How to Understand Imagery in Poetry
Understanding the use of imagery in poetry is essential for a comprehension of the overall meaning. Images are essentially word-pictures and they usually work by a method of association. This means that the images are created by associations that we make as readers within the linguistic context of the text. For example, the word "red" immediately creates an image or picture of the color red in our minds. This color is associated or has connotations with other feelings or images, like anger, and this increases the depth of the poem. The important thing to remember is that the images are an instrument that the poet uses to express his or her intentions or feelings. Understanding the use of images means understanding the essential meaning of the poem. Think of images as useful "tools" that the poet uses in order to reveal or explain the meaning that is in the poem
For our example we will look at selected sections from Preludes by T.S. Eliot. The central theme of the poem is about the feeling of despair at the decline and decadence of modern civilization.
This poem was written in 1917, when there was a worldwide critique and questioning of the values of contemporary western civilization. Due to many factors, especially the First World War and the economic depression, many artists, poets and philosophers felt that modern industrial civilization had lost its sense of meaning and direction. There was a general criticism of the status quo. Preludes falls within this ambit. In this poem, Eliot describes the modern city as a vacuum of meaning and uses imagery to intensify this feeling.
Preludes by T.S. Eliot
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
The first lines suggest a feeling of decline and despair. How does the imagery help to achieve this effect? Notice the use of "winter" images. Winter is usually associated with a lack of growth and a loss of vitality. The poem is suggesting that the modern city is in a state of "winter" and has lost its direction and vitality.
The poet builds on this image to suggest a further delineation of the modern state of mental societal decadence. The image of " smell of steaks" paints a picture of a polluted and mundane environment. The fourth line emphasizes this feeling of loss of vitality coupled with urban squalor. The day, and the society, is associated with an image of a burnt-out (read loss of energy) cigarette end.
The poet carefully couples images of decadence with images that we usually associate with the modern urban milieu, like steaks and cigarettes. He places these ordinary images into a context that suggests a criticism of the modern world and lifestyle. The point is again emphasized with another image of decadence and dirt in " The grimy scraps".
The image of " withered leaves" again points to the winter motif and paints a clear picture of death and decline. Always remember that the poet is not only referring to leaves here; he is using this image, through association, to connect to the general idea of loss of meaning in the modern urban world.
The second stanza intensifies its attack on the modern world. The first two lines clearly express the idea that modern life is little more than a drunken hangover. The feeling of personal and social decadence is strengthened by the images in these lines:
"The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer"
The final image of the second stanza achieves a brilliant but shocking image of the essence of the poem.
"One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms."
This image presents us with a particularly clear impression of the intention of the poem. We can imagine all the people repeating the same meaningless actions. They all raise " dingy shades" to greet the day. Note the use of the adjective to describe the shades, which again points to the sense of squalor and decadence of the modern city. More importantly, this image suggests a sense of repetitive meaninglessness. Throughout the poem the poet uses the images to bolster and construct his impression of the modern city. Once the function of these images is understood, then the meaning of the poem becomes clear.