickness of a person who is actually missing his wife and children, because he deliberately goes farther away from them/home instead of moving in a reversed direction towards home. However, the truth in this seemingly absurd progression is that, in order to complete his journey and return to his family, the traveller has to reach the farthest limit of his journey. He will not achieve this if he stays at the beginning of the journey.
This involves the use of an object or idea to stand for or signify some other thing with which it is closely associated, but which is not necessarily an integral part of it. In this type of figure/trope, we commonly speak of “the king” as “the crown”, an object closely associated with kingship but not an organic part of the person of the king or royalty. Similarly, the “scythe” and the “spade” are made to stand for the peasantry that is closely associated with two objects as in the following examples:
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things,
There is no armour against fate,
Death lays his icy hand on kings;
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
James Shirley “The Glories of Our Blood and State”
Other examples are:
- After much strife on the streets, the green berets were called in handle the situation (i.e. the soldiers).
- The man who lives across the street goes after any skirt in the neighbourhood (any female).
This is a figure of speech in which a person, place or thing/object is made to stand for the whole or conversely the whole is made to stand for a part. You should note that, as in the metonymy, this figure works on the basis of association or relationship; but unlike the metonymy, however, the part is an integral part of the whole as the whole is often a whole because it subsumes the part. In addition, for the synecdoche to be effective and clear, it must be based on an important or a main part of the whole and should be manifestly associated with the topic being discussed or in focus as in these examples:
- More hands are needed to execute the task (i.e. workmen).
- The worker finds it difficult to cater for more mouths in his family (i.e. persons).
- I gave commands; / And all smiles stopped together (i.e.
A simile is a figure of speech/trope in which two things or actions are directly compared because of some inherent qualities they share in common, although they may be totally different in other respects. The term hints at the similarities or similitude that underlies the natures of the two objects or actions being compared and which are normally linked by the operative word ‘like’ or ‘as’. As in a metaphor, the ability of a poet or writer to see and effectively establish similitude in a simile in two patently dissimilar things is considered as a mark of genius as long as the comparison remains fresh and striking. Consider the following examples and try your hands on as many fresh and striking examples as possible:
- The youthful hue /Sits on thy skin like morning dew
- My love is like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June
- I cannot sleep
But my head just stops
Like a broken down car!
- He talks endlessly,
And some of the things he says
Are painful and hurtful,
Like an unripe boil.
- The roof sizzle at the waking touch,
Talkative like kettledrums
Tightened by the iron fingers of drought
A metaphor is a contracted simile whereby the two similar entities are implicitly equated with one another, thus dispensing with the comparative words, “like” and “as”. The similes above can be contracted into metaphors as follows:
- The youthful hue is morning dew
- My love is a red rose that’s newly sprung in June
- My head is a broken down car
- And some of the things he says are an unripe boil
- The roof is talkative kettledrums
Another example I want you to take a close look at for its ingenious equation is
“Beauty is but a flower which wrinkles will devour”.
Personification is a figure of speech in which inanimate objects, animals or abstract ideas are endowed with human form, character, or sensibilities. Thus to personify an object or thing is to attribute to it human life or feelings. Heese and Lawton described it as “another kind of image where the ‘something concrete’ relates to human beings, while the ‘something else’ is not human” (83).
- Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed:
Shakespeare, “Shall I Compare… (Reeves 62)
- The keen wind
Knifes through his
Licking his bruised knee
Witth rough fenile tongue
The small toe
On the left foot
Slowly weeps blood
(p’Bitek, Song of Ocol 122)
- Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run
John Keats “Ode to Autumn” (Reeves 211)