Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our three-part series on Harnessing the Power of Poetry, which explores the insights and techniques novelists can glean from poets. You can read the introductory post here.
If you’ve ever toured an art museum, you can’t walk far without confronting the power of images. The paintings tell stories of animals, families, wars, and kings, each holding a special significance for onlookers.
As I’m sure you fiction writers know, images speak—even if you can’t hear or see the words. Images have the same effect in poetry, primarily through allegory. By the standard dictionary definition, allegory is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” The key phrase here is “hidden meaning.” The hallmark of poetic allegory is that the meaning unravels in layers, all of which are unique. When understood and applied, these layers can be immensely profitable to fiction writers, whether seasoned or beginners.
During Medieval times, writers and theologians argued that allegory has four layers: 1) literal, 2) symbolic, 3) moral, and 4) anagogical. Each of these has traditionally been used to interpret literature; however, by studying them, I believe we can also learn strategies for authoring works with fascinating imagery.
1. The Literal: Paint Pictures, Period
Words matter. And this statement carries more weight when you’re trying to craft images in poems and stories. You need to be intentional with your words. Build your vocabulary and diversify. This is a step that must be mastered long before a poem reaches its final draft. Like the phrase “you reap what you sow,” your words are the seeds that will grow into an object of beauty. Only later will a hidden meaning emerge. Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” demonstrates how a poem can seem to be about skies and flowers on the surface while conveying a deeper message underneath:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Notice the presence of topography and color. The landscape in Wordsworth’s mind possesses texture and life. The cadence and placement of details evoke a slow and steady sense of “wandering” that extends throughout the stanzas.
Applying This as a Novelist
Think about how to paint vivid imagery in your stories. What feelings does your story stir in readers? Sometimes writers get so lost in the epic sweep of their fictional worlds that they lose sight of the nitty-gritty—the lichen, bugs, and spiny undergrowth in the forest. Words, not plot or characters, can be a writer’s greatest and most overlooked asset. If you want to weave a particular theme into your story, start with a moment. What is a painting without its backdrop, or a stage without its props and set materials? Set the scene for readers, even if briefly, and the rest will naturally follow.
2. The Symbolic: Paint Purposeful Pictures
Let’s widen the lens a little. For imagery to be imagery, you need to venture beyond the words. The pictures you choose to paint (on the literal level) must point to an abstract concept, such as a butterfly representing a spirit of renewal or rebirth. Or, depending on your goal, the symbols could be much more complex.
To understand this more clearly, return to the first two stanzas of Wordsworth’s poem. The speaker refers to himself as a lonely cloud, floating languidly above what appears to be a sea of flowers. The sea of flowers, in turn, is immediately likened to “a crowd, a host,” juxtaposing the individual and the collective. The images themselves (in the literal sense) are fine on their own. But, to achieve impact, both the speaker and the reader need to be connected to the scene emotionally.
Another superb example comes, interestingly, from prose. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is a novel containing a wealth of poetic descriptions. Here’s one that caught my eye:
In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.
At face value, this short paragraph depicts a deserted carnival-ground littered with rubbish. However, in reading it again with an eye for the allegorical, words and phrases like “fragments” and “abandoned by tired children” stand out as resonant. “Fragments” makes readers think of broken items or relationships they long to fix. Additionally, “abandoned by tired children” triggers memories of days at a fair with loved ones, or a cranky kid having a tantrum.
Applying This as a Novelist
Pictures, though pretty to look at alone, need to be intricately designed and three-dimensional. For instance, the struggling writer and the struggling farmer will view “you reap what you sow” differently. Multifaceted imagery is particularly applicable to fantasy writers—but, regardless, you need to anchor your prose to something relatable.
3. The Moral: Paint Practical Pictures
Layer three is, admittedly, similar to layer two, yet it still bears mentioning. Images need to tell stories and teach lessons. Again, Wordsworth illustrates this in his poem about wandering. Here are the final two stanzas:
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Toward the end, the speaker moves away from the image, and we find him on a couch, “in vacant or in pensive mood.” What seems to be the takeaway of this poem? Perhaps Wordsworth is implying that we fail to appreciate small blessings, like flowers dancing in the wind. We need to capture and treasure these miracles so they can act as lights in darker times, spiritually or socially. Or perhaps the speaker is an introvert who delights in what Wordsworth calls “that inward eye.”
Whatever the case, readers can draw their own conclusions, because the poet forges a suitable path with his words. All imagery should have direction. Whether or not readers relate to the destination (that’s ultimately outside your control), they’ll have a new perspective to mull over and pass on to others.
Applying This as a Novelist
Set a scene, breathe purpose into it, and then create real situations. Leave your characters’ interactions open for interpretation, and give them plenty of opportunities for dialogue. You don’t always need to force an agenda on them—once a story is in motion, sometimes characters will make choices themselves. That’s okay. Characters are often the best conduit for communicating morals if you allow them to move independently and suffer the consequences or rewards.
4. The Anagogical: Paint Prophetic Pictures
Anagoge (pronounced roughly an-ah-gaw-jee) is the “mystical or spiritual interpretation of a text.” I’ll preface this conclusion by stating that not all poetry needs to be overtly spiritual, even from a Christian standpoint. I am of the firm belief that God’s truths ultimately speak for themselves, often in spite of frail human expression. That said, acknowledging the spiritual in everyday life is important.
The “inward eye” Wordsworth mentions is a classic example of anagoge. By extension, he could be referencing the existence of the human soul. Or perhaps he’s emphasizing that humans need to cultivate a strong and healthy “inner life” in a world rife with distractions and conflict. But no matter what angle you approach the poem from, it alludes to a larger story unfolding, and a correspondingly larger experience.
Applying This as a Novelist
Whether you should be implicit or explicit in your portrayal of Christianity is not the question of this article. However, your faith should somehow show up in the story, even subtly. Sometimes a glimpse, in dialogue or a beam of sunlight, can be the most impactful.
This fourth layer, as a culmination of the previous three, exhibits the enduring nature of poetry and the images it contains. We all have a mind’s eye, and in many cases we’re eager to share what it beholds—especially God’s grace. But in the writing arena, the sharing needs to be strategic. Playing a game without rules lacks a certain zest, just like running a race without a course and a goal.
Utilizing Powerful Imagery
As you write, hopefully you can incorporate these methods. Whether or not you’re planning to author the next great work of Western literature, imagery can transform a story from bland to compelling.
In our final article of this series, Cindy will examine the elements that novels and poetry have in common. Until then, watch for ways you can study these four layers of imagery in poetry. Fortunately, you don’t have to employ them simultaneously—because writing a story or poem, like life, is a process.
So, discover the process that will best draw readers into your word-crafted worlds.
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.