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The Best Images in Poetry

by Michael R. Burch

This page contains some of the best images to be found in English poetry, and around the globe in translation. The images on this page have been taken from the poems of the immortal Masters and contemporary poets and singer-songwriters. Toward the bottom of the page, I have included complete poems that consist entirely or primarily of images.

Imagery has long been used by poets. For instance, the first great lyric poet that we know by name and still read today, Sappho of Lesbos:

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short revealing frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

(Pollux wrote: "Sappho used the word beudos [Βεῦδοσ] for a woman's dress, a kimbericon, a kind of short transparent frock.")

In the poem above, the image "stands for itself." But in metaphors, an image can have multiple meanings or inferences:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

In the second Sappho poem, the "wild winds" can be interpreted to be those of the sexual passions and other emotions.

Imagery has always been important to poetry, but with the advent of modernism and especially in the work of imagist poets like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, imagism became a school of poetry, if not a religion. While I do not believe the modernistic mantra of "no ideas but in things" (what on earth would we do with "Paradise Lost," the great ballads, the soliloquies of Hamlet, Lear and MacBeth, and other abstract poetry?), I can certainly appreciate the wonderful poetic images that follow ...

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
William Shakespeare, "Sonnet LXXIII"

Shakespeare compares himself metaphorically to songbirds shivering on denuded tree limbs. Shakespeare was a very talented songwriter and perhaps also a singer. Poets are sometimes called "singers" because they create word-music. And in his most famous likenesses, Shakespeare had a rather prominent receding hairline with a large bald spot. So it seems possible that he was comparing himself to a tree that had lost most of its leaves. And perhaps he could no longer hit "the high notes" (although that is conjecture on my part). In any case, the imagery is very good and the metaphor entirely plausible.

We're just two lost souls
swimming in a fishbowl,
year after year ...
"Wish You Were Here" as performed by Pink Floyd, lyrics by Roger Waters

The image above is also a metaphor, as the image of fish swimming in a bowl is used to communicate the idea of two "lost souls" who occupy the same space without really connecting. Other examples of metaphors include "broken hearts" and "loose threads." A metaphor uses an image to relate a corresponding idea. In the two poems that follow, the first uses literal or concrete images, while the second employs a metaphor of Eros (sexual passion) being like a strong wind leveling oaks on a desolate mountainside.

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
Seamus Heaney, "The Forge"

Eros wracks my soul:
a wind on desolate mountains
leveling oaks.
Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here is a poem of mine in which a woman's thinning hair is compared metaphorically to the "airy moult" left behind by emus who "outraced the wind." The term "wake" refers to a wake (ceremony) held after a death. In this extended metaphor or metaphysical conceit, the wind represents time, the wake represents death, and the thinning hair and airy moult both represent the process of aging.

See how her hair has thinned: it doesn't seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake ...
Michael R. Burch, "See"

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
—William Blake, "The Sick Rose"

In the poem above, the rose is a symbol (commonly understood metaphor) for love. Because we understand such symbols, the poet does not have to elaborate on their usage. If I say that I gave my wife a rose, everyone understands that the rose represents love, affection, etc. In Blake's poem, the rose may also symbolize natural love and innocence. The "invisible worm" may also be construed as a metaphor or symbol representing things that attack or destroy natural, innocent love, such as false morality.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
John Keats, "This Living Hand"

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You ...
Sylvia Plath, "Daddy"

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.
—Conrad Aiken, "Bread and Music"

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves ...
—Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
—D. H. Lawrence, "Piano"

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes ...
—"Tegner's Drapa," loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.
—Louise Bogan, "Song for the Last Act"

       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.
—Richard Wilbur, "The Death of a Toad"

The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!
—Paul Celan, "Death Fugue," loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year ...
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
—Hart Crane, "The Bridge"

In A Station Of The Metro
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.


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 Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Related pages: Best Symbols in Poetry and Literature

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