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The Best Symbols in Poetry and Literature
Examples of Symbols in Poetry, Literature, Art and Music

Which poets, writers and artists created the best symbols in the English language? Symbols abound in poetry, literature, music and art. A symbol is a metaphorical object or image that stands for something else, especially a material object representing something more abstract. Here are some of the best examples of symbols:

The rose and the moon symbolize love: "Love is a rose and you'd better not pick it; it only grows when it's on the vine."
Mars symbolizes aggression and war, while Venus symbolizes love: "Men are from Mars; women are from Venus."
The four seasons symbolize the stages of life: spring (birth and youth), summer (maturity), fall (senescence), winter (old age and death).
A ring, especially a band of gold, represents faithfulness and fidelity: "With this ring, I thee wed."
The dove symbolizes peace, as do the olive and the lamb: "How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?"
Iron and steel are symbolic of strength and invulnerability: Superman is the iconic "Man of Steel."
The color green suggests life, especially things that are newly or recently born and growing: "a green youth."
The color purple represents royalty and privilege: "Prince Charles was born to the purple."
The color black symbolizes evil and/or death: "The four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride black steeds."
The color white symbolizes innocence and purity: in Medieval art, a white lamb symbolized the innocence and purity of Jesus Christ.

Symbols can be "universal" or "local" to a particular poem and its context, or both. For example, the moon is a universal symbol of love. However, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem "To the Moon," the moon represents fatigue, alienation, loneliness, useless labor and unrequited love. While the "universal" symbol still holds, the "local" symbol is more nuanced.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinion, for whatever that's worth ...

Here are examples of symbols in the poetry of masters of the English language such as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, William Shakespeare, Sara Teasdale, William Wordsworth and William Butler Yeats ...

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold
by William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky ...

The rainbow is a magical symbol of hope; we speak hopefully of the "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." Thus, the sight of a rainbow makes the heart "leap" and the heart leaping is also a metaphor for hope.

Excerpts from "More Poems"
by A. E. Housman

XXIII

Crossing alone the nighted ferry
With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me.

The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
And free land of the grave.

Charon's ferry symbolizes the transition from life to death, or dying. The "one coin" is the obulus, which symbolizes death: the ultimate cost of mortal life. The river Lethe symbolizes forgetfulness, oblivion and concealment, as the dead are concealed from the living, and vice versa. The grave is also symbolic of death. In this poem the river Styx symbolizes death; although it is not explicitly named, we can infer it. In Greek mythology, Charon's ferry carried the newly dead from the land of the living across the River Styx to Hades, the realm of the dead. It may interest Christians to know that Hades was not "hell," as Hades incorporated heavenly regions such as the Elysian Fields and the Blessed Isles. You can investigate this matter further, if you so prefer, by reading There is no "hell" in the Bible.

Wild Asters

by Sara Teasdale

In the spring I asked the daisies
  If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
  Always knew.

Now the fields are brown and barren,
  Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
  Not one knows.

Spring and daisies symbolize youth. Brown fields and autumn symbolize advancing age and the approach of winter (death).

Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still [1]
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are, [11]
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
     For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
     Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night. [14]

This is one of Shakespeare's famous "Dark Lady" sonnets. It employs simile, a type of metaphor in which comparisons are introduced by "like" or "as" (please refer to lines one, eleven and fourteen).

His Confession
by the Archpoet
circa 1165; translated from the original Medieval Latin by Helen Waddell

Seething over inwardly
With fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
For the winds to scatter.

The "withered leaf" is a symbol of age and approaching death. Winds symbolize chaos and the unpredictable, destructive power of nature. The poet compares himself to an aging, withered leaf at the mercy of the elements.

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The ruined statue symbolizes the final state of man's vanity: the nothingness of dismemberment and death. The "lone and level sands" represent the destructive power of time and the elements, or nature.

To the Moon
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven, and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever-changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Here, the moon is a complex symbol, invoking paleness, weariness, loneliness, useless unrewarded toil, unrewarded constancy and unrequited love.

A light exists in spring

by Emily Dickinson

A light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here

A color stands abroad
On solitary fields
That science cannot overtake
But human nature feels.

It waits upon the lawn,
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.

Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:

A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.

Here, light is a complex symbol for a mysterious kind of hope, beyond the purview of science, reportage and formulas. Emily Dickinson compares trying to pin down this elusive hope to putting a monetary value ("trade") on a religious sacrament such as communion.

London

by William Blake

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

William Blake uses a series of symbols to create a dark vision of the London of his day. "Chart'd" streets and rivers suggest the power of chartered banks and investment firms over daily life. "Mind-forg'd manacles" suggest that man is a victim of his own intelligence and lack of wisdom. Chimney sweeps symbolize child labor. The "blackning Church" symbolizes misguided religion. The blood of soldiers running down Palace walls symbolizes men who are willing to die for rulers who care nothing about them. The "marriage hearse" may be meant to symbolize how the strictures of marriage (one man can only be with one woman, for the sake of their children) is the death of real love. "Every ban" is a double entendre on bans which make things such as adultery illegal, and "banns" which are wedding announcements.

Directive

by Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry —
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Robert Frost's magnificent "Directive" employs complex symbolism. The "guide" who "only has at heart your getting lost" is the Christian religion. The sign "CLOSED to all but me" also refers to the Bible and the idea of the "chosen few" who are saved at the expense of the rest of humanity. The "children's house of make-believe" also refers to the Christian faith, and the "shattered dishes" refer to lost faith (the "broken drinking goblet like the Grail"). The reference to Saint Mark invokes a passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus tells his disciples that he is speaking in parables to the common folk in order to delude them and prevent them from being saved. Frost's stealing of the goblet from the children's playhouse suggests that he became a heretic and rejected his former faith, perhaps because he found it to be unjust. "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion" may symbolize finding something better to believe, or not believe: cool "water" from an earlier source "too lofty and original to rage."

Examples of symbolism in literature:

In the Bible, lambs symbolize innocence and snakes symbolize evil.
In Homer, the sea symbolizes the chaos and unpredictability of life.
In Shakespeare, and throughout poetry and literature, the seasons are used to symbolize the passage of time and the process of aging.
In Tolkien, Sauron and Mordor symbolize evil.
Throughout literature, the Phoenix is a symbol of resurrection.
Throughout literature, spring is a symbol of resurrection and new beginnings.

Recurring symbols, images and other terms:

Some poets employed personal symbols, images and terms. For instance, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats used the image of a gyre to represent time as a spiral. Other recurring symbols in the work of Yeats include roses and stones. Walt Whitman frequently employed night and the sea as symbols. Robert Frost was fond of the esoteric term "instep arch" and used it in several of his poems. Dylan Thomas was similarly fond of the term "spindrift." Hart Crane used the adjective "white" frequently in his poems. William Harmon pointed out that the term "darkling" is rare in English literature but appears in several major poems.

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